Antiviral - Brandon Cronenberg - Syd (Caleb Landry Jones) has a nasty virus. He's been taking his work home with him and it's catching up with his poor, abused immune system. Syd's a salesman who deals in viruses and his extracurricular activities aren't just highly lucrative and highly illegal, they're potentially deadly. This is the most perverse thing I've seen in a good long while. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Fucking excellent. A sterile flick about germs. A study of celebrity/saint worship from a child of fame. So damn many beautiful touches of perfect awfulness. Mutilation and adoration of flesh, a techno-religious experience. I really don't want to say anything more about the content of the picture because it is all so deliciously wrong, that one of the chief pleasures is letting it unfold without any expectations to live up to. Can't wait to see what young master Cronenberg does next. Best moment: so many to choose from, but I'm going to say... anytime the camera pans around the deli.
Atomic Blonde - David Leitch - All style. Not a complaint. Holy crap is this a gorgeous picture. To quibble over confusing or possibly nonsensical plot elements is to have missed the point entirely. As a mere impeccable assemblage of aesthetic choices it's admirable, but as an achievement in execution it is often breathtaking. Also - staircase fight scene is so great.
Baby Driver - Edgar Wright - Surprisingly straight-forward crime flick from Wright who's made a career out of genre tinkering and trope subversion, but I ain't complaining. Of course it is hyper-stylized and ridiculous, but its commitment to having a good time all the time trumps any potential picked nits. If all crime flicks were this glossy and bubble-gum sticky/sweet I'd be sick of it pretty quick, but executed on this high a level, I'm more than happy to indulge in as overtly a fantasy of a crime picture as this one is today.
Bad Day For the Cut - Chris Baugh - A middle-aged sad-sack bachelor who lives with his mother and spends all his best moments and all of his meager monies at a local pub comes home one night to find his dear old ma murdered and not in some half-assed home invasion gone wrong kind of way. No, seems she was worthy of somebody hiring professionals to do it right, but it goes just wrong enough to send hapless Donal (Nigel O'Neill) off on a seek and destroy mission with results as unexpected as the whole thing is ill-advised. Plenty is revealed about Donal's roots and latent character - when pressed he finds that bottomless determination and a sprinkling of intelligence will take him further than anybody would have guessed - and the pervasive melancholy mood is punctured by surprising moments of brutal violence and gallows humor worthy of comparisons to similar fare like Fargo, No Country For Old Men or Blue Ruin.
Bernie - Richard Linklater - You've seen the trailer for this one, too, huh? Yeah, it's another true story with the whole plot offered up in the advertising, but what makes Bernie so worth watching is the performance from Jack Black. Such a soulful, restrained turn as the enigmatic con-man? (Gigolo? Man-child? Conniver?) Killer. Whether he's out for the money the whole time or really the salt of the earth pushed too far, Bernie is one of the most memorable and complex characters of the year, and Black's rendering it's almost unfathomable to me that it didn't win him major recognition.
Blood Father - Jean-Francois Richet - Mel Gibson turns in an engaged performance as Link, a dirtbag parolee just trying to stay sober while he ekes out a quiet living as a tattoo artist in a dusty ass-end of nowhere trailer park, whose runaway daughter reaches out desperate for his help. He takes her in for a few days and promises her some money if she sobers up, but trouble tracks her down in the form of a nasty pack of criminals she's on the run from before sobriety can really be established. Nothing special about the plot or set-up here, they're pretty standard. The pleasure is just how punchy a familiar tune can sound when played loudly by the right band in the right venue. The action is simple, but clear and quick and brutal. Gibson holds the center as a man left with only two emotions - anger and more angrier - and precious little in coping mechanisms since he's committed to sobriety and the rules of his parole. One of those commitments is ditched early (and not without pain) but Link confesses to his daughter that he's having fun living on the lam with baddies coming out of the woodwork after them, and that's our cue to jump in and chew this thing as a palatable piece of pulp (based on the novel by co-screenwriter Peter Craig) rather than a harrowing tale of crime and consequence. The subcultures of the film add tremendously to the atmosphere - the trailer park full of scraggly, well armed rednecks, the fleabag motel, peckerwood biker bar and the compound where Dale Dickey and Michael Parks run an internet business specializing in confederate and nazi paraphernalia. Note to filmmakers: if Michael Parks is available you fucking use Michael Parks.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 - S. Craig Zahler - After the amazing job Zahler did creating a low-budget high-intensity horror/western in Bone Tomahawk and the wonderfully nutso vibe of the trailer for his crime flick follow-up featured shorn-headed Vince Vaughn beating up a car with his bare hands I was primed for something unhinged. Happy to report that just like Bone Tomahawk this one features some absolutely jaw-dropping violence - just nasty, snapping, crushing, crunching, slicy, spicy action that elicited many a delighted/horrified squeal from my blood-lusty self. The tone is a tricky one and I mostly enjoyed being a little off-balance, but it goes from blue-collar family drama to B-crime movie straight on into some super-gnarly exploitation prison fare (which, I believe, is where its heart truly lies) and not all of them fully succeed. The film opens with Vaughn's character being laid off a job he really needs, then coming home early to find his wife Jennifer Carpenter is cheating on him. Dude is pissed and the rising violence percolating beneath his surface makes us nervous for his co-workers and especially his wife when he angrily tells her to go inside the house and wait for him. Then comes the car beating scene and what follows is the first hint that Zahler is up to more than your average exploitation movie-making. Vaughn and Carpenter's post-cheating revelation conversation is some unexpected character shit that points to promising things both for writer Zahler and actor Vaughn. Unfortunately the real payoff, if it comes, will probably be in other projects because while an interesting pause beat in the drama, it's not really followed through with by exploring the interesting relationship further (it doesn't have to, I just hoped it would). It does lead to more upending of audience expectations of Vaughn's character though - and I fuckin appreciate that (the other best example is when he switches sides in the middle of a fight). We progress from there into my least-favorite element of the film - the crime movie. Least favorite because in every other situation Vaughn's character proves himself an independent operator with an interesting moral code and superior level of competence. Why this guy would work for the boss he works for as a criminal just boggles my mind. Vaughn is clearly the more intelligent, level-headed and respectable, yet finds his life utterly fucked (and therefore his budding family's too - the supposed reason he's demeaning himself with a life of crime in the first place) because of his boss's short-sightedness and greed. Then, late in the game he makes a play in cooperation with the same shit-bag crime boss and the dynamic seems much more like neighborhood bros forever than stand-up guy calling in a fraction of the chit he's owed by a sheltered, privileged scumbag whose life goes on uninterrupted and doesn't appear the least bit cowed by the consequences of his actions heaped upon his best guy's family. It rang false or at the very least extremely frustrating to me. With all the other bold and strong choices made by Zahler and Vaughn, whose performance is overly mannered and stilted to the exact degree that his character would be (the more I sit with it, the more I like what he was doing here), I have to give them the benefit of the doubt and believe they did exactly what they wanted to do rather than believe it was a mistake or mis-calculation or simple under-executed piece of the overall vision. I'm sure I will revisit this film repeatedly and it may smooth out or vex me further. Thankfully, then we move on to the meatiest part of the film - the prison bit. We start with a pretty straight up hard time picture, but very early switch gears into fucking extreme exploitation action movie gnarliness with the always welcome Udo Kier introducing us to a plotline John Carpenter would've made one of his greatest movies out of in the early eighties - Vaughn's pregnant wife has been abducted and will suffer an ugly as hell fate if Vince doesn't get himself transferred to a specific super-max facility and murder another inmate who is kept within a secret prison within a prison run by the sadistic always leather-gloved Don Johnson and he's got to do it super quick. From here the movie is pure fucking pleasure as he starts and finishes prison fight after prison fight escalating the awful like he's in a video game until he is dishing out just outrageously awesomely gross physical damage to body after body inside a high-pulp torture factory with floors of broken glass and vests that deliver random incapacitating electric shocks. By the time he's decapitating some motherfucker on the jagged edge of a literal shit hole it's reached a level of go-for-broke gross out violence that few American made action pictures with movie stars ever get to. And that, friends, makes spending time with this sorta unsufferable character way worthwhile. Zahler and Vaughn give the character the sort of irritating national pride and self-righteousness most likely born of having a father or uncle who went to 'Nam, that's common in say your average Michael Bay leading man, but make you sit with him in such an uncomfortable proximity, his mostly terrible taste and personal aesthetic that would be an endearing punchline for a handful of scenes in a more mainstream movie, is instead presented without irony and believably similar to the way I appreciate Steven C. Miller's suburban dude bro characters with their shiny black pick up trucks and crisp ball caps over some of the overly earnest feints at "authenticity" in your average art house rural plight drama. We have every reason to believe he's got a Nickelback tune on repeat in his head while pumping himself up for the coming violence - mercifully, we're spared enduring it.
Buzzard - Joel Potrykus - Joshua Burge plays Marty, a misanthropic temp worker at a bank, who skates by on as little effort as possible and whose only ambition in life seems to be ripping off the low-hanging fruit of societal systems and institutions. In the opening scene he takes advantage of a loophole in the bank's checking account promotion like he's in a Seinfeld episode or he's Adam Sandler in Punchdrunk Love filling his grocery cart with pudding, but he doesn't give a shit about how he's perceived by the incredulous teller who stresses how bad it looks that Marty works for the bank. Marty answers matter-of-factly "It doesn't matter... it's irrelevant." It's as close to a moral stance as Marty ever takes - actually, I take that back. There are a couple other times Marty is genuinely morally outraged: when he discovers that another con artist has ripped him off, and Marty fails to find any sense of shame on the part of his victimizer with his reasoned appeals and twice when he's caught in a criminal action and the marks refuse to let him off the hook - that's when we get glimpses of all the scary potential within him. But Marty's criminality expands to every area of his life. He owes nothing -certainly not decency, or consideration- to co-workers, family or even those who are trying to help him. Marty's serial-victim is his co-worker Derek (writer/director Potrykus) who is nicely juxtaposed to Marty. Derek's another lonely guy without any perceivable ambition who is content to coast through life simply doing his cushy job and living in his parent's basement, but he desperately wants a friend and finds nothing but contempt from Marty - who could have an anonymous easy life if he didn't hate everybody and everything so much that he's driven to rail so pathetically against it at every opportunity. The idea that Marty is lazy is unfounded - he works hard at pet projects - he's just not that bright. We get the feeling that if he survives long enough he may blossom into a very dangerous man. This film is funny as hell, but unnerving too as the extremities of Marty's commitment to anarchy and self-preservation run up against his absolute refusal or inability to imagine consequences for his actions or lack thereof. Office Space meets Taxi Driver? Clerks by way of Nightcrawler? It's a portrait of a uniquely American strain of sociopath (correct usage? I think so) and while on the surface may seem an outlier for discussion on a crime film blog, I think it's the best example of pure criminality on the list.
Django Unchained - Quentin Tarantino - Dug it. Jamie Foxx plays the titular former-slave now bounty hunter trying to find the wife he was separated from as a victim of the cold, ugly commerce of flesh-trade. Along the way he'll learn the legal and capital ins-and-outs of violence as well as give and take more than his fair share of it. I liked it in 2012, but was pretty stunned by a recent rewatch. In fact, in my more hyperbolic moments you might hear me call it one of the best American-made movies about America ever. Tarantino's angriest picture is still fun at times, but it also boils under the surface and features some harrowing violence (among all the other types of violence; funny, cool, kinetic, gore-splattered, implied) to keep you sober. The seething, crawling, all consuming need to commit violence just barely concealed behind the masks men wear and the non-existent limits he will go to to sate his appetite once any kind of legal justification is available and how any law is available if you have the money to make it so... it's something else and might continue moving up my list.
Go For Sisters - John Sayles - Bernice (Lisa Gay Hamilton) is a parole officer whose work causes her path to recross with childhood friend Fontayne (Yolanda Ross), a parolee trying to put her life back together. When Bernice's son, a former soldier, goes missing (most likely kidnapped) in Mexico, she enlists her former friend's help in tracking him down. Along the way the duo hire a private detective (Edward James Olmos) and get in over their heads with dangerous people, but the bond between the women proves surprisingly strong and provides a very satisfying main course for the film. The actors ultimately rescue what could have been an exercise in trope subversion (I know - this time the detectives are black women, looking for a young boy who's disappeared) and elevate it to one of the best dramas, let alone crime films I've seen this year. And Sayles certainly deserves credit for that - I don't mean to suggest that he only wrote a cute send-up of the mystery genre - I'm sure he meant for it to be more than that - but without the great performances and chemistry between performers, that's all we'd have. Best moment: the opening scene of Bernice at work hearing stories from parolees is top notch scene setting and character building and both Hamilton and Ross are amazing to watch.
God's Pocket - John Slattery - Mickey (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a semi-legit businessman and a low-level criminal whose stepson Leon (Caleb Landry Jones) is a royal fuckup. When Leon provokes an elderly and seemingly feeble black coworker to fight and ends up dead, nobody at the job site is too upset by the loss and they all follow the foreman's lead by sticking with the accident on the job story he comes up with in order to spare the poor, old-timer unnecessary grief from the white cops. Leon's mother (Christina Hendricks) however is convinced that there's a cover up of some kind and goads her husband and a local celebrity newsman (Richard Jenkins) to investigate the incident leading to tragi-comic results on every front. Can't for the life of me figure out why this one didn't get more play what with the great posthumous performance from Hoffman, the rest of the cast which includes Eddie Marsan, John Turturro, Domenick Lombardozzi and Glenn Fleshler, the feature directorial debut of Slattery and the revered source material by Pete Dexter. In a very strong year, it's one of my favorite films and should pick up the following it deserves in years to come. After The Paperboy, it's nice to see so much of the feel of Dexter's voice and tone come through in an adaptation.
The Guard - John Michael McDonagh - Those McDonagh brothers know how to use Brendan Gleeson, I'll say that. He's rude, crude, semi-corrupt and very effective in his work, and when he's teamed with Don Cheadle's straight-laced feeb from the States to investigate an international smuggling ring, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was a racially updated remake of 48 Hours, but you'd be mistaken. It's so much more. And less. Unexpected and understated, performance, pacing and tone keep this one from resembling anything else it happens to look like on the surface.
A Hard Day - Seong-hoon Kim - Terrific entry in the worst-day-of-your-life genre from South Korea. Sun-kyun Lee plays Go, a dirty cop, who must scramble to cover his tracks and salvage everything he can as his career and life in general take the express train to shit-town. Best moment: Go kills a man on the way to his mother's funeral and has to hide the body in the coffin with mom. It's the movie in a nutshell - fast-paced, inventive, absurdly funny and a solid thriller all around.
Haywire - Steven Soderbergh - More than just an A-list introduction vehicle for former MMA fighter and then budding action star Gina Carano, it's also a deconstruction of the international action and espionage genre from Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs with gender politics, the mercenary business and movie tropes on its mind. True, the big movie stars Carano's Mallory Kane goes toe to toe with aren't all action movie regulars, but each one represents a type of formidable masculine movie persona and it's fun to see her meet and mix with each and justify her threat-level status. I don't mean to make it sound like a strictly academic exercise either. It's playful (David Holmes' score always elevates the material) and kicks some serious ass. Carano's line delivery isn't always natural (was Arnold's, Van Damme's, Dolph's?), but she absolutely sells the physicality and there's a hell of a lot of it. The Michael Fassbender scene is the show-stopper, but she tangles brutally with the larger Channing Tatum employing believably smart tactics to best his size and strength as well as just squashing the comparably impish Ewan McGregor. She also gets to handle weapons, run and jump a lot and do some stunt driving to boot. Some of the best moments in the movie are what would otherwise be throwaway montages in ordinary adventure films of perfect getaways, but when she makes un-forced errors (slipping and falling while running, hitting an obstacle that seemed perfectly avoidable while driving a car) it shakes the viewer out of passively reading action movie short-hand and underlines her humanity and fallibility which only increase the stakes and make it more impressive when she performs elevated-human moves. Carano's film career has been spotty (as most action stars' are) and Haywire remains the high point, but she doesn't have anything to prove after this one - if the project is quality, she's an asset.
Headhunters - Morten Tyldum - Expectations (or lack of) working in its favor here. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't have given it a chance if I wasn't hoping to like it and feeling there was a decent chance I would, but holy crap... I really liked it. Relentless pursuit thriller about an art thief who makes the wrong mark. Really, just poor, poor decision there, pal. Literally goes places you'll not explore in safey-safe, big-budget U.S. productions, and scores major points along the way. Adapted from the novel by Jo Nesbø.
Holiday - Isabella Eklöf - Victoria Carmen Sonne plays Sascha a naive young woman on holiday with her older boyfriend and his pals. They stay in nice spots, eat at good restaurants, hit the best clubs and always get their way. They're violent criminals and thugs and people stay out of their way because everyone who gets close to them can feel the danger. Everyone that is except Sascha. The film opens with Sascha shopping in a trendy boutique and when her credit card is declined she decides to pay with some cash she's a courier for on behalf of one of her boyfriend's illicit activities. When she tells the bagman that the count if a little short because she needed to buy some jewelry he slaps her and threatens her with the most chillingly absolute declaration of his indifference to her well-being and that threat that she could be left behind or killed outright at any moment for any reason is a lesson well learned... by the audience. It never leaves the viewer's mind. Throughout the beautiful, scenic tourist activities it sits in the pits of our stomachs like a sack of wet rags, only Sascha seems to have forgotten it and moved on without any kind of appreciation of the danger she is in. We spend the run time of the film watching her blindfolded tightrope walk across the abyss maddeningly oblivious until reality can be suppressed no longer and then... This movie is rough. It's an exercise in sustained dread that stuck with me for weeks afterward.
The House That Jack Built - Lars Von Trier - Matt Dillon delivers one of the funniest performances of his career as Jack a frustrated architect/engineer who spent twelve years as a serial killer in the 70s and 80s. The film is narrated by Jack telling his story to Bruno Ganz's Virgil as the latter escorts him through the afterlife. Along the tour of heaven and hell the duo talk to pass the time - Jack finding it refreshing to speak frankly about his hobby with someone he cannot shock - and viewers are subjected to episodes from Jack's life as he murders (mostly women) in increasingly elaborately staged scenarios. We witness Jack bloom as his once crippling OCD eases and his muse dares to go bigger as consequence and punishment fail to find him. Nobody more surprised than myself to have an LVT pick in my top ten this year. I've been pissed at him since all that terrible Dogme '95 horseshit derailed a career I was very interested in up to that point. I've watched several of his films and skipped just as many over the last 20-some years, but while most of the ones I've seen have let slip flashes of brilliance - just terrific moments that make it clear he's a film maker of considerable talent - most of them have committed the unforgivable sin of boring me. The House That Jack Built did not. I know this one caused some outrage at its festival premier and that what I saw was a 'compromised' R-rated cut. I can't say whether my views on the film would change seeing the unrated cut, but to say that LVT's career has courted controversy I think gives him too much credit. Mostly I've found his provocations to feel juvenile and likewise those who are outraged by them, who constantly take the bait, to sound just about as juvenile in their outcries. The philosophical mumbo-jumbo spouted by Jack weighs nothing and did not engage me at all. If it engages (and enrages) you or not may be the litmus test for audience response to the movie - much the same way the degree to which you listen closely to the monologues the characters on True Detective will decide your appreciation of that show. In both cases I think they're perhaps overly elaborate reveals of character's self-perception, but the meat is what happens on screen and there's a lot of meat - or at least a lot to chew on. Even someone as unaware as I am about Von Trier off-screen can see Jack as a stand-in for the film maker constantly frustrated when he tries to make something beautiful and only successful when he does terrible things - his freezer slowly filling up with rotting-corpses/ideas that he takes out once in a while to try again to make more satisfying pictures of in silly poses. Upon reaching the end of the tour of hell - when Virgil shows him the absolute depths and then disappoints Jack by saying "that's not where you're going, I just thought you'd like to see it" it plays as a wink at Von Trier's tendency to self-aggrandize that his stand-in decides to push through deepest hell for an impossible chance out of the pit rather than be obscure and abandoned in a less hellish level. The episodic structure allows the film to play sometimes like a suspense thriller, other times like a horror film, a fantasy and probably most effectively as a comedy. There is a chapter early on that is probably the most effective prolonged sequence of comedic suspense I saw this year. This may or may not be for you. Did it shock me? I definitely audibly engaged once or twice, but it's difficult to be shocked when it is clearly what the provocateur wants to do. Entertained though? Yeah, I enjoyed wondering what the hell was about to happen next.
Hustlers - Lorene Scafaria - Constance Wu plays Destiny, a dancer taken under the wing of Jennifer Lopez's Ramona to learn how to hustle more efficiently in this true story of a very lucrative run made by a group of um hustlers during the great recession. It's the fucking Goodfellas of stripper movies with Wu in the Liotta role and J-Lo as De Niro and I really don't mean that in a reductive sense it's meant to be high praise. This movie has flash and real sex appeal - the hustle and the action are the really sexy bits - as well as heart and a tragic flaw that brings the whole thing crashing down. It's got some of the most immediately iconic lines for Lopez too; "Doesn't money make you horny?," the fur coat, and her perfect summation of American capitalism: "people tossing the money and people doing the dance." I am here for the Jennaissance.
I Saw the Devil - Kim Jee-Woon - Byung-Hun Lee is a federal cop whose fiancee becomes the latest victim of a depraved serial murderer at the beginning of the film. It was a potent, horrible start to the movie and I steeled myself for a procedural that promised grim atmospherics and an unflinching approach to onscreen nastiness, but the mystery didn't last more than a few minutes before our cop has his man (Min-sik Choi). Where had the two and a half hour long movie left to go? Many, deeply unpleasant places. More importantly though, many pleasantly surprising places. I was figuring out the game just about the time the killer was and our reactions were pretty similar too. That wasn't unsettling at all. It's not a mystery, it's not a procedural, it's a revenge story that makes monsters out of all participants. It is a movie full of horrible happenings, nihilism and sport-torture taking place in grungy cement block basements. There's a lot of screaming and awfulness and I recoiled from it immediately. I never quite got away though. I think about I Saw the Devil an awful lot for a film I haven't actually gone back to revisit. I used to say I admired it more than I liked it, but I may have to walk that comment back. I think I liked it. I just don't know that I like that I do. Regardless, it's a hell of a thing.
Inception - Christopher Nolan - Leonardo DiCaprio's Cobb is a highly specialized thief who breaks into people's minds to steal their secrets. He's got a crack team of operators and they hire out to high-paying clients. Sometimes they work for governments, but more often they're doing industrial espionage. It's a job that almost nobody in the world even knows of, but apparently among the uber-rich and powerful there are mental defense techniques being taught to guard against these types of attacks. To help the audience understand it all we're introduced to the concepts and rules via Ellen Page's team initiate who has a talent for the work. Which is good because DiCaprio's starting to slip. He's dragging too much of his own baggage into the jobs. He's being dream-stalked by his former wife (Marion Cotillard) and if she catches him it'll have catastrophic consequences for everyone involved. Pretty boss premise pulled off with the kind of popping visuals Nolan's good at. If it weren't such a mammoth hit I'd probably like it more, but for fuck's sake every dummy out there saw this thing and wanted to gush over it for the next five years, just like The Matrix before it. But it is pretty cool. Climactic action sequences go on for three eternities, but it's a small price to pay for watching big talents disappear up their own obsessions - it feels like the work of a personality rather than a blockbuster by committee and yeah, Nolan's more into structure and puzzle boxes than I am, but he sure makes exquisite contraptions.
Inherent Vice - Paul Thomas Anderson - When his former girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) shows up out of the blue to enlist his help, hippie detective Doc Sportellow (Joaquin Phoenix) puts every ounce of his will and cunning into the case. Unfortunately Doc's will and cunning are both measured in ounces and keep him running smooth and aloof and slightly untethered from reality. The purple haze that envelops Doc blows him around 1970 L.A. into all the best bits of paranoid conspiracy tales - sex, drugs, celebrity and smuggling. The sooner you ditch the plot the more you'll enjoy the ride. It's so ridiculously Byzantine and looped through its own asshole, you'll get whiplash if you hold on too tight. Deconstruction or parody? Easy target or easy viewing? Not sure I understand its place in Anderson's ouevre and pretty sure I don't care. It's hilarious and sad and just a little bit hopeful in the end with a huge, killer cast, beautiful visuals and a soundtrack to die for. It casts a spell.
Kill List - Ben Wheatley - The structure and pace of this slow-burner may challenge the average action junky's attention span, but I was riveted from frame one (probably partially due to being primed by Wheatley's previous Down Terrace). Begins as a domestic drama, progresses to a workaday hit man procedural and festers into a horrifying personal investigation and retribution. Imagine starting Faces and finishing Rosemary's Baby (if John Cassavetes illustrations help you).
Killer Joe - William Friedkin - I think we want everybody to get what's coming equally in this skid-mark-row murder comedy. Ah, the half-baked plans of low-rent criminals. I feel like the anti-George Peppard here - I love it when a quick money plan goes to shit. God bless playwright Tracy Letts for delivering the director of some of my all-time favorite flicks a new, provocative muse - Joe is the second Letts/Friedkin collaborative after 2006's Bug.
Lawless - John Hillcoat - Had director Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave given us this one before The Proposition, it might've fared better in my eyes. Compared to The Proposition, it's kind of an over-cooked mess (maybe trying to incorporate too much of Matt Bondurant's source novel The Wettest County in the World) but compared to ninety percent of crime dramas out there, it stands tall. Lots of great period detail, several off the action-flick playbooks moments and a continued Hillcoat/Cave tradition of never giving us an instance of casual onscreen violence (you'll feel every physical violation) make it worth catching up with.
Let the Corpses Tan - Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani - another exercise in extremely stylized and sensual violence and mayhem that's a whole lotta gonzo fun from the duo responsible for AMER and others. Based on the novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette.
Martha Marcy May Marlene - Sean Durkin - Haunting and dreadful, poetic and pleasing, the story of a young woman escaped, and possibly on the run, from a cult led by charismatic creepy old guy scale John Hawkes. Black and white it's not, and the questions raised in the film's final shot are as intriguing and important as any it answered beforehand - ambiguity used well.
Metro Manila - Sean Ellis - Oscar (Jake Macapagal) is a rice farmer who moves his family to the big city when he is no longer able to support them working the fields. The urban jungle is no kinder to them, but both parents are desperate enough to work dangerous and demeaning jobs to support themselves and their family, she as a topless dancer in a sleazy club where prostitution is pretty much a job requirement and he as a driver in an armored car service where he'll be a target for criminals with nothing left to lose and who don't mind shooting it out for a chance at the cash and valuables he's moving them from point-a to point-b (and if you've ever seen another movie, it'll come as no surprise that he faces just as much or more danger from his co-workers who want that money just as much as anybody else). After digging the Filipino export On the Job so hard earlier this year, I was ready to dive into another crime flick from the hard heart of the city and this one delivers, even if it swerves a little hard into the innocents forced to do bad things genre at times. Beautiful and gritty and emotionally engaging - highly recommended. Best moment: Oscar's job interview.
Mission Impossible franchise - Brad Bird, Christopher McQuarrie - Ethan Hunt's Impossible Mission Force is back for more and all the same things keep happening: betrayals, disavowed statuses, failures of sci-fi technology, reckless compromise of national/world stability and a series of heroic efforts resulting in jet-setting breathless chases, narrow margins of victory and me wondering just how the hell this series continues to improve and thrill me. As a franchise it is remarkable for a single stand-out reason though and that is star Tom Cruise's commitment to upping the physical stakes for himself as a performer. In fact the onscreen shenanigans are so ridiculous a casual observer will probably assume that they represent quantum leaps in CGI sophistication rather than noticing that they really do all that stuff in camera. Holy shit. I suspect the deepening pleasures of this series will be careful rewatches - not to parse plot points - but to study how exactly the thrills are constructed.
New World - Hoon-jung Park - An undercover cop working for years inside a Korean crime syndicate sees the end of his mission approach with the the filling of the power vacuum after the death of the syndicate's head. His mission is to influence the 'election' of the new head. So, the setup is kind of a mash up of gangster pictures from The Godfather to The Departed, but remember, this is contemporary Korean crime cinema - so kindly take your expectations and stick em in your ear. It's no non-stop thriller like The Chaser or The Yellow Sea and it's not the twisty-De Palma-esque fare of Oldboy or Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, but it is distinctly other from its Hollywood counterparts. It is solid. It is brutal. It is - holy shit, did you see that? - remember what I'd said about the uniqueness of Korean crime flicks and the general absence of guns? Well, that absence pays off beautifully, amazingly, stunningly, in the climactic confrontation. It is the Best moment: The hit sequence. Holee shit. The elevator fight at the end of said hit sequence. Amazeballs.
Pain & Gain - Michael Bay - A trio of over-muscled, dim-witted body builders hatch and unfortunately execute an illll-conceived kidnapping and extortion plan that leads to murder and (worse) betrayal and (worse yet) maybe not believing in themselves. Did you see what just happened there? While we weren't looking, Michael fucking Bay made one of my favorite crime flicks of the year, and he hid it in plain sight beneath the pumped-uppedness of Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson and the over-long, bloated tradition of his Transformers and Bad Boys franchises. No, this is not a perfect film. It is too long, and in love with itself, and it does get pulled in a half-dozen too many directions, but the meat is well worth the fat surrounding it, and mercifully, unlike a more uh, arty? treatment of the material, P&G keeps it funny and resists a pull toward third act preachiness that so many treatments of this type of fare tend toward. The cast is mostly great including Wahlberg in full Dirk Diggler dimbulb mode (so many great lines delivered via voiceover - revealing the character's bottomless well of stupid as well as his con-man's gift for sincerity - I'd buy a car from him), Tony Shalhoub in fourth asshole gear and Johnson who showed me his most complex and nuanced performance yet as a verrrrry dumb, but totally sincere ex-con with a jailhouse Christian conversion, desperate for acceptance, guilt-ridden over his trespasses and walking the line between sobriety and coke-addled with about as much success as you'd guess. This flick is funny, smart and even satirical in its excess. It ain't Fargo, but it's probably a lot closer than you'd guess. Best moment: Johnson has to kill a man he's kidnapped and whom he's befriended over weeks of captivity and bonded with over their sobriety and Jesus. I'd really like to go on about how the scene goes on and on, piling indignity upon cruelty and reaches a climax so emotionally complex and over the top awful, it may be the greatest snuff sequence of the year... taking on, The Counselor.
Paris By Night - Philippe Lefebvre - One shift on the beat of a Parisian vice cop Weiss (Roschdy Zem) and his driver/partner for the night Deray (Sara Forestier). Over the course of the night Weiss deals with an encroaching internal affairs corruption investigation, tying his loose ends up and putting ducks in a row while keeping up his underworld overlord status by rattling cages and jerking chains as needed. It's a tour of seedy clubs and neighborhoods lit entirely by neon and strobe - it's one of the best looking films I've seen in a long while and I could have enjoyed the running time's worth of simply following Weiss through the bowels of Paris, but low, a satisfying story emerges - a mystery if you will - and whaddyaknow it doesn't suck.
Pimp - Christine Crokos - This slice of street life crime picture has tendrils in so many competing styles without ever committing to one that it takes an especially strong central element to hold it all together. I don't mean that as a criticism of the script, but as testament to the strength, commitment and charisma of Keke Palmer's performance as Wednesday, a pimp like her daddy before her. Part urban-exploitation, part hardcore crime thriller, part romantic melodrama and part morality fable it delivers the genre thrills and occasionally knocks you around emotionally when you've left yourself vulnerable. This one tackles sensitive material with all the nuance and sober subtlety "a Lee Daniels production" is famous for (infamous for?), but there's no denying the raw power of Crokos' engine and Palmer's fuel. Escape to New York? Side note: pretty sure that Keke Palmer is the only actor to show up on this list twice (she's also part of the Hustlers ensemble).
The Place Beyond the Pines - Derek Cianfrance - This is exactly the kind of film I wanted it to be - a heartbreaker about the desperate things people will do to build a life and the ways they cope with the the life they've made (and the things they did to make it). It's got a wonderful and familiar blue-collar setting that could be cozy if you've got a loving family around you or terribly depressing if you feel trapped and limited by it. It has an ambitious structure that will hopefully keep you just a little off-balance and heighten the emotional stakes, a talented director with his feet set firmly in character and crime (how about that early tracking shot that follows Ryan Gosling through the fair and into the cage? Not too showy, but wow - like to see McG try and deliver something that technically sophisticated, but rooted in, and in support of, character and place, as opposed to simply calling attention to itself), and a cast eager to appear in a solid, small-scale drama. The end of the film asks for a level of 'just go with me here' that you may not be willing grant it, but I found the climax to be thematically compelling and a just heightened enough reality to deliver the big emotional pay-off. Will you accept the delivery? I'll be curious to hear what you think. And, for all the talent involved, the film was never more alive than when Ben Mendelsohn or Bruce Greenwood were onscreen. Best moment: Gosling waits on the front porch to be arrested after fucking up.
Rampart - Oren Moverman - Moverman's take on James Ellroy's original script is to scale back the overly familiar thriller aspects, cop talk and social commentary in favor of presenting a character piece and bringing us into conflict with our own wishes while we watch a bad man on his way down. Date Rape Dave Brown has all the classic Ellroy cop qualities - fucked-up, but earnestly invested-in family life (his ex-wives, the excellent pairing of Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon, whom he has one daughter apiece from and still occasionally sleeps with, are sisters - making his daughters half sisters as well as first cousins - and live together), un-apologetically, outspoken un-PC jive that seems less a reflection of any honest convictions than it is a tool he employs to put everyone on the defensive when dealing with him - he's a button pusher, relentlessly digging under your skin so that you won't get under his. And that's the thing - he's terribly vulnerable. Those most adept at handling his bullshit, (his ex-wives, his children, Ned Beatty's fatherly underworld contact and Robin Wright's romantically conflicted attorney) are capable of rendering him into an exposed nerve of sputtering fear, insecurity and self-loathing. When a video camera catches Brown employing a little too much enthusiasm in the execution of his duties he finds that he's up for the role of departmental scape-goat, but Brown isn't about to go down meekly. As each of the plates he's somehow kept spinning for years begin to wobble and he jumps about frantically attentive to each in crisis mode his behavior and decision making devolve and disintegrate quickly. There's a fantastic sequence near the end of the film depicting Brown pushing his appetites till he's literally sick. He trolls through an underground sex club, shovels copious amounts of food into the gaping void of his face with two greasy hands and washes it down with whiskey for its short stay on the inside before vomiting in an alley and stumbling along the sidewalk among other denizens of the night. Couple Woody Harrelson's physical similarity to Ellroy, (not to mention Moverman - wtf?) with Ellroy's descriptions of his own unstoppable binge episodes and you've got... I dunno exactly what you've got. It's searing, personal and bullshit too, but Rampart would make a great second half to a double feature with one of the more plot-driven thriller pieces made from Ellroy's words.
The Robber - Benjamin Heisenberg - Terrific crime drama based on the novel On the Run by Martin Prinz which was inspired by the exploits of Austrian desperado Johann Kastenberger who, pre-Point Break, robbed banks wearing a Ronald Reagan mask and sporting a shotgun... which is pretty badass. But there's more to it than that. The film wisely chooses not to get much into the character's past and, like him, focus on nothing but constantly moving forward. The fictionalized Johann (Andreas Lust) is in prison at the beginning of the film, about to be paroled. We watch him train obsessively in his cell and in the yard for marathon running. His parole officer asks him, what his plans are after his release and is concerned by the reply he gets - to run - noting that it's extremely difficult to make a living that way, but failing to understand that Johann will use his long-distance running as his preferred getaway mode on bank jobs. And he appears perfectly capable of making that work for him... but it's never really about the money for him and he pushes himself relentlessly toward disaster or glory. The fusion of an intelligent, crafty operator and a compulsive self-destructive personality makes for a great crime flick with solid drama and legit thrills. Best moment: two-fer chase sequence.
Sicario franchise - Denis Villeneuve, Stefano Sollima - Like many people I know I had mixed reactions to the first film which had undeniably great cinematography and sound design and editing and a swell cast working with good dialogue from a script that...What the fuck exactly did that script think it was doing? It was advertised as an issue-movie; a serious dramatic examination of the war on violence and corruption of big narco business inching its way under the panty-line of the all-mighty, innocent complicity of American (I mean US) policy, but instead delivered a thriller that also worked as a horror film of tooth-grindingly effective suspense sequences only to be hi-jacked in the final act by a long-lost macho revenge pulp of yore. The inarguable competence and even excellence of every other area of the production spoke to this not being a fluke - way too dark to be the product of studio notes derailing a project to make it more commercially digestible - so this... this was the plan the whole time. I needed to watch it again (and again) to chew on the choices. Sicario under-performed at the domestic box office so it was a big surprise when a sequel was green-lit. Finally, a sequel that would actually help me decide how I felt about the original. So... Day of the Soldado begins with a couple of sequences that plays like FOX News jerk-off material tying drug cartels to international Islamic terrorism and giving the Washington suits all the excuse they need to get super awful. They enlist Josh Brolin's ever committed to comfortable footwear spook to "get dirty." Brolin is first seen using missile strikes against civilians and private residences as leverage against a detainee he's questioning - a threat he makes good on, by the way. And the prisoner? Isn't a jihadist or even a cartel gangster. He's a pirate, a smuggler (he's Han Solo in the movie of his life) and it's clear that we are the fucking evil empire in this situation. The state department's strategy is to get the cartels so embroiled in fighting each other that the last ones standing are relatively easy pickings for the alphabet soup of US agencies to control. "Winning" isn't the goal. The goal is stability. Brolin's plan? Kidnap the teenaged daughter of one of the cartel leaders and make it look like it was done by a rival cartel. True, this was all written and shot before the 'wait, are we really comfortable with being the country who uses the threat of separating brown children from their families as leverage to deter immigrant hopefuls and asylum seekers from coming here?' conversation was so hotly and publicly discussed, but holy shit - this is super dark. Later, when the operation goes pear-shaped and Brolin bro Benicio Del Toro is out on his own with the abducted girl, the word comes down to abort and wipe it all down - kill Del Toro and the girl and cover up anything that could lead back to US involvement in her disappearance. At this point we're invited to treat Brolin and Del Toro as Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid type anti-heroes: folks we've been happy to be entertained by watching their criminal adventures who then see the only strand of moral code thus far unbroken tested. That being their personal bond. And understanding their utter insignificance in the big picture and slavish attitudes toward their empirical vocations, the two stoically agree to become enemies. And all of that I've no problem with. I don't need morally admirable characters to follow in order to be entertained and invested. I really appreciate in fact the treatment of the US government as just one more gang set against the others in a power struggle. Where Sicario didn't scream 'first in a franchise' Day of the Soldado ends in a clear 'we're not finished with these characters' epilogue. Both films feint at being issue-driven, but they get into absurd pulpy material pretty quick, and their politics seem confused only if you're looking for politics in them. At the end of the day they're both just super slick, glossy adventure pulps. Gangster shit, but with governments. What separates them from otherwise similar fare that devolves into flag-waving pablum is the complete absence of heroes as well as the complete disinterest in presenting anyone as such. These are pretty fucking nihilistic films. And I'd be happy to get another one. I just hope we stop basing policy on them.
A Single Shot - David M. Rosenthal - There is so much to root for in Sam Rockwell's protagonist John Moon, his earnestness and vulnerability, his self-reliance and personal integrity, but the movie being the movie and the world being the world, it's best not to get your hopes up too high for a happy ending. Moon is a man living in obscurity deep into the margins of society, surviving off the land and part time odd-jobs. The problem is, his wife can no longer handle the hand almost to mouth style of existence and has left him, taking their infant son with her. Moon is determined to win her back and is willing to make some compromises, even perhaps a steady soul-killing job, if she'll reconsider. Fortune intervenes in awful fashion by placing a young woman in the path of one of Moon's bullets intended for deer (which he poaches to survive). Among the young woman's personal affects he finds a shit load of cash money, and he makes the decision to choke down the guilt, hide the body in the woods and take the money. If you've ever seen a movie (or read the source novel by Matthew F. Jones - which you certainly should) than you're a half-mile ahead of Moon down the track. Other people are looking for that girl and for the money, and once he starts trying to funnel it to his estranged family, he's painted a big day-glo target on his ass. This is a beautifully shot, immersively atmospheric tragedy in a pond stocked with great characters and terrific performances (including highly watchable turns by William H. Macy, Jeffrey Wright, Kelly Reilly and Joe Anderson - plus appearances by Ted Levine, Jason Isaacs and W. Earl Brown are never a bad thing.
The Skin I Live In - Pedro Almodovar - Let us speak clearly. Almodovar is a film maker of vision and talent to rival anyone else working today. His control is absolute and his aim is true. He always makes exactly the picture he intends to. He just rarely makes one that I'm terribly attracted to. But watch out, when his sensibilities align with my own tastes and preferences, it's a mind-blowing experience. Dear Human Centipede, fuck off. This is the picture you never could be, this is The Count of Monte Cristo as medical horror. It gets beneath the er, skin of the thing and violates countless boundaries of good taste with such an exquisite sense of decorum and sumptuous visuals that a repeat viewing would blur the line between hedonist and masochist for me - a line I'll gladly cross for the sheer sensual fuckery going on. Based on the novel Tarantula by Thierry Jonquet.
Sleepless Night - Frederic Jardin - After riding the raw sugar rush, last year, of Fred Cavaye's Point Blank, I was, perhaps, less surprised by the jagged adrenaline trip that Sleepless Night turned out to be, but even more excited afterward to think that Point Blank and Sleepless Night may not be flukes. Perhaps the French have got a something floating in their collective consciousness that thriller film makers are tapping into and producing these stick-lean and ampheta-mean action flicks. 'Cause, wow, just wow, they start like a shot and end like a runaway train. These are some tightly controlled, solidly structured, excitingly executed movie-stuffs conveniently distilled into potent shots of kinetic-cinematic impact. Best moment: Kitchen fight. Brutal bout betwixt dog-tired pro-an-tagonists just clobbering the shit outta each other with anything they can lay their hands upon.
Small Crimes - Evan Katz - Joe Denton (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is a bent cop just out of prison for the attempted murder of a local prosecutor at the behest of the gangster in whose pocket he was quite comfortable before jail. Now out, he finds the world has moved on without him. His wife and kids have disappeared and want nothing to do with him, his parents let him sleep in their basement, but clearly do not trust him and keep civil faces stretched over deep wells of pain and resentment. The surviving victim of his attack is now horribly scarred and dead set on sending Joe back to prison for the rest of his life and there's no hiding in anonymity in the small community he's returned to - it seems everywhere he goes somebody openly hates him. Lastly, the gangster whose name he never spoke during his incarceration is on his deathbed and in sudden fear for the state of his immortal soul may be about to confess all of his sins including those that implicate Joe and another kept cop, the scene-stealing Gary Cole. To keep from going back to prison Joe's got to kill the gangster before he can confess while the hating eyes of the whole community are on him. If that sounds like a lot of plot to keep track of, don't worry, coming off his pitch perfect debut, Cheap Thrills, director Katz continues to demonstrate a deft touch with exposition, a knack for clearly defining character relationships and for maximizing the situational potential scene to scene. Of course the film is an adaptation of the excellent novel by Dave Zeltserman, so don't forget to check that one out too.
Snowman's Land - Tomasz Thomson - The Carpathians, land of dread, home of house Dracul, children of the night and such. What better place to set an isolation horror flick, or a claustrophobia-inducing crime thriller or jeez, a black comedy against the white snow. Take a sad-sack, tired out hit man and send him there for a mysterious task, shackle him with a dangerously fuck-up prone partner(?) target(?) and tell them to stay put in this scary fucking mansion in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by dark woods inhabited by unseen menace until their dread-lord appears and tells them their mission. Of course, things have plenty of time to go badly before their boss shows up, and things are bound to get exponentially worse after he arrives and ooooh shit, they do. Love love love not being able to see around corners in a film and love even more when my expectations are exceeded like they were here. Really strongly recommend this one. Buy the ticket. Take the ride. Best moment: what happens when they break out the uzis.
Spring Breakers - Harmony Korine - Spring break, that moment of carefree sexual abandon and privileged libidinous innocence before the onslaught of college finals, is now a rite of passage - almost a microcosm of the entire collegiate experience before the onset of adult responsibility - so generationally recognized, that for four friends trapped in the duldrums of midwestern small-town life, it is owed to them and they feel entitled to claim their slice of the American Dream by any means necessary. In their case, it's a goal they have been saving for all year, but have come up woefully short of being able to afford. So, forced by fate to become desperadoes, the girls rob a restaurant to finance their lifestyle (hey, the stockbrokers do it). Once on the beach, the ends have clearly justified the means - schlong and thong abound, titties bounce and wits are trounced as oblivion beckons unburden yourself... Until things get a bit too loud one night and the girls end up arrested for disturbing the peace. They cool their heels in a jail cell until they're bailed out by a complete strangest - Alien, the great white (hip-)hope (the transcendent James Franco) - who recognizes kindred spirits when he sees them. He whisks them away from the institutionalized and contained middle-class debauchery they think they want and introduces them to 'Spring Break Forever' - the 24-7 lifestyle that comes with the secret ingredient they didn't know they'd been missing - rage. These (ahem) fierce bitches find their calling knocking over tourists - mostly college kids like they used to be before they went pro - and engaging in gun battles over turf with a rival drug dealer's crew. It's a trashily beautiful film (shot in an almost Terence Malick style - lush visuals with voice-over from fragmented, non-linear scenes laid out in an impressionistic, mosaic), and is in conversation with many others - especially the old beach movies of the 60's like How to Stuff a Wild Bikini or Beach Blanket Bingo, that also starred ex-Disney ingenues (Annette Funicello in the past, Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens today). The beach movies of the 60's were exploitation flicks so square and confoundedly innocent unless you think of them as 'your dad's exploitation movies,' they seem to have been made much more for adult audiences looking to revel in a little young, buoyant flesh and teeter near the wild-side without ever going over the edge. The edge seems to have moved a bit further over since then, but it's clearly recognizable when our protagonists cross it. Which brings us to another film Spring Breakers is borrowing context from. The timing of the release of Sam Raimi's Oz the Great & Powerful, with Franco as the titular wizard, is a benefit to Alien's role as the shyster leading our midwestern heroines over the rainbow. Best moment: Alien leads a sing-along around the piano. Seriously, if nobody in Britney Spears camp cuts a video to this footage, the ball has been dropped big time.
The Town - Ben Affleck - Affleck stars with Jeremy Renner as Bank robbing Southie kids in Boston who've been running a slick crew for years, but their partnership doesn't look like it's going to survive the strain of a deciding what to do with Rebecca Hall's bank teller they took hostage. Affleck's supposed to be checking her out to see if she knows anything that can help Jon Hamm's FBI agent identify her abductors, but things get romantic pretty quickly and Renner wants to jump to the murder option rather than take a chance. Things get tense and way out of hand and there are bank robberies, strong-arm shit, big shootouts and all that good stuff. Based on Chuck Hogan's novel Prince of Thieves, this is fastball down the middle big production Hollywood crowd-pleaser crime fare that's about as good as that kind of thing can be. It's no Heat, but it's not a bad shadow.
The Tribe - Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi - A new kid at a school for deaf/mute students in Ukraine falls in with a ruthless criminal element among them. This one makes the cut for the sheer audacity of its vision and execution as well as for the devastating impact of the violent finale. Oof. It stuck with me. Check the IMDb page and you'll find that the characters have names, but that doesn't help discussing it because none of those names are ever uttered aloud. In fact there is no spoken dialogue in the film - the characters communicate through actions and sign language and, without the benefit of subtitles, it is the viewers who find themselves on the outside looking in and forced to interpret for themselves the events on screen. The film is composed of a series of scenes captured in single shots - sometimes static and wide focus, other times fluid and complex tracking shots that follow characters room to room or through locations like a truck stop where they run a prostitution ring. Did I mention this thing was dark? Holy shit is it. The level of criminality engaged in is no ordinary juvenile hijinks. Nope. The waters tread are dark, dangerous and infested with teenaged nihilists whose antics should impress even the most misanthropic viewer and induce cringes of real humanity. This one is challenging viewing, but pays off with images of visceral violence caught in a haunting vacuum of sound.
The Trust - Alex Brewer, Benjamin Brewer - Nicolas Cage and Elijah Woods play a couple of Las Vegas cops who decide to capitalize on their position to rip off a drug dealer. Chief among the pleasures of this feature debut from brothers Alex and Benjamin Brewer are their sense of scale and control of tone that balances humor, suspense and dark drama in a mix that keeps you guessing and unsure of where we're headed. Cage's volatile presence is utilized to great affect and Woods never lets us quite pin him down either. They're not particularly evil police, neither are they desperate or disillusioned former idealists, instead they're bored professionals who happen to be cops casual enough about their corruptibility to play like people rather than stock characters and thus keep us off balance unsure of what kind of film we're watching. Is it a buddy comedy? A thriller? Yes. It works on all the levels it plays at, but it's the film's final moments that really drive home what a well-crafted experience it is. Looking forward to more from the brothers Brewer for sure. Here's hoping they keep crime in mind.
War On Everyone - John Michael McDonagh -Michael Peña and Alexander Skarsgård are probably (hopefully) the worst cops in Albequerque - gleefully corrupt, sloppy and fascist - and they'd easy to hate if they weren't clearly enjoying every moment of it so much. When we first encounter them they're in pursuit of a mime with a briefcase full of cocaine. They run down the fleeing suspect with their car and steal the drugs. Next we see them tailing a pair of bad news prison escapees whom they're not interested in catching, but rather following to whatever their next score is and ripping them off. To that end they extort the cooperation of Malcolm Barrett's Reggie X getting him a spot in the heist by violently creating an opening for him. When most of the crew end up murdered Reggie absconds with all the money and they track him down only to discover that it's not them Reggie's afraid of, rather the psychopathic crime boss with the poncy name Lord James Mangan - played with maximum sadistic sleaze by Theo James. It all comes down to a bloody showdown between bad cops accidentally on the right side of things and worse criminals just doing what they do. It feints at heart, it steps on guts and trips over balls to ultimately become a fast and loose, violent and profane, absurd and episodic comedy that succeeds and fails scene to scene on the strength of the script and the chemistry between the cast including Caleb Landry Jones, Tessa Thompson, David Wilmot and Paul Reiser.
Widows - Steve McQueen - When a tightly knit heist crew is taken down in a shootout with Chicago police their widows are left holding their debts to banks, politicians and gangsters. The women come from disparate backgrounds and have no connection to each other outside of varying degrees of and reasons for desperation and decide to use the blueprints left behind for their late husbands' next score to settle scores and free themselves for deciding their own futures. The talent assembled on and behind the camera is considerable, but there is no one more in command of the proceedings than Viola Davis whose natural born leadership is apparent and solid enough to carry the production. Based on the novel by Lynda La Plante which already inspired a mini-series thirty years ago, it's easy to see how the story could support many more hours of onscreen exploration and it's easy to forgive McQueen and screenwriter Gillian Flynn for indulging story lines that don't keep the focus squarely on the central crew, still, I wanted more time with the women as they evolved as a unit. The opening five minutes is a testimony to the power of sharp production values and terrific editing to make an intense short feature as emotionally moving as anything that follows. Looking forward to revisiting this one in years to come and appreciating that Davis and especially Michelle Rodriguez got their chance to flex their chops in a project of this caliber.
Winter's Bone - Debra Granik - Jennifer Lawrence first grabbed attention as Ree Dolly, a modern day Mattie Ross type Ozark girl with true grit who already shoulders more responsibility around the household than a sixteen year old ought to. When her no-good father goes missing along with the family's only means to eke out a living emissaries from the bank give notice that her family (she, her unwell mother and two younger brothers) will be kicked out of their house and off the land in a matter of days unless accounts are settled, and she takes it upon herself to track her errant, criminally-inclined father down in order to save the family. It's a mission that means poking her nose into all kinds of dangerous places and asking questions whose answers will doubtless displease dangerous people. Based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell it was a scrappy little project that ended up snagging some Academy Award nominations, launching Lawrence's career, boosting John Hawkes' profile and inspiring countless lesser low-budget films to ape its aesthetics and tone with mostly poor results. This one still stands out from the bulk of the rural noir films of the decade for what it holds back, what it leaves unsaid and inferred rather than explicitly shown.
The World is Yours -Romain Gavras - This story of a dreamer (Karim Leklou) who just wants to open a franchise of frozen desert shops along the African Mediterranean coast and is committed enough to realizing that dream that he will engage in dangerous criminal activities to achieve it sounds stupid on the surface. And it is. Stupid. Utterly stupid. Stupid enough to feel real. Populated by a cast of none too bright characters all looking for shortcuts to their dream lives that they will recklessly plunge into dangerous waters and find that the very thickness of their wits and their inability to imagine outcomes that don't favor them are nearly super powers, this works equally and simultaneously as a thriller and a comedy whose twists and turns aren't entirely seen coming nor are they anything different than the numerous crime movies the characters have apparently seen and treated as tutorials for the way crime really works. This one deserves favorable comparison to Michael Bay's Pain and Gain or Guy Ritchie's comic caper pictures. Please seek it out.
Bad Times at the El Royale - Drew Goddard - The one about that cast of colorful characters hanging out in that big old building, brought together for a common purpose and they all have secrets and there are secret passageways and it's got a lot of fun camera work and precise blocking and speaking and it's got cleverness and big, big surprises that's not Knives Out.
Bastards - Claire Denis - The plot of Bastards is languidly revealed over the run time and concerns the fall out from the death of a man we never meet. The dead man's wife, daughter, brother in law, business partner and business partner's wife and young son all factor in, though the construction of the film feels, at times, like a collection of disparate vignettes not going anywhere in any particular hurry. In the end, it earns its title and is... fuck. It's a little bleak. Though I enjoyed watching Vincent Lindon and Chiara Mastroianni look like an alternate yesteryear pairing of Bryan Brown and Susan Sarandon in a moody exercise in sexy doom, the payoff didn't quite justify the mental investment for me, and emotionally I'd been cut off fairly early. Best moment: answering the phone in front of the babysitter. Awkward.
Black Coal, Thin Ice - Diao Yinan - Parts of a dismembered body are discovered inside a coal shipment and the investigation ends in a sudden, horrific bloodbath that leads the detective to retire. Five years into a new career as a half-assed private dick and full time drunk another killing with the same weirdly-specific M.O. has him looking into the murders with new ideas. The hoops this one jumps through plot-wise are maybe a twist too-far, but it's an effectively moody mystery with at least three memorable scenes. The aforementioned bloodbath is a wonderful set-piece that comes out of nowhere - a routine investigation scene jumps sideways - it's messy, brutal and shockingly funny, a character has his motorcycle stolen in another vignette of inverted expectations and the use of ice skates as a murder weapon is surprisingly effective. The filmmakers know their genre tropes and have fun playing with expectations all the way through while sticking to them faithfully, it's exactly the kind of measured, skillfully executed mystery film that I can enjoy without feeling like an asshole afterward.
Black Mass - Scott Cooper - The story of the unholy alliance between south Boston gangster Whitey Bulger and the FBI through handler and all-grown-up-now southie kid agent John Connolly (who grew up idolizing Bulger as a neighborhood legend) is one so ripe with amazing elements, larger than life characters and too bizarre not to be true details, it could be told a half dozen ways with as many different focuses to make a compelling story. The direction taken here seems to be the focus of most of the criticism I've seen leveled at the film and each time seems to say more about the critic than the film as made. Yes it is a violent tale of violence and more violence violently shot for both shock and titillation the enjoyment of which clearly makes folks uncomfortable especially when considering the recent real events it's based upon - how many family members and those victims are still alive and hurting? Which... is a legitimate question of taste and decision making on the part of the film makers, but entirely beside the point when discussing the merits of the film making. Should we enjoy this movie seems to be the question at the heart of most reviews I've seen. What I'm going to say is - I enjoyed this movie whether I should have or not. Another prevalent criticism of the film is the lack of arc to (Johnny Depp as) Bulger's character - yeah, there's exactly none - which tempts us to treat Joel Edgerton's Agent Connolly as a tragic figure central character here and make it his movie. While equal screen time is given to the two characters the film is clearly Depp/Bulger's and the treatment is similar to that given John Dillinger in Public Enemies. Nope - no development in either, they're not biopics. They're also not thrillers per se. There's no tension in either film about the outcome or the fates of major characters, the films both just re-enact juicy moments from the story and invite you to bring your knowledge or ignorance of those events and characters with you. It's also not a cry of outrage about corruption and or incompetence in government - there's almost zero attention paid to Benedict Cumberbatch's other Bulger brother Billy and there is no Feeb leading a clean-up crusade (Corey Stoll gets a very minor bit). What it is... is more a horror flick than a noir with Depp as the monster at the center. It's also damned good-looking. Like Out of the Furnace, Cooper's last film, this one looks fantastic. Also like Furnace, this one has a top-notch cast - though, this time around I feel they're given more to do. Fucking Rory Cochrane as Steve Flemmi shines brightest. Both Peter Sarsgaard and Jesse Plemons as Kevin Weeks steal a scene or two, and Juno Temple, Dakota Johnson and Julianne Nicholson each get a memorable scene. Best moment: Bulger strangles an inconvenient woman while Flemmi watches helpless, horrified and heart-broken. I could have spent an entire film with Cochrane's tortured face.
Blackhat - Michael Mann - Chris Hemsworth is the world's unlikeliest genius hacker, but as I've continued coming back to this one it bothers me less and less. In fact, Blackhat is probably my most improved film of the decade. After being very disappointed by it initially I just couldn't shake little bits that had been really cool and with each re-watch it got better until I'm a bonafide fan now, though it's never going to crack my top tier of Mann's body of work. If I were programming a Michael Mann double feature that included this one, I'd pair it with Manhunter... just sayin. In the 'going for it' column we've got amazing photography, super cool global locations, a fucking excellent shootout sequence, Viola Davis, Ritchie Coster and Yorick van Wageningen. In the 'not doing itself any favors' column we've got the evergreen problem of dramatizing computer wizardry. I'm sorry, but outside of Tron this is always gonna be dull (I'm looking at you, The Social Network and Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). Second, some weird not-quite-there chemistry between the leads, Hemsworth, Leehom Wang and Wei Teng and the aforementioned issues with buying Hemsworth as his character. But dude, I have come around. I dig this one for all the reasons I dig the best of Mann's work.
The Bouncer (aka Lukas) - Julien Leclercq - Jean Claude Van Damme plays the titular character, a guy too old to have a daughter that young and probably too old to be doing the work he's doing (night club bouncer). But he doesn't have much of a choice and the edge he gets from that fact makes him an attractive asset for the criminal who owns the latest club he's found employment at. The action in this one ain't slick, it's bruising. Nobody does the splits and our hero is anything but indestructible. Good shit. For a teenager of the 80s the sensation of seeing Van Damme looking like overcooked and then hammered pot roast is a little difficult to describe. If you'd been paying attention when Cyborg, Bloodsport and Kickboxer were just coming out, if you'd known JCVD as 'the muscles from Brussels' and just what an adorably baby-faced, smooth skinned ball of muscle he'd been back then... the impact of seeing him looking so chewed up and spit out is something. Personally, I'm really enjoying this chapter in Van Damme's career. He's got a good sense of himself as a performer and as an action icon and he's taking a lot projects that are smart enough to use the whole package - the legend and the baggage - to optimal effect. Yeah, it's got some fistfighting, gunplay and even a car chase, but it's not the JCVD vehicle of decades past, this one's not superhuman, it's got a lot of grit and heart to match.
Burn Out - Yann Gozlan - François Civilabout plays a motorcycle racer about to turn pro who puts his skills to use as a drug-runner in order to pay off a friend's mortal debt. The riding footage is sharp and feels dangerous without feeling too heightened - it feels tethered to a familiar reality and the climactic trip through a riot is schweet.
Burning - Lee Chang-dong - Based on a story by Haruki Murakami called Barn Burning (which apparently translates to cock-blocked by that guy from The Walking Dead). The crime element in this one, like just about every other element, is slippery and elliptical and haunting like a motherfucker. Honestly I didn't know how much I was digging it until it was over. It takes its damn time going anywhere, but it casts a spell and if you're susceptible to... I dunno, beauty? Mystery? Chronic masturbators, arsonists, stabbings or ghost cats, I think this one is for you.
Compliance - Craig Zobel - Ick factor up to eleven in this 'how far will it go?' thriller, er, iller, when a young woman working at a fast food restaurant is accused of stealing and subjected to a series of increasingly invasive, debasing questions, searches and procedures directed by a policeman via telephone and carried out by her manager. Of course, the caller is not a cop, the charges are non-existent and the purpose of the exercise is some kind of sexually charged power trip, and we, the audience know this very near the beginning of the film, which makes for a very uncomfortable experience. A good one though. I'd like to declare right here that I would never ever do or tolerate being done the things the characters in the movie do, but I think I'll stick with, 'There, but for the grace of God, go I.' Best moment: Pretty much anytime Ann Dowd is on screen. She plays the complicit villain/victim as someone I absolutely recognize as a human being. She has the most complex role and hits every note true. Actually, the trinity of Dowd, Dreama Walker and the always excellent Pat Healy (check him out in Zobel's other flick Great World of Sound) do a lot of brave and heavy lifting here and make it look easy.
The Connection - Cedric Jimenez - While Popeye Doyle was pontificating upon a plethora of perps' penchants for Poughkeepsie toe-picking, his Parisian counterpart Pierre (Jean Dujardin) applied pressure a'plenty to persons protecting the proverbial heroin pyramid's pointy pinnacle (Gilles Lellouche). Nothing particularly innovative or new in this sweeping procedural - just gorgeous film making that feels (to borrow an Andrew Nette-ism) like noir comfort food. Best moment: Dujardin and Lellouche get their De Niro/Pacino roadside confrontation.
Cop Car - Jon Watts - Two young boys running away from home stumble across an un-attended cop car in the middle of nowhere and take it for a joyride, only to later discover a bound and beaten man in the trunk. Meanwhile the Sheriff (Kevin Bacon) comes back to the from digging an unmarked grave to find his car and intended grave-deposit missing - sending him on a desperate search for his car and quarry, sans y'know car. That's it. That's all the story you get. Why are the kids running away? 'Cause they're ten years old and that's what they do (I did). Who's the guy in the trunk? Well, you're in luck 'cause he's Shea Whigam and that's always a good thing. Guess what else is in cop cars... guns! Lots of guns! Kids + guns + dude in trunk + homicidal cop X wide open spaces a minus time to spare = great fuckin movie. The whole cast is solid and the director's tone-management is amazing. Balancing the boys' innocent fun and their inevitable collision course with grim menace without losing the pleasures of either takes serious fucking chops. The whole thing ends just as badly and excitingly as you're hoping it has the guts to and hoping that it spares you at the same time and I'm down for Watts' next effort right now.
Dom Hemingway - Richard Shepard - After a dozen years in prison safecracker Dom Hemingway (Jude Law) is out and ready to reap the rewards of his silence from those he didn't rat out while inside. He's also got a score or two to settle, some family matters to see to and a little general catching up to do. Dom's a force of nature: unpredictable, volatile self-aggrandizing and self-destructive and his time inside certainly has not mellowed him. We follow Dom as he checks off his list of things to do and people to confront, never knowing what outcome is even desired never mind probable. And that is a big part of the appeal to this film. Yeah, like Dom, it's big and brash and outrageous, but it's also unclear where it's headed and that, in the hands of a solid film maker, is a huge thrill. This one goes toe to toe with the best of Shepard's other films The Matador and The Hunting Party and even punches outside its weight some. In fact, I think this one would make a terrific double feature with Sexy Beast. Tonally the two films are quite different, but it's not hard to imagine Law's Dom becoming Ben Kingsly's Don a few years down the line. Will that happen? Will Dom survive time, his enemies, his friends, himself? Will Dom's demise live up to the legend of his life that he creates and perpetuates seemingly more out of duty than desire, or will Dom take some serious critical inventory and set for himself new goals and new direction? Regardless, it's a helluvan entertaining film and one of the best performances of the year from Law, plus Richard E. Grant is, as always, fantastic. Best moment: the 'my cock' monologue that opens the film really sets the tone nicely.
Elysium - Neill Blomkamp - Max is an ex-con, factory worker living in a slum called Earth, trying to stay straight and keep in line so as to avoid beat-downs from robo-cops and probation violations from his animatronic PO. When he suffers a terrible accident on the job, exposing him to a lethal dose of radiation, and learns that he has only a few days to live, he embraces his inner outlaw in a crazy bid to be healed. His plan is to go to heaven and hijack some magic healthcare which everybody up there enjoys. See on Elysium (a space station where the fabulously wealthy can live a So-Cal lifestyle without being bothered by the great unwashed), every mansion has a voodoo tanning bed that sweeps cancer out of your body and whitens your teeth while you wait. Only problem is, those rich folks don't care to share and their security chief contracts some batshit mercenaries to keep the lawns pristine in the extra-terrestrial suburbs. Perhaps you've heard that it's not subtle. It's not. It makes the allegory of Killing Them Softly seem damn near subliminal, but this has some amazing blood-letting and first-rate world-building that make any nits you care to pick entirely inconsequential. Sharlto Copley, as the heavy, is absolutely terrifying killing people with psychotic glee and incomprehensible dialogue (I think Jodie Foster stole his enunciation faculties - she sounds like she's chewing on them every time she speaks), and the action sequences are tight, visceral executions showcasing practical futuristic-weapons tech and their horrifying results. The details of this vision of the future are beautifully realized and completely absorbing. It's the quicker, thicker picker upper of all the sci-fi I watched that year.
Enemy - Denis Villeneuve - A history professor with a beautiful, blond girlfriend discovers there's another version of himself out there - a film actor with a beautiful, blond (and pregnant) wife - and his obsession with this alternate him derails his life. Make of it what you will, this is one of the most haunting pictures I've seen in a long damn time. There is an ill ease cast over the film like a shroud that filters out hope and draws every ounce of menace from of the atmosphere keeping it in an invisible bucket that is only dumped out when the director is good and ready. But you won't be. Nope. Huh-uh. No way. The final shot of the film just might be my favorite... ever? Did I say haunting? That's not quite right, 'cause the specter that followed me for weeks after viewing had something damn near physical properties. I'm not familiar with the source novel The Double by Jose Saramago, but I haven't been this electrically perplexed by a talky since David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. Which is not to say that I hold in the same regard... I'm not sure, but it's damn close and that's pretty special. Not a crime film, but noir at the core. Best moment: the final one.
The Euthanizer - Teemu Nikki - A mechanic whose sideline is euthanizing pets goes about his work in a humane and unflinching manner, but when some nazi assholes get in his way it's quickly apparent that he treats animals much kinder than people. Nikki is new to me, but I will definitely be catching up on his work after this one. Puzzling out the very specific code of honor the protagonist lives and dies by is a sometimes harrowing sometimes hilarious experience.
Filth - Jon S. Baird - Right from the start we know something is off about Bruce, the monstrous homicide cop at the center of the action, in this adaptation of Irvine Welsh's 1998 novel of the same name. As out of control as his behavior appears (copious drug use, ugly and impulsive sexual behavior, violent abuse of the power his job affords), control is precisely what he is in search of. His power games with paramours, co-workers and criminals come together to promote his particular agenda (a promotion he believes will win him back his family). The dual escalation of self-destructive behavior and Machiavellian manipulation of everything and everybody around him leaves Bruce a tad, um, unhinged. The cast is full of ringers - Eddie Marsan, Jamie Bell, Shirley Henderson, and Kate Dickie, but man, this one made an overnight James McAvoy fan out of me. I'd never understood the effusive praise thrown after his (fine, but unremarkable, in my opinion) previous work by folks whose opinions I'm oft in alignment with, and when I saw he'd been cast in the lead role here, I was more than a little skeptical. But hoah shit, does he bring the energy, lechery and most importantly, the feels to this one. Yes, holy fuck! the feels! The final fifth the film pulls every string together for a surprisingly effective and emotionally complex finale that is punctuated by the Best moment: a superb animated end-credit sequence set to the Billy Ocean song Love Really Hurts Without You. Fucking wrecked me. Believe it.
The Gift - Joel Edgerton - Rebecca Hall and Jason Bateman play a couple starting a new life in L.A. when they run into Gordo (writer/director Edgerton), an awkward and unwelcome reminder of their past. The beats are sometimes predictable, but play well and solidly carrying the viewer effortlessly toward an unpleasant end. The psycho stalker genre doesn't get an overhaul, but it does have a potent new entry that satisfies by going big and surprises by treating its subject matter and characters seriously. The pleasure of this one is in the skillful way sympathies are traded and betrayed among the cast throughout and Bateman especially deserves a nod for bringing new shades to his onscreen persona. The ending is satisfying on several levels and leaves room for many interpretations as to who 'won' without being frustratingly ambiguous (everybody loses is probably the best way to put it). Best moment: the final shot - it's a rare pleasure that a swell set-up sticks the landing and keeps it nasty. I was afraid it was going to over do it actually, but the look on Bateman's face grounds what could have been an over the top moment and the character's existential despair is delicious.
The Guilty - Gustav Möller - Jakob Cedergren is Aager a Copenhagen cop riding out what might be the end of his career after a major fuck up. He's been demoted to emergency call dispatcher until the disciplinary inquest into him passes judgement and he most likely will find himself out of a job. Near the end of what might be his final shift he takes a call from a panicked woman who says she's been kidnapped and is in the trunk of a car and what follows is a pretty engaging thriller that never leaves the call center. Aager first demonstrates professionalism in keeping the woman calm while extracting important details constructing a helpful narrative of her situation while he dispatches various officers and deduces probable destinations the car might be headed. He also demonstrates real concern and compassion that rekindles some small part of him that probably drove him into the role of public servant and protector in the first place. Finally he demonstrates an obsessive streak and drive to get the job done, refusing to go home at the end of his shift and pledging to ride out the crisis despite multiple warnings that he has become too emotionally involved to be the best help the situation deserves. Big ups to Möller and co-writer Emil Nygaard Albertsen for constructing a tense thriller procedural that allows for plenty of character reveal along with the plot and of course to Cedergren on whose shoulders the whole thing succeeds or fails.
The Hateful Eight - Quentin Tarantino - Eight strangers ride out a harsh blizzard together in Wyoming and also find themselves connected by coincidence, fate or design. A couple bounty hunters (Kurt Russell's brings 'em in alive while Samuel L. Jackson's piles their bodies like cords of firewood on top of the stage coach), the new territorial sheriff (Walton Goggins) who will pay them their bounty, one live quarry (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the hangman who will send her officially to the next life (Tim Roth), a Confederate general (Bruce Dern) plus Demián Bichir and Michael Madsen skulking about make for a tense powder keg atmosphere and when it all blows up it is gloriously bloody and I'm always down for that. Another one that has gone up considerably in my estimation since initial viewing (though I never disliked it) the way most of Tarantino's movies do because they always have layers to sift through. Watching this one in close proximity to Django Unchained and Sergio Corbucci's The Great Silence certainly didn't hurt either as it was originally conceived as a sequel to the former and obviously homage to the latter. Ennio Morricone's feelings aside, his previously unused score originally intended for John Carpenter's The Thing plays beautifully here as The Thing is another one Q is riffing on and it's still a funny ha-ha to shoot a 99% interior movie in 70mm in 2015.
Hell or High Water - David Mackenzie - A pair of brothers on a deadline pull off a string of bank robberies while a pair of Texas rangers pursue them. A simple, sturdy frame, well dressed with actors, action and good looking landscapes, it's another film on this list that brings nothing new to the table only executes solidly its functions without embarrassing itself or insulting its audience. What more do I need? Nothing really. Neither adversarial pair should get all that they want (and neither do), neither squander their screen time or wear out their welcome, the mix of victory to tragedy is pleasing and it changes based on which point of view you're partial to. The real standouts here though are the small moments and incidental characters who often feel like found objects in the landscape - I'd happily watch films based on Katy Mixon or Margaret Bowman's waitresses Kevin Rankin's financial advisor or Nathaniel Auguston and Ariel Holmes's bored armpit of America thugs. I've taken a little heat for comments I made sounding like I was not appreciating this one enough so, hey - look here, it's on my favorites of the decade list - I appreciate it, and I'd love it if the critical success its enjoyed brings us more high-profile, adult crime fare - in the end that may be the accomplishment I appreciate most.
A Highjacking - Tobias Lindholm - A Danish cargo ship is hijacked by Somali pirates and this film follows the lives of the hostage crew as well as the head of the company that employs them and owns the boat as they negotiate a resolution over the course of many weeks. It's pretty tense. Just a bunch of real people in a terrible, no-win situation. Am I selling you on this? It's quite good, but I dunno what else to say... It's a bit hard to watch at times, but not overdone, not a big manipulative climax orchestrated to wring a lotta tears or make you wanna break stuff, just steady, assured, observational film making that puts the viewer through some awfully effective tension. Best moment: everybody sings 'happy birthday'.
The Immigrant - James Gray - Ewa, a polish immigrant (Marion Cotillard), is detained at Ellis Island with her sick sister, who is quarantined, and slated for deportation when a mysterious benefactor, Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), steps in and offers the woman a shot at a life in the new world and a chance to save her sister from being shipped across the ocean. Suspicious, but desperate, Ewa chooses to accept a post as a housekeeper which leads to dance hall performer and prostitute where best money is. Ewa's story is not a victim's, but a survivor's and whether it's ultimately despairing or hopeful is the audience's litmus test. Along the way she experiences betrayal and devotion, exploitation and benevolence, but nothing alters her course or deters her intent to liberate her sister. Gray is a film maker I've always found compelling - his aesthetic sense is hugely appealing, and his interest in the small details and decisions create intriguing tensions for his characters to exist within. This one's probably as close to sweeping as he'll get (what with the ambitious and excellently executed historic setting and themes), but the feel remains close, intimate and immediate and the ultimate resolution of the central relationship between Cotillard and Phoenix is as thorny and imprecise as it should be. Ewa is the steadfast character here, whose purpose is always clear regardless of circumstance or means, but it's Bruno, whose intent is always suspect, who is most compelling. Ever torn (or is he?) between self-service and more noble impulses, every layer revealed adds complexity if not to who he is than at least to our perspective on him and we get the sense that he's at least as genuinely confused about his own identity (the character, not the performer - an important distinction) as the viewer is. And by the time the cops brutally shake Bruno down, his response surprises him as much as it does Ewa without clearly defining his motive to anyone. Looking forward to watching this one again sometime. It should be said that the supporting cast, especially Dagmara Dominczyk, Jicky Schnee and Elena Solovey are uniformly excellent, providing more dimension and production value to the flick than any (necessary) trick of lighting or CGI.
Joe - David Gordon Green - Joe (Nicolas Cage), an ex-con just trying to live and let live encounters a host of obstacles along the straight and narrow. Joe has his own small business and employs a youngster named Gary (Ty Sheridan) who supports his family as best he can until his abusive, shit-for-worth father (Gary Poulter) eventually fucks things up so bad they have to leave yet another small town and move on. Arrrrrgh, this pisses Joe off. Gary's a good kid and his old man is real bad news. Joe's known very few Garys in his time and all too many alcoholic assholes bent on snuffing out the Garys of the world. Hell, he's maybe been one himself. Joe's tryin to stay upright, but he tilts haaaard at self-destruction... perhaps... maybe... just maybe he can make his imminent personal downfall count for something worthwhile. I think I just reduced a swell flick to a cliche-ridden sound bite. So, don't read this. See the movie. Or, if you've gotta read something, read the source material by Larry Brown. Either of those options are swell. Some folks have called this a return to form for Green, the director of George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow and Snow Angels, (tho, I'll argue the virtues of Your Highness any day, friend), but it is certainly a reminder how how damn good Cage can be when he's got a script and a director. He stands placid and anchored at the center of a vortex of violence and dead-end living until his own suicidal energy spills over. Splish, splash, here comes Tazmanian Nicolas Cage! Except... there's a glint in his eyes, but this is the furthest thing from Drive Angry Cagian havoc. What are these, these... feelings? Flick will make you feel shit. And Cage will too. Not to mention Sheridan and Poulter (in his sole screen credit - he died before he had the chance to make any more celluloid impressions, and judging from his presence in this picture, that's a notable loss - dammit). Best moment: the opening sequence of Joe's day to day with his crew, on the job, in his pickup, coffee, alcohol, shootin the shit with the convenience store guy - just first class world building. You know this guy afterward.
Kills on Wheels - Attila Till - Two wheelchair bound boys find a mentor of sorts in a disabled gangster/hitman who takes them on as apprentices. It's a helluva premise and mostly works with utter nihilism not quite overtaking a healthy dose of teenaged fuck-the-world angst. The last ten minutes are a little disappointing, but make sense out of questions bothering me in the structure, and won't keep me from enjoying a revisit in the future.
Knives Out - Rian Johnson - The one about that cast of colorful characters hanging out in that big old building, brought together for a common purpose and they all have secrets and there are secret passageways and it's got a lot of fun camera work and precise blocking and speaking and it's got cleverness and big, big surprises that's not Bad Times at the El Royale. I'm happy for Rian Johnson's success and doubly glad he's not trapped inside the Disney franchise machinery and it's wonderful that this original script made so much damn money, but there are a so many more projects I'd rather have him doing than a Benoit Blanc series with Daniel Craig. Agathe Christie pastiche is something I need only in small doses. Still... this was fun.
Life of Crime - Daniel Schechter - Two fellas kidnap a rich lady for ransom, but have the misfortune of their plan falling on the weekend over which the rich husband is leaving her. The rich husband is an asshole, but... how big an asshole? He's not willing to let his wife be killed just to avoid paying ransom and then alimony, is he? "Don't worry," says his foxy-smart mistress, "they won't kill her and you won't have to pay if we play this my way." Oh the tangled webs we weave. This is one of the most tonally precise adaptations of the work of Elmore Leonard yet (from his novel The Switch) where the criminals are bad guys, but not entirely unreasonable, the victims are thoughtful people and have their own ideas, nobody backs down and everybody throws curveballs at each other's heads. And it's funny, but it's not really a comedy. It's got a tension, but nobody'd call it a white-knuckle thriller. It's also a period piece (the late 70s) with great, small details that don't call attention to themselves, but add a lot of flavor - why is this the first non-western period adaptation of Leonard I can think of? - it works great. The casting of John Hawkes and Yasin Bey in the same roles inhabited by Robert DeNiro and Samuel L. Jackson in Jackie Brown (from Leonard's Rum Punch) certainly invite physical and spiritual comparisons to the other work (and hell, Michael Keaton reprising his Jackie Brown role in Out of Sight seems to give the go-ahead nod to runners at second wishing to create a singular alternate universe of the man's work). The rest of the cast is just as good. Even the presence of Will Forte and the buffoonish antics of Mark Boone Junior don't tip the scales into broad comedy. This is a terrific semi-high stakes game of life and death and money that deserves your attention. Best moment: the kidnapping sequence - the staging is masterful, complex but never confusing, while the tone is dramatic and funny too. Captures the film maker's understanding of the essence of Leonard's work beautifully.
Lowlife - Ryan Prows - If Robert Altman's Shortcuts were based on intersecting short stories by Matthew McBride rather than Raymond Carver it might resemble this multi-focal piece of absurdist crime fiction. The narrative strands that twist into a shared climax involve human trafficking, black market organ transplants, dirty cops, ruthless gangsters, ex-cons, bad parenting and a luchador bagman who suffers from small-man complex induced rage blackouts. The cast are mostly great with Nicki Micheaux and Ricardo Adam Zarate on the tier just below the standout performance of Mark Burnham whose Teddy 'Bear' Haynes is a monster terrifying and hilarious in equal measure. The feature debut from Prows lands him squarely in the sign-me-up-for-whatever's-next camp.
Marshland - Alberto Rodríguez - A pair of mismatched Spanish detectives are sent to investigate the disappearance of teenaged sisters from a remote village in 1980. The post-Franco setting is key to the tense atmosphere as the duo learn how to work together - one a fascist-era leftover and the other representing a new Spain, neither without a troubled conscience. Similar in tone and plot Memories of Murder or the first season of True Detective, it's dour, but stately and outfitted with a satisfyingly violent and bitter conclusion.
Message From the King - Fabrice Du Welz - After appreciating the horror of Du Welz's The Ordeal and the horror/crime combo of Alleluia (which I named one of my favorites in 2015) I was well-primed for the Belgian director's first straight-up crime film and English-language debut. This time the horror is less in your face, but no less horrifying, as Chadwick Boseman works his way from the basement to the penthouse of a sick little sexual exploitation ring in Los Angeles... hmmm.... maybe this one is the most 2017 movie of 2017. Nothing new or particularly inventive about this one, it's just some class- one Get Carter-type underworld revenge opera with all the important elements: men reduced to muscle and women their sexuality - trading on the only things of value they have, a bad man, a dead loved one, class warfare, pornography and sadism. It doesn't go full-dark. Jacob King is no Jack Carter - he's a hero-type - but goodness it's nice to get something in that vein that's thoroughly modern and not pastiche/homage. And Boseman wrapping a bicycle chain around his fist before fucking up some fuckers who deserve it is one of the most memorable images of the year.
99 Homes - Ramin Bahrani - At first glance this slick picture starring recognizable white folks would appear to be the place Bahrani went hollywood, but the fact that it fits perfectly into his body of work serves as an alarming illustration of how big a sink hole the American middle class rests upon. Like Bahrani's previous features Chop Shop and Man Push Cart this one is a portrait of people existing in the places they land after falling through the cracks in society. 99 Homes stars Andrew Garfield as an out of work construction worker in Florida evicted from his foreclosed upon home by real estate operator Michael Shannon. Garfield's character reaches for an opportunity offered by Shannon's to work for him evicting other in default families and flipping the properties. Works well as a far more human companion piece to The Big Short showing the fallout of the housing market crash from the chaos on the ground. Shannon's Carver shows Garfield's Nash the ropes of his business which cross ethical, moral and legal boundaries like so many invisible and meaningless lines and delivers a brief back-story speech that sounded uncomfortably similar to Tina Turner's in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome driving home, perhaps intentionally, that this is a pre-apocalyptic movie. Both lead performances are engaged and worthy of their front and centeredness, but, as with Bahrani's other work, they are convincing stand-ins for the faceless subterranean we may all be on our way to becoming. With this one and Chop Shop Bahrani tackles the element of crime from a law of the jungle, basic human survival angle that I'm drawn to and stupid for, and I hope that the addition of A-list talent like Shannon, Garfield and Laura Dern means his star is rising and he gets to keep exploring his area of interest. Strong contender for opening scene/shot of the year... whatever year it belongs to. Fucking amazing and beautifully economic delivery of character and world-building. Did I mention Michael Shannon is in this picture?
Piercing - Nicolas Pesce - Christopher Abbott plays a young father who cooks up a scheme with the help of his wife (Laia Costa) to murder a call girl in order to keep loved ones safe from what is apparently an overwhelming urge of his. Mia Wasikowska plays the intended victim and the film plays out mostly in the hotel room where the event is supposed to take place. Piercing is a fucking sick movie played very effectively for laughs. My favorite guffaw-moments came during the montage of Abbott rehearsing the murder, dismemberment and disposal of evidence. The whole sequence is just him pantomiming to wonderful editing and sound design that ought to illicit gasps and giggles in more or less equal proportions (reminded me of nothing else so much as Alfred Hitchcock at his sickest and funniest). Of course nothing goes as planned and fans of Takashi Miike's Audition will find a lot of similarities and could probably guess they both came from books by Ryû Murakami.
Point Blank - Fred Cavaye - Nothing going on here except first-rate thriller film-making. Doesn't waste a minute, and wrings every ounce of potential tension out of the unraveling plot. A great just-go-with-it chase flick that could teach its high-budget competition a lot about celluloid excitement-making.
Repo Men - Miguel Sapochnik - Shall I make another schlocky movie crush confession here? I kinda loved this splatterific sci-fi medical industrial complex action horror adventure. The title refers to the dudes who will find you, cut you open and repossess the fancy artificial organs keeping you alive if you fall too far behind on your payments. When a close call lands hotshot repo man Jude Law in the hospital, now the recipient of an artificial organ himself, he no longer has the er heart to take them away from other people. And if he's not out there collecting bounty on repo jobs he can't really pay for the right to stay alive any longer, can he? So he goes on the run and of course his former boss (Liev Schreiber) sends his former partner (Forest Whitaker) after him. Based on the novel by Eric Garcia, this really doesn't play like science fiction any longer. It feels right fucking now and more than a little Cronenbergian too. The closest thing the film has to a sex scene shows the heroes (Law and Alice Braga), having just sliced their way through a security detail, strip down and enter each other's bodies with a hand-held scanner to read the bar codes on all their artificial organs. Shot like a Top Gun style sex bit with the gore coated phallus penetrating abdomens as they writhe and gasp. Fucking lovely. Derivative of Philip K. Dick, David Cronenberg, Paul Verhoeven, Terry Gilliam and Ridley Scott just to name a few, but c'mon this deserves more love. Wake up, sheeple.
Rhymes For Young Ghouls - Jeff Barnaby - Fuckin sharp crime coming of age story about an Indian girl on a Canadian reservation in 1976 who deals drugs and lives with her uncle after losing her entire family to tragic events. When her father returns from a long stretch in prison and her money is stolen by a corrupt Indian agent she finds herself reconsidering her life while plotting revenge and engaging in efforts to recover her money. Familiar plot elements feel fresh because of the context and the period setting. I could've kept going with this one a long way. Would love to see more of this type and quality level set in this world.
Safe House - Daniel Espinosa - I swear I thought this was a Tony Scott flick until the credits rolled. The combination of material, technique and Denzel Washington made it a no-brainer, but lo, it was not after all Scott's swan-song - but what a worthy picture to have worn the mantle. Again, nothing new in plot or character or nuance, just a really solid action film.
Side Effects - Steven Soderbergh - There is a point of view switch halfway through the film, at which point, the mantle of main character also changes and everything about the first half is called into question. That everything about the second half is being called into question in real time as it's being shown to us requires us to suspend judgement until the end, by which time you may not care to re-examine everything that preceded. Which is fine. If a piece of entertainment carries you along to the end enclosed inside a bubble of willful suspension of disbelief, then it's done its job regardless your reaction come punch-line. Whether or not you choose to re-experience it more analytically is beside the point, or rather, an entirely separate and distinct measure of success (the first - that it cast its spell on you - already irrevocably decided). I went for the ride and come punch-line didn't feel cheated at all. Don't feel any need at this point to re-examine it, but it passed the first viewing easily. I really don't want to say anything about the plot, as it is probably best experienced in a cold viewing (like I did). I'll just divulge that it is a thriller and a twisty one... And that I really dig Soderbergh. Best moment: when final judgments are coming down at the end, one character's degree of malicious pleasure and ruthlessness were surprising.
The Silence - Baran bo Odar - Another somber, moody decades-long serial killer mystery recommended for fans of Memories of Murder, Marshland or True Detective (seasons 1 & 3). I can't do these all the time, but when I'm ready for a measured, mournful, quietly creepy detective story, this is exactly what I'm looking for. Odar's Hollywood assignment was to remake Frédéric Jardin's excellent Sleepless Night, for English speakers who hate reading, with Jamie Foxx (2017's meh Sleepless). Hopefully he gets another shot at an international breakthrough project. I'd love to see him stick with crime.
Sollers Point - Matthew Porterfield - This man out of prison flick is a crime and consequence drama whose low-key thriller elements nicely balance the will he/won't he get his life together elements that can feel preachy in so many other films - nice trick. McCaul Lombardi's good in the lead role and supported by Zazie Beetz as his former love interest - the will they/won't they get back together tension is balanced by a will he/won't he become a menace that she needs to get a restraining order against and James Belushi continues to do strong work at this stage of his career - seriously, keep this man working.
The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears - Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani - A man returns from his travels to find his wife has disappeared from their Paris apartment and he suspects harm has befallen her. That's exactly as far as I'm going to go into the plot because it spirals in several directions at once in a dizzyingly byzantine mythology that springs up around the building itself and what has happened to other tenants. After a while, I just didn't care, frankly, but I'm going to give this one a big fat recommendation if you're up to buy the ticket and take the ride. This is a sumptuously shot trip through psychological horror, erotic suspense and artful trash. It's like somebody gave the film makers a decent budget an abundance of talent, confidence and the charge to make an old-fashioned giallo. It's gorgeous and creepy and so overwhelmingly rich you'll probably not absorb anything past the first half hour. Which is fine. You'll enjoy the hell out of it in pieces.
Sun Don't Shine - Amy Seimetz - Kate Lyn Sheil delivers an intense performance as the intensely insecure, needy and immature Crystal whose high stress level and huge emotional swings keep the audience off balance in this swamp-ass Floridian road trip nightmare. Kentucker Audley plays her cooler-headed, but not much smarter boyfriend trying to reign her in and keep them on task. They're not doing a very good job of covering up a big mistake that can't be unmade and avoiding making more that could very likely land them in prison
Tangerine - Sean Baker - Released from jail on Christmas Eve a trans hooker scours L.A. for her boyfriend/pimp and the woman he cheated on her with. Bit of a stretch to call it a crime film - but hey the characters are all technically professional criminals. It's brash and bracing and deeply human with moments of outrageous humor and unexpected heart. It's also an amazing-looking film considering the whole thing was shot on an iPhone. Please, mothers, don't let your babies grow up to b sex workers.
Unsane - Steven Soderbergh - Low-fi, slow burn psychological thriller - probably the best of its kind since Side Effects. If this is what retirement looks like here's hoping he quits again.
Victoria - Sebastian Schipper - Laia Costa plays Victoria, a young Spanish woman now living in Berlin who meets and flirts with a group of young men at a dance club and spends the remainder of a night in their company eventually being roped into committing a crime with them, which goes badly, and fleeing police and gangsters in a single un-broken 138-minute take. It's a gimmick film, so its success depends on the gimmick itself and in this case it's a hell of an ambitious gimmick that probably would have worked twice as well if it were half as long. I'm of an age now where the indulgences of the young tend to irritate more than inspire and there wasn't a single character among our group of five that I liked and by the time the idiots start to get what's coming to them I confess I was probably on the unintended side of the experience, but hey I'm drawn to material featuring all manner of unlikeable characters and this crew are guilty most of being young and dumb - there may be hope for those who live through the events of the next two hours to become people I would like just fine. The sheer excitement of watching the film making - the multiple locations, the 720 degrees of visibility and complexity of the choreography - is enough to get you through the rough patches. Those rough patches are pretty much the first half to 2/3 of the run time where we're sitting through a night of awkward flirtations over bad music and cheap drugs, but holy shit the unbroken take schtick absolutely elevates the tension of the final forty-five minutes - it's inspiring shit. I'll absolutely be revisiting this one, but I'm likely just to skip to that last section.
A Vigilante - Sarah Daggar-Nickson - Olivia Wilde as a battered woman whose mission is to help other victims of domestic violence escape. Cool idea that sounds like a comic book premise (like The A-Team meets You Were Never Really Here), but gets a fair dramatic shake with a very engaged performance from Wilde at its core. She gets to be legitimately badass and formidable one moment and loosing her shit, shaking with tears in terror the next. She's not selling any cool vigilante lifestyle, but working out her recovery with fear and trembling and bold moves. What after all does she have left to loose? Definitely looking for what's next from Daggar-Nickson.
The Villainess - Jung Byung-gil - Kim Ok-bin is Sook-hee an incredibly badass assassin whose tale is told in a series of fashbacks designed to continually re-contextualize the forward moving action, but don't ask me to get specific about any plot points - I got lost in the middle. Doesn't fucking matter though because the action set pieces are ridiculously good. Part La Femme Nikita, part John Wick there's even a Hardcore Henry style first-person POV sequence that seamlessly transitions to third person POV (my favorite shot of the film and maybe my favorite shot of the whole year) during a Fist of Fury-esque portion in there. As plainly as it displays its influences, it's also influencing and inspiring in turn (compare the motorcycle fights in The Villainess and John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum) and I'm all for this kind of good-spirited one-ups-manship among film makers.