Thursday, December 31, 2015

The 17 Best (and Only) Movies I Went to See in 2015

Plus One Real Good Movie of 2015 That I Didn't Go to See

I saw each of these movies once, between January 2 and December 21, 2015, didn’t take notes, and am writing about them from memory.

18: JURASSIC WORLD (Colin Trevorrow, 2015)

Trevorrow’s interpretation of dinosaurs as misogyny made flesh is so consistent here, you have to wonder if it was a conscious decision. Basically, the people who made this movie defend Hollywood’s traditional gender stereotypes with teeth and claws.

The women either stick to being mothers or fail; one female character—an executive assistant—actually gets to get ripped apart by three different dinosaurs in a sequence that’s staged with the panache of a rollercoaster ride in an Indiana Jones movie, for the cardinal offense of god knows what, as she barely had any dialogue or characterization at all up to that point; and Chris Pratt gets to be the capable alpha male, calming and reassuring all the film’s prehistoric females, plus the dinosaur ones.

I like going to big, dumb action movies and usually find something to like about them even if they’re crap—Independence Day: Resurgence is probably my most-looked-forward-to flick of 2016, for fuck’s sake—but there’s not a single thing I liked about Jurassic World. The CGI looks sterile, the characters are nonexistent, the direction is incompetent, and the big moment they chose to reintroduce the awesome John Williams theme from the original is a shot of a fucking helicopter.

The most toxic, shit-brained and loathsome piece-of-shit movie I’ve seen in a while.

17: COHERENCE (James Ward Byrkit, 2013)

An independent movie about a bunch of friends getting together in a house and ending up in a cosmic anomaly that seals them in a type of dimensional loop with other versions of themselves from multiple parallel timelines. Or something. There’s nothing offensive here, the movie just feels boring and derivative, and there’s not a single credible or interesting character in it. I’ve never seen Lost, but Coherence seems like someone tried to recreate what I know about Lost without a budget, or a script.

16: THE MARTIAN (Ridley Scott, 2015)

The film is based on a mind-numbingly rigid though still madly entertaining N.A.S.A.-procedural-porn thriller that dies on its ass whenever the author, Andy Weir, tries his hand at anything that relies on recognizable human characters rather than nuts, bolts, or air locks. There is no authentic character moment in the book, and most of the attempts at portraying human interaction make you cringe.

You’d think that was a good argument for Scott to go wild in his adaptation and exercise his cinematic ambition and imagination, but The Martian ends up being a terribly dull and timid affair. The many, many shortcomings of the book are toned down here, but Scott doesn’t add much to the experience, either. It’s a good-looking film, but rather than to savor the visuals and effectively connect them to the protagonist’s mindscape, it just rushes through the plot.

If faux-bravado, trite banter and phony reaction shots are your thing, go ahead and see The Martian. It’s not as awful and silly as Prometheus, but I’m not sure boredom is a step up.

15: MACBETH (Justin Kurzel, 2015)

I wanted to see Fassbinder, Cotillard, and Considine act the shit out of Shakespeare, but Kurzel’s Macbeth is an oddly hypothermic, visually forgettable emo take that fails to inspire the actors and fatally dilutes the characters’ motivations with ill-conceived junk.

14: SPECTRE (Sam Mendes, 2015)

Speaking of emo takes.

It’s sheer dumb luck that, time and again, saves Bond’s life in Spectre. At one point, the plot literally relies on a mouse to be able to move on. The message is clear: Bond is spiralling out of control, he’s an alcoholic, his fortune is running out, and it’s time for him to quit. Beware of rooting for this guy, it says: He’s reckless and dangerous.

In theory, there’s good material here for a Bond movie, particularly if—as there’s good reason to suspect—it’s one that concludes Craig’s tenure. In practice, though, Spectre doesn’t give us more than the bare bones of a Bond movie. It’s undercooked on every level, and Christoph Waltz plays one of the all-time most boring and unconvincing Bond villains.

If the villain has to be a spoiled emo brat, I’ll take Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren over Christoph Waltz’s Franz Oberhauser any day of the week.

13: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION (Christopher McQuarrie, 2015)

In my mind, Spectre and Rogue Nation somehow blur together. One notable difference is that Spectre questions the notion of secret super-agents unhampered by democratic oversight, whereas Rogue Nation reinforces its awesomeness. That makes the latter a more despicable movie in theory, I guess; in practice, though, it’s the more entertaining one of the two.

12: LOVE & MERCY (Bill Pohlad, 2014)

This biopic of the Beach Boys’s Brian Wilson is two movies in one, only one of which is good, and neither of which is fully developed.

The first one is a 1960s period film in which Wilson, played by Paul Dano, tries to navigate between his creative urges and bouts of depression caused by the emotional abuse of his bullying, towering father; it’s well-staged and brilliantly acted. In the second, an adult, psychologically damaged Wilson, played by John Cusack, falls in love with his second wife, Melinda Ledbetter, who tries to free him from the clutches of his abusive legal guardian.

The relationship between Wilson and Ledbetter never gets enough traction to make you understand what, precisely, makes them fall for one another, and the two main timelines of the film never come together. There’s two thirds of a good movie in here, but something seems to have gone wrong along the way.

11: HER (Spike Jonze, 2013)

An exceptionally good-looking and well-designed film set in a heteronormative future where everyone’s a white, emotionally stunted narcissist, of which the director/screenwriter seems oblivious. Great voice-acting by Scarlett Johansson.

10: BIRDMAN (Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2014)

I didn’t really like Birdman at first. It seemed like Oscar bait, the characters weren’t terribly interesting, and Iñárritu’s tendency to mistake misery for depth was on full display.

Then I read this here good piece of crit, which posits that the entire movie—including scenes during which Keaton’s character isn’t present—is being viewed through his lens, and his lens is one of a deep, terminal bout of depression.

I like Birdman a little bit better now.

9: SLOW WEST (John Maclean, 2015)

Maclean isn’t above losing his professional restraint when a cheap visual gag is to be had at the film’s climax, and that’s the sort of thing I can appreciate in a movie. I should have been annoyed by this film, but Slow West is surprisingly entertaining for an emo western.

It’s also the best film Michael Fassbender appeared in this year.

8: STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (J. J. Abrams, 2015)

I don’t mind the fact that the movie turned out to be a remake, and I think there’s a variety of good conversations to be had about Star Wars as a cultural phenomenon. Mostly, what makes me uncomfortable is the seemingly unhealthy number of people out there who confuse Disney and Warner’s attempts to brand, and profit from, social changes with real progress.

I did enjoy the new characters, and the actors who play them are good and fun to watch. Also, Abrams gets a lot of good mileage by upturning the generational conflict that’s always been the engine of the franchise. Oddly, though, the moment that should have been the film’s emotional anchor is spoiled in a throwaway line of dialogue by characters nowhere close to the action, and the scene itself coasts on a kind of implied importance that the characters never get a chance to earn. It’s a forgettable movie, but entertaining while it lasts.

7: MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (George Miller, 2015)

The fourth installment of this 1970s/1980s franchise is a much better, though not necessarily more entertaining movie than Star Wars. It’s “feminist,” I guess, if your definition of feminism is a terribly narrow and consumerist one; I don’t find that definition very appealing, or desirable. It seems like a shallow, calculated and deceptive type of feminism that’s popularized in the works of dudes like Whedon, Vaughan, Abrams or Miller, and not a very humanist one. Also, I’m more than a little bit amused by the notion that comics author Brendan McCarthy, mostly known in recent years for posting racist comments on Facebook, is supposed to be an emerging feminist figure in Hollywood.

Yeah, Fury Road is a solid movie, and making Tom Hardy the femme fatale, a neat trick. I don’t have the particular urge to see it again, though. It doesn’t seem like the kind of film that’s designed to withstand the scrutiny of someone watching it for a second time.

6: BOYHOOD (Richard Linklater, 2014)

I don’t remember much of this one except the fact that I enjoyed it and thought it was good. Given that the story itself is well-trodden territory, what I liked must have been in the filmmaking and acting. Always a plus.

5: DIE WIDERSTÄNDIGEN: “ALSO MACHEN WIR DAS WEITER…” (The Resistors: “Their Spirit Prevails…”; Katrin Seybold and Ula Stöckl, 2015)

This second part of an oral history of the Hamburg resistance keeps it simple cinematically. The survivors get to sit down and tell their stories, and that’s it. The trick here for the directors is to not get in the way.

If you grew up in Germany, chances are you’re not going to hear anything new here, purely in terms of what’s being said. But by personalizing these stories and adding faces to them, the film lets you realize that they’re not ancient history—that there is a continuity between the lives of these people and ours. These were ordinary women and men who fully knew the risks they were taking, and they still kept going.

The indictment of all those who didn’t is never spoken, but omnipresent, as is the implication that the only thing that stands between a free society and a fascist regime is, ultimately, us.

4: CITIZENFOUR (Laura Poitras, 2014)

The kernel and substance of this frantic documentary rests in a Hong Kong hotel room in June 2013—a candid look at what may be one of the pivotal moments of the 21st century. It’s the stuff of myths, and the story that’s unfolding here—and still unfolding in reality—is irresistible through the sheer gravity of its facts alone.

That’s not all, though, because Edward Snowden himself is the kind of figure that’s able to add layers and dimensions to a story that’s already rich on them. The fact that Snowden planned all this and, give or take a bit of good fortune, has been able to pretty much shape and control hos own narrative despite the United States’s best efforts to paint him as a traitor, is as fascinating as it is unnerving. Who is this guy? Is he real?

Citizenfour doesn’t provide an answer; maybe it can’t. It should be asking these questions, though. This seems a trivial concern, given what’s at stake, but if the narrative evolves around Snowden’s character and makes the case for accountability and democracy and freedom of the press, then it’s disappointing that its protagonist gets away unscrutinized.

Poitras herself and her film become part of Snowden’s narrative, unable or unwilling to step outside of it, and it doesn’t seem like she minds.

3: WAS HEISST HIER ENDE? DER FILMKRITIKER MICHAEL ALTHEN (Then Is It the End? The Film Critic Michael Althen, Dominik Graf, 2015)

Dominik Graf is the only German director whose work, and whose sensibilities, speak to me more than intermittently. Was heißt hier Ende? is a documentary about late film critic Michael Althen, but it’s also so much more than that.

“Genre is the core that makes everything else possible,” Graf says in the film: “the central hub between pop and avantgarde.” He has very specific ideas about film, television, art, popular culture, and criticism, and each of his projects approaches those ideas from a new angle—and each of these angles is deeply human.

2: DER STAAT GEGEN FRITZ BAUER (The People Vs. Fritz Bauer; Lars Kraume, 2015)

Fritz Bauer was a postwar Hessian attorney general, and Lars Kraume’s biopic deals with his struggle to bring German war criminals to justice. The international title is more to the point here than the original one, actually—Bauer, presumed a closet homosexual, sees his efforts frustrated by officials and superiors time and again, but more so than the “State,” it’s indeed the “People” he’s up against. The myth that Germany was “liberated from the Nazis” is still popular, and the fact that the larger German populace was complicit in the crimes of the Hitler regime continues to be a hard pill to swallow; sometimes, to this day, you could get the impression that the Nazis were space aliens who occupied and mind-controlled Germany, rather than actual human beings who happened to be Germans.

The point here isn’t so much that The People Vs. Fritz Bauer is still a timely film in Germany, but that it will always be a timely film, anywhere. Kraume reminds us that the poisonous mindsets that enabled Hitler neither appeared nor disappeared overnight. They’re always going to be there, more or less, and it will always require vigilance and determination to keep it at bay. Nurturing this vigilance, and this determination, is our job as a society.

It’s a good film, because it glorifies neither Bauer nor the rewards of his work. Burghart Klaußner’s portrayal of Bauer is one of the most impressive performances of any German actor I’ve seen this year.

1: THE LOOK OF SILENCE (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2015)

Okay, I’m cheating, because I didn’t go out to see this one—it was on television, thanks to the magic of the glorious German film funding industry. But it’s easily the best film I’ve seen all year, so here it is.

I didn’t like Oppenheimer’s previous film, The Art of Killing; it seemed like Oppenheimer allowed himself to be instrumentalized by mass murderers, and the insights his film yielded in return were comparatively slim. These people were putting on a show, they enjoyed it, and it wasn’t much else but sickening to watch them do it.

The Look of Silence is different. This time, Oppenheimer steps aside and lets someone else conduct the interviews: an optometrist whose brother was murdered in the 1960s. The result is chilling and as insightful as anything you’re likely to see on film in your lifetime.

* * *

That’s it for 2015, and it’s also the final post on Comiks Debris. My interests have shifted rather dramatically since I started this in 2007, so it’s time for something new. Thanks to everyone who stopped by in the last eight years, and have a good 2016!

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