Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Best (and Worst) Films of the First Half of 2015

Here, in alphabetical order, are my top five, each of which earned 3.5 out of 4 stars:

Olivier Assayas’ detail-perfect “Clouds of Sils Maria,” the most intellectually stimulating film so far this year, features thrillingly alive performances by the indispensable Juliette Binoche as a legendary stage and film actress and Kristen Stewart as her personal assistant. Their relationship bears similarities to that of the mentor and protégée in the play that made Binoche famous in her youth, and in which she will now reluctantly play the older woman. “Clouds of Sils Maria” is a film of echoes and layers, reflections and refractions. For the filmgoer starved for intelligent entertainment, it arrives like manna from heaven, brimming with insight and thematic richness.

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s “Focus,” a consummately enjoyable con caper, stars Will Smith in a career-resuscitating performance as the overseer of a traveling corps of grifters, pickpockets and shills trailing a nationwide wake of emptied handbags, billfolds and luggage. They’re in New Orleans for a monster score at the Super Bowl when into his life sashays the heaven-sent Margot Robbie as a watch booster looking to play with the big boys. With its intricate structure, outsize production values, and strong supporting performances bolstering the leads’ sparkling comic and romantic chemistry, “Focus” was the most entertaining major-studio movie in over a year…

…until James Wan’s “Furious 7” came along and defined the year with its universal appeal to moviegoers of every age, race and gender. The stunts reach new and unbelievable heights. A set piece in which cars equipped with parachutes reverse out of an airplane and land on a winding road in the Caucasus Mountains had me clawing at my seat with vertiginous excitement. Another, in which a car flies from one Abu Dhabi skyscraper to another to another, left tears of laughter streaming down my face. And the sendoff Wan and screenwriter Chris Morgan give the late Paul Walker is elegant in its simplicity, with a beautifully chosen final visual metaphor. “Furious 7” is the best installment yet of the best action franchise going.

Kirby Dick, the documentarian whose four-star, Oscar-nominated “The Invisible War” (2012) chronicled sexual assaults in the military, returns with “The Hunting Ground,” an equally vital exposé of rapes on U.S. college campuses. The film effectively weaves heartbreaking personal stories with jaw-dropping statistical evidence of the blind eye college administrators and even campus police have turned to the problem, especially when star athletes or fraternities are involved. Victims describe a lack of guidance as to how to report sexual assaults and resistance when they do. In story after story, deans and counselors blame, second-guess and intimidate victims; campus police delay or actively impede investigations; fellow students and alumni trash the victims on social media. We begin to understand why their subsequent behavior may not comport with our expectations. The film suggests that the people most to blame for the epidemic of campus rapes are college administrators. Because nobody wants to be known as the school with the rape problem, almost every school has a rape problem. A psychologist who specializes in the field opines that it would take just one brave university president to investigate properly and report accurately to effect national change.

I’m still coming down from the high of Patrick Brice’s gem “The Overnight,” 80 fragile and ephemeral minutes that walk a daring and transgressive line through the minefields of marriage, sexual attraction and the loosening of inhibitions. The always appealing Adam Scott steps to the fore with a minor miracle of a comic performance that never steps wrong, the play of thoughts and moods across his face mesmerizing to behold. Jason Schwartzman has not had a more perfectly suited part; Taylor Schilling impresses as the voice of reason who ultimately gives herself over to the night and its possibilities; and Judith Godrèche brought tears to my eyes with her innocuous delivery of lines charged with sexual undercurrents. Exciting, full of truth, and laugh-out-your-nose funny, “The Overnight” is a worthy heir to mumblecore’s legacy of intrepid honesty.

Next, in alphabetical order, 21 honorable mentions, each of which earned 3 out of 4 stars:

Dana Nachman’s supremely sweet documentary “Batkid Begins,” about a Make-a-Wish that goes viral and brings out the best in everyone it touches; Dan Fogelman’s warm, witty, wonderful and wise “Danny Collins,” featuring Al Pacino’s best performance since “Glengarry Glen Ross”; Erik Greenberg Anjou’s brisk(et) but delicious and elegiac documentary “Deli Man”; Victor Levin’s charming directorial debut, “5 to 7,” about the May-December relationship between an aspiring novelist and a married Frenchwoman with children, that at its best earns comparison with the work of Woody Allen; “GETT: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz’ gripping courtroom drama of an Orthodox wife’s divorce petition to a rabbinical council, a brilliant and economical bit of cinematic storytelling; Brett Haley’s light, graceful “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” a showcase for star Blythe Danner that proves how hungry audiences are for full, rich depictions of men and women 70 and over; Dave Boyle’s neo-noir “Man From Reno,” a triumph of tone that leaves enough questions unanswered to talk about long after seeing it; “Merchants of Doubt,” Robert Kenner’s witty and entertaining exposé of the mercenary mouthpieces hired by worst-offender corporations to inject disinformation into the public discourse; “1971,” Johanna Hamilton’s documentary about the eight everyday Americans who pulled off the never-solved break-in of an FBI satellite office in Media, Pennsylvania, featuring big-scoop interviews and uncommonly credible reënactments that build genuine suspense; Paul King’s delightful movie of “Paddington,” the rare family film that respects both adults and children and genuinely appeals to both; Gabe Polsky’s documentary “Red Army,” about the juggernaut Soviet Union hockey team; Brad Peyton’s hilarious “San Andreas,” which brilliantly straddles the line between cheese and camp; Tiller Russell’s absorbing and surprising documentary “The Seven Five,” about Michael Dowd, the NYPD officer immortalized in the Daily News headline “DIRTIEST COP EVER”; “Son of a Gun,” Julius Avery’s enticing and atmospheric Aussie crime thriller, with Ewan McGregor and the seriously sexy Brenton Thwaites; the richly conceived “Spy,” in which director Paul Feig and star Melissa McCarthy again prove they have their fingers on the pulse of contemporary comedy; Zaza Urushadze’s Oscar-nominated “Tangerines,” from Estonia, a ramshackle house (and fence of wooden sticks) where we wait for a return to normalcy that may never come; Abderrahmane Sissako’s Oscar-nominated “Timbuktu,” which employs elegantly constructed imagery and hypnotic music to weave a fabric of life in and outside the Malian city; "24 Days,” Alexandre Arcady’s engrossing dramatization of the real-life kidnapping of a young Paris mobile phone salesman, as seen from three shifting perspectives; Jeremy Garelick’s “The Wedding Ringer,” in which Kevin Hart affirms his status as a comedy movie star and dozens of well-drawn supporting characters keep the laughs coming; Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s exquisite and deeply felt animation “When Marnie Was There,” a sumptuous and dreamy swan song for Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli; and “The Wrecking Crew,” Denny Tedesco’s affectionate and toe-tapping documentary tribute to his father Tommy and the rest of the loosely defined cadre of L.A. session musicians who dominated the charts in the 60’s and 70’s. 

Finally, in alphabetical order, the Hall of Shame, the thirteen titles that each earned 1 out of 4 stars:

The Age of Adaline,” one of the dumb-bunny movies of all time, in which Blake Lively’s face never moves; Doug Ellin’s misogynistic “Entourage,” a string of cameos with no narrative drive and exactly one funny line (almost surely unintentional); “The Face of an Angel,” Michael Winterbottom’s pseudo-intellectual head-scratcher, which grows both increasingly disgusting and ever more boring; “Glass Chin,” a broke man’s “The Drop,” unintelligible in patches, with repeated scenes of threatened cruelty to animals; the insufferably pretentious “Goodbye to Language 3D,” a nauseating and headache-inducing compost heap of scatology and eschatology in which Jean-Luc Godard unmasks himself as a bilious misanthrope and sad self-parody; Anne Fletcher’s walkout-worthy “Hot Pursuit,” with a shrill and desperate performance by Reese Witherspoon that should have the year’s Worst Actress Razzie locked up; Steve Pink’s sophomoric sequel “Hot Tub Time Machine 2,” which squanders all the goodwill of the infinitely funnier original in a vomit-inducing vortex of anatomical jokes and pantomimed anal intercourse; Maya Forbes’ musical montage-filled “Infinitely Polar Bear,” an embarrassment for Mark Ruffalo, devoid of truth and unwilling to allow beleaguered viewers even a moment’s peace and quiet; the brain-dead spy spoof “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” a colossal waste of talent with a frenetic and convoluted plot that distends its runtime to a grotesque 130 minutes; “Loitering with Intent,” in which two wannabe filmmakers bump into the assistant of a tax-credit-seeking producer, who promptly offers them a $300K budget if they can churn out a script in ten days (because God knows the one thing you can’t find in New York City is an unproduced screenplay); Ryan Gosling’s incomprehensible directorial debut “Lost River,” hooted out of Cannes and properly ignored by American audiences, a fabricated exercise in misery complete with stabbings, mutilations and the decapitation of a girl’s pet rat; the mortifying “Mortdecai,” an aggressively, excruciatingly unfunny comedy that should sound the death knell for Johnny Depp’s movie star status; and Brad Bird’s “Tomorrowland,” already well on its way to a place among the biggest bombs of recent years. An un-filmable script mushrooms into two hours of torture that leave you shaking your fists and talking back angrily to the screen.

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