Sunday, February 28, 2016

Best Films of 2015 (That I Saw)

As usual, there are a ton of movies I missed. It’s a combination of living in the midwest (films start at the edges and work their way in and by February I’m usually playing catchup) and straight-up not having the time to luxuriate and go to the movies. For the first time since Kill Bill I neglected to see a Tarantino movie in theaters and this makes me very sad. We also missed out on Anomalisa after some babysitter miscommunication. These things happen. I’ll see them in a couple months when they’re out on DVD and that’s all that matters, but in my head, I’ll still feel a pang of sadness that they couldn’t be considered for the little year end list I effectively make for myself to process the year. 2015 was not a banner year for film or music, but like any other year, it’s a big pain narrowing down my favorite pieces into at Top Ten. They can’t all be 2007 or 2013 (this is only drawing from recent memory, certainly someone has pegged the absolute best year for movies ever) but the beautiful thing about cinema is that you will always have at least ten must see movies. Maybe only one or two of them will end up IMDB Top 250 worthy but all of them are going to be thought provoking, entertaining, and if you’re lucky, they’ll leave you a little rattled and/or rattle around inside your head for days/weeks/months/years to come.

And because I couldn't limit it to just ten, I even have honorable mentions (amazingly, in no particular order): Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Undid the horrors of the prequels in one fell swoop. Made me feel like a boy again. I was 9 years old when the original trilogy was re-released on VHS. I didn't really know anything about Star Wars. From what I can remember, my dad checked them out at Blockbuster and I spent the next 7 hours in the basement having my child's mind fully obliterated with absolute joy. I got the tapes a few months later at Christmas. Along with action figures, Boba Fett's ship, a land speeder, and the much coveted Millenium Falcon. To crib from Inside Out, these are core memories. One of the reasons The Force Awakens works so well is it's basically just A New Hope with a fresh coat of paint. It's everything you loved about Star Wars as a child made new again. That sentimentality is practically a cliche in re Star Wars, and while I expected a torrent of nostalgia to come rushing in when the score hit and the words started crawling up the screen, the actual rush of glee I felt was something unparalleled. The sort of joy a new and great Star Wars movie brought my heart is truly unspeakable. I can try to translate it here, but words fail to capture that pure and simple YES YES YES YES YES. You probably know what I'm talking about.

Nick Hornby, once a touchstone author for "lads" and "blokes" has become an excellent writer of female characters in his most recent screenplays (An Education, Wild, and this one here) and novels (Juliet, Naked and Funny Girl). On top of his excellent script is beautiful and world-beating performance from Saoirse Ronan, a breakout directorial work from John Crowley, and a beautifully decorated immigrant story that is quite delightful but still packs some dramatic heft.

It Follows Seriously inventive (and seriously scary) horror filmmaking that feels both throwback and fresh and owns the year's best score. I'm not really a horror guy, but sign me up for whatever David Robert Mitchell does for the rest of his career.

Mistress America
It's weird how good this was considering how bad While We're Young was. Good on you, Noah Baumbach! It's a sweet little screwball comedy and further confirmation that Greta Gerwig should be in everything.

The Martian
An excellent and entertaining adaptation of an excellent and entertaining novel.

The Gift
A singularly creepy cautionary tale about why it is important to BE NICE TO PEOPLE IN HIGH SCHOOL. The levels of menace Joel Edgerton layers into this film as both the director and antagonist are off the damn charts.

Inside Out
Like Up, Inside Out is mostly made to make grown ups sad. I laughed, I cried, I cried some more, ok I cried a lot. It's a beautiful film full of pretty colors and heavy truths, but I did feel that Pixar got a little heavy handed with the feels button. You know what I mean? There are certainly plenty of brilliant gags to add some levity to the aforementioned HEAVY TRUTHS but holy shit, this movie is so deliberate in the way it runs you through the emotional wringer it's borderline sadistic. And yet, the fact that Pixar decided to make a film about the complexities of child psychology is daring as hell and I'm tipping my hat regardless.

Love & Mercy
I hate biopics. Well, mostly. There's one in a prominent spot on this list, but I get into my hate of by the book biopics in that entry. Mostly, I just can't stand the bullet point effect. Love & Mercy definitely has traces of your Walk the Lines and your Capotes (notably, the whole John Cusack Brian-Wilson-Under-the-Control-Of-an-Insane-Psychologist-Quack part, although both Elizabeth Banks and Paul Giamatti turn in top-of-their-game performances) but it also has these brilliant sequences where an absolutely locked in Paul Dano conducts a flock of studio musicians into transcribing the insanity in his head and making Pet Sounds. Those sequences married my inner music lover/movie lover and were pure ecstatic joy.

10. Ex Machina
Directed by Alex Garland
Alex Garland’s dark (and darkly comic) take on artificial intelligence subverts the evil robot genre by twisting it into a taut psychological thriller. The plot and questions of humanity are all well and good, but the performances from Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, and Domhnall Gleeson are what elevate this into a truly compelling piece of science fiction. Mostly though, it’s Alex Garland’s tone and use of an everyman character thrown into a bizarre situation that makes this film so unsettling and relatable.

9. Dope
Directed by Rick Famuyiwa
Dope is a perfect little gem of a film that got absolutely buried in 2015. That’s madness, absolute madness. The plot is simple: Malcolm (a self-professed “geek” obsessed with 90s hip hop, and, well, 90s culture in general) gets a shitload of drugs put in his backpack and in order to make things right lest he lose his shot at going to college, has to sell the drugs on the dark web. The resulting action is wholly madcap and wildly entertaining. The absolute dearth of young talent at work here is tremendous. With his turn as Malcolm, Shameik Moore should have a golden ticket in Hollywood. The sweetness, vulnerability, and humor he brings to a character in a whirlwind of awful situations is masterful, and if you don’t have chills when he delivers the film’s capstone thesis statement in the form of a college essay, you clearly have no blood in your veins. His best friends Diggy and Jib--played by Kiersey Clemons and Tony Revolori--anchor Malcolm, are the bulk of the film’s comic relief, and get all of the movie’s best lines.

8. Mad Max: Fury Road
Directed by George Miller
There were parts of this movie where I looked over at Jenny with a crazed, giddy look on my face to illustrate how much fun I was having watching this movie. I was also looking at her to make sure she wasn’t going to make me leave because the movie was so violent and strange but she enjoyed it too! Honestly, in terms of pure entertainment and spectacle, they just don’t make movies like this anymore, and seeing one, up on the big screen, full of so much insanity and badassery, it almost brought a tear to my eye.

7. American Ultra
Directed by Nima Nourizadeh
American Ultra is one of 2015’s best hidden gems. It did poorly both critically and at the box office, but if you can get past the thrown shade there’s a really sweet story buried in a mess of stoner comedy and ultraviolence. Sure, the story of a stoner who is actually a CIA trained killing machine, is wholly far fetched, but the wackiness coupled with some really insane action sequences is a treat. And sure there are lots of explosions and shootouts and some cartoonish power struggles but this is a cartoonish movie, and it’s a cartoonish movie with a surprising amount of heart. The relationship between Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart is genuinely sweet and you really care about them. You want them to make it through unscathed. And that emotional center is what makes all the goofiness and just truly insane violence work. I read it as a metaphor for the hurdles that come with sustaining a loving, long term relationship, which might not have been the film’s intent but it worked for me in regard to locking me into the story. I’m also a huge fan of Adventureland so seeing Eisenberg and Stewart together again was a treat, and Stewart is doing a tremendous job (this year especially, between fantastic turns here and in The Clouds of Sils Maria) shedding the negative effects of Twilight.

6. Clouds of Sils Maria
Directed by Oliver Assayas
Like one of my favorite albums of 2015 (Hop Along’s Painted Shut), I was hipped to Clouds of SIls Maria by a fantasy football podcast. This is what my life is like now. Regardless, this is a remarkable film that was quietly and unceremoniously thrust onto DVD after a lengthy trip on the festival circuit. It’s baffling that two of the year’s best performances--from Juliette Binoche as an actress and Kristen Stewart as her intrepid assistant--are remarkable. It’s pretty heady and arty, but totally captivating as well. And did I mention Juliette Binoche turns in the year’s best performance? Goddamn is she good or what?

5. What We Do in the Shadows
Directed by Taika Waititi
I don’t think I laughed harder this year then when I was laughing during this film’s hour and a half run time. It’s a rare thing to craft a comedy with sustained laughs. Usually--from a viewer’s perspective--you get a lot of big laughs out of the way up front and then you course correct and settle in for an hour and ten minutes of chuckling. When I was watching What We Do in the Shadows I thought I was going to die. There were a few spots where I couldn’t breathe I was laughing so hard. I ended up with bruises on my left knee because I was slapping it so hard and my wedding band is made out of very tough tungsten.

4. The Big Short
Directed by Adam McKay
Adam McKay makes funny movies but I’d never once considered him a great director. Hell, I never considered him a good director, especially after the aimless Anchorman 2. And yet here I am, believing that Adam McKay should walk away with the Oscar for Best Director. Not only does he balance the severe horrors of the financial collapse of 2008 with side-splitting humor, but he takes source material that should be much drier and somber and turns it into highly entertaining gold like a goddamn alchemist. It’s cinematic wizardry. Both my wife and mother said, “That sounds boring” when I told them what it was about and I had to be all, “no no no no, they actually make it really easy to follow, and man oh man it’s gonna make you PISSED by the end.” The most elegant thing McKay does with The Big Short is that he structures the film like the financial collapse itself. It’s a riotous blast, everyone is having a good time, and then the bottom drops out and you feel the hurt of an entire nation (less those wretched villains of Wall Street with their golden parachutes and bailout bonus checks) shorted out of homes and jobs and pensions as the people responsible go unpunished. This is basically a brilliantly constructed 2008 Financial Collapse for Dummies, from the guy who made Anchorman 2 . It certainly sounds dubious on paper, but it’s one of the year’s best and most important films. Note: On this list, I only referred to one filmmaker’s work as elegant, and it was the GUY WHO DIRECTED THE ATROCITY THAT WAS ANCHORMAN 2. WORLD TURNED UPSIDE DOWN PEOPLE! Note: According to the IMDB trivia page for this film, The Big Short author Michael Lewis agreed to let Adam McKay make the film if McCay made Anchorman 2. I don't know how to feel about this. Sort of like an ouroboros I guess?

3. Phoenix
Directed by Christian Petzold
Simply outstanding, moody, absolutely captivating filmmaking. The plot is a bit outlandish, but I bit because it's not a history of holocaust survivors directly after World War II, but an examination of the loss of identity that comes with being treated as less than a human being, and the guilty nation to which this character returns. The guilty nation that would rather put the ugliness and shame out of mind and move on. Set against the backdrop of Berlin reduced to rubble, it’s a high-premise yarn about a woman whose face has been destroyed in a concentration camp and reconstructed as a strangers. She desperately tries piecing her life back together, but betrayal on the part of her husband makes that impossible. And yet, rather than seek revenge, she goes along with a plot to pretend to be his dead wife so he can cash in her inheritance. Like I said, it’s high premise, a bit lurid, and absolutely one of the most haunting films of the year. Phoenix is a taut bit of suspense that knots up until it unravels into a final scene that left me breathless and dumbstruck in my seat. It’s not going to blow you away, there’s no big twist, but the subtlety of the sequence is almost effortlessly brilliant and the sort of devastating that sticks with you for days/weeks/months/years.

2. The End of the Tour
Directed by James Ponsoldt
I don’t know how one could make it through Infinite Jest and not feel in some way connected to its author. You figure the haters aren’t going to make it past the first fifty pages. That book broke me open. It changed me. And that’s a high falootin statement to make about a book, but it’s true. That book’s foray into American sadness helped me better understand my own life. I can’t think of another book that has had a more profound effect on me. I can feel your eyes rolling but it’s true. It made me a believer in the change great books can trigger in a person, and now I’m a librarian. The End of the Tour chronicles a journalist's travels with David Foster Wallace over the last dates of the Infinite Jest book tour. I noted my disdain of traditional biopics earlier in this list, and The End of the Tour works for me because it’s not the greatest hits of a life. It’s a small, self-contained handful of days that shine a light on Wallace’s complicated genius. You can tell (through Jason Segal’s excellent performance) that he genuinely wants to be a “regular guy,” but you also get the impression that he knows it’s impossible. The film avoids putting him on a godlike pedestal by illustrating the flaws and shortcomings of being that brainy. It strips the poetry out of the trouble genius suicide and shows you a man trying his best to fit into the world.

1.Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Jesse Andrew’s novel is without question the best book I have read in the last five years. I deeply related to the protagonist, I cried, I laughed so hard I hurt myself. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s adaptation is the sort of adaptation you dream of as a booklover. “Man, I hope they do this great story justice” you think to yourself when you see that they’re making a movie of your favorite book. And to not only be satisfied, but to have your already high opinion of the story elevated, well, that’s almost too much to ask for. And when you get it, holy shit.

When the movie ended, I knew it was going to be my favorite film of the year. “By a country mile,” I said to myself in this conversation I was having in my head. The year is over and though I didn’t see as many films as I would have liked (partly because I live in Kansas and a lot of the great films from 2015 won’t get here until next Spring, and partly because I have a young child and cinema intake is limited to what is on Netflix or what I can bring home from the library because going to the damn movies requires an amount of planning and foresight comparable to the invasion of Normandy). But I don’t think it would have mattered because nothing can touch how deeply moved I was by this film. Once again, I got lost in the story and when the heartbreak hits, when the dying girl dies even though you know she is going to die, I cried and cried and cried and I like to think that if you don’t cry at the climactic sequence where Greg Gaines shows Rachel the movie he made for her, you are a cyborg incapable of true emotion.

Ok, that’s not true. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but holy shit. That scene, scored by Brian Eno’s “The Big Ship,” (also used in the final sequence of The End of the Tour, strangely) and running what feels like an eternity, was absolutely devastating and beautiful and one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. Greg Gaines is a tricky character because he seems lovable and quirky at first, and then you realize how selfish and self-absorbed he is, but you also see that he’s genuinely a nice guy. But he can’t get over his hangups about what people think of him, and he can’t even refer to Earl as his goddamn friend (he refers to him as his coworker). I’ve already written three paragraphs about this film and I haven’t even touched on the brilliant send ups to classic cinema that made my film school heart explode. Those are in the book, but the cinematic realization of Werner Herzog jokes is glorious. But honestly, as awesome and wonderful as that stuff is, it’s just for decoration. It’s really fun and unique decoration, but it’s only to create a background for this deceptively profound story to operate in.