Happy 2016, faithful readers! With a new year shifting into gear, it seems like the blogosphere gets compelled to crank out ‘Best of‘ lists. And honestly? I’m no different. It’s just that mine tend to focus on stories.
That said, I’ve got some sticky truths I need to own up to from 2015: 1) I’ve been too swamped to read enough books (proofing your own ad nauseum doesn’t count), 2) I’m way too biased to share my fav TV (Mr Robot and Rick & Morty would sweep, son!), and 3) I’m too damn ‘fiscally challenged’ to rate any interactive stuff besides free Android apps (I love you, Piano Tiles 2!)
So…that leaves movies. Thankfully, the past year has been a stellar one.
Some points before cueing the drumroll:
- POST-OSCAR: I’m only counting flicks that were not up for 2015 Academy consideration, even if they were release after Jan 1.
- YET-TO-SEE: I still need to screen Carol, 45 Years, Beasts of No Nation, Macbeth, The Danish Girl, and a few outliers. I’m sure they’re all fine films, and will consider updating if one or more knock my flip-flops off.
- ‘BETTER AS DOCS’: I left out a pair of strong films – The Big Short and The Walk – because Oscar-winning documentaries on the exact same material (The Inside Job and Man on Wire respectively) were already rocking your Netflix queue.
- CRITERIA: I tend to rate flicks on the strength of the script, performance quality, direction skill, overall production…AND, most importantly, whether something ‘gives me the feels’. I shift this a little for non-fiction docs, but the structure remains pretty much the same.
Alrighty then…drumroll, please!!!
- BEST ARTSY EYE-PORN — THE ASSASSIN: It’s not exactly breaking narrative ground in the sizeable wakes of Crouching Tiger, Hero, or House of Flying Daggers, but this political and philosophical spectacle from Taiwan will sex up your eyeholes proper.
- BEST ‘MAD GENIUS‘ — LOVE and MERCY: a fictionalized gem about Brian Wilson’s musical career and struggles with mental health. I came out with a deeper appreciation of the Beach Boys, and the key creative force behind their pop tsunami.
- BEST ‘CULT’ FILM — Going Clear: SCIENTOLOGY and the Prison of Belief: ‘Cult film’. Get it? Heh. An easy target, but a fascinating and deep dive into the ‘church’, its corruption scandals, celebrity Kool-Aid drinkers, and…errr…philosophy. HAIL XENU.
- BEST ‘REALER THAN REAL’ — ANOMALISA: It’s the new Charlie Kaufman existential romp! It stars David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh! It’s entirely stop-motion animated by Starburns Industries (Community, Rick & Morty, Moral Orel)! Mic drop.
- BEST UNEXPECTED REMAKE — STAR WARS: The Force Awakens: It’s A Newer Hope! In 4K with Digital Surround! Plus Grrrl (Jedi) Power! And Emo baddies! Now with (slightly) less janky CG cast! And a flaccid Williams score! And JJ lens flare! And I still had some fun 🙂
And now, on to the really good stuff…
10. THE HATEFUL EIGHT
Quentin Tarantino is an art thief and narrative masturbator. His probable idea of a ‘fun night’ is screening a double-bill of 70’s genre flicks whilst slathered in film-projector oil and recording coke-fuelled director commentaries. A year or so later, he’d write a film version of said night, call it ‘fresh’, give his cast semi-automatics, and make them boom racist monologues over obscure pop ballads. So cooooool. But that doesn’t make THE HATEFUL EIGHT any less engaging. Or claustrophobic. Or bombastic. Or naughty. Or creepy. Or indulgent. Or fun. I won’t spoil the plot specifics, other than to say that this is Tarantino’s take on John Carpenter’s THE THING (complete with Kurt Russell scenery-chewing and soundtrack god Ennio Morricone re-purposing his leftover ‘Thing’ music!) — it’s fucking cold, people are trapped in a remote location, and ‘identity theft’ inevitably leads to carnage. Quentin made a horror movie in 70mm. Walter Goggins and Jennifer Jason Leigh are batshit virtuosos that must be seen and appreciated. These are reasons enough to see the movie — dick jokes, tonal theft, and N-word effrontery aside.
9. (TIE) KURT COBAIN: Montage of Heck and AMY
Kurt Cobain endures as an icon of popular music because his art spoke to people. Screamed at them, actually…but also with them. I was still (somewhat) young when grunge blew up like a solar flare, and all of a sudden here’s this flannel-clad, bizarro John Lennon with a 10-bag blood-transfusion of Punk-negative. It was love at first yowl, and I was still (arguably) young when he passed. If you’re looking for Courtney-conspiracy stuff here, you’ll be disappointed (though a few scenes near the end carry a prophetic chill). BUT, if you’re craving an entirely original look inside the developing mind of a troubled genius, then this is your flick. Pairing Cobain’s early voice recordings with viciously cool animated sketches ‘n’ scribbles from his actual notebooks feels akin to cracking open Laura Palmer’s tragic diary. You simply cannot turn away as your world is forever changed…
And speaking of doomed beauties with gravity-defying hair…the second music doc on my list is, in its own quiet way, even more devastating in its portrayal of a transcendent talent burned to ash far too soon. What makes Amy so engaging, moving, and brutal in its power is that it dives in at the start of Winehouse’s emergence — bludgeoning us with the singer’s brash working-class swagger, and her extraordinary out-of-time talent — only to have us clawing and pleading at the screen as we’re forced to witness her heartbreaking descent. It’s all laid bare, and the filmmakers present myriad moments where young Amy’s fate could’ve been altered for the better by those closest to her. A cautionary tale of the poisonous cocktail of superstardom and questionable relationships (especially those closest to us), and a chilling celluloid reminder of a musical legacy that deserves to endure.
8. THE MARTIAN
Ridley Scott goes back into SPACE…but the only ‘alien’ is Matt frickin’ Damon. What could possibly go wrong? Actually, not much at all. I was thoroughly surprised (and entertained) by the smart and wisecrack-y survival exploits on the red planet, and (mostly) gripped by the high-level problem solving taking place on both planetary surfaces. Book adaptations tend to get butchered or fall painfully flat, but this one gave its all and pulled a thrilling moon-shot which, goofy ‘Iron Man’ climax aside, celebrated human ingenuity and our indomitable will to survive. And is Damon ever not an MVP these days? THE MARTIAN pretty much falls squarely on the actor’s shapely (though inevitably CG-withered) shoulders, and Mr Goodwill Hunting shows us that he’s just as entertaining playing a cranky space botanist as he is ‘swaggering math prodigy’ or a ‘memory-addled super-spy’ — he may not win the nod this year, but Academy accolades are inevitable.
What do you get when you take a pair of razor-tongued, drama-soaked transsexual prostitutes, follow them for a day on grimy, sun-cracked LA streets, produce it with the near-omnipresent Duplass Brothers, and shoot it all on freakin’ iPhones taped to Steadicam rigs? Listen…I am not putting this on the list to be ‘timely’ or ‘politically correct’ — I could give fifteen flying f#$%s about the TMZ hullabaloo surrounding Caitlyn Jenner and the like, which probably just means I’ve spent enough time in Southeast Asia to dissolve the cultural novelty of the ‘third sex’. Instead, I found Tangerine to be a genuinely raw, funny, and bittersweet tale about dreams, relationships, sexuality, addiction, and societal perceptions. And wow…that incredibly touching scene in the laundromat gave me flashbacks to the great Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which is very high praise indeed.
This crackling thriller about the not-so-secret war on drugs at (and beneath) the US/Mexico border gave me a tight throat and goosebumps aplenty…along with the strangest feeling that I’d somehow seen its setup before. The subject matter is frightening and timely. The direction is tense, crisp, and often hypnotic (sweeping drone shots are paired perfectly with a primal synth score). The lead trio of Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio del Toro are jarring in their presence, but also carry a deflective playfulness in balance to the horrors they must confront. So then…what’s so familiar about it all? It took a few days of pondering it cracked me across the back of the head like a bottle of nice Chianti — SICARIO feels a lot like the spiritual sibling of Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs. Blunt’s character? An agent plucked out of obscurity to work with a near-supernatural monster — a man who is more about meting out his own disturbing brand of justice than serving any ‘white hat’ government master. If del Toro doesn’t nab a Best Supporting Actor for this one, I’d recommend that voters go into hiding…far away from any guns or water jugs.
This was my last screening of the year’s major films, and my expectations were definitely in check. I’ve never been one to fall for not-so-subtle ‘Oscar bait’, and this story of the scrappy group of old-school Boston journalists that broke the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal (winning the Pulitzer Prize, no less) seems tailor-made for bald statues and Vanity Fair after-parties. But the latest from Tom McCarthy and an outstanding ensemble cast — headed by Michael Keaton and the understated brilliance of Liev Shrieber, Mark Ruffalo and Stanley Tucci — is a gritty and gripping detective drama with its heart dripping fresh newspaper ink from its front page. What really worked for me was Spotlight‘s completely no-frills shooting style; the sunless skies and scuffed pavement of Boston’s city and suburban streets flowed seamlessly into cold fluorescents crowning the beige/grey ‘war trenches’ at the Boston Globe HQ. Stay sharp and you’ll see some clever nods to the impending obsolescence of ‘old news’ vs the internet’s rise to prominence — a crucial development in breaking this troubling story worldwide.
4. EX MACHINA
When I read Alex Garland’s THE BEACH, I couldn’t help but be jealous. This was what I should be doing with my life, but I hadn’t yet grown the balls to go for it. Fast-forward 15+ years and here I am in Southeast Asia, covering much of the same turf that Garland wrote about (even scoping where Danny Boyle shot the adaptation), and trying to live the ‘writer’s life’. Meanwhile, Garland has graduated from talented scribe — including screenplay duty on the criminally underrated science/spiritual Boyle flick, SUNSHINE — to bonafide writer/director. And EX MACHINA is the result. Similar to The Hateful Eight, this confident debut feels like ‘theatre’; it’s set in a primary location, the cast is just a three-hander, and the story is solely defined by character. What does the Gates/Musk/Jobsian tech-genius-in-hiding really want from his chosen employee guest? What does the too-lucky-to-be-luck code monkey see as he peeks behind the curtain of ‘consciousness’, and how is he changed by it? And what is actually sparking in the artificial mind of the ‘woman’ that holds both these men’s hearts and desires in her cybernetic hands? Sharp dialogue, nuanced acting, ramping tension, and welcome twists that put Shyamalan to shame? Ladies and gentlemen — an auteur is born.
3. INSIDE OUT
Sometimes a creative entity comes along that cranks out so much great work, you start to take it for granted. ‘Yeah yeah…another Radiohead album. I’d give it a B…they used to be cool and shit…but now? Whatever.‘ You all know what I’m talking about. And I think we’re starting to feel this way about PIXAR. We all have our beloved film from the house that 3D bouncing lamps built; for me, it was their brilliant take on creativity and personal expression VS criticism that is RATATOUILLE. Other folks swear by the Toy Story trilogy, or UP, or The Incredibles. At the same time, some are keen to bash the (perceived) weak links in their cinematic chain — folks hate CARS and its sequels for being ‘shills for toys’, or dismiss BRAVE for being ‘lip-service grrrl power’, or (and you’re all dead to me) slam WALL-E for being ‘a downer bore’. It’s like we’re seeking out their next inevitable failure. So then…perhaps that is why Pete Docter’s INSIDE OUT was such an unexpected and welcome home-run. I don’t need to ramble here about characters or plot (fairly standard on both fronts), but I will say this — there’s a reason why this story resonated so deeply with children and adults. I believe the film contains a profound lesson for our repressed, passive aggressive, and sugar-coated western culture. There’s some deep magic happening here, Bing-Bong…so don’t let this one pass you by.
2. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Oh…WHAT A LOVELY DAY! How often has a film’s marketing slug become the battle-cry for fans and critics alike? Only when the perfect goddamn storm of creative genius, archetype-busting heroes and villains, gonzo ‘set-piece’ insanity, and sheer operatic scope and presentation crash together over a sprawling desert wasteland — all summoned by a cinematic demigod the likes of George motherfucking Miller. That’s how. People used to mock my championing of the Aussie auteur — I was one of the few cheering the announcement of his JUSTICE LEAGUE flick before it got shelved, and was openly mocked as an odd duck for utterly adoring his pitch-black fairytale turn on the BABE sequel (Pig in the City). Who’s laughing now, hmmm? You all chirped that you’d probably like this film, but I bet you never in a thousand post-apocalyptic years expected Miller to not just ‘wipe the slate’ on his Road Warrior trilogy, but to drop a goddamn H-bomb on it, birthing a mutated cinematic juggernaut from the ashes! It’s worth the dehydration and lungfuls of silver paint, mate. Smash the gas, and steer straight for the halls of Valhalla!!!
1 – THE REVENANT
TV is a character-driven medium. You have X episodes to develop the characters, unearth their motivations and objectives, and see how they react in different situations and relationships. Plot comes second, because sometimes (I’m looking at you, MAD MEN) you just wanna hang with the coolest men and women every damn week. But with cinema, I believe that the key component to telling truly great stories – because, let’s face it, you only have 2-3hrs max to do so – is with the plot. And what makes a truly compelling one? Conflicts…plural. This is what makes Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest masterpiece sing with the snowy shriek of fallen angels. The gifted helmer and his brilliant partner in cinematographic crime are responsible for some of the most visually stunning and narratively moving stories shown in dark rooms over the past decade. BABEL. BIUTIFUL. BIRDMAN. (dude’s got a thing for ‘B’s, yo). These are slow-burn tales of dark-hearted protagonists, forced down the path of earthly redemption as the gods themselves watch on. THE REVENANT is no different, except for the fact that I think it’s his best. This is thanks in no small part to the meaty conflicts on display. Plural.
Man Vs Man? You could actually use an atomic scale to weigh the enmity between DiCaprio’s simmering backwoods guide and Hardy’s repulsive fur-trader. I shy away from the word ‘epic’ these days, but I honestly don’t know what else to call their struggle.
Man Vs Nature? Have you seen the freaking trailer? Have you read the stories (now ‘legends’) about the gruelling multi-year shoot in northern Alberta? In some of the most rugged and unforgiving environments on the planet? Snow and wind and brutal cold are one thing, and I want to veer away from spoilers, but…HOLYSHITGRIZZLYBEARSNUFF FILM!!!
Man Vs Society? By the end of the opening scene, I guarantee that you’ll be breathless. Not just with the blocking and shooting masterclass on display, but with the palpable sense of time, place, and cultures clashing. Indigenous figures are a vital presence in the film, looming as fearsome shadows on the frozen forest’s edge, their wind-worn faces smeared with sigils of vengeance…and mercy.
Man Vs Supernatural? Heart-wrenching dreams. Near-death visions. Spooky snowbound serendipities. The ever-present Watcher swooping and lingering and rising above a scene, relaying events to something much, much older than ourselves. And the scenery! How could the post-resurrection quest of our silent hero be seen as anything other than a man making pilgrimage to the gates of Heaven and Hell?
Man Vs Himself? “You have to see when…and then the part where he…oh, and I still get chills when I think about that moment after…aww shit…just watch the damn thing.” Unless the Academy is still jealous of an evolving talent that has a penchant for supermodel yacht parties? Then this is Leo’s year, people.
That’s it, folks. Sound off in the comments below, and let me know your favs from another cycle around the Sun 😀