We’re aware. The words overrated and underrated are problematic and subjective and often given to misuse. In some sense you could argue such a feature is one big hot take. And it’s never been the intention, but for better or worse, it’s become an annual tradition around The Playlist parts to end the year with an individual list of “underrated” and “overrated” picks from each writer. Frankly, it’s kind of a landmine and internally, it’s known as the “give them enough rope” feature where some writer inevitably a) makes a terrible choice b) deeply misunderstands the concept of either underrated or overrated and or their interpretation is from Mars. That said, at least this year, no one was stupid enough to rate “Mad Max: Fury Road” as underrated.
Anyway, it’s a list full of individual, subjective opinions that you may throw things at your screen over, or may secretly agree with. But we like to think that, even if you’re more lined up with the critical consensus than the write-ups below, that you’ll find something interesting. Take a look, and let us know where you fell out of step with the mainstream opinion this year in the comments.
Underrated: “The Gift”
The trailer for Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut “The Gift” didn’t make it look like much more than a slick, studio-approved twist on an 80’s-style Depalmaesque stalker thriller featuring Jason Bateman as his most venal and Rebecca Hall looking forlorn and terrified in assorted ominous modern interiors. So imagine my surprise when “The Gift” turned out to be patient, engrossing, genuinely harrowing and shockingly well-acted. It’s a surprising and impressive debut from the Aussie actor, and one that builds on many of the themes that he’s explored in his collaborations with director David Michod (“Animal Kingdom,” “The Rover”). Edgerton also gives one of the year’s most quietly unnerving performances as Gordo, a strange, reclusive man whose life finds a sort of twisted purpose when he runs into an old high-school classmate – smug Simon (Bateman) and his much kinder wife Robyn (Hall) – at a department store. To reveal any more would be criminal, except to say that Edgerton indicates to the audience early on that nobody is who they really say they are and that by the time Gordo and Simon do eventually reveal their true selves, all bets are off. The result is a smart, genuinely unsettling piece of pulp entertainment that’s twisty without being ludicrous, with a fine attention to character and a sense of humor that’s about as cruel as it gets. It’s a good enough reason to look forward to whatever Edgerton has up his sleeve next.
Overrated: “Straight Outta Compton”
The story of the rise of West Coast rap is still a story that has yet to be told properly: we’ll see if the upcoming “Welcome to Death Row” can get it right, but in spite of all the things there are to recommend about F. Gary Gray’s competently made “Straight Outta Compton,” this is not the N.W.A. movie that the true-blue fans deserve. It certainly doesn’t lack for energy: “Compton” opens with an unbearably tense and gripping showdown in a South Central crack house that climaxes with a tank barreling through the walls and jheri-curled rapper Eazy-E fleeing by way of rooftop, and that’s before the title credit appears. The movie’s live re-creations of some of N.W.A.’s most seminal songs are also electric and rousing. So it’s a shame that a smartly-observed, crackerjack first hour eventually dissolves into a soggy, wandering second half that’s burdened by endless, tedious talks of contractual malfeasance on the behalf of the group’s cartoonishly villainous manager Jerry Heller (played by Paul Giamatti with aid from the year’s most distracting hairpiece) and also the queasy sense that many of the second act’s crucial dramatic moments – particularly the incredibly dark Death Row years – are being re-written to benefit the perspective of our heroes. Cube and Dre did produce this thing, after all, and “Straight Outta Compton,” as undeniably entertaining as it often is, does ultimately feel like history being written by the winners. The movie has a terrific first half and a genuinely poignant and transformative performance from young Jason Mitchell as Eazy, but in this writer’s opinion, it’s far from the new-era rap classic many have deemed it to be.
Underrated: “Crimson Peak”
Guillermo del Toro‘s latest love letter to horrors power-generated by love was overshadowed by the wealth of October releases, died at the box office, and holds a shaky-looking 69% on the Tomatometer. For shame! Del Toro’s gothic romance “Crimson Peak” contains a triptych of powerhouse performances by Jessica Chastain (playing her first villain with glorious craze), Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska, and is a beautifully-constructed story for the screen. As much as its atmosphere, structure, and language evokes the pulpy essence of a Victorian novel (a huge part of its overall charm), the central set piece — a mysterious Baroque mansion oozing character with every creak and crack — and the bone-chillingly eerie designs of the ghosts, all but certify this as an experience solely beholden to the cinema screen. I was immersed in Edith’s story from the moment her dead mother warned her to beware of Crimson Peak; watching a movie that simultaneously falls perfectly in place in del Toro’s directorial output, yet stands out in so many ways from his previous stuff. Cut from the same cloth as his two fantastic films about childhood (“The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth“), “Crimson Peak” is like the mature flower that sprouted from those two seeds. It features del Toro’s first female antagonist and travels back into the furthest past he’s explored, all while covered in the most decadent and visually resplendent gothic veneer we’ve seen from him yet, making the film that much more attractive as a piece of work. Not to mention that it’s the year’s most charismatic testament to the wonders of props, costumes, and sets.
Overrated: “Ex Machina”
Just to be clear, I didn’t totally hate Alex Garland‘s universally acclaimed sci-fi debut “Ex Machina.” There are more than a few good takeaways, but I just can’t fathom the reason behind so much praise (including from one of us!). It’s a close race between this, “Amy,” and “Beasts of No Nation” as the three 2015 films that got heaps of praise yet left me feeling kinda meh. They all try too hard in their own ways, but the reason I’m singling ‘Machina’ out is because it tried the least, and had me scratching my head at critics calling it a tense, smart, new AI thriller. Alicia Vikander‘s calculated performance is the greatest thing about the film, and that finale was the best (though not exactly shocking) way to end what is ultimately a mediocre cool story bro, starring two bros (played by Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson) who are too contrived and unrealistic for me to get attached to their cool story. And by the time we realize that it’s not their story, I had already checked out. Every time the film had a chance to probe deeper into the AI theme, it turned a corner towards a dead-end attempt at frat humor. Garland’s direction is sleek, surgical, and goes a bit out of its way to emulate David Fincher, but the result ultimately fails to resonate for more than half an hour after the end credits roll thanks to how hollow its screenplay is. Ultimately, it’s full of great ideas stifled by a decent B-movie pretending to be something more profound. I’m thinking Vikander’s memorable performance and the fact that it’s Garland’s directorial debut switched the hype machine into overdrive and misdirected much of the love.. Wanna see a really good AI film? Watch any of these instead.
Oktay Ege Kozak
Underrated: “The Good Dinosaur”
Yes, “The Good Dinosaur” came from the bastion of excellence that is Pixar, but the project’s many production problems and release date pushes made audiences and critics think we might have another “Brave” on our hands. You know, a perfectly serviceable Disney flick that happens to be below Pixar’s standards. What we got, at least in my opinion, was a gorgeous looking, emotionally captivating, and rousing adventure that’s as dedicated to its story’s themes as it is to exciting set pieces. Both “Inside Out” and “The Good Dinosaur” deftly and touchingly dealt with the theme of making peace with an unwanted emotion in order to understand its significance. For “Inside Out”, that emotion was sadness, and for “The Good Dinosaur”, it was fear. In fact, what “The Good Dinosaur” says about what it means to conquer your fears to truly become an adult is more insightful and honest than a lot of adult-oriented live action dramas. Yet “The Good Dinosaur” didn’t get the critical and box-office love that “Inside Out” got. Yes, it stands at a solid 77% on Rotten Tomatoes and is on its way to earning 200 million USD worldwide. But when compared to “Inside Out”s 98% score and 850 million take, it doesn’t seem to get as much love, and that’s a bit of a shame. I have a feeling that if it wasn’t overshadowed by the also-great “Inside Out”s release, “The Good Dinosaur” would have had a more enthusiastic reception.
Overrated: “Jurassic World”
In 2015, Hollywood finally found the perfect formula for turning nostalgia into a box-office goldmine: All you have to do is pump your franchise reboot/sequel/sidequel/legacyquel with “Remember this?” moments, and everyone, including critics, will turn a blind eye to borderline Asylum-level CGI, bland direction, depth-free and severely unlikable characters, and a B-movie screenplay that’s not afraid of shameless filler. No other film solidified the X and Y generations’ Pavlovian response to nostalgia than “Jurassic World”, whose lazy cynicism paid off tremendously with a worldwide gross of almost $1.7 billion, as well as a Rotten Tomatoes score of 71%. Apart from the aforementioned issues, “Jurassic World” was also a bafflingly sexist and tone-deaf experience, one that would have make even the makers of a ’70s disaster movie feel ashamed for it. Chris Pratt’s “Republic serial hero” has to hook up with Bryce Dallas Howard’s corporate lapdog asshole simply because she looks hot and, gasp, can run in heels. The scene where the annoying kid and his shithead big brother prefer to stick with Pratt’s Indiana Jones knock-off when all they saw was Howard’s character saving Pratt’s ass from a matinee idol-hungry Pteranodon is especially embarrassing. With his flat and lifeless mediocrity, Colin Trevorrow is on his way to becoming his generation’s Brett Ratner, and thanks to this movie’s financial success, he’s on his way to capping off the new “Star Wars” trilogy. Thanks, “Jurassic World!”
Underrated: “She’s Lost Control”
Anja Marquadt’s mesmerizing and mysterious debut feature “She’s Lost Control” had a healthy 2014 festival run, and scored an Indie Spirit nom for best first feature, so maybe it’s better described as underseen. Perhaps its March 2015 theatrical release made it feel like it slipped under the radar. However, this psychological drama about a female sex surrogate/grad student is a searing and stylish film anchored by two monstrous performances by Brooke Bloom and Marc Menchaca. Marquardt demonstrates some serious chops with the film’s chilly look, and “She’s Lost Control” has the ineffable quality of a 1970s New Hollywood thriller, the kind of film that explores the city as a place of urban alienation and delves deeply into issues of interpersonal intimacy and emotional labor. “She’s Lost Control” instantly sucks you in, and the grip only tightens as Rhona’s (Bloom) life starts to unravel —she fascinates as a character who consistently rides the knife’s edge between safety and danger, trying to exert some control over her own life, body and home. It’s a sexy, terrifying, and ultimately disquieting rumination on modern sex, love, and relationships.
Overrated: “Time Out of Mind”
Imagine my surprise when Oren Moverman’s Richard Gere-starring drama “Time Out of Mind” garnered rave reviews —did A.O. Scott see the same movie I did? It’s shocking that people behind this pretentious nonsense were too enamored of the film’s gimmick to concern itself with creating a compelling story. Essentially a two-hour homelessness PSA, Moverman’s project would have been better served in a short format. His cinematic agenda quickly becomes clear: he shoots Gere through windows, doors, and fish tanks, underlining, bolding and italicizing just how much he’s on the outside looking in —GET IT? He also weaves in a distracting, profoundly irritating soundscape of unseen conversations floating over the images of George (Gere) as he drifts around the city. Ostensibly, this is supposed to create an immersive audio accompaniment, but it’s just annoying. Once you catch on to Moverman’s scheme, there’s a bit of an “a-ha” moment as to the conceit, but then the damn thing goes on for another two hours, a repetition of distancing and cold stylistic tics as we follow this miserable, unlikable person around New York City. The “Movie Star As Homeless Person” genre is a tough sell already, because many stars are way too good looking to sell it, and it can often dip into a tone deaf masquerade. “Time Out of Mind” isn’t as bad as the egregiously earnest horror show that is Paul Bettany’s execrable “Shelter,” but the fact that critics fell for Moverman’s affected and dull-as-dirt claptrap is beyond my comprehension.
Around these parts, “Blackhat” isn’t necessarily underrated. The film has shown up on several of our best-of lists this year (action films of the century so far, action scenes of the year, films you didn’t see), and rightly so. But for some reason, this hacker-thriller was thrashed by critics and belly-flopped at the box office, bringing in a rough $19 million (off a $70 million budget). All of which remains a mystery to us. Michael Mann’s digitally shot actioner is a gripping film that taps into a very timely (though potentially very dated) world of hacking and financial turmoil. Co-written by Mann, “Blackhat” has little time to explain the intricacies of much of the technical wizardry that happens onscreen, a move that might have alienated some, but one that hackers and info-sec behemoths have responded to with gusto. And when “Blackhat” switches gears to action mode, the resulting set pieces are some of the fiercest of the year, with Stuart Dryburgh’s digital photography giving everything an unnervingly instant feel, throwing us into the heart of the chaos. Certainly “Blackhat” isn’t Mann’s finest film, but it’s a gem compared to most of the CG bloated blockbusters of the last 12 months.
Overrated: “Pitch Perfect 2”
To be fair, “Pitch Perfect 2” wasn’t necessarily loved by critics (we didn’t love it), but it did garner an A- Cinemascore and did gangbusters at the box office (a third entry in the series was announced almost immediately). But it is quite possibly the single most disappointing and reductive film of 2015. Not only is it far less funny than the original, but the plot is essentially the same and is otherwise wholly unbelievable and utterly charmless. Sure, I laughed once or twice before I really understood just how a shitty it was. And had it been merely bad, I would have likely forgotten it and found something else to complain about. But it isn’t just bad: it’s antiquated, a tone deaf and mean film that might have been at home in the often hardhearted ’80s. Not only is there the horrible and racist recurring bit about human trafficking in Guatemala (a racist stereotype is not a character…), but the gender politics here are painful, exemplified by the announcing duo played by Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins (who, it should be noted, were great fun in the first go round). The latter’s misogynistic barbs and the former’s sexuality shaming have no place in a film in 2015, especially one whose primary audience are teens.
Underrated: “Black Coal, Thin Ice”
The winner of the Berlin Film Festival’s Golden Bear award often manages to reach US theaters where it has the chance to find an admittedly cinephile-heavy audience. That was not really the case for this fantastic but criminally underseen and undervalued (by cinemas and even our reviewer) Chinese noir tale from Yi’nan Diao (his third feature to date), which beat out “Boyhood” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” for the Best Picture award at the 2014 Berlin fest. It’s a shame that most of us had almost no chance outside of a festival to see it in a cinema, where its very particular, muted and affecting atmosphere and narrative time jumps could be best appreciated. So could the dynamite cinematography from Jingsong Dong —which captures a golden hued winter urban landscape that’s steely, quietly nightmarish and perfectly atmospheric— and the committed, deeply sad performances from its two leads, Fian Liao (who won Best Actor at Berlin) and Lun Mei Gwei. Now that it’s streaming on Netflix, many have a chance to catch up with this brilliant, funny and chilling noir about a detective looking for a murderer dumping body parts in coal trucks around his city. This would make a perfect triple bill with “Zodiac” and “Memories Of Murder.”
Man, I wanted to love this movie so much. But even with all the ’90s hip hop loving goodwill in the world, there comes a point when you gotta call bullshit on the rather large (our review included) wave of enthusiasm for this Sundance breakout. With a high RT and Metacritic rating (88%, 72% respectively) and a very good relative box office haul of more than $17 million, director Rick Famuyiwa’s highly personal yet narratively problematic indie was an all around success. But red flags abound even in the film’s opening, with a random-as-all-hell, completely unnecessary omniscient voiceover from Forest Whitaker that tell us that our hero, Malcolm (an admittedly game, promising performance from Shameik Moore that unfortunately still feels forced within the movie’s nonsensical reality), is a ’90s hip hop geek. Beyond the plot holes, coincidences, contrivances and sheer what-the-fuckery (so much of this movie makes absolutely no sense from a basic character and storytelling perspective), the biggest issue with “Dope” is the lack of tonal and mood control. This unfortunately falls on Famuyiwa for taking an approach that most charitably could be described as random, but really just comes off as a desperate attempt to be hip, modern and nostalgic.
Underrated: Magic Mike XXL
Gregory Jacobs’ sequel didn’t perform as well with either critics or moviegoers as “Magic Mike” did, but “Magic Mike XXL” smartly gets rid of the first film’s attempts at seriousness and its worst character/actor in Alex Pettyfer’s Adam. Instead, this is a road movie that finds Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) and most of the Kings of Tampa (sans Pettyfer and Matthew McConaughey’s Dallas) taking a road trip for one last blow-out performance. Now that “Magic Mike XXL” is available for home viewing, the moments on the road between dances could probably be fast-forwarded through and the dances themselves shown on repeat, particularly the glee-inducing convenience store scene with Joe Manganiello’s Big Dick Richie to “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys. The follow-up to Steven Soderbergh’s original hit is one of the year’s most purely pleasurable films, offering a rare instance of the female gaze in mainstream cinema. What sets “Magic Mike XXL” apart from most other movies is its frank admiration of the male body and its insistence on straight female visual pleasure. It even goes a step further and includes all women, regardless of age, color or body type. It’s the rare film that encourages feminist discussion fuelled by a Michael Strahan striptease.
Overrated: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Its Existence
100 minutes has never felt more like a century with respect to the third film in Roy Andersson’s “The LIving Trilogy.” Following “Songs From the Second Floor” and “You, the Living,” this dry Swedish comedy won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and impressed 89% of critics on Rotten Tomatoes, including our own Jessica Kiang in an exquisitely written review that almost convinces me to watch the film again. But “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Its Existence” left me feeling bored for most of its running time. Andersson’s absurdist film is made up of brief, repetitive vignettes that are strung together by an ongoing story with a pair of novelty gag salesmen who can’t sell vampire teeth to potential clients and owe their suppliers money. The film has moments of wry humor that had me laughing out loud occasionally, but I opened my mouth more to yawn than to giggle. It’s a beautifully composed and shot film with haunting images, and its most shocking scenes–involving a monkey being abused in a lab and a group of African slaves being tortured for the amusement of the rich–are its most successful and indelible. “The Living Trilogy” is meant to comment on human existence, but if that’s the case, then our lives are so dull that they are unworthy of any documentation at all.
Underrated: “Man From Reno”
Dave Boyle’s sadly little-seen cross-cultural neo-noir ticks along on a plot ready for a dozen airport crime paperbacks. But throw in an aging sheriff played by Pepe Serna, a Japanese mystery novelist (Ayako Fujitani), and a well-structured mystery, and you’ve got an off-kilter surprise. What drew me in straight away was the polished direction by Boyle and the seriously great cinematography by Richard Wong: opening in a thick fog and continuing through oaky interiors and magic hour vistas, the film draws you expressively into the interplay between the unlikely pair of Fujitano and Serna. Their two narratives access unique parts of the Bay Area, and details like a mispronounced Japanese word or proper cultural custom add layers onto what is already a compelling character study of otherness. That focus has been a constant for Boyle, who has previously written and directed lowkey comedy-dramas like “White On Rice” and “Daylight Savings.” However, his talents reach a new level with “Man From Reno,” as well as a worthy handle on genre and tone.
Overrated: “Goodnight Mommy”
A slender, pale mother, head wrapped up in post-accident bandages with mouth resembling a freakish grin: it’s the brilliant, chilling image at the center of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala‘s directorial debut. However, the Austrian tale of two twin boys double-checking their mother’s identity while boasting an evocative set-up and uneasy atmosphere quickly goes south once it takes those bandages off. Thanks to a terrifying trailer, the film appeared an unyielding climb in dread, and early word from festivals promised that much. Yet the filmmakers’ stately approach to a bare bones plot coasts on those detached aesthetics, which forces us into hoping the characters will carry the dropped weight. But that isn’t the case. As the secretive mother, Susanne Wuest cuts a striking impressionistic figure, as do her sons (Elias and Lukas Schwarz). Once the tepid horror twist has been revealed and the film devolves into a graphic endurance test of glued lips, burnt flesh, and other excruciating acts, I simply wanted to leave. The violence had a lot to do with that, but so did the decreasing lack of interest into what could potentially come after it. The first half of “Goodnight Mommy” continually peeks down intriguing pathways, and its second cuts every one off at the pass in favor of tone and visuals that only lead so far.
Underrated: “Far From The Madding Crowd”
You hear the constant cry from certain corners that cinema is dominated by comic books and branded entertainment, but where was that chorus when Thomas Vinterberg’s “Far From The Madding Crowd” needed love? Handsomely mounted, gorgeously shot and beautifully acted, the film is certainly not unlike many other period pieces. Where it stands out is in its emotional depth. There is nothing stiff about this adaptation, with Vinterberg and the cast capturing the torrents of raw feeling that motivate every look, action, and heartbeat of these characters. Michael Sheen’s devastated face when Bathsheba first turns down Boldwood’s marriage proposal might be the reaction shot of the year. The lust that arises simply from the appearance of Troy’s red military jacket is palpable (indeed, the costume design from Janet Patterson is Oscar worthy; hardly a surprise given she’s already been nominated four times). Not to mention the heartbreaking devotion of Matthias Schoenaerts’ Gabriel Oak, whose sturdiness and loyalty only makes every step Bathsheba takes away from him all the more wrenching. In another scenario, Vinterberg would’ve turned in an anonymous movie for his first true Hollywood production, but it’s commendable that he works within a very familiar framework and yet still manages something singular and resonant. Don’t let this one pass you by.
I almost didn’t bother with this film, until the Rotten Tomatoes score (93%) and box office take ($235 million) reminded me how beloved this latest Melissa McCarthy vehicle is. And fair play, she’s very funny (though, let’s be real, she doesn’t deserve awards consideration), and Jason Statham steals the movie with his dryly surprising comedic turn. However, the movie is otherwise either overindulgent or simply doesn’t work. This sort of parody comedy, which essentially sets up a bunch of characters and works one basic joke, is the kind of thing that needs to get in and get out at 90 minutes. However, “Spy” runs a tedious two hours (130 minutes with the extended cut), and when the number of jokes that miss start to match the number of jokes that hit, the movie starts to feel labored when it should be light. This is becoming a recurring problem with director Paul Feig following the success of “Bridesmaids.” Perhaps worse, “Spy” winds up failing in some of the same ways “Spectre” did, including building an elaborate and ultimately forgettable plan for the villain (do you actually remember what it involved?), a situation that becomes particularly pronounced in a third act that never seems to end. “Spy” brings together a lot of talented people, under-utilizes some (Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale in particular), while running on the mistaken belief it’s reinventing the wheel. As Feig heads towards the “Ghostbusters” reboot, here’s hoping he knows when to edit, and has someone around to tell him when the material simply hasn’t made the grade.
We ribbed this movie’s poster in our Best Posters Of 2015 feature for the greatest disparity between the quality of the movie (very good) and the quality of the posters (bad). And in the case of the lovely and sweet indie “Unexpected,” it’s a bit of a shame its public-facing marketing was so undesirable, since the poster forces you to assume it’s a middling Lifetime movie. So imagine my surprise when I was disarmed by this little gem. Directed with unassuming confidence by Kris Swanberg and featuring two great performances by its leads Cobie Smulders and newcomer Gail Bean, “Unexpected” is one of those charming, low-key movies that make you invest in relatively small-stake drama because of its observant, empathetic tone and great characters. The movie centers on a an inner-city high school teacher (Smulders, who is having a banner year after another great performance in the also underrated “Results”) discovers she is pregnant at the same time as one of her most promising students (Bean). The two develop an unlikely friendship —the teacher seeing so much potential in her student and earnestly trying to help out— while struggling to navigate their unexpected pregnancies. And given that there are issues of class and privilege in their relationship, they eventually have a kind of falling out when the student cannot bear the strain of her economic limits, family obligations (helping raise young sisters) versus the driven and oblivious advantage of a teacher who believes her student can get into any school if she puts her mind to it. But if “Unexpected” sounds sanctimonious, it’s fortunately a thoughtful humanist movie about people first and foremost with its issues softly addressed and yet never ignored. A captivating score by Keegan DeWitt and strong cinematography Dagmar Weaver-Madsen also add to the overall tenor of compassion and human kindness that feels really genuine. It’s perhaps a little mild, insofar as in most filmmakers hands’ the lack of conflict and tensions would barely make a movie, but Swanberg’s intimate direction makes for a small, gentle and warmhearted piece of filmmaking that deserves to be judged on every merit other than its poster.
Overrated: “The Big Short”
I tend to decline to pick “overrated” picks in this annual feature, because it’s such a relative term, and what does it really mean? Well, this year, I’m making an exception, because the awards season narrative has helped me shape a barometer for the term. Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” has become a surprise contender this year —or at least the Golden Globes and SAG have lauded it with lots of nominations— and it’s received pretty solid reviews. And while McKay’s movie eventually communicates the absurdity and grotesque abuses Wall Street and our government perpetrated on the American working class and how they got away with it in the past several years, “The Big Short” is an undisciplined, finger-wagging mess. Full of unruly anger and flippant humor, McKay’s movie throws everything at the wall to see if it sticks. There’s a random section where YouTube videos and a Ludacris video plays as if to express the “fuck you” brazenness of unscrupulous traders, but it’s a deeply inelegant, juvenile provocation that beats anything Lars Von Trier or Michael Haneke has attempted in years. The movie’s narrative is completely haphazard, Ryan Gosling’s douchebag character breaks the fourth wall to narrate for the audience, but then other characters have their own voice-over too, and so the point of view in the movie is totally chaotic. And many of the performances (Steve Carrell, namely) are totally overwrought. There’s a maddening absurdity to what the banks pulled off in ’08 and how our complicit government bailed them out and barely brought any of the myriad illegal frauds committed by banks and traders to justice. And so McKay doubles down on that notion of ridiculous and maddening frustrations, and it’s thematically appropriate, but in doing so, his film creates a loud, ungoverned cartoon that comes off as the flailing, poor man’s version of “The Wolf Of Wall Street.” I ultimately didn’t loathe it, but I honestly don’t think it has any business being near the awards conversation. Without hot-taking too much, I didn’t really care for “Inside Out” much either.
Underrated: “The Voices”
“The Voices” went so under the radar that even I forgot that it was released this year and nearly didn’t pick it for this feature —it got a release so brief this February, a year after its Sundance premiere, that it doesn’t even register on Box Office Mojo. Which is a terrible shame, because “The Voices” took on a near impossible tightrope walk as a brightly-colored, ‘quirky’ comedy about a serial killer, and pulled the stunt off with aplomb. Hoped to lead the Ryan Reynolds-aissance, but ending up like “Self/Less” and others being mostly forgotten, the film sees the “Deadpool” star as a mentally ill man who goes off his meds, starts hearing his pets talking to him and kills his co-worker. In the hands of “Persepolis” helmer Marjane Satrapi, the film was a hugely heightened thing, somewhere between John Waters and “Juno,” and it looked deeply unappealing from a distance, with the possibility of excusing and joking about a man who consistently murders women. But the film’s aesthetic proved to be both winningly executed and entirely fitting from a story purpose (when Reynolds goes back on his meds, we see a world decidedly less bright). And while it was darkly funny, the film is underpinned by both a pathos-filled performance by Reynolds (the best he’s ever been), and the film’s ability to empathize, but not quite sympathize, with its deranged anti-hero. All of that and the most hilariously demented end-credits of the year. Well-worth seeking out.
As a whole, the Playlist loves “Sicario” —it placed second in our poll of the best movies of the year, behind only “Mad Max: Fury Road.” But I don’t really love “Sicario.” I like it well enough —it looks spectacular, thanks to Denis Villeneuve’s fine eye and the always-incredible work of Roger Deakins. It has some terrific performances from Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro and the rest of the cast. It has a couple of highly memorable set pieces, and the score is tremendous. And yet it all adds to something unsatisfying, in part deliberately so —Villeneuve’s trademark ambiguity suggests that there are no easy answers in the drug trade— and in part less so. For all the movie’s procedural detail, there’s little real insight here into the war on drugs. The nihilism feels a little empty, like having a conversation at a party with someone who, like, doesn’t vote, because like, aren’t all politicians the same, really? And for a movie that makes some motions at being a lean genre thriller, it’s too lacking in momentum and too interested in occasional tangents like the cutaways to Maximiliano Hernandez’s corrupt Mexican cop, or the slightly ludicrous scene where Blunt is nearly killed by a bar conquest. Ultimately, for all the film’s impressive audio-visual sound and fury, it’s a story caught between transcending genre and following it and feels undernourished as a result.