Le Carré Adaptations, Ranked

I recently read John le Carré’s Silverview, a water-tight little gem of a novel that is a fitting and poignant cap to the author’s storied career. It reminded me of a long-abandoned pet project that I began a number of years ago (before the Park Chan-Wook Little Drummer Girl series was even announced, I think) but never got over the finish line: to watch, rank, and write up every filmed adaptation of le Carré’s work, whether movie or TV series.

Well, I finally tracked down and powered through some of more obscure BBC adaptations (not to give any spoilers, but some have been clearly forgotten for a reason). The gap between starting and finishing my project does mean it has now unfortunately been some time since I visited some entries and my keenest analysis has perhaps faded from memory. On the other hand, perhaps that assisted with the ranking – letting those movies with the strongest and most lasting impression rise to the top. In any case, much as I love le Carré’s grimy, shifty landscape of sallow-faced operatives and creaky back rooms, I’m not particularly inclined to start all the way over, so here we go. From the bottom to the top:

16. The Looking Glass War (1970)

One of the earliest adaptations takes the lowest spot by virtue of being so utterly, completely, transcendentally forgettable. I suppose in a meta way, The Looking Glass War is actually the most authentic depiction of the faceless men that le Carré held so dear; but let’s be honest, that kind of authenticity is not really the reason we read books or watch movies. I struggled to recall a single detail of the plot here – Wikipedia tells me something about a Polish emigré dropped back into Eastern Germany to retrieve photographs, which is certainly plausible and standard le Carré fare, though Christopher Jones makes for a rather less-plausible Pole. I remember a young Anthony Hopkins being mildly interesting in a too-brief supporting turn, but otherwise this is entirely boilerplate material elaborated to much greater effect by both le Carré and his adapters elsewhere.

15. A Perfect Spy (TV, 1987)

One of le Carrés most sprawling and ambitious novels (the only, to my recollection, to attempt to actually cover a character’s lifetime) gets a listless and overlong “mini”-series. On the page, Magnus Pym is a cipher, his loyalties at any given moment as much a mystery to the reader as to those around him – forced to visualize this in five episodes’ worth of low-budget closeups, Peter Egan can pretty much only summon this inscrutability via blank stares and incomprehensible, paradoxical actions (not even taking into the account the whole two episodes/hours spent in Pym’s childhood and teenage years). Meanwhile, the day players are pitched all wrong, dominated by over-the-top, Law and Order-cameo-type theatrics that are so very wrong for le Carré’s tone and which pretty much every other entry on this list avoids. The one bright spot is Ray McAnally as Magnus’ rapscallion father Rick.

14. The Little Drummer Girl (1984)

A wonky film, though one nominally wouldn’t expect much from some of le Carré’s worst source material (a fact that made one of the later entries on this list such a pleasant surprise). The Little Drummer Girl is possibly his most outrageous plot, much closer than usual to the romanticized Ian Fleming-type spy stories that le Carré supposedly hated. So the filming style here – utilitarian and sparse, barely a notch up from the BBC productions, probably intentional to match their reputation and audience expectations of a “le Carré” work – actually clashes horribly. Diane Keaton is terribly miscast as Charlie, clearly very much a woman in her mid-30s when the character does not work at all if a day over 20 (and look, I adore Diane Keaton, but the idea of giving this part to a non-Brit is madness). It’s a shame, especially since Klaus Kinski as Charlie’s Mossad controller is the kind of insane casting that inexplicably *does* work. But the movie just winds up a string of baffling choices cobbled together to little point or effect.

13. Our Kind of Traitor (2016)

Another attempt whose greatest sin is blandness. It very much feels like some producer wanted to piggyback on the recent successes of other contemporary adaptations higher on this list, with little enthusiasm or perspective behind the particular story; an IP grab for the art house (clearly evidenced by the hedged, tacked-on coda to one of le Carré’s most brutal endings). But, it’s shot slickly enough, and the cast is uniformly solid if unremarkable. You expect the standout to be Stellan Skarsgård, teed up to chew the scenery as Dima,the flamboyant Russian money launderer looking to sell out his oligarch clients, but in true le Carré fashion that kudos actually belongs to Damian Lewis, both catching and deflecting the eye as Hector, the MI6 investigator caught between manipulating his agents and being manipulated by his political superiors.

12. A Murder of Quality (TV, 1991)

An oddity in le Carré’s oeuvre, starring his most famous character but completely transplanted from “the Circus” to a mystery plot more in line with something from Inspector Morse or Ms. Marple. As long as your expectations are suitably adjusted, this TV movie becomes a perfectly serviceable way to pass the time – Joss Ackland was the proto-Skarsgård of scenery-chewing, Denholm Elliott plays an agreeably rumpled “Detective” Smiley, and you get a fun flash of young Christian Bale. The ceiling is quite low here, but at least it doesn’t trip.

11. The Tailor of Panama (2001)

I had generally positive memories of this one from the early aughts that drained considerably the moment I realized/remembered that *Brendan Gleeson* was meant to be playing a Panamanian. Still – the central relationship mostly lands: Geoffrey Rush makes for a great le Carré scoundrel in the Rick Pym tradition, and Pierce Brosnan is a savvy bit of casting (though he was clearly so bored and/or over-eager to flip his heroic Bond persona that his Andy Osnard comes off as a rather un-le-Carré-ish cartoon villain). The scenes with the two together, bringing out the worst in each other, spiraling out to the great detriment of themselves and those around them, are propulsive amid an otherwise by-the-books thriller. Rush’s visions of his mentor Uncle Benny, gleefully and eccentrically played by Harold Pinter of all people, are so jarringly shot by John Boorman that I still can’t quite decide if they work as part of the film’s darkly comic tone or detract by hitting the node too hard.

10. The Russia House (1990)

Another former Bond paradoxically bringing star-power sheen to le Carré’s galaxy of normies, resulting in a thriller too conventional to reflect the author’s unique voice but that still largely delivers on the genre’s pleasures. Unlike Brosnan, Connery need make no attempt at all to subvert his established persona; his curmudgeonly charisma is a fine match for a reluctant spy (it’s really the bit where he’s a *book-seller* that’s a stretch). Do I buy Michelle Pfeiffer as Russian? No. Do I care, because ’90s Michelle Pfeiffer was and remains a national treasure? I do not. Unremarkably shot, but the twisty plot keeps one engaged.

9. The Deadly Affair (1966)

Catch me on a different day and I could swap around this film and either of the previous two on this list. But today I rank it top in the trio for Sidney Lumet’s elevated direction and James Mason’s sweaty, disheveled take on Smiley (sorry – “Charles Dobbs”), wallowing in perhaps the character’s lowest moment. It’s also unabashedly European – Simone Signoret! Maximilian Schell! Harriet Andersson! – in a way the other two aren’t that just better retains that classic, Cold War-fueled le Carré simmer. Quincy Jones’ moody jazz score and D.P. Freddie Young’s washed-out, foggy color palette are subtler pleasures than some of the bolder work higher on this list, but pleasures nonetheless.

8. The Night Manager (TV, 2016)

If we were ranking based on pure entertainment value, The Night Manager might have come in tops, but that just seems wrong and counter-intuitive for a le Carré list. Unabashedly sexy, over-the-top, all tension and sensuality and romantic settings and daring capers – I mean, there’s not an anticlimax in sight here! You can almost hear the Broccoli family second-guessing whether they should break Daniel Craig’s contract and offer Bond to Tom Hiddleston on the spot. The everyman-turned-accidental-spy is a classic le Carré setup, but Susanne Bier’s series never bothers to address what such an astoundingly handsome and charming man as Hiddleston is doing as a night manager of a hotel in the first place. Instead she just lets a murderer’s row of actors – Hiddleston, Olivia Colman, Hugh Laurie, Tom Hollander, Elizabeth Debicki – absolutely go to town on a spy romp with little to no reflection on the human cost of the craft *at all*. “Joes,” they’re not.

7. Smiley’s People (TV, 1982)

On nearly the perfect flip side are the two BBC Alec Guinness-led Smiley adaptations: all unflashy, workman-like execution of a story done to quiet perfection. Smiley’s People is the lesser of the two less through any fault (or really any kind of difference) in the production than it’s just not quite as good a story – Karla’s downfall has always just been a *little* too pat/quick for me even in the book, though it’s certainly in keeping with le Carré’s insistent de-romanticizing. In any case, Guinness is all you want him to be here in his return to Smiley: more of the same phlegmatic, droll demeanor and hyper-competent machinations. His rapport with Bernard Hepton’s peculiarly jovial Toby Esterhase is a particularly welcome addition to this one.

6. A Most Wanted Man (2014)

My word, was anyone ever better suited to play a le Carré protagonist than Philip Seymour Hoffman, the hangdog’s hangdog? Even his talent as one of cinema’s great swearers comes into play here, in a denouement where Hoffman’s thwarted operative lets loose a thunderous “fuck” that has stayed with me for years and in many ways feels like an eruption *on behalf* of every other le Carré lead, too professional to ever do it themselves. Anton Corbijn’s highly composed, clinical style and visuals feel right for latter-day, post-Soviet le Carré – all glass and marble and computer screens, a reminder that the tech-infused, “modern” iteration of espionage and surveillance remains as cold as the Cold War ever was.

5. The Little Drummer Girl (TV, 2018)

I mentioned before that this is one of le Carré’s wonkiest, most outrageous plots, making it an absolutely inspired course correction to hand a second attempt at adaptation to Park Chan-wook. Completely eschewing the dust and fog and chipped paint that usually defines le Carrés underworld-in-plain-sight, Park (as he ever does) goes full-tilt aesthete, packing the frame with flowing dresses and saturated color and sumptuously-decorated sets, right down to a woozy, romantic set-piece staged on the steps of the goddamn Parthenon. No one is hiding behind blandness and mediocrity here – instead, the series piles on layer after layer of artifice, a fitting match for Charlie, the aspiring actress trying on political loyalties and ideology like a new bathing suit. Florence Pugh was the breakout start here for good reason – she balances confidence, naivete, insecurity, yearning, curiosity, boredom, all the pieces necessary to make this story work at all. Elsewhere, Michael Shannon is as solid as to be expected (not as unhinged as you might expect, as a latter-day Kinski), and Alexander Skarsgård is miscast (just, stop with signing up northern European men to play Mossad agents, I’m begging you) but not disastrously so.

4. The Constant Gardener (2005)

Rachel Weisz won the Oscar (not undeservedly) for her turn as the crusading activist Tessa, but it’s really Ralph Fiennes’ finely-calibrated, devastating turn as Justin Quayle, the naive and passive diplomat who gradually uncovers a web of political corruption and pharmaceutical greed, that sticks with you. Fernando Meirelles’ style and tone, vibrant and melancholy in equal measure, is a great match for the material, one of le Carré’s saddest and starkest in its depiction of the impact of the games played by the global elite. In his postscript to Silverview, le Carré’s son Nick Harkaway speculates onhis father’s hesitancy to publish such a near-complete manuscript, landing on its unflinching and arguably unkind depiction of the wheel-spinning of tradecraft – in Harkaway’s eyes, a sharper critique of the utter pointlessness of professional espionage than most of le Carré’s other works. I don’t entirely buy or agree with this argument, and The Constant Gardener is a big reason why – no one playing inside the system comes off well here, and I think the movie does an excellent job of documentary-influenced exposure of injustice without overly preaching or losing the messy character arc at its center.

3. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (TV, 1979)

In many ways the ur-text of le Carré adaptations and the one most of the entries ranked lower are largely trying to copy in one way or another. For many, Alec Guinness defined George Smiley, and this series at large stands as the best example of adapting le Carré’s uncanny ability to make art with shades of beige. I can’t really find any particular fault with that assessment – the paranoid languor of Smiley’s methodical search for a mole in MI6’s highest circles is the author’s master work, and the BBC series is as dutiful and attentive to le Carré’s text as his lamplighters are to the arrangements of a dead drop. Procedural/narrative television still rarely hits this level of genre satisfaction so squarely.

2. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)

It’s fascinating, particularly considering how so many folks looked to copy the BBC Tinker Tailor on both TV and film, the ways in which the *actual* first le Carré adaptation – Martin Ritt’s movie, coming only two years after the breakout novel and preceding even the actual writing of the Karla trilogy – continues to stand alone. The only adaptation to be shot explicitly in black-and-white, such a literal realization of le Carré’s shadows and grays could’ve whacked viewers over the head with visual metaphor,but by god it plays, Richard Burton’s Alec Leamas trapped in the purgatory of a cover story, probing and poking for the way out of his self-imposed captivity with no way of knowing whether he’s headed for escape and reward or just an even worse fate. Le Carré’s plots often hinge on what is not said between his characters, but Ritt’s film has some of the best, sharpest dialogue in any of the adaptations, particularly in the scenes with Burton and Oskar Werner dueling back and forth, the movie just sitting back and letting them sink into the rhythm and tension of each interrogation. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is really worth seeking out if the extent of your le Carré knowledge is one or both versions of Tinker Tailor.

1. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

I mean, I don’t even know where to start. Tomas Alfredson’s film exceeded all my expectations for another take on Tinker Tailor (how could you top Guinness?) and gets better every time I re-watch it and notice another subtle detail or precise edit. It seemed an impossible task to condense the twisty narrative, full of divots and red herrings, down to a two-hour film, but Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s script succeeds precisely by throwing too much detail at the viewer in too little time – the effect is a fog, a blur of names, faces, and obscure lingo with little guidance until the very end on *which* of these details is actually important. That’s what elevates Smiley as a character in the books – his ability to sift through the noise and the haze and see the threads, the true intentions at play behind seemingly unconnected symptoms. I do hesitate to declare Gary Oldman a better Smiley than Guinness – the former is clearly still indebted to the latter – but he certainly finds his own spin on it, taking the veteran spymaster’s monkishness to the extreme. I recall, at the time of the movie’s release, my mother compared Oldman’s performance to a lizard gradually waking up from a cold-blooded stupor, and the metaphor is bang-on: that is exactly what Smiley is in this story, a camouflaged leviathan stirred, inexorably, out of retirement. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent – Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Colin Firth stand out, but there’s not a note wrong in the grizzled bunch – and Alfredson comes up with several shots and set-pieces that reach an instantly iconic distillation of le Carré’s mood and tone as no other adaptation has. (I’m thinking, in particular, of the interrogation of David Dencik’s Toby Esterhase on an airport runway,a propeller plane growing ever, anxiously closer in the background via a flattened, distorted lens; but there are others, like the menacing freight elevator at the Circus, or Tom Hardy’s Ricki Tarr zipping around shipping containers in a sports car with his doomed lover/mark). If you don’t vibe with this movie, I can’t help you – best to avoid le Carré altogether.

Screen Watch, June 18th 2017

Thoughts on movies, TV, and anything else seen on a flat screen recently:

https://bestfilmsofourlives.files.wordpress.com/2017/06/ca83c-1486576027389.jpg

It Comes At Night

I didn’t see the first feature by Trey Edward Shults, 2015’s “Krisha”, but his sophomore effort is the kind that makes me want to not only go back and catch up, but pay close attention to whatever project he’s got lined up next (Trey, more “Moonlight”, less “La La Land”, please). “It Comes At Night” is a solid entry in the new wave of indie horror. Like “It Follows” or “The Babadook” or “Get Out”, it’s steeped in genre history: Shults’ techniques are familiar (slow, brooding zooms, plenty of shadows, sharp and sudden stings of music or sound), but impeccably deployed in a “Night of the Living Dead”-esque scenario that strips out the metaphorical monsters and skips right to the oppressive, sweat-inducing dread.

It is not a spoiler to say, straight up, that you will never see or really learn much of anything about the threat lurking in the woods outside the secluded home of Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), and if you need anything more concrete, this will not be your movie. Whereas Romero’s walking, lurching dead are a (brilliantly) simple metaphor for mortality, Shults’ monster is an even broader sense of anxiety and the many, many forms it can take for people: not just death, but xenophobia (sorry, “economic insecurity”), sex, loneliness, puberty, machismo. Our fears are innumerable and therefore, overwhelming and unnameable. There’s been plenty of apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic fare at the box office for the better part of a decade now, and I’m not looking to expound on the likely reasons for that – but “It Comes At Night” for me, taps into a fascinating (and disturbing) new feeling of existential dread: less cataclysmic than Hollywood’s vision of extinction, but a smaller and much harder-to-shake sense that the world we are creating will be worse than the one we’re in now. Society might crumble, our loved ones will be lost, and we’ll be forced to watch it all happen.

The ensemble performance, including surprising turns from Christopher Abbott of “Girls” and Riley Keough (“Mad Max: Fury Road”, “American Honey”), is universally terrific, but the tête–à–tête of Edgerton and Harrison, Jr. as weary, loving father and unmoored son stands out.

2017-04-02-big-little-lies01

Big Little Lies (HBO)

I missed the cultural conversation on HBO’s all-star mini-series, but hopefully the Emmys will bring back around a revisit of this impressive, occasionally infuriating, terrifically performed production. That “occasional” fury is, at any given moment, almost certainly the blame of an incredibly clunky script by David E. Kelley that tends to throw nuance in the trash at critical moments. The reasons it only pops up now and again, rather than a constant stream of why-am-I-watching-this self-interrogation, are 1) surprisingly moody, woozy direction by Jean-Marc Vallee (making a leap above “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild” here), and 2) a veteran cast of actresses clearly reveling in the ability to play women with seven hours of development and shading rather than three scenes of “concerned love interest”.

Nicole Kidman does the most with the most room to play, Reese Witherspoon the most with the least, and Zoe Kravitz is the most ill-served by Kelley’s wildly inconsistent script – for a project otherwise so explicitly meant to explore female perspectives, it’s insane to me how completely uninterested in her character the show is beyond “hippie-dippie step-mom that all the middle-aged white men want to fuck”. Laura Dern at least has much much more screen time to turn a cartoonishly terrible character (in all senses) into something relatable, by pure dint of being Laura Dern.

Oh, also Shailene Woodley is pretty good? Honestly, maybe it’s just her smaller body of work overall, but I have almost no opinion on her career, performance, or character here.

This is what makes the series unique though: a desire to delve into and nitpick the roles of these women and performances at a level of complexity and nuance so rarely afforded these actresses (I mean, Kidman’s had a fair share of real shots on goal, but who’s going to begrudge her more).”Big Little Lies”-stans, please get at me, I’d love to talk more.

Oh oh also, the “Greek chorus” of gossiping townsfolk is a great pilot-episode device that gets increasingly misguided as it continues on throughout the series; but I did appreciate and greatly enjoy that, by the final episode, I could potentially see literally any character on the show murdering any of the other characters. No joke, that makes for a riveting mystery.

hqspo

The Americans, season 5 (FX)

Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, why you gotta do us like this? After four seasons, by sheer force of will, TV critics and Russian majors had finally gotten the viewing public (or at least the Emmys) to pay attention to your riveting slow-burn spy drama. And then as a victory lap you decide to finally reach the breaking point of “how much plot is too little plot”. When you can literally summarize each character’s season (including, and I can not emphasize this enough, their entire emotional arc) in a sentence or two, you’re really pushing what can even be considered narrative.

In retrospect, we should’ve known we were in for a hit, with the two most interesting side characters on the show, Nina and Martha, more or less taken off the chessboard. But the failure to replace them with any equivalent (oh how this season would’ve benefited from something on the level of season 4’s lights-out supporting turn by Dylan Baker), and then to hand sterling season regulars literally nothing but anticlimax (see: Elizabeth learns tai chi, Oleg investigates grocery fraud) – hooooey. When you catch me admitting that I’m currently most invested in the Paige/Pastor Tim subplot, something is very wrong.

I fully expect “The Americans” to bring it back around for their sixth and final season – I mean, SOMETHING *has* to happen in order to wrap this up – but it was incredible to watch a show that had otherwise so meticulously ratcheted tension for four seasons completely flatline emotionally. When the show, along with Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, earn Emmy nominations again through pure inertia, I will be retroactively applying those nods to season 3.

https://bestfilmsofourlives.files.wordpress.com/2017/06/8bd50-1487023404993.png

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, season 3 (Netflix)

UKS is following the mold of its Tina Fey-forerunner “30 Rock” of getting stronger the less plot there is. With the Reverend finally out of the picture (Jon Hamm did an amazing job with that character, but really, I’m not convinced we ever ever ever need to see him again), UKS could just go small ball with low-stakes sitcom arcs and focus on being, pound-for-pound and joke-for-joke, the funniest show out there right now. Carol Kane and Tituss Burgess both got some of their best material yet (seriously, that hurricane bottle episode, complete with the perfect Maya Rudolph cameo, is *everything*), while Ellie Kemper proved that Kimmy’s winsome enthusiasm and naivete may very well never grow tiresome.

Jane Krakowski’s character remains the biggest flaw of the show – when somehow *still* sincerely pursuing the nausea-inducing notion of Jacqueline-as-woke-whitewashed-Native American, UKS is, yet again, a black hole of misplaced intentions. Luckily, they improve on season 2 by at least doing *less* of that and much more of the straight-faced absurdity (David Cross getting “smooshed”, flirting with a dead grandmother, anything involving Amy Sedaris) that is Krakowski’s wheelhouse.

master-of-none-the-thief-season-2-episode-1-recap-1

Master of None, season 2 (Netflix)

The increasing indulgence of “Master of None”‘s second (and possibly last) season plays both in its favor and against it. Even more so than the first season, the show revolves around a structure of isolated vignettes – meaning it can live or die not just episode by episode, but sometimes even scene to scene. An homage to “Bicycle Thieves” can be alternately charming AND gratingly twee. Suddenly doubling the running time of an episode for an hour-long romantic interlude can both afford more depth than usual to Dev’s desires AND reveal how shallow the object of that romantic interest (first Rachel, now Francesca) is written.

“Master of None” remains one of the most perceptive and empathetic depictions of 21st-century young-adulthood and immigration, especially when it comes to dating and family relationships. But Dev is increasingly the least interesting character on his own show (partly, I gotta say, because of Aziz Ansari’s limited range – he’s got a note, and he played it extremely well for about a season and a half!), and it feels like Ansari and Alan Yang know it – that explains (terrific) episode-long tangents dedicated to say, Denise’s family dynamics, or literally *a bunch of random strangers encountered on the street* (“New York, I Love You”, which for me ranks with season one’s “Parents” as the best the show has offered, despite the more direct crack at a sequel in “Religion”).

Ansari has made noises that “Master of None” won’t return unless he and Yang really come up with stor(ies) that they love, and I get the sense from season two that might not be likely. Seeing their sensibility and writing brought to a slightly different project, though, would be most welcome.

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”