Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.
Jared McMillan // Film Critic
It’s the beginning of 2016 and we’ve already waved our goodbyes to 2015, with either good riddance or fond remembrance. Also, as is tradition, it’s that time for the critic to sort out his/her favorite films of the year. It can be painstaking in sorting out the list: the toiling over every movie that’s been seen, the nitpicking to put everything in order, whether or not you are selling yourself short because of your contemporaries… it leads to a competition with yourself.
That being said, 2015 was not a bad year for movies. There was a list of about 40 movies that I started with and narrowed down to the list that follows. No set criteria, but I did focus on what impacted me as a viewer and a critic; the films that both entertained and intrigued me. Unfortunately, even though there were hundreds of films that passed through these eyeballs, I couldn’t get to some, either by release schedule (THE REVENANT, ANOMALISA) or by personal schedule (ROOM, STEVE JOBS). After all is said and done, these films merited the most acclaim for 2015.
It’s difficult these days to pull off something wholesome in a film, but that’s how BROOKLYN left its mark. Normally, when there are films about immigrants coming to America, it can be all conflict. Here, the lead is a strong woman, whose struggle is with regard to her family, and her role as daughter…their dependence on her in Ireland vs. her independence in America.
Led by a strong, endearing performance from Saoirse Ronan, as well as an honest screenplay by author Nick Hornby, BROOKLYN never forsakes its audience just for emotional gain. It’s a genuine story.
9) LOVE AND MERCY
One of the best musical biopics in a while, the narrative focuses on The Beach Boys’ member Brian Wilson in two points of his life. One timeline, where Brian is portrayed phenomenally by Paul Dano, focuses on the creation of Pet Sounds, and the beginning of his manic-depression and auditory hallucinations. The second timeline, portrayed with quiet resolve by John Cusack, revolves around the battle of his well-being some 20 years later.
Elizabeth Banks is fantastic as the woman who falls for the broken musician and becomes his protector against Paul Giamatti’s controlling manager. With solid performances, great music, and the fact that it doesn’t shy away from Wilson’s mental illness, LOVE AND MERCY is an original take that makes bold choices in its presentation, and pays off tremendously.
The latest from Denis Villenueve, one of the best directors today, SICARIO looks at the lines that are erased when it comes to the war against drug cartels. Emily Blunt plays Kate, a precautious agent plucked out of the field to join a task force that looks to eliminate a Mexican cartel. She soon learns that not everything is as it seems, and that those around her are willing to do more outside of jurisdiction to get results.
With Josh Brolin as the shifty leader, and Benicio del Toro as a shadowy figure among the group, SICARIO makes sure to keep the audience out of the loop on par with Kate; we only know what she knows, so we are surprised and angered as she is once information comes to light. The best part of the film is the direction by Villenueve and cinematography by Roger Deakins, as the camera keeps everything just out of sight for the viewers to keep everyone on edge.
7) THE BIG SHORT
One of the most fascinating things about the financial collapse of 2008 is that everyone seemed to know something and know nothing at the same time. This is the heart of THE BIG SHORT, a film about several financiers (Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt) looking to play the long con against the housing market before it implodes.
As these four men learn about why the housing market is a joke, the narrative explains everything for the viewer, either through story or actual cutaways to break the fourth wall. Director/writer Adam McKay, known primarily as a collaborator with Will Ferrell, makes sure to elevate the film from satire to something important. The film is witty, informational, and brutal.
6) MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Most of the previous entries in the Mad Max canon had Max Rockatansky fighting off against some feral gang in the post-apocalyptic wasteland. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, with Tom Hardy taking the mantle from Mel Gibson, does the same, except Max is not the main character. That belongs to Imperator Furiosa, played with conviction by Charlize Theron, who is transporting female slaves, known as breeders, away from the clutches of Immortan Joe. The movie is pure, glorious insanity to watch; a two-hour long chase that has some of the most vibrant imagery, costumes, and stuntwork of any action movie ever. Witness!
Continuing with new, redefining chapters of franchises, CREED deals with an illegitimate son looking to find legitimacy in the boxing ring once ruled by his father. Michael B. Jordan plays Adonis close to the vest, while Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky is given new life as his trainer.
Director Ryan Coogler makes sure to put a unique visual style to the story, using long takes to help build the anticipation as Adonis makes his way through the ranks (the fight with Leo Sporino, done in one take, is breathtaking). What could’ve been a cash grab is given purpose, and sets itself apart from its predecessors.
Set against the backdrop of post-WWII Berlin, PHOENIX tells the story of a woman searching for herself again, while finding out about the reality that she never knew she lived in. Disfigured from the brutality endured in a concentration camp, Nelly (Nina Hoss) just wants to find her husband; a man she doesn’t know that uses her for his own gain.
This film is well-crafted, tightly directed by Christian Petzold, and plays out like a Hitchcockian thriller but more centered in reality. As secrets stay hidden, the tension mounts as we feel for Nelly trying to regain that person she lost. With so many movies about WWII, PHOENIX finds a way to deliver something different and personal, as it weaves a web of intrigue.
A lot of ensemble pictures are about the actors, and how many actors are all working together, etc. With SPOTLIGHT, however, the story is bigger than the actors. Keaton, Ruffalo, McAdams, and co. all do a solid job, but the investigative process that led to the exposure of almost 90 priests as pedophiles and rapists is what’s important. The city of Boston is a character unto itself, conflicted in what to do when those you trust most are actually monsters.
Faith is something that is extremely personal, and that it’s violated in the most heinous of ways leads to numerous decisions on when to have the biggest impact. The Spotlight team, investigative journalists for The Boston Globe, keep themselves in check in order to best serve a story that would strike the heart of Catholicism. The actors convey this struggle with minute facial expressions, giving the film a breadth of humanity that strikes the heart of its viewers.
Sometimes, film is meant to transcend from a traditional sense of storytelling. In this instance, the film is meant to be processed after more than one viewing. Such is the case with YOUTH, which revolves around two old friends at a weekend getaway in Switzerland. Headed by Michael Caine, the cast is excellent, as they become involved with each other through conversation and observation.
What is presented on screen is meant to challenge the viewer to realize deeper emotions than what is going on in the narrative. There are numerous cutaways to shots that happen away from a conversation to give better understanding on what is going on internally with the characters. It’s a beautiful film to watch as the audience absorbs frame after frame of shallow and depth.
1) EX MACHINA
No film this year blew me away quite like EX MACHINA. It’s science fiction that relies on intelligence in both its characters and its story. While artificial intelligence is getting closer to reality, the film plays on this fear of the unknown. Could you tell if someone was artificial or not? Caleb is tricked by his boss into becoming a human counterpart for the Turing test, which measures sentience in a computer, more or less.
While Caleb interacts with the AI known as Ava, we are also admitted into the test. EX MACHINA walks the fine line between science and philosophy, giving everything a subtle complexity. It’s one of the best sci-fi films in recent memory, and my pick for best of the year.
The Next 10:
11) PEACE OFFICER
12) THE HATEFUL EIGHT
13) INSIDE OUT
14) BLACK MASS
17) WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS
20) GOODNIGHT MOMMY