10: BRIDGE OF SPIES
You have to hand it to Steven Spielberg, when he does drama he never holds back. With films like Schindler’s List and Lincoln, he not only acknowledges the moral complexity of real life circumstances, he embraces them. When he deals with tragic moments of history, Spielberg doesn’t back away from the ugliness of this moment. In this movie, we see a family gunned down trying to cross the Berlin Wall. But this has to be the least Spielbergian of his movies. It doesn’t even have a John Williams score, opting out for Thomas Newman. What we have is an morally complex espionage thriller of an ordinary man caught in the middle of the cold war.
Tom Hanks plays James B. Donovan an insurance salesman forced to defend soviet Spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). When an American soldier is caught in enemy lines, Donovan then must cross the Berlin Wall to exchange Abel for the soldier. Through Donovan’s defense of Abel, Bridge of Spies shows how difficult it is to hold on to your principals in the time of war. Even though the country wants Abel hanged, Donovan goes in with the determination that he gets a fair trial. As a result, he faces opposition on all sides, from the bystanders to the judge. Even CIA tries to get him to break client confidentiality. At one point, someone opens on Donovan’s house. He still holds on to his principal and upholds the law. The exchange proves him right on his convictions.
Then it becomes an espionage thriller when Donovan travels the Soviet-ruled East Germany to attempt the exchange. It’s clear Donovan’s a stranger in a strange land, where a walk down the street could cost him his jacket. When an American civilian is captured as well, Donovan goes out of his way to have the kid rescued too. This leads to one hell of a thrilling climax.
I got to see this film when it was selected as the People’s Choice at the Toronto International Film Festival. It wasn’t even halfway into the film when the audience cheered. And for good reason. Not only was this one of the most compelling movies of the year, but it seems like two movies.
Adapted by Emma Donoghue from her own book; the film centers around Jack, a five year old boy (Jacob Tremblay) who’s imprisoned in a shack along with his mother (Brie Larson). Because he has never left the shack, Jack thinks the room is literally the whole world, developing a personal connection with the inanimate items. The first half focuses on their lives imprisoned in the shack, as the mother shields Jack from the man who imprisoned them. It’s heartbreaking to watch these scenes, made bearable by Jack’s wide eyed innocence. In one brutal scene, the mother’s forced to pull out her own rotted tooth. Sean Bridges is frightening as the creep who holds them hostage. Now is the moment when the mother makes a plan of escape.
I usually wouldn’t give away the second half, but the trailers already gave it away for me. The second half focuses on their escape to the outside world. The escape scene is one of the most suspenseful scenes in the film. The audience cheered when Jack reunites with his mother. But this comes with new challenges. Introduced to the outside world for the first time, Jack is both curious of the possibilities and so frightened he clings to his mother. Even when free, the mother still feels the phantom pains of imprisonment. Not helping is the media coverage. Larson brings out her character’s traumatic hollowness with brutal honest. As Larsons’ mother, Joan Allen conveys the suffering parents go through in this scenario and the helplessness they feel not sure how to help their child cope.
At age 5, Tremblay maintains a wide-eyed innocence that helps the child endure the unendurable.
This film probably has the most Oscar buzz and it deserves it. Centered around Boston Globes’ exposes exposing the catholic church’s cover ups of priest molesting children, Spotlight is a journalistic crime drama both thrilling and anger inducing. The title refers to the Spotlight Team, a small group of reporters (Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo and Brian D’Arcy James) who focus on a particular project. New editor Marty Baron (Liev Schriever) suggests they focus on a priest who has molested children. But crusading lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) reveals this is just a small piece of a bigger conspiracy. With each victim interviewed and more data collected, the Spotlight team begins to discover a cover up.
With the opening scene of a child being questioned by police, we get a glimpse into the conspiracy at the centre of the film. And yes, it will make you angry. With each investigation, the number of priest moved around grows and grows as high as the 90s. With each interview, we hear a tale of a child who’s lost his/her faith after being taken advantage of. As they go deeper into the rabbit hole, political leaders attempt to dissuade them from going further. The investigation hits close to home when one reporter realizes one of the preacher’s living across the street.
The film shows the challenges that come with covering an issue. There’s the difficulty with convincing victims to retell a traumatic moment of their lives. There’s the dilemma of compromising their project to keep children safe. And then there’s the difficult decision to wait until they can confirm all of the priests even though they have most names. Each character provides his/her own contribution in the team.
Never once does the film flinch when it comes to responsibility. It holds many accountable. It holds the church accountable for moving priests around. It holds the authorities accountable for not taking children’s suffering seriously. It holds the lawyers accountable for profiting on this despicable conspiracy. Even the newspaper is held accountable for waiting so long to look into this. If it weren’t for these reporters along with moral lawyers and activists, this probably would have gone on longer unacknowledged.
7: THE MARTIAN
Matt Damon plays an astronaut left behind on Mars. Unlike most science fiction films, this one keeps this tale of survival as grounded as possible. No battles with aliens. No laser battles. The only enemy is the airless, desert terrain. The film focuses on our hero analyzing his rations and tries to grow plants. Then there is the subplot of NASA having meetings to fix this scenario. What is the film would turn out to be so much fun?
First of all, it’s always fascinating to watch people think outside of the box. We watch Damon use his own feces as fertilizer, use Morse code to communicate with the crew on Earth and using a tarp as a spaceship cover. He’s like a space equivalent to Bear Grylis.
Second of all, the film portrays the scenario as realistically as possible. From the PR Meeting to decide what to reveal to the press to the engineers trying to design a device to send to the hero, it’s not impossible to imagine this is how NASA would react if this scenario actually happened.
Finally, the film has a sense of humour. The film finds mild amusements in the smallest of circumstances, especially our hero being left with only Disco music to listen to.
6: INSIDE OUT
Just when you think Pixar peaked with Toy Story 3, Pete Doctor returns to the director’s chair with Inside Out and brings back the Pixar we know and love. Set inside the universe of pre-teen Riley’s mind, the filmmakers let their creative juices flow to create a variety of different world from the core personalities being embodied by an island to the film studios shooting dreams.
What is especially enjoyable are the performances by the actors. Though the main characters are basic emotions, Amy Phoeler, Phyllis Smith, Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader and Lewis Black find a way to add layers to their own performances. I am especially fascinated by the characters of Joy and Sadness. Though Phoeler makes Joy lovable, the character can be inconsiderate of others and a bit greedy when it comes to the memories. I could tell when the first ad ended with Sadness walking on the screen that she would serve as the center of the film. Smith faces the challenge of making the embodiment of depression endearing. She not only pulls it off, but she makes Sadness the most beloved of the 5 emotions. Sadness is shown to be empathetic to other people’s low points and the more sensible of the duo. But Richard Kind steals the show as Riley’s forgotten imaginary friend Bing Bong.
I especially the lesson it teaches about the importance of sadness. Sadness is a way to let others know when you’re in trouble and need a shoulder to cry on.
This documentary centers around the one on one interview between master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock and French New Wave pioneer Francois Truffaut which became the title book, which many filmmakers consider an essential book. Director Kent Jones reveals what makes this book so important to filmmakers. He also creates a love letter to Hitchcock himself, with interviews with filmmakers from David Fincher to Wes Anderson.
For the first time, we get to actually hear recordings of the interview, with pictures of the interview. The scenes are accompanied by analytical look at his most popular movies, especially Vertigo. It’s especially a joy to hear Fincher discuss the pleasure he takes watching this movie.
It also reminds modern cinephiles before the book came out; Hitchcock wasn’t as respected as he is now. In fact, snobbish American critics considered his films shlock. In France however, Truffaut and other filmmakers sees him as an auteur. In the prologue to the book, Truffaut recalls American interviewers taking a condescending attitude towards his appreciation of Hitchcock. With the book, he hoped to change that. It seemed he did.
4: IT FOLLOWS
This was a great year for horror movies. Critically acclaimed hits like the Babadook, The Gift and Goodnight Mommy seemed destined to become modern classics. But the one standout I will choose It Follows, a masterpiece of fright.
Scream has stated the first rule of surviving a horror movie is to never have sex. Writer-Director David Robert Mitchell turns the rule on its ear with a curse passed on via sex. The only cure is to have sex with another person. He furthers the terror with the rule that if the other person dies, the curse passes back to you.
The image of the figure always walking towards Jay (Maika Monroe) is creepy as hell, always taking on a different form. With each scene, you’re always watching ever person in the background, waiting to see if anyone’s coming this way. The fact that only she can see it makes you fear for her life. Since the release of this movie, people have added themes to the curse, ranging from STDs to aging and even white privilege.
Adding to the terror is the creepy atmosphere. Director of Photography Mike Gioulakis keeps every scene in dimmed light, making every scene feel haunted. He’s also helped by the musical score by Disasterpiece, which pays homage to the synthetic score of 80’s horror.
When most horror films consist of unpleasant, repulsive people in the lead, it’s completely refreshing for a film to have likeable characters in the lead.
3: STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
Disney has worked overtime to recapture the magic of Star Wars. They have succeeded tenfold in nearly every medium from television (Star Wars Rebels) to comics galore. Most importantly, they’ve recaptured the magic with Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
With graceful ease, director JJ Abrams blends the old and the new. We see the return of legendary characters, from a General Akbar cameo to a world- weary Han Solo (Harrison Ford). We see newcomers Rey (Daisy Ripley) and Finn (John Boyega) fit comfortably into the Star Wars universe. My personal favourite is Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron, who seems like the type of guy you’d want to hang around with at a pub.
We see a combination of practical effects and CGI working together to create to create a unique environment in every planet, make action scenes more awesome and further the story. Ever forest the heroes explore, every seedy bar they negotiate in and every spaceship they enter has its own sense of history.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens gives us back the Star Wars we know and love. Is the plot a little too similar to the first movie? A little, yes, but it also has every aspect that made us fall in love with it in the first place. There is an energetic, adventurous tone that never runs thin. There is the humour from how characters interact with each other, whether it’s Han Solo and Chewbacca, Han and Rey and Rey and Finn. There is also a sense of mythology from the search for Luke, which brings the characters further into the mystery of the Force. It’s an excellent adventure that will leave audiences wanting more.
2: THE LOOK OF SILENCE and A FLICKERING TRUTH (tie)
These two documentaries centered on some of the bravest people in the world. They’re neither soldiers nor revolutionaries. They’re not politicians. They aren’t even journalists. They are just ordinary people fighting to preserve their country’s true history.
The Look of Silence
The Look of Silence is a follow up to The Act of Killing, an uncomfortable meeting with the Indonesian rulers who slaughtered innocent people years ago. Amongst the victims is the brother of Adi, an optometrist. Director Joshua Oppenheimer has Adi meet each killer for an appointment for eye glasses. With a gentle and dignified tone, Adi leans the conversation into a subtle confrontation. Each one reveals their own moral weakness, one horrifyingly proud of his work and another wondering why things can’t be left in the past. In one alarming scene, one killer makes the ironically insane claim that drinking his victim’s blood will somehow keep him from going insane.
Told from the victim’s perspective, The Look of Silence captures a sense of fear these people feel even to this day. Considering the fact these people living a country that celebrates its murderer’s, you can’t blame them. Even the end credits have many crew members listed as anonymous. Through this fear is where Adi’s bravery shines through. And he’s not a hero on a crusade to take down evil doers. He’s just looking for any sign of remorse from the killers. All he gets are excuses. In a heartbreaking scene, he watches the original documentary, where one killer discusses how he led people into a ditch to their deaths.
In a way, the eye glasses serve as a symbol of the countries blindness to its own atrocious history. Adi has to keep his son from listening to the propaganda peddled in school. In a world where dictators rule the world, defiance requires the most subtle strategies.
A Flickering Truth
The heroes of this film are film moving Afghans on a mission to restore their country’s cinematic history. When the Taliban banned movies in the country, a few average Joes risked everything to hide up to 8,000 hours of film from the Taliban. Now, a small group of people, from film preservationists to average folks struggle to find the films, restore them from the beaten up canisters they were contained in and show them for the world to see.
Why were they risking their lives just for some movies? They’re just movies, right? Director Pietra Brettkelly makes the case movies are an art form just as important as a canvas or a novel. Movies aren’t just mindless entertainment. Within them lies a nation’s history. With footage that runs as early as the 1900s, the film footage we see shows the development of a film industry working with a variety of genres from Bollywood-esque musicals to action films. Many viewers might be surprised by how progressive Afghanistan was, with some films including a very sexual art film and Frankie Avalon-esque musical with girls go-going in miniskirts. It’s not only movies. There is also footage of King Zahir Shaw meeting with President John F. Kennedy.
Probably the least known film on the list, I got to watch this film at TIFF. And I feel it deserves way more attention. It serves as a reminder of the importance of preserving, archiving and restoring movies. It is a reminder of how much a country can lose at the hands of dictator. In an era of mass islamophobia, it serves as a counter argument to bigotry.
1: MAD MAX FURY ROAD
The greatest trick Director George Miller ever played was convincing everyone he was only making a post-apocalyptic action movie. Albeit an awesome post-apocalyptic action movie. What He was really creating an art film disguised as an awesome action sci-fi. Not since Stanley Kubrick have I seen so much attention to detail placed into making every set piece as visually appealing as possible while still telling a great story.
It follows the classic Mad Max trope; he tries to find a resource, stumbles upon a group threatened by villains, he at first refuses to help but then changes his mind. And we get the car chase scene. From the first few minutes when Max (Tom Hardy) is captured by the henchmen of Dictator Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), Miller seizes every opportunity to subvert his own tropes. First, he spreads the car chase to accompany most of the movie. Then he makes Max a false protagonist. Everyone knew the true protagonist is Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who frees a group of Joe’s “wives” and tries to drive them to freedom.
These days, the post-apocalyptic world has become done to death. Somehow, Miller provides a fresh spin on the genre. Throughout the film, he fills the screen with one amazing image after another. In Immortan Joe’s world, we see endless grotesque images including women strapped like cattle for the sake of milk and an oversize business with severe gout. When we get on the road, we get glimpses of unique vehicles and characters, especially vehicle with drummers on the back and a flaming guitar player on the front. And it is glorious in its awesomeness with cars flipping around, trucks exploding and henchmen descending from swinging poles.
So how is this art film? First of all, the film relies mostly on imagery to tell its story, using as little dialogue as possible. In fact, Max himself talks so little people has theories he’s actually the feral kid from Road Warrior. Second of all, the film doesn’t offer explain how this world works. As indicated by Millers’ written history of the guitar guy, these aren’t just random images thrown in just for the sake of it. He trusts the audience to fill in the blanks for themselves. It’s a fan theorists dream. Finally, there is social commentary worthy of analysis. Seeing Immortan Joe treating people as property can be used for many social issues from corporate exploitation to misogyny. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, you don’t have to analyze the film to enjoy it. Sometimes a kickass action sci-fi is just a kickass action sci-fi; all the more and nothing less.