My Top Films of 2015

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road

Since childhood, the Road Warrior series has existed in the same realm of mythic action blockbusters as the Star Wars original trilogy, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, etc… even though they were so totally different in texture and genre. Nonetheless, it felt like director George Miller was operating on the same level of world-making albeit on a far smaller budget and with a more punk rock, dangerous feel.

Flash forward 30+ years, past his strange but even more successful journey in to the “Babe” and “Happy Feet” series, and George Miller proves again that he has more energy, creativity, and action blockbuster adreneline running in his 70 year old veins than all of the younger blockbuster directors half his age (yes, JJ Abrahms and Joss Whedon included).

Mad Max: Fury Road
What drugs was George Miller taking when he dreamt up this insane shot, almost all practicals shot in-lens? What was the reaction of his crew (and poor Tom Hardy) when he showed them what he wanted?

There are “films” and there are “movies” and Fury Road distinctly falls in the second category, gliding effortless like some crazy, distilled, freebased movie drug working it’s chemicals in every sensory nerve. I understand many people might be turned off by the excess spectacle, but I prefer to celebrate this directorial masterpiece as the absolute peak of movie-making – visions, rhythm, and choreography that demand multiple viewings on the big silver screen.

Mad Max: Fury Road
The movie gave us the best action heroine since Ripley in “Aliens”. Miller knows that the best action spectacle and operatic melodrama can operate in the same plane of existence.

I’m disappointed that Miller didn’t receive Best Director at the Oscars this year.

2. Room

Room Poster

The less you know about this film, the better. If you haven’t heard or seen this film, I would advise stopping here and watching it with as little knowledge as possible.

That being said, I’ll say that this film is just ambitious as “Mad Max: Fury Road”. It’s also as ambitious as “Boyhood”, my favorite film from 2014.

Room
How do you tell a wrenching story of abuse and kidnapping from the subjective point-of-view of a five year old boy? How do you communicate the kid’s “rebirth” in a new world?

The film has been marketed with a high-concept: mainly that a mother and kid are locked in a room with almost no contact with the outside world for years on end. Certainly most of the attention had been paid on the first third of the film and how much thought has been paid towards the concept of a kid who has never seen the outside of the same four walls. Much has also been said about the amazing Brie Larson.

However, what really stood out for me was the subtle finesse and grace in the second part of the film when we break out into the greater world and see the ripple effects of the original crime. The film does a great job of portraying the viewpoint of five-year old Jack as he ventures outside for the first time. I loved the complex details of each of the supporting characters – the grandparents. the step-grandfather, the doctor, etc. In particular, a gripping scene in the middle of the film when a bit of excellent police work by a small supporting character leads to possibly the biggest applause moment of 2015.

Both “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Room” lead as my favorite films of 2015 because they speak the special language of film so well and in such an ambitious, but different ways and couldn’t be done by any other medium.

3. Creed

Creed

“Creed”, unlike the prior two movies, doesn’t quite have such an ambitious agenda. It’s an out-and-out crowdpleaser that happens to contain some performances and characters that are far better than expected for this kind of movie.

 

I’m already a huge Michael B. Jordan fan since “Friday Night Lights” and his seeming inevitable climb to being one of Hollywood’s greatest new stars is cemented by this performance. He’s always charismatic and a standout in all if his performances, but his portrayal in this film as an upper-middle class African American fighter with a chipmon his shoulder in a typically lower class sport is so specific that I feel like I’ve met and grew up with this character. This specificity extends through other performances.

Director Ryan Coogler knows just how to get the best from Stallone, letting the elder boxing trainer with one foot out the door into the next life play for maximum sentiment. Something tells me that Coogler is a big “Cosby Show” fan. Of course, there is the awesome Phyllisa Rashad delivering her usual classy motherly performance with inner strength. However, I was also getting a strong vibe from Tamara Robinson as the love interest. Most definitely we haven’t had enough big film on-screen portrayals of upper-middle class African Americans that everything devolved to a comparison to a TV show from 30 years ago.

creed_02
Tamara Robinson in the love interest role adds texture and characterization to her role as id there is a whole other film to be made with just her.

 

4. Brooklyn

brooklyn_poster

This is the feel-good, lovingly shot film that you can take your mother to (like I did). Like other films released in the late part of the year, the costuming is gorgeous, the characters tastefully acted, and it hits all of the right beats. Usually, I would question such Oscar bait-y  films. Yet, there are many things to love about this film. Saoirse Ronan is an unlikely lead, but shines through in this star-making performance and will definitely be seen in many future roles. The camera loves her wide eyed, expressive face. Nick Hornby screen writes and finally does away with his witty but occasionally overbearing tendency for unnecessary voiceover and lets the actors do their acting work. The film is populated with a dozen lively supporting roles that each have their own complexities. I was happy to watch the film twice and can safely recommend it for just about everyone.

brooklyn_01

5. The Martian

It was really tough to choose between Spotlight and The Martian for the last spot in the Top Five, but ultimately I have to go with the film that I feel like I’ll probably be re-watching (I’ve already watched it twice). I don’t think I need to go on further about how humorous and fun and awesome the movie makes science doing science-y work feel like. I will say that this is Ridley Scott returning to portraying interesting characters working together in an interesting team dynamic. Usually, his brother Tony Scott gets more recognized for this kind of “men being men in the military” kind of film, but Sir Ridley occasionally also excels when he reaches into this territory (or in this case, men and women being awesome together).

martian_poster

6. Spotlight

A great procedural drama… Everyone talks about Mark Ruffalo’s climax speech (something which inevitably play eventually in his “In Memoriam” clip), but I didn’t really grok to his performance — it seemed more like mimicry and took me out of the film. Instead, I really appreciated a lot of the smaller supporting performances: Liev Schreiber’s super-understated character with some fascinating choices. The handful of adult molestation victims were essentially cameo roles, but really were some of the best performances of the year. These were the things that stood out for me rather than the procedural flow of the film.

spotlight_poster

7. Spy

spy_poster

Comedies never get enough recognition come awards season, but there was ONE spy movie this year that excelled and it certainly didn’t have 007 in it.

8. Ex Machina

ex_machina_poster

Cool, sleek, and with an fascinating performance choice by Oscar Isaacs. It didn’t quite hit me quite as much as Her, but certainly had enough interesting points to it.

9. Paddington

paddington_poster

Released at the very beginning of 2015, this film had a horrible trailer but turned out to be a quirky, loving, and surprisingly good kids movie.

10. The Revenant

revenant_poster

I feel like Innaritu’s films are getting more and more about the spectacle and less about character. I’m placing this on my list just because of Emmanuel Lubezki’s miraculous cinematography and not because I especially liked the film or Leo’s performance.

Honorable Mentions

Ant Man antman_poster   Star Wars: The Force Awakens star_wars_poster Inside Out inside_out_poster Sicario sicario_poster Steve Jobs steve_jobs_poster The Big Short big_short_poster

Dishonorable Mention

Jurassic World: In a year with amazing female performances and characters (Furiosa in Mad Max, Brie Larson in Room, Melissa McCarthy in Spy, etc.) this movie seemed hopelessly out-of-date with it’s “women in peril” themes.

 

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WeChat: Boston recruiting

I’ll be giving talks about WeChat Product Values and Impact in Boston the first week of March at the following venues:

  • Harvard SEED Camp for Innovation: March 2, 2016 2-2:45PM, Microsoft NERD Center, Horace Mann Room, 1st Fl.
  • Harvard Business School: March 2, 2016 4-5:30pm, Aldrich 010
  • MIT Asian Career Fair: March 4, 2016 3:30-5pm, Rm 3-133

Here are some additional links for students and candidates to learn more about WeChat’s mission and career opportunities:

Help build a better WeChat

Please help my efforts by spreading word that WeChat is hiring in product management positions — Chinese language skills not necessary!

I’ve been on a tear recently trying to improve understanding of WeChat and the WeChat lifestyle in order to seed the ground for better talent recruiting into our growing WeChat team. I’ve even launched a new audio podcast talking about what it’s like to work at WeChat!

Please help my efforts by spreading word that WeChat is hiring in product management positions — Chinese language skills not necessary!


WeChat Product Manager
Location: Guangzhou, Guangdong, China

About WeChat

With over 600 million monthly active users, WeChat has become one of the most impactful mobile products on the planet. Since it’s start as a chat app, WeChat has grown to become a market-leading platform by connecting people services, and businesses in China and around-the-world.

Job Description and Responsibilities

Rather than just reading about WeChat innovations from a blog, we invite talented mobile product developers and product managers to learn and participate firsthand by joining the WeChat Team. Learn about the WeChat product philosophy and the mobile lifestyle as a WeChat product manager. Joining the WeChat team gives you an unique opportunity to help redefine how people use their mobile devices to communicate and interact online and to better understand user behavior and preferences in the world’s largest mobile market. The Product Center team within WeChat is responsible for managing and growing our core product including messaging and social networking and you would be working along side WeChat’s distinguished founding team.

An ideal candidate will

  • Demonstrate and communicate a passion for mobile apps and the mobile lifestyle
  • Provide a portfolio of online or mobile products that you have helped design or develop
  • Give knowledgeable insight into mobile user behaviour and psychology
  • Have discriminating taste in mobile app design and an obsession for superior user experience
  • Demonstrate a firm technical comprehension of web and mobile client-server architecture
  • Have an open-minded, forward-looking outlook by temporarily moving to China and immersing yourself in a fast-moving, mobile-obsessed culture
  • Have two or more years experience in mobile apps development or design

Benefits

Thank you, thank you, Roger Ebert

Screen Shot 2013-04-05 at 4.27.06 PM

I’d like to share some of my personal memories with Roger Ebert upon hearing of his passing this morning:

• Witnessing a slightly tipsy Roger break out into a broadway song medley at the piano during the close of one of his Ebertfests. Thank you, Roger, for inviting me to take part of your personal movie extravaganza that you shared with your fans.

• Sharing a conversation on the beach with him in Bahamas while on his “Ebert & Roeper Sea Cruise”. He seemed a fantastic, loving step-grandfather and babysitter to his rambunctious grandkids. Chaz was wearing our bright orange “FRESH” tomato t-shirt and said it was her favorite and most comfortable shirt. 🙂

• Sharing an afternoon with Roger in Seattle the week before the debilitating surgery that would take away him away from the TV screen. While we never did get to complete our partnership deal that would have provided spotlights of the Tomatometer and Roger’s reviews on our respective web sites, he remained hopeful and supportive of the possibilities of our online media.

• I messaged him with a photo of his face emblazoned on a big billboard in the middle of a very busy intersection in Beijing which he found unbelievable and wished he could have explored China more.

ebert

• And, of course, my childhood memories of my favorite “Siskel & Ebert” moments, particularly he brawl over Eddie Murphy “Raw” (sorry, Roger, I agree with Gene on this one), “The Untouchables” (again, agree with Gene), “Hoop Dreams”, “My Dinner with Andre”, and “Dark City”.

It’s not often that you get to meet your childhood hero and I feel blessed for having met and received frequent words of support from a hero of mine.

Thank you, Roger. I watched you and Gene every weekend during my childhood and you inspired me and many of my generation with your enthusiasm and eloquence, elevating not just film criticism, but of all of film.

My favorite films of 2012

 

 

 

Stephen's Favorite Films of 2012

Update (April 3, 2013): I’ve had a chance to go back and watch many additional films that were formerly on my “must watch” list. I’m so happy to discover some surprisingly good gems which I’ve now added to my Favorites of 2012 list.

I’ve tried to keep a personal list of favorite films every year. Unfortunately, the last three years in Beijing made it difficult to get access to some films (not available on BT, therefore not available in DVD stores). One of the benefits of returning to live in Hong Kong (since August) has been much better access to a greater variety of films. Unfortunately, many of these films get released many months after their initial releases in the States and sometimes (in the case of “Wreck-It Ralph”) even after their release in mainland China.

In any case, here are my Top Ten Films of 2012. Let me know what you agree or don’t agree with.

1. Beasts of the Southern Wild 

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Film-wise for me, most of 2012’s films were pretty disappointing. There was not a single film that I could  wholeheartedly embrace… that is until I saw “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and fell in-love with magical filmmaking again. I haven’t been as excited about the power of film since the last gem that moved me so much, “Blue Valentine” in 2011. With only a slight nod to traditional narrative filmmaking (kind of a “hero’s journey” tale), but with dreamy visuals and striking natural acting and characters that defy anything that you’ve seen before, it’s the kind of surprise film that only a first-time filmmaker who hasn’t been tied down to big budgets, script notes, and the mundanity of the film factory system can make. I’ve watched it twice on my sofa now, but, even though it’s filmed in 16mm, I’m looking forward to watching it on the big screen when it’s shown here in Hong Kong next month.

The Oscar nomination for 9 year-old actress Quvenzhane Wallis is no gimmick. If anything, she is really rightfully should be nominated for “Best Leading Actress” as the film is told through her viewpoint, she remains on-screen for the entire movie, and she creates of the most unique and memorable characters (along with first-time actor Dwight Henry as her complex, charismatic, tough, but loving father) I’ve seen in a long while.

 

2. Searching for Sugar Man

I was able to catch this documentary weeks after I initially wrote my first version of the list. It’s too bad that documentaries get separated into their own category at the Oscars, because this film easily qualifies for me as one of the best of the year. The film starts with profiling how a talented, but undiscovered musician in the 70s grows to become the sound of a generation of South African freedom-fighting youth. This falls in line with “truth is stranger than fiction” that only a select few documentary films can provide, but besides the fascinating sociological  study of apartheid South Africa and a fantastic story arch, the film also is blessed with a truly memorable and compelling documentary subject in the form of the enigmatic singer Rodriguez. Like “Hoop Dreams”, my favorite documentary of all-time, this film brings together important social themes, a compelling main character, and a miracle story that unfolds quite naturally on-screen. I hope everyone has a chance to watch this under-the-radar film.

3. Lincoln

Lincoln

Spielberg and many of the technical artists behind-the-scenes probably expended a tremendous amount of time making this film historically accurate, but the marvel of this film is the artistic liberties that Daniel Day-Lewis takes to create a unique, fully-realized character from the most analysed historical figure of all-time. Cunning and impatient, but built of a strong moral compass, the character could be extracted from Lincoln and removed from all historical relevancy and still be a marvel to watch on-screen. For this, I think Daniel Day-Lewis is deserving of the Best Actor Oscar for the best acting portrayal on-screen in 2012. Criticism of the film for it’s occasional sentimental chords and the lack of a strong African-American viewpoint are on-track, in my opinion, but Daniel Day-Lewis’ unique portrayal uplifts what would be a less memorable, more mediocre film like “Seabiscuit”.

4. Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom

Unlike many film fans of my generation, I’ve withheld my embrace for Wes Anderson. I’ve enjoyed the style and soundtrack to his films, but I’ve always felt that he lacked full maturity as a filmmaker. It’s felt like to me that he always needed a couple more productions to elevate his story-telling abilities to match his brilliance in production craft.

“Moonrise Kingdom” is the first Wes Anderson film where I feel he has finally reached his full potential as an artist. For me, the story and tempo are as well-honed as the production itself.

5. Wreck-It Ralph

Wreck-It Ralph

This is the first Disney CG-animated film under John Lassiter’s reign where I feel they finally getting close to matching Pixar’s story-telling abilities and the voice-over actors aren’t filled by stunt-casting big-named celebrities at the expense of quality voice-over. There are so many jokes so well-aimed at people of my Atari/Nintendo/Halo generation, that it was a delight for me (but probably not anyone much older than me) to watch.

6. Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Although it has a natural appeal to foodies everywhere, this film is much more about the certain professionalism, almost neurotic-level obsession with craft that the subject has with sushi. It’s strength is the slightly tragic undertone that underlies the story: While we marvel at the mastery of detail that Jiro has perfected with sushi, we also sympathize for the lost attention and humanity when it comes to his two sons who, as sushi masters in their own right, have been partial sacrificial lambs to Jiro’s obsession. This is what makes the documentary a fascinating character study rather than just an exploration of food.

7. Arbitrage

I’m not usually a fan of either Richard Gere nor financial thrillers so I put off watching this film until after I had initially assembled my first draft of my Favorites list. However, this swiftly, well-acted film surprised and delighted me with it’s complex and adult-targeted story. Many lauds should go to Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon on their masterful performances.

8. Django Unchained

Django Unchained

I loved the first two-thirds of the film and was pretty let down by the remaining third. All of Tarantino’s energy and brilliance are included, but the real standout for me was Christoph Waltz’s performance. I hope he wins Best Supporting Actor at the Oscar’s this year.

9. Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty

It’s thrilling and chock full of small details that a news junkie like me can get pore over. The media coverage has concentrated on “Act I” where scenes of torture will likely have many moviegoers covering their eyes, but “Act II” remains the best part of the film for me. Obama’s declaration to end “enhanced interrogation” and the CIA actors to finally button-down and do more traditional detective work and spycraft to nail down UBL provides the most interesting part of the film.

10. Flight

Denzel Washington is still my favorite working actor, a leading man in the most compelling sense. Neither a character actor working in a single vein nor a master chameleon actor like Gary Oldman, he still puts together a memorable, varied performance with every film.

11. Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook

Another film where the first two-thirds of the story I feel were let down by the cutesy final third. With two interesting performance by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence and an outstanding performance by Robert DeNiro (possibly his best in over a decade), the film is ultimate sabotaged in my opinion by an “end-cute”. If a “meet-cute” is an overused romantic comedy convention from films like “While You Were Sleeping”, the “end-cute”, to me, is an equally overused Sundance film convention starting from “Little Miss Sunshine” and continuing through to “Silver Linings Playbook”.

12. Chronicle

Chronicle

An overlooked film from 2012 because it’s sci-fi high school teenagers, but I felt that it should have been nominated for best original screenplay (although, like “Looper”, plot points and imagery are obviously heavily-lifted from “Akira”). I’m not a fan of Max Landis in interviews, but this doesn’t draw back from the fact that “Chronicle” is a great piece of screenwriting.

13. Looper

Looper

Along with “Chronicle”, “Looper” is the true emergence of young new screenwriting talent who are as equally influenced by animé visuals and story telling as they are from American comic books and Twilight Zone episodes. It’s great to see more mid-budget films like these that place an emphasis on ideas and story first rather than explosions and F/X gimmicks. I’m hugely interested in seeing what other stories director Rian Johnson has up his sleeve.

Honorable mentions: Perks of Being a Wallflower, Cabin in the Woods, The Avengers, Life of Pi, ParaNorman, Argo. Unfortunately, none of these films would do better than 7/10 for me … like I said, besides “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, I felt this was a pretty mediocre movie year. Nonetheless, I fully expect that “Argo” will be taking home “Best Picture” at the Oscars this year.

Still Need to Watch:

  • Amour
  • End of Watch
  • Holy Motors

Daily reads from 2012-11-09