One of the first real gems of 2016 Sundance Film Festival is the film Morris From America, the latest feature from filmmaker Chad Hartigan (of This is Martin Bonner previously). Morris, played by Markees Christmas, is a 13-year-old African-American living with his single father, played by Craig Robinson, in the city of Heidelberg, Germany. It's a complete fish-out-of-water story about the "only two brothers" in the town, but it's also a magnificent coming-of-age story that proudly emphasizes a "be yourself" attitude. It has a great soundtrack utilizing a mix of American hip hop and European techno, with impressive performances from Christmas and Robinson, and an amusing, funky vibe that made me so happy I came across this film.
It brought a smile to my face to see Jon Stewart profess his love and great admiration for Norman Lear. The first film I screened on opening night at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival (my 10th year back) was the documentary Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, about the legendary TV writer/producer Norman Lear. Now 93 years old, he still seems full of life, so happy, and more than willing to tell stories and reflect back on his experiences. It's a delightful, amusing, engaging and very timely documentary that actually examines how much Lear pushed forward against stubborn conservative fears. More than anything, I hope this doc goes on to remind people that creativity and ingenuity can outsmart traditionalist values.
It took a while for the American Western to find its groove. Even by the 1930s, the genre hadn't quite found its prestige. Examples were cheap, cookie-cutter B-movies that hardly showed anything of resonance. That was, until 1939, when John Ford gave us Stagecoach, a near-perfect film that practically invented the genre as we know it today. The film made the genre one of importance and one that, even in 2015, continues to reinvent itself. This year's The Hateful Eight isn't exactly a reinvention of a genre so much as it is a return of sorts. Quentin Tarantino, as with all of his films, creates a singular, unique experience that is both a love letter to a genre as well as a whole, new bag entirely. And it all starts, of course, with a stagecoach.
It's likely there has never been a motion picture as anticipated on a global scale as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, except perhaps The Phantom Menace in 1999. Ever since 2012 when George Lucas sold the rights to his gigantic property and Disney along with Kathleen Kennedy took over, the excitement levels for what was to come were off the charts. It goes back much further than 2012, though. From the moment "Directed by Richard Marquand" splashed across the screen at the end of Return of the Jedi in 1983, fans have wanted to know what happened next. Try as they might, no amount of universe expansion in the form of books or video games could fill that gap the original trilogy left at its conclusion. Let's not even discuss the actual, Star Wars films that have dropped in the last 30 years. Instead, let's get right into, shall we?
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.