By Ezra Stead
This is always a difficult thing to do, and this year, just like every other year, I left out plenty of movies I really like, even from the Honorable Mentions. This is a particularly interesting year in that I actually really like all the Oscar nominees that I’ve seen, which is relatively rare for me. Anyway, of the 107 new movies from 2015 I managed to see in time for this list, these are my (completely subjective) favorites.
1. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD – it’s always a treat to have really high expectations for a movie and then to see them exceeded. George Miller’s return to the wasteland of his career-defining trilogy is a perfect example of this phenomenon. The first time I saw it, though, Fury Road appeared to only meet my expectations, a rare enough feat in its own right. It was the second viewing that made me realize that this was not only my favorite movie of the year, but also my favorite Mad Max movie, and quite possibly my favorite movie of the last two decades. Then I saw it three more times in the space of about two weeks, and I noticed something new about it every single time. The rich, detailed world-building not only rewards but demands multiple viewings, and it’s a testament to Miller’s craft that the movie doesn’t rely on a lot of expository dialogue and other hand-holding devices to make sure the audience can keep up. Max Rockatansky’s world of “fire and blood” has its own language that is every bit as evocative and original as its eye-popping visuals: War Boys, Blood Bags, Bullet Farms, etc. This is a movie in the glorious pulp tradition of Robert E. Howard and Heavy Metal magazine, but it never feels derivative, even of its own source material (The Road Warrior being the original Mad Max movie it most closely resembles). What seems to be overlooked in all the talk about its incredible visual effects and stuntwork (which makes a better case than any movie I can think of for an Oscar category devoted to the people who risk their lives to make movies awesome) is the quality of the writing and performances. Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult are especially great, but there is also a surprising tenderness and depth to Tom Hardy’s performance as Max, a man of few words and great stoicism, and Melissa Jaffer managed to break my heart with just a few minutes of screen time as the Keeper of the Seeds. Critics and skeptics say this movie is just one long chase scene, which is reductive, but even if that were strictly true, complaining about that misses the point of how amazing it is that a movie this compelling could be made from a single long chase. Others might say it doesn’t belong in the Best Picture Oscar race because it’s not serious and important enough, but its themes of feminism and environmentalism are extremely relevant; they’re just not belabored to the point of didacticism. Fury Road’s vision of the destruction of the Old World, in which water was plentiful and “everyone had a show,” seems all too plausible, despite its over-the-top visual antics, and there’s a funny/scary comparison to be made between the film’s main villain, Immortan Joe, and a certain current Presidential candidate. I have no doubt this movie will ride eternal in Valhalla, shiny and chrome. It is perfect in every way. Read More
By Ezra Stead
True Grit, USA, 2010
Written and Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Based on the Novel True Grit by Charles Portis
If I were going to direct a Western, I wouldn’t even consider any other cinematographer than Roger Deakins. A frequent collaborator of the Coen Brothers, Deakins shot two of the best films of 2007 – the Coens’ No Country For Old Men and Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (quite possibly the best Western ever made) – and it was his painterly eye and excellent use of light that created the mournful, elegiac and distinctly American feel of both those excellent films. Now he has reteamed with Joel and Ethan for their first true period Western, True Grit, and more than their wonderfully dry humor or the excellent performances by Jeff Bridges and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, it is his work that makes the film as good as it is.
Don’t get me wrong – the Coens have created a truly classic film here, a real Western with all the best parts of the 1969 original intact and amplified, and with a much stronger sense of the other characters besides Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn (whereas the original was mainly a vehicle to showcase John Wayne’s finest performance). Bridges is utterly believable and likable as the irascible Cogburn, and Steinfeld is a talent to watch in the coming years, imbuing young Mattie Ross with a steel resolve that makes me think the 14-year-old could probably beat me in a fight. As mentioned above, the script is full of wonderfully dry humor and startlingly realistic violence (I can’t imagine what they had to cut to whittle it down to a PG-13); there is much to praise about all aspects of the film, but for me it is definitely Deakins’ work that shines the brightest. Read More
By Jason A. Hill
Inside Job, USA, 2010
Directed by Charles Ferguson
The financial crisis has had broad coverage in the media over the past two years, but in contrast to its impact there have been fewer documentaries covering its aftermath compared to the political and war documentaries during the George W. Bush era. The lack of more prominent financial crisis documentaries is probably due to the subject being such an un-sexy and difficult topic to dramatize. Michael Moore, king of drama in docs, gave the economy a whack with his Capitalism: A Love Story (2009), a punchless and overreaching attack on capitalism that turned out to be pretty nominal on drama.
It proved that this story is just that difficult to make appealing to a broad American public, but too important to ignore. The story of the financial meltdown is as broad – involving the entire world’s economy – and as complicated – dealing with complex banking and trading laws – as ever there was for a documentary, but director Charles Ferguson handles the topic without losing focus and consistently stays on message. The film achieves something very difficult in most narrative films, let alone documentaries, which is boiling the underlying problem down to one simple idea: greed is not good. (Sorry, Gordon Gekko). Read More
By Corey Birkhofer
The Departed, USA / Hong Kong, 2006
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Don’t get me wrong. Remakes can work. I actually liked the American remake of Seven Samurai (The Magnificent Seven). Hell, I even enjoyed The Ring and The Grudge remakes after seeing the original Japanese versions of both. But when Martin Scorsese decided to remake Infernal Affairs (2002), one of my favorite more recent Hong Kong films, I have to admit some lines were crossed.
Before I get too ahead of myself, let’s contemplate for a minute why remakes are even made in the first place. If the original was so inspiring, why does it need to be redone? And in one’s remaking of an original work, what do the creators intend to change to make it, in their minds, better? I think this gives a hint as to why films are remade in the first place, but there’s also the question of accessibility and reception. How will the original work be received if the audience has to sit through a film with (gasp!) subtitles? Sadly, the general American moviegoer is definitely not up for a film where they have to sit and read words on the screen. Unfortunately for these viewers, they miss out on a wealth of amazing films. And yet, with these moviegoers being the ones who fill movie seats, they are the judge and jury of what kind of films get greenlit; thus we get foreign films perfectly fine being left the way they are getting remade to be more attuned to American audiences.
That being said, though the original Infernal Affairs was a box office smash hit in China, who was to say it would be as big of a hit when it came to the states? Though Miramax did bring the original Infernal Affairs over for a relatively successful limited release in 2004 (two years after its release in China), I guess Scorsese just couldn’t resist taking a stab at the narrative himself. I remember back in 2004 when I was still reeling from the excitement after seeing the original Infernal Affairs, only to find out Scorsese was planning to make his own American version. With Scorsese at the helm I was actually pretty excited at the time, but flashing forward three years after The Departed came out in 2006, I’m definitely wishing I could go back to a moment in time when this film did not exist.