With tent-pole season winding to a close and the festival stretch quickly approaching, Jordan looks back with appreciation at some summer highlights we hope can maintain momentum as we round the turn and head toward September. – Ryan
“Mad Max: Fury Road” & “Inside Out”
Summer 2015 might very well be seen as the return of the classic summer blockbuster. Just like in 2008 when The Dark Knight and WALL-E blew audiences away as twin pinnacles of pop culture triumph, two movies this year have again changed the game in regard to action and animation. “Mad Max” ramped up the way action can be done, shaming every superhero movie in its path and creating a new language for the genre. “Inside Out” showed us that an animated film for kids could be visionary, trippy and audacious enough to inspire profound analytical essays. “Mad Max’s” nihilistic outlook on human nature and a nasty, in-your-face style, was very much George Miller’s personal triumph through and through. The amount of detail that he brought to every frame was obsessively meticulous, as was the editing by Margaret Sixel, which – as things now stand – deserves serious consideration for next year’s Film Editing Oscar. As the brainiest, trippiest movie Pixar has ever made, “Inside Out” is mandatory viewing for any psych student.
“Amy” & “The Look of Silence”
With respect to non-fiction films it’s impossible to choose between two drastically different documentaries. “Amy” is virtually the first of its kind, a tragic examination of the late singer’s life, composed entirely of footage shot by Amy and her friends and directed and assembled with immeasurable passion by Asif Kapadia. The late 27-year-old singer/songwriter was an unmatched talent but tormented by the most torturous inner demons imaginable. This compulsively watchable film exemplifies the next evolution in documentary, one in which each key milestone of a life is recorded with phone or camcorder by the subject herself, and then this wealth of first-hand material is shaped by a talented director into a touching portrait. Kapadia doesn’t show talking heads as they’re being interviewed; instead he lets us listen to the interviewee while Amy’s personal footage plays in counterpoint onscreen. Don’t be surprised if we get more of these kind of documentaries in the years to come, as we seem to be part of a generation that wants everything recorded and instantly mementoed.
“The Look of Silence” is Joshua Oppenheimer’s sequel to “The Act of Killing,” and he once again addresses the Indonesian genocide of the mid-1960s that killed millions. If the first film dealt with the perpetrators this one is about the victims, as a man who lost his brother in the killings tries to track down the perpetrators through research and in-your-face interviews. The truth isn’t easy and a final confrontation had me almost looking away, but the interviews are the highlights as they bring back a past that most of the perpetrators are in denial about. If there is a more important, contemplative, and meditative film about human nature this year, I sadly haven’t seen it. This isn’t an easy watch, but it’s an essential one. It represents one of the reasons I hope we all go to the movies — to face hard truths and cold facts that might otherwise be forgotten. Oppenheimer is quickly becoming a world-class filmmaker with these important films and the potential significance they bring to society is almost beyond words.
Paul Dano & Ian McKellen
Paul Dano embodies Brian Wilson so brilliantly in his performance that you may actually forget you are watching a movie. Giving us another memorable performance, his depiction of Wilson is that of a wide-eyed kid being slowly stripped of his innocence by obsessive artistic creativity. His absence is clearly felt whenever he’s not on screen, as is the freewheelin’ nature of the “Pet Sounds” recording sessions where the actor basically becomes Wilson: a man so possessed and infatuated with getting the perfect sound that it ultimately became the tool of his undoing.
Ian McKellen delivers an equally impressive performance as a 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes in “Mr. Holmes.” Although the film itself may strike some as slight and is mostly focused on one character, McKellen understands how to make these aspects work to his advantage, creating a portrayal which is nothing short of mesmerizing. With his natural wrinkles serving as craggy foundation for the extra decades added by make-up magicians, 76-year-old McKellen portrays a Holmes suffering from a failing memory and a case that still haunts him to this day. No offense to Benedict Cumberbatch, always great as our modernized Holmes, but McKellen seems to inhabit this iconic character as perfectly as it’s ever been seen onscreen. Many of us still say to this day that he was robbed of the Best Actor prize back in 1999, when he broke our hearts in Bill Condon’s unforgettable “Gods and Monsters,” losing to Roberto Benigni. With Mr. Holmes, McKellan is in an excellent position to grab his third nomination.
Charlize Theron, “Mad Max Fury Road”
Charlize Theron & Lily Tomlin
All hail, Charlize Theron as the baddest of badasses. Proving that her win for “Monster” was no fluke, the 40-year-old actress owned George Miller’s action extravaganza as Imperator Furiosa. Despite the franchise title, the Fury Road wasn’t about Max, it was about her, and even in the quieter moments, not many of them, she found a way to say so much with so little dialogue. Her face weary and worn, but her spirit undiminished, she is an Ellen Ripley for the 21st century, a role model that we want follow anywhere she takes us and of course the empress of all things awesome. The feminist subtext of the film might have turned off a few too many fanboys, but isn’t that another reason to love this performance?
If I say that 75-year-old Lily Tomlin has never been better than in this phenomenal movie by Paul Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy) would you be impressed? Well you should be, because Tomlin’s had a phenomenal career: “Nashville,” “The Late Show,” “9 to 5,” “All of Me,” and “Flirting With Disaster” have all had a little Tomlin-esque spiciness sprinkled at their core and all the better for it. What she does in “Grandma” is heartbreaking and nothing short of astounding. She brings the spiky, zesty nature she’s always been known for, but plays with our emotions until we reach a finale that seals the deal on the truly amazing quality of her work. I went into the movie not knowing much about it, so I’ll allow you the same benefit. But expect a torrent of awards love to come her way in the months to come. The film opens in theaters next Friday.
“Shaun of the Sheep” & “Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation”
It’s almost not fair to ask another animated movie to contend with Pixar when the two are just a few months apart, but I will say that “Shaun of the Sheep” is well worth your time and features some of the best dialogue-free scenes in recent memory. In fact, the film has scarcely any dialogue at all. It relies on its visuals to entertain and does a a marvelous job at that. Some seriously Chaplin-esque stuff here, sure to please the kids, and some undeniably adult humor to be appreciated by grownups. The stop-motion animation is breathtakingly beautiful with layers of details in ever frame. I’d probably put this in an exclusive category of stop-motion classics such as “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Chicken Run,” “Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” and of course “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
I’ll get this out of the way early: I honestly think Tom Cruise is a great actor. He’s passionate about the quality of his work and really works to bring the best product to his legions of fans. “Rogue Nation” has ridiculously good action sequences and exhilarating stunts performed by Cruise. Every detail is put together in such a professional, meticulously stylish way. This is the type of movie you go into expecting over-the-top action sequences, especially after seeing the great ones delivered in “Ghost Protocol,” and the movie definitely delivers by exceeding those expectations. The movie does not have the strong thematic undertones and production design of “Fury Road,” and — again — the plot is definitely the weak link, but it does have some of the best action sequences of the year. I wish more summer blockbusters had this much effort and artistry on display. The multiplex would be a much better place.
The biggest surprise of the summer is, sadly, a movie that many people have not heard much about. With 108 reviews on RottenTomatoes “The Gift” has an outstanding RT rating of 93%. Its metascore on Metacritic stands at 79. So what happened between the critics and audience awareness? As with most mini-budget movies, the marketing was micro — but despite that unavoidable reality, it ranked #3 at the box-office when it premiered and since earned an impressive $28 million on a budget investment of $5 million. Directed by “Zero Dark Thirty” actor Joel Edgerton, “The Gift” is a tense, creepy psychological thriller that has so many twists and turns in its screenplay that you never know what’s coming next. Edgerton directed, produced, wrote and starred in a movie so inspired that it’s reminiscent of Hitchcock and “The Turn of the Screw.” Starring Jason Bateman and the vastly undervalued Rebecca Hall, “The Gift” is a razor-sharp dissection of marriage and friendship that reminds us how we can never escape our past secrets. Go in knowing as little as possible and come out knowing more than you were prepared to find out.