Saturday, February 27, 2016

More Interesting than the Oscars 5: Heroines and Flops


"The word is, this just wasn't a good year for movies."

A friend and colleague of mine told me this a few months ago, when the Oscar campaign was building and no clear front-runner had emerged for insiders to get excited about. Things have changed a bit since then. Alejandro Iñárritu's The Revenant has grabbed the momentum, borne on amazing visuals and the highly publicized amount of pain everyone went through to make it. But from what I hear, a surprise upset from Spotlight or The Big Short wouldn't be so surprising—or, for that matter, so upsetting. Personally, from those options, I'd like to see it go to The Big Short. Manic comedy so rarely gets awarded, and manic comedy was both the ideal and not at all expected way of tackling subject matter like the financial crisis.

But his comment struck me, because I thought it was actually a rather solid for movies. For the first time in a while, the difficulty was whittling down my list of favorites.

For starters, 2015 was the year of the heroine. Even the year's most macho action movie (Mad Max: Fury Road) and its geekiest sci-fi thriller (Ex Machina) were not-so-subtle feminist allegories, in genres traditionally thought of as "for boys." And then hats must go off for Brie Larson, indomitable in trauma and rebirth in Room; for the lesbian lovers of Carol; for the haunted millennial girl of It Follows; for the trans sex workers of Tangerine; for the aging actress of Clouds of Sils Maria; for the harried wife competing with a memory in 45 Years; for the spunky, tomboy-ish Disney heroines of Inside Out and Tomorrowland; for Jennifer Lawrence's entrepreneur in Joy; for Amy Schumer's Trainwreck, which is most successful when it's making the least number of concessions; and for the young sisterhoods in The Wonders and the Best Foreign Film nominee Mustang.

However, it's worthwhile to note that "the year of the heroine" was not the same as "the year of the woman director." With only two exceptions, all the movies above were directed by men. The lack of women in the director's chair has become a social rallying point, and it's not an issue that can be laid exclusively at Hollywood's door. (Look at the lineups and history of, say, the Cannes Film Festival, and you won't find a much rosier picture). That deserves a longer post for another time. For now, suffice it to say that the most interesting characters of the year were women. The Academy doesn't have the best track record in recognizing truly interesting roles for actresses, but when Brie Larson wins this year for Room, as she's widely expected to, I'll be happy.

This was also the year when nostalgia paid huge dividends. Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens became two of the biggest films in history, which if nothing else is fascinating because pretty much all that those movies have to say or add is an explicit, fan-service-y reminder of how good the originals were. Dire pessimists could see it as the limitations of directors who show up in Hollywood with nothing more than a knowledge of other movies, but it shows the upside of such sincere nostalgists as well.

Both movies are fun in a way that most current sequels, prequels, and reboots are not. J.J. Abrams is a more talented director than George Lucas, even if his film takes far fewer chances. And the success of Episode VII shows how most movies, especially ones so heavily marketed and synergized, are missing the humor, speed, and vibe of a childhood game that Lucas visualized in 1977. Jurassic World, as a wink-wink, meta, "ironic" reboot riding the Chris Pratt train, is a film I was completely prepared to hate out of principle but ended up enjoying in practice. Both show an understanding of the subtexts and moods that fans see in the original, beyond just the high concept. As someone born in the 80s but too young to remember them, I miss the days when franchises were actually created as well as exploited. But if every Hollywood tentpole showed as much care or commitment, the multiplex would be a far less depressing place.

Speaking of which, this could also be called the year of the unfairly maligned flop.

2016 saw a collection of genre films and expensive would-be tentpoles where talented, established directors failed to take off at the box office. To one extent or another, Michael Mann's Blackhat, Brad Bird's Tomorrowland, the Wachowski's Jupiter Ascending, and Guillermo Del Toro's Crimson Peak fit into this mold, with reviews and grosses that ranged from disappointing to disastrous. All of them are, shall we say, heavily flawed. Yet all of them feel personal, are aesthetically or conceptually inspired, and generally dodge the suspicion, too often found at the movies, that we're watching something that was decided on by committee. Not the best films of the year by any means, but you know what? All of them (yes, even Jupiter Ascending) left a more vivid impact on me than something as blandly functional as Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, which made major bank. Maybe some of them will even find a second life—Michael Mann has already gone back for a director's cut of Blackhat, with fans in tow.

Onward to my countdown of favorites. The rules: a top 12 instead of a top 10, and a film qualifies if it either was released in US theaters or premiered on the festival circuit this year.


12. Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle, US)

Sony largely pulled this from the Oscar race when it failed to take off, which is a shame. This is some of Aaron Sorkin's best work, a characteristically witty script that's much smarter about the impact of Apple than The Social Network was about the impact of Facebook. The theatrical, three-act-play structure is a welcome break from the syndrome of biopics, and while Sorkin tends to "over-write" and smother the cinematic potential of his own scripts, Danny Boyle's craft can't be stopped.

11. Room (Lenny Abrahamson, US)

One of the year's best indies and more adventurous Best Picture nominees pulls off several nice coups: act one is less a lurid true crime horror than a clammy domestic allegory; the gripping transition scenes perform the low-budget trick of making the ordinary world look like something out of science fiction; and the last act shows how survival can give way not to relief, but to a new ordeal. In a role that demands tremendous range, Brie Larson is perfect.


10. 45 Years (Andrew Haigh, UK)

Sometimes you don't need an intricate plot, just a compelling setup, and two actors good enough to dredge up all the little nuances, ambiguities, and paradoxes in human behavior. In this case, the setup is simply that, after some surprising news, a woman begins to wonder how firmly she can count on her husband. Tom Courtenay and in particular Charlotte Rampling are brilliant, and the film evokes a relationship where it's hard to draw a clear line between true feeling and performance, even after years of marriage. It's a method dozens of festival films fuck up every year. This one does great.


9. Aferim! (Radu Jude, Romania)

In 19th century Romania, a piggish constable and his naive son go off in search of an escaped slave, and along the way, their cracked, burlesque odyssey lays out bigotry, authority, religion, and sex in all their absurd glory. Tailor-made for cinephiles—something like Andrei Rublev remade as a comedy—it won big at the 2015 Berlinale and slipped quietly into US theaters last month with hardly anybody noticing. But take heed of the film. It's a sad and beautiful world.

8. Carol (Todd Haynes, US)

Easily the most straightforward film to date from Todd Haynes, hardly a director known for being straightforward, yet one of his most deceptively rich as well. Don't be fooled by the title or the fact that Oscar politics put Rooney Mara in the "Supporting" category: this is Mara's film, not Cate Blanchett's and it's less successful as a melodrama about a wealthy lesbian housewife than it is as a complex portrait of young person's total, irrational erotic surrender. As everything seems to be switching to the small screen, here's a small, intimate film that really needs a theatrical presentation to sell its atmospheric beauty.


7. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, Australia)

It's a testament to the hosannas that greeted this film last May that it's both one of the best films of the year and probably the most overrated (ah, how the internet loves that word). But it is undeniably a triumph, an unhinged formal gauntlet that, in its attack on delusional power structures, draws a fair amount of blood. Its non-stop intensity is overpowering, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on how easily you can eat popcorn while being hit by a barrage of disorienting imagery. A return to old-school filmmaking? Not exactly, even if it was hailed as one. But it's fantastic when an R-rated, two hour action spectacle feels like a labor of love from a distinct voice.


6. Ex Machina (Alex Garland, UK)

A sci-fi thriller that truly thinks through and expresses the possibilities of its concept, eventually settling on a gender studies take on Frankenstein with an Apple-Store-dystopia aesthetic. In a grand Oscar tradition, the Academy seems set to vote for Alicia Vikander's less interesting role in The Danish Girl while at least partly thinking of her less Oscar-friendly role in this. But the whole thing is a triumph, and it's less about A.I. than it is about men and women, toppling two images of male authority: first, the explicitly domineering kind, and second, the fantasy of a beautiful, available woman who needs a man to rescue her. As for the fate of the second, it's the film's bitterer pill.


5. Li'l Quinquin (Bruno Dumont, France)

This French mini-series made history as the first TV program to top the Cahiers du Cinema's list of the best films of the year, and its quiet arrival in the US last January was one of the highlights of 2015. Described too easily (but not unfairly) as a "French Twin Peaks", it's a whodunit with clues fanning out in all directions. Is the murderer still out there, or were the victims simply swallowed up by a toxic landscape? Don't expect to be handed answers if you're not willing to bring your own, for what we have here is a movie about complicity, inaction, and the cop-out of blaming horrific acts on "evil". All that, and it's funny too.

4. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan)

A critics' film, if ever there was one, if only because it's a movie in rebellion against its own genre. All anyone can agree on is that it looks amazing, and I'd contend that the visual rapture of the film dovetails nicely with its own complicated, muddy plot, and the way its action sequences are all viewed from a distance. This is a film that sets up the complex political conspiracies and power struggles of a classic martial epic, but is about the decision to opt out in search of beauty instead. Its final carthartic moment speaks to nothing so much as the desire to disengage. It couldn't be more urgent, and it passes like a dream.

3. It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, US)

One of the American indie triumphs of the year is also one of the few recent horror movies to really carry some weight behind it. A remarkably cohesive synthesis of Halloween, Repulsion, and a bit of J-horror thrown in, it's scary and loaded with meaning, sifting intelligently and empathetically through the emotional fallout that can happen when young people (as young people do) stumble into sex. The atmosphere is wonderful, the suburban setting wonderfully drawn in an 80s sort of way. Bonus points for having teenage characters that, crucially, actually look like teenagers.


2 & 1. Inside Out (Pete Docter, US) and Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson, US)

There's a reason for pairing these two together, and it's not just because Pixar making a great film and Charlie Kaufman making any film at all have become increasingly rare. Both are films about being inside of your own mind, set at radically different points in life. But most of all, both are films that use animation—that art form that frees filmmakers from photographic reality—to express something about being ordinary.

Pete Docter has emerged as the most distinctive voice at Pixar since Brad Bird, and don't forget that his Up was Pixar's first film to feature a completely ordinary human being—not a talking animal, or a talking toy, or a superhero—as its main character. This seems very crucial to his M.O. In pure dramatic terms, not much happens in the "real world" of Inside Out: a young girl moves to a new town, has a bad day at school, runs off, and comes back. But the film is painfully aware of how strong such emotions can feel when you're a child. Docter's films desire nothing but to reflect on the experience of simply living life and growing older. That he slips it into "children's films" is remarkable. Not without paradoxes or concessions, but remarkable.

Kaufman is, of course, a different matter. His films are painfully, crushingly adult, weighed down by a sense of disappointment and unfulfilled longing. His heroes invariably find themselves not only inside their own mind, but trapped there—sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically. And the brilliance of his Anomalisa is how, as the film goes on, you become increasingly aware that this world is just a projection, a version of reality with the main character's own cynicism brutally superimposed over it. Each new item of information we learn reflects back on what came before it, and adds complexity to how the character and the film relate to the world. It's paranoid, beautiful, and in it's own small way, perfect.

One film may grow up to become the other. If somehow you find a theater playing them together, it's the double bill of the year.


The Honor Roll: 12 more films that made following movies worthwhile this year...

The Big Short (Adam McKay, US)

Blackhat (Michael Mann, US)

Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg, US)

Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, France)

Creed (Ryan Coogler, US)

Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad, US)

The Martian (Ridley Scott, US)

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, US)

Phoenix (Christian Petzold, Germany)

Tangerine (Sean Baker, US)

Taxi (Jafar Panahi, Iran)

World of Tomorrow (Don Hertzfeldt, US)

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