Friday, January 1, 2016

Movies: The Best of 2015

As 2015 comes to a close, these are the films released in this calendar year that stick with me. I should note I've seen quite a few, somewhere in the area of 180, but there are always ones that I haven't yet got around to seeing that might've made the list, which include:

Diary of a Teenage Girl*
The Hateful Eight
The Revenant

Only so much time in a day (or a year). Onward! "Library" alphabetical order, so nothing is stacked up under "The". As always, orange text is a link to take you elsewhere, and spoiler-discussion sections are noted as such (seriously, don't click on them otherwise and ruin things for yourself). Screencaps and other images have been gathered from various sites around the 'net (DoBlu and Letterboxd among them).

The Big Short

An adaptation of the non-fiction book by Michael Lewis, covering the events leading up to the 2008 global financial crisis, The Big Short follows a myriad of characters, including trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale), money manager Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), and retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), as they work to exploit faults in the system to make themselves and their clients obscene amounts of cash. Some names were changed in the film to protect the embarrassed.

As directed and co-written by Adam McKay, currently best known for his comedy collaborations with Will Ferell, The Big Short has energy to spare, and is exhilarating rather than exhausting. When an early montage is set to the Ludacris song Money Maker, full of swagger and stupidity, there's a synergy there between music and character that is infectiously fun and funny. Some characters break the fourth wall, and there is a terrific recurring conceit of celebrities-as-themselves trotted out to explain the drier aspects of economics that drive the story. McKay wants to entertain as much as enlighten, and the film is hugely entertaining.

The End of the Tour

After hearing of the author's recent passing, Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) reflects back on his week long 1996 interview with acclaimed Infinite Jest novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), which took place during the final leg of Jest's promotional tour.

Directed by James Ponsoldt, the film may not render Wallace completely accurately (having never followed the author or read any of his works I have no frame of reference), but it does effectively convey smart, creative, lonely people making their way through the world, and how they're often drawn to each other only to grind each other's gears. Eisenberg hits a nice blend of admiration, competition, and jealousy in his portrayal of Lipsky, while Segel leaves behind his string of dopey-comedy roles to deliver his best performance to date with a character struggling to find balance (publicity versus privacy, high-culture versus pop-culture, artifice versus authenticity), and, just as important, connection.

Ex Machina

Caleb (Domhall Gleeson), an employee of the world-pervasive, multi-billion dollar internet search and social data company Bluebook (think of Google combined with Facebook, supplanting both), discovers one morning that he has won an internal contest to spend a week with its reclusive sole founder, programming genius Nathan (Oscar Issac). Arriving at Nathan's domicile after many hours traversing his massive, isolated estate, Caleb is told that the purpose of the meeting is not simply superficial -- in fact, the winner is there to help determine through personal evaluation if Nathan has successfully created the world's first true artifical intelligence. Caleb is introduced to Ava (Alicia Viklander), a "female" robot with the face of an angel and a body that is still clearly identifiable as "machine". By the end of the week, Caleb will have concluded by his interactions with Ava whether or not Nathan has achieved his goal.

The directorial debut by novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland, Ex Machina is superbly acted and beautifully lensed, using an informed and intelligent portrayal of AI research along with richly realized characters to discuss deeper themes of sexual dynamics, "toxic masculinity", and power. The visual effects involved in the realization of Ava are flawless. The film also contains one of the year's most pleasantly surprising and oddly disquieting scenes, which I'll call simply (and the link is a spoiler so don't click if you haven't yet seen it) "disco".

Now, let's talk about some things privately:

It Follows

Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, It Follows concerns Jay (Maika Monroe), a college freshman, who after hooking up with a seemingly nice young man finds herself cursed with a supernatural entity that wants her dead, unless she can pass on the curse in the same way.

Jay's experience is a waking nightmare in that it starts off innocuously enough, gets a little odd, and then quickly becomes a ever-escalating horror show. Like a dream it seems to exist in a place familiar yet somewhat out of time: there's a flip cellphone at the beginning, however later there only seem to be corded landline phones, not to mention every TV we see is a now-defunct CRT playing a random black-and-white creature feature, and that clam-shell e-reader that one character carries doesn't even exist yet. Parents inhabit the periphery of events, impotent, and eventually disappear completely from the narrative. It Follows echoes the classic horror films of the late 70's/early 80's, but like any great work it ultimately is its own thing.

The cinematography by DP Mike Gioulakis is exquisite, referencing the work of photographer Gregory Crewdson.

Icing on the cake: a wonderful, freaky electronic soundtrack by composer Rich 'Disasterpeace' Vreeland.

It's close, but for matching up with my idiosyncratic tastes, this is probably my favourite of the year.

Now, let's talk about one thing privately:

Kumiko the Treasure Hunter

Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is a late-twenties "Office Girl" in present day Tokyo, working for a boss she despises in a thankless job, pressured by her peers, her family, and society to behave a certain way (be pleasant, get married, have children). In her own mind she is a "conquistador", seeking foreign, fabled riches, and the source for her desired adventure is a well-worn VHS copy of the 1996 film Fargo. In it, a briefcase full of cash is buried in the snowy Minnesota landscape, and of course that film (and this film) begins with a title card: This is a true story.

I'm accustomed to, and a fan of, the idea of a "slow burn", as usually applied to horror films to ratchet up the tension. What's new to me, and works well here, is the same notion of a slow burn, but applied to comedy. There's a rhythm of scenes that go on for a while, but just long enough to set up and deliver terrific visual punchlines. Kumiko mostly does things, rather than talking about things, so we see the comic results of her actions, though none of it is broad or slapstick.

Most impressive though is the delicate blend of comedy and melancholy. Kumiko does funny things (of course not intentionally from her character's perspective), and we root for her, but she is broken and sad, which the David and Nathan Zellner film, especially Kikuchi's performance in it, doesn't shy away from.


The Lobster

The Lobster starts with David (Colin Farrell), having recently been divorced from his wife who left him for another man, at The Hotel, seemingly a spa/retreat for singles, where he is being interviewed with a set of questions both expected and puzzling. Curiously, he reacts to all of the questions as though they are normal. The quest begins: will he find love with one of the other single spa residents within his allotted spa timeframe?

Wait, scratch that: The Lobster really starts slightly earlier with a wordless sequence of a woman driving through the daytime countryside, only to park at the side of a road near a field, after which she gets a revolver out of the glove compartment, climbs over a fence containing a number of donkeys, and quite specifically shoots one of the donkeys to death.

Directed and co-written by Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster is a refreshing, uniquely told story that uses the kind of world building usually reserved for science-fiction or fantasy tales, instead applied to a contemporary scenario. The film lets you get acclimated to this world and the rules under which it abides gradually, and once you're halfway though it, all of the crazy, surreal things that have occurred (and will continue to occur) make sense to you in context as they do to the characters initiating and experiencing them. I'd advise against reading any other more explicit synopses you may come across prior to seeing it, since out of context they'll make it sound daft. In reality, it's surprising, funny, dark, sexy, sly, sad and terrific in a way that you wish more movies would be. It won't be to everyone's taste, granted, but it certainly works for me.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Revisiting the character and the automobile-DIY-grunge aesthetic established in a trio of post-societal-collapse films from the 1980's, Fury Road catches up again with a more-literally, mentally "Mad" Max (now played by Tom Hardy), who while continuing his quest to survive the wastelands finds himself swept up in an escape attempt by turncoat Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) rescuing a bevy of concubine-slaves from the malevolent dictator Immortan Joe and his army of War Boys, which includes eager-to-shine Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Where the earlier decade's trilogy saw fuel as the driving force (pun somewhat intended), here it's a more basic resource than that: water.

Like Martin Scorcese, Director and co-writer George Miller proves that even as a septuagenarian, you can still make features that are more vital and alive than those from many of your much younger peers. Sometimes viewers confuse a lack of dialogue for a lack of plot, or of weak writing, but Miller deftly reminds us that films are as much about imagery and sound to convey a story -- broad strokes about the functioning of Immortan Joe's society were constantly, unobtrusively introduced through character action here and subtle background cues there that work better than exposition-dumps commonly heard in countless other films ever do. The action is almost relentless, but it's always coherent, and never gratuitous as it all serves story (you can find out from DP John Seale how they managed to visually maintain that coherence here or here).

Of all the films I saw this year, Fury Road was the one that demanded to be seen in a theatre (Which I did. Twice. White-knuckling it most of the way through). Muscular, propulsive film-making at its finest. And how can you ever knock a film which includes an insane, flame-throwing electric guitar player?


Jake (Jacob Tremblay) was brought to Ma (Brie Larson) by angels from Heaven, and together they live in Room. There's Old Nick, who brings them supplies by magic (Ma stows Jake in the closet whenever Old Nick shows up), and there's TV. Outside of Room is Outer Space, and maybe aliens. This is Jake's life as he's always known it, but shortly after his fifth birthday, Ma, at her breaking point, tells Jake the truth about their history and current situation. She hatches a plan to escape from Room and Old Nick, and enlists Jake to try to pull it off.

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson from a screenplay by Emma Donoghue (based upon her novel of the same name), Room is equal parts thriller and emotional roller coaster. The onscreen relationship between Larson and Tremblay is superbly acted, which for one half of the duo is astonishing considering that Tremblay was all of seven years old during production (Larson's always been an exceptional talent, and continues that positive trend here). Given the confined nature of the story, the direction and cinematography are quite creative, but never cartoonish. I'm not at all embarrassed to say that I teared up several times during the course of the film -- in every case it's earned. The characters and their actions are believable, as are their circumstances (sadly).

It's no surprise to me that Room won the Grolsch People's Choice Award at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.

Now, let's talk about some things privately:

While We're Young and Mistress America

While We're Young concerns a Generation X creative married couple -- Josh (Ben Stiller), a documentary filmmaker, and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), a film producer -- who find their lives initially invigorated, then later discombobulated, by a Millennial creative married couple, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried).

Mistress America deals with new-to-New-York college freshman Tracy (Lola Kirke), a bright but unfocused young woman who seeks out her early-thirties, long-time-New-Yorker, soon-to-be-sister-in-law Brooke (Greta Gerwig, who is also the film's co-writer) to add some spice to her extracurricular life.

While I've liked previous works of Writer/Director Noah Baumbach well enough, these two films released in 2015 were the first time I felt like I "get it" in regards to his stuff. While (...) hits the mark mainly because it's addressing middle-age issues that, while I may not fret about personally, I can relate to nonetheless. It has some interesting things to say about certain philosophies of filmmaking, and assumed (mis)conceptions about generations (those listed previously and Boomers as well). It also sold me on Driver's acting talents. Mistress... benefits from the charming and frustrating dynamic between the leading ladies, and though it takes on a bit of a farcical structure towards the end, the voices of each character seem true and real, which is a feat.

Both films speak about self-perception, self-delusion, and the notion that idealizing other people makes them terrible role-models to help in overcoming your own faults and insecurities. Both are funny to boot.

Recommended Runners-up

Here's a host of others that are also worth your time (clicking the posters will take you to their disc catalogues on Amazon or iTunes links if discs are not yet available):

Concerns the U.S. mortgage crisis, with a killer Michael Shannon driven opening.

A refreshingly intelligent and deeply moving post-human science-fiction story.

A poignant documentary of singer Amy Winehouse's short life.

After the death of a mentor, a middle aged actress reflects back on her career.

A stylized biopic of musician Brian Wilson, told in two alternating parts.

The fifth and, surprisingly, best film of the ongoing action franchise. Car-fu!

An adult character study set in the gambling world. Best thing Reynolds has ever done.

About the fragility of friendship, and sanity. Moss and Waterston shine.

Odd, truthful rom-com, with lotsa chemistry between Smulders and Pierce.

A slick, depressing look at a slice of the failing U.S. drug war. Villeneuve! Deakins!

A raunchy, realistic and touching rom-com that doesn't quite stick the landing.

The gap between expectations and reality, examined via a Western tale.

A solid, engaging procedural covering the 2001 Boston Catholic Church investigations.

The vampire mockumentary, as delivered by the Flight of the Conchords folks.

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