Saturday, September 12, 2015

First Half of 2015 | Best of movies | Part I

And just like that, half the year is gone.

But it has also left behind the afterglow of noteworthy films. Films that transcended form or genre. Or those that did a stellar job while fully ensconced within their genre. I have never strained to come up with films to put on best-of lists, and do not frankly understand those who complain that such and such was a bad year for cinema. If you are not finding anything worthwhile to watch, perhaps you have not been looking in the right places. 
Here are films released between January and June that represent for me the best of the year so far. We start from the back and make our way to the top.

10. PADDINGTON: Any film that stands up for the true definition of family is fine by me. A film with this plot ought to get weighted by treacle. But not this adaptation that somehow manages to invest rationality to a talking teddy bear who gets adopted by a human family. I am frankly surprised that more hasn’t been made about the look of this film. The film needs to be watched for its visual flair alone which at times easily crosses over into the magical. Nicole Kidman has a great time vamping up a storm and it is no secret that Sally Hawkins makes every movie better. But it is the title character, wistfully voiced by Ben Whishaw who makes this film stick in your mind as a credible piece of whimsy.

9  WILD TALES: One reviewer called this film a tinder-box of delights, and I can do no better than that. There is something almost primordial about this Argentinian film. Six unrelated tales round up an anthology of stories all dealing with that point when a person snaps, unable to finally stay grounded in rationality, unable to take it anymore. And what brilliant flameouts these are. You the viewer will watch the film with jaw dropped, sometimes raising your fist in solidarity with the oppressed and sometimes in horror at things going too far. Witty, unpredictable, over the top, and gleefully violent, this is one great time at the movies. WILD TALES was rightfully nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar; it was released commercially in the US in 2015.

8. SPY: Comedy is the hardest thing to do in cinema, and to do it well within genre conventions harder still. Melissa McCarthy finally gets lead material worthy of her skills, and one of the great joys of SPY is to watch how the movie is quietly, stealthily feminist. Look hard, look well, you will not find a single fat joke here. And McCarthy’s character may be caught off-guard when her fervent wish to be an on-the-ground spy is finally granted, but she is never inept; these filmmakers have no desire in watching their lead fumble. And the secondary characters, in justifiably career-best performances from Rose Byrne to Jason Stratham to Bobby Canavale all gamely work together at equal pitch. So many things are not right with the media we consume these days; we have substandard teenage films playing in multiplexes and the Kardashians dominate television. SPY somehow restores my faith in big-budget Hollywood films. 

7. McFARLAND, USA: When a good sports film works, it really works. A fallen from grace football coach (Kevin Costner) gets assigned to a school in the titular small town in Central California and realizing that the predominantly Hispanic kids in the school are uncommonly good at running, he decides to coach them for a cross country track team instead. This film has a good sense for place. Of farming towns populated by migrant families that pick produce. Of cultures that assimilate. Of people living simple lives. And that is enough. Even as the film proceeds exactly as expected, by refusing to insult its characters and regarding them without judgment, its observations ring with truth. This film will not be on many best-of-year lists, but it merits wider recognition.

6.  INSIDE OUT: It may seem a phenomenally glib concept: to have the emotions in a person's mind take actual talking forms of Joy, Fear, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and so forth. But believe the hype. I did not, thinking this film would be yet another Hollywood effort to dumb down the complexity of human intellect. But I was wrong. It turns out that by breaking down human behavior into simpler motifs, it is possible to give agency to so much of what we normally shrug off as the unexplainable.  I understood myself a little better after seeing this film. And how often can you say that about a movie. A teenage girl's difficulty with adjusting to a new life in Northern California after being uprooted from her Minnesota upbringing is given beautiful and shockingly authentic life as the emotions in her head go on a grand, Homeresque journey. After a troubling period of subpar quality fare, Pixar returns to exalted form with this film

We will climb our way to the top of the list in Part Two.

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