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Love & Friendship

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on May 29, 2016 at 5:10 PM Comments comments (0)



LOVE & FRIENDSHIP   ***

Whit Stillman

2016



IDEA:  Following the death of her wealthy husband, Lady Susan, "the biggest flirt in all England," arrives at her sister-in-law's manor and concocts a devious plan.


BLURB:  Love & Friendship is a union of two artists magnifying and bolstering the qualities of one another, Whit Stillman revealing the bitter bite of Jane Austen and Austen sharpening the hyper-verbal, mercilessly unsentimental snap of Stillman. The match is scarily right: Austen’s novella becomes for Stillman a dryly scathing comedy of manners with hardly a room for breath, each astringent, scrupulously tailored line of dialogue at once cutting through the folly of aristocratic social ritual and compounding its exhausting gamesmanship. Nobody plays the game better than Lady Susan, a role Kate Beckinsale relishes as she rattles off reams of primly disparaging incriminations without batting an eyelash. It’s all subterfuge all the time, and Beckinsale’s handling of her deceitful verbosity is as likely to give audiences whiplash as the characters she unashamedly deploys it against. Even at a little over 90 minutes this can grow wearying, but Stillman’s propensity for playfully curt cadences typically keeps things from becoming too overbearing. And while anything resembling compassion seems entirely absent from Lady Susan’s actions, Stillman nevertheless honors the audacity of a woman who wins with baldly mendacious words, whose scheming and haughtiness are symptoms of a rigged world of privilege she’s found a way to use against itself. It’s a character invented by Austen and realized by Stillman as another of his blithely self-deluded heroines.

Sunset Song

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on May 20, 2016 at 5:20 PM Comments comments (0)



SUNSET SONG   **

Terence Davies

2016

 

 

IDEA:  Facing the depredations of family and a changing land, self-determined farm girl Chris Guthrie paves her way toward independence in early 20th-century Scotland.


BLURB:  In a disappointing number of ways, Sunset Song is a prosaic period romance that seems all the more conventional coming from Terence Davies. There are, however, traits that distinguish it and connect it to the director’s oeuvre. Most evident is its ambivalent, romantic/mournful relationship with the past, which imbues it with a heavy melancholy compounded by its protagonist’s past-tense, third-person narration. There is also the volatile family with its brutish father and sympathetic siblings, and a young person on the cusp of adulthood who fiercely pursues her independence. Transience pervades the narrative as a country and its people weather the rapidly changing landscape of the early 20th century. Other Davies hallmarks, including communal music, slow pans and dollies across rooms, painterly side-lighting, and strong female characters persist. In a time when the old-fashioned and the melodramatic are scorned or steadfastly avoided, Sunset Song does at least feel somewhat novel in its unapologetic embrace of classical filmmaking styles, but it also fails to make a case for itself as anything particularly distinctive, less interesting aesthetically and narratively than what Davies is capable of. Its affecting tribute to the resilience of women and of Scotland itself is underserved by a mostly stuffy telling of what is already a familiar story.

Sing Street

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on May 6, 2016 at 10:15 PM Comments comments (0)



SING STREET   ***

John Carney

2016

 

 

IDEA:  Stifled by the vicious parochial school he's sent to, a boy forms a pop band with a young model and a ragtag team of classmates.


BLURB:  John Carney believes in the redemptive, transformative power of music. In Sing Street, the kids don’t simply retreat into a world of song to escape their oppressive situations, they actively use the music as a correcting and regenerative source to facilitate relationships that can redeem the ravages of their elders. Carney sees such power in it, in fact, that he renders it downright procreative, tacitly demonstrating the artistic process and performative self-expression as analogous, and perhaps preferable to, real biological reproduction. The film evokes queerness in its depiction of difference and in the ways its outcast characters reclaim the agents that have demeaned them, but like the pop songs it pays homage to, it remains firmly about the promises granted by heterosexual courtship. As such, it looks back nostalgically, exalting not only the popular music of the 1980s but the romantic escapism of old Hollywood musicals. Yet true to its main character’s desire to lead a futurist band, Carney refuses to immure the film in the comforts of the past. Instead, and in spite of its occasionally trite male fantasy scenario, Sing Street functions as an unapologetically wide-eyed tribute to youthful moxie and righteous dreaming, to envisioning the possibilities of the future, quixotic as they might be, with conviction.

Everybody Wants Some!!

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on April 20, 2016 at 2:30 PM Comments comments (0)



EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!   ***1/2

Richard Linklater

2016



IDEA:  In 1980, freshman Jake integrates into a rowdy college baseball team during the weekend before classes start.


BLURB:  Everybody Wants Some!! is charged with the attitude that life is something to enjoy, that opportunities of all kinds are things to embrace, and that experiences are things to savor as they’re happening. Such potentially sentimental notions are utterly natural and unsentimental to Richard Linklater, whose newest film espouses this approach to living with a casual profundity that awakens in the viewer an acute, blissful awareness of his own vitality. His characters, a rollicking collective of boastful jocks all beautifully delineated in personality, are certainly at their peak vitality and vigor: their sinewy bodies on full display under eternal sun, Linklater offers a tribute to their virility that’s tied to their ambitions and potentials as individuals. That their boisterous interplay also constitutes a comic anthropological study of male camaraderie and competitiveness furthers Linklater’s affectionate portrait of a very specific, and eventually irretrievable, time in life. Everybody Wants Some!! is not, however, about dwelling in the melancholy of a lost time or describing an end of an era. Although it utilizes his favored ticking clock narrative structure, the film doesn’t count down moments of freedom or happiness but leads to the promise of more of them. An ebullient paean to the possibilities of youth, of being unspectacular but passionate, of being a part of a group but one, Everybody Wants Some!! locates that precious moment of contentment when you understand that everything is right, and you can enjoy the now knowing there are so many still to come.

Midnight Special

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on April 5, 2016 at 2:50 PM Comments comments (0)



MIDNIGHT SPECIAL   *1/2

Jeff Nichols

2016

 

 

IDEA:  A young boy with supernatural abilities is pursued by the religious cult that considers him a savior and the government that considers him a threat. With the help of a childhood friend, the boy's father takes him on the run.


BLURB:  Midnight Special is a vexing film that has ideas it never seems interested in realizing and intentions it actively bungles. This is a movie about faith in the unknown that gives us little reason to believe; a glimpse of future transcendence that forgets to generate awe or excitement; an imagining of a reality beyond our perception that feels crushingly earthbound; most upsetting of all, an intimate domestic story of parental love, responsibility, courage, and sacrifice that has no heart. The actors in Midnight Special have apparently been instructed to deliver their lines in a tone of monotonous solemnity, awkwardly signaling emotional cues without ever investing feeling in the thin characterizations they’ve been given. Nichols’ filmmaking follows suit as the narrative plods along stolidly, failing to pick up momentum or break free from the rigid parameters which it has imposed upon itself. One could perhaps argue that Nichols is using this listlessness to illustrate the oppressiveness of his American milieu, where cultish religion and government surveillance seek to control life, threatening to tear apart the home. But if the world has gotten this bad, shouldn’t we have a sense of what is being lost in the process? Shouldn’t we sense the humanity, the suppressed beauty, the potential for grace? Nichols arrives there eventually, but the journey is ponderous, its stodgy images and lifeless performances fatally incongruous with its ethereal aims.

Knight of Cups

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on March 17, 2016 at 10:20 PM Comments comments (0)



KNIGHT OF CUPS   **1/2

Terrence Malick

2016



IDEA:  An aimless, dissipated Hollywood screenwriter searches for meaning as he ruminates on loves past and present and deals with old family wounds.


BLURB:  Emulating the lavish yet fleeting pleasures that surround its protagonist, Knight of Cups is an evanescent object that seems to disappear as you’re holding it. Malick’s fragmentary, elliptical design leaves little room for lingering: though his camera darts, drifts, lunges, and swirls with immediacy, practically palpating the earthly textures it embraces, the extraordinary sense of perceptual presence he conjures finds itself constantly offset by the ephemeral assemblage of his images, which flow by in seemingly arbitrary order and tend to come and go in media res. There is an aptness to this approach that fits Knight of Cups in particular, a film that is as much about an intense being-in-the-world as it is about the inability to connect and be fulfilled in a culture of ersatz pleasures. But the effect is uneven: too often, rather than powerfully channeling the languor of Christian Bale’s Rick, Malick’s cinematic grammar itself feels tired and desultory, a familiar gathering of his recent formal tendencies that lacks the purposefulness of his best work. Contradictions, however, continue to rule, and Knight of Cups wrestles with interesting ones in its ambivalent yet open-hearted vision of LA. Through Malick’s undiscriminating eyes, there is value to be found on its surfaces, beauty and compassion that can comingle with artifice and vanity, images that can unite the life-giving breadth of the ocean with the idle luxury of penthouse pools. Wholeness and satisfaction, supposedly accorded by material consumption, remain elusive. Malick interrogates and replicates this lack, rendering his latest as frustrating as it is compellingly nebulous.

88th Academy Awards Predictions

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on February 26, 2016 at 4:35 PM Comments comments (0)






You might as well flip a coin. The most mercurial, shape-shifting awards race in years concludes this Sunday, and for once none of the traditional Oscar predictors are pointing in anything resembling a definitive direction. Unlike last year when Birdman pushed far ahead of early frontrunner Boyhood by winning all three of the top guild awards - those of the Producers, Directors, and Actors - this year stands as the first since 2004 that those three guilds have crowned separate victors. First, PGA went with The Big Short, causing many to prematurely believe it was the new film to beat. They had good reason: the PGA has called the Best Picture winner every year since 2007, and has not missed once since it began using the preferential balloting system the Academy also currently uses. Then came SAG, which chose the Spotlight team. Finally, DGA went with Alejandro González Iñárritu for the second year in a row - making him the first director to take back-to-back wins in DGA history - for The Revenant. That film also won Iñárritu the Golden Globe and later the BAFTA. The film itself won the top prize from both organizations, as well. Notably, neither had awarded Iñárritu in 2014, nor had they given Best Picture to Birdman. The Oscars did.

 

So where do we stand? What early in the season seemed like a done deal for Spotlight, which dominated the regional critics' groups awards in decisive fashion, now seems far less certain, and the guilds have only muddied the waters in the months since. All three perceived frontrunners have something working against them. The Big Short and Spotlight can't win, people will tell you, because surely they won't be able to win more than two Oscars when all is said and done, and a Best Picture winner's Oscar count hasn't been that low since 1952. The Revenant, meanwhile, the film many gurus consider to have the unstoppable momentum on its side at the moment, doesn't have a Screenplay nomination and wasn't nominated for its ensemble at SAG. No film has won Best Picture lacking those two things. Not to mention no director has ever directed back-to-back Best Picture winners. Is the Academy really going to confer onto Iñárritu, of all people, the right to break that stat?

 

Or maybe Mad Max: Fury Road will win in the jaw-dropper of the century. Unlikely, but sounds pretty enticing, no?

 

So flip a coin. Go with your gut. Preferably not the kind The Revenant is so preoccupied with. For a season this unpredictable, let's hope for some surprises.


 

 

PREDICTIONS (with the caveat, as always, that I have little to no knowledge of most of the Short Feature nominees and will essentially be guessing in the dark on them)


 

 

BEST PICTURE:


When The Revenant won at the Globes, it seemed like a one-and-done deal. The HFPA went with Boyhood and Linklater the previous year, so it felt as if the organization was merely making it up to the director. But then The Revenant kept going. It made serious money at the box office. It emerged from Oscar nominations morning as the nominations leader. Finally, it won the DGA. All of this, and the ludicrous narrative that has bolstered its allegedly grueling, death-defying production have made it appear like a freight train heading to inevitable victory. But I'm not buying it. If The Revenant does win, it will represent a triumph for superlative craft in the service of an overblown, hollow, and politically dubious paean to its makers' egos, where the only thing grueling about it is its grandiose self-importance. Which almost describes Braveheart to a "T," incidentally the Best Picture winner exactly 20 years ago and also the last film to win without a SAG ensemble nod.


But let's look at 10 years ago instead. 2006. The year the modest ensemble film, also the SAG winner, "surprisingly" bested the DGA-winning western. The ensemble film was Crash. The western, Brokeback Mountain. Okay, perhaps a tenuous analogy matching those two to Spotlight and The Revenant, respectively, but I think there's something pertinent there. Spotlight will win over the actors like Crash. Spotlight will divide less people than The Revenant. Its topicality, subdued but considerable emotional heft, and humanity, one hopes, will prove more uniting in a year like 2016 than the vacant excesses of Iñárritu's gruesome epic.


WILL WIN: Spotlight



BEST DIRECTOR: 


Alejandro González Iñárritu won last year. The last director to win in consecutive years was Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1949 and 1950. But Iñárritu has the DGA, and by the way, did you hear how arduous it was to make The Revenant out there in all that cold? George Miller, who collected the lion's share of directing prizes from critics' circles back in December, should have more steam for Mad Max: Fury Road, which was surely as demanding a physical and logistical endeavor, if not more so, than The Revenant. Could he eke out a surprising win? Could it be Tom McCarthy, who would be absolutely deserving for the masterful restraint and seamless storytelling skill he brought to Spotlight? Fingers crossed, but sadly ostentatious gestures tend to be more often equated with artistry, and thus win more myopic proponents, than subtlety.


WILL WIN: Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant



BEST ACTOR:


Speaking of arduous productions, arduous acting has also proven to make people think they're witnessing something special. That mistaking of physical suffering for consummate acting, in addition to the exhausting PR machine that has kept reiterating the difficulty of making The Revenant, in addition to the HE MUST WIN narrative that has grown increasingly and vexingly fervent around Leonardo DiCaprio in the past few years, will give the actor his first Oscar for one of his least deserving performances.


WILL WIN: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant



BEST ACTRESS:


This lineup is stellar, which is why I'm disheartened that Brie Larson, raw and poignant as she is in Room, has so monopolized the Best Actress awards this season. I'd vote for Cate Blanchett's otherworldly, meticulously nuanced work in Carol first, and then Charlotte Rampling's quietly eroding resolve in 45 Years, and then Saoirse Ronan's miraculously channeled gamut of emotions in Brooklyn. But so it goes.


WILL WIN: Brie Larson, Room


 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:


It's all about the comeback kid, the improbable success story that sees an actor nominated, once again, for the role he originated 39 years ago. Thankfully, his win will be less a political late career honor than a genuine acknowledgment of a moving, lovingly textured performance.


WILL WIN: Sylvester Stallone, Creed



BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:


This has long seemed the most fluid of the acting categories, and it still kind of seems that way even with Alicia Vikander nudging out in front after SAG. Her performance ticks the boxes for this category: she's a suffering wife, she cries a lot, and she stars opposite a male-nominated co-star. She was also in five movies last year, which means that this vote is just as much for her role as Gerda Wegener as it is for the young Vikander herself, who fills the role of ingénue the Academy so loves to honor. But I'd watch out for Kate Winslet, who won surprisingly at the Golden Globes and a little less surprisingly at BAFTA. At neither, however, did she compete against Vikander's Danish Girl performance, as both organizations rightly placed her in the lead actress category.


WILL WIN: Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl


 

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY:

 

All signs point to the ambitious, anarchic density of The Big Short, which impresses in its ability to explain the complicated machinery of Wall Street and the 2008 financial collapse in a way that's simultaneously digestible and cleverly, witheringly sardonic.

 

WILL WIN: The Big Short

 

 

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY:

 

All signs point to the ambitious, journalistic density of Spotlight, which impresses in its ability to tell the story of the sobering 2002 investigation of child abuse cover-ups in the Catholic Church in a way that's simultaneously compelling and shrewdly unsentimental.

 

WILL WIN: Spotlight

 

 

BEST EDITING:

 

This category often lines up with Best Picture: the logic is that the winner here foretells the top prize at the end of the night. But isn't this locked and loaded for Mad Max: Fury Road, which almost everyone agrees is the most mind-bogglingly complex, fluent, and kinetically thrilling editing job of the year? Voters have the unfortunate tendency of perceiving "most editing" as the "best editing," but in this case the confusion will be justified.

 

WILL WIN: Mad Max: Fury Road

 

 

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY:

 

For the longest time, Emmanuel Lubezki couldn't catch a break. Then he won a well-deserved first Oscar for Gravity. Then another the very next year for Birdman. Then another the year after that for... oh, wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. On Sunday, Lubezki will join a rare pool of artists to win Oscars three years in a row, and the first cinematographer to ever do so.

 

WILL WIN: The Revenant

 

 

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN:

 

I suppose it could be something other than Fury Road's insanely inventive, outlandish post-apocalyptic intricacies, but then I don't know what on earth that "other" could possibly be.

 

WILL WIN: Mad Max: Fury Road

 

 

BEST COSTUME DESIGN:

 

I really thought the costumes would be swept along in a Mad Max crafts-categories haul, but now I'm not so sure. This category, as of late, usually privileges the most lavish or flamboyant designs, typically in a period idiom. Cinderella fits the bill, although this is its only nomination. The Danish Girl would absolutely qualify, and I imagine that could be Mad Max's biggest competition. But I'm sticking with Max: it's not a conventional winner, but its vivid, character-defining creations are as indelible as anything that's won here in the past.

 

WILL WIN: Mad Max: Fury Road

 

 

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING:

 

As easy a get as any for Mad Max and its panoply of bodies in various stages of physical grotesquerie.

 

WILL WIN: Mad Max: Fury Road

 

 

BEST SOUND MIXING:

 

Between The Revenant's richly immersive soundscape that places us smack dab in an environment alternately placid and hostile and Mad Max's artful cacophony of motors and metal, either option is a smart one.

 

WILL WIN: The Revenant

 

 

BEST SOUND EDITING:

 

This seems the trickier of the two categories to predict, although the winner will certainly be one of the two films out in front in Sound Mixing. The Revenant has sounds that call less conspicuous attention to themselves than the clanging, roaring, revving, and grinding effects of Mad Max, so I'm tempted to pick the latter film, but it could go either way.

 

WILL WIN: Mad Max: Fury Road

 

 

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS:

 

It surprises me to say Mad Max, which I (obviously) believe will be the crafts winner of the night, is not guaranteed to win this one, but that little Star Wars movie is also nominated here and it could be the only place for voters to recognize it. Abrams' sequel also shockingly bested Mad Max at the Visual Effects Society's awards, so maybe that augurs something?

 

WILL WIN: Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens

 

 

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM:

 

If the audacious, formally and ideologically daring Son of Saul proves too demanding, then look to France's Mustang. But Son of Saul *is* a Holocaust film, and everyone knows the Academy responds positively to those. Beyond that, it's easily the most acclaimed and awarded of the lot.

 

WILL WIN: Son of Saul, Hungary

 

 

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE:

 

Amy is the favorite, having won the most critics' groups laurels throughout the season. It's also about music, and a much loved, tragically lost performer, and docs centered around music register regularly in this category.

 

WILL WIN: Amy

 

 

BEST ANIMATED FILM:

 

The Pixar one that was nominated.

 

WILL WIN: Inside Out

 

 

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE:

 

Solid lineup, and it's about time the brilliant Carter Burwell gets an Oscar nomination (for his beautiful, yearning Carol score, my favorite here). But this one is going to Ennio Morricone, the Italian music maestro who will finally be receiving his first Academy Award after producing scores of era-defining melodies.

 

WILL WIN: The Hateful Eight

 

 

BEST ORIGINAL SONG:

 

Lady Gaga, right? I actually like the Sam Smith Spectre song - a lot, even - but I can't really see the Academy going back to Bond again, especially after Adele's uniformly lauded Oscar-winning song set a kind of standard nobody thinks Smith came close to reaching.

 

WILL WIN: "Til' it Happens to You" from The Hunting Ground

 

 

BEST SHORT FILM - LIVE ACTION

 

WILL WIN: Everything Will Be Okay

 

 

BEST SHORT FILM - DOCUMENTARY

 

WILL WIN: Last Day of Freedom

 

 

BEST SHORT FILM - ANIMATION

 

WILL WIN: World of Tomorrow

The Witch

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on February 25, 2016 at 9:35 PM Comments comments (0)



THE WITCH   ***

Robert Eggers

2016

 


IDEA:  In 1630s New England, a Puritan family is tormented by strange phenomena after being exiled from their village to a farmstead just outside the woods.


BLURB:  The Witch is not, strictly speaking, nerve-jangling supernatural horror. Nor is it a period drama about Puritans where the occult stands as a purely metaphorical representation of ideological evil. Instead, it craftily synthesizes the two approaches to tell a story where supernatural evil arises as the logical, inevitable result of dogmatic ideology. In Eggers’ film, under perpetually sepulchral skies in a scarily nascent America, it is the religious zealotry, persecution, and unbridled paranoia of the Puritans that literally breed the witches whose existence they only suspected, fulfilling their fear by inadvertently manifesting it. The Witch is brutally effective in this depiction of self-perpetuating and self-consuming fear, running real witchcraft parallel to the inner turmoil and eventual implosion of its Puritan family unit to underscore just how insidious the latter is, its tyrannical repressiveness a horror equal to or more than that of the spirits lurking in the woods. Less successful is Eggers’ handling of tone and rhythm: he makes an audacious narrative gamble early on that pays off conceptually, but it also somewhat hobbles the film’s suspense, and he has difficulty keeping the rope tightly wound to generate the kind of steady, inexorably building dread the film calls for. Thankfully he makes up for the slack with his ghostly visuals, and certainly in the smart nuances that texture this parable of religious hysteria, one that slyly posits the life of sin so much hostility had gone into averting as both a tragic outcome and ecstatic liberation from a paralyzing culture.

Hail, Caesar!

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on February 17, 2016 at 4:50 PM Comments comments (0)



HAIL, CAESAR!   ***1/2

Joel and Ethan Coen

2016


 

IDEA:  Pious Hollywood "fixer" Eddie Mannix deals with a variety of snafus - including the kidnapping of one of Capitol Studio's biggest stars - while he faces a crisis of conscience.


BLURB:  Leave it to the Coen brothers to craft a farcical satire on the Hollywood studio system that functions as a meditation on faith. In their wry and ingenious tale, it only makes sense: after all, what are the movies but grand illusions that require us to believe in them if they are to work? And what is Hollywood but a capitalist industry we’d also like to think is capable of real virtue? Indeed, the “dream factory” is the oxymoron that centers the directors’ exploration of cinema’s and life’s great contradictions. Within the back lots and stages of 1950s Hollywood they find a sprawling institutional space where pleasure is manufactured while business rules, truth exists only to be trumped by fabrications, and the rigmarole of routine and mechanical process clouds all certainty that its results will have any cultural value whatsoever. Hail, Caesar! thus maintains a characteristic Coen-level cynicism, and it mines deliciously sardonic humor from the foofaraw generated by celebrity personalities and PR politics. Somewhat surprisingly, however, is the optimism that offsets it. Though they may view Hollywood from one perspective as a crass, exploitative instrument of capitalism that controls bodies, what they ultimately find is a magical instrument of creation that provides, as our protagonist notes, entertainment and enlightenment. Or maybe they just want to believe that. Why shouldn’t they? As with any higher power, whether institutional or spiritual, a certain stubborn faith is required. Hail, Caesar! sees the Coens not only honoring the power of make believe, but validating the right to believe in it at all – maybe even, or especially when, it seems most foolish.

Top 10 - 2015

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on February 3, 2016 at 3:55 PM Comments comments (0)







This is the latest I have made a Top 10 list since I began this blog in 2010. As I outlined in a past post, the reason is that I’ve been waiting to see significant 2015 titles that I either missed or that never came to my area, and I didn’t want to compose my list without being able to consider such notable (and obnoxiously late) releases such as Anomalisa and Son of Saul, or streamables available on Netflix and elsewhere. My plan, it turns out, proved to be only partially useful: as of this writing, the second film was only released here last week, and the first is still absent from any theater near me. I suppose it’s my fault for missing them when they were at CIFF back in October…

But something else has delayed my list, something I also made note of in my prior post. It’s that 2015 felt like kind of a bizarre movie year, the rare one in which no single film stood out as a head-and-shoulders-above-the-rest favorite. In other words, you can essentially consider all ten excellent films on my list as equal top-rankers.

One theme emerged, however: cinema. Many of the 2015 films that most spoke to me were the ones that took cinema history and theory as their driving creative forces, building experiences that exploited the material and psychological faculties of the medium. These films were conceptually audacious, aesthetically indelible, and wonderfully exciting in their understanding, and practicing of, film's boundless formal and narrative potentials.
 

2015 films of note I still, regrettably, have not seen: In Jackson Heights, Queen of Earth, Anomalisa, Mustang, Joy, Chi-Raq, Arabian Nights, Victoria




10. Room / Lenny Abrahamson

Committing to the screen one of the more authentic child’s-eye views in recent memory, Room evocatively inhabits both the physical and psychological perspectives of an inchoate youth. The film accomplishes this through an impressive concert of camerawork, editing, sound, and performance: centered invariably on the amazing Jacob Tremblay, Abrahamson defines time and space through his eyes by nimbly calibrating these filmmaking tools around him, placing us in point-of-view shots that let us viscerally feel his literally expanding worldview. Trepidation, wonder, and disorientation form his turbulent headspace, and we are made to live them all. It is love, however, the primal one shared only between mother and child, that is the inviolable bond that pushes Room outward. Never taken on maudlin terms, Larson and Tremblay make their love felt on a molecular level, capturing the potent mix of biological dependency and fierce, unshakable devotion that tethers them together. In the process, the film's dramatic circumstances and blossoming aftermath magnify steps we all take in our early development as our widening perception of the world begins to redefine and supplant the reality we thought we knew. It's easy to imagine the film bogged down by manipulative tactics in other hands, but this Room fully earns the flood of emotions it elicits.



9. Mistress America / Noah Baumbach

What a terrific year for Noah Baumbach. Not only did he direct While We're Young, a hilarious and perceptive exploration of authenticity and cultural appropriation across the generations, he also made the scintillatingly witty, bracing, and poignant screwball farce Mistress America, which matches rapid-fire bon mots with equally piercing inquiries into identity, integrity, ambition, and being a young adult in the 21st century. And is there a better cinematic portraitist of urban, middle-class 21st century American identity than Baumbach? There's certainly not a funnier or more incisive one: Mistress America, in its blistering register, cannily digs beneath the very Internet-era-specific layers of performance and irony that comprise the profiles of millenials, finding confusion and doubt as familiar cornerstones and turning the awkward search for self-actualization into a blithe comedy of manners. The line is always deliberately thin between mocking, arch observation and empathetic understanding, but there is never the sense that Baumbach, or inexhaustible co-writer Gerwig, regard these fledgling characters with anything but compassion. That they are able to so adeptly tease out their anxieties with such lightness and elan is beguiling – an ability to encapsulate a particular Gen Y condition unmatched in contemporary film.


8. Son of Saul / László Nemes

Son of Saul, in form and function, concerns itself with nothing less than the burden of representing the Holocaust on screen. It presupposes we’re familiar with its history and its manifold, often graphic cinematic depictions, which allows it to take on a new perspective that, even more than presenting another side of the 20th century’s most unconscionable atrocity, actively questions the ethics and limits of its visual recreation and the roles image-makers and consumers play in approaching its memory. Locking his camera in almost unwavering close-up on his protagonist while obscuring the violence taking place around him, Nemes does this by locating his theme as vision itself: the burden of the knowledge it generates, and the extent to which we can see, or should see, such horror. The film’s claustrophobic frames and deliberate optical obfuscation also have a more immediately psychological effect, disabling the spectator’s gaze and denying him the sense of omniscience and control he is accustomed to when watching a movie. This all constitutes a hugely daring and maybe even presumptuous conceptual gambit, and Son of Saul is always running the risk of being too much of a stunt, or being unduly abstract. Yet its scrupulous constriction of vision is in the service of an intensely human story. Laser-focused on the face of a victim trying to do one decent thing in a sea of depravity, it wrests visual power from evil, elevating his experience amid abject horror while calling valuable, thought-provoking attention to the politics of one of cinema’s most morally hazardous subjects.



7. The Forbidden Room / Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson

In a movie year defined by updating, repackaging, rehashing, and remixing older films, Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson's manic movie-devouring fantasia represents the creative apex of what contemporary filmmakers can do with the ghosts of cinema's past. Painstakingly replicating the looks, styles, and moods of early moving image art, the film is on the surface a nostalgic mash-up of silent and early sound film idioms, replete with intertitles, rear-screen projection, superimpositions, and color-tinting. And yet at the same time, the cinema it evokes never looked or behaved quite like this, and couldn't have had without the aid of computers. With distressed images that literally morph, bubble, melt, and oscillate across the surface of the frame, not to mention a nesting doll narrative that shuttles us from a tutorial on how to take a bath to genre-influenced episodes about vampire bananas, sentient mustaches, and dierrere fixations, The Forbidden Room is an explicitly postmodern simulation, returning us to an experience of film at its most primal by way of 21st century technology and culture. Propelled by absurdist logic and a liberal confounding of spatiotemporal coordinates, it epitomizes film as an analog of dream all the same. If this sounds like esoteric cinephile territory, it is, but it's also approachably playful, imaginative, invigorating, and funny, a boundary-collapsing work of art that melds the tools and sensibilities of modern production with the infinitely elastic potentials the cinema brought with it at its birth.



6. Creed / Ryan Coogler

If The Forbidden Room was the year's innovative statement on the possibilities of making the old radically new, Creed was the film that best exemplified, in a classical narrative mode, how to maintain a legacy while reenergizing it with a wholly modern ethos. It starts with Ryan Coogler: from the first frame, the young, preternaturally gifted director commands every element on and off screen with astonishing dexterity, punching up the original Rocky formula with new levels of sensitivity, pathos, cultural detail, and visual flair that put nearly every 2015 Hollywood release to shame. The brio he brings to the table never falters, evinced in boldly dynamic sequences (that one-take boxing match is gobsmacking) and quieter emotional moments that honor real personal struggles. His conviction extends to every other person involved in the movie, all vigorously committed to material that never needed to be this good. That passion finds its concentrated center in Michael B. Jordan, who makes Creed a winning, flesh-and-blood individual we become intimately invested in. Jordan pairs so naturally with the aged Stallone – whose rugged, rueful Rocky parallels and deepens the former's efforts to extricate himself from, and finally embrace, past legacies – that what any other director might have made a rote franchise baton-pass becomes something far richer and more resonant through their interaction. It's an achievement in itself that Creed nails the combination of heart and grit that made the first Rocky special; it's an even greater one that it emboldens its image with a social consciousness that valorizes the look – and voice – of a new generation.



5. Inside Out / Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen

Many films have portrayed the messy, painful, finally inevitable process of growing up (there's even another on my list!), but it's fair to say that none have conceived it like Inside Out. Pixar's film, directed by Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen, is the studio's most cerebral and ingenious idea yet, visualizing a child's transition into adolescence by literally placing us in her head. Here, cognitive functions are vibrantly and cleverly reified, bringing legibility to the mental processes that guide us through life and making knotty psychological concepts fully graspable. In the way it confronts us with our emotions by literally showing us our emotions, the film, skirting oversimplification, manages to be an extraordinary lesson in how art can help us make sense of ourselves. Inside Out certainly proves an edifying tool, and not just for children: its exploration of how identity and emotional constitution evolve as we accumulate experience; its empathic conveyance of how, and why, melancholy and nostalgia become inseparable from joy; its deft internal/external visualization of the dialog between experience and memory; its heartrending yet never mushy fostering of emotional openness - all of this becomes a template for a new awareness. That swell of emotion we feel during the film's climax doesn't arise superficially, but because we have caught something of our human condition that we have always felt but have never seen reflected with such clarity.



4. Cemetery of Splendor / Apichatpong Weerasethakul

You don’t so much watch an Apichatpong Weerasethakul movie as become biologically entrained to it. As his languorous pacing moves us through a procession of placid images, we feel ourselves becoming suspended between states of consciousness. One could locate the position, perhaps rightfully, as somewhere between wake and sleep, and this is certainly the condition that Cemetery of Splendor literally points to in its story of comatose soldiers and their caretakers who drift imperceptibly in and out of lucidity. But Apichatpong’s cinema goes even further, positing itself as not something so typical as a reflection of an unconscious state, but as another mode of consciousness altogether. In Cemetery of Splendor, this alternative consciousness has meditative but also political dimensions: in the military-governed Thailand that the film presents, it has the power to free the individual from external structures that suppress. The cinema’s liberating, healing capacities are demonstrated in Apichatpong’s centerpiece sequence, which begins with our protagonists in a theater watching schlocky, state-sanctioned Thai movies and ends in a becalmed room of sleeping soldiers, neon tubes installed in the latter space filling the frame with a hypnotizing cycle of colors. All boundaries – between forms of perception, past and present, modernity and tradition – dissolve in Apichatpong’s cinema as the temporal and the otherworldly constantly, hushedly intermingle. Cemetery of Splendor distills this in his most emotionally accessible way yet, and the result feels nothing short of soul-enriching.



3. Ex Machina / Alex Garland

Ex Machina was the first film from 2015 I saw, and its seductive, sleekly disquieting surfaces have never left me, nor, certainly, have its haunting ruminations on the nature of reality and power in the digital era. A chamber piece, Alex Garland’s modestly scaled setup is ideally calibrated for a sci-fi exercise equal parts suspenseful and philosophical, in which dread is fomented by stimulating conversation and genre thrills naturally accrue from character interaction. Its space is relatively small and its players are few, but its ideas are big: confidently initiating and juggling dialogues on gender politics, subject/object positions, surveillance, social conditioning, and the increasingly nebulous lines between reality and simulation, human and machine, Garland and his pitch-perfect four-person cast play out a veritable buffet of 21st century anxieties to their seemingly natural ends. This is the rare piece of speculative science fiction cinema that actually feels completely, scarily plausible, extrapolating from our current technological moment to a future that is, in so many ways, already here, populated by hubristic tech wizards and characterized by apprehension over what, exactly, it is they're creating – and we're using. By its last scene, a contemporary allegory of the cave in reverse, Ex Machina puts into sharp relief a world and a society that have always been constructed. The stinger is that, one day, its continued construction may be out of our arrogant human reach.



2. Carol / Todd Haynes

More than an achingly wistful portrait of forbidden desire, Carol is a deeply romantic exaltation of the power of the gaze to cut through even the most rigidly orthodox of social constraints. That gaze, in Todd Haynes’s exquisitely wrought story, is an entirely female one and a resolutely queer one. Not only does it reject the male-ordered dictates imposed on life and love, it moves like a heat-seeking missile beneath a calcified system of heterosexual looking, a tacit recognition between gay individuals who know how to find each other’s eyes while subverting everyone else’s. Among the many aspects of this uniquely sublimated and coded gaze that Carol illuminates is its resilient agency: in an expressively smoggy, tea-stained, and drably proper 1950s New York City, Haynes activates and then empowers the desire of two women for each other, making their glances autonomous from conventions and into the strongest bond in a relationship that doesn’t want for physical ardor. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara realize this relationship as a thrillingly complex romance that’s also mutually emboldening guidance for two LGBT people at very different points in their lives. They may be constantly isolated behind obscuring glass or confined in the narrowly segmented spaces of Edward Lachman’s dreamy-dreary frames, but they know where to look, and Haynes lets them do so in one of the most stirring and sanguine films ever made about the optics of queer desire.



1. Spotlight / Tom McCarthy

As I noted at the very start, for me, no film in 2015 made its case as any kind of definitive "best." Read this #1 placement as belonging to Carol, or Ex Machina, or Cemetery of Splendor, or any of the others and it would be equally true to my feelings. But I like lists and their neatness, so I went with a typical ranking for the sake of tradition. Something had to be on top.

So why Spotlight? In many ways, choosing such a relatively conventional film seems incongruous in the scheme of my other favorites, many of which are on the more adventurous side. Yet to label Spotlight as "conventional" is to be terribly reductive: it would minimize its masterly self-effacement, ignore its consummate craft, and worst of all, treat narrative American filmmaking this humbly assured, measured, and unshowy as if it were a common thing. It's not. McCarthy's film, which tackles the incendiary subject matter of abuse within the Catholic Church and the journalists who dug deep to expose it, actually avoids convention in how tenaciously it steers clear of the usual dramatic Hollywood hallmarks, eschewing sensationalism, grandstanding, histrionics, and facile hero/villain, innocent/corrupt dichotomies at every turn. Also rare? Its focus on the process of doing work, unglamorously and in detail. Its unforced naturalism, exhibited by every cast member in an unerring ensemble, the most well-oiled of the year. The understatement and sincerity with which it approaches every investigation, testimony, negotiation, and incrimination, keeping its characters imperfect, never ironing out the complicated ethical knots and unavoidable compromises they must deal with along the way.

That's a lot of "un-" words. I haven't even mentioned how sharply designed McCarthy's film is visually (despite what you may have heard), how its use of line and pattern not only engender a graphic dynamism that creates a sense of tireless movement and routine, but reinforces the rigid institutional control that permeates the film. Above all, Spotlight stays in the memory because of the humanity it fights for in the face of systemic injustice, doing so with outrage but also uncommon sobriety. It may rein in the big emotions on screen, but the feelings it summons in the viewer are considerable.



And the very closest runners-up:


MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, George Miller's indelibly envisioned action blockbuster, which manages to be an exhilarating piece of maximalism and a rousing plea for individuality against the debasing forces of dominant power structures.

THE END OF THE TOUR, James Ponsoldt's exceedingly smart two-hander that recounts the 1996 interview Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky conducted with famed, troubled author David Foster Wallace. A textbook conversation on artistic neuroses, self-concept, consumer culture, depression, and the nature of genius, with career-best performances from Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg.

45 YEARS, Andrew Haigh's delicate, devastating marital drama with the unimpeachable Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, who must deal, in their own telling ways, with the fallout of a revelation that may redefine their relationship forever.


Finally: I don't consider the following films 2015 releases like most critics do (they all premiered in significant places in 2014), but they're brilliant. So watch them.


JAUJA, Lisandro Alonso's tantalizingly enigmatic brain-teaser, a film about people and empires in search of absent objects, dead ends, and unobtainable destinies. A postcolonial allegory that's always just out of your grasp. This would be on my list if I considered it 2015.

THE LOOK OF SILENCE, Joshua Oppenheimer's beyond intrepid documentary, his follow-up to the brilliant The Act of Killing, is nominated for an Oscar this year. It's an equally valuable witnessing, and unraveling of, a country's flabbergasting distortion of its genocidal history, told from the perspective of a victim's brother who refuses to let the past be erased.

A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE, the final film in Roy Andersson's trilogy of "what it means to be a human being" keeps the deadpan, sardonic, and surreal, adds tenderness and maybe - grace?

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About the Author


Jonathan Leithold-Patt is a 24-year-old cinephile, film writer, and artist.

Contact at cinematiclife@yahoo.com.

Devoted to the Movies