Category Archives: Features

The 2nd Annual ERPs

Last year I rolled out my first-ever ERPs – Ethan’s Repertory Picks. They’re meant to be a supplement to the ongoing EMOs, recognizing that my year of movie-watching is defined just as much by repertory screenings, Netflix binging and Criterion classics as by new releases.

This is not a  comprehensive rundown of every pre-2016 film I saw over the past year, but it is just an opportunity to give some notices and recommendations to movies that, for whatever reason, good or bad, stuck out to me. Then we’ll wrap things up with a Top 10 of classic picks – the most essential viewing experiences, good enough to deserve some legitimate thoughts thrown their way. Please enjoy!

For When You’re On a 90-Minute Sugar High And Literally Can Not Hold Your Attention For More Than Five Seconds At a Time: “The Transformers: The Movie” (1986), Nelson Shin

For When You Want to Feel Even More Shit and Terrified About the State of State Surveillance and Politics Than You Already Are: “Citizenfour” (2014), Laura Poitras

For Comfortingly Fictional Russian Spies: “The Deadly Affair” (1966), Sidney Lumet

135368

For Uncomfortably Not Fictional Nazis: “Hitler’s Madman” (1943), Douglas Sirk

For a Terrifically Gerunding Double Feature: “Knowing Men” (1930), Elinor Glyn; “Designing Woman” (1957), Vincente Minnelli

better-luck-tomorrow

For When You Want to Delve Into the Dark Side of the Expanded “Fast & Furious” Universe: “Better Luck Tomorrow” (2002), Justin Lin

For Adorably Mean Lucille Ball: “Dance, Girl, Dance” (1940), Dorothy Arzner

For When You’re Stuck in a Snowstorm in Donner Pass: “Trouble Every Day” (2001), Claire Denis; or “Ravenous” (1999), Antonia Bird

For Some Casually Sexist Superhero Bullshit That At Least Has Michael Peña In It: “Ant-Man” (2015), Peyton Reed

For Quality Family Time But You Really Need It To Be With Someone Else’s Family: “Monsoon Wedding” (2001), Mira Nair

bycandlelight

For Golden-Age Hollywood Doofiness With Just an Inexplicable Dash of Surreal Horror: “By Candlelight” (1933), James Whale

For a Detailed Instruction Guide to Heisting Jewel Shops and Then Getting Ridiculously Shot For It: “Thief”(1981), Michael Mann

For Making A New York Introvert Feel Better About At Least Occasionally Going Outside In Order to Watch Movies: “The Wolfpack” (2015), Crystal Moselle

53917656d545e7e3f88e61af8722a8131228853223_full

For An Eccentric Post-Apocalyptic Rock-Music Sci-Fi Thriller Featuring Strangely Attractive Dog-People-Hybrids That Literally Could Have Only Been Greenlit During Like a Ten-Minute Span in the ’80s: “Rock & Rule” (1983), Clive A. Smith

For When You Want to Watch “Titanic” But Don’t Want to Hear the Sound That Guy Makes When He Hits the Propeller: “A Night to Remember” (1958), Roy Ward Baker

For the Ur-Buddy Cop Comedy That Still Holds Up When Danny Glover Is On Screen and Less So When It’s the Other Guy: “Lethal Weapon” (1987), Richard Donner

odd-man-out-james-mason-26396272-1953-1515

For Bleak Hollywood-Style Film Noir With Better Accents: “Odd Man Out” (1947), Carol Reed

For Normal Adult White People Working Out Normal Adult White People Problems: “Enough Said” (2013), Nicole Holofcener

For A Nasty R-Rated Marvel Movie That’s Not Nearly As Full Of Itself as “Deadpool”: “Punisher: War Zone” (2008), Lexi Alexander

For Dubbed Burt Lancaster Looking Fly As Heck: “The Leopard” (1963), Luchino Visconti

Top 10 Repertory Picks of 2016

10. “Fantastic Planet” (1973), René Laloux

fantastic-planet-4

The allegory of Laloux’s cutout stop-motion masterpiece is thin, but broad (and, still far smarter than many of the derivative *coughAvatarcough* takes it inspired): in this tale of an alien planet where humans (Oms) are dominated and treated like animals by an advanced race of giant, blue-skinned Draags, you can easily spot the metaphors of racism, Cold War tension, etc. But the real reason to check out “Fantastic Planet” is the extraordinary psychedelic imagery, a batshit vision of surreal artistry. Wild, fantastic, savage – all the possible translations of the French title “sauvage” are appropriate here.

9. “The Ascent” (1977), Larisa Shepitko

eclipseweb_2001100_original

The bleakest film on this list by a country mile, terrible in its beauty. Yet Shepitko’s fable of Belarussian partisan fighters during WWII finds something mystical, quasi-Messianic, in the resilience of the human spirit in the face of death (…only some spirits, though). Even without the overt, uncanny spiritual imagery of a snowy, freezing purgatory, one has to consider anything with Anatoly Solonitsyn’s piercing stare something of a religious experience.

8. “An Autumn Afternoon” (1962), Yasujiro Ozu

autumn-1

Ozu’s final film, and one of the most achingly lonely I’ve seen. Parents and children, husbands and wives – everyone’s well-intentioned, but no one communicates just right (particularly, you know…men). As Ebert wrote of “An Autumn Afternoon”: “We are here, we hope to be happy, we want to do well, we are locked within our aloneness, life goes on.” Only Ozu had a way of making such a profoundly fucking depressing statement seem tolerable – even oddly, gently, pleasant.

7. “Weekend” (2011), Andrew Haigh

weekend

Eloquent, alluring, perceptive – “Weekend” deserves mention alongside some of the best cinematic stranger romances (although real talk everyone – why is this such a staple?) Supremely empathetic in the specificity and care given to reclusive, semi-closeted Russell and gregarious, vexed Glen, and all the nuances of their brief, ecstatic relationship, Haigh’s feature debut is utterly tender yet unsentimental. It’s one of those improvised, casual indies that oozes technique; an attractive contradiction.

6. “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” (1974), Rainer Werner Fassbinder

alialone_current_large

Watching this film last April nearly made me weep – I have to say I can barely fathom what it might do to me if I revisited it now (and how much higher it might climb on this list). Radically political in the simplest, most romantic of ideas – that a young Moroccan man and an older German woman can fall in love and the world just might not fall apart – Fassbinder’s reworking of “All That Heaven Allows” expands and, it must be said, triumphs upon Sirk’s source material in just about every way: in the ferocity of its social conscience, the delicacy of its character interactions, the exquisiteness of its aesthetics (OK, the last one’s a contest, but we’re talking about beautiful apples and gorgeous oranges here). Gently painful but ultimately, so, so endearing (and a tad surprising) in its fundamental optimism.

5. “Tampopo” (1985), Juzo Itami

161019_mov_tampopo-men-crop-cq5dam_web_1280_1280_jpeg

What an utter joy of a movie. I had a smile plastered on my face from the first scene, where a gangster brings his meal of oysters and champagne into a movie theater while simultaneously chastising the audience (us) for being too noisy, and that grin stayed through the whole of Itami’s “ramen Western.” That (arbitrary, if catchy) genre description, doesn’t do justice to the play of styles, characters and plot points melded together, practically in sketch-comedy format, to create this assemblage of food-related picaresques. Nominally the center is trucker/cowboy/renegade chef Gōro’s quest to improve enthusiastic Tampopo’s ramen shop, but the true star here is Itami’s gleeful, energetic love of cinema, comedy and cuisine (do not watch unless you can immediately eat a true bowl of ramen immediately after).

4. “Portait of Jason” (1967), Shirley Clarke

8729782-0

There are people who transfix a camera, and few of them are movie stars. You probably know one – that gregarious friend of a friend who electrifies the party whenever they walk in, or can’t take a bad selfie. Escort Jason Holliday is one of those people, and for an hour or so it is simply enough to watch him talk (and talk and talk), charismatically owning Shirley Clarke’s camera with funny and poignant tales from his life. Then somewhere, the tone shifts. Clarke and her partner Carl Lee’s questions from off-screen get more aggressive, accusatory. And what you thought you were watching is suddenly very different from what you are watching. The ethical conundrum behind the filming of “Portrait of Jason” is a struggle, but one worth walking through for yourself. The reality is more complicated, and heartbreaking, than I can write here.

3. “Yi Yi” (2000), Edward Yang

tumblr_my57hczueh1r3owlzo1_1280

At almost three hours and covering a year in the life of the Jian family, you could consider “Yi Yi” a chore, but you’d be delightfully, horribly wrong. Gently, carefully observed and stylish in an easy, graceful manner, Edward Yang’s film was one of the most comfortable, oddly familiar sits I had this year. This is the sort of film, along the lines of Chris Marker’s “Sans Soleil” or Tarkovksy’s “Andrei Rublev” (or, well….Tarkovsky’s anything?) that I wish I could just revisit once a year, because in familiarity just come more delight, insight and revelation in the details. Movies that indulge in such sensual pleasure rarely come this humanistic and understated.

2. “Hyenas” (1992), Djibril Diop Mambéty

hyenas3

Bona fide satire wrapped in an ethically fraught morality tale that leaves more questions than it answers – and that’s exactly as it should be. In the Senegalese village of Colobane, a popular local businessman sees his life thrown into disarray when the town’s most prominent ex-pat suddenly returns home with her considerable wealth – and a major grudge – in tow. To say much more would be to ruin the complex turns of character that writer/director Mambéty have in store (well, at least for those who are not die-hard Broadway fans and might recognize that plot description from the Chita Rivera musical “The Visit” – both Mambéty’s film and the musical are adapted from the same stage play), and dampen the considerable, scathing fun. A sharp and fraught examination of modernity and neocolonialism.

1. “Losing Ground” (1982), Kathleen Collins

maxresdefault

If there were justice in the world, Kathleen Collins’ film would be considered one fo the great New York movies: spunky, intellectual, tense, it captures a time, place and community I can not recall seeing anywhere else in film. Following the domestic trials and slow liberation of a black, female professor of logic at City College, “Losing Ground” sifts through the haze of Manhattan in summer, picking out its scenes and encounters with utmost care. As one of the characters, an aspiring filmmaker, exclaims (in just one of the charmingly, casually authentic turns of Collins’ phrase): “Did you catch that subtle mise-en-scene, mi amigo?!” I did catch it, and you should seek out this absolute gem as well.

Leave a comment

Filed under Features, Reviews

The 10th Annual EMOs

It’s a big year – for the tenth time, I’m rolling out my annual awards for the Year in Movies gone by. On the one hand, I would like to pause and celebrate, not just the 35 films mentioned herein, but, self-indulgently, the EMOs themselves. Ten years of movies, ten years of jokes, ten years of hastily and poorly-chosen awards – Ethan’s Makeshift Oscars are a pleasure to put together and present every time, whether in the form of Facebook Note, formalwear party, dialogue between the darkest parts of my own id, Google Hangout, what have you. They started as a way to correct, in my mind, some of the wrongs done by major awards bodies – not enough love for the demi-god Michael Shannon, for instance – but a perusal over the history of the EMOs reveals that my own quirky, spur-of-the-moment choices are not necessarily more guaranteed to stand the test of time (that Best Supporting Actress for Chloe Möretz in Hugo stings). I’m glad for everyone who has indulged this nonsense with me, anyway.

But I’d also like to just get a move on, because I am as eager as everyone else to put the year 2016 firmly in the rearview mirror. In past years I’ve gone further with the EMOs in terms of offering “bonus” commentary, and framed things in terms of nominees. As I’m handing them out purely via this blog post this year, we’re going to cut to the chase in every category, with the winner immediately revealed, followed by others “receiving votes”; that is, other films or performances that I’d still like to mention that I considered. If I’ve called it out, it’s worth your time, is my general attitude. And as always, in Part II of the EMOs, every movie is a winner. At some point I might do a compendium of my favorite EMO awards from the first ten years of its existence, but it is not this day.

And, of course, a reminder that to qualify for the EMOs a film must’ve been theatrically released in the U.S. in 2016 AND I had to see it in 2016 (with the exception of the poster and trailer categories, of course). I’ll be back with a more robust Top 10 list after I’ve had some time to catch up with the end-of-year glut in January and February. And do watch for the second annual ERPs (Ethan’s Repertory Picks), also coming soon! Enjoy!


Best Action Film: Green Room

Receiving Votes:
Captain America: Civil War
Deadpool

Funniest Film: Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Receiving Votes:
Deadpool
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
The Nice Guys
Manchester by the Sea (no, really)
Zootopia
Hail, Caesar!

Most Fucked-Up Protagonist: sad white rich people, Nocturnal Animals

Receiving votes:
Michéle, Elle
Lee Chandler, Manchester By the Sea
Wade, Deadpool

Most Inexplicable Multi-Scene Pop Star Appearance: Shakira, Zootopia

Receiving votes:
Janelle Monáe,  Moonlight
Seal, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Most Deserving to Have Everyone Involved in Production Die a Horribly Painful Death Just For Making Me Watch the Trailer: Same Kind of Different As Me

Receiving votes:
Yoga Hosers
Gods of Egypt
The Wild Life
Maximum Ride

 

Best Cameo: Will Arnett/Chelsea Peretti/Eric Andre/Mike Birbiglia as the “CMZ” reporters, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Receiving votes:
Jena Malone, Nocturnal Animals
Justin Timberlake, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
Frances McDormand, Hail, Caesar!
Taika Waititi, Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Christina Hendricks, The Neon Demon
Michael Shannon, Loving

Breakthrough Actor/Actress of the Year: Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch

Receiving votes:
Jaeden Lieberher, Midnight Special
Lily Gladstone, Certain Women
Ashton Sanders, Moonlight
Lucas Hedges, Manchester By the Sea
Markees Christmas, Morris from America
Wyatt Russell, Everybody Wants Some!!
Sasha Lane, American Honey
Julian Dennison, Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Best Poster:
Moonlight
moonlight-poster

Receiving votes:
The Handmaiden
the-handmaiden-poster
Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World
lo_and_behold_reveries_of_the_connected_world
Men Go to Battle
men_go_to_battle
De Palma
de_palma
The Birth of a Nation
birth_of_a_nation
La La Land
lalalandposter
Green Room
gr_web
The Neon Demon
the-neon-demon-poster
American Honey
american-honey-poster

Best Trailer: Moonlight

Receiving votes:
The Witch
Logan
La La Land
The Handmaiden
Jackie
High-Rise
Rogue One
Get Out
American Honey

 

Best Scene: mansion detour, American Honey

Receiving votes:
diner, Moonlight
“Would that it were so simple”, Hail, Caesar!
the ending of The Lobster
“Do you think we could get lunch sometime?”, Manchester By the Sea
Churchill, Love & Friendship
the runway, The Neon Demon
“Once, I was a fucking jet engine”, Sing Street
offering a ride, Certain Women

Best Use of an Existing Song: “We Found Love,” Rihanna + Calvin Harris, American Honey

Receiving votes:
“American Honey”, Lady Antebellum, American Honey
“Nazi Punks Fuck Off”, The Dead Kennedys, Green Room
“God’s Whisper”, Raury, American Honey

Best Original Song: “I’m So Humble”, perf. The Lonely Island w/ Adam Levine, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Receiving votes:
“Drive It Like You Stole It”, perf. Sing Street, Sing Street
“Incredible Thoughts”, perf. The Lonely Island w/ Michael Bolton, Justin Timberlake, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
“Brown Shoes”, perf. Sing Street, Sing Street
“Up”, perf. Sing Street, Sing Street
“Try Everything”, perf. Shakira, Zootopia
“Milestone 2 (Skux Life)”, perf. Moniker, Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Best Original Score: Nicholas Britell, Moonlight

Receiving votes:
David Wingo, Midnight Special
Jóhann Jóhannson, Arrival
Mark Korven, The Witch
Dario Marianelli, Kubo and the Two Strings
Cliff Martinez, The Neon Demon
Nick Cage and Warren Ellis, Hell or High Water
Clint Mansell, High-Rise

https://open.spotify.com/user/egates12/playlist/7xdVKEbVkRp6Cm0vZMTy8C

 

Best Cinematography: Robbie Ryan, American Honey

Receiving votes:
James Laxton, Moonlight
Chung Chung-hoon, The Handmaiden
Bradford Young, Arrival
Jarin Blaschke, The Witch
Christopher Blauvelt, Certain Women
Stéphane Fontaine, Elle
Giles Nuttgins, Hell or High Water
Seamus McGarvey, Nocturnal Animals
Nathasha Braier, The Neon Demon
Laurie Rose, High-Rise
Anthony Dod Mantle, Our Kind of Traitor

Best Adapted Screenplay: Whit Stillman, Love & Friendship

Receiving votes:
Chung Seo-kyung, Park Chan-wook, The Handmaiden
David Birke, Elle
Taika Waititi, Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Franck Ekinci, Benjamin Legrand, April and the Extraordinary World

Best Original Screenplay: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou, The Lobster

Receiving votes:
Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester By the Sea
Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water
Jeremy Saulnier, Green Room
Robert Eggers, The Witch
Jeff Nichols, Midnight Special
Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Hail, Caesar!

Best Supporting Actor: Alden Ehrenreich, Hail, Caesar!

Receiving Votes:
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Laurent Lafitte, Elle
Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals
Tom Bennett, Love & Friendship
Gil Birmingham, Hell or High Water
Craig Robinson, Morris from America
Joel Edgerton, Midnight Special
Jack Reynor, Sing Street
Damian Lewis, Our Kind of Traitor
Patrick Stewart, Green Room

Best Supporting Actress: Jena Malone, The Neon Demon

Receiving votes:
Lily Gladstone, Certain Women
Kristen Stewart, Certain Women
Laura Dern, Certain Women
Léa Seydoux, The Lobster
Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Rooney Mara, Kubo and the Two Strings
Kate Dickie, The Witch

Best Actor: (tie) Ben Foster and Chris Pine, Hell or High Water

Receiving votes:
(tie) Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevonte Rhodes, Moonlight
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Michael Shannon, Midnight Special
Colin Farrell, The Lobster
Josh Brolin, Hail, Caesar!
Sam Neill, Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Logan Marshall-Green, The Invitation
Ralph Ineson, The Witch
Ryan Gosling, The Nice Guys
Joel Edgerton, Loving

Best Actress: Isabelle Huppert, Elle

Receiving votes:
Kim Tae-Ri, The Handmaiden
Kim Min-hee, The Handmaiden
Amy Adams, Arrival
Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch
Kate Beckinsale, Love & Friendship
Ruth Negga, Loving
Imogen Poots, Green Room
Rachel Weisz, The Lobster
Sasha Lane, American Honey

Best Acting Ensemble: Moonlight

Receiving votes:
Certain Women
Manchester By the Sea
Love & Friendship
The Lobster
Midnight Special
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Best Director: Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

Receiving votes:
Kirsten Johnson, Cameraperson
Park Chan-wook, The Handmaiden
Paul Verhoeven, Elle
Andrea Arnold, American Honey
Robert Eggers, The Witch
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster
Ava DuVernay, 13th
David Mackenzie, Hell or High Water
Kelly Reichardt, Certain Women

Best Movie: Moonlight

Receiving Votes:
Cameraperson
The Handmaiden
Elle
The Witch
American Honey
The Lobster
Manchester by the Sea
13th
Hell or High Water
Certain Women
Love & Friendship
Green Room
Arrival

2016 Special Achievement (given to a film or film-adjacent contributor for a stellar year across multiple works or media that I consumed in 2016, potentially including movies, TV, theater, the internet, etc.):
Bill Camp (for Ivo Van Hove’s Broadway revival of “The Crucible”, HBO miniseries “The Night Of”, and stellar work in brief parts of both Midnight Special and Loving, though we won’t mention him in Jason Bourne)

Receiving votes:
Michael Shannon (for never having a dull moment in Midnight SpecialNocturnal Animals or even two minutes of Loving, and for generally being Michael Shannon)
Mahershala Ali (for breaking out of the “House of Cards” doldrums in dramatic style with Moonlight and “Luke Cage”)
Jena Malone (for proving in The Neon Demon and Nocturnal Animals that she desperately needs some talented director(s) to give her a Kristen Stewart-style career makeover)

The Putin the Platypus Memorial Award for Misogyny: The Neon Demon

Fan Service – The Movie! : Deadpool

Most Hot Button Political Issues Stepped Into: Zootopia

Most Hot Button Political Issues Not Stepped Into: Jason Bourne

Happiest Affront to Every John le Carré Book I’ve Ever Read: Our Kind of Traitor

Most Under-Marketed Naked Tom Hiddleston: High-Rise

Cubby Broccoli Memorial Award for Keeping a Franchise Relatively Fresh Thirteen Installments In Even Though Oh My God I Still Don’t Give a Shit About Bucky: Captain America: Civil War

Call Your Mother More: No Home Movie

Most Beautiful Mannequins That Also Happen to Be Famous Actors: Nocturnal Animals

Worst Critical Praise to Bechdel Test Ratio: Everybody Wants Some!!

Most Tilda Swintons: Hail, Caesar!

Least Work Done to Overcome the Stereotype That All Germans Are EDM DJs: Morris from America

Most Terrifying Validation of Every Single One of My Social Anxieties: The Invitation

Best Half-Hearted Impression of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang That Mostly Just Makes You Want to Watch Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Again: The Nice Guys

Most Inarticulate Civil Rights Heroes: Loving

Best Opening Line, And That’s Not Even a Joke, Guys:  Kubo and the Two Strings

The Nigel Tufnel Award For Going to 11: Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Most Inauthentically Terrific High School Band: Sing Street

Most Inventive Piece of Alternate Reality That Isn’t As Depressing As “The Man In the High Castle”: April and the Extraordinary World

Blandest Conception of Hyper-Real Extra-Dimensional Space Gods: Midnight Special

Silliest Sam Neill: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Most Plot Holes That Have Nothing to Do with Time Science in a Time Science Movie: Arrival

Most Comfortingly Isolated Nazi Punks: Green Room

Best Redemption of a Dismissed Celebrity and No It’s Not Ryan Reynolds As Deadpool, Dammit: Kate Beckinsale, Love & Friendship

The Robert Altman Memorial Award for Resurrecting Rene Auberjonois: Certain Women

The Jeff Bridges Award for Being Jeff Bridges: Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water

Most Tightly Paced Application of White Guilt: 13th

Most Authentically Terrible High School Band: Manchester by the Sea

Closest Resemblance to What Wes Anderson’s Personal Upside Down Probably Looks Like: The Lobster

Most Disturbing Rat Tail: Shia LaBeouf, American Honey

Happiest Ending: The Witch

Best Example, Possibly Ever, That the Savviest Direction Can Be Good Casting: Elle

Best Performance of Jingle Bells: The Handmaiden

Most Surprisingly Genial Time Spent in Awful, Awful Places: Cameraperson

Darkest Direction to Take Miss Moneypenny: Moonlight

Leave a comment

Filed under Blatherings, Features

Top 10 of 2015

All right, the Oscars are long over and done with, so it’s time to finally put a cap in the year in film that was 2015. I ran down the 9th Annual EMOs a while back, but after having the chance to spend a couple of months catching up with titles that I missed over the course of the year, I can put out my Top 10 of 2015 and be done with it.

And honestly that sort of feels like a relief. 2015 was a varied and intriguing year – a year where genre contenders (“Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Creed”) went toe-to-toe with the prestige stuff, not just in critics’ lists, but on the red carpets of the awards circuit. A year where some of my favorite international auteurs fell short but new ones arrived with a thunderclap. It was also a year where it felt like some dents were finally made in the Iron Curtain that keeps women’s stories out of Hollywood; hopefully that will be the start of a trend and not an anomaly looked back at in melancholy.

But overall it felt like a year of solid craftsmanship and earnest filmmaking with few offerings reaching for the stars – and even fewer actually making it there. Any regular readers out there will hopefully know that I’m a fierce advocate for positivity in criticism – and indeed, there were many films this year that I would like to applaud, for one reason or another. But outside a few top candidates, I can’t say that my passion really ignited for this top 10 list. Ah well. We’ll always have 2007.

Without further ado then, my personal top 10 films of 2015:

10. The End of the Tour

the_end_of_the_tour-still

James Ponsoldt’s indie flick about the long-form interview performed by Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) with David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) during Wallace’s book tour for Infinite Jest surprised with how unconcerned it was with the famed writer’s brilliance (or pretentiousness, depending on whom you’re asking). Ponsoldt’s film, adapted from Lipsky’s article by playwright Donald Marguiles, is almost wall-to-wall conversation, but the specifics of what Wallace and Lipsky are saying – ramblings about crap television, dogs, women, drug use, or supposedly “deeper” considerations of Wallace’s sudden fame and the nature of genius – are so much less important than what is not being said. Lipsky and Wallace have an instant congeniality, even chemistry (Segel and Eisenberg sell the heck out of the awkwardness of straight men who quickly take a liking to each other but don’t know what to do about it), yet deeper strains of envy and insecurity continually bubble to the surface and interrupt the friendship. The movie’s last moments hammer home the true sadness of not just Wallace’s premature death, but that of any suicide – not that the world lost a talent, but that these two people lost a chance at connection. A touching addition to Ponsoldt’s growing, melancholic collection of addicts and loners (see “Smashed,” “The Spectacular Now”).

9. Room

room-birthday-cake

What a curious movie. A potentially sensational subject matter handled with almost aggressively good taste. A blend of stark realism and stirring expression bordering on the manipulative. Two fine leads asked to walk a very fine line between subjectivity and authenticity. To be honest I am still not entirely sure what I think of Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room,” and very much desire to revisit it – but I’m certainly still mulling it over, and the ambition of Abrahamson and writer Emma Donoghue’s vision has an enviable panache.

8. Brooklyn

brooklyn-movie-saorise-ronan-michael-zegan

A charming immigrant tale, steering clear of melodrama in favor of the engagement and empathy of a very real, grounded young woman simply trying to move forward in life. Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson are both wonderful as two equally intriguing romantic options for Eilis (Saoirse Ronan, in the best performance of her budding career), their divergent futures offered as possibilities, not inevitabilities. Rarely does a coming-of-age tale have the subtlety and agency that director John Crowley and writer Nick Hornby hand over to Ronan. The stunning, warm cinematography by Yves Bélanger and evocative, folksy score by Michael Brook play into the film’s strong sense of emotion without getting calculated about it.

7. Mad Max: Fury Road

hekhd7g1ddmnboxclncm

George Miller’s decades-in-the-making passion project was the cinephilic surprise of the year, a thunderous return to action filmmaking that signaled Miller’s innovation didn’t run out with “The Road Warrior.” A film-long set piece bursting with indelible design and imagery, “Fury Road” was an adrenaline-soaked reminder that most Hollywood blockbusters (even the entertaining ones) are sleepwalking their way through the motions. Simple but strong politics and Charlize Theron’s instantly iconic turn as one-armed badass Imperator Furiosa were also a gracious antidote to the prevailing action-hero trends of spandexed, tortured machismo. If there’s any problem with the movie, it’s that it may have validated the studios’ instinct to revive old properties over creating something new – if only all those reboots and revivals had a tenth of the energy behind “Fury Road.”

6. Spotlight

image

“We’re going to tell this story. We’re going to tell it right.”

Tom McCarthy’s paean to investigative journalism is a reflective testament to the power of a well-told story: narratives don’t just entertain or inspire, they can tackle institutions, cause very real consequences. “Spotlight” lacks the paranoid, chilling atmosphere of “All the President’s Men,” its obvious cinematic reference point, but in some ways that makes the story ring all the more true. Corruption and crime doesn’t always happen in shadowy parking lots or shifty hotels; sometimes it plays out under harsh fluorescent lighting, in the false congeniality of men in drab khakis and ill-fitting suits. Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy’s crackling script is in total sync with a terrific ensemble of journeyman actors (McAdams and Ruffalo deservingly got the Oscar nods, but Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schrieber, Billy Crudup, John Slattery and others are all equally on-point). Everyone involved in the making of this film was on the same page – the story’s the thing.

5. Carol

3049934-poster-p-1-carol-trailer

“Carol” opens with an enigmatic closeup, an interweaving pattern of…what? Wallpaper? A fence? A carpet? Carter Burwell’s wonderfully woozy score swells and we finally pull back to see a subway grate, trampled underfoot as a dozen people walk by obliviously, until Todd Haynes actually gets interested in a character and we follow him into one of the more romantic films of recent years. The deception and beauty of things right in front of our eyes has always been an undercurrent of Haynes’ work, and in “Carol” he brings it to the fore to tell a story of repressed love with restraint and delicacy. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara have a striking, otherworldly chemistry, relatable yet alien – but isn’t that always how it is when you look at a couple that you’re not a part of? Their attraction is a secret known only to them, and Haynes exploits that feeling to effective measure.

4. 45 Years

45-years

Domestic drama with just the slightest touch of gothic horror, Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years” is more than a showcase for one of the more remarkable leading performances in recent memory (though that would be enough). Charlotte Rampling is superb as Kate Mercer, a retired schoolteacher who finds her marriage, and indeed her whole life, unexpectedly fractured – yet Haigh’s direction is equal to Rampling’s boundless expression. A gesture, a small piece of sound design, a careful framing – these are all it takes for “45 Years” to convey a whole history of a couple. As Kate and her husband Geoff learn when a decades-old choice snowballs into an unraveling of forty-five years of content, it’s the little things that’ll get you.

3. Hard to Be a God

hardtobe1

Aleksei German’s last film may very well also be his masterpiece, a blistering, bilious stew of a movie filled with feverish imagery that feels like a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life. Cross Tarkovsky’s philosophy with Pasolini’s obsession with the dirty, disgusting physicality of humanity, and you’re in the ballpark of German’s deep dive into sci-fi feudalism and fascism (the film comes from a novel by Arkady ad Boris Strugatsky, who also provided the source material for Tarkovsky’s “Stalker”). At 3 hours long, it must be said that “Hard to Be a God” veers close to overstaying its welcome – but German’s planet of medieval horrors is so stunningly and convincingly realized that it’s difficult to say what should be cut. As an Earthling scientist sent to study another planet’s cultural renaissance (which never arrives), Leonid Yarmolnik is fantastic as both tour guide and native, an intelligent man gradually losing himself in the baseness of a primal society. Not an easy sit, but an unforgettable one.

2. Taxi

taxikinolorber

For Jafar Panahi, just turning on a camera is an act of protest. The Iranian director has been arrested and jailed for his filmmaking and its (gentle, humanist) criticism of religious repression and censorship, yet he keeps working, steeled by the absolute right of expression. His latest work, a mix of improvisation, casual conversation and quiet observation, is all the more bold for how unhurried and relaxed it is. Politics doesn’t have to be about righteous anger or fierce speeches – sometimes it’s just about watching, and listening.

1. Son of Saul

son-of-saul-319114

My opinion of László Nemes’ debut feature probably came through pretty clearly in my review for The New Republic, but let’s put it on the record: “Son of Saul” is a landmark piece of film that I firmly believe we’ll be discussing for years to come.  It’s one of the most astonishingly confident first films I’ve ever seen, absolutely assured in its technique and fully prepared to debate with those who will (not unfairly) challenge its complex morality and obsession with depicting the unspeakable. For the record, I’m not even quite in step with Nemes on his interpretation of his own work – there is, I would agree with some commenters, a dangerous grotesquerie present in beatifying the character Saul, or presenting the film’s vivid experience as presenting any sort of “reality”, both of which are things Nemes has gone dangerously close to in his interviews. But this is the kind of film that takes on a life beyond its maker’s intentions: there are so many layers to pull back, particularly in Géza Röhrig’s astonishing lead performance. In so many of Röhrig’s tight closeups, as Saul wanders through Auschwitz on his desperate and foolhardy quest to properly bury a young boy, one wonders, what is he thinking? It’s something we (or at least I) will be pondering for a while, perhaps in nightmares.

Ten more, unranked: “Amour Fou”, “Creed”, “Ex Machina”, “Inside Out”, “Mistress America”, “Results”, “Shaun the Sheep Movie”, “Sicario”, “Tangerine”, “The Tribe”

Leave a comment

Filed under Features, Lists