Rita’s Top Ten of 2015
10. Magic Mike XXL
Despite its hip-hop heavy soundtrack and preponderance of naked male butts, the real charms of Magic Mike XXL are the same ones you’d find in a Hollywood musical from fifty or sixty years ago: great dancing, eye-catching spectacle, and charismatic performers sharing dynamic chemistry. Directed by Gregory Jacobs but shot and edited by Steven Soderbergh, XXL leaves behind the sometimes dour tone of its predecessor in favor of a feather-light, essentially conflict-free romp that celebrates the joys of sex, friendship, and artistic expression in equal measure. It’s also a visual marvel – if you want to see a compelling argument for the advantages of digital cinematography, pay attention to the gorgeous sequence set in a predominantly black strip club. Soderbergh makes dark-skinned actors performing in low light look stunning in a way that traditional film simply couldn’t.
9. The End of the Tour
A love of David Foster Wallace’s work certainly enhances The End of the Tour, but it’s by no means required to enjoy it. Even viewers who are unfamiliar with Wallace (Jason Segel) will be quickly drawn in by the awkward, occasionally intimate, and ever more complicated relationship that develops between the famous writer and his less-famous interviewer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) as they trudge through the final leg of Wallace’s book tour together. Segel and Eisenberg are both fantastic, capturing every nuance of of their constantly mutating friendship/rivalry, with help from Donald Margulies’ insightful screenplay. I grew up in Minnesota, so the film’s depiction of an oppressive Midwestern winter, and especially the way that sharing a cramped indoor space can intensify relationships for good and for ill, rang especially true. (Other fun fact about me: I used to work at the Mall of America, so the scene where Wallace and Lipsky sit around in the MOA food court contemplating the nexus between sadness and pleasure and achievement felt like looking through a window into my own past. Fun!)
Tom McCarthy’s methodical, no-frills exploration of the Boston journalists who reported on the systematic cover-up of child abuse in the Catholic church succeeds because it follows the advice that editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) gives his reporters: It focuses less on individual cases than on the system as a whole. There is no real star or main protagonist of Spotlight; nor is there a main antagonist. Instead there’s a complicated web of victims, perpetrators, lawyers, advocates and investigators, all of whom are part of the same tight-knit community. It doesn’t only detail the work the reporters had to do to uncover their story, it also demonstrates the circumstances that made that feat so difficult.
John Crowley’s Brooklyn is a lovely period piece: beautifully shot, impeccably costumed and art directed. It’s also a swoony romance with one of the most charming young couples I’ve seen onscreen together in a long time. But more than either of those things, Brooklyn is an incredibly powerful depiction of an underexplored aspect of what it means to grow up. On the surface, Irish immigrant Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) has to choose between two suitors: working-class New Yorker Tony (Emory Cohen) and upper-class Irishman Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), but the love triangle is a small piece of a much larger emotional and mental transition that Eilis has to make. Leaving home means independence, but independence means having to make choices, and choosing something means leaving other things behind. That central tension, of being free but not free, of your life and future being unknown but not unlimited, comes through in Ronan’s complex but understated performance.
It’s sort of odd that the name “Hollywood” has remained synonymous with fame, glamour, and the film industry, despite the fact that most of the major studios are no longer based there, and that in my personal experience, you’re much more likely to see a pile of human feces on a Hollywood sidewalk than a movie star. If you want a startling introduction to Hollywood as a real neighborhood in a real city, see Tangerine. Sean Baker’s slice-of-life comedy-drama follows Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), two transgender prostitutes struggling to make it through the least idyllic Christmas Eve ever. Reportedly shot entirely on iPhones, Baker’s film has a gritty but gorgeous look that captures the frenetic movement and kaleidoscopic color of street life in Hollywood. It also treats its characters with empathy without sugarcoating their personalities or their somewhat dangerous jobs. It’s funny, vulgar, humane, moving, and punk as fuck.
5. The Last Five Years
Adapted from Jason Robert Brown’s beloved stage musical, The Last Five Years was underseen and underdiscussed by all but the most devoted musical nerds. Brown’s musical wouldn’t immediately seem well-suited to the screen. It features only two characters, husband Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) and wife Cathy (Anna Kendrick), both of whom sing mostly solo numbers. It also has an unusual structure wherein Cathy’s songs begin when the couple is about to divorce and move backwards toward their first date, while Jamie’s songs start at the beginning of the relationship and move forward in time as the relationship sours. I’ve been a fan of the show since I was in high school, and I’m convinced that director Richard LaGravanese made the best possible film adaptation that anyone could. His screenplay “opens up” the show just enough to make it a real movie instead of a filmed play, but not so much that it robs the story of its novelty. He makes some particularly great choices when it comes to deciding when Cathy and Jamie are together and when they’re apart. One particular song – “If I Didn’t Believe In You,” a number sung by Jamie that starts as an encouraging love song to his wife, but turns into a condescending rant – is usually sung by Jamie in stage productions on a bare stage by himself, leaving it up to the audience whether he’s actually speaking to Cathy, or just venting to no one in particular. LaGravanese places Cathy right there in the room with Jamie, which makes the emotion of the song that much more intense, and the resulting fallout that much more inevitable.
I went into Paul Feig’s Spy expecting it be funny, but what surprised me was that it’s actually a really good action movie as well. Feig doesn’t only care about getting laughs; he also takes the time to place those laughs within a spy-movie plotline that basically makes sense, and that has enough twists and turns to be interesting in and of itself. The comedy and the action bounce off of and strengthen each other. This strategy becomes even more fruitful when it comes to the films’ supporting cast, most of whom could play the same roles – Jude Law as a dashing spy, Rose Byrne as an icy femme fatale, Jason Statham as an unbeatable human weapon – in a straightforward spy film, but who get to add some interesting shades to the characters by playing them in a comic mode.
Carol is in many ways a very low-key, reserved film that still manages to produce an incredible amount of emotion. Like its two main characters, the film often can’t or won’t come right out and declare anything. Instead it communicates its characters’ feelings and desires in other ways, distilling them into small gestures and stolen looks that speak volumes. The look of the film is a little cool and desaturated – less like the gaudy melodrama of Todd Haynes’ previous period piece Far From Heaven, and more like artfully composed photojournalism – it holds its subjects at a little bit of a distance, but it somehow seems more thrillingly true because of it.
2. It Follows
It Follows is by far the most absorbing, transporting experience I had watching a movie this year. A lot of horror films and thrillers get described as “nightmarish” or “dreamlike,” but the most affecting thing about this film is the way it straddles the dreamlike and the realistic, eventually making you realize that maybe real life isn’t actually that much easier to decipher than a bad dream. The premise – a teenage girl has sex and starts getting stalked by an unrelenting, shapeshifting monster that she can only escape by having sex with someone else and passing it on to them – lends itself to simplistic morality tale analysis, but gets more complicated when it seems like the monster might not actually follow the rules that have been described. These rules are, after all, essentially hearsay, repeated by the last person the monster haunted, who must have been told them by the previous victim, etc. Maybe the rules have changed, or were somehow misunderstood in the retelling? The monster soon seems less like a symbol of sexual anxiety than of adulthood itself, and the ambiguity that goes with it. Isn’t “I followed all the rules and look where it got me” a feeling everyone has had as a young adult? Did I mention the film is set in Detroit, and that the city’s economic collapse hangs over everything like a (sometimes literal) haze? Young people struggling to come to terms with adulthood has become an overwhelmingly popular topic in film and TV over the past decade, but It Follows might be the first movie I’ve seen that presents it in such a novel, vivid, and deeply upsetting way.
Lenny Abrahamson’s drama about a kidnapped young woman and the son she raises in terrifying captivity has a premise that could have easily produced a terrible film. Abrahamson keeps Room from tipping into the pulpy or exploitative by committing to the individual perspectives of every character, and extending empathy or at least emotional curiosity to all of them (with the understandable exception of the kidnapper). When a horrifying crime like the one in this film comes to light, my first reaction is usually, “God, can you even begin to imagine what it would be like to go through that?” Room is so effective because it dives into the deep end trying to answer that question. Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay are simply astounding as the mother and son. Much like her equally great performance in 2013’s Short Term 12, Larson portrays a woman experiencing a trauma so huge that it’s basically become her entire life, and going through all of the complicated feelings that go along with it. Tremblay, on the other hand, plays a child who doesn’t even realize he’s going through a trauma until he’s removed from it, and has to completely re-learn everything he knows about the world as a result. The latter is one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from a child actor, and it’s the lynchpin that holds together all the other great elements of the film.