Saturday, January 16, 2016

The core memories of 2015

Twenty fifteen was a year where some of the movies were colored yellow, some colored blue, some colored green, some colored red and some colored purple. Yes, 2015 made me happy, sad, disgusted, angry and afraid at the movies, and at least four out of those five were good reasons to watch a movie. (Sorry, Human Centipede 3 -- all you had was disgust.) So in continuing my tradition of taking a looser look back on the year on the day after I post my rankings, forthwith are my core cinematic memories of 2015.

The first section -- three who had a good year and three who had a bad year -- is something I've been doing for all four of the years I've written this post, but it's the first time I've realized it's probably necessary to include an asterisk. That asterisk is the fact that these honors (or dishonors) are necessarily limited to people who were busy in 2015, and being busy alone usually means you had a pretty good year. I mean, Pete Docter may have had the best year for directing my #1 movie and Tom Six a terrible year for directing my worst, but that's all either of them did, so they don't make the cut.

Three who had a good year

Domhnall Gleeson - I'll acknowledge up front that I didn't think Gleeson was all that effective in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (#11). In fact, he may have actually detracted from the movie, even if only minorly. But he still gets acknowledged for his terrific year by virtue of appearing in two other movies in my top 25, The Revenant (#9) and Ex Machina (#25). What really impresses me about Gleeson's year, though, is the range he's displayed. I haven't specifically thought of him as an actor who didn't have range, but I do generally consider him a bit of a milquetoast type who might whither on a particularly sunny day. Twenty fifteen changed all that. In the three roles that I saw this year, he played a very good man (The Revenant), a very bad man (Star Wars), and a man in Ex Machina who's so in between those two poles, the robot Ava actually asks him if he's a good person and he has to stumble over the answer because of his own uncertainty. He's physically different in the roles, too, bearing a bushy beard in The Revenant and striding around imposingly in Star Wars, ready to scream dogma at a fleet of stromtroopers. Only in Ex Machina is he the meek old Domhnall I thought I knew, but even this guy's got a dark streak that we don't really pick up on until later in the movie. Overall, it's a year he should never forget.

Oscar Isaac - Deja vu. Isaac was actually in two of the same movies as Gleeson, only the difference is, he's good in both of them. (But Gleeson gets top honors by the sheer numbers, and the assumption that he was probably good in the film I didn't see, best picture nominee Brooklyn.) Isaac has been a favorite of mine for several years now, so it's about time he landed in this space. As arguably the most mercurial character in Ex Machina, the internet billionaire and programming genius who lives in an isolated state-of-the-art mansion buried in miles of otherwise uncharted territory, Isaac keeps us constantly guessing -- and also surprises us with his ability to cut a rug. In The Force Awakens, he plays Poe Dameron, a character we were desperate to see more of because of the instant, easy charm he injected into the role. He figures to have a greater involvement in the plot in future Star Wars installments. I'm a little worried that we'll next see Isaac as a villain in an X-Men movie, and that if he just begins bouncing around between these big-budget movies, then I'll be seeing less of the Isaac I loved so much in, say, Inside Llewyn Davis. Then again, Isaac's the type of guy who never phones it in, and makes you love him whatever the role.

Samuel L. Jackson - Hollywood may not have honored many people of color with its Oscar nominations on Thursday, but I want to honor one here. Make that three guys who have a Star Wars connection, though it's been ten years since Sam Jackson was in his last Star Wars movie. What Jackson did do in 2015 was appear as a villain who sort of, maybe thinks he's doing the right thing in Kingsman: The Secret Service (#22), and as a guy who's not quite as bad, but knows he's doing the wrong thing in The Hateful Eight (#6). And in these two roles he gave us both a classic version of Jackson and one we'd never seen before. First the classic. As Major Marquis Warren in the eighth film from Quentin Tarantino, Jackson linguistically dominates in a way that recalls epic monologues from films like Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown. Which is not to say that Jackson hasn't done this type of thing more recently than the 1990s, since he's always been valued for his way with words, but the confident and grandstanding way he plays Warren was key to making me feel a sense of Tarantino familiarity that actually worked in this film's favor. (Different from, say, his role in Django Unchained.) Then in Kingsman he plays an internet billionaire (not unlike Isaac's Nathan in Ex Machina) with a lisp, who believes the best way of consolidating power is to give everyone free internet and phone service -- then trigger a device that will turn them into maniacs who slaughter each other, and in turn, cull the population. He has a damn good time doing it. I'll even forgive his involvement in Avengers: Age of Ultron (#118), because at least he wasn't in it very much.

Honorable mentions: Emmanuel Lubezki (The Revenant, Knight of Cups), Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), Thomas Mann (The Stanford Prison Experiment, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl)

Three who had a bad year

David O. Russell - Whether it was a movie he endorsed or a movie he didn't, both David O. Russell movies that saw the light of day in 2015 were stinkers. The one that might have been something like a 2009 movie if it had stayed on track, Accidental Love (#141), was called Nailed at the time Russell was intimately involved with it. Knowing it was a disaster, he had the movie released under the name Stephen Greene -- and even if he wasn't responsible for directing all of it, he was responsible for enough that there should have been some good parts if any of his usual instincts were present. There weren't. The same is only marginally less true of Joy (#127), which was a full-on O. Russell joint, and makes us reevaluate just what those Russell instincts are supposed to be. This movie is just a mess. The two things both have in common: a real tone deafness in terms of their attempts at humor, and terrible lighting. I have no idea what has happened to a guy I used to revere for movies like Flirting With Disaster, Three Kings and Silver Linings Playbook, but if he can't do something as simple as properly light a scene, he doesn't have many good movies left in him.

Emma Stone - This one really hurts. A few years ago, Stone could do no wrong, and I considered myself perpetually tickled pink by her. Then the Spider-Man movies happened, and though I didn't even see those, they may have marked a turning point for her -- though I should say, she did appear in my #1 movie of last year (Birdman). Twenty fifteen was just a dud year for her, one that I hope will quickly reverse itself in 2016 with the next Damien Chazelle movie, La La Land. First (on my personal viewing schedule, anyway) it was one of the worst Woody Allen movies I've ever seen, Irrational Man (#139), which made my bottom five of the year. That's how stilted, obvious and utterly boring this movie is, and Stone plays the kind of character you just want to shake, because she should be smarter than she demonstrates herself to be. Then I saw her in the Cameron Crowe flop Aloha (#125), which is just inconceivably bad for its first half before actually getting a little bit better, somehow pulling itself up to two stars. However, pulling that film back down -- and Stone in particular, even though she's more caught in the crossfire on this one -- is its controversy over the casting of this woman with alabaster skin as a character who is supposed to be one quarter Hawaiian. One-sixteenth, I could see. Then again, I'm a little hesitant about jumping on board this ethnic insensitivity bandwagon. I live in a country where the native population has mixed regularly with the white European settlers, to the point that you really can't tell who claims which ancestry just by looking at them.

Julianne Moore - Moore makes this list and I didn't even see what could well be her worst film of the year, Seventh Son. The two I did see were bad enough. The less bad of the two, narrowly, is a movie that actually hit theaters in 2014 in Australia but was not seen by Americans (including this American living in Australia) until 2015, which is David Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars (#132). I have no doubt that Moore played the character of an awful, narcissistic Hollywood actress past her prime exactly the way Cronenberg wanted her to play the role, but that doesn't make the performance or this movie any better. Exactly one slot lower in my rankings was the final Hunger Games movie, Mockingjay -- Part 2 (#133). As her President Coin factors directly into why I like that movie so little (and presumably also the conclusion of the novels, though I haven't read them), I have no problem assigning a chunk of the blame for the failure of this movie on Moore. I did watch her Oscar-winning turn as the title character in Still Alice in 2015 and was impressed by it, but that ain't a 2015 movie so it doesn't work in her favor. Two things that do mitigate some of the badness of her year: Her Maps to the Stars performance inexplicably won her best actress at Cannes last year (inexplicable except that it's the French), and she was probably quite good in another movie of hers I didn't see this year, Freeheld.

Dishonorable mention: Noah Baumbach (the second half of While We're Young, Mistress America), Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2, Joy, Serena),  Bradley Cooper (Aloha, Joy, Serena). The only reason Lawrence and Cooper don't make the list proper was because Serena was an okay movie.

The (half) year I spent almost no money on movies

This was a revolutionary year for me at the movies, because it was the year when money basically became no object.

At about the mid-point of the year, I got my Australian Film Critics Association (AFCA) card, and for the piddly little cost of just $30 -- a pro-rated part of the $75 annual fee, which takes me up to January 31st -- I got to start seeing movies in the theater for free, with only a few restrictions that were easy to get around. That's right, for the price of about one-and-a-half tickets -- less than my wife and I would spend if we were going on a movie date -- I saw THIRTY-SEVEN movies in the theater, and counting. (I may still see one or two more before the 31st rolls around.) That's an average of 81 cents per ticket, as opposed to $20.

I'd say this was a huge assist in setting my personal record of 143 movies watched before my deadline this year. Instead of waiting on a movie I wasn't sure about, leaving me lots to catch up on at the end of the year, I simply went to watch it in the theater. In fact, it was far more affordable for me to do this than to pay for it on video. It's been with some grumbling these past few weeks that I've gone and cleaned up the movies from earlier in the year that I'd neglected, and have had to spend $3.50 or more on each.

Oh, there were times when it wasn't particularly straightforward. One ticket taker actually got kind of aggro on me when I presented my card and insisted that it meant a free rather than a discount ticket. He radio'd his supervisor reluctantly to confirm, apparently feeling like I was gaming the system. (Hey, that makes two of us, buddy.) But when the supervisor gave the confirmation, he changed his tune, and now when he sees me approach he gets the little voucher I have to fill out ready before I even reach the counter. I think he actually likes me now.

More often than not, it goes the way it went when I saw Carol on Thursday, and the person didn't even make me fill out the voucher. When I said it was a free rather than a discount ticket, he just took my word for it and happily rung me up.

Still, you better bet I carry around the letter from AFCA, which states when I'm entitled to use the card at which theater chains.

There were, of course, a couple times I couldn't use the card. I went to see Bridge of Spies on a Sunday morning at Hoyts because of the convenience of the showtime, even though Hoyts doesn't allow use of the card on the weekends. My wife of course paid for my midnight showing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a gift to me. And the Astor in St. Kilda doesn't participate at all, so to see The Hateful Eight there I had to pay full price (and then some, as a markup for the 70 mm and buying online). Strangely enough, they never even looked at my ticket, so I could have walked in for free.

But I don't even blink at expenditures like that. Given how much else I'm saving, I'm almost too happy to pay on the rare occasions it happens. After all, if you assume a $19 average cost for a ticket -- most places are $20, but some are less -- that still means I saved more than $670 on the cost of those tickets. Of course, I wouldn't have gone to them all if I'd been paying full price, but the savings are still staggering.

In 2016, I'll try to improve on that 81 cent average ticket price. In order to do so, I'll have to turn my $75 into about 93 movies in the theater.

It sounds like a lot, but if you know me, "a lot" is just another personal viewing challenge I am only too eager to accept.

2015 by the numbers

I keep track of stats and stuff.

Breakdown of 2015 movies by star ratings on Letterboxd: 5 stars (3), 4.5 stars (20), 4 stars (23), 3.5 stars (31), 3 stars (17), 2.5 stars (22), 2 stars (12), 1.5 stars (8), 1 star (5), .5 stars (2)
Total new movies watched in the calendar year: 304
Total movies rewatched: 65
2015 movies seen for the first time in the theater: 69
2015 movies seen for the first time on video: 74
2015 movies I saw twice: 6 (Creed, Ex Machina, It Follows, The Last Five Years, Spy, Star Wars: The Force Awakens)
2015 movies that choked me up: 6 (Inside Out, Creed, The Last Five Years, The Walk, Woman in Gold, The Armor of Light)

The ten best non-2015 movies I saw in 2015

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944, Frank Capra) - Rarely has an old-fashioned "screwball thriller" made me laugh as hard as this. Probably influenced one of my favorite Hitchcock films (Rope) and confirmed that Cary Grant is one of my favorite old Hollywood stars.

The Conformist (1970, Bernardo Bertolucci) - A classic I'd always meant to seek out did not disappoint. Incredible framing and mise en scene to accompany a fascinating story about riding out a sociopolitical storm.

The Double Life of Veronique (1991, Krzysztof Kieslowski) - Kieslowski has impressed me before, but never like this. Bursts with color and inspiration.

Ghost in the Shell (1995, Mamoru Oshii) - Anime rarely connects with me, even anime royalty. This anime royalty blew me away.

The Great Dictator (1940, Charlie Chaplin) - Charlie Chaplin is a funny guy, but he's never made me laugh -- or think -- like this. Only non-2015 film I gave five stars this year.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978, Philip Kaufman) - I never thought a Snatchers remake would rival my affection for the original. This one did.

Once Upon a Time in America (1984, Sergio Leone) - As one half of my 2015 Leone awakening, America immediately became one of my favorite epic movies about organized crime of all time.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, Sergio Leone) - The other half of my Leone awakening ... which immediately became one of my favorite epic westerns of all time.

The Past (2013, Asghar Farhadi) - The director of my #1 movie of 2011, A Separation, does it again.

Patton (1970, Franklin J. Schaffner) - A remarkably complex war epic that became the only one of the 12 best picture winners I saw in 2015 to make this list.

Odds and ends

- It wasn't a great year for foreign films. My highest ranked film in a language other than English was Wild Tales at #26. And you could argue that Wild Tales was technically a 2014 movie as it was nominated for an Oscar last year (though was not available cinematically in the U.S. or Australia until 2015).

- However, it was a good year -- a weird year -- for horror. Weird in that my highest ranked horror was also a documentary (The Nightmare at #18). But I also had decent-sized affection for two found footage movies (Unfriended at #44 and The Gallows at #57). And my top foreign film that was legitimately from 2015 was Goodnight Mommy, a damn scary movie that I ranked at #32. But the movie that may have disturbed me the most wasn't actually classified as horror, probably, which was Queen of Earth at #10.

- Five memorable performances from newcomers (new to me, anyway): Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl), Jacob Tremblay (Room), Miranda Hart (Spy), Desiree Akhavan (Appropriate Behavior)

- Seventh heaven: The seventh movies in the Fast & Furious, Star Wars and Rocky series were all released this year. Few series ever reach seven movies, so three in the same year was weird indeed. What's even weirder is that two of those movies were in my top 11.

- It was a year of eerily watching dead people. I suppose every year has a number of posthumous releases, but I felt especially aware of them in 2015 with final performances from Robin Williams (Boulevard), Phillip Seymour Hoffman (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2) and Paul Walker (Furious 7). Perhaps that's in part because the last two involved certain tricks to cover up for incomplete shooting in long-running series, where there was no chance to replace the deceased actor with a different actor.

Lightning round

And to finish with some rapid-fire action ... 

Highest ranked best picture nominee: The Revenant (#9)
Lowest ranked best picture nominee: Bridge of Spies (#47)
Best picture nominees I haven't seen: Brooklyn, Spotlight
Most common emotion (non-Inside Out version): Fury (Furious 7, Mad Max: Fury Road)
Most common emotion (Inside Out version): Joy
Best unfunny person being funny: Jason Statham, Spy
Best unfunny person being funny in a movie that wasn't very good: Michael Shannon, The Night Before
Best funny person being unfunny: Kristen Wiig, The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Best funny person being unfunny in a movie that wasn't very good: Sarah Silverman, I Smile Back
Best cameo: Michael Shannon, The Night Before
Worst cameo: James Franco, The Night Before
Actor who should've gotten an Oscar nomination but didn't: Jason Segal, The End of the Tour
Actor who shouldn't have been nominated for an Oscar: Matt Damon, The Martian
Actress who should've gotten an Oscar nomination but didn't: Elizabeth Banks, Love & Mercy
Actress who shouldn't have been nominated for an Oscar: Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Most varying year for a performer: Channing Tatum (The Hateful Eight - #6, Magic Mike XXL - #55, Jupiter Ascending - #137)
Least varying year for a performer: Cate Blanchett (Carol - #56, Knight of Cups - #88, Truth - #90, Cinderella - #92)
Funniest movies within a movie: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Best mumblecore: Digging for Fire
Worst mumblecore: Wild Canaries
Most specific title: Cop Car
Least specific title: People Places Things
Director who made me believe in him: Richard LaGravenese, The Last Five Years
Director who lost me: Joe Wright, Pan
Perfect record tainted: Brad Bird, Tomorrowland
Imperfect record salvaged: Baltasar Kormakur, Everest
One to watch: Marielle Heller, The Diary of a Teenager Girl
One to stop watching: David Cronenberg, Maps to the Stars
Pixar's still got it: Inside Out
Pixar may not still have it: The Good Dinosaur
Overrated: Clouds of Sils Maria
Underrated: Chappie
Title that's most fun to say: Bone Tomahawk
Title that's least fun to say: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2
Best attempt at a cult movie: Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead
Worst attempt at a cult movie: Turbo Kid
Biggest surprise: Creed
Biggest disappointment: Terminator Genisys

I greet the end of my ranking year with perhaps an excess dose of Phyllis Smith -- Sadness -- but I do have one final, much shorter wrap-up post tomorrow that should make you laugh. So tune in then for one last farewell to 2015. Sniff!

No comments: