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
This was the year I realized that my annual goal of seeing pretty much every movie released in a given year was more impossible than ever. The reason for this is the exponential growth in the number of films now being released in the digital age. When I started doing these lists back in 2001, there were about 300 official releases per year; now it’s closer to 700. With that in mind, I’d like to start with a partial list of movies I meant to see in 2014, but just didn’t get to in time. Then, to acknowledge the relatively arbitrary nature of these lists in general, I’m listing my Top 10 in categories by which each film corresponds to another one from my Top 20 (only the Top 10 is ranked in order of preference). It’ll make more sense as you read it, I promise.
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN (40 movies I didn’t see in time for this list, in alphabetical order): Bird People; The Boxtrolls; Calvary; Chef; Citizenfour; Coherence; The Congress; Enemy; Fading Gigolo; Filth; Force Majeure; Foxcatcher; Frank; Fury; Gloria; Happy Christmas; Ida; Joe; A Letter to Momo; Leviathan; Life After Beth; Like Father, Like Son; Lucy; Men, Women & Children; A Million Ways to Die in the West; Mr. Turner; Moebius; A Most Violent Year; Night Moves; Palo Alto; The Rocket; The Sacrament; St. Vincent; Song of the Sea; Starred Up; Stonehearst Asylum; Top Five; 22 Jump Street; Virunga; Wrinkles.
In the interest of returning this site to our original mission statement of “Movies I Didn’t Get,” I am now going to take on a film that is generally considered to be something of a sacred cow. I have had a long and tumultuous relationship with the films of Woody Allen, partly because, even more than the average artist, his personal life is so very intertwined with his work. Even when not playing the lead character himself, as he so frequently does, Woody’s protagonists are generally thinly veiled (or not at all veiled, as he says in the underrated 1997 film Deconstructing Harry) versions of himself, and the stories he tells are often segments of his own life story. At his best (Annie Hall, Stardust Memories, Hannah and Her Sisters), he produces smart, funny, insightful work that truly captures the human condition in a universal way. At his worst (Celebrity, the dreadfully overrated Midnight in Paris), his work can be insufferably self-absorbed and pretentious. Though the critical establishment would appear to strongly disagree with me on this, I find Woody’s 1979 “masterpiece” Manhattan to be mostly in this latter camp. Read More
I’ll be the first to say that I am not a Spike Lee fan. Outside of a few films, I think the man refuses to see past his skin color and the world in anything other than black versus white, but in 25th Hour, the story of a white drug dealer’s last day before seven years in federal prison, Lee pushes aside his normal agenda and shows us shades of gray that he’s ignored for the majority of his career. It harks back to his breakthrough film Do the Right Thing (1989), in that it asks its viewer a very important question: what do we do now? In what might be the first mainstream film to openly deal with a post-9/11 New York, complete with long shots of Ground Zero and open allusions to the late firemen who dealt with the evacuation and clean-up of the fallen Twin Towers, he reverses his stance and puts it, literally, in another color.
Edward Norton is a powerful actor, without ever doing too much; he lives in the simple parts of his characters and portrays very basic human emotions, but does so with such a natural swagger that you can completely forget you’re watching an actor. His Monty Brogan is the best example of this alternative approach. Here we see a drug dealer get touched and spend his last day of freedom with him. The city has changed, and so has Monty; the lifestyle is gone, and of all the filmmakers to propose a love letter to New York after her fall (we’re still waiting, Woody), in retrospect, Lee should have been the obvious choice. With his extremely candid points of view and the temper he gives all of his projects, it was the right move at the right time. I heard someone refer to the film as a bandage for the city’s wounds and I was insulted, as the point of a bandage is to cover up the wound. Lee’s film is a part of the healing process, for sure, but he never attempts to cover anything up, and literally tells it exactly like it is. Read More
There is no better filmmaker in existence to have made this film, a document of one of the greatest treasures in human history made by a director who is one of the greatest living legends in cinema history. Werner Herzog, who deftly alternates between fiction and documentary films like no other filmmaker alive (Spike Lee has done fairly well in this regard, too), presents a truly jaw-dropping 3D journey through the Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, a cave in southern France that houses some of the oldest known artworks of the human race. Through his necessarily limited exploration of the cave (the crew was allowed to film only four hours a day for one week, and only under the strictest of guidelines) and extensive interviews with various fascinating and eccentric experts, Herzog delves into the mysteries of the beginnings of human consciousness and, by looking deep into the past, ultimately considers the possibilities of the future.
The deep underground cave explored and documented in loving detail by Herzog and his crew of four was discovered in 1994 by Jean-Marie Chauvet (for whom it was named), Eliette Brunel Deschamps and Christian Hillaire, who found it by following an air current coming out of the ground. A landslide over 20,000 years ago had sealed the cave, effectively making it a perfect time capsule for the ensuing millennia and keeping its extraordinary artifacts amazingly fresh, which led to suspicions by some that the paintings on the walls were, in fact, a modern hoax. This is briefly addressed in the film, with experts pointing out the layers of calcification over the charcoal lines of the paintings that could only have been produced over thousands of years. The excitement and emotion felt by the many archaeologists, scientists and other experts in various fields is palpable, and the often amazing cinematography makes it infectious.Â Read More
Last Friday I attended a strange and exciting event within walking distance of my apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn; Kings County Cinema Society presented a showcase of short films made by filmmakers from Brooklyn and beyond, including several New York and Brooklyn premieres, at Littlefield NYC, a performance and art space with a well-stocked bar and a good-sized screening room. As is to be expected in a sort of punk rock/hipster gallery, seating for the show was folding chairs, which made the viewing experience a bit less than comfortable after a while, but the films were mostly quite good, and in addition to the usual popcorn and peanuts, there were delicious peanut butter chocolate chip cookies on hand at the bar, free of charge. I helped myself to one of these and a bottle of beer and settled in for an evening of mostly comedic shorts from the borough that is now my second home (Minneapolis will always be my first).Â Read More