2015 was the year I watched the most films in my life. My grand total, including shorts, was around 260 I think (I didn't write it down before Letterboxd reset my yearly running total). I watched an amazing assortment of films from Italian spaghetti westerns to Russian art films to Japanese samurai pictures to classic Hollywood screwball comedies. I watched a glorious amount of horror films in September, October, and November, some of which were films I had always seen in the video store (so the VHS box art was familiar) but had never got around to. I did a lot of "filling in the gaps" kind of selection, choosing movies that seemed essential and I had never seen them (eg. Yojimbo, Raise the Red Lantern). I also stumbled across a ton of film that I had never heard of (eg. The Great Silence, Come and See). While I didn't read as much as in previous years, I certainly consumed a lot of film and slowly taught myself from formal criticism (eg. David Bordwell, Seymour Chatman). I've always liked movies (though books remain my favourite) but I had never really learned how to talk about them other than basics of plot and style.
This list, then, is actually part one of two. I'll go over some films from 2015 that I thought were stellar and in another post, I'll go over some films I discovered in 2015 that I thought were stellar.
Mad Max: Fury Road
I watched this twice in the theatre in 2015, and then once last week when I was home sick. This is the feminist action movie masterpiece that I had been waiting for my life, it seems. Mad Max was a concept and a character I was familiar with through cultural osmosis, but I had never seen any of the original three films with Mel Gibson. I had no real expectations going into Fury Road other than some rumblings on the Internet that it was feminist.
The first time experience of watching this film can hardly be summed up by the written word. The film is loud, raucous, visceral, exciting, and touching in a lot of ways. It's the kind of film that is immediately entered into the zeitgeist, as it's imminently quotable and memorable. Fury Road burns itself into the brain with its immediately iconic imagery (THE DOOF WARRIOR) and characters.
George Miller put a ton of thought and care into the construction of this, both in terms of plot and character but also aesthetics. He takes another leap "forward" with this set of characters, pushing the post-apocalyptic aesthetic into further societal collapse. The world depicted in this film is harsh, unforgiving, and holistically bleak. Almost hopeless. Yet, the combined efforts of Imperator Furiosa and the titular Max, along with their ragtag women, dare to hope that a change can occur.
This is a movie that dramatizes women's literal escape from patriarchy. The core group of women helped by Max and Furiosa are not "property" as they remind the villain Immortan Joe. They are women who have agency. This is a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster that passes the Bechdel Test in multiple ways. Multiple ways. A bunch of women have different conversations that isn't about men, love, romance, sex, or shopping.
Fury Road has some terrific characters (and some competent performances, let's not over-praise them) in Furiosa, Nux, The Splendid Angharad, Toast the Knowing, and others. They're given just enough motivation and interiority to make them interesting and compelling, but not enough that they're over-explained or over-determined. In fact, this compliment can be extended to the rest of the film. Here's a masterclass in showing, not telling. Max and Furiosa only have one conversation in the whole film that provides answers, and it's a terse quick one at that.
This was easily my favourite experience with cinema all year. 2016 has some big shoes to fill.
I had read The Price of Salt for my queer bookclub (you can read my terse but positive review for it here) because of the forthcoming Todd Haynes adaptation. I lucked into an advanced media screening of the film and took a bunch of my friends. The film is... cinematic perfection. Not a single frame is off in this movie. Carol is perfect in almost every way.
There's a scene (above, a gif from that scene) in which Cate Blanchett avoids revealing too much about her complicated domestic situation. The camera stays on her face, holding onto the shot for a couple beats after most directors would have cut, and we see Blanchett's eyes move around, her lids close slightly. They should give Blanchett the Oscar just for this scene alone.
The costuming and makeup is just exquisite. But the film doesn't make a fetish of these period details. Instead, they're part of the characters, they exist organically. Similarly, this period piece does not feature a direct pastiche like Far From Heaven does (to Douglas Sirk films). Instead, Haynes constructs his own lavish 1950s world that recalls David Lean and other directors without quoting them directly.
Speaking of David Lean, one of the film's greatest strengths is in its implicit quotation of the structure of Brief Encounter. The film opens with the two lovers meeting, and then the rest of the film is a flashback leading up to this moment. When the film catches up, the audience is let in on information previously withheld: that somebody, a supporting cast member, has interrupted the very last meeting they'll have, further increasing the tragic nature of their relationship. The novel does not have this and the film is all the better for it.
I've seen some reviews that remark on the coldness of the whole thing, as if it holds the audience at arm's length. I'm not sure if they're referring to a lack of insight into the characters' psychology or the aesthetics. Certainly, the aesthetics were for me the highlight. There are moments when Rooney Mara is a passenger in a car driving at night, and the play of light from the street on the window is some of the most gorgeous stuff I've ever seen. And in terms of psychology, I appreciate that Carol herself is quite inscrutable, but we're given enough in hints and drabs to understand her basic motivations. Again, this is a film that shows rather than tells, so the audience is forced to perform some intellectual labour.
Last year, I had two horror films on my list of favourites, and this year, the genre is not unrepresented. David Robert Mitchell's loving tribute to John Carpenter is a fantastic showcase for sound, camerawork, and visual ideas.
Words have already been written on the movie's central metaphor, whether it be of sexually transmitted disease, ageing, loss of innocence, or what have you, but I don't really think the film is particularly interested in that. Consider that the "rules" the film establishes have blurry borders, especially near the end. This is sort of like Rian Johnson's Looper (which I hated): as a film, it's less interested in the rules and more interested in the characters.
The film's cast is composed of characters that aren't likeable or believable, per se, which is certainly a flaw, but Mitchell pushes them around in interesting and compelling ways. The friend of the protagonist, the "Nice Guy" who pines from afar, is pushed into a really fascinating space. I wish Mitchell had pushed this even further, in terms of plot, maybe putting the "Nice Guy" friend into an antagonistic position, but I was still quite pleased with the plotting.
More than any of the characters or plot or even theme, what makes It Follows so fun is the combo of camerawork and score. The latter is an electronic soundtrack from artist Disasterpeace (which doesn't really roll off the tongue) that is unnerving and stressful in the best kinds of way. It's cacophonous and angry, like an early Nine Inch Nails album but soaked in synthesizers the kind Carpenter loves to employ.
Using some pleasing 360 degree shots, the camera in It Follows is almost a character unto itself. The camera lopes around, aggressively frames people in the center, and withholds information through motion. The film is a showcase for Mitchell's camerawork. Luckily, the rest of the film is almost as good (save for the nonsensical pool scene).
I am a big fan of Denis Villeneuve and a huge fan of Roger Deakins (currently, the blog's header image is a still from his work on the Coens' No Country for Old Men). Prisoners I enjoyed more than I think the consensus and I thought Enemy was a cracking good time (Toronto hasn't looked this creepy since Cronenberg). Sicario was something I struggled with initially, and perhaps this was due to high expectations. I loved the visuals; it felt like Deakins was let off the leash to do whatever he wanted. I loved the score and Benicio del Toro's performance was top notch. Yet, I left the theater somewhat deflated.
I've thought on it a lot, and I'm ready to push the movie up from my initial review of three and a half stars up to four. I'm not ready to give it any more than that, at least until I see it again. As aforementioned, I'm chalking up my disappointment to unrealistic expectations. Which is unfair as it's quite a good movie, aesthetically speaking. In terms of plot and character and theme, I'm less enthused. (Here's my favourite moment from the film:)
Politically speaking, this is a deeply conservative movie, and I'm perplexed why our usual liberal outrage machine isn't writing thinkpieces with the same vigour as when American Sniper seemingly captured the public's attention. Sicario, at its heart, argues for extralegal measures to be implemented against the drug cartels. No matter how morally questionable the actions of the protagonists, the film never fails to mention how much worse are the deeds of the antagonists. Consider that Benicio del Toro's character sneaks his way into the property of a major druglord, only to ruthlessly execute his children, wife, and finally the druglord himself. While this might seem utterly reprehensible, the film constantly reminds the viewer that the druglord destroyed del Toro's family through torture and malice, so it's justified. This retributive streak runs throughout the film, as Emily Blunt's character is partially motivated by the film's opening inciting incident: the discovery of dozens of bodies hidden in walls and the deaths of some colleagues. The extralegal manoeuvres of Josh Brolin et al. seem designed to convince the audience that the ends justify the means.
Over at Letterboxd, Mike D'Angelo offered a rebuttal to Adam Nayman's takedown of the film for Reverse Shot (the former here, the latter here). D'Angelo makes some very persuasive points regarding the moral framework of the film. He writes:
This is a deeply pessimistic film about the near-impossibility of overcoming institutional corruption—one that's honest enough to have its protagonist struggle for a long time about whether what she's witnessing even is corruption. (Hence "I have to know," which she says very near the end.)Which I find fascinating. I didn't see the film as contemptuous of institutional corruption, especially since the film ends with the avowal that the cycle of drug cartel violence continues, necessitating more extralegal and by D'Angelo's reckoning, corrupt actions.
However, Nayman rebuts the rebuttal via Twitter, writing: "I don't think the film is thoughtful at all -- it's lazily ambivalent." This last phrase really struck me as being on the nose, as I agree with Nayman in this (but not all his points). I believe the film is rather lazy in its attempts at staying ambivalent, considering that it absolutely revels in the violence and shock of the subject matter.
The opening sequence lingers on the dead bodies in multiple shots, while the sequence at the border is cartoonishly staged for maximum suspense rather than tragedy or shock. The long build up to the shootout merely primes the audience for an inevitability. This determinism of the film, that the structures that maintain the drug cartel's strength are the same structures that uphold the governmental response, is the same nihilism that pervades the end of Soderbergh's vastly superior Traffic. Sicario wants to revel in the violence and ugliness while Traffic wants to moralize on the complex structures and try and provide answers ("I'm here to listen"). Sicario makes sure it has the Big Ideas but isn't really interested in exploring them. It's despair for the sake of it.
Yet, I complain about all these things. But it's the discourse that's made me appreciate Sicario all the more. I haven't given so much thought to a mainstream studio film to the same degree in a long time. Sicario frustrates me, but I keep thinking about it all the same. I'm willing to concede that all of my thoughts on the film are based on one viewing, so everything could change with a second viewing. Certainly, Villeneuve and his command of tone, atmosphere, and unhinged worldviews compel me to follow him even closer.
I'm not one to complain about spoilers. The culture of avoiding spoilers has choked a lot of discourse surrounding cultural objects, to the point where we've elevated plot to this sacrosanct level, where even the barest mention of incident can effectively ruin an experience, which is of course fucking absurd. Not only are we limited in what we can talk about in terms of a cultural object, but we've implicitly chucked out other formal elements in favour of exclusively focusing on plot. Yet, here we have a film where I'm glad I wasn't spoiled. Not that my experience would have been ruined, but the slow unfolding of events in The Gift might not have had the impact if I had foreknowledge.
The film plays a very careful game of bait-and-switch, but not with regards to plot. Rather, it's a dramaturgical switch: who we believe to be the protagonist is more the antagonist as the film goes on. Joel Edgerton's direction, his debut, in fact, is methodical and disciplined in its slow unravelling, a great compliment I can bestow. He's helped by a tremendous performance by Jason Bateman and a fantastic production design. The house the couple moves into is all windows and mirrors, showcasing the transparency and opacity of the characters it depicts.
I loved my time with this movie, despite some major flaws, including the ending. Moments after the credits rolled, I was elated. Here was a film that respected its audience, used ambiguity effectively, and allowed answers to be presumed rather than spelled out. I thought the ending was quite good, showing that even to the last moments, the film was tricky with its dramaturgy. However, as I cogitated on the end, the more I was kind of irritated. The twist ending, the victory that Edgerton's character declares, is nonsensical and creepily chauvinistic. The film is much better without this twist. So much stronger.
The Gift is, unfortunately, another Hollywood film that uses a woman as a pawn in the game between two men's egos. The film is essentially a dick measuring contest over their fragile male egos, as when their feelings are hurt, they lash out in violent and deeply unsettling ways. Perhaps The Gift is a comment the fragility of the male ego, a critique of their pissing matches. I'm not sure, but if somebody argued that, I'd be willing to at least listen.
My film favourites are sometimes more about the experience than the cultural object itself. For example, while I think It Follows and The Gift were tremendous in the theatre, I worry that when I watch them again, the magic of the experience will be lost. Thus, I include them on the list because my initial contact was so gloriously positive.
I have had multiple arguments with my friend David over this film. My partner and I loved it; David disliked it immensely. I won't rehash our arguments, but I will concede some things to him. Firstly, the characterization and odd disinterest in the victims of the conspiracy is disconcerting to put it mildly. Spotlight wants to explore its journalists concurrently with the mystery but does such a poor job of characterization that one wishes the film hadn't bothered at all. Likewise, I admit that the film coasts on its subject matter; a fictional version of this wouldn't be nearly as compelling.
What does work in Spotlight is—oddly enough—the very un-cinematic parts. I'm thinking specifically of the infamous spreadsheet sequence. While some critics have derided director Tom McCarthy for his lack of visual interest, pointing precisely at this scene as indicative of his weaknesses, I thought the spreadsheet stuff was amazingly gripping. Again, I admit it's the subject matter, but McCarthy's editing works hard to ratchet up the suspense, imbuing the act of filling in a spreadsheet with the same tension as somebody defusing a bomb.
One of my favourite movies of all time, David Fincher's Zodiac, captures a lot of what also made Spotlight so engrossing: the slow unravelling of a variegated and complex series of tied events. There's a moment in which Mark Ruffalo's character stumbles across a major clue, and I can't understand how an audience member wouldn't have shared his exhilaration at such a discovery.
Speaking of which, Ruffalo's performance in this film seems again divisive. I thought it stupendous. The way he hunches, the way he squints, his dogged attitude and out of breath restlessness all made him bewitching for me. His work in this rivals his unbelievable turn in the otherwise abysmal Foxcatcher. I thought Michael Keaton and the rest of the cast to be serviceable, with the exception of Stanley Tucci, who remains one of the best working actors. His work in Spotlight is top notch. Often, Tucci is the best part of anything movie he's in; this movie is no different.
I worry though that with the Oscars, Spotlight will suffer a critical backlash. I admit the film isn't perfect, but the ecology of Internet backlash doesn't take into account half-measures or stumbles. It's all or nothing.
Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation
There's a fucking title for you. I've always been a fan of this series, except for John Woo's oddball piece of shit. I loved J. J. Abrams' third entry, especially since it was streamlined and efficient and I adored Brad Bird's fourth entry (even if the last third deflates quite a bit). Rogue Nation does not reinvent the wheel as radically as say Woo's or Abrams' and it hews a smidge too close to Bird's, but it's a fantastic experience.
Quietly, without it being noticed until afterwards, 2015 was a year of spy films: Paul Feig's Spy, Guy Ritchie's Man from U.N.C.L.E., Matthew Vaughn's Kingsman: The Secret Service, Sam Mendes' SPECTRE, and this one, Christopher McQuarrie's Rogue Nation. The most culturally saturated one, James Bond, was easily the worst of the bunch (with Kingsman a close second). Part of the problem with SPECTRE was the film's great anxiety to convince you that James Bond as a concept was still relevant. This is fourth film in a row starring James Bond to validate his own existence. It's like listening to a Woody Allen character reiterate the same lack of confidence over and over again.
Rogue Nation does dramatize its own argument for relevance, but in a less anxious way, and it's for sure the weakest part of the film. What Rogue Nation excels at is classic Hollywood storytelling: goal-oriented plotting. The whole concept of Mission: Impossible is predicated on goal-oriented plotting: a mission is explained, the characters assemble, they plan a manoeuvre, they execute it, with or without complications, and they succeed. The latest film does the same: each setpiece features clearly articulated goals with inevitable ensuing organic complications that the characters must overcome.
The addition of Rebecca Ferguson's Ilsa Faust is what takes Rogue Nation from serviceable if well-executed into the realm of excellent. Her character is fleshed out, fascinating, charming, and competent, but not unbelievably so. All of her scenes are the best scenes... except for the male gaze-y bit with her emerging from the pool. I could have done without that.
Rogue Nation includes one of my favourite tropes: the mission at the show. In this case, it's an opera, with Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt trying to thwart an assassination but confusing who's actually committing the deed. McQuarrie shoots the sequence with hues of blue and red, cross-cutting with a deft hand between the incidents. The opera sequence doesn't quite have the odd impressionism of the one in Quantum of Solace (the best part of that film) nor the lunacy of The Living Daylights, but it's still the standout part of the movie.
This is an action movie done well, distilled to its essence, without an ounce of fat. It's not perfect: the villain is deeply uninteresting, the first third suffers from a stuttering start. However, it makes up for it with a fantastic climax that's low key and appropriate. Hollywood films tend to pile on incidents and explosions during the climax, but Rogue Nation figures out that it's about the competition between two opposing forces (Ethan Hunt and the villain) so instead of swanning about with large scale mayhem, the film tightly focuses on the showdown.
I loved my time with this movie.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
I had zero expectations going into this other than knowing it was a "weepy." And it certainly was, but not in a treacly gross way. Instead, this was a love letter to cinephiles, an acknowledgement that loving cinema is a weird solitary habit, but with some wisdom, can be fulfilling.
Again, there are flaws. Firstly, I'm dismayed that it's yet another film that uses the death of a woman to ignite a man's self-awareness. His emotional journey creates meaning thanks to a young woman's death. Which is odd and retrograde. Additionally, the titular Earl, the film's only substantial character of colour, is oddly underwritten and underperformed.
I believe the film uses the trappings of "cancer girl and tragic boy" in an interesting way. It doesn't self-consciously bring attention to its clichéd origins but rather alludes to it. Instead, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl works at filling its two lead characters with personality and meaning but without resorting to lazy shortcuts.
One of the best sequences in the film involve Olivia Cooke yelling at Thomas Mann about how he's made her sickness about him, about how he's avoiding life by using her illness. The camera doesn't move even a little bit as we're made more and more uncomfortable by the truths being spilled like guts from swordfight.
On the opposite style end, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon uses an athletic approach to the lighter moments. There's a neat tracking shot that covers the whole house near the beginning of the film. Gomez-Rejon's camera is almost balletic, moving through the rooms, emulating a grace that Kubrick's camera possessed.
I couldn't help but lose it when the protagonist finally screens his film for the dying girl. The combination of a Brian Eno piece with the tenderness of the visuals, without being cloying, led me to tears. Just a little though. I was invested in the characters thanks to their chemistry and performance but also by the catharsis, the admission of the transcendental power of cinema.
I mean, it's a bullshit teen movie, but at least it's well made.
I ended writing a bit more than I expected on each film. Hopefully I've aggregated my thoughts well enough to be cogent and to shed light on why these imperfect films managed to spark me. I've spent a decent amount pointing out flaws, but I think it's healthy to be realistic and self-reflective on the cultural objects we consume. Nothing is perfect; everything is problematic. What matters is thinking critically about the strengths and weaknesses.