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Ryan Coogler's Creed is the best film of the year. That may come as a shock for some of you especially if you're among those old enough to remember many of the hokier directions the Rocky series took. After six films and several ups and downs, it didn't seem reasonable to go back to the Balboa well once again. Instead, it was time to revitalize the series for a newer, younger audience. I know what several of you think of the word "reboot," but, when it works – and those exceptions are few and far between – there's no denying it. Everything in Creed works perfectly, and the movie not only spins off from the Rocky series in the most organic and best way possible, it stands on its own as a flawlessly realized work of cinema.
The odds were not always in favor of The Hunger Games. Sure, when Lionsgate and indie studio Color Force picked up the rights to the Suzanne Collins' series in 2009, the young adult craze was in full swing. Still, nothing was guaranteed. Just ask the people behind The Golden Compass film about risks and rewards in the game of YA adaptations. They'll have some stories of heartbreak. Since the release of The Hunger Games in 2012, though, this was the new franchise by which others were measured. It's taken just four years for the series to begin and reach its inevitable conclusion, and that time has finally come. The series on fire ends with Mockingjay – Part 2, the thrilling conclusion to a truly awesome series of movies.
From its inception in 2006, the latest reboot of the James Bond franchise has taken some unexpected steps. Daniel Craig, blonde-headed as he is, quickly proved himself as the ideal choice to bring Ian Fleming's debonair superspy to life. That part of the 007 equation has been on solid footing this whole time. The films, though, have gone to great lengths in sidestepping the expectations that come with a franchise that's now passed its 50th year in the cultural zeitgeist. Craig is Bond yet again in Spectre, and, once again, fans of the series should immediately hit the eject button on any expectations. Any preconceived notion of what Spectre should be like will do a disservice to what the filmmakers were trying to do this time around.
There's very little question about Guillermo del Toro's prowess as a visionary storyteller. Whether about a demonic superhero and the strange creatures he fights or a gothic love story with supernatural tones, the director's films are wall-to-wall detail. The images he creates are gorgeous, his films the kind where every shot is an immaculate glimpse into del Toro's artistic and unique eye. This is the case, as well, with the filmmaker's latest menagerie of macabre madness and supernatural scares. Crimson Peak brings with it the same, visual detail for which the director has become known. The story plays out in basic, predictable form, but it's never enough to hold back the visual masterpiece del Toro once again delivers.
The first image we see in S. Craig Zahler's horror Western, Bone Tomahawk, is that of the violence that men do. A dull blade makes two, then three attempts at slicing through a sleeping man's throat. The man holding the knife is one of two thieves, sneaking into a camp at night to murder and steal whatever they can find. It's indicative of the violent period in American history when disorder ruled and ignorance of the land around them made people paranoid. The horrors awaiting those murderous thieves is the catalyst for the film, an epic but quick-paced horror adventure that digs deep into the violent history of this country.
Simple motivations that lead to very complicated situations, driven by generally inept protagonists: that's where up-and-coming writer/director Jeremy Saulnier excels. Whether it's an unassuming Halloween party or the simple revenge of the death of a loved one, his films layer intriguing characters with engaging events, and none of the results are predictable. So, too, is the case with the ultraviolent Green Room, Saulnier's latest. It's another brutal, suspenseful and daring entry into Saulnier's self-described "inept protagonist" trilogy in which choices made just make bad choices worse and worse all the way to the absolute worst-possible outcome. Much like his other films, though, Green Room is as smart as it is thrilling, just as rough as it is comical. In a nutshell, it's Saulnier's most accomplished gem to date.
As far as film debuts go, they don't come as terrifying as writer/director Robert Eggers' The Witch. A stunningly simple, period, family drama with loads of gothic mood and dripping with atmosphere, it isn't a horror that will appease genre fans wanting a jump-scare every 15 minutes. Nor will it satiate gore-hounds looking for blood and guts strewn throughout. The Witch, instead, draws its horror from the unseen forces at work in the universe that slowly, but surely, breaks down a family until there's hardly anything, maybe nothing at all, left. Every scene of Eggers' film is crafted with an inherent tension, every shot a gorgeous composition of wood, dirt and fog. The Witch doesn't have an immediate impact, but it damn sure festers.
Ben Wheatley is a cinematic genius. That's the only explanation for the adrenaline shooting through your veins while watching his films, that feeling you get when you know you've just seen something special. The high that comes from experiencing one of his works is indisputable. It charges back into you each time you reflect on one of his films and every time you mentally organize the puzzle pieces the filmmaker has set forth. Wheatley's films are immensely rewarding, because the director doesn't hold your hand, doesn't tie everything together, and certainly doesn't connect all the dots. You're on your own with that, and that's one of the many reasons why High-Rise, Wheatley's adaptation of the J.G. Ballard novel, is so damn great.
There are a lot of avenues a filmmaker can take when discussing the emotions that drive us humans as well as the contradictory nature between love and relationships. With The Lobster, writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos creates a strange, cynical look at these contradictions with enough sardonic wit to consider it a satire. The filmmaker who hit with the equally strange comedy, Dogtooth, returns to bring yet another dry and somewhat surreal comedy that may just have you cringing in your seat as much as it has you rolling. With a stellar cast and Lanthimos' unapologetic vision, The Lobster is a unique experience that will question your faith in love as much as enhance it.
"Hail Satan." Those two words put together create an unnerving feeling for anyone who sees – or hears – them regardless of one's own personal, religious beliefs. Just the thought of the Devil's presence emits an air of discomfort that horror films have been riding for nearly century. That same level of unease - and that troublesome, two-word phrase - haunts every scene of Osgood Perkins' feature debut, February. Told through disjointed chronology, Perkins's film is difficult to piece together as you're watching. The unsettling and atmospheric results that remain after February has ended and left the viewer are undeniable, though.
I'm sure you've all heard this said before – Lord knows it's been said enough – but war truly is Hell. It's Hell for the people fighting it, Hell for the people who are swept up in it, and even Hell for the people who stay home and await their loved ones' return. During the American Civil War, those loved ones charging onto the battlefields didn't go that far, and the wives, children, and family they all left behind were forced to keep their homes safe from threats both domestic and… well, domestic. It's with this time, place, and situation in mind that director Daniel Barber brings us his new film The Keeping Room (playing Fantastic Fest), a powerful and terrifying drama about war and the people who are destroyed in its unquenchable wake.
It was at his intro to Sion Sono's Tokyo Tribe at last year's Fantastic Fest that HitFix's Drew McWeeny put it best: "You are all my tribe," he said to the packed auditorium, and the sentiment was apparent even before the crowd erupted in of approval and applause. There really is no film festival quite like Alamo Drafthouse's Fantastic Fest - about to kick off its 11th year. There is no program like the one put together every year by Drafthouse and Fantastic Fest founder Tim League and his selection crew. There is no, and I stress this, NO crowd like a Fantastic Fest crowd, and the kinship felt among those who have attended and keep returning is undeniable. There's just something about Fantastic Fest.
There's little doubt in the current fascination with violence. Hell, there's an argument to be made that we've grown addicted to it. Naturally, Hollywood was going to throw major bucks in the direction of Black Mass, the story of James "Whitey" Bulger, arguably the most notorious and most violent criminal in American organized crime. It's the kind of role that would attract an A-lister like Johnny Depp, whose performance here makes up the film's highest mark. Tediously paced but overall commendably executed, the film serves as a suitable yet surface-level telling of Bulger's story. The violence clearly sets up the walls of this particular house, but it's Depp's performance that makes the interior design of Black Mass worthwhile.
American Ultra is a cool, stoner action/comedy with a healthy serving of heart, a prime candidate in 2015 for coolest kid on the block. However, the film is never quite as cool as it, or the filmmakers behind it, wants to be. There's plenty of action. There's an abundance of stoner-related comedy. All the parts that make up a rousing success for hip cinema are present, but the results, the endgame American Ultra offers up, is somewhat less-than. A highly enjoyable time at the movies to be fair, it never quite transcends that category to be something ultimately memorable. Instead, we have to make due with the surface-level entertainment the film delivers in droves, an ultra fun, movie-going experience that feels like it could have been more.