At long last, the creme de la creme of calendar year 2015: my picks for the ten best films of the year. Stay tuned for a final wrap-up on the year before we get back to our regularly scheduled reviews.
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There’s a quiet, mournful, almost hushed atmosphere to Craig William Macneill’s The Boy that’s like being smothered to death in a warm, comfortable blanket. This low-key, massively powerful examination of a young sociopath taking the first tentative steps towards full-blown mass murder is full of strong, honest performances (David Morse and Rainn Wilson, in particular, are extraordinary) but none impress, stun or disarm quite as effectively as that of young Jared Breeze, the titular boy. As we follow Breeze’s Ted through his sad, fractured world, it becomes distressingly easy to see the individual “bricks” that will eventually lead to one huge, impenetrable “wall” in his undeveloped psyche. Sad, thought-provoking and absolutely essential, The Boy may just prove itself as one of the most important films of an age that has become inextricably linked with mass killings and spree violence.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
I absolutely adored this “John Hughes by way of Jim Jarmusch by way of Val Lewton” vampire flick, the debut full-length from astounding new Iranian-American filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour. Endlessly cool, evocative, sensual and mysterious, with truly gorgeous black and white cinematography and a pretty kickass score, A Girl… might have become an exercise in style over substance for any other filmmaker. Instead, Amirpour imbues the various characters and their interactions with each other with a genuine sense of emotional heft: this may be an “art film” but it’s one with a big, bloody, beating heart in its chest. With a double-fistful of audacious imagery (the beautiful mirror-ball scene is primo Hughes, while the truly strange, totally cool skateboarding bits are all Amirpour). A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is the kind of debut that fearlessly kicks the door in, waltzes right up to the table and sets a place for itself at the very head: Ana Lily Amirpour is here and I don’t think the world of cinematic horror will ever be the same.
Welcome to Me
Kristin Wiig is one of those performers (like Bruce Campbell, Ron Perlman or Kate McKinnon) that I will, literally, watch in whatever she chooses to do. TV ad? I’ll tape it. Hosting a seminar on watching paint dry? I’ll be first row. There’s just something about Wiig that I find endlessly fascinating, her razor-sharp, cutting wit always slightly diffused by something both infinitely sad and impossibly playful. Able to bounce effortlessly between silly comedies and more serious indie dramas, I’m pretty sure there’s nothing she can’t do. Scratch that: I’m positive of that fact.
This is all by way of saying that I was probably more predisposed to love Shira Piven’s Welcome to Me than most potential audience members. Despite my high expectations, however, I still got completely blown out of the water. To not put too fine a point on it, Wiig’s performance as sad-sack Alice Klieg stands as the high-water mark of a pretty extraordinary career: this is a performance that not only deserves but demands award consideration, a raw, painful, frequently hilarious (but just as often gut-wrenching) look at a woman struggling with mental health issues, all while trying to make the most out of a life that frequently baffles and terrifies her. There are scenes and moments here (Alice’s walk through the casino, for example) that were, easily, the best in the year. To be honest, the very fact that Welcome to Me, one of my very favorite films of the whole year, ended up at #7 on this list has much more to do with the competition than the quality of the film. In any other year, this would have probably been closer to #1.
Writer-director S. Craig Zahler’s stunning debut, the Western-horror hybrid Bone Tomahawk, pulls off a pretty great hat trick. For the first two-thirds of the film, it’s a pitch perfect Western, the kind that seemed to have fallen out of behavior until a raft of quality 2015 flicks brought the genre roaring back to life. Anchored by phenomenal performances from Kurt Russell (growing the mustache that would consume him in The Hateful Eight), Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox (slimy and endearing, in equal measures) and Richard Jenkins (echoing every kickass, old sidekick that the Duke ever rode with), a truly engrossing mise en scene and some stark imagery, it’s a film out of time that truly works.
And then the film suddenly veers off-road and becomes, without a doubt, one of the single most horrifying, frightening and nightmare-inducing films of the past several years. With each portion (the Western and the cannibals) given equal respect and consideration, this is no stitched-together Frankenstein’s monster: rather, Zahler allows the film to mutate and morph organically, with the horror elements gradually bubbling to the surface until we’re completely trapped by the paranoid horror of it all. This is uncompromising, amazing filmmaking: for a debut, it becomes that much more extraordinary.
In a year filled with films about mental illness and depression (Welcome to Me, The Boy, Motivational Growth, Pod, Creep, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, Xenia, Queen of Earth and The End of the Tour, to name a small handful), few hit quite as hard as Marjane Satrapi’s thoroughly wonderful The Voices. With a simple concept (happy-go-lucky office guy Ryan Reynolds “talks” to his dog and cat, who dispense advice that ranges from “pretty reasonable” to “holy shit, what are you doing?!”), an eye-popping, vibrant color scheme and plenty of funny snark, it would be easy to mistake The Voices as a goofy, stylish romp.
That would be a huge mistake, however. You see, The Voices is actually a thoroughly poisonous, hideous and mind-blowing cupcake, topped with so much bright pink frosting that you won’t realize you’re choking until you’re already dead. This is Marjane Satrapi, after all, the Iranian auteur who introduced the world to Persepolis: she doesn’t do “disposable.” In early interviews for The Voices, Satrapi expressed a desire to try a horror film “just for the hell of it,” adding her own unique voice to the proceedings. The end result speaks for itself: The Voices is immaculately made, gorgeously filmed, brilliantly acted (Reynolds might be perfect, in this, but so are Arterton, Kendrick and the rest of the exceptional cast) and features a payoff that’s as smart as it is soul-shattering. The complete lack of love for The Voices speaks to only one thing: Satrapi did too good a job.
One of the single biggest surprises of the year, Rick Alverson’s Entertainment should never have ended up on my Best of list…never in a million years. You see, I absolutely hated Alverson’s previous film, the loathsome, wretched ode to hipster ennui, The Comedy. I hated everything about it, from the hateful characters to the awful dialogue to the patently stupid setpieces (although the one where they scoot on church pews did make me smile, briefly): it was easily one of the worst films I saw that year, hands-down. Add to this my general disinterest in outre stand-up comedian Neil Hamburger (nee Gregg Turkington), who toplines Entertainment, and this definitely seemed like a film I would not appreciate.
But then I watched it and, lo and behold: Entertainment is not only light-years better than The Comedy (there is, literally, no comparison beyond a few returning actors), it’s light-years better than about 90% of the films I watched in 2015. Essentially the ultimate portrait of life on the road for a touring comic, Entertainment is a complete revelation: Turkington is so goddamn good that I actually found an appreciation for his Hamburger persona that was never there in the past.
Everything about this almost overpoweringly sad film works (and then some): the sense of character building…the competition between more “alternative” comics and more “traditional” ones (Tye Sheridan’s “mime-clown” is a truly inspired creation)…the lonely life that outsiders live, even when surrounded by “friends” and well-wishers…the notion of a personal life lost to endless, torturous days on the road, playing to increasingly small audiences that couldn’t give a shit whether you live or died…unlike The Comedy, which seemed to exist as a misanthropic middle-finger to “polite”society, Entertainment is an endlessly humanist film, much less interested in ridiculing others than sticking up for the quiet dignity of its protagonist.
I can’t stress it enough: Entertainment was the biggest surprise of the whole year, for me, and one of the most powerful gut-punches I’ve had in years. Guess I owe you an apology, Mr. Alverson: you do know what you’re doing, after all.
I saw this early in the year and, like a couple other entries on this list, it never left my mind once during the ensuing months. Faults is a tricky, prickly little film, a quiet mind-blower that lulls you in with something old (the general story about a cult deprogrammer and his newest charge is straight out of Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke, for one) before beating you senseless with something new (pretty much everything else). Faults is the kind of film that exists best when you know as little about it as possible: I’m willing to wager that most folks would never guess the “twist,” regardless of how intently they pay attention.
While I’ve written extensively about Faults in the past, it still behooves me to reiterate a point: Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Leland Orser are so good in this, so completely invested in both their characters and the film’s strange world, that it’s not like watching performances: it’s like being given a front-row seat to a real-life psychodrama, unfolding before our disbelieving eyes. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: in any other year, this would probably have been #1 instead of #4.
What We Do in the Shadows
This was the year of the quality horror-comedy (Cooties, Deathgasm, Zombeavers, Suburban Gothic, The Final Girls and Love in the Time of Monsters all come to mind) but none of them were as consistently hilarious, well-made and thought-provoking as Kiwi-export What We Do in the Shadows.
Helmed by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement (who also did extraordinary work in People, Places, Things) and comedian Taika Waititi, What We Do in the Shadows is the last word on vampire mockumentaries (the Belgian film Vampires was probably the first word and not a bad one, at that). Detailing the various travails of a group of vampires who all happen to be roommates, despite their disparate personalities, ages and levels of “savagery,” WWDITS is laugh-out-loud funny from start to finish, filled with so many unique, outrageous and ingenious setpieces that they could probably have filled two films. The cherry on top of this marvelous sundae, however, are the surprisingly deep, sincere emotional moments. When the film wants you to laugh, you’ll be powerless to resist. When it wants you to tear up, however, you’ll find yourself in the same boat.
As one of the most talked-about, ballyhooed films of the year, there was a tremendous set of expectations hanging around the film’s neck, possibly like an albatross. Turns out all of the hype was not only duly founded but may have actually undersold the film, a bit: this is peerless filmmaking, genre or otherwise, and discerning fans should treasure this for some time to come.
Slow West was another film that I saw early in the year, yet could never completely shake from my mind. This slow, almost elegiac Western seems to be plowing a pretty standard trail, albeit one full of beautiful cinematography, wide-open vistas and exacting, underplayed performances. When the magical realism and dark humor elements kick in, however, Slow West climbs a ladder to the stars and never once looks back.
Fassbender plays Eastwood, Smit-McPhee brings a little gravitas to his wet-behind-the-ears Scotsman and Ben Mendelsohn (resplendent in one of the biggest fur coats I’ve ever seen) is so perfectly evil that he’s like a template for any who might come after (or before, for that matter). If you love and grew up on Westerns, Slow West will be nothing short of a modern-day revelation. Even if you have no particular love for horse operas, however, Slow West will still be a captivating, quirky and grim journey.
In a year where the Western really made a comeback (Bone Tomahawk, The Hateful Eight and The Revenant all took the cinematic world by storm), first-time director John Maclean’s modest, immaculate little film might have been an underdog but that didn’t stop it from shouting its intentions to the sky. If Maclean doesn’t become one of our best, most celebrated filmmakers in the next decade, I’ll eat a ten-gallon hat.
And now, with no further ado…the number one film of the year is…
Mad Max: Fury Road
Here’s the thing: if you would have told me that outre Australian auteur George Miller would pick up his iconic Mad Max franchise thirty years after its previous entry, I’d believe it. If you would have added that the film would become one of the biggest, pop culture phenomenons of the past several years and a huge box office superstar, I would have laughed right in your face.
But the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. What the 70-year-old auteur has done is something that seems almost impossible, on the outside: Fury Road is a virtually non-stop, two-hour chase film that features some of the most astounding practical effects and vehicular crashes ever set to film. Period. There’s no fat on this film whatsoever: ever shot, every line of dialogue, every edit is there for the express purpose of propelling the film forward, of putting us (and keeping us) right in the driver’s seat the whole time.
Much has been made of Fury Road’s distinct feminist leanings and, like everything else regarding the film, that’s right on the nose, too. While Tom Hardy’s take on the titular antihero is the perfect next step from Mel Gibson’s original, he’s not the hero of the film. Instead, that honor goes to Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, the tough-as-nails uber-warrior/driver who must safely chaperon a group of female slaves from subjugation and forced breeding to freedom. To not put too fine a point on it, Furiosa is an instantly classic creation (think Aliens-era Lt. Ripley) and Theron’s performance instantly vaults her to the top of the sci-fi/genre royalty.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a film best experienced, not discussed: hell, watch it five times and I’m willing to wager you’ve still missed half of the simply astounding visuals and white-knuckle setpieces. This is a film that practically throws away sequences that other, lessor movies would make centerpieces. It’s a film that satisfies longtime followers but is the exact opposite of fan service. It’s a film that is almost ridiculously fist-pumping and action-packed but so far from brain-dead that calling it a mere “action film” is so reductive as to be insulting. It’s a film written and directed by a 70-year-old Hollywood outsider, yet manages to instantly nuke any and everything else out there.
Is George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road the best film of 2015? Absolutely, without a doubt, yes. However…
The Hateful Eight
You see, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight is also the very best film of the year. How, exactly, is that possible? As it turns out: pretty darn easy. Not only is The Hateful Eight an unapologetic return to the classic Westerns of yore (think Ford or Peckinpah, not Leone), it also features a perfect ensemble cast, stunning 65mm cinematography (the film was even screened in 65mm for select theaters) and legendary composer Ennio Morricone’s first Western score in some thirty years (supplemented with unused pieces from his score for John Carpenter’s The Thing, no less).
But all of that, of course, would be only so much pretty wrapping paper if the actual film weren’t so damn good. At almost three-and-a-half hours, there’s a lot to digest here and a lot of time to spend with characters who range from “awful human beings” to “worse human beings.” Thanks to the eclectic, all-in performances, however, we come to really like these deviants and dastardly folks: it’s the same trick that Tarantino pulled off in Pulp Fiction when he made us fall in love with Vincent, Jules and the rest of their miscreant acquaintances.
Like Fury Road, there’s way more to The Hateful Eight than could ever be caught in one viewing: questions of racial inequality, justice and the terrible, constant shadow of the Civil War hang over every frame of the film, like smoke caught in the cold air. While the mystery aspect of the film likely won’t reward repeat viewings (this is as much an outrageous take on Agatha Christie as anything else, after all), everything else will.
Is The Hateful Eight a problematic film? Like all of Tarantino’s films, absolutely: controversy is as much one of Tarantino’s stock-in-trades as his mountains of dialogue, over-the-top violence and focus on antiheroes. This is a film that somehow manages to include more racially-charged dialogue than even Django Unchained (no mean feat), while also featuring Mexico City-born Demian Bichir as the most stereotypical onscreen Hispanic character since Speedy Gonzalez. It’s a film where the sole female lead is viciously beaten for much of the run-time, yet manages to accrue not one whit of sympathy from the audience (quite the opposite, in fact, at the screening I went to).
Like the best of Tarantino’s films, however, The Hateful Eight manages to take everything and whip it into a fascinating, pulse-pounding and riotous ride through the dregs of society, trawling the gutter for some of his most indelible characters yet. The film is surprisingly funny and, at times, almost a horror film (dig that insane denouement, Jack!). The one thing it’s not? A chore to sit through, in any way, even at almost 3.5 hours in length.
Is The Hateful Eight my favorite Tarantino film since Pulp Fiction? Absolutely. Is it a perfect film? Nope. Was it the very best film that I managed to see in 2015? It was…along with Fury Road. Will I ever be able to choose between the two? Now, why in the world would I ever want to do that?