Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Favorites of 2015

The time has come for yet another list from yet another fan of cinema. I do this every year and hope it does some of my readers good. By this time most people have already gotten their lists out. As such there is sometimes little new to be found in my contribution. Still, it was a rough year for the blog and most of these movies never got a review when I originally saw them. In fact, I believe this will be the first opinions of all but two of these films to be posted on my site at all.

As is usually the case, because of my limited resources being a blogger outside the Hollywood industry, I did not get to see all the movies I would’ve liked to consider for this list. Most notably missing are Todd Haynes’ “Carol” and Charlie Kaufman’s stop motion “Anomolisa”. I hope to see them before the Oscars are awarded in a little over a month.

That being said, I was able to see a greater amount of the contenders than normal this year despite the fact that I viewed far less movies than I usually do in a year. Thanks to a much greater availability of platforms than ever before, I was able to cull out most of the titles I felt I needed to see to compile this list and the result is that I found it very difficult to cut down my favorites, or even to put them in any sort of order. I’ve never had such a tight and interchangeable list of favorites before. I decided not to limit my list and have listed every four-star review I awarded this year. I have tried to place them in an order of very favorite to slightly less favorite. There are sections of this list that I could endlessly rearrange if I didn’t just force myself to post it. The margin of difference between the first film on the list and the last film is so narrow it hardly matters.

Over the next few days I will also post favorites lists for television and music from 2015.

Mad Max: Fury Road
Director: George Miller
Screenplay: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nico Lathouris
Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult

The fourth film in the Mad Max franchise has surprisingly landed itself in the top of more top ten lists than any other movie this year. Those who don’t agree just see a movie about a bunch of spiked-up cars chasing each other back and forth in the desert. What I see is the ultimate cinematic expression—a collision of images and CGI, music and sound, a dance of survival and death, of passion and explosions. While its plot might hardly be enough to call it a story (although there really is a little more to it than its detractors give it credit), story is only one aspect of the cinematic experience. George Miller’s vision is one that utilizes all aspects of the cinematic palette. Colors are just as important as characters. Death is as meaningful as dialogue. His titular hero barely speaks a word and spends most of the film with a mask obscuring his face. Furiosa represents a female hero like no other allowed in Hollywood action cinema before (although one that rose to prominence in Hollywood this year as is evidenced by much of the rest of my list). This film is pure cinema, and as such, it is the only film on this list that has never waivered from its position since it landed here on the weekend of its release early in the summer.

Director: Tom McCarthy
Screenplay: Josh Singer, Tom McCarthy
Starring: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci

Tom McCarthy’s journalistic procedural about how the Boston Globe exposed a conspiracy in the Catholic Church to cover up the sexual exploitation of children by priests is another type of pure cinema. Made like a film from the 70s, there is none of the sensationalism triumphed by Miller’s “Fury Road” and dominating the majority of Hollywood fare these days. This movie is grunt work. It’s in the trenches, which a sensationalist way of saying that it just shows us the work that went into what these people did. There are no grand gestures here, but the filmmaking is just as skilled and honed as the special effects work in Miller’s film. It has masterful acting by its ensemble cast lead by Michael Keaton doing just as good work here as in last year’s “Birdman”. It has fantastic writing and editing that keeps the audience pulling their way through the horror of what was going on, just as unimaginable today as when these crimes were initially exposed.

Inside Out
Directors: Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen
Screenplay: Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley
Starring: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Louis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias

This is the type of film where the incredible artists at Pixar Animation shine the brightest. Instead of feeding children the same old fluffy talking animals and obvious lessons about being yourself, Pete Docter and company use this wide reach platform of cinema to deal with actual problems that children face. Growing up is hard and children are endlessly resilient. These filmmakers trust children to understand these things and adults to remember what it was really like. Here they give us Riley, a young girl who has always been happy, but is going through the difficult life change of moving away from her home to build a new one. That may sound just depressing, but Pixar tells this story by personifying the emotions that drive most people—Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust. These characters are just as fun and outrageous as Kung Fu Panda and Scrat the prehistoric squirrel. Joy feels her dominance as Riley’s primary emotion crumbling and soon finds herself on a journey of enlightenment accompanied by Sadness. The results are intelligent, funny, profound and enlightening.

It Follows
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Screenplay: David Robert Mitchell
Starring: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Lili Sepe, Olivia Luccardi, Jake Weary, Daniel Zovato

David Robert Mitchell’s sophomore effort “It Follows” promises an impressive future for this filmmaker who with this film alone proves himself a master of mood and genre. The movie takes the notion of the teenage slasher flick and turns it on its head by omitting the slasher. In this moody teenage world, Mitchell explores the horror that threatens our heroes is restricted to just the threat of horror. While on a date, Jay is kidnapped by her date to awake in a parking garage where he explains that there is a presence that is following him and the only way he can get rid of it is to pass it on to someone else. Now, Jay must live with the threat of… something that is coming for her. The movie acts as a metaphor for all of the fears we face with the prospect of leaving childhood for “the real world.” With a country that seems to be spiraling toward some sort of doom of its own, it may just be a metaphor for all of us.

Director: Ryan Coogler
Screenplay: Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad

“Creed”, like “Spotlight”, is a film that remembers a time before the spectacle driven blockbuster. A sequel to the “Rocky” series starring Sylvester Stallone in his greatest cinematic triumph, this story reinvents the “Rocky” story for a new generation and a new world. It follows Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate child of Apollo Creed from the original “Rocky” series. Having spent most of his childhood in juvenile detention centers before Creed’s widow (Rashad) decides to take him in as her son, Adonis was born a fighter. Getting past his father’s name is his toughest battle when it comes to being taken seriously as a professional boxer. Eventually he decides to enlist a reluctant Rocky Balboa as his personal trainer. Stallone offers the best performance of his career as a pensive and thoughtful fighter whose day has long since passed and whose spotlight he realizes was as much a product of timing as it was skill. The movie questions the role of a generation that has everything but something they earned themselves. It weaves possibly unintentional allegories to this America that somehow must become great again when it never really lost its greatness, only the generation that made it so.

Steve Jobs
Director: Danny Boyle
Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels

The notion of the “concept album” is fairly widely accepted in the music world. “Steve Jobs” is a concept movie. Hardly the first of its nature, but possibly the first centered on such a publicly lauded and respected entrepreneur as the co-founder of apple, Steve Jobs. Aaron Sorkin, famous for creating dialogue that exists above the reality of normal spoken language, goes one further in this amazing biopic. Instead of focusing on the life of this legendary inventor who changed to world with his ideas, he focuses on three separate days throughout the man’s career. In doing so, he is somehow able to capture the life essence of a man few really understood, even those closest to him. Sorkin’s mastery isn’t the only cinematic artistry at work here; Danny Boyles grabs Sorkin’s three act play structure, that could not possibly represent the reality of how these events actually occurred and makes them feel natural. He creates a cold world behind the scenes of three product launches that reflect the closed off nature of the man and the way the most important people in his life try to force their way into his heart and mind. Kate Winslet is most impressive as Jobs’ confidant and conscience, Joanna Hoffman, an immigrant whose own isolation as a foreigner might offer a clue as to how she could manage this impenetrable, perpetual outsider that was Steve Jobs.

Director: Judd Apatow
Screenplay: Amy Schumer
Starring: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Lebron James

Comedies traditionally have a tough time cracking critical lists. I think that speaks to their difficulty in execution. I’m always happy to praise a great one when it comes along and this year did not disappoint with a most excellent romantic comedy being offered by Amy Schumer and Judd Apatow. “Trainwreck” is a romantic comedy that slaps the formula of romantic comedies in the face from a female perspective all the while embracing its formula however reluctantly. Imagine a rival female from high school having to give another female an award that she knows her former rival deserved and you have Schumer’s approach to being the romantic lead in a comedy that she wrote herself. Not only does the film buck the traditional Hollywood glamour lead with Schumer as an alcoholic perennial party gal, but we also get to see the goofball Bill Hader as the male lead, a sports doctor who is best friends with Lebron James. No, not Lebron James playing some other guy, Lebron James playing Lebron James. The comedy is sharp and witty and even though every romantic comedy you’ve ever seen will inform you of how everything will turn out in the end, you’re never sure just what taboos this film is willing break along the way.

Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Screenplay: Emma Donoghue
Starring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay

OK. So, “Room”. Some movies are tough. That makes it difficult for some people to get into them, but it does not diminish them as cinematic achievements. Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room” is difficult just in its concept. Adapted by the author, Emma Donoghue, from her novel of the same name, “Room” follows a mother and her five-year-old son. She was kidnapped as a teenager and the boy was a result of her abductor’s relations with her. They live in a sealed room. It is all the boy has ever known. The boy is everything to her. The filmmakers show incredible perception in their depiction of the boy who doesn’t know the difference between the room and the world at large and the mother who once knew freedom and dreams of it for her boy. The film contains remarkable performances by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, as mother and son, as well as fine work from others that I won’t mention here. The film is a remarkable example of how cinema can be used to express perception and how that perception can change when other elements are added to what we are first given.

Love & Mercy
Director: Bill Pohlad
Screenplay: Oren Moverman, Michael Alan Lerner
Starring: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti

Speaking of perception… For all that I obsess about music, I’ve never really been much for seeking out the behind the scenes reality of the artists. I grew up listening to the Beach Boys through my parents’ record collection. My father never cared for “Pet Sounds” even though it had become considered their greatest work by that time. I knew everything went south for the band after that album, but I never knew why. I think I assume what most people did. Brian Wilson became too controlling and too much of a perfectionist and so the band had to get rid of him. While that was true, I never followed up on the rest of the story until now. “Love & Mercy” is a remarkable film depicting the mental illness that plagued Brian Wilson through two astonishing performances. Paul Dano portrays the younger Wilson during the “Pet Sounds” debacle and subsequent break up. John Cusack is Wilson about 20 years later, fully under the abusive thumb of producer Dr. Eugene Landy. Landy was responsible for misdiagnosing Wilson as a paranoid schizophrenic and worked to keep Wilson away from friends and family to profit from his music. The filmmakers depict Wilson’s illness as a unique aural and visual experience that is aided by Dano’s and Cusack’s daring performances. Both actors contribute career performances, and despite the fact that neither really look much like Wilson, or each other for that matter, everything combines into this cohesive whole that bridges the periods of Wilson’s life into a film worthy of his artistry.

Ex Machina
Director: Alex Garland
Screenplay: Alex Garland
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander

Why must we insist on playing God as humans? At least we have cinema to warn us of the dangers. “Ex Machina” looks once again at man’s obsession with creating artificial intelligence. In a stunningly simple vehicle we are given the usual caution signs about our hubris in a story where two scientists run a test on an A.I. robot to see if its possible to tell the difference between the A.I. and a real living breathing human. We are also handed a significant parable about male and female dynamics with a decidedly feminist outcome. Oscar Isaac plays one of his more manipulative characters as the brilliant and controlling creator of the A.I. with Domhnall Gleeson providing the everyman perspective, but it is Alicia Vikander who takes command of this story with her controlled performance as the A.I. The film’s conclusion is as brutal as it deserves.

Director: John Crowley
Screenplay: Nick Hornby
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson

“Brooklyn” is an astonishingly touching romance that focuses on an Irish immigrant learning to let go of the home she knew for a more nurturing home in America. Sent to America for work, Eilis (pronounced Ay-lish) fights against homesickness until she meets possibly the sweetest man alive, an Italian second-generation immigrant, Tony. As it finally seems she might be able to build a full life in America, a family tragedy pulls Eilis back to Ireland where she discovers the remaining possibilities of a life there. The film is simply told and elegant in its execution. Nick Hornby’s screenplay is effective in how subtly it brings us to the same conclusions as Eilis. It is a finely tuned drama in this year’s tumult of action, high concepts and fancy camera work. “Brooklyn” is strong storytelling and accomplished performances tied up neatly in a beautiful production that is excellent in its purity of nature.

The Revenant
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Screenplay: Mark L. Smith, Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, Domhnall Gleeson, Forrest Goodluck

We seem to be in the midst of my Domhnall Gleeson block.

“The Revenant” is the first film I’ve ever seen the feels a great deal like a Terrence Malick film that was not made by Terrence Malick. It’s more coherent than a Malick film because its subject is a little more straightforward. Harrowing is too small a word to describe the journey Leonardo DiCaprio’s frontier guide character Hugh Glass must endure here. After being mauled by a bear, Glass’s company decides they must leave him behind with his Native American son and two other companions, one of whom is consumed by greed and prejudice against anyone whose goals don’t profit him. Betrayal is inevitable, and Glass must eventually survive the wilderness injured on his own seeking revenge for the wrongs done him. The story is strictly one of survival, and yet parallels can be drawn between this story and the current political climate in this country. We are trying to weather a storm where the divisive nature of our environment makes it difficult to know who to trust, while those who might betray us depend on fear and manipulation to ensure a future that benefits them before the greater good.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Director: J.J. Abrams
Screenplay: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, Michael Arndt
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher

The verdicts are in. The spoilers are out. The backlash has hit. In this fan’s eyes, however, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is everything a Star Wars movie should be. Did it repeat some story elements? For sure. Are there some plot holes? I guess. But, for a little over two hours in a dark movie theater I was transported to a galaxy far, far away to witness an adventure for real characters (not political stand ins) where life is mysterious and frightening and funny. I missed Han and Chewie. I missed the mystery of The Force. I missed the soap opera elements. This list of desires represents what the prequels lacked. The fact that everybody is related is a key aspect of the Star Wars universe. That is why it is space opera and not science fiction. Although, Abrams did get a little science fictiony with a few elements. The whole aspect of how we are doomed to repeat the past isn’t entirely without comment on current events. Mostly it felt like I was back amongst old friends and introduced to a few new ones. And, don’t get me going on how awesome it is to have a female action hero like Rey here to stay for a few years.

The End of the Tour
Director: James Ponsoldt
Screenplay: Donald Margulies
Starring: Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg

I’ve never read anything by David Foster Wallace, but after seeing “The End of the Tour”, about David Lipsky’s interview and friendship with the noted writer, I ordered my first DFW book from Amazon. It’s scheduled to arrive tomorrow. Yes, that means I just watched this movie the other night. Gotta love Prime. Yes, that also means that I still can’t give into the digital demon completely. Real books are my final hold out. Anyway, It’s hard to describe “The End of the Tour” in exciting terms. I’m pretty sure Wallace would not want me to. The movie is simply a conversation between Lipsky and Wallace recorded over the final days of Wallace’s book tour for his book “Infinite Jest”. It is a profoundly interesting conversation. Not just because of its content, but also because of its subtext, which includes hard to articulate notions about celebrity, the duties of a journalist to obtain certain elements for an article, the perception of artists versus their reality, and the natures of depression and loneliness in general. It is wonderfully performed by Jason Segel as Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky, with much of the dialogue coming directly from Lipsky’s recordings of their conversation. Segel is phenomenal as Wallace. Unfortunately, it seems he will be forgotten in the Oscar race.

The Big Short
Director: Adam McKay
Screenplay: Charles Randolph, Adam McKay
Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, Jeremy Strong, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo

I walked out of Adam McKay’s cinematic detailing of the real estate crash of 2008, “The Big Short”, more scared than any other movie this year. Yes, I was more shaken than when I finished “It Follows” or any of the entries in this year’s Horrorfest. And, it’s supposed to be a comedy? Well, according to the Hollywood Foreign Press it is, but that doesn’t really mean anything, as we all know. I came home from the theater babbling to my wife about how it isn’t over yet. “That was just the beginning,” I said, “Act two has yet to rear its ugly head.” I suggested we sell everything and move to some remote location in the woods. I don’t know if this is the effect Adam McKay was looking for when he obsessively pursued this heavy subject matter despite his reputation for exaggerated comedies, like “Anchorman”, but I think it means his movie worked. It isn’t all heaviness as I might’ve made it sound. McKay does a good job expressing how laughable it all is with his approach. He has celebrities cameo as themselves to explain the difficult financial jargon. His characters consistently break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience. He even has Ryan Gosling lie to the audience in the film’s narration before taking it all back again. He exposes the fallacy of the filmmaking in order to expose the fallacy of the people we trust to run our financial institutions, and by the end our trust in anything has deteriorated.

Beasts of No Nation
Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Screenplay: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Starring: Abraham Attah, Idris Elba, Annointed Wesseh

Netflix jumped into the feature film business fully with the release of two features right at the end of the year. One, “The Ridiculous 6”, was one of the year’s worst. “Beasts of No Nation” was one of the year’s best. Guess which one was more successful for the streaming service. Damn you, Adam Sandler! Anyway, “Beasts of No Nation” is the more difficult sell of the two. It follows a boy whose family is killed by government soldiers in an unstable African country that remains unnamed. He is taken by rebels who train him as a soldier for their cause. The small faction of a larger contingent is lead by a charismatic character (Idris Elba), who becomes a sort of father figure to the boy. Abraham Attah’s performance as the boy is commendable. Cary Fukunaga (HBO’s True Detective season one) working from his own script makes a compelling case for just how these power hungry men are able to brainwash these children into their death dances. Children are easier to manipulate making these men cowards in their own terms and bringing into question any righteousness they may have convinced themselves they are fighting for.

The Hateful Eight
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Demian Birchir, Bruce Dern, Channing Tatum

I think it’s safe to say at this point that Quentin Tarantino is an acquired taste. Like so many foods that require an aficionado’s appreciation, once you’ve acquired it, nothing tastes as rich. Sometimes his need to mix and match genres can even rub his fans the wrong way though. “The Hateful Eight” is QT’s second swing at the western genre after his previous film “Django Unchained”, and he certainly gives it a different feel this time around. “The Hateful Eight has the appearance and feel of a much more traditional western than “Django”, but it’s not so much a western as it is a whodunit, or more accurately, a whogonnadoit. Tarantino’s abounding dialogue adapts well to the old west and although he can’t fill it with his typical pop culture references, he fills it with period culture ones. Much is made of the characters’ past exploits in the Civil War, and through that Tarantino paints a unique and biting editorial on racial bias and the white culture that keeps it in place. Perhaps if a rebel crusader turned lawman and a black union soldier with a penchant for killing whites and playing on their homoerotic fears can find it in their hearts not to betray each other, maybe we’ll all come out of this OK.

Some other films I very much enjoyed this year include: Last Days in Vietnam, Spring, Going Clear: Scientology & the Religion of Belief, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Antman, Mission: Impossible-Rouge Nation, Straight Outta Compton, The Martian, The Hollow, Bridge of Spies, The Peanuts Movie, Spectre, Slow West, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, What We Do in the Shadows, and Astor Barber All-Stars

The Worst Movies I saw were: Get Hard, The Ridiculous 6, and Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!

I’ve finally joined the world of podcasts. My favorite podcasts on film include: How Did This Get Made?, I Was There Too, Maltin on Movies, Let’s All Go To the Movies with John Flynn and Doug Loves Movies.

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