Sunday, February 28, 2016

Best of 2015

 1. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
Anchored by two co-leads giving equally brilliant performances in two different registers that complement each other nicely (Theron with the blazing, passionate star turn, Hardy with the precise, subtle inward one), Mad Max: Fury Road works as well on a character level as it does on the levels of spectacle and theme.  George Miller’s Mad Max trilogy, now a quartet, was already one of the major works of post-apocalyptic vision the cinema had produced, its visual influence extending through film, television, and comics as widely as Blade Runner’s.  With Fury Road, he proves his Aussie auto-wasteland future boundless in its potential and ambition; it stands out among our current glut of blockbusters on apocalyptic themes like a tyrannosaur among wildebeest.  The series’ survey of the extremes of human society has now cycled through the final moments before a tired civilization’s collapse (Mad Max), nomadic existence plagued by brigands (The Road Warrior), the growth of trade hubs into cities with a semblance of order (Beyond Thunderdome), and now an empire, ruled by a dictator who styles himself a god and stratifies society by class and gender.  Remarkably, there is room in every tale for the softer sides of humanity to bleed through, for the eternal principles of morality, justice, and compassion to prove themselves more forcefully in their battles with nihilism and absolutism.  In the end, whether you wish to count it as a work of action cinema harkening back to The General and Stagecoach, a work of dystopian science fiction in the vein of Harlan Ellison or RIchard Matheson, or a work that explores the nature of the human through the use of the grotesque, as Freaks and The Elephant Man did before, you just have to call it cinema.
2. Blackhat (Michael Mann)
(Full review to come.)

3. It Follows (David Robert Mitchell)
A slasher flick made with the precise framing and careful parcelling of information of an art film, few movies this year had as much control of mood and tone as It Follows.  Director David Robert Mitchell took the images and themes laid out by John Carpenter’s Halloween--high school and college students, sleepy Midwestern suburb, a killer lurking in the background as an ominous Shape, and most notoriously, the equation of sex and death--and reconfigured them with enough artistry that they transcend the clichés they had become, reasserting their original primal power.  With a young cast that actually feel genuine and relatable, and a spine-tingling musical score, Mitchell has created one of the most haunting horror films I have ever seen.

4. Inside Out (Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen)
The image of personified figures inside one’s head, acting out internal human conflicts, is very old.  The oldest version I can think of is John Bunyan’s The Holy War (1682), an allegory of Christian spiritual conflict in the town of “Mansoul,” featuring characters like Mayor Understanding, Lord Willbewill, and Conscience the town Recorder.  Inside Out is an allegory of emotional growth for a secular age that views humanity primarily through the lens of psychology, with the attendant insights and limitations such a perspective allows.  A fascinating depiction of what the end of childhood feels like from the inside, its elegant metaphors are worked out in astonishing detail, leading to hours of potential thought and investigation.  Pixar’s visual style, here influenced by Dr. Seuss and Bill Watterson, achieves a new peak of sophistication (even if it’s not as gorgeous as Brave or Wall-E), and continues to prove its character animation is the best in the world.

5. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
Easily the most visually beautiful film of the year, and an early contender for most beautiful of the decade--which, in an era of multiple Malick films, is saying something. An art-film variation on the wuxia genre (the Chinese martial-arts epic), it reminded me of Wong Kar-Wai’s Ashes of Time in its focus on emotion, contemplation, and stillness, rather than brief, sudden sword-fighting--though it takes stillness much further than Wong ever has.  More importantly, it acts as a commentary on the traditional revenge-tragedy plot of the wuxia, rejecting such fatalism in favor of choice and mercy, and in the process achieving a moral beauty commensurate with its images.

6. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy)
A procedural, yes.  A celebration of old-fashioned journalism in a world plagued by click-bait, absolutely.  More than that, an exploration of institutions: both the Church and the Newspaper, the First and Fourth Estates. Tom McCarthy’s underrated direction maps the inside of the Boston Globe offices for us, arranging his characters in shots with careful attention to power and relational dynamics and a perceptive eye for the way working conditions are shaped by office geography.  As the clues of the case are laid out carefully, we discover the world-famous story along with our characters, each factual revelation evoking dawning horror and deepening our understanding of hidden connections and structural issues.  We begin to understand what a “culture of silence” really is, its limits and its effects.  And as one institution is indicted, its blindspots and hypocrisies exposed, another is commended--though not unconditionally.  The print newspaper’s inner workings are revealed, its potential for heroism through plodding legwork, the necessity of good editing as well as good reporting, the ways it is tied to the community, and its limits and disadvantages.  For it is clear that part of the horror of the story is the importance of the Church’s role, the way its sacred purpose has been perverted; and the newspaper as an institution is similarly capable of corruption, of bowing to outside pressures, even of succumbing to the culture of silence itself.  No one gets off easy here. But always, always, the impact on the individual human being in the midst of these institutions is kept paramount.

7. Creed (Ryan Coogler)
As many have noted, Creed takes the racial politics of the original Rocky series and turns them on their ear.  While the first couple films in the franchise were by no means racist in their depiction of individual black characters, they gave voice unavoidably to a white working class in the newly defined "Rust Belt" that felt itself slipping and falling behind while blacks appeared to be culturally ascendant for the first time, generating resentment and desperation; and the movies did focus on defeating black boxers who could be fairly described as arrogant, perhaps bordering on "uppity."  Where the original Rocky was realistic and insightful about what it meant to be a young Italian-American man in 1976 (the bicentennial year), Creed is insightful and (mostly) realistic about what it means to be a young African-American man in 2015 (nearing the end of the Obama era).  Straddling the lines of black experience almost as comprehensively as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly--Adonis is both rich and poor, oppressed and privileged, juvenile delinquent and business school graduate, fatherless and perpetually under his father’s shadow, desperately searching for an identity of his own he can be proud of--Creed is ultimately the more open, inclusive, and optimistic statement (perhaps inevitably, as an entry in this franchise).  Just as significant for the success of the film, though, is the way director Ryan Coogler genuinely understands the conventions of the underdog boxing movie, and how thoroughly he rethinks and revises them.  Whether it’s by shooting an entire boxing match in one take that puts us inside the ring, or re-imagining the training montage to include both triumph and tragedy (strengthening muscles and enduring chemotherapy at the same time), or a bravura final fight scene that shifts between multiple editing strategies as if they were movements in a symphony, Coogler proves himself a major filmmaker in both theme and style.  This one is gonna be a classic.

8. Ex Machina (Alex Garland)
This is a small but remarkably focused sci-fi film that reveals new layers with new scene, gradually building a thesis not just on the nature of what makes us human, but on gender roles, sexual fantasies, power dynamics, and particular strains of modern masculinity, as well.  It’s elegant use of special effects in the service of character should be a model for the future filmmakers.  A deft switch in viewer identification towards the end leaves events unresolved and morally ambiguous, but provides us with some absolute certainty about the nature of individuality.  A worthy companion to Blade Runner and A.I. Artificial Intelligence.  (Incidentally, does the academy have it in for Oscar Isaac or what?  Snubbed for both Inside Llewyn Davis and his brilliant role here--in favor of Tom Hardy’s worst performance ever in The Revenant?  Come on!)

9. The Martian (Ridley Scott)
This is the kind of giddy, completely satisfying crowd-pleaser only Hollywood can make, but they only seem to actually put out once in a blue moon.  Ridley Scott has ppossibly never been more optimistic, and the whole thing glides along with a cheerful can-do attitude rather incongruous with its story of desperate survival.  Based on a book that began life as an amateur online blog fic with an audience of science nerds, a large part of the thrill of the film is how rigorous, believable, and realistic it is (with a couple exceptions: Mars doesn’t have enough atmosphere for the type of storm that kicks off the whole plot).  For an old homeschooler and Science Olympiad alum like me, the valorization of geeky problem-solving and scientific expertise here felt like it was made especially for me and my high school crowd.  Along with Interstellar and Tomorrowland (and Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who), The Martian is finally a statement of simultaneous nostalgia and optimism--an implicit rejection of the pessimistic apocalyptic vision that has dominated the science fiction of the 21st century, a resurrection of the triumphal vision of mid-century sc-fi, and an assertion of faith in the human capacity for innovation, cooperation, and perseverance.  These movies represent a call for new stories, and a belief that the stories we tell about our future are in some sense self-fulfilling prophecies.  Whatever happened to how we felt at that moment in 1969 when man first walked on the Moon?

10. Office (Johnnie To)
Fans of Hong Kong director Johnnie To have been hoping for years that he would make a musical, yet when he finally offered one this year many responses were underwhelmed.  Based on a stage play, the film is shot on elaborately stylized and artificial sets, and scored with Cantopop that sounds foreign and thin to Western ears (including mine).  Perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised at the stylization; To tends to make real locations look like sets, anyway, and his elaborate camera moves in movies like Breaking News are already legendary.  More importantly, he is in firm command of his characters and themes here, and the stylization serves them well.  In Office, To harkens back to King Vidor's The Crowd in his vision of corporate capitalism as one more collectivist constraint on individualism, and to Billy Wilder's The Apartment as ambition, competition, and obsequiousness distort romantic relationships, but it is ultimately angrier and blunter than both, railing not merely against corporate culture, but the whole system of engrained and globalized capitalism.  And despite its theatricality, obvious schematization, and sense of predictability usually missing from To's films, the film actually manages to convince me.  It is not a call for revolution or socialist thesis statement; the alternatives longed for are individualism, honesty, a break from competition, and a return to a quiet and peaceful hometown where there is no opportunity for advancement but no desire for it either.

11. Sicario (Denis Villeneuve)
Sicario’s central problem is that it has two thematic objectives which work at cross-purposes with each other: it wants to be both a ripped-from-the-headlines journalistic expose and a journey-to-the-heart-of-darkness plunge into moral ambiguity.  These oppositional objectives really should cripple the film, and they probably do prevent it from being a truly great one, but the truth is that Sicario is far too good on a scene-by-scene basis to let this failure pull it under.  Working in a generic line that stretches back through Breaking Bad, Zero Dark Thirty, and No Country for Old Men all the way to Chinatown, director Denis Villeneuve crafts a supremely tense, detailed narrative of crime and law enforcement along the Mexican-American border.  In this he is hugely indebted to cinematographer Roger Deakins, who’s been a legend for a decade already and keeps proving just how great he is with each new film (not that the Oscars will ever let him win).  But even when Deakins isn’t doing amazing things with balanced compositions and light and shadow, the film is anchored by superlative performances from Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio Del Toro.  And the plotting is tight and exact--the occasional dumb line aside--taking us through the horrifying realities of the Drug War today and its moral compromises better than any fictional film has done since Traffic in 2000, at least.

12. The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)
(Full review to come.)

Honorable Mentions:  Brooklyn (John Crowley), Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako), Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg), Shaun the Sheep Movie (Mark Burton, Richard Starzack), Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad)

Most Overrated:  Trainwreck (Judd Apatow)

Most Underrated/Underseen:  Blackhat (Michael Mann), Office (Johnnie To)

Favorite Guilty Pleasure:  Jupiter Ascending (The Wachowskis)

Worst Movie I Saw This Year:  True Story (Rupert Goold)

Link to my complete list of "movies I saw this year" on Letterboxd HERE.

I have also compiled a list of the best older movies I saw for the first time this year.  You can find the complete list of 30 films in full color on Letterboxd, but here's the Top 10 in black and white:

1. Heaven Can Wait (Lubitsch, 1943)
2. The Shop Around the Corner (Lubitsch, 1940)
3. The Women (Cukor, 1939)
4. Kiss Me Deadly (Aldrich, 1955)
5. Thief (Mann, 1981)
6. The Lady Eve (Sturges, 1941)
7. Femme Fatale (De Palma, 2002)
8. Ninotchka (Lubitsch, 1939)
9. Videodrome (Cronenberg, 1983)
10. Vivre Sa Vie (Godard, 1962)

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