My Top 15 Films of 2015, For Posterity

After an amazing year of over 500 flicks, it took me an age to narrow down the best films of 2015. What an astounding year we’ve had. I may narrow this down to a top 10 eventually, but, for now, it’s a beautiful top 15. The order, of course, will trade as months or years go by.

I’ll be catching up later with A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Contemplating Existence, Shaun the Sheep, The Russian Woodpecker, Peanuts, The Big Short, Anomalisa, The Assassin, Taxi, and 45 Years, along with many others over the rest of my life. Though there are another five or ten films that could make this list (and may, someday,) the true honorable mention goes to Don Hertzfeldt’s WORLD OF TOMORROW, a great short film which warms my heart more as time passes.

I linked to my Letterboxd list in an earlier post, but I realized I’m planning to let that Letterboxd list be edited at some point. So this will be the standing record of my favorite films of 2015. Since the original version of this text, I’ve seen Anomalisa. It’s fantastic, and equally worthy of placement, but I like what I have here.

15. Bridge of Spies

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Spielberg’s film is one of his most understated successes; part Le Carre glare-off and part Capra-esque morality fable, the film works equally well as entertainment and political statement. The Coens’ touch, perhaps simply to have the running joke about “this cold,” remains one of the subtlest and most entertaining details in a film this year. I think that joke works thematically to exemplify that maybe everyone is so eager to get their job done in the first place that they don’t stop to think if they’ve done it right until they’re on the precipice of its completion. Hanks and Rylance excel, and the film’s levity helps establish the film as one of the best of the year.

14. Clouds of Sils Maria

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I can’t deny the performances of Binoche and Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria, a film which portrays the critique found in, say, Birdman, as simultaneously vital work against juvenility and pure cynicism. Similarly to Carol, its sexuality exists on its periphery, allowing excellent dialogue, performance, setting, and filmmaking to make the film’s statement. Hazier and more abstract than many of the films on this list, I suspect rewatching Clouds of Sils Maria may shoot it higher along.

13. The Revenant

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This poor flick is clouded by Academy Awards, talk of difficult shoots, and Birdman. It ought not to be. DiCaprio doesn’t give the best performance he’s ever given (that remains Django Unchained) but he gives an excellent one, with physicality enough to make the film’s mostly non-verbal second act a treasure to take in. The natural lighting results in a beautiful film, and the supporting turn from Hardy fills in a movie with a gap. As a revisionist Western, it does enough to favor the Native Americans to escape offense. It’s not even the most profound Western of the year, but it is one of the most enjoyable Westerns I’ve seen, and one of the most astounding as filmmaking.

12. Furious 7

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The Fast & Furious movies continue to be a highlight of my movie year. I watched Fast Five and was impressed by the amount of fun I had; I saw it because I won a t-shirt in a trivia competition. I watched all of the films in preparation for Fast & Furious 6, which I quite enjoyed, but was a little disappointed by upon first viewing. This year, for Furious 7, I rewatched Tokyo Drift, Fast Five, and F&F 6, and I enjoyed the last much more this time. But I’ve yet to enjoy any of these films like Furious 7, an insane romp which explodes off the screen with enthusiasm, invention, and delight. Furious 7 is a ride filled with small great elements like fights with Ronda Rousey and Tony Jaa. But the bravery comes when it includes moments like the graveyard scene, in which Walker says from the grave, “No more funerals.” I’ve never seen a film include its own in memoriam; the last frames of that sequence are so moving, so light, that the bold stroke works. Furious 7 eschews the line between fact and fiction, ingratiating the audience into the Toretto family and then honoring the audience’s need to grieve.

11. Sicario

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Some people will watch Sicario and determine the path to hell is laid with best intentions. They’re missing the point; that justice is not the best intention when you make a deal with harbingers of doom, and that passion replaces clarity when we take the sword of justice into our own hands. Flagrant disregard for the law throughout Sicario creates a chaotic zone so toxic as to seem unsolvable. I walked out of Sicario red-eyed, not from tears, but from high-wire anxiety. The best use of Denis Villenueve’s talent for tension yet, Sicario is the first of his films that I would want to rewatch; I hope I will continue to find new volume in it over years.

10. Ex Machina

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From my review: “Ex Machina is simultaneously a film of this moment and a film which can last beyond it; its concerns about the objectification and domestication of women, its depiction of the hypermasculine domestication by web technologists of its consumers, and its concerns about levity in a time of moral panic all should hold some resonance for many years and spin from our very current concerns. One of the better dramas of the last several years, Ex Machina has that special touch where a screenwriter discovers that they, too, can direct, as well as the directors who have ever held their work, and they may begin to discover their own autonomy.” I haven’t come up with anything more succinct than my writing about this fun Alex Garland flick. A24 makes the coolest movies in the world.

9. Tangerine

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I don’t know if Tangerine would have made the same impact upon me had I not seen it in a theater. Something about seeing this story, this camera, these actresses on a big screen validated Tangerine as something more than “a cool thing shot on an iPhone.” I’m glad I watched it in a venue separate from where I might watch DJ Khaled’s SnapChat story or read about Zola. I hope I still would have found it entertaining, empathetic, multilayered, and worthy of its commentary on sex, poverty, cultural baggage, and hegemony. Some are still furious that Kitana “Kiki” Rodriguez and Mya Taylor were not nominated for acting awards. I think they should have been up for Best Original Screenplay; my belief in the entire project comes from their belief in their portrayal.

8. Carol

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This premise sounds like it was practically designed to sweep the 2016 Oscars; in reality, it’s a miracle that it wound up excellent, and the forgotten Freeheld helps exemplify exactly where its statements about sexuality could have become too political. Instead, Carol works as a political act by being an expertly made romance drama which lets its lesbian romance speak as its own political statement. The film works best as a character drama and as an aesthetic accomplishment, with some of the most beautiful filmmaking and scoring I can recall. A taut screenplay lets it stick as a remarkable achievement; Blanchett and Mara develop career performances in their work off one another.

7. Room

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I really need to get around to Abrahamson’s Irish films; his prior film, Frank, is an empathetic film which achieves sublimity with its closure. Room is equally empathetic and sublime from the start, but it doesn’t lose steam once its denizens escape Room. Larson is an actress I’ve found compelling since her brief turn in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, but it’s with this film that I turned into a fan. Her and Tremblay, together, work within the limited confines of Room and make it wholly compelling. When they leave, Abrahamson gives the film the brain it needs to stay moving. The structure of this is so effective, the emotional depth so fantastic. And the final moment, a treasure.

6. When Marnie Was There

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There is no shock that Studio Ghibli winds up on my list once more. My favorite film studio made sure that each of its directors’ last features would be each of their best work, and When Marnie Was There is certainly the best film directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi as of 2015. The film’s best element is its lead character, a young artist named Anna. Anna is one of the studio’s most fully realized characters, and I fell wholly into her story of love and loss. If this is the last official Studio Ghibli film, they’ll have gone out as well as imaginable; I look forward to wherever Yonebayashi makes movies next, and I hope they have the same degree of empathy as this great film.

5. Mad Max Fury Road

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What can be said about Mad Max: Fury Road that hasn’t been said already? That it would probably entertain those who think they’re done with action movies in a post-The Dark Knight world? That it, when looked at as a series of scenes or great images, works in ways unimagined when you just watch it as a sort of lore factory? That, somehow, it uses the orange and blue color palette of the modern blockbuster to reach an apex of visual filmmaking? Watch Mad Max: Fury Road. We can all keep watching Mad Max: Fury Road. It will always be here.

4. Spotlight

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Spotlight is, essentially, perfect. Spotlight is activist and emotional and empathetic while remaining dispassionate, complex, not exploitative. The story of the exposure of the Boston Catholic Church as a brotherhood of secrecy and permission of child molestation reveals so much about how the brain should work. Schriber’s character, who demands a full and complete dismantling of the system because the Boston Globe has the power to do more than expose bad priests, is a model for how the individual has intense power. Spotlight is entertaining in that it is enjoyable to watch people do their jobs well; it is emotional in that it respects those on its sideline. I have naught but praise for Spotlight, and it should not just be a model for how to handle ensemble drama, but a model for how to handle one’s own life.

3. The Hateful Eight

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I expected to find myself wholly disappointed by The Hateful Eight. Another Western, and one less obviously political than Django Unchained? It seemed a wasteful half-step. But no Tarantino film has better transformed the idea of what a Tarantino film might do; the film rewards not surface level analysis but deep meditation and immersion, having far more to say by saying several things less emphatically. We’ve become accustomed to genre movies screaming themes at us without subtlety. The Hateful Eight pulls them into an ensemble of figures who conflict with one another, making a muddy collection of ideas that actually reward using one’s brain. Each performance is astounding; Jennifer Jason Leigh obviously makes a mark, but how about Jackson’s great work, or the astounding performance from Bruce Dern? Rarely has the violence itself in a Tarantino film felt so criticized. This feels like his film that looks at all the misery in his work over the years and bothers to make it clear that this violence is not that of Randian evolution but of the end of the world. Some justice.

2. Magic Mike XXL

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Industrial welding. Magic Mike XXL utilizes the first film’s focus of the lack of glamour and stability in sex work and hangs this cloud over a more joyful film about all of sexuality’s greatest gifts. The convenience store. Some zany antics support the smiles, body positivity, gender dynamics, and comments on self-transformation that make Magic Mike XXL a magical experience for almost any viewer. Rome. There is a moment where this film transforms into a sort of odyssey, and the remaining encounters each are so progressive and beautiful as to make me laugh and cry all over again. Heaven. And with the last half hour, I knew I had a new favorite comedy on this earth. Magic Mike XXL is better than the film we need; it’s the film I love.

1. The Look of Silence

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I was aware there would be no hope in seeing anything better than The Look of Silence as soon as I saw that it existed. Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing shows a destroyed nation where its executors still hold power over the subjugated survivors, and the documentary evokes Werner Herzog (an executive producer on both films) as it heightens Indonesian genocide to divine tragedy. The essential antidote is The Look of Silence, a film which returns to earth and places an optometrist named Adi as a sort of vigilante investigator into his own brother’s death in those genocides. The latter evokes the other executive producer, Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War) as it chases down those involved in Adi’s brother’s killing, but does not lose sight of the prior film’s gorgeous cinematography. If The Look of Silence were fiction, it would be receiving the same criticisms as Bridge of Spies, called a Capra-esque morality tale that sits as too unbelievable to be successful. As reality, the confrontations Adi has with those who perpetrated the genocide, or those who willfully enable their family members who did, are some of the boldest filmmaking I’ve ever witnessed. The Look of Silence is the year’s best film.

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Triad: I Started A Podcast!

Hey, so, my best friend Austin and I have started a movie podcast named Triad. Our goal is to watch three movies from a self-selected “trilogy,” with a shared theme, actor, genre, idea, heck, maybe even a trilogy at some point, and do an episode about each. Our first theme is “Three From The Heart,” where we’re talking about three romantic dramas that get overlooked as “fluffy” or dismissed as “girly.” We’re not about that, so we decided to take these movies pretty seriously.

The two episodes we’ve done are for the Keanu Reeves/Sandra Bullock movie “The Lake House” (which, spoilers, is bad) and the modern classic “The Notebook” (which, spoilers, we both liked.) Austin keeps worrying that we’re not funny enough, but I think we had good conversations about these movies.

However, we’re pretty new at this, and Austin is still getting used to the idea of making enough time to really edit this show. We’re still wooly. As a result, there’ll be more “ums” and “uhs” in these first two episodes than as we go along. We’re happy to take any feedback you wanna give, I’m sure, so if you listen, let us know!

We’ll be on iTunes at some point, and we’re hoping to get our RSS feed set up soon. For now, we’ll be at this Soundcloud page, getting way into cinematography after we done watched The Lake House and just fawning over Rachel McAdams’s dresses in our episode about The Notebook.

Film Review: La Haine

A still from La Haine.

Vinz and Said take in their projects.

La Haine (1995)

Directed and written by Mathieu Kassovitz
Last night I finished the new essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Between The World And Me,” and I remarked upon it to my girlfriend and a couple customers as perhaps the greatest book I’d ever read. Watching La Haine, I realize that I now see things I couldn’t see before, things I didn’t understand. Or maybe I always did, but now I can better translate the symbols I see in this film.

La Haine is a film which depicts three young French men oppressed by classism and racism in a community in riot. Their friend, Abdel, has been brutalized by police in the riots, and he is in critical condition. They cannot see him, and attempts to do so nearly get them all arrested. Later, the film shows what happens when the two non-white men get arrested; in watching this film, I understand better what happened to Eric Garner, what happened to Sandra Bland.

The white man Vinz, played perfectly by Vincent Cassel, is furious. He has been shown what is life is meant to look like by the media, but classism has put him in this ghetto. Vinz dreams about going ballistic, about being a cop-killer, and eventually gets his chance. Vinz embodies much of what I’ve felt in the past year of police protests, a desire to bring down reckoning that comes from a place of security, of knowing that white people have to do more wrong to not get favors from friends in the force. Vinz is a body in the streets, dominated by protection of himself and taking what is his. He knows these rules, and he is protected because he can venture outside the streets and resemble a ballet director or a French prince.

The black man, Hubert, played subtly by Hubert Kounde, embodies much of what I have learned from Coates’s book. He seeks redemption, works hard to be twice as good as Vinz, to distinguish himself from that anger and to support his mother and siblings. Hubert is not without anger; he participates in protests, and he is a boxer. But he will not entertain the simple freedom of killing a cop and dying, which simply escalates the violence in his community; Hubert knows the rules of the streets, and he has the patience to recognize they rule against him. That patience is his virtue, and it is tested.

The Arabic man, Saïd, played quietly by Saïd Taghmaoui, is unfortunately overlooked in an effort to give Vinz and Hubert duality. He is younger, a bit more rash, a bit unsure whether to be confident or reticent. When faced with the direct conflicts between the two, Saïd resorts to peacemaking, either by separation or by distraction. He does not want to help them grow, and when the situation grows, he takes opportunities to retreat.

Perfectly shot, paced, and scored by excellent popular music, there is nothing I would change about La Haine. But Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book taught me something that places La Haine as a dated or foreign relic. In one scene, four men enact gun violence upon each other before being arrested, and the three protagonists join a large-scale rush on the police officers, who they fear will enact violence upon the fighters.

In La Haine, the police slightly escalate the situation, but they do not enact any noticeable violence upon the protesters. Based on our reports of the American justice system, the four men who carried firearms might be dead immediately, and responding like a human with fear is a death warrant.

A new favorite film.

5/5

Film Re-View: Mind Game

A screencap from the film Mind Game.

Nishi joyriding in a mobster’s vehicle. The image links to another blogger for those interested in a few more of the film’s visual treats.

Mind Game (2004)

Directed by Masaaki Yuasa, Written by Robin Nishi

We have a confusing situation with Mind Game. On the one hand, this is the densest work of animation I’ve ever seen, with so many ideas about how to depict self-confidence, fear, sexuality, isolation, and self-loathing that it chooses to show us not just one every couple of minutes but one every couple of seconds.

One sequence that kicks off the story is a great example of this idea. Our main character, a manga writer named Nishi (an author surrogate,) is killed by a mobster when he finally gets the gall to defend his childhood-high-school-shoujo love, the affianced Myon, from sexual assault. The criminal is there to take revenge upon Myon’s father, who has entered an affair with the mobster’s girlfriend. After killing Nishi in a particularly juvenile fashion, the mobster is killed by his partner, who is disgusted by the selfish monstrousness of the brute. This is depicted in a series of colorations, perspectives, changes in the fillings of the backgrounds, and different art styles entirely, some utilizing a sort of photo montage on the faces and others appearing more like childhood crayon doodling.

A few minutes later, we return to Nishi in the afterlife. After being tortured for his incompetence by various replays of his death, he meets God, but cannot decide on a form to grant the almighty. As a result, every quarter-second, the frame seems to change perspective and angle, often to nonsensically confusing frames, and yet each has a wholly different character design for the God figure. One moment God is a coquette, the next a yellow ducky, the next a wholly invented hot pink alien. After God taunts Nishi, he decides to give another try at life, sending him back perhaps fifteen seconds before he was shot. Nishi reverses the situation and isolates himself with Myon and her sister, Yan, by running away with the partner’s sports car, setting off the rest of the story.

Mind Game utilizes this sort of infinite depiction throughout its presentation. The same goes for its juvenility; the film ends up primarily concerning itself with a manic obsession with happiness, extreme regret and depression, and sexuality. My girlfriend read the film as incredibly sexist; I read it as incredibly heterosexist, not so much homophobic as unconcerned with its limited perspective, and deeply pulled from the creator’s own sense of very-not-feminist sexual politics.

These ideas play out in the form of play on the behalf of Nishi, Myon, and Yan, primarily in their runaway isolation, where they exist in a sort of consequence-less playscape. Yan is perhaps depicted as having a sort of genderfluid awakening, but there’s such an absurd heightening of Yan’s masculinity that it becomes borderline offensive, and it’s never made explicit that Yan is doing anything more than trying to entertain her compatriots. Her character ends up getting a lot of screen time, and I’m certain many people will  Myon never really escapes her trappings, and while the character is depicted as having awareness, the film is light on creativity for her in comparison to Nishi, Yan, and the film’s other more temporary characters.

But I don’t think it presents itself as demanding to be agreed with in its view of the world; rather, I think it is a full display of id. Of the three Freudian psychomechanical parts, id is perhaps the one most people desire least to see executed in a film. I would argue Mind Game is still delightful simply because Yuasa has such a creative drive to depict that id’s impulses. There are more depictions-per-second of an idea in this film than in any you’ll ever have seen before, and yet the film manages to still have a sense of rhythm, of pacing, of invention rather than simple exhaustion.

And the music in this film. My goodness. It’s not that the music is even especially good, understand, it’s just that nobody uses music in their animated films the way Yuasa managed. In multiple sequences after the midway point, the dialogue falls away, and it is actually in these sequences that the real invention takes hold. For roughly forty-five minutes, the film enters a sort of plotless paradise, wondering what might happen when mortality is so directly omnipresent that hopeless abandon and self-expression take hold. The idea that we should “live life to its fullest” is not a clever one, and I don’t mean to give the film credit for its intellectual creativity, but rather its depiction of these ideas in a wholly unbelievable way.

Taking Mind Game as an aesthetic experience, it is almost wholly unparalleled. Not because it is the highest, most beautiful art, but simply because it hits with brilliant ideas more consistently than any other film I’ve seen attempt to depict even a quarter of this many ideas. As a collection of beliefs, of expression, and of story, it’s a good story told for a limited group who can tolerate looking at all the things a meek mangaka like Yuasa might fantasize happen in a world without rules.

There are two rhythmic montage sequences which take place at the end of the film; one is the film’s plot climax, and it goes on too long, offers recapitulation of the ideas presented over the previous 80 minutes, and stops inventing new depictions rather than simply showing a bravura sense of tension and rhythm. The second is an emotional powerhouse, one which depicts a sort of history of the film, and while wholly unnecessary, it illustrates just how much thinking went into Mind Game.

The film concludes, and we get one last laugh, to pull us out of the sense of being wholly overwhelmed by the ten thousand films we’ve watched in the past two hours.

5/5

Film Re-view: Prometheus

A still from the film Prometheus. The android David (Michael Fassbender) falls in love with the cosmos.

Prometheus, 2012

Directed by Ridley Scott, Written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof

Maybe a little more frustrating than I remembered, but Prometheus still looks and sounds better than most movies, carries one of cinema’s most disturbing scenes, has an amazing performance from Michael Fassbender, plumbs at broad, humanistic questions in a way I find interesting, and gives its pantheon of characters motivations that are ill-defined yet still reasonable.

This is a myth, hence the mythic title, about what happens when humans lose their sense of place in the natural order. The Prometheus is manned by three distinct groups; the skeptical scientific community, the optimists who believe the Prometheus will succeed in its mission to encounter “ancient aliens,” and the corporate jerks who have no faith but want to keep things moving speedily along. Its characters are played like Greek ones, archetypes who betray philosophical depth, yet still walk themselves to bitter ends. Continue reading