So, it’s…it’s been a while, hasn’t it?
Yeah, I know….
I didn’t do a Retrospekticus last year. There are a lot of reasons, and I won’t bore you with excuses, but the big ones were: I didn’t see a whole lot of movies last year, and the ones I saw didn’t feel were particularly worth throwing a fuss over (with one or two major exceptions: THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU is still a fucking sucker punch of a film that I want to keep getting caught off guard by).
So, what makes 2015 different? Well…not much. I didn’t see just a huge amount of films this year, and for the most part, the ones I did see weren’t much to write home about. But this was a year where the best movie I saw was at a one-night theatrical engagement; when Tarantino returned with a flawed but imminently watchable blood-soaked spaghetti western; where a YA series finished with its most affecting and effective adaptation yet.
But you guys aren’t here to read me talking about why I talk about movies. You’re here (presumably) to read me talk about movies.
“Yes, you have information. You can find out all about a man, track him down, keep an eye on him. But you have to look him in the eye. All the tech you have can’t help you with that. A license to kill also means a license not to kill.”
I know it’s become fashionable to shit on the Bond franchise in favor of shiner, new models like Mission: Impossible. Bond is a relic of a different time, staid and uncomfortable with surrounding pop culture even when he was defining it (“Drinking Dom Perignon ’53 above the temperature of 38 degrees Farenheight is as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs!”) and better suited to Cold War intrigue than modern terrorism concerns. The later films have gone out of their way to acknowledge that; Bond is a shaken martini in a world that has generally acknowledged that um, actually, it’s better to stir them.
But. SPECTRE is nevertheless the perfect stealth reboot of ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE that we all hoped it would be. It’s also (if the rumors are true) the perfect exit vehicle for Daniel Craig; his Bond gets the happy ending denied to Lazenby, and we’ll either start the next round of Bonds with a fresh face not tied down to this continuity (and fueling fan speculation that James Bond is a code name, not a person)…or start the next film with a tragedy. And it returns Bond’s greatest nemesis to the franchise – Ernst Stavro Blofeld ranks alongside Moriarty, Hannibal Lecter and the Joker as the villain against which our hero defines themselves. It’s a new beginning, nested Matroshka-like in a perfect, somber ending.
Of course, having said that…
9. KINGSMEN: THE SECRET SERVICE
“I’m a Catholic whore, currently enjoying congress out of wedlock with my black Jewish boyfriend who works at a military abortion clinic. So, hail Satan, and have a lovely afternoon, madam.”
Ironically, the only thing I apparently love more than serious, thoughtful Bond is a delightfully violent and ridiculous Bond pastiche. Still, KINGSMAN is just fun as hell, with hilariously offbeat performances from Sam Jackson (who’s clearly just there to have fun and dick around), Colin Firth (who brings genuine class to a role that, on the page, is just overbearingly foul), and Mark Strong (who is the best straight man). But it’s Taron Egerton’s show – he injects Eggsy with a joyously youthful swagger, and allows the character to grow as his training and relationships with his mentors advance. His performance anchors the film in an emotional reality, even as the plot goes completely, gleefully off the rails into bloody anarchic inanity. An absolute blast, and the best comic book movie of the year.
8. HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 2
“Did you have a nightmare? I have nightmares, too. Someday I’ll explain it to you. Why they came. Why they won’t ever go away. But I’ll tell you how I survive it. I make a list in my head. Of all the good things I’ve seen someone do. Every little thing I could remember. It’s like a game. I do it over and over. Gets a little tedious after all these years, but…there are much worse games to play.”
THE HUNGER GAMES series has the somewhat dubious honor of getting better with every installment – as though the cast and filmmakers both were not entirely sure what they were making the first time out, only to grow more comfortable and resolute as the series progressed. It makes sense then, that the final installment is far and away the strongest: there is both tremendous action (the chase scene with the Mutts in the sewers of the Capitol is one of the single most intense sequences in cinemas this year) and a powerful emotional core (Katniss’ breakdown with Buttercup is just crippling, and a pretty strong marker for just how good an actress Jennifer Lawrence actually is). Did MOCKINGJAY really need a two-part finale? Probably not. But by giving the back half of the story room to breathe, to swell tension and claustrophobia and danger until its final, cathartic release, the film has an ardent heft. A weight that stays with you after the final images fade.
7. THE HATEFUL EIGHT
“You only hang mean bastards; but mean bastards, you need to hang.”
I’m deep enough in the tank for Tarantino that this worked for me, despite its pretty obvious flaws - not the least of which is that it’s a Greatest Hits compilation on celluloid. Tarantino himself has said that one of his biggest influences for this film was RESERVOIR DOGS, his own freshman cinematic debut; sure enough, a play on the Mexican standoff from that seminal film is staged here. The tagline for his best film (“A basterd’s work is never done”) makes its way in as a line of dialogue. Returning regulars Samuel Jackson, Tim Roth and Michael Madsen go through the motions like a troupe putting on their latest play, new paint on the backboards, new costumes hiding the old, familiar faces. And while it’s not a complaint against Tarantino per se, Kurt Russell bellows every line like he’s trying to reach the back row of Carnegie Hall, any semblance of nuance abandoned by the side of the snowy western road.
Even still, Tarantino is probably the only auteur director in Hollywood today who can still pack a movie house, and I respect that – hell, I love that. Much like AMERICAN HUSTLE from a couple of years ago, the audience is constantly required to question the narrative before them – no one is exactly what they appear to be. Which brings us to the real highlights: Jennifer Jason Lee is given next to nothing to work with on the page, but still turns in an Oscar-worthy performance as Daisy Domergue. Lee plays her as a captive, but never a victim; even with a nose gushing blood and broken teeth, her face quirks to let us know she’s still in control. And Bruce Dern steals the movie as the sniveling son of a notorious gang leader, anxious to prove himself the duly elected law in these dangerous territories. It’s a film that runs a bit too long, and lingers a bit too often, and runs a bit too deep into The Grand Gul Guinol near the end…but it’s the singular vision of a singular visionary. And that’s worth showing up for.
“Nothing will makes sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything that we do, but in the end, you will understand.”
The brilliance at the heart of SICARIO is the tightrope walk it pulls between real world terror and dramatic film trappings. The very genuine struggle against drug cartels and border patrol issues is played against the John Wick Super Assassin trope, marvelously embodied here by Benecio Del Toro; the juxtaposition creates a heightened reality and makes a difficult, heavily political more identifiable. A lot of movies try to fictionalize reality in this way; few succeed as admirably as SICARIO in turning these concepts into an actual story. It helps that the entire cast is top notch; Emily Blunt and Josh Brolin are stunning as the idealistic cop out of her depth and the slightly unhinged FBI agent playing her to get what he needs. There are times it feels like the movie itself actually hates Blunt, which makes her performance that much more intriguing. And it’s gorgeously shot; if Roger Deakins doesn’t get an Oscar for that cinematography, the game is rigged (hint: the game is usually rigged).
Also, Jeffery Donovan shows up for a bit and in my head cannon it was Michael Westen pre-Burn Notice, which was delightful.
5. EX MACHINA
“I guess this one’s for you, Caleb.”
I find it immensely gratifying and inspiring that in a year of especially bombastic science fiction theatrics full of laser swords and cute robots, a genre piece this quietly thoughtful could sneak in under the radar and break your brain when no one was looking. EX MACHINA a close, claustrophobic film that zeroes its efforts in on three characters. Oscar Isaac owns the world as a broken genius who has potentially created the first artificial intelligence; Domhnall Gleeson balances Isaac’s energy with a subdued intensity as the Igor-esque subordinate, ostensibly brought in to administer the Turing Test. But the revelation here is Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, who imbues Ava with a sullen, petulant beauty that Caleb (not to mention the audience) cannot help but adore. In a sense, she’s the Manic Pixie Dream Girl ideal made flesh, stripped of mania and laid bare before you. Which is where the horror starts.
4. INSIDE OUT
“I…I know you don’t want me too, but…I miss home. I miss Minnesota. You need me to be happy, but I want my friends, and my hockey team. I wanna go home. Please don’t be mad.”
My friend Marisa pointed out that this film doesn’t have a traditional villain, in any real sense – no one has a malicious intent, or a plot that is antithetical to the protagonist. That, by itself, is an impressive feat.
But the real magic of Pixar is how it creates films that both entertain kids and remind adults that being a kid is important. UP was about adventure, and trying new things; FINDING NEMO was about self-discovery. WALL-E told everyone not to be an idiot.
INSIDE OUT reminded us that it’s okay for kids to feel sad.
The core of the movie, the emotional (no pun intended) thrust, is that Joy can’t even process why Sadness is even around. (When I was first watching the movie, I kept expecting Joy to refer to her as her “younger sister”, ala The Endless; alas, it never happened.) Riley isn’t the protagonist, she’s the setting; Joy’s journey to acceptance (through the most gorgeous and imaginative representation of the human mind I’ve yet seen) propels our narrative. Sure, the other emotions – Fear, Anger, and Disgust – are great comedic relief, and they all get a nice moment to shine. But this is Joy’s film. Riley’s growing up – but it’s Joy who matures.
3. THE BIG SHORT
“Is this America’s Angriest Hedge Fund?”
Adam Fucking McKay. The EASTBOUND AND DOWN guy. The ANCHORMAN guy. That guy took his sharp, finely honed sense of satire and pointed directly at the financial meltdown on the mind-2000s. The results are a profound, schizophrenic, meta-narrated history of the modern world that engages, infuriates, and entertains in equally staccato measures. It’s a smart, darkly funny film that makes you feel like a financial genius for understanding it; oftentimes, the story cuts to a non sequitor specifically designed to walk you through the (purposefully) impenetrable jargon used to lock a novice out of the discussion. Because it’s just as important to the movie that you know WHY you’re pissed off as it is for you to be pissed off.
I’m also impressed by how the film goes out of its way to paint its protagonists as real people; the “heroes” here are guys who tried to cash in on a terrible situation, and the only defense they bother to give is, “Hey, we’re screwing the people who screwed everyone else.” It doesn’t ask for sympathy, and it doesn’t expect you to root for the people in front of you. It’s a film that wants to present the truth – as best it can, anyway, within the context of a film with an overarching narrative structure.
And that’s before we even get to Steve Carrell. He’s a chameleon at this point, disappearing into his characters so thoroughly that it’s actually pretty easy to forget he’s not actually Steve Baum. In a movie that is full up of just shatteringly brilliant performances (fuck Brad Pitt, man - it is not fair that he is so fucking talented he just walks on for maybe fifteen minutes of screentime and dominates) Carrell rises to the top.
I haven’t walked out of a movie laughing this hard and feeling this intensely since THANK YOU FOR SMOKING.
2. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
“Do not, my friends, become addicted to water. It will take hold of you, and you will resent its absence!”
Immorten Joe. The guitarist with the double-necked flame thrower. Iperator Furiosa’s arm. Max blood bagging it for a War Boy desperate to makes his bones. The gift of water raining down on the populous. That motherfucking sandstorm looming over everything.
There was not a more devastatingly visual film released in 2015. Period.
But what really makes FURY ROAD special is the characters - which is kind of funny, because the titular hero barely does anything. This is an Imperator Furiosa movie wrapped in a shiny mad Max wrapper, and is a stronger film because of it. George Miller goes out of his way to establish Max as a barely functional wreck, broken by PTSD. His slow, aching recovery is the film’s subplot – the real action is Furiosa’s rebellion against the patriarchy. Her quest to save Immorten Joe’s wives is the heart, blood, and brains of the film, and the fact that it takes such a quiet but firm stand on gender relations is nothing short of astounding. Throw in Nux, a boy indoctrinated into a system of violence and subservience, and his journey to compassion and understanding, and you have a film that does what real, genuine, science fiction should always achieve. It’s a moral allegory wrapped in genre filmmaking. It’s basically a perfect film.
1. HUNTING ELEPHANTS
“If you cleaned toilets, you’d say you were Chief of Hygiene!”
HUNTING ELEPHANTS is an Israeli film released in 2013. To my knowledge, it wasn’t released in America until 2015. I saw it at a one night event at Alamo Draft House. And it’s the best film I saw last year.
At times both touching and hilarious (which is super cliché, I know, and a phrase that leads to things like THE MARTIAN winning Best Comedy at the Golden Globes, but whatever), HUNTING ELEPHANTS plays in the same realm of Heightened Reality of films like This Is Where I Leave You. That is to say, no one really gets to react to Life like this in the real world – but God, it would feel good if we could.
The film is anchored for English speaking audiences by Patrick Stewart, doing an impressive turn here as a racist, imperialist, long-distance family member trying (and failing) to run a con on his relatives. But the film is really about young Yonatan, a brilliant kid who butts heads with, then eventually befriends his grandfather – a former member of a Jewish terrorist group who now lives in a retirement home. That triangle of family, and their decision to plot a bank heist, builds the narrative structure and emotional core of the film.
I feel like this is a hard movie to talk about without just sitting here explaining the plot, because SO MUCH of why I loved it was how I felt, and how it made me feel, when I was watching it. And really, that’s why it’s my choice for best film – because I connected with it. And in the end, that’s the most important thing a film can do.