My Film Reviews and Interviews at RogerEbert.com

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It was a decade ago this fall when I was officially hired to write film reviews for my college paper, The Columbia Chronicle. Little did I know that this job, and the connections I received from it, would end up launching my career as a journalist and professional critic. In addition to the interviews and essays I published at RogerEbert.com over the past year, I also began contributing film reviews. Having my work published on the same site that houses Roger’s reviews—the same ones that I’d read at breakfast every day before school—is an honor that I have never taken for granted.

Looking back on the films that I have reviewed for the site thus far, I can count only one indisputably great picture among them. There are also a few near-great ones, a few more good ones and many bad ones. How bad, you ask? “War Room” was my pick for the worst film of 2015, and it’s not even the third worst title on this list. Here they are ranked from best to worst, complete with excerpts (click on each title to be directed to the full review)…

A Light Beneath Their Feet 

“Rarely have the dynamics of a loving yet unhealthy relationship been explored with as much tenderness and insight as they are here by [director Valerie] Weiss and screenwriter Moria McMahon.”

Rabin, the Last Day

“With America more divided than ever, and millions of Syrian refugees in dire need of aid, Rabin’s sobering wisdom resonates louder than any number of gunshots.”

Very Semi-Serious 

“Catnip for writers and humorists of all stripes, [Leah] Wolchok’s film provides delightful breakdowns of various [New Yorker] cartoons, examining the comedic rhythm of their design and detail.”

Rosenwald

“Wholly engaging from its first frame to its last, ‘Rosenwald’ stands as an exemplary testament to the change that can occur when wealth, power and influence are utilized for the good of humanity.”

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Democrats 

“There’s an irony here worthy of ‘Catch 22’ in the idea of people being expected to speak their minds in a country that has continuously ordered them to keep their mouths shut.”

The Russian Woodpecker 

“The implications of this theory are scary as hell, yet the style [Chad] Gracia chooses to utilize is overdone to a fault, thus undermining the potential believability of the material.”

Boom Bust Boom 

“With its frequent use of puppetry and quirky animation, ‘Boom Bust Boom’ suggests what an old-school episode of ‘Sesame Street’ would’ve played like, had it focused solely on the subprime crash.”

Captive

“For a film supposedly about the transformative power of faith, ‘Captive’ has very little to preach in that regard, apart from the importance of purchasing megachurch pastor Rick Warren’s hit book, The Purpose Driven Life.”

Welcome to Happiness 

“Whereas the first half of ‘Welcome to Happiness’ is needlessly convoluted, the second half becomes increasingly simplistic with each successive scene.”

Endgame 

“The deportation subplot comes completely out of left field and is so whiplash-inducing in its haphazard placement that it elicits incredulity rather than empathy.”

Papa: Hemingway in Cuba 

“‘Papa’ is merely cinema at its dullest, a perfunctory assemblage of biographical bullet points in which characters explain their lives rather than live them.”

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90 Minutes in Heaven 

“‘90 Minutes in Heaven’ seems to take for granted the notion that audiences will buy [Don] Piper’s story, and thus exerts no effort to make it convincing, let alone interesting.”

War Room 

“Her role as a submissive woman is to treat the man in her life with grace, which will eventually shame him into becoming a good person. God forbid she even considers a divorce.”

Lazer Team 

“It is the most obnoxiously unfunny comedy in many a moon, featuring four alleged protagonists so thoroughly repellant, the audience will find themselves quickly rooting against the survival of humanity.”

Careful What You Wish For 

“This is the sort of embarrassment tweens throw on at a sleepover so that they can talk over it, while occasionally rewinding key moments to ogle the stars.”

Dangerous Men

“Bad acting, bad writing, bad directing, bad music, bad sound and bad fight choreography can only take a film so far.”

As I did last year, I have also compiled excerpts from the interviews I conducted for RogerEbert.com over the past twelve months. Each one was an extraordinary privilege, and many provided me with an opportunity to meet some of my personal heroes such as Hany Abu-Assad (“Paradise Now”), Ramin Bahrani (“Plastic Bag”), Cliff Curtis (“Whale Rider”), Julie Delpy (“Before Sunrise”), Barbara Kopple (“Harlan County, U.S.A.”) and Parker Posey (“Best in Show”). I was especially thrilled to chat on the phone with Marielle Heller, director of my favorite film of 2015 (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”), a month prior to her deservedly winning Best First Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards. Click on each name and you will be directed to the full interview…

“It’s amazing to me that I can tell this little story from New Zealand and it can connect with someone from a small town in the Midwest. I’m really attracted to stories that bring hope to people and connect humanity. They help us dispel ignorance and encourage compassion.”—Cliff Curtis, star of “The Dark Horse”

“The title ‘Race’ has a lot of different meanings. It’s not just running and it’s not just black and white. You also have to look at the human race, and the struggles faced by anyone [who is oppressed].”—Stephan James, star of “Race”

“Sometimes you can be in the same area at the same moment—even at the same event—and still be in an entirely different world.”—Omar Sy, star of “Samba”

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“The shame of it is that parents and often doctors think that it’s an either/or situation. Either you have the fire that’s going to let you feel life at its wildest extremes […] or you live numb, which is basically like a waiting room for death.”—Paul Dalio, writer/director of “Touched With Fire”

“Through pushing the freshmen and trying to make them uncomfortable, you become a mentor to them, in a weird way.”—Tyler Hoechlin, star of “Everybody Wants Some!!”

“Part of the reason why there’s resistance to women being unlikable on camera is because there’s resistance to women being unlikable in life.”—Melissa Rauch, star/co-writer of “The Bronze”

“Oftentimes female characters, particularly younger, ingénue-types, are somehow unaware of their own beauty or appeal. They’ll be like, ‘Huh? Am I beautiful?’, and I’m like, ‘You f—king know that you’re beautiful!’ I love that Tracy knows that she’s beautiful, even if she hasn’t figured out what to do with it yet.”—Greta Gerwig, star/co-writer of “Mistress America”

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“Hopefully people can recognize their own situations in this movie, and see the truth of how complicated these situations can be reflected here. You are not going to be a ruined person. We have really bad messages for women about what happens when you don’t make the perfect choices when it comes to your sexuality.”—Marielle Heller, writer/director of “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”

“When I talk to my girlfriends who are in a good relationship, they say that they’ve been dreaming of other things too. Their fantasies aren’t necessarily sexual, they’re more about romance and the idea of falling in love again. Female sexuality is a lot more complex to satisfy. ”—Julie Delpy, director/co-writer/star of “Lolo”

“I got stopped on the train one time by a guy who was like, ‘Were you in that Abe Lincoln [Vampire Hunter] movie?’ I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he went, ‘Okay.’”—Benjamin Walker, star of “The Choice”

“It’s not an accident that these movies are getting made. It’s all a plan to keep the audience dumb and occupied with nonsense. You can control them better if they are slaves for the economy.”—Hany Abu-Assad, director/co-writer of “The Idol”

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“We are not living the way we are supposed to be living as Christians if we can continue to condone this kind of fear and hatred with the use of guns.”—Lucia McBath, activist and subject of “The Armor of Light”

“It’s interesting when you talk to someone who has really been through something very, very terrible. They are less likely to talk about it. People who have had a bad day because their soup was cold can talk about their ‘suffering’ all day long.”—Davis Guggenheim, director of “He Named Me Malala”

“She gets up to go through the curtain, and from the back, she almost looks like Mike Tyson ready to go out for a fight—with her beautiful broad shoulders and her bald head. There was such power in that moment, as well as a fear of the unknown.”—Barbara Kopple, director of “Miss Sharon Jones!”

“If I’ve cast the room and the actors correctly, they will fit together perfectly. Otherwise, the audience will be able to sense that something isn’t working. It’s forced somehow. It has to feel like a nice, comfortable shirt.”—Ramin Bahrani, director/co-writer of “99 Homes”

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“It’s been a huge sea change in terms of what documentary filmmakers can do. It was there in the law all along, but people were intimidated from asserting their rights. A lot can change when you stand up together as a group.”—Gordon Quinn, co-founder of Kartemquin Films

“In my household, we swear. If you avoid swear words, you eroticize them and give them power. The way you take away their power is by using them, and then it’s not a big deal.”—Matt Ross, writer/director of “Captain Fantastic”

“I feel that digital technology tends to make people distracted and results in the sort of hipster films that are purely generational. It’s not going to translate unless you really start digging as an artist.”—Parker Posey, star of “Irrational Man”

“There’s an unspoken conversation that occurs when I meet somebody who has lost a loved one or is going through a similar caregiver situation. I get them, and they get me. This film has been furthering that conversation, which has been really nice for me. It feels like I’m not alone.”—Josh Mond, writer/director of “James White”

Along with my slate of film reviews, I was also assigned to review a few TV shows, the best of which was easily FX’s “Baskets,” featuring an excellent, gender-bending turn from Louie Anderson. I had high hopes for ABC’s “The Muppets,” and found the first couple episodes promising, though it ultimately failed to capture Henson’s humanistic touch. The other two—Starz’s “Flesh and Bone” and USA’s “Colony”—were mediocre at best.

I love when I stumble upon a movie that would’ve likely evaded my gaze if I hadn’t screened it for festival coverage. That’s certainly true of Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami’s documentary “Sonita,” which was among the films at this year’s inaugural DOC10 film festival, as well as Guillaume Senez’s “Keeper,” a 2015 TIFF selection that has yet to land a U.S. release date. I became so obsessed with the mind-boggling career of century-old actor Norman Lloyd that I ended up writing a mammoth essay on his career, spanning his collaborations with Chaplin, Hitchcock, Renoir, Welles and yes, Apatow. I also covered a few wonderful events, including a Columbia Links fundraiser celebrating the achievements of spectacularly gifted students, a Q&A with Philip Glass following a screening of “Mishima” at the University of Chicago, and the 50th anniversary celebration of Kartemquin Films.

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The most surreal event of all that I covered was the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s annual Grants Gala in Beverly Hills. I sat towards the back of the room, and every time I’d turn to look at the people passing by me, I’d see someone amazing—Lady Gaga, Saorise Ronan, John Hamm, Ice Cube and Andrew Garfield, to name a few (I had a nice chat with Garfield afterward about his excellent film, “99 Homes”). Prior to that, I was conducting interviews on the red carpet, and though I was placed at the very end, far away from the aggravating paparazzi, I was able to snag a few words with John Boyega (a.k.a. Finn from “Star Wars: Episode VII”) and Jason Isaacs, who starred in one of my all-time favorite films, Rodrigo García’s “Nine Lives.” Isaacs’ eyes lit up when I mentioned the picture, and he attributed the success of his scenes entirely to the strength of García’s script. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation…

“You want to affect people with your work, and so many people have talked about their first love to me, and how you can be transported in a situation, forget about the circumstances of your life, and go off with someone you had just met or used to be with. That is the power of great writing. You are constantly in search of good writing, and maybe three or four times in my 30-year career have I come across writing like that. You treasure it.”—Jason Isaacs, star of “Nine Lives”

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