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The Top Twenty Movies of 2015 — Part Four!

And so we arrive, at last, at my five favorite movies of 2015.  Click here for part one of my list, numbers twenty through sixteenClick here for part two of my list, numbers fifteen through elevenClick here for part three of my list, numbers ten through six.

And now, my five favorite movies of 2015!


5. Inside Out Another triumph from Pixar, this hugely original film explores the inner workings of the mind of an eleven-year-old girl.  I am blown away by how magnificently well thought-out the film is, how carefully considered every detail is.  The film is a complete fantasy, and yet it’s a remarkably sophisticated presentation of the way the emotions inside a young girl might actually work!  This is genius-level filmmaking here, with brilliant philosophical ideas wrapped in a deeply moving adventure tale.  The film is elevated into the stratosphere by its magnificent casting, with the absolute perfect actor chosen to represent each of Riley’s five main emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), & Disgust (Mindy Kaling).  The film is very funny and also absolutely heart-breaking.  (Has the great Richard Kind ever been better than he is here is Bing-Bong?)  Inside Out is a master class in the how animation can be best utilized to tell a remarkable story, a story that couldn’t possibly be told any other way.  (Click here for my original review.)


4. Avengers: Age of Ultron I can’t believe how under-rated and under-appreciated is Joss Whedon’s spectacular follow-up to the smash hit that was 2012’s The Avengers.  Yes, Age of Ultron doesn’t have the never-been-done-before thrill of that first huge super-hero crossover film, which was the culmination of Marvel Studios’ Phase One, bringing together all the characters from the proceeding individual films.  (This was something that had never, ever been done before, a fact easily forgotten now that Marvel’s model is being widely imitated by every studio in Hollywood.)  It’s incredible to me that now, only a few short years after The Avengers, the extraordinary achievement that is Age of Ultron is being dismissed as ho-hum.  Just look at pretty much any frame of this film and marvel (pun definitely intended) at how amazing is it how Joss Whedon and his team have brought all of these wonderful characters to life on film!  Who ever would have thought such a thing would happen?  Who ever would have thought we’d ever see the famous comic-book villain Ultron depicted on film (brought so brilliantly to life in the film by James Spader)?  Or The Vision???  (Paul Bettany’s performance combined with note-perfect make-up effects and CGI made it feel … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Martian

What a refreshing joy it is to get to see an intelligent, original science-fiction story that is also gorgeous to behold and ferociously entertaining. The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott and written by Drew Goddard, adapting the book by Andy Weir, is a triumph, a gripping story about all that smart human beings can do when they put their minds to it.


Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, one of the crew-members of a mission to Mars sometime in the near future.  An unexpectedly fierce storm forces the crew to abort the mission and evacuate the planet.  An accident during the evacuation separates Watney from his crew-mates, who believe him to have been killed.  But he survives, and awakens soon after to find himself stranded, the only human being on the planet.  The soonest a manned mission could return to rescue him is years away (assuming he could even find a way to let NASA know he’s alive, a seeming impossibility with his transmitter destroyed by the storm), and though the astronauts’ habitat on the Martian surface remains intact, it was only equipped for a planned thirty-day stay on the planet.

It is an extraordinary delight to watch a movie that champions science and intelligence.  The Martian is a movie about everything that human beings are capable of accomplishing, and it is glorious to behold.  This is an important movie in a culture that too often seems to look down on people of intelligence and learning.  The Martian makes the case for the value of brain-power.  Of exploration.  Of the way that knowledge and intelligence can, to quote Star Trek (another sci-fi story that values intelligence, science, and optimism) “turn death into a fighting chance to live.”

Actually, watching The Martian, I was continually reminded of a wonderful quote by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.  Speaking of the ethos behind Trek, Roddenberry explained that “ancient astronauts didn’t build the pyramids.  Human beings built them!  Because they’re clever and they work hard!”  Star Trek was a show that championed those values, that argued that mankind would find a way to put aside our differences, to work together to solve our problems and create a utopian — not dystopian — future society. That’s what I love about Star Trek, and that’s what I love about The Martian, a film that embodies exactly the same philosophy.

It all starts with the script, which is extraordinary.  I haven’t yet read the book by Andy Weir, but it’s clear that I need to do so immediately.  Drew Goddard (who wrote Cloverfield, directed and co-wrote The Cabin in the Woods, and was a key creative player in the early days of Netflix’s Daredevil series) … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Monuments Men

Two of the films George Clooney has directed are among my very favorite films.  I think his debut film, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, is probably in my top 20-30 films of all time.  It’s a deliriously clever, mind-bending piece of work, with a dynamite script by Charlie Kaufman and a killer performance by Sam Rockwell in the leading role.  Then there’s Good Night, and Good Luck, a powerful look back at Edward R. Murrow’s challenging of Senator Joseph McCarthy with another killer performance by an actor in the lead role, in this case David Strathairn as Murrow.

I cannot believe that the same person who directed those two films directed the flat, disappointing The Monuments Men.  (Nor can I believe that the film was written by the same writing team, Mr. Clooney and Grant Heslov, who wrote Good Night, and Good Luck.)

The Monuments Men is based on a true story of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program, an effort by the allies to find and safeguard important works of art and culture in danger of being stolen and/or destroyed by the Nazis during WWII.  (The film is based on the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Heroes, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter.)  The film stars Mr. Clooney, along with Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, and Cate Blanchett.

Based on a fascinating, real-life story, and with such incredible talent in front of and behind the camera, The Monuments Men should have been a hoot.  Instead, puzzlingly, it’s a flat, instantly-forgettable dud.  There’s nothing bad in the film, it’s just that there’s nothing particularly good in the film either.

At no point did I feel any real sense of momentum and adventure in the film.  At no point was I sucked into the drama of the story, of the beat-the-clock chase for hidden artwork before it could be stolen or destroyed.  At no point did the fate-of-the-world drama of the Second World War, within which this small group of Allied officers was operating, bring any sort of life or tension to the film’s story.  Instead, what we get are a series of disconnected, mildly diverting anecdotes with these different characters scattered in different places across Europe.  (Another disappointment for me with the film, though perhaps one that was true-to-life, was that immediately after this great group of actors was assembled at the start of the movie, they’re immediately divided up and seldom seen again all together.  I thought we’d have a lot of fun watching this amazing cast interact with one another, but that was not to be.)

Speaking of the cast, here … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Elysium

September 23rd, 2013
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I was blown away by District 9, Neill Blomkamp’s directorial debut (which he also wrote).  (Click here for my original review.)  That film — and Mr. Blomkamp himself — felt to me like it came out of nowhere.  I was dazzled by its combination of visual effects spectacle (made, even more impressively, for a tiny budget) and social conscience.  This appeared to be the emergence of a bold new voice in science fiction, and I was eager to see what Mr. Blomkamp would do next.

Four years later, his follow-up film was released: Elysium.  It’s fun to see Mr. Blomkamp working with a much higher budget and a cast of stars (including Matt Damon and Jodie Foster), and while Elysium isn’t as surprising and impactful as was District 9, it’s still a top-notch sci-fi spectacle with some heartfelt things to say about class and wealth in the world today.

Elysium is set almost 150 years in the future (2154, to be exact), but the film’s power comes from its depiction of a world that — while featuring technology far beyond that of today’s world, most notably a huge outer-space habitat, called Elysium, where the super-rich dwell in peace and quiet — doesn’t feel too terribly far removed from our own.  The divide between the richest few and the other 99% (if not 99.9999%) of humanity has widened into an unbreachable gulf — in this case, the literally unbreachable gulf between the slum-like planet Earth and the floating space-station of Elysium.  But while the existence of a huge space-station might seem like something from a hard-to-imagine future, the idea of an ossification of the divide between the rich and everyone else on the planet feels all-too-possible.  The film’s story focuses on the desperation and helplessness felt by that enormous under-class, knowing that a whole universe of health and happiness lies tantalizingly outside of their reach.

Matt Damon plays Max, a former thief who works a grunt job in a manufacturing plant.  Max’s life is rough (though when we see him walk to work through the slums in which he lives, it’s apparent that he’s lucky to have a job).  Max’s tough life takes a turn for the tragic when an accident in the plant exposes him to a lethal dose of radiation.  This could be cured by a few moments in the healing med-bays found up on Elysium, but stuck on Earth, without access to that medical technology, Max will be dead in five days.  Out of options, Max strikes a deal with the smuggler Spider — he’ll help Spider in a job to steal valuable information from the head of the plant at which he works (literally from … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Adjustment Bureau!

I’m always intrigued, but a bit worried, when I hear that another Philip K. Dick story is being turned into a movie.  Many adaptations of Mr. Dick’s work have been pretty horrid, and even the ones that are great (such as Total Recall and Blade Runner) tend to diverge pretty far from the source material.  But the promise of one of Mr. Dick’s short stories being used as the basis for the script, along with an intriguingly talented cast, piqued my interest in the new film, The Adjustment Bureau.

Matt Damon plays David Norris, a young, hot-shot rising-star politician who, nevertheless, has just lost the race for the New York Senate seat.  In the moments before he’s to give his concession speech, he meets a beautiful young dancer named Elise (Emily Blunt) in the bathroom.  She’s hiding out from security in the men’s room because she just crashed a wedding in the same building.  Sparks immediately fly between the two, and she inspires David to give a surprising off-the-cuff speech that  almost immediately begins to revive his political career.  When the two meet again soon thereafter, bumping into one another on a city bus, it’s clear that they have a powerful connection.  But almost immediately David finds himself confronting a mysterious group of men who seem determined to keep the two apart.  These men are the Adjustment Bureau.  They claim to be the instruments of a higher power, helping to keep people on their proper paths.  They warn David that he and Elise are not fated to be together, and that if he does not let her go, the consequences will be disastrous for them both.

For a film based on a story by Philip K. Dick (his 1954 tale Adjustment Team), the film is actually surprisingly light on the science fiction.  It’s really more of a fantasy about belief and faith and fate than it is a sci-fi adventure.  That’s not in any way a criticism.  The film incorporates the fantastic with a fairly light touch, keeping the focus squarely on David’s real-world emotions and his struggle to find a way out of the impossible situation in which he finds himself.

The glimpses we were given into how the Adjustment Bureau functions were fun — just tantalizing enough to leave us intrigued but not bogged down by exposition.  I loved the look of their books (which map individuals’ destinies), and I thought that their system of traveling incredible distances in the blink of an eye through doors that they could turn into portals across the globe was cool (even if the thunder of this device was stolen slightly by Monsters, Inc. — still, Mr. Dick’s story came … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews True Grit

This week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly features a brief interveiw with the Coen Brothers, in which the writer congratulates Joel & Ethan Coen on True Grit, a “four-quadrant” movie (meaning a flick that appeals to men and women, young and old), and the biggest box-office success of their careers.

It’s delightful to see the public embracing True Grit to the degree that it has, because while this film might be more easily categorizable than the last several Coen Brothers films (A Serious Man, Burn After Reading, No Country for Old Men), it’s still a Western that has been filtered through their unique and sometimes bizarre sensibilities.  And I love it all the more for that!

Hailee Steinfeld plays fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross.  Her father has recently been murdered by an outlaw named Tom Chaney, but despite her efforts, it doesn’t seem like any lawman seems much interested in pursuing him.  So Mattie hires herself a bounty hunter: the aging, cranky, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges).  She also encounters a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, who has been pursuing Chaney, under a different name, for another murder that he committed.  At first she takes a strong disliking to the pompous Ranger, but as the chase commences and she & Cogburn continue encountering LaBoeuf, Mattie begins to wonder if she hasn’t hitched her wagon to the wrong horse.

I found True Grit to be great fun from start to finish.  There’s a strong emotional throughline — Mattie’s increasingly desperate efforts to find someone who will help her achieve vengeance for her father’s death — and the film is very well-paced.  I thought it was intriguing and engaging throughout.  As always, the Coens know how to stage an action scene, and there are several sequences that are true nail-biters (including the shoot-out outside of the cabin about half-way through the film, and of course the climactic encounter with Tom Chaney and Lucky Ned Pepper’s gang).  The film is intense and violent at times, but it’s never gory.  True Grit is rated PG-13 (in that EW interview, Joel Coen comments: “It seemed obvious to us that because it’s a movie where the main character is a 13-year-old girl, 13- and 14-year-old girls should be able to see the movie”), but it never feels dumbed down or softened the way I often feel PG-13 movies are.

But the real joys of True Grit are the tremendous performances.  Jeff Bridges proves once again that he is unbeatable when directed by the Coen Brothers.  His protrayal of Rooster Cogburn is one of those iconic performances that I suspect we’ll be seeing clips from in highlight reels for years to come.  Rooster is tough and cunning, but … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Informant!

November 16th, 2009

The exclamation point in the title of Steven Soderbergh’s new film The Informant! should tip you off right away that this isn’t another ultra-serious film about a corporate whistle-blower a la The Insider.  (That’s not a knock against The Insider, by the way, which is a terrific film.)  But Steven Soderbergh has something else in mind with this movie.

A plump Matt Damon plays Mark Whitacre, a biochemist who is also the youngest vice president of A.D.M., a giant manufacturer of, among other things, the amino acid lysine that is a core component of much of the food that we eat here in the U.S.  In the 1990’s, Mark supplied the F.B.I. with evidence implicating A.D.M. in a price-fixing scheme with several other worldwide companies in their business.  But, of course, this based-on-a-true-story tale (originally covered in the book The Informant: A True Story by Kurt Eichenwald) is a lot more complicated than that.

Steven Soderbergh is an extraordinarily intelligent filmmaker, and when his films work for me (Out of Sight, The Limey, Traffic, Full Frontal) or when they don’t (The Good German, Solaris, and Ocean’s Eleven and Twelve which convinced me I didn’t need to see Thirteen), I always know that there will be something there of interest in the viewing.  Each of his films that I have seen has been remarkably different in style and tone from all the rest.  He consistently reinvents himself as a movie-maker, and that is endlessly fascinating to me.

Here in The Informant!, he has managed to tell what is really a very serious story in a manner full of whimsy.  Matt Damon dances along the fine line between drama and farce with the elegance of an actor skilled in both arenas.  His bizarre, rambling voice-overs that run throughout the film are wonderful — my favorite part of the movie.  Not only are his non sequitur observations hilarious, they also embody the idea that this numbskull is really the hero of his own story.  This idea is further enhanced by Marvin Hamlisch’s wonderfully over-the-top score (in which he practically gives Mr. Whitacre his own theme music!).  All of that silliness could easily tip the film over into total lunacy, but Mr. Soderbergh keeps his hands firmly on the reins, making sure than the audience is kept engaged with Mark’s unfolding story.

I should also mention here that it’s absolutely terrific to see Scott Bakula (Dr. Samuel Beckett himself) in a big role as F.B.I. Special Agent Brian Shepard.  Bakula’s best roles have been mostly confined to TV for the past two decades, but he really is a wonderful actor with a lot of charisma.  He does … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: The Departed

As with Charlie Wilson’s War (which I wrote about on Wednesday), The Departed is a movie whose DVD has been sitting on my shelf for a while now, waiting for me to revisit it (after really enjoying my first viewing when I saw it in theatres).  I am pleased to say I enjoyed the film during its second viewing as much as I did during its first.

The Departed is a sprawling film that focuses on two young men who are, in many ways, the mirror opposites of one another.  Leonardo DiCaprio plays Billy Costigan, a state cop assigned to infiltrate the mob run by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), while Matt Damon plays Colin Sullivan, one of Costello’s men who is assigned to infiltrate the state police.  The film deftly follows their two stories, as each one works to make a name for himself in his new world, all the while scrambling to stay one step ahead of discovery.  William Monahan’s script is taut and smart, giving DiCaprio and Damon plenty of great character material to work with, while also fashioning a throughly entertaining, twisty narrative.  (I am becoming an enormous fan of Mr. Monahan’s writing, by the way.  In addition to his work in The Departed, I thoroughly enjoyed his script for Ridley Scott’s criminally-underrated Kingdom of Heaven.)

As good as Damon and DiCaprio are, though, they almost have the movie stolen right out from under them by Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg, who are both absolutely magnificent playing two gleefully profane Boston detectives.  Martin Sheen is a great father figure as Police Captain Queenan, and Jack Nicholson — well, he’s Jack!  Completely over-the-top but somehow still believable as the dangerous Costello.

Having lived in both Providence and Boston, I really enjoyed the film’s focus on the distinct flavors of those two great cities.  I love movies that dig into a particular subculture, whether that’s a documentary such as Spellbound or Wordplay, or a movie like Adventureland (which I reviewed here) that captures the life of kids working a summer job at an amusement park.  So it’s no great surprise that I was tickled by The Departed‘s focus on life in Providence and Boston, two cities that are both quite different than, say, New York.  Now, I can’t really vouch for the veracity of the depiction of the crime families of those two towns, but I can say that I think Mr. Scorsese and his collaborators really captured the unique FEEL of those two cities.  

This is a big story being told, taking place over many years and with a lot of characters and a lot of narrative twists and turns.  It is … [continued]