Archive | January, 2016

Beyond the Bridge (Short Film)

22 Jan

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

In Seth Savoy’s 10-minute short film, “Beyond the Bridge,” set in World War II, a Cajun-American spy (Stephen Brodie) is sent on a raid to steal German maps so the Americans can have a major advantage. But on his way back, he collapses from exhaustion and ends up falling asleep, only to awaken and find his life in peril when he comes across German soldiers. I know the idea of someone collapsing in time of desperation and need for triumph is difficult to swallow (and I thought so too), but if he wasn’t merely a spy, it would’ve been even less understandable—it’s never specified how experienced he is (though, if he’s inexperienced, why send him on the mission to begin with?). But maybe I’m overthinking it, and I’m willing to overlook it, because it’s possible that something like this does happen (or did happen). The film itself is very well-done.

“Beyond the Bridge” is Savoy’s follow-up to an excellent short he co-directed three years ago (“Blood Brothers,” also reviewed by me), and it’s a well-made, effectively complex war drama-thriller. The acting is solid, especially from Tom McLeod who is effectively despicable as a Commandant and an expressive Harley Burks as a conflicted German soldier. The cinematography by Robert Patrick Stern is outstanding, with every shot brilliantly handled. And the film is rich with atmosphere—when the protagonist is in danger, it’s easily believable. While I was watching the film, I quit thinking about the probability of what got him into this predicament and instead imagined myself in his place at the point where he notices trouble signs; thinking about what I would do, how I would handle it, etc. and being unnerved myself in the process. It’s to Savoy’s credit as a solid filmmaker that he made me care and made me wonder. The rest of the film is just as efficiently unsettling.

The film’s running time is only 10 minutes, which is probably how long it needs to be. But honestly, I wouldn’t have minded another 10-15 minutes of this material handled by this crew. “Beyond the Bridge” is unsettling, deep, well-directed, gloriously-shot, well-acted, and not a film I’ll forget anytime soon.

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The Gallows (2015)

20 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I remember writing my “Unfriended” review like it was yesterday. It began with somewhat of a PSA about characterization. Let’s review: “If you’re going to make a teen slasher film without well-developed or even likable main characters, you have to have A) good commentary with an underlying theme & message, B) a clever gimmick, or C) both.” There are two types of horror-movie victims: people who make poor decisions and get severely punished for it, and one-dimensional pawns in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse who we do not care about when they die. “Unfriended” worked because while the characters could be seen as the latter for some, they were seen as the former by others who knew they were dumb teenagers—it was the film’s way of showing consequences while partaking in supernatural horror.

And now we have “The Gallows,” which has a lead character so detestable and unlikable and obnoxious that you’ll be wishing for the company of the jackass who got killed by a blender in “Unfriended.”

His name is Ryan (played by Ryan Shoos). He mocks everything and everyone he sees. He throws footballs at unpopular kids. He’s idiotic. He has no personality outside of hurtful comments. He’s the kind of stereotypical jock you usually find as a one-dimensional bully in high-school dramas, except here, he’s our hero. Good thing he’s in a horror film where he’ll surely die; at least when that happens, he’ll shut up.

Oh, and he films everything too. That’s right—“The Gallows” is another found-footage horror film in which characters record everything on their pocket cameras or their cellphones, including their imminent demises. They’re films that cost very little to make and are very profitable upon release. Some are good; others are…well, like “The Gallows,” pretty bad. Like the bad ones, there’s hardly an excuse for our characters to constantly film everything, and when there is, it’s usually nonsensical and lame. And even when they’re running for their lives, they’re still filming, causing a lot of shaky-cam that is never fun to look at. Oh, and there are also loud, sudden sound effects that couldn’t have been captured on camera, unless they knew they were making a movie and wanted to jump-scare audiences who think loud noises are scary

The film begins with home-video footage showing opening night of a high-school play called “The Gallows,” a “Crucible”-like morality tale, in a Nebraska high school in 1993. A prop malfunctions and a student is accidentally hanged. Cut to 2013, when the drama department has agreed to put the play back on. (Yeah I know, just go with it.) The actor playing the boy to be hanged is a star football player named Reese (Reese Mishler), who has a crush on his co-star, the devoted theatre student, Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown). Of course, his “friend” Ryan is unsympathetic and a complete jerk and tries everything to make him leave the play while also humiliate him in the process. He comes up with a plan for him and Reese to sneak into the school at night and trash the set so the play will be called off. They bring a cheerleader, Cassidy (Cassidy Erin Gifford), in on it, but soon, they, along with Pfeifer (who happens to come across them in the school), find themselves locked in as they begin to suspect that they’re not alone…

Even with an admittedly shocking reveal about one of the four characters in peril, there’s nothing particularly interesting about our bland leads. Even when it seems they’re about to take a promising turn in a possible relationship between Reese and Pfeifer, it’s cast aside to make room for more antics involving the scumbag known as Ryan and more screaming and yelling from everyone else (again, while they film everything—while we’re on the subject, there is no reason for this film to be shot in this style).

Is anything fresh about “The Gallows?” Yes, the location. Setting a horror film inside a school for the most part is an intriguing idea. It shows how a place can seem peaceful and cheery during the day and seem ominous and creepy at night. (Not to mention, it also saves money on a production designer, because the place is decorated already.)

It all comes back to Ryan. There’s a fine line between “funny” and “insulting” when it comes to creating characters that are kind of jerks, and they have to be kept in that gray area for us as an audience to care for them something even remotely bad happens to them. This is the kind of teenage douche bag that I hated in high school—not the best characterization for your horror movie lead! On top of that, the writing is awful, the terror is only mildly effective, and the found-footage gimmick doesn’t provide the slightest bit of tension, so I’m saying skip this movie like whatever school board should’ve skipped the decision to bring back a play that a child died while performing.

The Visit (2015)

19 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

M. Night Shyamalan is a talented filmmaker who has made his mark with “The Sixth Sense” and followed it up with hits such as “Unbreakable” and “Signs.” But after “The Village,” which has split audiences right down the middle in terms of opinion, he has taken many bad spills in his career, resulting in him being the punchline of many movie-related jokes. (These spills are titles such as “Lady in the Water,” “The Happening,” “The Last Airbender,” and “After Earth.”) He was in desperate need for a comeback—if not a home run, then a solid base hit at least. Thankfully, he accomplished a double-base hit with “The Visit,” his best film in at least ten years.

What made his bad films bad? For one thing, they were so damn self-serious. He successfully made it work in his heyday, but after that, he turned in some pretentious, forced filmmaking elements that made his last few films insufferable. That’s why it’s such a relief to actually laugh at the very entertaining “The Visit” because I’m actually supposed to. It is a horror film and it is unnervingly chilling, but at the same time, it’s very funny. I haven’t seen a film work with that kind of balance before, and I applaud Shyamalan for not taking himself too seriously like he did before.

I’m getting ahead of myself. The story: Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are suburban teenage siblings visiting their grandparents, who haven’t spoken with their daughter, the kids’ mother (Kathryn Hahn), in decades. Becca is an aspiring filmmaker and decides to make a documentary about the visit, these people, and the effect their rejection had on her mother. The kids like their grandparents, Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie)—they seem nice, they’re funny, they seem like grandparents you find in a storybook. But soon enough, they start to notice something isn’t quite right here. Pop Pop keeps going out to the barn by himself. Nana asks Becca to climb all the way into the oven to clean it. The kids hear ominous sounds coming from outside their bedroom at night. And so on. (One of the few problems I have with this movie is whenever the kids tell their mother how “weird” their grandparents are being, she uses the excuse: “they’re just old.” Right.)

As is typical of a Shyamalan film, there is a twist that is revealed late in the proceedings—what IS the deal with these kids’ grandparents? I was watching this movie like a hawk, looking for clues and hints that could lead to what the twist could probably be. Imagine how surprised I was when I didn’t guess it correctly. I’ll be honest—I was so shocked, I felt the world expand around me as the reveal became clear. Then I facepalmed myself for not seeing it coming. (Watching the film again, knowing the twist, actually made the film even more entertaining, which is a huge plus.)

The film is very good at balancing horror and comedy. For example, early in the film, there’s a chilling scene in which Nana chases the kids in a crawlspace under the house, but it turns out she was just playing a game. Moments like this keep the audience guessing, glued to their seats, and wanting to know what’s going on, and it leads to a most entertaining final act; the less I say about that, the better.

The film is shot in found-footage style. Since the film is supposed to be put together like Becca’s documentary, we see everything through the perspective of her camera. This was probably Shyamalan’s biggest risk to take, since this style is wearing out its welcome (though, that’s what people said three years ago and yet films like this are still being made). But he managed to inject some energy into this approach, making executional flaws excusable. (Among the flaws: the video and sound are TOO good for a kid making a documentary, so it’s a little hard to get a natural feeling from the entire film.)

Dunagan and McRobbie are a hoot as Nana and Pop Pop, playing the roles with exaggerated delight. DeJonge is fine as a budding filmmaker who can be pretentious at times, explaining things to her brother like “mise en scene” and “the elixir” and so on. Oxenbould is a riot as Tyler. I forgot to mention this kid wants to be a rapper and often replaces swear words with pop-artist names (for example: “Sarah McLachlan!”)—he raps a few times in the film. Oh and he’s a germophobe…and I won’t even begin to mention how that quirk comes into play later in the film.

Shyamalan hasn’t made the film totally natural. (I already nitpicked the technical aspect, and while I’m at it, sometimes the dialogue and deliveries aren’t entirely convincing.) But he has learned to lighten up with his craft. In doing so, he redeemed himself, making his remaining fans (such as me) wonder what he’ll come up with next. “The Visit” is a lot of fun, even if it isn’t a complete success.

The Big Short (2015)

13 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

So the housing bubble of the 2000s grew so big that it eventually (and inevitably) exploded in a major way. That would be funny if it wasn’t true. But as impossible it may seem, it really happened, leading to the 2008 global financial crisis. It was chronicled in Michael Lewis’ nonfiction book, “The Big Short,” which was written with the intention of making readers really want to know more about financing—credit-default swaps, collateral debt obligations, etc. I imagine it’d be a difficult challenge to put that same intention into a film adaptation, but not only is Adam McKay’s 2015 film of the same name informative about the situation(s) at hand; it’s also surprisingly funny and entertaining.

Many are surprised that Adam McKay, whose previous films include such dopey mainstream comedies as “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights,” was able to handle this kind of material well. It wasn’t much of a surprise to me, because whether you like these movies or not, it’s difficult to deny that underneath all the goofiness is sheer craftsmanship and social commentary. For “The Big Short,” the comedic aspects are more in the “snarky” category than the “goofy” category (because most Wall Street people are jackasses, by popular opinion)—the serious, heavier material is still treated sincerely and the comedic edge eases it up and gives the film greater significance, causing it to stand out further. This also gave McKay an opportunity to stretch himself further as a talented filmmaker (which he’s already proven with the well-executed racetrack sequences in “Talladega Nights”); an opportunity he relishes in. He pulls out all the tricks to make this film stand out. He shoots it like a documentary; some shots are intentionally bad, to make the acting and writing stand out in a natural way. Characters often break the fourth wall to let us know what they’re thinking. And there are random show-stoppers, used for informative effect. For example, when the audience might be confused about mortgage-backed securities, suddenly, there’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain everything! (Though, I doubt most men in the audience are paying attention to what she’s saying, if you know what I mean.)

(Other celebrity appearances include celebrity chef Anthony Bordain using a fish stew equivalence and Selena Gomez playing poker with a doctor.)

The film focuses on five of the characters picked from the original source material. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is a socially awkward genius with a glass eye and a tendency to work while barefoot and listening to rock music. He’s the first one to notice warning signs of the way Wall Street is overvaluing mortgage-backed bonds, three years before the crash, but no one will listen to him. However, he does see this as an investment opportunity by betting that the housing market will fall. Jackass investor Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) decides to do the same and runs it by Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a cynical broker, who reluctantly agrees. While all that’s going on, there are also a couple of amateur traders, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who are at the right place at the right time and take the opportunity as well. They get help from ex-broker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), who decides to guide them through the madness they’re in for. How often do you see a film in which the heroes are betting over a billion dollars against the American economy, especially since if they’re right, it means very bad times for millions of people who are already in danger of losing their homes? What a tricky subject to focus on. Good thing it works.

And it’s funny. The breaking of the fourth wall leads to fulfilled comedic possibilities, the celebrity cameos are hilarious, the dialogue is sharp and witty, and the humor comes from just how smarmy these people can become. Comedy can help elevate a story like this, which can otherwise be an uninteresting drama or a passable thriller, but what also helps is accuracy, which as far as I can tell (being someone mostly ignorant of financing), it definitely has a large amount of. With sharp filmmaking, great acting (what else do you expect from Christian Bale?), a detailed script, effective hilarity, and a unique amount of precision, who would’ve thought a film about the 2008 global financial crisis would be this deep-cutting and this amusing both at the same time?

Room (2015)

8 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

DISCLAIMER: If you haven’t seen this film’s trailer, this review can contain a spoiler or two.

Not many films that are centered on a traumatic experience tend to focus on the aftermath. What do the characters who went through this go through when they return to the real world? How easy can it be just to get back to a normal life? Who’s welcoming them back and who breaks away? Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room,” adapted from the novel of the same name by its author, Emma Donoghue, would be a powerful film by itself if it just focused on the experience. But that’s only the first hour, and the film nearly elevates itself to “masterpiece” levels by focusing the remaining hour of running time on the after-effects. (This isn’t necessarily a spoiler. Those who have seen the trailer know that the imprisoned characters in “Room” are free by the halfway point.)

“Room” is what 5-year-old Jack (played by Jacob Tremblay) calls his world; the world he and his “Ma” (Brie Larson) have lived in his entire life; a world of one room, with a few pieces of furniture, electricity, plumbing, a TV, and a skylight in the ceiling; a world outside of which Jack has never set foot. You see, Jack’s mother was abducted a young age and kept in the garden shed in the backyard of her captor’s (Sean Bridgers) house. He raped her repeatedly and kept her locked up, and she gave birth to a boy, who he allowed for her to keep and raise by herself. She’s told him many lies about their “world,” shielding him from the truth, like an elaborate fairy tale. But now that Jack is 5, she can’t keep hiding things from him anymore and she sees that there’s a world out there that he needs to know about.

Eventually, Ma does convince Jack that there’s something more to what he’s been taught, and she gets him to help put her escape plan to action. It involves him playing dead so he can be removed from “Room” and run for help. The plan ends up working, Ma is rescued, and she and Jack are free at last.

End of movie? No. It was just the first act of “Room,” the film, and it leads to a brilliant second act, in which Ma and Jack have to deal with normality. And it’s not quite as optimistic as one may think. Yes, they’re free from their captor, but what happens next? Everything now feels strange and kind of unnerving.

The first hour of “Room” is excellent. It’s kept entirely in this room. The sense of claustrophobia can’t be ignored, as it makes for a really tense atmosphere. You get a good feel of how these people have lived for so long in a world they didn’t make (literally and figuratively), and it really helps that the whole long sequence is seen through Jack’s perspective—you hear his narrations (which sound like whimsical Dr. Seuss phrasings), see the world practically through his eyes, and only leave “Room,” the actual room, when he’s brought out. Also, the scene in which he has to escape is the most suspenseful scene in the entire film; even when you know he’s going to break free, it takes its time getting to that point, stretching out the anxiety.

The second hour of this two-hour film is surprisingly even more fascinating, as we’re brought into “the real world” with these two people. Ma (whose legal name is Joy) is reunited with her parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy), who have divorced since her capture, and Jack is brought in to live with his grandmother and her new boyfriend. But as it turns out, Jack is slowly but surely learning independence and what it truly means to be a kid, while Ma hasn’t gotten over the experience she’s had to deal with in the last seven years. She’s haunted by memories, unsure of her “second chance at life,” and isn’t sure what to do next. See the film in its entirely, with context, and this is all the more compelling. Credit for that goes to director Abrahamson, who is able to balance out the blatant and the subtle, which helps make the complex material come alive even more.

If not for the outstanding acting throughout the film, “Room” wouldn’t have been as successful. In order for us to feel the characters’ plight, the actors have to sell it. Coming into the film, I already had a good feeling about Brie Larson, one of my favorite actresses working today, and boy was I right. This is not only her strongest performance since “Short Term 12” two years ago; as Ma/Joy, this is undoubtedly the best work of her career by far. And not only that, but she’s also able to portray two different versions of the same character—one is Jack’s image of his “Ma” and the other is the mentally tortured & broken woman who tries to deal with life after seven years of captivity. It’s to Larson’s credit that we can fully understand this character even if characteristics of her are not fully seen by Jack or the audience. She’s marvelous in this film. And then there’s little Jacob Tremblay, who plays Jack. With a child this age, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I knew with a solid director guiding him, he could provide work strong enough for the material. (Actors have to put a lot of trust in their directors, and child actors are no exception.) Thankfully, Tremblay is able to portray Jack as a real, disillusioned little boy who’s also bright, articulate, and able to adjust (though with some difficulty, of course). It’s a performance more natural and credible than most child acting of recent memory. Another strong performance I want to point out is from Joan Allen, as Joy’s mother who just wants her daughter back in her life and is willing to help her through anything in the post-kidnapping phase. It’s her best work in years. And the less I say about William H. Macy’s smaller but heartbreaking role, the better. (I’m already on the border of giving away more spoilers already.)

“Room” can be seen as either an uplifting drama about survival after misfortune, a partial thriller for the first act, or also as a psychological study about adjustment, transition, and effects. Either way, “Room” is a frank, challenging, and powerful film—one of the very best I’ve seen in 2015.

2015 Review

1 Jan

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2015 Review

by Tanner Smith

It’s that time of year again I usually refer to as “the time I feel like a true critic.” Usually, I try to wait until the middle of January so that I’ve had time to see some of the most critically acclaimed films I have yet to see. But seeing as how it is the end of the movie year I’m highlighting, I don’t see that as fair. So I’m just going to make my “2015 Review” as of now and I probably will review films like “The Big Short,” “The Revenant,” “The Hateful Eight,” “Brooklyn,” “Carol,” and “Sicario” after I’ve seen them. And I will—I know I’ve been slow in my reviews lately. But I’ll change that soon, because there are quite a lot I should really get into. Let me put it this way—six of my top 10 films of 2015 have not been reviewed by me (YET).

Now I’ll start off with my least favorite films of the year. I surprisingly have very few films for this category. I try to save my money for good movies, since I don’t get paid for reviewing films and so I’m not obligated to see some trashy films. I did not see “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “Pixels,” or “Fant4stic,” three of the most critical bombs of the year; maybe I should consider myself lucky. However, I did see…

  • Jupiter Ascending—I disliked this movie when I first saw it. I intensely hated it, the more I thought about it. Hardly anything about it is original, the exposition is ridiculously uninteresting, the sci-fi action/adventure aspects are mostly dull, and the main character is a blank slate with the ridiculous name of “Jupiter Jones.” Do I even need to mention the bees or the dinosaurs? I gave up on even trying to figure out what those were about. That was the worst film I saw this year.

There were three other films I saw this year that I didn’t hate but I didn’t like all that much either. They were:

  • Beyond the Reach—Just a standard chase movie around the desert with Michael Douglas hunting down Jeremy Irvine, and…there’s just not much else to it than that. The one highlight is the funniest line of dialogue I’ve heard all year, delivered by Douglas: “Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice…I KEEEL YOOOOOUUUUU!!!” That moment was worth the price of admission.
  • Furious 7—Okay, so I don’t hate this movie. It is a lot of fun in its own dumb way and I was glad to be taken along for the ride…but only once.
  • Goosebumps—I thought this movie had potential. I won’t pretend the original “Goosebumps” books by R.L. Stine were great, but they were creative enough to keep kids interested in reading and had clever ideas and concepts. I thought this film would take the concepts and bring a satirical edge to it. Sometimes, it did…but other times, it reminded me of just how cheesy the original ‘90s “Goosebumps” TV show was, despite higher production value.

Before I get into my favorite films of the year, I want to give special mentions to the best made-in-Arkansas short films I saw at 2015’s Little Rock Film Festival (which sadly turned out to be the last year for it, though it won’t be forgotten and hopefully a good alternative will come around for this upcoming year).

These are my Top 5 LRFF2015 Arkansas Shorts (in alphabetical order):

  • The Dealer’s Tale—This 15-minute modern retelling of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Pardoner’s Tale” is a riveting short film that had me engrossed from beginning to end. It’s very well-made, well-acted, and gloriously-shot. I look forward to Justin Nickels’ next project and I hope it also stars Jason Thompson and Jason Willey together again.
  • Perfect Machine—What a beautiful short this is! This futuristic fable about “what is,” “what was,” and “what can be again” is enthralling, stunning, well-made, and intelligent. A lot of effort was put into this 20-minute film; it paid off wonderfully.
  • Stranger Than Paradise—Can a truly great, thought-provoking, skillfully crafted minute-long short be created with less than 20 minutes of camera battery power? With this film in mind, I say it’s possible!
  • Undefeated—I was only able to see this documentary on boxer Terrence “Tank” Dumas once at the festival; I’m still eagerly awaiting the time when I can see it again.
  • The Whisperers—This chilling 20-minute horror film (which won the Best Arkansas Film award at the festival) was said to be homage to certain family-horror TV shows of the 1990s (like “Goosebumps” and “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”). The main difference between this and them? This is actually scary. The short film’s epilogue makes it even more chilling.

Honorable Mentions (to the Special Mentions): The Ask, Hush, I Hate Alphaman, Little Brother, Monotony Broken, The PaperBoy, The Pop N’ Lock, Pyro, Rapture Us, Spoonin’ the Devil, The Tricycle, ‘Twas the Night of the Krampus

My reviews for all of these short films and more can be found in my Shorts category on this blog.

And now I get to my favorite films of 2015.

But first, 11 Honorable Mentions: Amy, When Marnie was There, Ex Machina, Spotlight, Straight Outta Compton, It Follows, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Predestination, The Stanford Prison Experiment, Steve Jobs, and The Gift

Might as Well Mention These Too: Bridge of Spies, How to Dance in Ohio, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Mistress America, Unfriended, While We’re Young

Oh, and I Liked These Too: Ant-Man, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Burying the Ex, Clouds of Sils Maria, Dope, Escobar: Paradise Lost, The Final Girls, Focus, I Believe in Unicorns, In the Heart of the Sea, Jurassic World, King Jack, Mr. Holmes, Trainwreck, True Story, Valley Inn, The Visit

And now for my Top 10 Favorite Films of 2015.

10. THE WALK–I don’t know who or what is to blame for this film’s failure at the box-office (the marketing executives or The Martian), but I think Robert Zemeckis’ latest film deserved more attention. It’s a great-looking, effectively-done film about how a daring dreamer walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers in the 1970s. It reminds us that all good things are worth waiting for.

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9. LOVE & MERCY—Love & Mercy is like two movies woven into one (one showing Paul Dano as The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson in the rough points of his career and the other showing John Cusack as Wilson 20 years later, still suffering from paranoia), and they’re both very well-done. I don’t think I can listen to a Beach Boys song the same way again.

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8. WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS–I skipped over the question of how vampires can appear on camera if they don’t have reflections, because this New Zealand mock-umentary about the vampire lifestyle made me laugh harder and louder than any other comedy this year.

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7. THE MARTIAN—I had a feeling this would be an intriguing survival tale of an astronaut stranded on Mars, but what pleasantly surprised me was the humor, thanks to a witty script by Drew Goddard. With this and the new Star Wars film, maybe now we’re moving toward an era where our sci-fi blockbusters can have characters most of us optimistic wiseasses can actually relate to. Ridley Scott is at his best, Matt Damon and his fellow cast members are at their a-game, and the film is a lot of fun.

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6. CREED—This is the sequel to Rocky that I’ve been waiting for, with something old and something new. The performances are strong, the relationships well-developed, the fights expertly handled, and I admire the bold move on writer-director Ryan Coogler’s part to truly go down the road and assume accurately where Rocky Balboa’s life is now compared to where it was back in 1976.

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5. THE END OF THE TOUR—I feel like there’s a very slim chance James Ponsoldt’s terrific slice-of-life comedy/drama will get an Adapted Screenplay nod, and that’d be a shame because this features some of the most interesting dialogue I’ve heard all year. In addition to that, the film truly is wonderful—honest, insightful, a great balance of drollness and pathos, and very well-acted.

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4. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD—Every decade has its new ground-breaking action-adventure flick. There are still four more years to go in the 2010s, so I’ll be interested to see if there’s another such film that’s as riveting, exhilarating, and downright awesome as Mad Max: Fury Road. What a lovely day!

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3. TWO STEP—This film made its way into my “Special Mention” category last year, having seen it in the Little Rock Film Festival. Since it had a limited theatrical release this year and is now available on VOD, this tense thriller now qualifies for my year-end list this year. I highly recommend you seek it out and check it out.

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2. ROOM—This one was in competition with Inside Out for the #1 spot and it lost out in the end by a very slim chance. Room is a very powerful film that is more moving than its horrific backstory would lead someone to believe, thanks to a brilliant second half showing what happens after being brought back to the real world after spending years in imprisonment. Great acting from Brie Larson and a new young talent named Jacob Tremblay help elevate the film’s emotional levels.

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And my favorite film of 2015 is…

1. INSIDE OUT—The best original animated film and one of the most enjoyable, inventive, touching films I’ve seen in a long time. This is Disney-PIXAR’s return to form, delivering something for both children and adults with a genuinely moving story about the importance of our emotions and getting past hardships in life that is also very imaginative, taking advantage of its creative concepts. From the moment I left the theater the first time I saw it, I knew there wouldn’t be a 2015 film I liked better (though there were a few that came very close).

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Not a bad year for movies! Let’s hope 2016 is even better…