2015 at the Movies: Dinosaurs, Pixar’s comeback, and a guy named Max who is apparently Mad

We’re already halfway through 2015 and it’s certainly been an interesting year so far at the movies. Time, much like Mad Max: Fury Road, constantly moves forward at an alarming rate. We’re in the middle of the summer movie season. The next couple months will feature some big releases (starting with Ted 2 this week) and then we’ll be onto holiday blockbusters and awards season. Your resident movie nerd is here to recap the first six months in cinema. Focuses will include:

  • A look at what’s been a very impressive six months for the box office
  • A discussion of my personal favorite film of the year thus far
  • Debating whether or not any films released yet have Oscar merit
  • A look at some films to keep an eye on after the summer season ends

Box Office Report

2014 saw a 5% decrease in box office receipts and had people crying about Hollywood’s decline. That’s laughable, and those articles were written for click-bait. Hollywood goes through peaks and troughs based around when its surefire hits are released. 2015 is the year of surefire hits, and we still have The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, the next Bond film Spectre, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens coming out over the holidays (those films could realistically combine to do over $5 billion).

Despite overwhelmingly negative reviews, Fifty Shades of Grey debuted at #1 and has made an outstanding $569M worldwide against a $40M budget. It wasn’t the only R-rated film from the first half of 2015 to make serious money. Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart’s Get Hard made $106M. Melissa McCarthy’s Spy has done over $130M in just two weeks. Kingsman: The Secret Service proved to be a surprising smash hit, hauling in over $400M. And of course, there’s the outstanding Mad Max: Fury Road, which justified its $150M budget and surely expensive marketing costs by doing $346M. Animation, superheroes, and apparently anything with Chris Pratt are safe box office bets. But when R-rated movies do these kind of numbers early in the year, studios get very excited.

The most bankable female star on the planet not named Jennifer Lawrence ^^^
The most bankable female star on the planet not named Jennifer Lawrence ^^^

Speaking of Pratt, there’s not much I can say about Jurassic World that hasn’t been said already. I reviewed the film here, but even a longtime Jurassic fan like myself couldn’t have predicted just how big it would be. It set the all-time record for domestic opening, became the fastest film to gross a billion (13 days), and actually has a chance to do $2B when it’s all said and done. But Jurassic World isn’t the only surprising smash of 2015. Everyone figured that Furious 7 would do well, but not $1.5B well. This was especially surprising given that the next highest-grossing entry in the franchise (2013’s Fast & Furious 6) didn’t even hit the $800M plateau. There’s also Avengers: Age of Ultron, still in theaters across the country, with its $1.3B and Cinderella with its $538M. If the Hunger Games, Bond, and Star Wars do as well as some expect, this time next year, SIX of the ten highest-grossing films ever could be from 2015. Wow.

And don’t forget Pitch Perfect 2, currently sitting at $272M and still going strong.

I don’t want to say that Hollywood is back, because it really never left. But again, wow.

The best movie you haven’t seen this year…

The best movie you (probably) haven’t seen this year is Ex Machina, a remarkably inventive and original psychological sci-fi thriller released in an era where “original sci-fi” has become somewhat of an oxymoron.

Here’s the general premise without any spoilers: Oscar Isaac plays Nathan, the young billionaire founder/CEO of internet company Bluebook (a stand-in for Google). He mysteriously invites one of his talented programmers Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to visit his reclusive research compound in the mountains somewhere. We learn that Nathan has essentially created an artificial intelligence (i.e. a robot) named Ava (Alicia Vikander), and he wants Caleb to come preform a Turing test to see if Ava can pass as human. That’s really all I can say if you haven’t seen the film.

Despite the rather simple premise, Ex Machina is far from the typical “dude falls in love with a robot” story. It grows dark very quickly, immersing itself in topics such as privacy in the internet age, human sexuality, and the very nature of what it means to be human. The dialogue-driven script from writer/director Alex Garland (the man behind 28 Days Later) moves slowly, but is never boring due to how thought-provoking every word in the film is. Nearly every scene could function as the thematic climax for a lesser film, and when put together, we get a story that is part character study, part thriller, and part thesis on the modern world.

A bearded Oscar Isaac boogies down in 'Ex Machina'
A bearded Oscar Isaac boogies down in ‘Ex Machina’

While it’s a very smart film, Ex Machina never feels full of itself. It’s overall style is very minimalist. It’s shot in one location, filmed beautifully but not in a showy sense, and features outstanding visual effects. Despite having a budget of just $15 million, at no point does it feel like Garland had to compromise his visions due to financial restraints. The cinematography makes use of the great set designs featuring a lot of transparent walls to give the film a cool, quasi-futuristic look. The score stays in the background until it needs to. Ex Machina is such a polished film, so well-made. It’s nothing short of miraculous that this is Garland’s directorial debut.

All three main performances are something to behold. Isaac’s Nathan is a young billionaire, but rather than live it up with supermodels and foreign cars, he’s content being a recluse at his compound where he can work…and drink. Nathan isn’t necessarily a villain, just an untrustworthy man who is more excited about than scared of the technological advancements he’s creating. Isaac plays a great drunk, and Nathan’s expository dialogue is never boring because of how well Isaac handles it. With his head shaved and a large beard, Isaac brings an impressive physical presence to the role that is aided by the way the camera frames Nathan next to Caleb. All of this makes Nathan’s character a very demeaning one, despite the fact that, in reality, he’s just a well-intentioned scientist with a drinking problem.

He’s the perfect foil for Gleeson’s Caleb, the timid human lens through which we experience the film. Gleeson’s face does a fine job capturing Caleb’s mix of amazement and horror. It’s not a flashy role that sparks acclaim and awards buzz, but Gleeson is near-perfect in this one. I can’t say much more, but at the end of the film, the viewer is put in the exact same position as Caleb.

Say hello to soon-to-be A-lister Alicia Vikander
Say hello to soon-to-be A-lister Alicia Vikander

Then of course there’s Alicia Vikander as the “robot” Ava. The Swedish actress is the it girl of the moment and she’s set to appear in a whopping EIGHT films in 2015, including Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as well as two likely Oscar contenders with The Danish Girl and Tulip Fever. Vikander plays the role with the same quiet flare and subtle sexuality that Mary Sean Young brought to Blade Runner. Rather than try too hard to make Ava robotic or human, Vikander settles in the gray area that the script provides. She’s sexualized to a satirical extent, specifically in the scene where she dresses up in a full human outfit. Her words and movements are so precise. The way the film breaks her appearances up has you begging for her presence when she’s not on screen. Fitting, considering that Caleb does the same.

The main criticism of the film is that its ending is predictable, and it is. But that’s not a bad thing. Much like Walter White dying at the end of Breaking Bad, the final scenes in Ex Machina feel like the only way Garland could’ve tied this story up. They’re believable, thrilling, and in-line with what the film is trying to do. We don’t end with an out-of-nowhere twist or big explosion, so what?

Seeing a very limited release in early January essentially means that Ex Machina isn’t going to be viewed as an awards contender (though it should be). It did manage to haul in $36 million, but once the summer season hit, talk of the film died down dramatically. Its lack of distribution contrasted with its critical acclaim suggest it could grow into a sci-fi cult classic like last years Snowpiercer has already become.

Regardless, Ex Machina is the best film I’ve seen through the first half of this year. Watch it. Or don’t. But if you’re not going to support these types of films, don’t bitch about Hollywood being unoriginal and overly reliant on franchises.

Have we seen any ‘Oscar’ films yet this year?

Outside of some technical categories, it’s rare that a film released in the first half of the year makes much awards season noise. Last year, The Grand Budapest Hotel, which was released in March, went on to become one of the most awarded films of the year. But that’s more of an exception to than a signifier of a new norm. So does anything from this year already possess legitimate awards season power? I believe the answer is yes, due to two films: Inside Out and Mad Max: Fury Road.

Despite having to compete with Jurassic World, Pixar’s Inside Out has done well at the box office and is being lauded by some critics as the studios finest work to date. As for Best Animated Feature, Inside Out is a sure thing (then again, we all said the same thing about The LEGO Movie). The question is whether or not it can be the rare animated film that makes Best Picture noise. It opened at $90M, a record for Pixar, and is currently sitting at a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. Like any great Pixar film, it’s being praised for its ability to appeal to children while dealing with heavier themes, as well as its beautiful animation. I cannot say much more about the film as I haven’t seen it, and it’s early in the year, but it figures to remain in the discussion.

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Mad Max: Fury Road SHOULD be a shoe-in for nearly every technical category. The sound design, sets, costumes, and editing are all groundbreaking. But I pose you this question: is the Academy cool enough to nominate a popular film like Mad Max: Fury Road in the MAJOR categories?

Let’s say they give eight best picture nominations; are there really going to be eight better or more-acclaimed films released this year than Mad Max: Fury Road, which currently has a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes? The visionary George Miller deserves recognition for for his direction and “screenplay”. It probably won’t happen because it’s a cool movie that the masses saw and enjoyed; the Academy seems to punish popularity. But I’m holding out hope.

Also: It’s PURE BULLSHIT that the Oscars still do not recognize stunt work.

20 movies to keep an eye on the rest of the way…

Besides the obvious ones with lightsabers and Katniss and James Bond

The Revenant:

Fresh off his Oscar win for the exceptional Birdman, Sean Penn’s favorite green card holder Alejandro González Iñárritu is back with this film about Hugh Glass, an American frontiersman who hunts down the crew that abandons him after he is mauled by a Grizzly bear. Starring Leonardo Dicaprio and Tom Hardy, the film figures to be a major player in many awards races. Could we see a director win back-to-back Oscars? Can Leo finally break through? How about Hardy for a some (long) overdue awards notice? We shall see.

Carol:

From Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, I’m Not There) comes this film set in 1950’s New York about a young woman (Rooney Mara) falling in love with an older woman who’s already married (Cate Blanchett). The film garnered serious praise from critics at Cannes and Mara tied for the Best Actress award. If  Mara isn’t universally viewed as a phenomenal actress with A-list appeal yet, Carol figures to be the film to launch her into that stratosphere.

Steve Jobs:

Director Danny Boyle teams up with writer Aaron Sorkin to (hopefully) give us the Jobs biopic we deserve (sorry, Ashton Kutcher). Michael Fassbender plays the title role with names like Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, and Kate Winslet in the fold as well. Nobody’s seen a frame of it yet but if it’s actually good it figures to be a box office hit as well as an awards season contender (specifically for Fassbender and Sorkin). One thing to keep an eye on is Seth Rogen in a dramatic role playing Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who has given the film his blessing.

Fassbender and Rogen and Jobs and Wozniak, respectively
Fassbender and Rogen as Jobs and Wozniak, respectively

The Danish Girl:

Based on the 2000 novel of the same name, Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) directs a film starring last years Best Actor winner Eddie Redmayne about the first person to ever undergo male-to-female sexual reassignment surgery. The film we see a very limited release in NY and LA but, if it’s as good as most expect, it’ll be everywhere come Oscar time. Can Redmayne pull a Tom Hanks and win back-to-back awards? Alicia Vikander, perhaps the acting MVP of 2015, co-stars as Redmayne’s wife.

Bridge of Spies:

It’s Steven Spielberg directing a script re-written by The Coen Bros. starring Tom Hanks, so you should probably pay attention. The film details a lawyer trying to negotiate the release of a captured American pilot during the Cold War. Disney seems to be all in with this film as their Oscar darling this year.

In the Heart of the Sea:

Ron Howard directs what figures to be very large and loud film, given that it’s about the sinking of a whaleship and the cannibalism that follows. Chris Hemsworth stars in his latest attempt at proving he can be more than just Thor (I believe in him, he was very good in Howard’s Rush). Tom Holland, who was recently cast as Spider-Man, co-stars. Many thought Warners would push this as a summer release but, given that it’s coming out in December, the studio probably feels it has serious Oscar chances.

The Hateful Eight:

MV5BMTY4MTMxNTMxM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODcyNjMzMjE@._V1._CR4,4,554,751_SX640_SY720_Despite doubts that it’d ever actually get made following the leak of the script, the latest from Quentin Tarantino is set for a Holiday release as the Weinstein’s main horse in the race. Here, Tarantino will dive even further into the Western roots that have been on display in all of his films. As with most QT films, The Hateful Eight consists of a stacked ensemble, this one headlined by Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. At the very least, the film will be a major talking point stocked full of the juicy supporting characters Tarantino is known for. If you have the opportunity, try and see the film on Christmas Day when it’s released on 70mm film stock as opposed to digital.

The Walk:

From the mind of director Robert Zemeckis comes this film detailing Philippe Pett’s high-wire walk between the Twin Towers back in the 70’s. Zemeckis can be hit-or-miss, so the fact that the film was chosen to open the NY Film Festival is a very important detail. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ben Kingsley headline the cast. If nothing else, the film should consist of some pretty spectacular CGI given that they used Montreal as a stand-in for NYC.

Joy:

From Oscar darling director David O. Russell (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) comes this film about the struggling single mother who invented the Miracle Mop. Jennifer Lawrence makes another attempt at gold here, and her regular co-stars Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro are along for the ride. The names alone will have the industry paying close attention.

Brooklyn:

One of this years most talked about Sundance films was bought by Fox Searchlight and is already receiving Oscar buzz for the performance of its star Saoirse Ronan as a young Irish immigrant in 1950’s Brooklyn (duh). Another film that used Montreal as New York due to tax credits and production costs.

Demolition:

The latest from Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild) stars Jake Gyllenhaal as an investment banker dealing with the death of his wife. Gyllenhaal has grown as an actor to the point where you simply have to pay attention to everything he does, and co-stars Chris Cooper and Naomi Watts aren’t exactly slouches. Another indie being pushed by Fox Searchlight. That often means awards.

Black Mass:

This one is all about Johnny Depp. Can this physically-transformative role as gangster White Bulger give him what he needs to wash off the recent stench of The Tourist and Mortdecai? The footage from the teasers looks great, and director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) is a young filmmaker to keep an eye on. Benedict Cumberbatch co-stars as Whitey’s brother/politician Bill Bulger. The film will have a wide September release from Warners.

I Saw the Light:

Musical biopics are often not good, but this look at Hank Williams remains intriguing for it’s cast- Tom Hiddleston as Hank and Elizabeth Olsen as his wife. Sony Pictures Classics bought the distribution rights but no release date has been given yet.

The Program:

Here’s to hoping this Lance Armstrong biopic from British veteran Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena) actually gets domestic distribution. Ben Foster, perhaps Hollywood’s most underrated character actor, stars in the title role alongside Lee Pace and Dustin Hoffman.

The Martian:

Director Ridley Scott certainly has his critics but when he does original sci-fi he’s three for three (the groundbreaking Alien, the perfect Blade Runner, and the underrated Prometheus). Starring Matt Damon as an astronaut stuck on Mars after his crew thinks him dead, the film is reportedly a slow-boiling character drama as opposed to a gigantic visual effects showcase. However, Fox pushing the film up to an October release implies that they see it more as a blockbuster than an “awards film”. Early footage looks intriguing, as does a stacked supporting cast including Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Donald Glover, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Yeesh, that’s a lot of talent.

MacBeth:

This adaption received universal acclaim at Cannes and The Weinstein’s bought distribution rights to it before it was even made. Michael Fassbender, who figures to have quite the year with this and Steve Jobs, stars alongside the great Marion Cotillard. The film does not have a domestic release date yet and perhaps the Weinsteins are taking the proverbial scissors to it in hopes to create an Oscar darling.

Snowden:

While an Oliver Stone-helmed Snowden biopic promises to be political to a fault, the attractive young cast here (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley) make this one to watch for its performances.

Beasts of No Nation:

This story of African mercenaries and civil war is an interesting case study. Netflix bought the film for $12 million, which led to it being boycotted by the major theatre chains. Regardless of how it’s distributed, the film should be quite good given the director (True Detective’s Cary Fukunaga) and star (Idris Elba).

James Bond Idris Elba in 'Beasts of No Nation'
James Bo…errr I mean Idris Elba in ‘Beasts of No Nation’

Suffragette:

This film chronicling the British woman’s suffrage movement stars Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, and Meryl Streep (who?). If it’s good, it will have all the narrative it needs to make serious Oscar noise. Focus Features has picked up domestic distribution.

Sicario:

After positive in-competition word from Cannes, Lionsgate picked up this film about a female cop (Emily Blunt) setting out to catch a drug lord. Benicio Del Toro is reportedly great in this, and it’s the latest from Dennis Villenueve (Prisoners, Enemy), one of the most talented filmmakers working today. Photography from Roger Deakins and a score from Jóhann Jóhannson figure to make serious awards noise.

That’s all I got, looking forward to the next six months at the movies.

 

 

 

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