Saturday, December 26, 2015

Top 20 Films of 2015

2015 was an odd year.

I caught ~60 releases, but still felt a bit tuned out this year. Perhaps it’s just December, a month where I’m always consumed with regret and shame over all the films I missed. I’m only half kidding.

Still, I’ve put together a top 20, and jotted down some of my thoughts on the year. I’ll do the countdown first, and then the cranky, analytical, frankly skippable stuff afterwards.

20. Love & Mercy – A great cast and savvy attention to sound design allow this Brian Wilson musician biopic to transcend the genre’s typical reverential history lesson pitfalls. Paul Dano is great as young Brian, somewhat overshadowing the serviceable John Cusack as washed-up Brian, while Elizabeth Banks and Paul Giamatti are great is supporting roles.

19. Marshland – True Detective’s Spanish nephew. Marshland is a 1980s-set noir, in which a pair of anti-buddy cops attempt to solve a series of murders in rural swamp country, uncovering the usual conspiracy, but also some personal secrets of their own. Wallow in the offhand perfectionism of the period detail and immaculate sense of place supplemented by occasional overhead “god’s-eye” cinematography.

18. The Invitation – Two years after the death of their only son and subsequent divorce, Will, along with his new girlfriend, is invited to a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife Eden and her new husband, ostensibly to achieve some emotional closure by commemorating their lost child. Several other close friends have been invited, most of them somewhat out of touch with the hosts, who’ve been on retreat in Mexico. It’s an awkward get-together, and the taciturn Will increasingly suspects something is not right. This is a brooding low-budget thriller that amplifies paranoia and social anxieties into a form of horror that kept me guessing, but also relating. A hard combination to juggle. Director Karyn Kusama disliked her Hollywood experience on the thoroughly mediocre Jennifer’s Body, and returned to low-budget filmmaking in exchange for having her own way, including a lot more diversity than the genre usual accommodates.

17. Anomalisa – Charlie Kaufman’s previous film, Synecdoche New York, is one of my all-time favorites, and was bound to be a tough act to follow. Anomalisa, a story about a middle-aged motivational speaker having a one night stand while attending a customer service convention in Ohio (“Try the Chili!”), lacks his previous film’s existential ambition, but it’s still smarter, funnier and more original than 98% of cinema. Some immediate signs that this isn’t your typical midlife crisis indie movie: all the characters are puppets and all of them except two are voiced by the infuriatingly cordial-bland Tom Noonan.

16. What We Do in the Shadows – Doesn’t this sound insufferable: a reality-TV style film about four New Zealand dudes living as roommates? But Taika Waititi (Boy) adds a brilliant twist: they’re all vampires. The plot revolves around the reluctantly accepted new addition Nick, who clashes with self-centered bon vivant Deacon, 8000 year-old Petyr and a rival gang of werewolves. The screenplay explores the premise thoroughly without wearing out its welcome, and the silly but morbid skit-based comedy is sustained by performances that play off each other effortlessly.

15. The End of the Tour – Yet another biopic on my list! I must be getting old. But this highly focused, carefully modulated and relatively honest look at a brief encounter, perhaps just short of friendship, between writers David Lipsky and David Foster Wallace, highlights one of my favorite things: the sublime flow of a good conversation. Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg both inhabit their characters with grace and sincerity. Despite being framed around Wallace’s high profile suicide, the drama is wisely low key, more interested in Wallace’s fundamental humanity and need to express himself in everyday contemporary terms, than in his much touted genius. This is a quiet film, but a very full one. Its main shortcoming is that it isn’t as good as reading one of his books.

14. Wild Tales – 6 black comedic shorts from Argentina, themed around revenge in many shapes and sizes. Anthology films rarely work for me, but this one has a cohesive core without repeated itself and is ordered so that each tale overtops the previous. Lots of observations about topics as diverse as road rage, love, bureaucracy and the media. Revenge is a theme that cinema has done to death, but Wild Tales knows how to escalate things with just the right degree of cynical wit and gleeful absurdity.

13. The Last Five Years – A relatively straightforward adaptation of Jason Robert Brown’s not-so-straightforward musical, The Last Five Years spans the rise and fall of a relationship between novelist Jamie (Jeremy Jordan, a bit out of his depth on the acting side) and actress Cathy (Anna Kendrick, awesome as always). Their careers go in opposite directions, with Jamie dealing with fame even more poorly than Cathy with failure. The film’s uncompromisingly literary lyrics and holistic perspective on the stages of relationships are paired well with an experimental structure: Cathy’s story is told chronologically backwards, her songs alternating with Jamie’s story as it unfolds chronologically forwards.

12. Spotlight – A team of Boston investigative journalists gradually chip away at the systemic nature of priests molesting children and high-ranking church officials covering it up. Sure, this is ensemble Oscar-bait, but it is really, really good ensemble Oscar-bait, saved from histrionics, heroics and finger-wagging by Tom McCarthy’s (The Station Agent, The Visitor) borderline obsessive desire not to sensationalize. In fact, by dialing down the dramatic, the film managed to ratchet up the emotional impact, at least for jaded viewers like me. Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Michael Keaton are all top notch. Liev Schreiber is the best he’s ever been. 

11. Room – Ma is a 22-year-old woman who has raised her 5-year-old son, Jack, in captivity, locked in a small room somewhere in suburbia where she is kept by a kidnapper named Nick. It’s an instantly creepy, troubling, stressful set-up, anchored by a note-perfect Brie Larson (Short Term 12). The first half of the film would have been fantastic alone, but it’s the second half that shows real maturity, psychological insight and follow-through. This is really two great films, with different genres and tones fitted together seamlessly.

10. It Follows – This year’s breakout cult horror film. Spoilers ahead. Jay’s older boyfriend Hugh seems like a nice guy. Though he sometimes acts strange, they eventually hook up in his car in an empty lot behind some abandoned buildings. The romantic moment is shattered when, afterwards, he chloroforms her and ties her up. But just when you think you’ve stumbled into some awful torture porn, It Follows takes off in a really fascinating direction. Hugh isn’t a sadist; he just wants Jay to understand the gravity of the STD he’s just given her: a creature that can look like anyone will start following her. Slowly, implacably, unstoppably. If it catches her, she will die in extreme pain. And then it will return to hunting Hugh. Her only long-term survival plan is to pass it on to someone else. It Follows is a scary atmospheric thriller and a thoughtful allegory for teenage sexuality, surprisingly free from crass exploitation and cheap payoffs.

9. Tangerine –Tangerine has to be the year’s most surprising critical darling. Two take-no-prisoners trash-talking transgender sex workers, Sin-Dee and Alexandra, meet up at Donut Time on Christmas Eve, just after Sin-Dee is released from a 28 day prison sentence. Alexandra accidentally lets slip that Sin-Dee’s pimp/boyfriend Chester two-timed her with a cis-gender gal while she was in lock-up, and Sin-Dee is off on a bloodthirsty but oddly hilarious vengeance quest. A beleaguered Armenian taxi driver also gets involved. Shot on iPhones along the Sunset Strip, this is a film full of energy, guts, genuine friendship and a fresh comic voice. Much better than its po-faced East Coast indie darling counterpart, Heaven Knows What, about homeless heroin addicts.

8. Inside Out – Do I need to talk about this? It’s a Pixar film. You already saw it. Superb CG, story-telling, pacing, etc. They have a formula, but it works well, especially tucked behind such a beautiful and actually riskily original façade: personality traits controlling a teenage girl’s brain and exploring the landscapes of her mind. It’s also brave enough to dispense with both romantic subplots and villains. All “kids” movies should aspire to be this good.

7. Clouds of Sils Maria – A crafty, sophisticated, multi-layered enigma in which Juliette Binoche plays Maria, a middle-aged actress offered the role of the older woman in a play about a May-December lesbian relationship. A few decades past, she’d achieved her breakthrough to superstardom playing the younger woman, a role now being offered to hot up-and-comer and tabloid regular Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace-Moretz). Maria’s real life isn’t far from her art, as her relationship with much younger personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart, winning all kinds of awards!) is fraught with subterranean sexual tension and power struggles. Director Olivier Assayas’s career has been uneven, but never uninteresting, and this mesmerizing, ambiguous showcase of serious acting talent and subtle psychological warfare is his best work yet.

6. Embrace of the Serpent – A German botanist in 1909 and an American in 1940 both embark on similar quests for a rare legendary flower, capable of restoring dreams to the dreamless, supposedly found deep in the Amazon. They are guided by Karamakate, a shaman who doubts their ideologies and their intentions and who, by 1940, is suffering from severe memory loss. The lopsided two timeframe structure is a strange choice, but allows Colombian director Ciro Guerra to explore the unpredictable long-term ramifications of cultural clashes, both violently physical and dangerously mental. This is definitely a thinking man’s adventure film, with beguiling mystery wisps blooming out in every direction as their canoes take them deeper into a land feverishly rejecting its heart transplant. Shot in dense, evocative black-and-white.

5. Ex Machina – Caleb is a hotshot programmer who wins a chance to meet reclusive AI genius Nathan, who lives in an inaccessible high-tech glacier-side bungalow. He never quite finds his balance. Nathan immediately begins toying with him under cover of a disingenuous friendship and saddles him with an unexpected challenge: deliver a Turing test to Ava, a robot who looks, talks and possibly even thinks like a human. Caleb finds himself emotionally involved, attracted to Ava’s curiosity, intelligence and vulnerability, not to mention her sleek packaging, while trying to maneuver out from under Nathan’s thumb. Meanwhile the maestro is tortured by his visions of the coming future, a future he is compelled to create, but his condescension and narcissism have left him even more isolated than his imprisoned inventions. Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander are perfectly cast, and provide much-needed human stakes to underpin the cerebral dialog. It isn’t often I would give these two awards to the same film: best debate about technology and best dance scene.

4. Son of Saul – Does the world need another Holocaust film? There’ve been a lot, and I have to admit I go into them with a degree of skepticism. After all, what is there left to say that a film is even capable of communicating? Son of Saul has an answer, but it can’t be paraphrased. It has to be seen. This is a harrowing, soul-crushing odyssey through the inner workings of a the world’s most heinous machine, the concentration camp, seen from the perspective of a victim-employee determined to provide a proper Jewish burial for a boy who may or may not be his bastard son. The relentless over-the-shoulder long takes are technically brilliant, but even more brilliant because they force us not to do what we long to do: look away.

3. Mad Max: Fury Road – A glorious, nonstop post-apocalyptic desert car chase led by one-armed mechanic/warrior Charlize Theron and subdued, inarticulate Tom Hardy. The two, by necessity, learn to operate as a well-oiled machine as they attempt to outrun the enraged mutant tyrant whose harem they’ve just stolen. Pursued by an eccentric army of inventive vehicles of destruction, they leave a path of carnage and mayhem behind them while bonding through body language and mutual respect. Memorable action sequences and visual flourishes abound. The stripped-down script is ruthlessly efficient. Nothing else this year approached Mad Max in terms of adrenaline.

2. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem – A protracted Jewish divorce case set largely in a single nondescript white-washed room might not seem like a barrel of fun (it isn’t), but as an intersection of great writing, directing and acting (the astounding Ronit Elkabetz in all three cases, with some help from her friends), you can’t find much better. Viviane and Shimon have been married for twenty years. Viviane has been unhappy almost since day one, and longs to be free of him. Shimon claims to still love her and points out that he has never hit her or given her religious grounds for divorce, though it’s clear to everyone that he’s awful to live with. In the course of two hours, their relationship is slit open, dissected and left exposed until it starts to stink. Nobody, not the lawyers, judges, witnesses or the couple themselves, seem to be able to do anything about it. It is uncomfortable, but in the best sense: unbearably honest, human and hard to resolve.

1. Sicario – Following a raid on a suburban drug lab turned mass grave north of the US-Mexico border, FBI SWAT agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is attached to a clandestine joint operation to extradite a high ranking officer in the drug syndicate responsible. Her glib but reticent new boss (Josh Brolin) and his ununiformed partner (Benicio del Toro) immediately strike her as shady, but they reassure her that their legally murky methods are fully sanctioned from above, and they certainly prove quite effective. Kate gets embroiled deeper and deeper, fatally unwilling to accept that she is being used as a pawn in a game played above her pay grade and below the moral high-ground. Sicario is a series of linked set pieces alternating white-knuckle tension and bursts of chilling violence. It’s also a pessimistic exploration of border spaces, both national and ethical, and what it costs us to cross them. But ultimately the winning combination is three people at the top of their game: director Denis Villeneuve, cinematographer Roger Deakins and actress Emily Blunt.

I never feel like it’s been a great year until I have to bump films I really liked off my top 20. Some of the titles that were edged off towards the end include:

Blind – A sightless Swedish novelist wrestles with her sexual insecurities.

White God – A gritty Hungarian parable in which a young girl is forced to abandon her pet dog, who struggles to survive on the street before toughening up and leading a blood-soaked (but also kind of adorable) canine revolution against humanity.

The Martian - A nearly ideal adaptation of a book into a movie, with some of my qualms about the source material (character development in particular) fixed by strong acting on Matt Damon's part, playing a resourceful astronaut stranded on Mars. 

Beasts of No Nation – Cary Fukunaga provides gorgeously lensed reasons why you don’t want to be a child soldier in an African civil war, in case you had some doubts.

Court – An Indian satire of the justice system, in which a street poet is arrested for inciting a sewer worker to suicide (actually a workplace accident caused by grossly inadequate safety equipment), and a deconstruction of the legal thriller, showing the mindless bureaucracy, corruption and apathy under the thin coating of law, procedure and middle-class morality.

General thoughts on film in 2015:

Although I often focus on the negative, I want to start out by saying how much I really enjoyed so many movies from 2015! It was a triumphant year for middlebrow offerings (Spotlight, The End of the Tour, Love & Mercy, Carol, Beasts of No Nation) and fantastic acting, especially from actresses in roles actually worthy of them (Sicario, Gett, Clouds of Sils Maria, Mad Max, Room, Phoenix, Inside Out, Girlhood, Heaven Knows What). There were a lot of really original and personal creative works (Anomalisa, The Duke of Burgundy, The Kindergarten Teacher) and exciting debut/breakthrough directors. 

For genre fans, there was a little of everything. Some excellent sci-fi (Mad Max, Ex Machina, The Martian, Inside Out), creepy horror (It Follows, The Invitation, Goodnight Mommy) and even comedies that I actually found funny (Tangerine, What We Do in the Shadows, Mistress America, Wild Tales), though be aware that my sense of humor is highly suspect.

Meanwhile, the studio franchise factories offered us an unprecedented number of marquee sequels and reboots (Avengers, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, James Bond, Rocky, some increasingly indistinguishable superhero stuff) setting box office records, but rarely offering anything fresh or interesting. A couple exceptions were Mission Impossible, with Rebecca Ferguson redeeming Rogue Nation’s fun but otherwise formulaic entry, and Mad Max, which I’d never have predicted being my favorite summer blockbuster so far this decade. I also have a bit of a crush on The Man from UNCLE, with its appealing cast and 60s fashion sense.

On the flip side, critics raved about many an art film from established auteurs (Hou’s The Assassin, Alonso’s Jauja, German’s Hard to Be a God, Sissako’s Timbuktu) that failed to connect with me.

The Assassin, in particular, baffled me. One of Asia’s most influential directors of the 80s and 90s decides to bring his high art sensibilities to the martial arts genre and critics were quick to toast it as a masterpiece. I was truly excited to see what would result! But what a painful theater-going experience: pretty, but totally lifeless. Hou married the vacuity of navel-gazing slow-cinema to the plotless confusion of bad kung fu, eschewing action, character, historical context, thematic relevance and emotional depth in favor of static tableaux shot through diaphanous curtains (cue thunderous critical applause). After the festival screening in St. Louis, the audience poured into nearby restaurants and bars discussing the disaster.

Hard to Be a God, on the other hand, while long, slow, grim, brutal,  muddy, rainy, ugly, unpleasant and monochromatic, at least had a truly distinctive vision that I found itchingly compelling though I wish more (or really, anything) had been done with its sci-fi medieval plot adapted from a Strugatsky brother novel.

Jauja is Argentine minimalist Lisandro Alonso’s most accessible film to date, but it is still utterly impenetrable. A-list star Viggo Mortensen spends the entire film looking as confused as I felt. He plays a Danish explorer lost in the Argentine dessert while searching for his child. He hallucinates an encounter with an old hermit who may be his daughter from the future. Then the film abruptly cuts to a girl waking up in a mansion and wandering a forest in the present day. I’m probably making it sound better than it is. For a superior 2015 colonial-explorer-hallucinating-in-the-Latin-American-wilderness art film, stick with Embrace of the Serpent.

A few films I watched after already publishing this post: The Revenant (Mind-blowing visuals and high-grade Leo attached to a so-so script), The Hateful Eight (Talky, gory and stetched to the breaking point; I'm a fan!), Brooklyn (Feel-good immigration tale. Solid, but I'd rather see a more challenging film about modern immigrants who are ANYTHING other than Irish or Italian).

Among the films that I missed or haven’t yet caught include 45 Years, Victoria, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Chiraq, Grangs of Wasseypur, Bridge of Spies, 99 Homes and Youth. What do you recommend?


M.R. said...

Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I'll be adding a number of those titles to my watch list.

I'll text you my thoughts on End of the Tour and Ex Machina below so we can speak about them in person.

FilmWalrus said...

You more or less admit that there wasn't going to be a way to make End of the Tour in a way that would please you, but if you step away from thinking of it as a film about two actual writers, you may like it better.

I agree with your thoughts on Ex Machina. While I think sexual politics and psychology are part of the film's undertow, I don't think it is a sexist work. Still, I think the gender reversed version of the story could be done and would be interesting.

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