Thursday, December 31, 2015

TrustMovies' best (and most overlooked) movies of 2015 -- independent, foreign language and documentary films

What do you know? One of the first movies I covered in 2015 turns out to remain the best of the year. That would be Still Life (my original review of which appears here), a wonder of beauty with a subject that movies almost never get near. The result is, as a good friend of mine observed, "Haunting. It has stayed with me ever since I watched."

The remaining 51 films are listed in the order in which they opened -- or at least in which I finally viewed them. (You can click on each one to go to my original review.)  I am not including any big-budget, mainstream movies this year. There were plenty of good ones, but this blog is devoted to the less-seen and under-marketed films, so let's honor that intention.
Here we go....

Still Life (see above), the great Eddie Marsan in what may be his greatest role, in the most beautiful (theme, cinematography and total execution) movie of the year. Unforgettable.

Timbuktu: A look at the Muslim world like little you'll have seen. It probably should have won Best Foreign Film last year. In any case, it's a keeper.

Girlhood: Céline Sciamma's look at French youth in the banlieues of Paris turns out to be ever better than I initially thought. And that was already damned good.

The Voices: Another film that, having viewed it twice, grows in stature. Alternately ugly and funny, it's a movie I wager you won't have seen anything quite like.

Matt Shepherd Is a Friend of Mine: This warts-and-all doc turns the late poster-boy-for-gay-hate-crimes into a full-bodied, sad and memorable person.

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem: How to get a divorce (a "gett") in Israel. A quiet shocker of major proportions.

What We Do in the Shadows: Vampires and comedy do not have a storied history. This movie changes all that. A riotous, non-stop delight.

Queen and Country: Shockingly bypassed by too many critics and most audiences, this is one of John Boorman's best films.

The Best Offer: I'm late in catching up with this riveting, much-overlooked psychological drama from one of my favorite directors, Giuseppe Tornatore. It's a "must."

Predestination: and Spring: Exceptional and very different kinds of sci-fi/fantasy films, both executed supremely well, and in the case of the latter, very strangely.

A Wolf at the Door: This Brazilian film is every bit as dark and believable as any you'll have seen. A quiet, unsettling shocker that deserves a much wider audience.

Ned Rifle: the final piece of Hal Hartley's Henry Fool trilogy. A "must" for his fans, and at least a "maybe" for all others.

5 to 7: The year's best love story juxtaposes French and American culture with a fine eye, while offering juicy performances and an ending that is just about perfection.

Chic! This barely-seen French comedy about fashion, creativity and romance is a delicious, subversive surprise. Seek it out if you can find it. Good luck.

About Elly: Finally being released here in the USA, this one is the best of all from that much-lauded Iranian filmmaker. Asghar Farhadi.

Like Sunday Like Rain: Another overlooked gem about an odd relationship that somehow works quite beautifully. Pitch perfect, quirky, funny and finally extraordinarily moving.

GÜEROS -- From darkest Mexico come an exhilarating movie that is -- can you believe it?! -- not about kidnapping.

Gemma Bovery: An unusual "take" on Flaubert's famous tale that proves a comic delight.

Sunset Edge: Kids spend a day in an abandoned trailer park. One of the least-seen but best filmmaking debuts of the year.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence: Another Roy Andersson amazement. 'Nuff said.

10.000 KM: A long-distance relationship via laptop makes for a smart, surprising relationship movie.

Phoenix: A post-Holocaust mystery that explores guilt, shame, denial -- and hope -- in intriguing ways.

Listen to Me Marlon: Marlon Brando as you've never seen (nor heard) him in a fascinating documentary based on the actor's private recordings.

The Kindergarten Teacher: Israeli drama exploring art, creativity and hypocrisy -- among other things -- in that country today.

Counting: Terrific cinematography and allusive meaning highlight this provocative and beautiful-to-behold documentary about time and place and... what?

A Little Chaos: Alan Rickman's splendid look at Louis XIV and his court and garden. Perhaps the most overlooked and under-rated of all the year's films.

Rosenwald: How the Academy overlooked this fine and important documentary about one of America's great businessmen/philanthropists is a mystery indeed. Don't you do the same.

Guidance: The year's most glorious comedy -- oh, so wonderfully politically incorrect!

The Second Mother and I Touched All Your Stuff: Two underseen Brazilian films -- the first a narrative, the second (a still from which is shown above) a documentary -- both of which deserved a much wider audience.

Blind: An original exploration into the mind of the non-sighted, this is one hell of a trip.

Home from Home: An amazing movie from one of Germany's least-known (but ought not to be) filmmakers.

Closer to the Moon: a terrific little based-on-fact tale filled with nonstop fun and irony (and Vera Farmiga and Mark Strong).

The Fool: The darkest, bleakest, black comedic look at today's Russia that you can imagine. Beats out even last year's Leviathan

The Farewell Party: The end-of-life movie to end all of 'em, this Israeli comedy/drama is spectacularly well-done.

Movement + Location: Brilliant, low-key sci-fi that's about a whole lot of things -- especially the immigrant experience.

The Creeping Garden: It is almost unimaginable how interesting, enjoyable, educational and fun this documentary about slime mold turns out to be.

Taxi: The Iranian provocateur Jafar Panahi takes us into his life as a taxi driver in this hybrid of documentary and narrative.

Walter: This little-seen Canadian film is a winner in all respects -- especially in the way it confounds our ideas about religion, ghosts and god.

Tab Hunter Confidential: The story of one of Hollywood's most popular 1950s stars is laid bare in this excellent documentary.

Why I'm Not on Facebook: This must-see doc tackles everything from that social network behemoth to narcissism and the way we live today.

Suffragette: The struggle for women's right to vote in England becomes a major work of sacrifice and upheaval.

Mustang: France's BFLF submission is a fine tale of Turkish sisters struggling for their freedom from fundamentalist Islam.

Brooklyn: One of the year's best, with a fabulous lead performance from its star, Saoirse Ronan.

Stink!  A fine activist doc about safety, corporate power and greed that needs to be seen.

Hitchcock/Truffaut: The film-buff doc of the year, a treasure-trove of info about (nearly) everyone's favorite director.

My Friend Victoria: From France, and the movie of the year so far as race, class and the building of character are concerned.

Chi-Raq: Spike Lee and Kevin Willmott's updating of Lysistrata to present-day Chicago proves Lee's best movie in a long, long while: funny, smart, and sporting a crack cast. music, dance and rap poetry.

45 Years: A love story, the likes of which we rarely see, in which a long-time marriage threatens to unravel before our -- and its participant's -- eyes.

Youth: Paolo Sorrentino does it again in this, the most visually arresting film of the year. Gorgeous.

(Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies. Sure, lying is only human, but this fine doc shows us why and how to keep this particular characteristic in check.

Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram story -- done with enough wit, style and passion to create a memorable minor classic.

Faults: Cults and deprogramming get a look-see like nothing you will have thus far encountered. This one's a humdinger!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

"Mainstream" movie of the year: Adam McKay's important and marvelously entertaining THE BIG SHORT

Having seen only a handful of the usual mainstream contenders for Best Picture "Oscar," TrustMovies is in no position to weigh in officially. Of everything he's seen so far, however, THE BIG SHORT -- Adam McKay's adaptation of Michael Lewis' seminal non-fiction account of a few smart "money" guys who saw the financial collapse coming -- is by far the most important film of the year. It is also among the most entertaining.

Yes, Spotlight is equally riveting and is also about something very important. But I would suggest that the subject of McKay's movie (the filmmaker is pictured at left) -- the 2008 worldwide financial collapse -- is even more important than the Catholic Church's long-running parade of sexual-predator priests. Why? Because what caused that financial collapse affects many more of us and is still going on, to the horrific detriment of America's (and most of the world's) poor and middle class -- to everyone, in fact, except the wealthy. It is most responsible for the widening gap between the rich and the rest of us, and the movie points this up like nothing we've so far seen, and does so in a manner to make us laugh, sure, but then grow very, very angry. All over again.

Both films sport crackerjack casts, and each director draws terrific a performance from every actor. But because The Big Short features a number of characters who are not a little bizarre, this makes for some sublimely entertaining performances, especially from Christian Bale, (below), Steve Carell (above, with his hand up, in one of the film's pivotal scenes) and Ryan Gosling (shown two photos below, center right, facing Mr. Carell).

Each actor is superb, though never "showy," at literally every moment in which he appears on screen. And McKay makes the most of them, as well as of his very fine supporting cast.  This is, by the way, a very "male" movie -- as is, of course, the Wall Street/Banking sector of our society.

Women, with very few exceptions, are peripheral to this business, and how Mc Kay uses them here cannot be unintentional. Marisa Tomei is that stand-by-your-man wife; Melissa Leo the blinkered career woman, and, in his most talked-about touch, explanatory guides Margot Robbie (in a bubble bath) and Selena Gomez (at a casino table) are right out of your typical James Bond movie.

The story that McKay and Lewis (along with co-adaptor Charles Randolph) offer up is not the easiest one to follow, unless you've already followed that financial collapse with some acuity. But these guys make it about as easy to access, as possible, considering. And they make it surprisingly fun and funny, as well -- even if the laughs are often at our own expense. The scene with one of the "enablers" (Byron Mann, above, left) toward the film's conclusion is a humdinger indeed.

At 130 minutes, this Short is not short, but there's not a boring moment in the whole shebang. In fact, things seems to grow ever more important, appalling and entertaining as the film builds to its suspenseful (even though of-course-we-know-what-happened) conclusion. (Above are, left and right, Finn Witrock and John Magaro as relative newbies on the big-time financial block.)

The movie is a call to action -- of some sort, at least. Republicans will do all they can to discredit it, but I'm afraid the cat is out of the bag. Wall Street and the Banks are not just corrupt; they are uber-corrupt. And so are our politicians for allowing this greed and stupidity to flourish. (Above: Billy Magnussen and Max Greenfield as two slimey and unrepentant sub-prime mortgage brokers.)

I have to admit that nothing in the past career of Mr. McKay would have given me an idea that he could bring us a movie this important -- and at this level of film smarts. Well, I know now. And I am duly impressed. The manner in which he occasionally breaks the "fourth wall" and how he handles those explanatory moments are sophisticated marvels of making the most of what needs to be done.

TrustMovies is also rather amazed that Paramount -- a Viacom company, hello -- released the film, but I am grateful that it has. Whatever The Big Short does or does not achieve come awards time, this wake-up call will have reached millions in the coming months and millions more when it finally arrives on video and digital.  If you can't wait till then, just know that it is worth the price of a theatrical admission -- and then some.
Click here to learn where you can view it now. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Catching up tardily with one of the year's best documentaries: Yael Melamede's terrific (DIS)HONESTY: THE TRUTH ABOUT LIES

TrustMovies was in the midst of preparing for his move south when (DIS)HONESTY: THE TRUTH ABOUT LIES hit theaters last spring. It has taken him more than six months to catch up with this unusual and unusually fine documentary, but the wait was worth it, and he recommends the film to you now, as one of the best docs of this past year. It introduces us to (or maybe "reminds us of" would be a better wording) humanity's predilection toward hypocrisy, denial and, yes. lying and cheating. But instead of gloating in any tired, "told you so" manner, the movie -- just as does its "star" and narrator, the charming Dan Ariely -- actually proves more spirited than dispiriting, even hopeful about our chances of keeping this especially obstinate characteristic in check.

Mr. Ariely, shown at right, is funny and smart, as he tells us of his own story and the horrible accident that starts it off, and how this leads him to wanting to know more about mankind's need to prevaricate in various ways.

The film's director, Yael Melamede, shown left, does a fine job of moving us along and weaving together Mr. Ariely's ideas and lectures to a welcoming crowd with the stories of various liar and cheats, each of whom differs from the others in major ways as they tell their tales with a welcome honesty and quiet contrition. Their crimes vary in magnitude (in my estimation the state of Ohio has more to answer for than the mother it tosses into jail for trying to give her children a better education), but each one is a fascinating story, well worth telling.

These have to do with everything from college admissions and Wall Street insider trading (above) to cheating on one's spouse (below) and refereeing basketball (further below).

Along the way, we learn about various experiments in human behavior regarding lying and cheating, the outcomes of which will surprise and amuse. Who lies the most, folk: bankers or politicians? Who cheats more: men or women? Watch this movie, and you'll discover the answers.

We also learn about behavioral economics, rather than the more standard kind (the former is Ariely's specialty), and how "distance from the money" can make cheating easier. The film is full of juicy (perhaps unintentional at the time of filming) ironies, too. Watching Brian Williams report on how Marilee Jones was caught lying about her background is, well, too bizarrely funny for words.

Does "good lying" exist? And how about those lie detectors -- that can pick up when we're lying for personal gain but don't show a thing when the lie is for the betterment of a charity? The documentary goes into all this and more, and Ariely proves such a charming and witty raconteur that we'd probably stick around were the movie twice as long as its fact-filled, thoughtful 90 minutes.

Best of all, (Dis)Honesty doesn't simply point out the problem. It also shows us a few ways of helping circumvent it -- via suggestions put into practice in India, Scandinavia and elsewhere. "Lying," explains Ariely, "is not about being bad but being human. We all have the capacity to build a better, more ethical, more honest world." The movie shows us why & how.

Available on DVD as of December 1, you can order the film from various sources. Two of these are linked here and here.  Or watch it via Amazon Instant Video.

Monday, December 28, 2015

In Daniel Barber & Julia Hart's THE KEEPING ROOM, we see The Civil War from a race/class/feminist angle

"War is cruel," goes the quotation from General William Tecumseh Sherman that begins THE KEEPING ROOM, an initially enticing, small-scale mixture of war film, western, suspense thriller and -- given the leading characters, there is no way around this -- feminist tale of what happens when a couple of unhooked and marauding Union soldiers come up against a trio of put-upon Southern women. The remainder of that "War is cruel" quote, written out in full at the film's beginning, is brought to ugly but believable life in much of the film that follows.

Writer, Julia Hart (at left, above), and director, Daniel Barber (at left, below) do a doozy of a job bringing us into their story -- which is told over the film's first seven minutes with not a word of dialog (unless you're willing to count the barking of a dog and the woman who barks right back).

The incidents we see, however, shatter us with their extreme and unnecessary violence. But, hey, we've got that quote to live up to. The filmmakers do not dwell on excessive gore; we see what we need to: the intended and some unintended results of war. We also note the extreme fear experienced by the victims of that war, who have excellent reason to be afraid.

From that opening seven-minute section, we move to some new characters, our protagonists, those three women: older and younger sisters (played respectively by Britt Marling, above, and Hailee Steinfeld, below,

and the black woman slave (by now a nearly ex-slave, as the War seems about to draw to its horrific close), played by the very fine actress Muna Otaru, shown below).

For roughly half of the running time of the film, Ms Hart's dialog together with Mr. Barber's smart direction keeps us quivering and hooked. We note the nastiness and ferocity of the two antagonists, played by Sam Worthington (below) and Kyle Soller, and feel sorrow at the plight of their victims.

But then, as tension mounts and our protags and antags inevitably meet, the movie begins to pack in an excessive amount of cliché -- who gets shot and who's dead or not -- so that we begin rolling our eyes in anticipation of more of the same. The filmmakers still have a mild surprise or two up their sleeves, but considering the amount of time we're suddenly spending watching women with guns and men with guns sneak around and about each other, the film begins to leach much of its former suspense and originality.

The penultimate scene seems intended to fully demonstrate General Sherman's quotation, while the film's final scene may not appear particularly believable, but then, the movie ends before we can actually judge how well this ploy will play out.

Mr. Barber, who earlier gave us the so-so Michael Caine revenge tale, Harry Brown, demonstrates a good sense of pacing and eye for detail, and his film is atmospherically shot (as above, by German cinematographer, Martin Ruhe) and well-scored (by Martin Phipps/Mearl),  I just wish it had held up a little better (and a little longer), before losing us.

The Keeping Room (the title comes from a dark and untimely coming-of-age tale that the slave tells the sisters), from Drafthouse Films and Cinedigm, after playing a very limited run (in Albuquerque and Chicago earlier this month) heads straight-for-video tomorrow, Tuesday, December 29, available on Digital Download HD. Click here for further details on how to order a DVD or Blu-ray.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

THE COBBLER: Tom McCarthy's humane fantasy flick turns out to be worth a look, too

After being quietly blown away by Spotlight, and recalling the article in which New York magazine noted that filmmaker Tom McCarthy had been the recipient of both the best and worst reviews of the year for his two most recent movies, we decided to take a look at that "worst-reviewed" film --THE COBBLER, an Adam Sandler vehicle that, after garnering less than sterling notices at last year's Toronto Film Festival, bypassed theaters for a straight-to-video USA debut. In the afore-mentioned article McCarthy noted, "We knew what we were doing with The Cobbler. It’s just how people responded to it was different than we figured.” Fair enough. So spouse and I settled back on our sofa last night to see just what that movie was all about. (It's available now via Netflix streaming and elsewhere.)

The film is full of surprises, beginning with Sandler's performance, which is low-key and a tad depressive. The story itself has to do with a magical stitching machine passed down via generations of cobblers to the latest one (played by Sandler), allowing that cobbler to step into the shoes he has repaired and then simultaneously "become" the person who owns those shoes. As fantasies go, this one has a myriad of possibilities, many of which are mined by Mr. McCarthy (shown above) -- though not in the manner one might expect.

Those expectations are subverted in ways that are mostly surprising and charming, in keeping with McCarthy's humanist tendencies. First off, rather than having Mr. Sandler use his so-called "comic gifts" to impersonate this myriad of shoe owners, instead it is all the other characters (and the actors who play them) who must impersonate the cobbler that Sandler plays -- as well as playing their own characters. This makes for less wild and crazy humor than it does a kind of steady, low-key charm.

The other character here include everyone from a pretty, feisty, community organizer (Melonie Diaz), shown two photos up) and a tough and scary criminal type (Method Man, above)

to a best-friend barber and neighbor (Steve Buscemi, above, left) and a wealthy real estate mogul (Ellen Barkin, below). No less than Dustin Hoffman even makes a couple of fine appearances here.

Look for Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens (below) playing a smooth 'n semi-sleazy Brit, and the ever-lovable Lynn Cohen (shown at bottom) as Sandler's mom. The whole cast, in fact, is glossier and more on-point than fantasies like this usually deserve or receive.

As co-writer (with Paul Sado), McCarthy gives good vent to his kindlier side, making the movie a more pleasant fit for a family outing than are most Sandler comedies. How our cobbler chooses and uses those many different shoes contributes mightily toward making this movie such sweet, comic fun.

If The Cobbler is certainly nowhere near the don't-miss category, it is still a pleasant surprise. I suspect the bad reviews were as much a reaction to the dislike so many critics feel toward Mr. Sandler than to the movie itself. 

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Tom McCarthy's SPOTLIGHT is as good as you've heard. Which is saying a whole lot.

Earlier this year New York magazine ran an article in which it noted that writer/director Tom McCarthy had managed to have both one of the year's best reviewed movies (SPOTLIGHT) and one of its worst-reviewed (The Cobbler*). That's some kind of weird record, to say the least. Having finally caught up with Spotlight this week, TrustMovies can vouch for how fine a film it is: one of the very few I've seen that delves into a particular workplace -- investigative reporting for a big-city daily newspaper (in this case The Boston Globe) -- and, according all the notices I've so far seen, together with what I myself know about investigative reporting, shows this workplace in a truthful and realistic manner.

The story it tells, based pretty closely on the facts, is of the pedophile-priests scandal that rocked the Boston area and The Catholic Church a decade or more ago, and that ought to have rocked both two decades earlier, when reports of the abuse were also coming in. Mr McCarthy, shown at left, has long been a wonderful filmmaker, talented, modest and reliably low-key. From The Station Agent, through The Visitor and Win Win, his talent has resulted in movies in which "reach" and "grasp" become one and the same. (The fellow is also a fine actor, with 38 acting credits to his name but only seven writing and five directing credits, according to the IMDB.)

Spotlight is the first time McCarthy has worked on anywhere this large a scale. Yet, along with his co-screenwriter, Josh Singer, he's been able to capture both the big picture (the network of power that had kept the scandal in tow for so long) and the small one (the step-by-step investigation procedures that finally result in the whole story). As per usual, the filmmaker manages this in such a modest, unshowy fashion that it might seem easy to overlook his excellent work come awards time.
I hope not.

One hallmark of McCarthy's films is their fine ensemble acting. Not only is Spotlight no exception, it features as good an ensemble performance as the filmmaker has managed so far. My spouse pointed out immediately after viewing the film that it seemed like these actors were real people rather than performers or characters. There is indeed a documentary feel which contributes mightily to the unusual sense of reality the film achieves.

"Spotlight" is the name of the small group of reporters who work on special projects for the Globe, often taking a very long time to bring their stories to fruition. Leading the group is Robbie (Michael Keaton, shown above, left, and three photos above, here as low-key and under-the-radar as he was over-the-top in last year's overblown Birdman). Robbie has a bevy of good reporters under his wing, including Matt (Brian d'Arcy James, at left, two photos above), Sacha (Rachel McAdams (above, right) and Mike (Mark Ruffalo, below, right, with Stanley Tucci, who plays the lawyer for many of the victims).

All of these characters (shown below) report to Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery, seen below, right), who in turn reports to the paper's new editor-in-chief (played by an extremely bright but buttoned-down Liev Schreiber, shown at bottom, second from left).

So cleverly and intelligently is laid out the investigation -- alternating between victims (with only an occasional look at a predator) and reporters, between those in the power structure, whether it be the Church or its minions who run the city and culture, who want to keep the story underwraps -- that the film allows us to fully understand what is going on without ever being banged atop the head with "meaning" or heavy-handed ironies. (The movie also never seems too slick; rather, it appears focused and pro-active -- adjectives that I'll bet describe the moviemaker, too.)

The film moves fast, too. Timing out at just over two hours, there's not a tired or treacly moment to be seen. Distributed by Open Road -- a company that, after releasing a number of very good but not all that big-at-the-boxoffice movies (from Hit and Run to End of Watch) has finally broken into the big-time with this excellent film -- Spotlight is playing across the country now. Click here to find the theater near you.

*After viewing Spotlight and taking into consideration 
McCarthy's entire oeuvre, we're planning to stream 
The Cobbler off Netflix tonight -- to see if maybe 
that critical drubbing was undeserved. 
We'll weigh in with our opinion a little later....