Wednesday, February 10, 2016

2015 - A Look Back in Film

With the new year's movie season finally underway and the Oscars at the end of this month, I figured I'd reflect on the past year - the highs, the lows, the cream of the crop, and the bottom of the barrel. As well as the surprises and notable fizzles.

Because last year was so damn good, I'm just not ready to be through with it yet.

Biggest Surprise:


These days, it's hard for a film to sneak up on you. With endless promotional campaigns (even for so-called "indie" films that are more and more just as incorporated as anything else) aided by instant media access, it's pretty easy to get at least a sense of a film by the time the first (of many) trailers are released. But that makes the exceptions all the sweeter. From the Spierig brothers (the underrated Daybreakers), Predestination is not what you expect. I mean, yes, it's about a time-travelling "temporal agent" trying to stop a mad bomber, but it's so much more than that. As with their previous film, the directing team packs ridiculous amounts of story and character into a super-lean running time, but here the film also features a dynamite turn from Sarah Snook (who, in a just world, would be up for a Best Actress Academy Award). While some of the twists might be more telegraphed, watching the film play out is a thing of beauty.

Biggest Disappointment:

SPECTRE is not a terrible film. It's certainly not the worst Bond film (or even the worst this century), but it feels like such a massive swing-and-a-miss from a team that delivered one of the absolute best of the series. But where Skyfall was reinvigorating and exciting, SPECTRE feels like so much going through the motions. Slowly, at that. If it were merely another Craig adventure, that would be a bummer, but to have legendary titular villain organization (and it's iconic leader) be squandered in this way is enough to taint the entire rebooted run.

The Worst:


Yeah, a tie. There are a lot of movies I intentionally skipped this year because of awful word-of-mouth, but the stinkers I did see were seriously rank. What a race to the bottom. One a perfectly-serviceable monster movie on the surface, but with a second glance (and a working memory regarding anything other than the nakedly pandering finale) a film that utterly falls apart to near-incompetent components, absolutely missing everything that made its first progenitor work. The other a misguided mess from the beginning that the studio knew was so bad that it got pushed back from set release dates multiple years in a row. But both are abysmal, absolutely wasting talented actors who can't even will genuine charm into horribly-written characters, wasting huge amounts of money on sub-par visuals, and cobbling together utter nonsense from scripts that actual writers were supposedly paid to write.

But enough negativity - this was a GREAT year for films in general.

The Honorable Mentions

Sicario, Cinderella, Spy, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, Ant-Man, The Peanuts Movie




Yeah, another tie, because 2015 was that kick-ass. Almost any other year, these would both be in my Top 10. Ridley Scott teaming with Drew Goddard's script and a murderer's row of fantastic actors in a love letter to science and adventure (he's practically making a Spielberg movie) makes for a film both hilarious and inspiring. And Whedon's second crack at Marvel's super-team proves how spoiled we are - a movie as packed with humor, fun, visual magic, and thematic heft (this is a superhero movie that ends with two AI's debating the merits of humanity) would have been a dream film only 5 years ago. But here, they're the pre-show.



It would be easy to get the wrong idea bout Bone Tomahawk, as the easiest way of describing the film almost does it a disservice. In broadest strikes, it's part western, part horror (specifically cannibal horror), but that only really becomes defining later in the film. For much of Tomahawk's run-time, it's a real-deal western in the vein of The Searchers, and it's in the meat (sorry) of the story that the film plays its best hand.

The four leads may be easily categorized by genre archetypes, but almost immediately these familiar roles are skewed in interesting ways. The Sheriff is a well-adjusted family man; the "back-up" Deputy is a borderline-senile codger; the Cowboy is hobbled, barely able to walk; and the Gunslinger may just be the most charming sociopath you ever met. Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, Patrick Wilson, and Matthew Fox are all dynamite, served by a script that blends solid fundamentals of narrative construction with some of the best dialogue you'll hear outside a Tarantino film all year.

And then the film just goes NUTS in the final forty minutes.


We as a film-going public do not deserve Guillermo Del Toro. The man has shown himself to be adept at pop-art-as-masterful-Art in multiple genres over the past two-plus decades, and yet he's largely ignored by audiences almost as often as by the MPAAS (seriously, no costuming or production design nominations for this film is just CRIMINAL). With Crimson Peak, Del Toro tackles a radical deconstruction of the Gothic Romance, diving into a genre obsessed with warning women away from their desires and creating one of the most feminist "horror" films in recent memory.

The three leads are as haunting as the ghoulish apparitions, and the frame overflows with macabre details that add to the story and characters with accomplished visual storytelling. In a year spoiled for genre standouts, Crimson Peak haunts and harrows, but provides cutting commentary and reflection behind the spooktacle.

What are the odds that the movie designed to take the piss out of the super-spy genre - and the James Bond franchise in particular - would end up being the best spy film of the year? Well, it is. By a lot. Not only does Kingsman boast tremendous action and spyjinks galore (and a villain/henchman duo worthy of Bond's theatrical best), but it dresses down the legendary 00 agent by absolutely owning the puerile fantasy for what it is: a work of pure adolescence (not since Paul Verhoven's Starship Troopers has there been a satire so biting of the hand that feeds it).

Meaning that, not only does Kingsman get to play with some of the "young adult genre fiction" toys that everyone's been chasing since Harry Potter picked up a wand, but it also knows just how to use them to hold up a mirror to why we love James Bond so much. Much like its intrepid hero, it peels back the veneer of nicety and propriety to show the dirty truth beneath. And has a cracking good time while doing so.


First off, how great is that poster? Second, holy WOW but this is a great film. Horror has been having something of a quiet renaissance in the past few years (see also: last year's The Babadook), and It Follows walks a careful line of obvious affection for and influence by masterpieces of yesteryear without simply feeling like a cover song. The movie - from it's dreamy haze and synth score - could almost be a John Carpenter joint (there's definite Halloween in this movie's DNA), but, like the titular "it" that menaces heroine Jay, the film is its own unique beast.

Mining much more creeping dread from the concept of a thing that simply follows you until it kills you than a hoard of jump-scares, It Follows dwells on the realization of mortality, the loss of innocence, and terror of the familiar while soaking in an eerie detachment that makes the punctuations of primal fright that much more potent.


Alex Garland has been "waiting to happen" for a good while now. The screen-writer of Dany Boyle's 28 Days Later and Sunshine, as well as 2012's criminally underseen Dredd, Garland enters the directing scene with his debut film to wildly successful results, with a movie that's equal parts finely-crafted speculative fiction, heady sci-fi, and taut drama.

Ex Machina plays brilliantly on audience preconceptions and empathy to explore what happens with a young progammer meets a strange tech titan to give the AI "Turing Test" to an apparently self-aware android. To tell much more would be to give away the game, but the dynamic of the three leads (all of whom are great, but Alicia Vikander does an absolutely star-making turn as Eva) is an exercise in deceit, plots, counter-plots, and tests within tests that gets more subversive the longer the film plays, and ends in a test for the audience themselves.


Steven Spielberg makes good movies. This is just a universal truth - the sky is blue, water is wet, and Spielberg is a master of his craft. What's perhaps most amazing about him, especially in recent years, is how Spielberg is so brilliant (he's arguably the greatest living filmmaker, full stop) and yet so utterly uninterested in showing off. Employing all his subtle-yet-exquisite sense of framing, editing, and camera movement, Bridge of Spies is a film that spends its time in cramped rooms with lots of people in suits having earnest conversations with other people in suits, and yet is both tense and funny in equal measure.

More than that, Spielberg uses the incident of the U2 spy plane to argue that, even in our darkest hours of moral uncertainty, there is always a moral right from which we, as a nation, should never stray. Leave it to the director of Schindler's List (with the help of the Coen brothers on script duty) to make of the most inspiring post-9/11 foreign policy films ever and slip it by almost unnoticed.

And leave it to the director of Django Unchained to deliver one of the most raw, angry, and accusatory films about modern race relations in the form of a post-Civil War western. Tarantino's eighth film is almost a denouncement of his historical revisionism in Django and Inglorious Basterds before it, but it levels and even angrier finger at the lie we tell ourselves about the wrongs that the Civil War supposedly ended. Trapped in a small waystation during a terrible blizzard, a group of bounty hunters and outlaws descend into the darkest depths of depravity - not over money or power, but good, old-fashioned biggotry.

If there's one thing that keeps Eight from arguably being Tarantino's crowning achievement, it's that the man has the tendency to serve up a new contender to that throne every few years.


Yeah, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a lot of fun, but when it comes to 1970's "legacy" franchises on their seventh entry, this is the one for me. Not that I'm even a huge fan of the Rocky series, but everything about this film worked for me so profoundly that it practically made me one. The idea of putting Stallone's Rocky Balboa in the trainer role (like Mic before him) to the son of Apollo Creed is rock-solid on paper, but under writer/director Ryan Coogler, Creed crafts a story that's familiar to the original film but also vibrant and of its own time.

And it does so on the backs of some truly amazing performances. It's always a treat to watch Sylvester Stallone remember that he can be a fantastic actor, but Michael B. Jordan's slow burn reveal to what makes Adonis Creed so driven is a cinematic marvel, as well as the wellspring for some of the most emotionally triumphant moments of the year.

Pixar may not quite be the unassailable house of animated perfection that they were during their legendary run at the turn of the century, but when they hit, they shake the pillars of heaven. Inside Out may be one of their most heady (sorry) concepts that's still easy to reduce to the memetic level of "What if ____ had feelings?" that the internet loves to reduce Pixar's ideas to. Only, in this case, the question is What if feelings had feelings?

The answer is, well, you get a masterpiece. Inside Out is a rollicking comedy about the importance of being sad, a drama that largely takes place between a girl and her two parents that manages to be one of the most visually imaginative and gorgeously diverse films to come from the studio. The film is structurally a case study in story and character set-up and payoff, but finds its biggest assets in the little things. Like the understated brilliance of young Kaitlyn Dias as Riley, or the poignant points it makes about the evolution of children's psychology

But more than anything, it's a film that manages to package some of the most complex emotional ideas that people deal with on a daily basis, and present them in a way that children can understand, and with which parents can approach and relate to their kids. Leave it to Pixar to create a film that aids the inter-generational spread of emotional honesty.

Well, what did you expect?

It's not enough that George Miller revived his own trail-blazing action franchise 30 years later and made a Best Picture nominee instead of another nostalgic joke. It's not enough that the film is visually-inventive and practically-driven (sorry, again) in a way that most studio blockbusters are never allowed to be. It's not enough that the movie is full to the brim of one-of-a-kind action scenes and instantly-iconic images that serve as visual storytelling rather than simply eye candy.

No, George Miller delivered a two-hour chase to the world, and not only did Fury Road become the film conversation centerpiece of the summer (even though it was a mid-level hit at the box office, it owned the cultural consciousness) as critics and audiences chewed over the thematic subtext of the tale of one woman's quest (with some help from the titular Max) to free the enslaved wives of a misogynist warlord. How many other Best Picture nominees had that kind of ink spilled about what they meant rather than how hard they were to make?

(Sidebar: that said, make no mistake - the production story of Fury Road is a doozy)

Mad Max: Fury Road isn't just a brilliant action film, it's not just a beautifully thematic feminist film, but it's living, breathing proof that pop art and high art are - at the end of the day - ALL ART. That a film can be wildly, uproariously entertaining, awesome even, and still say something profound and important that people have been clamoring to hear. That the idea of treating people like people rather than things shouldn't be radical but can lead to stuff that is. That there's no real age limit or franchise mold or perfect formula to what can capture the public's imagination.

It's also a movie with an electric guitar that SHOOTS FIRE.

Good luck topping that, 2016.

No comments:

Post a Comment