Sunday, February 28, 2016

Best of 2015

Hey all. Mike with my Top 10 of 2015. It may not be considered the best of 2015, but I think it is, so there, TTHHHRRPPTT! I try to post this every year the afternoon before the Oscars. Wait you might say (you probably didn't), you didn't post a Best of 2014 last year! Oh, I'll correct that now. In summary:

10) Still Alice
9) Zero Motivation (forgotten Israeli black comedy, MASH the film meets Sex in the City, until that changes)
8) Leviathan (Russian subtle attack of Putin style government thru modern version of the Book of Job)
7) American Sniper
6) Finding Vivian Maier (best of the documentaries)
5) Calvary (forgotten Irish comedy)
4) Birdman
3) Under The Skin (UK sci-fi starring Scarlett Johansson)
2) Whiplash
1) Boyhood (what I felt should have won Best Picture, though Birdman was a darn fine substitute)

Reasons I didn't post last year: didn't have time to write a full list, and I waited till I saw both Citizenfour (good, but not top 10) and Theroy of Everything (great lead performances, but overrated. Best Picture? OH PLEASE)

Now as for 2015, I feel this was a pretty good year for film. To the point that, yeah, my top 4 of 2014 from last year could wreck havoc on this list, but not to the point you might think. And my Top 3 of 2013 (Frozen, Wolf of Wall Street and 12 Years A Slave) would be battling for the later half of the Top 10 of 2015.

I could have done a Top 22 of 2015, and be completely fine with my posting. That said, I'm fine with my order. I feel my Top 3 stands head and shoulders above  the rest of the year, with 4 and 5 not that far off from the Top 3, but just enough. Sorry there was no room in the inn for: 
Room (very good)
Steve Jobs (very good Sorkin script and Danny Boyle's best film)
The Big Short (better than I thought it would be)
45 Years (well done drama with a gut punch of an ending), and
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (if start hating all Star Wars films that are repetitive, I'll have to go as far back as Return of the Jedi, and that ain't happening folks)

Sorry I didn't get to most of the nominated documentaries (The Look of Silence in particular), Joy and The Danish Girl (the former looks like a slog, the later seems to take liberties with Alicia Vikander's character to the point of making shit up, so no thanks, I'm not spending the money) So here we go:

10) AMY- Best documentary of the year, from director Asif Kapadia. Works for both Amy Winehouse fans and as an introduction to the singer to those unfamiliar with her. Though with the information brought up here such as her full family background and her songwriting approach, some of this documentary might bring new information to even her most devout fans as well. 
8) SICARIO- No wonder Sicario had a tough time drawing audiences. The message of the film; that the Drug War in Mexico is impossible to win as long as, to paraphrase the film, twenty percent of the U.S. population continues to snort white powder. That the best we can do is to have in power, a semi-reasonable drug lord on the other side of the river (whatever that means). And what might hinder our efforts almost as much as a well armed drug lord, is law-enforcement officials on our side who are too naïve to know this. Ok, sure, the other side is using the same tactics. But it doesn't seem to matter much when you're facing down the barrel of some sort of firearm. Oh, man . . . . .

And no way did this film feel like 2 hours 2 minutes. Once we get thru the somewhat ponderous introductions of our main characters (among them, Emily Blunt's naïve cop, Josh Brolin's mysterious American agent, Benicio Del Toro's even more mysterious Mexican agent on "our side", and a Mexican man with a family who eventually makes sense), the tension ratchets and rarely lets up. We might think there's a respite here and there, but this is the wrong film and the wrong director (Denis Villeneuve) to feel that. Culminating a dinner scene that must be seen to be believed.Tight action scenes, impressive Cinematography by Roger Deakins, and a strong ensemble cast, help make Sicario an amazing, if hardly enjoyable, cinematic achievement

7) THE HATEFUL 8- The Hateful 8 could go down as Tarantino's most underrated film ever, even more so than Jackie Brown. I guess in theory telling people to go to a Western, and then make a Western that's almost three hours long, and then try to sell people on the idea that if you don't see the full 3 hour plus version in a limited (great) film format you're missing out on something special, well I don't know. They are missing something special. Specifically, they're not really messing a Western per say. They're missing a story of faith (not of the religious kind), and they're missing a sort of combination of Ten Little Indians, Deathtrap, and John Carpenter's The Thing. I would guess that Carpenter's The Thing was probably the foundation for the screenplay, with the Western motif and other ideas springing forth from there.
I wonder how well the film would have played without most of the Channing Tatum-led section in the final cut. Because as much as I love Zoe Bell, most of the characters we're introduced to in the cabin for the first time come off as collateral damage with no consequences. As in Don't Care, This Film Is Now Beginning To Feel Like It's Taking Forever. That lack of tightness for me keeps the film from being higher on this list, because the other films above it have no such problems as far as I'm concerned.
Based on my watching the 70mm version, the Cinematography outside is gorgeous and the Cinematography inside is always interesting. I enjoyed Ennio Morricone's music, but don't go in thinking you're getting a lot of original new stuff. Though I was the one hopping in my seat think "OHMYGODOHMYGOD QUENTIN IS USING REGAN'S THEME FROM EXORCIST 2!!!". Anyway, we also have a great cast from the main 8. I was hoping both Samuel L. Jackson and Walton Goggins would get Oscar nominated alongside Jennifer Jason Leigh's go-for-broke joyous work. But it looks like it was too tight in the Actor category for Jackson to get in, and Goggins has the audacity of both not being as well known as some other actors, and not as well known as Sly Stallone playing Rocky in the Supporting Actor category. But we also have here is Quentin's tightest screenplay, in terms of both of dialogue and story construction (again, except for the Tatum-lead section).

6) WILD TALES- Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at last year's Oscars. It received a theatrical release here in the States last Spring, so it qualifies for this list here. During the Oscar telecast last year, I though the best films in the Foreign Language category were Leviathan, from Russia, and the actual winner, Ida, from Poland. As much as I liked the Russian film, I liked Wild Tales more.

A very pleasant surprise, which considering the content, the word pleasant might not seem appropriate. Another in the violence-with-consequences territory of films, like Unforgiven. But this anthology film from Argentina has six tightly contained stories. Aside from taking place in Argentina is, all they have in common,  according to writer-director Damian Szifron, is having protagonists  who either give in to, or try to fight off, their animal instincts. Whether they give up being human toward others, or try to fight off those impulses, and the consequences of those actions. So you can have a dark comic, almost slapstick story of a young waitress fighting her conscious about poison a local criminal politician,  and her ex-con co-worker who is only to happy to, um, overindulge in this venture. But you can also have a tension filled drama; such as where a wealthy man is ready to spend money to keep his son out of jail after a fatal hit-and-run/ DUI, only to see many people demand more and more money from him to pull this off.

3 or 4 of the 6 tales have a Twilight Zone-like aspect to them, which is why this isn't higher on the list for me. But one thing in some of his stories that Szifron pulls with better consistency than Rod Sterling and his writers on the TV series, is humor. Humor could be awkward at times on The Twilight Zone, and is a natural fit here in Wild Tales. And while the opening story on the plane is memorable, well done, and yet quite Sterling like (with a budget!), it's the last story that mixes the comedy, drama and violence well. A wedding reception to end all receptions. Where the bride starts off as the belle of the ball, only to discover something about one of the guests. A discovery that slowly but surely sends the bride off the deep end. Her reactions and how the story moves along, I'm pretty confident you won't know the twists or the ending.

5) INSIDE OUT- Pixar's best work since Toy Story 3. When I made that statement to someone, I was reminded of the mediocrity released by Pixar between these two films, so I'll say the best Pixar film since Wall-E.

Funny for the first ten minutes and a consistent mix of comedy drama and action after that. The best use of unreliable narrator of 2015 with the emotion Joy. Breaking down complex ideas of types of consciousness and Freudian theories that adults can pick up on, as well mourning the impending end of childhood. for the kids, they use bright colors and a funny imaginary friend to let them follow along (maturity will them catch up later on). But that even kids can pick up the idea that feeling sadness, or that happy memories can be tinged with sadness, is NOT necessarily a bad thing, that is cool. There are no villains here, not even the mean girls depicted in school. Maybe among the better Pixar film, Inside Out is better suited for kids, despite what I wrote earlier. Not a bad thing to me, just an observation. 

And no, it is NOT a rip-off of Herman's Head. Mere similarities here and there, nothing more. Damn, I thought we put that sitcom away for good, no matter how much I like Yeardley Smith and Molly Hagan.

4) ANOMALISA- For those who need a more realistic romantic film than Brooklyn, which is a respectable film that once it leaves the title borough, becomes a lot more ordinary. Sorry, was being a little facetious there. A touching story that could on film, could probably only be made affordably thru the method they used, animation. And not CGI, but a stop motion drama where the seams are visible, the faces seem ready to come off (and does in 1 dream sequence), and the bodies displayed are almost achingly human.

Stunningly subtle, though that's not a surprise if you remember large chunks of one of writer/ co-director Charlie Kaufman earlier efforts, Adaptation. Slowly though never explicitly do we follow our lead, self-help author Michael, who seems no longer capable of helping himself. Specifically, he seems to me (you might disagree) to suffer from Fregoli syndrome, where someone believes all the people he/she sees are the same person who look and sound almost exactly the same. We don't know if Michael's mundane lifestyle contributed to developing this syndrome or vice versa. Michael comes off as at least sympathetic for at least the first half of the film; though his letter from an angry old flame, as well as a cringe-worthy meet-up with her at the hotel bar hints that he possibly had issues back then. Narcissism possibly, which mixed with Fregoli, seems like a hole Michael will have a tough time digging himself out of, if he can.  

Michael's outlook becomes noticeably brighter when he meets a woman who is attending the conference he's speaking at. Actually Michael meets two women, but one in particular, Lisa, with a scar mostly covered by her hair, very shy, and not used to men find her interesting or attractive, is the one that touches Michael's heart. Obviously, since Lisa is the only one who looks like someone other than everyone else in Michael's Fregoli-tinged perspective. They make a connection, but how it affects them is among the film's surprises.

I fell for this film hook line and sinker. I understand this film from Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson has its detractors, but I won't be one of them. Some may refer to it as dull. I considered it leisurely paced, perhaps a little too leisurely, which is why it's lower on this list. Some may not appreciate having a lead character be so psychologically damaged, or just be a myopic putz, or that the viewer themselves are forced to consciously form their own opinion based on the style of storytelling. But I was just fine with that. And in creating a counterbalance in Jennifer Jason Leigh's Lisa character, we have someone that elevates the film for me. No Magic Pixie Girl here, to use Nathan Rabin's term. She's her own person living her own life; not necessarily smarter than Michael, maybe as world weary as him, maybe someone outwardly and perhaps inwardly more scarred than Michael. But she knows what she wants, and her life doesn't begin or end with her interaction with Michael, no matter how special the moment might be for both of them. And that is a pleasant surprise for a female character on screen today. 

3) MAD MAX: FURY ROAD- The best Franchise film this year, which I don't mean to sound like faint praise. The best action film since The Fugitive or Terminator 2, depending on your preference. For those who feel all movies tell their stories in the same way, using the same beats, here's a film that says oh Hell No. Deceptively one long chase film, but oh would you be wrong. Whether you see it in 2D or 3D, it's worth the money spent to see it in theaters.

I'm okay with George Miller rarely stopping to explain things. The film assumes you know at least some of the history of Max. It assumes you can at least pick up on the idea this is a post-apocalyptic world. The breakdown of this section of the world, of dictator, army, warrior, fanatic (OH WHAT A LOVELY DAY!!!),slave, sexual chattel. You don't need dialogue to figure it out, which is good because we usually don't get any. And having a strong female lead in Charlize Theron 's Furiosa, a hero on par with Ripley and the Bride, as the lead of a Mad Max film, audacious. And hey, was that a blind guy playing a flame-throwing axe on top of a speeding truck? COOOLLLL!!!!!

2) SON OF SAUL- A film that should be a near-lock to win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, from director/ co-writer Laszlo Nemes. Different from other Holocaust films in terms of time, focus, and style. Time in terms of only 2 or so days depicted in the film. Focus in terms of concentrating on a small (my words) part of the Auschwitz death camp; the Sonderkommando group of Jewish prisoners forced on threat of death, to aid with putting other prisoners into the gas chamber and then the disposal of their bodies. From there we focus on a cog, a Sonderkommando named Saul. After doing this task for months, he spots the body of a boy who he thinks is his son. Saul becomes obsessed with trying to have a Rabbi perform a proper Jewish burial service for the boy. A service that would, if caught, would be an instant death sentence for Saul and whoever performed the service with him. It could also be a death sentence for his fellow Sonderkommando, who might get executed within days anyway, and who are planning an armed insurrection of their own.
How expected a tough, emotionally wrenching story going into Son of Saul. What I did not expect was the cinematic style brought into the focus of the main character, Saul. In 12 or so minutes, we get the gist of his life in Auschwitz, where the focus on him is sharp, but focus on his surroundings is usually fuzzy. The Jews crying and screaming as they're being forced inside, forced to strip, being led into the showers, the dogs barking, the Nazi soldiers yelling. Rarely is any of it the focus of Saul, and therefore it is NOT the visual focus of the audience, unless our knowledge of history forces us to stray toward Saul's blurry surroundings. Maybe an old woman needing help to go to the chamber briefly snaps Saul's focus into place, or a Nazi that he must immediately bow his head toward, and then back to his tasks.
So we're given an interesting cinema vocabulary to follow, aided by effective sound mixing and editing. Enough that we can follow along the sameness of his world, until Saul finds the body of his son. And that, alongside an occasionally unpredictable screenplay that doles out surprise little character insights, history and anything else, spoils it for you. Not the history per say, but the how the story is told throughout, so see it. Especially if you can get to it in a theater.

1) SPOTLIGHT- From director/ co-writer Tom McCarthy. Another film depicting the uncovering of the saying Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely. While this may not have the complete punch-gut feeling that the documentary Deliver Us From Evil has with the same topic, that might be because we were having the victims and the information open to us kind-of directly. Here we have the journalists of the Boston Globe's Spotlight unit serving as a sort-of audience surrogate between us the viewer and the victims telling (and re-telling) their stories. But we also see the arduous and time-consuming task of information gathering, reaching out to other victims (sometimes being told no or having a door slammed in their face) and sometimes even a priest who did some of the abusing. We also get an idea of how much others knew; whether it was superiors in the Boston Archdiocese, the lawyers who worked with the Church on getting cheap settlements quietly done, or even other people who knew who some of the abusing priests were and looked the other way for whatever reasons. We also see how it took an "outsider" within the Boston Globe (the new editor, played by Live Schreiber) to push the reporters to go beyond telling and confirming the victims' stories, but also find out who knew about the crimes (Archdiocese, lawyers, Boston PD) and what did they do or not do about it.

Also of note is that Spotlight also doesn't let the Boston Globe off the hook either, showing how they had the story (or elements of it) off and on for years, showing their in-house failures or lack of will to pursue the story until the 21st Century.

As a film involving journalism, it's near the ranks of All The President's Men. But the time care given by this film regarding the depiction the victims and their emotional states (anger, humiliation, fear, shame and a bunch more that would take forever to write), elevates Spotlight to me to standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Alan Pakula's film as one of the best True Crime and Journalism films ever made.  

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