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2015 In Film: Part 1 – Introduction and Surprises

February 24, 2016

It’s time for the second annual “Year In Film” series. Starting today, I’m rolling out the first part of the conversation I had with my good friend Zack (@QuickFilmPile). When we spoke last year, he’d seen 150 movies from 2014. This year, he’s already over 200 movies from 2015. Zack may be drawing from a larger pool than I am, but that didn’t stop us from having a lively conversation about what we liked, disliked, and found unforgettable about 2015 in film. Enjoy! Also, stay tuned for the remaining installments of this series to follow in March!

Joy Jennifer Lawrence David O Russell

“Joy” poster courtesy 20th Century Fox

Tony: It’s Oscars season, which means another year of movies is not more or less history. Every year has its gems and its many competing story lines. I think 2015’s box office resurgence makes it a year of contentment. I say “contentment” because while I’m not sure this was an all-time great year artistically, I do think there was plenty of goodness to go around. Noting the aforementioned box office resurgence, I don’t recall any major vacuums of quality throughout the year. I think both the studios and moviegoers were generally content. Good movies were seen. Good money was made. A good time had by all.

There were plenty of movies I really liked (maybe even loved) and this leads me to my next point: 2015 was a “Star Wars First” year. I love Star Wars and have a rich personal history with it. While my affection is genuine, my excitement is strictly Pavlovian. You could tell me The Phantom Menace was going o be re-released and I would be excited. I don’t apologize for that particular movie one bit, but it is still Star Wars. And 2015 actually saw the release of a really good Star Wars movie. My gut feeling is that there are a few others like me out there, which is going to make it difficult to see 2015 as anything other than “Star Wars First.” It will remain the $2 billion gorilla in the room.

I was intentional about including the “First” because there really were a lot of itneresting things going on in 2015, and I look forward to unpacking as much of it as possible with you, in this space.

So how about it Zack, would you care to make an opening statement?

Zack: Tony, Tony Tony.

What kind of opening remarks can I make to accurately summarize this past year, our American year 2015? Well, I don’t know. What I can say is that it was a film year unlike any previous, at least from a personal standpoint. At this writing, I’ve seen 201 movies that were released in 2015, by my definition.*

*(I determine year of release based on when a film hits theaters in the United States, after it’s completed the festival circuit, with one big caveat. And that is if I happen to see a movie at a festival before it has any release schedule. This caveat is what put Time Out Of Mind and The Clouds Of Sils Maria on my 2014 list, as I attended New York Film Mestival screenings of both in that year. This is a little arbitrary, but then so is movie-going in general.)

Anyway, 201 movies—I wouldn’t recommend it. But I did it. Somehow. (No, I’m not unemployed.) I don’t know that I can say this was a year of immense quality, but what I can say is it was a year of immense watchability. There were more than a few movies for which I made repeat trips to the theater; there were several I saw three or more times. I don’t know that this speaks to an increase in movies geared toward me or an increase in mass appeal (realistically, it’s a combination), but I sure had fun.

And I tried something this year I’d never tried before: I played amateur film critic as I left each movie I saw. Walking out of the theater, every single time, I’d fire off a fast tweet capturing my immediate thoughts (@QuickFilmPile, for reference and proof). At year’s end, I’d amassed about 300 tweets; I covered every movie I happened to watch, from Citizen Kane to She’s All That.

So that’s my opening statement. I’m tired. And it’s somehow still awards season. But I’m excited to dig into what made 2015 singular and what made it just another year. Let’s unpack.

Tony: First of all, wow. Did you reach a point, say midyear, when you decided you were specifically gunning for the double-century mark? Also, was there anything you didn’t see that was even remotely on your radar?

And as for release date years, I can relate. There are so many sources of information and the do NOT always agree. I just got into Letterboxd (@spumonifidelio) in the past few months, and realized that that site lists The Hurt Locker as a 2008 film, even though it managed to win the Oscar for Best Picture in competition with the films of 2009. Fishy to say the least. Anyway, I was not out on the festival circuit so it’s been a pretty straightforward year for me as far as release dates are concerned (other than Phoenix—seriously, is that 2014 or 2015?). I guess what I’m saying is this: just go with your gut.

Phoenix Christian Petzold Nina Hoss

Poster courtesy TIFF

Zack: To be honest with you, I didn’t fully realize I had a shot at 200 (or even 150) until around Thanksgiving. And I just kind of went for it. Not much to say, really. Several mornings squeezing a movie in before work. A lot of late-night binges.

Tony: Even though we’ve already put 2014 to bed (very thoroughly to bed), do you have any interest in sharing a few words about yesteryear? Have you caught up on anything you didn’t get to see? Have you seen something again that made you re-evaluate your initial reaction?

Zack: 2014. What’s there to say? I did revisit a few of my favorites throughout the year, and precious little has changed. Inherent Vice holds up for me (and keeps improving, a dozen or so viewings later), but I thoroughly dissected that film last time around. I doubt you’re surprised. Birdman lost a little magic, but there’s still enough going on underneath for me to immerse myself in the movie’s little world. Since you asked, though, I’m guessing you’ve got some specific thoughts.

Tony: As for my unfashionably late thoughts about 2014, I have a few. Not unlike yourself, I watch a lot of movies, just not most of them in the theater. I can relate to your comment about squeezing them in here and there. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. I also regularly make time for watching films of earlier vintages. While my 2015 tally is merely a few dozen, I had time to catch up on some great stuff I hadn’t seen this time last year.

There are two movies from 2014 I’ve finally saw in 2015 that have disrupted my year-end top five. They are Under The Skin, and  Whiplash. Both would have elbowed their way past Snowpiercer into the top five, though it would have been a bloodbath. Whiplash left a huge impression on me. It was terrifying and every time Andrew picked up the sticks, I wanted to scream, “PLEASE ANDERW, DON’T SCREW UP!” Amazing movie. And Under The Skin might be the best science fiction movie of the past several years. I’ll leave it at that.

Moving on to 2015.

Zack: I’d be willing to go on record saying 2015 had a better hit rate for me than 2014. What I mean is that I felt it more probable that I’d like a movie this year than last. Looking up and down my list, that seems to hold true: There were very few movies I out-and-out disliked in 2015. Maybe that has more to do with my selection process before seeing something. Maybe not. I did see 201 movies after all, so I can’t be THAT discerning.

That said, I did miss a few documentaries I’d intended to watch. I skipped Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck for reasons I can’t explain. Same for What Happened, Miss Simone? and The Look Of Silence. But I’ll see them eventually. Probably.

Tony: Hit rate is an interesting concept. I just did a quick tally and my 2015 hit rate stands at 70%. About what I’d expect, but then again, the delineation between like and dislike is extremely arbitrary. (Editor’s note: I didn’t mean that as a shot at Rotten Tomatoes, but on second thought…consider it a shot.)

Zack: What did you miss?

Tony: As for things I missed this year, that’s actually a great question. There were quite a few of them. I mentioned last year that the top 10 films I didn’t see from 2014 would probably challenge the top 10 that I actually did see. The same is probably true this year. A few that I most wish I had seen by now would include: Anomalisa, Bridge of Spies, Creed, Room and Spotlight. Of course, there are more, but these seem to be the most prominent (at least in my mind, considering I haven’t seen them).

Zack: Perhaps more intriguingly: What (if anything) did you have lofty expectations for that failed to live up?

Tony: There were some disappointments this year, and I’m prepared to share two of them with you now. The first one is easy (and a little embarrassing). Point Break was awful. I can’t say I expected it to be one of my favorites, but I thought it had the look of a possibly future cult classic. (I guess that isn’t too lofty an expectation.) Two things really captured my imagination about Point Break prior to seeing it. It had a great trailer. The stunt involving a ton of money getting thrown out the back of a cargo plane looked incredible. Second, I think Luke Bracey looks exactly like someone we went to college with, so there was some potential fun to be had there. (Editor’s note: This movie was so disappointing, that I haven’t even jokingly reached out to Pat Hosken to comment on his acting chops yet.) I didn’t need a Chris Nolan movie, just maybe a Michael Bay movie. The stage was set. Boy, was I mistaken. The aforementioned stunt had hardly anything to do with the rest of the story, completely negating its impact. During the scene at the end, in the ocean, I actually threw my hands up in surrender. It made no sense. I can only theorize that they shot an altogether different movie, then lost half the footage, then had to cobble something together at the end.

point break

Poster courtesy Lionsgate

Joy really didn’t work for me either. I consider this a greater loss than what happened with Point BreakJoy, being the thrid pairing of David O. Russell and Jennifer Lawrence (not to mention Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro) had an impressive pedigree to live up to. It just didn’t. The acting was great, so I’m tempted to put this one squarely on Russell. It still had some amazing cathartic scenes, but no flow. I think this is still very much a Russell movie— the DNA is all there—but for whatever reason (maybe script issues, maybe poor dramatic choices) this one just never came together. Not a disaster, but I was actually expecting big things here.

I guess this is a good subject to get out of the way early. Who let you down in 2015?

Zack: First, a response (rebuttal) to your point on Joy: Man, I thought this movie got a raw deal critically. Far be it from me to sway anyone’s opinion on something (especially a piece of art), but I found it to be its own little beast: a singular offshoot of what David O. Russell’s been doing lately. That is, his three previous features (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle—and I’m not counting Accidental Love for reasons that are fully chronicled elsewhere), he was dealing with a unifying theme of how people lean on each other, right?

Here, with Joy, he’s taking that framework and contorting it just slightly. Russell takes the titular protagonist, and, instead of investigating how she might need to lean on others, he shows hoe she’s resolved to prohibit anyone from leaning on her any longer. And credit to Jennifer Lawrence for carrying it. Some had issues with the casting (age, temperament, etc.), but I think the films works because of her.

I believe the issues most had with Joy stemmed from its advertising campaign, which seemed to be selling a movie that just didn’t exist. This was not a mob-adjacent tale. This was not a typically Russel-kinetic, run-and-pan-and-jump-and-zoom feature. This was a thoughtful, nuanced look at a distinctly stubborn woman’s determination, all through a skewed filter in a world I hadn’t quite seen. I don’t think it needed to be anything more than that.

(An aside: This thought on marketing should not come off as a seething indictment of the studio, Annapurna Pictures. Alongside A24, Annapurna consistently delivers unique cinematic experiences in a league unrivaled.)

Tony: I respect your defense of Joy, and Jennifer Lawrence in particular (she still got her Golden Globe). I just think you are giving the movie a more generous reading than I am willing to. That is to say I get what the movie was trying to do. The point about marketing sounds very fair. I actually know multiple people who were convinced that Joy was going to be a sequel to Silver Linings Playbook. Clearly, it was not.

Zack: Okay, shoot. I didn’t expect to get so long-winded on Joy. Truthfully, it’s not even a film that cracked my top 25. But we’ll get there. In due time, in due time.

But what disappointed me this year? Sisters disappointed me this year. I’m not someone who rushes to hard-R comedies with lofty expectations. But if pressed to list comedic voices that most resonate with me, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler would be among my first listed. I have great admiration for nearly all their individual work (Fey with 30 Rock, Bossypants, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt; Poehler with Parks and Recreation, Yes Please, founding UCB) as well as their collaborations (Saturday Night Live, Mean Girls, Baby Mama, awards season hosting duties.

Anyway, this is all a preface to me asserting that Sisters was such a shame. Was it a better, more entertaining movie with Fey and Poehler in it than it would have been otherwise? Yes, and I can admit that. It probably wouldn’t exist without them. But is that reason enough?

No. This was a generic, raunchy-for-the-sake-of-shock comedy. Poehler and Fey are game and inhabit the roles well enough. But everything else (plot, setting, most cursory characters) just feels unnecessary or, worse, stale. It was depressingly flat.

(One more aside: I happened to see Sisters on one of my more ambitious movie nights of 2015—sandwiched between a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho projected on 35mm and my second viewing of The Force Awakens [and my first in IMAX, on the biggest screen in North America, or so I’m told], and that all feels like relevant context.)

Alrighht, so this was a long response to a pretty simple question. But maybe that’s good. I’m choosing to think it’s good. It’s good. (Editor’s note: It’s good.)

Check back here during the week after the Oscars. Part 2 will include thoughts on the year’s franchise films, cinematography, and more!

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