Monthly Archives: January 2016

2015 Year in Review

For the fourth straight year, here’s my too-little-too-late year-end wrap up. Professionals have already published their lists several weeks ago, sites have moved on to Sundance coverage and new releases, and the Oscar nominations have been announced and instantly mocked. So it’s just another mid-January. But I finally caught up with several movies I wanted to see before consigning 2015, so here’s my typical summation. As usual, some caveats: 1) this isn’t a “best-of” because I tend to focus more on favorites; also 2) I only saw 80-85 of the, what, 400-some releases? So this is just the cream of what I got around to seeing.

2015 TOP TEN

1. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD — A blistering fever dream of a movie; all tactile and coarse, full of life and a singular vision of the human condition. Not an unpopular choice for the year’s finest work (perhaps the consensus, if there is such a thing), but that just speaks to how brash and uncompromising it is. Very few people saw this and dismissed or forgot it. It’s an atom bomb.

2. JAMES WHITE — The most moving experience I had in the theater all year. It understands the pain of confronting death with a guilelessness and un-self-consciousness that’s unparalleled.  Abbott and Nixon give miraculous performances, and director Josh Mond strips away any glint of sentimentality. A beautifully made knife to the heart.

3. SICARIO — A thundering moviegoing experience with ear-splitting sound design, magnificent Roger Deakins photography, and a propulsive, heart-racing pace. A wonderful combination of smart and savvy content with top-notch technical prowess, Villeneuve’s drug war thriller also boasted one of the great performances of the year in Benicio del Toro’s terrifying anti-hero. Another visceral marvel in a year full of them.

4. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION — Speaking of visceral marvels, the fact that this was the best M:I movie since DePalma’s masterpiece original says something, since Bird’s 2011 entry GHOST PROTOCOL also made my top 10 list. It doesn’t seem wise to take for granted Christopher McQuarrie’s talents on the page or behind the camera: he’s efficient, intelligent, stylish, and smooth, much like his leading characters. Action blockbusters done this well are hard to come by.

5. THE HATEFUL EIGHT — It’s hard to deny how entertaining a craftsman Quentin Tarantino is, so very little of the criticism revolves around that. It’s usually about the content, and yet here the content is aggressively resonant, vital, and crackling. Images linger in the mind, lines coat the throat like a warm glass of cognac, and the experience of having the 70mm projection — overture, intermission, and all — wash over you is a testament to the power of cinema and history together.

6. INSIDE OUT — Like Rogue Nation, an example of Hollywood at its best: this is family entertainment done exquisitely, utilizing brilliant animation, hilarious writing, and a core of emotional integrity to give it just enough weight. This is a tear-jerker of the least cloying kind; it earns the sadness because it understands it.

7. THE BIG SHORT — Perhaps the directing and editing could have used a little more refinement (this was reportedly rushed through post-production; it was originally scheduled to come out in 2016 but McKay and the studio realized it had a winner on its hands), but there’s no question the writing and acting is top shelf stuff. You leave the theater feeling exhausted, but a lot of that is from how angry you get and how much there is to process. It’s a mean feat to be this entertaining and funny while peeling off a scab.

8. VICTORIA — I’ve noted a lot of pulse-pounding visceral experiences on this list so far, but Victoria is the #1 in terms of causing sweaty palms. Filmed in a real (not BIRDMAN-style hidden cuts, post-produced to look unbroken) single take, Sebastian Schipper’s exercise in you-are-there realism creates a dizzying cognitive dissonance because as much as you feel like you’re along with these lovers/bank-robbers, you’re also hyper-aware of the camera and actors pulling off a towering feat. What Schipper sacrifices in precision, he more than makes up for in nervous energy, emotional heft, and how-the-fuck-did-they-do-this wonder.

9. DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS — When most critics wrote about how Spike Lee made his best film in a decade this year, they meant CHI-RAQ. I disagree with them. This is a work of perplexing art: endlessly provocative, loaded with thoughts about race in American history, and smothered by a tone of languorous moods and angry silence. Destined to be one of the more forgotten works by one of America’s greatest filmmakers, though I think it’s among his best.

10. ’71 — After a clumsy opening, this in-the-trenches account of the conflict in Belfast by Yann Demange soars to life thanks to a ferocious turn by Jack O’Connell. Demange depicts a war of black and white, with the IRA against the Brits, the Catholics vs. the Protestants, the Nationalists vs. the Loyalists — but those lines are consistently blurred by the desires of the individual, proving that nothing is black and white: when the world is really just ashen grey, how can we justify any of this fighting at all? An early-year stunner that got unjustly forgotten.

Didn’t Quite Make the Cut: CAROL is a very strong piece of filmmaking that garnered praise from every corner of cinephilia, so it certainly didn’t need any help from me; but I did like it quite a bit. SON OF SAUL is the hardest movie to sit through, but a sensational piece of filmmaking with a great lead performance and a lot to consider on a fundamental level. UNFRIENDED is a wildly original horror movie with a lot to say about how we interact in the world today. ROOM is a bleak but powerful experience with a tremendous performance from Brie Larson. And RICKI AND THE FLASH is a surprisingly vibrant and touching work from the aging Jonathan Demme, saddled with terrible marketing but boasting great performances and a refreshingly optimistic vision.

And now for my personal Oscars. I never got any good suggestions for what to name these, so here are my unnamed awards:

Best Director — George Miller, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

Best Actor — Géza Röhrig, SON OF SAUL

Best Actress — Juliette Binoche, CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA

Best Supporting Actor — Benicio del Toro, SICARIO

Best Supporting Actress — Cynthia Nixon, JAMES WHITE

Best Screenplay — Quentin Tarantino, THE HATEFUL EIGHT

And as usual, I have no Worst List. I don’t really see the point in listing the worst films of the year, or even the ones I liked the least. You could see in my reviews what I didn’t like, and there’s no need to pile on. I also don’t want to bring attention to movies I think should be ignored. If you liked EX MACHINA or PHOENIX or SPOTLIGHT, then great. We go to the movies to enjoy them; I won’t try to take that away. I hope everyone likes every movie they see. Even if they suck!

So that’s that; please add comments to the comment section with anything I forgot, overlooked, got wrong, or otherwise. Or you can always find me on Twitter (@TwinCinema). Thanks for reading Private Joker’s Head.


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The Revenant — 6/10

THE REVENANT (2015, Alejandro G. Iñárritu)

I don’t know if there’s ever been a time where a cinematographer was considered an auteur (or at least the driving artistic force of a film — above the director, producer, writers, or actors), but it’s starting to seem like Emmanuel Lubezki might be there. He’s been Oscar-nominated eight times in the last 20 years and won the last two years straight (for GRAVITY and BIRDMAN) — and could possibly win for the third time in a row for this one. Clearly the mainstream Hollywood machine loves him, and as favored DP for Terrence Malick, Alfonso Cuarón, and Iñárritu, he’s getting plenty of chances to show his stuff for discriminating audiences. And if you watch THE REVENANT and have flashbacks to THE TREE OF LIFE and CHILDREN OF MEN, there’s only one reason why: Lubezki.

For me, the primary aesthetic vision I took from THE REVENANT is Lubezki’s, and although he’s among my favorite DPs alive (he’d make my current Mount Rushmore along with Richardson, Deakins, and Mark Lee Ping-bin), he accounts for the film’s strengths and its drawbacks alike. The go-to guy for long takes, Lubezki is great at swirling his camera around and capturing energetic action and precise performance for extended periods of time. For BIRDMAN, that made sense — the film was about stage performance, and long takes were a form that matched the thematic content. For THE REVENANT, Iñárritu has decided to keep Lubezki in the same mode, and it doesn’t work quite as well. Why take the viewer out of the experience with a combination of wide-angle lenses, complicated mise-en-scene, and dizzying movement? This isn’t theater; it’s raw elemental survival and seems to beg for harsh light, hard cuts, and rock-steady frames. Also, due to these extended takes, Lubezki and Iñárritu have to settle for rain and snow splattering the lens, or fake blood, or even the exhaled breath of their actors steaming it up.

Not that those actors aren’t killing it, by the way. DiCaprio doesn’t get to play a lot of range here (his work isn’t nearly the equal of what he did in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET or even DJANGO UNCHAINED), but he’s committed and believable. Tom Hardy is terrific once again, using his voice, walk, and eyes to create a villain as disturbing as Bane in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. And when Lubezki is tight on them and low to the ground, the image is stark, sharp, gorgeous, and textured. But narratively, the entire thing is just too thin. Iñárritu hammers home the theme of man as beast in nature — another part of the animal food chain, at one point getting so obvious as having DiCaprio crawl inside a horse carcass for warmth. Yes, the elements were harsh back then. Life was tough on the frontier. This is all handsomely mounted, but there isn’t much to dwell on afterwards. We get things we’ve seen too often before — floating hallucinations of dead loved ones, noble savage American Indians… and for what? It’s hard to find anything to really hang your hat on, other than the showy exploits of the considerable talents on display.

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Anomalisa — 6/10

ANOMALISA (2015, Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson)

Perhaps suffers from high expectations, as Kaufman’s other directorial effort (SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK) was my favorite film of 2008. That thing was a sprawling, assertive, ferocious work of artistry that I’ve been terrified to revisit just because of how emotionally wrecked I was at the end of it. And as his scripts for ADAPTATION and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (still probably his best work to date) show, he is capable of full-on existential assaults. So why does ANOMALISA feel a little minor? It’s quiet, simple, and offers reduced and straight-forward versions of the themes he’s been playing with for years, albeit with brand-new visual ideas, thanks to his animator/co-director Johnson.

The puppet work here is impressive, as is everything else around it — the lighting, visual effects, sound design, and score all work in harmony to give Kaufman’s material the tone it requires. But the result is still something I feel like I’ve seen before from him — and others. The story is yet another in a long line of sad-sack middle-aged middle-class white guys going through a crisis (stale marriage, boring job, stifling environment, longing for true love), realizing that newness always leads to oldness, and the real problem lies within and there’s no escape from the hollow human condition — we are doomed to be lonely blah blah blah.

Given that this material is so well-worn, the only thing we have to go on is the creativity involved in the animation and voice work, and while it gets some mileage out of the gimmick of everyone having the same voice (Tom Noonan, perpetually creepy) until Thewlis meets Jennifer Jason Leigh, it still drags out its minor narrative with overlong scenes that wear out their welcome. For every terrific bit like the “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” serenade, there’s a bland dream sequence or an interminable sex scene that keeps reiterating the same character beats of awkwardness. To some extent, the length of these scenes is the point — a cab driver conversation that goes on too long, or the emptiness of being alone in a hotel room at night — but it still feels like it’s straining to get to feature length. By the end, as often as I chuckled or admired what I was looking at, I wasn’t challenged in any real way or left to think about anything I hadn’t already contemplated from prior, more vibrant works from Kaufman.

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