10. STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON
Can you make a bio-pic about a rap group interesting? Very simple make it about probably one of if not the most influential group in the history of hip-hop that is Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Easy-E, Dj Yella, and M.C. Ren a.k.a. N.W.A.. A group that shocked the upper class along with the middle class who would have probably have never heard of or listened to hip-hop before them. The film is as incendiary as anything that could come from Tarantino or Spike Lee but it’s meant to be, to remind those of us who are too young to remember what it was like when it was new. And it’s all captured in vivid color, from the late night debauchery, the fights, the disputes, the beatings, everything, it’s all captured. But it goes to an extra length to make sure we care about this group of people that while they are misfits who came from the wrong side of the track it’s more than anything about family. A dysfunctional family but a family none the less. A family that changed the course of music and pop culture forever.
9. STAR WARS: EPISODE 7 – THE FORCE AWAKENS
After being left to wrestle with the question if the prior trilogy, “The Prequel Trilogy,” brought down the polish of the great space opera for almost a decade or if it was even worthy of being included. And then the news came; George Lucas sold his company, and “Star Wars,” to of all the places, Disney. Then would we, or could we get a worthy prequel or sequel to the series that launched more than a thousand dreams into a galaxy far, far away. Well say no more J.J. Abrams to the rescue! The man who rescued and resurrected another “Star” saga, “Star Trek,” from the staleness and blandness that had suffocated it for almost a decade as well. Here we are returned back to when everything was, or looked, real. No cold overdone digital everything that we had gotten, he returns the saga to what made the original trilogy so successful, it’s about good vs. evil, that’s it. The story is simple it’s a hero’s journey, a valentine, a love letter, a return to what made it just so much fun to sit in a crowded movie theater with the lights out and smile with pure, almost childlike joy. And we get an obvious career/star making performances from Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, just as the trilogy made unknowns such as Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill almost 40 years ago, this will do that for them as well.
8. THE MINIONS
You could criticize that there really isn’t any humanity or the depth that the other computer/digital animation rivals Pixar put into there creations but the masters of this world doesn’t try to compete with them, they just know what they do and do what they do. They make things that are loveable and likeable and come one, how many of us love those lovable “Minions,” huh? I thought so. It a great big, goofy, unstoppably loveable, sloppy St. Bernard of a film that manages to create more laughs in a frame than many comedies have even tried to do this year, or almost any, for that matter. It’s more Marx Brothers or Three Stooges than anything it harkens back to the day when sight comedy had to truly be watched and followed and set up, and it’s a welcome return and valentine to the old school days of comedy. The kind of comedies that nobody even attempts to create or re-create for that matter. It just wants us to have fun, doesn’t try to change the world and it doesn’t even attempt to, it knows it’s place and it’s a welcome treat.
7. THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
Joss Whedon continues with his ride and trials into the Marvel Universe in his latest and sadly, possibly last outing here. Unlike so many super heroes where we just have to like everyone and everyone has to get along and everyone has to unite, because they just have to, right? Well, not so fast, Whedon’s a popcorn movie’s best friend making sure that he takes his time in development before just handing it to his audience. We must know who each person is, their motives, their back story, enjoy the characters, understand who they are and engross in the story, and believe me we can’t thank you enough. Too long, to get to the action you say, HOG WASH!!! Whedon doesn’t just give us action, he gives us a story he wants us to know this group of people are more than anything than superheroes they’re family. Granted he does leave the ending a bit up in the air, but then again what superhero film is close ended I ask? Exactly. He makes sure nothing is done with shallow resolve everything happens for a reason, it may take time to get there, but in a where were nobody has anytime for anything there is Whedon who makes sure that we take our time that our story is developed. While sadly this is Whedon’s last outing but thankfully it’s a welcome farewell.
6. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
After spending a few years in the world of kids movies like “Happy Feet,” hey it won him an Oscar, Aussie filmmaker George Miller returns to action. But wait, it’s been almost 30 years since the last chapter and, oh no, “Max” himself, Mel Gibson, is nowhere to be found. Oh no only disaster can come from this right? Wrong, very wrong. Miller returns to action and it’s a welcome return at that. First of all, Tom Hardy, does a more than fine job of filling in for Mr. Gibson, he’s a loner in a lone land void of high tech slickness and cgi silliness. It’s all here, all in front of the camera, real world stunt men, real world toughness, and believe me it’s a welcome departure from all of the crap that so many action directors have tried to shove down our throats. It’s gritty, it’s cool and it’s the kind of action escapism that’s so rarely done that we never see it anymore. And in case you’re wondering did you have to see the others? No, Miller makes sure to honor the old guard that saw the originals and rebuild and continue with a new chapter for young fans. Thank you for it too.
5. KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE
This year we got a lot of spy movies, some great, some ok, some you could do without but with everyone trying to imitate Bond here’s one that was more Bond than, well, Bond has been. A spy thriller that went back to the days when Bond was more about fun and cool. Yea, it was over-the-top but for those of us who remember the old spy films so were they. And thanks to this little gem of a thriller, which is, not only cool, but also it’s action-packed, funny and surprisingly sexy. Colin Firth, Mark Strong, and Samuel L. Jackson and a group of terrific newcomers all combine to show us how spy films/spy thrillers were supposed to be, just fun. And it does that in spades, when you’re not cheering, you’re smiling and when you’re not smiling you’re laughing, it’s golden popcorn all the way. Thank you to all of you for it so those just looking for something to entertain and nothing more this was, excuse me, this IS the treat we’ve been wanting for quite sometime.
Crime thrillers, gotten boring well at least we still have good old Michael Mann. The man behind the quintessential 80’s TV series “Miami Vice,” the top-notch action thriller/modern day western “Heat,” and the uber stylized dark thrill ride “Collateral” and he brings all his mojo to the world of computer hacking here. Just two people arguing over instant messaging right? Wrong. It’s a top notch cat and mouse chase from one side of the globe to the other and if you loose interest or wonder if you’ll keep it, well thanks again to Mann a film maker/writer who doesn’t just research his scripts he goes into exhaustive detail but doesn’t do it to boredom either. When it’s time to deliver the action, he delivers, he gets more tension and action out of a phone call or a aerial shot than film makers half his age could dream of. And in a world where every young filmmaker just tries to make action films MTV style music videos Mann knows that adding style doesn’t mean flash. It means making sure your script and environment is engrossing and that everyone is riveted by what you see. Thank you for it Mr. Mann.
3. INSIDE OUT
For anyone who thinks Disney’s best years are behind them, OH…so wrong! Thank you Pixar! With digital taking over everything in the world of animation there seems to be one, ONLY ONE who knows to not leave it at visual spectacle….STORY COMES FIRST! Yes, I won’t lie visually it was impressive, as anything that could be from Pixar but the true star is the characters. You look inside of them, in their head and in their soul. You laugh when they laugh and even, I kid you not, cry when they cry. It moves you like nothing you’ve seen this year. Who could possibly think that a cartoon, yes a cartoon could do this. Look no further than here, thank you Pixar for reminding us all of the importance of story and character. Make this film, in fact make all of Pixar’s films mandatory for all who have even attempted or dreamed to make a film or write a script.
2. The Hateful Eight
Leave it to Tarantino to return to the western of old-times, the days of Howard Hawks and Sam Peckinpah. Granted neither of them probably could have dreamed of or thought of getting away with the amount of brutal over-the-top bloody violence QT is able to get away with, but who cares. When it comes to knowing how to entertain few have managed to combine top caliber entertainment with such gleeful energy as him. An ensemble ride that’s not just well acted but it’s damn funny! Bringing back regulars Tim Roth, Michael Madson and Samuel L. Jackson along some newbie’s Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern and a wonderful comeback performance from Jennifer Jason Leigh it moves at a better pace than any action film that’s been on screen this year. Some complaints have been made about the length and characters but well, duh, it’s called “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” not the likable eight and it’s length, oh just see it. Like I said it moves fast, so fast you want more when it’s over.
1. BLACK MASS
It’s so rare that we get treated to a knockout of a film, especially a gangster film, I think the last to come to mind was “The Departed” or “Goodfellas,” but now we can add just a sledgehammer of a film in the form of “Black Mass.” It’s as entertaining as it is brutal, as exciting as it is a spectacle, and as well acted as anything that we’ve been treated to in a while. Thank you for that Mr. Depp! With the most spot on, straight ahead, unforgiving complex performance as James “Whitey” Bulger the gangland leader who ruled and terrorized South Boston with an iron fist for years. A film so lush in energy and talent that in a world where everything and everyone is reduced to just imitating everything done by Tarantino and Scorsese that we could have yawned all the way home, not here! No style, no color, nothing pretty we see into their world, their world of bleakness, brutality and even occasionally sadness (witness Deep and a wonderful cameo from Dakota Johnson, scene of the year). Nothing is over the top, here everyone brings their A-game to the table, from Depp dealing with a “rat” to his stare down with someone over something as innocent as a steak, it’s done with terrifying menace and relentless energy. Special extra thanks have to go to director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart,” “Out of the Furnace”) he get performances like few have seen out of not only Depp but his cracker jack supporting cast, Kevin Bacon, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Adam Scott, and Dakota Johnson (I bring her up again because I was wrong, after seeing this apparently SHE CAN ACT), and also removing all bits of anything that could compare it with anything else. When something violent happens it’s not with a burst of laughter and cool it’s done with coldness. It’s not just a film it’s a roller coaster of power, a film lovers delight, the kind of film that most Hollywood movies wouldn’t have the guts to make. It’s truly worthy of every bit of credit.
Written by Jason Greathouse
Once in a while we the audiences get treated to a performance that goes beyond anything that we’ve ever seen. DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, comes to mind. Jamie Foxx’s depiction of Ray Charles in “Ray” is another good one. And Heath Ledger’s psychotic depiction of comic book villain “The Joker” makes a noted mentioning. And the most recent to this collection would have to be Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of Navy S.E.A.L. Chris Kyle in American Sniper. But now the latest addition to this is Johnny Depp’s absolutely spot on cold-blooded and terrifying depiction of gangster James “Whitey” Bulger a man who ruled South Boston, MA, or Southie as it’s commonly referred to, like a dictator rules his kingdom with an iron fist and lead law enforcement on a decade long chase. Believe it or not.
Granted this is technically not the first time that Bulger’s story has been brought to the big screen. His story was the inspiration behind the character of Frank Costello depicted with comedic over-the-top darkness by none other than Jack Nicholson in Scorsese crime-classic actionier The Departed. But while that was a stylized depiction based on a Hong Kong action caper there is no tongue and cheek depiction here. And the violence is by no means stylized here. It comes not with a flash of style but with an appropriate burst of brutality. From a behind the head shot to the strangulation of possible informant all of it comes right in front of your face in all its glory. “This is what I do to rats” it’s explained by Depp with just as cold-blooded delivery as that. These are the people who’s world we are in and it’s a dark one. Credit that to director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace) who removes all color from South Boston. It’s as cold as the characters aiding to the evil of the world we’re engrossed in.
But the real tour de force is that of it’s lead Johnny Depp, he gives the performance of his life here after slipping a bit with a recent string of flops, how many of us would like to forget Transcendence or The Lone Ranger? Well he makes up for it big time here, with a performance that reeks of both evil and terror. From almost shaving his head to appear balding, bleaching his skin, yellow coloring his teeth to giving a stare that when he looks at the camera he looks at you and it’s a stare of brutality that chills your soul. Just witness a scene where he asks for the “secret ingredient” for a steak that just makes you shiver with enough terror that would make Wes Craven himself clap with bravo. Bulger is a wolf with a taste for blood and he goes for blood whenever it’s near from when he guns down two people with no remorse to beating to death someone who could be a “rat.” It’s a performance that sticks with you long after you leave the theater; enough to make you shout “play it again!” It’s the performance of a lifetime from Depp.
But Depp isn’t the only one bringing his A-game to the table without a doubt the biggest surprise is, believe it or not, Dakota Johnson herself in a brilliant cameo playing Bulger’s wife. She wants to give us sympathy for the devil so badly as she shakes off the crust from Fifty Shades of Grey giving intensity and emotion as she begs Depp’s Bulger in the hospital with their sick young son. Bravo to her!
But how did Bulger do this for so long, how did he maintain such a criminal empire for so long? Well, it’s explained from his dealing with an F.B.I. Agent/informant played with both rock-star groupie and edginess by a wonderful Joel Edgerton. He wants to be the right hand to the devil so bad that he does all he can if anything he can to try and kiss up to Bulger. It’s a deal with the devil but to him “that’s just business.” To his younger brother who rises to Speaker of the House of the Massachusetts State Senate played with both remorse and sadness by recent Oscar nominee Benedict Cumberbatch. How or why he does this remains a mystery not even Cumberbatch himself could explain it, nor does he really try, he just shows us a brother who does this out of sheer misplaced loyalty. You understand the sadness in his eyes to a point where we could just nod and say, “I get it” just as simple as that.
But in spite of all of it’s technical achievements and performances it’s going inevitably be compared to other “gangster” films from The Godfather to Goodfellas to Casino to The Departed to The Sopranos. Here there’s no comparison here we’re given a world of cold men who’s acts of violence leave a scare that South Boston will never recover from. It’s a powerhouse of a film that leaves you breathless, just see it.
Written by Jason Greathouse
4 out of 4 stars