My Top 10 Hollywood Films of 2016

Tomorrow, Tuesday, January 24th, is one of my personal holidays.  Oscar nomination announcement day!  And while I’m late, I’m just under the wire before those announcements to give you my personal list of my top Hollywood films of 2016.  Apologies for getting to this later in January than I’d hoped.  My father was in the hospital for almost two full weeks.  Fortunately, he’s doing better, and I’m glad to be thinking of movies again instead of ICU and breathing tubes.

A major caveat is that I have not been able to see some of the films of 2016 that came out very late in the year for Oscar season.  Especially with my father’s illness, I have not seen Silence, Jackie, or Fences yet, just to name a few.

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1. La La Land

Did you have any doubt after this rapturous review describing my tears of joy, that La La Land would be my favorite film of the entire year?  I live and breathe movie musicals, and Damien Chazelle reviving the genre in Hollywood is my dream come true.  My love of musicals are why I love Indian Cinema so much (I’ll be posting a separate top list for Indian Cinema).  La La Land garnered a record number of Golden Globes with seven, and could make history tomorrow with a shattering 15 Oscar nominations.  With a musical, you add in song, score, etc. to all the traditional categories.  The previous record number of nominations would be 14 (All About Eve and Titanic).  Could it sweep?  Maybe….

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2. Moonlight

Moonlight is a movie that has really stayed with me.  I have been frankly amazed at how well this film has done.  I’m not sure it will resonate with the average Academy member (white, male and over 65), but it really did with me.  I’m crossing my fingers that it gets lots of nominations, especially for director Barry Jenkins and that Mahershala Ali wins Supporting Actor.  He was amazing.

manchesterbythesea_trailer3. Manchester By The Sea

I was privileged to attend the premiere of Kenneth Lonnergan’s Manchester By The Sea at Sundance last January.  I didn’t know what I was about to see, just that I had to see the latest film by the man who made You Can Count On Me.  I didn’t know that Casey Affleck was going to rip my heart out with his devastating performance.  Viewers now know that this is a sad film, but it has wonderful moments of comedy, especially with Affleck’s relationship with his nephew, played by Lucas Hedges, who I hope will get an Oscar nod tomorrow morning.

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4. Captain Fantastic 

Captain Fantastic may be a career best performance for Viggo Mortenson, as the father of six children, determined to home school them completely off the grid in the wilderness of the Northwest.  I hope and pray that Viggo gets recognition tomorrow with an Oscar nomination.  The film has kind of fallen of the radar, except that Viggo’s performance cannot be denied.  I strongly urge you to give this film a chance.  It’s available for rental on Amazon, Youtube, etc.  It was one of my favorites from Sundance last year.

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5. The Lobster

I loved every absurd moment of The Lobster.  Colin Farrell was amazing.  Highly recommend, and it’s now included with Amazon Prime.

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6. Deadpool

Oh, my goodness, I did not realize how stale the superhero movie genre had become until the fresh air of Deadpool.  Ryan Reynolds was made for this role, and aren’t we all so glad he fought so hard to win this role and get the movie made.  Second favorite thing about the movie is the snarling teenage girl X-men.  Love her!!  It’s a great film to rewatch as there is just so many little nuggets of goodness to catch.

7. Hunt For the Wilderpeople

You MUST see Hunt For the Wilderpeople.  Taika Waititi, the writer director has created a comic masterpiece about a young Maori foster kid and the ultimate curmudgeon, Sam Neill.  I feel so much better about the upcoming Thor movie, because Taika Waititi is a comic genius.   It’s included with a Hulu subscription right now, and also available to rent online.  You’ll thank me.

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8. Hell or High Water

Such a fantastic script for Hell or High Water.  Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges were particularly good.

9. Ali and Nino

I saw this sweeping historical love story epic, directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Asif Kapadia (Amy), at Sundance.  It only got a limited release, but it’s available to rent on demand.  It has a script by  screenwriter Christopher Hampton who wrote Atonement.  I could eat this movie with a spoon, it’s just so wonderful.  Ali and Nino tells the story of a Muslim prince of Afghanistan who falls in love with a Christian young woman (her father is played by Mandy Patinkin).  It’s set in the time of World War I, and I had no idea that Afghanistan was almost at democracy.  The movie was filmed just across the border in Turkey and the scenery is just stunning.

arrival210. Arrival

Choosing a last film of a top ten feels very arbitrary because there were a couple of films that were all about equal for me.  This could also easily be Zootopia, which I really enjoyed.  But I’m picking Arrival for Amy Adams’ wonderful performance.  This is the kind of Sci-fi movie I enjoy, one that makes you think.  Amy Adams sells you on this movie, and hip hip hurray, it was so much her movie.  Jeremy Renner was very much the supporting actor.  Linguist Amy Adams led the team who tried to communicate with the aliens, although  my brother pointed out that you didn’t really see her lead her team in an active way.  I hope Amy gets an Oscar nomination for this wonderful film tomorrow morning.

 

 

Manchester By The Sea – Casey Affleck is superb in Lonergan’s masterpiece

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Manchester By The Sea is out right now in limited release.  If you can find it, I urge you to go see this incredible film.   I saw this film in January at Sundance going in knowing next to nothing.  All there was in the program was this picture of Kyle Chandler and Casey Affleck who play brothers in the film.  And the name Kenneth Lonergan, the writer director.  That’s the name that made this film a must see for me.  He has only written and directed three films.  His first feature, You Can Count On Me gave us an incredible debut by Mark Ruffalo as Laura Linney’s ne’er do well brother.  His second film, Margaret, starring Anna Paquin, was finally released on DVD recently.

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This is the short review of Manchester By The Sea I wrote on Letterboxd after I returned from Sundance:

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Casey Affleck plays a janitor who has to return to his hometown when his brother (Kyle Chandler) suddenly dies of a heart attack.  He’s named guardian for his teenage nephew, and you come to understand through flashbacks why he is so reluctant to assume that role.  Michelle Williams plays his ex-wife, in a fantastic supporting role.  Lucas Hedges is the 16 year old nephew, and he is amazing.  This is a break out role for this young actor.

But Casey Affleck’s melancholy superb acting had me sobbing, not just tears down my face but holding my hand over my mouth to keep quiet in the theater sobbing.  This is a masterful movie about real people and their grief.

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If you can, go see this film without watching the trailer, because the trailer shows part of a key scene between Casey Affleck and his ex-wife, Michelle Williams.  I think it has more impact if you don’t know what’s coming.

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Casey Affleck is a lock for a best actor Oscar nomination, and Manchester By The Sea is at the top of best of 2016 film lists, right after La La Land.  I haven’t seen La La Land yet (Dec. 9th can’t come fast enough), but Manchester By The Sea is the best film I’ve seen so far this year.

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How To Tell You’re A Douchebag – Tahir Jetter’s Debut Feature out on iTunes today!

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“How To Tell You’re A Douchebag” Premiere during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival on January 25, 2016 in Park City, Utah.

Tahir Jetter’s first feature film How To Tell You’re A Douchebag is out on iTunes for rental and purchase today!  The film premiered last January at the Sundance Film Festival.

Full disclosure.  I met Tahir Jetter when he first came to Sundance in 2011 with his short film Close.  We were sitting next to each other at the midnight showing of Martha Marcy May  Marlene (man that movie is weird!).  We struck up a conversation that four years later led to us investing in Tahir’s debut feature film How To Tell You’re A Douchebag.  I’m biased, but for a very limited budget, I thought it was great.  Here’s a balanced review from The Guardian.

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Ray Livingston (Charles Brice) is a blogger (Occasionally Dating Black Women) and plays the field — dating multiple women at once. He confronts a woman on the street, and she gives him the dressing down of his life, calling him out as a douchebag.

His friend Jake (William Jackson Harper) tells him the woman he just accosted is none other than Rochelle Marseilles (DeWanda Wise), a   famous writer for Mahogany. Ray tries to apologize, but puts his foot in his mouth yet again as he blogs while drunk. But the sparks have been flying between the two. Rochelle agrees to go out with him, and they have a wonderful weekend together.

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Then Rochelle has brunch with her girlfriends and meets Yasmin (Jenna Williams), who had been dating Ray. Ray doesn’t understand when Rochelle doesn’t want to see him again — why didn’t she feel the magic he did?

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Charles Brice is fantastic as Ray — he’s a jerk, but a very charming one! Dewanda Wise is an arrogant and flawed Rochelle — she may seem to have her act together, but the relationship misfire is not all on Ray. The highlight of the film is the supporting players, Jenna Williams as Yasmin, Alexander Mulzac as Rochelle’s boyfriend Paul, and especially William Jackson Harper as Ray’s friend Jake.

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The film has its limitations because it was filmed on a shoestring budget.  Ray’s apartment is Tahir’s actual apartment, and they had a a tight shooting schedule.  But it’s still a very enjoyable romantic comedy, the kind of film that is simply rarely being made today.  More importantly it’s an African-American romantic comedy set in Brooklyn, something even rarer.

Tahir Jetter, the writer/director, did a fun interview at Sundance that talks about how he came up with the idea for the film and its somewhat autobiographical nature:

 

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I’m really excited to see William Jackson Harper who plays Ray’s best friend Jake in the upcoming NBC comedy The Good Place with Kristen Bell and Ted Danson.  He had some of the best comedic lines in How To Tell You’re A Douchebag, and he’s so funny in it!

DeWanda Wise who plays Rochelle can be seen in the upcoming Fox drama series Shots Fired:

Thunder Road – Watch the top short film of Sundance 2016

You can now watch the entire fantastic one-take short film Thunder Road by Jim Cummings.  Jim stars as a policemane giving a eulogy at a funeral.  It’s heart rending and hilarious all at the same time.  It’s amazing.  Totally deserving of the grand prize at Sundance for shorts.

I was fortunate to meet and talk with  Jim Cummings and his cinematographer at the fest.  This little gem shows how creative you can be with very little.  Do yourself a favor and watch the whole 13 minute short.

Jim Cummings wrote an open letter to Bruce Springsteen asking for digital rights to the song Thunder Road, so that could show his short for free on Vimeo.  It worked!  And now you can see this short online yourself, without having to go to a film festival.

 

Captain Fantastic – My favorite Movie at Sundance

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Captain Fantastic

Captain Fantastic may have been my favorite film of Sundance 2016. Viggo Mortenson is a home schooling father with six children in the wilderness forest somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, completely off the grid. The film opens with him teaching his oldest son to hunt a deer by making him kill it with only a knife and wrestling it to the ground.

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(l to r) George MacKay stars as Bo, Charlie Shotwell as Nai, Nicholas Hamilton as Rellian and Samantha Isler as Kielyr in CAPTAIN FANTASTIC

The young actor, Brit George MacKay,  who plays the oldest son, Bo,  was amazing. The family must leave their forest home to attend a funeral, and the children come to realize how isolated they are from the real material world, and how they may have book knowledge, but they don’t know how to interact with other people outside the family. In one of my favorite scenes a young girl flirts with him at a campsite on route.  They kiss, and then he falls to his knees to propose and ask her mother for her permission to marry her daughter.  They both laugh and think he’s just kidding, but he’s acting just as he’s read about in all the classic novels he’s read.   He afterwards confronts his father, “I don’t know anything!”  The oldest son wants to go away to college, but fears his father’s reaction.

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Viggo is the only person I can imagine in this role. He is exceptional, and this may be the finest role of his career.  (And that’s really saying something, after Aragorn, Eastern Promises and A History of Violence) He has the intelligence and the screen presence that makes you believe this is a charismatic father who could raise his children to be philosopher kings.  And that he could take it all too far.  He doesn’t let the kids believe in Christmas, but they celebrate Noam Chomsky Day!

Writer/Director Matt Ross premiered Captain Fantastic at Sundance in January.  He’s known more for his work as an actor in series like HBO’s Big Love and Silicon Valley.   Matt Ross talked at the Q&A about how he grew up in communes himself in California.   He shows us the simple pleasures of this life, singing around the campfire together in the evening — but also how isolating it is.

All the kids are terrific, and have great chemistry together and with Viggo.  You could see the rapport they still have with him at the Q&A.  I was stunned at the performances Matt Ross and Viggo got out of these very young child actors.

Frank Langhella (always excellent) plays Viggo’s father-in-law, and they have a confrontation over the way he is raising the children.  After one of the kids has an accident, Langhella wants to take the children away and sue for custody.  You need someone as powerful and imposing on screen as Langhella to be a worthy antagonist for Viggo Mortenson.

This film is quirky and heartfelt like Little Miss Sunshine.  I got teary eyed, and it has a very satisfying hopeful ending.

Captain Fantastic released today in a limited number of theaters.  It’s playing in downtown Chicago, and I hope it will move out to suburban theaters in the coming weeks.  I’m hoping Viggo gets an Oscar nomination for this role.

Five stars out of five.  Cannot recommend highly enough.

Brahman Naman – Hilarious Indian teen sex comedy now on Netflix – The Indian American Pie

Brahman Naman is an absolutely hilariouos teen sex comedy set in the 80’s. It’s the Indian Superbad or American Pie with major homage to John Hughes movies, too.

screen-shot-2016-04-28-at-22-45-23Naman is the leader of his Bangalore college quiz team, and the leader of nerds in the same way Anthony Michael Hall was the leader of his group of nerds in Sixteen Candles. They delight in throwing trivia at each other and quoting Noel Coward.

The film opens with Naman waking up in the middle of the night to masturbate in the refrigerator door, wrapping his arms around the appliance to held the door tight. Really.

The film is mostly all in English with the occasional “yaar” or other term. Naman and his friends are Brahman, and there’s a sweet scene of him doing rituals with his father. Ash, is a nerdy girl who yearns to be on the quiz team with Naman and his friends, and has a major crush on Naman that is not reciprocated. He uses every excuse in the book to avoid her, even though his friends point out that she is Brahman, too.

The boys are sex obsessed, but don’t have today’s internet porn. All they have are racy magazines and sneaking into porno movie theaters. Naman has an elaborate gadget attached to his ceiling fan for a masturbation aide, but the ultimate was his putting his erect penis into a fish tank and the ejaculation was shown in close up. (!!!) Netflix bought the movie, and I wonder if that scene will need to be edited out even for streaming.

For all their bravado, the boys run away from being set up with a prostitute for their first real experience.

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My favorite part of the film, however, is when their quiz team takes a trip to Calcutta for a quiz competition. On the train they meet a female team from Chennai, and Naman falls for the leader, Naina. As his friend points out, she is Naman in female form, cutting him down to size with her wit.

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I was probably the only one in the Sundance theater to recognize  Biswa Kalyan Rath from the Pretentious Movie Reviews team. He’s a standup comedian in India, too, and has the small role in the movie as a guy at their college always trying to impress Naman and his pals with his sexual exploits on trains, planes, etc.

It’s an enjoyable comedy. and although my son was confused by the references to Brahmans and caste, I thought the film does a good job pointing out the issues with jokes understandable for non-Desi’s.

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At the Sundance showing after the film, I asked the director, Q, about censorship of films in India and he went on a rant about the restrictive censor board.  This is certainly not like any Indian film I’ve ever seen.  Q said in a recent interview “that the film is far from misogynistic. “We’re showing the boys for who they are — sexually starved and confused. And at the same time, we give women power. What you expect is definitely not what you’ll end up with,” he promised.”

Highly recommend this quirky film.  Four stars out of five.  Available July 6 streaming on Netflix!

Swiss Army Man – The craziest weirdest movie I saw at Sundance 2016

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Swiss Army Man was the craziest film we saw at Sundance 2016. (And we saw 22 films, so that’s really, really saying something.)  I saw the trailer before my viewing of The Lobster this weekend, and that reminded me that Swiss Army Man is coming to theaters June 24th.

The film begins with Paul Dano trying to hang himself on a deserted island.  A dead body (Daniel Radcliffe) washes ashore and begins to fart.  Copiously.

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Dano rides Radcliffes’ flatulent body like a jet ski off the island.  This is the first 10 minutes of the film, and it sets the tone of magical realism.  I don’t think I’ve ever been at a Sundance showing at Eccles Theater (the largest venue) with so many walk outs.  I was seated 7 rows from the front, and two groups of 4 people in seats in front of ours walked out only half an hour into the film.  From an article in Variety, they weren’t the only ones.  And this was after there were huge lines of people trying to get in to the showing.

This film was very divisive at the fest.  My husband hated it and found it juvenile.  My 23 year old son loved it, and gave it four stars (out of four).  I think it was his favorite of the whole festival.  I was in the middle.  I laughed quite a bit, but it wasn’t my favorite, by any means.

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The title, Swiss Army Man refers to all the ways that Daniel Radcliffe’s dead body saves Paul Dano’s on their journey back to civilization. Strike a spark, and the farting corpse lights a fire. Dripping rain fills the body with drinkable water (gross!). The body begins to talk, and they have conversations on the meaning of life, and what it means to be alive. It’s philosophical, and crazy weird. The body sees a picture of a girl on Dano’s phone, and his erect penis becomes a compass. Really.

The acting is great, and I have to give kudos to Daniel Radcliffe for his physical work.  He had to hold what looked like extremely uncomfortable poses as a dead corpse with a broken neck.

“The Daniels”, the directing duo of Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, won a special jury prize for directing this film at Sundance. I wasn’t familiar with them before the fest.  Evidently, they “broke the internet” with their music video Turn Down For What.  Daniel Kwan, one of the directing Daniels duo stars in the music video:

 

You, dear reader, have the advantage over all those festival goers at the premiere.  You can watch the trailer below and decide if this is your kind of movie.  It’s certainly one I will never forget.

Two and a half stars out of five.

 

 

 

I loved The Lobster, every surreal absurdist minute of it

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I adored the absurd surreal film The Lobster.  I missed it at Sundance, where it premiered in January.  This is a love it or hate it kind of movie.  I loved it, but some of the people walking out of my suburban theater HATED it.  They really hated it.  For me, it was just my cup of tea, and a welcome standout after a string of mediocre films I’ve seen this past week.

The film opens with a woman driving in the countryside in the rain.  She stops her car, gets out and shoots a donkey in a field.  Gets back in her car and drives away.  It’s never referred to again, but that sets the tone of how absurd this world is that Greek writer/director Yorges Lanthimos has created.  We then first see David (Colin Farrell).   His wife is breaking up their 12 year marriage for another man.  And that means he has to leave immediately to be taken away to “The Hotel” to be paired up with another woman.  Singles and loners are not allowed in this near future dystopian world.

When David arrives at The Hotel (in County Kerry, Ireland), the manager (the always exceptional Olivia Colman) explains the rules to him.  He has 45 days to find a new mate or he will be turned into an animal.  He chooses a lobster, because they can live for 100 years and he’s always liked the sea.  “Excellent choice.”  He is warned that if he doesn’t find his true mate in time, he cannot couple after he is transformed if she picks another animal. “A wolf and a penguin could not couple because that would be absurd.”

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This film is populated by so many of my favorite character actors.  Olivia Colman of The Night Manager.  John C. Reilly is a man with an unfortunate lisp.  Ben Whishaw has a limp.  Ashley Jenkins of The Extras is known as “Biscuit Woman”.  Couples must come together with the same distinguishing characteristic.  Limping Man (Ben Whishaw) bangs his head against tables to get nosebleeds to pair with a woman with that frequent malady.  All the single residents of the hotel must go out on hunts into the woods with tranquilizer guns to search for “loners”.

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If they catch a loner, they can extend their stay at the hotel.  One unfeeling woman has bagged so many loners that she has an extra 160 days.  David (Farrell) has brought his brother with him, who has been turned into a dog.

Every one of the actors delivers their lines in a quirky deadpan manner.  I think that’s what inspired some of the hate of my fellow viewers at the theater, but I just thought it added to all the absurdity.  These actors commit to the bizarre rules of this film world.  It borders on absurd comedy, and then there are some sudden scenes of violence or drama.  Lisping Man is punished for masturbating in his room, by having his hand forced into a toaster, for instance.

The-Lobster-2016David escapes and becomes part of the Loner band in the forest where he meets Rachel Weisz.  They have to pretend to be a couple to venture into the city for supplies, and David enthusiastically falls into the playacting and kissing.  The young woman leader of the Loners is just as strict in her no fraternizing rules as the manager of The Hotel had been with her coupling rules.  Farrell and Weisz plot together to escape.

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The ending was a fade to black that left you hanging a bit, and was my most unsatisfying moment of the film.  The rest was just fantastic.  Colin Farrell gained 40 pounds for this movie.  He has quite the paunch and “dad bod”.  I think he relished being more of a character actor leading man in this film.  I thought he was so good, as was the always great Rachel Weisz.

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This film is not for everyone.  But if you love absurd surreal “Sundance” kinds of movies, this will be right up your alley.  Four and a half stars out of five.

Love & Friendship -A Jane Austen Adaption With Bite and Wit

Love & Friendship is based on the early novella Lady Susan by Jane Austen.  She never submitted the epistolary novel for publication, and the movie is actually titled after another early work of Austen’s.  Whit Stillman’s adaptation stars Kate Beckinsale as the scandalous widow, Lady Susan, and Chloe Sevigny as her American best friend

There are some verbal zingers in this film that are just delicious, especially when Beckinsale and Sevigny share the screen.  The scene stealer, though, is Tom Bennett as the hilariously stupid but incredibly wealthy suitor Sir James Martin.  In a twist, Beckinsale’s Lady Susan is pursuing a younger man (Xavier Samuel), and urging her daughter to marry Sir James Martin.  Stephen Fry has a delightful cameo as Chloe Sevigny’s husband.

I saw the premiere at Sundance, and I think it will play extremely well on your TV like a great PBS series.  But if you’re tiring of superhero fare and are looking for something adult to see in the theater, check out Love & Friendship.  Three and a half stars out of five.

 

 

 

Green Room – A Taut Relentless Thriller

I would highly recommend Green Room if you love intense thrillers.  Anton Yelchin and Alia Shawkat are members of a punk rock band.  They get a last minute gig at a club out in the boonies, and realize the owners are Neo-Nazi Skinheads when they arrive.  They just want to play the show and get the hell out of there.

One band member forgets their phone charging in the green room, and when they go back to get it, they discover a girl murdered on the floor.  They are then trapped in the Green Room while the people running the club figure out what to do with them.  And who owns the club?  Patrick Stewart in an absolutely chilling performance.

I saw this film at Sundance in January and I was not prepared for how relentless this film would be.  I was on the edge of my seat nearly the entire hour and a half of the film.

To give you a sense, this is what Patrick Stewart tweeted about reading the script the first time:

 

Four stars out of five.  The film is at times very gruesome, but it is a tense taut thriller.  Green Room is writer/director Jeremy Saulnier‘s third feature film.  I can’t wait to see what he does next!