Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Top Ten of 2015

Directed by Sean Baker
Original Review

It's difficult these days to makes something that is as unique as Tangerine. It's unapologetically low-class dive into the lives of two trans women (played wonderfully by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor) is the funniest comedy I've seen this year. Rodriguez plays Sin-Dee, a prostitute fresh off a short jail stint on the look out for her pimp and boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone, in a pitch-perfect performance). Taylor plays Alexandra, a fellow prostitute and Sin-Dee's closest friend. She has dreams of becoming a singer. Sin-Dee is the engine of the film, her thunderous struts throughout the gritty streets of seedy Los Angeles are about as heart-pumping as anything you see in Mad Max: Fury Road; but Alexandra is the film's heart and Sin-Dee's conscience. If it weren't for her, Sin-Dee might set the whole world on fire. There's also an Armenian cab driver named Razmik (Karren Karagulian) who has a surprising fetish for transgender hookers and car washes, who's participation in Tangerine seems passive until his family starts to get involved. Tangerine was famously shot on iPhones, which is a gimmick that has helped the film's publicity, but does nothing to distract from the wonderful filmmaking. Sean Baker's film is overwhelmingly cinematic despite itself, and the arrival of this film proves that there is still unforeseen territory for independent cinema to explore. I've now seen this movie three times, and the experience has gotten richer (and funnier) with each viewing. The movie is ferocious throughout before landing gently on a conclusion that is both subtle and heartfelt, executing the year's most difficult dismount with stunning grace. Sean Baker doesn't make awards-bait and Tangerine doesn't waft with the kind of stuffiness of most prestige cinema, and yet his little film manages to be better than all of them. It really is a colossal achievement.

Directed by Tom McCarthy
Original Review

Tom McCarthy's ensemble story is a fierce procedural drama, a stark stomp through the Boston Globe's uncovering of pederasty run rampant through the Catholic church. With a brilliant cast including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Jon Slattery, Brian d'Arcy James, Stanley Tucci and Liev Schrieber, McCarthy makes his most impressive film to date. Spotlight's conscious steering away from heightened drama, it's fervent grip on the nuts-and-bolts nature of investigative reporting will remind many of the 1976 masterpiece All The President's Men. This film is just as grilling, just as ripe with tension and just as filled with phenomenal performances. When a new boss (Schrieber) enters the hallowed halls of the Boston Globe, he calls upon the paper's prestigious investigative team to tackle a subject matter he thinks is getting too little attention: sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests. The team, called Spotlight, is led by a grizzled veteran (Keaton) and they dig into the story with fervor. They interview various victims, talk to lawyers who have settled cases for the church, and even to members of the Boston archdiocese. The nature of the cover-up begins to reveal itself and the monstrous size of the crime becomes apparent. No one, not even the members of Spotlight and the Boston Globe are prepared for the kind of numbers they dig up with their reporting. McCarthy shows us Spotlight as a true ensemble, with the performances for the actors working for each other, and enriching the screenplay (written by McCarthy and Josh Singer). Keaton, Ruffalo and Schrieber, in particular, stand out amongst all the actors, but what really shines is the exceptional filmmaking, the fine attention McCarthy pays to editing, sound and narrative amidst the chaotic structure of the story. It's a thriller masquerading as a newspaper story, and McCarthy plays all the right notes.

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
Original Review

Is there a more important movie made in the last ten years than 2013's The Act of Killing? It's a documentary so haunting and spirit-breaking it will forever change your thoughts on human nature. Joshua Oppenheimer's 2015 companion piece, The Look of Silence, mirrors the mind-altering power of the previous film. Act of Killing was a vast exposure of the celebrated soldiers at the head of the anti-communist purge in Indonesia in the mid-1960's, which resulted in the killings of over a half-million people. The Look of Silence takes the view of one of the victims, or more specifically, the younger brother of one of the men who met their horrific fate during this dark time. This man (like many members of the crew, he goes by 'Anonymous' for the sake of his own safety) is an ophthalmologist, and under the ruse of giving an eye exam, he visits some of these killers and takes the opportunity to confront them about the acts they've committed. The results are stirring, tense, mortifying; there's a bevy of nauseating adjectives to be used and yet none of them ever seem to be truly fitting. The ophthalmologist has to escape the horrors of his hometown country, but the effects his brother's murder has had on his family is shattering, creating ripples throughout generations. With Oppenheimer by his side, camera-ready, the ophthalmologist asks these now elderly men about their experiences, about their killings. Their answers are direct, their rationalizations elaborate. Some men claim that they drank the blood of their victims to stave off PTSD-induced insanity (read that sentence twice please). The Look of Silence is a feel-bad doc, for sure, but it carries just as much power as its predecessor, exposing these horrific deeds to many unaware of them.

Directed by Todd Haynes
Original Review

The return of Todd Haynes to feature films (he hadn't made one since 2007's I'm Not There) is reason in and of itself to get excited, but this Patricia Highsmith adaptation (from her novel The Price of Salt) goes well beyond a lipstick lesbian melodrama and evolves into the most heartbreaking love story of the year, thanks to the careful hands of its director. The script is written by Phyllis Nagy, and it's the first time Haynes has directed a film from a script he hasn't written. The result is what I find to be the best film he has ever made. Cate Blanchett is the titular Carol, a wealthy 1950's housewife with a history of female romance who falls for Therese (Rooney Mara), a shy, young shopgirl who is swayed by Carol's regal beauty. Blanchett is approaching peerlessness as a screen performer, but Mara matches her performance beat for beat, to create a stunning, symbiotic pair of performances unlike anything else in the movies this year. The story is simple, the intrigue and tension palpable, with terrific supporting performances by Kyle Chandler (as Carol's hangdog, loveless husband), Jake Lacy (as Therese's suitor who can't understand how she wouldn't marry him), and especially Sarah Paulson (as Carol's best friend and former romantic entanglement). Much like 2005's Brokeback Mountain is a gay love story that isn't transformative narratively, but instead measured and thoughtful. It's more about the passion than it is about the consequences of their love. Unlike Brokeback, Carol doesn't feel the need to tell a gay love story and make it tragic. As the threads of love entangle the two women, Haynes and Nagy are careful to have taste, to show that there are some forms of love that are painful, and that there are some forms of pain that you simply cannot live without.

Directed by George Miller
Original Review

Thirty-six years after George Miller's first Mad Max film, the Australian filmmaker returned to make the most impactful studio film of the year. Tom Hardy arrives to play the title character, but his Mad Max is diminished to a number of deranged grunts and fast-twitch muscle fiber. When he crosses paths with a tanker truck transporting five women away from the clutches of a merciless dictator named Immotan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the mercenary Max becomes entangled in a rescue mission. Driving the truck is Furiosa (Charlize Theron), one of Immortan Joe's best drivers, who has defected in an attempted to bring Joe's five wives to safety, away from a life of sex slavery and baby-making. Max and Furiosa push the truck through dangerous terrain, with Joe and and the rest of the calvary hot on their heels. We're left with a two-hour car chase, with only brief pauses in the action. A diesel-fueled thrill ride that only escalates in insanity and inventiveness. Miller's vision here is extraordinary, crafting something so visually spectacular, a wondrous mixture of astonishing beauty (cinematographer: John Searle) and grosteque horrors. The abuse of women is often an undercooked plot point in major films, but Fury Road takes this concept seriously, and instead of focusing on the victimhood of these characters, imbues its screenplay (by Miller, Brendan McCarthy & Nico Lathouris) with a feminist bent, allowing the female characters to take charge, make their own choices and judgments, surrounding the character of Max Rocketansky as figures with true agency. That Miller would make this obvious choice, to make this film about female empowerment, is a brave move, but it's even more impressive that he's able to pull it off so well, while also crafting the most exciting action film of the year.

6. 45 YEARS
Written and Directed by Andrew Haigh
Original Review

The memory of an old flame haunts the marriage at the center of 45 Years like a cumbersome, needy ghost. Andrew Haigh's film is one of the few that truly earns the adjective Bergman-esque with its frank portrayal of marriage, and its sparse, performance-led production. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay play Cate and Geoff Mercer, a married couple a week away from their forty-fifth wedding anniversary. The occasion will be celebrated extravagantly with all their friends and family, but when Geoff learns that the missing body of a former lover has been found over fifty years later, the discovery comes as an utter shock to him and a grim awakening for her. 45 Years is an impressively intelligent film about matters of the heart, about how love is never safe even if happily ever after has managed to last for four and a half decades. It's piercing, adult view of marriage is somber without being cynical, dramatic without being maudlin, and overall a truly refreshing take on the domestic drama. The performances from Rampling and Courtenay are amongst the best you'll be able to see in the theater right now. Courtenay is wonderfully irritable, his altered mind having trouble adjusting to his quickly overacting heart. As Cate, Rampling is incredible. An actress known for her sharp, steely screen presence proceeds as this film's emotional center, translating such a varied slate of emotions, she and Haigh are so acute at keeping the audience off balance. Her true motives, her true thoughts, are never really revealed until the film's final shot which is one of the most heartbreaking conclusions I've seen in a movie in a very long time.

Directed by Brett Haley

This winning dramedy flew under the radar this spring, but those who saw it got a lucky treat. Hollywood mainstay Blythe Danner is given what is probably her greatest role as Carol Peterson, a retired schoolteacher and former professional singer. Since becoming a widow twenty years ago, Carol has stayed alone romantically, but when she makes friends with two very different men - a restless, thirtysomething pool cleaner named Lloyd (Martin Starr) and a cigar-chomping fellow retiree named Bill (Sam Elliot) - she learns that it's never too late for life to begin anew. I'll See You In My Dreams may seem like Nancy Meyers-type cotton candy at a glance, but its heart is closer to the emotionally-piercing female-led films of Nicole Holfcener. The film is directed by Brett Haley, and he co-wrote the script with Marc Basch. The men craft a strikingly bittersweet tale of heartbreak and heart mending, of love both passionate and platonic. That two men could find a way to tell a sweet, honest tale about women of a certain age is an unexpected thrill. A subplot including Carol's group of friends allows the film to employ June Squibb, Mary Kay Place and Rhea Pearlman, giving the movie a handful of great scenes in which these actresses talk about their lives, both romantic and not. How often do we get to see that? Especially in a film so wonderfully told? At its heart, I'll See You In My Dreams is a film about grief, about the death of a husband, but more directly a film about the death of one's dog. As Carol gets older, the reality of death creeps closer, but instead of falling victim to her existential crisis, she instead decides to enjoy her golden years with her friends, within her winning friendship with Lloyd, and by accepting the romantic advances of Bill. This indie hit was one of the year's most wonderful surprises.

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Original Review

Not since Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild has a child performance been so completely captivating as Jacob Tremblay in Room. Working with Brie Larson, Tremblay is the center of the most emotionally overpowering film of the year. Larson plays a young mother being held captive by a lecherous, abusive man named Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). She has raised her son Jack (Tremblay) inside a small room for the first five years of his life. Room's first half is a wondrous display of film directing, with filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson effectively forming the narrative of these two characters within this desperate (and tiny) atmosphere. The film's second half, dealing with Ma and Jack's escape and further trouble adjusting back into normal life is a somber domestic drama. The film's halves are so different, and yet the performance from Tremblay - the film is told through his point-of-view - keeps the story grounded, seen through the eyes of innocence. The film is based on the best-selling novel by Emma Donoghue, and the author penned the screenplay. Like Gillian Flynn, who adapted her own best-seller with Gone Girl last year, Donoghue proves quite adept at the process and takes a novel that was already written in a difficult structure and modifies it softly, makes it cinematic. Larson had been building good will as an actress for several years, particularly in 2013's Short Term 12, but Room is obviously the young actress' biggest role to date. It's a wrenching performance, filled with heart and terror. The chemistry that Larson and Tremblay build throughout is the film's strongest asset, and Abrahamson allows it to take center stage while building around them a world that is filled with both wonder and fear. By the film's end, I'd been drained, cried out and left exhausted. Room is so emotional, it's actually physical, but it attains all of this without contrivance. It achieves it through strong direction, a stellar screenplay, and two lead performances that perfectly translate those emotions to the audience.

Directed by Deniz Gamze Erguven
Original Review

Parts wondrous, parts tragic, Deniz Gamze Erguven's autobiographical Mustang tracks five sisters growing up and growing against the conservative Turkish village that they call their home. Shot in an immediate cinema verité style, Erguven keeps a stern eye as the sisters try their best to live freely against the wishes of their helpless grandmother and their oppressive uncle. After being orphaned, five spirited sisters rub against the restrictions of their Muslim heritage when their uncle makes it clear that he wants them married off and out of his home. When he takes the girls out of school, bars them within his home and turns the house into a wife-making factory, it only makes the sisters that much more defiant, fighting his oppression by strengthening their bonds and their love. Gunes Sensoy, the young actress who plays Lale, the youngest and most rebellious of the five sisters, is a wonder. The film's script (by Erguven and Alice Winocour) tells the story through Lale's point-of-view, and adapts the young girls naiveté, while still maintaining a strong sense of self within all five of the girls. As the film proceeds, and the sisters begin to bend to the will of their family, a malais sits heavily upon the audience. Watching the spirit of these young women getting crushed is sobering in a number of ways, but mostly because Erguven's strong sense of the material (and her real-life connection to it) really makes the story feel honest. Mustang is not simply a tear-down of Muslim society, but a snapshot of life in the face of draconian rules. Starting like something similar to a sweet comedy, Mustang concludes as a suspenseful thriller, as the remaining sisters desperately find any way they can to escape. Despite this, Erguven's film stands as one of the most delightful experiences of the year.

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
Original Review

The Dogme legend Thomas Vinterberg came back strong with The Hunt in 2013, a film that showed that he still had his fastball when it comes to grim, performance-led indie dramas. Earlier this year, he released a much different film: a lush adaptation of Thomas Hardy's beloved novel Far From The Madding Crowd. A period piece is probably the last thing you'd expect from the director of The Celebration, but Vinterberg shows here that he has evolved precipitously since the skimpy Dogme days, and showcases his ability to make a strong, emotional costume drama. The great Carey Mulligan gives the year's most unsung performance here as Bathsheba Everdene, the marriage-averse business woman convinced that a relationship with a man will only sully her free spirit. When she comes into business with moral sheep herder Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), he makes a dignified marriage proposal that is rejected. Despite this, Oak continues working for the business-shrewd Bathsheba, and their relationship evolves as she rejects a proposal from another wealthy man (Michael Sheen) and accepts the sexual advances of a troublesome soldier (Tom Sturridge). David Nicholls' screenplay is an expert adaptation, cutting through a years-long tale with a swiftness that still keeps the spirit of the narrative. It reminded me of Joe Wright's masterful Pride & Prejudice from 2005, which was another brilliant and charming period piece led by the strength of its lead performance. The burning chemistry between Mulligan and Schoenaerts is sparking and tense, and the will they/won't they aspect of their romance gives the film its main point of suspense, which is what Vinterberg does best. But this is not the Vinterberg obsessed with hard-to-watch tales of depravity, and he proves adept at literary adaptation, assuring himself as one of our most exciting filmmakers.

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