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.
The 2008 financial collapse is put under a microscope (again) in the new satire The Big Short, a movie that candidly raises more questions than it answers. Most of its dialogue is dense economics jargon that will fly by most moviegoers but not alienate them. The plot is easy to navigate without fully understanding the fine print thanks to director and co-writer Adam McKay (Anchorman, Step Brothers) and his nose for quick wit. This is McKay's first dramatic turn after directing broad comedies like Anchorman, and The Other Guys, and he handles the change well, infusing the film with much needed levity when needed.
The new film Concussion centers on the real life expose of NFL head trauma, a condition so common and infuriating that it's surprising the information took as long as it did to leak to the public. It's an important subject that demands considerable attention yet director Peter Landesman only manages a serviceable film. Instead of being the NFL version of The Insider or All the President's Men, we get a version of the story that covers most of the bases but without any real depth or insight. Yet as it stands this lightweight indictment of the NFL is still enough to make audiences think twice before watching one of their favorite sports.
The strained marriage of an artistic couple is at the heart of By the Sea, the new directorial effort from Angelina Jolie Pitt. She and husband Brad Pitt star as the unhappy pair and while most will be quick to prejudge and deem this a vanity project the movie while not perfect is much deeper than its superficial exterior. By the Sea is a deliberate departure for the Hollywood power couple, the kind of movie that was commonplace in the 70s but can only be made now with the influence of these two megastars. Everything from the immaculate cinematography by Christian Berger (The White Ribbon) to the lush score by legendary composer Gabriel Yared (The Talented Mr. Ripley) evokes a forgotten era of filmmaking. An era Jolie Pitt is obviously very familiar with and despite a few bumps in the road manages to create in her own unique style.
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.
Jonás Cuarón's Desierto opens with a small group of people all hidden away in the back of a truck, crossing an expanse of Mexican desert on their way to try and cross the border into the United States. Their truck breaks down. They're told to get out and walk. We know immediately that route is not safe – far from it. And that's it: we are invested in their journey – even before the murderous Sam shows up and throws the tension levels into health-warning territory. Our hero, Moises (get the not-so-subtle Biblical reference there?), played by Gael García Bernal, works beautifully opposite villain Sam, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan.
To show us where we'll be ending up, the chaos has already taken place when the completely bloody bonkers High-Rise begins, and what we're left with is the dog-eating aftermath. (Literally, he eats a dog!) Director Ben Wheatley (of Sightseers, Kill List) certainly knows how to make weird and wonderful cinema that will divide audiences and he's gone on to make another one with this adaptation, based on the JG Ballard novel from the 70s. Set in a tower block, where the wealthy live at the top and the poor live at the bottom, this is a tale of class and wealth divide, with plenty of chaos, debauchery and nudity for all to enjoy.
When Suffragette begins, Maud is not one. She's a working woman, a wife and a mother, going about her life as best she can, trying to be respectful and do as she's told. Her work is pretty grim but she's good at it. Instead of using this movie to tell the story of real people, writer Abi Morgan and director Sarah Gavron have created Maud, an amalgamation of many, many stories of real Suffragettes and everything that they endured. They then surround her with a few real stories but these characters remain in the background until needed. You know from the outset there is real truth to this fiction and, with Carey Mulligan at the lead, and Morgan and Gavron behind the scenes, this movie will not hide from the horrors faced. It's taken a very long time to make a movie about the Suffragettes but the angle chosen is spot on, and entirely worth the wait.
Just when I think we've seen every story about World War II that could be told, every story about the horrors of the holocaust, every story about all the different participants in that war, along comes a film that proves that once again how unbelievable it all was and how many stories there are still to tell. Son of Saul is one of this year's films set during WWII, specifically set at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp near the end of the war. It follows, literally, a Hungarian Jewish man named Saul around the camp as he works as a "Sonderkommando", an insider who helps the Germans at the camp carrying out their mass murdering in exchange for an extended life at the camp. This film is harrowing, hard to watch at times, but a masterpiece - and I'm talking about this being a best of the decade kind of film, not just best of the year.
Whether you know him as the dad from "Malcolm in the Middle" or as Walter White, there's no denying the chameleon-like acting skills of Bryan Cranston. In Trumbo directed by Jay Roach, he plays the titular character with an outlandish caricature-style panache that anyone else could so easily have turned into pure farce. Thanks to Cranston, however, Trumbo manages to come across as a man driven by the injustice surrounding him. His Trumbo is annoyingly charming and doggedly determined, and his sometimes quietly powerful, sometimes manic and heart-breaking, take on the man is surely one that will spark award interest.
There are two things we see straight away in A Bigger Splash: Tilda Swinton, naked and sunbathing, and her character Marianne then having sex in the pool with her boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). No words are spoken as we silently follow the pair from their villa to the beach and when the first notable sound is heard, a cellphone, it's an assault on the senses. This opening immediately sets the tone for this sexually-charged and sun-kissed movie, from Italian director Luca Guadagnino, that does not hide from both the raw ugliness and beauty of relationships so interwoven they can quickly shift from great to toxic.
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.