Auer, Bateman, Halperin, Nelson, Newley

Bad Words (Jason Bateman, 2014). The feature directorial debut of Bateman has a nifty story hook and an admirable nasty streak. It’s especially nice to see Bateman fully tap the vein of dark consternation that pulses through his best, smartest comedic work. Unfortunately, the screenplay by Andrew Dodge also relies on a adult-child friendship that feels patently phony and is also fairly hackneyed for this sort of dark comedy. That there are a few slightly more clever notes played between Bateman and Rohan Chand (playing a more appropriately-aged rival in a national spelling bee that Bateman’s disgruntled adult has pushed his way into via a loophole) doesn’t forgive the familiarity of the basic structure of the relationship. Still, Bateman demonstrates strong enough filmmaking chops that it’s no surprise he was able to parlay this into more intriguing opportunities.

Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (Anthony Newley, 1969). Ah, yes: the sort of glorious mess that only the late nineteen-sixties could deliver, as a bolstered commitment to directorial authorship converged with rapidly loosening content controls and the external influence of psychedelic free-for-alls to produce garish visions of baffling excess. In the case of Hieronymus Merkin, the poisoned candy mix has the added ingredient of a big star’s unchecked ego. Newley reportedly worked on the screenplay while suffering through the Doctor Doolittle film shoot, ultimately collaborating with Summer of ’42 writer Herman Raucher to arrive at an autobiographical story of an entertainer whose toxic lifestyle includes levels of sex addiction that skew toward the deviant (it is sad marker of both the era and the level of vile privilege held by celebrities that Newley essentially confesses to a sexual relationship with a child with only the slightest iota of guilt or regret). It’s also a musical, with numbers cowritten by Newley, many of which sound as though they could have emanated from the songwriting team of Clarke and Rogers. Included among the ostensible showstoppers is a lurid donkey fairy tale and a big, theatrical ballad about embracing narcissistic atheism. The film is awash in indulgent meta flourishes and inane, broad satire, led by the presence of Milton Berle as satanic stand-in Goodtime Eddie Filth. Newley cast his then-wife Joan Collins as the main character’s spouse, a callously deceived woman named Polyester Poontang. Collins credited her viewing of the film, at least in part, as the motivating factor in her choice to divorce Newley, which surely gives the film a fairly unique place in the annals of cinema.

The Crime of Dr. Crespi (John H. Auer, 1935). Adapted from an Edgar Allen Poe story — loosely, no doubt — follows the titular physician (Erich von Stroheim) whose resentment for a fellow medical practitioner (John Bohn) gets expressed in a devious manner, when he’s called upon to perform a surgical rescue following a car crash. The film is nicely creepy and tiptoes into highly gruesome concepts, especially for the time. Auer creates a nice sense of mood, even as the film was obviously assembled in a rush (there are reports a mere eight days was devoted to filming). The performance by von Stroheim has particular markings of a rushed, necessary indifference to polish. He’s sharp and inadvertently amusing. It can’t be called a great performance, but it’s surely entertaining.

White Zombie (Victor Hugo Halperin, 1932). A seminal enough film that it provides the foundation for the pervasive presence of the living undead in pop culture while also inspiring a pretty rotten rock outfit. While it’s indeed striking at times, and it features one of those performances of looming menace that made Bela Lugosi justly famous, the film is also disappointingly dull. Though the running time only just slips past the the hour mark, the story of zombies in Haiti is padded like a plush, mouldering pillow. 

Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (Stanley Nelson, 2015). This documentary tracks a group in American history with a mandate that is especially relevant today, forcefully filling in the willfully ignored gaps in most historical considerations of the Civil Rights organization. Nelson does an admirable job of packing in insightful, telling information, especially in the expert assemblage of archival footage. At a time when broadcast television was surging, the Black Panthers made great television. The contrasting depictions Nelson unearths, coupled with more modern reminiscences from individuals with strikingly different views of the Panthers, makes for a fascinating mosaic of dissent and demands for fairness in the United States. Nelson is also frank about all the ways the organization and its members descended into self-destructiveness. If anything, the film is only hampered by the challenge of fitting in all the pertinent material. Nelson makes the implicit argument that the Black Panthers are complex enough to merit one of those documentaries of a Burnsian length, easily stretching out for hours and hours.

Abrams, Benson and Moorhead, Fosse, Jones, Roach

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015). As a piece of nostalgic reclamation, the latest “Episode” of the Star Wars saga does its job so efficiently that its hard to get overly enthused about it as cinema. In a strangely fitting turnabout, the film series that fundamentally changed the business of U.S. moviemaking has turned into a follower, adhering closely to the mighty Marvel model. There’s little indication that The Force Awakens is laying the groundwork for vaster, interconnected stories, but it’s all introduction and reassurance, a tapping of the baton before commanding the symphony to life. The sense of perpetual pending is reinforced by the choice of Abrams to lean as close to a remake of the original Star Wars as possible, while still offering a new story, a trick he pulled off far more successfully with his initial Star Trek film, in part because that soft sci-fi playground is more accommodating to trump cards like time travel and multi-dimensional switcheroos. It bears all the hallmarks of its director, qualities that are engaging and flawed in equal measure. He has a gift for dreaming up clever concepts and a cursed inability to develop them into deeper drama or to resolve them in a satisfying manner. There’s no more frustrating example than the character Finn (John Boyega), introduced as a stormtrooper gone AWOL. It’s a great notion that doesn’t resonate in the slightest through the remainder of the character’s journey. Instead, Finn becomes a vessel for whatever Abrams the writer needs in any given scene, mostly the recipient of exposition from others. Those reservations noted, I can’t deny that there’s pleasure to be had in simply seeing this fertile fiction reengaged in a positive, affectionate manner. And the table-setting feel of the film also leads directly to the strongest compliment I can pay it: moving forward, I’m far more interested in the possibilities of the new characters (especially Rey, played by Daisy Ridley) than continuing to see the old ones dragged out for respectful applause.

Spring (Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, 2014). It only took one tiny plot detail to motivate me to see Spring, a novel horror-romance hybrid from the directorial team of Benson and Moorhead. When an emotionally reeling young man (Lou Taylor Pucci), in Italy on an impromptu escape from the United States, is forthrightly offered strings-free sex by a gorgeous woman (Nadia Hilker), his reaction isn’t eager acquiescence but instead a far more realistic skepticism. This is so thoroughly at odds with currently storytelling convention, which holds that mindlessly horny men are quick to meet their doom, that I needed to see what other worthy innovations Spring might hold. In general, the film is solid and shrewd, tracking through its more fantastical elements with care and developing its metaphors about the various challenges of new romantic relationships, including fear of commitment, in a way that is clear without being pushy or self-congratulatory. It helps immeasurably that both leads are charming and real in their portrayals.

Trumbo (Jay Roach, 2015). This biopic about blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo is a rickety piece of disingenuous nonsense, displaying none of the commitment to narrative structure and emotional integrity that won the work of its subject two screenwriting Academy Awards during the course of his partially cloaked career. By the evidence here, Roach has no capability of shaping individual scenes, much less entire films. The film skids along through its flummoxed recounting of one of the most regrettable periods in Hollywood history. The tenor of the performances are equally haphazard, with Bryan Cranston’s turn in the title role especially problematic. He regularly lapses into a mildly cartoonish cadence that suggests he’s delivering a stealth audition to play Thurston Howell III in a big screen Gilligan’s Island remake.

Hitchcock/Truffaut (Kent Jones, 2015). This documentary about the famed multi-day interview with Alfred Hitchcock conducted by fellow director François Truffaut, in 1962, manages to be consistently fascinating without really distinguishing itself as a particularly smart or even capable piece of filmmaking in its own right. Jones, who previously worked closely with Martin Scorsese on documentary appreciations of Val Lewton and Elia Kazan, has an expert way with deploying selected film clips to make his points about the delirious creativity of his subjects, a quality in full effect here. With Hitchcock/Truffaut, he’s less adept at building his case with supporting interviews and the archival photographs and recordings of the original interview sessions. Luckily, the foundational work that feeds into the documentary — the interview itself and the films of the two men — is convincing enough all on its own. Jones might not illuminate its collective value, but nor does he obscure it.

Sweet Charity (Bob Fosse, 1969). The feature directorial debut of Fosse understandably springs from a Broadway hit that also bore his fingerprints. Based on the film Nights of Cabiria, with the main character transformed from a sex worker to a dance hall girl (making her more palatable to nineteen-sixties audiences shelling out for a bubbly musical), Sweet Charity offers the melancholy tale of the perpetually unlucky in love Charity Hope Valentine (Shirley MacLaine). Though Fosse had great films in him, his first outing finds him still feeling his way, caving in to some structural uncertainty that the plot’s episodic nature only accentuates. As anyone would expect, the film is strongest in the segments that sit squarely in Fosse’s wheelhouse, notably the production numbers “Big Spender,” “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” and the relentlessly marvelous “Rich Man’s Frug,” the last offering the best demonstration of Fosse’s ingenuity with the myriad possibilities of the human form. The handful of numbers staged on location in New York City are the weakest, as the wide open spaces ironically make Fosse’s choreography feel more confined, the rigors, pitfalls and built in time limits that come naturally with shooting outdoors preventing him from driving toward the level of painstaking perfection he usually demanded.

Carey, Harvey, Hill, Maloof and Siskel, Shepard

Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962). The film begins with a car crash, the vehicle careening off a cliff into the murky drink. Though the authorities are unable to find the vehicle’s female occupant (Candace Hilligoss), she eventually emerges, carrying no memory of how she survived. She proceeds with her plan, traveling to Utah for a job as a church organist. From there, writer-director Harvey, along with co-screenwriter John Clifford, comes up with downright ingenious ways to build scenes with unsettling layers with an obviously meager budget. The movie is ticklishly amusing given some of its more dated elements and amateurish acting, but it’s also almost moving in its pure conviction, standing as a sterling example of unabashed independent filmmaking.

Foxy Brown (Jack Hill, 1974). Originally conceived as a sequel to the hit film Coffy, this scruffy revenge saga settles Pam Grier into yet another no-nonsense character with a spot-on name. Like a lot of films that hinge their stories on acts of retribution, there’s a certain amount of laziness to it, relying so heavily on the primal appeal of the instinct that any attempts at nuanced motivation are set aside. Grier is blessed with charisma and hampered by a dearth of acting craft, compounding the sense of the film as a grinding, empty exercise. The film’s primary merit is as a useful artifact of a certain sliver of American cinema, when the sudden swell of content freedom was applied with equal vigor to the aspirational art and the sputtering trash.

Finding Vivian Maier (John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, 2014). This documentary works incredibly well as a act of specific advocacy, but falters as nonfiction cinema. The likely culprit for the flawed execution is the direct involvement of Maloof in the creation of the film. He was the person who unearthed the treasure trove of the title figure’s photographs, largely snapped while she was serving as the in-house help for a series of well-off Chicago families. Where the film could have used a touch of journalistic distance, Maloof keeps nudging it toward his own righteous passions about the established art world’s reluctance to belatedly embrace Maier’s work. It starts to play less like genuine concern about the artist getting a fair shake and more Maloof pitching a tantrum that the discovery hasn’t played out to his full benefit. I’d wager Maloof’s status as co-director is also instrumental in the film largely side-stepping the introduced notion that Maier would have despised her art being shared so freely after her death. It’s an especially rich conflict to set aside, because Maier’s photography, as selectively curated for the film, practically demands to be seen, earning favorable comparisons to masters of the art form such as Walker Evans and Rebecca Lepkoff.

Dom Hemingway (Richard Shepard, 2013). Maybe it’s the specificity of the genre. Dom Hemingway proves there’s a clear limit to how many films about comically colorful British gangsters the cinematic firmament can bear. The screenplay and direction, both by Richard Shepard, are soundly constructed, and Jude Law delivers admirable in precisely the sort of shift from sexy centerpiece to ragged character role that should be the prevailing course of his career from here on in. And yet it all feels drab and familiar, banging artistic pots that have made more notable noises in the hands of Martin McDonagh or even Guy Ritchie. The film does provide the blessed sight and sound of Khaleesi covering the Waterboys, and for that I will be eternally grateful.

The To Do List (Maggie Carey, 2013). Maybe there will eventually be an inclination to round up, just as is the current norm with loads of nineteen-eighties films aiming for laughs, but I suspect instead that retrospective surveys of comedies from the current era will take note of how many could have achieved greatness were there a little more discipline. The feature film debut of Carey cannily hit a slender mark, appropriating the tropes and rhythms of the dopey sex comedies of the eighties and nineties while simultaneously deconstructing and slyly mocking them. Aubrey Plaza stars as Brandy Klark, uptight valedictorian of her graduating high school class who decides she needs to catch up on her sexual experiences before diving into the deep pool of higher education. She approaches it with the same meticulous organization that earned her top grades. When the character is locked down, Plaza is quite good, showing how confusion and curiosity go hand in hand. But there’s inconsistency across the board, including the outlook of her character, defined by awkward innocence one moment and barbed self-assurance worthy of April Ludgate the next. It’s consistently amusing and just insightful enough to be disarming, but it also lets sloppiness undercut its smarts to a unfortunate degree.

 

Broomfield, Demme, Radice, Safdie and Safdie, Truffaut

Ricki and the Flash (Jonathan Demme, 2015). By the last third of the film, it seems clear that Demme’s chief motivation for taking on this project is the opportunity to apply his extensive experience directing concert films to this fictional story of a derelict mother (Meryl Streep) who fronts a bar band. He certainly demonstrates only passing interest in the tepid familial drama in the script, written by Diablo Cody with a equal freedom from her previous dialogue quirks and recognizable humanity. When Streep’s bedraggled singer returns to her former home, responding to a suicide attempt by her daughter (Mamie Gummer), every bit of the story plays phony, completely derailing Demme’s typical adeptness with finding resonant honesty. He’s more engaged when the last act. If the director is more engaged when the last act is essentially a series of cover song performances briefly interrupted by offhand resolution of earlier character disputes, that doesn’t necessarily mean the film notably improves. This winds up as one of least consequential entries in Demme’s filmography.

Heaven Knows What (Ben Safdie and Joshua Safdie, 2015). Based on an unpublished memoir by Arielle Holmes, who also plays the lead role, this depiction of the lives of homeless drug addicts in New York City is bruising and effectively intense, at least until the some needlessly bombastic plot turns in the closing stretch. In particular, the film offers a harrowing view of the difficulty of ever breaking free from such a life, with the constant need to reinvent the means for temporary survival creating a stasis of misery. The Safdie siblings handle the material with an empathetic approach utterly free of judgement, staging individual scenes with an attentive understatement that’s ideal. At its strongest, the film is quietly devastating.

No No: A Dockumentary (Jeff Radice, 2014). By now, Dock Ellis hurling a Major League no-hitter while high on LSD, in 1970, is such a broadly known piece of baseball lore that even those with no interest in the sport are like to know about it. While Radice’s documentary clearly trades on that notoriety, most plainly in the very title of the film, the director’s clear intent is rescuing the ballplayer’s reputation from those who give him no more consideration than a caustic chuckle. Ellis was also a skilled pitcher apart from that somewhat flukey feat, an outspoken advocate for civil rights at a fairly complicated time, and, maybe most admirably, a passionate, tireless advocate for those struggling with addiction, as he himself once did. The acid trip no-hitter wasn’t a funny story to him. It was evidence of his own struggles stamped into the record books. Radice’s documentary has powerful moments — Ellis’s emotional reaction when reading aloud a letter sent to him by Jackie Robinson is the clear highlight — but it also winds up just a touch scattered in its attempts to get everything in. Still, it does its job, laying out evidence that Ellis, who died in 2008, deserves to be more than a comic footnote in sports history.

Shoot the Piano Player (François Truffaut, 1960). Truffaut’s second feature as a director is less dazzling that his debut, The 400 Blows, but is still an impressive piece of the opening salvo of the French New Wave. Adapted from the novel Down There, by United States writer David Goodis, the story about a pianist who gets drawn into muddy mingling with the local criminal element plays like a detached film noir, delivered with a French shrug instead of the more familiar stateside grim fortitude. Truffaut employs some the playful technique — expertly on point and cheekily deconstructionist at the same time — that would turn his next film, Jules and Jim, into the textbook example of his country’s revolutionary approach to cinema. Here, the approach is used more sparingly, making it more jarring but also a little less satisfying. The film winds up playing like a key transitional piece rather than it’s own wholly realized work.

Tales of the Grim Sleeper (Nick Broomfield, 2014). Even though director Broomfield is the most problematic part of this documentary about a Los Angeles serial killer, he deserves credit for getting at highly problematic social truths that elevate the film above its lurid, true crime story trappings. The controversial filmmaker, still probably best known for the controversial documentary Kurt & Courtney, is a strange presence throughout, coming across as casually predatory and strangely baffled as he walks through low income L.A. neighborhoods with his boom mic and bulky headphones. And yet Broomfield also manages to offer a sharp consideration of the dearth of attention paid to this horrid murder spree that spanned decades, by both the national media and the local authorities, convincingly chalking it up to the darker skin color of all of the mass murderer’s victims. Had it been a countless blonde, white women who were disappearing over the years, vicious witch woman Nancy Grace would have led the charge as CNN caved in to single-topic, round-the-clock coverage. Much as the film takes the time to track through the horrific details of the so-called Grim Sleeper’s crimes, the most detestable tales it tells are of the whole of society, paying no mind as a long series of women vanished without a trace.

Baker, Baumbach, Endfield, Hall and Williams, Jacobs

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.

Banks, Bergman, Hamilton, Limon, Polanski

1971 (Johanna Hamilton, 2014). Clearly positioned as a history lesson for those who venerate Edward Snowden for his digital freedom fighting in bringing to light information about the U.S. government’s shady spying on its own citizens, 1971 focuses in on a break-in at a Pennsylvania FBI office in the year of the title. Those who are shocked by the modern transgressions against privacy can watch this documentary for a bracing reminder that federal crime-fighting agencies are in full-scale same-as-it-ever-was territory, Patriot Act or not. Of course, that doesn’t make current abuses acceptable, but the indignation is best shaped as part of a long arc instead of flashpoint ire over supposedly unprecedented betrayal. The film is solid, admirably underplaying its coup, captured on the coattails of the Betty Medsger book that inspired it, of revealing the identities of the perpetrators who remained unnamed for forty years. It unfortunately has the now commonplace indulgence of dramatizing the events for which footage is unavailable and could have better explored the splintered paths followed by the radicals in the decades since their altruistic crime. Overall, though, it makes a case for the value in pushing back against oppressive power structures, especially in a nation that is supposed to be resolutely of the people.

Fair Game (Doug Limon, 2010). This docudrama traces the Bush administration’s outing of Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) as an undercover CIA agent, in clear violation of federal law and in a cheap attempt to cover up their own virulent dishonesty in the run-up to the Iraq War. The film is at its best when screenwriters Jez and John Butterworth stick to the plain mechanics of governmental officials and agencies at cross-purposes. It falters nearly everywhere else, as attempts to dramatize the interpersonal conflicts that the tense days stirred up feel leaden and didactic. Watts is strong and believable as Plame, but Sean Penn is clearly coasting as her aggrieved husband, Joseph Wilson. Limon, trying on serious filmmaking as a break from action spectacles, overcompensates for the perceived staidness of the story, too often flopping his camera around in a misguided attempt to create visual dynamism.

The Silence (Ingmar Bergman, 1963). This is Bergman at his chilliest and most emotionally abstract, even though the storyline hints at melodrama. Two sisters (Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom) are traveling, along with the young son (Jörgen Lindström) of one of them, and stop to stay in a fading grand hotel. There are tensions at play, perhaps stirred by immediate stressors (one of the sisters in gravely ill) but more likely the culmination of long-fermenting conflict. Sven Nykvist’s cinematography is typically intoxicating in its gloomy beauty, and Bergman was in the midst of his long peak of crafting cinema that defied expectation in its willingness to engage in elusive rumination. Still, the archness of the tone is sometimes a little too distancing, making this comes across as a bit of rough draft for future masterworks.

Carnage (Roman Polanski, 2011). The screen adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s stage work (the screenplay is co-credited to the original playwright and Polanski) is a quintessential example of making inert cinema by adamantly refusing to reshape material for a different form. With few exceptions, Polanski opts for structures and staging that could have worked as well in a theater as on a screen. The film could have arguably still been salvaged by strong performances, especially given the impressive stature of the cast assembled. But every last one of them overacts to at least a degree, with Jodie Foster, amazingly enough, the worst offender and Christoph Waltz coming the closest to a respectable turn, if only because the officiousness of his acting actually suits the character. To be fair, the film begins with abounding inherent problems in Reza’s story, which is so labored and contrived that it would take a succession of moviemaking miracles to make it emerge as something sharply real.

Pitch Perfect 2 (Elizabeth Banks, 2015). I was hardly enamored with the first screen dance with a capella underdogs the Barden Bellas, but it looks sprightly and heartfelt compared with its witless sequels. The troupe is now three-time defending champs, soaring with diva-esque self-assurance until an accidental act of on-stage lewdness leads to an improbable ban from national collegiate competition, with only a daunting worldwide showcase available as a pathway to retribution. Banks directs with a frenetic indifference to coherently shaping the narrative, not that the screenplay by Kay Cannon (who also wrote the first film) has any evident concern for solid structure or internal consistency. It’s a bunch of lackluster ideas and shapeless jokes heedlessly heaped together, as if upended a laundry basket onto a mattress will magically result in a crisply made bed.

Garland, Howard, Mangold, Ross, Taylor

Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015). Novelist and screenwriter Garland makes his directorial debut with this smart, chilly science fiction film about a reclusive tech magnate (Oscar Isaac) who flies up an employee (Domhnall Gleeson), supposedly selected at random, to help him test out some remarkable new artificial intelligence he’s created. Complicating the test subjects reactions is the little detail that the A.I. has been loaded into an android with a notably lovely female form and visage (Alicia Vikander). Garland builds his script with almost malicious psychological cunning, fomenting uncertainty as to whether the genius inventor is a simmering madman or a master manipulator, which creates a dynamic between the two male leads that sometimes makes it feel — a little unfairly, I’ll admit — that Gleeson is simply repeating his performance from last year’s Frank. Overall, the film is strong and intriguing, demonstrating that Garland has a fine sense for visual construction and pacing. The ending lingers like an echo that mysteriously won’t die down, but until that point, it’s a sterling debut.

Rush (Ron Howard, 2013). Howard reunites with Frost/Nixon playwright and screenwriter Peter Morgan for this docudrama about a Formula One racing rivalry, primarily as it plays out across the 1976 season. By most accounts, Morgan is fairly faithful to the truth, mainly goosing the drama only to heighten the conflict between the two principals. Howard is the one pushing for something a little different, enlisting Danny Boyle’s regular cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, to give the film a stylish, almost dreamy look, miles away from the director’s usual plainspoken visuals. It’s more intriguing than transformational, especially since Howard sometimes seems a little flummoxed by the task of coming up with a satisfying variety of ways to shoot the redundancy of cars roaring in laps. Chris Hemsworth is well cast as golden boy racer James Hunt, maybe too much so, making him come across as Thor in a jumpsuit. Daniel Brühl fares better, thanks to relative unfamiliarity with his acting, but also because his character, Niki Lauda, has a fascinating edge that never dulls.

Get On Up (Tate Taylor, 2014). This biopic of legendary performer James Brown benefits from a sensational lead performance by Chadwick Boseman, one-upping his own fine work playing Jackie Robinson in 42. The role obviously lends itself to the sort of mercurial shifts that any actor would relish, while also placing him on stage to replicate the boisterous showmanship of the Godfather of Soul. It can sometimes make it seem like Boseman is completing an especially exhausting acting obstacle course rather than building a fully rounded performance, but he does it with so much vigor and style that it’s applause-worthy anyway. The film itself is an exuberant mess, with Taylor lingering on the musical performances very nearly to the film’s breaking point and screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth trying so fervently to avoid lapsing into tired biographical rhythms that they wind up with an ungainly snarl of ping-ponging chronology and intermittent breaking of the fourth wall. It might not work, but it’s bizarrely fascinating when it doesn’t.

The Last of Sheila (Herbert Ross, 1973). Written by the unlikely team of Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim, the film reportedly came about when producer-director Herbert Ross encouraged the duo to dramatize one of the elaborate scavenger hunt style games they concocted for their famous friends. It naturally became a murder mystery in the elaborate style of Agatha Christie, with a bevy of Hollywood folks invited for a weeklong cruise on the yacht of producer Clinton Greene (James Coburn), a devotee of games and puzzles who’s still smarting from the hit and run death of his wife (Yvonne Romain) about a year earlier. The plot deals with secrets, retribution, and the instinct for malice that pumps through everyone, with the constantly doubling back to reveal hidden truths reaching dizzying intensity by the last reel. It’s often ingenious and staged nicely by Ross throughout. There’s also a fantastic supporting performance by Dyan Cannon, playing a chatterbox, self-involved talent agent.

The Wolverine (James Mangold, 2013). The second solo outing for Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) on the big screen draws loose inspiration from the character’s landmark 1982 limited series, written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Frank Miller, which sends the snarliest X-Man to Japan to deal with Yakuza and samurai and family honor and all sorts of other tired nonsense overvalued by Westerners when they craft stories around the island nation. The film is almost relentlessly dour, enthralled by its own supposed edgy coolness. It buys into the grim and gritty aesthetic so thoroughly that even the sequences of the sort of high lunacy that could only work in a movie drawn from superhero comics — a protracted fight atop a moving bullet train, a character performing open heart surgery on himself to remove a mysterious spidery gizmo from inside his chest — wind up intensely serious instead of bounding with the spirit of happy abandon that could have made them work.