It’s unlike few other movies you’ll see this year or possibly this decade.
In the second installment of our series compiling all RogerEbert.com reviews from 2015 according to star rating (click here to view the first), we're focusing on the films that earned three stars. Generally speaking, these are the films that received a solid recommendation. Highlights from the following list include blockbusters such as "Avengers: Age of Ultron," "Cinderella" and "San Andreas"; indie gems "Appropriate Behavior," "Results" and "While We're Young"; and intriguing documentaries "Iris," "Merchants of Doubt" and "Seymour: An Introduction," which screened at this year's Ebertfest.
The reviews are presented in alphabetical order and are written by our superb team of critics. They include editors Matt Zoller Seitz and Brian Tallerico, featured critics Glenn Kenny, Godfrey Cheshire, Simon Abrams, Christy Lemire, Sheila O'Malley, Odie Henderson and Susan Wloszczyna, and contributor Nick Allen. Click on the name of each title and you will be directed to the full review.
Please check back throughout the rest of the week as we present the films reviewed so far this year that have received three-and-and-a-half stars, four stars and one to no stars.
Against the Sun by Sheila O’Malley
The film features three strong no-frills performances from actors who are quite literally on top of each other for the duration. Director Brian Falk, who co-wrote the script with Mark David Keegan, worked well with cinematographer Petr Cikhart to keep the story visually interesting, despite the limitations placed on the tale by the monotonous setting.
The Age of Adaline by Matt Zoller Seitz
"[There's a] twist [that] triggers a flood of simple but big emotions, and “The Age of Adaline” wades into it with confidence, laying out all four major characters' predicaments with sympathy and intelligence, and never shying away from the sentimentality at the heart of every scene and line."
Animals by Sheila O’Malley
"Such small moments (and there are many in the film) help make what is a typical story memorable and somewhat unique. It's not a particularly interesting relationship because drug addicts tend to be boring, but it is a pleasure to watch both of these actors work."
Appropriate Behavior by Sheila O’Malley
The deadpan tone is dominant throughout “Appropriate Behavior,” a really promising debut from writer/director (and star) Desiree Akhavan. [...] Even with its reliance on familiar types and tropes, feels like a unique vision of life seen through unique eyes.
Avengers: Age of Ultron by Matt Zoller Seitz
In its growing pains you can see a future in which these corporate movies might indeed be art, or at least unique expressions, rather than monotonous quarterly displays of things crashing into other things, with splashes of personality designed to fool people into thinking they're not just widgets stamped out in Marvel's hit factory.
Ballet 422 by Glenn Kenny
The movie, which sticks to a relatively rough-and-ready handheld visual style for the most part, [...] ends on a very beautiful and still shot of the site of the City Ballet that will remind New York-based viewers of their cultural privilege, and maybe goad them into taking advantage of it more often.
Beloved Sisters by Glenn Kenny
While “Beloved Sisters” is undeniably conscientious in its attempt to simulate the foment of what I’ll call pre-Romanticism in late 18th-century Germany, and engagingly depict the conditions of life in that time and place, the movie ultimately has the most value as a showcase for two exceptional performers, the young actresses Henriette Confurius and Hannah Herzsprung.
Bessie by Brain Tallerico
“Bessie” is best appreciated as a character/performance piece. Like you would if you went to an actual Blues concert, just enjoy the star in the spotlight, sharing some of herself and some of the visions of her songwriters in every note.
Black Mass by Matt Zoller Seitz
For most of its running time, it seems to be ramping up to greatness, only to turn around and sit down and brood a bit more. It's frustratingly not-quite-there, and half-assed in some ways. But it has a vision, and it's a powerful one. It's a gangster horror movie. It lingers in the mind.
Black Sea by Matt Zoller Seitz
"Black Sea" combines its two genres with such enthusiasm that although the gears don't mesh perfectly and some of the story beats are predictable, the result is so altogether pleasurable that I can't imagine fans of either genre failing to enjoy it.
Black Souls by Brian Tallerico
“Black Souls” isn’t quite the great film the international cinema buzz machine has touted it to be in some circles, but it is a very good one, the kind that ends with such gravity that you feel its weight for a while after.
Bluebird by Glenn Kenny
The resolution of the film doesn’t come in the form of a “eureka” moment in the investigation, or the filings of the lawyer who cagily presents his services (and hints at their potential rewards) to Maria and Crystal at the hospital. It comes in the looks on the faces of the characters as they make the determination to try to live their lives.
A Borrowed Identity by Godfrey Cheshire
The complex interrelated identities of Jewish and Palestinian Israelis—two peoples divided by a shared culture, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s reputed quip—is movingly explored in “A Borrowed Identity,” a sharply mounted drama about a young Arab who finds reasons to “pass” as Jewish.
A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story by Christy Lemire
[Sara] Bordo’s documentary is extremely straightforward and doesn’t attempt anything ambitious artistically. Still, [Lizzie] Velasquez is abidingly pleasant company for the film’s brief running time—and the purity of her message is undeniable.
Breathe by Sheila O’Malley
Mélanie Laurent's second feature, "Breathe," based on a popular YA novel, understands the addictive sensations of a new friendship, its thrilling swing into merging, and its dizzying plunge into hurt and rage. It's a confident and scary film.
Buzzard by Brian Tallerico
[Joel] Potrykus and [Joshua] Burge don’t stoop to asking us to necessarily “like” Marty, as so many filmmakers have with their angry young men, but by making him seem so real it’s impossible not to want to grab him, shake him, and figure him out.
Cartel Land by Godfrey Cheshire
It must be noted that “Cartel Land” weaves together two stories, and the Mexican one is far more compelling and revealing than the American. Like many verité documentaries, it also involves a trade-off. It explores its subject with a visceral immediacy that’s often thrilling, yet in eschewing interviews with experts and such, it can’t provide information that many viewers will want to know, which ends up feeling like a flaw.
Cinderella by Susan Wloszczyna
Instead of letting go of the essence of “Cinderella,” [Kenneth] Branagh boldly chose to embrace every familiar detail of this romantic fantasy: the hearth cinders that give Ella her nickname; the pumpkin that turns into a carriage; Cinderella’s rodent best friends; and, of course, the glass slippers—courtesy of Swarovski.
Cop Car by Odie Henderson
“Cop Car” gets in and out long before you have a chance to raise any objections. Instead, you'll walk out fully entertained, shaking your head in admiration at how the filmmakers pulled this off. This is one of the better genre offerings of 2015.
Counting by Brian Tallerico
A challenging work that can be both exhilarating and grueling in its deliberate pace. [Jem] Cohen is an undeniably gifted filmmaker, even if the sum total of this piece isn’t quite as interesting as its parts.
Dark Star: HR Giger’s World by Simon Abrams
"H.R. Giger's World" isn't just remarkable because of Sallin's appropriately existential focus on the people that regularly visited Giger during his final days. It's also genuinely warm and involving because of the participation of everyone from Carmen Vega, Giger's widow, to Sandra Berretta, Giger's former assistant and self-described "life partner."
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus by Matt Zoller Seitz
It works through many of [Spike] Lee's familiar preoccupations (including racism, cultural assimilation, class anxiety, capitalistic exploitation and addiction) in such a blunt way that it might fit nicely on a double bill with "Jungle Fever" or "Summer of Sam."
Dark Was the Night by Glenn Kenny
"Dark Was the Night" does, deliberately, build to a tense and sometimes jump-from-your-seat scary climax […] As for the creature itself, it could have been pretty ridiculous, but a combination of smart effects design (I believe Danny Shinwoong Kang is the responsible effects person) and cinematic discretion make the damn thing work. And so, too, does the movie itself.
The Devil’s Violinist by Simon Abrams
While "The Devil's Violinist," an arresting biopic about inspired/possessed violinist and composer Niccolo Paganini, ends on a sour note, it's also beautiful and thoughtful. [...] It's an anti-romantic biography about a great artist, one whose central themes are basic, but whose energy and execution is irresistible.
Digging For Fire by Sheila O’Malley
"Digging for Fire" is an often hilarious film, a kooky ensemble drama filled with specific and funny performances from a host of stars who stroll into the action from the side, do their thing, and then get out.
Dior and I by Christy Lemire
Where [fashion designer Raf Simons] is comfortable –- and where his vision and authority are quite clear – is behind the scenes. And that’s where French filmmaker Frederic Tcheng spends the majority of time in his eye-opening, solo directing debut.
Do I Sound Gay? by Odie Henderson
Though we’re not given enough material to draw a solid theoretical conclusion about why someone would evaluate sexuality based on voice alone, the film still twists the viewer’s arm, forcing one to question one’s own ideas about whether the human voice has telltale signs. It also challenges your own thoughts about whether “sounding gay” is a bad thing in this day and age, and may even make you ponder the titular question for yourself.
The DUFF by Christy Lemire
[Mae] Whitman displays flawless comic timing and consistently makes inspiring choices in terms of delivery, reaction, even the slightest facial expression. She shines confidently in a self-deprecating role, and it’s irresistible.
The End of the Tour by Matt Zoller Seitz
One of cinema's finest explorations of an incredibly specific dynamic—that of the cultural giant and the reporter who fantasizes about one day being as great as his subject, and in the same field. What it definitely isn't is a biography of David Foster Wallace, much less a celebration of his work and worldview.
Farewell to Hollywood by Godfrey Cheshire
Documentary films often find their value in taking us to places that are challenging, even painful. “Farewell to Hollywood” offers the rewarding difficulties of that type of filmmaking, along with additional challenges that stem from questions about its own ethics.
Far from the Madding Crowd by Christy Lemire
Thomas Vinterberg creates a rich aesthetic that combines both vibrant colors and intimate natural light. Whether his film is lush or rolling in the muck, it always has a tactile quality that makes it accessible, which is also true of the performances from his (mostly) well-chosen cast.
Faults by Simon Abrams
"Faults" is a richly-textured movie that concerns the weird space between thinking you know what you're doing, and actually knowing what you're doing. You watch it, and marvel that a film that seems to be about Ansel's dogged attempts at re-integrating Claire back into society is less about story, and more about tone.
Focus by Christy Lemire
As a veteran con man, [Will] Smith seems looser—charming as ever but also broken, commanding yet vulnerable. It’s as if he’s finally shifted into the right gear as he settles into middle age—good lord, is the eternally boyish and buoyant Smith approaching 50?—and he’s comfortable there.
Fort Tilden by Christy Lemire
As much as [Sarah-Violet] Bliss and [Charles] Rogers are indicting the worst qualities of today’s post-collegiate generation, they also seem interested in exploring how young people use cynicism or cruelty to deflect their own insecurity or fear of responsibility. When Allie describes a song as “tediously adorable,” the intriguing contradiction is all-too fitting.
Gabriel by Matt Zoller Seitz
"Gabriel" isn't a perfect movie, but it's a great reminder of what movies can do, and used to do often, until American movies decided to concentrate mainly on spectacle and franchise building and leave characterization to TV.
A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile by Sheila O’Malley
One of the byproducts of “The Amina Profile” is that it celebrates those who maintain their critical thinking skills, who refuse to get swept away by a heartwarming narrative. Nobody thanks those people in the moment. On the contrary, they are met with outrage and hurt. How dare you question this wonderful story that makes us all feel good about ourselves?
Gerontophilia by Simon Abrams
This is a comedy that encourages viewers to be impulsive, and pointedly seek love and acceptance outside of "normal" social institutions, especially when it comes to family and romance. It's about cherishing impulsivity over introspection, and amassing life experiences without fear of negative consequences.
The Gift by Sheila O’Malley
[Joel] Edgerton's script is extremely effective: he is interested in what happens between a supposedly happy couple when a third party introduces doubt, insecurity, second-thoughts, into the marriage. It's like an invisible poison released into the atmosphere, working on everyone in unpredictable and terrifying ways.
The Girl is in Trouble by Brian Tallerico
The fact that [Julius Onah] injects his remarkably promising debut “The Girl is in Trouble” with an undercurrent of commentary about class and race isn’t the only thing that makes it promising. It’s tightly directed and well-performed, particularly by Columbus Short and a career-redefining turn from Wilmer Valderrama.
Glass Chin by Odie Henderson
I admit the director’s vision took some getting used to, with its long takes and penchant for framing characters looking at the camera while talking to someone off-screen. However, once I acclimated to Buschel’s rhythms and became invested in the all-around solid acting by the cast, I found much to enjoy.
The Green Inferno by Simon Abrams
"The Green Inferno" is, in that sense, not so much a knock against Occupy Wall-Street-style slacktivists (though it is also that) so much as it's an accomplished, mean-spirited horror film about a heroine who is too young to understand the motives for her do-gooder idealism.
The Hand That Feeds by Odie Henderson
Robin Blotnick and Rachel Lears’ documentary stands on its own merit. It has a beautiful, low-key approach that earns its cheers and tears without resorting to the manipulative or dramatic tricks of a typical feature film.
A Hard Day by Brian Tallerico
Like a Neeson vehicle, at its best, “A Hard Day” has a breakneck pace that allows one to easily dismiss the more ridiculous, downright nonsensical aspects of its plot. Only occasionally will the eyes roll. For the most part, it works.
Homme Less by Mark Dujsik
A fascinating account of a man who plays a role in order to hide the reality of his life. We're often told to dress for the job we want, but Reay is dressing for the life he must appear to have if he's ever going to get the job he wants.
I Am Chris Farley by Brian Tallerico
I Believe in Unicorns by Brian Tallerico
Leah Meyerhoff is a major new talent. Her “I Believe in Unicorns” is an accomplished coming-of-age tale that both calls back to the dozens of stories like it that we’ve seen and charts its own course.
Insidious: Chapter 3 by Christy Lemire
I leapt out of my seat and grabbed the arm of the critic sitting next to me so often (and he did the same, although he shall remain nameless) that you’d think we’d never seen a horror movie before. [Leigh] Whannell’s imagery is that solidly creepy and his pacing is that precise. He indulges in a few artsy camera angles and movements, but mostly directs in able and understated fashion.
The Intern by Glenn Kenny
“The Intern,” while having its share of silly moments, is the most genuinely enjoyable and likable movie that [Nancy] Meyers—a longtime writer and producer before taking up directing—has put her name to since, oh, I don’t know, 1984’s “Irreconcilable Differences.”
In the Game by Brian Tallerico
What’s most fascinating about “In the Game,” and it’s remarkable how much [Maria] Finitzo allows this element to unfold naturally and without underlining, is that the young ladies that the film captures all have a striking resilience about them.
Iris by Godfrey Cheshire
Few documentaries match subject and filmmaker as perfectly as “Iris.” Fashion icon Iris Apfel and documentarian Albert Maysles were well on in life when he set out to make a verité portrait of her: she in her early 90s, he in his late 80s. Both were quintessential New York characters with their own senses of style.
Jimmy’s Hall by Glenn Kenny
[Ken] Loach’s matter-of-factness as both a person and an artist is reflected in the reality that, for better or worse, there’s nothing about “Jimmy’s Hall” that suggests a swan song or a grand summation. It’s just another solid Loach film, an affectionate realist portrait of individuals fighting against state and religious oppression.
Jurassic World by Matt Zoller Seitz
The best aspects of the sequel "Jurassic World," in which a hybrid super-predator runs amok in the trouble-plagued theme park, are so very good that they transport you that exhilarating mental space where the series' original director, Steven Spielberg, raised a tentpole way back in 1993. The worst aspects are bad indeed: thin characterizations, a blase attitude toward human-on-animal violence and a weird male-supremacist streak that comes close to sneering at unmarried career women who don't have kids.
Lambert & Stamp by Godfrey Cheshire
A sharply crafted, highly entertaining portrait of two young Londoners who made their names and fortunes by managing a fledgling band called the High Numbers, who became The Who.
Learning to Drive by Odie Henderson
“Learning to Drive” proves that good acting can elevate even the most standard material. [Patricia] Clarkson makes Wendy more than a wronged wife; she has enough self-awareness to consider that she may not be completely blameless in her crumbling marriage. Her anger and melancholy are balanced with a dry wit that yields some big laughs.
Love & Mercy by Glenn Kenny
[Bill] Pohlad, [...] working from a daring script by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner, and using two first-rate actors to play Wilson at two turning points in his life, lavishes his material with love, attention to detail, and empathetic imagination. The result is a story that’s hair-raisingly watchable and frequently moving, regardless of what you believe you might already know of [Brian] Wilson’s life.
Love at First Fight by Sheila O’Malley
All of the familiar rom-com tropes are here, but they feel up-ended, twisted inside-out. Stereotypical gender roles are almost completely reversed. [Thomas] Cailley (who also co-wrote the script with Claude Le Pepe) keeps that tension activated beautifully and humorously (the film is very funny), until almost the very end.
Mad as Hell by Godfrey Cheshire
Andrew Napier’s “Mad as Hell” does indeed play like a real-life update of Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayevsky’s skewering of TV news. Except that here the main personality is notably calmer, if no less passionate, and his personal story also touches on a larger and very significant one: the battle between old and new media and how it relates to journalists’ ability to “speak truth to power” in an age of all-pervasive corporate control.
Magic Mike XXL by Matt Zoller Seitz
You could rightly describe it as "two hours of Channing Tatum and other hunky guys bonding, flirting with women, and doing bump-and-grind dance routines" and not be wrong, and yet it's made with such aesthetic playfulness that I expect it to generate graduate theses with titles like, "Breakaway Pantomimes: 'Magic Mike' and Commodified Desire."
Man from Reno by Glenn Kenny
“Man From Reno”—reviewers are going to almost reflexively want to call it “The Man From Reno,” but once they’ve actually got the movie in mind they’ll be reminded there’s a good reason that’s not the title—is an intricately, even densely, plotted mystery/thriller that casts an unusual spell from its opening scene.
Maps to the Stars by Matt Zoller Seitz
Although it's been dismissed in some quarters as minor Cronenberg—and criticized for "getting Hollywood wrong," or something like that; as if "Dead Ringers" cared about the fine points of gynecology—it's a sneakily powerful movie, so much so that its conceptual thinness isn't a deal-breaker.
Match by Glenn Kenny
“Match” has enough meaty and engaging character material to effectively sidestep the very theatrical contrivance of its plot premise, which does have a great deal of potential for reversal and counter reversal and indeed takes full advantage of that potential.
Meet the Patels by Odie Henderson
These are universal subjects, so one does not have to be of Indian descent to appreciate “Meet the Patels.” You’ll either learn something new or nod your head with amused familiarity.
The Mend by Brian Tallerico
As for performance, Josh Lucas gives the best of his career, finding just the right tone for Mat, a guy who couldn’t care less what anyone thinks of him, but he still needs a place to stay. He’s subconsciously selfish, such as when his girl’s ex, who she clearly hates, comes over to pick up her son and he hits him up for career advice. When asked what he does, he brilliantly adds a question mark to “Freelance web design?”
Merchants of Doubt by Matt Zoller Seitz
This is a huge, unwieldy topic. The filmmakers do an admirable job of condensing their information and making it comprehensible. They don't really succeed in unifying it, though, or in making the whole enterprise seem like more than a collection of talking points for people who are mad about climate change deniers, people paid to sow doubt about the damage caused by smoking, and their ilk.
The Mind of Mark DeFriest by Brian Tallerico
Defriest is a fascinating subject in his own right, and, from the very beginning, the film works best in the moments when it lets him talk instead of its flashy, sensationalistic ones.
Minions by Odie Henderson
The unquenchable desire to please emanating from the screen is, quite frankly, exhausting. “Minions” is a big, slobbery dog who licks your face, brings your slippers and humps your leg before turning into an adorable kitten with big eyes and a soulful mew. And, so help me, I couldn’t stay mad at it for long.
Mistress America by Matt Zoller Seitz
[Noah] Baumbach can be a marvelous, unsparing reporter on a certain slice of upper-middle-class to wealthy America, and he brings that skill to bear here in the scenes of Tracy feeling out of her element. The satirical details of college student delusions of grandeur are expertly observed by Baumbach and his co-writer [Greta] Gerwig.
Monkey Kingdom by Christy Lemire
“Monkey Kingdom,” directed by series veterans Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill, strikes a nice balance between these two instincts. You’re likely to laugh and learn in equal measure–and so will your little ones.
Ned Rifle by Brian Tallerico
Hal Hartley’s often fascinating “Ned Rifle” feels like a very conscious nod to the films that made its writer/director famous in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s while also serving as a commentary on moving on from past successes and failures to face the future head on.
The Nightmare by Sheila O'Malley
Using a horror-film color palette (the shadows are "Lost Highway"-thick) and horror-film camera techniques, [Rodney] Ascher plunges us into the actual visions that sleep paralysis creates: the moving silhouette figures, the darkness, the static. The sense of terror is palpable.
Noble by Matt Zoller Seitz
It's one of those movies that can be described as a triumph of the human spirit without any winking whatsoever, because the outlines of the story are true. It doesn't go quite far enough into melodrama to fuse all of its different pieces together into a satisfying whole (more on that in a second) but it's an engrossing film all the same: intelligent, sincere and unabashedly goodhearted.
Nowitzki: The Perfect Shot by Danny Bowes
The unique working relationship between Dirk Nowitzki and Holger Geschwindner is itself of sufficient interest to make the entire thing worthwhile, and implies that Geschwindner would make a compelling protagonist of his own film. As for this one, it's a tale of a guy who works really hard to be good at basketball, and who everybody seems to really like. And that's all it needs to be
The Overnight by Christy Lemire
Brice’s brisk and beguiling little indie takes you in various directions over the course of a long evening, but not necessarily the ones you might expect. You may think you know where a certain scene is headed—and it doesn’t go there, or it goes there with a slight twist or detour. His film is deft and delicate and exquisitely uncomfortable, but it also offers revelations that are joyful, sad and true.
Paddington by Christy Lemire
“Paddington,” a live-action/CGI-animated take on the tales of the beloved stuffed bear, pulls off a pretty tricky balancing act. It manages to be both old-fashioned and high-tech. It remains faithful to the character’s roots while also placing him firmly within a contemporary setting. It’s charmingly funny and shamelessly puny.
Paper Towns by Susan Wloszczyna
The smart script is brave enough to venture beyond yesterday’s fleeting Twitter fodder for its pop-cultural references. As a result, “Paper Towns” might be the only movie to ever pay tribute to Walt Whitman’s poetry, Woody Guthrie’s music and the empowering theme song from the “Pokemon” cartoon series.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence by Simon Abrams
A kind of alarmist comedy. It’s a series of comedic sketches about people who are too self-involved to empathize with each other. It’s also a plaintively blunt wake-up call, and an effective demand for viewers' vigilant sensitivity.
Police Story: Lockdown by Simon Abrams
If you want to see an action star age gracefully, you could do a lot worse than "Police Story: Lockdown," an uneven but satisfying hostage crisis thriller that is also a perfect example of the type of late-period films martial arts star Jackie Chan has decided to make after entering middle age.
Prince by Brian Tallerico
We are never at our more image-obsessed than in the hazy, horny, love-sick days of our teenage years, and while “Prince” feels a little slight when the credits roll less than 80 minutes after it begins, it’s still a strong, creative addition to the crowded coming-of-age genre.
Prophet's Prey by Brian Tallerico
While I wish the form of the film wasn’t quite so talking-head—“then this happened”—the story is so compelling and terrifying that it’s hard to place too much cinematic flourish on top of it. It speaks for itself. And what it says is scarier than any horror film this year.
Reality by Simon Abrams
"Reality," a surreal French comedy told as a series of overlapping and increasingly illogical dream sequences, is a blessedly laid-back prank. It's a chimeric parody of neat, puzzle-box science-fiction films ("Inception," "Primer") and everything-is-connected dramas ("Magnolia," "Babel").
Results by Sheila O'Malley
In its own weird way, it is quite romantic, while acknowledging that romance is sometimes unpleasant, always messy, and hooking up with someone represents the beginning of a lifetime of getting into messes and digging oneself out. That quality alone makes "Results" a really refreshing film.
Ride by Matt Zoller Seitz
The film is high-strung, nervous and slightly chilly in the New York scenes, but once the action shifts to the beaches of Venice, it slows down considerably, and fittingly; the rhythm of the waves dictates the pace and color of the movie, and it makes sense to apply the brakes to a story about a woman who's always talking and working and running all over the place and defining and ranking and describing everything in her life.
R100 by Simon Abrams
There's a reason why "R100," a deeply strange comedy about sadomasochism and other secular revelations, starts with a joke-y disclaimer. The film, which takes its name from an imaginary censor board's rating, [...] is deeply silly, but also startlingly outlandish, and more than a little punishing in its repetitiveness.
Run All Night by Brian Tallerico
Action star Liam Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra have crafted their most satisfying work to date by sticking to a tried-and-true crime movie template, and allowing a talented cast and tight production values to be the only high concept they need.
The Salvation by Glenn Kenny
“The Salvation,” a Danish revenge Western starring Mads Mikkelsen, is a very real movie, and it is directed by Kristian Levring (“The King Is Alive”), whose sensibility is a little more nuanced than that of the sensationalist [Nicolas Winding] Refn, which is all to this movie’s benefit.
San Andreas by Glenn Kenny
I’m not sure whether it was the editing or my own willing suspension of disbelief but the CGI-manufactured scenes of mass destruction are among the most realistic in this mode I’ve ever seen.
The Second Mother by Glenn Kenny
Writer/director Anna Muyleart examines class and income difference in a much, much quieter register in “The Second Mother,” a domestic comedy-drama that starts off from a fairly pat premise but builds strength over the course of its careful, empathetic, and crafty unpeeling of its characters.
’71 by Odie Henderson
Director Yann Demange’s feature film debut merges [Paul] Greengrass’ kinetic camerawork with [Jim] Sheridan’s character-driven drama; the result is a taut, suspenseful and involving feature that runs a tight 99 minutes.
Seymour: An Introduction by Glenn Kenny
[Ethan] Hawke, in a rather disarming display of cinematic virtuosity, cuts from Bernstein playing the piece, Bernstein directly addressing the camera, Bernstein directly addressing a live audience, keeping the music on a through line for the most part as Bernstein lays out its history and its significance for both himself and music itself.
Sicario by Brian Tallerico
It’s a film that lacks the urgency of the really great thrillers, but exists in that rarefied air of refined production values on every level and a flawless ensemble. That it falls short of greatness could be considered a disappointment, but there’s still much to like here.
Skin Trade by Simon Abrams
It is executed so well (for what it is): the film's lively action scenes are mostly well-choreographed, and the film's stars are treated, well, like stars. If you like your martial arts films to be action-packed, but also unironically simplistic, and thoughtlessly violent, then you will really enjoy "Skin Trade."
Sleeping with Other People by Nick Allen
"Sleeping with Other People" has a mainstream look, including walk-and-talk scenes in Central Park or the middle of NYC traffic. It's a smooth variation on the type of tale we've heard before, but especially with characters like these, it can still have something new to say.
Southpaw by Brian Tallerico
As I wrote about "Sons of Anarchy" two years ago, "Watching characters, with whom we can identify, persevere through the proverbial fire allows us to believe we can surmount comparatively minor obstacles in our own lives." The exact same thing applies to "Southpaw."
Spy by Susan Wloszczyna
It’s a bust-a-gut thing of beauty to watch her give a wholly satisfying lead performance with a complete dramatic arc. Just observe how her eyes dramatically moisten in reaction to her top-notch co-stars in ways that would make Bette Davis proud. That’s even if her lips are spewing a scathing string of inappropriate R-rated putdowns.
Stations of the Cross by Brian Tallerico
[Lea] van Acken’s smart, subtle decisions keep Maria from becoming little more than a symbol or even the caricature she could have become. Even when “Stations of the Cross” becomes almost overwhelmingly depressing, we can’t turn away from Maria. It is in the humanizing of her plight that “Stations of the Cross” finds its power. It’s a hard movie to leave behind. As it should be.
Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine by Godfrey Cheshire
In contrast to most of [Alex] Gibney’s documentaries, which are told in a standard third-person style, usually without narration, this one has a more personal tone from the outset, as a way of recognizing and probing the reality that, more than any other figure, Jobs put the “personal” in personal computer and the many, increasingly intimate devices descended from it.
Stray Dog by Mark Dujsik
"Stray Dog" largely succeeds because [Debra] Granik's technique complements her subject. Both he and the film are modest in their goals and cherish the value of honesty.
Tangerine by Matt Zoller Seitz
It creates its own world, one with different definitions of "normal" or "acceptable" than Hollywood or even mainstream indie cinema usually offers, and the film is most thrilling for that reason.
10,000 KM by Susan Wloszczyna
This minimalist approach to storytelling has some inherent drawbacks but never is reduced to just being a gimmick. It’s true that watching Sergi berate Alex’s cooking techniques as she botches the simple act of frying onions or seeing her sort her socks much to Sergi’s bored chagrin is not exactly electrifying cinema. But nothing will break your heart as much as watching this man, desperate to keep this woman in his life, waltzing around the room with a laptop in his arms while staring into her faraway eyes.
Ten Thousand Saints by Sheila O’Malley
You get a visceral feel for that neighborhood in the film, its sense that unstoppable forces were moving in on them, running them out of town. The script sometimes borders on the too-literary and symbolic […], but the acting is so solid, so fascinating to watch behaviorally, that it's not an issue.
3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets by Matt Zoller Seitz
"3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets" doesn't move or look like most documentaries you've seen. The movie's meditative quality makes you feel for everyone involved in this tragedy—even Dunn, who seems very much a prisoner of fear and anger. Where a lot of documentaries would try to stir outrage, this one just leaves you shaking your head.
Tomorrowland by Matt Zoller Seitz
There are moments where people exist simultaneously in two time periods while walking, running, falling or driving, and a scene near the end that's so unabashedly sentimental, yet so emotionally complex and confounding, that I can honestly say I've never seen anything like it.
Trainwreck by Christy Lemire
“Trainwreck” isn’t as quite as subversive as it suggests at the outset. The grand finale is extraordinarily cheesy, albeit in a self-aware and entertaining way. But the movie finds its own place of peace, on its own terms, and every bit of it is earned. Don’t be ashamed if you find yourself getting a little choked up, too.
24 Days by Glenn Kenny
A well-engineered suspense drama from France directed by Alexandre Arcady. The movie [...] has a more upsetting dimension than most suspense dramas as it’s based on a true story, a story that touches on issues still roiling France today.
Unexpected by Christy Lemire
[Kris] Swanberg finds a pleasingly low-key tone throughout the film, which (blissfully) is especially true during the kinds of moments that usually are played for wacky laughs in pregnancy comedies. (Peeing on a stick, puking in a trashcan, dashing to the hospital, etc.) And the bond that forms between [Cobie] Smulders’ character, Samantha, and Gail Bean as the teenage Jasmine feels tender, genuine and unforced.
The Voices by Brian Tallerico
I’ve always liked [Ryan] Reynolds for the most part, but he does his best work yet here in Marjane Satrapi’s odd, pitch-black comedy about a man who talks to his dog and cat. And they talk back.
The Wanted 18 by Glenn Kenny
The absurdist sectarian comedy gives way, as it inevitably does in this conflict, to tragedy, and death both human and animal. While Shomali resists easy cynicism while seeming to have almost every excuse to indulge it, he doesn’t try to craft a hopeful parable out of his material either.
We Are Still Here by Glenn Kenny
Once the viewer finds him or herself comfortable with the idea that it’s going for mildly-spine-tingling rather than gut-punching and eyeball-violating, all holy hell breaks loose. Which in this case turns out to be a pretty hellishly good thing.
Welcome to Leith by Brian Tallercio
[Christopher K. Walker and Michael Beach Nichols] carefully avoid making “Welcome to Leith” about what [Craig] Cobb believes in, focusing on how those beliefs impact a community more than the hatred and vitriol within them.
Welcome to Me by Susan Wloszczyna
“Welcome to Me” basically lives and dies by [Kristen Wiig's] performance, and, luckily, her Alice Klieg is a carefully and cunningly crafted creation, which exposes an undercurrent of pain and sorrow beneath her often placid, pixilated state.
What Happened, Miss Simone? by Brian Tallerico
Nina Simone could hold an audience in such rapt attention that when she stops a song at one point in “What Happened” and orders someone to sit down, you almost don’t blame her. And “What Happened” features some of the best concert footage and musical performances in recent music doc memory, even if it never quite answers the question in its title.
What We Did On Our Holiday by Glenn Kenny
It wears not just its Britishness but its relative good taste on its sleeve: unlike its U.S. counterparts, there’s nary a poop or fart joke in evidence in this domestic comedy. It’s not what you’d call “major” cinema, but it’s a breezy entertainment, particularly if you’re a fan of one or more of the cast members.
When Marnie Was There by Brian Tallerico
It is filled with the luscious, beautiful 2D animation that we’ve come to expect from [Studio] Ghibli, and if the storytelling sometimes gets a bit lethargic for its own good, we’re more forgiving just to have one final dance in the moonlight.
While We’re Young by Christy Lemire
“While We’re Young” searches for the blurry line we all cross once we’ve entered middle age, finds it and tramples all over it, but it does so with kindness for those of us who’ve made that inevitable journey and survived with some dignity intact.
The Widowmaker by Sheila O’Malley
A disheartening portrait of blatant greed, as well as a fascinating examination of the trial and error process used in the scientific method. It does what good documentaries should do: it shines a very focused light on a very specific problem, a problem that affects millions of people and their families.
Wild City by Simon Abrams
T-Man's world of middle-men gangsters, fairweather associates, and commonplace violence feels real because [Ringo] Lam takes his sweet time while rehashing a story you've probably seen in one form of another. This is a film noir that is, despite some jittery, Tony Scott-esque action sequences, so cool, that you will leave it begging for a sequel.
Wyrmwood by Brian Tallerico
While the fine line between homage and plagiarism may be crossed for some, debut director Kiah Roache-Turner commits so completely to the insanity of his melting pot concept that he won me over with sheer force.
The Yes Men Are Revolting by Nick Allen
It's a multi-layered slice of them that would fit in the same spot within a Duplass-directed indie, as matched with some real-life comedy from earlier, in which the two friends cram into a polar bear costume, and operate it step by step. Who said that a political film can’t be sweet, too? In its grandest triumph, “The Yes Men Are Revolting” is an activist doc inspired by more than just its topical issues.
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Our staff choices for the best films from 2010 through 2019.
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