"So foul and fair a day I have not seen." (Image courtesy The Weinstein Company)
You came here looking for a bus story, and instead, what? We all love stories, and the ones in these films are far better than any I could ever relay. This blog is a probing celebration of the human spirit in its many forms. So too are these films, which is why I respond to them, and why I think you might take interest in them as well.
And anyways, don't tell me you don't love movies, the premier art form of our time, speaking to the masses in the way classical music did in 1700s western Europe, or literature during the 19th and early 20th century. Every art form has its time in the sun where it may not the best form of the day, but is by far the most resonant and wide-reaching. Anyone who tells you we're not in a golden age of filmmaking isn't looking hard enough.
Below is a list of what I found to be the best releases of the year in film, along with ruminations on each. I should note that the trailers I've attached for each film are not always the main US domestic final trailer, but the trailers I feel are most accurate to the films. That's why you get the UK trailer for Carol or the Mandarin teaser for The Assassin, for instance.
We start with the bottom of the list. These ones aren't necessarily great, but enthralled me for various reasons I'm compelled to share.
"Do you ever feel invincible in one moment and then worthless the next?"
Based on the life of Stanley Milgram, who famously conducted experiments revealing that most people will voluntarily torture strangers if asked politely to do so by an authority figure. Directed by Michael Almereyda, with Peter Sarsgaard. Trailer.
The ramifications of Milgram's work are crucial to our understanding of how widespread atrocities continue to be tolerated and enacted. Milgram was Jewish, and his quest to make sense of things following World War II underpinned much of his work. As he said, his results were less about human evil as human malleability, and the value we place on obeying authority figures. Mr. Almereyda appropriately takes an experimental approach, avoiding familiar biopic tropes and resorting to numerous 4th-wall breaks, rear projection, creative desaturation, and abandoning narrative almost entirely to get at what really interests us– not Milgram's life but what these experiments mean. He also pioneered the six-degrees of separation concept and several other interesting studies. Entertaining and erudite.
16. Diary of a Teenage Girl
"I'm distracted sometimes. By my overwhelming all-consuming thoughts about sex and men!"
Minnie, a teen girl in 1970s San Francisco, finds herself drawn to her mother's boyfriend. Directed by Marielle Heller. Trailer 1.
Again, I'm not trying to say the films on the bottom of this list are masterpieces. But in the way I feel Experimenter relays something vital, so too does Diary. Perspectives on sexual awakening from the view of teen girls, let alone females, are basically nonexistent in cinema, despite being an experience roughly fifty percent of the population goes through. Diary offers tremendous wisdom through Minnie's reflective and frank vernacular, as she navigates uncharted waters and ultimately arrives at conclusions far beyond what most of us adults typically ruminate over.
We don't so much as wait around for her to come of age as learn about ourselves by extrapolating her thoughts (I'm thinking of the film's final lines here, which are gold) onto our own questions and struggles with love and selfhood. Also worth noting is the terrific lead performance, capable directorial handling of highly awkward material, brazenly creative incorporation of animation, and razor-sharp wit.
15. Hard to be a God (Trudno byt bogom)
"This is not Earth. It's another planet, identical, about 800 years behind."
Scientists sent to another planet exactly like Earth's Middle Ages struggle with not interfering when confronted with what they see. Directed by Aleksey German. Trailer.
Hard to be a God is not an easy watch, but it manages to be strangely captivating for the entirety of its gargantuan runtime. Mr. German has created a world that indeed feels like another planet, establishing normative behavior our 21st-century selves find alien (notice the different and pervasive amount of touching and focus on scents). This conflation of the distant future and ancient past is a portrait of the Middle Ages as you've never seen. Rumata, the lead scientist, wanders through a largely plotless Bosch-like theatre of disgusting squalor and ugliness, where man's inhumanity to man is front and center. Hard to be a God, indeed, and no job for a mere mortal. This gorgeously photographed three-hour think piece is a test, and brilliant in its theological and philosophical ramifications. There are conversations where the viewer is quite literally left reeling at the meta-connotations of what's being said. It whirls you around and soaks you in the grotesque and repulsively macabre, but I guarantee you'll come out of it with thoughts you've never had before.
"This dude could've saved Mexican rock."
Young Tomas and his older friends get sidetracked on a meandering road trip searching for an obscure rock musician. Directed by Alonso Ruiz Palacios. US Trailer.
It's a little gem, is what it is. One hundred six minutes of beautiful full-frame black-and-white images, each indelible, laid over a rambling but strangely economical up-all-night-in-Mexico City road trip narrative. It pokes fun at seriousness while also possessing its own gravitas; it's whirligig absurdist humor feels oddly perfect in an aesthetically gorgeous environment. It effortlessly holds our attention as it unhurriedly switches from humor (admirable here in its ability to cross cultural boundaries) to banality to suspense and politics. I can hardly believe it's a debut feature, and yet I can: it's the sort of picture which says loudly and uniquely, here I am! I have things on offer you won't find elsewhere, and it doesn't matter if all the parts add up. Though I rather think they do.
13. The Assassin (Nie yin niang)
"Birds sing only to their own kind."
In seventh-century China, a female assassin is tasked with killing a political leader with whom she has a history. Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. China Trailer.
More than one critic has said this film does things you won't have seen in films elsewhere, and I agree. It doesn't feel like a film, for one, but nor does it seem quite like anything else, especially not other wuxia genre works in either film or book form. Hou Hsiao Hsien's entry into the field (wuxia is a Chinese genre of martial-chivalric fiction) is almost entirely comprised of meditative stillnesses, which in their own way are as enrapturing as the brief accents of martial arts which punctuate them. We wonder at what goes on in Qi Shu's head as we puzzle together the narrative, looking for clues while falling prey to the film's ruminant, prayerful spell. Aside from one scene in 1.85:1 widescreen, Hou shoots in a more squarish 1.4:1 ratio, offering a different kind of picturesque and employing stillness for things we expect to be addressed by sound and fury. The spaces between the notes are what interests him.
12. 45 Years
"I'd like to be able to tell you everything I'm thinking. But I can't."
News of a former lover's death starts a process of unraveling in an otherwise stable marriage. Directed by Andrew Haigh, with Charlotte Rampling. Trailer.
Andrew Haigh is not in his eighties, nor even his seventies. He's only forty-three. How does he understand so acutely the troubles these two characters generations older than he are having? How does he grasp so perfectly the specific pace of life at that age, the currents beneath the surface, and how what is unspoken carries just as much weight as what is? Ah, we must remember experience is only one way of accumulating knowledge....
This piece magnetizes. We all spend a lot of time thinking about relationships, and whether we realize it consciously or not, I think we know we are often underserved by the cinema, in that films about relationships are generally only about the beginnings of relationships. This one goes further, and builds to a climax of such unspoken raw power as to have my jaw on the floor.
"Why are we hesitating?"
Based on the Boston Globe's landmark journalism which ultimately uncovered global abuse of children within the Catholic Church. Directed by Tom McCarthy, with Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and others. Trailer.
Spotlight wasn't the best picture of the year, but it's probably a good thing it won the award. Like Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave or Spielberg's Schindler's List, this is a film that should be required viewing for every World Citizen. The direction is nothing flashy, and the cinematography is simple and journeymanlike; but oh, the content. There are truths we simply need to know about. Singer and McCarthy's script (an inarguably well-deserved Oscar win) is a piece of perfection, and it's edited with propulsive skill and performed with across-the-board excellence. Liev Schreiber's scruffy, taciturn introvert is a treat, and Mark Ruffalo's monologue on the porch with Rachel McAdams is a thing of heartrending beauty.
Also compelling is the journeyman aesthetic of the filmmaking as a corollary to the attitudes of the players: the journalists in this film aren't portrayed as heroes, but just people doing their jobs, and well. Some of the films above are tough to recommend (don't subject yourself to Assassin or Hard...God unless you're in the right mood!), but this picture will play meaningfully for anyone. This is an unassuming masterpiece.
Check back soon for the rest of the list, and hopefully enough film recommendations to last a year!