2015 Movie Highlights

I mostly wrote this early in 2016 and never got around to finishing it. Now that we’re almost into 2017, I feel comfortable saying that any trace of late-in-the-year bias must have been eradicated by now, so I can safely evaluate and reveal my movie and TV highlights for 2015. As usual these are not necessarily new, but merely new to me.


First, a couple items not on the “new for 2015” list—one in a good way, one bad.


One small mention, not a new highlight, is that I once more watched through the X-Files oeuvre. It remains excellent. My favorite episode continues to be S7E17: “all things.” It’s arguably hippy-dippy and soft compared to the vast majority of other episodes, relatively uneventful on the surface, and mostly revolves around a previous relationship of Scully’s and so-called “feelings” that I guess people have while not fighting aliens and monsters. But I really like how it perfectly slips in the reveal that Mulder and Scully are together now, instantly normalizing what’s effectively the culmination of the series, the emotional payoff for the whole thing. It also cements the series as being decisively about Scully, no matter how much more Fox paid Duchovny. Notably, this episode was the first and only directed by Anderson herself.

Scully and Mulder Netflix-and-chill between alien invasions.

Scully and Mulder Netflix-and-chill between alien invasions.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Another sidenote, notably missing from my highlights is Stars Wars: The Force Awakens. The first third or so of the movie I thought was good, interesting and engaging with a lot of neat worldbuilding in the background. Then most of that got thrown away in favor of replaying Episode IV. The first time I saw the movie I thought it was incredibly boring and was literally looking at my watch to see how much more there was. My expectations having been re-calibrated, the next go in theaters was better. But still, I rate it on my scale somewhere between an 8, “Definitely a good movie, but maybe not quite engaging enough or a little flat.” and a 7, “An ok movie; watchable, entertaining, not something to really come back to.” I am though excited about the prominent and even action-oriented roles for several female characters.

Honorable Mentions

A couple movies all got credit for being great, quiet character studies in 2015:

  • The Station Agent. A surprisingly compelling, essentially plot-free view of a bunch of quirky people forming a small community surrounding an abandoned railway station.
  • Robot and Frank. A good exploration of aging and robotic personalities as the titular Frank “befriends” Robot and brings the latter into his life of crime.
  • All Is Lost. Notable for having only one on-screen character, essentially no dialog, and basically a single set, this is a really good disaster movie of Robert Redford lost in a sea of both water and regrets.

Another honorable mention is Attack on Titan. The series is really goofy at times. Repeatedly in the early going I came super close to turning it off due to all the cliched anime screaming and posturing. Later episodes pull some punches too on a couple characters that weakens it a bit. But the overall story is novel and intriguing and the show manages at times to capture a strongly emotive take on young people caught and dying in a bleak, losing war.

Nope, not a good day.

Nope, not a good day.


Moving on now to the top TV and movie highlights of 2015.


At first I was somewhat conflicted on Automata. My initial review:

8/10. I had big hopes for this, and it has a lot of promise at the start and in the plot overall, but it doesn’t quite work. It’s almost a sketch, with a lot of ends not quite connected and the movie counting on their basic familiarity to carry them through in the viewer’s mind. In places it just doesn’t make a ton of sense either, e.g., why the enabled robots don’t take more actions to defend themselves. The visuals though are really good, the robots look great, and the movie starts off with a lot of promise, basically a sci-fi noir with Spanish actors, made in Bulgaria? After about halfway through though it loses steam. It just doesn’t really quite motivate things enough. Maybe? I’m super torn. The opening is really good though. Not the initial boilerplate about the solar flares, but the police officer’s interaction with the robot and then the black & white montage. Definitely problems and shortcomings, but the more I watch it the more I like it.

Unfortunately it shows that this is a foreign production. It just moves with a different sense of connectedness and necessary context, as if something is lost in translation though I don’t think anything literally is. However, the movie grew on me quite a bit. The effects and scenery are luscious and many of the small details like the rain jackets are great touches. The ennui of the protagonist and really especially his wife is very affecting, and a good frame and foil for the larger plot. That larger plot though is very good, an exploration of our future selves. It’s a great looking sci-fi movie and the themes really stuck with me. I think of it from time to time after not having seen it for some time, so ultimately I give Automata very high marks.

Mad Max: Fury Road

My initial reviews for Mad Max: Fury Road just say “Goddamn.” Each time I saw it.

I’d argue it’s as close to a perfect action movie as you can get: Taut action, inventive world building, a good dose of progressive politics, and incredible technical competency. Cinematography, coloring, editing, effects, in every single aspect of filmmaking it’s a cut above. The action is more understandable, more suspenseful, more meaningful, and more fun than every other such movie of late. The plot is simple, but that’s fine, it merely sets the stage for everything else. And forefront on that stage are very feminist themes. The movie is overt and unapologetic about that, but also doesn’t fall to becoming preachy on the topic. The women just kick ass.

Beyond the movie itself being so good to watch though, I also just greatly enjoyed that fact itself: It was good. Forget being a sequel, this is one after a 30 year hiatus that came storming back in rare form at the top of the game. Competence is so rare in our world that a huge part of what I enjoyed about this movie was just that, its visible, obvious excellence. Every part of Fury Road showed the hand of masters at work, and that alone was worth the price of admission.

Person of Interest

This last bit I’m finally writing in late 2016, so I can say with confidence that the most consequential film new to me in 2015 was a relatively unheralded TV show: Person of Interest. Fury Road was the “best” in terms of production and so on. It didn’t lack in meaning either. There’s really something to small scenes like Furiosa taking the rifle from Max. But Person of Interest is nearest and dearest to my heart.

I had barely heard of it when I started watching, prompted to do so by some Netflix recommendation. I couldn’t believe what I’d been missing. Granted, it gets a little goofy at times. Surely there would be a more serious response to the sudden massive epidemic of kneecappings in New York. By midway through season two John’s brain must be turning to mush from all the head injuries. But the show balances action and investigating, has appealing characters with their own moments of depth that you want to see develop, women feature prominently in protagonist and antagonist roles, and the overall plot is great. By and large it starts off as a solid pop culture exploration of the surveillance state. Halfway through the seasons it’s also riffing really well on artificial intelligence and the big question of what comes next, what is the next age. The show is fun to watch, compelling to keep watching more, and I think incorporates some interesting ideas along the way.

Notably, I think the tech is also circumspect and realistic for a TV show. As a sidenote, in a number of scenes you can see there’s “real” code flying by on the screens and so on. It’s all toy code and meaningless of course, but it is actually related: Finch is actually doing trivial database manipulation and so on related to whatever’s going on in the scene, etc.. It’s a nice touch and says something about the advisors behind the show. But, bigger picture, I think the show overall is in a sense fairly realistic. Obviously Finch manages to hack into all sorts of things at impossible speeds, many devices are connected that I would not expect to be in the current day, and so on. But the broad strokes are reasonable. Pervasive networked surveillance is already here. Facial detection and voice recognition is already very useful and getting stronger and more nuanced all the time. The algorithmic learning roots of The Machine seem feasible even from where we stand today. If anything, I don’t think the show goes far enough. For example, there’s only a few uses of drones throughout the entire run, but they’re quite likely to be ubiquitous in the not so distant future.

Long story short, Person of Interest is a rare find that has really stuck with me.


2014 Movie Highlights

Six months later, I finally present my list of movie and TV highlights for 2014. I figure that delay just means they’re not biased toward entries from the end of the year. As usual, these are items new to me in 2014 and not necessarily new to the world that year, though in most cases they actually were or nearly were.

Runners Up

Last year was a great one for movies; even the runners-up were strong, including:

  • Bojack Horseman. Amazing intro in the vein of David Lynch, overall tends to not pull punches on Bojack or evolve quite as expected.
  • Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World. Much better than I expected, doesn’t pull its big punches.
  • Pain And Gain. Ridiculously off the wall and by far the best Michael Bay movie I’m aware of, with some depth and interesting characters.
  • Blackfish. A compelling documentary; I am not inclined to believe SeaWorld’s counter-claims of fabrication and embellishment.
  • Walking Dead (season 4). Gets back to its character development roots.
  • Her. Deep, lusciously done and very relevant sci-fi but I unfortunately just didn’t actually find it totally engaging.
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Honorable Mentions

A few of the more notable movies and shows I saw.

  • Mud. A drama about boys growing up in the poor south and relationships you can’t let go of. The movie is not at all what I expected: By the end it’s pretty gritty and realistic, while I was expecting a lighter romance. It’s surprisingly good, with strong and complex character interactions.
  • In A World. A quirky movie about Hollywood trailer narrators that’s part romantic comedy but mostly family drama. It’s generally not laugh-out-loud funny, though some bits generate chuckles. The characters and plot though have just enough nuance and depth to make it interesting. Plus, ever since seeing it I’ve been applying the catchphrase to all manner of topics—In a world… where we’re out of orange juice!—and people just look at me funny.
  • Beasts Of The Southern Wild. Modern Southern fantasy mythology. A great movie that’s brilliantly done but I think doesn’t have a ton of staying power. It’s more forgettable than it should be. I haven’t decided if it glorifies alcoholism and poverty, but you can’t deny that it treats its subjects as humans.
  • Dredd. Solid live action version of the dystopian fascist comic character. The movie is very contained, largely limiting itself to a single complex within Mega City One. That’s a bit of a bummer, but what we do see of the larger city is well done. The action and plot here are similarly scoped but solid. It’s just a tightly well done, somewhat small action movie that knows its limits and uses them rather than pushing them. What really makes it good though is that both the villain and the co-lead protagonist are pretty good female sci-fi action movie characters, particularly Judge Anderson the psychic cop.
  • Longmire (seasons 1 & 2). A modern Western about a small town sheriff with ties to native beliefs and dark secrets. An excellent show, much better than the novels it is based on due to tighter inter-character drama; the election plot is done much better here. Great blend of different lives, between modern white western, reservation life, and historical native culture. I thought it was going to head darker and take a more Shakespearean turn at several points, and it says something positive that the show easily could have. That would have been good for its intellectual appeal over a season or two, but crippling to the long term likability of several characters so I can understand why the creators pulled back. Still, it retains a fair amount of conflicted tension between several main characters and is good stuff.
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Top Movies & Shows

The most notable movies and shows I saw newly in 2014:

  • Justified (seasons 1–4). A modern Eastern, if that’s a thing, essentially about current day rumrunners, heroin dealers, in Kentucky. Specifically, fabled Harlan County. The later seasons degrade a fair bit as they lose some of their particular Kentucky trappings—once a crime show moves baddy headquarters into a strip club, it’s in pretty generic territory. But they still have solid villains and are very watchable. The first two seasons though are incredible. Very specific to the locale and with wild characters and taut tensions among a number of them. Highly recommended, and definitely better than the novels with tighter character interactions, conflict, and ambiguity, especially around Raylan and his nature and innocence. Walton Goggin’s performance is incredible and the first season really something with a lot of unique characters and settings. The second season follows up by surprisingly managing to introduce equally compelling new antagonists.
  • Django Unchained. Essentially a superhero action antebellum spaghetti Western. Not something to watch over and over. Not even a movie I’d want to watch with people. I can’t really imagine seeing it in a crowd, I’m so sure that most people are not really processing it in any meaningful way. The rampant use of “nigger” throughout strikes me as completely non-controversial, in fitting with the times, but that’s what most people have talked about, carefully ignoring any discussion about slavery or its legacy. To that end, the violence throughout the film is over the top, but used in smart ways: While the violence against the slaveowners is comic, that against the slaves is uniformly not though nonetheless dramatic. Django also seems compromised, limited; he’s doing it all for himself and his wife, not all the slaves. What to make of the d’Artagnan scene? All in all, I think this is a deep movie. That said, it is not without flaws. For example, despite the violence projected against the slaves, I think it significantly pulls its punches at times, particularly so of sexual violence.
  • Edge Of Tomorrow. A time-loop concept piece of a sci-fi invasion action movie. I was not at all disappointed by this after the hype and then rapid fade. Tom Cruise delivers another great sci-fi movie after just missing on his previous effort, the interesting but not great Oblivion.  Edge of Tomorrow is really good. The action is superbly well done. Everything just looks amazing, moves amazing. None of it’s particularly novel I guess but it just looks good, tons of detail to soak in each time—which is a good thing given the structure of the movie. The plot is similarly not super novel but it’s solid. More importantly, there’s just enough to the characters to make it more than just a straight action movie, though the squad admittedly should have been developed more. Combine all three parts—looks, plot, characters—being pretty solid and you’ve got a really good movie. It’s also somewhat notable for having a superstar female combat veteran as the lead fighter and trainer through much of the movie.
  • Moonrise Kingdom. Wes Anderson’s take on junior high summer camp. I watched it at least six times the first week I saw it, and appreciated it only more each time. The music, the colors, the big actions, the small actions, the dialog, it’s perfect. Each of the characters just has so much humanity, and things mostly wrap up well for all without being saccharine.
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel. A trip through essentially mid-20th century Eastern Europe courtesy Wes Anderson. This is probably his most polished and complete movie yet. I hesitate to say my favorite, that’s either this or Moonrise Kingdom, but either way it’s extremely good. Again there’s just so much to the characters; Gustave is one of the great ponderables in recent cinema. Combine with Anderson’s usual stylishness and it’s an amazing movie.
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As usual, quick notes on everything I watched are in my log. For the record, the worst movie of the year was Riddick. Previously I was really on board with the franchise’s unique, in-depth mythology, and this entry opens with a really novel sequence of Riddick alone again on an inhospitable planet. But it’s also offensively, disappointingly, and shockingly misogynist and gay hating. Details in my log entry.

2013 Movie Highlights

This year I saw a number of great movies or shows for the first time. Notables among the more literary are Barton Fink, Sleepwalk With Me, Life of Pi, The Rum Diary, Drive, Into the Wild, and Looper, with Pacific Rim, Dredd, and Alphas leading the more genre-defined. Notes on all these and more are in my 2013 movies log. The following though are the top highlights. I definitely don’t necessarily mean these are “the best” in some objective sense, and a few are actually from some years back, but these are the five movies new to me in 2013 that I most want to highlight for one reason or another. All are on NetFlix Instant and similar services.

downfallDownfall. This is a tough movie to get excited about, in that it manages to bring out the humanity of absolute monsters. Even just for that regard though it is an excellently accomplished movie. Further, it does a good job of highlighting the banality and cowardice of those monsters, and what would be their otherwise comic flaws if it weren’t so real. If you really want to go into this with a lot of background of what’s happening, I strongly recommend Beevor’s World War Two.

vampireAbraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Bear with me here. This movie is, of course, totally over the top and ridiculous. It starts moving out of B movie territory with excellently choreographed fight sequences. But, most importantly, this is a more credible movie about slavery, the South, and the Civil War than any number of other movies ostensibly hitting on those topics. The vampire allegory cuts much harder to the truth, and more successfully conveys the true ramifications and scope—moral and economic—than the vast number of efforts that effectively brush slavery off as the south’s “pecular institution” or the Civil War as a battle over abstract “states’ rights.”

redemptionRedemption. This is an awkward movie in many ways. If you ever wanted to watch Jason Stratham get it on with a nun, well, you’ve found your outlet. But it’s a very solid, intriguing movie, much deeper than almost all of Stratham’s other movies. The characters are complex and it doesn’t resolve prettily, but there’s really no way it could have. Further, the moments that I find particularly troubling—e.g., why does the Arab thug get the shit kicked out of him much worse than his white compatriot???—make sense on re-viewing more carefully, and literally put another shade on Stratham’s character, adding to depth even as it strips sympathy.

flightFlight. A gripping movie, from the excellently done opening crash sequence to the closing hearing. Denzel Washington does a great job with a character simultaneously very sympathetic and deeply flawed. The movie also never strays into melodrama or pulls punches, at least until the very end. Further, it’s stylsh all along the way, with a soundtrack of classic rock staples backed up by great looking suits and entrances that is admittedly all fairly conventional, but feels great at first and then later brings another layer as you question the presentation and show of these characters’ lives. I would have preferred that the movie ended earlier, but it’s excellent.

sennaSenna. An absolutely incredible documentary. Some of the imagery and symbolism is beautiful, e.g., Senna gets his first real F1 gig and there’s a great shot of other cars pulling aside as he comes through to the starting line. Similarly, he gets his first taste of F1 politics and the film cuts to a view of him putting in his earplugs. It keeps its punch going by having no modern-day footage, using solely contemporary video with voiceovers for the interviews. There are a lot of dramatic literary aspects to the story as well—the dueling rivalry with Prost, Senna’s doubts about his own safety overcome by ambition and drive, the broken friendships as he switches teams for better equipment. On top of all this is an awesome soundtrack. Absolutely riveting real life drama.

Coming up shortly: Music and book highlights!