Big Hero 6 (Don Hall and Chris Williams, 2014). Like just about everyone else, I believe The Lego Movie should have been Best Animated Feature Academy Award nominee (and I appreciate the creators’ inspired cheeky resilience in the face of the snub). After seeing Big Hero 6, though, I’m not sure naming the most worthy victor in the category was quite as simple as the chagrined consensus suggested. Developed after Disney Studios rummaged through the big trunk of misfit concepts stored up by their acquisition Marvel, the computer animated film about a young robotics genius who responds to personal hardship by eventually becoming the linchpin around which a band of superheroes assembles has the sort of rock solid storytelling acumen that John Lasseter imported from Pixar. It’s hardly high art, but The Lego Movie is also messier than its most fevered adherents would care to admit. Big Hero 6 is funny, warmly entertaining, and invested with just the right amount of measured emotion.
Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs, 2015). This sequel isn’t an extension of the exemplary 2012 film that provides a compelling argument that Steven Soderbergh has the capability of spinning practically anything into great cinema. Instead, it plays like a response to the ribald, girls’-night-out moviegoing mini-sensation that made the original something of a surprise hit. The wisps of cautionary darkness that elevated Magic Mike to upper tier Soderbergh are completely gone, with nary of note of misgiving to be found. Instead, it’s a loopily empowering road trip as the old gang gets back together for one last hurrah at a convention in Myrtle Beach. There are still solid highlights, such as the justly lauded scene of Joe Manganiello delivering an impromptu dance in a convenience store, but overall this is an especially bizarre example of the diminishing returns inherent in developed a second installment for a film that said all it needed to the first time out.
While We’re Young (Noah Baumbach, 2015). It’s amusing that Baumbach has settled on Ben Stiller as his avatar when it comes to expressing his own middle-aged crankiness. Whereas the earlier Greenberg posits that connecting with someone youthful is the pathway to some spiritual redemption, While We’re Young argues that kids these days are just as phony as their retro headwear and hollow social stances imply. Stiller plays a struggling documentary filmmaker who, along with his wife (Naomi Watts), befriends a twentysomething couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), in part because they flatter his ego. It’s amusing but also a little wan, not necessarily choosing easy targets but strategically moving them closer to the line Baumbach fires from. At times, Baumbach seems to be deliberately aping the rhythms of Woody Allen, complete with a jaunty stiltedness and flinty use of music. If nothing else, Baumbach deserves praise for expertly integrating then beautifully perturbed causticness into the mix.
Tangerine (Sean Baker, 2015). The deliriously vibrant feature reverberates with the sort of exuberant freedom that I associate most strongly with the independent films of the nineteen-eighties, when there were fewer visions of crossover riches dancing in filmmakers’ heads. Instead, Baker’s storytelling shudders with the rocket fuel of pure invention, further enlivened by the headiness that comes from earnestly, respectfully, and joyously giving voice to communities that are often disregarded. The film follows Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), a trans woman fresh of out prison. She finds out from her friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) that her pimp boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone), cheated on her while she was locked up. The bulk of the film is centered on Sin-Dee’s furious quest to find Chester, with a couple other story paths that eventually converge in boisterous mayhem. Baker operates with abundant empathy and affection, being sure to never condescend (his two stars, both trans women, reportedly helped keep him honest). He’s also made a film that is consistently striking visually, an especially impressive feat considering it was shot entirely on iPhones.
Hell Drivers (Cy Endfield, 1957). This fantastic piece of cinematic pulp stars Stanley Baker as stalwart tough guy who signs on as a truck driver with an especially shady company that sets the safety of their employees as a distant runner-up to getting loads transferred from one spot to the next as quickly as possible. Recently freed from prison, Stanley initially has little choice but to endure the indignities, but his senses of honor and competition, intertwined like the coil that lead up to the hook of a wire hanger, quickly take over, leading him to buck against both the crooked manager (William Hartnell) and the drivers’ official leader (Patrick McGoohan), who uses intimidation tactics to keep himself as the most productive hauler. Endfield directs the film with a bruised knuckle authenticity, committing to the steeliest parts of the story with a potent certainty. It’s not profound, but it sure is fun to watch.