Song of the Sea (2014, Tomm Moore)

One of those Totoro/Coraline stories where the kids move to a new place and discover wonders there…kind of… but also one of the kids is a mermaid-seal, and so was her mom, and the girl needs to recover the seal pelt her dad chucked into the ocean or else all the mythological creatures in the land will be turned to stone.

Triumph of animation and design, as foretold by The Secret of Kells. It’s Irish, so Brendan Gleeson is in it (as the dad). I loved it despite the fact that owls were the villains.

Big Hero 6 and How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Miniscule and Princess Kaguya took most of the awards this was nominated for. Admittedly it was a great year for animation, also with Boxtrolls and Cheatin’ and The Lego Movie but I’m surprised this didn’t get more love.

The Hateful Eight (2015, Quentin Tarantino)

Did anyone else count nine? Maybe Kurt Russell isn’t considered hateful since he always appears to be telling the truth? But he does punch Daisy in the face a lot of times (to the great amusement of the Alamo crowd). So if we count him, there’s the seven star actors mentioned in the trailer, plus the definitely hateful Mexican Bob (Demián Bichir, Castro in Che), and certainly-hateful not-surprise (since there are opening credits, though when he showed up three hours later I’d just about forgotten) guest star Tater Channing. So I suppose the title is meant to throw you off, as is most of the script.

I got to see the little-known 35mm roadshow version, though now having seen it, I wouldn’t cry to lose ten minutes of footage and the intermission. Alamo’s a cool place, though they ran out of half the stuff we ordered and came crawling down the floor to let us know, which all seemed awkward. Mostly it was fabulous to sit front row watching a great-looking 35mm widescreen film from a perfect print.

Let’s keep this short: bounty-hunter Kurt Russell transporting criminal Jennifer Jason Leigh picks up fellow bounty-hunter Sam Jackson and would-be-sheriff Walt Goggins on the way to a rest stop to wait out a blizzard. Waiting there are, as we find out in the second half, an ambush of J.J. Leigh’s compatriots pretending to be random travelers, including hangman Tim Roth, quiet cowboy Michael Madsen and the aforementioned Bob… and confederate general Bruce Dern, a genuinely random traveler searching for his son. Also, Leigh’s outlaw brother Tater is hiding in the basement. Everyone gets shot except Kurt Russell gets poisoned and Leigh gets hanged by ragged, barely-survivors Goggins and Jackson, who reluctantly team up as the plot unfolds. Partly an homage to The Thing (Kurt Russell trapped in snow, nobody being who they say they are). Oh also Zoë Bell of Death Proof appears with others in a flashback massacre. And haha, QT cast a guy named Stark to play a naked man in the flashback leading to Dern’s death just before intermission.

The actors are all perfect for their roles. I’ve barely seen JJ Leigh since the great eXistenZ, though she was one of a hundred confusing people and things in Synecdoche, New York. So the film is well-shot, though confined to the damned cabin for most of its runtime, and the new Ennio Morricone music is lovely, though sparsely used, and the actors are super, though their characters are truly hateful. So I’m not sure what to make of this, or why it’s the movie Tarantino felt he had to make right now. There’s a lot to talk about, and Glenn Kenny takes a great shot at covering it.

Sam Adams, in an article amazingly titled “Fear of a Black Dingus” (just beating Cinema Scope’s headline “You’ve Gotta Be Fucking Kidding Me”): “Tarantino has never worked so strenuously to get a rise out of his audience … Watching The Hateful Eight is a little like being [Bruce Dern], knowing that Tarantino wants you to jump, and feeling like a sucker when you do.”

J. Reichert in Reverse Shot:

So, after his biggest box-office success, one of our most obnoxious filmmakers made a movie whose worldview lines up with the Republican presidential debates or a Donald Trump rally … It functions as the opposite of Reverse Shot’s best film of the year, In Jackson Heights, which shows Americans our best selves. The Hateful Eight may not be the Quentin Tarantino film anyone wanted, but it may be the Quentin Tarantino film we deserved.

A. Nayman in Cinema Scope:

One possible way to approach the pachydermous beast that is The Hateful Eight is as a hybrid tribute to/remake of Carpenter’s The Thing … And one possible way to look at Tarantino at this point is as the artistic equivalent of Carpenter’s parasite: an unscrupulous shape-shifter who will throw on any disguise that suits his purposes before moving on, leaving the host party hollowed out as he proceeds on his relentless mission of conquest … This is Tarantino’s most audience-alienating film to date. A line from The Thing springs to mind: “I don’t know what the hell’s in there… but it’s weird and pissed off, whatever it is.”

Between watching Hateful Eight and getting this post online we also saw Inglorious Basterds at the Alamo, since they’re having a Tarantino fest to celebrate Hateful’s release. Fassbender made more of an impression this time, since now I know who he is. I’d forgotten Waltz’s defecting to the allies at the end, and personally planting one of the basterds’ bombs under Hitler’s chair. Katy was surprised to like the movie, despite all its graphic violence.

Life of Riley (2014, Alain Resnais)

Resnais’s second movie in a row about a group of actors rallying around a dying friend. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet was a perfect final film, but Resnais was still alive and working, so he made another one. It’s just as playful, but more in the story than the filmmaking – this time the never-seen dying friend uses his situation to steal all the women.

Actually called Aimer, Boire et Chanter (google: Loving, Drinking and Singing), which is a wonderful title for the final film of one of our greatest directors – but Life of Riley was the title of the Alan Ayckbourn play it adapts. Resnais’s third Alan Ayckbourn adaptation, fourth if you consider Smoking/No Smoking two movies, fourth-and-a-half if you consider the play-within-the-film here is Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking.

The players: Kathryn (the great Sabine Azéma) and her balding clock-watcher husband Colin (Hippolyte Girardot, Anne Consigny’s husband in A Christmas Tale, ensemble in You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet) live in a comfy row house.

The dying man’s wealthy best friend Jack (sideburnsed Michel Vuillermoz of the last two Resnais films) and wife Tamara (Caroline Silhol, young rich guy’s mom in A Girl Cut In Two) live in a nice, big house.

The dying man’s ex-wife Monica (Sandrine Kiberlain of Benoît Jacquot’s Seventh Heaven) and her new man, the much older Simeon (André Dussollier in his eighth Resnais film) live at Simeon’s place in the country.

Tamara, Monica, Kathryn:

Colin, Jack, Simeon:

George Riley, afflicted with cancer, is never seen or heard, nor is the amateur theater director who casts a few of our characters in Relatively Speaking, which they’re rehearsing throughout the film. Kathryn and Tamara convince a reluctant Monica to move back in with Riley for a few weeks, but all three women start spending too much time at his house, and each is personally invited to go on a final vacation with him after the play closes. Each is tempted: Tamara’s upset that her husband is cheating, Monica was Riley’s wife for years, and Kathryn almost married Riley before meeting Colin. Ultimately Colin and Kathryn’s daughter Tilly sneaks away and joins Riley on the trip, during which he passes away.

Almost all the action is set on backyard patios – blatantly artificial, stagey sets (house walls are represented with hanging strips of cloth). Establishing shots are drawings. Closeups are always set against a b/w crosshatch pattern. And there are a couple of appearances by an angry-looking puppet groundhog. Lovely, light music by Mark Snow. Won prizes at Berlin, playing with Boyhood, Beloved Sisters and winner Black Coal, Thin Ice.

M. D’Angelo: “In years to come I’m probably just gonna mentally reverse the order of these last two films, so as to let him go out on a high note,” and D. Ehrlich calls it “Alain Resnais’ YOU AIN’T SEEN AN INFINITELY MORE INTERESTING VERSION OF THIS LAST YEAR?

V. Rizov: “It may be impossible (for me, anyway) to understand what repeatedly drew Resnais to these rather mediocre Alan Ayckbourn plays, but his commitment to rendering them nearly impossible to understand intent-wise is a beguiling final spectacle of its own.”

Tilly at the funeral:

Max Nelson for Reverse Shot:

Colin and Kathryn’s beautiful teenage daughter, who comes to the old seducer’s funeral, is the film’s trump card; her serene indifference to the event is a kind of mirror image to the equally serene god’s-eye perspective with which the movie treats its heroes … The couple’s daughter, on the other hand, speaks the unflappably confident language of a person just starting to live. To say that the movie lacks the terms to interpret this language is only to say that it’s a film made in the spirit of old age rather than that of youth — but few swan songs cede the floor to a younger generation this graciously, or with such mischievous parting words.

Fascinating, mostly unrelated, from Cinema Scope:

After meeting in the late ’60’s, Resnais and [Marvel Comics visionary Stan] Lee first worked together in 1971 on a screenplay called The Monster Maker, about a schlock-horror filmmaker who attempts to go legit by making a prestige picture about imminent ecological disaster. Though the pair managed to sell the script, the project failed to find financing when producers balked at the cost of creating a climactic deluge of rubbish that would choke the streets of New York. (A later project called The Inmates, a romantic comedy that revealed how humans were exiled to Earth long ago as punishment for extraterrestrial wrongdoing, never made it past the treatment stage, while Lee’s proposal for Resnais to direct Spider-Man – with Henry Winkler in the lead – may not have even made it that far.)

So, it’s far from the best Resnais film, as most of the reviews I’ve read agree, but as F. Nehme said, “it’s still an affectionate coda for a master,” and that’s nothing to sneeze at. After all, the death of Riley didn’t move me, but the phrase in Richard Brody’s review, “Sabine Azéma — Resnais’s wife, now his widow,” is the saddest I’ve read all month.

The Good Dinosaur (2015, Peter Sohn)

First film watched in 2016 and it’s… pretty good? Kinda of a Lion King-cribbing story with dialogue mainly consisting of Big Life Lessons and setup for them. We liked the concept – talking, farming dinosaurs and barking, feral humans – but I paid more attention to the (beautiful!) lighting than the characters. Only voice I definitely recognized was Sam Elliott as the daddy t-rex rancher, but we’ve also got Jeffrey Wright as Mufasa and Steve Zahn as an evil pterodactyl.

Arlo is small, afraid of everything, bad at his chores, and present when the river floods and his dad dies. Will he go on a great adventure and learn how to overcome his fears and become a responsible adult? Yes! He and the human he names Spot help each other out, dodge carnivorous dinos, find food and figure how to get home, all set to blandly soaring music. I sound like I’m being dismissive, but I got so emotional my head hurt.

Director Peter Sohn made Partly Cloudy, the stork short. Original/replaced director Bob Peterson cowrote Pixar’s best features, but even better, he’s the voice of Roz in Monsters Inc and Dug in Up. Changes between the cancelled version of the movie and the final release: Arlo is younger, major unspecified story changes and whole voice cast replaced except for Frances McDormand as Arlo’s mom.

Sanjay’s Super Team (2015, Sanjay Patel)

Imagination-memoir, in which young Sanjay learns to fuse his interest in a televised superhero team and his dad’s Hindu prayers. A bit of culturally-diverse fun, and a massive improvement over Lava. Looks like Patel has been with Pixar since at least A Bug’s Life.

Brooklyn (2015, John Crowley)

Last film watched in 2015, and it’s a good one. Impossibly gorgeous and perfectly-lit Saoirse Ronan is in every scene, which should be enough of a recommendation, but it’s also a good story – a small-scale immigrant drama and minor love triangle given epic scale through grand filmmaking.

Eilis (which looks like Ellis, as in the island, now that I see it written) is sent abroad to New York by beneveolent priest Jim Broadbent, leaving her mother and sister Rose behind in Ireland. After a rough ship ride she settles in at her department store job with Parker Posey doppelganger Jessica Paré and a boarding house run by Julie Walters with other girls (incl. Arrow star Emily Rickards) who are looking for men and enjoying the night life. Quiet Eilis manages to attract a serious guy – an Italian plumber named Tony (Emory Cohen of Afterschool) with big dreams of a family housing business. After her sister’s sudden death she returns to Ireland to see her mom and friends, starts hanging out with Domhnall Gleeson, locally considered a major catch. Will she abandon her Tony and her golden dreams of America to stay comfortably at home with Gleeson? No!

Novel by Colm Tóibín, adapted by Nick Hornby, directed by Crowley (Boy A, Closed Circuit). Up for three oscars, but not everyone loved it.

M. D’Angelo:

… feels weirdly sanitized, like somebody’s pseudo-nostalgic conception of the ’50s based on movies from that era. (Compare and contrast with Carol, which admittedly inhabits a different milieu but is unmistakably grounded in lived experience.)

Spotlight (2015, Tom McCarthy)

The very definition of a great ensemble cast, each character given similar tasks throughout the investigation but with different personal connections to the church and the case. Hulk Ruffalo and Michael “Birdman” Keaton are joined by Rachel “Passion” McAdams, John “Iron Man’s dad” Slattery and a gentle mustache named Brian James under new boss Liev “brother of Wolverine” Schreiber as reporters investigating a pattern of sexual abuse in the catholic church.

D. Ehrlich: “earns comparisons to Zodiac and All the President’s Men, but is also more modest and anonymous than either… less sticky. still, builds an immense momentum with its earnestness.”

M. D’Angelo: Thoroughly enjoyable, but the only aspect of it that wowed me was Liev Schreiber’s deliberately off-putting performance; I imagine McCarthy repeatedly telling him “Let’s try that again, but give me more absolutely nothing this time.”

M. Harris:

I know some people think that Tom McCarthy’s direction is utilitarian; I couldn’t disagree more. His steady medium shots and groupings of men (mostly men) in conversation in offices, behind overcrammed desks, in restaurants, clubs, doorframes, and well-appointed sanctuaries are not the product of lack of visual imagination but of serious thought about how best to tell a story of journalistic process and the uneasy co-functioning of big urban institutions (church, paper, courthouse). The empty weekend office in the film’s final sequence, with Liev Schreiber’s Marty Baron at work in the distant background, has stayed with me as much as any shot from any movie this year.

Wild Tales (2014, Damián Szifrón)

Five stories of People Driven To The Brink: a great opening segment set on a plane, then four mediocre, pointless segments. Kinda fun to watch for a while, but I can’t believe the acclaim this thing got. Went up against Leviathan, Timbuktu and the winner Ida for the foreign oscar. I guess its defenders hoped the artistically-serious vote would cancel itself out and the goofball candidate would take the prize.

First episode has a flight full of people who gradually realize that they all know the same guy – and they’ve each wronged him in some way – and he’s the pilot. Then comes the best part of the movie: the opening titles.

Part 2: a diner waitress realizes the sole customer one night is the gangster who drove her father to suicide. The chef poisons the guy’s son then stabs the gangster. Part 3: rich guy vs. normal guy road rage incident goes out of control, ends with explosive deaths. Fourth: an explosives expert’s car keeps getting towed, ruining his family life. Guess what he does? Next, rich family’s son drunkenly kills pregnant woman, family pays their gardener to take the blame, bribes are negotiated then gardener is murdered by dead woman’s husband. Finally, a bride discovers at wedding that her husband has been cheating, makes a scene.

Editing to music: something more movies should do. It’s fun and easy.

After portraying the producers as wolves, vultures and lions:

A massive hit in Argentina. “Every story in Wild Tales has to do with the clash between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the dispossessed” – Quintín writes about how the movie cautiously addresses the problems facing Argentina, convincingly calls it an important film despite its light-violent-entertainment appearance to outsiders like myself.

Blackhat (2015, Michael Mann)

I’m not one of those hardcore action auteurists who claims Paul W.S. Anderson is the best Anderson, Tony Scott is the best Scott, or the latest Universal Soldier sequels are masterpieces. But when it comes to Michael Mann, jeez… he can make a farfetched movie full of generic action elements where Thor plays a computer hacker and it still comes out great. This movie’s trailer make it look ridiculous. There’s no way to convince any right-thinking person that Blackhat (or Miami Vice) is a good movie based on plot description. But to see it in motion is a whole different thing. It’s one thing to talk tech about framing and light and editing, it’s another to experience it in a work of art – from Jauja on one side to Blackhat on the other. I’m not saying it’s my favorite movie (made the bottom rung of my top 30 of the year), just want to emphasize that it’s a very good, an impressive work, not to be confused with your standard fun action flick like Mission: Impossible 5.

Sloppy code:

Thor is assisted by old friend Dawai (Leehom Wang), and falls for the friend’s network-engineer sister Lien (Wei Tang: Leehom’s Lust, Caution costar, also in this year’s Office). Viola Davis is another ally, and the under-armed Thor will need all of those he can get against a militarized terrorist hacker whose goal turns out to be personal enrichment, not state or religious warfare. The movie got me rooting for the U.S. government agencies with unlimited resources, but of course cyber-criminal Thor is no gov’t puppet and escapes them at the end. Meanwhile, Mann out-Finchers Fincher, the camera zooming inside a computer from ethernet to transistors.

Keyboard from underneath:

J. Cataldo for Slant:

Hemsworth is never entirely convincing as imprisoned genius hacker Nicholas Hathaway, but he does work fabulously as a chunk of human marble, hurtled through a series of inventively shot, fluidly frenetic set pieces … Mann expands on the woozy handheld work that made Collateral and Miami Vice so tactile and entrancing, his camera collapsing the spaces between bodies and objects without sacrificing spatial coherence, creating an artfully abstract collective muddle as neatly structured systems collapse into one another.

Adam Cook for Mubi:

The results are far from what one would call traditional realism. Instead, what we have is a sensory realism that wants you to know how guns fire bullets, and what it feels like when they do, and the means to do so are impressionistic, unusual, and embrace both the advantages of digital technology and its “flawed” properties that can render individual images strange, pixelated, and alien … Locating the evolution of this digital language as solely something within the art/artist is reductive: the world has changed, is changing, and Mann isn’t just using the latest tools for kicks, but is implicitly keeping up with our relationship to the world, which retains the same dramas, tragedies, and dilemmas, yet shifts in its forms and manifestations.

As usual, Cinema Scope’s take is the best, but unusually it’s because Adam Nayman doesn’t take sides. From an I.T. point of view, the only time I called total bullshit was when the whitehat hax0rz showed up in person to a bank and stole all the money by gaining access to the front-desk receptionist’s computer.

Room (2015, Lenny Abrahamson)

“Ma” was kidnapped years ago, now has a young son Jack, and they live together in Room, which is actually a shack behind their kidnapper’s house. After setting up their relationship, the movie breaks them out of Room for the second half to see how Jack can adapt and how the parental relationship will fare and whether the media attention will turn Ma suicidal. Turns out Ma’s dad William Macy can’t handle the truth, but her mom Joan Allen and stepdad Tom McCamus are more understanding. Katy and I liked it a lot.

The director of Frank likes his titles short. Writer Emma Donoghue adapted her own novel. Kidnapper/rapist Sean Bridgers (that’s not a label he’ll want showing up in a google search) was in Deadwood and Rectify, started his career in the Nebraska-set Children of the Corn 2. Young Jacob Tremblay has two Naomi Watts movies filming. Brie Larson already got awards for Short Term 12, and unrecognizably played rival singer Envy Adams in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.