Thursday, April 21, 2016

Top Ten of 2015

            A top 10 list of 2015 in April 2016, how relevant! In my defense, I did state in my last Honorable Mentions article that this would be finished before the Oscars in 2017, so this article is technically early.  Anyway, 2015 was a wonderfully weird year for film.  Many of the best films this year ranged from commercial blockbusters that seemed doomed to disappoint to niche art films that were balked by those who glanced at their premises, only for these films to shock the medium in brilliant fashion.
            Before we begin here are quick disclaimers. Among the films I failed to see before the year ended: Creed, Room, Sicario, The Martian, 45 Years, and When Marnie Was There; for all I know, any of these films could have earned a spot on the list, which is why they deserve a mention. I did manage to see: Spotlight, Brooklyn, Anomalisa, The Forbidden Room, The Assassin and Embrace of the Serpent, which are all worth viewing, but if I continue with these damn honorable mentions this article will never be completed.

Now here I present my most eloquent Top 10 list of 2015.


10. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
            Oh my God! A new Star Wars film, cool! There is admittedly not much to be said about this film.  So many have lauded or derided the film for its excessive use of homage, to the point that analyzing the film right now would be redundant. However, as silly as it is to debate about how much “old Star Wars” is in The Force Awakens, it is nice to see the film mimicking the raucous pace and rhythm of the classics. Yes it is a little corny and a bit too nostalgic of itself; but at the same time, it is of one the few Hollywood blockbusters of 2015 that left me excited and optimistic for the future of the Hollywood industry.
[DVD and Blu-ray


9. Tangerine
            There have been many Christmas holiday films, but only Tangerine begins with a trans-woman hooker named Sin-Dee Rella jubilantly proclaiming “Merry Christmas, bitch!” in a Los Angeles Donut Time. Freshly freed from jail, Sin-Dee Rella is searching for her cheating boyfriend/pimp Chester, with little help from her partner in crime Alexandra.  What follows is a hilarious dark comedy that is also a wonderfully realist and non-judgmental portrayal of dirty L.A.  Tangerine is often compared to the films of the Mumblecore and the Dogma 95 movements, films that are lauded for their raw realism, however no film in these movements featured such bright energy and bite.  This is thanks to the brilliant casting of Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, two trans actresses that muster more wit than any comedian in 2015.
            Many critics and fans have mentioned how the film was shot solely with a couple iPhones, which is brilliant, but to just talk about the technology alone sells the film short. The cinematography is a brilliant example of playing with raw spectacle and neo-realism. The film can be saturated with scorching colors that would make Hype Williams blush and then gracefully linger into intimate moments in a dazzling haze. It is the type of visual storytelling that proves that while anybody can make a movie with their phone, it will be a long while for anyone to top Tangerine.
[Netflix/Blu-ray and DVD]


8. The Big Short
            It finally happened, someone made a sharply entertaining film about the unbelievably tragic yet dull subject of the 2008 housing crisis, and that person was Adam McKay, the director of Anchorman. Weirder things have happened before but not many.  Nevertheless The Big Short is a bleak satire that tackles the subject with such enthusiasm, insight and ingenuity that it bleeds into other genres altogether.  The fourth wall simply does not exist in this film; borrowing expository elements of documentary and essay films, The Big Short distills the language of crisis in cutting satirical lecture that is led by a hilariously cynical Ryan Gosling, who is essentially acts less like a teacher than a Master of Ceremonies in a business suit.  One would expect The Big Short to be a light version of The Wolf of Wall Street, not a docu-drama akin to Orson Welles’ F For Fake, and that is what makes this film so inspiring. 
[Blu-ray and DVD]


7. Hard to Be a God
            In the future, astronauts will find a planet just like Earth during the Dark Ages. A scientist named Don Rumata is assigned observe the populace and covertly kick-start their “Renaissance,” except the anti-intellectualists will not go without a fight. This is not a pleasant film to watch; it is a three-hour long, black-and-white, Russian film that essentially documents medieval depravity in all its putrid detail. The fact that it shows men playing with shit in the first 10 minutes does not help.  However, Hard to Be a God transcends from self-serious junk like Passion of the Christ because of filmmaker Aleksei German’s absolute conviction to the craft. Once one stomachs to the grime, Hard to Be a God proves to be a beautifully spontaneous film that resembles Brueghel or Bosch painting come to life; at least, if they ever made charcoal painting.
            The film is more than an unromantic interpretation Dark Age but a window for us to peek into the worst of humanity.  It is a nightmare where religion and politics are used by leaders to destroy progress by executing any “wise-guy” with any hint of knowledge of science or art. There is an apparent allegory to current Russian political strife but as Trump’s politics seems to show, the madness in Hard to be a God is very universal. The worst tragedy is Don Rumata (played wearily by Leonid Yarmolnik) who should rise above to such lunacy but even then he finds himself relishing in the madness, which is what makes the film so fascinating.  Usually when one views a realistic medieval drama they might say, “at least things are better now, it could be worse,” Hard to be a God warns that it could still get worse.
[Netlfix/Blu-ray and DVD/Don't eat while watching this movie]


6. Phoenix
            Straight from Germany comes this intense film noir. Nina Hoss plays Nelly, a Jewish cabaret singer who survived the Holocaust, but had to get facial reconstruction after suffering horrific injuries at the camps.  Her new face is similar to her past self, but not enough for possibly traitorous husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) to recognize her. Identity in secret, Nelly decides to get back with her husband, which leads to spiral of thrilling psychosexual mind-games. Phoenix is a film noir that follows the likes of post-war fiction like Vertigo, Eyes Without a Face, and The Third Man. Vertigo is an obvious influence which Phoenix borrows entire plot points from to astonishingly creepy effect. The film wears its influence on it sleeve but also uses said influences to depict a morally and mentally broken post-war Germany. The film shows how the German people tried to cope by trying to forgive and forget their atrocities, which the film calls out immensely. But even without all the heavy political themes, the brilliantly anxious lead performance of Nina Hoss and its pitch perfect ending alone makes Phoenix worth viewing.
[Netflix/Blu-ray and DVD coming soon/Available to rent on Amazon]


5. World of Tomorrow
            What does a short film have to do to be ranked amongst the best feature films? A lot, but that has never been a problem for animator Don Hertzfeldt. This is a filmmaker who can weave pure cinematic landscape with simple drawings and a morbidly dry narration. For example, World of Tomorrow follows a little girl named Emily who is transported into the future by her third generation clone; the world presented is a dense and bizarrely imaginative sci-fi setting that is filled with robots who fear the dark side of the moon, rambling squishy aliens, and a crippling fear of mortality. World of Tomorrow shares many similarities to Hertzfeldt’s anthology opus It’s Such a Beautiful Day, namely its running theme of fearing mortality. While Beautiful Day maintains a depressive outlook, World of Tomorrow shows Hertzfeldt tackling death in self-aware and acceptant outlook. This is film discusses death and living in a beautifully concise way that is genuinely life affirming even when it reaches its darkest moments. World of Tomorrow is a film that tells more in 16 minutes than what many feature length films can achieve.
[Netflix/Available to rent on Vimeo]


4. The Look of Silence
            This documentary is a companion film to the 2013 documentary called The Act of Killing. Both films are a character study about the people who were involved in the mass killings of (alleged) communists in 1965 Indonesia. While Act of Killing brilliantly examines the garish hero-worship of the mass killers themselves; The Look of Silence is a quiet portrait of Adi, an ophthalmologist whose brother was among the murdered. Under the pretense of eye exams, he interviews a number of killers about their actions during the crisis, with director Joshua Oppenheimer as an off-screen witness. These interviews are fraught with tension as the men he talks to respond not only with vivid detail of their actions with little regret at all. When one of them politely asks where Adi lives and he quickly evades question, knowing that it would risk his family’s safety, but continues asking questions. Moments like this bring the audience to understand the type of courage needed for Adi to confront his brother’s perpetrators. In the end, in a decade filled with cinematic heroes, none are braver than Adi.
[Netflix/Blu-ray and DVD]


3. Carol
            Based on the Patricia Highsmith’s then contemporary 1952 novel The Price of Salt, Carol is a romance that amusingly plays like a throwback to the clever melodramas Douglas Sirk loved to make. It could easily be a spiritual companion to All That Heaven Allows; both films delve into how a judgmental community reacts to a romantic relationship the it is cruelly deemed taboo, but instead of a young Rock Hudson wooing older Jane Wynam, now it is Rooney Mara being wooed by Cate Blanchett. Nevertheless, Carol is beautifully crafted story that feels as timeless as it is timely. Director Todd Haynes showcases a brilliant understanding of classic genre cinema in order to creating an exquisite love story that is reflective of today, fear mongering and all.
            This film was honestly difficult to rank because I have not seen it a proper manner. Of the two theater screenings I have viewed, first one showed the film with a projector that kept losing focus, and the second one was perfectly clear to see but the soundtrack got distorted through broken speakers. Yet in spite of these distractions it was impossible to not be enthralled by the love story of Carol and Therese. Carol is a rare type of Hollywood romance that genuinely tugs the heartstrings even as it smothers the screen with old-school style. It also helps that Blanchett and Mara quietly bring their best performances to date with both making even the simplest phrase stick into one’s mind like a sonnet.
[Blu-ray and DVD]


2. The Duke of Burgundy
            When the intro credits to a lesbian BDSM art drama includes a credit for a perfume, is there a smell? While it is shot like a 1970s Italian skin flick, The Duke of Burgundy also has elements of Polanski psychological thrills, heady romance and bits straight out of the avant-garde cinema of Stan Brakhage. The film exudes such rich and heavy style it could easily be embraced as an assault of sight and sound. Even as art-house spectacle, The Duke of Burgundy is less interested in showing sexual acts or even nudity than it is about exploring the allure, complications and the funny awkward moments of maintaining a relationship that includes leather corsets and ropes. Chiara D’Anna is striking as the submissive Evelyn, who’s sultry charisma more than matches the film’s raunchy presentation. However it is Sidse Babett Knudsen’s delicate performance as the dominant Cynthia that makes The Duke of Burgundy such a lasting and addictive experience.
[Netflix/Blu-ray and DVD]


1. Mad Max: Fury Road/Inside Out/Son of Saul
            I admit it; I suck at choosing movies. My top 3 are so close to my heart that it feels horrible to claim either one is superior. They are on the surface completely different movies but they share at least one reason that makes them so superb. All three films find new and powerful insights within seemingly exhausted film formulas. I never expected the action franchise reboot/sequel Mad Max: Fury Road to be a virtuosic race against the evil decay of the patriarchy. I never expected the commercial 3D animated Inside Out to portray emotional maturity with beautiful depth whilst stretching the boundaries of its medium. I never expected Son of Saul, a WWII/Holocaust drama made in a time when such films are sold as award bait, to explore the horrors of Auschwitz with a relentless yet quiet honesty that would make any preceding and future WWII film seem maudlin, if not superfluous. It is a great conundrum to have, that a year like 2015 could provide so many beautiful and strange films that ten seems too small a number to represent the year. That being said, I should better prepare myself as a writer if I want to review more efficiently.
[Mad Mad: Fury Road, Inside Out and Son of Saul available on Blu-ray & DVD. Best to watch all three with a group, but probably not at the same time, that would be too intense.]