4 THEMES in 11 FILMS & 1 LIST of 10 FILMS
(skip this long-winded rant and go right to the list if you’re short on time)
Some of the best movie-going of 2015 resulted not from recent films at all but from long overdue, highly anticipated, delayed releases of a couple of movies made in the 1970s. A Poem is a Naked Person, filmed from 1972-1974 was not released until last year. Director Les Blank’s rock doc masterpiece is more a portrait of a time and place, highlighting the strange euphoria and freedom that was the Northeast Oklahoma music scene in the early 1970s. Although supposedly centering around Leon Russell and his merry band of misfits, like so many of Blank’s films, the camera roves, capturing those on the periphery (including one particularly talented mural painter and a boastful, glass-eating TV anchor) and giving them just as much importance as anyone else. What results is a film that transports and elates.
Although Jacques Rivette’s Out 1: Noli Me Tangere was first screened in 1971, it was not released in the US until a newly restored print made the rounds last year anticipating a 2016 home video release. Though the 13+ hour experience certainly has highs and lows – a swirling mystery that is often interrupted with the tedium of sustained improvisational acting exercises –once the final chapter comes to a close, it’s pacing, tone, and characters have become more familiar, more real than tangible, offscreen flesh and blood. Perhaps it was also the pleasure of seeing the film in a marathon over two days with a small group of other dedicated audience members that made the experience so unforgettable.
Ridley Scott’s The Martian makes a serious study of how a human could survive on Mars. It turns out all it would take is discipline, a strong grasp of science, and the practical desire to work accurately, thoroughly, and tirelessly. Basically, do a good job and you’ve got this. The drama and messiness of family or personal ties have nothing to do with it. Thank goodness.
The same goes for Spotlight in which diligence and focus prevail as a team of investigators work to expose a massive cover-up of molestation within the Catholic Church. With an ensemble cast that never exhibits a hint of egotism or vanity, Spotlight is an exemplary “How To…” film, uninterested in distractions. As far as award season fodder goes, both of these are a relief, especially when compared to the overwrought pageantry of Cold War-era heavy-hitters Bridge of Spies and Trumbo.
A bunch of weirdos graced the screen in 2015, providing a welcome counterpoint to those technically precise, cold, cold procedurals about capable and well-adjusted hardworking individuals. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a messy, sometimes frustrating debut feature from Marielle Heller based on the acclaimed graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner. Utilizing a mix of Sara Gunnarsdóttir’s Crumb-inspired grotesque, beautiful animation and a strong, disconcertingly alluring showing from Bel Powley as said teenage girl, the film presents a truly singular, strange, and oddly aspirational world full of fuck-ups, creeps, sluts, and jerks making bad decisions look sexy.
On the surface, Tangerine would seems to be a film for and about a community on the fringes. And sure Sin-dee and Alexandra are Black, transgender women who occasionally work the street for cash. But director Sean Baker knows how to make a film that doesn’t pander or dwell on their social status, instead he, Mya Taylor, and Kiki Rodriguez (in the two vital lead roles) create a heartbreaking, hilarious, and extremely human film about two best friends and their technicolor wonderland, in what may be the most honest cinematic representation of Los Angeles to date.
And while not unexpected, Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room is an irreverent journey to the bottom of the sea via John Ashbery’s bathtub complete with an original song about butts from Sparks. The film is so unlike anything else, one quickly forgives the occasional tedium that results from being so thoroughly inside of someone else’s deranged mind.
Of the several new franchise installments released in 2015, Ned Rifle, and Mad Max: Fury Road raised the bar, adding dynamism to their trilogies. Ned Rifle, the final and strongest entry into Hal Hartley’s nearly twenty year-long Henry Fool Trilogy, synthesizes many of the narrative and ideological themes present throughout, bringing the epic tale to its rightful climax.
Unlike the abomination that was Jurassic World – which was probably filmed entirely in front of a green screen and made with the sole purpose of offering the highest number of murders by dino per minute while still getting a PG rating (why? Who is this for?) – the explosive Mad Max: Fury Road elevates the artistry of the original while maintaining creator George Miller’s specific steampunk, dystopian future vision, and bringing the franchise to a new generation.
That’s not to say that Magic Mike XXL or Star Wars: The Force Awakens were any kind of disappointment. They were just two films that lived exactly up to their hype and not a step further. What Star Wars and Magic Mike fans have in common is a dedication to the original brand. Magic Mike XXL took everything that worked from the first film (except McConaughey) and nothing that didn’t, resulting in a decidedly delightful road trip comedy that fully showcases the charisma of its leading men. Without the burden of plot or that sublimated social commentary that makes Magic Mike tragic, Magic Mike XXL is giddy and carefree escapism without an ounce of guilt.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens was up against a lot more after the mess of Episodes 1-3. But Episode 7 is a HUGE relief. Finally, the franchise is doing what it should have done all along. It’s a film that looks and sounds like the original three. No fancy GCI or confusing politics. Just give the people what they want and nobody gets hurt.
oh why, did you just want a list?
1- A Poem is a Naked Person
2- Maps to the Stars
4- Clouds of Sils Maria
5- Mad Max: Fury Road
6- Ned Rifle
7- Magic Mike XXL
8-The Forbidden Room
10- The Big Short