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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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“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

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“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

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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

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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

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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

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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”

Review: How To Train Your Dragon 2

Hiccup and Toothless return in Dreamworks’ darker, still charming follow-up to 2010’s successful adaptation of “How To Train Your Dragon.”

For about 20 years now, Dreamworks has filled its niche in the studio animation world by providing the grade school humor and pop culture pandering that their elders over at the House of Mouse are generally classy enough to avoid (even in the depths of the early 2000’s). Even at their best (say, a “Shrek” or a “Kung Fu Panda”), just about the best you could say for Dreamworks Animation film was that it was unexpectedly tolerable. Particularly when compared to the narrative and aesthetic efforts of Pixar in its prime, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s outfit seemed not only incapable of, but totally uninterested in doing anything but make oodles and oodles of cash – which, to be fair to the more economic and pragmatic-minded among us, was a totally reasonable stance to take.

Then along came 2010’s “How To Train Your Dragon.” The concept was innocuous enough, but Dreamworks surprised with by far its best film yet. It was partly the story, a remarkably intimate tale of friendship and father/son (mis)communication, but a lot of that film’s success has to do with the below-the-line talent: John Powell’s soaring, Oscar-nominated score, and “visual consultant” Roger Deakins’ signature flourish brought to gorgeous life by a talented animation team. For better or for worse, it was the first film after “Avatar” to make a case for 3D, solidifying that technology’s new place in Hollywood. It promised a new, possibly more Pixar-influenced direction for the studio.

A couple “Madagascar” sequels later, it’s clear that the overall landscape at Dreamworks Animation hasn’t changed – but thankfully “How To Train Your Dragon 2” proves that the vision of that particular property has remained in place. It’s notable here that sole screenwriting and directing credits both go to one person, Dean DeBlois (returning from co-directing duties on the original) – it’s rare for a big-studio animated project to be handed to a single voice rather than constructed by committee, and the benefits can be seen in the sequel’s consistency with the overall tone and style of the first film. Powell, Deakins, and the entire main voice cast have also returned, ensuring a similarly entertaining, occasionally touching adventure for children and adults alike.

Taking a page out of the “Toy Story” playbook, “How To Train Your Dragon 2” advances its characters forward in more or less real time: our hero Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), once an awkward, fumbling adolescent, is now on the brink of manhood and officially next in line to become chieftain of the (Scandanavian? Scottish? Middle-Earth?) village of Berk, now a safe haven for those previously-scorned, fire-breathing overgrown lizards. His girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera), the town’s best athlete, indulges her beau’s penchant for disappearing off into the wild blue yonder to explore the edges of the map with his trusty mount Toothless, though she encourages him to take up the responsibility offered him by his gruff, ever-oblivious father Stoick (Gerard Butler).

The conflict that follows is not unexpected, but not entirely unpleasant. Berk comes under threat by a rampaging marauder by the surely self-given title of Drago Bloodfist (Djimon Hounsou), who has built his own army of dragons by the principle of might equals right. Hiccup’s leadership will be sorely tested, as will his seemingly impregnable friendship with Toothless, but do we ever really doubt that he will find a way? The main weakness of DeBlois’ script is that it mistakes bleakness for suspense, taking a destructive twist that only serves to strengthen Hiccup’s perseverance, rather than doubting it.

Still, DeBlois surprises in other ways, mostly by avoiding clichés in the film’s subplots. As soon as a handsome, eligible suitor (voiced by you-know-nothing-Kit Harington, even) appeared, I immediately assumed a groan-worthy love triangle was in the works; thankfully, DeBlois is only aiming for a bit of (still a bit groan-worthy) comic relief. Another major plot turn, unfortunately spoiled by pretty much every trailer and every other piece of marketing associated with this film, is pleasantly met with tears and tenderness rather than anger and angst.

(If you’ve somehow remained unspoiled, it’s probably best to skip the following paragraph; if you don’t give a flying patootie about spoiler culture, read on!)

It’s a nice choice that keeps a dramatic revelation grounded in small character adjustments rather than outsized gestures, and gives the film its best scene, in which the reunited members of Hiccup’s family sing a convincing folk ditty composed by Powell in conjunction with Sigur Ros frontman Jónsi (another returning collaborator – Jónsi contributed an appropriately high-spirited original song to the credits of the first film, and has provided two more with even more prominent placement here). The uneasy and uncertain way in which Hiccup and his father adjust to the return of Hiccup’s mother, long thought dead, is a welcome alternative to the trite accusations I had again anticipated – even if newcomer Cate Blanchett can never quite decide what accent she’s going for.

No such subtlety is reserved for Drago, unfortunately, who is simply a stomping, growling, unmotivated antagonist, a disappointment after the original opted for more relatable, human conflicts over straight-up villainy. For all the traps that DeBlois fails to fall into, he doesn’t particularly do anything with his newfound freedom, crafting a sequel that is worthy of the first film but doesn’t really attempt to improve on it. Subverting a few aspects of a genre is not the same thing as revising it, and “How To Train Your Dragon 2” is content to trod the same thematic ground trod by many a Disney/Pixar film before it (bits of “The Lion King” come to mind, as well as “The Fox and the Hound”). It’s hard to argue, when the result is still just about the most charming thing Dreamworks has yet to come up with.

Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars

Do You Hear What I Hear?

And so here we are, on the morning after – well, not quite. It was only earlier (much, much earlier, if you live on the West Coast) today that the Oscar nominations were announced, although the current state of entertainment news and blogging means that by now you’ve probably read at least a minimum of five lists of the biggest “snubs” and two lengthy analyses of why, exactly, the Academy Awards don’t really matter. Or do. Or are racist. A combination of all of the above, most likely.

As someone who generally views awards-watching as an outlet, more akin to a crossword puzzle hobby than a platform for analyzing cultural trends, I find myself increasingly less interested in the latter. The Oscars are what they are, a reflection of the industry rather than the heart of it. Change Hollywood and you’ll change the awards, not the other way around. In the meantime, let’s have some fun scratching our heads over this altogether peculiar group and their choices for the best of the past year in film.

And really, what a maddeningly unpredictable slate when you get right down to it. Chalk it up, perhaps, to the pure number of contenders this time around; while there was very little revealed this morning that was shocking, there were any number of small surprises, both good and bad, depending on your point of view. Despite agonizing for many hours (and making some last-minute changes that I quite regret in hindsight), I couldn’t do much better in my predictions than three or four out of five in each category; Best Adapted Screenplay was the only one I nailed outright, although I’m rather pleased with going eight for nine in Best Picture.

My only mistake in that category was in my choice of which middlebrow piece would find the hearts of (most likely older) voters. While the Academy turned out to want none of the sentimentalized inside baseball of “Saving Mr. Banks” – rejecting not only the film itself but even, surprisingly, Emma Thompson’s acclaimed lead performance as “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers – they embraced Stephen Frears’ “Philomena,” giving it not only a Best Picture slot but a Screenplay nod for star Steve Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope as well. I’m kicking myself, first because I had a hunch about the film for most of the season and only recently wavered, and second because I actually rather enjoyed the movie myself and it’s not the kind of film that usually ends up in my wheelhouse; a sure sign it would definitely register with the eager British bloc, then.

A greater personal disappointment was that my last-minute sinking feeling that “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which got mostly shut out on the guild circuit, wasn’t going to register was indeed borne out, in fairly brutal fashion. I prepared myself for the eventuality that passion votes for “Her” might take away some crucial support for the Coens’ latest in Best Picture, but not even a consolatory screenplay nomination? That hurts, and I think the Oscars will end up on the wrong side of history with that one. The other really stinging snub was of Sarah Polley’s remarkable “Stories We Tell” in Best Documentary Feature; granted, I haven’t seen all of the nominees in that category, but I have a hard time imagining Polley’s devastatingly personal film not beating out any of them. We’ll always have the EMOs, Sarah.

In terms of personal (or is it pyrrhic?) victories, though, there were certainly some. The Best Picture recognition for “Her” is richly deserved, and I had hoped/thought that Spike Jonze could even garner enough support for his unique, subtle work to slide into the Best Director slate. As it happened, that spot went instead to Alexander Payne, whose “Nebraska” I also greatly admired (more thoughts on several of these films coming soon, but I thought Payne’s work here far superior and more coherent than the inconsistent “The Descendants”). Payne also edged out Paul Greengrass, whose work on “Captain Phillips” earned a Director’s Guild nomination, but always seemed more respected than adored this season.

That attitude extended for “Phillips” through the rest of the nominations as well. While newcomer Barkhad Abdi pulled out a Best Supporting Actor nod for his wiry, intense performance as a Somali pirate captain, Tom Hanks unexpectedly missed in the lead category. Considering he at one point seemed destined for a double nomination, a goose egg for Hanks has got to be a disappointing end to the season. The severely over-crowded Best Actor race was always going to be the place to look for surprises, and indeed there were a couple. Late-season-bloomers Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale both crashed the party, pushing vets Hanks and Redford out of the picture. DiCaprio’s all-in performance is assuredly one of my favorites of the year, so his presence was another bright spot for me – in what suddenly seems a wide-open race, he might even have a shot at the win (McConaughey didn’t overly impress with his cut-off Golden Globes speech).

Bale’s nomination, along with Amy Adams pushing out Thompson in Best Actress, meant that the predictably popular “American Hustle” moves on with a nomination in all four acting categories – an astounding feat when you consider that makes two years in a row that David O. Russell has accomplished that for his cast (before “Silver Linings Playbook,” no one had done it for about 40 years). Once a highly unpopular director due to on-set fights with the likes of George Clooney and Lily Tomlin, Russell’s going to have actors beating down his door now.

Riding that love from the actor’s branch, “Hustle” tied for the field lead with “Gravity” at ten total nominations; “12 Years a Slave” right behind with nine. Those are your three contenders for the moment, and it’s really anybody’s game that I can see. Keep an eye out on the guild awards for the next month, and pay attention to the craft category victors early on Oscar night for signs of where we’ll be headed at the big finish.

A few final, random thoughts:

  • The most surprising snub of the day may have Sean Bobbitt’s exquisite cinematography for “12 Years a Slave.” Philippe Le Sourd and Phedon Papamichael both did great work as well on “The Grandmaster” and “Nebraska,” respectively, but that’s a wallop to Fox Searchlight’s campaign for McQueen’s film.
  • The masterful Roger Deakins, meanwhile, will get to lose that category yet again as the sole nominee for Denis Villeneuve”s thriller “Prisoners” (Deakins is 0 for 10 lifetime at the Oscars).
  • Deakins’ peer in futility, composer Thomas Newman (0 for 11 so far), also managed to be his film’s only nominee, for the original score of “Saving Mr. Banks.”
  • Indie animation distributor GKIDS worked its magic again to bring French charmer “Ernest and Celestine” into the fold. Particularly impressive considering it appears to have pushed out Pixar’s rote “Monsters University” (now only the studio’s second film, after “Cars 2,” to miss a nomination in Animated Feature).
  • Sally Hawkins earned her first-ever Oscar nod for her supporting turn in “Blue Jasmine.” Nice try, Academy, but it still doesn’t make up for ignoring her in “Happy-Go-Lucky.”
  • Jonah Hill is now a two-time Oscar nominee, and it’s not even really egregious. Try to figure that one out.
  • The “Jackass” franchise is now Oscar-nominated, and it also kind of makes sense. What is happening?
  • John Williams earned his 49th nomination for Original Score, because John Williams wrote something this year. Did anyone even SEE “The Book Thief?”
  • Speaking of not seeing things, this year’s winner for Best Original Song Nominee That Sends Everyone Scrambling to IMDB to Find a Movie You’re Pretty Sure Chris Hemsworth Just Made Up is “Alone Yet Not Alone” from “Alone Yet Not Alone” (no I still don’t know what it is, don’t ask me).
  • Megan Ellison of Annapurna Pictures became only the fourth producer ever to earn double nod in the same year, for “American Hustle” and “Her.” In the past two years, she’s carried five films to a total of twenty-four total nominations. Watch out, Hollywood.