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PCFF 2015 Day 6: Superb Shorts and Journeys to School

Posted on | February 21, 2015 | Add Comments

PCFF 2015 Day 3After week-day library screenings of past-festival favorites, the PCFF returned to Thayer Street for the first part of it’s weekend finale. Though there weren’t films at the Avon or Metcalf venues, Wheeler’s Gilder Center screened five features and one shorts collection. The Brown Granoff Center, meanwhile, had it’s PCFF debut, showing festival films for the first time.

I started my day at Wheeler, with the PCFF-collected Elementary School-Vol. 2 shorts group. Presenting audiences with the kind of big-screen experiences (foreign films, documentaries etc.) they don’t normally get to see is one of the festival’s strengths, and short films certainly make for unique viewing. Seeing a collection of short films is always a thrill because, unlike with features, you never know exactly what you’ll find. A mix of mystery, anticipation, excitement, and possibility awaits. So does the inevitable fact that you’re bound to love some of the shorts, but not all of them. In this group, Only Gilt could’ve used a more satisfying ending. I’ve Just Had a Dream suffered from a repetitive structure and a slightly stereotypical story. Overall, though, it was a diverse and captivating selection. Chikara- The Sumo Wrestler’s Son is an almost transporting documentary that gives us a look into the gritty, grimy world of kids sumo wrestling. It’s observant and informative, even a little heartbreaking, and an absorbing look at a culture vastly different than ours. The animated Wind was lighter and funnier, but no less of an achievement. The four-minute film is a wonderfully crafted, clever, and darkly comic delight. Speaking of delights, The Revenge of Scooter was a charming piece of homemade sci-fi, with cardboard effects and tongue-in-cheek dialogue to match.

PCFF 2015 Day 3Following a hearty banh-mi sandwich from the Lotus Pepper food truck, I next visited the Granoff for the documentary On the Way to School. Directed by Pascal Plisson, the film follows four groups of children from Kenya, Patagonia, Morocco and India, as they make their perilous, tiresome, and lengthy trips to school. The film unquestionably achieves it’s central goal; I left the film with a newfound appreciation for my life and my daily journey to school (a five-minute car ride). But the doc sometimes feels more educational (and episodically structured) than one would like, while a little long in parts.

PCFF 2015 Day 3Though I can (and have) managed seeing five festival films in a day, I ended fairly early with the Party Mix shorts, curated by the New York International Children’s Film Festival. Apart from two weak shorts, it was a top-notch compilation. Interestingly, a theme emerged from the group: fantastical fables that mixed bed-time story enchantment with either wit or animated wonder. The Centipede and the Toad, The Princess, the Prince and the Greed-Eyed Dragon, and Tome of the Unknown all fit this description. Overall standouts included Portlandia: Rat’s Book, from the creators of the eponymous hipster-satire show, the brief but hilarious Carpark, and Rabbit and Deer, which used different animation techniques to alter perceptions of what an animated short can do. Oscar-nominated The Dam Keeper, with it’s sludgy pastel colors and bullying allegory story, was certainly the most poignant. 

And, unfortunately, tommorrow the fest will come to a poignant end. But that end is not yet here! Check back in a day or two for our final festival report.

PCFF 2015 Day 5: Appalachian Music, Composting, and Our Film’s Premiere

Posted on | February 16, 2015 | Add Comments

The festival kicked into gear today, making a swift recovery after the slight dampening of spirit thanks to the storm. Starting off the day was Okee Dokee Brothers Through the Woods: An Appalachian Adventure, a delightfully joyous romp across the 2,180 mile long trail. The two musicians/hikers are Joe and Justin, who aren’t actually brothers but instead close friends. They plan to travel the entire trail and, while doing so, immerse themselves in the history and music of the mountains. The film balances a sense of lighthearted fun along with the rich history of “mountain music”. They play songs with the people they meet along the way, intermixed with music video-esque shots of the band fooling around. With a less skilled filmmaker behind the scene, the film might have easily slipped into an overly goofy spoof. In the hands of director Jed Anderson, it’s a pleasurable romp for nature lovers and music fans alike. Two local musicians jammed with the kids in the audience to create a song similar to the one sung in the film.

The Second Volume of the Middle/High School Edition of Your Shorts are Showin’ featured six shorts. The two highlights were Monocular Man and Zomposting. Both films balance comedy with drama. Zomposting is a hilarious how-to on composting told in a joyously fun way. The subtitles for the zombie’s dialogue add the perfect tongue-in-cheek touch and it’s all tied together with sharp editing and a memorable voiceover.

Monocular Man: My Eye and Saturn V tells the story of a boy who loses his eye after a firecracker-attached-to-a-rocket doesn’t go so well. The film is done in an incredibly unique way; neon drawings are sketched from the ground up to illustrate the entire story. We can see animator Ellen Stedfeld’s hand as she sketches drawing after drawing. The voiceover adds a witty touch and the script is told from the point of view of the boy. It’s funny, it’s tragic, it’s eye-opening. After the films, Mike Bell and Rich Pederson of Zomposting and R. Jim Stahl and Ellen Stedfeld of Monocular Man stepped on stage to talk about the process behind their shorts. (The two other standouts were Be the Tortoise, an inventive take on the classic Tortoise and the Hare lesson, and In The Coat’s Pocket which at first feels like an adventure but ends up being a thoughtful allegory on domestic violence.

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Wrapping up the day Flack and I premiered our own film, Amelia as part of the Regional edition of the Youth Filmmaker Show. It was great to see an audience react to our short and I also loved seeing other young filmmakers’ works. From Spanish film parodies to living sushi, jewelry robbers to philosophizing on the cultural status of fashion, there was a wide range of films on display. Fielding insightful questions during the panel after the film was also lots of fun. After working on the project for months, it was incredibly satisfying to share the story behind the film with the audience.

We look forward to the second weekend of films, but in the meantime you can watch past favorites from the festival at local libraries. I personally can’t wait for Finn and Eskil and Trinidad next weekend, both of which I haven’t seen but have heard great things about. In the meantime rest your bleary eyes up for more movie watching.

PCFF 2015 Day 4: Altered Dimensions, Superpowers, and Singing (in the rain)

Posted on | February 15, 2015 | Add Comments

Patema

Frigid temperatures, heavy accumulation, and a parking ban didn’t stop die-hard festival fans from finding alternative means of transportation (i.e. by foot and bus). It was pretty thrilling to see Providence cinephiles show what they’re made of by braving the harsh weather. Asides from the stormy excitement, the festival managed to continue on minus a few viewers and the RISD Auditorium.

I began the day with the sci-fi flick Patema Inverted. “Woah” is an understatement. Patema, a lively young girl, finds herself in the Danger Zone where gravity is inverted and she is turned upside down…Or is she? That’s only one of the many questions Patema finds herself struggling to answer. After meeting a young boy who has more in common than first meets the eye, Patema sets off on a journey to unite both her world and the next, defying all rules of gravity. The film may at times be a bit confused in terms of pacing and tone, but it’s the awe-some science of it’s world that shines through. Unlike some science fiction films, Patema Inverted takes time in sketching out the rules and limits of it’s world in an enthralling way.

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Next up was Singing in the Rain, my personal favorite of the day. For those who haven’t seen it, well, get yourself on over to the festival next Saturday to watch a seriously classic musical. The film effortlessly combines fun song and dance numbers with a subtle commentary on Hollywood show-biz. At the heart of it all is Gene Kelly whose priceless Don Lockwood is still as superb as ever. Kelly is also behind the camera, not only co-directing with Stanely Donen but also staging and directing the musical numbers. “Good Morning”, “Moses Supposes”, “Make ‘Em Laugh”, and of course the titular song are some of the most iconic musical numbers to grace the silver screen. Donald O’ Conor perfectly steals the show with his deft humor and incredible athleticism.

Following the film, Brian Jones showed off some of his stellar moves. Jones, a veteran tap-dancer, told his inspiring story beginning with childhood inspiration from his english teacher. He interspersed it with some great dancing and even brought some kids onstage to hilariously cute effect. Jones never paused to take a breath, making it obvious that he hasn’t been fooling around for the past forty-three years on stage.Antboy

Sneaking in for one more film, the Danish adventure Antboy spoofs the superhero genre to comedic effect. Young Pelle yearns of getting the girl and being the popular kid…Or at least being noticed at all. After being bit by a radioactive ant, he teams up with superhero geek Wilheim to become Antboy. The film gets by with enough tongue in cheek to keep it grounded in an original way. It’ll hit home with comics fans, kids, and adults. 

Tomorrow: the Okee Dokee brothers, more jury curated shorts and…Our own short Amelia debuting! We’ll see you there.

PCFF 2015 Day 3: A Summer Adventure, An Animated Marvel, and a Sibling Road-Trip

Posted on | February 14, 2015 | Add Comments

PCFF 2015Thursday and Friday’s PCFF screenings certainly whet the appetites of movie-lovers ready for another great fest. But the feast really began on Saturday, with eight movies spread across two venues. In describing the fest, bigger” and “better” are the most appropriate words.

While there were five films screened at RISD’s Metcalf Auditorium, I spent the day at the Avon Cinema, seeing three movies. This is the fest’s first year at the Avon, and the theatre is a more than welcome addition to the list of venues. With a colorful marque, addictive popcorn, and five-hundred comfy seats, it’s a stylishly old-school cinema. (It opened in 1938).

My first film of the day was Scrap Wood War, Marien Rogaar’s Dutch boy’s adventure tale gone haywire. As the tale begins, Ziggy and Bas are inseparable friends, but that bond starts to splinter almost immediately. First, Ziggy attracts the attention of Bas’ classmate crush, to his friend’s glaring irritation. Then Bas befriends  a gang of intimidating older kids. At summer camp, kids compete to build the tallest scrap-wood towers possible. When Bas shuts out Ziggy and teams up with his new friends, things start to spiral out of control. A push-and-pull battle of menace, manipulation, and eventually violence ensues.

This is an intriguing premise, but not one you’ve never heard of (think the coming-of-age summer adventure of Stand by Me meshed with the kid-fighting of the first Hunger Games movie). Director Rogaar, however, elevates that elevator-pitch with her blend of suspense and adventure. She gives it the slow-burning dread of a horror movie, with the appropriate nighttime climax. Add in a fourth-wall breaking narrator, moody cinematography, and some surprisingly intense child performances, and you’re left with a nail-biting kid thriller. My only major gripe is with the film’s last 10 minutes. After the big confrontation scene, we’re given an unnecessary happy-ending pat-on-the-back.

PCFF 2015While Scrap Wood War was modestly attended, lines were out the door for the next film Song of the Sea. By the time the lights went down, nearly all of the Avon’s seats were filled by excited parents, ecstatic kids, and squealing babies. For some members of the audience, this was their first big-screen experience. The film is an Irish fable, based largely on the myths of the ocean, and centers on Ben, a pouty young boy with a silent six-year old sister, a depressed father, and a pesky grandmother. He lost his mother as a toddler, just before she gave birth to her daughter Saoirse. When Ben and Saorise runs away from home to get back their dog, they are unaware of the mythical journey that awaits them. It turns out Saoirse is half-human and half-Selkie, an endangered species of seals. Three kindly, singing men send brother and sister on a quest to save the Selkies. But Ben soon finds himself forced with his saving his sister.

Song of the Sea is directed by Tomm Moore, who made PCFF’s 2010 opening night film The Secret of Kells. While both draw from Irish mythology, Kells had the kind of sweepingly epic story you might find in a dusty old book of mythology. Song is a lovely, heartfelt, though often meandering film, with a story you could imagine your grandmother telling. It’s also a work of pure artistry, of hand-drawn animation from a new master of the form. Using gorgeous colors, lots of circular shapes, and a flat yet tactile sense of depth, Moore crafts one of the most ravishing animated films I’ve seen. Nearly every image offers new visual treats for the viewer. Unfortunately, the story isn’t as engaging, and the narrative is a sleepy, slightly confused jumble. Still, the animation alone makes it a must-see and, surrounded by hundreds of rapt viewers, I was swept up by the collective joy of moviegoing. What else could a film festival ask for?

PCFF 2015After hordes of teary-eyed viewers cleared out (the film has a three-hankie third-act), a new crowd came in for Side by Side. Director Arthur Landon’s debut feature is a sibling road-trip story with equal parts family tragedy, dry humor, and warm sentimentality. At the movie’s start, teen Lauren Buckley is living with her geeky gamer little brother Harvey and mentally-ill grandmother. Her parents died in a car crash years ago. People expect big things from Lauren: her athletic agent has big dreams for her running career, her grandmother assumes she will bind the family together, her brother believes she will make everything alright. But the morning granny is supposed to be taken to a nursing home and Lauren is going to sports-centered boarding school, Harvey runs away in search of the grandfather he never knew. Lauren follows, and an adventure begins. 

This sounds like high-stakes stuff and though there are slow-motion chase sequences, Side by Side works best when it seems to be working the least. The casual spontaneity developed during Harvey and Lauren’s one-on-one scenes work better than the more theatrical stretches. Yet while Landon sometimes fumbles (there are predictable scenarios, forced tear-jerking, and a one-note villain), the movie has an amiable, honest tone. Lauren and Harvey are characters you don’t mind spending 90 minutes with, and their journey is one you won’t mind taking.

Though I didn’t see it today, I’d previewed The Boy and the World (O Menino eo Mundo). At once a ravishing visual experience and a cautious commentary on modern society, it’s a meandering animated opus that stuns, provokes, and occasionally bores. The film’s hand-drawn animation is unlike any I’ve seen before: marvelous minimalism marked by boisterous color. After five minutes, one question became clear: is there more to the film than the gorgeous animation? The style, not the substance, is what makes the film so singularly dazzling, no question. But the plot, which begins as a generic “finding a father” quest, eventually dissolves into a surprisingly deep look at commercialism, materialism, and global warming (the meaning is up to interpretation). A pleasantly catchy pop-song that the film replays until it becomes irritating may also be a comment on culture. There are stretches of this largely wordless trip that don’t demand your attention as forcefully as others, that did make me a little squirmy in my seat. But while some may see the film as a pretentious art-school muddle, I think the ambition and artistry make this is a must-see, despite the flawed storytelling. The Boy and The World puts you in a trance that sometimes falters but, at it’s best, keeps your eyes darting around the screen in utter excitement.

Tomorrow: reviews of gravity-defying sci-fi anime Patema Inverted and classic musical Singin’ in the Rain.

PCFF 2015 Day 2: A Mixed Bag of Shorts

Posted on | February 13, 2015 | Add Comments

Sure to be the quietest day of the festival, boasting only one screening, today’s lineup included the Elementary edition of the festival’s very popular Your Shorts Are Showin’ (YSAS) compilation. If you’re not familiar with YSAS, it’s where you’ll find the shorts that the festival has juried spilt into Kindergarten, Elementary, and Middle/High School. This year, the Elementary and Middle/High School editions have been split into two Volumes in order to make room for more shorts than ever.

To kick things off, the Elementary Vol. 1 compilation was shown today. The eight short films ranged from nature beauty to animated sci-fi, children of war accounts to ADD documentary. While not all of the shorts were as amazing as the shorts shown in years past, it was still an enthralling mix. Super Girl and Saka Gibi (Fooled) followed young children yearning for excitement in the form of superpowers and turtles, respectively. While both had their moments, their lackluster visuals and clunky acting disappointed. The Looking Planet was a confused tromp through unknown universes with bizarre, blue-colored extraterrestrials.

How the Wolves Changed the Rivers featured beautifully photographed nature landscapes and wintery shots of wolves. With an educational narration, the film set a tone that was both engaging and informative. It was also the shortest of the shorts, which stood out in a compilation where the majority of the shorts could have used another cut in the editing room. In Spin Ritalin documented a young girl with ADD who takes ritalin every day. Yearning to fit in with the other kids, she tries not using the pills for one day. The film is well done and the story is certainly engaging, although it could use some more emotional flare.

In my opinion, Little Questions was undoubtedly the best. It tackled the subject of war from a fresh perspective: that of a young girl. As she asks child survivors about their experiences, director Virginia Abramovich constantly keeps us rooted in the story by grounding it with the simple, innocent thoughts of a child. The film is accessible enough for young kids that it could certainly raise some conversation, while not being violent in any way. It’s through the raw power of the survivor’s words that we get a glimpse into the horror of war in a way few other films manage to do.

Tomorrow, the festival truly kicks into gear with the RISD Museum as well as the Avon Cinema showing shorts and features all day. I’m personally looking forward to re-watching Side by Sidemy personal favorite of the festival so far. Academy Award nominated Song of the Sea is shaping up to be one of the busiest, most anticipated screenings of the entire festival. Snow storms, food trucks, film talks, and more…Flack and I are looking forward to bringing you the highs and lows, surprises and winners of the festival.

PCFF 2015 Day 1: A Fun-Focused Opening Night

Posted on | February 13, 2015 | Add Comments

PCFF RI 2015

Note From Flick and Flack: The PCFF runs from February 12-22. We’ll be offering daily reports with reviews of everything we see. Flack gets the ball rolling with his take on opening night. Check back tomorrow for Flick’s Friday scoop.

The Providence Children’s Film Festival kicked off it’s sixth fest yesterday with an opening night emphasizing fun. The film of the evening, Spanish kid-adventure Zip & Zap & the Marble Gang, was a big hit, with chuckling kids, smiling parents, and a generally rapt audience.

During the genial pre-screening party, attendees snacked on toast and spreads, chatting with friends and family. It was a big, warm, friendly party, undoubtedly. But the night also celebrated, championed, and displayed the best Providence has to offer: great art, great people, great places.

Oh…and the movie? Zip & Zap isn’t particularly original, nor thoughtful, but as a comic crowd-pleaser it would be hard to beat. Zip and Zap, the brothers of the title, are on the way to summer school as the film begins. But their initial irritation can’t prepare them for the uncompromising, joyless two months that await them. Sneaking by the eyepatch-wearing headmaster, his nasty henchman, and his dog, they form the “Marble Gang” with some new friends and wreak some anti-authoritarian havoc. Along the way, there’s a love-triangle, some twists, a big puzzle, and plenty of adventure.

With characters reminiscent of Harry Potter and a third-act indebted to The Goonies, the film serves up the kind of breezy adventure sure to win over young ones. It’s far from the best of the fest, but leave your cynicism at the door and you’re in for a fun ride. Perhaps there is something to be gleaned from the film’s message: playtime teaches you something too. One thing’s for sure. I left the theater hungry for more movies. For the next two weeks, there’s nowhere better to be.

What to Watch at Providence Children’s Film Festival 2015

Posted on | February 3, 2015 | Add Comments

The Providence Children’s Film Festival will be getting things started next Thursday. This year marks the six year of the ever-evolving gathering of film geeks, students on vacation, and local families alike. The festival will take place from February 12 to 22. With 18 feature-length films as well as 9 short film compilations, everyone is bound to find something to love in the stellar lineup. To help you navigate through the sometimes overwhelming schedule, we’ve highlighted four films we highly recommend.
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Flack’s Recommendations:

Singin’ in the Rain

Why see the 63-year old musical at the Wheeler School’s Gilder Center when you can easily rent it from the comfort of your own couch? The reasons are countless. There’s the top-notch cast, led by Gene Kelly, with his infectious charm and boundless energy. There’s the story: a movie-about-movies tale from Hollywood’s uneasy transition from silent films to talkies. And then there’s the songs: “Good Morning”, “Moses Supposes”, “Make ’em Laugh”, and the title number. All showstoppers. All deserving of a screen bigger than your television. Post-film tap-dancing only seals the deal.

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The Boy and the World

If the word “animation” brings to mind easily digestible, comfortably conventional, computer-generated junk-food then brace yourself for this bold and beautiful Brazilian film. Without intelligible dialogue and a clear narrative path, director Ale Abreu follows the hand-drawn quest of the titular boy as he journeys deeper and deeper into a fantastical and mysterious world bursting with colorful detours: a vibrant parade, bright nightclubs, and a train that his father travels on. The film is about much more than it’s strikingly gorgeous visuals; there are themes of commercialization, materialism, and global warming. A feast for the eyes and a buffet for the brain.

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Flick’s Recommendations:

Zip & Zap and The Marble Gang

Kicking off the festival on February 12th is this Spanish language adventure starring a pair of two adventurous young brothers. After causing plenty of mischief, the boys find themselves sent a way to an austere summer school ruled with an iron fist by Falconetti, the eye-patched creep making sure no one steps out of line. In order to stand up to the cruel discipline of the headmaster, they form the Marble Gang along with three friends. What follows involves dark secrets, plenty of laughs, lots of adventure, and some serious fun. Adapted from a popular Spanish comic book, the film is 106 minutes of genuine thrills sure to please everyone.
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Side by Side

My personal favorite, Side by Side is a touching film that follows Lauren and Harvey, a brother and sister living with their grandmother. When their grandmother’s illness begins to grow serious, the siblings realize they must be separated. Upset that his sister has reluctantly signed up for a reputable sports program, younger brother Harvey runs away to Scotland searching for the grandfather they’ve never met. Soon enough Lauren chases after her brother and an unforgettable adventure ensues. The entire film is grounded by two sensational performances from Bel Powley and Alfie Field as, respectively, Lauren and Harvey. The film, with it’s grounded humor and brutal honesty, is one that will be sure to stay with you long past the festival’s Awards Ceremony.

Skyfall: An 007 Adventure with a Sense of Mortality (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | January 28, 2015 | 1 Comment

Skyfall (2012)In many ways, Skyfall (2012, streaming on Netflix) embodies many of James Bond’s signature qualities. It’s suave, sophisticated, and sexy, wryly and quietly amusing but also grandiloquent and self-indulgent, yet somehow still sleek and stylish to the end. It’s quite the ride: 143-minutes of set-pieces, locales, a couple of Bond girls, and a whole lot of things going bang.

In the opening shot, we see an out of focus figure slowly approaching; we slowly realize he’s James Bond, with gun pointed and steely gaze directed up ahead. He quietly prowls around an Istanbul house littered with dead colleagues, searching for a computer that holds the identities of all MI6 members. That search leads him across city streets on a car chase, which segues into a motorcycle pursuit. Finally, one on one on the top of a speeding train, he confronts his nameless, who holds the keys to the downfall of MI6. With barely a trace of remorse, the bitter and acidic M (Judi Dench) orders agent Eve (Naomie Harris) to “take the bloody shot”, sending Bond falling into the ocean and leaving the organization in jeopardy. But because we’re only twenty minutes of the movie, Bond survives, and is “enjoying death” while staying far away from anything relating to espionage.

When a deadly organization starts leaking the identities of MI6 members, however, he pulls himself back into the game. For once, Bond is seen in less than perfect condition: during target practice, his arms shake and he misses the shot. Lucky for him, M shows a trace of compassion by letting him stay an agent, even though he’s failed all of his tests. Bond’s adventures lead him to Shanghai skyscrapers, a Macau casino, and, after an hour of set-up, face to face with the villain of the picture: the psychotic Silva (played by Javier Bardem, with a head of bad blonde hair and a deliciously nasty smile). Physically, he’s not too much of a scare for 007 but, like the best bad guys, it’s the psychological game of wits he plays with our protagonist that makes him so lethal. Part hacker, part terrorist, he shows no mercy in taking out agents and endangering everything and everyone Bond holds dear.

Plot-wise, this Bond flick is a twisty, layered delight. The stakes have rarely been higher, the villain nastier, the surprises more surprising, or the Bond more flawed. But much like the overrated but enjoyable Casino Royale, the film often suffers from insufferably prolonged action scenes that last up to fifteen minutes. The shootouts, explosions, chases, and fistfights are certainly spectacular, occasionally balletic, and technically impeccable. But these sequences are so ceaselessly tiring you start to wish director Sam Mendes had picked a Bond-averse average joe off the streets and had him snip off a solid 45 minutes of the final cut.

Skyfall (2012)

Still, there’s plenty to marvel at. Despite the flaws, it’s hard to imagine director Sam Mendes having constructed a better Bond movie. There’s a terrific opening credits montage, scored by Adele’s foreboding “Skyfall” song. And the film has a fine sense of the franchises’s history, with familiar cars, characters, and, of course, music popping up at just the right moments. Cinematographer Roger Deakins gives the images a mathematical precision with clean, sharp framing, along with an artsy and atmospheric sense of color and shadow.

Skyfall also has a fine supporting cast. Judi Dench, as M, finally gets a chance to be a character (and not just a one-note bit of crusty cynicism) and she relishes every second of her screen time. So does Ben Winshaw as a new, tech-savvy Q. Thank goodness he’s in this movie, which might be entirely lacking of fun without him. Bardem, however, simultaneously lightens and darkens the mood with his instantly creepy performance. His one-take entrance, both dreadfully disturbing yet lightly playful, is utterly unforgettable. In his first confrontation with Bond, he manages to frighten, seduce, and reduce  him all at the same time. Meanwhile, Ralph Fiennes gets a plump part as an old-school Intelligence Committee chairman, though I spent most of his scenes thinking he might’ve made a fine Bond twenty years ago.

What about the Bond we’ve got, Daniel Craig? With his immaculate build, threatening stare, and reluctant smile, he’s the most self-serious and brutally efficient Bond I’ve seen; a Dark Knight 007 for the 21st century. Yet Craig, a man of few words, is lacking in the lively personality that made audiences fall in love with Sean Connery all those years ago. Beneath the muscles and menace, there’s not much there, or at least not enough. I’m not suggesting we need the droll jokiness of 60’s Bond; Craig doesn’t seem to know the meaning of humor, let alone have any sense of comic timing. But it would be nice to see some him show more layers of character.

Skyfall (2012)Luckily, screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan have concocted a doozy of a finale. With few options left, Bond and M travel, by way of the trusty old Aston Martin, to his childhood Scotland home. For once, Silva will be the one playing catch-up. Bond, M, and a paternal figure (Albert Finney) from 007’s past hide in the dusty old mansion, and face Silva and a team of henchmen. As Silva and his henchmen approach the house, Mendes and Deakins imbue the confrontation with a classic Western vibe; the bad guys severely outnumbering the good. But once inside the house, the tone shifts to that of a horror movie climax, replete with shadowy atmosphere, around-the-corner scares, and delightful booby traps.

What ultimately makes the film, and the final sequence, so powerful is its surprisingly knowing sense of mortality, an awareness of the limits of Bond’s endurance (for once, the time-to-get-back-in-shape training sequence isn’t completely ridiculous). Hey, the later scenes give us the best sense of Bond’s backstory we’ve ever gotten, detailing a Batman-like origin story. During 50 years, 007 hasn’t shown any signs of aging; rarely does he allow us glimpses of weakness, either. But this time, we’re faced with a shocking revelation: he’s still human.

Waking Life: An Ambling Animated Opus from Richard Linklater (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | January 27, 2015 | Add Comments

Waking Life (2001)Waking Life (2001, streaming on Netflix), Richard Linklater’s ambling animated opus, is the kind of film that will put some to sleep and enthrall others. It’s a brilliant, bizarre, and utterly one-of-a-kind trip.

Waking Life (2001)With a script by Linklater, the film has almost no “plot”, at least in the conventional sense. It’s a chatty, meditative, intellectual feast made up of bite-sized episodes of conversational philosophizing. The film follows a twentysomething drifter (Wiley Wiggins) as he navigates his own dream, listening in on the thoughts of a cast of diverse and unusual characters. A university professor expresses his frustration with the shiftless new generation. A monkey projects and narrates a film. Two friends discuss the possiblities of cinema, then turn into inanimate cloud-statues of themselves. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), from Linklater’s Before trilogy, talk about the last 6-12 minutes of brain activity a dead human has, after the body shuts down. The director Stephen Soderbergh shows up to tell a story about Billy Wilder. And Linklater himself has a fascinating and slightly disturbing story to tell about author Phillip K. Dick.

What makes Waking Life such an innovative, imaginative achievement is the format Linklater chose to make the movie in: rotoscoped animation. First, he filmed his actors the way he would, more or less, in a live-action film. Then a team of Austin artists (largely not computer animators), led by the pioneering Bob Sabiston, animated over that footage using some average Apple computers and a software called Rotoshop. The result is, at first, disconcerting and distracting, even irritating. But, soon enough, you latch into the free-flowing vibe, and marvel at the bizarre beauty that surrounds you. Animation styles sometimes change from scene to scene, while some shots have a bouncy, slightly wobbly effect. The general style is that of a Picasso painting, a Monet masterwork, some modern graphic novels, and maybe some drugs stirred together, and then splattered around with unfettered enthusiasm. It’s so completely different, so fresh, so unlike anything else.

Waking Life (2001)

As for the little episodes that make up the film, some are engrossing and profound, others exhausting and perplexing. There are some scenes of philosophers (mostly non-actors) talking so quickly about such highbrow, scientific ideas that just about anyone without a Phd. in everything will begin to lose interest. It’s also a little pompous that Linklater seems to assume everyone has something grand and genius to say about the universe. And for the first half of the film, the nameless protagonist doesn’t really respond to any of his dream-characters; he just sits, listens, and nods. For a while, this near-wordless blank-slate of a central character is a frustration. With so much going on around the character, it would’ve helped if Linklater had fleshed this guy out, and given us someone to hold on to. Though, that may be the point: we could kind of be following anyone. And  the film gets stronger as it progresses. The protagonist starts speaking, and says some  fascinating things about the consciousness and reality of dreams. Fascinating and more intelligible characters appear, and then disappear, because this is, alas, a dream. Eventually, we’re left with a lovely last shot that takes you up, up, and away.

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Perhaps Waking Life shouldn’t be critiqued as a movie, but debated over as a deep-dive into a director’s brain. All the characters seem to express little thoughts, theories, and ideas Linklater has had, making them more jumping-off points for intellectual analysis than actual characters. Taken for what is, which is a peculiar and rather astounding trip through the mind, Waking Life is a marvel. Imperfect, not for everybody (probably not for most), scattered in every direction? Yes, yes, and yes. But our dreams aren’t supposed to make sense to us, let alone entertain the world. When the movie finishes, you don’t just walk away and move on with your life. It consumes you, fills your brain with new ideas, gets you thinking and dreaming and hoping for more movies like this one, movies so daringly free of constraint and convention.

The Year In Review 2014: Civil-Rights Struggles, Punk Girls, and a Boy’s Childhood

Posted on | January 19, 2015 | 1 Comment

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A darkly comic musical, a film critic’s personal struggle, a travel through space and time (and wormholes!), and 12 years in the life of one fascinating boy. These are just a few of the films that graced 2014’s screens and left us enthralled and restless about the ever-changing art form that is film. With the awards season in full swing, the Oscar nominations recently announced, 10 best lists popping up everywhere, and the year already past it’s close, it’s time to take a look back at the year in cinema. We’ll discuss surprises, disasters, memorable moments, what the Oscar nominees mean, and, of course, our favorites. So sit back, relax, and prepare yourself for some cinephile debating.

Flack: Perhaps it should come as no surprise, in our world of Internet immediacy, that both print critics and bloggers alike announced their Best-of-the-Year lists weeks before the year was finished. As soon as December began, the lists began popping up, one after another, in a rushed flurry of movie mania. By Christmas, it seemed every critic in America had written about “The Best of Film of the Year”. So…we’re kind of late to the party.

But that doesn’t matter. For one thing, Flick and I don’t see movies before their releases (that’s why critics were able to release their lists so early), and often not until they’ve played in New York and LA for months. Besides, a little time for reflection can’t hurt. And the Oscars, the last hurrah of awards season, don’t air for over a month.

So, now we’re here to discuss the year in film. We’ll talk about which films we liked and which we didn’t, but also try to find some overarching themes that explain the state of cinema. Let’s start there, with the simple yet endless question “How’s cinema doing?”interstellar-movie-still-007-1500x1000

Flick: The current state of cinema is an intriguing one, undoubtedly. Over the last few years, critics have complained that big-budgeted blockbusters are starting to become the future of film. While I certainly agree that the endless rampage of mindless studio extravaganzas is far too common, this year was filled with a refreshingly wide range of films. Yes, there was The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Peter Jackson’s 2 ½ hour conclusion to his second Tolkein trilogy, that’s greatest weakness (to name just one) was it’s ceaseless repetition and never-ending length. But there were also films such as Interstellar, a movie that while I have mixed feelings about, didn’t fail to challenge the idea of what a film with a $165 million budget could be. Sure, Christopher Nolan struggled with some of the same action flick pitfalls that Jackson did (notably running time), but what he did manage to do was make me think, something these types of films rarely do.

Independent films grew even larger in noteworthy number and many have made it to the top of critic’s lists, as well as a certain Oscar category. Birdman, We Are The Best!, Whiplash, and Boyhood all followed believably flawed characters in the types of riveting stories that keep me excited about film’s potentials. Each of those films came from directors with visions that were unique. Birdman features an astounding one-take that forces you to follow Riggan Thompson as he heads from behind the curtain to the tops of buildings. We Are The Best! matched it’s story, following three young girls starting a punk band, with a punk filmmaking aesthetic (handheld camera, inexperienced but excellent actors, etc.) Whiplash was grounded by two astounding performances, one from up and coming Miles Teller as the driven Andrew, the other from J.K. Simmons as a jazz teacher willing to take his students to the edge of sanity. And Boyhood? More on that one later.
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Flack: Every year, noisy, nonsensical blockbusters get more money and attention than they deserve, while intelligent, artistic filmmakers struggle to get their voices heard and films seen. And every year, critics complain. 2014 brought us some worse-than-expected blockbusters and some truly exceptional indie films. As you said, they’re both wrong and right. I’ll start with the blockbusters.

Both audiences and critics were enamored by a number of the year’s summer tentpoles: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and, especially, Guardians of the Galaxy. All three films had their strengths, but a sense of unencumbered imagination was sorely lacking. Many would beg to differ, but I think we should stop expecting great things from Marvel. The studio has become more of an oversized producer of product and less a studio committed to making good movies. I’ll probably see the upcoming Ant-Man, but I can’t say I’m really looking forward to it.

That said, Hollywood did surprise us with one sci-fi action spectacle that felt like a relief. That’s a bit ironic, because the film, Edge of Tommorrow, was about a guy dying over and over. Before you roll your eyes, let me explain. Edge’s plot (inexperienced soldier in future-dystopia gets killed, and reborn again, repeat) may sound like Groundhog Day with more guns and less comedy. But for what it is, the Tom Cruise-starring film was a refreshing mix of exhilarating action and lively wit. Next time you have a craving for blockbuster action, check it out.

Still, the audacious ambition of smaller films thrilled me most this year (the drum-solo finale of Whiplash got my heart beating faster than anything that Marvel produced). The originality, intelligence, and artistry of the work of Richard Linklater, Alejandro González Inñártitu, and Damien Chazelle made a strong case for the enduring power of American independent cinema. Without the pressure of big studios, but with the benefit of caring executives, all three made films of precise and personal vision that brings to mind the word “auteur”. But aside from the biggest of blockbusters and smallest of indies, what other in-between films excited you?

Flick: A film that’s been talked about a lot lately is Selma and it’s one that I really loved. While the film received incredible reviews and lots of early buzz, I think the Oscar snubbery has really gotten in the way of the fact that this is a truly incredible film. Ava DuVernay, nearly unheard of previous to the film, took over directing reins after Spike Lee, Lee Daniels, and others quit the project. The film we are left with is truly incredible with a great cast led by the astounding David Oyelowo. Oyelowo captures the spirit, the flaws, the intricacies, the voice, and the drive behind Martin Luther King Jr. and he carries the entire film. His performance is one of, if not the, best of the year and the Academy’s inability to see that shouldn’t get in the way of people seeing the movie.thumbnail_20110

Into the Woods, a film by no means on the same level as Selma, was very entertaining. It really had everything it needed to succeed as a family film released for Christmas, but for some reason it didn’t really get a lot of attention. Meryl Streep showed off her high notes, James Corden stepped up his emotional game, and Chris Pine stepped in for a scene-stealing number. It was dark, funny, and most interestingly, a musical. There are so few musicals coming out that the ones that do should be cherished. This is no Sound of Music or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but it is a highly enjoyable film.

Let’s talk about a film that surprised you. Maybe one you weren’t expecting to be so good or one you missed at the theater but caught up on at home.

Flack: We Are the Best!, which you mentioned before, had a small release, unsurprising for an indie foreign film released in the middle of summer. But Lukas Moodyson’s Swedish comedy blends feminist girl power with DIY punk rock to joyous effect. And the premise is irresistible: kids with no musical experience/talent start a band. Catch it on Netflix.

Another film I caught up on long after it’s summer release was Get On Up, the often-ludicrous but always energetic James Brown biopic. Director Tate Taylor, who made The Help, tackles too much too quickly, broadly, and simply, and the film often feels like a messy first draft. But Chadwick Boseman, as James Brown, slips into the role of Mr. Dynamite and just disappears; even when the film falters, his infectious energy and pure funkiness holds it all together. I can’t recommend the movie, but Boseman and the concert scenes are undeniable.

Here’s a question: what do you think of this year’s onslaught of biopics (The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, Unbroken, Get On Up)? If a film’s historical subject is fascinating, can you accept the film’s cliches? Or does this genre’s Oscar-baiting conventionality need to be shaken up?

Flick: Like all genres, I feel like the outcome is more dependent on the filmmakers talent than whether or not they’re helming a sci-fi, comedy, or biopic. The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game were two that I felt really worked. They had directors (James Marsh and Morten Tyldum) who approached these people’s (Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing) lives with genuine emotion. At the end of the day, what makes or breaks a biopic is the actor in the lead role. If the actor fully immerses themselves into the character, making us believe they are that character, the film typically works. If they make a half-hearted attempt and aren’t believable, the film tends to collapse. (Get On Up is an exception; Boseman’s performance was phenomenal, the film not so funky.) Eddie Redmayne perfectly embodied Stephen Hawking’s brilliant, disabled self. Meanwhile, Benedict Cumberbatch slid right into the tortured soul of Turing, making us sympathize with the tormented genius.

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Apart from these three, which I think were really the three most talked about biopics (in part because of their similarities) of the year, I didn’t get a chance to see Big Eyes, Mr. Turner, or Unbroken. I don’t see it as a trend that needs to stop, it’s really just the classification of films that follow the lives of historical figures. The one thing I do think should stop, however, is the cradle-to-grave technique. Get On Up’s use of it really hurt the film, The Theory of Everything, and The Imitation Game’s choice to not use it helped them out. By honing in on a certain period of the person’s life, filmmakers are really allowed more freedom to relax the pace of their film. They have less ground to cover, and more room to explore a singular event significant enough to warrant an entire film.

The next topic I want to delve into is the Oscars. All end of year discussions aren’t really complete without some mention of the golden statuette and you and I certainly have some opinions. Asides from what you mentioned in your highly informative post (read it if you haven’t!), what can you tell me about February 22nd’s big night?

Flack: Sorry to be anti-climactic, but I have to respond to your thoughts on biopics. I disagree that “if the actor fully immerses themselves into the character making us believe they are that character, the film typically works”. This year’s biopics (Get On Up, The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game) featured believable, committed, Oscar-worthy performances but tired direction lacking true depth or artistry. Theory and Imitation had fascinating stories and great acting, but the politely polished style of directors Marsh and Tydlum felt anything but original. Paradoxically, I found both films engrossing and enjoyable films despite those flaws; my immediate emotional reaction was a positive one. Only looking back, do I notice the lack of a personal stamp from either filmmaker.

And the Oscars? The Academy’s failure to recognize Selma in a few major categories has been met with heaps of media attention, and (for the most part) rightly so. But we should also notice, and applaud, their widespread recognition of indie films. Besides typical Oscar bait like The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, movies like Whiplash, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Birdman, and frontrunner Boyhood got lots of love. That indie-loving attitude was a nice surprise. That said, I was shocked Life Itself, Steve James’ poignant tribute to and examination of Roger Ebert, was left out of the Best Documentary category. Another big snub, in the animation category, was The Lego Movie. Neither of us loved that film as much as most; can you elaborate on your opinion? Any other Oscar thoughts?

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Flick: I’ll start with my thoughts on The Lego Movie. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the faulty but usually trustworthy critic’s consensus website, the movie was the 3rd best reviewed film of the year with a 96% “fresh” rating. The almost unanimously positive praise came out of nowhere and it surprised me enough to go see the film. While I can’t say I completely didn’t like the film, it certainly didn’t even near the great Pixar films, such as Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo. That being said, the film certainly did have it’s fair share of laugh-out-loud moments, pop culture references, and recognizable actors’ voiceovers, to keep it highly entertaining. I wouldn’t recommend seeing it instead of some of the other fantastic films of the year, but to truly review the year in film it is an important one to watch.

The rest of the Oscars? This year has just the right mix of predictable and surprising nominations to make the show interesting. The Best Picture category doesn’t have any real surprises other than the fact that it is the first year, during the Academy’s 5-10 nominee rule, there have not been nine nominees (there are eight). Surprises? Steve Carell in Foxcatcher for Best Actor, Marion Cotillard in for Best Actress, Song of the Sea (see it at the PCFF!) over The Lego Movie for Best Animated Film, and Foxcatcher’s Bennett Miller for Best Director.

In terms of the show itself, Neil Patrick Harris certainly has the chops after hosting the Tony’s for three consecutive years. Plus, it’s the Oscars. Anything can happen…Right?

Flack: Many complain about the Oscars. They favor big movies! They favor small movies! Only old people watch them! Why are they pandering to a younger audience? And so on and so on. But there’s something about the show’s distinctly old-school-Hollywood devotion to glitz, glamour, and gold statues that’s irresistible, if only to argue over and criticize. I, for one, will be watching on February 22.

Besides the films themselves, 2014 was marked by drama, tragedy, and surprise. Early in the year, news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death was spread, and during summer, that of Robin WIlliams’. Obituaries seemed to flood the film world, more so than in most years. It was a year of often great cinema, but the movies took a few painful blows too.

And who could forget the drama (which seems to have died down quicker than it sprang up) surrounding the Seth Rogen and James Franco buddy comedy The Interview, which was pulled from theaters after threats from North Korea?

Now we must answer the question we’ve been tiptoeing over since this conversation began: What’s the best/your favorite movie of the year? I’ll start. As expected, my choices are both personal, as well as over-analyzed and critiqued. So…here goes.

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For me, there were two 2014 films that stood above the rest. My second favorite of the year is Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s breathless and relentless jazz drumming drama about a college musician (Miles Teller) facing a nasty, psychologically abusive teacher (J.K. Simmons). Chazelle, only a second time director, made one of the year’s most technically precise pieces of cinematic artistry: the cinematography, editing, and music flow together to create suspense, confusion, and atmosphere. The film is as exact and meticulous as the drumming Teller’s character practices. But at the movie’s heart lies a thoughtful, psychologically murky examination of artistic perfection, and how much one is willing to sacrifice to reach such heights.

My favorite film of the year, however, is Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age journey Boyhood. Shot over 12 years with the same cast, the film follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane), as he ages from 7 to 18, going from first grade to the first day of college, as he transforms from cute video-gamer slacker to thoughtful and loquacious photographer. As many have noted, the film would’ve been noteworthy even if it hadn’t been this good. Luckily, it’s even better than good. Linklater follows up on his brilliant premise with a little movie that feels big, or an epic that feels intimate. By capturing the seemingly insignificant parts of Mason’s life (haircuts, graffiti escapades, new houses, wide-ranging conversation), he stitches together a quilt of moments that sum up the joy, the awkwardness, the disappointment, the rebellion, the love, and the ordinary normality of boyhood, and also girlhood, and adulthood, and life. The wonderfully natural performances (Coltrane as Mason; Lorelei Linklater as his irritating sister; Patricia Arquette as their struggling single mom; and Ethan Hawke as their divorced slacker dad) are a joy to watch, not just because seeing them grow up and age on screen is a profound experience. The four lead actors capture the flaws and eccentricities of their characters and, by the time the film’s done, we feel like we’ve known them for 12 years.

Linklater, with his subdued, nimble direction, isn’t interested in visually daring imagery or cinematic showiness (though we do get some effortless tracking shots). He’s fascinated by the average struggles of life, the fleeting nature of time, and the cumulative effect of childhood. He’s got a canny, perceptive ear for two-person conversation, a savvy take on pop culture and it’s effect on our lives, and a delicate understanding of how a child’s influences shape them into the adult they will become. Ultimately, the power of Boyhood is too sophisticated for overused headline-adjectives (Incredible! A Once-In-a-Lifetime Experience! Dazzling!), which I, admittedly, may have overused in my original review. But Boyhood is nothing if not a deeply moving experience that inspires an outburst of feelings. Yet Linklater touches something deeper, something honest, something universal yet hyper-specific. I’m still not sure what that is. Is it his ability to put the passing of time right in front of our eyes? Is it his careful examination of a boy, and his family, and all the other important people in his life? Is it his fascination with little moments, rather than big milestones? After seeing Boyhood at the theater, I couldn’t wait to repeat the experience, and, when I finally saw the film again a few days ago, I realized this is the kind of the movie that I’ll want to return to again and again over the years. Perhaps my view of it will change over time, as I grow up. Perhaps I will uncover the mysteries and meanings of the film, as I age. But I know this: Boyhood is a special little movie, a masterpiece of the everyday. Watching it, a huge smile spread across my face; later, I was nearly moved to tears. I’m not sure I’ve seen a film that had such fly-on-the-wall realism. It does so in a way only movies can achieve, using the capabilities of cinema in unique ways that highlight the ordinariness of our lives. The closing shot is perfect, because it is both complete and open-ended. After three fleeting hours, I was hungry for more. Isn’t that the highest achievement a movie can make?

Flick: At least the highest a film this year did; I, too, was deeply moved by Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, also my favorite film of the year. Hearing the film summed up as “a groundbreaking film, twelve years in the making” tends to lead to overly-hyped disappointment. But it’s true: Linklater has crafted a film so titanic in ambition, yet so flawless in execution. The result is 2 hours and 46 minutes of a filmmaker at his best. Without a doubt the most important time I spent in the theater this year, the film’s greatest strength is it’s ability to feel so real. By combining the real-life experiences of his cast and crew with his own recollection of growing up in Texas, the film feels more true to life than most.

At the center of the film is Ellar Coltrane, a nonprofessional who comes across as anything but. His Mason Jr. is a patchwork of what it means to be a boy growing up and he grows from child to adolescent, teenager to man. Coltrane is aided by Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei, who plays his sister. Patricia Arquette is Mason’s mom, struggling to raise her two children while avoiding (or gravitating towards) abusive husbands. Ethan Hawke is Mason Sr., the out-of-the-picture dad who is trying to reconnect with his wife and kids.

Like you, I was deeply touched by the sometimes brutal frankness of which Linklater imbues this story. It is rough-around-the-edges in a way that feels natural and unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. When the film drew to a close, after 12 years or a little over 2 ½ hours, I was just about sure that no other film would move me the way Linklater’s sprawling, ambiguous, and remarkable heck of a film did. And I was right.

Although there were certainly some other great films, even if they didn’t near Boyhood’s brilliance. My second favorite film of the year is Birdman. The experience of watching it was similar to Boyhood, in that it felt so new and fresh. Unlike Boyhood, Birdman didn’t span 12 years-but it did span one seamless take. Emmanuel Lubezki, the visionary cinematographer behind The Tree of Life and Gravity, brought his idiosyncratic knack for framing scenes with sheer style. He can film a conversation scene like no one else can; no shot-reverse-shot here. Instead, he follows the characters as they bounce from stage to street and bar to sky.

The story is equally intriguing: Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) aims to restart his career with a Broadway play, years after his famed Birdman films. But when he calls in popular actor Mike Shriner (Edward Norton), things get complicated. It’s all helmed with impeccable precision by Alejandro Gonzaález Inñártitu. The ending, in particular, is especially ambivalent and much discussed. But that’s what makes the film so great: it’s different, it’s daring, and it’s pretty darn good.

With the year behind us and 2015 already in full swing, what can we expect this year? A few films I’m personally looking forward to: Tomorrowland, Macbeth, and, possibly more so than anything in recent memory, Star Wars: Episode VII. Let’s hope the force is as strong with this year as it was with last.

Here are our top five favorite films of the year. In order! (Take that you cop-out alphabetical sorters!)

Flick’s Top Five

5. We Are The Best!

4. Selma

3. Whiplash

2. Birdman

1. Boyhood

Flack’s Top Five

5. The Wind Rises

4. Birdman

3. Selma

2. Whiplash

1. Boyhood

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