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.