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 Scott Martin
The Prestige, USA / UK, 2006
Directed by Christopher Nolan
The prestige is only the third act. At least that’s what we’re told by Cutter (Michael Caine) in his opening monologue. It’s more a set of instructions for the film, we’ll discover, but that’s a later point. Every magic trick comes in three parts: one – the pledge, in which you give the audience something real to hold onto; two – the turn, in which you take that something and turn into something impossible, the part where the magic lies; three – the prestige, in which everything comes back to normal, and the audience (hopefully) cheers. Usually, magic is all about sleight of hand and misdirection. Christopher Nolan is great at that; recall the difficult but astonishing Memento (2000). There’s a pledge, a turn, and a prestige in that, but here, in The Prestige, we live in the turn, while the pledge is revealed to us in flashbacks, and then the prestige isn’t what it’s supposed to be, but rather something that cheats and gives an easy out.
Still, though, the pledge and the turn make the film exciting and the thriller it should be. Don’t be fooled – this film isn’t strictly about magicians. It’s a cat-and-mouse game about two men obsessed with one-upping each other, and who both end up destroying themselves in the process. Read More
By Ezra Stead
Since M. Night Shyamalan’s much-ballyhooed 1999 feature The Sixth Sense, twist endings have gotten something of a bad rap, and usually with good reason. After all, in many cases they are a cheap way to add excitement to the climax of an otherwise dull story; sometimes they are a cop-out, negating all emotional involvement that may have been invested in a film up until that point; others seem to be the sole reason for a story’s existence, without which the whole thing crumbles. On the other hand, when they work, twist endings can make a good film great, and they occasionally even reward repeat viewings by revealing previously unseen layers that can only be recognized once the conclusion of the story is known.
As rightly reviled as are many recent examples of the technique, especially many of Shyamalan’s subsequent efforts, there are also many laudable examples to be found among some of history’s greatest cinematic achievements, old and new. Widely respected filmmakers from Alfred Hitchcock to David Fincher and Christopher Nolan have successfully employed the well-placed twist to wonderful effect, and even Orson Welles’s immortal classic Citizen Kane, considered by many to be the greatest American film ever made, concludes with what can only be deemed an elegant, emotionally rich twist ending. Read More
By Scott Martin
The Sixth Sense, USA, 1999
Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
What seems to be indicative of M. Night Shyamalan’s work, especially over the last few years, is his extreme attention to detail. Whether or not you appreciate his films is a moot point; it’s hard for one to argue that he doesn’t have a handle on what he does, and in The Sixth Sense, the ghost story that became a template for far too many films to follow, his detail-oriented direction certainly doesn’t go to waste.
Films like this only succeed, no matter how great the direction or cast may be, if their screenplays do; written by Shyamalan as well, this screenplay may be bold but is weighted by a slight amateur’s touch in the first half. Some of the dialogue is brow-raisingly awkward and (for those who have seen the film, which I’m pretty sure is the entirety of the human race) full of holes, holes so gapingly big that even simple assumption of what the characters may have done off-screen doesn’t help as it usually would. Some scenes are far too short to make the emotional impact intended and others are drastically overlong, but, once that scene hits, once Cole tells his doctor his secret, it’s a near flawless work for the next hour. Read More