Alex’s top 10 films of 2015

As usual, it’s taken me WAY too long to compile my list of my favorite films of the year. But the Oscars are tonight, so it’s only fitting that I crank this out before watching Hollywood’s annual circle jerk.

As I noted in last year’s list, these aren’t exclusively what I consider the “best” films of the year, rather the 10 films I loved the most over the year. These are the ones I want to discuss with friends, own on Blu-Ray, and watch over and over again. The list is peppered with Oscar nominees of course, but there are a few wild cards as usual.

Anyway, enough blathering. Below are my top 10 films of 2015. Feel free to berate me in the comments, in real life or on Twitter if you disagree.

Honorable Mention: It Follows, Dope, The Martian, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl 

Notable Omissions (films I haven’t seen yet): The Big Short, Brooklyn, Anomalisa

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10) Kingsman: The Secret Service

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KINGSMAN(based on the comic series by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons) was a pleasant surprise early in the year, with a stylish blend of action and humor in a pseudo-send up of classic Bond movies and cheesy spy stories. Samuel L. Jackson was perfectly arch with his lispy super villain, Taron Edgerton announced himself as a talent to watch, and Colin Firth proved few men can pull off a suit better than he can. KINGSMAN was a fantastic film and felt like the perfect way to kick off this list.

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9) Carol

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Carol

CAROL was a deeply moving film about two women struggling to find acceptance during a period of time where that simply wasn’t going to happen. So much is said in this movie without anything actually being said by the characters, and that’s a major credit to Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara and director Todd Haynes. Don’t overlook the performances of Kyle Chandler and Jake Lacy, either, who are great in their supporting roles as the men trying, and failing, to cling to relationships that aren’t really there.

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8) Inside Out

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Inside Out

The team at Pixar are masterful storytellers, and we should all be grateful to get to witness their work on a yearly basis. INSIDE OUT did a tremendous job of building an intricate and expansive world but making it understandable and relatable in the first 10 minutes. What followed from there was a wonderful story about the complexity of emotions, growing up, and coming to terms with change both in the world and within ourselves. A+ work, as usual from Pixar.

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7) Straight Outta Compton

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It’s no small task telling a story as wide in scope and chronology as this one while also balancing the stories of three main protagonists whose paths diverge and converge constantly. However, director F. Gary Gray and company did a tremendous job of doing just that, spinning together the story of NWA in a powerful, emotional, inspirational and entertaining manner. I’m glad the writing team was nominated for this film, but feel the directing and cinematography (from the always great Matthew Libatique) were sorely overlooked.

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6) Sicario

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I’m a huge fan of director Denis Villeneuve (PRISONERS), who is a master at injecting tension into his scenes. Watching SICARIO was like a two-hour exercise in dealing with anxiety thanks to Villeneuve’s direction, Taylor Sheridan’s tight script, and the top-notch performances from a stellar cast (Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin). If you haven’t seen it yet, put SICARIO near the top of your list.

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5) Ex Machina

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Ex Machina

I’m always a sucker for Sci-Fi, so it should come as no surprise that EX MACHINA makes the list. It was awesome to see a writer I admire, Alex Garland (28 DAYS LATER, SUNSHINE), get a chance to step behind the camera and direct his own work to a stellar result. I feel like years from now we’ll look back on this film and laugh at what a treasure it was to have the three characters played by the extremely talented trio of Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac and Domnhall Gleeson before they all became massive movie stars.

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4) Room

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Room

Films 4 through 2 on my list were really hard to sort, and I feel I flipped them around 100 times before settling on this order. ROOM was tremendous, a movie small in scope but big on ideas and emotion. Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay are extraordinary, Emma Donoghue did a phenomenal job adapting her own novel, and Lenny Abrahamson perfectly executed that vision on the screen. If you’re put off by the subject matter, I’d offer this sentiment: Great art should move and challenge us, and that’s exactly what ROOM does.

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3) Spotlight

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Spotlight

SPOTLIGHT is an old school film, and I mean that in the best possible way. With it’s straight-forward storytelling, phenomenal cast, and exquisite direction, it reminds me of the films from the 70s I devoured as a kid. I feel it’s getting unnecessarily overshadowed this year because it’s not as flashy as other films and no one ate anything unsavory during production. But from start to finish, SPOTLIGHT was one of the best films I saw this year and I can’t wait to watch it again.

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2) Creed

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Creed

The ROCKY franchise has been near and dear to my heart since I was a kid, so I was thrilled when I heard Ryan Coogler (who directed the fantastic and underrated FRUITVALE STATION) wanted to reboot it, but from the perspective of Apollo Creed’s son. The result was simply phenomenal. Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson and Sylvester Stallone give incredible performances in a movie that (forgive the pun) packs a serious emotional punch. Hollywood needs more storytellers like Coogler, and I can’t wait to see where his career takes him. One more note, I’d be doing this film a disservice if I didn’t give a shout out to cinematographer Maryse Alberti. From the scene where Adonis boxes the projection of his father to the one-shot boxing match to the final frame, CREED was perfectly shot. It’s a shame her work didn’t get recognized by the Academy.

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1) Mad Max Fury Road

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Mad Max

Could it really be anything else? No movie provided a better theatrical experience than MAD MAX FURY ROAD, and it holds up in a home theater as well. You’re on the edge of your seat for the entire 120 minute run time, but the action and story also challenge you intellectually in subtle ways. Watch it again and keep an eye out for the thematic and feminist undertones supporting every scene. This is a truly unique film, one that probably couldn’t have been pulled off by any one other than George Miller. This was not only my favorite film of the year, but in my opinion the best film of the year. I know it has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the Best Picture Oscar tonight, but if I were an academy member it’d have my vote. I could go on forever, but suffice to say that 20 years from now, this will be the film we’re still talking about and telling people they need to see more so than any other film on this list.

Until next time …

Alex’s Top 10 Films of 2014

This has taken me longer than usual, but I’ve finally compiled the list of my top 10 films of 2014. DISCLAIMER: These are not exclusively what I consider the “best” films, nor a power rankings of how I’d fill out an Oscar ballot. I don’t like to dabble in that anymore, and instead just list the 10 films I loved the most over the year. There will certainly be Oscar-worthy masterpieces (as you’ll see at No. 1), but there will also be blockbusters (FAST FIVE was my top movie of 2011) and at least one movie you may not have heard of (unless you’re a huge cinephile, like my friends and me out here in LaLa land).

Narrowing this list down to just 10 films was more difficult than in years past. I think that’s because I had a deeper class of middle-of-the-pack films that I enjoyed, whereas the top of this year’s class had a few standouts but wasn’t as strong as years past (I’m looking at you, 2010).

Anyway, enough blathering on. Below are my top 10 movies of 2014. Enjoy, and let me know how much of an idiot I am in the comments section (oh wait, that’s just the people who read my articles at work!).

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Run Home Alex

I haven’t been big on New Year’s Resolutions for several years now.  While I get it’s convenient to start a goal when the calendar turns, nothing is stopping you from doing the same thing on any other day of the year. I’m a goal-oriented person and would typically just focus on various goals throughout the season. Nevertheless, I have given myself a lofty resolution this year that I’m actually quite excited about.

If you know me well, you know I love to run. I’ve competed in a number of races but mostly just enjoying being outside exploring the world with nothing but my legs underneath me. However, due to a number of factors, I ran significantly less in 2014 than any recent year I can remember.

Finishing the Keyes Peak trail marathon back in 2011. My father and I ran it together and it is one of the races I'll always remember the most.

Finishing the Keyes Peak trail marathon back in 2011. My father and I ran it together and it is one of the races I’ll always remember the most.

I suffered a bad hamstring injury early in the year when I had started playing in an adult soccer league. I only did one trail run last year, hoping it would help me knock off the rust and get back into the swing of things. It did … for a few weeks. Then when the NFL season started rolling around, work slowed down my running (and to be honest, it really shouldn’t have). I supplemented straight running for long sessions on the elliptical machines on game nights (Sunday, Monday, Thursday) so I could more easily watch the games and workout.

I would run here and there, but because I was a) out of running shape and b) very busy between work/screenwriting on the side I never got into a rhythm like I used to. It would bother me here and there, but I tried not to dwell on it, as I was still exercising in other ways. On Dec. 30th I had dinner with two close friends who I hadn’t seen in awhile, and they asked if I was still running a lot. I answered honestly that I was not, and it pissed me off. More than I expected, which was just the kick in the ass I needed to get back to doing what I love.

The next night was New Year’s Eve, and per Wednesday tradition I was sharing a few beers with NFL coworkers at a local dive bar when the idea hit me to create a fun resolution/goal around running. At first I picked 2,500 miles at random, but that didn’t feel right (and seemed like it might be a bit out of reach). Then it hit me. When I drove to Los Angeles from Oshkosh, WI a few year back, it was a roughly 2,000 mile journey. A quick Google maps search showed me that from my doorstep in L.A. to the doorstep of my family’s house in Oshkosh was 2,074 miles. There it was.

My New Year’s Resolution is to run home. Not literally of course, but to run a total of 2,074 miles in 2015. That’s an average of 5.68 miles per day, which might seem like a lot but if I take on a handful of trail runs and maybe a marathon or two, I feel confident I can hit that benchmark. I’d guess I’ve ran north of 1,000 miles in a given year before, but never to this level. I’m super pumped for the challenge.  I’ll be calling my resolution “Run Home Alex,” slightly augmenting the line “Run Home Jack” from the 1991 classic HOOK. And if you don’t like HOOK, you can kindly leave. Here’s the clip:

To kick things off, I logged 6.4 miles today before settling in for some day drinking and college football viewing. I’ll try to post updates in here and on Facebook, and potentially with #RunHomeAlex on Twitter, that way I have an easy record to review. It’s going to be a long, hard journey to reach this goal. But I couldn’t be more excited/motivated for the challenge. Happy New Year, and best of luck to those of you who are embarking on your own goals/resolutions for 2015.

Until next time…

-Alex

P.S. – I’m also going to be blogging more often. Yes, I’ve sad that before in the past. But this time I mean it.

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Chipotle’s “The Scarecrow” and a lesson in storytelling in advertising

It’s been awhile, but at one point in time I liked using this blog as a place to showcase powerful, original storytelling. When I stumbled upon this Chipotle advertisement a few months ago, I couldn’t help but grab the link and stash it away for a future blog post.

This isn’t the first time Chipotle has used a simple story (with no brand mentions until the very end) as a means of promotion. What I find so cool about this video, and Chipotle’s strategy, is that it actually tells a story. A lot of ads try and get you with a hook, catchy jingle or humor, and those can all be effective means of selling someone on a product. But when an ad, and the advertisers, take the time to craft a story, I’m immediately hooked. However, it’s important to remember WHAT story you’re telling and HOW you’re telling it. If the story is stupid, annoying and unrealistic, like that god damn Nissan “Commute” commercial, it’s going to miss the mark. For fun, watch the Chipotle video and it’s seamless, honest storytelling, then follow it up with this dreck:

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New year, new hustle

Apologies for breaking from the previously established editorial calendar these last few weeks. My primary excuse is I had an epic travel debacle that pinned me in the Midwest for 10 days longer than originally planned over the holidays. This was both a blessing and a curse, as I was able to see far more of my extended family and friends over that time period, but I was also stressed out having to work remotely, and I’m still dealing with the fallout of the travel issues. Anyway, let’s not focus on the past. It’s 2014 after all.

Another delay in my blogging was a planned family vacation up to San Francisco in early January. Between flying back to LA, getting settled at work after two weeks out of the office, and trying to get ready for this trip my life was in a state of disarray. I’m still not completely unpacked/organized since getting to LA two weeks ago. Part of that is busyness, part of it is laziness, but I digress. The vacation was splendid, as we visited with my dad’s childhood friend Tommy and his partner Chris in SF for a few days, and then spent the next few days driving down the Pacific Coast Highway. The view is spectacular. Just take a look at this photo my mom took from Big Sur. Yeah, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Big Sur coastline. Unedited.

Big Sur coastline. Unedited.

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Review: INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

Just a heads up, as it’s now awards season and I have more free time after my stint in community service, I’ll be watching a lot more movies. In fact, between DVDs, awards season screeners and actually going to the theater, I saw four movies last week, and have tacked on two more this week. And for those of you keeping score at home, this is only review No. 2.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS follows a week in the life of a young folk singer (Oscaar Isaac) as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.

InsideLlewynDavisI was immediately drawn into this film. Isaac’s performance is fantastic, and even though he’s a deeply flawed character, you still root for him. This isn’t exactly new territory for the Coens, but in their typical, unique style, they execute it with aplomb. As Llewyn bounces from couch to couch and tries to make a living in music while staying true to the music, we’re introduced to a number of rich characters along his journey played to perfection by Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, F. Murray Abraham and Adam Driver. I have to give a shout out to Garrett Hedlund in particular, who is a scene stealer as Johnny Five, even though he may have less lines than letters in his last name.

The strongest element of the film is the music, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this soundtrack gets some attention by itself. Legendary music producer T Bone Burnett (who won the “Album of the Year” Grammy for the soundtrack to the Coen’s “O Brother Where Art Thou”) reunited with the Coens and put together a phenomenal mix of original music with a few classics. The music in the film itself is remarkable because they filmed the performances live to give for a more authentic, documentary-like feel. With this in mind, Isaac’s performance is even more incredible. I loved the cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel, who crafted some truly beautiful scenes to reflect and capture the emotions of Isaac’s various performances. I’d go on, but I don’t want to spoil anything, as one of my favorite scenes comes after a few key plot points.

My one gripe is that the film, at times, does move a tad slow, and there aren’t any huge stakes driving part of Llewyn’s journey in the middle of the film. He just kind of ambles along for a bit, and if you aren’t invested in his journey as I was, it’d be possible to lose interest. Still, in spite of that, the film is wildly entertaining due to the snappy dialogue and excellent performances by a cast of talented actors.

All told, this will assuredly be one of my favorite films of the year. Admittedly, I’m a huge fan of the Coen Brothers, but this film is one of their best in recent years. Give it a watch as soon as it hits a theater near you. Final verdict: 4out of 5 beers. Cheers.

Alex

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Review: THE WAY WAY BACK

All right, so I’m a day late on my recently instituted editorial calendar. But it’s a start. Anyway, my roommate, Pete, and I sat down to watch THE WAY WAY BACK (henceforth referred to as TWWB) on Tuesday night, so what follows will be my brief review of the film. To bring those of you  who aren’t familiar with the film up to speed, it is written and directed by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, who won an Oscar (along with Alexander Payne) for their adaptation of the novel THE DESCENDANTS, a film that starred George Clooney and Shailene Woodley. Now, back to TWWB …

The film tells the story of Duncan (Liam James), an awkward teenage boy forced to spend his summer vacation with his mother (Toni Collette), her over-bearing boyfriend (Steve Carrell) and his daughter (irrelevant actress). Struggling to fit in, Duncan stumbles upon an unlikely role model in Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manager of a local water park called Water Wizz.

Nat Faxon, Sam Rockwell, and Liam James at the Water Wizz.

Nat Faxon, Sam Rockwell, and Liam James at the Water Wizz.

If that setup sounds a bit familiar, that’s because it is. There’s nothing wholly original or inspiring about the backdrop of this coming of age tale. But that’s just fine. Where the film excels is in the dialogue and interaction of the characters. Scenes are sharp, and filled with life and energy thanks to the excellent performances. Even though she has minimal screen-time, AnnaSophia Robb is excellent as Duncan’s psuedo-love interest, Susanna. The tension and emotion between all of the characters feels real, which pulls you into Duncan’s plight as he awkwardly finds his voice and confidence over the duration of the film.

The writing is snappy, and the story, while trite, is ultimately very satisfying at its conclusion without relying on cliché. Hats off to Rash and Faxon for crafting this touching tale, and putting their own unique stamp on the final product. It would have been nice to see a little more from Rash, Faxon and cinematographer John Bailey to help flesh out the story visually, but they still made great choices without being too over-bearing, or distracting viewers from the story at hand.

Definitely worth a watch if you can snag it on Redbox or Netflix in the near future. I’ll give it 3.5/5 beers. Yes, I’m going to start ranking my movies in beers instead of stars, because really, it’s just as arbitrary as stars or thumbs for a form of measurement for cinema. Cheers!

-Alex

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Where has Alex gone?

Alright, quick post here. Basically, I feel a need to explain my extended absence from blogging, which as of the writing of this post has eclipsed two months. Sheesh. That’s bad, even for me. So what happened in that time span to prevent me from blogging? A number of things, which I’ve listed below.

However, before I get to that, a little house-keeping blog-wise at the top. I’ve been wrestling around with how to craft a feasible editorial calendar for myself and this blog. Between actual work, side projects like screenwriting, and living my actual life, I’ve developed a bad habit of continuously pushing blogging down my priority list, even though I’ve really, really wanted to get back to it. A solution would be an editorial calendar that I force myself to adhere to. The trouble was, determining how many posts I could commit to week-to-week. Well, after months of inactivity I’m just going to start with one post, the topic will be whatever pops into my head for the week. I’m leaning towards publishing said post every Friday, to give my seven avid readers something to do on the weekend. There, that feels good. A plan. Now all I need to do is follow through.

As for the list of what caused the two-plus month absence in blogging, here goes:

  1. I traveled to Cincinnati for the Packers road game in early October. Needless to say, it didn’t end well.
  2. I traveled back to Wisconsin to watch my friends Jake and Courtney get married later in October. Needless to say, this ended very well.
  3. I got sick. I hate being sick.
  4. I finished another screenplay with my writing partner and BFF Dane. We’re currently collecting notes from several savvy people and will be starting a polish soon. It’s a religious/revenge western called THY WILL BE DONE. We’re pretty proud of it thus far.
  5. I opted to do community service instead of paying for a red light “ticket” in L.A. Originally, when I got the B.S. ticket, numerous well-respected people told me to not do anything, as L.A. county no longer enforced them. Turns out that was mostly true, except that West Hollywood (the neighborhood I received my ticket in) and Beverly Hills were sneaky little bastards and still enforced the tickets. So I appeared in court, and rather than pay $600+, I opted for community service thinking I’d have like 20-30 hours. NBD. I was thinking of looking for volunteer opportunities in my area anyway, so perhaps this could be it. Nope. Instead I got 61 hours, which I steam-rolled through almost entirely in November by volunteering at a local theatre, ushering for plays, cleaning the theatres, and other such nonsense. A joyous experience to say the least. I’m done now though, and couldn’t be happier. Many beers have been sacrificed in celebration.
  6. I launched a new column on NFL.com. You may have seen me plastering it on Facebook, it’s called the Fantasy Film Study. I’d been kicking the idea around for awhile, and soft-pitching it around the office, but finally just decided that if I wanted this idea to see the light of day, I’d have to buckle down and write one. So I did. On my day off. It went over really well though, and I’m happy/proud of the product so far. Even if I keep spending part of my days off writing it, it’s worth it. I’m excited to see where the idea/column can go from here.
  7. Thanksgiving and my birthday were the same day this year. Suffice to say, I’m kind of a big deal. There was much rejoicing.

And that about sums it up. Hope you’re up to speed on all things Alex, and are excited for more regular posts. I’ll obviously blog more if inspiration/time magically collide on my schedule. But I’m not making any promises. Until next time…

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The end of the movie business?

“(In Hollywood) nobody knows anything.” – William Goldman

Entertainment is an interesting business. That’s probably why it attracts so many quixotic youths like myself, convincing us that moving across the country to one of the largest cities in the world to chase a childhood dream is the best thing to do post grad.  And I’m not saying it isn’t.  I know plenty of those youths that are doing just fine for themselves out here in LaLa land.  Yet sometimes, I feel these people aren’t quite fully aware of the monster they’re up against.  Sure, they’ll have watched countless hours of TV, and are able to quote a number of movies off AFI’s Top 100 list.  Hell, they probably even have a friend of a friend who works out here, or a school connection that could help them land work. But, while there is magic out here in the creative spirit that possesses so many talented men and women to produce memorable works of art and entertainment, often time that magical sensation obscures what is really lurking behind every screen, lens, and ego.  A business. And not exactly a healthy one at that.

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Alex takes on the 2013 NFL Draft – Part II

Thursday

The big day had finally arrived. Thursday is the premiere night of the NFL draft, as many of the first round picks are in attendance at Radio City Music Hall to hopefully hear their name called and have their life changed forever. My day started with a star-studded morning, as Adam and I did a video with former NYC mayor Rudy Gulianni, shot a video with Barry Sanders, and rounded out the morning by sitting down with Emmitt Smith. That right there would have been one hell of a day’s work, but we were just getting started.

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Emmitt with a few of NYC’s finest. Even though his Cowboys ousted the Packers in the playoffs three straight times, it was hard not to like Emmitt.

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