2015 Year in Revew – 20-11

January 6, 2016

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20. Queen of Earth

If the pretentious, writerly aspects of Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip weren’t to your taste (as they were to mine, somewhat predictably), then Queen of Earth might be a welcome shift into a different kind of pretension.  Taking on the relatively low key psychological horror of a woman going mad genre, Elisabeth Moss (the highlight of Philip) walks the tight wire of over-and-under playing someone coming undone.  Katherine Waterston also proves herself more than capable with deliciously ambiguous deliveries that further question the mental state of Moss’ Catherine while laying out the unspoken depths and, more importantly, longevity of their friendship.  The most surprising aspect is Perry’s visual style, which makes great use of the spaces in the lake house with eerie, sometimes subtle (and sometimes not) framings that blur the line between head space and physical space.  A late turn into overt Polanski-aping can be forgiven, then, considering just how well constructed and deeply understood Queen of Earth and its genre are, especially when it initially seemed like an afterthought of a film given the relative bigness of Philip.

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19.  Creed

I have no real affection or the Rocky franchise, aside from believing the first film to be a fine entertainment.  The rest I have not seen in their entirety since my youth, save Rocky Balboa, which was perfectly decent if lacking in emotional resonance for me, but of the snippets I catch here and there on television from time to time remind me of the generally abysmal nature of the enterprise from III onwards.  As much as I rail against the lame, cheap nostalgia industry currently operating in Hollywood, I am surprised as anyone to find Ryan Coogler’s Creed a brilliant entertainment that is satisfying in ways I never really thought a new Rocky film could ever hope to be.  I wasn’t a fan of the director’s debut, Fruitvale Station, but here the somewhat mawkish register he worked in there works, partly because it’s not weighed down by True Story Importance, but also because it’s combination of filmmaking, acting, and music all work together to hit the somewhat cornball sweet spot, whilst also suggesting an emotional intelligence.  There’s much to be said about Michael B. Jordan’s Donnie and his quest for his roots and, inevitably, authenticity, and the way it balances that with his girlfriend played by Tessa Thompson (a musician losing her hearing) and of course, the aging Rocky (Stallone, giving his best performance in many, many decades).  The single-shot fight that so dominated the conversation is showy, sure, but intense and appropriate.  The real highlight here is the rescuing of the training montage, which really began in its current state with the original Rocky, and works sublimely well here with Donnie’s building confidence and determination informing every facial inflection while the Philadelphia motorcycle crew swirls around him before shouting something inaudible (the specifics just aren’t necessary by that point) to Rocky.  This is how you do pop art nostalgia – you remind people why feel nostalgic about it in the first place.

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18.  Amour Fou

Static but vibrant, funny yet dour, staid but outlandish – it’s hard to come to grips with the simaltaneous contradictory tones running through Jessica Hauser’s Amour Fou.  A telling/interpretation of the story of German poet Heinrich von Kleist’s (Christian Friedel) suicide pack with his (importantly not) lover, Henriette Vogel (Birte Schnoink), it is a chamber drama and strange comedy about the bizarre outcomes of a repressively cloistered society on the verge of a tax revolution.  The shots are so still and the furniture so low-key in the apartment rooms and houses where the film mostly takes place that the busy wallpaper screams at the viewer and the characters in every shot.  Henriette’s life should be ideal but there’s something missing – an 18th Century Prussian Empire analogue to the 1950s American suburban melodramas – and a diagnosis of terminal cancer gives her just the excuse to quietly agree to the absurd plot of the overgrown emo misogyny of von Kleist.  His scenes of weedy self-importance and pathetically tragic misinterpretations of his own feelings of loneliness and desire (he has to romanticize them, of course) and frustrated privilege grow more desperately revealing as the film goes on, and the climactic moment (where the interior-bound characters looking very out of place in the outside world) features one of the most tragic final lines of a character in quite some time. 

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17.  The Duke of Burgundy

Peter Strickland’s heavy debt to 1960s and 70s European Cinema works wonders here, using that period’s erotic style to explore eroticism and and its affect on a relationship.  Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) studies butterflies and mentors her “maid”, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), while engaging in a dominant-submissive relationship with her.  There is a scene, when the true nature of the relationship is revealed, which is about as dryly funny as any other this year, and the switch sets the tone for not only the increasing distress that ensues, but the often very funny exchanges that are sprinkled throughout.  A pastiche-y style, with a fitting score by Cat’s Eyes, that works to dig beneath the artifice even as it does the job it’s meant to do.  There’s a touch of Nicholas Roeg in the visual style, and it says something that, as aging bares down on Cynthia and the conflicts between physical and emotional desire build and build, there’s a touch of his psychological astuteness as well.

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16. Girlhood

Everyone rightly talks about the “Diamonds” sequence, which is the perfect use of color, light, and performance to evoke a growing, real camaraderie and allure through the universal appeal of (a particularly great, dramatic) pop song, but there dozens of tiny moments that are equally graceful and suggestive scattered throughout, including a first kiss (look at the wall behind them) and the tiny details that come from the fallout of a big fight.  Non-actor Karidja Toure’s turn as Vic is guarded and occasionally inscrutable, and if there’s a fear of (at best) stereotyping the experience of black youth in France by leading from petty theft to involvement with drug dealers, it’s largely sidestepped by a performance that suggests growing self-definition and the unknowability of becoming an adult.  Never much for fiercely stating her push for individuality in a brutal world, Vic holds onto her feelings until absolutely necessary.  If all the available options are terrible, then she has the wisdom to know by the end that she’s got to find another way, even if she (and we) don’t know what it is. 

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15.  It Follows

I actually wrote about this one (https://chiaroscurocoalition.wordpress.com/2015/03/27/it-follows/), but briefly:  vibe, setting, understanding without winking.

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14. Mistress America

The flip side of New York from Heaven Knows What is another collaboration between Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, this one about 30-something hipster, Brooke (Gerwig), being befriended by her soon-to-be sister-in-law, Tracy (Lola Kirke), who is desperately trying to get into a prestigious writing club at her college.  Another snapshot of desperate millennials trying to make their way in an uncertain social (and real) economy, Mistress America veers towards a more traditional comedic (and screwball) even as it feels bright and a little bit like a cast off.  This shaggy nature is fitting as it’s keen eyed observation on the “I can have it all” ADHD generation is filled with equal levels of charm and mocking disdain.  If it doesn’t have quite the character heft of Frances Ha, it has the comedy chops in spades, most notably in a surprisingly well sustained set piece at an ex-boyfriend’s upstate New York estate, where tensions quickly escalate and secrets (and a rough draft) are revealed.  If there’s something a little heartbreaking about Brooke’s confidence being tested, it’s nicely undercut by a shot of a disparate group of characters intently reading Tracy’s story.  If the millennial generation is unfairly (and baselessly) derided as lazy and lacking ambition, Mistress America understands that the opposite is true – there just aren’t any guarantees all that effort and ambition will work out.

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13. Tangerine

I foolishly put off this film for far too long as I knew only the basic topic and “Sundance hit”, which screams pandering social issue drudgery.  It takes a total of 90 or so seconds to realize just how wrong I was.  Shot on iPhones with a special filter, the film is vibrant and exciting from the off, and it rarely lets up steam.  Following two transgender prostitutes in LA over the course of a day and a night, one of which, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), is fresh out of a 28 days stint in jail and her friend, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), who lets slip that Sin-Dee’s boyfriend has been sleeping around, Tangerine is funny and evocative without ever feeling like a gawking tour through hard lives.  Sin-Dee’s mission of revenge twists and turns and consumes her, while Alexandra, harboring a secret, is just trying to get people to come to her club night performance.     Though not everything works – specifically certain stretches of a detour with taxi driver Razmik (Karren Karaguilan) – it is confident enough to run full speed into it’s climax, which reveals the film to have been a screwball comedy all along.  A finale denouement about friendship adds a sweetness that was lurking beneath the surface the whole time, the final shot is both earned and rewarding.

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12.  Ex Machina

As far as debuts go, Alex Garland could have done much worse.  A screenwriter famous for 28 Days Later as well as divisive sci-fi dramas Sunshine and Never Let Me Go, he is supremely confident in his abilities as a director considering it’s his first time out.  Ostensibly an investigation into the time-honored themes of artificial intelligence and “what makes us human”, Ex Machina finds itself turning into a parable about feminism by using it’s AI creation, Ava, as an object onto which two different types of misogynist can project their desires and frustrations onto before switching perspectives a final time to smash the patriarchal prison in which she is held.  The high tech rural retreat is just one of the many points of contradiction the film trades in, and it’s beautiful design combines wealthy, simple chic and oppressive spaces.  Science fiction as as a societal mirror is alive and well.

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11.  Heaven Knows What

If I had trepidations about Tangerine, it was probably because I thought it might be like  Ben and Joshua Safdie’s Heaven Knows What, which is every bit the grim descent into handheld verite New York junkie hell it looks to be.  Based on the life of its star, Arielle Holmes, the film follows Harley as she has a blow up with her asshole of a boyfriend Ilya and her attempts to break free from his emotional hold, only to fall right back in again.  It’s the lived in quality of the film, and the (dare I say it) authentic feeling of scraping-by homeless street life that sets it apart from your average trip into the forgotten crevices of society.  It feels like a grind because, well, it is. 

-M

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