If you love film, you probably spent a lot of 2015 alternately lauding it and decrying the death of the American form. There didn’t seem to be much middle room in the dialogue. On the one hand, 2015 has seen one revolutionary piece of cinema after the next, from new visions of dystopian hell to films made with technology that could demolish so many of the industry barriers around the production of cinema to documentaries that it’s amazing even exist at all. On the other, this was the year when we roundly cemented ourselves within the Universe Era, as every major American studio spent its summer attempting to score some of that sweet, untouchable Marvel money by expanding everything you’ve liked in the past couple decades into mega-budget brand strategies. Some of ’em were good, most weren’t.
But we’re not here to rehash these arguments any further. No, this is a celebration of our favorite films of 2015, from the highbrow to the People’s Eyebrow, from the shiny and chrome glories of the Fury Road to the brutality of nature in the old frontier. There were superb biopics that questioned and broke down the very idea of the biopic. There were reinventions of long-running franchises that managed to breathe new and exciting life into them. There were fringe creations that assaulted the boundaries of watchable cinema. This is the exhilaration of a moviegoing year like this one, a year where even the big, loud garbage fades into the background when you actually take a minute to appreciate how much essential filmmaking has emerged, in theaters or on streaming platforms or in any of the increasingly high number of places that great cinema can be found.
With that, let’s get to it with no further preamble. This is Consequence of Sound‘s top 25 movies of the year. Enjoy, share yours, and just don’t bring up how much more you all enjoyed Jurassic World than we did. We know.
25. Furious 7
Furious 7 felt doomed. Sure, the series enjoyed a late-period renaissance in its fifth and sixth entries by repurposing itself as a high-octane heist machine rather than a drag-racing douche fest, but the highly anticipated seventh suffered a number of setbacks. For one, director Justin Lin, the genius behind its reinvention, was moving on to more prestigious projects, and his replacement, James Wan (Saw, The Conjuring), had yet to prove he could handle an actioner of this scale. And then there was the unfortunate death of series star Paul Walker, who died in a car crash midway through filming. It doesn’t get much more foreboding.
Yet Furious 7 succeeds, not in spite of the setbacks but by weaving them into the fabric of its existence. Wan compensates for his newness by stepping up the intensity of the film’s countless stunts, chases, and pile-ups, a necessity in a series where each entry simply must be more insane than the last. Furious 7 gives us the latest and greatest luxury sports cars ping-ponging between a pair of Dubai skyscrapers, Ronda Rousey kicking ass in an evening gown, and Kurt Russell extolling the benefits of Belgium craft beer, not to mention the image of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson flexing off an arm cast before using a handheld minigun to shoot a helicopter from the sky. Wan’s camerawork is clean, with every ovation-worthy stunt unfolding with clarity and precision. Transformers this is not.
And then there’s Walker. His brothers worked as body doubles, and a fair amount of CGI was used to finish out his scenes. It feels seamless, but what’s truly affecting is the film’s elegiac epilogue, which finds a sweet, simple way to write Walker out of the story without exploiting his tragedy or sinking into cynicism. I didn’t cry at many movies this year, but Furious 7 made me misty. It might be hard to believe for those who saw the frosted tip that was 2001’s The Fast and the Furious way back when, but this series has grown into something altogether satiating, a feast for the eyes and heart as much as for the pumped fist.
24. The Overnight
Patrick Brice’s The Overnight, his follow-up to the sinister Creep, stars Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling as an insecure couple, newly moved to California, who attend an impromptu dinner party hosted by their continental new neighbors (Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godreche). As the seemingly innocent night draws on, and social niceties give way to latent sexual tensions, Brice deftly manages to mix smartly played dick ‘n butt jokes (Hint: the poster makes so much more sense after seeing the film) with an indirectly poignant exploration of adult relationships.
In many ways, The Overnight mirrors last year’s The One I Love in being about dissatisfied couples seemingly dealing with the idealized versions of themselves (it doesn’t hurt that both couples look vaguely similar – a lanky white guy with brown hair and a stick-thin California blonde). At the heart of it all, it’s trying to figure out what makes relationships and marriages work in your 30s – the realities of kids, finances, and the sheer numbing effect of time on love and sex is something that the film explores with hilarious aplomb. Brice gives the proceedings a wonderful veneer of tension, with a very Duplass-y handheld indie approach that doesn’t offer a lot of visual flair (except in a few key moments of stylization), but keeps us laser-centered on the characters’ antics.
On top of all this, it’s just funny as hell – Scott’s Ben Wyatt-esque earnest anxiety and Schwartzman’s charmingly giving yuppie douchebaggery are a match made in comedic heaven. The climax (so to speak) wusses out a bit on the film’s bigger implications about sexuality and relationships, but this doesn’t diminish the film’s dry wit.
The comforts of love take shape in tiny actions: a lingering glance, the pressure of a hand resting on a shoulder, the sound of a love letter unfolding, raised eyebrows that encourage you to continue talking until all the details of your story have been wrung out. When adapting Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt for the screen with Carol, Todd Haynes not only knew the importance of this, but the value of addressing it across the board.
And so the love affair between married woman Carol and youthful department store worker Therese comes to life through lavish fur coats and an emotionally bare score, never once leaning on lesbian sensationalism as a crutch. The true magnetism of it all hangs on the performances of Cate Blanchett as Carol and Rooney Mara as Therese. They defy the era’s social conformity discreetly — in person, you would miss it if you weren’t paying close attention — while still bending under its unimaginable pressures. As it all unfolds, the richness of their performances comes as a surprise; though, when have they given us reason to expect otherwise?
In theaters, we often look to monologues or forbidden sex scenes to articulate the depth of a couple’s affection. In life, that bond is evident in everyday stitches. Carol captures those with grace, looking straight ahead without waiting for applause. As such, it’s loud in the quietest of ways, reminding viewers that it’s often those with their lips sealed who have a greater story to tell than those squawking on the sidewalk, a heel popped up in the air as they kiss.
No horror film of 2015 had a monster to match how the tabloid media is presented in Amy. It is an insatiable, parasitic thing, sucking more life out of its celebrity-victim with every flashing camera bulb and every headline smeared across the cover of the local daily. Director Asif Kapadia (Senna) makes no bones about assigning blame for the premature death of British pop singer Amy Winehouse. It’s the media’s fault, his film insinuates early and often, putting us inside the raw footage of Winehouse’s life to evoke a visceral reaction of disgust. Or maybe it’s despair, because there’s a more uncomfortable truth lurking beneath the surface of Kapadia’s film: really, we are the ones at fault.
Amy is a difficult film to watch and not just because of its tragic ending. Kapadia combed through hours of unreleased footage to present an intimate portrait of Winehouse as she appeared outside the spotlight. What we see is a troubled, insecure, and irresistibly charming young woman who was foisted inside a life she was woefully unprepared to live. By relying so heavily on footage pulled from handheld recorders, web cams, and other first-person videos, Kapadia’s film underlines the unique plight of the modern celebrity: she simply can’t disappear. The stuff of her life becomes fodder for clickbait journalism, her flaws are laid bare, and her life is rendered unlivable. Amy asks the question: Would you want to live like that? When the answer is inevitably no, it points us toward a mirror.
There’s something to be said about the power of following one’s passion. Iris Apfel, now 94, has been, as she puts it, worshipping at “the altar of accessory” for decades and decades. She’s a fashionista. A lover of design, fabric, and the art of dressing up while secretly dressing down.
Albert Maysles’ Iris is a love letter to the life and times of the eloquent and affable Apfel and her hyper-specific and frankly quite pleasing interests in body and interior aesthetics. With her hootish glasses, self-deprecating wit, and millions of miles of fabric in her New York home, Apfel’s a character alright. Maysles frames his subject in a crisp, clean organized fashion, and Apfel’s story takes on a sort of bigger statement about living a live well lived and how lucky it is when a person gets to sustain themselves on passion.
Apfel, in spite of her age, runs around to shops, goes to fashion shows, teaches NYU students, you name it. Her boundless enthusiasm is so very appealing, and strangely enough a sort of model for healthy living. Through Apfel’s amusement and love for her work, Iris takes on very profound qualities in its minute 79-minute runtime: it becomes a sweet-natured statement of lust for life. Do what you care about, and nothing can stop you. That’s a heart-warming message that the film tells plainly and perfectly. Iris is a wonderful, kind, and giving doc, but not without being a funky, curious, and cool one.
20. The End of the Tour
The End of the Tour is a biopic about a public figure who, as the film suggests, would likely have been deeply uncomfortable with the idea of having a biopic made about him had he been around to see it. David Foster Wallace, as played in James Ponsoldt’s exceptional film by a never-better Jason Segel, was a complicated figure, a literary genius too keyed into the ways that pop culture canonizes, upholds, and demonizes geniuses to resist internalizing those ideas, even as they made him deeply uncomfortable more often than not.
Based on David Lipsky’s memoir Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which chronicled the Rolling Stone writer’s week-long journey through the Midwest with Wallace in 1996 as the latter wrapped up his book tour for the just-published Infinite Jest, The End of the Tour feels at times like a riff on Before Sunrise that concerns itself less with young love than with the alternate intoxication and anxiety of just meeting somebody new. For Wallace, Lipsky represents the exact kind of intellectual-gatekeeping establishment that he alternately appreciates (being one beneficiary of such an establishment) and reviles. For Lipsky, portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg in a gentler mode, Wallace is a reminder that even the brilliant minds making boundary-shifting art are usually just struggling to get through the day as well.
As an anti-biopic of sorts, as a film immersed in the sublime joys of conversation and the banal in-betweens, and as a character study in deep sadness and the vitality of life, The End of the Tour is unforgettable filmmaking in the truest sense.
19. Heaven Knows What
“Drugs are bad.” Simple enough lesson, right? Oh, if only addiction and impulse control were that easy to conquer — they’re not. Think about your day-to-day activities and try to argue that you’re not inclined to do one thing over the other without pause and more than you should. It could be something healthy like working out, or something lethargic like binge-watching Netflix for three to four hours a night, or it could be something truly disastrous like shooting up heroin and slitting your wrists.
That latter part probably doesn’t apply to you all. But it does for Harley (Arielle Holmes) and her circle of drug-rattled rejects in Ben and Joshua Safdie’s unsettling psycho-drama, Heaven Knows What. Based on an unpublished memoir of Holmes’ true life story as a homeless addict living on the streets of New York City, the 94-minute recess into terror highlights the hellish pitfalls and yet also the surreal highs of this unfortunate scene. It’s scummy, it’s reckless, it’s chilling stuff, but it’s incredibly relatable.
Reason being screenwriters Ronald Bronstein and Joshua Safdie wisely parallel themes of drug abuse with relationships, cruelly capturing how intertwined they can be at times. The film’s dedicated to Holmes’ late boyfriend, Ilya Leontyev, who is portrayed to irritable perfection by Caleb Landry Jones, and it’s their messy bond that draws us into the fringe. We might be shaking our heads at their fractured, and often questionable, love, but most of us have been there.
And most of us refuse to quit.
18. The Assassin
Few have ever managed to blend action and philosophy quite as seamlessly as art house hero Hou Hsiao-hsien does in his latest and long-anticipated offering, The Assassin.
Embracing the hallmarks of wuxia cinema – a genre he’s loved since childhood – and reimagining them through his own deeply contemplative and hyper-realistic lens, Hou tells the story of Nie Yinniang, a general’s daughter who is ripped away from her family when she’s only 10 years old. Her kidnapper, a nun and the girl’s self-appointed sensei, teaches the girl martial arts and molds her into the film’s titular assassin. The two live and work in ostensibly harmony for years until the now young woman falters on a mission, failing to kill a despot in front of his child. To punish her charge, the nun sends her back to her family with a secret mission: she must kill her cousin, a man to whom she once betrothed and still loves.
Barely sublimating the storm of emotions and torn loyalties that constantly brews beneath an icy surface, Shu Qi is stunning as Nie Yinniang, battling both enemies and herself in literal combat and soul searching with such ferocity that she threatens to steal every single scene in which she appears. And that is saying quite a lot considering that the rest of the film – from its script to its Tang dynasty costumes and set design to its levitation-free fight choreography to Hou’s skillful hand, which earned him the Best Director trophy at Cannes this year – is near perfect.
17. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
HBO has been killing it with the documentaries lately. Citizenfour deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2015 Oscars, and the provocative documentary miniseries The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst resulted in the arrest of the alleged serial murderer at its center one day before its finale aired. But the documentary on seemingly everyone’s lips this summer was Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, which went on to win numerous awards, including the Emmy for Best Documentary. If it advances to the 2016 Oscars, the rising tide against the largely Hollywood-infused cult will officially wash ashore.
Directed by Alex Gibney (We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks) and based on the book by Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright, Going Clear is an exhaustive and damning investigation of the Church of Scientology and its arbiters, particularly its founder, science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, and current leader, David Miscaviage. The film includes several eye-opening interviews with former church members, including one-time senior executives Mike Rinder and Marty Rathbun; the former liaison to John Travolta, Sylvia “Spanky” Taylor; and the Oscar-winning director and screenwriter Paul Haggis (Crash).
Gibney and his team had to lawyer up in advance — “probably 160 lawyers,” HBO’s president of documentaries Sheila Nevins has claimed — to deal with the barrage of nasty litigation and defamations of character that the Church is notorious for unloading upon its enemies. But instead of being bullied into capitulation, Gibney, his crew, and his many interview subjects stood their ground and fought back in a way that is not just admirable, but also courageous in light of the circumstances, even awe-inspiring. Plus, that a nearly two-hour documentary can be so absorbing from beginning to end, prompting repeat viewings and buzzy water cooler conversations to parse every outrageous detail — none of which I would dare to spoil here — is a commendable feat in and of itself.
16. While We’re Young
It’s funny how your life can change once you view it through someone else’s eyes.
In While We’re Young, Josh (Ben Stiller) and his wife, Cornelia (Naomi Campbell), are childless and getting older, but are trying desperately not to see themselves that way. It isn’t working. They want to hold on to what is exciting about not being a parent and convince themselves they’re doing so until meeting Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a 25-year-old couple who seem to be doing everything right. The two couples instantly click and form, for different reasons, an unhealthy friendship that only reveals itself as the story progresses.
Josh is a documentary filmmaker, and Cornelia is a producer for her lauded father of the same field. If you’re at all familiar with the film’s writer-director, Noah Baumbach, it’s clear he drew inspiration from himself for the couple, as he is known to do in most of his films. There’s a hyperawareness of age that seeps into the characters, and it makes sense. The mumblecore genre has famously lent itself to telling the story of fumbling through youth, but Baumbach understands that getting older is a whole blunder in itself.
Baumbach’s writing, coupled with perfect casting, elevates both couples from what could dangerously become caricatures of young vs. old to tangible people we probably know to be real. He clearly and succinctly understands them in lines like, “It’s like … he once saw a sincere person, and he’s been imitating him ever since.” Baumbach vocalizes real struggles in such an unapologetic way that the film becomes one of his most infuriating, hilarious, and revelatory to date.
15. The Hateful Eight
The ever-violent, the ever-maligned, the ever-witty Quentin Tarantino returns three years later, and no, he’s not yet finished with the Western genre. With The Hateful Eight, the dialogue maestro tears off a couple of crinkled pages from Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None by sequestering a handful of 19th century America’s most loathsome in the wintry confines of a Wyoming stagecoach stopover. Something’s amiss, though, and it’s by solving “what” that leads our wild wolf pack into a gruesome, albeit delectable, resolution. There are guns. There are knives. There are secrets. There is blood.
Fueled by Ennio Morricone’s tyrannical score, which cleverly patches in his own lost themes from John Carpenter’sThe Thing, Tarantino’s latest bloodbath is another mastery in storytelling and suspense. The whole thing’s decisively split into two halves — the lead-up and the burn — that insist upon your patience and bewilderment, respectively. It’s carried out by a who’s who of all-star character performances, from cult hero Kurt Russell to Hollywood veteran Bruce Dern, though the film truly belongs to Samuel L. Jackson and Jennifer Jason Leigh. The two relish each of their lines and quirks with inimitable fury and delight.
Although Tarantino floods the proceedings with lush, wide portraits and stunning cinematography, all proudly shot on 70 mm film (and insistent upon the medium), The Hateful Eight actually feels more like an extensive stage play. Which isn’t too surprising given that the genesis of this production dates back to a successful live reading that was staged last year at Los Angeles’ United Artists Theater. At the time, the filmmaker was reticent (read: vitriolic) about turning his exhaustive screenplay into a film following its disastrous online leak. But, something clicked in the theater that day, and it’s now easy to see why.
14. 45 Years
For years, the crown jewel of “Movie Scenes That Ruined Songs for Me” belonged to Alex crooning “Singin’ in the Rain” while behaving awfully in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. This year, a new champion emerged: The Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” in 45 Years. No one attempts to take on the song in the midst of an unseemly act. It appears in the movie as is, but the scene in question is as sad as anything you’re likely to see from any scripted movie in 2015.
The reaction to the song wouldn’t have hit so hard were it not for the performances courtesy of 45 Years’ two leads: Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay. They play Kate and Geoff, respectively — a couple about to celebrate their 45-year anniversary with a big party in town. The week of, Geoff receives news about an old girlfriend who appears at first to merely put a damper on the celebrations, but later proves possibly life-changing.
Rampling’s ability to alternate between patience/impatience alongside confidence and defeat is something to behold in what is for the most part a two-hander. Her buzz-worthy performance is unfairly overshadowing the work of her co-star, Courtenay, whose Geoff is someone we must feel sympathy for in order for the movie to work. As for 45 Years as a whole, writer/director Andrew Haigh delivers the rare movie featuring an elderly couple in which no one’s life is about to run out and no one’s memory is on the verge of fading away. It’s about having memories that are too strong and a life that might have been a lie all along.
“When a lovely flame dies/ Smoke gets in your eyes.”
13. 99 Homes
The late great Maya Angelou has a pretty essential take about the concept of “home” and how it relates to each and every one of us. She wrote, “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” Focus on the latter part of that quote — “where we can go as we are and not be questioned” — as you watch Ramin Bahrani’s brutal eviction drama, 99 Homes, and try your hardest not to clutch your seat and grit your teeth as Andrew Garfield and Laura Dern are forced to say goodbye to their “safe place” … in less than 10 minutes … as two cops watch on … and an ever steely Michael Shannon observes with heightened ambivalence.
99 Homes hurts more than it soothes. Screenwriter Bahrani and Amir Naderi tell a sordid tale about one man’s unwavering efforts to save his family and how such lengths turn into unthinkable sins. What elevates this downward spiral is Shannon’s erudite real estate mastermind Rick Carver, a nihilistic son of a bitch who has an all-too-realistic grasp on why Americans are foolishly signing away their lives. Like Garfield’s Dennis, you’re easily sold on what he’s saying, namely because he’s not exactly wrong. But as they say, two wrongs don’t make a right, especially when Carver’s conniving master plan against the banks rapidly escalates into treacherous territory.
All of this wouldn’t be so affecting if it weren’t so tragically prescient to America today. Bahrani knows this and keeps the proceedings both natural and grounded. The sprawling Florida neighborhoods that Garfield and Shannon scam are everyday settings we walk or drive or train past without thought. We never question it could all be taken away, which is why Garfield’s stunned disbelief and self-abhorrence feels quite palpable in the end. He’s like a more approachable Bud Fox to Shannon’s more pragmatic Gordon Gekko. We’re sucked into this world not because we want to win, but because we want to survive. As Carver argues, “America doesn’t bail out losers.”
If that doesn’t rattle your bones, well, you’re in trouble.
Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, co-writer/director Charlie Kaufman was able to secure enough funds to shoot Anomalisa through stop-motion puppetry with the closest attention brought to the mundanity of hotel rooms as well as the spark of someone falling for another person. How did they pull this off? How were they able to so perfectly time emotions that are so hard to pin down in reality? It comes down to the magic of Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson. His trick of getting through his most human story ended up having nothing to do with humans at all. At least not physically.
The story follows a writer named Michael (David Thewlis) the night before he’s to make a speech on customer service at a convention. He’s disconnected from the rest of the world, viewing everyone the same, a point that is driven home by the decision to cast character actor extraordinaire Tom Noonan as the voice of every other character in the movie … except for one person. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Lisa is that one person who Michael believes will rescue him from his doldrums and thrust him into an exciting new life. While Leigh is garnering notices for her work in The Hateful Eight, her vocal performance here deserves just as many accolades.
Anomalisa is brutal in its truth-telling and as potent a relationship story as any Kaufman’s told before. The best people don’t always get what they deserve, but maybe what they deserve is different from what they think they’re missing out on (think about it). Kaufman’s film reminds us that ignorance can be bliss, implores us to stop looking so hard, and, of course, confirms that Tom Noonan is the best.
If Mad Max: Fury Road was the year’s most exciting movie, then Spotlight is the runner-up, and the closest it comes to an action sequence is Mark Ruffalo furiously trying to hail a cab. A clear-eyed, unsentimental look at the reporting team that exposed the massive scope and cover-up of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Tom McCarthy’s remarkable film feels both of-the-moment and undeniably old-fashioned (my god, the filing cabinets). But to call this a love letter to investigative journalism is to discredit the remarkable work of McCarthy, co-writer Josh Singer, and the Michael Keaton-led ensemble cast. These people aren’t heroes in the typical storytelling sense, and they’re not saints. The film never demands affection or adulation for the people it follows. They’re just doing their damn jobs, no matter the cost.
The plot of Spotlight offers a handy parallel for the film’s many strengths. To drive this horrible story into the light, much is needed: people (lawyers, survivors, filmmakers, editors) who refuse to be ignored; facts that can’t be denied; damning mistakes admitted; risks taken and proved worthwhile. Like the Boston Globe’s team, those involved bend to the project with a will, but without even the faintest hint of showboating. McCarthy’s drum-tight direction studies the events unblinkingly, while the ensemble cast refuses to so much as approach the scenery with their teeth. And perhaps the single most upsetting moment committed to film this year appears without fanfare in the film’s closing moments, proving that sometimes there’s only one thing needed to shake people to their core: just the facts, ma’am.
All year, I’ve argued that Hollywood’s current crop of blockbusters are part of a larger vacuum, a Fan Fiction Era, in which young filmmakers who grew up with iconic franchises are now given the reigns to keep them going. So far it’s warranted garbage cash grabs, simply masked as “reboots,” which have either zoomed by unnoticed (Terminator Genisys) or trounced the box office worldwide (Jurassic World). None, however, have proven as remarkable, essential, or singular as Ryan Coogler’s sophomore triumph, the Rocky spin-off, Creed.
Now, there was no need for a seventh Rocky film. Sylvester Stallone had already tested the murky waters in 2006 with the surprise critical and commercial hit, Rocky Balboa, which ostensibly served as the final chapter for the Italian Stallion — or so we thought. Thanks to a wild stroke of ingenuity, Coogler dreamed up an impossible story — the late Apollo Creed’s illegitimate child searching for identity with a cancerous Philadelphia champion — and executed the whole salami to perfection, knocking out the strongest entry in the franchise since the 1976 original.
That’s not an overstatement, either. Coogler directs with unseemly precision, from rugged city-wide portraits to awe-inspiring one-takes, and bottles up the magnetic chemistry between the film’s intriguing trio of stars: Michael B. Jordan proves he’s a marquee name, Stallone cracks some Oscar-worthy knuckles, and rising singer and actress Tessa Thompson steals the spotlight away from the muscle. But really, Creed thrives by swinging way beyond its source material; it’s reverent, but also removed. Coogler didn’t make a reboot; he made a film.
“Exhaustion” is a word director Rick Alverson often returns to when discussing Entertainment, his follow-up to 2012’s bilious, brilliant The Comedy. That’s for good reason. Entertainment is exhausting, not just for the film’s central comedian, but for the viewer as well. Bleak, cruel, and lacking any kind of satisfying catharsis, the film follows an aging, postmodern comic (known simply as The Comedian, though the character reflects the real-life Neil Hamburger persona long embodied by star Gregg Turkington) through a series of sparsely attended gigs in the Mojave Desert. Onstage, in character, he’s volcanic and alienating, spitting out blunt, offensive jokes and scolding the audience for not reacting properly. Offstage, however, he’s soft-spoken and aimless, ambling in and out of faded relationships, new-agey philosophy, and local landmarks (most of which are rusted, broken machines, if that indicates anything). He’s looking for meaning, but all he finds is entertainment, a momentary distraction.
It’s a perfect title, honestly, because Alverson and Turkington are exploring the concept of “entertainment” from a number of angles. There’s the existential aspect, most certainly, but Entertainment is about so much more than a sad clown. Really, it’s about how the construction of an identity, not just onstage but in how our daily interactions can devolve into a type of performance. The Comedian’s onstage and offstage personas could not be more different, yet Turkington offers us more honesty as his aggressive, bleating comic than we ever get from him otherwise. As artists age with their art, their act inevitably begins to seep into their real life; for The Comedian, it almost seems to be the opposite. So much of his bitter, angry true self has seeped into the character that what exists outside is withering into the ether. It’s bold and ugly, the polar opposite of almost anything else you’ll see in the theater this year. Alverson, Turkington, and co-writer Tim Heidecker are making art that no one else is making right now, plumbing the darkness that rests beneath our simple pleasures in pursuit of a humanity that our modern, detached society has been conditioned to keep at bay. Is it exhausting? Yes. But it’s absolutely worth it.
08. It Follows
We could talk about metaphors. We could talk about what it all means. Or we could talk about that most important aspect of a horror movie: whether or not it actually scares you. And It Follows scares you, if only for its commonality.
I love Jaws, but most of us haven’t been terrorized by a man-eating great white shark. Halloween’s my favorite film of all time, but most of us haven’t been stalked by a serial killer. It Follows, on the other hand, relies on the much more relatable fear of someone slowly walking after you. They never pick up their pace. They don’t wear a mask. They’re not carrying a weapon. They could look like someone who’s close to you, but most of the time, they’re a total stranger.
This minimalism makes David Robert Mitchell’s monster terrifyingly easy to recreate — at least in the basic visual sense — when you’re strolling down the street, regardless of your location or the time of day. The thing really could come from anywhere and be anyone, which shrouds the Michigan suburbs of It Follows in a fog of paranoia, made all the more frightening by the film’s emphasis on the slow death of youth. Indeed, many of the settings depict the decay of Detroit bleeding into a neighborhood near you.
But I’m getting away from the quiet rawness Mitchell and his team have created. If the loss of innocence terrifies you, awesome. Consider it a bonus. If the STD allegory rings true, even better. But at the end of the day — a nice day where all there is to do is float around lazily in an above-ground pool — It Follows is scary because the thought of being followed is scary. Simple as that.
Sean Baker’s Tangerine is a wildly entertaining and surprisingly affecting film, but the biggest punch it packs isn’t found in what it is, but what it isn’t. In the “beautifully wrapped lie” that is Los Angeles, there are no very special lessons to be learned, no noble struggles to be worshipped, no paths to self-discovery, and no chances for straight people to be forever changed. There’s not so much as a trace of tokenism. As Alexandra (Mya Taylor) tells Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), “Out here, it is all about our hustle, and that’s it.”
There’s more to it than that, of course. But Tangerine, the anti-Dallas Buyers Club, spends most of its 85 minutes on full blast, and absolutely none of those minutes are spent educating. It’s a comedy that trades on the strength of its personalities and the way those personalities collide, a drama that lets its most stirring moments sneak up behind you and snatch your breath before you know it’s gone. The film begins with Alexandra and Sin-Dee sharing one sad, sprinkled donut (“Merry Christmas Eve, bitch!”) and ends with a few quiet minutes in a laundromat, but in between, their passions, wishes, and needs — from love to cash to respect to motherfucking answers — drive them all over the city, together and apart, towards each other and away again.
“This,” Sin-Dee’s good-for-nothing paramour Chester (James Ransome) says, “is a motherfucking girl thing.” And so it is. In the candy-colored, sour Los Angeles light (shot gloriously and gruesomely on three iPhone 5s), Sin-Dee and Alexandra battle the world, each other, and those who stand in their way, from johns who won’t pay up to Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), the prostitute and “real fish” Sin-Dee drags — literally — through the streets. Even the elements of the story that involve cis men gravitate toward and away the trans women at its center. Each girl’s own quest dominates the action, but their friendship is what makes it sing. It’s not about men, and it’s not about you. It’s all about their hustle.
06. Call Me Lucky
Bobcat Goldthwait’s profile of the hard times and heavy laughs of cult comic Barry Crimmins is the best kind of documentary, one that digs deep into specific, unfamiliar subject matter and paints the fullest portrait imaginable. There are few things more delightful than seeing a movie with little to no pre-text and feeling genuinely moved, like you’re a better and more empathetic person for having seen it.
Call Me Lucky is some sort of humanist achievement. It’s the best kind of documentary: deeply involved, profoundly insightful, earning every last drop of its hard-fought optimism.
Crimmins made a niche and name for himself in the ‘80s as a hard-nosed mic man, sick of bureaucratic bullshit, ready to razz the church, state, and political system. It was like watching the mind of Lenny Bruce inside the body of Bluto from Popeye. But after a while, Goldthwait isn’t content fawning at the splendor that is Barry. We learn that Crimmins was the survivor of childhood abuse; he was sexually savaged, as a baby, by a monster in his life. We see how these experiences shaped Crimmins, how he didn’t let it lock him down and define him. He defied expectation, became a brilliant, beautiful deliverer of justice in unexpected ways.
Mind you, Goldthwait doesn’t aim to deify or pity the embattled Barry, but give insightful narrative to the comic’s life. The story’s amazing, and Crimmins is such a unique, admirable, and amiable wild card that Call Me Lucky takes on a kind of folk-hero vibe, mining the real and, in turn, coming up with something revelatory.
05. The Revenant
The knock on director Alejandro González Iñárritu is that he favors style over substance, flair over character and what not, but it’s tougher to take issue with his latest effort. It’s man vs. nature. It’s as basic a storytelling trope as one can take on. The Revenant can exist and excel with a stylistic look when all we have to do when alone in the wild is look at the wild.
At least that’s what we find ourselves dealing with via the eyes and cries of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass, based on the real-life trader who was left for dead after a vicious bear attack. The movie embellishes aspects of Glass’ true tales (which are quite fascinating in their own right), but it makes for a tighter story through the lens of Iñárritu. Long tracking shots are nothing new for the director, but the opening battle sequence is as impressive as anything seen since Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan D-Day. As for DiCaprio, he’s topped anything he’s ever done before.
While nature’s elements cause nothing but havoc for Glass, the filmmaking team surrounding Iñárritu come through for everyone involved. Emmanuel Lubezki will probably win his third consecutive Best Cinematography Oscar for his magnificent work with natural light. Of the score, composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto, and The National’s Bryce Dessner, our own Michael Roffman says, “Altogether, it’s a haunting collection of tearful strings, glazed synths, and engulfing bass that mirrors the scenery and action at hand with compelling results.”
Love it or hate it, The Revenant will stick with you. We loved it. And it’s stuck with us.
The only reasonable explanation as to why the vital Sicario was shut out of every applicable Golden Globe Award category is that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association skipped it, ostensibly to watch Steve Jobs twice. Why else would the tense and timely drama be denied nominations for Best Motion Picture, Best Director for Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners); Best Original Score for Johann Johansson (The Theory of Everything, doing a 180 here), and — most egregiously — Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Benicio del Toro? It doesn’t make sense.
Despite the snubs, Sicario remains one of the best (and best-reviewed) films of the year: a sweeping and brutal account of the disastrous War on Drugs that blurs the lines between right and wrong, villains and victims, winners and losers. In the end, everyone is left standing on either side of the explosion with blood dripping from their hands, blinking in disbelief — or worse, desensitization — at the havoc they’ve wreaked on each other and among themselves. The film offers no easy answers, nor easy solutions, but there is plenty of carnage to suggest that the current strategy, on both sides, is little better than chaos. FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) learns this the hard way when she is recommended to work under the morally lax CIA Special Activities Division officer Matt Braver (Josh Brolin) and Matt’s mysterious partner, Alejandro Gillick (del Toro), to devastating results.
Sicario opens with corpses hidden in the walls and a detonated bomb sending body parts flying, and the bloody climax, orchestrated by Gillick, is just as horrifying. That this is not a horror film, per se, but a meditation on true (and ongoing) events is what keeps viewers’ nerves lit and frayed. Even after the final frame gently fades to black, we still have much to fear.
03. Inside Out
Pixar’s first animated offering of 2015 was a revelation. Not necessarily for its central conceit – the all but forgotten Fox sitcom Herman’s Head toyed around with the concept of turning different aspects of a man’s personality into characters and letting them interact with each other back in 1991, and Bob Odenkirk and David Cross brought their own skewed vision to it with Mr. Show’s “Old Lady, Gay Guy, Biker, and Japanese Man” skit in 1996 – but the way in which it was handled.
Inspired by a move in his old childhood and the emotional changes that he was witnessing in his pre-teen daughter, director Pete Docter worked closely with psychology experts to develop the story of a young girl named Riley and the way her Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust interact in the face of a crisis, and that level of dedication and care is evident in every single scene of Inside Out.
Ostensibly negative emotions like sadness and fear are never far from children’s entertainment. Disney’s entire cinematic output would disappear without them. But even the best kids’ films tend to treat those feelings as an exploitable resource. Animated parents die and other gut-wrenching tragedies occur to make young audiences cry and connect to the story they’re watching.
Inside Out yanks at the heartstrings no less ruthlessly than its predecessors (Bing Bong!), but it also takes a child’s grief seriously as valid fictional subject matter and a vital part of a full and functional life. The fact that audiences of all ages are finding this equally whimsical and thoughtful film so cathartic is a testament to how long we’ve been waiting for this kind approach.
02. The Look of Silence
The task of the documentary film is to remember – to counteract the forces that repress or obliterate memory even when those forces remain very much in power. Like its predecessor, 2013’s The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence is a documentary that remembers at the risk of its own crew. Countless names have been redacted from the closing credits sequence, all replaced with a simple “Anonymous.” It is a haunting reminder that, for the survivors and families of the Indonesian mass murders of 1965 and 1966, the horror persists.
This is partly because the truth behind those massacres remains buried, actively repressed by those on both sides. The Act of Killing focused on the perpetrators, launching a fascinating exploration into how mass murderers rationalize their actions. The Look of Silence turns its lens on the survivors forced to interact with these murderers on a daily basis, and in doing so it paints a more complete picture of a society at war with itself.
At the film’s emotional core is Adi, an optician whose brother was killed in the massacres. Under the auspices of fitting them for new glasses, Adi confronts the men responsible for murdering his brother and millions of other innocent people. It’s a brilliant framing device that director Joshua Oppenheimer exploits to full effect, putting men with a demonstrated taste for power in a vulnerable position and then forcing a confrontation. Blurry vision is a symbol for how Indonesian society approaches its own history, and Adi is determined to achieve clarity even if it means forsaking his own safety.
The Look of Silence isn’t the most powerful documentary film of 2015; it’s the most powerful film, period. It should be required viewing for students of history, yes, but also for students of humanity. In case you’re wondering, that should be everyone.
01. Mad Max: Fury Road
In a film climate where many enjoy reading about the hype cycle leading up to a film’s release more than watching movies, or so it seems, it’s rare that a film can cut through the noise and the skepticism and all the people who’ll decide to hate it even if it’s great for the hell of it. It’s even rarer that such a film could become a massive mainstream hit, bringing in audiences from all walks of life, and seemingly rarer beyond that when such a film can do all of these things without trafficking in the sort of reductive nonsense that’s come to bog down so many modern studio movies.
But Mad Max: Fury Road doesn’t just cut through the noise. It stomps on it, hits it with a car door, drives over it, turns around, drives over it again for good measure, all while a faceless man plays a burning guitar over the wreckage.
George Miller’s lunatic rock opera of War Boys and many mothers and the repressive regime that holds them all back isn’t just any one thing its many effusive reviews have cited. It’s not just the best and most coherent big-budget summer film of the franchise era, or a master class in storytelling economy, or cinematography porn, or one of Hollywood’s strongest feminist statements in years, or an instant classic. It’s all of those things, and it’s so many more beyond them, a vision of dystopian hell that couldn’t be more fun to revisit over and over again. And rest assured, we all will. Witness it.
01. Mad Max: Fury Road
02. The Look of Silence
03. Inside Out
05. The Revenant
06. Call Me Lucky
08. It Follows
13. 99 Homes
14. 45 Years
15. The Hateful Eight
16. While We’re Young
17. Going Clear
18. The Assassin
19. Heaven Knows What
20. The End of the Tour
24. The Overnight
25. Furious 7