Friday, January 15, 2016

Inside 2015

Welcome to my 20th annual year-end movie rankings.

Didn't think I'd been doing it this long, did you?

I didn't either. But then I did a little math and said "Yep, I started in 1996 and it's now 2015. That's 20 years."

That's two decades of increasing obsessiveness. Back when I first started, my list consisted of a mere 43 movies. Twenty years later, I'm watching exactly a hundred more than that -- and if you think that's a coincidence, you don't know that I also have a thing for numerology. Oh yeah, that's also in maybe a month's less time. Remember back in the day when the Oscar nominations weren't announced until around the 10th of February, for a late March telecast? Even though I have my regrets about the movies I haven't seen in time to rank, I can't imagine a month more at this sustained level of viewing intensity. It'd probably kill me.

Would it be any way to celebrate 20 years in the obsessive ranking business if I didn't set a new personal viewing record this year? I don't think so, so I did. My 143 this year were seven more than last year's record, which was eight more than the record-setting year before that. I suppose there will come a point when my screening capabilities simply max out, but I haven't gotten there just yet.

This despite the fact that were some additional demands on my free time in 2015, both a side job for a little extra income and another viewing project that I have yet to tell you about but will soon enough. See what I mean about increasing obsessiveness?

And because I couldn't see everything despite another record-setting year, allow me to cast a spotlight on the five movies I am most sorry I couldn't see in time, because they were not released in Australia yet:

5. 45 Years
4. Brooklyn
3. Steve Jobs
2. Anomalisa
1. Spotlight

Honorable mentions: The Danish Girl, Heart of a Dog, Son of Saul, Trumbo

The fact that a movie written by Charlie Kaufman, a guy who wrote two of my previous #1s (Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine), is not my biggest regret tells you just how sorry I am to miss out on ranking Spotlight, this year's likely best picture winner.

So what were the ten best of my record-setting year? Here, have a look.

10. Queen of Earth - Well this was unexpected. I greeted Queen of Earth with skepticism, and only prioritized a viewing because it popped up on Netflix streaming. Why skepticism? I'd heard it discussed twice on podcasts and seen an out-of-context clip online as part of another article I read. This was one instance where I thought I'd already seen the movie, and used the negative reactions of the podcasters as a confirmation of my instinct that it wasn't worth seeing. Boy was I wrong. This story of two women during a week's stay at a lakehouse, which dips into their similar stay the previous summer when their fortunes were reversed, is the most harrowing psychological horror I saw in 2015. Would it be exaggerating if I said Elisabeth Moss gives one of the best performances I've ever seen? Her every facial nuance suggests a person burdened with mental anguish, yet never once does she seem to be performing. Katherine Waterston's performance is less attention-grabbing, but it's even more chilling at times -- and here I thought she was just Sam's daughter. Alex Ross Perry's update of Persona is one worthy of the comparison.

9. The Revenant - What mountains are there left for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Emmanuel Lubezki to climb? Only a year after the release of last year's best picture winner (and my #1), Birdman, they've come out with a movie that is even more ambitious, and literally involves the climbing of mountains. The Revenant has the creative pair's now-trademark technical derring do coming out its ears, but perhaps even more impressive than the how-did-they-do-that camera tricks is the utterly feral performance that Inarritu draws from Leonardo DiCaprio, who may finally be on his way to taking home his first Oscar. DiCaprio is brought to nearly sub-human places of emotion and the instinct to survive, the grittiest part of a movie whose every gritty detail -- and every beautiful grace note -- is captured by Lubezki's lens. If we aren't seeing three men at the top of their game here, I don't know when else we might see that, and you can add in one of my favorite Tom Hardy performances ever. The Revenant reverberates with cinematic vitality.

8. Tangerine - If you say you've never seen a movie like Tangerine before, you have to specify which part of it you're talking about. Most of us haven't seen a movie about transgender prostitutes in Los Angeles, but most of us also haven't seen a movie shot entirely on iPhone 5's. Both aspects of this film are revelatory. Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor overcome their novice status to take us on a quest around Los Angeles that takes on the proportions of Greek mythology, all to find the natural-born woman with whom one's pimp boyfriend has been cheating on her while she's been in jail. Oh, and it's also Christmas Eve. It's outrageous but it's also sneakily contemplative, as the mood will change as quickly as the soundtrack -- from dubstep to a type of ethereal synth, from righteous to melancholic. It's both epic and intimate, formats the iPhones prove capable of supporting in equal measure. Sean Baker blew me away with his previous film, Starlet, and he's still blowing.

7. The Duke of Burgundy - Peter Strickland makes my top ten with his second straight feature (after 2013's Berberian Sound Studio), this enigmatic yet intensely rewarding story of lesbian butterfly experts involved in sado-masochistic relationships. That sounds like a joke or at the very least an instance of high absurdism, but Strickland's approach to the material is anything but mocking. Instead he explores the profound and very real shifts in the dynamics and roles played in any long-term relationship, identifying imbalances that are perhaps inevitable. His humanistic goals have a very lush exterior, as the film has a 70s throwback feel, is shot mostly in a mansion in Hungary (though the movie is in English), and bears the kind of production design in which both the lingerie and the perfume receive acknowledgement in the opening credits. Infusing this wonderful atmosphere is an eye for the macabre and the unexplained that we might credit to David Lynch -- if it weren't now appropriate to credit it to Peter Strickland.

6. The Hateful Eight - It's a western but it's also a whodunnit. It's a film shot on 70 mm but also one that takes place mostly in one location. It's an epic that could also be a stage play. It's a metaphorical Mexican standoff in the moments when it's not an actual Mexican standoff. And it's yet another movie that no one other than Quentin Tarantino could make. Tarantino keeps giving us movies that are recognizable variations on his previous movies, with all his trademark interests present, yet they keep feeling fresh and new. And he's back to playing with chronology in a way that he hasn't in his last couple movies, meaning that this also has the feeling of a Tarantino classic -- in addition to just a classic type movie in general, complete with an orchestral prelude (Ennio Morricone's original music is stunning) and an intermission. I only just saw this yesterday and have a suspicion it could go even higher with longer to sit with me -- or, some of the violence (specifically toward women) could make me start to question it if I think about it too much. Better just lock it in now at #6.

5. The Last Five Years - Who says a movie you saw in the beginning of March still can't make your top ten? Richard LaGravenese's adaptation of the Jason Robert Brown musical truly lived with me all year, as I watched it twice on the same iTunes rental and then promptly bought the soundtrack, which I've listened to somewhere on the order of seven or eight times. One song still brings me to tears even after I've listened to it 20 times. That's just how sharp, observant, funny, and ultimately tragic this commonplace story of a couple meeting, falling in love and breaking up is. What isn't commonplace is it's unique structure, in which the songs song by Cathy (Anna Kendrick) go in reverse order through the narrative from their breakup back to its beginning, while the songs sung by Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) go forward, alternating with hers. It's the same kind of rollercoaster of emotion of any great relationship ... even the ones that are doomed.

4. Love & Mercy - The musician biopic is probably the least exciting or inventive genre of all time, but Bill Pohlad's film proves that all you need is to go slightly outside the box to give us something memorable and genuinely touching. The biopic of Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson is such a movie, made possible by the decision to concentrate on two periods of his life that proceed forward as parallel narratives, with two different actors (Paul Dano and John Cusack) playing the role. As much as Dano's great performance confirmed my feelings about him and Cusack's renewed old feelings that I thought were dead, the most unexpectedly great performance of the movie may belong to Elizabeth Banks, as deceptively more than just Wilson's savior from self destruction. The movie also has a terrific sound design as it both captures Wilson's encroaching mental problems and shows us how the genius came up with the seminal album Pet Sounds. Love? Mercy? All of it is good.

3. Sicario - Our sentiments exactly, Emily. The most effective viewer surrogate of the year is probably Emily Blunt's Kate, who takes in all the horrors of the Mexican drug trade in an uncompromising masterpiece from a director who made my top ten last year, Denis Villeneuve. The fact that I might like Enemy, my #9 last year, as much as or more than Sicario is a sign of the quality of 2014 more than a comment on this year's #3, which knocked my socks off. I can't tell you how many times I've mentally come back to perhaps my favorite sustained 15 minutes of the year, when that convoy of American humvees barrels its way into Juarez with machine-like precision and effectiveness, through dingy streets strewn with bodies, to extract an informant and bring him back across the border come hell or high water. Both of which come, by the way. Roger Deakins is a genius for his photography of the real Juarez and Mexico City as a stand-in, but the credit goes to Villeneuve for putting the whole thing together -- including the terrific performances of the actors -- into something truly indelible.

2. Creed - The most unexpected entry in my top ten is also almost the highest. I hadn't remembered that the next Rocky movie was even coming out this year until my editor at ReelGood invited me to attend the critics screening. If I hadn't been able to work it out with my wife to go straight from work on a Monday night at a busy time of the year for both of us, I may never have even seen the movie at all. (Let's pretend for a moment I would have been immune to the overwhelmingly positive reviews.) But just to prove that it wasn't only being taken aback by the ridiculous quality of Creed that made me rate it so high, I went again a week later, and found my enthusiasm for it diminished by no more than one to three percent. The only thing that even approaches the electric filmmaking Ryan Coogler brings to the movie is his evident love for the material, which made me love it again as well. Sylvester Stallone may be handing the baton to the awesome Michael B. Jordan, but Creed makes me want to see a man whose retirement I have often campaigned for take on any role, if he can bring this kind of passion and dedication to it. As you read this I suspect Stallone will have just become the Oscar frontrunner for this role, which may be the most unexpected thing about my #2.

1. Inside Out - And the movie I walked out of in June, suspecting I might not see a better movie all year, ends up at #1. What to say about Inside Out that hasn't already been said by somebody, somewhere? It made me laugh, it made me cry -- it was better than Cats. (An old line but a good one.) Unlike in some years, I only got to watch my #1 movie once before my ranking deadline, though I did watch the first 40 minutes of Inside Out on the plane back from New Zealand before the needs of my children cut the viewing short. When I got choked up at the collapse of Goofball Island -- a part that hadn't even choked me up the first time around -- I knew that I hadn't overvalued Inside Out. But perhaps the most amazing thing about this movie that celebrates the innocence of youth and its maturation into something more complex is the way it was instantly understood by my son, who was not yet five when he saw it. Pixar's best film since -- Jesus, maybe since the original Toy Story -- turns us all into delighted children, but also children who understand the value of a complete spectrum of emotions.

Inside Out becomes the first animated film I have ever ranked #1 for the year, though if I had started ranking my movies just a year earlier than I did -- 1995 instead of 1996 -- then the aforementioned Toy Story would have taken top honors that year. Inside Out was also my most perfect theater-going experience of the year, as I got to share it with my wife (an increasing rarity), my son (as mentioned above), and a packed theater of people who were laughing and crying just as hard as we were. Well, my son might not have been crying. Let's give him a few more years. With nothing but sequels on Pixar's schedule for the forseeable future, it's probably also the last Pixar #1 we'll see for a while.

And now ... drum roll please ... the five worst.

5. Irrational Man - Challenges for the worst Woody Allen movie I've ever seen. Stilted, clumsy, mean-spirited, delusional, and wastes Emma Stone. Major crimes against humanity here.

4. Pan - As dreary and dismal as "children's" storytelling gets, even when it thinks it's being cheery. It's no wonder my son ran screaming from this, though he couldn't have known in those first ten minutes just how dismal it would get.

3. Accidental Love - Hide behind the name Stephen Greene all you want, David O. Russell, but this tonally fractured and all-around ill-conceived comedy about a woman with a nail lodged in her brain who takes on congress is your fault.

2. Hits - Misses. One after another, ad infinitum. This would-be comedy's dead spots have dead spots. It would never have occurred to me to doubt the comedic instincts of David Cross until he turned in this laughless mess, which was so devoid of value that they allowed prospective viewers to legally torrent it.

1. The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence) - Reprehensible and repugnant. And I actually liked the first two movies in this series. This one exhausts 80% of its running time not on a centipede, but on a racist, sexually violent, murderous prison warden -- Dieter Laser, wildly overacting in his unwelcome return from the original movie.

And now all the rest, including the other 128 I have yet to mention in any shape or form:

  1. Inside Out
  2. Creed
  3. Sicario
  4. Love & Mercy
  5. The Last Five Years
  6. The Hateful Eight
  7. The Duke of Burgundy
  8. Tangerine
  9. The Revenant
  10. Queen of Earth
  11. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  12. The Walk
  13. Woman in Gold
  14. The Armor of Light
  15. Room
  16. The End of the Tour
  17. The Big Short
  18. The Nightmare
  19. The Diary of a Teenage Girl
  20. Faults
  21. Amy
  22. Kingsman: The Secret Service
  23. Spy
  24. Chappie
  25. Ex Machina
  26. Wild Tales
  27. Slow West
  28. Mad Max: Fury Road
  29. The Stanford Prison Experiment
  30. Far From the Madding Crowd
  31. Shaun the Sheep Movie
  32. Goodnight Mommy
  33. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
  34. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
  35. The Witch
  36. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
  37. Circle
  38. Jurassic World
  39. Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead
  40. Appropriate Behavior
  41. A Sinner in Mecca
  42. Everest
  43. Blackhat
  44. Unfriended
  45. The Martian
  46. It Follows
  47. Bridge of Spies
  48. Dope
  49. The Look of Silence
  50. The Program
  51. Digging for Fire
  52. The Wolfpack
  53. Macbeth
  54. Hotel Transylvania 2
  55. Magic Mike XXL
  56. Carol
  57. The Gallows
  58. Finders Keepers
  59. 99 Homes
  60. While We’re Young
  61. Get Hard
  62. Cymbeline
  63. Gemma Bovery
  64. Welcome to Me
  65. Samba
  66. The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
  67. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
  68. Manson Family Vacation
  69. Creep
  70. Results
  71. Buzzard
  72. Bone Tomahawk
  73. A Walk in the Woods
  74. The Wanted 18
  75. Mississippi Grind
  76. Spectre
  77. Time Out of Mind
  78. The Assassin
  79. Tell Spring Not to Come This Year
  80. Sleeping With Other People
  81. The Lobster
  82. Maggie
  83. Victoria
  84. (Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies
  85. The Connection
  86. Freedom Stories
  87. The Age of Adaline
  88. Knight of Cups
  89. The Visit
  90. Truth
  91. We Are Your Friends
  92. Cinderella
  93. The Overnight
  94. People Places Things
  95. Serena
  96. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
  97. India’s Daughter
  98. Ant-Man
  99. Trainwreck
  100. Home
  101. One Floor Below
  102. Phoenix
  103. The Night Before
  104. The Gift
  105. Beasts of No Nation
  106. San Andreas
  107. Clouds of Sils Maria
  108. Heaven Knows What
  109. Furious 7
  110. Black Mass
  111. Suffragette
  112. In the Heart of the Sea
  113. Cooties
  114. Minions
  115. I Smile Back
  116. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus
  117. Boulevard
  118. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  119. The DUFF
  120. Terminator Genisys
  121. The Good Dinosaur
  122. Mistress America
  123. The Emperor’s New Clothes
  124. The Cobbler
  125. Aloha
  126. United Passions
  127. Joy
  128. Tomorrowland
  129. Wild Canaries
  130. Turbo Kid
  131. Fifty Shades of Grey
  132. Maps to the Stars
  133. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2
  134. Zombeavers
  135. Hot Pursuit
  136. Cop Car
  137. Jupiter Ascending
  138. The Wedding Ringer
  139. Irrational Man
  140. Pan
  141. Accidental Love
  142. Hits
  143. The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence)
That's it. That's all. If this were the end of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, I'd be telling you to go home right now. (But not until you've left a comment, please! I love comments, especially on this post.) 

Next year: I go for 150, or die trying. 


DAC said...

That's quite a high ranking for Woman in Gold. I liked it pretty well, too, but I'm surprised at its placement on a list of this size. I have it at 14/29 on Flickchart, but it'd be a bit below the halfway point if certain movies marked 2014 on Flickchart (Clouds of Sils Maria and The Chinese Mayor to name two) were included.

Derek Armstrong said...

Thanks David! That's entirely a reflection of how emotional I became at several points near the end of this movie. Parts of the end worked on me in the same way as parts of the end of Titanic, which was actually my #1 of 1997 (and I more or less stand by that pick). In fact I almost wish I could have gotten it into my top 10, except I do recognize some weak links in that movie (Katie Holmes being one).

Don Handsome said...

Derek - Great list. Of course I don't agree with every choice on this list, but this year may be the most agreeable to me of any other year.

I wonder if you can identify any patterns in what a "Top 10" movie is for you? In re-reading your list today with fresh eyes, it dawned on me that 7 of the 10 are films in which (I would argue) physicality plays a huge role in their effectiveness (the exceptions being #1, #4, and #5). What I mean by this is that they hinge heavily on the audience buying into some sort of impressive physical presence that is at least in part created by the filmmakers for the purpose of the film. Most obvious are Creed and the Revenant, but I think that physicality is critical to the success of Queen of Earth (you discuss the facial nuance, but I would also argue there's an expert nature to how these actresses carry themselves and use their shoulders and their posture to denote differences in time and in the role reversal you mentioned. In The Duke of Burgundy too, fragility and strength - often at the same time and in the same person - is explored via the presentation of bodies in different stages of vulnerability.

I just wonder if this is a conscious predilection for you...or if maybe I'm identifying the wrong trend.

Derek Armstrong said...

That's a really cool observation, not one that I had put together before. The thing I noticed most about my top ten films is that I have three "male" movies (Creed, The Hateful Eight, The Revenant), four "female" movies (Inside Out, The Last Five Years, The Duke of Burgundy and Queen of Earth) and three that seem in some way to be a distinct blend of male and female sensibilities (Sicario, Love & Mercy and Tangerine). Is that something significant, or could that really describe any ten movies anywhere in someone's chart? I don't know. But I like the diverse representation.

I like your observation though because I think that the very act of filmmaking is summoning a physical presence that wasn't previously there -- putting on a disguise, using tricks to create something with weight and substance, etc.

Thanks for the thoughtful comment. As might be expected, your top ten is quite agreeable to me this year as well, as it includes four of mine! (Creed, Sicario, Love & Mercy and The Duke of Burgundy, for anyone reading this that hasn't seen Don's list.)