JANUARY 27, 2016
Wow, this was an interesting year in the movies, and the job of whittling down the 120 or so movies I’ve viewed was a difficult task. But each of these ten is something special, and even though you may not have seen (or even heard about) very many of them, give them a shot. They make up the wonderfully varied textures of Movie Year 2015. Let’s go:
This is probably the movie you’ve never heard of. I understand, but stay with me on this one, because you’ll see part of it on this year’s Oscars, as it has made it to the Final 5 for Best Foreign Language Film. It’s from Jordan and is the first Jordanian film ever to be nominated. It’s a classic coming-of-age film about two brothers, Hussein and his younger brother Theeb, who are Bedouin nomads in 1916. When his brother is hired to guide two outsiders on a trek into the desert, Theeb tags along, but when tragedy strikes, the young Theeb must fend for himself alone in the desert, his only ally for survival being the injured assassin who killed his older brother. I don’t often gasp in movies — these jaded eyes have seen far too much — but I gasped at least three or four times in “Theeb,” probably because the film’s writer/director, Naji Abu Nowar, makes us care for Theeb so much in such a fresh way that any unexpected obstacle for him to get home safely seems to pack an extra jolt. “Theeb” is in release in limited cities now, but if it doesn’t come to your town, put it in your Netflix queue. You won’t be sorry.
So happy that “Room” managed to get a Best Picture nomination. There had been anecdotal stories that some Academy voters had hesitated to watch their screeners because of the film’s subject matter — a young woman (Brie Larson), held against her will in a shed for 7 years, tries to raise her 5 year-old son (Jacob Tremblay) within the confines of the four walls of a room. But the joyous relationship that has been built between mother and son is so satisfying, despite the sordid circumstances. When their time in Room ends (no spoiler, it’s in the trailer), the boy is enthralled with trees and stairs, which we take for granted but are like nothing he has ever experienced. But Mom is having extreme difficulty coping with the world outside of Room, and Larson makes us feel every terrifying bit of pain she must endure. Based on this performance, I fully expect Brie Larson to be standing on the stage of the Dolby Theatre next month with a Best Actress Oscar in her hand.
8. 45 YEARS
Andrew Haigh is one of the most successful gay directors around with his acclaimed 2011 romantic drama “Weekend” and his HBO series “Looking.” In “45 Years,” however, Haigh takes on the challenges faced by a heterosexual couple, who are about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. Kate (Oscar nominee Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) have settled into a comfortable long-term marriage when that bond is threatened when shocking news comes to Geoff about a relationship that preceded Kate but is enough to call into question his relationship with his wife now. This is a film of small gestures and words that communicate volumes which, believe me, is how long-term marriages work. Rampling and Courtenay offer extraordinary work, but it is Haigh’s insight as to how long-term relationships operate and how they cannot ever be taken for granted that provide the heart and soul of this singular achievement.
If there was an award for the year’s most unexpected word-of-mouth hit, Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix” would have to take the prize. With low expectations for success, this German language film opened this summer in what was expected to be one-week runs at art houses. But something happened. People who saw it told their friends and the film began to play and play into the fall through early winter. It’s a twisted take on Hitchcock’s already twisted “Vertigo.” Cabaret singer Nelly (Nina Hoss, in one of the year’s very best performances) is torn from the side of her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) and sent to a concentration camp where she is disfigured. Following the war, she pleads with a plastic surgeon to make her look like herself again, and though he tries, he only comes close. She returns to Berlin to reunite with Johnny, but he doesn’t recognize her. But he thinks she looks close enough to his wife (whom he assumes is dead) that he can pass her off as Nelly to get her family’s inheritance. In order to be near him, Nelly agrees to the scheme, so she has to take his lessons on how to behave like his dead wife, learning how to behave like herself. The plot is absolutely preposterous, and the film is absolutely wonderful. Now streaming on Netflix.
6. WILD TALES
Have you ever been cut off in traffic by another driver, and, in a fit of road rage, you begin to plot how you can get the most satisfying revenge? Now meet some ordinary everyday people who have followed through on their plans of murderous revenge. Welcome to “Wild Tales,” Argentinian director Damián Szifrón’s hilarious comedy that certainly lives up to its title. Nominated for a 2014 Best Foreign Language film Oscar and released in 2015 to great acclaim, “Wild Tales” consists of six separate short stories examining how people might act when pushed to the very end of their rope. A father who feels that his car has been unfairly towed….A motorist who, when his car breaks down, is forced to seek the help of another driver he’s just flipped off….A exasperated bride who finds her new husband ogling another woman at their own wedding reception. What would you do, and how far would you go? You’ll be thinking about that in between the film’s many many laughs.
When we first see FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) kick ass during a drug raid, then be asked to join an undercover CIA anti-drug team, we no doubt feel that we know exactly where “Sicario” is going. We’ve seen this movie before. Oh no, you haven’t. Director Denis Villeneuve pulls the rug out from under Kate (and us) from the very first scene of the CIA raid into Mexico, and there is not a single secure carpet on which we can get our bearings until the very end of the film. Kate has special misgivings about the team’s CIA leader Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his mysterious “whose-side-is-he-really-on?” partner Alejandro Gillick (a brilliant Benicio del Toro) as they conduct a raid into Mexico that breaks all rules of lawful behavior. Kate’s journey starts with wanting to win the war on drugs but she quickly learns that, at best, drugs can only be contained. Some might call “Sicario’s” take cynical, but Villeneuve takes the time to prove that the film’s viewpoint is the only realistic response. Featuring extraordinary Oscar-nominated cinematography by the genius Roger Deakins and one of the year’s best (and scariest) scores by fellow Oscar nominee, Jóhann Jóhannsson. Don’t miss this one.
The first six movies on this list have one thing in common — with one regard or another, they break the rules. But “Spotlight” takes perhaps the most radical route — it breaks no rules at all. All it can offer is impeccable storytelling, top-flight direction and superb acting. What a concept! Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know that “Spotlight” focuses on the Spotlight team — a group of special investigative reporters for The Boston Globe who, in 2001, while investigating reports of child molestation in Boston’s Roman Catholic Archdiocese, began to piece together shocking testimony from victims that led to a devastating scandal and the resignation of a cardinal. “Spotlight,” however, is not about pedophilia as much as it is about the newspaper business in an era before Google, an era when reporters had to hit the pavement and meet their subjects face-to-face in an effort to win their trust. The screenplay takes the time to reveal that each reporter on the team has a personal stake in the investigation, while acknowledging that each feels a bit of guilt over the fact that, while what they’re doing is will so contribute to the public good, at the same time, if it’s successful, it will shake their people’s faith. It takes a smart and insightful film to understand that.
3. SON OF SAUL
For the first two minutes of “Son of Saul,” you’ll be tempted to yell “Focus!” at the projectionist’s booth, since the screen is completely blurry, but eventually a figure approaches and when he stops, everything is clear. He is Saul, a Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz, and the camera will never leave his side throughout the film’s 107 minutes, giving us someone human to follow amidst the inhumanity all around him. Saul is a Sonderkommando, part of a group of Jewish prisoners handpicked by the Nazis to do their dirty work — leading their fellow Jews into the showers, collecting their bodies, taking them to the crematorium and disposing of their ashes. For this, they are given a little extra time to stay alive. Director and co-writer László Nemes, however, has given Saul a humane mission — he finds a young prisoner whom he claims is his son and sets out to search the camp in hopes of finding a rabbi to give his son a proper burial. Nemes is not a flashy director, wisely letting the story be the star. He even shoots the movie in a 1.375:1 ratio, meaning the frame is almost square, looking like a silent film. Yes, this is tough stuff, and I can’t recommend it if you simply want to be entertained. But if you want to be rewarded at the movies, be brave and go!
2. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
One way I judge a film is that, if there’s a moment in a film where I drop my jaw in awe, I know it’s something special. My jaw was almost on the floor during the entire two hours of “Mad Max: Fury Road.” I have never seen an action film — check that any film — that creates such an imaginative world from scratch. The look of this world, the rules of this world, the politics of this world began in the head of director George Miller (who helmed the other 3 “Mad Max” films), and he has brought them to brilliant life in every shot. The cinematography is gorgeous, the editing is kinetic and up and down the line the film is a technical wonder. (Academy, please take note.) Yes, Tom Hardy is the titular character, but in dealing with the film’s big themes, he’s almost an afterthought, because, believe it or not, “Mad Max: Fury Road” is primarily about women. Warrior Imperator Furiosa (a magnificent Charlize Theron) rescues a tyrant’s five captive wives and, with Max’s help, drives them across a desert wasteland in hopes of bringing them to safety. The film starts fast and never lets up, and that’s all to the credit of George Miller. And if there’s one hope I have on Oscar night, it’s to see the 70-year-old Miller accept the Oscar as the year’s Best Director. Because he is.
1. INSIDE OUT
This was a very close call between #1 and #2, but I finally went with “Inside Out” because the idea of personifying emotions is so off-the-wall in concept and so brilliantly executed here that I hardly know where to begin in praising it. (For the record, this was 94 minutes of jaw-on-the-floor.) One has to start with the extraordinarily imaginative original script by Pete Docter, Meg Le Feuve and Josh Cooley, from a story by Docter and Ronnie del Carmen. The writing team consulted a number of noted psychologists who helped determine the film’s five core emotions as anger, fear, disgust, sadness and joy, with a primary focus on the last two. They then placed those emotions in the mind of Riley, a happy 11 year-old girl, who suddenly must endure the trauma of leaving her friends and moving across the country where she knows no one. Creatively using animation to find personifications of these core emotions was genius, as was the emotions’ struggle to help return Riley to her state of bliss. The struggle provides a surprisingly sturdy structure for a film that tickles the funny bone, yet makes profound points as well. All this, plus remarkable voice artistry by Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith, in particular, as Joy and Sadness. One of the very best Pixar films ever. And that’s saying something.
That’s it. Let’s close the books on 2015 and look forward to as exciting a movie year in 2016!