Posts Tagged ‘Best of 2015’

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For the second year in a row, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has nominated only white actors and actresses for its annual Oscar awards.

It’s difficult for me to write about diversity. As a Caucasian male, anything I would say inevitably comes across as the unholy union of white-splaining and man-splaining, or White Man-splaining, the Fox News of film criticism.

But this morning’s announcement of the 2016 Oscar nominations, as well as the ensuing and justified criticism that the awards, once again, are whitewashed, made me think thoughts. And despite my better judgement I’m inclined to share those thoughts, as succinctly as possible, in both defense and condemnation of The Academy.

Obviously, this entire post can be summarily dismissed by asking me to “Check my privilege;” I acknowledge that. But I’m also just a human being who 1) loves movies 2) thinks the industry should and must do better to be more inclusive of race and gender and 3) likes to see talent, in all its forms, recognized.

Here we go:

  1. The membership of the Academy is glaringly, inexcusably white and male. Steps have been made in recent years to address this, but considerably more needs to be done, and soon.
  2. BUT – and this is the main stick in my craw this morning – the Academy doesn’t *make* movies. Individual members of the Academy may write scripts, cast actors and hire directors, but the Academy, as a body, merely evaluates the films that have been made.
  3. For that reason, the *primary* blame for the lack of diversity in film lies with the studios, which produce the films that are then considered for awards by The Academy and other bodies.
  4. And I think most of us can agree that intentionally setting slots aside for diversity nominations, an Affirmative Action of sorts, or nominating films and actors solely to appease a hashtag, without regard to quality, would not be an appropriate solution to systemic under-representation in film.
  5. [Pause to Check My Privilege: I’m told I have a “shitlord” level of privilege with a score of 170]
  6. AS SUCH, the question we need to ask is what actors of color, who turned in awards-worthy performances this year,  were overlooked in favor of their white counterparts. But that is a highly subjective conversation, with many different opinions, and Academy nominations are based on a balloting system with the same weaknesses for majority rule as democratic politics. (#AmericaLovesCrap).
  7. Arguments have been made in favor or Idris Elba, for “Beasts of No Nation”, and Michael B. Jordan, for “Creed”. In my humble opinion, I would have liked to see Will Smith nominated for his turn in “Concussion” instead of Bryan Cranston for “Trumbo”.
  8. That said, it’s easy to see why an Academy of mostly 63-year-old men from the film industry would recognize “Trumbo”, a biopic about the Hollywood Blacklist of the late 1940s. Many Academy veterans entered their professions in the shadow of the Blacklist, and likely had personal relationships with the individuals targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
  9. Alternatively, I thought “Carol” was mind-numbingly boring, and would have no issue removing Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara from the actress categories. But that too is problematic, because my first choices to replace them would be Emily Blunt and Charlize Theron.
  10. [Checking privilege once more: still a shitlord]
  11. Point being, even if the demographics of the Academy membership were reversed tomorrow, that would not necessarily change the actors cast, directors hired, and films produced by the studios.
  12. NOW you might say, as my girlfriend did this morning, that I’m presenting a circular argument. Studios want to make award-winning films, and if the institutions administering those awards were more diverse, the studios would tailor their slate to that reality.
  13. Agreed, absolutely, which is why considerably more needs to be done, and soon, to increase diversity among the membership of the Academy.
  14. BUT that line of thinking ignores the role that audiences play in shaping the films produced in Hollywood. All those shiny statuettes won’t keep the lights on if no one buys a ticket.
  15. Last year, when #OscarsSoWhite was launched, Selma was overlooked in the acting and directing categories. That snub was the linchpin in most arguments about the whitewashed voting by academy members.
  16. But let us consider: Selma made $51 million at the domestic box office, putting it at 61st place for the year, behind the indie-Christian “God’s Not Dead,” the laughably race-inapropriate “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and “The Fault In Our Stars,” about two white kids with health insurance who get cancer, fall in love, and die (more or less).
  17.  “Selma” made one-fifth the box office of “Maleficient,” which was a terrible movie.  A “Maleficient” sequel is already in the works.
  18. The point? Hollywood makes more of what makes money.
  19. None of this absolves studio executives, who seem hell-bent against acknowledging that films with a diverse cast can make obscene amounts of money. It doesn’t absolve the Academy, either, for its glacial attempts at modernization.
  20. That’s why its good to keep the pressure on, drawing attention to the excellent films and actors that deserve recognition for their work.
  21. But in criticizing (deservedly) the biases of the Academy voters, we also need to remember the limitations placed on them by the output of the studio system, and the role that filmgoers play by continuing to vote with their dollars for loud, useless, dreck.
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Oh, what a year, what a lovely year.

Looking back on the last 12 months, it seems like there was a noticeable democratization of quality.

Instead of the traditional creative cluster at the end of the year, when the studios roll out their best and brightest in pursuit of awards attention and holiday box office dollars, each month seemed to coincide with the release of exceptional films, spread across genres, themes and styles.

Here are my selections for the Top 10 films of the year, beginning with a tie for number 10. I admit that it’s cheating, especially since I already named an 11th-best film, but 10 is an arbitrary number, and I make the rules around here.

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10. Love & Mercy (Tie)

Brian Wilson, the heart and soul of The Beach Boys, is a musical genius. And like many great minds, his personal story is a tragedy. He led the Beach Boys through years of critical and commercial success, only to suffer a collapse of his mental health, a reclusive period during which he was taken advantage of by his doctors (one in particular) and finally, a resurgence as a solo artist after years of treatment and recovery.

For Love & Mercy, his story is split in half, with Paul Dano playing the young and declining Wilson while John Cusack (in his best role in years) plays the mature Wilson struggling to put his life back together. It’s a musical, paying tribute to some of the most iconic songs of America’s cultural history, and a thriller, showing the threat of deteriorating mental health and the efforts of Wilson’s second wife to free him from what amounts to a psychiatric captor.

While juxtaposed, the Dano and Cusack segments work in harmony, showing two interpretations of the same man and deviating from the traditional biopic mold of a single actor in various stages of awkward period makeup (looking at you, J. Edgar). It’s an effective choice, anchoring the story in its major time periods for a stronger whole.

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10. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Tie)

Olivia Cooke has made a career out of playing doomed characters, first with cystic fibrosis as Emma Decody in Bates Motel and now with leukemia as the titular dying girl in this off-beat dramedy from director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.

But she’s not the center of the film. That role belongs to Greg (Thomas Mann), a lanky, ambivalent, high school senior jolted out of stasis after his mother insists he start spending time with Rachel (Cooke). That marks the beginning of a beautiful friendship, albeit one with an expiration date as her condition worsens.

The script, by Jesse Andrews, is populated by a village of supporting roles (Jon Bernthal, Connie Britton, Nick Offerman) that each take a moment to shine and add dimension to the vibrant world that Greg, Earl and Rachel exist in. Despite the cloud of death hanging over every minute, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is bursts with life.

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9. Room

Another film in two parts, Room tells the story of a woman and her son, abducted and trapped for years in a shed, who escape and must build a life in the outside world.

Newcomer Jacob Tremblay is excellent, but the film rests on the very capable shoulders of Brie Larson, whose performance is simultaneous caged animal and numb reserve. While her character smiles sweetly at her son, the audience feels fear, rage, and desperation.

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8. Sicario

In Sicario, the latest film by director Denis Villeneuve (Enemy, Prisoners) the world is a dark and dangerous place. Opening with an FBI raid in the Arizona desert, the film quickly hops to the U.S./Mexico border where a cat-and-mouse game between government officials and cartel criminals begins with an idealistic (or naive?) agent played by Emily Blunt at the center.

Blunt is fantastic, and surrounded by a nebulous alliance of characters who seem capable at any second of stabbing a knife in her back. It’s a movie of sustained tension, that occasionally vents in small eruptions before a final crescendo that sees the government team storming a network of underground smuggling tunnels.

There’s a lot of politics under the surface of Villeneuve’s film but he keeps them there, always in the subtext but never addressed head on. It’s as though the director has a story to tell, and is too busy or disinterested for big-picture detours, so the audience is left to sort out how they feel after the credits roll.

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7. It Follows

The horror genre has long used its ghosts and killers as a metaphor for sex and morality, punishing its teenage characters for their dalliance and promiscuity.

It Follows shakes up that trope by extending it to its logical extreme, creating a walking (literally) STD that relentlessly pursues its target and, after eliminating them, moves backward up the sexual chain. Add in a retro-neon pulse by director David Robert Mitchell, and you get a film that exists as a singular creation, eerie and disturbing with a self-aware wisdom and seductive visual style.

From its unnerving cold open, to its ambiguous final frame, It Follows is an impeccably paced, minimalist scarer that trades loud and effective shocks with chilling silence.

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6. The Revenant

Last year, director Alejandro González Iñárritu claimed the top spot on my Top 10 with Birdman, the frenzied, sleight-of-hand masterpiece starring Michael Keaton. For 2016, the director is back with his same penchant for visual trickery, albeit in a tonally opposite film compared to last year’s Broadway romp.

Shot using only natural light in the brutal elements of the Canadian wilderness, The Revenant is both a stunningly beautiful and a shockingly brutal tale about resilience and revenge. After being mauled by a grizzly bear, Hugh Glass (a committed, to say the least, Leonardo DiCaprio) crawls, scrapes and fights his way back to society in search of the half-scalped trapper (Tom Hardy) who murdered his son and left Glass to die.

Not enough can be said about the visuals of this film. The camera gazes heavenward to capture ever beam of twilight, and in the process makes every inch traveled by Glass seem daunting. And where most films shoot their action from the outside looking in, Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera is centered, spinning and sliding impossibly like the eye of God.

By ambition alone, The Revenant is one of the most memorable films of the year. But combined with a well-paced tale and the humane intensity of its lead (a lock for an Oscar nomination, if not the trophy itself) Revenant is also one of the year’s best.

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5. Sleeping With Other People

Simply put: Romantic comedies aren’t supposed to be this good.

The genre has become so mired in recycled blueprints that when a film like Sleeping With Other People comes along, blending laugh-out-loud comedy with pathos-drenched emotional depth, it’s jarring to the senses.

Years after a one-night fling in college, Lainey (Allison Brie) and Jake (Jason Sudeikis) reconnect in New York City as damaged, emotionally-stunted adults. The result is a Harry and Sally-esque platonic friendship that pulls each character out of their respective ruts as they mature.

It sounds simpler than it is, because writer-director Leslye Headland successfully captures lightning in a bottle. Sudeikis is perfect, showing the dramatic range buried beneath his typical shtick, and the chemistry between him and Brie is electric.

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4. The Big Short

A very bad thing happened a few years back; you may have heard of it. In a nutshell, lenders offered increasingly ill-advised mortgages to people with no ability to pay them back, and those junk mortgages where then bundled up together into a big pile of rotting garbage that sunk the U.S. economy.

A few shrewd traders saw the crisis coming and bet against the market. They are the real-life individuals dramatized by The Big Short, which tracks the initial disbelief and later outrage of the small group watching Wall Street fiddle while the economy burns.

It’s heady stuff, made palatable by comedy director Adam McKay, who uses a series of fourth-wall-shattering techniques to add a spoonful of sugar to the economic medicine he’s feeding you. Margot Robbie explains subprime lending from a bubble bath, and a smarmy Ryan Gosling narrates the goings-on, occasionally stopping and addressing the camera to make sure you’re following along at home.

It’s an unconventional choice that works like gangbusters, taking a story about a rag-tag group of investors and turning it into a moral crusade against the as-yet-unpunished people who broke the country.

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3. Ex Machina

Ex Machina, written and directed by Alex Garland, is a chess game between three characters: an eccentric inventor, a nebbish programmer, and a seemingly sentient robot.

After winning what he thinks is a vacation at his employer’s isolated laboratory, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) discovers he’s been selected to participate in an experiment to validate the artificial intelligence of Eva (Alicia Vikander), a charismatic and beautiful machine created by Nathan (Oscar Isaac).

It’s a film of nonstop mind-games as allegiances shift, motivations become murky, and every word eschews a hidden meaning. The male characters trade monologues on life and identity while Eva, sultry and suspicious, toys with the idea of gender and personality to get what she wants, whatever that may be.

Few films are able to achieve so much with as little as Ex Machina. From the acting to the story to the aesthetic – a blend of cold, metallic minimalism contrasted against the landscape of Nathan’s rural estate – every ingredient contributes to a feeling of unease and mystery, building to a flawless and unexpected conclusion.

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2. Spotlight

Few institutions are as seemingly invincible as The Catholic Church, but in 2002 a team of Boston journalists made the church bleed. After a year of investigations, the Boston Globe published a series of reports chronicling sexual abuse by Catholic priests and the implied cover-up by church leaders.

That team was Spotlight, one of the oldest-surviving newspaper investigative teams in the country and, in the film version, played by Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo and Brian d’Arcy James.

What’s striking about director Tom McCarthy’s film is the drama and tension he’s able to squeeze out of an otherwise pedestrian tale of watchdoggery. The Spotlight team doesn’t have late-night meetings in dark parking garages with sources, chased down alleys by men with guns. Instead they knock doors, dig through archives and make the connections that the world around them was either unable, or unwilling to make.

The film makes a compelling case for the importance of investigative journalism, but it also recognizes the real-life toll that major stories like the sexual abuse scandal take on individuals. While focused on the Boston Globe, Spotlight never forgets that the names and dates refer to real people, damaged by an institution that was intended to be a source of comfort and trust.

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1. Mad Max: Fury Road

WITNESS ME!

What separates the cinema from other media is its capacity for eye-popping spectacle. A good book and a good play will give you three-dimensional characters with compelling arcs, but only the movies can provide that AND the sensory thrill of seeing the storytelling magic writ large on the silver screen.

That is the singular beauty of Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth installment in George Miller’s dystopian saga about a drifter highwayman perpetually besought by roving bands of warring marauders. It is two hours of sustained chaos, rendered in physics-defying choreography and eschewing computer trickery for the tactile thrill of burning metal and beading sweat.

In Fury Road, the Maxian torch is passed to Tom Hardy, who is abducted and held captive by the War Boys, zealot offspring of the despotic Immortan Joe, who rules from a fortress called The Citadel. When Joe’s slave brides attempt an escape, the War Boys make chase with Max in tow, kicking of a diesel-fueled hunt across the scorched desert wasteland.

Much has been written about how Max takes a secondary role in the film, frequently deferring to the leadership of Charlise Theron’s one-armed Imperator Furiosa. In large part, the success of the film lies with Furiosa, who supplies the desire for freedom and the despair of a dead world next to the stoic and monosyllabic Max.

It’s a brilliant choice, enriching and expanding the world created by Miller in 1979 by moving beyond, without supplanting, the scope of protagonist’s view. Like something out of mythology, Max is a nomad pulled into the struggles of strangers out of a shared need for survival.

It’s larger-than-life, and frequently over the top, but handled deftly with an unflinching eye for production and entertainment value. While other movies may do better at the box office (Star Wars) and at the awards shows (Spotlight), no other film provided as good a reminder for why we go to the movies in 2015 as Mad Max.

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I promise, the Top 10 is coming. Unfortunately, because I live in Salt Lake City, limited release films like The Revenant, Carol and Anomalisa are slow to trickle in, and it would be a dereliction of duties to crown the Best Films of The Year without having watched all of the major contenders.

That said, I *have* a Top 10 list, which could very well remain unchanged. And as is often the case, there were more great films this year than room at the inn.

Here at Wood’s Stock, we have a tradition of honoring an 11th best film of the year. This spot is traditionally reserved for a big-budget, major-studio-produced crowd pleaser that may not be up for any awards come February 28th, but was nonetheless a blast to watch.

This year, that film was…

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The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

In 2006, the stewards of the James Bond franchise released Casino Royale, starring a then-relatively-unknown Daniel Craig as a scowling, brooding, and occasionally bruised and bleeding take on the legacy character. It represented a seismic creative shift for the franchise, adopting a darker and focused tone as an antidote to the excessive camp and frivolity that defined the tail end of the Pierce Brosnan era.

But imagine, if you will, a parallel universe in which the makers of the Bond films creatively cleansed the franchise of its failings while still committing to the grinning, innuendo-soaked playfulness that traditionally defined the character.

That movie would be The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Set during the cold war, TMFUNCLE gives us con-man-turned-American-spy Napolean Solo (Henry Cavill) and Soviet agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) reluctantly forced to work together for the greater good by their respective governments.

It’s an unmistakably retro film, filled with exotic locales, fancy cars, beautiful women and booze-swilling men who crack wise and skulls in equal measure. But it’s also a film that is astutely self-aware, filled with breezy double entendres and a jazzy beat that practically stares at the camera to ask “Hey, isn’t this fun?”

Directed by Guy Ritchie, who injected a similar old-meets-new flavor into his Sherlock Holmes films, UNCLE is unafraid of keeping things lights, humming along as though its amusing itself.

The ensemble pops, aided by the gorgeous and effervescent Alicia Vikander, who adds a crucial woman’s touch to the proceedings, going toe-to-toe with her male costars. And with the exception of an over-boiled finale, the action scenes and set pieces are stellar, tightly choreographed and edited to maximum effect by Ritchie (a standout scene involves a boat chase and a cargo truck).

UNCLE is in good company this year, fun-wise, with Rogue Nation, the latest of Ethan Hunt’s impossible missions, but because of the effort and risk it takes to launch a new franchise, the edge goes to the new kid on the block. Sadly, with only $45 million in domestic revenue, it’s doubtful (but not impossible) that we’ll see the next adventure of Solo and Kuryakin.

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The clock is winding down on 2015, which means the Internet is once again awash with “Best of” lists for everything from books to music to political gaffes.

Here at Wood’s Stock, we love movies (and as always, “we” = “I”) and the year was particularly rewarding. We’re hard at work sculpting away at our 10 Best Films of the Year list, but once again there remain great films and performances that can’t and don’t make the cut.

And so, here are but a few praiseworthy films that deserve recognition as 2015 draws to a close.

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Best Indie: The Stanford Prison Experiment

Dramatizing one of the most infamous studies in American academic history, The Stanford Prison Experiment chronicles the faux-prison created by Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University in 1971.

Intended to run for two weeks, the experiment was shuttered after 6 days due to the psychological torture forced upon the student-prisoners by their authoritarian guards, who were their classmates, separated in their roles by little more than a coin toss.

The claustrophobic film, largely occupying a single hallway, is almost suffocating as the experiment continues and the conditions worsen. And of course it’s all true, creating a lingering sense of unease by showing humanity’s capacity for cruelty.

*For a double-header, pair TSPE with Experimenter, starring Peter Sarsgaard.

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Best Box Office Flop: The Walk

For the best movie about Philippe Petit’s walk between the Twin Towers, watch the 2008 documentary Man On Wire.

But for the *next* best movie about Philippe Petit, watch The Walk, which stars an almost too-charming Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the high wire artist in a film that is one part heist film, one part biopic and one part love letter to New York City.

The walk only made $10 million in the domestic box office. Global sales put that figure up over it’s reported $35 million budget, but not by enough to be considered a success. That’s a shame, as its dizzying effects and playful tone made for  one of the most enjoyable trips to the theater this year.

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Best Cartoon: Inside Out

If I were a less-cynical critic, Inside Out may have cracked the Top 10. But being the jaded curmudgeon that I am, the delightful Pixar creation about the inner emotions of an 11-year-old child gets an Honorable Mention.

On paper, the concept behind Inside Out sounds impossible to capture on screen. But the magicians at Pixar did what they do and created some of the liveliest and most memorable characters of the year in Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, Disgust AND BING BONG!, while also telling a meta-narrative story about how and why we feel the feels.

*Bonus: if you don’t love the volcano short paired with Inside Out then you have no soul.

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Best Rom-Com: Brooklyn

I’m cheating here, since Brooklyn is decidedly *not* a romantic comedy, but it’s the best* love story of the year (*that’s not in my Top 10).

Brooklyn is an immigrant’s tale, following an Irish import who meets an Italian and is forced to choose between her new life and her old. Primarily dramatic, Brooklyn has excellent levity, particularly in a dinner scene that pits Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) against the mouthy younger brother of her new boyfriend.

Where other Coming-To-America stories can be heaped in despair and sadness, Brooklyn makes a case for the seemingly-defunct American Dream. Sometimes it’s just nice to come out of a theater feeling good.

cdn.indiewire.comBest Documentary: The Wolfpack

In a small New York Apartment, five brothers and their sister have lived their lives effectively sealed away from the outside world. Their primary connection to society comes in the form of the movies they watch and exhaustively recreate using homemade costuming.

The Wolfpack is incredibly personal, zooming in on the experiences of a single family as their barriers begin to come down and The Wolfpack take tentative steps into the community. It’s profoundly bizarre, but the film refuses to pass judgement, instead treating its subjects as just another American family with its quirks.

*Other must-see docs: The Hunting Ground, Going Clear.

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Best reminder that an actor can act: Johnny Depp in Black Mass

Since 2010, Johnny Depp’s starring roles have included The Tourist, the 4th Pirates movie, The Rum Diary, Dark Shadows, The Lone Ranger, Transcendence and Mortdecai.

That’s a bad list. That’s a *very* bad list. He’s had a few supporting roles in decent films (Into the Woods) but as far as top billing, it’s a bad list.

But then he made the brilliant decision to star in Black Mass, playing true-life gangster James “Whitey” Bulger.

And How! Depp has done plenty of disappearing acts in his career but his transformation into Bulger, complete with wispy white hair and dead grey eyes, is haunting and unsettling and full of the kind of onscreen magnetism that Depp hasn’t shown in years.

It’s a great performance in a film full of great performances that never quite synergises on the sum of its parts. That’s a shame, but Depp’s decision to take the role isn’t.

*Also in Black Mass, up-and-comer Jesse Plemons (Breaking Bad) whose career I am watching with great interest.

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The 2015 Wood’s Stock Balls-To-The-Wall Award: Kingsman: The Secret Service

Released in February, director Matthew Vaughn released a movie about elite British spies that was violent, irreverent and completely insane. That film was Kingsman: The Secret Service, and this year’s winner of the Balls-T0-The-Wall award.

Both celebrating and skewering the James Bond spy-genre, Kingsman follows a young man recruited to a secret agency tasked with saving the world from a tech titan (Samuel L. Jackson with a list) who plans on hitting the reset button on planet Earth.

This is a movie in which our hero fights a woman whose legs are swords and is rewarded for his derring-do with a final frame sex joke involving a European princess. It also contains the most memorable scene of on-screen violence in 2015, involving Colin Firth in a bespoke suit, a church full of parishioners, and a frenetic camera that captures every geyser of blood and broken bone.

It’s juvenile and clever, shocking and absurd, unapologetically manic and an absolute blast to watch.

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