Saturday, February 27, 2016

Worst of 2015 | Movies | Most Disappointing Films

The worst of the worst: GET HARD

As wondrous and giving as 2015 was for movies, it wasn't without its share of disappointments. And here is my list of the top disappointments. Even within this list, most films just didn't match up to (perhaps impossibly high) expectations. Except for the top three; those are legitimately awful.  

10. TERMINATOR GENISYS. A well-intentioned botch-up, but a botch-up all the same. Other than the anything-goes juggle act that was the script (which brazenly disregarded the legacy of these characters), the most damaging of all was the casting of Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor. Please understand that Sarah Connor doesn't giggle; even as a teenager, she doesn't. 

9. BLACK MASS. Was there a film this year with more grand showboating? Try as he much, poor Johnny Depp is unable to rise above his near comical physicality: a prosthetic forehead and blotchy cirrhotic skin. And can we please say a prayer for the mobster film genre and call it officially dead. Its all been done now. If you must watch this film, do so for the female performances from Dakota Johnson (you read correctly), Julianne Nicholson and Juno Temple, who make much out of minimal screen time; the rest of the film amounts to a pissing contest between an admittedly stellar male cast (Depp, Joe Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Peter Saarsgard, Jesse Plemons, Adam Scott and Corey Stoll). 

8. JOY. This isn't a bad film. It is just a little heart-breaking coming from this director and this cast. As enjoyable as the film is, and as reliably alive as Jennifer Lawrence's lead performance is, this ultimately comes across as a story not worth telling.  What was it about the real-life Joy Mangiano that drove David O. Russell to make a film based on her life. She was a struggling housewife who built an empire from inventing and then cannily marketing the Miracle Mop. But there are a hundred Joy Mangianos in the real world; the Lifetime network on television is devoted specifically to stories about them. Maybe it is the treatment of the material. The voiceover from the dead grandmother (Diane Ladd) is frankly pointless. The TV show-within-the-film device that kicks off the movie is odd and demeaning to the Virginia Madsen character. The Robert DeNiro and Bradley Cooper characters are cardboard cutouts (remember their crackling work in THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK?). And any film that doesn't know what to do with Isabella Rossellini is committing high crime. 

7. CONCUSSION. Oh this film has a big heart. But in its earnestness, it loses sight of objectivity. The last thing a film with a cause should do is to put its protagonist on a pedestal. And that is exactly what CONCUSSION is hell bent on doing for most of its running time. It all but canonizes Bennet Omalu. This topic deserves a better film, an angrier, more lived-in film ready to embrace real-life contradictions, instead of the diatribe that CONCUSSION amounts to. And what a perfectly good waste of Albert Brooks. And Gugu Mbatha Raw too. 

6. FANTASTIC FOUR.  This is not the full out disaster they would have you believe. Set aside the naked greed in financing yet another reboot of this story. But you can almost chart the filmmaker slowly losing grip on the material, starting at the halfway mark. As if he just gave up mid-film. Some day, director Josh Trank will reveal the horror that must have been the making of this film. The one silver lining in all this: no sequels means there will be fewer Miles Teller movies the world will be subjected to. 

5. RICKI AND THE FLASH. This film, the very air it breathes, seems incongruous with the person who helmed SOMETHING WILD, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and MARRIED TO THE MOB. There is something to be said for an unconstricted, free-form telling of a story that Jonathan Demme used to great effect in his last outing, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED. Even a fraction of the bite and rawness from that film would have been life-saving for RICKI AND THE FLASH. 

4. THE HATEFUL EIGHT. The first part of this film is genius. I have written about the issues I had with the rest of the movie. 

3. ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL I was only marginally annoyed when I first saw this film, but with time I have grown to fully loathe it. It barters the sort of small film tropes that gives indie cinema a bad name: the too quirky by half characters, exhausting hipster references, and the kind of dialog that nobody in real life ever utters. But most egregious of all, is the film's dishonesty. A filmmaker has the right to pawn all the emotional duplicity at their disposal to extract a cathartic response out of the viewer, but I would prefer not to be jerked around like that, thank you very much. 

2. SOUTHPAW. This is stupid miserablist nonsense. A puffed-up, inferior remake of ROCKY. One need only compare this to CREED to realize the emptiness of SOUTHPAW. It pains me that Jake Gyllenhaal was associated with this nakedly manipulative film that has nothing besides hypermasculine posturing to show for itself. 

1. GET HARD. Vile. 

Eight reasons THE HATEFUL EIGHT falls short of being a great film

This year's Oscar ceremonies are nigh. Someone asked me earlier this week why THE HATEFUL EIGHT didn't fare better with Oscar nominations. It managed only three: Best Female Supporting Actor, Best Original Score, and Best Cinematography. None in the lead acting categories. Not one for Best Director. And in the biggest snub of all: no nomination for Best Original Screenplay. I think I know why. 

Every new Tarantino film is cause for celebration for cinephiles even while each of his films has almost always been polarizing. Still, THE HATEFUL EIGHT falls short of being a great film. 

Tarantino has always been an indulgent filmmaker and his excesses are the reason why he is beloved, but this is the first film where his unchecked tics and fletches, his demons and obsessions, derail the movie. Ultimately, fatally so. DJANGO UNCHAINED got dangerously close to crumbling under the overwrought Tarantinoisms, but somehow managed to stick a landing. But not this one. 

Most of early THE HATEFUL EIGHT is terrifically compelling. I will go as far as to say that the first two thirds is genius, with the sort of dialog that reminds us why Tarantino is an essential American filmmaker. Those parts create a sort of stage-play intimacy and directness, an oppressive suffocation seen in only the best kind of theater, where you know that these contrary, conflicted, all too human characters cannot possibly breathe the same air much longer. And that an emotional implosion is imminent. That Tarantino creates this so beautifully in the first two hours of THE HATEFUL EIGHT makes it all the more aggravating to watch what transpires in the last hour. It is akin to watching someone create the most complicated, most precariously balanced, most perfectly scaled sand castle. And then to see them kick that sand castle to the ground. Or worse, watch them piss over it. I say this not to be dramatic; I say it because it is the closest analogy I can come up with to describing my actual filmgoing experience with THE HATEFUL EIGHT. 

So here are eight reasons why THE HATEFUL EIGHT will not be invoked in the first breath of future filmgoers enumerating Tarantino's best work.  A word of note that everything that follows divulges major plot turns, so consider this your fair and final SPOILER WARNING.  
  1. Daisy Domerghue is a punching-bag. Yes I get it, they are all despicable characters; it is right there in the title of the film. They are, hateful all. So why should the woman be treated any differently than the men, I get that. But even then, when the only principal female character in the film, Daisy Domerghue, boils down to a receptacle for repeated violence and she isn't allowed the slightest measure of retribution, you have to question Tarantino's position that this is just how women were treated then. In some fleeting way I can comprehend his intent to place this character in front of the screen as is, as a representation of the only way for a strong female to exist in frontier-era America; in some twisted way Tarantino might even think of this as a feminist stance. But is it, really? I am all for moral fluidity in cinema, but I got tired of watching Daisy Domerghue being beaten again and again, often horrifyingly to comic effect (intended, or otherwise). And let's not even get into what happens to her in the last hour of the film. This, from the director who brought us kick-ass, take no prisoners, female characters in KILL BILL, JACKIE BROWN and INGLORIOUS BASTERDS? 
  2. The N-word. To treat a racial epithet as untouchable is to give it even more power, defenders of the N-word in films have long argued; I can see that. I can see that it is the responsibility of cinema to recreate the past as it was, so we make sure it doesn't repeat again. I can see the purity of the commitment to have characters speak exactly as people did then, with all the abjectly racist potency of that language. And Tarantino has bravely stood by that stance through most of his filmography, starting with his very first film, RESERVOIR DOGS. But even then, even then, even then, when you hear the N-word being uttered for the twenty-seventh time in THE HATEFUL EIGHT (there are actually more than 60 utterances), you cannot shake off the feeling that you are hearing a ten year old say "fuck" loudly and repeatedly for the first time in his life just for the thrill of it. I do not know at what point the persistent use of the N-word stops being an act of political protest or light-shining on the past, and tips over into the disturbingly obsessive. I do not know where that line is, but both DJANGO and THE HATEFUL EIGHT crossed it. At least for me. 
  3. The use of 70mm for a film primarily set in one closed location. Who can dare question Tarantino's unshakable love for film history, his deep affection for the genres and under-appreciated films from a certain time: primarily the 60s and 70s. Which other current headlining filmmaker marches to his own drum with plain disregard of commercial imperatives? Tarantino has negotiated carte blanche with the Weinstein brothers to make films exactly as he wants to. And so he makes a 70 mm film in THE
    HATEFUL EIGHT that in its preferred version has an overture at the start, and a proper intermission in the middle. I envy the thrill of a teenager who hasn't previously experienced an intermission in the theater. But that 70mm. Yes, there is the glorious panning out shot of a snow-covered cross that opens the film, and makes a giddily beautiful case for the 70mm scale. But outside of that, why shoot a film in 70mm when more than three-quarters of the film plays out within the closed confined space of the interiors of a small, snowed-in saloon. It seems akin to driving your Lamborghini to the grocery story down the street. One can say: well, why not? Sure, why not? But it does bear to question a misplaced sense of application. 
  4. The worst thing that can happen to a man. Allow me to explain what according to Quentin Tarantino is the absolutely worst thing than can happen to a red-blooded male. It is being forced into a sexual act with another male. We saw this in PULP FICTION, we saw this in DJANGO UNCHAINED, and here it is, as sure as day, in THE HATEFUL EIGHT. I do not make light of rape, no matter the gender of those involved. But in Tarantino's universe, a man can die a terrible death, can be mentally diminished, can have the goriest physical violence thrust upon him, but the loftiest form of indignity is reserved for those male characters that are sexually forced upon by another male. I do not know of the demons that plague Tarantino's mind any more than I know of any other person's mind. But it is more than eye-raising now to see him circle around this same premise in film after film. Since no one else will say it, I will: this reeks of homophobia. Whatever needs to be exorcised from your brain, Mr. Tarantino please do it. It is regressive to see this pop up in your films. 
  5. How to end this film?  Tarantino creates layered, contradictory, conflicted, all too human characters in THE HATEFUL EIGHT. He watches them combust against each other verbally, and what a show that is! And then what? Of all the writing options he has to bring a
    conclusion to this tale. Of all the ways to see these characters through. Of all the opportunities to make statements, about the state of these characters swimming in moral ambiguity, and the world they inhabit, and the hopelessness of trying to rein in destiny. Of all those options. What do we get instead? A whiplash turn to shlock. Tarantino is master of the genre mash-up, but even then, here it comes across as wildly discordant. I believe the difference between those who love THE HATEFUL EIGHT and those who do not comes down to this singular issue: whether they were able to accept this whiplash turn to shlock in the last act of the film. Yes, these are characters Tarantino has brought to life and so he is free to do as he pleases with them, I understand that. But as a viewer, I have to note that it is crushingly disappointing to watch the script treat these breathing, beautifully alive characters with such disrespect at the end.  
  6. Wasn't the last half-hour of DJANGO UNCHAINED nearly identical? Tarantino's previous film, DJANGO, also ended in a blood-bath, with the red stuff practically trickling down the walls in the last reel. There is a place for mexican shootouts, and Tarantino has a particular knack for them, as evidenced by a beautifully staged, breathless one that sits in the middle of INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, Tarantino's last great film in my opinion. But when the best you can do is to have almost all of your characters kill each other in an unrealistic late-night Cinemax horror film trope, that comes off as lazy. Especially when it happens two films in a row. 
  7. Can your characters be happy, for once, please? It is not a sign of weakness as a scriptwriter to allow your characters to walk away happy at the end of a film. No one will argue that the couple walking into the sunset hand in hand at the end of a film is the most dreaded of movie tropes; and no self-respecting writer will have a part of it. But I think it takes more courage to let your characters walk away with the smallest measure of hard-earned self-determination at the end. Remember Jackie Brown? Or The Bride in KILL BILL? It seems that in the new millennium, Tarantino is too scared to let his characters walk away happy. As if that were some concession to the mawkish, the overly sentimental. It is not. The achingly realized characters you write, Mr Tarantino, deserve a little bit of it. 
  8. And now for something completely different. Tarantino has gone on record to say that he would love to direct a Bond film sometime. And he would be brilliant at it. Or I would love to see him do a contemporary morality tale, something like THE BIG SHORT.  Or do a snarky, vinegar-breathed, romantic film even. Listen, Ang Lee has two directing Oscars, and I think it is because people respect his versatility; no two films of his have been alike. Heck, even Scorsese doesn't make Mafia films anymore. Just this year, Spielberg made his first anti-Spielberg film, in the gracefully understated BRIDGE OF SPIES, a film that is all about the small gestures, instead of Spielberg's usual large scale flourishes, and it is a refreshing course-correction in his career. I hope Tarantino does the same soon. 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Best of 2015 | Movies at Film Festivals

Everyone creates their end of year list of favorite films, and that is well and good. But year after year, the most exceptional movies I watch are at film festivals. Since these films have not, in most cases, yet received theatrical distribution they are often left out of the end of year discussions. Which is frankly unforgivable. And it is the reason I have been creating a separate list of favorite films watched at film festivals. 

Over at Moviewallas, our voices have gone sore from exhorting listeners to attend film festivals. Any film festival. If you can get yourself to one of the more prestigious ones, that is terrific; but we do not always have the time to make an out of town trip specifically for a film festival. So I say, start close. Start at home. Start with your local film festival. Besides, your hometown festivals need all the support they can get. It is not trivial to curate and program a film festival, get permissions to screen the films, and arrange the logistics. And the least we can do is to show up.

I make it sound like film festivals are bitter medicines to be swallowed for the greater good. Perish the thought. The film festival experience can truly be exalted; I recall my first festival experience as being akin to a religious awakening. There you are getting to see a film before anyone else. Bragging rights aside, what is better than annoying your friends with recommendations of films they must watch in the future. Second, movies shown at film festivals bring the filmmakers with them. Most film screenings are followed by a Q and A with the director and often the cast. Talk about annoying your friends now, with casually tossed references to that time Tom Hardy gave a really witty answer to an audience question. And then there is the matter of access, that you otherwise just would never be able to tap into. Foreign films, independent films, commercial films, documentaries, short film programs, retrospectives, they are all part of the festival experience. 

And finally, and most depressing of all, the film festival may be the only place to view some of these gems. And I am talking about high quality movies, which due to the terrible evil that is the American film distribution system, will never show up in a commercial theater in your hometown. 

I know that much of this sounds terribly preachy. But if you ever have the slightest curiosity about a film festival, I would urge you to give it a try. With that PSA out of the way, let me jump into the best films I saw at film festivals in 2015: 

  1. LAS MALAS LENGUAS (SWEET AND VICIOUS; Columbia) Tribeca Film Festival. Have you ever felt like you are a bystander in your own life? This film, a scalpel sharp character study of a privileged girl in Columbia starts to reflect on the adolescence of nothing less than an entire nation.
  2. ECHOES OF WAR (USA) – San Diego Film Festival. It is hard to believe this is the directorial debut of Kane Senes. A slow burn homage to frontier era American farm life, this film is so committed to the air and light and sound and breath of that time, that the rigor with which this has been recreated will leave you breathless. You will be left breathless still by the film's sudden gallop into Peckinpah territory. James Dale Badge and Ethan Embry are stellar here; to see them unrecognized during end of year acting accolades is a crime. I take hope however in knowing that the spirit of seventies cinema is alive and well still in the work of filmmakers such as Senes. 
  3. ANESTHESIA (USA)Tribeca Film Festival.  This is a literate, proudly cerebral addition to the genre of films involving multiple intersecting stories. Writer/director/actor Tim Blake Nelson has gathered Sam Waterson, Glenn Close, Gretchen Moll, Corey Stoll, Gloria Reuben and Mickey Sumner to fill in the many stories, but it is Kristen Stewart who may be the MVP here, proving yet again her ability to effortlessly convey determined intelligence. 
  4. ELIZABETH EKADASHI (India) Los Angeles Indian Film Festival. To watch this heartfelt film is to get lost in a story so vivid and peopled with characters so authentic as to make you grateful for being in your cinema seat. When their mother runs into a hard financial crunch, two kids in India must summon all their resources to prevent the sale of their beloved bicycle (named Elizabeth) that was gifted to them by their recently deceased dad. 
  5. ITS ALREADY TOMORROW IN HONG KONG (USA/Hong Kong) Los Angeles Film Festival.  An American man stationed in Hong Kong for a few years meets a visiting Chinese-American girl. They walk and they talk. And they meet again a few years later. If this sounds a little like Linklater's BEFORE SUNRISE/SUNSET, then this film has earned the right to stand in that company. Wistful, wise and stridently romantic, this film knows that often the most authentic connections in life have nowhere to go. 
  6. MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART (China) San Diego Asian Film Festival. Is this the best Asian film to be released last year? It lulls you first into thinking that it is an inconsequential eighties-set love triangle, until the film opens up, in every possible way: thematically, in scope, in geography, and literally on the screen with a widening aspect ratio. Featuring a marvelous last act (set in 2025!) that is inspired and dangerous and yet oddly apt, this is the work of a master. 
  7. TAXI (Iran) San Diego Asian Film Festival. Director and pied-piper Jafar Panahi, still under house-arrest by the Iranian government, manages to orchestrate a cast of many to create another sly, humorous and altogether humane film. It is a losing battle trying to deduce the parts that are documentary and those that are staged as Panahi drives a taxi around Tehran; at the end the film is inarguably simply a device to fill hearts. 
  8. AYENDA AND THE MECHANIC (South Africa)Los Angeles Film Festival. This is an earthy, ambitious, messy, vibrantly alive epic about a multitude of characters teeming current-day Johannesburg. Director Sarah Blecher said after the screening, "It is time for South Africa to be telling stories about people. We are past telling stories about causes". Amen. 
  9. CARTEL LAND (Mexico)Tribeca Film Festival. Having already grabbed a prestigious Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, this is the real thing, telling the hopeless, shape-shifting, inscrutable story of Mexican drug cartels. This is essential cinema. 
  10. APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR (USA) - San Diego Asian Film Festival. This is an acid-sweet confessional that declares writer/director/actor Desiree Akhavan as an undeniable talent. Achingly honest, conflicted, and an easy purveyor of comedy of the disquiet, the film is all those things because Akhavan refuses to turn the camera off on any aspect of her life. She stomps her way into cinema and we have to no choice but to listen to her.   
  11. ATOMIC HEARTS (Iran)Los Angeles Film Festival. Above genre and gleefully anarchic, this film still practices rigid structure in its story-telling. Is this a vampire film? Is it social commentary on modern day Iran by way of intentionally deflected genre confusion? Is it stream of consciousness script-writing untethered by narrative? Whatever it is, it is unpredictable and giddy and more than a little mischievous.  
  12. HUNGRY HEARTS (Italy) Tribeca Film Festival.  There is literally nothing in the annals of cinema quite like this film. Part love story, part litmus test for the audience, this film slowly reveals it colors to present itself as a war of ideologies. And in its punishingly uncompromising look at both sides of this divide, the film stridently refuses to take sides. Even as things spiral inevitably into insanity and darkness. Adam Driver may be more famous now playing a Star Wars villain, but this film should leave no doubt about his commitment to smaller films.  
  13. MY LOVE, DON’T CROSS THAT RIVER (South Korea) – Los Angeles Film Festival. This is the most commercially profitable South Korean film to date, and it is easy to see why. The documentary follows a couple through the last years of a marriage that has spanned 75 years. All documentaries based on real life footage are inherently untrue because the known presence of a camera fundamentally changes the behavior of those in front of it. Even so, this film somehow manages to capture the insoluble, ineffable call-what-you-want bond between any couple that has prevailed over decades. In that, the film is universal, and the audience is at once invested in the fate of the central characters. 
  14. THE CROW’S EGG (India) – Los Angeles Indian Film Festival.  Two kids in a slum go through a Quixotic quest to get a taste of the most unachievable of things: a slice of pizza from the swanky new fast food joint that has opened in the neighborhood. The film gets occasionally heavy-handed in its commentary on the establishment, but there is no denying the pleasures of a David versus Goliath archetype done with heart. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

Martin Luther King Day Reflections

Thursday last week, I was a guest on a public radio discussion (KPBS Midday Edition) of the Oscar nominations which had been announced earlier that morning. Beth Accomando, the KPBS lead film critic kindly invited me. Maureen Cavanaugh, the host of the program asked us about racial diversity amongst the announced nominees.  All nominees in the four acting categories (Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, Male and Female) are white. So which deserving actors of color should deservedly been nominated, Maureen inquired. And in the moment, the only name that came to mind was that of Michael B. Jordan in CREED. The challenges with being on live radio.

Since then, I have been thinking of other worthy actors of color who could have received nominations and there are many who  qualified: the earthy authenticity of Mya Taylor and Kikana Kiki Rodriguez in TANGERINE, the wily disquiet of Oscar Isaac in EX-MACHINA, the star-making turns from Jason Mitchell and O'Shea Jackson Jr in STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, the altogether winning and sweet performance from Shameik Moore in DOPE, the goofy, lispy, bad-guy take by Samuel L. Jackson in KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE, or his guileless, contradictory, unforgiving central presence in THE HATEFUL EIGHT, the unconventional supportive ex-husband played by Edgar Ramirez in JOY, the glowing life-forces that were the five incredible Turkish actresses playing sisters in MUSTANG, the corruptor / corrupted pair of Idris Elba and Abraham Attah in BEASTS OF NO NATION. The list goes on and on.

To be clear, I do not suggest that nominations be preferentially handed out to actors of color just to appease liberal sensibilities; I do not believe anyone is suggesting that. But the key question is this: within the pool of worthy contenders, is there a systematic bias against picking those of color? This is hard to definitively answer because each voting member's pick, is by definition, subjective and driven by personal likes. But what we do know are three incontestable facts. First, the Academy voters are predominantly older, male and white. Second, there were several deserving candidates of color in most if not all four acting categories. Third, no actor of color received a nomination in the acting category in the last two years. Make what you will of this; there is a reason why #OscarsSoWhite is resonating so strongly.

There were more than a few eyebrows raised last year, including at this site, when Ava Duvernay was left out of the Best Director nominations last year for her rousing work on SELMA. It quickly escalated to open outrage. And there is zero evidence that any correction has occurred in the twelve months since then.

It is Martin Luther King Jr Day today, and like many I wonder how much has changed in the wake of his legacy. The past year has seen some of the most upsetting and achingly repetitive dialog surface again about race in the national spotlight. It seems we keep saying the same things year after year to no real shift. Things have been particularly troubling at the volatile juncture of race and police brutality.

When it comes to films. Idris Elba made an impassioned plea this morning to the UK Parliament today asking for parity in roles written for (and awarded to) actors of color. His words ring with an urgent call to action even as he sounds exhausted uttering them. This is after all the year when Hollywood hired Emma Stone to play an Asian American character in ALOHA.  When Viola Davis won the Emmy this year, her speech cut through to the gist of the matter: "You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there", she said. [Here is one more of our finest actors, pushed like so many into television because Hollywood just cannot seem to find the right material for her in films]. The total number of films that were offered to Lupito Nyongo in the first six months after winning the Best Supporting Actress prize last year: zero.

Spike Lee, who is scheduled to be given an HonoraryAcademy Award at this year's event, announced today that he will not be attending the Oscar ceremonies as a protest to the all-white acting nominations; his announcement on MLK Day is no co-incidence. And it is not too difficult to empathize with his stance. In the decades since Martin Luther King Jr, how many steps have we taken forward and how many back.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Audio Link | Discussing the Academy Award nomination on KPBS radio's Midday Edition

Being a guest on public radio. Checked that off my Bucket List today.

Thanks to the out-of-nowhere kindness of Beth Accomando, the lead film critic for KPBS, I got the opportunity to guest on Midday Edition today. At the roundtable with lead host Maureen Cavanaugh, we discussed our reactions to the 2015 Oscar Nominations that had just been announced.

Being an NPR junkie most of my adult life, the significance of actually being on public radio was not lost to me. It is the hearth from which I continue to steal the afterglow.

Here is the link to the show, and the audio link to the entirety of the discussion is on the left of the page.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Best of 2015 | Mainstream Films

I will always gravitate toward smaller, independent films. But every year there are a few blockbusters that are not evil. Some even surprise us. I have already posted my overall personal favorite films of 2015.  Here is a list of favorite mainstream films of the year, in alphabetical order. When top brass studio executives go to bed, the ones involved in greenlighting these films ought to sleep well.

ANTMAN Talk about a challenge. Taking on a lesser Marvel character - someone able to shrink to the size of an ant - seems a surefire recipe for a disaster of a film. But somehow it all stuck together in ANTMAN. I want to shake hands with the person who cast Paul Rudd in the lead. And I want to pat the back of these filmmakers for not destroying entire cities in the climax, but have it instead be something that is the definition of inspired. 

KINGSMAN, THE SECRET SERVICE. You want goofy and smart? You want a film that makes you smile as its cleverness holds strong, scene after inspired scene? What do you know, KINGSMAN gave us all that. By the time the finale rode along, it will feel good to submit with pleasure to the winking absurdity of it all. 

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. Guy Ritchie brings an inspired, cheeky, impossibly stylish action movie that could actually have been made in the sixties. Forget the double and triple-crosses from the femme fatales, the real chemistry here is between the male leads (Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer).

THE MARTIAN Hardcore fans of the novel (I raise my hand) have found the science substantially dumbed down, and much of the despair of the lead character curiously whittled down, in the movie adaptation. But there is no denying Ridley Scott's wizardry with conjuring worlds masterfully (on Mars and Earth alike) to tell an inarguably entertaining story, peopled with tens of major characters. And the last fifteen minutes are crystallized adrenaline.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION. It is difficult putting out a quality product when you are in round five of a franchise already two decades old. But Christopher McQuarrie (EDGE OF TOMORROW) delivered a solid film, sharp, confident and relevant. Top marks too to the script-writers for a female character (Rebecca Ferguson) that is neither smitten nor needs rescuing.

SPY Melissa McCarthy should only ever work with Paul Feig. Because Lord knows everyone else in the business is bent on having her play some shrill, hateful caricature of an off-the-rails shrew. McCarthy is tremendous here in a deft little thriller, never more so than in scenes with Rose Byrne's arch Bulgarian villain.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS. Impossibly high expectations! The revival of dusty characters last seen decades ago! The need to self-correct course after Lucas' three subpar prequels! But J. J. Abrams' team somehow come through with an uncluttered but tight new chapter in the space saga that introduces shockingly well-realized new characters even while gently emulating the original film (A NEW HOPE). Thank you, truly, for not dashing our collective hopes.

Best of 2015 | Movies | Personal Favorites

Earlier this month, about halfway through THE REVENANT, I became conscious of my self floating about seven feet above my body. I live for such transcendent moments at the movies. This was already about the fourth occurrence in the past twelve months. I wondered to myself then, if in the future, 2015 will be looked at as a golden hour in the history of film. Like we do now say 1976, when TAXI DRIVER, NETWORK, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, ROCKY, IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES, 1900 and THE ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 were all released.

Anyone who claims that this was an unremarkable year at the movies is itching for a fight; bring on the gloves. If you were left unmoved in your cinema seat this year, you haven’t bothered to seek out the right films, my friend.
No matter what genre your inner cinephile resonates with, there were offerings this year that restructured the genre. If I do not sound objective and impartial while introducing my best films list, it is intentional. I would posit that objectivity has no room in film writing. If you do not have the capacity to fall madly, irrationally, violently in love with a movie, then you shouldn’t write about film. When we sit down in that cinema seat, we bring with us a lifetime of biases. We bring with us what happened to us that morning, and who we broke up with earlier in the year, and whose loss we are mourning for longer than we would care to admit. The archeology of our mental and emotional state, both the immediate and the calcified, influences our individual reactions to a film. And it should. Because this is what grants diversity in film opinion. If all of us liked the same films, we would be a boring, hopeless lot. Intense, forehead-vein popping debate about films is what fuels my engine. And my favorite film reviewers, the ones I read religiously, are not necessarily those whose tastes in film align with my own; they just happen to write like a dream about why a specific film meant so much to them, based on their junction in life at the time they watched it.

So herewith is the list; they represent my personal favorites. As in previous years, the main criterion for inclusion of a film was that, in some small way or large, it altered my emotional circuitry, often irreversibly. Hence, many films that I respect a lot but which didn’t necessarily shake me up (e.g., CAROL, THE BIG SHORT, SPOTLIGHT) are not on this list.
Since I have had a longtime (and happy) affliction of listomania, there will be two other lists: Best Mainstream Films and Best Films Seen At Film Festivals. This year I will be posting two additional lists: Most DisappointingFilms of the year, and Most Overlooked Films.  So there will be plenty of cinematic muck to roll around in, you little piglets.

1. ROOM: How often do we hear news stories about events so far flung from norms of human behavior as to make us wonder how they could even have transpired.  And yet they happen. Based on the novel by Emma Donaghue, ROOM presents us with a five year old; the only world he has seen is a shed in which he has been living with his mother, both imprisoned by a captor. Isn’t it so that evil in the real world is matter of fact, often standing unremarkably in plain sight until it is recognized? ROOM takes this premise and considers it without prurience, or the slightest concession to sensationalism. And like the best films, ROOM transcends its setup, as its theme comes more visibly into focus in the second half: this is a movie about recovery. Are we not, each one of us, in some manner, recovering in life. And what is it that heals us. It is the routine, banal constancy of little things. A dog. The unconditional affection from a grandparent. A kind person’s presence. By quietly commenting on the human capacity for resilience, ROOM demonstrates more emotional honesty than other film this year. Featuring performances by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay that are minor miracles, ROOM is the best film of the year.

2. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD  George Miller's MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is stark raving mad. But then don't you have to be a little bit insane to get into history books. And this film unapologetically claims its place in cinema as the superior action film made to date. In this fourth installment set in the post-apocalyptic world of previous Mad Max films, a woman revolts against her feudal master and escapes with other young girls enslaved for the specific purpose of breeding. Along the way Max becomes a reluctant accomplice, as the film’s architecture gets defined by a single chase across the desert. If you want to watch something agreeable and neatly contained and with a traditional storytelling arc, then maybe this film is not for you. But otherwise, watch this film as a masterclass on three-dimensional storyboarding. On the project management of physics in action sequences.  On how to reinvent a franchise. Watch how effortlessly it makes the audience a participant; you will forget to breathe. FURY ROAD is a challenge to the whole new generation of action filmmakers working today, urging them to follow its audacious path into the genre's future.

3. THE REVENANT  Relentless and breathtaking, THE REVENANT is why I go to the movies. It is reason we all should. A man in frontier era America is left for dead and has to claw his way back to exact some small piece of retribution [‘revenant’ means one that has returned from the dead].  And his journey becomes our journey: horrifying and crushing, but also majestic and ultimately, sublime. Critics of the film have found the protagonist’s Job-like trials unrealistic, comical even. But the unrelentingly dire isn’t mutually exclusive with reality; the film is based on the real life story of American Frontiersman Hugh Glass.  After helming a series of films that were multitych confluences of several stories, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu made a leviathan leap last year with BIRDMAN, filmed to seem like a single uninterrupted take.  And here with THE REVENANT, Inarritu is working on an exalted plane, better for having shaken off his innate affinity for intertwined stories in favor of a singular uncluttered tale of survival. Composed entirely of long takes, and shot using only naturally available light, you will see things that just haven’t been previously projected on a cinema screen; this is work of exceptional craft. And in the last page of the story, the film makes an understated case that it is the casual, unthought acts of goodness that will ultimately save us. And there is grace in this karmic assertion.

4. BROOKLYN There’s a scene late in BROOKLYN, in which the simple act of a girl placing an unopened letter into a drawer drew a loud gasp from the theater audience, both times I saw the film. This speaks to how invested the audience was in a story told right. Scripted by Nick Hornby from the novel of the same name by Colm Toibin, this is the story of a young Irish girl who emigrates to America in the fifties. If you watch this film and it doesn’t fill you up, you can be no friend of mine. There has been a tendency for decades now to see sentimentality as a vice, a crutch for lesser filmmakers. But when done right and with authenticity, it can be the most powerful thing in the movies. Case in point, BROOKLYN, which like SHORT TERM 12 last year, demonstrates that what we feel will always trump what we see in the movies. BROOKLYN is about growing up and making peace with where you came from. Anyone who has written letters across the oceans and felt achingly homesick will empathize. And the film is lusciously romantic, unapologetically so. It is also blessed with Saoirse Ronan playing the lead in the sort of role that becomes defining for an actor. I want to hug this movie, and hug it, and hug it.

5. EX-MACHINA A canny examination of what it means to be human, this is a sly, sexy, sci-fi head-trip. Where films like AI: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE and even 2001, A SPACE ODYSSEY have struggled to crystallize the inherent irony with artificial intelligence - that the more successful we get with imparting intelligence to a machine, the more that machine will want to refuse orders from humans - EX-MACHINA drives home this concept with admirable simplicity. Much of the film is a cat and mouse game between a female robot just starting to bloom under the first stirrings of consciousness, and two humans who only seem to be playing the roles of Creator and Emancipator. Willfully intellectual and magnificently violent, with some of the best production design this year, this film is a gift that any self-respecting cinephile ought to unwrap in a hurry.

6. MISTRESS AMERICA   It’s a shame that in all the awards season clatter, this film is not being celebrated more.  A girl new to New York is taken under the wings of a seasoned, know-it-all played by Greta Gerwig. One of the joys of this film, which has the best script of any movie released this year as far as I am concerned, is to see how it translocates our allegiance between the two characters at different times during the movie. MISTRESS AMERICA also has the single funniest sequence this year, an almost slapstick Noel Cowardesque piece set at a suburban home where a multitude of characters interact with precision timing. Gerwig’s character has a deliberate artifice (and an off-kilter cadence to her speech) but we eventually come to realize a sly, back-handed authenticity to her. As luminous an actor as she is, Gerwig’s greater contribution may be as that stealth writer that Hollywood will be all too late in recognizing. Inspired by Woody Allen and Robert Altman alike, and a familiar cousin to FRANCES HA (the previous film co-written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach) this is an urbane, smart, and ultimately wise comedy of manners.

7.  DOPE  Every minute of this film is thrillingly alive. A loving send-off to urban eighties films such as FRIDAY and BOYS IN THE HOOD, this movie manages to transcend genre. The coming of age story of an intelligent young black man trying to break free from his surroundings with help from his two just as poorly adjusted friends, is giddy and inspired and sexy. I believed these characters and rooted for them. A film can achieve this level of specificity only when it is allowed to be a singular vision, in this case, coming from the mind of Rick Fumuyiwa, who wrote and directed this film. Thank goodness for smaller films that still get made without studio meddling. On the list of this film's achievements is also the altogether winning breakout performance from its lead actor, Shameik Moore. What a sweet, sweet film this is.

8. KINGSMAN, THE SECRET SERVICE When was the last time a movie actually thrilled you, made you giddy with what was unfolding on screen. At one point, I found myself yelling (thankfully in my internal voice) at the screen: "Run, run, they are right behind you". And I am for the most part a dour, unexcitable moviegoer. Like GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY last year, THE KINGSMAN knows about joy.  Not exactly a spoof yet also tipping its hat at Bond and Bourne films alike, THE KINGSMAN knows that the one thing most scarce in spy thrillers these days is good old-fashioned fun. And so it demonstrates how being goofy is not mutually exclusive with being clever. Maintaining a balance of polished urbanity and preposterous cheekiness on a minute-by-minute basis, the film also occasionally crosses lines of propriety with glee.

9. FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD  This is the most romantic film of the year. A woman in 1890s Victorian England must decide between three men who individually represent ardor, stability and lust. Thomas Hardy knew a thing or two about women navigating a man’s world while circumventing the roles thrust upon them. And the surprise of this film is to realize how much is unchanged in the century and a half since Hardy wrote the novel on which the film is based. At one point, the lead played luminously by Carey Mulligan, says, "It is difficult for a woman to express feelings in a language made by men to express theirs". Instead of a literate Merchant Ivory-like adaptation, or a feminist injunction, this big-screen treatment goes by a different ideal: swoon. It understands that true love is about the flicker of glances, the unsaid things between locking eyes. And Carey Mulligan and Mathias Schoenaerts glower like the best of cinematic foils. This is a film that is far more interested in images than in words.

10. BRIDGE OF SPIES Spielberg has always been a filmmaker of grand actions. THE BRIDGE OF SPIES is his first film that is measured deliberately in small gestures; what we have here is the first anti-Spielberg film. And it a fine turn for him to make in his career. Initially reluctant to watch yet another Cold War thriller, I settled down with relish after the first half hour, surprised to find this a work of understated precision; there is a gleaming burnish to the craft and rigor with which the film has been created. More important are the questions asked. Does the vicious treatment of an American spy captured in Russia give Americans the licence to treat a Russian spy with matched cruelty? The human instinct has long been to abandon liberal values in pursuit of retaliation after the occurrence of something heinous. The blood-thirst for justice has trampled on decency repeatedly in history. BRIDGE OF SPIES, which is foremost an exceptional thriller, quietly makes a plea to be watchful about not losing our humanistic higher ground in times of conflict. This film will hold up well for Spielberg’s legacy.

11. THE END OF THE TOUR  This film recounts the 5 days spent by Rolling Stones reporter David Lipsky interviewing David Foster Wallace who had just published his masterpiece, ‘Infinite Jest’. But don’t let that description fool you. The meeting of two literary minds, one noticeably envious of the critical success of the other, and the second grappling with sudden fame as much as his own demons, forms the basis for the most literate and probing film to get a theatrical release this year. Without being reductive or pandering, the film asks questions about celebrity, ethics, fame, and selling out. The writing here never tries to simplify the two men; they are both complex, conflicted, contrary individuals. Jason Segal, playing Foster Wallace, evokes a person who has never swum mainstream and is caught unprepared when his book is suddenly declared a masterpiece, pushing him into limelight. How does one hold on to one’s true self, warts and all, whilst being demanded to be a commodity that can be marketed for easy consumption? Foster Wallace may come off as sometimes insecure, and petulant, and jealous, but he is also achingly, resolutely human. Jesse Eisenberg, playing Lipsky, delicately conveys the arc of a journalist who goes from respectful bystander to politely inquisitive questioner to crossing-the-line provocateur. You make two intensely intelligent strangers spend time together for days, and they are bound to combust. And yet, when Lipsky leaves at the end of the interview, the ache of loneliness in Foster Wallace’s eyes is one of the saddest things to be seen at the cinema screen this year. 

12. MR HOLMES   This film is, note for note, gloriously right. It takes one of the world’s most famous fictional characters (Sherlock Holmes) and makes something wistful, and wise and smart and complex and very mortal out of it. It works at many levels. At one level it is a Sherlock Holmes mystery. But it is also a rumination on Holmes as a ninety-three year old battling dementia. The terrific script and these fine actors (the chief amongst them, the incomparable Ian McKellan) tap into the futility of fully understanding human behavior. About the challenges, and yes the joy, of loneliness. About the necessity of exorcising guilt in the sunset of one’s life before it is too late. And it is about unlikely connections – in this case, between a once famous man now in exile in the ninth decade of his life and a ten year old boy. Like STILL ALICE last year, this film too holds a mirror to the horror of a formerly brilliant individual fighting to retain wisps of memory too quick to slip away. And yet, for all this existential inquiry, the structure of this film, and its plot, is neat, ordered, gleaming. 

So singed is our skin from repeat burns from typical studio blockbusters, that when a big Hollywood film comes along and does something with poise, it takes our breath away. Such was the case with this triptych of stellar studio films released in 2015, all of which did the spy/action-film genre proud.

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, 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; the filmmakers have no desire in watching their lead fumble. So many things are not right with the media we consume these days; we have substandard horror films tailored to teens playing in multiplexes every weekend and the Kardashians dominate television ratings. SPY somehow restores my faith in big-budget Hollywood films.

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.  This is like a lost Bond film from the sixties. Stylish and sexy and tongue-in-cheek to a fault, this film harkens to a golden age of spy films that has gone obsolete because of our relentless need to re-imagine everything as dour and dark and brooding; I call it the Nolanization of the cinematic universe. This film doesn’t just have the surfaces of a sixties flick, it has the gait of one. Characters talk like they did in Howard Hawks films, rapid-fire and too smart by half. Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer play dueling spies from US and Russia, forced to work together, while Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki hold their own as femme fatale to be reckoned with. What higher compliment than to say that this film reminded me of THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY in its sensibility.

Let’s count the ways that MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION gets things right. Instead of the skinny teenage supermodel that Hollywood likes to routinely dole out as the female interest for such ventures, lets praise those who picked Rebecca Ferguson and gave her a meaty role: as a character who not only stands shoulder to shoulder with Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, but bails him out repeatedly (it is surely no coincidence that Ferguson has more than a passing resemblance to Ingrid Bergman, also a Hollywood import from Sweden). She takes her heels off before launching into action, thank you very much! (Bryce Dallas Howard, take note!). When James Bond is bent over under the weight of the world these days (see Nolanization of the cinematic universe above), it is refreshing to see Ethan Hunt take over duties from Bond as the exuberant and yes, sometimes outlandish spy; the release of SPECTRE later this year didn’t help dispel these concerns. The scene in the Vienna Opera House, adroitly and patiently layered, and implemented with crisp precision, is alone worth the price of admission. And finally let us give thanks to the script writers for avoiding any overtly romantic ties between the Cruise and Ferguson characters.

16. THE GOOD DINOSAUR  The other Pixar film released in 2015 has taken up a lot of ink, and rightly so; INSIDE OUT is a grand act, working at multiple levels and taking on nothing less than an exploration of how our brains react, often irrationally. But INSIDE OUT has been celebrated enough; just because THE GOOD DINOSAUR is more traditional, and more simple-minded in its storytelling, does not make it any lesser an accomplishment. In another year, DINOSAUR would have been lauded for a return to form for Pixar to the sort of clean, open-hearted and emotionally resonant storytelling that the studio has built its reputation upon. But somehow critical opinion about the film has been bogged down by accusations that the story is too dark. But that isn’t fair; didn’t BAMBI or DUMBO or even Pixar’s own UP deal with darker themes of death and abandonment. THE GOOD DINOSAUR is a lovely, straight-up entertaining, coming of age tale.

17. McFARLAND, USA  When a good sports film works, it really works. This one is based on a true story. 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 school are uncommonly good at running, he decides to coach them for a cross country track team instead. This film by Niki Caro (WHALE RIDER) has a terrific 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 by 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.

18. THE CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA  This is unashamedly an ouroboros of ideas that eat themselves. This latest work from Olivier Assayas is an experiment, a puzzle. It is unrepentantly intellectual.  But it is also gloriously meta about all things cinema. Inspired by everything from ALL ABOUT EVE to SUNSET BOULEVARD to Chekov’s THE SEAGULL, this film has much to say about celebrity, its waning with time, and the price it takes to stay in public consciousness. A famous actress of a certain age (Juliette Binoche) agrees to play the older character in a revival of the two-hander play that first made her famous in the role of the younger ingĂ©nue. Her smart, strong willed personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) tries to handle her problems, both prosaic and emotional. And Chloe Grace Moretz plays the Hollywood starlet taking on the younger role in the play, even as she is trying to keep an affair with a married man under wraps. If the characters in the film are aware of their similarities to those in the play they are rehearsing for, they do not let on. The relationships in the film are amorphous, resisting classification. Look closer; is some of this a reflection on Kristen Stewart's own real life, having been the Hollywood It Girl and having survived a media storm related to her relationship with a married director? It is all part of the clumped ball of yarn given to you to try to untangle.  If you love and breathe cinema, then you need to watch this film. It doesn’t give easy answers, and yet the film has a fully satisfying ending. It is a conclusion based on words, not flashy plot contrivances.

In another year, I would have pridefully defended any of the top five as the best film of the year. In fact, if you ask me another week, the order of those top five films will change. This is a good problem to have when faced with an embarrassment of riches, such as we did in 2015. Other worthy films that could not make it on the list include INSIDE OUT, BLACK SEA, CARTEL LAND, WHILE WE'RE YOUNG, AMY and TANGERINE. What a year this has been.