Thursday, January 14, 2016

Favorites of 2015

20. Heaven Knows What

Based on the real life experiences and starring ex-addict Arielle Holmes, Josh and Benny Safdie's "Heaven Knows What" is an aimless, agonizing look at a group of homeless junkies barely surviving in New York City. The desperation of simply existing until they find their next fix..... the animal instincts of violence and anger that pour from their mouths.... and the invisible universe they inhabit right in front of the bustling "normal" world is all such a tactile representation, one feels like they need a shower after watching it. This is bracing cinema that belongs alongside "Streetwise", "kids" or "Christiane F." in the way it mingles with the bottom rung of society. If there is some hope, it;s that Holmes made it out alive and relatively intact.

19. The Salt of the Earth

Wim Wenders and Juliano Riberio Salgado's visual testament to Salgado's wandering of the Earth, which yielded so many vital and heartbreaking images, is several things at once. A straight up documentary about the man and his life. Yet another wonderful Wenders extrapolation on geography and man's place in it. And a virtual art show of humanity, motionless but not emotionless in front of Salgado's silent lens.

18. Love

Gaspar Noe's "Love" is yet another exploration of the themes haunting his films for decades now- that being the ineffable act of being able to fix or change the past. Yes, there's hardcore sex. Yes, there's a scene that takes place in an underground sex club that pushes the boundaries for even a seasoned viewer such as myself. And there's a 3D cum shot. All this gimmick aside, "Love" is still a sobering elegy about two people destined to share each other only for a short time... and then spending the rest of their lives trying to re-engage that feeling.

17. Going Clear

Documentary muckracker Alex Gibney typically susses out political and sociological ills that fall just this side of left-wing 'looniness'. While "Going Clear" is no less jaundiced in its quest to expose the all powerful and mysterious Church of Scientology, it also provides exactly what an incisive doc should do- turn one on, invigorate the mind and push one to seek out their own individual examination of the topic, which is exactly what I've bee doing in the last few months since watching it. I have no doubt L. Ron Hubbard intended for his ideas to be taken seriously (since he was most likely crazy) but the residual omniscience of the church today is even more unhinged and the closest thing the real world has to the  fictional "Spectre" organization brought to life in the James Bond franchise. Probably the horror movie of the year?

16. The Final Girls

Todd Strauss-Schulson's meta-meta horror movie would normally seem like self reflexive fluff if it weren't so damn funny, touching, rousing and confident while it dissects the genre it purports to belong within. After escaping a theater fire by cutting through the movie projection screen, a group of current day high schoolers find themselves literally inside the 80's slasher film they were previously watching. Making matters worse, young Max (Taissa Farmiga) has to deal with the fact that her dead mother (Malin Ackerman) stars in the film. Smart one moment and deeply heartfelt the next, "The Final Girls" proves that wink-wink cinema can still be relevant if its heart and intelligence is rooted in the right place.

15. Black Coal, Thin Ice

Yi'nan Diao's "Black Coal Thin Ice" is an odd beast. At first glance, it makes itself out to be something akin to Bong Joon-ho's "Memories of Murder" in the way it begins a serpentine criminal investigation of a murder that stretches over several years. But, about a third of the way through (and just as the lead detective loses his own moral compass due to alcoholism and his failed marriage), the film takes some strange turns and focuses on the disturbing and morose relationship that forms between the cop and the murdered victim's wife. Conversations unexpectedly end as someone in the background begins beating up a slot machine, for example. Another possible witness to what exactly happened all those years ago ends up falling into a bathtub of water next to her go-go dance stage while being questioned. The violence that casually erupts reminded me of the subliminal bloodshed prevalent in Takeshi Kitano's great gangster films of the 90's. And don't even start with the ending- one that's so brazen and gleefully anarchic that it had me wondering if the film reel ended abruptly. Outside of these incongruous moments of humor, anger and bleak reactions towards the world around them, "Black Coal Thin Ice" also manages to wring a uniquely sad love story out of the mix. A strange film, indeed, but one that should be essential viewing.

14. Welcome To New York

After being dumped in very limited release earlier this year and surreptitiously released on VOD, Ferrara came out blasting his production company for re-editing the film and tampering with his artistic vision. Having not seen that slimmed down 107 minute version (I was lucky enough to see the 125 minute original Cannes print) and only reading about the changes through various online sources, it does sound as if some of the story's perspective has been altered. Ferarra has been relentless in his distancing of that version and his motto that the best way to view his films is through nefarious online downloads never felt quite so revelatory. Yet all that rhetoric aside, "Welcome To New York" is not only a slimy, misogynistic character study of a man unable to distinguish between the barriers of decent behavior, but it's one of Ferrara's absolute best works yet and one of the most damning films of the year.

13. Mad Max Fury Road

Holy hell, what a ride. I'm usually highly averse to the split second style of cutting in modern action films, but director Miller not only manages to create a cohesive vision of amplified violence and insane creativity, but the continuity of the action is splendid. See a body being thrown from a rolling vehicle one shot and there's the body falling in the background of the next. Yet, mayhem and violence aside, "Fury Road" is also a feminist action picture that has the balls and brains to shift its anti-hero to the back of the pack and make us care for something greater than the obligatory apocalyptic stakes.

12. Carol

Todd Haynes' lauded 50's set lesbian drama is exactly that because it handles the material with such a delicacy and precision that might have been lost by other hands. It's heartbreaking in just the right amount.... controlled in the next... and then ends on a perfect note of quiet resiliency between two people as they exchange glances across a busy restaurant. Cate Blanchett is Cate Blanchett, but the film's emotional core resides with Rooney Mara's Therese who inhabits a young woman on the periphery of adulthood, scrambling to make sense of her nonconformist desires.  In the end, those desires feel like the most commonplace ideals in the world.

11. Two Days One Night

A staggering examination of one woman's dogged quest to save her job, the Dardennes Brother have been amply awarded at film festivals over the years, but this may be their most fully realized film yet. As Sandra, Marion Cotillard is astonishing. And with the unemployment rate at a seven year all time low here in the U.S. "Two Days One Night" may not resonate with quite the traumatic experience it does in European quarters, but the frazzled and uncertain future facing people like Sandra is a universal worry for everyone without a hefty 401K. The real beauty lies in the wealth of her honesty and the way she confronts life afterwards.

10. Steve Jobs

As a straight biography of the man, Danny Boyle's "Steve Jobs" is woefully neglect. As a pulsating backstage drama play to some of the most influential electronics products of the past half century- complete with conniving secondary characters, tainted relationships, high tension, and some serious daddy/daughter issues- it's a masterpiece. And honestly, how many more straight biopics do we really need? By capturing all the promotional hysteria and personal conflicts in three distinct realms of Steve Jobs' influential life (1984, 1988 and 1998), the film tightens its focus on the almost maniacal side of Jobs. Unrelenting in his purpose, unable to glorify anyone else but himself and yet still slicing up shimmers of humanity and emotional grandeur within him, Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin have crafted a film that zings with intelligence while maintaining a three-dimensional sense of the man. One may not like Jobs (brought to life by an Oscar worthy performance by Michael Fassbender), but it's a film that demands our attention and dares to steer away from the obvious inventions of the mind and instead examine the mechanism of power, regret, ownership and forgiveness.

9. The Big Short

Adam McKay's caustic satire on the 2008 economic collapse is a sad masterpiece about the incalculable Kafka-esque nightmare of hidden algorithms and downright criminality. With a fully realized ensemble cast, "The Big Short" is heady, exhilarating, enormously funny and whip smart in its characterizations and overall pace. The quick bursts of montage that buffer certain portions of the film not only provide cultural reference, but exist as perfect time-stamps in a film whose sobering message of unchecked greed and malignancy fall silent among the winds of hip-hop stupidity and technological solipsism. 

8. Kumiko the Treasure Hunter

Perhaps the most striking effect of The Zellner Brothers' "Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter" is its ability to rotate our expectations of a land I fully thought I understood. Like the best works of German auteur Wim Wenders, where his poetic and free-spirited men and woman traverse through the vast yet marginal corners of this great nation, there was always an outsider's perspective which made the familiar expanses feel antique, slightly deranged and even weird. We often felt their spatial and cultural dislocation. Even though the Zellner Brothers are Texas natives, they duplicate this same fresh perspective to dizzying heights, such as when Kumiko enters a roadside cafe and the camera slowly slides behind her, partially hazy at the edges, and the place's kitschy, baroque flavor looks and feels downright anomalous. It's a wonderful moment in a film full of them. And even though, ultimately, "Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter", supposes a dark denouement, it also rallies hard for the belief that, sometimes, the best medicine is to lose ourselves in a totally inept faith of something... anything. The Coen Brothers' 1996 masterpiece is having one helluva great year both on the big screen and small.

7. Brooklyn

Navigating all the emotional turbulence magnificently, John Crowley's film is a richly observed tale about a young woman's tenuous emergence into both a startling new culture and her own awkward adulthood. Anchored by the heartbreakingly real performance of Saoirse Ronan as Eilis, the newly minted New Yorker by way of Ireland in 1952, "Brooklyn" traces all the usual setups of such a film (homesickness, tragedy, young love) and then proceeds to defy commonplace logic and craft a film that's absorbing and luminous despite its very classical roots. The relationship between Ronan and Italian boyfriend Tony emits a certain wild innocence reminiscent of Eva Saint Marie and Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront". They're that good together. But it's Ronan's face and eyes that carry the film, often holding the camera's gaze as the world and its uncontrollable impulses of love, regret, confusion and expectation bounce off her. It's cliche to say, but "Brooklyn" is terrific old fashioned filmmaking.

6. It Follows

It may seem rote to attempt a new subversion of the horror genre, but writer-director David Robert Mitchell does just that in his latest film "It Follows". Taking the act of sexual intercourse, which often spells disaster for teens in all those slasher horror movies of yesteryear, is stretched to full length parable here. Often a very vulnerable, short-circuit-head moment for young people (or really anyone of any age), the act of sex is shrouded in guilt, paranoia and complete fear in "It Follows" as "something" begins to stalk poor Jay (Maika Monroe) after having sex with Hugh (Jake Weary). Director Mitchell has created a deeply unsettling experience that understands the psychology of scare is always more penetrating than the scare itself. 

5. Youth

I said it last year after seeing his complete oeuvre, but Paolo Sorrentino is the finest European director working today and with his latest film, "Youth", that definitive statement still rings true. It's starting off point is the mundane relaxation stay of two life long friends Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, but Sorrentino's penchant for specks of life and perfectly coiffed image making soon become a visual poem all to itself. As if the men were trapped in a haunting purgatory full of ghosts past and present, "Youth" is certainly not an ironic title. It's a film that understands life and art sometimes should be messy and beautifully unkempt. And its dedicated to the great Francesco Rosi. How beautiful is that?

4. Love and Mercy

Bill Pohlad's "Love and Mercy" gets two things right. First, it reveals the fractured genius of singer-songwriter Brian Wilson in two distinct times of his life without losing momentum in either section. Too often, the balance and dynamic force is weighed distinctly towards one portion of the film or the other, but in "Love and Mercy", they coalesce and compliment each other beautifully. Secondly, it exalts and analyzes the frustrated, creative mindset of a musical icon while he's still alive and kicking on this mortal coil- which makes the film that much more respectful. We can seek out, experience and savor the man's artistry without resorting to testimonials of his marginalized existence while the actual artistry was being created. Beyond that, "Love and Mercy" is an actor's movie that digs deep and allows the masterly performances of its principals (Paul Dano, John Cusack and Elizabeth banks) to convey the complicated, scatter shot emotions involved. Lots of films have focused on the conflicted nature of creative personas well ahead of their time, but "Love and Mercy" shows us that paradigm and then allows something beautiful, besides the art, to flourish from it. And Elizabeth Banks deserves the supporting actress Oscar this year.

3. Spotlight

Infuriating is not normally the adjective one would apply towards one of the year's best films, but it fits Tom McCarthy's "Spotlight". Raised in the Catholic faith, I'm not the most devout practitioner these days, but it still serves as a guiding force in my life to try and do right. Watching the fictional rendering of the 2001 Boston Globe journalist team that brought to light the systematic issue of child abuse by priests for decades, "Spotlight" is a crackling, intelligent journey littered with amazing performances from top to bottom that reveals the victims of this ugly, systematic abuse include the people directly attacked and those who blindly placed their faith in flawed human beings.

2. Sicario

Even through the consistent morbidity of Denis Villeneuve's "Sicario", he manages to hone in on the textures of everyday life with dreamy precision. The flakes of dust that linger in the air as rays of sunlight whip through a set of curtains. The jagged exteriors of drywall that hide a mass of murdered bodies in the film's nerve-racking opening scene. And especially the face and eyes of Emily Blunt as she registers confusion, regret and doubt amidst a sea of unchecked masculinity. Over his last few films, Villeneuve has yet to shy away from some pretty dark-hearted matters, but these moments of human fragility set against a backdrop of political, jurisdictional and criminal violence place "Sicario" as an exceptional study on the parameters of justice and its screwed up moral compass. Oh and it's a pretty damn good action film as well, but not in the standard ways.

1. Phoenix

German filmmaker Christian Petzold has paired with actress Nina Hoss five times now as his leading lady, and each time the two have evolved their craft to wondrous heights. Hoss- whose large eyes and often half agape, hollowed look as if she's barely escaped some type of emotional or physical trauma- is spellbinding here in their latest film together. The gut wrenching charade that "Phoenix" initiates between her and former husband Johnny becomes a devastating exploration of not only obsession and memory, but a morbid rhetoric on the state of Europe immediately after the war, left in shambles and desperately trying to ascertain an identity that was ripped apart by the war. It's the best film Petzold has made to date and a stunning masterpiece.

honorable mentions: Cop Car, The Look of Silence, Eden, Joy, Junun, The Hunting Ground, Me Earl and the Dying Girl

1 comment:

Zach said...

Solid list. Nice to see Me & Earl & the Dying Girl in the honorable mentions.