Alan Rickman: Yippee-ki-yay, Motherf#cker.

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We will always be grateful for Hans Gruber.

When Die Hard hit theaters in 1988, it felt like something we had never seen before: a different kind of action movie that would reset the genre for a generation or more. The action was riveting. The humor was sharp. It gave us a new kind of hero. And the whole thing felt glossy and polished.

And then there was Alan Rickman.

Of all the things about Die Hard that we had never seen before, Alan Rickman rises to the top of the list. Making his film debut as villain Hans Gruber, Rickman immediately and indelibly emerged as a cinematic force to be reckoned with. To borrow a phrase from another hit movie that came out the very same year, Rickman announced his presence with authority.

As the poisonous Hans Gruber, Alan Rickman was a revelation, taking a two-dimensional archetype and breathing into it three-dimensional, glorious life. Part low-rent Bond villain, part frustrated junior college professor, Rickman’s Gruber slithered across Die Hard boldly and confidently, leaving a trail of irresistible slime in his wake. We laughed at his snarling invectives. We gasped as his acts of cold blooded murder. We reveled with him in his moment of triumph. And we marveled in utter fascination at his every move across the screen. It was impossible to look away from him.

In a movie built to showcase Bruce Willis as Action Hero 2.0 (long before anyone would have known what “2.0” meant), unknown Alan Rickman went toe-to-toe with the emerging movie star and in large part stole the show. With wit and rage and subtlety and smarm, Rickman gravitated toward the center of the film and never relinquished the spotlight.

It is no coincidence that the Die Hard sequels paled in comparison to the original. None featured Rickman’s devilish presence, and none could match the fun of the first.

Of course, Alan Rickman would himself go on to have a Hall of Fame career.

His Sheriff of Nottingham was extraordinary and by far the best thing about the otherwise-unbearable Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. He delivered brilliant comic turns in the incisive Bob Roberts and the broader Galaxy Quest. His imprudent flirtation with a secretary in the wonderful Love Actually gives dramatic weight to an otherwise light and airy romantic comedy. For one generation, he will always be known for his tender performances in films like Truly, Madly, Deeply and Sense and Sensibility; and for another, they may never see him as anyone other than Harry Potter‘s Severus Snape.

And for those of us who first saw him snarling at us from the big screen in his motion picture debut, he will always be Hans Gruber.

Alan Rickman’s death this week left cinephiles across the globe in mourning. He was a towering figure in the film world who will be sorely missed, and there will simply never be another like him.

Some will bid him Godspeed.

Others will wish him Rest in Peace.

And for the rest of us, only one final farewell seems appropriate.

Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker.

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Top 10 Films of 2015

With 2015 now officially in the rear view mirror, it turns out to have been a sneaky-good year at the movies. Despite The Force Awakens pretty much sucking all of the oxygen out of the cinema universe this year—even before its mega-debut in December—2015 gave us some quality films throughout the year.

The following Top 10 represents, in no particular order (well, in alphabetical order, in fact), my own personal “best of” list for 2015. Many of these will be found on other critics’ best of lists, and many of them will be awards contenders in the coming months. Some, however, simply struck a nerve with this particular critic and found their way onto the list. If you think there is movie missing that should be on the list, it’s entirely possible that I didn’t get to see it this year…or that it simply didn’t make my cut. That shouldn’t stop you from putting it on your own list, however!

The Big Short

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Corruption. Stupidity. Greed. Co-writer and director Adam McKay posits in The Big Short that it was the confluence of those particular sins that led to the global financial disaster in the first decade of this century; and he presents the lead-up to that meltdown through the stories of three teams of financial professionals who saw it coming and set out to profit from it. For a story that unfolds primarily through phone calls, in Wall Street meeting rooms, and around the analysis of mortgage documents and investment prospectuses, The Big Short bristles with creativity and energy. Not to mention moral outrage. Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, and Brad Pitt headline the cast—with Carell and Bale delivering the most interesting takes on their real-life characters—but this is a movie that succeeds because of the collective. Lead actors and the supporting cast alike rivet from start to finish. There is nothing on Adam McKay’s robust comedy resume (the Anchor Man movies, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, and more) to suggest that he could deliver a film of such incisive wit and moral weight, but with The Big Short he may have written and directed the best film of the year.

Ex Machina

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It’s no coincidence that Oscar Isaac appears in three of the films on this particular “best of” list. In 2015, he confidently staked his claim as one of the finest actors of his generation. In Ex Machina, he portrays a reclusive tech genius who just may have produced the world’s first sentient machine. He invites a star employee of his tech empire to his secluded island estate and introduces him to Ava (or is it Eve?), his latest version of sexualized artificial intelligence. Alicia Vikander slyly portrays Eva as Woman.0, and by the end of the movie we hear her roar. Ex Machina is a creepy, slow burn, and it lingers long after the final credits roll.

It Follows

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The most interesting and understated horror movie of the year was It Follows. Part supernatural horror and part surprisingly complex morality tale, It Follows both subverts and validates the genre’s conventions regarding sex, death, and punishment. After a young girl is seduced into a sexual encounter with a mysterious new boyfriend, she finds herself haunted and pursued by an evil demon that inexorably stalks her no matter where she tries to run or hide. She can’t destroy it, and she can’t escape it. Her only hope of surviving is to have sex with another person, which will then pass the curse from her to her partner. What could have been a clumsy, typical teen blood fest is instead, in the hands of writer/director David Robert Mitchell, a masterclass in mounting suspense and hair-raising imagery. Though it rattles off the rails a bit in its closing stages, the difficulties with its resolution are not enough to undermine the style and power woven into the rest of the film.

Love & Mercy

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Love & Mercy alternates back and forth between the two periods in life of Brian Wilson, the creative genius behind The Beach Boys. Paul Dano portrays a younger, faltering Wilson, and John Cusack fills the role of an older, emotionally broken Wilson. The unconventional approach—two different adult actors playing the same character at different points of his life—works in unexpected and riveting ways. After two decades of struggle with debilitating mental illness, drug abuse, and family turmoil, the fragile, dependent Wilson of the 1980’s indeed seems to have been a completely different man than the energetic, dynamic Wilson of the Pet Sounds era. Dano and Cusack famously did not coordinate their takes on Wilson and barely even met before or during the film’s production, and as a result their individual portrayals of the man are crafted and shaded in their own unique ways. And both deliver, as does a stellar Elizabeth Banks in a supporting role. Read Madison Film Guy’s full review here.

Mistress America

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Indie actress-cum-screenwriter Greta Gerwig has emerged in recent years as a truly idiosyncratic cinematic voice, with her latest film, Mistress America, a minor-though-charming addition to her growing and impressive filmography. Mistress America, which Gerwig stars in, co-produced, and co-wrote with director and best beau Noah Baumbach, is an unexpansive meditation on loneliness, narcissism, and the cult of (failed) ambition. And, like much of Gerwig’s most personal work to date, it delights in the struggle of a generation desperate to find its place as it comes to terms with the twilight of youth and the dawn of adulthood. Gerwig’s cinematic baptism has come at the altar of filmmakers like Whit Stillman and Baumbach himself, and it shows in her scripting of Mistress America. And that’s not a bad thing. Though less self-conscious—but dramatically warmer—than movies like Metropolitan or Damsels in Distress (which Gerwig starred in, as well), Gerwig the writer shares a talky, erudite style with Stillman and Baumbach. But her earthy, human moments are significantly more impactful and resonant. Read Madison Film Guy’s full review here.

A Most Violent Year

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Sidney Lumet was a titan of 1970’s filmmaking, imbuing his films with rich complexity and indelible style. Though his career spanned more than 50 years, in that one decade alone, Lumet gave us such signature films as Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network, among many others. Lumet died in 2011, but director J.C. Chandor seems to have been channeling the great man’s spirit in A Most Violent Year. Technically released (limited) on December 31 of 2014, I’m going to count A Most Violent Year on this list, because it didn’t really hit theaters until the early part of 2015. And it would be a shame not to give it its due. With the look and feel of a 1970’s gangster film but the pacing of a deeply personal drama, the film tells the story of an ambitious Latino immigrant attempting to protect his business, his family, and his honor during the violence of 1981 New York City. Starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year never combusts, but it smolders with quiet, restrained intensity in every frame.

Spotlight

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An example of your classic late-year prestige picture, Spotlight checks off all the right boxes to make it a serious Oscar contender: great ensemble cast, important subject, quality script and direction, and pretty much everyone involved putting their best foot forward. Directed by Tom McCarthy, Spotlight chronicles the months-long quest by the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” investigative team to draw back the curtain on Boston’s massive clergy-abuse scandal in the early 2000’s. The film functions not only as a scathing indictment of the role of the Catholic church in covering up and perpetuating the abuse, but also as a testament to the importance of a strong, healthy free press in exposing and challenging the wrongdoing of the most powerful institutions in  society.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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The story and thematic parallels between this film and the original Star Wars have been much remarked upon in recent weeks and in some quarters roundly criticized, but for the most part, The Force Awakens actually delivers on the year-long hype and decades-long anticipation that ushered in its arrival. “It’s true,” Harrison Ford’s Han Solo assures us at one point. “All of it. The Dark Side, the Jedi. They’re real.” That’s how we felt watching Star Wars for the first time nearly 40 years ago, and that’s how this movie makes us feel once again. The Force Awakens is the movie we’ve been waiting for since 1983, and you come away from it reassured of one thing: The Force will be with you. Always. Read Madison Film Guy’s full review here.

Steve Jobs

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Deconstructing Apple co-founder Steve Jobs through an interesting, practically theatrical 3-act structure, writer Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle paint a portrait of a self-righteous, morally fallible genius who is wrong more than he is right. But when he’s right–whoa!–he’s really right. Sorkin’s crackling script, Kate Winslet’s Oscar-worthy second banana, and a host of solid supporting turns (Seth Rogan and Jeff Daniels, among them) take a backseat to Michael Fassbender’s intense, penetrating portrayal of Jobs himself. Fassbender has been putting some riveting work on film the last several years, and here he is alternatively seductive and repugnant. In berating loyal employee Andy Hertzfeld before the launch of the Apple Macintosh computer, Fassbender’s Jobs hisses, “You had three weeks. The universe was created in a third of that time.” Without skipping a beat, Hertzfeld replies, “Well, someday you’ll have to tell us how you did it.” And that’s Steve Jobs in a nutshell.

What We Do in the Shadows

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Released in the United States in early 2015, What We Do in the Shadows succeeds due in large part to its palpable love and appreciation of the horror classics. Its humor may be modern, but its roots and inspiration burrow through more than a century of classic horror cinema. More Young Frankenstein than Scary Movie 5, Shadows’ affectionate take on the horror comedy offers equal parts satire and homage, with dashes of genuine melancholy and dread thrown in for good measure. It’s an instant classic. Read Madison Film Guy’s full review here.

31 Films of Halloween – 10/8/15: The Appointment in Sammara

Each day during October, Madison Film Guy will post a new mini-review/recommendation/musing on a contemporary or classic horror film to help celebrate my 31 favorite days of the year: the countdown to Halloween! Today’s topic: The Appointment in Sammara.

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The Appointment in Sammara (from Targets, 1968)

First off, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m not a fan of Peter Bogdanovich’s 1968 directorial debut, Targets.  It’s the story of an elderly horror film star–making a personal appearance at a drive-in theater–who gets tangled up with a boy-next-store brand of mass-murdering sniper. It’s uneven, largely uninteresting, and it hasn’t aged well.

However, it does star Boris Karloff as the aging film legend, and he’s terrific, no more so than in this classic scene in which he relates to a group of young fans the story of “The Appointment in Sammara”.

Here is one of Karloff’s finest final scenes of a distinguished horror career:

Classic Karloff. Thanks, Boris.

Woody and the Women

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“Does Woody Allen have a woman problem?”

IndieWIRE’s Ryan Lattanzio asks that question in a blog post this week titled “The 9 Women You Meet in Woody Allen Movies”, an article tied to Allen’s upcoming 2015 release, Irrational Man.

Leading with Irrational Man’s Emma Stone, Lattanzio writes:

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Lattanzio then goes on to a rather reductive take on the 9 types of women that he says populate Woody Allen’s film oeuvre.

Honestly, it would seem that if you take any filmmaker and look at his or her characters—male or female—and try to archetype them, you might be hard-pressed to come up with nine distinct types! Are Martin Scorsese’s antiheroes so different from one film to the next? Or how about Wes Anderson’s quirky ensembles? Or Sophia Coppola? I mean, how different, really, was Bill Murray’s aging burnt-out movie star in Lost in Translation from Stephen Dorff’s young burnt-out movie start in Somewhere?

When it comes to Woody Allen, though, it has always been fashionable (if not incredibly lazy) to ask, “Does Woody Allen have a woman problem?”

If he does, then it is a problem that almost every actress in Hollywood over the past forty years has wanted to be a part of. Any why not? Perhaps actresses are so eager to work with Allen because of the phenomenal success women have historically had starring in his films.

Despite Allen’s apparently horrible failings at writing female characters, an astounding 12 actresses have been nominated for 13 Oscars for appearing in Woody Allen films, and 6 times they have walked away as winners.

A quick summary:

Diane Keaton was nominated for and won Best Actress for Annie Hall in 1977.

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Maureen Stapleton and Geraldine Page were BOTH nominated—Supporting Actress and Actress, respectively—for 1978’s Interiors.

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Mariel Hemingway was nominated for her supporting turn in Allen’s masterpiece, Manhattan, in 1978.

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Dianne Wiest was nominated for and won Best Supporting Actress in 1986 for Hannah and Her Sisters. (No good females roles in that one, right?)

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Judy Davis gave a volcanic performance, earning a Supporting Actress nomination, for 1992’s Husbands and Wives.

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Dianne Wiest and Jennifer Tilly both earned nominations for Supporting Actress, with Wiest claiming her second Allen Oscar win, for Bullets Over Broadway in 1994.

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Mira Sorvino earned an improbable Supporting Actress win for 1995’s Mighty Aphrodite.

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Samantha Morton earned a Supporting Actress nomination for Sweet and Low Down in 1999.

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Penelope Cruz smoldered and erupted her way to a Supporting Actress win in 2008 for Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

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Sally Hawkins and Cate Blanchett were both nominated—Supporting Actress and Actress, respectively—with Blanchett the runaway Oscar winner for 2013’s Blue Jasmine.

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Woody Allen writes such weak and obvious female characters that three times multiple actresses have been Oscar-nominated for his films?

And those are just the Oscar winners!

Don’t forget about Diane Keaton’s brilliant turn in Manhattan. Or the phenomenal ensemble work done not only by Wiest in Hannah and Her Sisters, but also Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, and even Maureen O’Sullivan in a small role. Anjelica Houston’s shattered other woman in Crimes and Misdemeanors? Scarlett Johansson’s scintillating seductress in Match Point? Heck, even the minor, mostly-dismissed You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger featured strong, vibrant work from Gemma Jones and Naomi Watts.

To be sure, Allen has worked with some of the best actresses in the business, and the credit for their performances go first and foremost to them. But it is no coincidence that great actresses climb over each other to try to appear in Woody Allen movies, despite the fact that there haven’t exactly been a lot of hits in his filmography since the early ‘80’s.

Clearly, they must see something in his female characters that they want to play, and something in the director that will allow them to do their best work.

Does Woody Allen have a woman problem?

Only in that even in churning out a movie every single year, there still aren’t enough parts for all the actresses who want to play them.