"You will not survive here." (Image courtesy of Lionsgate)
Continuing from where we left off (here is the bottom third of this list), here are ten through six of my top seventeen films of the year– 2015 was far too good a year for a mere list of ten! I've attached the trailers for each film I think most accurately reflects the film, which is not always the final domestic trailer.
"Jules, this is so boring without drugs."
Archival footage of Amy Winehouse, focusing on the forces and people which contributed to her downfall. Directed by Asif Kapadia. Trailer 2 (US).
Kapadia, as is his wont, uses no talking heads in his documentaries. The entire film is primary footage– no recreations, reenactments, or sit-down interviews; just the blunt unvarnished images, which need no augment to impart the tragedy they contain. Nothing is manufactured here, and Kapadia does not assert himself other than to expertly organize thousands of hours of video into a comprehensible downward collapse that simply watches, withholding judgment on the causes for Amy's death, from the shocking lack of self-awareness of those closest to her to the ambivalent desires of the mobs who adored her without caring for her. Most potent is a comment which crystallizes why drug use is so appealing to celebrities: they offer an outlet for something no longer attainable– the ability to be alone. Amy transcends the bounds of documentary to register in the psyche as the great literary tragedies do.
9. Mad Max
"I live. I die. I live again!"
A woman searches for her homeland with the assistance of several escaped prisoners. Directed by George Miller, with Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy. Teaser Trailer.
This will rightly be celebrated as the great women's picture of 2015, galvanizing a conversation which has been taking place on the sidelines for most of the entire century-plus of cinema. Or maybe we should say gender-equal picture, for the film doesn't denigrate Hardy's character but correctly understands feminism not as the reactionary fight for superior rights for women, but as a fight for equal rights for women. We hope for the day when Dr. King's four little children will be judged by the content of their character, and we're excited when Max hands Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) his gun on the judgment of her abilities, ignoring gender as a consideration. A cinematic baton of sorts is being handed over in that moment.
The main character is female, isn't defined by her relationship to males or by romantic attraction to a man, doesn't exist to define or support male characters, has her own agenda, has motivations besides approval by or sex with males, and whose competence requires no explanation. All the better is that Miller did not write this with explicit political intent or conscious desire to make statements about women, the elderly, the deformed, enslaved, maimed, or otherwise marginalized; it's just that his worldview seeped through his writing of a story, and all those groups ended up being celebrated in this film in a way that (unfortunately) feels new. Miller is in his seventies, and a work of such vivacious energy coming from him defies the term "youthful" as the appropriate adjective. Note also how abysmal the gender relations were in Miller's original 1979 Mad Max, what with its laughably embarrassing damsel-in-helpless-distress narrative. One can't help but see this as a corrective of sorts.
Much has been written on this picture elsewhere, but I'd like to briefly note four things: Nicholas Hoult's character arc is as deeply encouraging to me as the presence of a strong female protagonist. His character is the only one with an arc in the film, and thus represents the arc of the film to a degree. We expect his transition from evil to good to be deceptive or self-motivated or both, but it isn't. The film believes in the capacity for growth toward good.
Additionally, aesthetic ground is being broken here. Max has many more cuts than most films do, with each shot lasting an average of 1.8 seconds, placing it firmly in Oliver Stone-Paul Greengrass territory. Whereas Greengrass' intent is usually to disorient, by placing movement directions in unexpected places in subsequent shots to keep the viewer off balance, Miller frames most of the action so the object of interest is always in the center of the frame. It goes down like water. Film scholar David Bordwell analyzes this approach with visual examples here.
Furthermore, visual effects ground is also being broken here. Most of the film's effects, aside from dust and tornado elements, are practical rather than computer-animated. The camera is picking up something tactile, and your eye knows the difference. I'd also like to comment on how well expository moments are kept to a minimum. We don't spend extraneous moments setting up why the evil warlord is evil, or what horrors the sex slaves have gone through, or what the milk is for, or what chrome is. Miller sketches quickly, and we get the basic ideas, which is all we need. The world is to be witnessed and considered by us rather than explained, and we are thus engaged, treated like adults. No wonder this is the only action film to premiere at Cannes Film Festival, of all places, in years!
8. Steve Jobs
"We will know soon enough if you're Leonardo da Vinci– or just think you are."
Behind-the-scenes moments before three product launches headed by Steve Jobs. Directed by Danny Boyle, with Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet. Written by Aaron Sorkin. Trailer 2 (US).
People immediately lose interest when I tell them I've just seen this great movie called Steve Jobs. How do I fix this? What do I say? Do I say that the film is three long dialogue scenes, each set in a different decade? Do I say it's 180 industry-formatted pages (typically, 180 minutes) of dialogue spoken so quickly that the film's runtime is only 121 minutes? Do I say something about Michael Fassbender, how in less than a decade he's already comparable to Daniel Day-Lewis and Sean Penn in terms of ferocious focus, range, and quality? That Sorkin has written possibly his best work and uses Jobs to make points about creativity far larger than the main character's dilemmas?
Or just that this film is extremely entertaining and will make you really dislike Steve Jobs while admiring him a little at the same time? I'm at a loss here. I've long considered Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross my favorite (not best) piece of screenwriting. Jobs threatens to surpass it. Each of the three scenes is a writerly orgy, an escalating action scene where the kinetic physicality is contained entirely in words exchanged. Unlike James Foley's staid and unadventurous interpretation of Mamet's text, Boyle pushes the writing out of this-should-just-be-a-play territory into the realm of exciting cinema with his trademark playfulness, using a variety of tricks when appropriate (including a bold but fitting moment of rear projection in an otherwise realist picture). Act 1 (set in the eighties) is filmed on 16mm; Act 2 (in the nineties) is in 35mm; and the final stretch, in the new millennium, is digital. A treat for many reasons, and a screenplay of such exhilarating involvement it has to be heard to be believed.
"Nothing will make sense to your American ears."
An FBI agent (Emily Blunt) finds herself in deep water while investigating cartel activity in Juarez. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, co-starring Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin. Trailer.
Brutal, beautiful, and expertly constructed in a way that rewards repeat viewings. Villeneuve considers it his best film. Click here for an essay of mine on the film, going into numbing (and I do mean numbing!) levels of specific detail on the film's visuals. You'll watch movies differently after reading it. This youtube video analyzing the film's use of color and other visual elements also has a lot to offer, going into even further detail on many things I hadn't even noticed.
6. About Elly (Darbareye Elly)
"A bitter ending is better than an endless bitterness."
Friends on vacation at a beach house retreat notice one of their party has gone missing. Directed by Asghar Farhadi. US Trailer.
A shattering, universally human experience featuring a blistering lead performance by the radiant Golshifteh Farahani. You might think there's not much to relate to with this one, but you'd be pleasantly surprised. Some of the best films in the entire world being made right now are coming out of Iran. They tend to be probing dissections of human nature and relations, and because of how expertly the story has been constructed in this one, Farahani's moral dilemma at the end is completely understandable even though she doesn't speak a word. On the outside, it's just a young woman sitting alone at a table, but we know what's racing through her head....
My thoughts on the film and the circumstances surrounding its release here.
Final five coming soon!