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Best of 2015: Movies February 24, 2016

Posted by David Card in Media.
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Regular readers know I like to preface my list of faves with some box office stats, courtesy of the indispensable Box Office Mojo. A casual observer might think Hollywood had a good year in the U.S., with ticket sales a record, and up 7% from 2014. But two colossal hits, the Star Wars and Jurassic Park reboots, did not represent a tide that lifted leakier boats.

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Photo credit: flickr user Hans Splinter

While their success hammers home the message that hits rule – does anyone mis-interpret the long tail phenomenon any more? – as my colleague Paul Sweeting writes, movies outside of the Top Five performed relatively poorly. Click through on his analysis; it’s worth a read. Studios can’t rely on the inertia of their old release and marketing tactics.

Meanwhile, in 2015:

  • Star Wars, practically a remake rather than just a re-start, collected nearly $1 billion in domestic box office, making it the biggest hit ever in current dollars. Gone with the Wind and the original Star Wars did better by other accounting. The $650 million that the dinos raked in was way, way better than recent years’ top-performers, which were lucky to crack $300 million. The disappointing Avengers 2 was the only pure superhero Top 10 flick, and wonder of wonders, an original property, The Martian, made it onto that list. Too bad it’s not particularly sequel-friendly.
  • Disney’s acquisitiveness paid off: it scored with Star Wars, Marvel, and Pixar. Universal was a more surprising star via the fairly risky Jurassic move and the demographics-friendly continued success of the Fast ‘n Furious franchise, as well as those still-kicking Minions. There were just under 30 $100+ movies this year, which is about par for recent history. What really matters is how much one spends to make and market ’em.

I saw – and enjoyed – about half of the Top 20 movies last year. But only The Martian made my “best of” list. What else did? Proving I’m not a complete snob, but also not much of a reflector of popularity if a fair-to-middling predictor of Oscar-nom worthiness, last year I saw three 3.5-star movies. That was half as many as 2014. Here’s my take from my Rotten Tomato/Flixster reviews, Best Picture nominations in bold:

  • Spotlight. Shamelessly hits all the newsroom cliches and features some mannered performances – I’m looking at you Ruffalo and Keaton – but the riveting script builds to a big, emotional payoff. Makes the case why we’d better save a few #$%@ newspapers.
  • Mad Max: Fury Road – Oh yeah, Miller still has it. Totally metal.
  • Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck – This TV-funded documentary makes creative and enlightening use of rich archival material, and should be seen on a big screen with the volume turned up. God, I miss troubled-genius rockstars.

To round out my Top 10, these are my favorite  3-star movies:

  • The Big Short – So close. Righteous anger and daring approach just falls short of satirically nailing the greedy b@stards properly.
  • The Martian – Science heroes FTW! Go, NASA!
  • Creed – It’s probably a bad idea to do a feel-good boxing movie in 2015, but what the hey, this is a really good one. Sly is amazing – touchingly so – and Jordan should be a huge movie star based on charisma alone. And then there’s the shadow boxing with YouTube scene and the the mid-movie single-take fight scene….
  • Jauja – Remember I have a very high tolerance for slow-moving, so naturalistic they’re surreal, trippy head movies that take place on the Edge of the Great Unknown, where Civilization Loses its Way.
  • Steve Jobs – In Hollywood, genius @ssholes get happy endings. Sorkin’s three-act structure is daring but not completely successful: it’s stagey and a bit static, and Fassbender is the slightly too-cold center of a stellar cast. Way better than Isaacson’s biography, Steve Jobs at least has a theory of why he was who he was.
  • Sicario – Until the script loses its cojones and the third act turns it into just another revenge thriller, this is a tense, visually stunning, action flick that also has something serious to say about the ambiguity and futility of the War on Drugs. The slightly over-the-top score heightens the sense of dread, Del Toro and Brolin are solid, but Blunt is underwritten and wasted.
  • Mr. Holmes – Yes, the pace is stately, but Sir Ian adds a marvelous interpretation to the Canon. True fans will be forgiven for getting a little weepy.

I did like Pixar’s Inside Out, that deftly blends gags and themes for grownups and for kids. But its animation is fairly uninspired, except for one art-gag that will be waaaayyy over the heads of the target audience. The Revenant was a cold, Epic Folly without any real meaning that certainly was no Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre, let alone Apocalypse Now. Bridge of Spies was classy but suspense-free. I haven’t seen Brooklyn or Room yet.

I’m still working on my Oscars hypotheses, but I don’t think they’ll give it to Iñárritu two years in a row.

 

 

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Best of 2013: Movies February 17, 2014

Posted by David Card in Media.
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I like to kick these posts off with some box office stats, courtesy Box Office Mojo.

  • The money spent in U.S. movie theaters was flat versus last year (and tickets sold down), when The Avengers set some records with over $600 million in sales at the same time that Hunger Games and The Dark Knight Rises broke $400 million. This year, only the Hunger Games sequel and Iron Man 3 cracked the $400 million mark.
  • The top 10, as usual, comprised sequels, cartoons, and superheroes, sometimes in combination. How did Gravity sneak in? By being a really good movie that was also a crowd-pleaser, and worth seeing in Imax or 3D. I’m still baffled by the Oz movie (which I didn’t see). Does it qualify as a franchise? Pixar made it into the top 10, but didn’t get an Oscar nomination. Can we blame Disney?

Let me disagree with the critics who say it was a good year. I go to the movies in theaters just about once a week. I like blockbusters and genre films as much as serious movies for grown-ups, and I’m a hard grader. I reserve the 5s on a 5-star scale for all-time classics like Casablanca, Chinatown, and Duck Soup. I rated fewer 3s this year than in 2011 and 2012. I saw a lot of 2.5-star movies this year.

My two favorites of the year earned 3.5 stars each:

  • Gravity – It’s uncharitable to wish Gravity were actually about something. Its visuals inspire awe and panic, its physics is totally convincing, it’s superbly cast, and the creators apparently invented some new movie technology.
  • Inside Llewyn Davis – The rare Coen Brothers movie with a heart, and all the better for it. Is it a little depressing? So is trying to make a living while making art.

To round out a top ten list, here are the best of the 3-star movies I saw this year:

  • Mud – An endearing, meandering, Southern shaggy dog story. Tremendous cast and atmosphere. It’s a “triple-six real-deal.”
  • The Great Gatsby –  Leo nailed it, even if Carey Mulligan was mis-cast. The hip hop worked, and everyone looked fabulous.
  • American Hustle – Audacious, but only partly successful. You’ve got to be Scorsese to pull off voice-over narration, the pacing’s inconsistent, and the comedy and satire are, uh, uneven. Lots of great performances, but what is Russell’s point? American Bullsh!t was the original title…
  • Rush – Cliched? Macho? Hans Zimmer? Well, yeah, it’s a Formula 1 movie. And it was the funnest summer flick. The leads radiate charisma and it’s got a great ’70s look. See it on a big screen.
  • Fruitvale Station – I wanted more outrage, but in the long run maybe its almost too low-key approach was the way to go. Superb cast empowered by the very assured first-time director and screenwriter.
  • Captain Phillips – Taut and thoughtful. Hanks and Abdi are terrific and I’ll forgive the shakycam because Greengrass is one of the few active directors that shoot action scenes where you always know what’s going on. Ends with a real kick in the chest.
  • All Is Lost – Truly harrowing, and I only saw it on an airplane’s small screen.
  • The Grandmaster – Kung fu isn’t better in rain, smoke, snow, or slowmo, but it sure is prettier. This one actually takes off when it turns into a romance, but, oh, man, that fight scene by the train…

As for some of the other big movies of the year? While Luhrmann was seduced by – and seductive on – the romance of Amuhrican capitalism, I’m pretty sure Scorsese was not. But consider the source material. Wolf of Wall Street was at least a half an hour too long to justify its 2-3 great scenes. While the romance in Her worked, the dialogue did not. 12 Years a Slave was beautifully shot, and mostly well-acted, but it’s about as subtle and thoughtful as Mandingo. Worse, it’s oddly unfeeling. In Blue Jasmine, Blanchett out-Blanches Blanche, but the class and wealth commentary loses its sting because it’s set in some timeless, out-of-touch Woodyland where Brooklyn is an undesirable place to live, people take computer classes to learn about “operating systems,” and mooks from Queens comprise the San Francisco working class.