Wednesday, January 06, 2016

My favorite movies of 2015

I didn't post much over here this year, even though the movies I saw in a theater in 2015 impressed me a lot more than the previous year's crop. It's hard to write about why things are good. It's easier for me to articulate why I don't like something, and as I get older, I find myself less comfortable bashing creative people's work. It's hard to make stuff and put it out in a world saturated with content and apathy and blockbuster-dulled eyeballs. OK. Words are silly. Here are my favorite movies of 2015, with some additional folderol.

My rules
Films vying for contention on my list had to open between January 1 and December 31 of 2015 in Austin, Texas, my city of residence. I had to see them on the big screen. Not on a TV, not on a computer, not on a bed sheet, not in my dreams, not on a fucking phone like some tech-savvy animal. I'm old-fashioned that way. Omissions are not always judgments. I usually say something here about how distribution of true independents and foreign films sucks while generic Hollywood product hogs so much screen space, and how hard it is to easily find the good stuff when you don't live in New York or Paris, but I do that every year so I will skip it here and direct you to many earlier posts where I go on and on about this, usually with a lot of profanity.

My 13 Favorite Films of the Year (in alphabetical order b/c preferential ranking is silly and ages poorly)

Carol (Todd Haynes)
So much of what I love about movies but rarely see in this current century is there in Haynes' adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's pseudonymous 1952 novel The Price of Salt. Haynes takes a forward leap in an already great career by carefully shaving away enough of his postmodern distance to reveal a sincere emotional honesty, but his formal audaciousness remains. This is a film about looks, gestures, surfaces, objects, and the flashes of inner life briefly illuminated by them.

Crimson Peak (Guillermo Del Toro)
I was surprised at the muted reaction this one received from audiences and critics. I fell in love with Del Toro's Gothic romantic ghost story, its deliberate pace, its deep red colors, its opulent interiors, and its assured, entertaining tone that blended classic ghost mythology, Victorian literature, Poe's House of Usher, and '60s Italian horror movies. Apparently, quality is unfashionable in today's marketplace of loud, shiny, overlong soul-deadeners.

Divers (Paul Thomas Anderson)
This Joanna Newsom video was given the big-screen treatment by several independent chains, and I saw it at the Alamo Drafthouse before Crimson Peak. Filmed in landscape painter (and then some) Kim Keever's studio, the video integrates Newsom into the painting/installation/aquarium/I don't know what to call it but I like it. I don't have much to say about this in inadequate human words, but I was unexpectedly gripped and moved by this simple but gorgeous short film, which manages to be dreamy and impressionistic but also direct and straightforward. I'm even warming up to Newsom's music, which I admire but have a really hard time enjoying.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (Ana Lily Amirpour)
A striking debut from Amirpour, a British-born/United States-raised daughter of Iranian parents, who shot this stylish black and white modern vampire western in rural California but set it in the fictional Iranian ghost town of Bad City with all the actors speaking Farsi. It's scary, funny, smart, weird, and beautiful to look at, and there's a fantastic cat in it, too. (This was a great year for movie cats.)

Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard)
The 85-year-old Godard, one of the last few French New Wave directors still with us and still making films, gave us a 3D movie like no other, forgoing its usual use as spectacle and gimmick and instead using the technology to illuminate, clarify, distort, layer, split, superimpose, and disorient textures, shapes, text, bodies, objects, and landscapes as he ruminated on the difficulties of making art in the current political, technological, and economic climate (I think). There are also lots of dogs, copious nudity, and a couple fart jokes (maybe the first fart jokes in a Godard movie) if the previous sentence hasn't convinced you. I don't know if there are plans for a 2D DVD or Blu-Ray, but even with identical scenes and running time, that version would be an entirely different experience and movie. That's how much difference the 3D makes here. Think what Hitchcock did with 3D in Dial M for Murder or what Herzog and Scorsese have done with it recently and you're starting to (just barely) scratch part of the surface.

Horse Money (Pedro Costa)
A difficult but gorgeously composed film that rewards the careful attention you give to it, Horse Money was both a meditative and intense experience for me, even when I was missing part of the context due to my lack of knowledge of Portuguese politics. Most reviews I've read give wildly different interpretations of what is happening. My take is that we are seeing the thoughts of a dying and/or institutionalized man whose memories are sometimes clouded or confused by dementia, with moments of emotional and intellectual clarity. His mental state and the subjects of his memories dictate the visual composition. The man is a poor Cape Verdean immigrant in the Fontainhas neighborhood of Lisbon, and he moves through strangely elongated buildings, subterranean passageways, a largely abandoned hospital, an old job site, a park, an elevator, talking with people from his past and strange figures representing cultural and political events he experienced. Costa's shots call to mind great old paintings or scenes from '40s Val Lewton horror films given an entirely different context.

Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Anderson pulls off the difficult feat of making a faithful Thomas Pynchon adaptation that is also a faithful Paul Thomas Anderson film, filled with his personal obsessions, California landscapes and interiors, stylistic touches, expressive use of actors, and virtuosic approach to image and sound. I'm a sucker for Anderson's images, and I love the look of every frame of every single one of his films. This one is no exception. Like Todd Haynes' 1950s in Carol, Anderson's 1970 in Inherent Vice doesn't look like the tacky frozen theme park of most Hollywood period pieces. Instead, his setting breathes, is lived-in, feels like a place, is as much a character in the film as the roles the actors play. Those actors look like they belong there, not like they're a bunch of present-day show-bizzers playing dress-up at a costume party. Even its exaggerations and heightened affects come from the comedy and paranoia inherent (get it?) in the material and the characters' internal states, not from period production design gone amok. Great music choices, too: CAN, Neil Young, Minnie Riperton, Chuck Jackson's "Any Day Now."

Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
Hey, what do you know? I actually loved a big-budget summer blockbuster that was hugely popular with mass audiences for the first time since ... when? The mid-'90s? This one has lots of CGI and super-quick cutting, two of my big pet peeves when used poorly (and these things are almost always used poorly), but in the hands of 70-year-old George Miller, we always know where we are spatially and we give a shit. And all the car chases are analog, real-world, stunt-person, old-school action filmmaking. Miller made all the previous Mad Max films, so there is a consistency of vision, but even better than that, Miller's Australian apocalyptic desertscape is still weird as shit and still the stuff my childhood dreams are made of. I think the film gets a bit overpraised as a feminist touchstone (the women with speaking parts are almost all supermodel gorgeous, while the men get to be nasty, ugly pieces of work), but it is nice to see a big action epic where men and women work together to kick ass and no one remarks upon it as unusual or makes cutesy comments to assuage the fragile masculinity of the troglodytes in the audience. This is great, visceral, personal action filmmaking without any stupid exposition or bloat.

Manglehorn (David Gordon Green)
This is an eccentric choice and one not shared by most critics or audience members, but I stand by it. Manglehorn is not a cohesive film and not everything works in it, but it's full of great moments and has such a unique blend of tones and such a gorgeous look that I couldn't help but love it. And it's really weird. Not fake-indie weird, not affectation-weird. Genuinely weird. A quiet drama about a locksmith from the East Coast but currently living in Texas still pining over an ex and on the outs with his son developing a quiet friendship and possible romance with a bank teller? A weird comedy about an old guy hanging out with a young sketchy massage parlor owner who the old guy used to coach in Little League? A magical realist fable? Yes to all three of those, plus some weird dream sequences that may not be dream sequences, a subplot about a grumpy-faced cat swallowing a key, and a mime. I think you see what I mean here. Let's break this down even further. Al Pacino plays the locksmith/ex-Little League coach. Like a lot of recent Pacino acting turns, it's a mannered performance but in the exact opposite direction of Pacino's usual hamfoolery. He plays everything quiet and withdrawn and sadsack here instead of all the HOO-AHHHs and SHE GOT A GREAT ASSes and SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE FRIENDs. Holly Hunter is the bank teller. Harmony Korine is the massage parlor owner. The grumpy cat is awesome. Green and his usual amazing cinematographer Tim Orr capture an incredible muted greenish/bluish tint to both the natural and artificial light. I feel like most people I could recommend this movie to would hate it, but I love it. I really love it.

Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg)
Screenwriter Bruce Wagner unsuccessfully shopped his brutal dark-side-of-Hollywood satire around the industry for years before Cronenberg found it, and it took Cronenberg several more years to get it made. I can understand their difficulties. Maps to the Stars is decidedly not a crowdpleaser, with a detached observational coldness, brutal characters, and the nerve to let uncomfortable scenes play out in front of an unflinching camera. It's also very funny (in a decidedly odd way), with actors who know just how to approach the tricky material without turning it into a miserable downer or a cartoon (especially Mia Wasikowska and Julianne Moore) and one of the great living directors mastering the difficult tone. I'm a little bummed that Cronenberg is in his seventies now. I want him to keep making films forever.

Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh)
Biopics are almost always garbage, but the American and British film industries keep churning them out in wave after wave of empty, dead, formulaic, visually bland lifelessness. These films get everything wrong about people, about lives, about art, about storytelling, about the movies, about creation, about how we learn who people really are. Generally speaking, I hate them even more than I hate CGI blockbusters because they pretend to be serious explorations of the human condition while sucking up award nominations like greedy cartoon anteaters, but they're middlebrow fraidycat bullshit. Mike Leigh's film about the last several years in the life of the painter J.M.W. Turner is that extraordinarily rare thing, a great film biography of a famous person, but Leigh's never made a bad film, so I was expecting good things. Mr. Turner is full of nuts-and-bolts detail, human complexity, honest interaction, and an earned sense of place. Timothy Spall is great as Turner, but unlike in generic biopics, where every other human is a one-note supporting player meant only to illuminate the shining star, he's not the sole focus. Leigh, who always makes films about the complexities of human interaction, is also deeply interested in the people around Turner and the places he lives and travels, and he gives the final two scenes to two important but very different women in Turner's life.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Roy Andersson)
Though this Swedish film's title makes it sound like a dreary self-parody of the art film at its worst (it's a reference to a Bruegel painting), this is actually a dryly hilarious comedy about loneliness. The third in Andersson's thematically connected trilogy of comedies about how we live, this one follows a pair of traveling novelty and gag gift salesmen as they mostly unsuccessfully cajole people into buying their junk and then retire to their tiny rented flophouse rooms each night. Interspersed are various scenes in the life of the townspeople. The tone shifts into darker, more serious territory with a disturbing dream sequence two-thirds of the way through. In Andersson's trilogy, each scene is a still-camera painterly tableaux, in wide-shot, with no closeups. The actors all have zombie-like white greasepaint applied to their faces. Movements are deliberate and slow, and the characters rarely smile or joke, yet most of what is said and the situations depicted are very, very funny. It's the damnedest thing, and I probably haven't sold any of you with my description, but Andersson is really getting at some of the essential tragedies of our existence in such a strange and hilarious way.

Yakuza Apocalypse (Takashi Miike)
This one is just sheer nutzoid entertainment at its most delirious from prolific Japanese madman Miike. We start with gangsters, vampires, gangster-vampires, the worst case of earwax in cinema history, martial arts battles, bizarre costumes, forced knitting, and a goblin. Then, a giant furry frog shows up, and things start to get a little weird.

Honorable mentions
Results (Andrew Bujalski)
Mistress America (Noah Baumbach)
Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)

Slightly less honorable mention
While We're Young (Noah Baumbach)

Our Brand Is Crisis (David Gordon Green)
The first David Gordon Green movie I didn't like (yeah, I even liked Your Highness and The Sitter) is a director-for-hire gig for producer-star Sandra Bullock and producing team George Clooney and Grant Heslov. Like most Clooney-Heslov productions, this is a thin-soup self-congratulatory neoliberal message movie with a cornball ending. Bullock is likable, but the other characters around her are thin, and the writing is pretty bad. Green doesn't get much of a chance to put his personal stamp on things, and even his amazing cinematographer Tim Orr seems generically reined in here. The movie is set in Bolivia, but we don't learn a goddamn thing about the country. It simply serves as a backdrop for the swinging-dick contest between a couple American political consultants, played by Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton, hired to do their spin doctor thing for a presidential election. There are a handful of funny or intriguing moments, but they don't add up to much.

Favorite film society and revival screenings
Forty Guns (Samuel Fuller, 1957)
Suburbia (Penelope Spheeris, 1983)
The Decline of Western Civilization Part III (Penelope Spheeris, 1998)
Ticket of No Return (Ulrike Ottinger, 1979)

I don't know where to put this one yet
The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)
Once I get my head together about this one, I may write a post about it, but for now, I'll leave it dangling here. I loved Ennio Morricone's score, I loved the landscape shots, I loved seeing the 70mm print, I loved a lot of the performances, and I was entertained. I like how much was going on in the frame. I'm a sucker for snowy Westerns. I had a good time. I was also disturbed by the laughter of the bro-dudes every time Jennifer Jason Leigh's character was punched in the face, I've grown weary of Tarantino's "nigger"-Tourette's (he seems to be choosing topics for films just so he can say "nigger" every few seconds and feel like a cool white dude for being able to say it), I'm a little tired of his overly self-conscious dialogue and his revenge plots and ultra-violence even as part of me really enjoys all that stuff, I don't think his last three films are as politically astute as Tarantino thinks they are, and I wistfully imagine an alternate career with Jackie Brown as a template (characters that don't have quotes around them, more adaptations, more adult characters, less fanboy revenge fantasies, less time building bloody cathedrals to himself). On the other hand, I think he has a great eye, and I always have a really good time watching his movies, even when they bug me afterwards. I will always go and see what he's doing as long as he keeps making movies, and I'll probably keep enjoying them, with reservations. So, I don't know what I think yet, but I did like it.

Welcome back, Kotters
Mississippi Grind (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck)
99 Homes (Ramin Bahrani)
I was a fan of directors Ramin Bahrani and Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck for their subtle, unusual character-based dramas, but then they made movies I hated that lacked everything they did best. Bahrani's At Any Price was a sledgehammer-to-the-face message movie and overwrought melodrama that seemed like the real Bahrani had switched bodies with some other director Freaky Friday-style, while Boden & Fleck's It's Kind of a Funny Story was a fairly inert, sentimental, and corny adaptation of a young adult novel with a smugly entitled main character. The good news is they both made good movies this year. While not back to full strength yet, I like where they're headed. Bahrani made another sledgehammer-to-the-face message movie, which really makes me wonder what happened to the subtle guy from his first three films, but this time it worked. 99 Homes was a compelling thriller about the bankers who got rich off foreclosures during the peak of the financial crisis, with some big but excellent work from Michael Shannon, Laura Dern, and Andrew Garfield. It was still a bit too over the top to make my favorites list, but I was on board, man. Maybe against my better judgment, but I dug it. Boden & Fleck made a '70s-style road movie about gamblers called Mississippi Grind, and while it was a little too derivative of the great '70s movies to make my list, it was also pretty damn solid. Ben Mendelsohn is one of the best character actors in the biz (I even watched five episodes of that terrible Netflix show Bloodline because of him), and he delivers the goods here. So, surprisingly, does Ryan Reynolds. Nice James Toback cameo. Welcome back, Bahrani, Boden, and Fleck.

Favorite streaming-only films
Junun (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Making a Murderer (Moira Demos & Laura Ricciardi) (mini-series)

Favorite music videos
Kurt Vile - "Pretty Pimpin" (Daniel Henry)
Joanna Newsom - "Sapokanikan" (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Rihanna - "Bitch Better Have My Money" (Rihanna & Megaforce)

Screenings I had to miss because of work, etc., that I'm still bummed about
Le pont du nord (Jacques Rivette)
Der riese (Michael Klier)
Out 1 (Jacques Rivette)

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