Mad Max: Fury Road
As a movie, you’re perfectly free to like or dislike George Miller’s fourth outing in the post-apocalyptic Mad Max universe according to your own tastes. As a piece of cinema, however—a work of pure visual storytelling—Fury Road is unimpeachable. It is both a masterpiece of action and a master class in how to tell a story though the medium of motion pictures. Taking the axiom “show, don’t tell” to its extreme, Miller creates a full-throttle fable that dispenses with such niceties as dialogue, character development and conventional plotting. And yet, by the film’s rawboned conclusion, he has sneakily imparted more information about his world and his characters than five traditional action films. This is risk-taking movie making at its breathtaking best.
Pixar, out of all the movie studios in Hollywood, has nothing to prove. If it never made another movie, it could rest comfortably on the laurels of Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Wall-E, Up—take your pick, really. But the people behind the animation never seem comfortable regurgitating the same old fairy tales. Instead, they’re pushing the envelope of what cartoons can do. Case in point, this emotional tale of the turmoil inside one preteen girl’s head. Boil the plot down to its essence and you have next to nothing: A confused young girl moves with her parents to San Francisco and feels out of place. But by turning our protagonist’s warring emotions into living, breathing creatures (voiced by Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith and others), Inside Out creates a sad, joyful, angry, disgusted, fear-filled tale that is the very personification of empathetic.
Emma Donoghue’s microcosmic and seemingly inadaptable book gets the perfect big-screen treatment courtesy of Irish indie filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson (he of the delightfully off-kilter Frank). This claustrophobic tale of a mother and her young son living within the confines of a single 10-by-10 room starts off as a mysterious thriller but soon unfolds into something larger, more complex and much more philosophical. Eventually removed from the confines of their world, mother and son find themselves having very different reactions. Five-year-old Jack (the incredibly intuitive Jacob Tremblay) is terrified by a cosmological model of the universe at odds with everything he has known for his entire life (four walls, a bathtub, a skylight, his mother). Ma (the deserving-of-stardom Brie Larson), on the other hand, welcomes her freedom. But it is the resiliency of youth that proves the better coping mechanism when change truly comes. Dark as the setup appears, Room slowly evolves in to a graceful, hopeful tale of growth, change and survival.
Technically, this was shot in 2014 and lost out on that year’s Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award way back in February. But—with distributors foolishly banking on Oscar gold—it didn’t get distributed in Albuquerque until the end of March. Any year you put it in, however, this kinetic sucker punch of a movie ranks as one of the best. Argentine filmmaker Damián Szifrón’s Spanish-language anthology is best buried in the shallow space between the violent vignettes of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and the twisty storylines of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone.” The six stand-alone stories presented here are a blackly comic collection of tales in which angry men and women attempt to avenge themselves (usually in hilariously over-the-top fashion) against the people, systems or institutions that done them wrong. A total mastery of tone and a dazzlingly crisp mise-en-scene borrowed from producer Pedro Almodóvar make this gorgeous, funny, shocking and bracingly cathartic all at the same time.
French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has made a career of creating coal-black thrillers about the morality of revenge (Incendies, Enemy, Prisoners). But with this shot-in-New-Mexico crime saga, he topped himself—crafting a film that’s almost equal parts Se7en and Traffic. Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow) is at her best as the Jodie Foster-esque FBI agent recruited by laid-back fascist Josh Brolin and tightlipped assassin Benicio Del Toro to serve in a hush-hush law enforcement push along the US-Mexico border. As the bodies pile up in appropriately grim fashion, it’s not about who’s on the right side of the “War on Drugs,” but if there are even separate sides left in this brutal battle. Shocking, twisty and directed in trip-hammer tense fashion, Sicario is a border saga for today’s war-weary world
Undoubtedly the best thing about this “feel good” sci-fi survival drama is the fact that Matt Damon (likable as all get-out here) isn’t the real hero. While the film does express a confident, “can do” attitude about the human spirit, The Martian’s true star is science itself. Few movies have taken such a brainy approach, allowing the main character to think his way through problems. Fewer still have turned that logical, practical, problem-solving attitude into such an entertaining, stand-up-and-cheer saga of overcoming adversity (and, in this case, gravity). There’s little doubt that Damon’s trapped-on-Mars astronaut will return to Earth safe and sound. But this rigorously realistic outer space Cast Away downplays ginned-up melodrama in favor of admirable, old-fashioned smarts.
Bored (one can only hope) with “found footage” jump scares, the horror movie industry has taken a turn for the smarter, more creative and more original of late. This year saw one of the sharper ruminations on the genre, David Robert Mitchell’s no-budget wonder It Follows. Like Fury Road, you can argue for or against its entertainment value based on your own personal tastes—but you can’t ignore the ingenious conceptual thinking behind it all. This savvy, slow-burn horror flick lives in the quiet, shadowy spaces between scares. Using an extremely limited budget and an encyclopedic knowledge of genre history, Mitchell turns this 1985-meets-2015 tale of sexually active teens stalked by a nameless, faceless monster into an innovative manufacturer of pinprick dread. Like Shane Carruth’s Primer, Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes and Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool before it, It Follows cannily incorporates its low-budget roots into the storyline. Unable to summon a giant, drooling creature, It Follows settles for a parade of ordinary people slowly and relentless pursuing the main character. It’s an amazingly simple—and surprisingly eerie—idea that just plain works.
The Look of Silence
Joshua Oppenheimer’s simpler and more direct follow-up to his mind-expanding 2012 documentary The Act of Killing is eye-opening in more ways than one. It follows a gentle Indonesian optometrist who quizzes the men who killed his brother in his country’s 1965 genocide while administering eye examinations. Whereas Oppenheimer’s first film maintained an almost surreal sense of artistic detachment, this one is arrestingly personal. It’s less about the cold-blooded lack of culpability on the part of the government-backed killers and more about the simple bravery of confronting evil—face to face, as it were.
Certifiably interesting genre writer Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later..., Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, Dredd) turned director for this stylish, assured, thought-provoking sci-fi drama. Measured in cast and setting but expansive in meaning, the film ponders nothing less than what it means to be human in today’s high-tech society. The story, about a creepy genius who builds an artificially intelligent robot and tricks a young computer programmer into helping him “test” it, has its roots in everything from Frankenstein to Blade Runner. But Garland constructs a suitably unique atmosphere around this familiar story, setting it inside an ultramodernist house/research lab that—like its mechanized star—is both alluring and unsettling. Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander are asked to carry a lot of weight as basically the only actors on screen, and they do so incredibly well, leading audiences on a intense guessing game of who is manipulating whom.
Thanks to his impressive resumé (Kicking and Screaming, Mr. Jealousy, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Greenberg, Francis Ha), writer and occasional director Noah Baumbach already has a firm grip on East Coast intellectual indie filmmaking. But with 2015’s Mistress America he has produced his first all-around crowd-pleaser. The story of a lonely college coed (Lola Kirke) who unexpectedly bonds with her older, hipsterish, soon-