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
I’ve been making these lists, in one form or another, for a dozen years now, and every year I’ve done my best to balance my own personal preferences with an objective and educated view of cinema in order to recommend not only my personal favorite films of any given year, but also those I believe to be the best. Well, no more! This year, and forever onward, I strive to give you only my own subjective favorites, the films that I have watched and am likely to watch over and over again throughout the years. When I look back over the last five years, for example, I have to admit that these have proven to be my actual favorite films, despite what I may have written at the time in an effort to recognize other worthy cinematic achievements to which I may or may not have returned even once in the years since: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007); The Dark Knight (2008); Inglourious Basterds (2009); Dogtooth (2010); and Drive (2011).
Of those five, only Dogtooth actually topped my list at the time. So, with this in mind, I present my favorite films of 2012, in all their highly subjective glory. Since ranking films in order of preference is often at least somewhat arbitrary, I should admit that some of these may have made it into the top 10, rather than the runner-up category, solely because they were more fun to write about. However, my top 5 is solidly made up of films I have already seen at least twice, and feel strongly that I would be more than happy to watch again at absolutely any time. Read More
By Ezra Stead
Afterschool, USA, 2008
Written and Directed by Antonio Campos
Love is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon, UK / France / Japan, 1998
Written and Directed by John Maybury
Today’s entry in the old Movies I Didn’t Get pantheon looks at two films made a decade apart that share one major unifying similarity, which is an abundance of visual style. Antonio Campos’s Afterschool and John Maybury’s Love is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon have very little else in common other than a similarly dark vision and the fact that each is the work of a single, distinct writer-director, but seeing them within about a week of one another, I was struck by how each of them create fascinating worlds through the use of highly unconventional cinematic techniques. In both films, the viewer is consistently thrown off-kilter by camera angles and distortions that create an intentional emotional distance, and at times even make it difficult (and therefore all the more intriguing) to see what exactly is going on in the edges of the frame that is our only window in. Read More
By Ezra Stead
Seeking Wellness: Suffering Through Four Movements, USA, 2008
Written and Directed by Daniel Schneidkraut
“This is not a film,” proclaims the opening title card of Daniel Schneidkraut’s Seeking Wellness: Suffering Through Four Movements. “It is a video ritual. Watch and receive.” This unsettling (some would say pretentious) announcement is followed by an opening credits sequence that seems directly inspired by the diabolical French provocateur Gaspar Noe (I Stand Alone, Irreversible, Enter the Void). Another apparent influence is the German filmmaker Michael Haneke (The Seventh Continent, Funny Games, The White Ribbon) – in fact, I would say this is second in line, after my beloved Dogtooth, for the title of Best Michael Haneke Film Michael Haneke Never Made – so clearly, this is a dark and twisted creation that could generously be described as “not for everyone.” That said, for fans of transgressive and artistic cinema, this is undoubtedly the Minneapolis-based independent feature I would recommend above all others, despite my more direct involvement in a few others (full disclosure: I am thanked in the credits for this one, though I had no idea of this fact until I finally saw the finished product and was never on set). Read More
By Ezra Stead
Dogtooth, 2009, Greece
Directed by Giorgos Lanthimos
This film is mind-blowingly great, the best I’ve seen in quite some time. The best way to see Dogtooth is the way in which I was lucky enough to: without knowing anything about its storyline. If you have not yet seen this film, I strongly encourage you to stop reading this review and watch it, right now, on Netflix or any other method you might be able to find.
Anyone still with me? I am now going to assume you have seen the film and that it has either blown your mind and made you extremely inspired and reinvigorated about the possibilities of the cinematic art form, as it did for me on both viewings (within two weeks), or it has outraged and disgusted you with its “mean-spiritedness,” as it did for some others with whom I have discussed it. Maybe it has done a little of both. In any event, you have seen the film and I will no longer have to warn you about upcoming spoilers.
Greek filmmaker Giorgos Lanthimos has created a film of startling power and striking originality. The closest comparison I can make, both in style and content, is the work of Austrian provocateur Michael Haneke – the brilliant filmmaker behind The Seventh Continent (1989), Cache (2005) and The White Ribbon (2009), to name just a few – but Dogtooth is more perversely humorous than even Haneke’s Funny Games (1997, remade by Haneke himself in 2007), which is admittedly the only one of his films to really utilize humor. As dark, disturbing and sometimes brutal as Dogtooth ultimately is, it is hard not to laugh at some of it, and this is clearly the desired effect. Read More
By Ezra Stead
Hunger, UK / Ireland, 2008
Directed by Steve McQueen
I saw this in April of 2009 and the rest of the year failed to produce a more perfect film. Director Steve McQueen (not the one you’re thinking of) crafts a completely compelling take on the famed hunger strike endured by Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and other political prisoners associated with the Irish Republican Army. However, Sands is not even seen until the second act of the film, after a brilliant first act that is nearly dialogue-free, detailing the conflict that leads to the hunger strike. Read More
By Jason A. Hill
The White Ribbon, Germany / Austria / France / Italy, 2009
Written and Directed by Michael Haneke
Often in film, story becomes the magical thread that keeps us involved; story usually consists of questions and answers that create conflict. In Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, the questions we receive indeed create conflict, but the film also puts into view how far we will go to find the answers. Many have tagged this film as being a glimpse into the ideological beginnings of German fascism, or Nazism. I would agree with that notion, but what makes the film so interesting and gives it its true power is its transcendence across national, cultural, and even temporal divisions to examine that all-too-human need to understand its own basic horrors and needs for safety.
The film is set in rural Germany just before World War I. The story takes place in a village where life is as simple and common as an early 20th century village gets. The Baron (Ulrich Tukur) owns the land and provides employment for over half the people living in the area. The town is small enough that there is a single Pastor (Burghart Klaussner), Doctor (Rainer Bock), and School Teacher (Christian Friedel) to accommodate everyone. Everyone plays their assigned roles in clockwork-like rhythm and the slightest variance echoes like a bomb. From here it wasn’t clear to me if the patriarchal nature of this village was a detail of this time and place or if the authoritarian setting was acutely unique to this village, but this is just another layer in the film’s rich mise-en-scene. Read More