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.

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: 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

Film Review: La Strada

A still of the film Gelsomina (Masina) plays a trumpet tune to keep Zampano’s attention (Quinn) as he tries to sleep.

LA STRADA (1954)

Directed by Federico Fellini, Written by Federico Fellini, Tulio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano

Occasionally, you see the sort of keystone performance when watching a classic you’ve missed that illuminates something about the technique of actors you’ve known for years. Giuletta Masina, here playing a woman who believes herself to be an idiot, betrays her character’s true intelligence with a level of emotional nuance I cannot ascribe to earlier films. Many credit some of these nuances to Chaplin, but her interpretation must be credited in the discussion of actresses like Meryl Streep, Audrey Tatou, and Elisabeth Moss.

The film is named “La Strada,” for the road which its leads find themselves traveling without a heading. The circus strongman Zampano (Anthony Quinn) buys Masina’s Gelsomina from her mother on a postwar Italian coastline. He will refer to her as his wife and make her work in his performances, in which he demonstrates his great pectoral muscles and lung capacity; she will develop her own skills in comedy, music, and dance along the way.

There is a deep intellectual satisfaction to the kind of film Federico Fellini has created with La Strada. For the film is simultaneously a Neorealist Italian melodrama on poverty, a psychological study of a man who cannot handle his own violence and consumption, a morality tale questioning what one does when they feel desperate and taunted, and a feminist smackdown of the patriarchy. Its characters simultaneously exist as their own agents and reflections of the psychology of its stars, and the dreamlike nature of Fellini’s later 8 1/2 already exists in the symbology of its supporting cast.

Each thematic element comes to a head in the character of Il Mato, a would-be circus artist played by Richard Basehart. His character is really cruel, psychologically toying with anyone he happens to engage in conversation. He sets the two leads on opposite trajectories, and the falsehood of his nature is everyone’s downfall.

It is no surprise to say this is a great film; it exists as a hallmark of foreign cinema. Yet Ebert, who champions La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2, may have set this film back by taking it too literally. We are told that Gelsomina has “turned out strange,” but he assumes this to mean she is in some way retarded. As I suggested at the beginning, I think Gelsomina is instead a very complex character, one who has little place in the world of poverty and vagabondism that its characters populate, but not a character who is truly as useless as she’d like to believe.

Perhaps my boldest claim? Zampano, who is credited as having a revelation at the end of the film, has almost no revelation at all. He, I believe, is still the same pitiful, misanthropic man he began the film portraying; he simply has taken steps too far one or two too many times, and now, staring at the carnage and abyss of his past, he is overwhelmed. This interpretation captures reality and my imagination.

5/5

Film Review: The Pool

A still from Venkatesh prunes dead leaves for Nani.

The Pool (2007)

Written and Directed by Chris Miller

“Don’t sit so close to the screen or you’ll strain your eyes.” Using this just-distant sort of metaphor, The Pool constantly considers how those who dream will be hurt the moment they look too closely at those dreams, and what happens when we give up on those moments. The poor boy wants to swim in a rich man’s pool and decides to work for him until he can find a way. He watches them from afar until he gets hired, and then he looks at them through the front door only to see that they’re having an argument. The “rich” man is sad; his “sexy” daughter is depressed. She reads books about foreign lands that will “screw your head up,” but reading too much will “strain your eyes” too.

She won’t eat samosas, but she will eat cake. We cite “The Gift of the Magi,” minus the irony. Indian boys throw rocks at trees for mangoes and watch American wrestling because the director does not seem to know what Indian youth do for fun.

Continue reading