Best in Screen, 2015
BY SEAN EGAN | It’s that time again — when every publication, TV show, website and blog that covers the arts trots out their monolithic lists of the year’s most excellent offerings. But doing this, even if just attempting to articulate your own personal opinion, is a pretty tricky business. It’s not easy trying to compare the relative merits of, say, a movie shot for 100K on an iPhone, and the latest $200 million installment of “Star Wars.” I mean, that’s like comparing apples and the world’s most successful film franchise of all time.
Seeing as even the notion of basing lists around the confines of the calendar year is arbitrary, it might be nice to take the focus off of ordering and numbering, and instead take films on their own accord — by assigning them other, equally arbitrary categories in which they can shine. All of these movies are, I believe, pretty great, and are worth the effort to seek out and watch. Because if there’s one thing that film in 2015 has taught us, it’s that the more cinematically omnivorous you are, and the less concerned you are with consuming only “the best,” the greater chance you’ll have to find something you love — especially in unexpected places.
MOST KICKASS MOVIE OF THE YEAR: “Mad Max: Fury Road” | Is there any way to describe George Miller’s belated fourth installment of his signature post-apocalyptic action franchise other than “kickass?” Well, you could also say the nearly non-stop, two-hour car chase is “action-packed,” “gorgeously shot,” “delightfully analog,” “surprisingly intelligent,” or “tons of fun.” Or, perhaps you could simply call it “the best movie of the year” — but even that seems a little bit reductive.
MOST WHITE KNUCKLE INTENSITY:
“It Follows” | With his astoundingly assured debut feature, David Robert Mitchell has created a near-perfect horror movie — and one of the year’s very best films, regardless of genre. Taking place in an out-of-time suburb, the shape-shifting titular “It” begins its titular following after the individual it’s plaguing passes it along to another via sex. Fluid camerawork, realistically-sketched characters, and a brilliant premise set this chilling meditation about growing up and mortality apart — as does its ability to prod at big existential questions more effectively than most prestige pictures, while also remembering to steadily mount dread and thoroughly creep its audience out.
“Sicario” | Smart and harrowing, Denis Villeneuve’s mid-budget adult thriller is the kind that doesn’t get made much anymore. It doesn’t skimp on the tension or action, even while exploring headier ideas.
Led by dynamic performances from Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro, and guided along by Roger Deakins’ expressive cinematography, it’s ostensibly about taking down a Mexican drug cartel — but is most resonant when examining dynamics of race and gender, and the personal toll this high-pressure environment takes on a person.
“Bridge of Spies” | To paraphrase the movie’s co-scribes, the Coen Brothers: “Tom Hanks. Cold War picture. Whaddya need, a road map?” And with Steven Spielberg in the director’s chair, the project does seem like a no-brainer the creative team could complete on autopilot. Fortunately, working from a true-story script that’s at turns tense and unexpectedly hilarious (and enhanced by a virtuoso performance from Mark Rylance as a mild-mannered Russian spy), Spielberg turns in his most handsomely realized, exciting and vital film in recent memory.
“The Hateful Eight” | In, appropriately enough, his eighth feature, Quentin Tarantino has produced what is certainly his nastiest, most difficult, most visually beautiful film to date. It’s a strange amalgamation of past work (the confined location of “Reservoir Dogs,” the western landscapes of “Django Unchained,” the talky revenge tale of, um, everything else), which uses its expanded running time, gorgeous 70mm cinematography, and a fantastic Samuel L. Jackson-led ensemble to tell a relatively simple, highly theatrical mystery. The twist here is that Tarantino plays everything far more straight than usual. Sure, there’s some gallows humor, but when his signature viscera starts flying, it’s more brutal than ever before. There’s a method behind this film’s cruelty and lack of moral center, though — it dares you to take a long, hard look at the human soul, which is unable to hide all its ugliness when magnified by the unflinching eye of Cinerama.
BEST OBLIGATORY HOLLYWOOD REBOOT:
“Creed” | This might be the “Rocky” spinoff no one really asked for — but writer/director Ryan Coogler (of 2013’s acclaimed “Fruitvale Station”) justifies its existence by producing the series’ best movie since the 1976 original.
Sylvester Stallone revisits his signature role with humor and pathos. Further aided by an intense, layered performance from Michael B. Jordan, Coogler digs deep into the characters’ psyches, and creates the most viscerally exciting fights of the franchise — knowing when to employ both lingering long takes and blistering montage to thrilling effect.
UNCOMPROMISING INDIES (MALE-LED EDITION):
“Buzzard” | There’s three things you gotta know about this movie: It’s punk rock as hell, its protagonist is a low-level con artist with a functioning Freddy Krueger claw/Nintendo Power Glove hybrid, and it’s got a nearly five-minute long scene of him eating a plate of spaghetti. If any of these factoids pique your interest, you’re definitely the target audience for Joe Potrykas’ greasy, desperate, pitch-black comedy.
“Entertainment” | I’ve described this film before as “bleak” and an “overwhelming sensory experience,” and I mean that as nothing but the highest praise. Rick Alverson’s depressing, tragi-comic character study of an aging, down-on-his-luck comedian (Gregg Turkington) knocked the wind out of me in the best possible way. Certain sequences and images from “Entertainment” have burrowed their way deep into my mind, and have been marinating in a way that few movies are capable of doing. You may not “get it,” but there’s a good chance the movie will get you, and refuse to let go.
UNCOMPROMISING INDIES (FEMALE-FRONTED EDITION)”
“Queen of Earth” | Shot on endearingly grainy 16mm film, and providing a fantastic showcase for Elisabeth Moss, “Queen of Earth” is a tale of precarious sanity and long-term friendship, which plays out as a ’70s psychological thriller by way of indie dramedy. Possessing an impressively strong grip on his characters, writer/director Alex Ross Perry strikes a delicate balance between his signature acerbic humor and intense psychodrama, bringing out the best in both.
“Duke of Burgundy” | Equal parts Lynch, Brakhage, romantic-drama and ’70s softcore, “Duke of Burgundy” creates an intimately realized and emotionally affecting romance by examining what two women in love will do for each other to make their relationship work.
That it does this by aiming directly for taboo subjects — namely extreme sexual kinks — and presenting them with a measured, art-house eye makes for an indelible, daring, one-of-a-kind film.
“Ant-Man” | While “Avengers: Age of Ultron” struggled under the weight of its narrative obligations and larger-than-life characters, Marvel fared far better with its other summer release, the comparatively low-key “Ant-Man.” Featuring a looser, comedic vibe, inventive action sequences and a more down-to-earth story, the film is a distinctive and refreshingly offbeat installment of Marvel’s increasingly large cinematic universe.
“Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” | I mean, what can I say? Nitpicking aside, it’s “Star Wars” — and they pretty much did it exactly right.
NEW CHRISTMAS CLASSICS:
“Krampus” | Hailing from writer/director Mike Dougherty, “Krampus” does for Christmas what his last feature, “Trick ‘r Treat,” did for Halloween — providing genre cinema junkies with an instant holiday horror classic. It’s got a wicked sense of humor (bolstered by comedic ringers like David Koechner and Adam Scott), gorgeous grotesqueries (rendered lovingly, and, for the most part, practically), and enough yuletide heart to make the gore go down easy.
“Tangerine” | While not exactly a Christmas movie per se, all the action of this iPhone-shot indie takes place on Christmas Eve — qualifying it for inclusion in this totally arbitrary category. But that label is as good as any for this thoroughly singular, confrontational comedy about two trans sex-workers navigating the streets of Hollywood.
The unique cinematography, which looks like a widescreen, ultra-saturated Instagram page brought to life, serves to complement the film’s palpable attitude and wit.
BEST DEFENSE OF FOUND FOOTAGE HORROR:
“Unfriended” | This nasty little flick twists the much-maligned “found footage” script by having the action play out entirely on a laptop screen. It’s an idea elegant in its simplicity and legitimately unsettling in practice, which accurately (and uncannily) reflects how people use technology and social media — managing to probe at our Internet obsession, and how it can affect our interpersonal relationships and moral fiber.
“The Visit” | Laugh if you want, but with his low-budget found footage chiller, perennial punching bag M. Night Shyamalan has made an honest-to-god (very creepy) creative comeback. Framing his tale of an ill-fated familial visit as the product of a precocious teenage documentary-filmmaker allows him to employ more formal mastery than the genre’s limitations usually permit, and lets him indulge in a fair amount of goofy humor and emotionally involving character work.
BEST BLOCKBUSTERS (UNFAIRLY OVERLOOKED EDITION):
“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”
Featuring a splashy ’60s setting and an eye-popping primary color palette, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” is big-budget blockbuster fun of the highest order, which has kinetic action, incredible style (and some playful homoerotic tension) to spare.
“Crimson Peak” | Even for a visual visionary, the world of “Crimson Peak” stands as one of Guillermo del Toro’s most stunningly realized milieus. Combining the gorgeous production design with eerie effects and twisted, heightened melodrama makes for a campy, creepy, soapy delight.
“Jupiter Ascending” | Though their nutso space-opera was roundly dismissed upon release, writer/directors Andy and Lana Wachowski’s humanism, style and sense of humor — as well as their knack for mashing up classic tropes with their own inventive ideas and thematic preoccupations — always keep things interesting and unpredictable.
Yes, it’s a bit of a lumbering mess, but it’s a beautiful one, and, more importantly, an original and ambitious one — an increasingly rare thing to be valued.
“The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie: Sponge Out of Water” | In an inspired move, the Sponge’s second big-screen outing marries the increasingly antiquated art of hand-drawn, 2D animation, with state-of-the-art 3D effects — producing loopy, psychedelic sequences that further heighten the property’s Dadaist tendencies. That the movie is a clever, surreal return to form, and marks the creative return of series creator Steven Hillenburg, just makes things better.
“The World of Tomorrow” | While not a feature, iconoclastic animator Don Hertzfeldt’s futuristic, 17-minute sci-fi short earns a spot on this list for packing in more ideas and disarming observations about life in its scant run-time than most filmmakers manage in their careers.
Following his magnum opus “It’s Such A Beautiful Day” with his first foray into digital animation, Hertzfeldt fuses his senses of deep melancholy and strange humor with some of the boldest visuals in his filmography.
BEST WORST MOVIE: “The Cobbler” | Yeah, it’s cliché to call out Adam Sandler for making bad movies at this point — but hear me out. “The Cobbler” is a special brand of awful — a misguided, quasi-magic-realism flick that defies succinct description, and reaches new, operatic heights of bats**t insanity with its every questionable plot twist. For those who love to riff with friends, consider this a bow-topped gift streaming on Netflix. And for those who insist on things like “technical competence” and “quality” in their films, I’d recommend “The Cobbler” co-writer/director Tom McCarthy’s other 2015 release, “Spotlight” — an engrossing retelling of the Boston Globe’s investigation of the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal.