2015 Year in Review – 10-1

January 7, 2016

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  1. Blackhat

Okay I know, but please, bear with me.  So it’s essentially a globetrotting cyber-thriller about a hacker determined to sabotage water pumps, but the plot (which I do actually find interesting) is incidental to the style, as is Michael Mann’s want these days.  The opening, featuring a CGI run through a computer terminal and down and down and down, sets the predominant theme of where the digital meets the physical.  As convincing as the scenes where various characters go through lines and lines of code to determine authorship, it’s really about someone leaving prison and walking onto a sunny tarmac, or the way a completely expected romance happens unexpectedly quickly, with the emphasis on physical touch while the ‘getting to know each other’ exposition is treated with ellipses. 

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  1. Chi-Raq

Shaggy, bonkers and haphazard, Spike Lee’s most vital feeling film in a long time (and his best since 25th Hour) is contentious and slapdash and silly and preachy and very, very much alive.  Tackling the real problems of a gun violence epidemic in Chicago, Lee and cowriter Kevin Wilmott never claim to have the answers, but in positing a solution based on Aristophones’ Lysistrata, they find the framework to hurl a barrage ideas and absurd jokes and honest laments at every direction.  Holding it all together is Teyonah Parrish’s strong-willed, sexy turn as Lysistrata, with a crucial assist from Samuel L Jackson, functioning as a Greek Chorus by way of Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolemite.  A fair number of gags fall flat, but when they’re throwing so much at the wall to see what sticks it’s only a few moments before the next, surprising turn.  There’s a heaping of 60s Godard as well as Lee’s own work from the early part of his career, and it’s exciting to see him firing on all cylinders again.  Somewhere in the middle of John Cusack’s impassioned, lengthy, righteous speech you find yourself nodding your head and then questioning why this is coming from a white man’s mouth.  These ambiguities belie the film’s “satirical” purpose:  they don’t have the answers but something has to be tried.  It is, after all, a State of Emergency.

 

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  1. Bridge of Spies

 

Spielberg’s deft classicism and mastery of economic storytelling is in fine form again with this deceptively complex tale of a lawyer’s attempt to do the right thing in the face of the competing motivations of three states.  An opening salvo of Le Carre-esque spycraft soon gives way to a moral tale of brinksmanship.  The details are what matter, from Mark Rylance’s calm worldliness to Tom Hanks’ persistent cold.  It’s a timely picture, as most of Spielberg’s recent dramas have been, where the best outcomes are hardly certain even if theoretically achieved.  The mirroring shots of fence jumping underline the through line that it was never about competing ideologies or good vs evil dichotomies.  There’s decency on both sides, and misery as well.

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  1. Inside Out

 

Pixar has made a cottage industry out of children’s movie that achingly lament and simultaneously wistfully celebrate the loss of childhood.  Inside Out doesn’t break new ground thematically, but it creates a beautiful new world with a gutsy confidence (think of all the rule-exposition in Inception’s first 90 minutes brought down to 10 and with infinitely greater clarity) that allows for maximum humour and pathos for the rest of the running time.  The message of this multi-million dollar Hollywood blockbuster is also one that the entertainment industry (and virtually every other one that’s trying to sell something) has been running from for a long time:  Not only is it okay to be sad sometimes, it’s also a necessary part of being a human being.

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  1. The Look of Silence

 

The vagaries of listmaking put The Act of Killing, the first part of Joshua Oppenheimer’s seismic documentary diptych, at the number one spot of its respective year, but I’m feeling pretty confident in asserting that The Look of Silence is the better film, even if it only works as well as it does in the context of the first part.  Perhaps it’s more accurate to call it a companion piece than a sequel, it follows the younger brother of a victim of the Indonesian genocide whose killers are free and even minor celebrities today.  The brother wasn’t born when the brutal murder and mutilation took place, but you can sense that he was born into the loss, and his entire life has seen an unspoken emptiness surrounding him.  His interviews with the perpetrators are gripping not for their escalating tension, but with the calmness of his demeanour.  If The Act of Killing was largely concerned with exposing the ways a country hadn’t come to grips with its past, The Look of Silence is about the difficulties and variable results of the eventual confrontation. What it might lack in the shock value of The Act of Killing, it makes up for (and even surpasses) with its quiet, probing tone – not to mention the more accomplished and thoughtful filmmaking.

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  1. Goodbye to Language

 

This is my eligibility cheat, as I think it might have had a brief run in New York and/or LA in 2014, but it was still mostly confined to festivals until it was released for a few weeks in 2015, and it’s too towering an achievement by a personal favourite of mine to be left off on a technicality.  An aesthetic treatise on the pointless gimmickry of 3D that also happens to be the most innovative and exciting argument for 3D produced since its widespread reintroduction with Avatar, Godard notably achieves the single most unique shot in cinema in decades.  Beyond the technical, it’s a particularly refined example of late Godard – collage and montage, the personal and the political, frustrating and enlightening in equal turns, but here always captivating.  It’s dryly (and sometimes lewdly) funny and even, in crucial moments, beautiful.  All of that and it’s got a dog.

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  1. Carol

 

What begins as a masterclass in intimate storytelling takes a sharp turn as the perspective shifts in the final third, and it’s a credit to Todd Haynes’ direction and Phyllis Nagy’s adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel that would could have been a very good version of a standard tale (blossoming sexuality and love in an era of hostile societal norms) turns into something truly beautiful and even, against all odds, optimistic.  As Cate Blanchett’s Carol makes moves on Rooney Mara’s Therese, it feels set up for the standard older person helping her younger paramour discover her true self, but in the end it becomes a film about finding balance between two individuals, where experience and worldliness cease to matter in the face of mutual love.  Narratively audacious in subtle ways, Nagy’s script and Hayne’s direction hinge on revisiting a framing device to great effect when so often they’re just a lazy tool to jump into a story.  The payoff of the running leitmotif of mirrors and reflections is a top quality example of the showing-not-telling technique so often absent from modern melodramas, even if this film is more steeped in that milieu than a full throated entry in the genre.  Sarah Paulson and Kyle Chandler give depth and empathy to characters that could have been mere devices, and all of it is set to Carter Burwell’s swooning score.  The list of superlatives could go on, but it really comes down to the emotional element, and this film is as deeply felt as any you’ll see this year.

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  1. Timbuktu.

 

The takeover of large swathes of Mali by a group of Islamic jihadists attempting to form a caliphate in 2012 felt underreported at the time, though it has become painfully, brutally clear that it was just the opening gambit of the latest incarnation of a terrifying form of religious oppression.  Sissako’s film begins after the takeover of Timbuktu, and poetically captures the horrors, contradictions, and mundane banalities of life under a sudden, oppressive regime.  Sissako sidesteps the obvious route of wallowing in misery, instead seeking to investigate the sad moments, the contradictory moments, and the sheer confusion of a attempting to comply with a set of ever-shifting rules.  For all of the big moments (an extraordinary long shot of a tragedy on a lake, the sudden shock of a brutal stoning), there are dozens of equally compelling smaller ones, from a group of musicians secretly playing together to a group of jihadists debating the merits of Zidane versus Messi.  It’s an angry depiction of forcing a narrow-minded ideology on an unwilling populace, and a poetic treatise on the resilience in the face of brutality.

Phoenix

  1. Phoenix

 

A holocaust survivor thought dead by her husband and friends returns to a crumbling Berlin after getting facial reconstruction surgery.  Her sister insists her husband is the one responsible for her, which she does not believe, but goes along with is plan to train her to act like his presumed ex-wife to secure her inheritance when he doesn’t recognize her.  There is hardly a more melodramatic plot to be found this year, and yet it’s just a jumping off point for an incisive and heartbreaking exploration of shifting identity and a nation’s acceptance of its horrific actions.  Nina Hoss’s Nelly is unable to give up on a life that is no more, in a city and with people who so firmly rejected her.  Her sister implores her to give up and move to Palestine, but she continues to play the charade because she can’t forget what happened and can’t believe anyone else could either.  With Classical Hollywood storytelling used to grand effect and liberal lifting from Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Petzold creates a world of twins and doubles, rubble and ghosts, and a central mystery that resolves so beautifully it’s one of those rare occasions when a movie ends at the exact moment it should.

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  1. Mad Max: Fury Road

 

If there’s been a (very) loose theme in list, it’s been about vibrant, living films and classical Hollywood techniques.  George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, the long gestating sequel/reboot to his career-making franchise, is the perfect exemplar of both.  Feeling every bit like a movie made by a 70 year old man who was given $150 million dollars to crash cars in the desert for nine months, it is the most thrilling cinematic action experience I can remember, but what makes it special is just how much depth there is stuffed into every sandy crevice without bogging down the energy or pace of what is essentially a two hour chase.  As incredible as the design and the shots and the editing and the music working together so beautifully is, it’s the classical economic technique that fills out the world and the characters.  The timing of two simple medium shots can speak volumes about where the characters are and what they’re thinking, and a mute glance from Charlize Theron’s Furiosa says more about her past than anything she could have stated explicitly.

 

Deeply personal but accessible and fun, eccentric whilst delivering (and surpassing) genre expectations, Mad Max: Fury Road is everything Hollywood should be doing but almost never does.  The final 30 minutes is a relentless set piece that builds beautifully to a series of unexpected climaxes that includes a noble sacrifice that is as moving a moment as anything else on screens this year, and it’s all driven by the simple but powerful belief that oppression cannot be escaped; it can only be defeated by fighting it head on.  It is a miraculous film.

 

-M

 

P.S.:  I generally only use official posters for these things, but the Mad Max fan poster was just too good to pass up.  It was done by an artist going under the name Signalstarr, and the source can be found here.

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