The first half of the 2015 movie season concludes this week, so what kind of movie year has it been so far? It’s been surprisingly good, albeit mostly in small pockets here and there. Perhaps the big, over-produced spectacle of AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON or JURASSIC WORLD check your summer entertainment boxes, but I prefer something more original or certainly with less CGI filling every frame. True, more frivolous fare is trotted out during the hotter months, but it's good to remember that the big movie that started the whole summer movie trope was a smart, character-driven picture that returned to the theaters last week to celebrate its premiere 40 years ago. JAWS was and is still tons better than those poseurs, or most films for that matter. And, part of its success is due to its more human elements. The mechanical shark was fine, but it’s the story of the three men that gives the film its weight and classic status.
Still, there is plenty today to be lauding, so without further ado, here are the 10 highlights of the first six months IMHO:
The best movie of the year so far was this exquisitely sinister mind f**k. That’s not only what happens to the lead Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) as he tries to figure out whether he’s testing the humanity levels of the robot Ava (Alicia Vikander, in a star-making performance) or he himself is being tested by her inventor Nathan (Oscar Isaac). The answer is both, and the audience is tested too as the story plays with our loyalties to the lead and we end up shifting alliances from man to machine. Alex Garland wrote and directed this amazing achievement and filled it with a sly, sensual menace rare in most films these days. At times, it almost could be a heady play in the National Theater in England. And like all great science fiction, this film is not only exciting and challenging, but it's also a stinging commentary on today's dependence upon machines, an obsessive predilection for voyeurism, and our inability as human beings to connect properly with our fellow man.
LOVE & MERCY
The second best movie of the first six months is this film about The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. Unfortunately, this superior character study is dying at the office. It’s a shame that summer audiences cannot find room for the best biopic in ages, but I guess Cineplex patrons are mostly interested in remakes and rehashes. This portrait of an artist explains both the inspiration and madness that often goes hand-in-hand with genius. And as played by Paul Dano as the younger Wilson, and John Cusack as the burnt-out middle-aged version, Wilson is given a comprehensive portrayal, warts and all. Both actors deliver performances that should be remembered at Oscar time, no matter what the box office.
Pixar’s latest critical and box office juggernaut is amazing not only for being ostensibly a kids movie about the inner workings of an 11-year-old girl’s brain, but in its daring for stating that one’s sadness is not only as valid an emotion as joy but may be even more valuable in how one copes, adult or child. All five of the emotions on display here (Sadness, Joy, Disgust, Fear and Anger) are validated in one of the wittiest and truly moving animated films ever. It’s an instant classic, right up there with Pixar's best like TOY STORY, THE INCREDIBLES and WALL-E. And the movie has as much visual eye candy as it does prophetic thought. I don't know if kids get it all, but for anyone over 15, it is a film you'll want to see at least twice.
MAD MAX FURY ROAD
Filmmaker George Miller gave us a fourth movie in his Mad Max series and he proved that the return was well worth the trip. This adventure is quite the reimagining of the franchise in many ways as it turns Max into more of a supporting character to the real action heroes of the piece - the female characters on the run for their freedom from a crippling, male run hierarchy in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Sure, it's got some of the best action and editing anywhere, but what really makes this one rise above Ultron or T-Rex's is its characters. Specifically, those daring women, and in particular, their leader Imperator Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron, pictured above). Miller is a cinematic genius still, creating eye-popping visuals and fueling all of it with an adrenaline unmatched onscreen in eons. But his greatest trick is baiting us with Max's madness and switching the real heart of the film over to Furiosa's fierceness.
Not only was this indie film a critical and box office hit, but it was simultaneously a VOD hit too. (More and more releases are going to launch that way.) So often, the horror genre is filled with schlock – gratuitous gore, unnecessary nudity and dumb shocks – but this little miracle avoids all those mistakes. Instead, it's a disquietly terrifying character study of a young woman that is trying to outrun an entity that comes after her, wanting to take her life. It's triggered after she's had casual sex with a date, and while it's a rather obvious STD metaphor, most everything else in the film has nuance and subtlety. It also has a palpable sense of dread from almost its first frame and that is an amazing achievement. This is easily the best horror movie so far in 2015, and it may very well staking that claim on December 31 too.
Special kudos as well to distributor Radius-TWC for meeting the demands for this sleeper hit so quickly and opening it wide on 1200 screens just two weeks after its modest opening on only a handful of them.
And while we're on the subject of horror, honorable mention must go to do other frighteners that made excellent impressions in the first half of the year: The Iran horror film A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT. It was arthouse and grindhouse, all in the same movie, and it’s also one of the year’s best frighteners. And INSIDIOUS CHAPTER 3, the second sequel in that franchise, and one that gave it's lead over to 71-year-old Lin Shay who makes for one of the most unique ghostbusters ever in cinema. And she totally holds the film in the palm of her hand. Bravo!
WOMEN-FRONTED SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS
What a great six month for female empowerment at the Cineplex! Melissa McCarthy continues to prove to the idiot naysayers out there that not only are women as funny as men, but they can open films too. And they can do so without being a size 2. Her big budgeted comedy SPY has proved to be a huge hit. It took #1 the weekend it opened, and it still continues to show up in the top 5 box office performers, week in and week out, a month after its release.
Then there's the fact that the three leads in INSIDE OUT are all female. (That would be Joy, Anger, and the girl whose brain they live in - Riley.) Not to mention that horror has had a lot of leads this year, like in STARRY EYES, the aforementioned IT FOLLOWS and INSIDIOUS CHAPTER 3. We've already discussed Theron in MAD MAX. And while it was unfortunate that director Michele McLaren felt the need to part ways with DC Comics over her vision on the WONDER WOMAN movie, at least another female director was hired to replace her. That would be Patty Jenkins, who directed Theron to an Oscar in MONSTER. Wondrous women, all!
The most exciting actor working in film today is Oscar Isaac. (I'll have even more about him in a stand alone blog post next week.) Isaac can play good, bad, lead, supporting, serious and funny. Oh, and he can play a mean guitar and sing too, as he did fronting INSIDE LLEYWN DAVIS two years ago. His character of Nathan in EX MACHINA was full of so many shadings and Isaac does as much with his eyes and he does with script lines. His turn as the mercurial inventor pulling all the strings in EX MACHINA makes him the frontrunner for 2015’s Best Supporting Actor at this juncture. And in case you didn't think he was having a spectacular run, what DRIVE, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR and EX MACHINA, in December he's starring in the new STAR WARS movie. Not only is the world his oyster right now, but it appears the galaxy might be his as well.
The most exciting actress working in film today is Rose Byrne. (Yes, I'll be writing more about her in a week too.) Like Oscar Isaac, she is a multi-talent who can do it all. And she’s Australian, but you'd never know it from her superb American accents she's often called upon to conjure for various roles. She can play straight (INSIDIOUS) and broad (GET HIM TO THE GREEK). She can sing and dance (ANNIE), and she is one of the most gorgeous ingenues to come down the pike in some time too. This year already, she's appeared in two movies that show off her colossal talents. She played big and broad as the Euro-trash villain in SPY. Then she played utterly normal as a beleaguered wife and mom in the indie dramedy ADULT BEGINNERS. It’s great that Hollywood is casting her constantly, but now she needs to be getting leads. Talent this great needs to take center stage.
She, like Rose Byrne is amazingly adroit at playing comedy, drama, horror, adventure, and farce. Banks also proved this year that she can be one hell of a director. Her helming of PITCH PERFECT 2 topped the original in many ways, and she even lent the film another one of her hilarious supporting turns. She's currently garnering awards talk for her stunning supporting turn in LOVE & MERCY. She is long overdue for trunk loads of awards. And this year, perhaps the odds will be forever in her favor. (Oh, that's right, she's starring in the final HUNGER GAMES movie this fall as well.)
To hopefully produce an Oscar ballot come 2016 that looks younger, smarter, more varied, and less safe, the Motion Picture Academy has invited a slew of artists who are much more active in the business than a lot of those septuagenarian voters, if not also a group of invitees who resemble a better cross section of diversity. Newer stars like Benedict Cumberbatch and Emma Stone were asked to join. As were minority actors like Kevin Hart and Dev Patel. And JK Simmons was invited too. He's not only last year’s Best Supporting Actor but the veteran character actor works all the time and knows what's going on in the industry to say the least.
The Academy invited a large bunch of others too that toil behind the camera as well. Included were director Bong Joon-ho (SNOWPIERCER), costumer Jany Temime (SKYFALL) and Oscar-winning composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (THE SOCIAL NETWORK, GONE GIRL). The fact that Reznor and Ross have Oscars but had yet to be invited speaks volumes about how tin-earred the Academy is too often. But with this list, there's great hope. Now, if the Academy would just get that Best Picture category back down to only five nominees.
We'll see what the second half of 2015 brings us, but there are very good signs of great things to come. Todd Haynes' CAROL took Cannes by storm and gets released in the fall nationwide. Guillermo del Toro has a big new horror movie opening starring Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain. And yes, the return of the STAR WARS franchise has the kid in everyone getting very, very excited. May the force be with it, as well as the rest of this movie year.