Alexander’s Top Ten of 2015
Choosing and ranking movies for the year is always a hard process but rewarding as well. I think I say this almost every year but there’s a lot great movies to choose from and as a whole 2015 has been good to us. The experience of tracking down titles from your favorite director, hearing about new movies from festivals, scouring theaters, streaming services, or simply heckling your friends for a copy of something is all part of the collective journey for new and compelling movies.
Spectre was easily at the top of the list of films I was eager to see in 2015, much to my dismay Spectre left me wanting. Luckily Michael Mann satiated my desire for globe-trotting action with his latest high-tech espionage film Blackhat, which is unofficially the James Bond film of 2015 I never got.
Since Mann’s conversion to digital photography some of his films have taken on an even more distinction. There’s a consistent level of theatrical familiarity in Mann’s films, the delineations are exact, there’s the good and the bad and the ensuing pursuit; there’s no accidents in a Michael Mann film. Blackhat fully utilizes the advent of digital photography, chases through crowded back alleys of Hong Kong, cafe brawls in Koreatown (shot on an iPhone no less) and the Jakarta finale is a staggering achievement. His expressionistic use of location and architecture has been a hallmark of his talent over the years, but the liberation you feel in Blackhat indicates that he knows how to take advantage of the medium. As an author of craftsmanship his action sequences are always flawless and the mathematically structured shootouts retain the deafening authenticity associated with his work. Guns are loud, bombs are louder, but computers are the most dangerous tool in this game of cops and robbers. The theme of technology as a weapon also branches into political territory, and the alliance with China brings those implications further into the rabbit hole. Blackhat is an exciting and expertly crafted film; in 1995 (Heat) robbers needed hockey masks, in 2015 they use a computer, some directors can’t move with the times, Michael Mann embraces them.
9. Mia Madre
Nobody makes movies like Nanni Moretti. His unique and idiosyncratic essay/docudramas are more popular, but his skill as a director don’t merely limit him to one style of directing. Moretti’s traditional narratives retain the ironic candor of his other work but, and his latest effort, Mia Madre might be one of his best movies. An intimate and emotional familial melodrama livened with comedy and thought provoking characterizations. Margherita (Margherita Buy) steps into the lead playing a director who’s struggling with her latest project as well as her mother’s declining health. With her is her brother (played by Moretti), her former lover, and a bombastic American actor; Barry Higgins (played by John Turturro) simultaneously complicating and supporting Margherita throughout this bittersweet fable. Mia Madre communicates the complicated nature of human emotion in a lightly comedic and unadorned manner-Moretti’s writing, and direction acknowledges life’s complexities with gentle persuasiveness. The shortcomings of human behavior and the inequalities of fate are accepted with unembellished consent, ushering in an air of comfort in accepting what you cannot control. Moretti has a singular voice that is impossible to replicate or even draw comparisons to, he keeps giving us the gift of his idiosyncratic vision, and I’ll continue to thank him for his persuasive indifference. John Turturro turns in a brilliant performance as a hyperbolized American thespian who journeys to Italy to work in Margherita’s film.
Last year I was fascinated with James Grays The Immigrant, 2015 brought us to the opposite end of the coming to America theme with a comprehensive realization in John Crowley’s Brooklyn. This film was an exceptional treat, knowing very little (if nothing) about it upon my first viewing I was swept up by this moving film. It’s hard not to fall for Saoirse Ronan, who never misses a beat as a young Ellis, and her performance boasts an incredible range of growth and development that personifies the multiple themes working in this deceptively loaded script. It sounds like a cliche, but this is a film that has something for everyone; there’s universal appeal with a coming of age story, the elevated detail of everyday life is fascinating, and the naturalism of the period is something you can truly sink into. You can call Brooklyn a coming of age story, a period film, or a romance but these are components that make a near perfect drama. Nick Hornby’s adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel is exemplary, and John Crowley’s technical prowess is commendable; never has a movie about the past felt so new and vibrant. Wonderfully written, acted and directed Brooklyn is this year’s most refreshing treat.
7. Mad Max: Fury Road
Every once and awhile a film has the ability to captivate almost everybody, these are usually blockbuster event films such as Jaws, Jurassic Park, or Star Wars. So a reboot of an Australian borne dystopic sci-fi trilogy would seem like a curiosity to some and sacrilegious to others. Well, I couldn’t have been any more wrong about Mad Max: Fury Road. Given the high regard I have for the first two films in the series I was hesitant, even doubtful about the project; sometimes it’s good to be wrong. The action, stunts, and overall design indicate that this is the product of fertile and brave imaginations, taking the original material to mind-bending heights that exceeded any expectations inspired by the preceding films in the series. Mad Max: Fury Road literally hits the ground running and doesn’t let up for a second, and the adrenaline junky method of directing works to an astounding effect. This is honestly one of the most cinematic films in recent years, exposition and dialogue are nonexistent. George Miller tells us everything without saying a word, it’s all visual – shot as if it were a silent film Mad Max: Fury Road doesn’t pander or assume the audience needs to have their hand held. Proof that mature action films can be art and entertainment. Tom Hardy is a suitable Max, and Charlize Theron is an even more proactive lead; these aren’t sidekicks, but partners whose alliance is in the name of survival.
What I love about Mad Max: Fury Road is the inarguable influence and power this movie has over nearly everybody. Blowing away the jaw line superhero movies, and Oscar bait is a sagebrush explosion of orgiastic action, and mind-blowing stunts.
6. Mountains May Depart
Jia Zhangke’s latest film Mountains May Depart continues his minimalist modus operandi, but the content is anything but minimal. Spanning 26 years in three movements Jia Zhangke looks at the seismic political and social growth and expansion of Chinese culture; the first act introduces us to a love triangle between two friends Liangzhi, Zhang and their love interest Tao in 1999. Economic uncertainties are realized throughout; Zhang is the advantageous capitalist whose fall from foreshadows the inevitable folly of yearning to be the one percent. While Liangzi falls into working in the very mines that Zhang ends up owning. Jia’s characters take on a metaphysical status given their symbolic value, but we don’t lose an ounce of humanity or emotional depth along the way. Some movies look to the past as an allegorical connection to the societal problems on the horizon; Mountains May Depart instead looks forward, in a disarmingly rewarding final act the random and uneven nature of existence isn’t settled, it’s acknowledged. The directors ambition is legible in this ambitious, human epic that is unlikely rewarding. The Inclusion of The Pet Shop Boys cover of The Village People song Go West is another asset; you might walk away from the film humming a new favorite song.
5. The Hateful Eight
In the past, I’ve struggled with Quentin Tarantino. His admiration for the genres he admires is genuine, and his films are without a doubt original. However the DNA running through his work is so directly connected to other films it creates a disconnect from his otherwise enjoyable career. Getting that out of the way I feel like his The Hateful Eight is one of his best movies. We see Tarantino’s informal stock company doing some terrific work, Tim Roth is superb, and we welcome Jennifer Jason Leigh as the snarling Daisy Domergue with open arms; but this is Samuel Jackson’s show, and he steers this with the ribald confidence we expect. It seems like the most negative criticism surrounding this film is the level unrelenting sadistic violence; as if this was the product of a director known for his restraint. In this bleak chronicle, the only security we can rely on is that there is none, speaking for the characters as well as the audience. Tarantino is not shy about his influences, and The Hateful Eight nods to its predecessors, but the ensuing action is grounded in a format that feels like the product of an Agatha Christie play as we spend our time playing “guess who” as bodies drop and blood gushes from various orifices. At a certain point this feels like a horror movie, and the sinisterly evocative score by Morricone implies this is no coincidence.
Tarantino’s hyperbolized ultra-violence is accelerated to eleven, blood spews with comedic intonation, torsos are used as body armor, and bullets seem to have an explosive strength releasing geysers of gooey red blood. At the end of this hellish descent, we’re left with our unlikely allies bleeding to death after hanging (an even more) blood soaked amphibious gang leader, and I admired every step that brought me through this opulent and nasty epic.
4. Clouds of Sils Maria
Assayas knows how to navigate incisive material without the inherent fallout of pretension, exhibitionism or cynicism. Long story short: Olivier Assayas is a director who knows how to land punches without leaving a mark. After a film like Carlos – an epic realization of the self-stylized terrorist; Assayas identified him as an elemental force in the mercurial tide of Cold War European Politics. This feat in filmmaking seemed impossible to outdo, and Clouds of Sils Maria, a film whose themes are the antithesis to something like Carlos is proof that Assayas is capable of great things. Clouds of Sils Maria; an intelligent, performance-driven movie stands out for its fearless exploration of an array of subjects. The frontline themes; the transparency within the movie business, media hype, cultural divisions, and the stereotypic pitfalls of ageism & sexism that follow high profile actresses. This is all revealed in the weaving interplay between the two powerful leads – Juliet Binoche and Kriten Stewart are perfectly cast, and their intimately evolving relationship breeds a Bergmanesque level of subliminal contention that’s utterly captivating. The vigorous chemistry shared by Binoche and Stewart is reminiscent of Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson’s interactions in films like Persona. The meta-aesthetics are on the surface of this movie, but it exceeds the referential standard by facing the entertainment business directly via casting pace and direction. This knotty treatise is perplexing but never veers out of reach, the distortion of identity is simultaneously fluid the fourth wall separation feels entirely natural. Everyone in this film is in top form, but this is a brilliant showcase for Kristen Stewart, I hope we more performances like this in her future.
3. Steve Jobs
Biopics are a dangerous genre, and with so much Steve Jobs in the cosmos, the announcement of another movie about the famed Apple mogul seemed like an eye-rolling prospect. However, the genesis of this film feels like something that Steve Jobs himself would have launched. After a handful of inert and clunky realizations it felt as if Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin acted as arbitrators of inferiority. Despite the title of the film Steve Jobs isn’t a biopic, but more of a fictionalized three-act essay. Jobs is a subject, he’s objectified (in the best sense of the word) and defined by his work, when (collaborator, friend, and combatant) Wozniak reminds Jobs that his products are better than him, Jobs just replies with “that’s the idea.”. Sorkin’s punchy dialogue has the expected rhythmic volley we expect, and his script is a perfect companion to Boyle’s direction. Stylistic credence, which is emblematic of Boyle’s career is turned towards (and thankfully limited to) rapid cutting techniques, rear projection, and an optimum use of curated footage interspersed throughout the three-act structure via montages that are on par with the training sequences in the Rocky films. We don’t see Jobs toiling over programs, or feverishly clicking away on keyboards; we witness the spectacle and the grandiosity of the public persona he meticulously designed. Thanks to the shared credit of Boyle and Sorkin Steve Jobs was the shortest two hours of the year thanks to innovation and intelligence.
I think one of the most important elements in a movie is the ability to transport you to a time and place, and Carol is a film that has that power and so much more. Todd Haynes is one of the best directors from the New Queer Cinema Movement and is without a doubt an auteur of his work. If you look at his debut feature Poison it reads like a resume foreshadowing his subsequent career; one side of Todd Haynes is visible in Poison‘s second segment Horror, the stylish and dramatic constructs we’d see in Velvet Goldmine and Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. And Poison’s Third Segment: Homo we see the more restrained themes of confinement that would lead his 1995 film Safe. Haynes is capable of great things, but I don’t think there’s anything that could have prepared me for a film like Carol. It’s impossible to discuss this movie without acknowledging the stellar performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, who, like the director are knowingly fantastic but prove to exceed themselves as well. While no one can do “destroyed by love” better than Cate Blanchett, her interpretation of the character exudes this air of assertion and dominance that is utterly captivating. Rooney Mara performs the Herculean feat of outshining Blanchett in my opinion, intelligent and demure her recessive modesty is hypnotizing. Carol works on such a high level because Todd Haynes directed a story on his terms with motivation and tact from a cast and crew of outstanding talent, so it’s not a surprise that the result is such an excellent film.
1. The Assassin
As a self-proclaimed martial arts/wuxia completist The Assassin was satisfying on multiple levels. Hou Hsiao-hsien reaches a new height many strive for, but few attain, the blending of art and entertainment in a way that no one has done since the glory days of King Hu’s martial epics from the 1960’s.
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s direction and realization of Pei Xing’s Yie Yinniang is pure wuxia down to every detail of this meticulously crafted fable. The Assassin is staggeringly gorgeous in every department and the winding plot of political intrigue is emblematic of the genre. This film indulges every sense with a classic grace that punctuates the sounds of crossing swords, rustling leaves and minimal dialog all calibrated to the level of a percussive whisper. All you need is a few still frames to realize how visually arresting this film is, the experience is trance inducing; some movies entertain, others provoke an emotional response, but The Assassin is a spellbinding experience. The term “dreamlike” might be a cliche at this point but the metaphysical remove and obscured voyeurism leaves me with no other descriptive option.