Sunday, January 31, 2016

Mad Max: Fury Road

Director: George Miller
Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoë Kravitz, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, Josh Helman, Nathan Jones
Running Time: 120 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

There's always that risk of feeling completely lost or out of the loop when the latest film in a long-running franchise with which you have no familiarity is released. And in the rare event it's celebrated to the extent that George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road is, it's easy to have a debate in your head whether you should even go through the trouble of seeing it. While that might be a close-minded thing to say, we all have those blank spaces in our moviegoing and it's a legitimate concern that my inability to get around to watching 1979's Mad Max, 1981's Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior or 1985's Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome could create a self-inflicted roadblock in any potential appreciation of the new film. But 10 minutes in, the female protagonist drives her War Rig right through those preconceived notions and I'm completely sold, up to speed and fully engulfed in the universe Miller created and has now returned to. No explanations necessary because it's right there on the screen, so much so that it takes until about an hour for an actual conversation to occur. In many ways, this should have been the highest-grossing movie worldwide because it speaks the one universal language: Action. Everything revealed is done so visually, and once Miller gets his hooks in, your his.

Technically, this delivers unlike any recent entry in the sci-fi/action genre, with effects, production design, action sequences and cinematography so spectacular you must be thinking this is some kind of a joke as you watch, mouth agape at what's transpiring.  If it's a common, justified complaint that we're beaten down every year by uninspired computer-generated mayhem, this is its cure and a beating I'd gladly take again with a smile on my face. Striving for artistic excellence absent in most movies of its ilk, it tells its story expertly with a hardly a misstep to be found. Hearing that a certain movie "needs to seen in a theater" usually causes my eyes to immediately roll back into my head, but the size and scope of this project legitimately demands it. Those prematurely proclaiming it one of the greatest action movies of all-time may only have to wait a few years before discovering the possibility they weren't that far off the mark.

Set in a future, post-apocalyptic desert wasteland where water and gasoline are in short supply, the grizzled Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is captured by a group of War Boys, led by the ruthless Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who takes him to the Citadel where he'll be imprisoned as a blood donor. But when Joe sends out one of his lieutenants, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), in a rig to collect gasoline, he realizes she's stolen his Five Wives selected for breeding and gone off course, double-crossing him. Joe enlists an entire army, including a sick War Boy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult) who will stop at nothing to impress him, and has Max strapped to the hood of his truck for blood supply. Looking to make it to the "Green Place" with the women and escape Joe's tyranny, Furiosa's path will cross with Max and Nux's, resulting in a combustible situation that test everyone's loyalty and will to survive.

There's a thrilling chase sequence that seems to last about twenty minutes in the front half of the picture and  the highest compliment that can be given to it is that you don't feel as if your senses have been pummeled and are actually looking forward to whatever follows. Since Miller and cinematographer John Seale are such pros at sfilming these scenes, the action is the setup and there's never a doubt as to what's happening at any given moment. One of the script's biggest strengths is that we're immediately keyed in to the decisions these characters make and why without the burden of needless expository dialogue.

Furiosa's motivations are clear early on, as she intends to be the one who shakes things up, leading a surprising rebellion that lets Immortan Joe (clad in a terrifying Skeletor-like breathing mask) know that, even in a desperate, post-apocalyptic wasteland, these women aren't his property, nor is anyone else. And Theron is in full ass-kicking mode, giving the one-armed Furiosa a death stare that would send any potential threat heading for the hills before she even throws a punch or fires a shot, both of which she does plenty of. The arc of Hardy's Max and Hoult's Nux is a little more complicated, but no less riveting.

As the maniacal loner and prisoner finally getting a taste of freedom, there's an air of mystery surrounding what Max will actually do with it because he's flat-out dangerous. He could easily align with Furiosa or become her and the girls' worst enemy at the drop of a hat and while Hardy's performance has widely been labeled as merely sufficient in the face of Theron's, it's worth considering how effortlessly he replaces Mel Gibson with hardly anyone noticing. Nux's job as a character is to essentially sacrifice himself for Joe's greater cause so what resonates about Hoult in the role is how the realization slowly washes over him that it may not be worth it and he'd rather be a human being than a weapon. And The Five Wives (played by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoë Kravitz, Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton) are hardly portrayed as passive damsels in distress, often taking a surprisingly active roles in the carnage as Miller also lets each of their personalities shine through, simultaneously subverting and exploiting their supermodel images for the good of the story.

This feels entirely like how action movies used to be made in the 1980's and it's arguable the chase scenes and action sequences (which pretty much compose every minute of its length) give Star Wars: The Force Awakens a run for its money in terms of production design and its balance of CGI and practical effects. You could call Miller's creation a throwback but doing so would almost imply it isn't the real thing or in any way feels like a reboot or remake in any traditional sense. There's a lot to take in at once in terms of what's on screen so it's not unusual that your jaw suddenly drops at the visual inventiveness of  it all, such as the guitar player strapped to the front of the rig or the "polecats" of Joe's army.   And because there's so little dialogue, the music has to carry much of the load, with Junkie XL's recognizably pulse-pounding score more than delivering the goods.

As big an achievement as this is, and how little it feels directed by a 70-year-old, it's accomplishments are primarily technical, making it difficult to gauge just how much stayed with me after the credits rolled. It's easy to imagine watching the movie multiple times with little difficulty because it's so exciting, but there is a nagging worry that its pleasures, as considerable as they are, may only run skin deep. Of course, this could just be a side effect of it being a genre picture or possibly where my unfamiliarity with the franchise prevents it from leaving the long-lasting impact it would on someone who grew up with the original films.

While nostalgia admittedly went a long way in covering for some of The Force Awakens' shortcomings in the minds of many, it's nearly impossible to level that accusation here. And there's nothing at all average in the execution of it, as Miller temporarily breaks down the barrier that's historically prevented action movies from gaining critical respectability. Thematically, there is more to it if you're willing to read between the lines to see this as a Biblical allegory about feminism, war, oppression or the environment, but Fury Road's ultimate value comes in the pure joy of just simply experiencing it.

Monday, January 18, 2016


Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Starring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers, William H. Macy, Tom McCamus
Running Time: 118 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

                                         **Spoiler Warning: The Following Review Contains Major Plot Details**

The events that unfold in Lenny Abrahamson's Room are something we see frequently covered in the news, but without ever truly understanding or processing its ramifications or how it affects the victims involved. In fact, there's probably a good chance the actual crime is happening somewhere right now as I'm typing this. A young girl or woman is abducted, being held captive in some undisclosed location by her kidnapper. Her family eventually gives up hope. Years later, she's found. The media descends. The requisite interviews take place. The family rejoices. Everyone rides off into the sunset and goes on with their lives.  

Room isn't about any of this. It's a movie that makes us read between the lines to see and feel the psychological and sociological implications of being trapped in that scenario. And then it dares to go even further, satisfying those like myself who believe the best part of Cast Away was when he returned "home," and had to not only adjust to a new world around him, but live with the memory of an experience that made him an entirely different person than before he left. It takes that basic idea and ups the ante, adding another component that's absolutely gut-wrenching in how it organically pulls and pushes your emotions to the breaking point without a hint of manipulation.

The plot details of the screenplay (adapted by Emma Donoghue from her own best-selling 2011 novel) are almost incidental, as the commercials and trailers freely gave away what most would consider spoilers under different circumstances. It's also an ordeal, albeit one built on the foundation of logic and sound decision making by the filmmakers. And none of it comes together without the two performances at its center, functioning as a single unit. One from an exceptionally gifted child actor and another from an actress who's work has steadily been building to this for a while now, filling in the final piece of the puzzle that should deservedly garner her all the acclaim and attention she deserves.

Kidnapped seven years ago, a young woman (Brie Larson) is being held in a small shed with her young son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), whom he refers to as "Ma." With a ceiling skylight and television being their only limited exposure to the outside world, she creates a small universe for him inside this confined space, which fosters his often fantastical imagination. Their captor is a bearded man they've nicknamed Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), who keeps the boy paralyzed with fear in his bed with his nightly rapes of Ma, one of which he resulted from.

After reaching his milestone 5th birthday, Ma decides Jack's now old enough to know the truth of how they got there, while also realizing she'll need his help and cooperation to escape. After failed attempts at this in the past, she's formulated a plan she feels could work if both demonstrate the necessary courage and resourcefulness to carry it out. And they do. But what happened in that room is only the beginning, as their adjustment to the real world carry challenges Ma couldn't foresee, proving to be as formidable a challenge as any obstacle they both faced in Room.

What's most appreciated is how the film gets into it right away, trusting the performances to tell a story no amount of exposition or flashbacks could convey as effectively. Initially, we have no idea who these two are other than that they are mother and son and can only guess at why they're living in this small room, though the cards start falling quickly into place. As does this wonderful, stream of conciousness narration from Jack, which would in any other circumstance come off as the babblings of a possibly dim child with a limited concept of the world around him. But because this room is all he knows and his world literally begins and ends with it, they could in this context be viewed as perfectly reasonable questions and often fascinating observations

Besides not knowing what's out's there, Jack doesn't even know what "out there" means, making the first hour of the film play as this fascinating sociological experiment of sorts, seeing how a mother would raise her child within the confines of four walls and a skylight. It's Larson who makes this dynamic so compelling, right up until the moment it's time to come clean to her son and enlist his help, regardless of his anger at the idea. But it's only valuable to analyze as an experiment until it isn't, which is any time the shed door unlocks and Old Nick makes an appearance. Then it's just plain terrifying. Because we're seeing everything through small Jack's eyes, the glimpses we get of their bearded, twisted captor and the control he exerts, seem only that much worse. You envision that the person who did this must be as evil and twisted as can be, and Bridgers' brief appearances fill the quota, even as some of his worst actions take place off screen or through wardrobe closet door slats.

If my heart was in my throat up to this point, the escape has it nearly pounding out of my chest. Without giving away too many details, the screenplay takes what should be a completely implausible plan into the realm of total plausiblity by presenting a logical series of events that don't go down without a hitch or two, but just well enough to not stretch credibility too far. Extremely competent police work, a few (but not too many) lucky breaks and one really smart bystander basically converge to create the most excitingly filmed and performed sequence of the year.

Shot completely from the perspective of 5 year-old Jack seeing the outside world for the first time, every camera shake has your palms sweating in anticipation of how things will pan out. And all this tension is created despite our general knowledge of the outcome. Reaching its emotional crescendo and fully invested in two characters we've known a mere 30 to 40 minutes, there's already been more than enough substance to fill an entire feature. But then the realization hits that Abrahamson is just getting warmed up and most movies would end where this one arguably begins.

Seamlessly shifting from nail-biting, single location thriller to moving coming-of-age tale, Joy Newsome (Ma's real name) is reunited with her mom and dad, returning to a reality in which she's lost 7 years of her life and her parents (brilliantly played by Joan Allen and William H. Macy) now have a grandson. And it doesn't skirt the fact that to some he could be viewed as a living, breathing, walking symbol of an event that destroyed everyone's lives.

Here's where it's important to tread carefully in revealing details because Abrahamson's commitment to making even the tiniest of them resonate is what makes the rest of the picture so special. And it's here where Larson really plunges the depths of this character in much the same way she did a couple of years ago in Short Term 12, taking a strong-willed caregiver and completely unraveling her as inner demons take over. Before long, it's apparent she's plummeted into near-helpless state.

Mother and son quite nearly switch roles, with Jack having to stay strong for her as he's exposed the endless possibilities of the world ahead of him. Ironically for Joy, despite no longer being a prisoner, she's as trapped as ever, with the walls rapidly closing in on her in ways they never did inside that room. None of this is outright acknowledged, but instead conveyed by Larson and Tremblay's potent performances, which hit completely different notes than in the film's first half. While he stays clear of any precociousness that could have seeped into the role had another child his age taken it, she has these quietly devastating moments that let us know how much of her identity is gone.We see it in conversations with her parents or reaction upon returning to her childhood bedroom and looking at an old picture.

Joy must also have to deal with public perceptions and living this new life, at least temporarily, inside the media's fish bowl. There's a point during the third act when she's confronted by a surprising and seemingly ruthless question that causes her to go off the deep end. But once you get past the coldness of it, the question is just as surprising to us since it's a seemingly obvious observation we never considered either, inviting serious introspection to come up with a valid answer.

Whether it was a deviation from Donoghue's novel or not, the decision to start the film where it does and forego backstory to focus primarily on the aftermath was a valuable one. It's also a relief that we never see the initial kidnapping, which now looms so terrifyingly large in our minds that no scene, no matter how expertly filmed, could possibly match it. And it's Larson's performance, which brought this reviewer to the edge of tears throughout, that renders any additional narrative or explanations unnecessary. It's true that without Tremblay it couldn't be possible, but even truer that it couldn't all come together without Abrahamson's inventive direction, which is far more creative than expected given the claustrophobic subject matter. He previously directed last year's Michael Fassbender wears a giant papier-mâché head music biopic, Frank, and while that was a decent enough watch, there weren't many previous hints he had something like this in him.

Upsetting and polarizing for good reason, this was far from a slam dunk by description alone, but on screen it all converges in a gripping, ingeniously structured way few literary adaptations have managed. When films put characters through horrific ordeals, it's rare we get to see an aftermath, much less a detailed one. This takes care of one of my biggest pet peeves by crafting this giant epilogue, spending all the time available letting us inside the heads of these characters. While much of the conversation will undoubtedly revolve around the emotional power of the mother-child bond and its two shattering performances, Room inspires far more thought and contemplation than it's getting credit for.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

2016 Oscar Nominations (Reaction and Analysis)

Bright and early this morning, the 88th Annual Academy Award nominations were announced live in Beverly Hills by AMPAS President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and actor John Krasinki. Despite maybe one or two fairly big surprises, I wouldn't say there were any real "shockers" that couldn't be explained away by the Academy's usual voting patterns. I thought it was a thin (though not necessarily weak) year with some categories barely filling the required slots, so any conversations regarding snubs need to, as usual, be taken with a grain of salt. And of course, we have what's become the annual debate about the lack of diversity in the nominations. But I'll assume that detractors really mean to say that the INDUSTRY AS A WHOLE needs to present more opportunities for minorities to be put in a position where they can be nominated.

With a smaller pool to choose from, it's inevitable there will be omissions, so simply "diversifying" the nominations for the sake of it really doesn't address the problem. I wish the media would phrase it like that, instead of hurling accusations of racism at an entire voting body of industry professionals who missed a few of nominations.  And as usual, each alleged "snub" should be analyzed on a case-by-case basis. That seems fairest, especially since it's impossible to recognize everyone's favorites. But as we know, the Academy is more often than not out of step with the general moviegoing population and sometimes even the critics. So let's assess the damages and talking points:

-The Revenant is the one to beat, leading with 12 (!) nods. And barring a huge upset, Leonardo DiCaprio is finally getting his Oscar. 

-No Star Wars: The Force Awakens for Best Picture. I loved it and would have been pleased to see it there but let's be honest: This was a real long shot. A special set of circumstances surrounded the 1977 original being nominated, and even that didn't win. The Empire Strikes Back wasn't even nominated. In my mind it's a four-star movie but a different kind of one than what's typically nominated for the top prize, even with 8 nominees. Instead, they went for two other populist entertainments in its place. 

-J.J. Abrams also gets shut out. Again, no surprise there. The film's notices predictably came in the technical categories, while 83 year-old John Williams becomes a nominee yet again for his magnificent score, which expertly combined the old with the new.  
-Carol not being nominated for Best Picture or Best Director (Todd Haynes) is as close to a shock as we'll get. Then again, if you go back through the Academy's history, this isn't a subject matter they're particularly comfortable with. Though, Eddie Redmayne got in for playing a transgender in The Danish Girl, so who knows?

-Cate Blanchett is in for Best Actress while Rooney Mara goes supporting for Carol. Some category fraud  there but given the picture being snubbed, things could have been worse for them.

-Jennifer Lawrence gets in for Joy, despite the film's lukewarm (at best) reception. But she was never really at risk. At 25, she's now officially the youngest actor ever to earn four Oscar nominations. Not bad. They do love her, but she won't be winning one again this year.

- ACADEMY AWARD NOMINEE BRYAN CRANSTON. Didn't think this would happen for him this soon after Breaking Bad but boy am I glad it did, as he inches closer into EGOT territory.

-The Martian is nominated for Best Picture, becoming my least favorite contender in that category in years. Ridley Scott doesn't get in for Best Director, which I can live with. But his direction and Damon's performance were the best things about it.

-Matt Damon in for Best Actor. He was kind of on the bubble, but made it. I have mixed feelings, as I enjoyed what he did with the role, but question whether it's actually award-worthy.

-George Miller takes Ridley Scott's Best Director spot for Mad Max: Fury Road, which is also in for Best Picture. The rare sci-fi movie to earn such a designation. Of course, that's assuming we're still counting The Martian as a comedy.  

-Michael Fassbender gets in for Steve Jobs. Would have also liked to see a surprise Best Picture nod, but I'll take it. And Winslet's expected supporting nod. Can't believe they overlooked Sorkin's script though.     

-No Will Smith for Concussion but how many people were really raving about that performance or the film? It may be great for all I know, but it had very few supporters.

-The Big Short gained incredible momentum when the ballots went out, as a comedy gets in for Best Picture and the man who helmed Anchorman (Adam McKay) gets nominated for Best Director. Now THAT qualifies as a shocker.

-Surprise supporting nominees: Rachel McAdams for Spotlight, Tom Hardy for The Revenant and, to a slightly lesser degree, Christian Bale for The Big Short (I think most suspected Steve Carrell to get in instead).

-No Idris Elba supporting nomination for Netflix's Beasts of No Nation or Kristen Stewart for Clouds of Sils Maria. Both of these were longer shots than they actually appeared because of all the enthusiasm and support behind them. Enthusiasm that unfortunately didn't carry over to industry voters.

-No Peanuts Movie for animated feature? Charlie Brown really can't catch a break, can he? Good grief.

-Once again, Academy Award nominee Sylvester Stallone, for returning to the role he made famous over thirty years ago in Creed. Here's hoping he uses this as a launching pad to do more character-driven work moving forward. 

-The omission of Creed's Michael B. Jordan is probably the strongest case that can be made for a flat-out snub in the Best actor category, even if few seem to have predicted him

-Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth's Paul Walker tribute track "See You Again" from Fast and Furious 7 fails to to snag a Best Original Song nomination. Are they ever going to get these song categories right?

-At least they didn't screw up the documentary category this year, as the beloved Amy Winehouse doc, Amy, justifiably gets in.

-I had to do a double take to even notice Spielberg's Bridge of Spies was nominated for Best Picture. That's how talked about it's been. In some ways it's the biggest shock of the morning, included mainly out of obligation to who directed it.

-Brie Larson. Brie Larson. Brie Larson. That is all.

-Not only does Room get in for Best Picture, but Lenny Abrahamson is nominated for Director.

-As if the reaction to Tarantino's Golden Globes speech wasn't indication enough, the full brunt of the backlash has finally hit. He's snubbed for writing and directing for The Hateful Eight, which also failed to get a Best Picture nod. It did get cinematography and a somewhat surprising (but welcome) first nomination for Jennifer Jason Leigh in supporting. 
-Sorry, but it's tough to be surprised Straight Outta Compton wasn't nominated for Best Picture. The reviews, while very good, weren't entirely rapturous, and we know the Academy's taste and makeup. That it even got a writing nod (presumably knocking out Tarantino) is pretty damn impressive enough though.    

-Much to my chagrin, Love and Mercy is overlooked in all categories, most disappointingly Paul Dano's transcendent performance as Brian Wilson.

-I clearly have a lot of cramming to do before February 28th.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Best (and Worst) Movie Posters of 2015

We've reached that point. And while I've yet to wade my way through enough of the past year's releases, I've certainly seen all their posters. Ironically enough, 2015 was heralded as a breakthrough year for "big" movies, but you'd be hard-pressed to find any of those studios' one-sheets here, as they seemed to play it as safe as ever when it came to advertising art. This resulted in a Top 10 full of underseen titles, little known indies, financial flops and even some films that have yet to see a U.S. release. But these are the most impressive posters, and while whittling them down to ten wasn't difficult, deciding which they'd be was trickier. That any of the runners-up could probably inserted into the top 10 depending on my mood or the day may speak more toward my apathy at the selections this year than their quality, but there are still some gems among them.

The top choice is probably the littlest known film to have its poster to earn that designation from me, but it's unquestionably the year's best one-sheet, or really pair of them. There's also a somewhat controversial selection when it comes down to the worst. Visual simplicity, use of space and color and, perhaps most importantly, how well the poster reflects the film and/or its themes factored into the decision-making process. Or more accurately: Were any posters able to pique my interest for a film I previously had no interest in seeing? It's a good test. Just a reminder that any posters released in 2015 (even for 2016 films) qualify, but they must be official posters approved and released by the studio. "Alternative" movie posters (like Mondo's) are not considered, no matter how much better they sometimes seem in comparison. All poster images supplied via Here's the top ten, followed by some runners-up and, of course, the worst.  Enjoy.         

The Best...
10. It Follows

This definitely won't earn tons of points for originality, as 80's style throwback horror posters seem to be all the rage lately, but this is one of the best recent examples of that because of its bold simplicity. And the illustration by artist Akiko Stehrenberger is a notch or two above in at least bottling the spirit of those retro posters and VHS covers. There's kind of a Driving Miss Daisy thing going on with this in terms of the rear view mirror, but with far more menacing results and thematic unity since this is a film about a girl literally watching her back. While I'm not as crazy about this poster as some others are, it's entirely possible that an actual viewing of the film could enhance my appreciation. Love that blood red title treatment across the bottom.

9. The Lobster

Some would undoubtedly rank this higher but if I did it would be tough to shake the feeling that it was being rewarded out of pure weirdness rather than originality. Still, there's no question this pair of posters (featuring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz respectively) for the still unreleased Yorgos Lanthimos dystopian romantic comedy, The Lobster, is an unusually inspired design that offers up a great visual representation of its film's themes of loneliness and isolation. Off-white almost always beats white and using the black and white stills of the characters against a seemingly endless landscape of negative space was a great idea, especially with the bold black title and credits treatment at the bottom. I like that this is a set of posters, each providing a different visual perspective on the same idea.

8. The End of the Tour

An ingenious visual device for what was ultimately a deeply moving, insightful film that hasn't left my mind since I saw it. Featuring a career high performance from Jason Segel as late author David Foster Wallace, the film details the last leg of his 1996 U.S. book tour during which he's interviewed by Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg). It's just a great, wholly original idea having the reels of tape form the characters' faces. It would have been almost too easy to just slap the actors on there and call it a day but designers P+A accomplish far more with an aesthetic that better captures the story's melancholy tone. The tagline for its poster is almost painfully accurate. "The greatest conversation you've ever had." Also, a nice touch with courier style type.

7. Steve Jobs

Those thinking it impossible to screw up a poster for a Steve Jobs biopic, look no further than last year's hideous Jobs design, when in trying to incorporate Apple's color scheme (I think) they instead wound up with a snow cone-infused monstrosity. Always a proponent of sleek, crisp design, there's a good chance that while the man himself may have taken issue with his unflattering (but perhaps painfully true) depiction in Danny Boyle's film, he would have at least appreciated this poster. Simply put, it's perfect.

It may not necessarily "grab" you visually but in this particular case it's easy to argue it was the most practical choice for a one-sheet. Besides featuring the best use of negative space on a poster in years, it captures Fassbender's pensive Jobs in arguably his, and the film's, most impressive point. Not to mention the clever positioning of the credits, particularly that cursor after the title. Such a fan of this poster I cribbed it for the banner of this site. And how many iconic figures actually have their own identifiable color?  Well, on second thought...   

6. The Program

If ever there was an image that told you everything you needed to know about the subject, it's this. Formerly titled "Icon," the Lance Armstrong biopic starring Ben Foster as the embattled cyclist shouldn't be confused with that 1993 James Caan football movie of the same name. But looking at this, how could it? Two very different "programs" for sure.

I'm not entirely sure when this is due to be released or if it hasn't already in some locations, but the bigger news is that an all yellow poster has been designed for a Lance Armstrong movie in which he's being CHASED BY A SYRINGE. And the tagline is actually "Winning Was In His Blood." That's seriously the tagline. It almost seems too easy to include this on the list but how many studios would have been afraid to go through with it? Regardless of how the film turns out, no one can accuse them of false advertising. A controversial figure deserves an appropriately controversial image.

5. Love and Mercy

One of the most underappreciated films of 2015 was Bill Pohlad's imaginative, quasi-biopic on the life The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson. Its illustrator, rather bravely, forgoes the entirely predictable route of doing a John Cusack and Paul Dano (who both play the singer at two different ages) floating heads treatment or some kind of split screen nonsense. The two stars are nowhere to be found as artist Kii Arens seems a lot more interested in presenting an image that captures the FEEL of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys. And did he ever.

It isn't hard to imagine this an actual cover of a Beach Boys or Wilson solo album during either of the time periods the film depicts, even as it's clearly going for a 60's vibe. From the vibrant colors to the typeface to that hypnotizing wave inside the magnificent silouette of a young Wilson at the peak of his songwriting powers. it's a reminder just how easy it is to take for granted the power of illustrated artwork in a film's ad campaign. And I love the light blue border. More posters need borders. Simple, classic,elegant. Of all the choices here, this is probably the one most likely to make it onto my wall.

4. Insurgent

Here's another take on the famous Escher's Staircase design we've gotten accustomed to seeing for the past few years, and yet it still manages to come off entirely different and fresh again in LA's design for Insurgent. Not exactly sure of its meaning or even how it relates to the franchise, but considering I've yet to see the films, that hardly sways my opinion. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if it has nothing to do with the series at all and they just went with it because it looks really cool. If that's the case, it's hard to cry foul because it is a really powerful, hypnotizing image that draws you in, demanding closer examination.

This is certainly the ideal one-sheet for any IMAX 3D showing, effectively conveying the feeling of that medium on paper. Everything revolves around that central image of Tris falling and you have to appreciate that they extended the upside-down approach to the credits as well. The highest compliment is that it could easily pass for an alternative Mondo print since it's almost hard to believe a big studio signed off on something this creative.    

3. Louder Than Bombs

One of the few cases where a single image can really be worth a thousand words and yet another great example of using negative space...and air. If you're going to use a still from your film (which I'm only assuming this is since it hasn't been released yet stateside), it better be good. The upcoming 2016 film is described merely as "The fractious family of a father and his two sons confront their different feelings and memories of their deceased wife and mother, a famed war photographer." On paper, it may not grab you, but luckily none of that verbiage is anywhere to be found on this beautifully uncluttered one-sheet.

Is this meant to be entirely metaphorical or symbolic? Are there actually cheerleaders in the movie? Do they play an important role?  I have a feeling none of this matters. What does is that everything here is lined up in perfect symmetry, from the girls on the left to the credits on the right, and everything just hanging in the air against a clear blue sky. There's never been a poster layout quite like this before and it's impossible to turn away. It could pass as the cover of a bestselling novel, which is an outside-the-box quality more designers could be emulating. It should also be said that Louder Than Bombs is a great title for a movie.

2. James White
The first question that comes time upon glancing at graphic designer and The Poster Boys podcast co-host Brandon Schaefer's one-sheet for the low-budget indie, James White is "How the hell did he come up with THAT?" If it's true that all these designs start with only an idea, than this one is the most original one of the year. But he still had to execute it, or maybe go through a bunch of lesser ones to finally arrive at this. But that's all speculation.

Going beyond the central idea of a torn loose leaf paper as the title character's face, the way it's actually done with the shading and three-dimensional effect is just so eye-catchingly cool that it nearly leaps off the page despite being fairly subdued. It's the thematically convenient choice of the stark white against a black background and white border that makes it all pop. Knowing nothing of the film, I could still tell you it's a dark drama with a morally conflicted protagonist going through the worst time of his life. All that from a single image. And it just missed the top spot.

1. Queen of Earth (French and American Versions)       

Considering it was an illustrated poster featuring actress Elisabeth Moss that snagged the 10th spot on last year's list, it seems oddly fitting that this sadder, more haunting depiction of the actress tops the list this year for a far different film. That these French and American one-sheets for Alex Ross Perry's polarizing indie Queen of Earth manages to somehow visually bottle the mental breakdown that's befallen it's incredibly difficult main character is no small feat. While I'm still sorting my very mixed feelings on the film (which may admittedly need a second viewing to fully absorb), there's no denying that it's advertising campaign pulled out all the stops in at least attempting to brace audiences for its insanity. Just take a look at this trailer.

Nothing succeeded more in getting the film's ideas across than this pair of unforgettably rendered posters, the French version of which captures an unnerving close-up of  Moss' Catherine at one of her lowest, darkest points. Drawn with frightening accuracy by Brooklyn-based artist Anna Katrina Bak, there's very little color here besides the eyes, leaves, and lips, creating an appropriately washed-out look for a very washed-out character. And the pink, cursive title against the white really stands out. Unless it's a poster for a Wes Anderson film, you don't often see title treatments like this anymore, only heightening its impact.

Bak's American version is more over-the-top, playing into the campy aspect of the story, but it's equally powerful. Moss has these large, unusually distinctive facial features that just envelope the screen, making her the ideal subject for an illustrated poster. This one has much more color and nearly veers into caricature in terms of how hard it hits on the theme of Catherine's fractured identity. Also reminiscent of great paperback novel covers, it  conceptually recalls this inventive poster from over a decade ago, which was also one of my favorites. Notice the quote and credit placement, as well as that the same font and color of the title treatment being carried over from the foreign version, along with the white framing. Despite being wildly different, both versions really represent two sides of the same coin, delivering the same message in divergent ways. Even the staunchest defenders of the actual film couldn't make an argument that these posters promise an experience any filmmaker would have trouble matching.             


And The Worst...

Okay, hear me out. These aren't ranked and I wouldn't try to sell anyone on the idea that this is the absolute WORST poster of the year, as it's "better" than just about everything below. But what a disappointment. And after actually seeing just how great the film is, this poster now only stands as an unforgivable letdown that clashes in every way with the product eventually delivered. Given that Disney was so slavishly devoted to maintaining the integrity of the original trilogy and bottling up all that nostalgia, you'd figure it would have extended to the advertising. And in many ways it did. Just not here. Everyone was going to see this anyway so why not risk bringing back the legendary Drew Struzan to do one of his classic illustrations that are as ingrained into the fabric of this franchise as John Williams' music? Well, they did. For an underwhelming 11x17 insert that was handed out at conventions. What a shame. And it's still better than this.

Say what you want about the prequels, but Struzan's posters for them (especially his masterful Dr. Zhivago-inspired Attack of the Clones print) were brilliant. I'm guessing, unlike George Lucas in the past, J.J. Abrams had no input in this decision knowing his vision for the series. Designer LA does occasionally great work (as demonstrated with The Hunger Games posters and above with his Insurgent print), but he was clearly hired for a job here. A slick, photoshopped mess, it's basically a case study in how to cram a bunch of action onto a page and make it seem meaningless. It's almost as bad as all those Marvel posters, which are cut from similarly uninspired cloth. Both the special IMAX and Rey character posters listed above in the runner-up section far surpass it, as do type-only retro teasers like this, this, and this. But what a relief that we can now look at this poster and laugh, knowing this kitchen sink-style approach had nothing to do with what eventually ended up on screen.

Speaking of Marvel, here's perhaps their dreariest yet. Dark, visually uninteresting and airbrushed and photoshopped within an inch of its life, this was supposedly the least of this movie's problems. Still, you can't help but think it's in a way emblematic of all the bigger issues that sunk it. Reboot coming next year?

There will be hell toupee when John Travolta fully completes his transformation into Nicolas Cage, complete with cheesy VOD movies and wild hair to match.

A Cage triple feature here.  It's almost too easy to joke about him being up to his knees in something else other than oil as an explanation for his choices these last few years, but I won't go there (alright, it's debt!) Seriously though, when your posters are starting become as interchangeable as these movies, there's a problem. I like the very tiny "Academy Award Winner" designation above the Dying of The Light title. Have we almost literally erased his Oscar win now?  

The ultimate in big star, floating head laziness. Just put Hanks on the poster and audiences will be there. And they were!

This does gain points for originality. I've never seen anything like it before, but hope never to again. And can we just talk about how unimaginative a title Our Brand Is Crisis is for a movie? In fact, they were so ashamed they buried it at the bottom, all but invisible within a mess of text. Purple is your color, guys.  

And I thought there was a lot going on in the Star Wars poster. But this has cars, helicopters, motorcycles, explosions, guns. "Vengeance Hits Home" alright. Getting dizzy just looking at it. And who's Scott Adkins? Better yet, who's Isaac Florentine? I forgot the movie's title already and I'm looking right at it.


You know, the Entourage teaser poster that was released actually isn't too bad, effectively channeling the spirit of the HBO series. Whether that's good or bad is up to you, but at least it did its job. This, on the other hand, looks like a print ad for Madame Tussauds Wax Museum.

Not a fan of posters like these. You know the ones. Where one character is doing something to another character as they're sitting there, obliviously staring into space. In this case it's someone's hair. And that someone is Will Ferrell. It can't get much worse. Wait, it can. The title.

Indeed. The pained expression on Patrick Wilson's face says it all. Can you blame him? This is actually a photo taken of the actor by his agent after he was given the identity of his latest co-star.

I'm all for minimalism. And focusing on big star names to sell your movie. And even big, bold titles. But this is too much (or rather too little) even for me. Would have loved to be a fly on the wall in the studio PR meeting when this approach was discussed. It was discussed, right?