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A Year in Film: 2015

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Essays/Reviews | Alphabetical Index

What follows are my OCD attempts to list and rate every movie I watch in any given year. (I've done the same for my year's reading in the book log.) Given that I watch some relatively obscure films, I've set it up so that the film title links to the IMDb page for the film so you can get more information easily.

Starting in 2009, I began assigning out star ratings (out of five stars) to films I've watched. Five stars is equivalent to an A, 4½ to an A-/B+, four to a B, and so on.

 

2-14 The Duke of
Burgundy

(2014)

Expectations can really shift your opinion of a film, and for a bit, I wasn't sure if I liked The Duke of Burgundy merely because it was so far from what I expected. That's understandable, though; the previous film by director Peter Strickland, Berberian Sound Studio, was a strange homage to giallo films that became an unsettling psychological nightmare. And with Burgundy kicking off with credits that could have been ripped from 70's erotic trash, I expected something similar here, with Strickland doing an homage to the genre that became something darker. And it turns out, I was half right. Yes, Duke of Burgundy takes some of its feel from 70's erotic dramas, orbiting around the sadomasochistic role play between a lesbian couple that ends up shaping much of their life. But rather than using this as a gateway to dark nightmares, Strickland goes the other way, using it to explore how relationships have to include give and take as partners do their best to accommodate each other's needs, whether that be attending dull academic lectures or bizarre fantasies involving household furniture. In other words, it's a far sweeter and more romantic film than you might expect, and despite how racy and explicit my description might sound, Strickland's never interested in turning this into pornography; indeed, there's basically no real nudity in the film, and little explicit sex. Instead, it's all about the play between these two people as they strive to accommodate each other and make each other happy, and the toll that can take on a partner who feels that they constantly have to give without ever necessarily getting back in return. And if that sounds a little more thoughtful and emotional than you might expect given the film's concept, well, you might understand my initial somewhat baffled reaction. But the more I think on the film, the more impressed I am with it. Yes, it's unmistakably from the director of Berberian Sound Studio (a late-film dream sequence will erase any doubts you had on that score), but it's a very different film, one more focused on emotional beats and the difficulties of building a relationship, and one that uses its "adult" trapping to make a film that's truly for adults - not because it's racy, but because it's so complex, thoughtful, and honest about what it takes to make a relationship work.
2-8 Goodfellas
(1990)

It's not like Martin Scorsese makes a whole lot of bad films. I mean, even the man's weakest efforts are still bravura pieces of filmmaking, clinics on how music, visuals, editing, and acting can come together to make something transcendent. But even among a lifetime's worth of knockout films, Goodfellas stands apart as perhaps Scorsese's finest film - and that's no small feat. Everyone knows the story - that it's the tale of Henry Hill, who "always wanted to be a gangster," and his rise through the ranks of the Mafia. But as gripping as the story is, the greatness of Goodfellas is inextricably tied to its technique. The "Layla" montage. The Copa tracking shot. That astonishing fourth-wall break near the film's end. The helicopter sequence. The brutal beatdowns. The perfect final shot. The list could go on and on, and you'd never run out of things to talk about here, and watching it in a 35mm print where you can savor every detail, every shot, every moment only makes it all the better. And even with all of that, there's Scorsese's compelling approach to the material, which doesn't shy away from glamorizing the best parts of the Mafia life, but never lets you look away from the darker side of the whole thing. (It's an approach Scorsese would use again in The Wolf of Wall Street, and with similar impact, even if I think Scorsese admires - or at least understands - the gangsters of Goodfellas far more than the greed-driven Jordan Belfort.) And the result is impossible to pigeonhole. It's frequently hilariously funny, and then shifts to deeply horrifying. It's intense and will inspire paranoia, and then it'll fill you with envy and desire. It'll make you miss the days when De Niro actually cared about acting, wonder why no one else could find something this great in Ray Liotta, and truly make you miss Joe Pesci being in films at all. And more than anything else, it'll leave you in awe as you watch what may be one of the finest films ever made, as you make it through nearly two and a half hours of perfect filmmaking. Hyperbole? Not really, as anyone who's seen it knows. I mean, it's Goodfellas. What else could I possibly say about it?

2-6 Trailer Apocalypse
(N/A)
The wonderful souls at Drafthouse Films put together Trailer Apocalypse for the Belcourt's midnight movie series, and it's a perfect idea for the audience. Where else would you find the kind of people willing to sit through nearly two hours of 60's and 70's movie trailers for gore flicks, exploitation of all stripes, horror schlock, mondo documentaries, vintage commercials, and more? And sporadically, it was a pretty great experience - it was a blast to see these in all their ragged celluloid glory, and to get glimpses of films that truly boggled the mind so often. Gay motorcycle gangs, murderous drug addicts who turn into turkeys, uncomfortable sexploitation set among the world of oil sheiks, grungy gangster films, and more all added up to an often overwhelming plunge into an era that I really enjoy. For all that, though, I was left a little let down; maybe it's that the trailers weren't quite as weird as I sometimes hoped they would be, maybe it's that I've watched so much schlock in the past few years that my bar has raised, or maybe it's some combination of the two. I still enjoyed the evening, and there were a few moments of truly revelatory stuff in there...but given the resources and reputation of Drafthouse films, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little let down.
1-31 Whiplash
(2014)
I've been a fan of J.K. Simmons for a long time; he's one of those character actors who's always a joy to have in your film, and who always brings some absolutely crackling energy to whatever role he plays. So the fact that Whiplash not only gave Simmons a big role, but that it was enough to get him so much awards attention, already made me excited to see Whiplash. But was I ever unprepared for just how intense and riveting Whiplash really is. The story of a freshman music student (Miles Teller) who's taken under the wing of a tough, cruel teacher (Simmons), the outline of Whiplash might make you think you're getting some generic inspirational teacher film, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. Instead, Whiplash is like some twisted, satirical take on the genre, as both characters' obsession with excellence and perfection drive them to further and further extremes. Simmons is walking away with the lion's share of the praise for the film, and it's not a surprise; he's riveting in every frame of the film in which he appears, bringing an unnerving intensity to even his smallest actions (the way he hangs up his hat and coat alone is a master class in the power of gestures) - and that doesn't begin to prepare you for his more, shall we say, unhinged moments. But Teller is great as well, and not simply because he holds his own against Simmons. Indeed, without Teller's willingness to make his character's obsession every bit as intense and somewhat horrifying as Simmons', the film simply doesn't work; with it, it becomes an inspirational teacher film by way of Wolf of Wall Street, where anything goes as long as it makes you successful, and anyone who's not helping you is dead weight. Finally, there's another figure who deserves acclaim, and that's writer-director Damien Chazelle, whose work here wrings every bit of tension out of the twisted relationship between these two men, and whose skill brings the film together in a climax that ranks among the most intense sequences you've seen in a theater in some time. It all combines to make a riveting, intense drama that's about the drive for perfection and greatness, the danger of obsession, and the power of creating something truly great, all delivered as a knockout piece of cinema that gripped me from the first scene to the last.
1-31 Paddington (2014)
Look, I know that Paddington looks awful. There was the "Creepy Paddington" meme that seemed almost too dead on to be funny; there were the awful trailers; there was the last minute voice changes that seemed troubling. And yet, Paddington is genuinely one of the more charming, winning, wonderful family films I've seen in a long time, one that works thanks to a gentle sense of humor, a surprisingly rich visual style, and a generally low-key mood that just makes the whole thing easy to love. Yes, there are a couple of sour notes; for instance, no matter how much fun Nicole Kidman is having as the film's taxidermist villain, her part seems a little much for the film (that's less a knock on Kidman, who's pretty fun to watch and really makes the role work better than it should, and more a comment on the fact that the film doesn't really seem to need a big villain part), and there's a moment or two here and there that reeks of the "going too big" issue that so often plagues kids films. But those are the exception, not the rule, and most of Paddington plays out wonderfully calmly, letting gags play out slowly, letting the understated humor work for itself, and going for the silly and absurd rather than the racy/adult jokes and pop culture references that ruin so many kids movies. But more than that, Paddington brings a touch of visual charm and style to its family palette, whether it's a shot of the family's house unfolding like a dollhouse (in a shot that'll remind film fans of Wes Anderson) or a beautifully realized flashback that's segued into magically. It's a really wonderful little film, one that kept me smiling and laughing throughout, sometimes surprisingly hard. And rather than focusing on a big "save the world" story or big sweeping moments, it's a movie that's all about its heart and charm, and that's something we could use more of. It's a really great little family film, bad previews and all, and I can't recommend it enough to families who are tired of hyperactive, exhausting kids fare.
1-25 The Overnighters (2014)
There's an oil boom in North Dakota, thanks to fracking, and that means there's a slew of jobs for those who need them. And in this economy, word of jobs can result in a modern migration akin to something from The Grapes of Wrath, as workers leave their homes and families behind in the hopes of finding work and some money to get them through tough times. But where do you live when you've left everything behind and have nothing to your name? That's the situation faced by workers swarming to a small North Dakota town in search of work, and there they found Jay Reinke, a pastor who felt that it was the duty of the church to look after those in need, only to find himself facing incredible opposition from his congregation and the community. If all The Overnighters had to offer was a documentary of that situation, it would be enough; that's rich ground, as faith collides with reality and forces people to confront whether they truly believe in the ideas of the gospels and can practice the things they preach. Like I said, that's compelling enough. But add to that all of the richness that The Overnighters brings with it - a devastating look at the effects of our crashed economy, a painful look at the toll that criminal records and sexual offences can take on people desperate for redemption, and even some passing thoughts on fracking and the environment, all of which are touched on while never overwhelming the film - and you have something truly rich and powerful, a film that started looking at a given situation and then becoming about much more than a single town. And then, just when you have a handle on the film, and you're wrapped up in all of the pain and drama on display...just then, the film drops a piece of information that completely changes everything you've known about the film and leaves you replaying dozens of scenes in a whole new light. If there's a fault to The Overnighters, it's that that piece of information comes so late in the game, and the film ends so quickly afterward, that's it almost jarring; it feels as though there's much more story to tell in the wake of what we learn near the film's end. And yet, if the film continued, it would rob us of the absolutely stunning irony of the film's final moments, which couldn't be topped for a perfect ending for the film. The Overnighters may rush its ending (even if it's understandable, for reasons I can't get into here), but that doesn't really detract from the power of the overall film, which will leave you thinking about its ramifications for a long, long time to come.
1-4 The Princess
Bride
(1987)
The Princess Bride is one of those movies that so defined my childhood and adolescence that to this day, even with more than a decade since my last viewing, I still find myself able to recite most of it - the pauses, the comedic beats, the musical stings, the whole thing. But watching the movie with my children forces me to look at it in a whole different light, and wonder how much it's aged and how well it might hold up. And the wonderful answer is that it hasn't been hurt at all over the years; it's still funny, still wonderful, still charming, and still a blast. Sure, the score has some moments of 80's cheese (but not as many as you might dread; this isn't Ladyhawke, which is nearly ruined by its over-reliance on synthesizer score); sure, there are a couple of moments where the comedy beats are hit a little harder than they need to be (Billy Crystal's scene, unsurprisingly, might be the biggest offender). But none of that really matters, not when the whole thing has such a wonderful fairytale atmosphere and a keen sense of its own silliness and fun. Rob Reiner and writer William Goldman do a superb job blending the fairytale world with a modern sensibility, allowing the actors to bring the characters to life and create a real sense of warmth and affection that you need, and allowing the "present day" framework to comment on the action in a satisfying way that still works well (especially for an 8-year-old boy who hates the "kissy" parts, just like Fred Savage's character in the film). I doubt I can objectively rate The Princess Bride at this point in my life; it's too special to me and too much a part of my life. But it still warms my heart to watch, still makes me laugh, and still just charms me to no end. And watching my kids fall in love with it is even more wonderful for me to have happen.
1-4 Village of
the Damned

(1960)
A fantastically creepy horror film that works almost entirely without effects work or gore, Village of the Damned starts simply enough, with an entire village suddenly passing out in unison. It's a weirdly unsettling scene, and Village of the Damned plays it out beautifully, using silence and long camera shots to emphasize the unreality of what we're seeing. It makes the eventual awakening of the village almost a disappointment, as we fear that the rest of the movie can't quite live up to that strange opening, and to some degree, that's true. As the plot continues and the women in the town start turning up pregnant, the film in some ways goes in a more conventional fashion. And yet, that's never quite the case with Village of the Damned, which always feels slightly off and unreal, in an unsettling way. The strange children of the town are disturbing, but never terrifying; the acts they commit are menacing, and yet they remain somewhat sympathetic, in a bizarre way that's hard to place. All of that helps make the film work as well as it does, making it a horror film that's hard to pin down. Are the children the monsters they seem to be? Are they a predator, or simply a new creation defending itself? And what of that strange opening - is it an ominous omen of the danger to come, or simply a side effect of dealing with something we don't understand? Village of the Damned gets a lot of mileage out of its unease and its questions, and it makes for a gloriously strange and unsettling film that works thanks to its performances (especially George Saunders as one of the "fathers" of the town) and its low-key mood, not in spite of them. It's a great little horror gem, and one that works by being more complicated and interesting than I expected - to say nothing of being far moodier and unsettling than I expected at all.
1-3 The Most
Dangerous
Game
(1932)
One of the most famous short stories ever written gets its first - and still most well-regarded - adaptation in this fantastic little pre-Code thriller. It's a solid adaptation of the story, adding a few characters to help flesh out the dialogue and storytelling (the original story is mainly from the hero's perspective, so we get his running monologue) but still focusing on that killer hook: the survivor of a shipwreck washes onto an island, only to find himself hunted by a master hunter and struggling to fight back. Sure, the performances are a bit over the top, especially Leslie Banks as Zaroff, but it's all just enough to work, turning what could be campy into a nicely deranged performance. And while the movie takes a little too long to get to the hunt, the buildup is worth the wait, as every reversal and moment is played out to the utmost. Add to that some spectacular scenery and sets (especially Zaroff's wonderfully gothic mansion) and you've got a fun thriller that holds up nicely after all these years. And the short length works to the film's advantage, making it feel tighter and leaner than a lot of bloated short story adaptations I've seen; after all, when the story is this good, why add to it more than you need to? All in all, it's a great little thriller, one that does justice to its source material but still works well as a film on its own terms.

 

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page updated:
February 15, 2015