Once Upon a Time in China / Tsui Hark / 1991 /
Active Ingredients: Creative and exciting action; Themes of tradition and modernity
Side Effects: Tangential narratives and shifting focus
Masterfully choreographed and directed action sequences surround an equally masterful historical epic.
The thematic ambitions of Tsui Hark’s seminal Once Upon a Time in China are evident from the beginning. It’s overture and subsequent introductory sequences are rife with references to the foreign influences manipulating 19th century China, and to the inexorably changing times. Modernity is fast approaching, and in this respect Tsui’s film is similar to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, in which the construction of the railroad represents the last gasp of the Wild West. And while these showdowns emphasize fists over six-shooters, much of the sentiment and style of the Western can be felt here. Read more…
The Witch / Robert Eggers / 2016 /
Active Ingredients: Beautifully crafted mood; Exploration of evil; Cast
Side Effects: Unique form leads to odd pacing and rhythms
Robert Eggers’ The Witch isn’t just an “assured” cinematic debut—an easy term too often reached for—but a damn near masterful one. An assured film is merely studied and technically proficient; a masterful one is singular and inspired.
Not content to emulate the styles, rhythms or contours of any recognizable formula, The Witch discovers its own shape, its own textures. It doesn’t manufacture chills in trite and familiar ways, but through unnoticed and unexpected tactics that slowly and methodically creep under your skin and stay there. It’s a sustained and uncomfortably close encounter with pure evil. Read more…
I recently shared my Top 20 films of the year, but while 2015 is still young and its great films are months away, there’s still time to look back at 2015. In this post I’ll name my favorite lead and supporting performances, along with my favorite scenes of the year “The Year in Miscellaneous Superlatives.”
Happily, this year featured tons of fantastic performances from women! I had a tough time coming up with even five lead actors, but there were a wealth of great lead actresses to choose from. So this year, I couldn’t help it: I’ve named ten.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Many critics are hailing 2015 as a banner year in cinema, offering an embarrassment of riches from which to create year-end lists such as this one. And it’s true: the sheer number (and wide range) of worthy films probably outpaces the last few years. To me, 2015 boasted lots of surprisingly strong films, but perhaps very few truly great ones. Nothing, for example, would surpass my four 5-star films from last year: Boyhood, Goodbye to Language, Inherent Vice and The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Nonetheless, there are lots of terrific films to get to, and perhaps a stronger overall list than average. In particular, I think 2015 is the year Hollywood got it right. From the too-weird-to-be-mainstream Mad Max: Fury Road to the sincere and soulful Creed, multiplex fare was quite compelling. But don’t worry, true to form I also have a few foreign films and smaller releases to tout as I count down my Top 20 films of 2015.
Honorable Mentions: In Jackson Heights, The Look of Silence, What We Do in the Shadows
Regrets: Anomalisa, Son of Saul, Arabian Nights, Brooklyn, 45 Years
A list of all 2015 releases I’ve seen is available here.
The Revenant / Alejandro González Iñárritu / 2015 /
Active Ingredients: Natural photography; Score; Focus on mood
Side Effects: Length; Revenge theme; Closeups and long takes
Despite its violence, brutality and harrowingly intimate chronicling of struggling, The Revenant becomes, surprisingly, a film about goodness, even grace.
Ostensibly, structurally a revenge story, The Revenant transcends that shallow, constricting emotion. It seems to sidestep revenge as if by feel, learning to overcome its seduction as the film flows forward, but there’s an understanding (a vague one perhaps, but an understanding nonetheless) of its emptiness deep in the film’s bones. You can see it in its many skyward glances, minimizing the experiences of its characters in favor of some more cosmic drama; you can hear it in its patient, organic score, echoing the breath of life. Read more…
Star Wars: The Force Awakens / J.J. Abrams / 2015 /
Active Ingredients: It’s Star Wars!; New cast; Worldbuilding details
Side Effects: Familiar action sequences; Obligation to mythology
With expectations high and saddled with the burden of years of nostalgia and familiarity, Star Wars: The Force Awakens will likely be judged not on its own merits but as an extension of that very nostalgia and familiarity. And how could it not be? How could an audience with so much cultural baggage approach anything in this universe with anything like objectivity? It’s a strange position for a 2015 film to be in, franchise blockbuster or not, but The Force Awakens takes on this challenge by embracing our familiarity itself. Read more…
Spotlight / Tom McCarthy / 2015 /
Active Ingredients: Editorial vision and good sense; Pace; Details of journalism
Side Effects: Lack of emphasis on the individual; Repetitive structure
At one point in Spotlight, the team of Boston Globe reporters investigating sex abuse in the Catholic church decides to “follow the system, not the man.” With a detective’s methodology and singularity of focus, they’ll research the overarching system that allowed rampant abuse to take place rather than scrutinize the psychology of any one offender. Tom McCarthy’s absorbing journalistic procedural could be said to follow the same editorial vision. Read more…