Welcome one and all as we continue the first annual “Best of”s from all your friends here at We Have Always Lived in the Kraken! This year and every year we’ll be making ridiculous top lists, handing out awards we just made up, and in general celebrating the weird, wild year we all just experienced. Today we’re talking movies.
2015 was the first banner year for cinema we’ve had in a while. Finally a year when creators of all stripes were operating at the top of their game, turning out films that were innovative, entertaining, and on the bleeding edge of relevance. The indies were shooting beautiful movies on iPhone (Tangerine) and reinventing horror for the ninth time (too many to list), the auteurs brought their A-game (even Ridley Scott hit a triple with The Martian, and with The Visit M. Night Shyamalan climbed above 60% on Rotten Tomatoes for the first time since 2002), and the year’s most over-hyped movie actually lived up to expectations–that’s right, I’m talking about It Follows. Okay, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. There’s lots for us to talk about with this year’s movies, so let’s get right to it.
David’s Abbreviated Thoughts for Movies in 2015
I definitely agree that this has been an unexpectedly great year for movies (which I could write so much about, but for the sake of everyone will keep my thoughts to a minimum). Which is surprising, because if you had asked me this about two months ago, I would have scoffed. But this year has proven to be remarkably deep, and offers the best combination of quality blockbusters and prestige films I have seen in quite some time. Though I don’t know if I find it to be quite the aberration Kyu does. Sure, it compares strongly to last year, which was strong at the top, but then fell off the cliff in terms of quality once you left the confines of the top ten; or to 2011, which was probably one of the weakest film years of my lifetime, but both 2012 and 2013 were really strong years for movies as well. So for me, 2015 felt more like a return to form. (I say this even though the top three of last year were three of the ten best films of the decade so far, so that should illustrate just how overall uneven 2014 was.)
Also exciting: this year I am remarkably more caught up than I normally am at this point. There is still plenty I need to watch (as you will see), but for once I feel more like I am filling in gaps as opposed to desperately trying to see everything important. My top list is rather fluid (especially 6 through 8, which I have switched around quite a bit in my head), and will possibly be updated one more time during the awards season to reflect the movies I will hopefully see during the months of Dumpuary. With all that said, here are my current Top 10 Movies for 2015.
- This year, my top ten sort of broke into three groups. One through five I am pretty positive on; while I am not positive on the order of six through nine, they all definitely got a degree of separation from the rest of the movies this year. So that leaves me with what to do with spot number ten. There are a lot of contenders for that spot, really, really good movies that are held back from being really great for any number of reasons. The Hateful Eight lacked the spark of Tarantino’s previous works, The Big Short’s tonal whiplash is not entirely successful and the movie feels very disjointed at times, and Carol, while beautifully shot and wondrously acted, plodded on a bit too long and had trouble really sticking its landing. Then there is my actual choice, Brooklyn, a beautiful tale about leaving home and becoming your true self anchored by a fantastic performance by Saoirse Ronan. The biggest problem with this film is that a key choice the film makes causes the main conflict of the movie to ring false and never really work for me. But that doesn’t change the fact that this film emotionally resonates in a way that the other near misses on this list did not, and that allowed it to grab a tenuous hold on the tenth spot.
- One thing that made 2015 unique was that it was a year with actually good blockbuster movies. The biggest thing this meant is that Top Ten lists from people have actually had movies on it that represent what a majority of people have seen and, if we are being honest, what Hollywood actually is. This is as opposed to normal years, where people call out a bunch of prestige or indie films that probably only exist at this point so Hollywood can look good during Oscar season (okay, maybe that is a sconce too cynical, but not by much). Blockbuster movies don’t have to be terrible, and can actually be made at a level that makes them as good as any prestige film, and this year has shown that. That brings us to the first of the blockbusters on my list, The Martian. I had honestly given up on Ridley Scott ever making another movie of high quality. There is just a point that most directors lose it, and Scott seemed well past that point, but apparently all he needed to do was join the bandwagon of making a movie about saving Matt Damon. (Seriously, have you seen how much money has hypothetically been spent saving Matt Damon in movies? It is hilarious.) The Martian is a fun movie that feels any problem can be solved by hard work and science, which is really admirable. Damon is magnetic in the lead role, and Jessica Chastain is given a role that allows her be both strong and (dare I say) somewhat goofy in a way she just hasn’t been in movies. Though I will say I spent a lot of the movie wondering what would have happened if Chastain and Damon actually switched roles, because Damon’s role is exactly the kind of role I have been wanted to see Chastain do for the longest time so that she can actually show off the funny charisma she has when doing pressers. That digression aside, The Martian is a great triumph for Scott, and the grooviest movie of the year.
- Really, I could put the next three films on my list in any order, but this is what I have settled on for now. This film kind of came out of nowhere, and really it is questionable how much it should count, seeing as it was released in 2013 in Brazil; but it was not released in the US until now, so let’s just go with it. It is also one of four animated films on this list. 2015 was a banner year for animation, and I continue to be a card-carrying member of the “Animated Films Can Be, and Many Times Are, Just as Good as or Better Than Their Live Action Counterparts” organization, or the AFCBAMTAJAGAOBTTLAC for short. (We should really work on that.) Anyhow, this animated film about a boy’s journey into the world after his father departs is magnificent, a wonderful combination of dazzling visuals and stunning music. Seriously, the blending of music and visuals in this movie is unlike anything else this year, and gives this film a truly unique voice. After a slow start the film really grows into its own, and the ending completely transforms what preceded it, elevating it to true greatness as you in the audience suddenly feel the enormity of dealing with the world for the first time. With Oscar favorite GKIDS behind this film (one or two slots might as well be permanently reserved for this distributor’s movies, because how else can the Academy pretend they aren’t just going to give the Oscar to whatever movie Disney/Pixar did that year?), be on the lookout for this film to (justly) take one of the coveted runner-up to Inside Out slots in the animated film category this year.
- Oh, look, another animated film, and also a film I already highlighted recently in The Anticipated, so I will keep this brief. Mamoru Hosoda’s latest work continues to prove he is one of the greatest directors working today, and the rightful heir to Hayao Miyazaki’s legacy. While not Hosoda’s best work, Bakemono no Ko is still an affecting tale about fathers and sons, with a final thirty or so minutes that ratchets up the feels to maximum. The film is beautiful, and while Hosoda struggles a bit with the writing in his first solo screenplay, overall this movie soars. Seeing as the movie has absolutely no chance of being nominated for an Oscar (because it is a Japanese film not made by Studio Ghibli), and because it is likely the least important of the films GKIDS is pushing for a coveted spot, the least I can do is give it the recognition it deserves with a spot on my humble list.
- Ahhh, there is no film I have agonized more over this year. How do you judge a movie that has lived up about as well as one could expect to the bonkers expectations it had? I have at times felt I both overrated and underrated this movie, which is now officially the highest grossing film in domestic box office history. Of course, this film was also covered in The Anticipated recently, and so I will once again try not to simply repeat myself. Ultimately, what really gives this movie high marks is that virtually no movie brought me as much glee and wonder while watching it this year, and really, isn’t that what movies are supposed to be about? Add in the great lead performances by Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, a triumphant return to screen for the original trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill (whose look of longing and fear in his very limited screen time is still burned into my mind), and this is just a good movie. Really, one the main things holding it back is that it came out in the same year as the best film on this list, which forced me to focus on the areas this film is lacking more than I normally would. Overall, this is just a great movie whose strengths simply outweigh its flaws by such a high margin that it stormed onto this list.
- Two things: first, this is where my list gets a lot more certain, because I would have no issue with this group of films being on any other year’s top ten list; by this point on the list I expect that no amount of turnover as I catch up to films I’ve missed would ever bump these last five off my top ten. Second: God, I have missed Charlie Kaufman. He is one of the creative writing geniuses living today, and I am so glad to be able to watch one of his movies once again (even if I still have no idea how I feel about Synedoche, New York). Anomalisa uses puppets and stop motion animation to tell a deeply personal, profound, and affecting story that feels more real than almost any other film I have seen. Anchored by the performance of three actors–David Thewlis as Michael, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lisa, and Tom Noonan as, well, everyone else, this film shows how the mundanity of life is often more a reflection of one’s own true self than anyone wants to admit. Anomalisa is the kind of animation we simply don’t do in America, animation for adults, and it is deeply satisfying. Of course, even saying that, the film isn’t quite able to be the best animated movie of the year, but that’s just how things generally go when Pixar comes to play.
- Having the distinction of being the highest ranked film I covered in the The Anticipated, and the best animated film of the year, Inside Out proves to be a return to form for Pixar, who enlisted the aid of director Peter Docter (responsible for the last great Pixar movie, Up). This film also proves that the American style of animation can still achieve great things when it really wants to. Inside Out beautifully and simply shows the struggles of growing up and how each of us deals with our emotions. (A very simplified version, certainly, but still effective.) This film brings all of the feels, and if years of media hadn’t jaded my ability to properly cry, would have brought tears to my eyes as I watched young Riley’s (Kaitlyn Dias) struggles. More importantly, this film doesn’t just go for a happy ending, but instead finds a more nuanced and bittersweet conclusion that reflects how life goes. Add in the bittersweet-to-tragic fate of Bing Bong (Richard Kind), and well, I think I feel my dead soul trying to allow me to cry once again.
If you want to see something cool, look at this edit by Jordan Hanzon, which assembles the film’s “external” footage (without any of the emotion characters) into one (admittedly rough) cut, creating a nice short film version of the movie.
- This film is absolutely perfect at what it does. There is pretty much nothing wrong with this movie about the journalists who broke the 2001 Catholic priest scandals. The cast is amazing, the script is dynamic, the directing is spot on, and most of all, Spotlight lets its drama come from the events it is portraying, without the typical Hollywood need to manufacture drama. This is a film about journalism, something that is hard and often boring work, full of research, research, and more research. So if this film is so perfect, how is it only number 3 on this list? Well, ambition matters. This may be a perfectly told story, but it is also at its core a type of story that just doesn’t have the highest ceiling. There is only so much you can do with the story in Spotlight, and the two films above it on my list are able to take advantage of the fact that their greater ambitions result in subjectively better films. Still, there is a reason that Spotlight is the clear frontrunner going into award season: it is simply fantastic. (To be fair, this may not be the best position for it; historically, early front runners tend to fade, but that just means it may not win. It will certainly get nominated for everything else it possibly can be.)
- Roger Deakins is the man, and one year he will get his Oscar. Hopefully, that year is this year, as his cinematography in Sicario is breathtaking. (That said, the problem with being the second greatest cinematographer alive is that when the best cinematographer alive, Emmanuel Lubezki, continues to be awesome, you may just be out of luck.) Deakins’ night vision shots in this film are startling, and his visuals are a major part of what makes this film so damn haunting. The other part is the glorious acting of Emily Blunt, Benecio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin. Blunt plays a role that was originally written for a man, and perfectly demonstrates why it didn’t need to be. Del Toro is absolutely magnetic in his menace, and Brolin helps hold everything together. More importantly, this film does a perfect job of of adapting Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (or for film people, Apocalypse Now) for the American War on Drugs. This film left me visibly shaken when it was finished, and only missed out on being my best film of the year by a thin, thin margin, because the number one film is truly special.
- I hate to make an entry about Mad Max start about Star Wars, but it’s just that kind of year, so I guess we can all just deal with it. While Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a really good movie (it is sixth on this list, after all) one of the things that always held it back is that so much of what it did, Mad Max: Fury Road did better. The action was better, the direction was better, the cinematography was better, the positive gender roles were better, and so on and on. Mad Max: Fury Road is a masterpiece that is probably my most unexpected best film of the year ever. It is clever and viscerally exhilarating in a way few movies have ever been. This film redefines in a lot of ways what the action genre not only can, but should be. George Miller is going to get his first Oscar nomination, and it is well deserved for bringing to life the Mad Max world once again in such an incredibly compelling way. Also, Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is the best, and nothing more needs to be said. This film carved a road to Valhalla, and I am ready to go there shiny and chrome.
Honorable Mention: The Hateful Eight, The Big Short, Carol
Plus here are some more random thoughts from this year.
Biggest Surprise: Mad Max: Fury Road: As I hinted in my best film of the year point, this was such a surprise. I kind of forced myself to see this movie after hearing such great things, and man, was I glad I did. This film is one of the best action experiences you will ever see, and is pretty much everything we have asking Hollywood for quite some time. The fact that Max (Tom Hardy) is really just a supporting character in his own movie to Charlize Theron’s Furiosa is still one of the boldest decisions I have ever seen. George Miller does what he wants in this movie, and man, it is glorious.
Biggest Disappointment: Spectre: Like I said in The Anticipated, the negative reaction for this film went too far, but man, was this film such a let down after how good Skyfall was. To be fair, it could be argued that Tomorrowland should go in this slot, but 1) I actually like Tomorrowland far more than pretty much everyone and 2) the second half of Spectre is so problematic that I am still finding problems with it whenever I happen to think of the film in passing (I know my life is so glamourous).
Most Underrated Film: Most of the good films from this year are getting their due in some way, so I could just go with the obvious answer of The Boy and the Beast, considering all non-Ghibli anime is overlooked. But instead I think I will go with Mistress America. Noah Baumbach’s film showcasing Lola Kirke and Greta Gerwig is a delight to watch. It is sweet and sad all at the same time, and well worth a watch.
Most Overrated Film: Room: Look, Brie Larson is amazing, and this film has one of the most emotionally resonant scenes I have seen, but this film just doesn’t work as well as it should. Part of this is because the film decides to be from the boy’s perspective, and although Jacob Tremblay does a good job, this means there is far less of Brie Larson than I would have liked. This is still a good movie, but not the best picture threat it is being portrayed as.
Now to the super quick hits:
Best Action Film: Mad Max: Fury Road
Best Comedy: Spy
Best Super Hero Movie of the Year: Furious 7 (think about it)
Prettiest Film of the Year: Crimson Peak
Best Use of Night Vision Ever: Sicario (Dear Lord, please give Roger Deakins an Oscar)
The Are We Still Sure He’s Good? Award: Sam Mendes (you make Spectre, and I question all I know about you)
Most Unexpectedly Diverse Performances: Jennifer Jason Leigh for her work in Anomalisa and The Hateful Eight
- Runner-Up: Jessica Chastain for her work in The Martian and Crimson Peak
Best Performance that has Absolutely No Chance to Get Real Awards Recognition: Jessica Chastain in Crimson Peak (the menace, malice, and crazy she brings in this movie is absurd)
Most Obscure Great Movie: Boy & The World
Greatest Thing Ever: The guitarist in Mad Max. He deserves everything.
Top Ten Films I Still Need To See so My Top Ten List Can Be Destroyed (this could be so much longer):
- The Revenant
- Son of Saul
- Straight Out of Compton
- Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet
- The Assassin
- The Danish Girl
- Beasts of No Nation
- Bridge of Spies
Atomika: 2015, I Am Disappoint
Award season barrels down upon us like a senile driver in a crowded outdoor market, and while you’ll be reading an untold number of listicles for the “Year’s Best Films” (short version: Fury Road and… some other… films… I suppose), only one website* has the guts to bring you the raw journalistic criticism found in… The Biggest Disappointments of 2015!!!!
What makes a film a disappointment?
Is it because it’s a “bad” film? What is bad, anyway? I mean, I could probably bang out a list of cinematic abominations that came and went this year with the speed and fanfare of a silent fart–good money says half that list is niche Christian programming–but I didn’t see those movies. Because I’m busy. Because I’ve got a job. Because I’m a mom. Because I don’t need to be Roger Ebert to know a bad movie when I see it advertised (spoiler: if it’s got Adam Sandler, just write it off, man).
No, these films are just those that, in the immortal robotic words of Tinny Tim, raised my hopes and dashed them most expertly.
So without further stalling for length (David and Kyu pay me by the word), let’s dig into the films that more than any other broke my heart this year.
NUMBER 5: Jupiter Ascending
2015 was the year I wrote off the Wachowskis. I didn’t want to. They’ve directed one truly great bit of pop-culture in The Matrix, and were vital to the realization of the big screen version of V for Vendetta, another wonderfully subversive bit of agitprop. They can be routinely counted on for delivering some of the most visually inventive and jaw-dropping spectacles ever put to film; but after the 1-2-3-4-5 punch of… well, everything between The Matrix Reloaded and this, that’s about all you can expect from them. They love the artistic potential of cinema, that much is obvious, but I’m not sure they understand what a narrative is even supposed to look like. Much like Tarsem Singh or David Fincher, all the inventiveness and technical proficiency in the world isn’t going to give them a pass.
NUMBER 4: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Okay, first of all, put down that heavy rock you’re about to throw at me. I love this film. It’s utterly, wonderfully fantastic. Let me carefully explain why I was also disappointed: this movie is underdeveloped, in the most literal sense of that word. Not only does J.J. Abrams employ several of his most criticized ticks (though not the lens flare, thank the maker), but everything is also just a big rushed gallop from scene to scene with very little structure. That’s not Abrams’ fault, nor is it screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan’s. It’s Disney’s fault for putting the marketing cart before the creative horse. They handed Abrams a deadline he couldn’t be expected to make, and honestly there was no reason for that. A new Star Wars was always going to make $Texas, and another few months to polish up this script would have turned this fantastic film into a movie so impossibly transcendent that it might just make you go blind. Or at least go plaid.
NUMBER 3: The Avengers: Age of Ultron
Another film that I didn’t exactly hate, Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron suffers from a lot problems, but mostly just good old sequel bloat. You gotta introduce four new characters, give time to the characters who got shorted in the first film, and find a way to tie it all together, all in a running time that’s more conducive to suburban audiences than to art school kids going through their Satantango phase. Scuttlebutt has since suggested that Whedon was frustrated with Marvel’s corporate executives (notorious skinflint Ike Perlmutter, in particular), but that alone doesn’t account for the shaggy, atonal script or its frustrating habit of continuing to define Black Widow by her gender. The encouraging news is that Whedon has hung up his Marvel spurs, and hopefully that means he’s taking his boring compositions and latent heteronormativity with him.
NUMBER 2: Jurassic World
I’ve been ranting about this movie since it opened, but it really is one of those films that’s so bad it’s offensive. Jurassic World‘s awfulness exudes from every frame, from its hat-on-ass-stupid plot and world building, to its odious child characters, to the weird sexually regressive undertones popping up too often to wave off, to the way it time and again trots out the iconography of the Spielberg original for cheap nostalgia points like it’s making the annual pilgrimage to Lenin’s tomb. I’d like to forget this movie even happened, but they’re making two more of them, and some dumbass gave Colin Treverrow the chair for Star Wars IX.
NUMBER 1: Spectre
Wow. Just. Man. How? How did this happen? How did the same team that delivered Skyfall put their name on this?
“We figured the most proper way to follow up the best Bond film not only in an amazingly good series with Daniel Craig–but the best of all time–was to pull our pants down and do dick-helicopters to the tune of ‘Yakkity Sax.’”
– Sam Mendes, probably
This is the most dramatic drop in quality from the same creative team since Highlander 2: We’re Aliens I Guess?, but without the charming ability to be so bad it’s good. Instead, Spectre is so bad it’s physically painful. Doctors warn it may give you cancer of the human spirit. This film has it all: it’s long and boring, the writing is complete trash and tries its damnedest to unmake the entirety of Craig’s tenure, the characters are cardboard and hyper-exaggerated cartoons, the tone flip-flops like a landed tuna with epilepsy, and it’s just a goddamned chore to watch. It’s a film that I actively hated from almost the first minute to the last, and if I had to chose between negating this film from existence or eradicating global warming, well, ol’ Mother Earth might have to take one for the team. I think she’d understand.
(See what you’ve done, Spectre? And I thought I was disappointed by this movie. – Ed)
Anyway, that’s it for 2015’s haterade. I’m hopeful for 2016. We’ve got some decent stuff coming down the pike, so let’s hold on to that and not go gently into that good night.
Kyu’s Best Moments in Film, 2015 Edition
As always, Atomika makes me want to reach for some good feelings. 2015 was a solid year for movies, but even more than that, it was a great year for incredible moments–long takes that thrilled, scenes that blew the doors off, and quiet character insights that cut right to your heart. I’ve got a lot of movies from 2015 to watch still, but here are the best moments in film in 2015 so far.
- Jennifer Jason Leigh sings (Anomalisa/The Hateful Eight)
What a year for Jennifer Jason Leigh! In 2015 the actress turned in two equally amazing but almost totally opposite performances, as the shy but upbeat love interest in Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa and the vicious, bitter murderess at the center of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. By happy coincidence, both movies give Leigh an opportunity to break through each film’s story by singing. In Anomalisa, it’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” as tender, awkward, hilarious, and endearing as the sex scene that follows; in The Hateful Eight, Leigh accompanies herself on guitar with the Australian folk ballad “Jim Jones at Botany Bay,” which manages to be both unexpectedly moving and a sinister attempt to distract her captor, John Ruth (Kurt Russell) from a villainous plot. It just goes to show that Leigh is a versatile, talented performer who deserves more roles like these two rich, layered parts.
- Major Marquis Warren tells a story (The Hateful Eight)
The Hateful Eight, Tarantino’s eighth movie and second straight Western, at first seems narratively simple: eight relative strangers take shelter from a blizzard in a one-room saloon while trying to suss out who is and isn’t who they say they are. But the deeper the film progresses, the more we sense that there’s a lot we’re not being told–and the more realize we may not have anybody to root for, let alone trust. In a film about the legacy of American racism, Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Warren seems like an obvious pick for both trusting and rooting–that is, until he spins a story designed to fan the flames of Confederate General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern)’s hatred. Did Major Warren torture, rape, and kill Smithers’ son, as he claims (and as we see in what may or may not be a literal flashback)? Or is he just trying to manipulate Smithers into giving Warren an excuse to kill him in “self-defense”? Even without the racially-reversed allegory for supposedly justifiable police killings of black men, this scene would go down as a QT classic, as it showcases both his writing and directing talents and his endless interest in difficult lies, uncomfortable truths, and horrific violence.
- The Avengers get hammered (Avengers 2: Age of Ultron)
Age of Ultron is deeply flawed, not least because it’s almost wall-to-wall frenetic action in a way that numbs rather than excites after a while. But that does mean that the moments when this well-cast, well-acted group of superheroes slow down and talk to one another stand out all the more. This scene, where Thor, Iron Man, Captain America and others get drunk, shoot the shit, and compete to see who’s worthy enough to lift Thor’s hammer, is an absolute treasure (and unexpectedly paid off to great effect much later in the film). Too bad it’s interrupted by a bunch of killer robots.
- Bluebeard’s wives discovered (Ex Machina)
You wouldn’t think the old French fairy tale about a man whose new wife discovers the body of his old wives in a forbidden room would blend well with an ultra-modern, indie sci-fi flick about testing an artificial intelligence. But the place where Oscar Isaac’s Steve Jobs-esque software mogul Nathan invites everyman programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to meet his new, oddly attractive robot Ava (Alicia Vikander) is more fortress than home, with many doors where Caleb is not supposed to go. “Borrowing” Nathan’s keycard, Caleb finds himself in a forbidden room, opening cabinets that each hold the deactivated body of another attractively designed female robot. The moment connects one of our oldest stories with one of our newest, arguing that the creation of robotic intelligences will be fraught with moral pitfalls, and that men like Nathan ultimately desire to use technology to subjugate and control women. Ex Machina‘s ideas are never more potent or more unnerving than here, when Caleb worries that Ava–or even himself–might be the next “wife” to get the ax.
- Jason Statham riffs (Spy)
A surprisingly funny, surprisingly smart, feminist take on the spy parody genre, Paul Fieg’s Spy is full of excellent performances, particularly Jude Law’s sleazy take on James Bond and Melissa McCarthy’s more-competent-than-she-thinks handler-turned-field agent. But none of them are as uproarious as Jason Statham, essentially parodying his own super-serious man of action persona from what must surely be dozens of interchangeable movies (Parker, Safe, The Mechanic, The Expendables, the list goes on and on). His best gag in Spy is his endless list of past impossible deeds, most of which are probably bullshit–but Statham is dead serious about all of them. “I make a habit of doing things people say I can’t do,” he says at one point. “I once used defbrillators on myself. I put glass in my fuckin’ eye. I’ve jumped from a high-rise building using only a raincoat as a parachute, and broke both legs upon landing–and still had to pretend I was in a fucking Cirque de Soleil show. I’ve swallowed enough microchips and shit them back out again to make a computer. This arm has been ripped off completely and reattached with this fuckin’ arm.” “I don’t know that that’s possible,” McCarthy says. “I mean, medically.” And it goes on from there. It’s absolutely clear from the editing that they just told Statham, “Go,” and he gave them take after hilarious take. Beautiful.
- Two spies, two boxes (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation)
I love the Mission Impossible series. Every film is special in its own way–Brian De Palma’s classic thriller, John Woo’s ridiculous action sequel, J.J. Abrams’ clever script and chilling villain, Brad Bird’s excellent direction and stunning Dubai sequence, and then there’s Rogue Nation. Filled with harrowing set-pieces and introducing a female agent who can totally keep up with Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, this fifth entry in the franchise is a smart, twisty blast that refines the series down to its most important elements. More than that, though, it offers an unexpectedly well-thought-out set of themes. How do you know who to trust? The whole movie is about how Hunt starts off the story working alone–which chillingly gets him trapped in a glass box full of knock-out gas by “The Syndicate”–and ends it trapping the bad guy in his own glass box with the help of the teammates he’s come to have renewed faith in. In a way, it’s like the story of the franchise itself–adapting a team-based TV show, De Palma killed everyone but Hunt in the first few minutes, and since then Mission Impossible has been gradually accumulating a new team around Ethan. More than anything else, the triumphant capture at the end of Rogue Nation announces that the IMF is re-open for business. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.
- A killer opening (Spectre)
In a year filled with high profile spy movies (besides the ones on my list, we also got The Man From UNCLE), it’s a pity that the latest James Bond film was such a disappointment. But the one part that absolutely didn’t disappoint was the film’s “cold open”–after an eerie epigram, we find ourselves in Mexico on the Day of the Dead, as one long take follows Daniel Craig’s Bond (in a skeleton mask) through the crowd, into a hotel where a woman is waiting, and onto the roof where he prepares to assassinate his next target. This one shot (followed by a stunning fight in a helicopter high above the crowd) distills everything we need to know about James Bond: a cold-blooded killer, a womanizer, a man on a mission. He’s death walking. If only the rest of Spectre were this awesome.
- A desperate plea (Star Wars: The Force Awakens)
My pick so far for the best film of the year, J.J. Abrams reimagining of George Lucas’s story about a galaxy far, far away is a glorious act of cinematic restoration. Combining a deep thematic structure with a thrilling adventure story, The Force Awakens is exciting, progressive, and deeply moving. All of its darkest fears and most secret hopes for the franchise come to a head in the film’s final few shots, as scavenger-turned-nascent Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley) comes face to face with the nigh-mythical Jedi hero Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Luke vanished decades ago, long enough that Rey had to go on an actual quest involving a two-part star map to find his hidden refuge, but now she returns to offer Luke his old lightsaber. As she holds it out to him, Ridley’s pleading eyes convey how badly she (and we) need Luke to return and be a hero once more; for his part, Mark Hamill earns every penny they paid him with one expression that burns with sorrow, reluctance, and longing. In that moment, my heart committed to these new films, and the long wait for Episode VIII began.
The only film I saw this year that I have anything interesting to say about is Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Not only was this film enjoyable as a visceral experience (I saw the 70mm roadshow cut), but Tarantino’s thematic growth is stunning.
For as long as I have been watching Tarantino movies in theaters, they’ve always been about revenge. The two-movie revenge epic Kill Bill, Inglourious Bastereds, Django Unchained, and even his side project, Death Proof–all were about revenge in one way or another. I’m not trying to say that these films had nothing to say beyond
- the protagonist (who might be a symbolic member of a wronged group, like blacks in the slavery-era American South) is wronged
- the protagonist gets violent revenge,
- the audience cheers
Because Tarantino is a brilliant filmmaker and a master of cinema’s formal techniques, and each film was more about those techniques than the story. (Except Death Proof, which I believe had nothing to say.) But even so, Tarantino’s eight and newest film takes a bold new step forward.
The Hateful Eight begins with the setup to a revenge film, and the first half of the film is primarily about Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins) and Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) brooding back and forth about who was wronged by the civil war. What makes this so compelling, given the rest of Tarantino’s recent ouvre, is that the film respects Mannix’s Confederate viewpoint as a “wronged” party, just as it credits Major Warren’s view as a former slave and Union soldier. Without watering down or hiding from the fact that the “lost cause” the South fought for is that “White men are safe only when n****** are scared,” this is the first film of Tarantino’s in a long time that expands the idea of revenge beyond that of a wholly justified victim group.
Major Warren’s characterization, especially in the scene that Kyu wrote about above, is equally important, because no matter how you interpret that scene–Warren lying in order to kill the older Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), or Warren telling the truth about taking pleasure (in multiple senses of the phrase) from torturing Smithers’ son–it still crosses a line that the Bride, the Basterds, and Django never quite crossed. In all of those cases we were meant to root for their brutality, and see it as justified compared to the equally brutal actions of their on-screen adversaries. Warren’s character recalls previous moments of judgement in those films, like the sniper scene in Django (“If Smitty Bacall wanted to start a farm at twenty-two, they never would of printed that [bounty]”), or the ending of Basterds (“When you get to your little place on Nantucket Island, I ‘magine you’re gonna take off that handsome-lookin’ S.S. uniform of yours, ain’tcha?… That’s what I thought. Now that I can’t abide.”) I think it’s a sign of profound thematic growth that The Hateful Eight recognizes that there are belief systems that seem attractive in a grindhouse cinema under the flickering lights, but which shouldn’t be given credence in the light of day.
But that’s just in the first half. The second half of the film (Spoilers, stop reading now), features the protagonists moving beyond revenge in what becomes a somewhat literal manifestation of the hangman’s (Tim Roth) monologue about the difference between true justice and frontier justice (revenge). This message, about disparate groups with strongly felt grievances coming together to channel their violence toward the preservation (or possibly the creation) of a meaningful social order, is one of the first new thematic ideas I’ve seen in Tarantino’s films in years.
The entire film then, is a meditation on the struggle toward to the creation of a “civil” society, where morality is defined by the rule of law, and not just the pleasure of revenge. This formal conceit is on display in the whole film: every death that is gory and “crowd-pleasing” happens to a guilty party, while the deaths of innocents are portrayed dispassionately (or in one notable case, entirely off-screen).
Major Warren’s line about bounty hunting, “No one said this had to be hard,” is a reflection of what the audience will soon learn: Warren is not justice, at least not yet. He’s been wandering the mountains, killing for pleasure, getting paid to do it, continuing his own version of the “lost cause” that Mannix and his father fought for–just for a side that the audience feels is more just.
The story of these two men, Warren and Mannix, working together to overcome savagery with their own justice is compelling, then, because it contains a lot of thematic nuance that I simply haven’t seen in Tarantino’s recent films. The brutality of their justice, the fact that the legitimate source of power is the scion of racism, and the almost pyrhhic victory gives me pause about the film’s message in a way that Inglourious Basterds (“The Holocaust was bad”) and Django Unchained (“So was slavery”) did not. The result is that The Hateful Eight is my pick for the best movie of 2015.
That’s it for today’s “Best Of”s for 2015. Come back tomorrow for the next entry in this week-long series, the best Anime of the year.