2015 Year End Review – Intro and Honourable Mentions

January 2, 2016

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I did not do an end of year list last year.  There were several attempts, and probably three initial drafts and even a finalized rundown of the top 20, but due to work and social commitments I never found the time to sit down and write it out.  The same could be said for everything to do with this blog this year, which was sparsely updated at the beginning of the year and not even touched for a majority of the rest.  Part of the problem was my increasing knowledge of other lists, which came out earlier and earlier and, crucially, before I had a chance to see a lot of the big contenders given release schedules and the early access privilege of critics on the studio mailing lists.  Whereas there was a time I felt I should wait until February to really have a go at it, I had been doing it earlier and earlier through sheer list fatigue.  It was also the case that so many lists were so similar that the only difference was the placement of the top five.  This isn’t always the case, of course, but there’s enough broad consensus on the top thirty or so films of the year that it would almost be more interesting to go through the main contenders and explain why I wouldn’t have chosen some of them.  So my list felt eerily similar to everyone else’s and there was just nothing I felt I could say that was unique without boldly pandering to some minor films that nobody saw that I thought might have been “pretty good” and thought I’d outlandishly rep for hard, like putting Beyond the Lights in the top 3 or something. 

Alas, there are thousands of reasons not to sit myself down and just write something, and being like everyone else is just an excuse.  Despite only seeing 80 eligible films this year, I think it’s still just worthy enough of a venture, just to have something to look back on in some years time and think, “why did I care about that?”  It’ll be a top 20 this year given the reduced number of films taken into consideration, but there will be something of an extensive honorable mention/noteworthy bits section just because I didn’t write very much at all and I’ve got some little things to say about some interesting and some not-so-interesting films.  Some crucial films I missed include the Arabian Nights trilogy, James White, 45 Years, The Mend, Horse Money, and a number of films I don’t hold much hope for, including The Revenant.  With all that said, let’s begin.

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Best Movie I Would Never Recommend to Anyone:

Hard To Be A God

Alexei German’s final film is about a scientist sent to another planet still stuck in the Middle Ages whose job it is to gently prod their civilization into a Renaissance.  It sounds spectacularly exciting but is, in fact, a claustrophobic, three hour odyssey into mire, muck, and bodily fluids.  And I mean it when I say bodily fluids, because nary a scene goes by where someone isn’t blowing snot at the camera or urinating or being dunked in a river of shit or bleeding profusely or caught with puss oozing out of a boil.  It’s the most nauseating cinematic experience I’ve had since Sokurov’s Faust.  After 90 minutes of painful grotesqueries the narrative comes into focus and, if you stick it through, is well worth the time.  It’s an extraordinary achievement and I never want to see it again.

Best Rom-Com in an Increasingly Shrinking Market

Sleeping With Other People

They just don’t make nearly as many rom-coms as they used to, and though I could write a whole post about the death of the genre – both due to audience indifference and a creative rut spanning decades – I do miss them.  Sleeping with Other People isn’t a great one by any means, but it’s a pretty good one as far as these things go, and it does a much better job at dealing with the hilariously outdated notion that both men and women like to sleep with lots of people than, say Friends with Benefits or the other one from that same year.  Its success boils down to the basics: some wry observations, some funny bits sprinkled about, and the charm of/chemistry between Jason Sudekis and Alison Brie.  Here’s hoping there are more options than this and Trainwreck next year.

Best Film That Would Be Greatly Improved if I had Never Seen a European Film

Diary of a Teenage Girl

It’s smart and mostly well put together and superbly acted by both Bel Powley and Kristen Wiig, but as smart and sensitive to the budding sexuality of a teenage girl as it is, it feels a little also-ran when considering the sheer number of these types of low-key, witty, and baldly insightful films that have come out of Europe for some decades now, a fine recent example being Sweden’s Turn Me On, Dammit.  Despite feeling it relies too much on its 70s period trappings to really make a full fledged exploration of its characters as universal as they should be (too much can be read into the fall-out of the free-love era as well as the comfortable distancing effect its design can have on the utter creepiness of Alexander Skarsgard), it’s smart and affecting when it should be, and damn impressive debut from writer/director Marielle Heller.

Best Film that would be in my Top 10 if it weren’t a short.

World of Tomorrow

Don Hertzfeld’s sad, funny, eerie, relevant, and possibly prescient vision of the future, presented here with his trademark stick figures, is a marvel.  Painting in small, digital strokes he broadly encompasses a future that reflects present anxieties, from technology’s potential and its shortcomings.  Death exists but doesn’t, and its odd, often funny little sweet forms of love and heartache.  It’s charming and cute and utterly depressing in equal measure, and it achieves more in its 17 minutes than most films do in five times that length. 

Best First Hour of a Film that Falls off in Quality Dramatically

Straight Outta Compton

That first hour or so is a hell of a thing, encompassing everything thrilling and relevant about NWA’s first album, but, almost exactly like the album, its second half is largely forgettable.  So for all its nauseating “Bye Felicia” inventions and the shiftlessness that naturally comes when a tight group frays and splinters, it has a powerhouse opening scene of myth building and a series of funny moments and evocations of an era and the circumstances that conspired to create one of the most game-changing artistic works of the last three decades. 

Possibly Great Film I’m in Two Minds About

Son of Saul

I hope to finish a longer write-up about my complicated feelings towards this technically incredible but potentially troubling Holocaust drama soon enough, but I’m still struggling with my reaction to certain elements whilst being utterly confident that it’s one of the most effective films of the year at stimulating a very visceral reaction. 

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Most Harrowing Scene in an Otherwise Pleasant and Amusing Film

The Brazen Cylinder in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

The final film in Roy Andersson’s “Living Trilogy” is the least effective of the bunch, but it is still funny and pleasant enough as it moves from one slightly surreal vignette about the minor disappointments of seemingly tiny lives.  Then, it happens:  There’s a giant brazen cylinder.  A group of colonial army troops in khaki attire usher a group of chained Africans into the cylinder.  One of the soldiers lights a torch, and lights the pit beneath the cylinder, which begins to turn.  In the only shot/reverse shot set up in the whole film, a group of aging white aristocrats gather outside as a man serves them champagne.  They watch as the flames grow and the cries of the humans burning inside are turned into a beautiful, melancholic drone through the tubes protruding from the cylinder.  It is something I won’t soon forget.

Best Scene – Road Trip Edition

The Border Crossing in Sicario

I have problems with the final act of Sicario, but it’s mighty effective for a fair amount of it’s running time, and it features a possible career best performance from Emily Blunt as well as predictably stellar work from DP Roger Deakins.  It’s opening is intense, but it’s nothing compared to the slow-burn nightmare of the border crossing scene.  Essentially a car chase in a traffic jam, where every tiny movement and glance in the mirror contributes to a steadily escalating tension that explodes into the inevitable.  I’m still waiting for director Denis Villeneuve to reach the potential his work promises, but here, along with editor Joe Walker, is a prime example of top notch political thriller filmmaking – half suspense and half dread. 

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Best Scene – Gas Station Edition

The Cheetos and Water Dance in Magic Mike XXL

There’s a lot of life in this film, and it’s a true musical in the sense that it comes to life in it’s absurd dance sequences, so I can forgive the occasional wooden in-between road trip scenes and the crusty plot device of “one last ride” to a degree, but even I have my limits.  Still, it’s biggest fans aren’t wrong when they talk about it’s emphasis on female (of all types) pleasure and the way it photographs bodies in motion.  The highlight (of many) was hands down Joe Manganiello’s attempt at self-confidence boosting by performing an improvised dance to the Backstreet Boys for a thoroughly uninterested gas store station clerk.  It’s a dance equally impressive for it’s athletic physicality and it’s comic movement, and it’s of course sold by a killer ending line that wins over the clerk and reminds us that, no matter your skill or physique, a little humorous charm goes a long way. 

Biggest Disappointment

Eden

Mia Hansen-Love, the director of Goodbye First Love, decided to make a movie about the rise of French House in the 90s.  It was as though the universe peered into my brain and my soul and decided to give me exactly the thing I never knew I wanted.  So Eden had admittedly high expectations to meet, but I never expected to be quite so disappointed.  It works in fits and starts, but it failed to capture anything about the magic of the music, and following the sort-of-rise-and-definite-fall of its DJ protagonist was, quite frankly, about as boring as he was.  Perhaps if I saw it again with my now firmly lower expectations it would work better, but I can’t help but feeling waiting the year-plus it took to get to my local cinema from the first reports I read from Cannes wasn’t worth it.  On the upside, I got the killer, 271 minute, 41 track soundtrack on iTunes for the bargain price of $7.99, so I can chart the evolution of French House in my head anytime I want.

Best Line that Sums Up Every Argument I had in 2015:

Josh (Ben Stiller) in While We’re Young

After putting it together that he’s been duped by his young, new friend, Stiller’s Josh heads for a very public showdown where his high-minded ethics and deep hurt are met with indifference.  As he’s aware he’s coming off more and more desperate and sad, he finally bellows:

“This is so frustrating!  I’m going to get no satisfaction here, am I?”

I know the feeling well.

-M

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