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  • Jeff Marker


    husband, dad, teacher, filmmaker, writer, film geek, musician, DIYer, vegetarian, Bulldog, Buckeye, Nighthawk

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Best Films of 2015

It wasn’t a particularly deep year for quality films. Some of my colleagues disagree, but some of the movies being touted as awards contenders (“Trumbo,” for example) didn’t live up to the hype for me. The top three films on my list stand far above all others, the next five are all outstanding, then there are several good films that wouldn’t be strong enough to make best-of lists in many other years. Still, the best things about year-end movie lists is they might encourage folks to seek out lesser known movies or debate those they have seen. Hopefully this list does both.

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Image courtesy of epk.tv

  1. Room

Seven years ago, a young woman (Brie Larson) was abducted and confined to a one-room shed by her captor. This room is the only world her five-year old son (Jacob Tremblay) knows – until mother and child attempt a perilous escape. Lenny Abrahamson, who for two years in a row has produced one of my favorite movies of the year (do yourself a favor and see Frank) focuses on the mother’s will to protect her child and the young boy’s discovery of the world outside the room, and leaves us with a deeper appreciation of the bonds between mother and child. Larson should walk away with the Best Actress Oscar, newcomer Tremblay should be nominated, and Abrahamson damned well better be nominated for helping the actors achieve these performances.

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Image courtesy of Netflix via The Guardian

  1. Beasts of No Nation

Cary Joji Fukunaga (“True Detective”) adapted Uzodinma Iweala’s novel about an African child soldier into a harrowing, empathetic, brutal, and unforgettable viewing experience. Idris Elba towers through the film in an outstanding supporting role, but new discovery Abraham Attah gives a mind-blowing performance in the lead role. This is also a significant moment in media history, since Beasts is Netflix’s first theatrically released motion picture. It did very poorly at the box office in terms of dollars, but this is the first feature film produced by a streaming service that has a real shot at winning Best Picture.

Ex machina New Poster

  1. Ex Machina

This thought-provoking, sexy, stylish science fiction thriller is so stunning I watched it on an airplane yet was still enamored. Three brilliant actors (Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac) conduct a cinematic Turing test amongst themselves and with us. Vikander, as an AI so human-like and charming she seduces Gleeson’s character and us, continues to establish herself as one of the most charismatic actresses of her generation. The content is timely, yet the film is timeless, the sort of science fiction (not science fantasy) I wish we saw more often.

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Canadian poster (why not?) courtesy of epk.tv

 

  1. The Big Short

I would call this an essential movie, but people tend to resist must-see recommendations. I would tell you it provides the best explanation yet of the Wall Street collapse, but that description is far too academic and won’t get you to the theatre. And I don’t dare tell you it predicts impending economic dangers. Instead, I’ll just say it’s a hilarious, witty comedy featuring a world-class cast (Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Marisa Tomei, Rafe Spall). Incredibly, all of those descriptions are equally accurate. Director Adam McKay pulls a brilliant bait-and-switch, selling us with the comedy in order to give the best assessment yet of what led to the economic recession.

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  1. Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs is less a biopic than a virtuoso enunciation of classic American themes (like The Social Network, this movie owes an enormous debt to Citizen Kane). Drawing on a typically polished Aaron Sorkin screenplay, Danny Boyle directs an exquisite quintet of Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, and Michael Stuhlbarg, who are occasionally joined by other outstanding players. I don’t even care if the film gets a lot of details wrong or unjustifiably glorifies Jobs. It is a joy to watch perfectly executed filmmaking.

Image courtesy of epk.tv

  1. Spotlight

The next great journalism movie has arrived. Writer/director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) and a stellar ensemble cast (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Billy Crudup) dramatize the true story of the Boston Globe’s investigation into the child molestation scandal and subsequent cover-up that forever altered the stature of the Catholic church. It’s an inspiring reminder of the social role only the fourth estate can fill.

Image courtesy of epk.tv

Image courtesy of epk.tv

  1. Love & Mercy

You might not believe this, but John Cusack is outstanding in this Brian Wilson biopic (I kid, I kid). But his performance isn’t as strong as Paul Dano’s. The two actors play Wilson at different stages of life, and both capture the genius and torturous mental illness that defines the legendary composer and musician. Love & Mercy is an unconventional biopic and a fitting tribute. Elizabeth Banks, in a nomination-worthy supporting role, does what she always seems to do – quietly elevate the film with each scene in which she appears. The glaring weakness here is Paul Giamatti’s garish performance as the psychiatrist who possibly saved Wilson’s life yet definitely infantilized him for years. I believe the real Dr. Eugene Landy was this evil, I’m just tired of seeing Giamatti play this character. Everything else compensates, though.

Image courtesy of cinemavine.com

Image courtesy of cinemavine.com

  1. Sicario

An idealistic FBI agent (Emily Blunt) goes on a covert mission into Mexico with a shadowy task force as part of the “war on drugs.” But she discovers there is much more going on than she initially recognized. Director Denis Villeneuve uses the scenario to say some things about the narcotics trade and the government’s battle against it, but mostly he delivers a taut, fever pitch action movie that, along with Prisoners, places him in a whole new class of filmmakers. Blunt again proves she can do action, and Benicio del Toro is chilling and pitch perfect. I am professionally required to claim Mad Max: Fury Road is the best action movie of the year, but if you like your action grounded in reality, Sicario beats Max.

Image courtesy of Forbes

Image courtesy of Forbes

  1. Inside/Out

This was inarguably Pixar’s best movie in years, but that’s no longer saying much for a studio that has churned out formulaic sequels since being bought by Disney. Honestly, I think this one is a bit over-rated, but I’m including it here mostly because of the superb animation. (I’ve never seen skin textures like those created for the emotion characters!) There is also much to be said about a family movie willing to tackle pre-teen emotions and let kids know they should accept their sadness, fear, and anger, and therefore cope with them in healthier ways.

Image courtesy of blastr.com

Image courtesy of blastr.com

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road

I’m including Fury Road for three reasons. One, people like lists with ten entries. Two, George Miller’s revival of the legendary Australian post-apocalyptic science fiction franchise elevates the car chase to a thing of beauty. Stunning cinematography captures impeccably executed, acrobatic battle sequences taking place on wheels. Miller’s film reminds us how much more thrilling and cinematic practically achieved stunts are. Three, I hope it angers men’s rights activists, a group for whom Fury Road sparked the most pathetic outrage of the year (and in 2015, that is really saying something). Max is not made weak because Furiosa is made strong. The moment when Max recognizes Furiosa is a better shot than he and hands her the rifle is already being cited as a minor landmark, and it’s just one of many ways the film inverts the gender power dynamics typical of the genre. Surprisingly, this balls-out action opus captures gender equality circa 2015 perfectly.

Others worth seeing:

The End of the Tour, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, The AssassinCarol, Amy, Finder’s Keepers, Best of Enemies

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Argo, Ben Affleck Named Year’s Best by Southeastern Film Critics’ Association

argoThe Southeastern Film Critics’ Association, of which I am a member, has tallied the votes and announced the results to the public. My own ballot didn’t look exactly like the overall results, of course, but I think we as a group did very well in a year which, surprisingly, gave us a lot of good stuff to choose from. Here are the press release and the results. Take a look.

The Southeastern Film Critics’ Association has voted Ben Affleck’s period thriller Argo the best motion picture of 2012. The organization, whose 48 members represent electronic and print media outlets in nine Southern states, also named Affleck best director in its annual poll.

Argo was far and away the most-mentioned film on our critics’ ballots,” SEFCA president Philip Martin said. “While there were other films that had more first place votes, Argo was consistently well-regarded by our membership and it ended up winning the poll by a comfortable margin.”

In a much closer race, actor-director Affleck was named “Best Director” over Kathryn Bigelow, whose Zero Dark Thirty edged out Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln for the second spot in the critics’ poll.“It’s interesting that the top three films are all dramas based on historical events,” Martin said. Argo is a dramatization of the joint CIA-Canadian covert operation that extracted six fugitive American diplomatic personnel out of revolutionary Iran in 1980; Zero Dark Thirty is about the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden after the September 2001 terrorist attacks and Lincoln is about the 16th president’s efforts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution that would formally abolish slavery in this country.

Daniel Day-Lewis became the first three-time winner of the group’s “Best Actor” award for his performance as the title character in Lincoln (Day-Lewis previously won the award for his work in There Will Be Blood in 2007 and in Gangs of New York in 2002) while Jennifer Lawrence was named “Best Actress” for her turn in the dark comedy Silver Linings Playbook.

Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild was the overwhelming choice for the group’s Gene Wyatt award, given for the film that “best evokes the spirit of the South,” with Richard Linklater’s Bernie — yet another dramatization of a true story — finishing second.

“Overall it was an amazing year for Southern film,” Martin said. “I can’t remember a year when we had so many excellent candidates for the Wyatt Award. Our members nominated 13 different movies for the award — and one actor: Matt McConaughey, for appearing in the Southern-set films Killer Joe, The Paperboy, Bernie and Magic Mike in 2012.”

2012 SEFCA AWARD RESULTS

zero-dark-thirty-01TOP TEN
1.    Argo
2.    Zero Dark Thirty
3.    Lincoln
4.    Moonrise Kingdom
5.    Silver Linings Playbook
6.    Beasts of the Southern Wild
7.    The Master
8.    Les Misérables
9.    Life of Pi
10.    The Dark Knight Rises

BEST ACTOR
Winner:    Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Runner-up:    Joaquin Phoenix, The Master

Jennifer-Lawrence-Silver-Linings-PlaybookBEST ACTRESS
Winner:    Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Runner-up:    Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Winner:    Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Runner-up:    Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Winner:    Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables
Runner-up:    Sally Field, Lincoln

BEST ENSEMBLE
Winner:    Lincoln
Runner-up:    Moonrise Kingdom

affleck directingBEST DIRECTOR
Winner:    Ben Affleck, Argo
Runner-up:    Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Winner:    Moonrise Kingdom: Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola
Runner-up:    Zero Dark Thirty: Mark Boal

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Winner:    Argo: Chris Terrio
Runner-up:    Lincoln: Tony Kushner

BEST DOCUMENTARY
Winner:    The Queen of Versailles
Runner-up:    Bully

amourBEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM
Winner:    The Intouchables
Runner-up:    Amour

BEST ANIMATED FILM
Winner:    ParaNorman
Runner-up:    Frankenweenie

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Winner:    Life of Pi: Claudio Miranda
Runner-up:    Skyfall: Roger Deakins

GENE WYATT AWARD for FILM THAT BEST EVOKES THE SPIRIT OF THE SOUTH
Winner:    Beasts of the Southern Wild
Runner-up:    Bernie

small, beautifully MOVING PARTS and Annie Howell

Sometimes I really love my job.

My Gainesville State College colleague and friend, David Smith, and I are co-hosting South Arts’ Southern Tour of Independent Filmmakers with The Arts Council for the third year in a row. Last Thursday, we had the great pleasure of screening the indie comedy/drama small, beautifully MOVING PARTS and having a Q&A with the movie’s co-writer and co-director, Annie Howell.

It’s funny – these events always end up being scheduled during weeks when my schedule is already packed. I lead the Q&As, and I always struggle to find time to research the filmmakers. Our screenings are always on Thursdays, and by that point in the week I’d much rather just go home after work and crash. But nearly all the time, I end up energized afterward. The films are always at least interesting – in this case it was damn good – and the people are usually as friendly as they are fascinating. Annie was especially so.

I was extremely impressed by the film’s writing, acting, and directing. The story has techno-geek Sarah Sparks (Anna Margaret Hollyman) dealing with an unexpected pregnancy. Sarah has a natural affection for all things technological. Even while she is waiting for the results of the pregnancy test, she marvels at how the device functions. Sarah has a bit of trouble with human relations, however, which seems to stem largely from having a mother who left the family when Sarah was rather young.

David Smith, Kevin Eagleson, and Casey Fronek preserving the evening

Discovering she is going to become a mother dredges up a lot of complex feelings and the desire for a maternal role model. So Sarah embarks on a road trip to make contact with her mom, with whom she hasn’t spoken in some time.

Annie and her co-writer/co-director, Lisa Robinson, use Sarah’s tech fetish in creative ways, and the movie charts growth in Sarah without ever saying too much (my primary screenwriting peeve) or beating us over the head. Hollyman gives an outstanding performance, playing the situation realistically and believably at all times. Hollyman understands film acting and uses her face in expressive yet restrained ways. It seemed a very mature, accomplished performance for someone in her first starring feature film role.

Annie and Lisa also use an impressive number of locations for a modestly budgeted production. Annie told some hilarious road stories about the production. During most of the shots of Sarah in the car, the rest of the crew were crouching silently in the back of the van while the cameras rolled. They filmed some scenes on the streets of Las Vegas, which I assumed would be a nightmare, but Annie said it all went very smoothly.

David Smith, Annie Howell, Gladys Wyant, Me

The evening left me rooting for the film and for the filmmakers. small, beautifully MOVING PARTS will become available for streaming on Netflix in the near future, but it needs to be in a certain number of queues before Netflix will order it for DVD distribution. I urge you to add it to your queue. If you’re not on Netflix, look for it via other home video services.

Annie also has a really interesting body of short films. There is a DVD compilation of her shorts available, and one of her shorts, “Tia & Marco,” has been used as an episode of the ITVS series FUTURESTATES. “Tia & Marco” can be viewed here.

Rosemary’s sketch

We had a standing room only crowd, and they loved the movie. To give a sense of how taken the audience was with the movie and with Annie, a local artist named Rosemary Dodd did a sketch of Annie during the Q&A. Several people stuck around afterward and talked to Annie about things that had little to do with the movie.

It was a great night. You can read Annie’s blog about the night here.

TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE review

It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to say this: the new Clint Eastwood film is a great date movie.

Trouble with the Curve comes billed as a sports movie, but baseball serves merely as a backdrop and a source of conflict for two intertwined stories, one about a father and daughter bonding and the other about two opposites falling in love.

Click here to read the full review

END OF WATCH review

End of Watch is the most intense cop drama to hit wide release in quite some time. Considering its writer/director’s past work, that shouldn’t be surprising.

David Ayer wrote the screenplays for U-571, Training Day, Dark Blue, and S.W.A.T., among others, and directed Harsh Times and Street Kings, which was based on a James Ellroy story.

With the release of End of Watch, it’s time to recognize Ayer as one of the heavyweights of tough guy cinema.

Ayer brings an extreme realism to this exploration of life as an L.A. cop on a beat, which is both the best and worst quality of the movie.

Brian (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike (Michael Peña) are the hotshots of their precinct. They’re young, tough, and smart. They believe in their mission to protect the people while also respecting the rules of the street.

They are not cliché rebel cop characters (they bear no resemblance to Dirty Harry or Popeye Doyle), but they are willing to violate regulations if it means saving a life.

They are also played by two exceptional actors. Let’s face it, a lot of action movies are undone simply by a lack of acting talent. When the movie needs a dramatic scene to give it a sense of gravity, the actors fail.

No such problem here. Gyllenhaal’s acting chops are beyond question by now, and Peña has become one of the best character actors in the business.

Their chemistry together makes it absolutely believable that these two are not only partners but blood brothers.

The movie pits these tightly bound partners against some of the deadliest criminals in L.A., and every story beat is delivered with exacting plausibility. The most disturbing thing about End of Watch is that all of these crimes do happen in real life, often even more brutally than how they are shown in the film.

The movie spends a great deal of time veering away from the main storyline, though, to give us a sense of the daily lives of two cops on one of the most dangerous beats in America.

Gyllenhaal and Peña are surprisingly funny together as they banter between calls, but then they provide the punch the movie needs when those calls turn out to be horrific situations.

The action sequences are all outstanding, too. Ayer paces them perfectly, ratcheting up the tension and holding us there until Brian and Mike resolve the situation.

Unfortunately, all of these winning qualities are undercut by Ayer’s decision to film the movie in a way that blends reality television and found footage styles.

Brian is taking some college classes, one of which is a filmmaking elective. So he totes around a camcorder and wears a lapel camera as part of a class project. The conceit of the movie, then, is that everything we’re seeing was captured on amateur video.

Aside from being a tired style at this point, the movie has to strain beyond believability to stick to it.

Ayer periodically shifts away from Brian and Mike to a local gang who will play a major role in the main story. It’s necessary and effective to show us these scenes with the Curbside gang, but in order to maintain the amateur video style, Ayer has one of the gang members wielding a camera the whole time just like Brian.

So, for instance, while the gang does a drive-by shooting, we’re supposed to believe that the gang member would still be filming. But Ayer also uses other camera angles that couldn’t possibly be caught on that amateur video camera, so he doesn’t stick to his own stylistic rules anyway.

And as great as Gyllenhaal and Peña are together, the movie spends far more time than necessary establishing how close Brian and Mike’s bonds are.

The visual style of End of Watch is hugely flawed, but its story is told with such urgency and authenticity that action fans should be willing to forgive its stylistic crimes.

Bottomline: A must-see for action fans

HAYWIRE review

How about this for strange casting? Haywire features Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Channing Tatum and Bill Paxton.

Yet who plays the lead? Mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano, whose biggest acting credit until now was performing as Crush on the “American Gladiator” series.

If that makes you skeptical, get over it. Carano delivers a strong first starring role and is the perfect actress for this movie.

Read the full article here

CONTRABAND review

January has apparently become thriller month on the movie calendar. The next few weeks will be dominated by high action, often violent, gritty action movies, including “Underworld: Awakening,” “Haywire,” “Red Tails,” “The Grey,” and “Man on a Ledge.”

Even this year’s first Shakespearean film, “Coriolanus” (which is outstanding, by the way), looks more like “The Hurt Locker” than an adaptation of the Bard.

Kicking off this month of kicking butt is “Contraband,” a tense actioner featuring a star-studded cast. It’s also the American debut of Baltasar Kormákur, an Icelandic actor and director whose work has won him international acclaim.

Click here for full review

 

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