Matt’s Top Ten of 2015
10. Soaked In Bleach / Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (tie)
You can’t make a Kurt Cobain documentary I won’t watch. It’s just not possible. Somehow, despite being only a middling fan of Nirvana’s actual music, I’m totally obsessed with the Cobain narrative—sensitive logging town burnout picks up a guitar, gets famous, falls into a poisonous love affair, doubles-down on heroin, and dies. My appetite to revisit Saint Kurt’s journey through the Grunge Stations of the Cross is as insatiable and narcotic as Cobain’s own quest for self-immolation. And this year offered up two interesting, polar-opposite takes on the legend of Aberdeen’s favorite son.
Brett Morgen’s Montage of Heck, an HBO-produced, womb-to-tomb biography, was a dense collage of obscure home recordings, candid home movies, animated reenactments, and first-person interviews with Cobain’s friends and family. It was also fully sanctioned and endorsed by Cobain’s controversial widow, Courtney Love. By contrast, Benjamin Statler’s Soaked in Bleach was a viscous, feature-length hit-piece-cum-prosecutorial-essay reframing Cobain’s alleged suicide as a murder conspiracy engineered by the black widow Love.
Montage is classy; Bleach is trashy. But they’re both compulsively watchable. Morgen argues that Cobain was a doomed soul too fragile for this world; Statler argues he was a rich junkie with a big fat target on his back. Both arguments are less than 100% convincing, but taken together they form two pieces of an unsolvable puzzle.
9. What We Do in the Shadows
It’s time for some hard truths, namely: Christopher Guest has been off his game for nearly a decade. 2006’s For Your Consideration was abysmal (I nearly walked out of the theater), and his follow-up HBO series Family Tree was about as funny as watching mud dry up into dirt.
Thus, there was a vacuum in the mockumentary space. Luckily, Kiwi cut-ups Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s hilarious bloodsucker spoof What We Do in the Shadows filled the space ably. Clever, well-paced, and surprisingly sweet, Shadows proved that—much like the film’s menagerie of undead roommates bickering and bonding inside their dilapidated New Zealand rental house—the mockumentary format will never truly die.
Shadow’s plain-Jane shooting style belies the level of care put into the film’s details—the sheer density of visual information found in the props scattered around the cavernous set is astounding, as are the faux historical documents presented to fill in characters’ backstories. Add to that uniformly great and underplayed performances by the ensemble (particularly Rhys Darby as the milquetoast head of a rival werewolf clan) and you’ve got something that works from fang to spur.
After after my critics’ screening I eagerly went back for a second viewing, proving that whether you’re 8 or 800 a great comedy can brighten the stone walls of any crypt or coffin—pretty helpful stuff, especially when direct sunlight makes you burst into flames.
8. Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s “The Island of Dr. Moreau”
There’s been an explosion in recent years of feature-length documentaries about troubled (and in some cases, doomed) studio mega-movies. From The Death of Superman Lives to Lost in La Mancha, these Shakespearean tales of hubris and folly are compulsively entertaining, but no other entry in this odd microgenre comes close to matching the pig-faced glory of David Gregory’s lengthily-titled Netflix juggernaut, Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, which traces the trajectory of the ill-fated 1996 H.G. Wells adaptation from ambitious genre fare to much-derided boondoggle.
But I have a confession to make: I fucking love the version of The Island of Dr. Moreau we eventually got. Even in degraded form, the film (eventually helmed by replacement director John Frankenheimer) is—in my opinion—one of the most fun weird movies ever made. But I seem to be alone—especially among the film’s regret-filled cast and crew.
From lowliest extra to New Line head Robert Shaye, everyone involved with Moreau still seems in shock at just how badly this venture went off the rails—and none more than original director Richard Stanley, who was bullied off the project into backwoods bathtub exile. In interviews, Stanley still seems traumatized by the ordeal: a broken Brit in a stupid hat consigned to a French shack full of occult baubles, recalling with black humor the time he almost got to direct the movie of his dreams before the twin tornados of Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer swept into his life, burning his entire world to ash.
It’s fascinating, funny stuff and as instructive about the entropic forces working against art as anything in Burden of Dreams.
7. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
I can only assume that one day, long ago, over a flagon full of lukewarm cherry cider, directors Wes Anderson and Roy Andersson sat down for a friendly argument. The first point of contention: is it better to spell “Anderson” with one S or two? An agreement could not be brokered, so the pair moved on to issue two. Namely: which one of them could construct the more exacting, diorama-like tableaux for movie screens?
But while twee Texan Wes may have gotten an early head start, it’d be hard to argue that the stylish Swede hasn’t done his salted-cod Scandinavian damndest to shrink the immensity of human buffoonery to toy-soldier scale and populating his drab, olive-colored shoeboxes full of tinderstick dollhouse furniture. The furniture is fixed in the frame, but Andersson’s tragicomic lab-rat men-and-women are not, shuffling pathetically (but not unsympathetically) between the walls—unwitting marionettes inside a string of archly-staged vignettes.
Part Buster Keaton, part Stanley Kubrick, these vignettes cover ground both mundane and profound. Surreal and imaginative, Pigeon caps the trilogy Andersson began with Songs from the Second Floor and continued with You, the Living, each of which articulated the director’s one-of-a-kind cinematic vision in ways both beautiful and grotesque. You could hang any frame of Pigeon on the walls of a modern art gallery and get more than a few goatees stroked into pointed perfection.
6. Magic Mike XXL
Look, I love a blood-soaked revenge yarn as much as the next privileged, amoral filmgoer. But I also have a perverse affinity and respect for low-stakes cinema. And I’m talking genuinely low stakes; films that are somehow hugely compelling with nary a feather light romance nor mildly hurt feelings to get in the way of their genial meandering.
No film this year had lower stakes than Magic Mike XXL, Gregory Jacobs’ follow-up to Steven Soderbergh’s recession-era fable about male strippers. XXL jettisoned the seedy unease of the first film and presented a bright, simple, protein-powder version of the “male entertainer” world that was practically G-rated, as our loveable “Kings of Tampa” crew set off on an ambling road trip for one last hurrah at an exotic dancers’ convention in Myrtle Beach. Not even a competition—a convention.
There’s no million-dollar purse at stake, and no rec center in need of saving. What you get instead is a delivery system for feminine joy as finely calibrated as any one of Channing Tatum’s 11-billion abdominal muscles. This was a movie about well-meaning lunkheads committed to brightening their female client’s days, and the film itself equally sworn to the noble cause of making nice ladies smile. Just ask my wife, whose grin for the duration of XXL’s brisk 90-minute run time achieved near “gassed by the Joker” levels of intensity.
Sometimes movies aren’t about exploring the soul or society’s ills. Sometimes movies are about pure, uncut Central Florida beefcake. Please let that last sentence be engraved on my tombstone.
5. The Revenant
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant has already become famous one of the most difficult film shoots in Hollywood history. No duh—have you fucking seen The Revenant? It’s a surprise that anything other than a packing crate full of Leonardo DiCaprio’s bones arrived back at the 20th Century Fox deliverables office, let alone a film of such gutting emotional intensity and formal wonder.
Sure, the story is fairy-tale simple and the themes are only as deep as a glancing swipe from a machete held by frostbitten hands, but The Revenant is every bit as intense and immersive as Fury Road’s similarly-desolate, but considerably more violent hellscape. It was by far the most viscerally intense movie in a year that didn’t lack for stiff competition. Every inch of Iñárritu’s frame is extreme, taking the woozy fisheye POVs of latter-day Terrence Malick and using them to sink the watcher into a snowdrift soaked red with blood. There’s never been a better argument for shutting yourself inside a temperature-controlled apartment building and living life from the security of the Amazon.com homepage.
The Revenant makes clear that civilization’s expansion into the frontier was gained in increments, and with palpable bloodshed. The story may stray from historical fact, but its truth runs deep. Nature is not moral, and humans aren’t, either. I’m sure fellow wilderness enthusiast Werner Herzog would agree.
4. The Hateful Eight
Following the duel triumphs of Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino clearly felt empowered to indulge himself. That’s how you get a 3-hour roadshow version of what’s basically a locked-room mystery. And inevitably QT’s mission—as it always is—is to paint that locked room red with blood.
Essentially, The Hateful Eight is an Old West retread of Reservoir Dogs, placing the Q-man’s “8th Film” alongside other better-than-expected 2015 crypto-remakes including Creed, The Force Awakens, and Mad Max: Fury Road. As any of these films can attest, the key to reinvigorating familiar story beats is in the style, and The Hateful Eight is as compositionally assured and arch as anything Tarantino has ever done. It helps to have a 70mm Ultra Panavision frame to play with—a frame so wide that it’s quite likely there are two, three, maybe even four additional movies taking place at the edges of the screen.
Eight has been cited as Tarantino’s nastiest and most mean-spirited film yet. True, but it’s not called The Helpful Eight now, is it? A lot of people have been made queasy over the film’s hair-raising brutality and cavalier racism, but the snow-choked Wyoming plains of the late 19th-century were no place for civilized people. And certainly not Minnie’s Haberdashery, which I’m sure after the Yankee massacre of Eight must certainly have the worst Yelp rating along the intermountain West.
Forget Anomalisa’s innovative 3-D printed stop motion, its surreal mega-Noonan enhanced vocal performances, and writer/co-director Charlie Kaufman’s despairing exploration of the spark-and-fade of middle-aged romance like so much butane-doused cordwood. More than anything else, Anomalisa is the best film about business travel since Bill Murray whispered sweet something’s into Black Window’s ear in Lost in Translation.
From the faux luxury of four-star bedrooms to the lonely low light of the hotel bar, Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson’s bittersweet brief encounter takes aim at the loneliness of the reluctant suitcase executive, shrinking the whole damn thing down into an existential dollhouse.
In its own quiet way, Anomalisa is as visually impressive as any film this year—and Kaufman didn’t have to throw Leonardo DiCaprio into a volcano even once. Jennifer Jason Leigh shines as perhaps the exact opposite of The Hateful Eight’s Daisy Domergue. Her Lisa is sad, sweet, and self-aware; her fumbling affair with David Thewlis’s clinically depressed keynote speaker Michael is more true and human than any interaction between three-foot hunks of articulated plastic has any right to be.
Perversely, Anomalisa is Kaufman’s most conventionally satisfying project to date, reigning in the mammoth, untidy ambitions of Synecdoche, New York to create a tight, focused, well-told story whose weirdness is a tangible expression of the film’s themes. Chances are we won’t get another movie like this again, from Kaufman or from anybody else. But that’s okay. Sometimes the beautiful things are fleeting.
2. It Follows
I came to my film fandom via the circuitous, controversial, and often-disreputable world of horror. I was the kid in the Night of the Living Dead t-shirt, the snot-nosed gorehound who obsessed over Wes Craven and John Carpenter, and lobbied incessantly for Evil Dead marathons at adolescent sleepovers. As such, nothing stamps my passport to the bone zone quite like a well-made, genuinely frightening horror flick.
Luckily, after several years mired in the tall grass of found footage and Scream-influenced YA postmodernism, real visceral horror is on the bone-strewn comeback trail, and David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows was the best of the bunch in 2015, boasting an ingenious premise, sturdy execution, and great performances—particularly from Maika Monroe, quickly establishing herself here (and in last year’s The Guest) as the premiere scream queen of the emoji age.
Like all great horror movies, It Follows taps into our most primal fears—namely, the fear of steady, oppressive pursuit. Its cursed teens are never free. The most they can hope to do is pass their bad luck on to someone else and try and put as much distance between themselves and the malevolent, shape-shifting, somnambulant baddie as possible.
Some read the film as a metaphor for STDs, but I don’t think you have to tuck too deeply into a close read for the movie to be effective. Just one glimpse of the film’s slow spectral walker is nightmare fuel enough—and proof positive that no matter what the consequences, some virgins will risk just about anything to get laid.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
The best observation about my favorite film of 2015 came courtesy of Slashfilm’s Jeff Cannata, who noted that Mad Max: Fury Road doesn’t do any world building. Rather, it takes place in a world that’s already built.
The depth of writer/director George Miller’s vision in his long-gap post-apocalyptic road rage sequel is astounding—with battle-scarred detail crammed into every nook and cranny, existing as if they’d been in place for a million years. And once Miller’s remarkable art direction was in place, the sexagenarian director was free to shoot this fucker out of a cannon. Once the wheels on Max Rockatansky’s matte-black Prowler start turning, they never stop, creating a propulsive, feature-length, guzzoline-chugging chase scene guaranteed to fry your circuit board down to its component elements. It helps that the film is stealthily feminist, with Charlize Theron’s badass Imperator Furiosa asserting herself as the most formidable big rig bitch since Pee Wee’s Big Adventure’s Large Marge.
Fury Road expands the world of Mad Max to a frightfully imaginative degree, proving that sometimes the best way to approach a long-running franchise is to entrust the keys to the original creator. Maybe that’s why this year’s The Force Awakens pales so badly in comparison. Miller was free to extend his conception of Max’s sunbaked dystopia, while J.J. Abrams (perhaps) felt hemmed in by the limits of George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy.
Either way, Mad Max: Fury Road is bold, brash, tits-to-the-wall filmmaking. All hail the Doof Warrior and his fire-belching guitar. Good stuff.