Craig’s Top Ten of 2015
Each year, preparing a top ten list is both the most exciting and stressful thing I write for Battleship Pretension. An elaborate ceremony of agonizing precedes the completion of the list, debating over which ten films to commit to stone (or at least to the annals of online criticism). Some years are easier than others. This was not one of them. Here is a quick list of the films that regrettably—and barely—didn’t make my top ten: Mad Max: Fury Road, Straight Outta Compton, The Look of Silence, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Steve Jobs, Spy, Digging for Fire, Amy and The Hateful Eight.
And as for the ones that made the cut…
It’s a testament to Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy’s outstanding screenplay that Spotlight—a film whose central conflict is the sex abuse scandal and the Catholic church’s implicit coverup that’s been splashed across every newspaper from Tallahassee to Rome—can galvanize an audience and maintain a degree of suspense that’s as thrilling as any summer blockbuster. The year’s best ensemble cast is able to instill humanity, history, and vigor to a group of characters who are tasked with taking a back seat to the plot as it speeds towards an already decided conclusion. John Patrick Shanley’s 2008 film Doubt addresses an earlier incarnation of the epidemic (albeit on a microcosmic scale) and is driven by the intrigue of “did he or didn’t he?”. In Spotlight, “he” definitely did; but I had to remind myself to breathe as the crew at the Boston Globe uncovered piece after piece of a story to which I already knew the ending.
“Did you know it was shot on an iPhone 5?!” It pleases me to no end that this bit of trumpery has faded into the periphery of things discussed when discussing Sean Baker’s Tangerine. It is certainly an impressive feat, but it’s a reductive, sensationalist detail that boils Baker’s thoughtful, funny, and delightful Christmas Eve odyssey into nothing more than a mundane piece of bar-pundit trivia. Tangerine is a gorgeous film—shot by Baker and Radium Cheung—that bestows humanity to its leads. Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) are transgender sex workers—two cross sections of the population that are demonized and stigmatized—but Baker’s screenplay doesn’t judge them nor does it patronize the struggles inherent with their place as unwilling second-class citizens. Instead, Tangerine often feels more like a guerrilla documentary than a narrative film. The audience is placed on the streets with Sin-Dee and Alexandra; they are Virgil, guiding us through a purgatory of optimistic-uncertainty and living in a world of stigma and side-eyed judgment.
No film this year (or ever, perhaps) is as aggressively misanthropic as Rick Aversion’s Entertainment, which chronicles the depressing leg of a comedian’s tour of dingy bars and grim comedy clubs throughout a number of small California desert towns. Entertainment has disdain for someone, though I’m not sure who. It may be Gregg Turkington’s anti-comedian comedian character (a pretty true-to-form version of Turkington’s real-life comedy persona Neil Hamburger), whose failing comedy career has estranged him from his unseen daughter and left him bitter and alone as he contemplates where his artistic expression went sour. Entertainment could be an indictment against Eddie (Tye Sheridan), the masturbating clown that opens for Turkington, turning comedy into a broad reduction of what “funny” looks like. But there’s a better chance Entertainment’s jaundiced thesis is designed to take someone like me to task; someone who can watch an hour and a half of transgressive anti-comedy and then rave about the film’s greater relationship to art and grief.
There’s a lot of ugliness in Room, a film that finds itself trafficking in the most heinous evil that humanity is capable of. But whereas many films would collapse beneath the weight of such a devastating premise, Room swells with hope and triumphs on the spirit of its lead characters. As five year old Jack, Jacob Tremblay’s performance is one of the most honest and fleshed-out of the year. And as Jack’s Ma, Brie Larsen answers the ugliness of humanity with a beautiful portrayal of decency and fragility. Color me ignorant but I was never aware of Emma Donoghue’s novel on which Room was based. I left the theater eager to read up on the “Room” case only to discover it’s a complete work of fiction. But Room is that good, so personal and actualized it never crossed my mind that Jack and Ma weren’t based on real people.
6. Crimson Peak
Okay, okay! So you got tricked! Crimson Peak wasn’t the ghouls and ghost spook-fest that Universal’s odd marketing campaign would have led you to believe. But Guillermo del Toro (responsible for The Devil’s Backbone, a tried-and-true ghost story) created one of the most meticulously composed films of 2015. There’s beauty to be found in every frame of del Toro’s gothic-Victorian romance. From the costumes (made all the more attractive by Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain, three perfect specimens, all but born to prance around in frock coats and tatted collars), to the breathtaking set design, Crimson Peak is a master class in the power of cinematic aesthetics. Guillermo del Toro’s world is a singular, beautiful vision, trading in the ghoulish scares of The Devil’s Backbone or the haunting monsters in Pan’s Labyrinth for something far more horrific: a world where the ghosts roaming in the upstairs hallway aren’t as frightening as the people sleeping in the next room.
5. Ex Machina
Oscar Isaac is responsible for both the year’s most affable character (Star Wars’s Poe Dameron) and its most quietly malevolent as Nathan, Ex Machina’s tech genius-cum-disco dancing mad man. Nathan’s home (and his “inventions”) are chromatic and clean—like an Ikea display designed by Isaac Asimov—a monochromatic, sterile set that engulfs the audience in unease and holds them there. Human or not, Nathan has become as much a machine as anything else in his home. When humanity arrives in the form of Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb, Nathan becomes the nihilistic centerpiece of the film’s philosophical meditation on the symbiotic relationship between humanity and technology. Director and writer Alex Garland (who has tread similar sci-fi water as the scribe of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and the vastly under appreciated Sunshine) builds an eerie, fully realized world where science and fiction blend seamlessly.
4. The End of the Tour
David Foster Wallace, acclaimed novelist and subject of James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour, has always been an intimidating figure to me, a writing major who fancies himself an intellectual (on a good day). But even in school, I was afraid of Wallace, described as an unequivocal genius, who I imagined to be the Alexander the Great of novelists. The writers wept for there were no more worlds left to conquer. I shied away from Infinite Jest (his foremost novel and the book at the center of Ponsoldt’s film) too afraid that I may feel dwarfed by it and lose faith in my own writing. But Ponsoldt’s film reduces the myth of David Foster Wallace and paints him as a tangible person without ever losing respect for his talents. As Wallace, Jason Segal delivers the performance of his career, not just doing an impression, but inhabiting the same space as the late writer and condensing the larger than life reputation into one of the year’s most interesting characters (and for his part, Jesse Eisenberg—as journalist David Lipsky—is also operating on an elite level). The End of the Tour humbly addresses all of the fears, anxieties and neuroses of a generation’s most creative mind.
(It’s worth noting, I watched The End of the Tour late on a Saturday night and was in the checkout line at a book store the next morning, Infinite Jest in hand).
I don’t see a lot of myself—a man, living in the same city I was born—in Saiorse Ronan’s Eilis, Brooklyn’s precocious lead who leaves a “comfortable” life behind in Ireland to pursue something grander and more meaningful in the United States. In fact the only thing we haven common—that I can conjure— is that we’ve both sailed in the Atlantic Ocean and visited New York City. Though I share almost no life experiences with Eilis, I found myself relating to her more than any other character on this list. But the connection I feel with Eilis isn’t one formed by shared experience, but instead its one forged by admiration. It’s her sense of wonder and mettle in the face of the unknown that makes Brooklyn so damn charming and makes Eilis such an aspirational figure. “Pleasant”—a word teetering on the edge of becoming a backhanded compliment— is probably not found much when describing films that are meant to be the year’s best; but there’s so much pleasantness, so much charm and wit in Brooklyn, that there isn’t a better word for it. John Crowley’s Brooklyn is certainly one of the best films of the year, but it may be the most pleasant film of the decade.
2. Inside Out
After a recent family event at my parent’s house, a school picture I had previously (and gleefully) forgotten, resurfaced. Me: twelve years old, huge, gapped buck teeth fronting an awkward fake smile. My shoulders raised high as if I was trying to bulk up my already large frame. My hair: an ill-conceived bowl cut, making my already large head look like a parade float. And I’m wearing a Brett Favre jersey (I can’t stand Brett Favre, but the Packers just won the Super Bowl and I was doing anything I could to fit in somewhere). It’s the picture of a misfit kid, trying his damnedest. That picture is a microcosmic representation of a disastrous time in my life. But the awkward kids of 2016 (probably sporting Panthers gear in lieu of a Packers jersey) get Inside Out to help them through their own disastrous stage of adolescent acquiescence. Inside Out is the spiritual sequel of director Pete Docter’s previous film Up. Where Up sees an already cynical, boorish old man ascend (literally) into a world of fantasy and idealism, Inside Out explores how to manage a cynical world before you wind up bitter and alone. But Inside Out doesn’t tell you to push away the emotions that make you feel like an outsider in your own skin, but instead embrace them to turn your neuroses and shortcomings into a well-oiled machine, equipped to deal with all of life’s weirdness.
(Also, Mom and Dad: I think it’s time we toss that dreadful picture into the pit of forgotten memories).
Between Safe, Poison, Far From Heaven and now Carol, Todd Haynes has assembled a filmography that dismantles society’s notion of a heteronormative middle class, reassembling white-collar suburbia into a more inclusive space for gay voices (the central characters in Safe aren’t gay, but the film works as an allegory for the gay community’s struggle during the height of the AIDS crisis). And with Carol, the wave of New Queer Cinema that Todd Haynes began with 1991’s Poison comes full circle with the auteur’s best film yet.
Though domestic strife and uncertain futures loom large over new lovers Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara), both are beautiful characters who maintain unapologetic agency over themselves and their relationship. Todd Haynes (adapting the story from novelist Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt) creates a forthright and surreal vision of the power of love and its fickle relationship with partisan societal constructs.
If Far From Heaven is Haynes recreating (so as to destroy) the artifice of 1950s heteronormative suburban bliss, Carol exists in a parallel universe where the world is a bit more jaded, stripping away the artifice to reveal a milieu that’s just as beautiful, but from a more world-weary storyteller. The world-building, while certainly not as conspicuous, is just as grand and meticulous as Mad Max: Fury Road. The wonderful clothes, the elaborate sets, the paradoxical lighting that seems to mute the bright colors while brightening every muted one, every facet of Carol is fastidious without ever being obvious, allowing the audience to sink into the film. In twenty-plus years, Todd Haynes has garnered one of the most impressive CVs of any director working; and with Carol, Haynes manages to extrapolate the themes explored in his earlier films while also creating one of the more endearing love stories of the twenty-first century.