All posts by Brent Leuthold

Notes on the 2016 Oscars

Oscars 2016

Best Picture

This year, the Academy has again put forth a confusingly arbitrary number of 8 nominations for Best Picture (doesn’t 10 make more sense?) and we seem to have a three-way tie between The Big Short, The Revenant and Spotlight. These films seemed to divide any sense of critical consensus this awards season by each taking top honors through various channels (The Big Short took the PGA, The Revenant took the BAFTA, Spotlight took the NSFCA). Despite this split, The Revenant still looks poised to take home the top prize and though I would prefer Room to win above it, Alejandro Iñárritu’s singular survival tale remains my second favorite of the nominees and a fine selection for Best Picture.

My Prediction: The Revenant
My Vote: Room
Overlooked: Inside Out, Anomalisa

Best Director

  • Adam McKay – The Big Short
  • George Miller – Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Alejandro G. Iñárritu – The Revenant
  • Lenny Abrahamson – Room
  • Tom McCarthy – Spotlight

Iñárritu is a clear favorite for a consecutive win here after last year’s Birdman, which would make him the first director in 66 years with back-to-back wins in the category. Though I am seemingly the only human alive who didn’t care much for Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller deserves ample praise for his terrifically twisted sense of world-building and his frantically paced action sequences. My preference would still be towards Abrahamson for Room: he’s not the showiest storyteller out there but the emotional integrity that he shows to the story and his characters is worthy of recognition. And how Adam McKay was nominated over the likes of Scott and Spielberg is something that I will ponder over all night.

My Prediction: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
My Vote: Lenny Abrahamson
Overlooked: Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen (Inside Out)

Best Actor

  • Bryan Cranston – Trumbo
  • Matt Damon – The Martian
  • Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant
  • Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs
  • Eddie Redmayne – The Danish Girl

It’s finally Leo’s year. Sure, it may not be the best performance of his laudable career but the Academy has a long history of handing out overdue awards and it helps that this year’s field is relatively soft compared to previous years. Much has been made of the brutal shooting conditions of The Revenant and how they affected its actors but there’s more to DiCaprio’s towering work in the film than the suffering that he and his character endured. It’s a completely believable portrait of a man fighting valiantly against the elements and it’s a comforting sign that the night’s surest bet is also such a deserving pick.

My Prediction: Leonardo DiCaprio
My Vote: Leonardo DiCaprio
Overlooked: Michael B. Jordan (Creed)

Best Actress

  • Cate Blanchett – Carol
  • Brie Larson – Room
  • Jennifer Lawrence – Joy
  • Charlotte Rampling – 45 Years
  • Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn

Another lock here and for good reason: there’s no doubt in my mind that Brie Larson gave the year’s best performance in Room. As a young mother of a 5-year-old boy living under unimaginable circumstances, she gives a heartbreaking and unforgettable performance of staggering empathy and overwhelming conviction. The rest of the field is equally impressive and Charlotte Rampling would likely be my runner-up choice here for her astounding work in 45 Years as a conflicted wife in a 45-year marriage that isn’t as stable as it seems to be. Though I didn’t see Joy, it’s worth mentioning that this is Jennifer Lawrence’s third nomination in 4 years and she’s 25 years old. Just let that sink in.

My Prediction: Brie Larson
My Vote: Brie Larson
Overlooked: Emily Blunt (Sicario)

Best Supporting Actor

  • Christian Bale – The Big Short
  • Tom Hardy – The Revenant
  • Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight
  • Mark Rylance – Bridge of Spies
  • Sylvester Stallone – Creed

My Prediction: Sylvester Stallone
My Vote: Tom Hardy
Overlooked: Bencio Del Toro (Sicario)

Best Supporting Actress

  • Jennifer Jason Leigh – The Hateful Eight
  • Rooney Mara – Carol
  • Rachel McAdams – Spotlight
  • Alicia Vikander – The Danish Girl
  • Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs

My Prediction: Alicia Vikander
My Vote: Jennifer Jason Leigh
Overlooked: Elizabeth Banks (Love & Mercy)

Both of these categories offer an element of surprise but going off of recent momentum, Stallone and Vikander seem to be the smartest selections. While I didn’t see The Danish Girl, Stallone does add a good bit of heart as his seventh portrayal of the Rocky character in Creed. My personal picks would go to Tom Hardy, who gave some solid dimension to his sneering villain character in The Revenant, and to Jennifer Jason Leigh, who had to actively suppress abject horror while watching her co-star obliterate a priceless antique guitar in The Hateful Eight.

Best Original Screenplay

  • Bridge of Spies – Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen
  • Ex Machina – Alex Garland
  • Inside Out – Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, and Ronnie del Carmen
  • Spotlight – Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer
  • Straight Outta Compton – Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge, and Alan Wenkus

My Prediction: Spotlight
My Vote: Inside Out
Overlooked: While We’re Young – Noah Baumbach

Best Adapted Screenplay

  • The Big Short – Adam McKay and Charles Randolph from The Big Short by Michael Lewis
  • Brooklyn – Nick Hornby from Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
  • Carol – Phyllis Nagy from The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
  • The Martian – Drew Goddard from The Martian by Andy Weir
  • Room – Emma Donoghue from Room by Emma Donoghue

My Prediction: The Big Short
My Vote: Room
Overlooked: Anomalisa – Charlie Kaufman

The screenplay categories have long been a personal favorite of mine and while the nominees are strong overall, it seems that the Academy will settle on two less-than-deserving scripts this year. Spotlight is a responsible and competent piece of screenwriting that nonetheless offers little surprise and The Big Short comes up woefully short in the way of laughs or insight in regard to its subject material. Much of what made my two favorite films of last year (Inside Out and Room) great comes down to their writing and I know that I’ll still be crossing my fingers for them tonight when the envelopes are being opened.

Best Animated Feature Film

  • Anomalisa
  • Boy & the World
  • Inside Out
  • Shaun the Sheep Movie
  • When Marnie Was There

My Prediction: Inside Out
My Vote: Inside Out
Overlooked: The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water

Best Foreign Language Film

  • Embrace of the Serpent
  • Mustang
  • Son of Saul
  • Theeb
  • A War

My Prediction: Son of Saul
My Vote:
Overlooked: Goodnight Mommy

Best Documentary – Feature

  • Amy
  • Cartel Land
  • The Look of Silence
  • What Happened, Miss Simone?
  • Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

My Prediction: Amy
My Vote: The Look of Silence
Overlooked: Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Best Documentary – Short Subject

  • Body Team 12
  • Chau, Beyond the Lines
  • Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah
  • A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
  • Last Day of Freedom

My Prediction: Body Team 12
My Vote:
Overlooked:

Best Live Action Short Film

  • Ave Maria
  • Day One
  • Everything Will Be Okay
  • Shok
  • Stutterer

My Prediction: Ave Maria
My Vote: Shok
Overlooked:

Best Animated Short Film

  • Bear Story
  • Prologue
  • Sanjay’s Super Team
  • We Can’t Live Without Cosmos
  • World of Tomorrow

My Prediction: Sanjay’s Super Team
My Vote: World of Tomorrow
Overlooked:

Best Original Score

  • Bridge of Spies – Thomas Newman
  • Carol – Carter Burwell
  • The Hateful Eight – Ennio Morricone
  • Sicario – Jóhann Jóhannsson
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens – John Williams

My Prediction: The Hateful Eight
My Vote: Carol
Overlooked: It Follows – Richard Vreeland

Best Original Song

  • “Earned It” from Fifty Shades of Grey
  • “Manta Ray” from Racing Extinction
  • “Simple Song #3” from Youth
  • “Til It Happens to You” from The Hunting Ground
  • “Writing’s on the Wall” from Spectre

My Prediction: “Til It Happens to You” from The Hunting Ground
My Vote: “Til It Happens to You” from The Hunting Ground
Overlooked: “See You Again” from Furious 7

Best Sound Editing

  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • The Martian
  • The Revenant
  • Sicario
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens

My Prediction: Mad Max: Fury Road
My Vote: Mad Max: Fury Road
Overlooked: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Best Sound Mixing

  • Bridge of Spies
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • The Martian
  • The Revenant
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens

My Prediction: Mad Max: Fury Road
My Vote: Mad Max: Fury Road
Overlooked: Love & Mercy

Best Production Design

  • Bridge of Spies
  • The Danish Girl
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • The Martian
  • The Revenant

My Prediction: Mad Max: Fury Road
My Vote: Mad Max: Fury Road
Overlooked: Crimson Peak

Best Cinematography

  • Carol – Ed Lachman
  • The Hateful Eight – Robert Richardson
  • Mad Max: Fury Road – John Seale
  • The Revenant – Emmanuel Lubezki
  • Sicario – Roger Deakins

My Prediction: The Revenant
My Vote: The Revenant
Overlooked: Victoria – Sturla Brandth Grøvlen

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

  • The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • The Revenant

My Prediction: Mad Max: Fury Road
My Vote: Mad Max: Fury Road
Overlooked: The Hateful Eight

Best Costume Design

  • Carol
  • Cinderella
  • The Danish Girl
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • The Revenant

My Prediction: Mad Max: Fury Road
My Vote: Mad Max: Fury Road
Overlooked: Brooklyn

Best Film Editing

  • The Big Short – Hank Corwin
  • Mad Max: Fury Road – Margaret Sixel
  • The Revenant – Stephen Mirrione
  • Spotlight – Tom McArdle
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey

My Prediction: Mad Max: Fury Road
My Vote: Mad Max: Fury Road
Overlooked: While We’re Young

Best Visual Effects

  • Ex Machina
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • The Martian
  • The Revenant
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens

My Prediction: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
My Vote: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Overlooked: The Walk

Enjoy the show!

The Witch ***|****

Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch
Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch

Over the past few years, there has emerged a new class of intelligent horror films that favor pacing and setting over cheap jump scares and bombastic music cues. Films like The Babadook and Goodnight Mommy are able to create a kind of tense and unnerving mood by way of patient storytelling and I’m happy to say that first-time director Robert Eggers has added another memorable entry to the collection. Subtitled “A New England Folktale”, The Witch is a one-of-a-kind 17th century-set supernatural tale that uses authentically archaic dialogue and a stark color palette to create a chilly and disorienting atmosphere of slow-building dread.

We follow William (Ralph Ineson) and his deeply religious Puritan family as they are banished from a plantation and forced to relocate to a remote area seated right at the edge of a large forest. When his daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is watching her infant brother one morning, he is swiftly and mysteriously abducted by a figure that the family concludes to be a witch from the woods. This news devastates their mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) in particular and after additional suspicious events occur, the seeds of mistrust are sown within the family and they begin to suspect one another of conspiring with the new forces of evil.

There’s a meticulous craft (dare I say witchcraft?) that went into the production of The Witch and much of that credit has to go to writer-director Robert Eggers, who allegedly committed years of research to uncovering what 17th century life was really like. The attention to detail in the costume design and the set design contributes heavily to the sense that we’re actually being transported back to this time. Even a majority of the film’s dialogue was sourced directly from period journals, diaries, and court records of the time, which almost makes it a scarier proposition than the “based on true events” claims of its genre peers.

This level of staid commitment is also carried out by the performers, who may be familiar to zealous fans of the HBO series Game of Thrones but will likely be new faces for the rest of the audience. Ineson plays the tortured patriarch William with humble conviction and Dickie is fearlessly compelling as the grieving mother with insurmountable misfortune cast her way. But the real revelation is the haunting, star-making turn by Anya Taylor-Joy as the oldest daughter Thomasin, who showcases a maturity well beyond her years and proves in only her second film role to date that she has a promising career ahead.

The final piece to this pernicious puzzle is the eerie, skin-crawling music scored by Mark Korven that makes use of dissonant string parts and haunted choir vocals to brilliantly demonic effect. It all adds up to a singular cinematic experience that may be too dour and self-serious in patches but still casts quite the spell during its lean running time. Few horror films have the certitude to look evil so nakedly in the eye but The Witch manages to weaves its unholy elements into something unshakable and unmissable.

Deadpool ***½|****

Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool
Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool

With underwhelming, status quo entries like last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man, superhero movies have been in need of a shake-up and it seems that Marvel found just the man for the job. Production history for Deadpool dates back to 2004 but after VFX footage “leaked” online 10 years later, the project took off quickly and generated a healthy amount of buzz among comic book fans online. Now we have the finished film, which succeeds as both a hilariously vulgar send-up of the genre it inhabits and an engaging action movie with a deft visual style that’s all its own.

Ryan Reynolds is perfect in the title role: a wise-cracking, foul-mouthed mercenary with a pension for breaking the fourth wall and a never-ending supply of self-referential in-jokes. He begins the story as Wade Wilson, whose terminal cancer diagnosis brings a prosperous, year-long relationship with his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) to a screeching halt. Desperate for answers, Wilson agrees to enlist in a shadowy genetic research program under the supervision of a mutant named Ajax (Ed Skrein) with the hope of a cure. The experiment causes Wilson to be permanently disfigured and when Ajax leaves him for dead, he takes on the alias Deadpool and vows vengeance on his malicious captor.

That may seem like a downer of a setup but make no mistake: Deadpool is hands down the most comedically successful superhero film that I’ve seen so far and it will likely go down as one of the year’s best comedies. With the exception of his ill-conceived inclusion in the dreadful X-Men Origins: Wolverine (during which his mouth was inexplicably sewn shut), Deadpool was a character of which I had little foreknowledge when going into this movie. Together, Reynolds and first-time director Tim Miller have created what feels like a zero-compromise realization of everything that makes the comic book character special.

Beyond achieving an admirable level of cheekiness throughout the film, Miller also manages to tell a compelling superhero origin story and portray a convincing romance at the same time as well. In addition to the narrative elements, he also excels at shooting breakneck paced and yet visually comprehensible action scenes that benefit greatly from his previous work as a visual effects artist. He gets off to a great start with an opening credit sequence that not only has some hilarious, self-aware bits of humor but also works as a richly detailed, labyrinth style tableau that weaves effortlessly through a convoy car mid-crash.

Still, Reynolds deserves so much credit here for his commitment to this character and to the project as a whole, for which he also served as a co-producer. So much of this film rides on the personality that he provides and his winning combination of deadpan sarcasm and razor-sharp wit prove to be a formidable foundation upon which Marvel will likely look to build a new franchise. Its success may spawn inferior sequels that quickly wear out their welcome but for the time being, I’m comfortable saying that not since The Avengers has there been a more entertaining superhero movie than Deadpool.

Hail, Caesar! **½|****

Tilda Swinton and Josh Brolin in Hail, Caesar!
Tilda Swinton and Josh Brolin in Hail, Caesar!
The Coen Brothers have proven throughout their illustrious careers that they can make just about any kind of movie that they want and with their new effort Hail, Caesar!, they return to one of their most cherished settings: the glamorous days of 1950s Hollywood. This was a time when massive movie studios could house dozens of individual productions on their lots, each with their own set of delicate demands and hangups with which to contend. Because of this potentially volatile environment, the studio system spawned top-level positions for “fixers”, who would not only oversee film production but also keep their high-profile actors out of trouble and especially out of the tabloids.

Enter Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), whose title of “Head of Physical Production” at Capitol Pictures is basically a sophisticated way of saying that he’s the guy who runs in and out of movie sets all day trying to solve each problem that arises. Throughout his strenuous day, he deals with issues ranging from the pregnancy of unmarried actress DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) to a Western movie star who is disastrously recast into a high-class period drama. However, his main task involves tracking down famed actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who disappeared from the studio’s biggest production Hail, Caesar! and appears to have been kidnapped by a group who call themselves The Future.

This may be the first time that I’ve felt that the Coen Brothers have potentially bitten off more than they could chew. This film is jam packed with potentially memorable characters, a number of whom only appear in one or two scenes, and promising setpieces that ultimately lack any greater meaning or relevancy to the story at hand. The marketing for Hail, Caesar! promises the same kind of manic zaniness of their 2008 comedy Burn After Reading but it’s not nearly as well paced or structured as that film, which has only gotten better with repeated viewings.

Even though the day-in-the-life framework might suggest a tighter focus on Brolin’s character, the story instead seems to keep expanding further as it goes along. New characters continue to be introduced well past the one hour mark and sub-plots crop up like tangents in a conversation that was never terribly interesting to begin with. The political and religious allusions add a bemusing layer of subtext that may well reveal itself further upon deeper analysis but doesn’t add much to the story from a humor perspective.

Despite the aimless direction, there is no denying that there are specific sequences that work tremendously. A scene between characters played by Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich, the latter of whom is struggling with a particularly boorish line reading, is one of the funniest dialogue exchanges in the Coen catalog. The large-scale production numbers involving synchronized swimming and sailor-costumed tap dancing are first-rate throwbacks to the genre films of the era. This love letter to old Hollywood could have benefited from a re-write (or two) and a great deal of more concentration from these masterful directors.

My Top Movies of 2015

10. What We Do In The Shadows

What We Do In The Shadows

This horror-comedy drew influence from two already heavily saturated markets (mockmentaries and vampire movies) and against all odds, still managed to find new aspects to lampoon. By taking three, centuries-old vampires and placing them in a present day New Zealand flat, directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi craft a hilarious variation on MTV’s Real World for ancient bloodsuckers. What We Do In The Shadows made me laugh more than any other movie that I saw last year and at the end of the day, that has to count for something.

9. The Revenant

The Revenant

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s vast, cinematic Western proved once again that an auteur’s vision can still trump budget concerns and grueling production demands. From the opening, breathtaking Native American pelt raid to the film’s enigmatic final shot, he commands our attention at every step in the journey. Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy give two of the most dedicated performances you’ll ever see and Emmanuel Lubezki’s camerawork has never been better. Awards buzz has recently triggered a cynical wave of backlash but through it all, The Revenant remains a vital and unflinching work.

8. Love & Mercy

Love & Mercy

For a movie with such a drawn-out and troubled production history, Love & Mercy came together better than most could have ever expected. Even more impressive, this bifurcated Brian Wilson biopic was directed by Bill Pohlad, known as a producer on a number of recent successful films but only credited as a director one other time for 1990’s little seen Old Explorers. Paul Dano, John Cusack and particularly Elizabeth Banks all give career-best performances and there’s a sort of undeniably magic to hearing the Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys music recreated in the studio so beautifully.

7. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

They just keep getting better. Tom Cruise returns for his fifth outing as indestructible IMF agent Ethan Hunt in a series that is still finding new ways to devise thrilling daredevil scenarios for the star to endure. You may go in expecting first-rate action sequences from director Christopher McQuarrie, of which this film contains about four or five that will not disappoint, but the biggest surprise is the knockout performance by newcomer Rebecca Ferguson. When Cruise does inevitably throw in the towel (and I am dreading that day), Ferguson proves that she’s a viable candidate to take the reins on the Mission: Impossible franchise.

6. Goodnight Mommy

Goodnight Mommy

Twin actors Elias and Lukas Schwarz give convincingly creepy performances in this unnerving horror import from Austria, which tells the story of two sons whose mother begins to act strangely after a cosmetic facial operation. Directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala display a chilly patience with their material and remind us that sustained dread is much more effective than the jump scare conventions that are so prevalent in the genre. The film’s final image had me wincing away in terror and really, how much more authentic an endorsement can there be for a horror movie?

5. While We’re Young

While We're Young

How were we lucky enough to get not just one but two great Noah Baumbach movies released in the same year? While Mistress America playfully revisits the themes established in Baumbach’s masterful Frances Ha, While We’re Young feels like its wiser and more world-weary counterpart. It’s an inter-generational comedy with plenty of laughs but also plenty to say about how we define ourselves amongst shifting societal expectations. Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts do great work as a husband and wife seeking their own identities as individuals and as a married couple.

4. Phoenix

Phoenix

The word “Hitchcockian” gets thrown around too often when people describe thrillers but when one feels like this much of a direct, spiritual companion to Vertigo, it seems apt. Set in post-Holocaust Berlin, Phoenix is a gripping, mistaken identity tale of loss and resurgence played with intimate intensity by leads Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld. Director Christian Petzold finds all the right beats of irony and melancholy in the dialogue and the film’s haunting conclusion, which actually gave me chills, is note-perfect and one that I expect will stay with me for some time.

3. Anomalisa

Anomalisa

Leave it to mastermind Charlie Kaufman to again create another brazenly, original work of genius that seems to come further out of left field than any of his previous accomplishments. He teams up with co-director Duke Johnson to create a stop motion movie like no other, one that dwells on the painful realities of life and actually feels like a tempered reflection of our imperfect world. Darkly funny and quietly heartbreaking in equal measure, Anomalisa may prove to be too dispiriting for some but I found it to be an insightful and touching portrait of loneliness.

2. Room

Room

A work of unparalleled emotional power, Room is best experienced with as little foreknowledge of the material as possible. Saying that it’s a harrowing study of the unshakable bond between mother and child should give the uninitiated a sense of story’s surface but the movie’s concealed strength lies in director Lenny Abrahamson’s ability to delicately dissect layers of sentiment with a special focus on groundedness and honesty. Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay give two of the year’s best performances as they capture all of the nuances of the mother-son relationship with effortless chemistry.

1. Inside Out

Inside Out

In what may be Pixar’s finest film, director Pete Docter culls the qualities of the studio’s best and fashions an emotionally profound work of art about the value of empathy and acceptance of grief. Inside Out is a brilliant force of sheer creativity, a movie that expertly balances matters of the head and the heart while also appealing to both with light touches of good-natured humor throughout. It taps into universal human truths in such a pure and succinct way that it feels destined to become a timeless piece of animation that may outlast just about everything else in its category.

Anomalisa ****|****

David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Anomalisa
David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Anomalisa

Stop motion animation in film is a genre that has long been geared towards children, with a pervasive emphasis on fantastical creatures and otherworldly backdrops for surreal effect. Recent highlights like Coraline and ParaNorman utilize traditional horror elements and gothic imagery to tell creepy bedtime stories in a non-conventional way. What’s so bracingly original about Anomalisa, the latest work from writer/director Charlie Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson, is how drastically it subverts the traditions of the medium and how authentically it strives to capture the human experience in a way that no other animated film has done before.

The movie follows Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a self-help author of “How May I Help You Help Them?”, as he travels to Cincinnati to give an inspirational speech at a customer service convention. We quickly learn that Stone is depressed and perceives everyone around him as different versions of the same man dressed in various disguises (all voiced by Tom Noonan). When he hears a new voice outside of his hotel room one night, he finds that a woman named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a beacon of uniqueness in a sea of familiar faces and the two form an instant connection.

Even if this story had been played out in a live-action format, the results would likely still be largely successful but the fact that it’s told not just in stop motion but incredibly fluid stop motion makes this a groundbreaking achievement. The set design and the lighting are impeccable, capturing all of the familiar nuances of a modern hotel and reimagining them for this new, miniature world. The attention to detail simply can’t be understated here; when you realize that the animators had a production goal of 48 frames per day (2 seconds of run time in the film), you begin to appreciate the level of craft that goes into the art form.

Of course, none of this patient effort would matter much if the narrative didn’t match the quality of the animation but luckily, Kaufman has penned his most stripped-down and intimate screenplay thus far. On the surface, it’s a mid-life crisis movie a la Lost In Translation but Kaufman tackles his typical themes of identity and isolation with a more light-hearted and empathetic touch this time around. There are threads of undeniable sadness throughout this film but there are also some unexpectedly playful notes too, perhaps my favorite involving a misleading series of speed dial icons for room service on a hotel room phone.

At the heart of everything is a beautifully rendered love story between Michael and Lisa, in which both characters attempt to push aside their own shortcomings to find a renewed purpose in one another. Like the visible seams in the faces of the puppet models that represent them, these characters have overt flaws that are bluntly put on display for us to examine and to potentially empathize with. In a bizarre way, I began to almost forget that I was watching stop motion at points in the story, which is an accomplishment in and of itself. Anomalisa may just be too peculiar an experience to find a mass audience but as a work of life-like animation, it’s a one-of-a-kind gem.

Brooklyn **½|****

Domhnall Gleeson and Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn
Domhnall Gleeson and Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn

I feel like a jerk for not liking this movie. Brooklyn is about as pleasant of a movie-going experience as you can expect to have all year; a willfully old-fashioned throwback to a time when dramatic stakes were comparatively trivial by today’s standards. To say that I was underwhelmed by the story might have more to do with some innate desire for conflict than with any particular failings of the film itself. There’s little doubt that it will appeal to many who seek it out but despite a rapturous lead performance by Saoirse Ronan and a handful of visual treats, I couldn’t find enough here to include myself among its ardent admirers.

Ronan plays Eilis Lacey, a young Irish shopgirl who grows weary of her mundane village and decides to immigrate to 1950s New York in search of new opportunities. There she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), an Italian-American plumber with an amiable disposition and an undying loyalty to his Brooklyn Dodgers. The two fall fast in love and hastily marry before Eilis is called back to her homeland for a family emergency. After only a few weeks, she finds herself becoming reattached to all that she left behind and must make a choice to return to her new husband in Brooklyn or stay in her native Ireland town.

Going into this film, I was not aware of the Colm Tóibín novel that inspired it and while screenwriter Nick Hornby does add some charming touches to the dialogue, the story didn’t have nearly enough dramatic thrust to maintain my interest. Even when I was intermittently wrapped up in the narrative, there was never a point when I had any doubt about how things would turn out. With the exception of Eilis, I was also disappointed with the lack of depth in the supporting characters, who tend to embody sanitized stereotypes rather than lend much needed personality to the story.

Despite this shallowness, Saoirse Ronan rises above and turns in yet another captivating performance filled with poise and confidence beyond her years. Her face has a sort of magnetic expressiveness to it that gives the impression that her character is constantly searching for new and deeper meaning with each interaction. Ultimately, Eilis’ physical and metaphorical journey is the most interesting part of this story and Ronan hits all of the notes of her transformation beautifully. Ever since her breakout role in 2007’s Atonement, she has proven herself to be one of the finest young actresses around and her work here is integral to the modest successes of the film.

Another recent release, Todd Haynes’ Carol, is also a novel-adapted melodrama set in a stylized version of 1950s New York that features a shopgirl as one of its main characters. While that film has more lurid subject material and is aiming to tell a different kind of romance story altogether,  Brooklyn could have benefited from more adventurous storytelling and more fleshed out characters in the periphery. It may win the award for most innocuous movie of the year but it didn’t have enough of its own personality to move me past polite praise.

The Revenant ***½|****

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant
Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant

The power of film is in its ability to create a totally immersive experience unique to any art form. We sit in a dark movie theater, aware that what we’re about to see costs millions of dollars and took hundreds of people to make, and the filmmaker’s chief task is to essentially make us forget all of that. Some may call it suspension of disbelief but it runs deeper than that: there’s an undeniable magic to those films that effortlessly transport us from time and place. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s The Revenant follows this tradition with a rare kind of cinematic conviction and steadfast authenticity that will likely render it timeless.

Amongst the unsettled wilderness of the 1820s American northwest, a band of fur trappers and hunters stave off the harsh elements and Native American aggression to collect pelts for trade. After the party’s scout Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is viciously mauled by a grizzly bear, his severe injuries begin to hinder the group’s progress and their captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) orders three men, including hunter John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Glass’ son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), to tend to his wounds. After a fatal dispute amongst the volunteers, Glass is left for dead and must fight through unbearable circumstances to return to his outpost.

Iñárritu has the poise and confidence of a master filmmaker right from the opening scene, an exhilarating and immensely well-choreographed ambush sequence that reminded me of the similarly stunning D-Day beach raid in Saving Private Ryan. Apart from providing a thrilling action scene to kick things off, he also clues us in early to the type of visceral brutality and natural realism that he goes on to employ throughout the film’s exhausting journey. The story that he tells here is not necessarily a complex one but it’s told with an emotional purity and ruthless honesty that makes the end result as rewarding as the narrative is challenging.

Indispensable to the film’s success is veteran cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who worked with Iñárritu previously for Birdman and received an Academy Award last year for his work. Not only is the film simply gorgeous to take in (Lubezki reportedly used only natural lighting while shooting), he tempers the overwhelming beauty of the natural landscape with an unflinching eye towards the dangers that spontaneously present themselves. Lubezki also showcases his signature style of close-up here as well, characterized by a low side angle that stays tight on the subject’s face and lends depths of intimacy that the performances may not have otherwise had.

And then we come to DiCaprio. Much has been said of his work here and even more has been said of his chances for winning his first Academy Award after having been nominated four times previously. While the notion that he has been under-appreciated by the Academy throughout his career is just, I fear that the “Overdue Oscar” talk may overshadow just how committed and tenacious a performance he gives in this film. In fact, the same could be said of Tom Hardy, who brings an unrelenting intensity to another memorable antagonistic role that serves as a career-best for him.  The Revenant is bravura filmmaking from a director at the peak of his powers.


 

The Hateful Eight **|****

Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight
Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film, appropriately titled The Hateful Eight, is the director’s most self-indulgent project yet and he’s not a man known particularly for his modesty to begin with. Presented to select theaters in 70mm projection complete with a roadshow program and a 12 minute Ennio Morricone-scored overture at its start (with an intermission halfway through), this is his attempt to bring the high art prestige of a classy theater play back into modern movie theaters. It’s a noble effort, one that generated plenty of buzz, so it’s a shame that the film at the center of it all is simply not worthy of the spectacle.

Set during a harsh winter in post-Civil War Wyoming, we’re introduced to bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his outlaw prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as they travel in stagecoach bound for Red Rock. Along the way, they also pick up former Union Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and former Confederate fighter Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who claims that he’s on his way to Red Rock to be sworn in as the town’s next sheriff. To stave off the impending blizzard, the four shack up at a secluded lodge but when they start to converse with the other four characters who reside there, suspicions about their motivations and identities begin to grow.

Due to its dedication to a single location and focus on solving a central mystery, the film has drawn comparisons to Tarantino’s debut Reservoir Dogs but that film benefited greatly from a tighter structure and comparatively brisk pace. The intentionally slumberous pacing in the first hour of The Hateful Eight is meant to build up excitement for when Ruth and his passengers finally arrive at the lodge but it comes across more as a storyteller spinning his wheels while we wait for the movie to start. While the dialogue between Mannix and Warren is likely the sharpest in the film, it doesn’t come close to matching the poetry and poignancy of passages from films like Inglorious Basterds and Pulp Fiction.

Unlike those movies, The Hateful Eight is severely lacking when it comes to compelling characters. Tarantino clearly went for the quantity over quality method here with eight loathsome characters who hardly possess any distinguishable traits beyond boorishness and sadistic self-interest. It’s possible to write an interesting story about eight “bad guys” sharing a room for the night but it’s an especially bad idea to paint their personalities in broad strokes and then ask us to care about anything that happens to them as individuals.

Most disappointing, however, is the depiction of violence in the film’s second half. This is an area that I’ve noticed Tarantino begin to slip since the conclusion of his last film Django Unchained. There used to be an artfulness and craft to his action sequences that now feels like it’s been superseded by laziness and sensationalism. A primary example is the extended flashback that comprises the film’s fifth chapter, which adds very little context to the main narrative and whose only purpose seems to be to raise the overall body count. Tarantino has always seemed steadfast on topping his previous effort but The Hateful Eight is a sign that it may be time for him to reign things in.

Spotlight ***|****

Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, and Brian d’Arcy James in Spotlight
Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, and Brian d’Arcy James in Spotlight

Set in the fall of 2001, Spotlight takes its name from the select sector of Boston Globe journalists who, through months of rigorous investigation, uncovered a pattern of sex abuse crimes kept under wraps within the Catholic Church. Along with Globe editors Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) and Ben Bradlee (John Slattery), the story focuses on the four members of the Spotlight team: Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). Together, they doggedly piece through years of evidence and eventually publish the scathing exposé that would take the world by storm.

It’s likely that this is the most heartfelt love letter to newspaper journalism ever put on film. There are a multitude of small details, from set design choices to nuances in the actors’ performances, that clue us into how these investigative minds really work and what it’s like to live a journalist’s life. My personal favorite inclusion is the ever-present pocket-size note pads and frantically scribbling pens, which are seen so often that they practically become main characters in the story. Director Tom McCarthy is fascinated with how these professionals operate on a day-to-day basis and his admiration for their work shines brightly throughout Spotlight.

He also has a commendable dedication to telling this story ethically and with a great deal of integrity, which is not only critical for a movie based on true events but also for one whose central scandal is still in the process of unfolding. As is the case for these type of films, there are many opportunities to take artistic license in trying to spice up the content but the dramatic flourishes are few and far between. Playing it straight doesn’t always make for the most exciting or dramatically fulfilling cinema out there but when it comes to true story adaptation, I’ll take the honest, humble version over the gaudy, glamorized version any day of the week.

This ethic also carries over to the casting as well, as none of the actors (with the possible exception of Ruffalo) seem to be interested in putting on showy performances for award consideration. Instead, they wisely focus on the studious nature of these characters and the work that they carry out together as a team. The film is economical in its opportunities for us to glimpse into the personal lives of the journalists but perhaps even that is by design: we’re kept at a similar distance as the subjects that they interview. Despite the potential lack of depth with the lead characters, the crime victims are thankfully portrayed with the dignity and empathy that they deserve.

I’d be remiss not to mention the overwhelming Oscar buzz that is prematurely swarming this movie. While the nominations have yet to be announced (January 14th is the date for that) and I have yet to see all of the likely front-runners, it’s easy to see why Spotlight is leading in the Best Picture talk. It has the kind of qualities that the Academy frequently fawns over: based on true events, timely subject matter, a recognizable veteran cast. Something about its approach feels a bit too modest for me to throw overwhelming adoration its way but as a piece of workmanlike filmmaking, it’s a respective and responsible effort.