best movies of 2015

Midnight Special 

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Midnight Special (2015) – Drama | Science Fiction 

Directed by: Jeff Nichols 

Starring: Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton 

How I Watched: Amazon Instant Video

Jeff Nichols makes a habit out of taking his viewers into a different dimension. Take Shelter lifted Michael Shannon into an otherworldly acting status and Mud further solidified this decade’s Matthew McConaughey dominance. In both of those films, it was easy to get completely absorbed into the stories. His characters, often seemingly simple people, can be frustrating, yet immensely likable. Shannon is fighting paranoid schizophrenia in Take Shelter, stricken with visions of an imminent worldwide storm threatening his family’s safety. In Mud, McConaughey quite literally takes shelter in the forest on an island in Arkansas. While both stories stay grounded, there are times in each which border on the unbelievable. I don’t want to say this film is unbelievable, but Nichols definitely has jumped into another genre with this effort.

Midnight Special tells the story of a young child with extraordinary powers and his father (played brilliantly by Nichols alum, Michael Shannon) who does everything he can to protect his son from all those who threaten his existence. From the beginning, the film is exciting, unnerving and incredibly mysterious as it ramps up toward the heart of the movie. There’s a creepy religious cult, car chases, shit crashing to earth from space and some breathtaking CGI that is refreshingly done right in today’s world of graphic overabundance. While it might not reach the emotional levels that Nichols’ previous two offers do, Midnight Special has earned its place in the world of modern Science Fiction.

The film’s ensemble is one of the most impressive elements of Midnight Special. Joel Edgerton shines as Shannon’s old friend, driving and protecting the father and son throughout the film. Adam Driver is not a huge part of the movie, yet provides some of the little humor that pops up. Kirsten Dunst makes an appearance, which seems questionable at first, until I remembered when she rocked the hell out of the transcendent Melancholia. This is not quite the emotional rollercoaster that Melancholia is, but it’s easy to compare elements of the two. I get annoyed by child actors quite often, but Jaeden Lieberher does a great job as Alton, the film’s focus as the young boy with supernatural abilities. Whenever I see Sam Shepard’s name in the credits, I know I’m in for a treat. He does not let down in Midnight Special, as the leader of the cult. His character is unsettling, and walks the tightrope that begs both empathy and hate.

As I mentioned previously, Jeff Nichols has a knack for creating his own worlds. Like Steven Spielberg, you know when you’re watching one of his movies. David Wingo (who has worked with Nichols on all three of his features) and his music in the film, oppressively drones at your emotions, only ramping up when the action does. The beginning of Midnight Special is strange, but delivers an important sense of wonder, much like Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Not much is said for quite a while and we as the viewers are left wondering where the story might move next. Little by little, the story comes together and is pieced together much like a 1980’s sci-fi flick (ala Spielberg) would be. Nichols ultimately abandons his typical penchant for leaving us suspended by the time the film comes to an end, but it still leaves enough to probably require a second viewing.

Midnight Special is the ultimate display of just how much Nichols is capable of with the appropriate budget. With more than three times the amount of money he was given to make Take Shelter, Nichols created a golden Science Fiction film that does not forget to keep the human element an active part of the story. While I feel it does not quite reach the level of Take Shelter and MudMidnight Special is a spectacular visual treat that lovingly takes from exciting sci-fi of yesteryear. If you haven’t yet experienced Jeff Nichols’ cinematic worlds, do yourself a huge favor and soak all of these in.

Final Score: 3.5/4

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Similar Films: Melancholia, Take Shelter, Close Encounters of the Third Kind

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The Revenant

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The Revenant (2015) – Drama | Action

Directed by: Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy

How I Watched: Theater

Best Line: “It turns out Jesus is a squirrel. A big fat meaty one. And I shot and ate that son of a bitch.”

This film is a monument to brutality; an absolute monster that initiates its death march in the hunt to crush your being within the first few seconds. Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki‘s endless sweeping shots that we are all still coming to terms with (see Children of Men, Birdman, Gravity, shit, ANYTHING by Malick in the last 10 years) are at their most devastating and vicious throughout. You know that feeling when a day is coming to an end and you just want those last few minutes of light? That’s the feeling I got here and it lasted for a very intense 156 minutes.

The Revenant is important in so many ways, but I’d like to start with some testosterone-driven reasons. This is a god damn revenge flick. Straight up, blackened, hardcore revenge. This is also a survival movie. Those of you that saw the previews for this and pictured Rambo running through the forests of First Blood or Anthony Hopkins fooling that Kodiak in The Edge will not be disappointed. I know, because I loved The Revenant like those movies, as if I was lost in that great hopeless expanse with them.

Now, I’ve also heard some remarks concerning the pacing of this film. Listen, I get it. I happened to hear the same rumblings walking out of Inarritu‘s Birdman and definitely felt this way the first time I saw his epic, Babel. This is not as much movie though, as it is an experience. Experiences on the screen are meant to pick you up out of your seat and treat you as if you are part of the story. It usually is triggered at the beginning; a slow panning shot with no credits and no dialogue. Just the slow movement of the camera, welcoming you to join. If I see this at the beginning of a movie (There Will Be Blood, holy shit) I’m in, and I’m in for the long haul. The pacing is part of that experience, no matter how long Leo scuffles through the snow in silence.

I suppose I should discuss the acting. Both DiCaprio and Hardy are phenomenal in this. If you’re expecting to see some Titanic-y Leo or ripped-up Hardy, you’re going to be let down. They look more like extras that fell in the mud on Deadwood than they do Hollywood stars. This is all part of it though.

DiCaprio grabs the screen from the beginning and just puts it in his pocket. Never have I seen him more outstanding. I really felt like he was in pain and that his quest was driven by overwhelming hatred. Which brings me to his fellow nominee, Hardy. There’s a lot of us out there that get Tom Hardy. We just get it. Not Bane Hardy. No, I’m talking about the incredibly horrifying beast in Bronson and the quiet badass in Warrior. While he’s great in this, and it’s definitely top-5 Hardy, this is Leo’s film. Hardy is really just a great complement to the whole show.

Now onto the music. God damn, the absolutely batshit score in this movie is so nuts. It does a great job ramping up the action scenes and pressing on your chest during some of the more emotional scenes, but where it really shines is in the film’s quieter moments. It’s really not fair to describe it in words, but it really felt like Twin Peaks-era Angelo Badalamenti being rearranged by a classically-trained serial cannibal confined to an asylum. This is all part of the experience.

The Revenant is not for everyone. Between the lack of female performances, the sheer intensity that does not let up, and the pacing, it’s enough to keep a lot of people away. The only spoiler I’ll give you is in the form of this recommendation. When that first shot envelops the canvas in that theater and the music softly sweeps over the crawling shot of the bubbling mountain stream, jump in. Just let it take you. You won’t be sorry.

Final Score: 4/4

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Similar Films: The Edge, The Grey, First Blood