MOTHER! (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Disturbing Violent Content, some Sexuality, Nudity and Language

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Written by: Darren Aronofsky

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson, Kristen Wiig, Jovan Adepo & Stephen McHattie

Darren Aronofsky is known for artsy psychological headtrips and experimenting with narrative structure. REQUIEM FOR A DREAM put him on the map for moviegoers, whilst THE FOUNTAIN served as an ambitious anthology that split folks down the middle, and BLACK SWAN was a beautiful descent into madness. Also, NOAH saw Aronofsky putting his own fantastical spin on a Bible epic with polarizing reactions as a result. I’ve pretty much loved every Aronofsky film that I’ve seen thus far, so know that’s where I stand when I say that MOTHER! is a brilliant, ballsy piece of cinema that completely blew me away. This is easily one of the most original horror films that I’ve seen in years and is guaranteed to make a lot of people hate it. Those who dig MOTHER! though, will likely love it and not be able to stop thinking about it.

Without giving any spoilers away in my plot synopsis, I’ll say that MOTHER! is about the relationship between a poet (Javier Bardem) and his much-younger wife (Jennifer Lawrence). Lawrence’s character has renovated her husband’s formerly burned down house from scratch and the end result is beautiful to behold, but Javier’s character still can’t get over a troubling bit of writer’s block. When a mysterious couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) show up uninvited and make their way into Lawrence’s and Bardem’s home, tensions begin to flare as Lawrence strongly dislikes their imposing presence and Bardem revels in their company. More guests soon arrive and things quickly spiral into morbid metaphorical madness!

MOTHER! is a film that’s bound to polarize viewers. First of all, this is very much an arthouse horror flick. The narrative constantly uses nightmare logic and plot points/characters are clearly meant to represent things outside of this story. Symbolism is strong in this film. Those who don’t enjoy slow burns and artsy flicks will most likely despise this movie from its strange beginning until the deeply disturbing conclusion. Then there’s the actual message (or messages, depending on your interpretation of events) which may turn certain viewers off. Aronofsky isn’t exactly subtle in certain areas, and there’s enough head-fuckery to guarantee multiple viewings are necessary to catch everything in this detailed piece of art.

Jennifer Lawrence deviates from her mainstream dramedies and teeny-bopper roles to play her ballsiest role yet as this film’s titular protagonist. As Lawrence’s character is put through the emotional gauntlet, the viewer is also pushed through the wringer. I felt that her growing frustration, bafflement and devastation were all completely believable as I felt the same emotions whilst experiencing this film (in the best way possible). Javier Bardem has already proven himself to be a phenomenal performer time and time again. I don’t want to say too much about his character here, but he leaves an unforgettable impression and tackles his difficult-to-understand character with bravado.

In a supporting role, Ed Harris is half likable and half creepy as the first unexpected guest. Michelle Pfeiffer is positively hateable as his wife and will make you want to slap her in the face. She’s so good at being bad in this film. Domhnall Gleeson, Kristen Wiig, and Stephen McHattie also pop in for supporting roles and make the most of the screen time they receive. The other supporting actors, a bunch of random faces, also will gradually piss you off as much as they do Jennifer Lawrence’s character. This film does a fantastic job of making you irritated and uncomfortable towards people simply being assholes. I don’t want to dive deeper into these characters’ actions…because there would definitely be spoilers in those details.

As far as cinematography goes, this movie is incredibly atmospheric and there’s a growing dread that digs inside you as the running time moves forward. Even though this is a slow burn, these two hours rushed by for me and I know that I’ll be rewatching this film many times in the future. It also seems fair to describe MOTHER! as the most unusual home invasion horror flick that you’ll ever see. The film also contains truly disturbing scenes and becomes all-out insanity during its final third. There are genuinely horrific images that you won’t be able to forget after you’ve seen this film and Aronofsky’s demented script puts brilliant spin on centuries-old themes.

If you don’t want to read minor spoilers, skip to the last paragraph. Aronofsky really ticked people off by treating NOAH as a fantasy and though that film wasn’t perfect, I thoroughly enjoyed it. This taken into consideration, MOTHER! seems to be the exact swtich-up of that formula. Here, Aronofsky is retelling Bible stories in the most fucked up, disturbing way possible and it winds up being one of the ballsiest films that I’ve seen in the 2010s. Though there’s an argument to made about the interpretations of artistry and failing relationships, I totally bought this on the not-so-subtle Biblical ideas and characters’ names seem to really hammer that home for me. I adored this film, but can totally understand why someone wouldn’t be into this sort of thing and not care for it at all.

MOTHER! feels like something that Lynch, Cronenberg, or Kubrick would have directed in their heyday. It’s one of the strangest home invasion horror films you’ll ever see, while also serving as a brilliant slice of metaphorical madness for those who really love this film’s sheer darkness and overall message. This is a strange, rough, and fucked up film…and I loved every single second of it. A movie hasn’t left me pondering over it this much in a long time and I can’t wait to revisit MOTHER! many times in the future. This is not only the best horror film that I’ve seen in years and one of the best films of 2017 (so far), I’d argue that this will go down as one of the best films of the 2010s for me!

Grade: A+

BLACK MIRROR Season 2 (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes

BlackMirror2 poster

Starring: Hayley Atwell, Domhnall Gleeson, Lenora Crichlow, Daniel Rigby, Jason Flemyng & Chloe Pirrie

Though it contained only three episodes, BLACK MIRROR’s darker-than-dark first season received enough critical acclaim and popularity to warrant a second outing. In early 2013, Brooker returned to British television screens with three more tales of insanity and futuristic technology run amok. Unlike the first season, which was a trio of greatness, this second season contains two winners and the show’s first real misfire. If you’re looking for more madness and brilliance in equal measure, then you’ll enjoy two episodes of the three. Without further ado, onto the stories themselves…

1. Be Right Back

BE RIGHT BACK: Martha (Hayley Atwell) and Ash (Domhnall Gleeson) are a loving couple, until Ash is killed in an accident. Desperate for closure, Martha signs up for an experimental software that allows her speak to a computerized imitation of Ash. It’s meant to be a therapeutic coping tool, but Martha soon takes this program to dangerous levels. BE RIGHT BACK is equal parts sad and scary, mostly hinging on Atwell’s performance as an emotionally distraught woman placed in a horrible scenario. As with most BLACK MIRROR episodes, you shouldn’t expect an upbeat message and positive outlook on the world. This cautionary tale’s natural progression builds tension and relies on believable emotions, both of which make up this episode’s tragic core. A

2. White Bear

WHITE BEAR: Season one’s FIFTEEN MILLION MERITS remains my favorite episode of BLACK MIRROR, but WHITE BEAR is a very close runner-up. A woman (Lenora Crichlow) wakes up with no memory and finds the world around her in a chaotic frenzy. Most of the population has been zombified by a scrambled electronic signal and masked psychos are spilling blood on the streets. WHITE BEAR begins as a derivative hodge-podge of clichés and then brilliantly becomes something else entirely. This story becomes absolutely nightmarish when realize the social commentary that Brooker was aiming for and the horrifying implications of the episode’s final minutes (keep watching through the end credits). A+

3. Waldo Moment

THE WALDO MOMENT: Every anthology series is destined to have weak episodes and WALDO MOMENT is BLACK MIRROR’s first so-so installment. This story isn’t bad, but doesn’t fit the tone of the series. Failed comedian Jamie Salter (Daniel Rigby) has found success in voicing satirical cartoon bear Waldo. When his producers want to move the character forward onto a bigger show and have Waldo cover the election year, Jamie reluctantly agrees. The public goes nuts for Waldo…more so than for any of the actual politicians. I feel that the only BLACK MIRROR quality in WALDO MOMENT comes from the somewhat predictable (but still effective) ending. The rest of this story plays out like a ham-fisted political drama and is a bit too obvious in its message. Not a bad episode, but not a particularly good one either. B-

Black Mirror White Bear

BLACK MIRROR’s second season isn’t as strong as its first, but I say that due to one out-of-place misfire. Fans of Charlie Brooker’s insanity/brilliance are sure to be pleased with the majority of this season and may even find something to enjoy in the weakest episode. WHITE BEAR is among the very best of the series, while BE RIGHT BACK is a haunting new spin on a tragic old tale. WALDO MOMENT is only recommended for purists who won’t feel content unless they’ve seen it. Two out of three isn’t bad!

Grade: A-

THE REVENANT (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Frontier Combat and Violence including Gory Images, a Sexual Assault, Language and brief Nudity

Revenant poster

Directed by: Alejandro G. Inarritu

Written by: Mark L. Smith & Alejandro G. Inarritu

(based on the novel THE REVENANT by Michael Punke)

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter & Forrest Goodluck

Just give Leo the Academy Award already! After so many nominations and disappearing into various characters for the past decade (some of them based on real people), the once-pretty-boy-turned-serious-performer has shown on numerous occasions that he’s one of the most talented actors of our time. Case in the point, THE REVENANT. Directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu (the guy who won some awards for BIRDMAN), REVENANT is the based on the true story of fur-trapper Hugh Glass. Though details have obviously been added and excised from Glass’s life to make for a more exciting and poetic story, THE REVENANT is a brutal work of beauty and vengeance. There’s so much to praise about this film that I’ll briefly jump into the plot and then tell you why I feel this movie is amazing.

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In 1823 Louisiana territory, Hugh Glass and his fellow fur trappers have been ambushed by a violent tribe of Ree Indians. In an effort to stay alive as long as possible, the group trek out on foot through dangerous mountain terrain. Among the group, tensions rise between Glass and fellow trapper Fitzgerald over Glass’s son (who’s of Native American descent). After Glass is ferociously attacked by a bear, Fitzgerald leaves him for dead and kills Glass’s son to cover up his deed. This was bad move for Fitzgerald because Glass is not dead and becomes driven by revenge to stay alive. Braving the harsh elements, wild life, sinister fellow travelers and more, Hugh Glass slowly but surely makes his way across a long perilous journey to find Fitzgerald.

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Utilizing the same cinematographer from BIRDMAN, REVENANT does not have the appearance of being one long continuous take. This being said, there are lots of lengthy tracking shots throughout the film. I simply could not tell where any editing had been made in spots (or how the hell they pulled some of these scenes off). The camera is constantly moving, but never to a degree that resembles shaky cam. In a ballsy move, blood, snow, and breath occasionally make their way onto the lens to give us a more intimate feeling of realism in what we’re watching. Inarritu is a stylistic genius, but there was a streak of astounding madness that also made its way into the film.

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In an effort to keep things as real as possible, the film was mostly (if not entirely) shot in real light and it looks absolutely stunning. The wild, thickly wooded, and snow-laden locations are beautiful to behold in an otherwise bleaker-than-bleak tale of revenge. Apparently, shooting this film was a hellish experience for the cast and crew. I’d believe it because they all look like they’re halfway ready to freeze to death or faint from exhaustion in numerous shots. Leo especially goes above and beyond the call of duty in performing a lot of real feats on camera (eating raw bison liver, nearly getting hypothermia in a freezing river, etc.) to bring a convincing performance to the screen. It all works, because he disappears into the role of Glass. Not once, during this entire film, did I ever believe I was merely watching another performance from Leo. Instead, it felt like I was watching a real person braving harrowing conditions and a horrible streak of bad luck in order to survive. DiCaprio is that convincing.

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Leo isn’t the only stellar performance as Tom Hardy is nowhere to be seen. Instead, we get this rough, vicious, and thoroughly hateable Fitzgerald in his stead. Using a thick accent and intimidating body language, Hardy is unrecognizable. His scenes contrasted with DiCaprio’s survival sequences make for an exciting journey as we know that both men will eventually meet again and the results will be far from pleasant. Domhnall Gleeson (continuing a stellar track record for 2015) also pops up as the well-to-do hunting captain of the party, while young Will Poulter delivers the best performance of his career thus far as Jim Bridger (the naïve trapper left to guard Glass with Fitzgerald).

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It should be no surprise at all to say that THE REVENANT is a brutal and bleak story. The bear attack is incredibly tense and had everyone in the audience squirming in their seats. The long sequences in which Glass narrowly escapes from Ree arrows as well as bullets from French trappers are insanely suspenseful and masterfully executed. A fight scene in the final third is among one of the roughest (in a good way) and most cringe-inducing that I’ve seen on film. I was actively wincing when an axe or knife got plunged into one the men going at it. For all of its brutality, the film is incredibly beautiful as well. These moments come through artsy dream sequences showing Glass reconciling with his lost son and dead wife, but the quiet stretches of the film are profound as well. THE REVENANT is a movie that says more through its dialogue-free scenes than most films say with all the words in the world. A fierce, unforgiving, and masterfully crafted triumph, THE REVENANT is one of the best modern Westerns in existence.

Grade: A+

DREDD (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody Violence, Language, Drug Use and some Sexual Content

Dredd poster

Directed by: Pete Travis

Written by: Alex Garland

(based on the JUDGE DREDD comics)

Starring: Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey, Wood Harris & Domhnall Gleeson

After Sylvester Stallone tarnished the franchise in 1995, it seemed like the character of Judge Dredd would never see the big screen again. Obviously, the tides changed as we have this 2012 reboot. However, some studio exec is probably feeling bad about their decision to green light this project because it bombed at the box office, but that’s not due to lack of quality. DREDD is one of the best action films of the new millennium. Graphically violent, beautiful to look at, and well executed all around, DREDD is a comic book film that actually makes me want to read the comic series that it’s based on. There’s no other way of putting it. This film is a perfectly realized, non-stop adrenaline rush from beginning to end.

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In the far distant future, the United States is a radiated wasteland. The dwindling population live in massive 200-floor apartment blocks and judges, the highest form of law enforcement, patrol the streets. These helmet-wearing judges also serve as jury and on-the-spot executioners. Judge Dredd serves in Mega-City One, a place where 17,000 crimes are reported daily. Dredd’s latest assignment is unlike his others in that he’s evaluating Anderson, a telepathic rookie who wants to make a difference. Dredd and Anderson take a triple-homicide call at a rundown tower block. The murders are the result of vicious drug lord Ma-Ma who locks down the block and orders the execution of these two judges upon their arrival. Violence, action, and chaos ensue as Dredd and Anderson are forced to fight for their lives through the vast tower block.

Dredd 2

I must confess that I didn’t see DREDD in theaters because the plot sounded like a knockoff of THE RAID (in which a group of cops are forced to fight their way out of 40 floors of chaos in an apartment building). While the basic set-up might be similar between the two films, DREDD’s execution could not be more different. This sci-fi actioner is heavily stylized, uses its futuristic environment to showcase a ton of wild set pieces, and relies on the dynamic between its two judges to further the story along. Though only made on a budget of 45 million (which is far smaller than the production values of the film suggest), the world looks very well-developed (down to the tiniest details) and every penny was clearly stretched to make this into the best possible film that it could be. The results are staggering and I loved every second of it.

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As Judge Dredd, Karl Urban never once removes the helmet and shows his face. This was in keeping with the comic books and makes the character a bit harder to read (seeing as his eyes are obscured). Typical character traits of the judges are them being relatively detached and keeping their emotions in apathetic check, so this served the character of Dredd all the better. Meanwhile, Judge Anderson could not be further from Urban’s lead. Played by Olivia Thirlby, Anderson is a much more vulnerable and sympathetic heroine. She’s not above executing a sniveling thug in broad daylight, but she definitely has a soft spot that lends to her being the more human of the two characters. She has empathy for those around her, a quality that makes for an entertaining and interesting contrast between herself and Dredd. Meanwhile, Lena Headey is perfectly cast as Ma-Ma. The scarred villainess with bad teeth is downright despicable and receives one of the most satisfying moments in the entire film.

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The violence in DREDD is pretty insane when you consider that this film received an R rating. I’m surprised (in a good way) that it wasn’t cut down a little more because this definitely skirts the line of NC-17 level gore during many scenes. Severed limbs are tossed around. Heads are blown into unrecognizable chunks. Gore is strewn everywhere. Dredd has a gun that rotates through different ammunition (depending on his situation), thus allowing more diverse shoot-outs to occur. Some of the action is made beautiful with Slo-Mo, Ma-Ma’s new drug, serving as a plot device. This narcotic allows time to slow down for its users and we see a few action scenes from these slowed down points-of-view. This beautifully rendered slow-motion makes for some of the most creative sci-fi action sequences since THE MATRIX trilogy.

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DREDD may have a simple plot, but that’s far from a bad thing. This film serves as a day in the life of Judge Dredd and has transformed me into a fan of the helmeted hero. Though it didn’t do well at the box office, DREDD has gone on to rightfully become a cult classic with a significant fan base behind it (sort of like this generation’s BLADE RUNNER). While hopes of a follow-up seem pretty dim, I would frigging love to see at least two more sequels to this film. The use of colors, creative ideas, compelling characters, and visceral (imaginative) violence make this one of the best action movies of the new millennium. I judge DREDD and find it guilty…of being fucking awesome!

Grade: A+

My Top 15 Films of 2015

List by Derrick Carter

2015 was a great year for cinema. So much so, that I’ve decided not to make a “Top 10 Films” of the year, but a “Top 15” instead. It should be noted that I haven’t seen every single movie that came out during the past twelve months. I’m one man after all and only pay money for and spend time on stuff that interests me. That being said, I reviewed 132 new releases during 2015. There are a few movies that I plan on covering and could have potentially made this list if I had seen them in 2015. These are: THE REVENANT, CAROL, ANOMALISA, and SON OF SAUL. The fifteen titles that did make the cut are flicks that I absolutely loved, plan on adding to my collection, and rewatching many times for years to come. I don’t expect everybody to agree with all of them, but hopefully I’ve recommended a couple of films that peak your interest.

Before getting into list itself, I feel a few honorable mentions are in order. BRIDGE OF SPIES showed that Steven Spielberg has not lost a shred of talent over the years. THE JINX proved to be a groundbreaking true-crime documentary that literally made history. Coming off a string of misfires, Melissa McCarthy delivered her funniest comedy yet in SPY. Finally, on the scary side of things, KRAMPUS is a great holiday horror-comedy that I plan on making an annual Christmas tradition and GOODNIGHT MOMMY is a freaky shudder-inducing little nightmare. Without further ado, I’ll move onto my favorite films of 2015…

15. Black Mass

15. BLACK MASS: Throughout the years, Johnny Depp has become a ghost of his former talented self, but delivered one of his best performances ever this year. He disappeared into the role Whitey Bulger and became a terrifying on-screen monster. The story is a complex one that couldn’t easily be told in the space of a two-hour film. Though I feel it would have been a modern crime masterpiece if 30 more minutes had been tacked onto the final third, director Scott Cooper did a phenomenal job portraying one of the most notorious gangster stories in American history. Depp isn’t necessarily the star of this movie as the rest of the cast is especially strong. Joel Edgerton, Kevin Bacon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane, Adam Scott, and many more round out a great ensemble picture. It might not be a modern GOODFELLAS, but I’d rank it as a modern CASINO. BLACK MASS is easily one of the best real-life gangster films to come out of the new millennium.

14. It Follows

14. IT FOLLOWS: In the vein of the original HALLOWEEN and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, IT FOLLOWS is one of the single scariest viewing experiences that I’ve had all year. I attended a midnight screening at Sundance and everyone was losing their minds in the theater over this film. While it only has a few big jolts, IT FOLLOWS manages to get under your skin and stay there. I found myself getting progressively more creeped out when I arrived home and couldn’t stop thinking about the film. What’s even better about this movie is how it took the more difficult and complicated route instead of merely becoming a supernatural slasher. Instead, the film lets a dread-soaked atmosphere float around the viewer…and like “it” does to the characters themselves, that feeling follows you around long after the end credits have rolled.

13. Going Clear

13. GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF: The best documentary that I watched all year, GOING CLEAR is a fascinating and disturbing look into the inner workings of Scientology. Covering the formation of this so-called “religion” (you won’t blame me for calling it a cult after you watch this doc) to the huge amount of controversy surrounding it to the systematic abuse of its followers and opponents, GOING CLEAR is a harrowing watch. The testimonies from former members of the church are both chilling and heartbreaking. Some masterful editing also allows for brief moments of humor, such as a cheesy Scientology music video and an improvised awards ceremony invented specifically for Tom Cruise. As I stated in my review back in March, GOING CLEAR would almost be ridiculous and amusing, if it weren’t so devastating and terrifying.

12. Hateful Eight

12. THE HATEFUL EIGHT: It might not be Tarantino’s best film, but I loved the hell out of the HATEFUL EIGHT! A far more contained story than Tarantino’s recent Oscar nominees, this is pretty much RESERVOIR DOGS set in the Old West with more suspense. Besides that familiar set up, Tarantino manages to milk a massive amount of tension from each scene leading up to many unexpected revelations, over-the-top gore, and sick humor. I was on the edge of my seat throughout, almost fell out of my chair laughing at one point, and left totally satisfied.

11. Kingsman

11. KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE: Nobody expected this movie to be nearly as good as it was. The two best descriptions I can give KINGSMAN are that it’s either the KICK-ASS of spy movies or a very R-rated take on SPY KIDS. The film is wild, crazy, fast-paced and never takes itself seriously. In a year that’s been populated by plenty of superheroes, KINGSMAN is my favorite comic book adaptation of 2015. The church scene alone was one of the most jaw-dropping sequences I’ve sat through all year. The rest of the film is hugely entertaining and has the balls to take risks. KINGSMAN was definitely one of the biggest cinematic surprises I had all year, but it was upended by…

10. Gift

10. THE GIFT: This is the biggest surprise that I had in 2015. The trailer made it look like a generic thriller that had already been done a million times before. However, this can all be chalked up to bad marketing because Joel Edgerton pulled triple duty and put his heart into this well-crafted shocker. The film intentionally misleads the audience through various points before unleashing big bombshells upon them. The ending also left me speechless and contemplating it for days afterwards. This is one of those films that is pretty much guaranteed to generate a discussion with other film-loving friends. THE GIFT is not a predictable black-and-white thriller, but something much deeper and far scarier.

9. MI5

9. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE -ROGUE NATION: The MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series has had its ups and downs. The first was good. The second was crap. The third was great. The fourth was fun. However, I don’t think anybody could have predicted that the fifth installment of this high-octane spy series would be the best of the bunch thus far. That was definitely the case as ROGUE NATION unleashed compelling high stakes, brought back old characters as if no time had passed at all, introduced a cool new ones, and had some fantastic set-pieces. In many ways (Bond girl, villain, secret evil organization), MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE -ROGUE NATION was a far better Bond movie than the actual Bond movie we received this year.

8. Crimson Peak

8. CRIMSON PEAK: This gorgeously realized film feels like Edgar Allan Poe and Jane Austen penned a novel together and then Guillermo Del Toro adapted it to the screen. Those who go in expecting endless jump scares and a typical ghost story will find themselves either let down or elated by the film being a gothic romance that happens to contain some very frightening ghosts and thick horror elements in its story. Every frame of the film is beautiful to look at and atmospheric beyond belief. There are shots of this movie that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since I originally saw it and I believe it’s among the very best of Guillermo Del Toro’s filmography. Jessica Chastain is also a fearsome force to behold!

7. Spotlight

7. SPOTLIGHT: A tastefully made movie about one of the most disturbing cover-ups in recent history. SPOTLIGHT could have easily gone for shock value and went all out to demonize religion as a whole. Actually, that’s sort of what I was expecting it to do when I walked into the theater. Imagine my surprise at how restrained and respectful this film is. Aided by one of the most realistic looks at journalism that you’re bound to see on film, the movie packs in so much emotion without ever crossing the line into anything that possibly resemble shock value or cheap shots. Instead, the film asks tough questions, brings powerful performances to the screen, and leaves the viewer with a lot to chew on. This is one of the most important movies of 2015.

6. Macbeth

6. MACBETH: Shakespeare has been brought to the big screen in many ways by many different filmmakers. This beautiful, bleak take on the Scottish Play might just be my favorite Shakespeare movie thus far. With dialogue being delivered in a naturalistic manner and some creative licensing thrown into the centuries-old material, this version of MACBETH somehow improves upon the already perfect tragedy by adding unexpected context into the mix. Michael Fassbender is stunning as the title character, but it’s Marion Cotillard who steals the show. Lady Macbeth is actually made into a sympathetic character which is something that I felt could never, ever be accomplished in any take on the play. It’s also worth noting that this is definitely not a Shakespeare adaptation that will be shown in many high school classrooms, which is a very good thing indeed!

5. Sicario

5. SICARIO: In 2013, Denis Villeneuve wowed me with PRISONERS. In 2015, he returned with the complex cartel thriller SICARIO. A movie that never allows you to get comfortable in your seat or breathe normally throughout its entire running time, SICARIO is a grim, bleak, and depressing movie…and all the better for it. This thriller had a number of stand-out sequences, an intense beyond words finale being one of them. Villeneuve knew precisely when to merely imply the dark deeds occurring just beyond a locked door and when to casually showcase disturbing sights in broad daylight. Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin are all fantastic in their parts. It’s likely that SICARIO will keep you thinking about it long after you’ve finished watching it, but just be prepared for that as there’s no glimmer of happiness or hope to be found within a single frame of this film.

4. Ex Machina

4. EX MACHINA: One of the best pieces of thought-provoking science-fiction to come out in a long, long time, EX MACHINA is a brilliantly crafted beast of a film. I loved everything about it when I first watched it back in April. The performances from the leads (likable Domnhall Gleeson, robotic Alicia Vikander, and scary Oscar Isaac) make for a film that’s pretty much a three character play. The uniquely designed house/research facility is almost a character as well, because the sense of claustrophobia and steadily rising tension become damn near nightmarish by the final third. The effects are excellently rendered and the film gets even better upon repeat viewings (little details stuck out more during the second and third times that I watched it). The hauntingly beautiful soundtrack is just the icing on the cake for my fourth best film of 2015.

3. Room

3. ROOM: Difficult and immensely rewarding, ROOM is a drama like no other. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name (which in turn was inspired by a real-life kidnapping case), this film is tense and remarkably uplifting. Throughout the whole running time, the story walks a tightrope between being heartwarming and heartbreaking. It ultimately winds up with the best of both worlds as various audience members (including myself) were crying at various points throughout the film. As sad as it can be, I left feeling immensely uplifted by this beautiful movie about love and courage. Brie Larson (the frontrunner for Best Actress of 2015) and 9-year-old Jacob Tremblay (giving one of the best child performances that I’ve ever seen in my entire life) are both wholly convincing and believable. I cannot praise this movie enough. It’s amazing!

2. Inside Out

2. INSIDE OUT: A family film that’s made more for adults than it is for children, INSIDE OUT wound up being one of the most emotional theater experiences of 2015 for me (pun fully intended). Though it may look sweet, innocent and cute on the outside, the movie packs a lot of emotional truths that will hit older viewers far more than kids who just want to watch a cartoon. It’s also the biggest tearjerker that I saw all year (right next to ROOM). The film is just beautiful and encapsulates everything that life itself in brilliantly creative ways. It also has one of the most mature messages that I’ve ever seen in a children’s film. It’s not only my second favorite movie of 2015, but my favorite Pixar movie thus far!

1. Mad Max Fury Road

1. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD: Director/writer George Miller had over two decades to craft his fourth MAD MAX movie to perfection and that’s exactly what he did! MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was easily one of the most adrenaline-pumping, kick-ass movies that I’ve ever experienced in a theater. I loved it so much that I saw it twice within four days on the big screen and it has enjoyed many repeat viewings since its home video release. Though some fans have joked that it’s simply a two-hour chase scene, the story manages to encapsulate far more than that. There are issues of gender, slavery, religion, etc. that all come up in subtle (sometimes, obvious), smart ways throughout the film. The movie never stops to deliver heavy-handed exposition to the viewer and gives enough details so we can simply figure it all out for ourselves. The visuals look incredible as this apocalyptic wasteland was wholly convincing, in no small part due to practical effects, dangerous stunt work, and subtle green screen effects. FURY ROAD has joined the rare breed of perfect summer blockbusters that includes the likes of ALIENS and TERMINATOR 2. Bravo!

2015 was a year that was packed full of releases. Some were amazing, some were good, and others fell lower on the cinematic totem pole. It’s definitely been one of the most interesting years for cinema and I look forward to seeing what 2016 has in store for filmgoers!