My year-end review continues with a look at some of the films I most enjoyed. I shy away from ranking these uniformly high-quality entries, but I would say that the first two, films with very different virtues, impacted me in the most lasting fashion.
Was upon viewing, and may still be at the end of this great movie year, my favorite -- an old-fashioned kind of telling of an old-fashioned industry, newspapering, fueled by old-fashioned virtue, e.g., honor, honesty, truth. It's remarkable that a story centered upon almost unspeakable crimes -- the sexual abuse of thousands of young boys (and some girls too) by members of the Roman Catholic clergy -- is really a mystery story about finding the proof that will expose the monsters in the church hierarchy who knew about the crimes, covered them up, then lied about the cover-up. Virtually everyone in the story in Catholic Boston knows each other and is steeped in the culture that made such venality possible for so long -- the priests, the church administration, its influential supporters, the cops, the prosecutors, and indeed, the leadership of the Boston Globe. Except for two outsiders, an Armenian-American defense attorney and a Jewish editor who pushed the investigative unit, known as Spotlight, to dig, and then dig harder, at immense personal costs to the members of the team. Like the films of Frank Capra, Spotlight brings the story to a rousing finale -- you want to stand up and cheer, were it not for the horror that remains at the center of the story, to this day.
Every moment of this remarkable movie is intense, a kind of fever dream suspense story about a father trying to honor the death of his son, only grafted on top of two other stories -- the day-to-life of kapo/guards in a death camp in Poland during the waning days of WWII when the Nazi's literally rolled up the trains and the kapos managed the industrial process of death. Along with all the elements of a spy thriller among the kapos who are planning an escape. The amazing experience is the first feature of Hungarian director László Nemes and a great Hungarian cinematographer (trained at the AFI) Mátyás Erdély, who tell the story through an amazing combination of intense close-ups of the face of the protagonist (played by Géza Röhrig) along with run-along-with steadicam of the horror that is everywhere, a kind of helter-skelter hurl of action and emotion that must be experienced to understand. Like nothing I've ever seen.
Haynes is now the master of the "woman's film," as often noted he virtually channels Douglas Sirk. But it's not the romantic or sentimental side of Sirk alone that we get with Haynes -- Carol is a tough version of the story of doomed love, in this case, between an older experienced married woman who has affairs with women outside her upscale marriage, and a younger naive shop girl who falls for her. Haynes and his DP use the iconic faces of these two beauties in extreme close-up, allowing us to seemingly enter into each woman's inner life. And, of course, we have the now patented Haynes "look," which in this case is literally and figuratively a million-bucks look from 50's New York City and environs, rivaling the look of The Godfather. The pricey suburban mansion where Carol lives with her angry husband and angelic child is American baronial. Her clothes are meticulous, restrained, and seductive. Mara is doing a bit of channeling of her own, namely Audrey Hepburn, whom she resembles here quite remarkably. Altogether a moving and exquisitely rendered slice of the untold history of ordinary people.
You'd never know this tight, fierce little street drama was shot entirely on an iPhone 5s, except when I think about the fluidity of the close-ups and tracking shots in places like cabs, donut shops, and bathrooms, well, it's a long way from break-out sets on the studio lot, that's for sure. As is the subject: a bitch-match between street trannies, johns and assorted street folks radiating out from the core pair, Cind-ee and Alexandra. The former has just gotten out of jail on Christmas Eve and splits a forlorn donut with Alexandra who promptly rats out Chester, the boyfriend/pimp, who seems to have been boning a real girl with a vag. And we're off to the races, a startling, very real-feeling journey into the sun-bleached sadness of the working life. We meet a married Armenian cab driver who has a thing for chicks with dicks, and soon enough, his entire family. We meet the blond 'beeatch', who gets dragged along, literally, for the ride. And Chester, who is especially believable as the white trash, tatted up pimp who rules the world from a dollar donut shop. Great pacing, impressive performances, and technically, I'm telling you, it's a milestone.
McKay moves from pop satire (Ron Burgundy) to trenchant social analysis with this adaptation of the Michael Lewis book about the housing meltdown, bank collapse, and Wall Street perfidy. With a focus on a colorful, but mostly unconnected group of financial industry outliers who came to understand that the housing bubble simply couldn't be sustained, and bet against the world economy is what is by far the biggest "short" bet in history. Christian Bale's Palo Alto fund manager, an Asperger-fueled, flipflop-wearing weirdo, is the first to figure it out, and others follow. Bales performance is revelatory, he continues to simply kill with every new challenge he takes. The rest of the cast, led by a sympathetic Steve Carrell, is also good, but for my money, this is Bale's Oscar nom to lose. I'm slightly unimpressed by McKay's attempt to explain complicated financial chicanery by breaking the third wall, a la Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall, mainly because he does it often and with decreasing affect. But otherwise, this is a roaring good tale, well told.
A master class in screen acting from two incomparable masters of the form. Director Haigh, whose earlier work (Weekend, Looking) dealt with the emotional terrain of gay men trying to find love, turns his considerable skills to a marriage in sudden free fall after the couple learns of the improbable survival (in Alpine glacier) of the wife's predecessor, who had probably been the husband's 'one true love.' While both Courtenay and Rampling are superb, her performance really got under my skin. There were moments when literally her eyes told the story. Or a tiny movement around the mouth, and hand gesture or a turn away. Here we have another form of explosion that cinema reveals best, far from the well-worn trails of CG spectacle, but intensely valuable for those of us still caring a bit about human beings.
I'm a near-fanatical Sorrentino fan, and now that his achievements are obvious, he's getting bigger budgets and bigger actors, working here with a spectacular cast. I was fond of Weitz and Dano, not so much a fan of the Fonda walk-on and the downer performance by Keitel. Cain is, as it seems he always is, close to perfect. Sorrentino is a visual master, and doesn't disappoint, with set-piece after breathtakingly beautiful set-piece setting up various scenes, a looser and lusher version of Wes Anderson's "look" without the manic humor. This is a story of aging, but named Youth, which is the kind of sardonic humor Sorrentino is more frequently known for. We get to know the characters at a Swiss health spa hotel as they navigate through little moments of revelation and breathless beauty. A masseuse with braces who likes to dance along with her Kinect; a sumo-sized sports star who kicks a tennis ball high into the air, turning to reveal a Karl Marx tattoo; a Buddhist monk who levitates into the Swiss Alps, and a recurring circular stage featuring one wacky act after another. With the barest of plots, this film gets lost in its own sumptuousness for a while, but comes back around with a finale so grande and musical that I never wanted it to end.
As many a middle-aged white reviewers have already written, I'm not a big fan of rap or hiphop, and yet, I loved this movie, one of the few musical group biopics that seemed real, though the press clips report otherwise. Like I said, not a fan here, and yet I was able to connect to the characters, their conflicts, and the times. While there are plenty of rough edges in the story as presented, surely many have been sanded smooth in the manner of "The Rose", which never officially purported to tell the story of Janis Joplin, but did anyway. What SOC does is tell the story of a generation of justifiably angry black men from South LA who found a way to fight back, and sparked a revolution in consciousness that is still relevant in the era of Black Lives Matter. They also, like many stars before them, got rich and got messed up as a result. A Star is Born all over again. Dig it.
It takes a while to grasp the circumstance our lead characters face -- living as prisoners for seven years in a sealed storage shed, a young woman has a child who has never seen the outside. It's horrifying and warmly engaging all at once. And then, in a beautifully suspenseful sequence, it all changes, revealing an entirely new set of challenges. It is here where Larson shines, and is likely to clean up at awards time. Heart-breaking study of a weird sort of PTSD.
Convincing near-future sci-fi thriller on the theme of AI -- with strong elements of a love story and locked-room mystery (literally). Isaacs excels, as do all the actors in the four-person ensemble cast. I liked the way the plot unfolded so directly from the personalities of the protagonists, or at least what the audience thinks about those characters. Very taut, especially the ending.
Lured in by the surprisingly stellar reviews and a dash of tarnished nostalgia for the first and second (not third) Max universe, I found myself loving virtually every minute of this kick-ass ballet of violence fused with a story of love, honor and character. That's right. The nearly mute heroes, played by Theron and Hardy, lend their hard-won survival skills to the rescue of two bands of women -- the first one serving essentially as brood mares for the evil bad guy of the film, the second an abandoned group of Amazonian warriors. All the actors are excellent, but I especially liked Nicholas Hoult's white-faced, have-nekkid true believer punk motorhead inhabitation. This is an insanely amped-up visual movie, with more sight-gags and visual story elements in a minute than you normally get in a full scene. Indeed, there is nary a minute wasted on exposition. Somehow, through a combination of the visuals, the action, and economical dialog, the audience jumps on for the ride. Everything is clear, and there are high stakes. A perfect summer popcorn movie, a genre which has in recent years become for me more of an epithet than its original meaning: a well-made movie that uses movie conventions as shorthand for telling stories that matter to audiences.
On its surface, this sweet and heart-centered movie may seem like another "young adult" flick, but it's much more. Gomez-Rejon captures spot on the tone of our narrator, an outsider who finds compassion and maturity of a wacky sort as he becomes friends with Rachel, a girl with leukemia -- I'm reminded of Nick Hornsby in the sense that we have here a credible voice of a struggling, funny, quirky young person without patronizing, lecturing, or moralization. The trope of goofy satirical short films that Greg makes with his deadpan friend Earl is a stroke of genius, making this a movie-movie as well as, ultimately, quite a weeper.
As stylish as "The Third Man," another film about the immediate and quite unpleasant aftermath of WWII, "Phoenix" is a character study with a suspenseful mystery in its cold heart. Nelly searches the seedy haunts of Berlin to find her ex-husband, and when she does, boom. Great finale.
Idris is a fierce, merciless African warlord who snatches the very young and turns them into killers in a civil war, seducing them, literally and figuratively, into a life of violent manhood well before they are ready. But the real star is Abraham Attah, the protagonist who manages to hold onto the life he has had snatched away from him, moving away from the horror and into the light of humanity.
Also-rans that I greatly enjoyed this year included Brooklyn, Bridge of Spies, Love & Mercy, Mommy (released 2014), End of the Tour, The Revenant, and The Walk. Films I still need to see that are on other year-end lists include: The Hateful 8, Trainwreck, Creed, Trumbo, Mustang and other foreign titles.