This was a really terrible year in a lot of ways and for a lot of reasons, but it especially sucked when it came to movies. The good ones were very, very good — look no further than my 2016 top-10 list for examples — but the bad ones were horrid. Here are 11 of the worst, listed alphabetically, because I couldn’t cut it down to 10. I suspect you’ll excuse the indulgence. Feel free to chime in with the worst films you were forced to endure this year — and here’s to a better 2017.
“Alice Through the Looking Glass”
This movie is just hideous — garish, bloated and surprisingly joyless, given that’s it’s supposed to be all about wonder and whimsy. It’s a time-travel movie with zero stakes. Johnny Depp needs to stop playing these wacky characters and start actually acting again. (Although Depp also did some of his best work ever this year beneath serious prosthetics and makeup to play Donald Trump.) It’s clear that nobody on screen is having fun here, so how can we?
It is impossible to explain how truly bizarre this movie is. It must be seen to be believed — and even then, you’ll wonder how anyone thought it was a good idea. This mawkish slog about the miracle of interconnection is a waste of a tremendous cast: Kate Winslet, Edward Norton, Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley and Michael Pena, led by an unusually sullen Will Smith. When a movie can suck all the life out of one of the most charismatic actors on the planet, you know it’s done something noteworthy.
“Gods of Egypt”
The look on Gerard Butler’s face says it all: This is a silly spectacle of epic proportions. It’s got hilariously terrible special effects — which is especially noticeable in 3-D — stilted dialogue, a wide array of bad accents and a batshit-crazy storyline that tries to combine history with sci-fi fantasy. It’s almost nutty enough to be enjoyable. Truly a movie that requires having a couple of drinks with friends beforehand.
This movie hurt my head. Bring Dramamine if you’re planning on seeing it — and unlike “Gods of Egypt,” do NOT meet up with friends for drinks beforehand. Its first-person perspective provides a cool premise that quickly grows wearisome, repetitive and nausea-inducing. But if you’re in the sweet spot of its target viewing audience — video game enthusiasts in their 20s and 30s, and more than likely male — then “Hardcore Henry” is for you. Now get off my lawn.
“The Huntsman: Winter’s War”
If you liked “Frozen” but thought it wasn’t violent or angry enough, this is the movie for you. In keeping with the prevailing themes of this list, “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” is a ridiculous spectacle that wastes a pedigreed cast, including Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt, Jessica Chastain and Liam Neeson. It’s kind of a prequel and kind of a sequel and a total mess. The costumes are gorgeous, though.
A movie based on a toy should be a lot more fun than this. “Max Steel” is surprisingly bland and borderline incomprehensible. It’s about a teenager named Max (the Orlando Bloom-esque Ben Winchell) who fuses with a flying robot named Steel (voiced by Josh Brener) to become a superhero known as … wait for it … MAX STEEL. I gave this movie a half-star simply for the presence of Maria Bello.
“Meet the Blacks”
This is essentially a spoof of “The Purge” in which a black family moves from a violent section of Chicago to a wealthy enclave in Beverly Hills and finds it’s even more dangerous for them there. But if that’s going to be your premise — whites killing blacks out of snobbery or intolerance — your humor better be pretty sharp and sophisticated. Instead, “Meet the Blacks” gives us fart jokes and tired pop-culture references.
This is the movie that inspired me to start my worst-of list. In May. I had to bring Nicolas with me to the screening because I couldn’t find a babysitter, and as we were walking out, he said: “That. Was the worst movie. You’ve ever taken me to.” And he may be right. This ended up being Garry Marshall’s last holiday-themed ensemble comedy and the last film he directed, period, before his death in July. I don’t mean to be disrespectful by speaking ill of the dead, but there isn’t a single authentic moment here. The wacky antics and mawkish sentimentality of A-listers colliding into each other has given way to complete incoherence this time around.
“My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2”
It may sound impossible, but there was indeed another entire big, fat, Greek wedding this year. And it was even bigger, fatter and Greeker than the first. I’m not sure who was asking for a sequel to the surprise smash hit “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” 14 years later (besides writer-star Nia Vardalos) but it’s here, and it strains desperately to be adorable.
“My Dead Boyfriend”
This is yet another one of those how-do-you-explain-it? movies, and that mainly has to do with casting. Everyone involved, including co-stars Heather Graham and John Corbett, is at least two decades too old to be playing East Village bohemians on the brink of the millennium. It’s distracting. The tone is always off, and the gimmicky use of animation doesn’t help. Nobody saw this so I feel sort of bad trashing it, but it was one of my more unpleasant movie-watching experiences of the year.
This was an early contender for the year’s worst movie. I’ve never played any incarnation of the “World of Warcraft” video game, and the film version doesn’t make me want to start. It’s an effects-filled fantasy extravaganza that’s unattractive, hard to follow and (worst of all) boring. And it brings me no joy to report this because I’ve been a fan of the director, Duncan Jones. Better things are in store for him, I’m certain — and for all of us.
I realize I said this last year. But it really could go a few different ways at the Academy Awards, at least in the best-picture category. That makes things kind of fun — even though I know my pick for the best movie of the year won’t take home the top prize. Still, here are some thoughts on how things could shake out in the top categories Sunday night — and I’d love to hear your predictions, as well.
Nominees: “The Big Short,” “Bridge of Spies,” “Brooklyn,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Martian,” “The Revenant,” “Room,” “Spotlight.”
Will win: “The Big Short”
Should win: “Mad Max: Fury Road”
Wild card: “The Revenant”
I have secret dreams of “Mad Max” sweeping the whole night, but it’s not going to happen. I didn’t love “The Big Short.” It’s not even on my top 10 list. But it vividly captures a devastating point in our recent history with equal amounts of humor and outrage, and it gets its arms around a complicated subject — the events that caused the housing crisis of 2008 — in a way that’s both entertaining and informative. It also has the distinction of taking a dense non-fiction book and turning it into a rollicking feature film. I suspect it’ll resonate with a lot of Oscar voters. Then again, all these main contenders could split the top votes and something like “Room” could sneak in and win, which would be amazing. Who knows? (Also I should mention: I love “Spotlight” but I suspect it will for its screenplay and that’s it.)
Nominees: Adam McKay, “The Big Short”; George Miller, “Mad Max: Fury Road”; Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, “The Revenant”; Lenny Abrahamson, “Room”; Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight.”
Will win: Inarritu
Should win: Miller
Wild card: McKay
Like “The Big Short,” I didn’t love “The Revenant.” It’s a half-hour too long and it’s a return for Inarritu to the kind of dour, self-serious dramas he made before last year’s mesmerizing “Birdman.” It left me cold, if you’ll pardon the pun. But it is an extraordinary technical achievement, and Inarritu’s daring and artistry — as well as his creative connection with the brilliant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki — are formidable. Plus, he won at the Directors Guild of America awards, which is a pretty great predictor of what will happen in this category.
Nominees: Bryan Cranston, “Trumbo”; Matt Damon, “The Martian”; Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Revenant”; Michael Fassbender, “Steve Jobs”; Eddie Redmayne, “The Danish Girl.”
Will win: DiCaprio
Should win: Damon, maybe?
Wild card: No one.
It’s Leo’s year, right? He’s due, as the logic goes. It’s hard to imagine anyone beating him. This is his fifth Academy Award nomination, and it’s for a role that was notoriously arduous. (Are you aware it was cold in Canada when they shot “The Revenant”? It was really cold.) What’s interesting about it is that his performance as the stoic Hugh Glass is so vastly different from the ones he’s made his name on throughout his career: charismatic, fast-talkers like Jack Dawson in “Titanic,” Frank Abagnale in “Catch Me If You Can” and Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Here, he grunts. If that. On the campaign trail, though, he’s been saying everything right. It’ll finally be his night.
Nominees: Cate Blanchett, “Carol”; Brie Larson, “Room’: Jennifer Lawrence, “Joy”; Charlotte Rampling, “45 Years”; Saoirse Ronan, “Brooklyn.”
Will win: Larson
Should win: Larson or Rampling
Wild card: Ronan
Brie Larson is just devastating in “Room” as a young mother trying to create a rich, fulfilling life for her 5-year-old son within the confines of a 10-by-10-foot garden shed. I’m not shy about describing the way this film wrecked me, and so much of that has to do with the truth in Larson’s performance and the deeply believable bond she forged with the excellent young actor Jacob Tremblay. But she’s been great for a long time now — even though she’s only 26 — in films ranging from “Short Term 12” to “The Spectacular Now” to “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” The rest of the world is finally figuring it out. (Rampling, by the way, is exquisite in “45 Years,” but maybe her nomination alone will get folks to seek out this intimate, insightful film.)
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Nominees: Christian Bale, “The Big Short”; Tom Hardy, “The Revenant”; Mark Ruffalo, “Spotlight”; Mark Rylance, “Bridge of Spies”; Sylvester Stallone, “Creed.”
Will win: Stallone
Should win: Stallone
Wild card: None
Did you watch the Golden Globes? Did you see the outpouring of affection in that room as Sylvester Stallone took the stage to accept the supporting-actor prize for “Creed”? That’s going to happen all over again at the Academy Awards — only it’s going to be even bigger and more heartfelt. Reprising the role that made him a superstar, he brings both swagger and vulnerability to the older and wiser Rocky Balboa. Stallone is the sentimental favorite but he deserves the award, too. He’s really great in “Creed” — he reminds us he really can act — and he helps Michael B. Jordan achieve his own sensational performance which should make him a superstar in his own right (and should have earned him a best-actor nomination).
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Nominees: Jennifer Jason Leigh, “The Hateful Eight”; Rooney Mara, “Carol”; Rachel McAdams, “Spotlight”; Alicia Vikander, “The Danish Girl”; Kate Winslet, “Steve Jobs.”
Will win: Vikander
Should win: Vikander
Wild card: Leigh
For a while, I was certain that Jennifer Jason Leigh would win for “The Hateful Eight” — even though it’s a performance I’m not all that fond of — just because in a room full of outlaws and liars, she’s the showiest and ballsiest of them all. And she still might. But increasingly, I’ve come to think Alicia Vikander will win. Maybe I’m just hoping that will happen. But she’s the real heart and soul of “The Danish Girl” (and she was just as good last year in an extremely different role in “Ex Machina”). Vikander has the more complicated and compelling arc, even though Eddie Redmayne is playing a real-life figure who underwent gender reassignment surgery. Plus she’s an exciting star on the rise — and this award often provides sparkling validation of such on Oscar night.
So it’s Oscar nomination day, an annual event I always looked forward to back when I had a day job. The announcement comes super-early — 5:38 a.m. Pacific time, to be exact, all the better to take advantage of morning TV news programs — but everyone’s in a good mood at the Academy headquarters in Beverly Hills, jacked up on a potent combination of caffeine and adrenaline. Now that I’m a citizen of the world, I watch the nominations in my jammies from the comfort of my own home but I still set the alarm. I still care.
Last year, I cared a LOT. Like, I was outraged. This year, my reaction is a bit of a shrug. Nothing thrills me, nothing surprises me and — except for a few notable snubs — nothing shocks me. “The Revenant,” Alejandro Gonzalaz Inarritu’s artfully brutal revenge tale, leads everyone with 12 nominations. I fear it is the juggernaut following its big Golden Globes wins, and that cheering for a smaller, smarter movie like “Spotlight” is futile. It seems Inarritu and his frequent cinematographer, the brilliant Emmanuel Lubezki, will do it again, one year after “Birdman,” which I loved. “The Revenant,” by comparison, is technically awesome but it left me cold. (No pun intended.)
The most dismayingly predictable trend is the overwhelming homogeneity of the nominees. #OscarsSoWhite will, unfortunately, be a phenomenon once again this year. All 20 of the acting nominees are white, which hasn’t happened since … well, since last year. Hard to believe there’s no room for Michael B. Jordan, who was electrifying in “Creed,” or Idris Elba, who was chilling in “Beasts of No Nation.” Or Oscar Isaac in “Ex Machina.” Or Benicio Del Toro in “Sicario.” Maybe that’s a matter of studio campaigning — or lack thereof — although Jordan’s “Creed” co-star, Sylvester Stallone, was nominated and surely will win the supporting-actor prize for reprising his iconic role of Rocky Balboa.
It’s hard to believe there was little room for the excellent “Straight Outta Compton” aside from its original-screenplay nomination — and the screenplay isn’t even the best element of the film. The story of N.W.A. is a rather traditional music biopic which absolutely soars thanks to F. Gary Gray’s thrilling direction and powerful performances from its convincing, young cast. Someone asked me on Twitter last night whether I expected any big shockers among the nominations, and I suggested that “Straight Outta Compton” might get a best-picture nomination. Silly me.
Anyway, Chris Rock will have a field day with this when he hosts the Academy Awards on Feb. 28, and I cannot wait. He brought a much-needed edge when he hosted the ceremony back in 2005, and his biting brand of humor will be entirely necessary again this year.
The contenders for the top prize — eight films out of a possible 10 spots — are mostly your usual suspects, including “Bridge of Spies” and “The Big Short.” The inclusion of “Room,” which wrecked me, is a nice surprise, as is Lenny Abrahamson’s spot amid the best-director field. I am, of course, thrilled that “Mad Max: Fury Road” did so well, with 10 nominations total. It’s the best movie of the year, I say. But it would have been nice to see an “Inside Out,” or an “Ex Machina,” or a “Creed” among the bunch — something a little less safe and obvious than the latest impeccably made but innocuous Steven Spielberg movie. “Carol” is just devastatingly gorgeous but didn’t make it into the picture or director fields for the masterful Todd Haynes. (Those films did receive nominations elsewhere, however, so I’m welcome to quit bitching now.)
“Carol” earned expected nominations for the beautiful work from co-stars Cate Blanchett (in best actress) and Rooney Mara (in supporting actress). I’d argue that Mara has just as much of a lead role, as does Alicia Vikander in “The Danish Girl,” although she, too, received a nomination in the supporting category. But I suppose it’s the like year Jennifer Connelly won the supporting-actress Oscar for “A Beautiful Mind,” although she was completely Russell Crowe’s equal. It’s about strategy.
Also in the best-actress category, I’m giddy about the inclusion of the radiant Charlotte Rampling for “45 Years,” the first-ever nomination for the British veteran. I suspect Brie Larson in “Room” or Saoirse Ronan in “Brooklyn” will win instead, but any of those outcomes would be lovely.
Some other random thoughts:
–How is it possible that “The Martian” received seven nominations, including best picture and best actor for Matt Damon, but not one for Ridley Scott’s direction? Yes, there are only five spots, and so inevitably some of the best-picture directors are going to be excluded, but this omission seems really glaring. “The Martian” is a masterful mix of technology and tone, science-fiction and comedy. It’s massive in scope yet intimately detailed. And it didn’t direct itself.
— It was also a big surprise to see Aaron Sorkin left out of the screenplay category for his work on “Steve Jobs,” even though the actors tasked with delivering his densely-packed dialogue — Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet — did receive nominations today.
— As I mentioned earlier in discussing “The Revenant,” Lubezki once again received a nomination in a competitive cinematography field. He’ll probably win again — and deservedly so, given the arduousness of the shoot and his awe-inspiring use of natural light. But man, can the great Roger Deakins ever catch a break? If you’ve read my writing over the years, you know that Deakins is my hero. His inspired work on “Sicario” earned him his 13th nomination. He’ll win one of these years — but not this year.
— But you know what’s already a winner? “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Laugh now at how silly and tawdry it was, but for all of eternity it will be the Academy Award-nominated “Fifty Shades of Grey,” thanks to the original song “Earned It” by The Weeknd. The day after it tied for the most Razzie nominations, it’s now in the hunt for an Oscar.
I love being a film critic, and one of the great privileges of the gig is being able to share with all of you my choices for the best movies at the end of each year. Yesterday, I posted my top-10 list for 2015, which I hope you enjoyed (and I’ve loved seeing all of your choices, as well). Today, we wallow in the muck with the 10 worst movies of the year, listed alphabetically. Hold your nose and let’s go …
Cameron Crowe’s notoriously troubled romantic drama bears obvious signs of tinkering and re-tinkering. The story of love and redemption in Hawaii is trying to be several movies at once, and jarringly so, and it wastes the considerable charisma of its stars: Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone and Rachel McAdams. The dialogue so frequently strains for poignancy that it feels like a parody of a Crowe movie. Aloha means goodbye.
“Chloe & Theo”
You didn’t see this movie. Nobody saw this movie. I’m not sure why I saw this movie — oh, right, it was for a radio show I did (and we didn’t even end up talking about it). Anyway, Dakota Johnson stars as a New York homeless woman who befriends an Inuit man (Theo Ikummaq) who’s traveled from the Arctic to warn us all about climate change. Along the way, they hook up with a lawyer (Mira Sorvino) who helps them spread the word. It’s as terrible as it sounds: awkward, clunky, heavy-handed and consistently cringe-inducing. Feel free to continue avoiding this one.
“Entourage” the movie is essentially an extended version of “Entourage” the TV show. Now, if you loved “Entourage” the TV show, this is probably thrilling news. But if you never watched the show, or only watched it in pieces, or stopped watching it once Vincent Chase and his buddies became obnoxious examples of everything that’s wrong with this town, then you will surely find this exercise pointless. These vapid bros learn nothing, they don’t change, they have no arc and they are never truly challenged.
Ugly, shoddy, poorly written and totally lacking in characterization or suspense, this latest incarnation of the Marvel Comic “Fantastic Four” is a case study in soulless summer spectacle run amok. Even my kid, who is obsessed with all things Marvel, didn’t like it. It’s clobberin’ time, indeed — on the audience.
“Hitman: Agent 47”
The latest big-screen adaptation of the video game about a genetically engineered assassin (which I’ve admittedly never played) is just a barrage of glossy, numbing carnage. And maybe that’s what you’re looking for in a movie like this, especially in late August (which is when it came out theatrically). But if I were you, I’d watch “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” instead — the two films have essentially the same premise, and the latter is at least fun.
If I had to rank the worst movies of 2015 in order, I’d put this shrill comedy at the top of the list — or the bottom, as it were. “Hot Pursuit” isn’t just flat, it’s actively frustrating. It’s simultaneously manic and lazy. It’s vaguely misogynistic but too tame to be truly offensive. And it’s a massive waste of two actresses who are appealing individually and might have had a crackling chemistry together: Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara.
“The Last Witch Hunter”
Vin Diesel borrows some of John Travolta’s old “Battlefield Earth” facial hair for this ugly, incomprehensible fantasy-horror flick based on a Dungeons & Dragons character, which I guess Diesel enjoys playing. He stars as a cursed, centuries-old witch hunter who helps protect the Earth from the demons of the underworld under a tenuous truce. I’d rather watch a documentary about Diesel actually playing D&D than this.
Rarely does a movie’s title beg for bad reviews the way “Pan” does, but unfortunately, it’s all-too apt. This garish prequel to the legend of Peter Pan is just bizarre in every way, from Hugh Jackman’s flamboyantly evil performance as Blackbeard to Garrett Hedlund’s delivery as a young Captain Hook, in which he’s essentially doing an impression of Harrison Ford circa 1981. Joe Wright’s choice of contemporary music is inconsistent and jarring, and one of the clunkiest elements of all. But it did give me an opportunity to show my son the video for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” So there’s that.
“Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2”
I gave this movie zero stars when I reviewed it for RogerEbert.com in April. It’s lazy, flat, unfunny and uninspired. I remain baffled as to why Kevin James likes this character so much that he’d want to play him in not one but two movies, because nobody else does.
Speaking of Kevin James and his questionable career choices, here’s yet another movie in which he’s appeared alongside longtime friend and frequent collaborator Adam Sandler. It’s got kind of a clever premise: Classic video game characters come down from space to wreck havoc on Earth, and a group of nerds who were masters of those games must save us all from destruction. But it cheaply plays on ’80s nostalgia in lazy, obvious ways with a weak script.
OK, people. No more cramming in screeners. No more dashing back and forth across town all day to see movies. Time to make the tough decisions about the best films of 2015. I try to keep a list going all year long to remind myself of what I’ve loved, and then I have to kill my darlings come December. It’s never easy. (Sorry, “It Follows.” You would have been No. 11.) Anyway, enjoy — and let me know which movies made your year-end list.
1. “Mad Max: Fury Road”
I had a really hard time deciding on my top pick. Truly, “Mad Max: Fury Road” and my No. 2 pick are both the best films of 2015 in my mind — and incredibly different in what makes them the best — but the arbitrary rules of list-making dictate that I must choose. So here I am. My next selection is probably more “important” in terms of its substance, and it’s what I chose when I was voting for the year’s best picture alongside my Los Angeles Film Critics Association colleagues. But “Mad Max” changed my DNA. It is just a dazzling piece of filmmaking, full of ambition and verve, technical precision and devastating beauty. And it’s got a bad-ass woman at its center in Charlize Theron — what’s not to like?
Again, this is not really No. 2. It’s more like 1a. But in the middle of the night when it occurred to me that I was going with “Mad Max,” it was based on how that movie made me feel. With “Spotlight,” I love it because of how it made me think. It’s just brilliantly efficient from a narrative perspective with excellent performances from an expert cast. Director and co-writer Tom McCarthy takes a daunting, emotional topic — The Boston Globe’s breakthrough reporting on the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal — and gets his arms around it in a clear-eyed yet propulsive manner. And the clothes are just dead-on.
3. “Ex Machina”
Gorgeous and mysterious, disturbing and mesmerizing, “Ex Machina” consistently challenges and surprises you and it does so with great style. I still don’t want to give away too much about it in case you haven’t seen it (although you really should). But I love the precision of this movie and the powerful performances from Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander, whom I’m thrilled to have as LAFCA’s choice for best supporting actress this year. Writer-director Alex Garland’s film is an intimate wonder of chilling sci-fi storytelling.
I’ve had no shame telling anyone who will listen that this movie reduced me to a puddle, only partly because I — like Brie Larson’s character — am the mother of a young boy. But there’s so much more to why Lenny Abrahamson’s gripping drama works. It’s impeccably acted, with Larson and young Jacob Tremblay sharing a deeply believable bond. It’s vividly detailed and thrillingly paced. And while the reason for the characters’ confinement is horrific, the ultimate possibility of hope is boundless.
A richly creamy and achingly romantic piece of filmmaking from the great Todd Haynes, and an excellent companion piece to “Far From Heaven,” my pick for the best film of 2002. Everything about this movie is pristine in terms of production values — the costumes, the art design, the period detail and the lush cinematography from Edward Lachman. But the love affair between Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara gives “Carol” its sweetly beating heart. They share a lovely and substantial chemistry that leaves you with a sweetly lingering feeling of melancholy and a tantalizing bit of uplift.
6. “45 Years”
Andrew Haigh’s film isn’t out yet — at least not in the United States — but I urge you to find it when it opens. If you’re looking for a smart, thoughtful drama for grown-ups, this one’s a must-see. The story of a British couple preparing to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary is flawlessly acted and keenly observant. It captures the rhythms of a shared life in small, precise ways. And it features a knockout performance from the great Charlotte Rampling (another LAFCA winner this year) who conveys so much with just the slightest glance. It’s a master class in controlled acting.
7. “Inside Out”
Impossibly clever, endlessly entertaining and deeply moving, this is easily one of the greatest in a long line of excellent films from Pixar Animation. This is a movie that dares to explore complicated emotions and existential crises in an animated movie that’s aimed at the whole family. And damned if it doesn’t pull it off. It has one of the strongest screenplays of the year but it’s also colorful and lively, with strong voice performances across the board (although Phyllis Smith as Sadness is my favorite).
8. “Goodnight Mommy”
This Austrian thriller is the year’s creepiest movie by far. “Goodnight Mommy” is intense and precise, from its big ideas to its smallest details. It consistently keeps you guessing, but it also dares to ask you to re-examine your feelings for and alliances with its characters Just trust me on this. Read nothing before you see it (except my review below, of course).
Sean Baker’s film about transgender prostitutes rampaging through Hollywood on Christmas Eve is brash and brazenly alive, but it’s also surprisingly poignant as it reaches its conclusion. Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor have chemistry for days as best friends pounding the pavement seeking revenge, and one of the most exciting parts of “Tangerine” is that it does not necessarily portray them as nice women, but rather flawed, funny and fully-realized humans. The fact that Baker shot his movie on an iPhone gives it a bracing intimacy and a piercing beauty.
10. “The Martian”
The year’s best blockbuster and one of the best times I had at the movies in 2015. Veteran director Ridley Scott once again mines the complexity and danger of space exploration for thrills and killer visuals, but he also has a surprising amount of fun (thanks to a smart, lively script from Drew Goddard). Matt Damon gives a tour-de-force performance, with the challenge of performing mostly alone, as an astronaut struggling to survive when his crew strands him on Mars. Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids, as the song goes, but apparently it’s the kind of place to raise potatoes with a little ingenuity.
First of all, I’m not sure why I care so much. I said this to my husband this morning after the Academy Award nominations came out and I was thoroughly worked up over how terrible they were. I’m not sure why any of us care so much, actually. Maybe it’s because we see movies to get lost in them and end up becoming emotionally invested in them. Maybe it’s just fun to make predictions and be right. In theory, it should be satisfying enough to see a film and be dazzled or touched or provoked or whatever. It should be about the art, not the congratulatory hardware.
Still, here we are on Hollywood’s Biggest Morning, waking up at 5:30 a.m. Pacific time, analyzing and agonizing over what went wrong and what went right. I have a few thoughts but then must dash off to write a review of “The Wedding Ringer.” We still have January releases to contend with, after all.
SELMA: It scored a well-deserved best picture nomination and one for Common and John Legend’s original song, “Glory.” But that is not nearly enough for this powerful, beautifully acted and passionately made picture. Ava DuVernay belongs in that best-director category — and she would have made history as the first female filmmaker of color. And it’s unfathomable that David Oyelowo didn’t get a best-actor nomination for his searing and sensitive portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He tore that role up but he also found the quiet humanity in this iconic figure. I’d like to think the paltry number of nominations had more to do with a late release date and a lack of screeners than an institutional racism and sexism within this extremely white, extremely male voting body. But it doesn’t look good. Maybe this will inspire more folks to go see it, though.
THE LEGO MOVIE: The biggest stunner of all and the one that made the Unikitty in me want to explode with rage. Heading into this morning, “The Lego Movie” looked like the favorite to WIN the Oscar for best animated feature. It didn’t even receive a nomination. Nothing about this makes sense. How is it possible that this gorgeous, detailed, lively, funny, crowd-pleasing and affirming film isn’t one of the five best animated features of the year? Was it just too different aesthetically — too edgy, too innovative? Did the brief mix of live action at the end throw people off? It did earn a nomination for best original song, though: the now-ironically titled “Everything Is Awesome.”
LIFE ITSELF: Steve James’ look at the life and last days of Roger Ebert, based on Ebert’s autobiography of the same name, seemed like a shoo-in for the documentary feature category. It’s resonated with audiences worldwide, earned rave reviews and drew strong ratings when it aired earlier this month on CNN. It’s a well-made and intimate look at a man who has influenced so many of us, one who remains a revered and adored figure among anyone who loves film. So not seeing “Life Itself” listed among the five nominees was indeed a shocker. But interestingly, “Finding Vivian Maier,” co-directed by Gene Siskel’s nephew, Charlie, did receive a best-documentary nomination. The rivalry remains strong in the afterlife.
BEST ACTOR: As I mentioned earlier, Oyelowo should be in this race.So should Jake Gyllenhaal, doing the best work of his life as a supremely creepy TV news videographer in “Nightcrawler.” Instead, we get Bradley Cooper, who is admittedly very good in “American Sniper” and earns his third consecutive nomination following “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle.” We also get Steve Carell, who was chilling in a rare dramatic turn as John DuPont in “Foxcatcher,” a movie that was too chilly as a whole. (Carell’s nose also got nominated in the hair and makeup category.) It was an extremely tight year. There are a good dozen actors who belonged in this race. The other three who did make it — Michael Keaton in “Birdman,” Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything” and Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game” — have been major players all along.
SPEAKING OF “FOXCATCHER:” The film’s director, Bennett Miller, surprisingly received a nomination this morning. I’ve enjoyed his previous films — “Capote” and “Moneyball” — but this one just felt too emotionally detached, even though it’s based on a dramatic, real-life story. Miller takes the spot Clint Eastwood earned at the Directors Guild nominations for “American Sniper”; otherwise, the Oscars and the DGAs are aligned, as they so often are. And as usual, they are all men: Besides Miller, there’s Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Birdman”), Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”), Wes Anderson (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”) and Morten Tyldum (“The Imitation Game”).
AND SPEAKING OF MEN: They’re the subjects of all eight of this year’s best-picture nominees: “American Sniper,” “Birdman,” “Boyhood,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Imitation Game,” “Selma,” “The Theory of Everything” and “Whiplash.” And all but one of those, “Selma,” are about white men.
AND SPEAKING OF WHITE PEOPLE IN GENERAL: Every single acting nominee is white. All 20 of them across all four categories. There hasn’t been this complete lack of diversity since 1998. Way to shake things up, Academy.
I’M SORRY, WHAT WAS THAT?: “Interstellar” earned nominations for both its sound mixing and editing? I couldn’t hear what you were saying, the music was too loud. (The overpowering score earned Hans Zimmer yet another Oscar nomination, by the way.)
AND YET, “IDA”: The subtly powerful Polish drama “Ida” from director and co-writer Pawel Pawlikowski was a lock for the foreign-language category. I was pleased to see it make it in there, but it also received a surprising nomination for its exquisite black-and-white cinematography from Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal. Every single frame is a work of art. This is my favorite nomination of the day. But! They’ll probably lose to Emmanuel Lubezki for his daredevil work on “Birdman.” This means my hero, Roger Deakins, also will lose once again — for the 12th time — for his dramatic work on “Unbroken,” which is the best part of the whole film.
AND “FEAST”: The adorable little movie that plays before “Big Hero 6” got a much-deserved nomination for best animated short. “Feast” does so much in such a small amount of time — which is appropriate given that its subject, a Boston terrier, is the kind of dog who thinks he’s much bigger than he really is. Now, maybe I’m a tad biased because we are the proud human companions of a Boston terrier ourselves, but this movie was a complete charmer. It also left me with tears streaming down my face and my 5-year-old son in my lap wondering what the hell was wrong with me. Go find it.
DON’T MESS WITH TEXAS: And finally, after all this bitching, I’m going to end on a positive by noting that this was a great day for Texas filmmakers. Linklater and Anderson — both born in Houston, with Linklater remaining a major force in Austin — scored their first best-picture and best-director nominations. This is sort of mind-boggling given that they’ve established themselves as such important, singular voices over the past couple decades. So maybe there’s some reason to celebrate, after all — with a Shiner Bock, even.
One of the most powerful aspects of Jonathan Glazer’s gorgeous and daring “Under the Skin” is its score from British singer-songwriter and producer Mica Levi: a haunting mix of strings, percussion and flute that’s sometimes unsettling, sometimes dreamlike and always original. It keeps you on edge from the very beginning, and it beautifully accompanies the transformation that Scarlett Johansson’s character undergoes.
Last night at the newly reopened Regent Theater in Downtown Los Angeles, I had the great pleasure of rewatching the film with Levi conducting a 25-piece orchestra which performed the score before a sold-out audience. The century-old theater, which was home to grindhouse fare and porn in the 1970s, has been restored to its former glory, and it provided an intimate and appropriately dramatic setting for such a bold film.
In case you haven’t seen “Under the Skin” — and you really should, since it’s one of 2014’s best — Johansson stars as a sexy, otherworldly being who prowls the streets of Scotland in a minivan seeking lonely, single men to fulfill her nefarious purposes. It’s challenging and intentionally ambiguous but also just exquisite in its imagery, visual effects and sound design.
Watching it again with Levi at the helm, I noticed several different elements I didn’t catch completely upon initial viewing. When I first saw the movie, it blew me away from both a technical and a narrative perspective. And Johansson’s performance truly wowed me: It’s probably the best work of her long and eclectic career because it requires her to be both seductive and elusive, often within the blink of an eye.
This time, there was a heightened buzz in the room with such gifted musicians performing this awesome and avant-garde score right in front of us. The staccato of the violas sizzled even more, and the steady drum that’s the heartbeat of Johansson’s hunt provided an even more unbearable feeling of suspense. But I also felt more aware of her arc — possible spoilers ahead — as she goes from cold and driven predator to uncertain and emotional prey. Glazer establishes subtle parallels: the way she walks backward as she lures various men into her lair, and then later follows a man who’s walking backward as he leads her down a narrow, scary staircase. His camera tracks men walking down the street, lingering as it sizes them up, but regards the women who walk by with indifference.
I also noticed the first contacts with humanity that touched her even earlier — the blood on her hand from a street vendor’s rose precedes her encounter with the kindhearted, facially disfigured man who earns her reprieve. And the terror she experiences once she opens herself up to mortal sensations felt even more chilling this time around. It felt immediate and intense, and I’m certain that had everything to do with hearing the climactic section of the score played live.
It was also just extremely cool to see Levi do her thing so calmly, so commandingly, before a packed house. She’s only 28 years old and this is her first film score — she’s probably best known as Micachu of the experimental pop band The Shapes — which makes her the rare woman composing music for movies today. Think about it: When you consider the most prominent and acclaimed composers in film history, names like Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone, John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Alexandre Desplat and Danny Elfman come to mind. All men.
Levi is blazing a trail both musically and just through her sheer presence. She also happens to be the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s winner of the best music score award, tying with Jonny Greenwood for his work on “Inherent Vice.” I’d say we chose pretty well — and I can’t wait to see (and hear) what she does next.
One of the many great parts about living in Los Angeles is the wealth of repertory theaters offering an array of eclectic fare for serious film lovers. The Cinefamily, at the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax, is prime among them. These people dig deeply and care passionately, and they enjoy a loyal following.
So when the British organization Secret Cinema was planning screenings around the world Sunday night to protest Sony’s decision not to release “The Interview” amid terrorist threats — and take a stand against censorship in general — The Cinefamily stepped in to be a part of it. But they did it with some tweaks. Rather than show “The Great Dictator,” the 1940 classic starring Charlie Chaplin as a Hitleresque figure which was playing in cities including London and San Francisco, The Cinefamily showed its sold-out Los Angeles audience a film that carried its own relevance: “The Red Chapel,” a 2010 documentary about Danish comedians who travel to Pyongyang to put on a show.
Only we didn’t know we were going to see “The Red Chapel.” We didn’t know what we were going to see — that was a big part of the event’s allure. Folks on Cinefamily’s e-mail list got an invitation to a “secret protest screening,” the title of which would be announced right as the film was beginning. We were instructed to wear dark suits and bring a small gift for a stranger. It was all very hush-hush — which added to the buzz.
They insisted they would not be showing “The Interview,” in which James Franco and Seth Rogen play entertainment journalists who travel to North Korea with the task of assassinating Kim Jong Un, but speculation was rampant nonetheless. “Team America: World Police,” the completely genius 2004 action satire of Kim Jong Il which “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone staged entirely with puppets, also seemed a likely contender. After all, Paramount said last week that it would let theaters screen the comedy in place of “The Interview” — only to get scared and quickly rescind the offer.
“The Red Chapel” made sense, though, and offered its own brand of absurd humor. I have to admit I hadn’t seen it — I hadn’t even heard of it — and neither had the vast majority of the people in the audience. But it feels sort of like “Borat” in reverse, with sharp characters visiting a closed-off country to shine a light on it, just to give you an idea of its surreal, deadpan tone. Director Mads Brugger gained access by promising that he was bringing a comedy troupe with him as part of a cultural exchange. His companions were the burly Simon Jul Jorgensen and the wisecracking Jacob Nossell, Danish comedians of Korean descent who’d never set foot in their ancestral homeland. (Nossell was adopted from his home country when he was just an infant.)
Their act — a vaudevillian mixture of slapstick, tap dancing and fart jokes which wraps up with an oddly earnest, acoustic version of Oasis’ “Wonderwall” — is crap, of course. It’s just a guise to enter the country and expose the horrors of totalitarianism. They have to turn in their footage at the end of each day for approval, but they’re speaking Danish most of the time, and their conversations are often hard to understand because 18-year-old Jacob was born with spastic paralysis. But Jacob also serves as the voice of reason throughout this adventure, saying the exact thing we’re thinking in every weirdly oppressive situation.
Jacob also forges an uncomfortable connection with the group’s constant companion, the officious Mrs. Pak, the government-assigned escort whose mission is to show them only the eerily pristine perfection of Pyongyang. She’s unflappably sunny — except for when she bursts into tears at the very thought of the Dear Leader’s powerful work — and within hours of meeting Jacob, she insists she loves him like a son. This complex woman shows shades of vulnerability and inadvertently earns our sympathy.
But what’s even more disturbing is the way she and a top culture minister eviscerate the group’s act to make it a rah-rah celebration of “One Korea.” They strip it of the little humor it contained and turn it into a cheery, eerie piece of propaganda. Brugger and his pals have to go with the flow, with each new day and each new development bringing the possibility of fresh peril.
While Brugger himself never shows actual images of the well-documented atrocities he refers to throughout his narration, just the fact that he gathered any footage at all, got it out of North Korea and put together a completed film which has played at festivals and theaters globally — including Sundance, where it won a World Cinema prize — is a bit of a miracle. “The Red Chapel” is a darkly funny, deeply creepy peek into a world that most of us would never be able to visit ourselves, and probably would never want to, either.