Monday, January 25, 2016

2015 Year In Review: Films 30-21 and Runners-Up

Runners-Up: The Assassin (Hou Hsaio-hsien) is an utterly beautiful film, that is also baffling (a rewatch or two may move this way up this list, if I can figure it all out).The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller) is a frank, honest examination of young teenage girl’s sexual awakening, that never judges anyone. Dope (Rick Famuyiwa) is a hell of a lot of fun, as three inner city L.A. honor roll students become drug dealers – almost by accident. The Martian (Ridley Scott) is big budget, mainstream filmmaking done right. Paddington (Paul King) was a surprisingly delightful take on the silly little bear from darkest Peru. Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry) is a devastating portrait of friendship and madness. Straight Outta Compton (F. Gary Gray) is a hugely entertaining portrait of NWA. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako) is a wonderful examination of religious fundamentalism. White God (Kornél Mundruczó) is an intense, brilliantly made, disturbingly violent allegory – that works on all levels (except, perhaps, the allegorical one). Wild Tales (Damián Szifrón) is an excellent collection of shorts, adding up to, well, something.

30. Victoria (Sebastian Schipper)
Doing an entire movie in literally one take (not the fake one take look of Birdman) is, admittedly, a gimmick – and a fairly meaningless one for the most part, as I’m not quite sure what it proves. Having said that, Sebastian Schipper does indeed make an entire movie out of a single, nearly two and half hour long – and it’s a film that moves, has actions sequences, and it works brilliantly. The story – a Spanish girl living in Germany meets four guys at a nightclub, and eventually gets sucked into their bizarre robbery scheme – isn’t exactly original – but it doesn’t need to be to work. The biggest asset the film has is Laia Costa, who plays the title character, and sells it – she never steps wrong, and you legitimately care for her, even as you see her making one mistake after another. This is the type of foreign film that should have become an art house hit in North America – and the fact it didn’t sort of mystifies me (it will, hopefully, find it audience on home viewing platforms). An energetic film that was an absolute blast from beginning to end. If you can make a gimmick work, it ceases to be a gimmick (or, at least, a bad one).

29. Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle)
To the surprise of no one, Danny Boyle directing an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, hums along at a fever pitch for two hours of rapid fire talking. Boyle simply decides to try and keep up with the actors, who are (of course) walking and talking throughout – although using different formats in the different eras, to give each their own look is an inspired choice. The acting throughout the film is excellent – particularly Fassbender as Steve Jobs, an asshole, who ever so slightly changes, Kate Winslet as his conscience (even if Sorkin using a woman as a “great man’s conscience” has been done to death at this point – but Winslet sells it), and Michael Stuhlbarg, as one of his underlings, who strikes a surprising emotional chord. The film doesn’t have the depth or the style of its spiritual kin – The Social Network, which was a better movie in every way – but it’s still an excellent showcase for the talents of the Boyle, Sorkin, Fassbender et al.

28. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie)
How rare is it that the fifth installment in a 20 year old franchise could be argued to be the best of the series? Very rare – but Rogue Nation may just be the best the Mission Impossible series has ever been (really on the fourth entry – Ghost Protocol can compare). This movie has everything you come to this series for – breakneck action, a complicated plot of double and triple crosses, and Tom Cruise running while looking fiercely determined. It’s also got a suspenseful sequence in an opera house that would have made Hitchcock proud, a killer femme fatale (or is she…), lots of humor and anything else director Christopher McQuarrie and company decide to throw at the screen to see what will stick. This franchise seems to keep finding ways to top itself – and really is a near perfect example of this kind of filmmaking.

27. Heaven Knows What (Joshua & Ben Safdie)
Joshua & Ben Safdie’s Heaven Knows What is one of the most difficult films of the year to watch. It is based on the experiences of its star – Arielle Holmes – as a drug addict, homeless teenager on the streets of New York. Almost all of the cast are non-professional – except for Caleb Landry Jones, who plays Holmes’ on-again, off-again boyfriend (in the films metaphor for love and drugs – the intoxicating high when they’re together, followed by withdrawal when they’re apart). This is not a film anyone in their right mind would accuse of glamorizing drug use – these people do everything possible just to get enough so they’re not miserable, they’re constantly cold, and tired. It’s a gut-wrenching little film – one that too few saw this year, but everyone who did will never forget.

26. Eden (Mia Hansen-Love)
Mia Hansen-Love’s Eden has been described by some as electronic music’s Inside Llewyn Davis – and while I wouldn’t go that far (after all, the Coen brothers movie is the best of this decade so far) – they do share some DNA, in this story that follows its protagonist for decade as he tries to make it as a DJ, falling further and further into drugs, gaining, and losing a beloved girlfriend, and then heading off into an uncertain future. The film is long – a little too long really, and does end up repeating itself as its winds its way through the decade. Still, the film, like Llewyn Davis, is not about a talentless hack who just cannot make it in the music business – it’s much sadder than that. It’s about a man who does have talent – quite a bit of talent – just not enough (a pair, identified as Daft Punk, come in and out of the movie – as if they were starring in another film running alongside this one, to show how little the hero of this moves ahead). This is Mia Hansen-Love’s third film – following The Father of My Children and Goodbye First Love – and each one keeps getting better than the one before it.

25. The Kindergarten Teacher (Nadav Lapid)
This Israeli film is essentially an enigma that left me scratching my heading, and wondering what the hell I had just seen. The film stars as excellent Sarit Larry as the title character, who gets involved with one of her students, who may be some sort of poetry savant. The teacher becomes increasingly obsessed with her pupil – and his gift – even to the point where she’s willing to do something ridiculous to “protect” him. The boy himself is a mystery – is there something supernatural or divine about him – and what’s with the surreal touches in the movie. The film is a fascinating, ambiguous film – with some of the most interesting camerawork of any film this year. It really did deserve more attention than it got.

24. 99 Homes (Ramin Bahrani)
Set in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis – when the housing bubble burst, leaving many under water on their mortgages, and in danger of losing their homes, 99 Homes really is a merciless look at the kind of greed that leads to something like that – or more accurately, the kind of greed that takes advantage of that. The film stars Andrew Garfield as a young construction worker, who seems like a nice guy at first – taking care of his mother, and his son – but then, he loses his job and his house – and ends up working for the man who evicted him – played in one of the year’s best performance by Michael Shannon. Shannon is a Real Estate broker – who used to sell people their homes – and now makes more money, kicking them out and running various other scams. Shannon is brilliant – precisely because his arguments almost make sense – after all, he didn’t either give loans to people who couldn’t afford them, nor take out a loan he couldn’t afford. He’s just cleaning up other people’s mess – he just doesn’t seem to realize (or more accurately, care), about the lives he is destroying. The film takes a misstep in its final scenes – much like Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987), an obvious influence – did as well, trying to put a happy bow on two hours of misery. It doesn’t work – but everything up until then is great.

23. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (JJ Abrams)
I do have my problems with The Force Awakens – mainly, that I wish that J.J. Abrams would have done something different with the franchise, rather than just offer up what was essentially a remake of the original film (I will be very disappointed if future films take the same tactic). At the same time though, perhaps this is precisely what was needed for this first new Star Wars film in a decade – a nostalgia trip that gets everyone loving Star Wars again, so they do something more original later. It’s undeniably one of the most entertaining films of the years – a complete and total blast for fans for the series, that doesn’t make the mistake that Abrams last film (Star Trek: Into Darkness) did in introducing characters and references that they do not deal with in the context of this movie. In short, it’s an easy pleasure slipping back into this Star Wars world. My only regret is that my daughters are only 4 and 2 – and couldn’t share in the joy of this one.

22. The Big Short (Adam McKay)
Co-writer and director Adam McKay found a way to do the seemingly impossible – make a movie that explains the 2008 financial crisis, and not make it feel like either a documentary or classroom lesson. We have had those already – and some of them have been great (documentaries like Inside Job, books like Too Big To Fail and, yes, The Big Short, and various episodes of This American Life for example) – but for some reason, it makes many people’s heads spin. Leave it to the director of Anchorman and Talladega Nights to do something that is hugely entertaining, funny and yet also seethes with anger over what happened, and explains it in a way that anyone could understand. Part of that is because of the great ensemble cast Ryan Gosling and Steve Carrell best among equals (why Christian Bale happened to be the one singled out by The Academy – and others – I don’t get) – and part of that is just that McKay wraps it all up in an entertaining package – like a bunch of guys partying on the Titanic as its sinks, with a few guys trying, in vein, to sound the alarm. The film is an entertainment – but it’s also much more intelligent than we’re used to getting – and it marks McKay as the talented director he must have always been.

21. The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland)
The opening scenes of Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy setup an erotic thriller – an homage to 1970s European soft core porn movies – the opening title sequence could pretty much be one from that era. As the opening credits give way to the first sequence – where a young woman arrives at the house of an older woman, who bosses her around, and abuses her – climaxing with some sort of sexual perversity (behind a door, that we do not see) – we think we know what we’re in for. And then the movie shifts, we see the same sequence again, from a different POV, that changes everything. While there are certainly elements of the S&M erotic movie that we were seemingly promised in those opening sequences, The Duke of Burgundy becomes a much deeper film about, well, love – and what it means to love someone else, and what you must sacrifice to make it work. It is also, brilliant constructed. As with Strickland’s last film – Berberian Sound Studio – he is making films that seem to be homages on one level, and are actually something quite different underneath. I eagerly anticipated what he does next.

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