THE BEST OF 2015
1 The Revenant
4 The Martian
6 The Big Short
8 Star Wars: The Force Awakens
9 Far from the Madding Crowd
10 Mad Max: Fury Road
11 Black Mass
12 The Danish Girl
14 Testament of Youth
16 Irrational Man
17 Mr. Holmes
18 Straight Outta Compton
19 Bridge of Spies
20 The Intern
1 Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant
2 Paolo Sorrentino, Youth
3 Ridley Scott, The Martian
4 Lenny Abrahamson, Room
5 Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
1 Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
2 Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl
3 Michael Keaton, Spotlight
4 Matt Damon, The Martian
5 Johnny Depp, Black Mass
1 Brie Larson, Room
2 Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
3 Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
4 Cate Blanchett, Carol
5 Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
1 Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
2 Jacob Tremblay, Room
3 Sylvester Stallone, Creed
4 Christian Bale, The Big Short
5 Tom Hardy, The Revelant
1 Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
2 Rooney Mara, Carol
3 Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs
4 Virginia Madsen, Joy
5 Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
1 Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, Spotlight
2 Paolo Sorrentino, Youth
3 Emma Donoghue, Room
4 Adam McKay and Charles Randolph, The Big Short
5 Nick Hornby, Brooklyn
1 Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenant
2 Danny Cohen, The Danish Girl
3 Ed Lachman, Carol
4 John Seale, Mad Max: Fury Road
5 Dariusz Wolski, The Martian
Since “Being John Malkovich” in 1999, Charlie Kaufman’s singular take on the particularities of the human experience has produced three of my favorite films of this century. In writing “Adaptation” (2002), “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004) and “Synecdoche, New York” (2008), the last of which he also directed, Kaufman established himself as the most insightful, inventive and ambitious filmmaker of his generation.
Since then he wrote and directed a TV pilot for FX, “How & Why” that was rejected by the network and has now released this bizarre, stop-motion animated film based on a radio play he wrote a few years ago. With this film, he’s officially lost me. Maybe, I would have liked this story a bit more if it was played by actual actors, but I doubt it.
Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is a dreary sales expert (having written a much admired book) who arrives Cincinnati to speak to a convention. The entire film is set inside the hotel where he staying, mostly inside his room.
He’s clearly going through some kind of mid-life crisis—the first thing he does when he arrives is call a former girlfriend. They meet and have a very uncomfortable reunion. By this point, I was already tired of listening to Kaufman’s characters.
One of the strongest elements of Kaufman’s previous screenplays has been his interesting, distinctive women who are much more than afterthoughts to a male-dominated film. Yet here, the women—especially the ex-girlfriend and then Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a convention attendee who Michael falls for—are weak, simplistic and immature characters who serve as examples of human monotony (the reason, I guess that all the voices other than Michael and Lisa are voiced by Tom Noonan).
The rather pedestrian script and unappealing characters are only part of this film’s problems; the animation (by co-director Duke Johnson) looks amateurish, cheap and, for me, unappealing. And the last thing I go to the theater for is to see naked clay figures having sex.
I really don’t understand the great reviews this film has earned since its Christmas release nor why Kauffman thought this script was worth his first film in seven years. All I hope is that the positive reaction to this tedious film doesn’t encourage this innovative writer-director to continue working in clay instead of in flesh and blood.
THE DANISH GIRL (2015)
While critics raved about the lead performances in this film, the work of director Tom Hooper is among the most impressive of the year. Hooper, who directed the Oscar-winning “The King’s Speech” (2010), along with “Les Misérables” (2012) and The Damned United (2009), captures a 1920s Copenhagen that will dazzle even beyond the powerful story told in the film.
He and cinematographer Danny Cohen capture some of the most beautiful landscapes, street scenes and interiors I’ve seen in a film in years. And its story line couldn’t be timelier.
Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander, yet again) are bohemian artists living for their art; Einar’s an acclaimed landscape artist and Gerda’s a struggling portrait painter. Then, on a whim, she asks her husband to don some women’s garments so she can finish a painting of a ballet dancer. Something about the touch of the clothes sparks a dormant desire in Einar and before long he’s going out in public dressed as a woman, christened Lili.
The film is at its best when it explores how Einar’s desire to be a woman impacts his wife and changes the already unusual relationship the couple have (by 1920s standards). Gerda supports him to such an extent that she realized when she has to let him/her go. (Of course, it didn’t hurt that her career skyrocketed once she started regularly painting Lili.)
It’s a pretty remarkable performance by Vikander and should earn her an Oscar. Hopefully, this is just the very impressive beginning of a rich film career.
One can’t ignore the film’s social importance in chronicling this transgender story: I, for one, was surprised that nearly 100 years ago the medical establishment acknowledged the need for gender reassignment as legitimate.
The last third of the film focuses on Lili’s attempt to find medical help to become permanently female, turning the film into a series of losing battle that are sad to watch, rather than one about relationships. But the performances of both Redmayne and Vikander never flagged. These are two superb young actors.
While all films are works of extreme precision, with actors, directors, productions designers, cinematographers perfecting every frame, some look more carefully constructed than others.
Todd Haynes films remind me of a very expensive clock in which each second, each movement, is vital for the whole.
His latest, nearly a companion piece to his 2002 homage to the 1950s, “Far From Heaven,” very quietly and deliberately chronicles the relationship between an unhappily married upper class woman and a younger, headstrong shop girl.
Nothing much happens that we haven’t seen in hundreds of stories of unrequited love except that this is between two women in the 1950s, when such liaisons were nearly unthinkable, and homosexuality was believed to be a mental disease. The original novel, “The Price of Salt,” was written in 1952 by crime writer Patricia Highsmith (of “Ripley” fame) under a pseudonym.
The picture-perfect production design (Judy Becker) and cinematography (Ed Lachman) are as impressive as the two actresses.
In the title role, Cate Blanchett possesses the look the era even before the makeup and clothes (by the legendary Sandy Powell) place her back in time. Her cool exterior belie Carol’s troubled soul, a woman stifled by her marriage and the trappings of her class.
Rooney Mara’s Therese yens for something more also, but it is more traditional. She’s a frustrated artist, wanting to express herself through photograph and looking for the one break she needs. Her spunky spirit and naivety combine to allure Carol.
The setup was a promising one, but “Carol” plays out so predictably that it loses all the good will earned by its stunning production values and touching performances. While I certainly wasn’t expecting a happy ending, I did expect a resolution with some punch. Instead, “Carol” just sort of fades away, back into a repressive time most have forgotten.
STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON (2015)
There’s much to like about this chronicle of the rise of N.W.A. and the emergence of the Los Angeles rap/hip-hop industry, but, not unlike the music scene itself, it breaks apart in the second half.
Director F. Gary Gray (“The Italian Job”) first establishes the temperature of pre-Rodney King L.A., a time in which the local police seemed to see the black community as its enemy. This was the height of gang warfare, when the Crips and the Bloods ruled neighborhoods throughout South Central L.A. The anger of those who had to live in the margins between the gangsters and the LAPD spurred a few creative young men to vent through music.
Three Compton rappers, Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Cube’s rela-life son), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), are joined by an ambitious drug dealer named Eric “Eazy-E” Wright and very quickly they become local sensations, tapping into the community’s frustrations about their world. After they hook up with veteran music manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), the group signs with a record company and head out on a national tour.
But their incredible success is short lived. In a plot as old as the music industry itself, group infighting and questionable management destroy the group. But, this being rap, the fighting gets a bit more intense than usual.
Ice Cube is the first to split and finds huge success (though largely unexplained by the film) as an actor, while Dr. Dre joins up with Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) to start Death Row Records and helps boost the careers of Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur. Cube, one of the film’s producers, is shown in the best light, while the others, especially Eazy-E and Knight, are portrayed as one step away from criminality.
I won’t pretend I have much interest in this style of music (I actually see it as closer to performance art than music), but the importance of N.W.A. in making rap, at least for a time, the most popular style of “music” is certainly a story worth telling.
Unfortunately, the movie loses its energy in the second half as it tries to cover too much ground, portray ever dispute, and show events from too many different points of view. By the second hour, I felt as if I needed a score card to figure out who was battling whom; and too many of those conflicts are never resolved in the film.
The performances are all quite good, especially Jackson as his father and Hawkins as Dr. Dre. At its best, the picture captures the incredible force of the N.W.A. in concert and their effect on audiences. But overall, “Straight Outta Compton” offers up a patchwork of events that never meshes into a coherent story.
STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING (2007)
The outline of this superbly rendered film has been the basis for thousands of post-grad short stories and the fantasies of even more struggling young writers. First-rate acting and its insightful script trump the story’s familiarity and predictability.
Grad student Heather (Lauren Ambrose) finagles an interview with the once-famous writer she’s writing her master’s thesis about and, by utilizing her feminine charms, gradually becomes part of his life.
The focus of her attention is Leonard Schiller (played by the magnificent Frank Langella), a New York writer who gained fame a half-century earlier for his novel about a young, independent woman, but hasn’t produced a major work in many years. Not in the best of health, Leonard, who seems to be in his late 70s, dismisses Heather’s requests for an interview until he realizes that it might renew interest in his name and secure him a publisher for his work-in-progress.
Despite Heather’s rather charmless manner, Leonard is soon squiring her to literary lectures and cocktail parties, where the writer is seen as a relic of a dead literary scene and the student tries to get her name out there.
Offering her commentary to the situation is Leonard’s daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor), who is struggling with her own set of disappointments.
Writer-director Andrew Wagner, who co-wrote the script with Fred Parnes from a novel by Brian Morton, depicts the hungry ambition of youth and the lingering hopefulness of the artist whose time has passed. But what really makes the film memorable is Langella’s Schiller, a classic “lion in winter” who this veteran stage actor turns into a complex metaphor for the endless search for the creative spark.
Langella, who became an overnight movie star in 1979 with his starring role in the campy version of “Dracula,” never found his footing in the cinema. But with his small, but superb work as CBS chief William Paley in “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005), he seemed to be rediscovered.
A year after “Starting Out in the Evening,” he delivered a brilliant performance as Richard Nixon in Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon” and then followed it with a quirky, touching role as a man suffering with dementia in “Robot and Frank” (2012). The 78-year-old has continued to work steadily since.
As Schiller, he exudes a low-key intelligence, showing us a man with a rich interior life who still vainly seeks recognition. What the aging writer ultimate desires—beyond the sex, there’s always that—is the energy of youth that is the source of so much creativity. That can’t be resurrected, yet even as he seems to be on his last legs, Schiller refuses to quit and continues doing what he knows he must: Write.
45 YEARS (2015)
I’m regularly lamenting the lack of subtlety in the plots and characters of Hollywood films. Thus, I probably shouldn’t complain when a movie offers the kind of understated, contemplative tone I keep asking for.
Despite thoughtful and moving performances by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay (both of whom started in the New Wave cinema of ‘60s England) as a couple approaching its 45th anniversary, I struggled to remain interested in this story of marital doubt.
The pair’s seemingly cozy life in a small English town shows a crack when Geoff receives a letter from Switzerland notifying him that the frozen body of his long-ago girlfriend has been found, fifty years after she drowned while they were on a hiking trip. The idea that Kate would grow jealous of a woman he dated a half-century ago (and has been deceased that long) seems insane to me. Yet that become the film’s focus as she slowly comes to realize, and find evidence that supports her beliefs, that Geoff never really got over his feelings for his first love.
As Kate, Rampling lets her expressive face and mannered body movements tell you what she’s feeling. The dialogue is minimal. While I couldn’t truly grasp the depth of this character’s fears about her husband’s loyalty, I admire the manner in which Rampling portrays these emotions.
Except for two stunningly evocative performances in the early 1980s, “The Verdict” and “Stardust Memories,” she never really had much of a film career until she became a favorite of art-film directors in the past 20 years. She’s done exceptional work in “The Wings of the Dove,” “The Cherry Orchard,” “Signs & Wonders,” “Under the Sand,” “Swimming Pool” and “Melancholia,” just to name the highlights. Not bad for an actress on the far side of 50.
In “45 Years,” Courtenay has a more secondary role, especially in the film’s second half, but he perfectly captures the occasionally confused, in-his-own-world old guy. The actor first made a name for himself in 1962’s “The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner” and has been a mainstay, if not a star, of the British cinema ever since. His most impressive performance was probably as the title character opposite Albert Finney in the memorable 1983 backstage drama, “The Dresser.” In recent years, he was wonderful as the sad Mr. Dorrit in a BBC production of the Dickens’ classic “Little Dorrit.”
Director Andrew Haigh, who adapted the David Constantine’s short story, seems to want the audience to sympathize with and understand Kate’s pain, yet for me it was much ado about nothing. But then, maybe I’m just a typical dumb guy
If this film, examining the reasons behind the escalating inner-city gun violence in Chicago, had been written and directed by a group of white supremacists, I doubt it could be any more racially offensive.
Spike Lee, trying oh-so-hard to keep it real, has made a picture that depicts black women as little more than unpaid prostitutes, whose only value is how well they “satisfy” their men. And the men, when they are not busy committing crimes, see them in the same light.
Lee’s bizarre plotline depicts a group of inner-city women who decide to use their power to deny their men, and force them to stop shooting at one another. The degrading manner in which these characters are portrayed would have caused a fire-storm of protests if it had been made by any other filmmaker.
The entire story line seems to be an excuse for Lee to have his actresses strut around showing off their bodies and engage in endless discussions filled with sexual euphemisms.
In a tip of the cap to the rap culture, much of the dialogue is rhymed, which just adds to the film’s unrealistic, almost surreal tone.
The movie grows sillier and sillier as the plot plays out and the characters become more shrill and righteous. Samuel L. Jackson serves as the stage manager/MC of the story, but he can’t save the film from itself.
While Lee continues to be a very valuable maker of documentaries, he has lost his relevance as a fictional filmmaker. Maybe that’s why the Academy presented him a lifetime achievement award this year; though still short of 60, his best work seems to be behind him.