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2015 In Film: Part 4 – The Good Stuff

March 21, 2016

In case you missed Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3, here are the links. Since we are now post-Oscars, you’ll forgive us for any comments that now seem oblivious to the Oscars results, as this discussion took place during the week leading up to the ceremony.

Ex-Machina-Alicia-Vikander

Poster courtesy A24

Tony: My top ten of 2015:

  1. Inside Out
  2. Phoenix
  3. Ex Machina
  4. The Revenant
  5. Sicario
  6. The Hateful Eight
  7. The Martian
  8. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
  9. Mad Max: Fury Road
  10. Carol

Any time you’re making a list, there is bound to be some tweaking. For me, this one was agonizing. Most of the movies I listed held the top spot at some point in the last week. Ultimately, I’m confident that Carol was the best film I’ve seen from 2015. I could make a decent case for putting numbers 2-8 in virtually any order, but I think they have settled into appropriate resting places for the moment. I think it’s worth mentioning that Phoenix was the latest addition to my top 10.

Let’s see which movies topped your list, and then we can proceed with the giving of props.

Zack: That’s a respectable list. We have some common ground here, four films by my count. (Sure they’re not in the same corresponding slots, but those four are oddly in the same order.)

  1. The End Of The Tour
  2. Ex Machina
  3. Slow West
  4. Spotlight
  5. The Revenant
  6. The Hateful Eight
  7. Room
  8. Queen Of Earth
  9. Carol
  10. Anomalisa

(Editor’s Note: You can see Zack’s full list of 2015 films here)

I can’t knock your choice of Carol. Not one bit. I loved that film for all the reasons we’ve discussed and could probably go on. Also, I’ve argue that Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett could have (and perhaps should have had) their Oscar nominations swapped, but that’s a conversation for a different day.

Tony: I think this is the point when we just dive in to the stuff we loved this year.

I want to start with my #9. Phoenix was a movie I was very excited to see. A tantalizing log line combined with some fairly polarizing buzz all but guaranteed this would be a special experience. It’s the story of a disfigured Holocaust survivor who has reconstructive surgery and then seeks out her husband who may have been the one to sell her to the Nazis. I admit that there were moments when I wasn’t sure if the story was really working for me. By the end, my worry had turned to awe. Nina Hoss, who plays protag Nelly, gives one of the year’s most unforgettable performances. The title, Phoenix, implies that Nelly is reborn, and she’s actually reborn not once but twice. She is reborn from the ashes of her Holocaust experience when she is given a new face. Reborn? Yes, but Nelly is a broken woman who doesn’t even recognize herself in the mirror and still clings to the idea of who she once was. Then, she is reborn again, at the very end of the movie in a moment of intense self-realization. The last scene is a doozy. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s a near-literal mic drop. The way Hoss’s Nelly comes alive at the end, well, she might as well have actually been on fire. It was a stunning performance, and all the more memorable for how ridiculously understated the rest of Christian Petzold’s movie was.

Zack: I’m so glad we agree on Phoenix. Just a towering film. That last scene. Man. But I’ll get my few blurbs kicked off with a quick group of thoughts on The End Of The Tour, which neither of us has mentioned to this point. This is a film I didn’t really want to exist, and the book from which it’s adapted is also a source of contention.

End Of The Tour movie

Poster courtesy A24

Just a brief history: Author David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008, which prompted feature writer David Lipsky to dig up tapes from a scrapped interview he’d done over the course five days with Wallace back in 1996. He then further transcribed the recordings and fashioned a book, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, on the experience, leading some to believe he was attempting to capitalize on the late author’s death.

Anyway, regardless of the morality behind the subject matter, screenwriter David Margulies and director James Ponsoldt created a loving time capsule and portrait of an artist at a personal level. Jason Segel, not exactly known for dramatic work or any real degree of gravitas, fashions a flawed, honest take on Wallace from a conversational level. It’s a small work, but surprising and commendable for its subtlety and power.

At its core, The End Of The Tour is a road movie. And I’m a sucker for a good road movie. It’s basically a two-hander, with Segel as Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky, and it’s not terribly exciting from a plot perspective. But it’s intoxicating and engaging, hanging out with two regular guys whose collective intelligence simultaneously confounds and comforts.

Tony: Ex Machina really took the world by storm for a hot second, didn’t it? Alex Garland has been an excellent screenwriter for more than a decade now, but this is his directorial debut. This movie is so incredibly taut in every way imaginable. The story works like a puzzle, not in the sense that it’s something to be solved, but more the way everything clicks into place in an elaborate and preordained way. It’s cold and clinical. The performances are great, and Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander are so cryptic. Domhnall Gleeson is warm, but he’s also the third wheel in a lot of ways. Even the setting has a feeling of confinement. This is a really tense ride pretty much the whole way. Even though I’m not totally sold on the logic of the ending, it all left me so breathless that I can’t help but applaud.

Also, Sicario doesn’t really need me to defend it, since it’s great, but I’m going to anyway. Setting aside the film itself for a moment, there are a fair few people who felt this movie was misogynistic and/or didn’t treat the lead female character fairly. I went into Sicario already knowing about these complaints. Even with that advance knowledge, I can’t figure out what all the fuss was about. Kate (played wonderfully by Emily Blunt, by the way) was not the hero of this film. In fact, this is arguably a film without heroes. It’s very dark, and very much about the grey areas and mixed morality inherent in fighting a war on drugs. The characterizations felt fully realized and perfectly reasonable to me. Sicario has deadly serious subject matter, a host of complex characters, an incredible musical score by Johann Johannsson, and one of the year’s finest cinematographic efforts by Roger Deakins (as you eloquently described in Part 2). I can understand not engaging with such challenging material, but Sicario has virtually no faults of its own.

sicario poster

Poster courtesy Lionsgate

Zack: Yes and yes. Ex Machina and Sicario delivered.

And it reminds me of a question I’ve been posing in passing the last few months to friends with whom I discuss movies. I’ll extend it you.

Who had the better 2015: Domhnall Gleeson or Tom Hardy?

Tony: That’s an excellent question! Let’s see…they were each in The Revenant. Gleeson was in The Force Awakens and Ex Machina. That’s three top ten slots for Gleeson, and I haven’t even seen Brooklyn yet. Hardy was in Mad Max: Fury Road, and had a perhaps legendary dual role in Legend (another one I haven’t seen, but color me interested).

I think the raw points come out in Gleeson’s favor, but those points are merely for appearances. He’s been good-to-great in everything I’ve seen him in, even prior to 2015. We must take a closer look at his roles from 2015. In Ex Machina he’s sort of a doe-eyed rube genius. Pretty much the main character, but also very much at everyone else’s mercy. In The Force Awakens, he kind of just yells a lot and acts like a young Hitler. Effective, but he really wasn’t the star.

Hardy on the other hand… Tom Hardy always steals the show. He was probably my favorite thing about The Revenantwhich is saying something. He was also the man they call Max. Max was often overshadowed by the other colorful characters of that movie, not to mention the symphony of destruction that was Fury Road, but he still helped carry that movie with hardly any dialogue (Editor’s Note: Don’t forget the muzzle he had to wear for a substantial amount of the runtime).

Even with an incomplete data set, I think everything Tom Hardy does is beyond fascinating. There are probably a few other similarly talented actors, but I don’t see anybody who goes all in on every role the way Hardy does. He is the king of wild, unplaceable accents. Hardy wins 2015.

Additionally, nice job singling out the top two contenders. I briefly tried to come up with another viable candidate; Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson each had nice years too, but I don’t think anyone else had more than two interesting projects last year.

Zack: With that out of the way, I’d like to say a few words about Spotlight. I sent my roommate this text as I exited the theater: “How do you write a tweet review that accurately says ‘That’s why I went to journalism school’?”

spotlight ruffalo keaton mcadams schreiber tucci

Poster courtesy Open Road

But anyway, plenty has been made of the proletariat editing of Spotlight and how little pandering it seemed to do with regards to performances that might otherwise be considered awards bait. While I don’t disagree with these claims, I think they sell the film short. It’s a taut rope, full of tension, and it’s unclear if, how, or when things might all come apart. It’s a national story I was familiar with going in, but the script, penned by Josh Singer and director Tom McCarthy, places the audience inside a working, shifting newsroom and inside a larger issue that permeates every frame. Up and down the cast list, every performance is exemplary. Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams got Oscar nods, but I could easily envision Michael Keaton or Liev Schreiber earning them as well. Top to bottom, Spotlight was this often subtle, personal portrayal of a complex, systemic issue. It exhibited grace when it could have gone big, and it deserves all that acclaim it’s amassed.

And one last, weird note: McCarthy has the strange distinction of directing both a movie I considered to be one of 2015’s ten best and another I considered to be one of 2015’s three worst. Odd.

Tony: I’m glad to hear you liked Spotlight. As far as Tom McCarthy goes, I’m having similar feelings about Adam McKay. Don’t get me wrong, I generally love his Will Ferrell collaborations, but it’s hard to wrap my mind around the fact that this guy went from penning such scintillating social commentaries as Step Brothers and Get Hard to being a double Oscar nominee (both for The Big Short). He’s funny and talented, but that’s still quite the 180.

On top of being a seven-time Oscar nominee, The Martian was a bit of personal vindication for me. I’ll defend pretty much anything in Ridley Scott’s oeuvre. Exodus: Gods And Kings, The Counselor, Robin Hood, you name it. I know he’s on a perceived cold streak, with the possible exception of Prometheus, but just when some started to think the 78-year-old director had finally lost it, he proved us all wrong again. I really loved The Martian, and without parroting everything I’ve already written about it, it actually felt like the movie Scott was born to make. I think there’s not much left to say, other than this is one of his best films. The visual effects were superb, as is always the case with Scott’s films. The massive cast of star actors helped to balance out three compelling story threads. It’s about as good as you can expect a mega-budget Hollywood movie to be. Some may write it off as Quixotic, but I don’t mind a little optimism in my cinema. I think for every Sicario, you need something that reaffirms your faith in humanity. The Martian does that in great style.

the martian matt damon

Poster courtesy 20th Century Fox

Zack: The last two films in my top ten left to discuss are two you didn’t see, so I’m left in a strange spot. Both Room and Anomalisa hit me from different angles, both straight to the gut and without mercy. So I think the path I’ll take is more personal than plot-based—and I’ll be brief.

I pushed through the theater door after seeing Room and made an immediate call to my mom. It’s the kind of film I knew she’d appreciate, something inherently familial and intensely gripping. I had to pass along the quick recommendation. The movie demands a bond be forged.

By contrast, exiting the Anomalisa screening I attended left me with something of a split mind: I wanted to call every person I’ve ever loved, and I wanted to never tell anyone what I’d just seen. It was an urgently intimate experience, a completely human tale without a single human onscreen. Charlie Kaufman’s brain consistently produces singular visions to which I can’t help but surrender.

The thing, with both of these films, is that knowing less about them going in will pay dividends in droves. Both bowled me over. I can’t wait for you to see them.

Tony: I will continue on the personal track as I attempt to bring our conversation full circle. The Force Awakens was high on my list of favorites from the year. Ten years since Episode III, the Star Wars faithful, myself included, have had a lot of time to think. Speaking only for myself, a lot of thinking was done about how the prequel trilogy confused my feelings about the original trilogy. Some movies grow on you. For me, the prequels have done the opposite. If it sounds like I’m being dramatic, then that’s probably because I am.

Fearful of further damage being visited upon my nostalgia, I was actually to the point of not feeling the need for any more big screen Star Wars action. Then Disney came knocking, and after buying up the whole shebang, they brought in J.J. Abrams. I always liked Abrams but can’t say I’ve loved all his work and the choice seemed especially odd since he was still more or less entangled with Star Trek at the time. But Abrams loves Star Wars, and it slowly became more and more apparent that he was probably the only person who should be taking on such a project.

the force awakens ridley boyega

Poster courtesy Disney

I actively avoided most Star Wars news in the run up, making exceptions for casting news, because…you know. Eventually, we found out that the original cast members would be returning, but I don’t think it was until the trailers started rolling out that I finally felt safe enough to feel good about all this again. Seeing Han and Chewie felt right, but the thing that won me over, and the thing that probably won a lot of people over who were paying attention to the trailers, was the majesty of it all. There was some David Lean-esque Lawrence Of Arabia grandeur present in the visuals. There was wonder, and there was none of the gobbledygook that bogged down the prequels. It was the earliest sign I can remember that this thing was really on the right track.

You see, Abrams loves Star Wars. He’s also very talented. In hindsight, there was no way he was ever going to screw this up. I can’t deny there’s some fan servicing going on, and I may question the purpose or conception of some of the fringe characters, but this was a purely joyful experience. If the main goal was to generate good will through a reasonable Episode IV simulacrum, then The Force Awakens is a rousing success. Even if the goal was grander than that, it’s still a success.

Forgetting about my feelings, and taking a more direct run at the movie, there is a lot to admire. The bedrock of this movie is building up fresh characters who are drawn into the larger world and realize a potential they never knew they had. That’s what Star Wars is supposed to be about. It also helps that they nailed the casting. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are going to carry this franchise forward. They were immensely likable and Ridley gave one of my favorite performances of 2015. Then you have Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, and Domhnall Gleeson. The rest of the cast is thoroughly stacked, and mostly well-deployed. I thought Harrison Ford was the best he’s been in years. Even if I think the filmmakers could have taken a little more time to hammer out the story, there was plenty of magic here. It’s good to have Star Wars back, and with about as little baggage as it’s had in 32+ years.

Zack: The Force Awakens wasn’t the best movie of 2015, but for me, it was the most fun. Anything questionable about it is pretty much smoothed over by how they really nailed the right feeling. I am fully excited about Star Wars again.

Tony: I know you saw this one three times. What impression did The Force Awakens leave on you?

Zack: Let me get one thing out of the way: I understand that the film is officially billed as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but that doesn’t quite do it for me. To me, it has to be Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens. I’m one for consistency, especially when it comes to movie titles, so the Roman numeric construction needs to be there. I understand the impetus behind the subtle name change: It declares itself a standalone, new entity while maintaining a nod to the history of the franchise. Pressed, I’d have to intuit Disney will retroactively implement the VII once the VIII buildup really begins. But I digress.

(Editor’s Note: I tend to agree about the movie titles, which you’ll realize if you notice the way these blog posts have been titled—Roman numerals notwithstanding. Let’s not even get into the Rambo movies…)

In terms of nostalgic fun, I’m not sure anything in 2015 matched The Force Awakens. That’s mostly a compliment, but I’m wary of the apparently unlimited future of these entries. Disney has made clear they’d like nothing more than to release Star Wars films in perpetuity, and that’s a bit annoying to me from a storytelling perspective. That tells me there may never be a true resolution to the series; no movie can truly exist without its mind on the future. And I’m not saying every narrative has to have a pretty bow tied on it, but it’s a frustrating thing nonetheless.

But this was Star Wars. J.J. Abrams obviously has the right blend of chops, fandom, and sincerity to create a big, crowd-pleasing affair. And he succeeds to that end. I smiled a lot. I laughed a lot. Heck, I even got emotional a few times.

I’ll back up. Growing tired of the unrelenting promotional cycle The Force Awakens deployed, I made a conscious choice to remind myself of all the things I’d previously loved about the saga. A little less than two weeks out from the new film’s release, I sunk into my couch and began plowing my way through the six previous entries in episodic order, from The Phantom Menace through Return Of The Jedi. I chose not to follow the dubbed “Machete Order” or any other revisionist strategies because I wanted to relive the entire universe, warts and all, as crafted by George Lucas. (Plus, moving from Episode I up to Episode VI afforded me a gradual, marked improvement in quality, and by extension, my mood.) And, you know, I have to say I succeeded in reviving my expectations. I won’t turn this into a diatribe for or against any single episode; from bad to great, those first six films have a little of everything, and the world-building exhibited throughout remains key to my love for the series.

So, The Force Awakens came out. And I’m annoying about spoilers, so I made sure I had a ticket opening night. And guess what? I loved it. At first blush, the film employed just about everything I loved: diverse characters, chance encounters, lightsabers, a combination of various forms of storytelling to achieve an emotional climax, etc.—and I found the balance struck to be exactly what I thought I wanted.

But it’s that perceived balance that crumbled a bit on second and third viewings. The Force Awakens, to me, is a perfect film to consume exactly once. But once I got deep into the cursory setails, it lost some magic. There was a point of diminishing returns.

The good-to-great, in no order: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, that sweeping cinematography, visual effects (many practical), Abram’s directing, Harrison Ford, quick-rising space bread, BB-8.

The not-so-great, in no order: Supreme Leader Snoke, Maz Kanata, excessive borrowing and retracing, insufficient backstory for the New Republic, R2-D2.

(Note: There’s a reason I’m alternately listing actors for their work and characters for their deployment on the storytelling level.)

And a final item, which may serve as a caveat to everything I’ve said above: Many of my gripes with The Force Awakens may well be cleared up with the next two episodes of this particular trilogy. Maybe everything becomes clearer with a series of “Oh, I get it now!” moments. But that’s part of my point. With every film looking ahead to what cliffhangers it can leave or what threads it knows will be picked up, the singular nature of a film can feel arbitrary or even pointless. It can feel like a studio’s franchise play at best and a cheap money-grab at worst.

But ultimately I liked plenty more than I disliked. And I had a good time. And isn’t that why we go to the movies?

Tony: Well said. Your penultimate paragraph was a distillation of my thoughts on Marvel’s business model last year (another Disney property). So, yeah, I agree. Let’s do this again sometime.

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