“Uh hi, can you send over a 2015 top-ten list in April of 2016?”
No need for a long prologue. Does anybody read those? If you care about this list in the slightest, you’ve probably scrolled down past this paragraph already. I always joke that the introduction before a top-ten list is the best place to unburden yourself if you’ve ever committed a serious crime. You can alleviate the guilt that’s been burning you up, and still get away scot-free. Far as I know, the only crime I’m guilty of committing without being prosecuted is an egregious sense of timing.
Two movies that I wouldn’t want to demean by ranking inside a list format are CALL ME LUCKY and THE LOOK OF SILENCE. Not that I don’t have respect for all the other ones I’ve listed, but both of these films moved me in a way I feel would be churlish to quantify. A top-ten list is absurd enough a prospect without shoehorning emotional experiences into the format. (Coming soon to Buzzfeed: Top Ten Times I’ve Had My Heart Trampled Brutally By Somebody I Loved!)
THE LOOK OF SILENCE is a companion piece to 2014’s indelible THE ACT OF KILLING. CALL ME LUCKY is a celebration of a bold, outspoken, under-recognized stand-up comedian which takes a sharp right into heartbreaking emotional terrain. Both are perfectly-crafted documentaries that provoked a real visceral response from me. THE LOOK OF SILENCE is more than a gut-punch, it’s an experience that will knock you down for a whole afternoon. And CALL ME LUCKY inspired me to get back to work figuring out my internal shit. It’s certainly not that I don’t have the same level of respect for every movie I listed below as I do for these two, but as wrong as it feels to me generally to rank movies (it’s like ranking emotions) it felt borderline offensive in those two cases. That disclaimer aside, this top-ten list IS in order.
10. THE ASSASSIN
People who write about movies probably have a different experience with movie-going than people who are unencumbered by that responsibility (more like: compulsion). Movies are generally meant to be experienced as they happen, but those of us who write about them, whether by choice or by vocation, are doing a lot of thinking as they watch. Writing about movies means you can’t be a spectator. A movie can’t wash over us like a wave; no, we keep taking our surfboard and running into the surf. In a way, someone who writes about a movie is imposing their will over it — me telling you what I think about a movie usually means I assume whatever I have to say about a movie is as interesting as the movie itself, if I’m taking up your valuable time with my words and thoughts. And as a result of this process, such a critical thinker is generally composing their thesis about a movie as it unfolds, thinking about what we’re going to write about the movie before it’s over.
THE ASSASSIN had the stronger will. Much has been written already about the movie’s confident long takes and painterly compositions. The cumulative effect of that filmmaking approach was disarming: I put my critical faculties and instincts aside and submitted to the movie. Those who don’t love THE ASSASSIN as much were less willing to do that, I suppose. For whatever reason, I was willing to let THE ASSASSIN wash over me.
THE ASSASSIN has a determined stillness and an insistent patience that forced me to settle down and just watch. There isn’t much story to it, but that’s part of why I keyed into its frequency — I didn’t have to track over-heated plot developments, or opine to myself about my feelings about each character. I could just watch. Especially in this attention-flicker of a day and age, there’s a boldness to a film that holds on a shot long enough to let a slight gust of wind blow through the frame. And there’s a secret liberation in knowing I can submit to that boldness, rather than straining to make myself part of the experience.
9. CHI-RAQ / THE HATEFUL EIGHT
Grouping these two together because they’re two sides of a coin in my mind, and because it delights me to do it. It’s ironic that Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino are often at odds in the press, because they occupy neighboring terrain in the landscape of my thinking. Hard to think of two other filmmakers who are simultaneously so talented and so frustrating, so right up my alley and yet so prone to adding a single scene or a character or musical cue or plot device that threatens to derail my appreciation. As hard as it is for me to choose sides when Quentin and Spike fight, it’s got to be that much harder for Sam Jackson. He’s a signature actor for them both, and he plays pivotal roles in both CHI-RAQ and THE HATEFUL EIGHT. In one he’s the Greek chorus and in the other he’s the de-facto protagonist, but in both movies his war trumpet of a voice is a defining element of the orchestra being conducted by a bold, confrontational, cinematically-hyperliterate director. CHI-RAQ is a modern-day retelling of a classical play told in verse, and THE HATEFUL EIGHT is a “spaghetti” Western with provocation on the brain, so they’re very different movies, but they’re also unified in operatic nature and in thematic concern. These are two movies about race, about violence, about America. Another similarity is that both movies, while definitely engineered to inflame conversation, drew criticisms that were misplaced. I saw many essayists question Spike Lee for making CHI-RAQ about women withholding sex from their men in order to quell violence — despite that plot coming directly from Lysistrata and being a couple millenia old — and I saw others go after Quentin Tarantino for misogyny in THE HATEFUL EIGHT when nothing good happens to anybody in that movie, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Daisy Domergue is by far the most compelling character in the whole thing. (As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I also think Quentin is working in a disreputable genre and honoring its conventions, as troubling as they may be.) I’m sure neither of these movies are particularly easy to like, and they may even be imperfect, but it’s uncommon to have one movie so defiant and lively and formally unruly in a calendar year, let alone two of them.
Oh, and Teyonah Parris is a goddamned movie star. There’s no way to look at CHI-RAQ and think any different. Those Oscars didn’t nominate her for Best Actress and that’s like a bad joke I just don’t get.
8. THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY
By any objective measure, this is one of the most technically impressive films released in the past twelve months. Like THE ASSASSIN, it’s fascinating to look at and to listen to. For somebody like me, who looks at movies as moving pictures more than filmed plays, that’s not something to ignore. It’s arguable that THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY is an emotionally chilly movie, beautiful but impenetrable, but I wouldn’t be the one to argue it. I liked how this movie challenged me; I liked how it made me watch it again almost immediately to reconsider how I felt about it. Doesn’t hurt that I spent a large part of 2015 gaining a newfound affection for the giallo genre, so that by the time I got to THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY, I was waiting right in the middle of its wheelhouse. But I think any grown-up would find this movie equally as mystifying and intoxicating (it’s probably not one for the kids).
If there’s no way to stop the mounting flood of reboots and remakes and sequels and re-imaginings, then at least there’s a movie like CREED to come along and knock a franchise on its ass. I don’t have the same affection for the ROCKY movies so many fans of CREED seem to — to me, Rocky Balboa is less the draw than the friendship he forged with Apollo Creed over the course of the series. In that first ROCKY, Apollo is basically the villain, and the way he subsequently becomes Rocky’s brother-in-arms is what interests me most about the movies. It doesn’t always happen in life that a heated rival becomes a trusted friend, and to my eyes that’s as much the appeal as the victorious-underdog aspects of the franchise. We don’t get an appearance in CREEDfrom Carl Weathers as Apollo Creed, but what he brought to the movies is still present in Michael B. Jordan’s fierce likability (he even looks like the young Apollo Creed at times) and Sylvester Stallone’s familiar but adjusted-for-weight-of-age performance. This is a sequel that comes at the idea from a dynamic angle — the son of Rocky’s most legendary rival comes to him for training in the same sport that killed his father. Rocky sees he can’t stop Donnie and feels he owes it to Apollo to protect his kid. CREED is about a reluctant mentor and an angry, hurt, haunted hero. If we’ve seen that relationship on film before, it’s not often, and never this fresh. On top of that, Tessa Thompson’s “love interest” character Bianca provides such a real, warm, unpredictable, lovable, tangible presence — it’s rare for a male-dominated movie, rare for a franchise movie, rare for an American movie. I suspect the pleasure of revisiting CREED will be less to thrill in the mechanics of the boxing sequences — which are tremendous — but more to spend time with these characters again.
When I first moved to L.A., I got a job in an office building just off Santa Monica Boulevard, which I had to cross to get to work after parking my car in the lot across the street. Since it was a TV industry job, I came and went at all hours of the day and night, which means I got a crash-course in the environment of the neighborhood. This was two blocks from the Donut Time where so much of the action of TANGERINE takes place. So when I join the many voices praising TANGERINE for its sense of authenticity, it’s coming from some direct observation from the field. But I didn’t usually stop too long to talk to the many characters I encountered on Santa Monica Boulevard, and that’s the difference. TANGERINE brings the viewer into that world, by function of form (the film was famously shot on smartphones and favors dynamic close-ups and tracking shots) and by its vivid performances, most notably from Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. Like its two lead characters, the movie explodes with energy. TANGERINE is exciting because it has real social value, making a marginalized culture spring beautifully to life and doing it not with melodrama but with recognizable relationships and a friendship that would win anybody over. All you have to do is look and listen.
5. BONE TOMAHAWK
I wrote more extensively about this movie when it hit Blu-Ray. The point I made there that I’d reiterate here is that this isn’t a horror-Western. It really is a straight-ahead Western-Western. Westerns are a uniquely American genre whose usage tends to reflect the tenor of the times in which they were made. The stereotypical white-hat hero was never exactly a reality; pick up a history book or take a look at Deadwood. Westerns tell America what we’re thinking about ourselves — the more idealized Westerns of yesteryear are telling, as were the revisionist Westerns of the late 1960s and the early 1970s, as was the fact that the Western basically went away for a while, and so now is a movie like BONE TOMAHAWK, which is scary as all hell. Because that’s where we are today.
Last January, when BLACKHAT made less money at the box office than it cost to make, there was a flurry of speculation that Chris Hemsworth isn’t a movie star. The argument goes that a movie star gets audiences in the door, regardless of the project in question. I don’t quite cotton to that argument. To me, there’s a different, far simpler criteria as to what makes a male movie star. If the women in my life swooning over an actor and I entirely forego the initial jealousy instinct to consider, “No, I guess I get it” — that’s a movie star. (My gold standard for what makes a female movie star is generally much simpler: How close do they come to this?)
Obviously there’s only so much arguing you can do with popular opinion and numbers, and it would be rude to list the popular guys who I don’t consider to be authentic movie stars, but this guideline tends to serve me well in my assessments. A movie star not only acts well, has charisma, and makes good movies, but he’s also got a peace-making quality to him. He does it for the ladies — and for the guys who go that way — while not upsetting the fragile egos of their boyfriends and would-be boyfriends even a little bit. A movie star is a guy pretty much everybody wants to see win, even when he’s already winning. Clint Eastwood is a movie star. Burt Reynolds is a movie star. Harrison Ford is a movie star. Denzel Washington is a movie star. Benicio Del Toro is a movie star. Ewan McGregor is a movie star. Idris Elba is a movie star. Chris Hemsworth is a movie star. (Then again, by my own standard, Sam Jackson is a movie star, John Goodman is a movie star, Danny Trejo is a movie star, and Paul Giamatti is a movie star, and most people would call those guys character actors, so take my opinion however you want to take it.)
If there was ever a time when audiences would flock to movies based solely on the name above the title, we’re beyond it. More than ever, the vast majority of moviegoers are drawn in by high concepts and low pleasures (i.e. explosions). If somebody tells me Chris Hemsworth isn’t a movie star, I would have to ask which actor could have turned BLACKHAT into a hit. Nobody loves Michael Mann’s films more than I do, and it’s very important to me that he gets to keep making them for as long as he can, which usually means financial success, which is why I did my small part by paying to see BLACKHAT on the big screen more than once — what else can I do? — but this is a moody crime thriller about cyber-hackers skulking across multiple continents. It’s not flashy, it’s not James Bond. Several scenes come down to not much more incident than people sitting at computers. A director as visually gifted as Michael Mann can make that cinematic, but this is what I mean about Chris Hemsworth being a movie star. If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t be able to watch BLACKHAT as many times as I have. This film is chock full of terrific, world-class character actors, but Hemsworth is its engine. There aren’t too many dudes I can stand to watch logging into computer systems without my eyes glazing over — just ask the IT guys at any day job I’ve ever held. Is he perfect casting for a cyber-criminal? Probably not, but he’s the right guy for this movie.
The sorta-conventional movie-starness of Chris Hemsworth anchors BLACKHAT in an important way. This isn’t entry-level stuff. You need a movie star type to be your guide. With each subsequent movie, Michael Mann has been pushing his style in more oblique directions. No movie is for everybody, but more and more, Michael Mann’s movies are for very specific types of people. Michael Mann doesn’t do crowd appeal anymore, if he ever did; now he does wavelengths. BLACKHAT is a dog-whistle of a movie — having seen and loved all of his work to date and more than amenable to his adventurousness with imagery and sound, I keyed into BLACKHAT‘s frequency right away, but I’m not sure I could blame the general public for considering it less than accessible. In the very specific cultural moment we are living in now, people want cartoons. They want superheroes and Minions and Kevin Hart. That’s not even to knock that stuff; it’s just a fact of what’s popular right this minute. BLACKHAT delivers multi-culturalism in a monoculture moment; it feels frantic and unsettled. Once the business of the plot is done, the film leaves us on a rather hazy ending rather than telling us precisely how to feel. It’s not a crowd-pleaser. It’s not reassuring. Neither is the real world. In a landscape of noise and simplicity, BLACKHAT is a movie for adults, or at least for people who aspire to become adults. It’s for those who don’t back down from a challenge.
Earlier this year, I saw IT FOLLOWS the same weekend I saw SPRING. There’s no major similarity between the two films besides the fact they are both low-fi indie efforts of very high quality, but in my mind they are connected due to that simple twist of scheduling. But while IT FOLLOWS was quickly adopted as an instant classic by many horror fans and debated fiercely by the fewer dissenters, I don’t get the sense nearly as many people are thinking about SPRING. Maybe it makes sense. SPRING is a quiet movie, in comparison to just about anything else out there. Beautiful things don’t usually shout. Also, it’s sort of hard to talk about this story without spoiling at least some of its surprises. And the jury is still out over whether or not it can be called a horror film. Aside from a few expertly-paced scenes of suspense, this is not a movie intended to frighten or disturb. I guess I’d call it a love story for horror fans, a heart-render for weirdos. It’s more like an alternate-universe hopelessly-romantic version of POSSESSION, or DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE if its heart had been on its sleeve a lot more than its tongue was in its cheek. In the way of plot details, all you need know is that a troubled young American (Lou Taylor Pucci) who recently lost a family member to a cruel disease decides to skip the country for a while after kicking the shit out of somebody who sort of deserved it. After some aimless wandering through Europe, he gets a job and a room at a vineyard in Italy. When he goes out on the town, he meets a smart, sexy, worldly, thoroughly confusing woman (Nadia Hilker) with whom he is immediately smitten. Obviously, she’s hiding something. Obviously, that’s why I’m dancing around calling SPRING a horror movie. It matters, but it doesn’t. What you’ll care about most are these two characters, Evan and Louise. From the thoughtful writing of co-director Justin Benson, to the warm cinematography by co-director Aaron Moorhead, from the bruised, spiky, but hopeful performance of Lou Taylor Pucci to the even-more-bruised, intoxicating, and daring performance of Nadia Hilker, to the lovely score by Jimmy LaValle and straight down the line, SPRING is a class act, a treat, a cause, a movie I found very easy to relate to, and even easier to love.
SPRING is a jewel. It’s not a monster movie that sort of has a love story in it. It’s a love story that sort of has a monster in it. Huge difference. Astonishingly rare thing. It may be ironic to recommend a movie called SPRING out of season, but it’s a movie to be visited and revisited any day of the year. If this is the first you’re hearing about this one, please give it a look.
2. “BITCH BETTER HAVE MY MONEY”
This is only seven minutes long, but it was more on my cinematic frequency than almost anything else this year, so I don’t know what all these prestige movies are doing running over the two-hour mark. This video has just about everything I need in a feature film — pretty ladies, freaky character actors, action, motion, color, scope, scary sexuality, dodgy morality, something to think about, something to tap my foot to while I’m doing it. I even like the video, co-directed by Rihanna herself, a fair degree better than the song. The song is a statement of intent and a proclamation of ego; the video makes me wish somebody would hire this woman to make the next Batman movie.
1. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Because I saw it three times during its theatrical run and because I bought it on Blu-Ray months ago and still haven’t dared to watch it on a smaller screen. That’s how resolutely big-screen it is.
Because there’s no reason it should have been this terrific. It wasn’t an easy movie to get made, or an easy one to make, and it definitely wasn’t a sure thing box-office-wise.
But mostly because “Let them up!” is the final line of the movie for a reason that’s even bigger than movies.
Finally as per tradition, here are my all previous Top Tens, from 2008-2014, just so you know the kind of guy you’re dealing with:
7. the drop
6. gone girl
5. top five
4. john wick
2. cold in july
5. drug war
10. the bay
6. killer joe
4. the raid
3. cloud atlas
1. the grey
10. the tree of life
9. viva riva!
8. 13 assassins
5. black death
3. the guard
10. four lions
9. the wolfman
7. the town
6. get low
1. true grit
6. the road
4. big fan
3. district 9
8. the wrestler
5. hellboy 2
2. gran torino
1. in bruges
NEXT YEAR IN JERUSALEM,
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