Monday, January 25, 2016

At Last! These are (Not) the 20 Best Movies of 2015

Nope, these are not necessarily the best films of 2015, but they are my favorites.  And because I'm a part-time cinephile, I see roughly half the films that a full-time professional critic sees in any given year (94 films in 2015, to be exact - a professional would see 175-200.) But I will enthusiastically recommend them all!

Of course, being an avocational film reviewer, rather than one with a professional obligation to see everything, means I get to be far more selective about what I watch. So my list isn't radically different from other "Best of 2015" lists you've already seen - though it does allow for some highly personal, idiosyncratic choices and rankings here and there.  It also reflects the fact that I ran out of time, opportunities (and in a couple of cases, inclination) to see all of the following:  Creed, Steve Jobs, The Assassin, Beasts of No Nation, Diary of a Teenage Girl,  It Follows, Eden, The Hateful Eight, Chi-Raq, and The Force Awakens. Be assured, I have definite plans to see almost of all those in the next month or so.

My standard of eligibility for this list is that any film released for the first time in the Chicago area between January 1, 2015 and December 31, 2015 was up for consideration, whether that initial release was to theaters, streaming services or HBO. That's why Selma, American Sniper, Two Days One Night and Still Alice were considered for this year's list rather than last year's; for the same reason, The Revenant, 45 Years, Anomalisa and Son of Saul will be considered for next year's "Not the Best of 2016" list.

 Here are my choices, counted down in ascending order of preference:

  20. The End of the Tour

I said it before, can't say it any better now: "It plays like an extended college bull session with your smartest friend who is idealistic, vulnerable, sometimes ridiculous and sometimes profoundly wise. (Jason) Segel's performance is so good that I was honestly disappointed to see the film end."

19. Woman in Gold

You won't see this one on many end-of-year 'best' lists, but don't let that deter you.  There is solid, impressive acting by all, plus the well-told, deeply engrossing story of Adele Bloch-Bauer's niece and her struggle to reclaim her aunt's portrait (famously painted by Gustav Klimt) many years after the Nazis looted it from her family's home.  My enjoyment was undoubtedly heightened by my enthusiasm for Klimt's art, my long-time interest in early 20th century Vienna, and the fact that I have actually seen this painting in both Vienna's Belvedere museum (where it was originally installed during the Nazi occupation) and in New York's Neue Gallerie, (to which the family sold it in 2006, as depicted in the film.) But I guarantee it is sufficiently fine to appeal to those who do not share these interests.

18. What Happened, Miss Simone?

Although I saw this documentary about the life of singer Nina Simone quite early in 2015, I still haven't shaken off the  memory of it. First, I was profoundly intrigued to see and hear how Simone's classical piano training informed her interpretations of jazz standards. (A performance of "For All We Know," shown in its entirety near the film's beginning, is  underscored with a classical-based accompaniment that breathes new and thrilling life into the song.) Then I was overwhelmed by the unfolding story of Simone's many demons: the racism that prevented her from achieving her dream of a career in classical music, her abusive marriage, the volatile intersection of her righteous anger with a long-untreated bipolar disorder that nearly destroyed her. An indelible portrait of a truly original artist and a complex, difficult woman.

17. The Gift

If you saw trailers for The Gift, you'd be excused for writing it off at just another standard-issue lonely-loser-stalks-happy-family story. I certainly did, which is why I didn't get around to seeing it till just a few weeks ago. To my surprise, Joel Edgerton's modest thriller delivers some fine performances (mostly notably Edgerton's own), breathtaking plot twists and a unnerving visual style worthy of Hitchcock or Polanksi.   Sometimes trailers actually don't show you all the good stuff...

16. La Sapienza

So here's one of my more eccentric choices: an odd film with some highly stylized and rather stiff acting that nonetheless grew on me and affected me deeply. An estranged couple, both highly intellectual and uneasy with one another, find romantic and spiritual renewal on a trip to Italy. She befriends and mentors a young Swiss woman, while he tours Roman churches with the Swiss woman's brother.  Director Eugene Green sends his camera  slowly, lovingly up the walls and into the sky-lighted domes of sacred spaces designed by Bernini and Borromini, capturing the subtle significance of each architectural detail along the way.  I don't know that I can sell anyone else on this film entirely; I'm pretty sure my reaction to it is as much a product of my own recent, spiritually enriching trip to Rome as to anything La Sapienza delivers on its own. But any film that defines happiness as "finding a place where you can see the light of God and love other people" has got to be worth your time.

15. Pawn Sacrifice

Was chess master Bobby Fischer an eccentric genius or severely mentally ill? Was he a hero or an unwitting pawn in a Nixonian Cold War propaganda campaign around his match with Russian chess master Boris Spassky? Edward Zwick's film chooses the latter of each of those sets of possibilities and elicits thrilling performances from both Tobey Maguire (as Fischer) and Liev Schreiber (as Spassky). This would make a particularly compelling double feature with another 2015 release about Cold War propaganda in the sports world: the documentary Red Army about what happened to the USSR's Olympic ice hockey team after losing to the US in the 'miracle' game of 1980.  (Hint: it involved long, grueling hours in Siberian 'training camps.')

14. Love and Mercy

Paul Dano plays Brian Wilson as a young man, John Cusack plays him in middle age, and both actors capture the loneliness, fears and tentative hopes of a troubled, gifted artist to perfection. Director Bill Pohlad explores the shared boundary of madness and genius with sensitivity, clarity and a refreshing lack of sensationalism.

13. Selma

The film to which I would have given the 2014 Oscar for Best Picture. Director Ava DuVernay finds a visual structure that drives and enhances the storytelling, and her cast performs to perfection - especially David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King.

12. Inside Out

Everyone's seen this, everyone loves it, and I'm not sure I have anything substantial to add to the discussion. Pixar continues to produce  highly imaginative, emotionally complex animated films that resonate with both children and adults; Wall-E remains my favorite, but Inside Out is solidly in second place.

11. The Duke of Burgundy

I wasn't sure what I was getting into with this one. This pastiche of softcore 1970s Euro-erotic films details a mistress-and-slave relationship between two women, although not nearly as explicitly as you might expect.  (I can already hear some of my readers clicking away from this site in disgust - Don't leave! Just scroll down to the next review!)  What I ended up liking about the film was the way it conjured up this bizarre, contained world populated only by female entomologists: there are classroom lectures on butterfly mating behavior scattered throughout and the titular Duke of Burgundy is a particular type of that insect  Plus all the creepy, role-playing artifice around the central relationship is gradually stripped away to reveal the heartache, vulnerabilities and genuine longings that lurk beneath the kinky stuff. Not a movie for everyone, obviously, but better than you'd initially expect.

10. Ex Machina

Another film that conjures up its own strange, isolated world - in this case, the techno-luxurious home of a billionaire genius who creates robots and invites a lowly employee to determine whether one particular robot is distinguishable from a human. Ex Machina has a tense, creepily seductive vibe and a sense of foreboding that never relents, plus a fantastic performance by this year's It Girl, Alicia Vikander, as the robot who just may outwit her creator.

9.  Amy

Its most astonishing moment comes early on when a teen-aged Amy Winehouse, captured on home video, belts out "Stronger Than Me," in a voice that clearly shows her to be (as her former manager puts it) "a very old soul in a very young body." At that moment, you're reminded of what a prodigious and original talent Winehouse possessed and stunned to think how far she might have gone if only she'd been saved in time. This compilation of home movies, TV footage and interviews with Winehouse's friends, family and collaborators is chilling, strongly suggesting that Winehouse fell victim to demons not entirely of her own making. (Both her father and her husband are shown to be opportunists who used Amy for every dollar and handout they could get.)  In the end, every one of us who so much as snickered when Jay Leno used her as a punchline is implicated.

8.  The Martian

Here's how I know  I loved The Martian. (Spoiler Alert!!) When a newscaster announces that Damon's character has been rescued and is heading home from Mars, I actually blurted out a cry of relief and joy.  There's no better reason to go to the movies than to experience that kind of visceral connection with a story and a character.  'Nuff said.

7.  Two Days One Night

Marion Cotillard is a real-life glamour puss who not only takes on unglamorous roles, but brings a genuine soulfulness and gritty truth to them. Here she's a factory worker who's forced to ask her co-workers to turn down their raise so that she can keep her own job, a kind of devil's deal that she handles with enormous grace and sensitivity. Cottilard is brilliant and the film is too honest and too humane to be merely depressing.

6.  Mommy

Xavier Dolan, the 26-year-old wunderkind of French Canadian cinema just keeps getting better and better.  This tale of a single mother struggling to keep her violent, emotionally disturbed son at home and out of institutions grabs you by the throat from the opening shot and doesn't let go.  Not as harrowing in every minute as it may sound and graced by a trio of remarkable lead performances, Mommy is an accomplished and sustained work of powerful filmmaking.

5.  Brooklyn

I like to believe that, if Turner Classic Movies is still around in 2050, this is the movie they'll show on a lazy Sunday afternoon, that people will snuggle up on their sofas to get lost in.  Old-fashioned in the best sense of the word, this story of a young Irish immigrant learning about who she is, what she wants and who she loves is distinguished by a beautiful performance by Saoirse Ronan and a keen sense of storytelling that it sorely missing from the hipper films of our time.

4.  Room

Not nearly as creepy as I expected (and believe me, I avoided this until its multiple Oscar nominations made me sit up and take notice.) Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay are the mother and son being held prisoner in a garden shed by the man who kidnapped Larson's character when she was 17; the pair of actors are freakishly good together and individually. The escape scene at the halfway point of this film is, honest-to-God, the most unbearable, unnerving, five-or-so-minutes of suspense I think I've ever seen on film. But this isn't a horror film or suspense film, really, so much as it is about the difficulty of emerging from a trauma and re-acclimating to the kind of life others take for granted. And it tells that story in way that will break and then mend your heart without the slightest emotional manipulation.

3.   Bridge of Spies

This may be Steven Spielberg's most under-appreciated film, its Best Picture nomination notwithstanding. Tom Hanks is again the "everyman" character, an insurance lawyer who takes on the defense of a Soviet spy (brilliantly underplayed by Mark Rylance) and winds up orchestrating a prisoner exchange with the Russians for a captured American pilot.  This film is of a piece with Lincoln in depicting a particular moment and mood in American history, and carries its allusions to our present-day political climate lightly but definitively.

2.   Clouds of Sils Maria

I've recommended this film to a few friends; their reactions have been evenly split between "WTF was that?" and "That was AWESOME!" I can't predict which of those camps you'll fall into, but maybe, like me, you'll wind up watching it four times in the space of a couple weeks. How to sum up the un-summarizable plot? Well, Juliette Binoche is an aging actress, Kristen Stewart is her assistant and Chloe Grace Moretz is the Lindsay Lohan-esque youger actress cast opposite Binoche in an upcoming play. Binoche and Stewart take a house in the Swiss Alps where they run lines, often while hiking in the Alps; they are electric together and fascinating to watch, sparks fly off their interactions. Oh screw it... my friend Bill (who loved it) is much more eloquent: "It was disarmingly complex. It seemed simple and straightforward, but on a closer look, it was far more textured in its analysis of human nature, relationships and personal growth." If any of that sounds intriguing to you, rent it and lose yourself in it. You'll be in for a treat.

1.   Carol

I knew it would be gorgeous; it is, after all, a film by Todd Haynes whose homage to Douglas Sirk's 1950s melodramas, Far From Heaven, was breathtaking in its super-saturated Technicolor palette. But I was unprepared for how beautifully screenwriter Phyllis Nagy adapted and even improved on Patricia Highsmith's odd, difficult stream-of-consciousness novella about the forbidden love between a young woman behind a shop counter and the older, affluent woman who meets her while Christmas shopping. Haynes and Nagy have created a classic love story in which both women's yearnings and heartache are distilled into the simplest, most subtle expressions and gestures, as the times they lived in would require. Ultimately it is a story about passion that is transmuted into genuine, mature love as both characters grow and sacrifice to be true to themselves while protecting the ones they love. I'd be unforgivably remiss if I didn't mention how remarkable both Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are as the lovers. There simply aren't enough good things to say about Carol - or enough bad things to say about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for failing to give it a Best Director or Best Picture nomination.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Beyond the Oscars: The Other Great Performances of 2015

With the announcement of the Oscar nominees last week, we're now in the thick of awards season with many deserving and gifted actors making the rounds of red carpets and talk shows. Still, I can't help feeling that the actors listed here were also worthy of a little awards love this season:

John Cusack for Love and Mercy

Paul Dano has picked up a few award nods for playing the younger incarnation of  Brian Wilson in this touching biopic of the troubled musical genius behind the Beach Boys. But the equally great John Cusack - who plays Wilson in middle age - has been inexplicably shut out. I have a strictly non-scientific theory for this oversight: to the untrained eye, Dano seems more convincing because he bears a strong physical resemblance to Wilson. Cusack, on the other hand, not only bears no resemblance to Wilson whatsoever, but doesn't alter his appearance one iota to convince us otherwise. Still, his delicate portrayal of Wilson as a gentle, confused soul searching for redemption is way out of his usual range and comfort zone, and all the more astonishing for that fact. If Dano deserves the recognition (he does), Cusack deserves it equally.

Kristen Wiig for Welcome to Me

Since Bridesmaids, Wiig has acted in a number of fair-to-mediocre indie dramas where you can tell she's in "serious actress mode" by the way she mumbles her lines in an offhand way, almost as if she were embarrassed to be playing it straight. Thankfully this dark, absurdist comedy lets Wiig merge her talent for creating memorably eccentric characters with some solid direction from Shira Piven, resulting in a film that veers from painfully funny to painfully sad without hitting a false note in the process. Wiig plays a bipolar woman who wins a huge lottery jackpot at the same time she goes off her meds; she uses her winnings to bankroll a one-woman TV show so awful that people can't take their eyes off it. Hilarity ensues, then - as her unmedicated illness escalates - her fortunes turn darker. Wiig plays every point on that spectrum with uncomfortable emotional sincerity, never once winking at the audience or going for an easy laugh at her character's expense.

Tobey Maguire and Liev Schreiber in Pawn Sacrifice

Edward Zwick's  portrait of chess genius Bobby Fischer starts out in conventional, formulaic biopic territory, but it gradually builds into something dark and shattering, largely due to Tobey Maguire's electrifying performance as Fischer. The film presents Fischer as a dangerously unstable young man whose madness is indulged and passed off as eccentricity in the interests of furthering Cold War propaganda around his match with Russian chess champion Boris Spassky. Maguire plays Fischer with a palpable edge of danger, marching to his own impenetrable internal logic. He's brilliantly balanced by the understated gravitas of Liev Schreiber's Spassky, whose seriousness and confidence are conveyed with impressive economy.  (The friend with whom I saw Pawn Sacrifice grew up in Russia during the time of the Fischer/Spassky match; she raved about how perfectly Schreiber captured Spassky.)

Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman in 5 Flights Up

5 Flights Up is a deceptively slight film about an aging couple's quest to sell the walk-up Brooklyn apartment that's become unmanageable for them. Its unexpected emotional heft is all in the wonderful performances of Keaton and Freeman. These well-seasoned screen veterans slip into the roles of a long-married couple with ease, finding the unforced rhythms of a shared history - bickering, private jokes and all - in a way that feel authentic and is pure pleasure to watch.

Sarah Silverman in I Smile Back

Including Silverman on this list is a bit of a cheat, since she actually did receive a SAG nomination. But she should have had even more, and she likely didn't get them because I Smile Back isn't nearly good enough in its entirety to deserve Silverman's fearless, compassionate performance. The filmmakers are more interested in putting her drug-and-drink addicted housewife through the mill of degradation and humiliation than in showing her some empathy or helping us understand the demons that drive her. Miraculously, Silverman brings an unexpected dimension of soulful sweetness to the character, even as she Really Goes There in more than one debased scene.  That Silverman is a fearlessly foul-mouthed, eager-to-offend comic in real life may have helped her with the more shocking aspects of the role. But the heart-stopping fragility she shows us is a revelation.

Jason Segel in The End of the Tour

I'll be honest - I've never read David Foster Wallace's literary masterwork Infinite Jest, nor did I know much about him going into this film. But I was hugely impressed at how completely Jason Segel disappeared into his portrayal of the deeply gifted, deeply troubled writer. The screenplay was adapted from transcripts of Wallace's five-day interview with Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg); it plays like an extended college bull session with your smartest friend who is idealistic, vulnerable, sometimes ridiculous and sometimes profoundly wise. Segel's performance is so good that I was honestly disappointed to see the film end. (And I'm determined to read Infinite Jest this year.)

Bel Powley in A Royal Night Out

Powley got lots of attention this year for her performance in Diary of a Teenage Girl, but her portrayal of a teen-aged Princess Margaret in this supremely silly little film has the pixilated innocence of a classic screwball comedienne at work. A fictionalized story of England's royal princesses enjoying a incognito night out among the commoners on VE Day,  A Royal Night Out treads a fine line between gentle nostalgia and tastelessness. But thanks to Powley's daffy, doe-eyed charms, even the young princess' brief, unwitting visit to a brothel seems as sweet and inconsequential as the bubbles in a glass of pink champagne.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Why I am a Part-Time Cinephile

This is not my first blog.

From 2007 to early 2015, I wrote a film blog called Doodad Kind of Town.  In the early years, I wrote a lot and picked up a respectable number of followers.  But as time went on, my writing become more and more sporadic, and the sense of purpose behind it faded.  Every so often, I would announce a new focus for the site in the hopes of rejuvenating it (romantic comedy, musicals, films on VOD), but none of them really sparked for me. Life increasingly got in the way of blogging - intense work deadlines, business travel, relationship challenges and my participation in multiple choral singing groups kept me from writing for weeks and even months at a time. And when the posts dried up, so did my readership.

But after almost a year away from blogging, I find I miss it too much to leave it completely behind. For better or worse, I have a inborn need to discover new movies and tell other people about them, a lifelong compulsion to gush enthusiastically about the films I love - and to sternly warn other people away from those film I loathe.

Even better, since closing down my first blog, I've discovered I had a small but loyal following of which I'd only been dimly aware: the former classmates and current co-workers, friends and relatives who followed me on Facebook and read my posts with genuine interest.  And I really like their feedback. It's gratifying when someone tells me they've watched a film that I recommended and liked it, like the high school friend who left me a comment today to say he'd rented Ex Machina on  my recommendation and found it to be "excellent!"

So here I am again, starting up another blog on an eventful day in the film world.  The Oscar nominations are out, and a film in which Leonardo DiCaprio gets eaten by a bear has garnered the most nominations. (Ok, not eaten - just a little chewed up and mauled... ) We're struggling to process the news of Alan Rickman's passing while just barely getting used to the fact that David Bowie has left us, too. And here I am, preparing to write about all this kind of stuff again.

The difference is that, this time, I know who I am and what my focus is, and I'm going to declare it right up front.  Here's why I'm a "Part-Time Cinephile."

1. First of all, I am a cinephile.

Cinephile is just a fancy word for movie lover, something I've been for as long as I can remember. I've been writing about films - mostly for my own enjoyment, but professionally on occasion - since I was about 13.  The Internet gave me a shot at an audience. And like every writer, I love an audience.

2. Having said that, I am only intermittently obsessive about movies,

Sometimes I take a break from obsessively watching movies to obsessively plan and take a vacation. Or obsessively renovate a room in my house. Or binge watch a TV show. Or read a new book. Or follow a breaking news story.  I warn you, I'll probably write about some of that,too - but, knowing me like I do, I'll probably find a way to tie every one of those experiences back to a movie.

3. As a part-timer, I feel no obligation to see anything  I don't really want to see - even it's the hot new, critically acclaimed box-office blockbuster.

Just a 'heads up' here, as we say at the office: If you want to hear about the latest film in the Marvel Comics or Star Wars franchise or The Hateful Eight, you might want to follow someone else's blog. I don't do action/adventure/superhero flicks; they overstimulate my nervous system and make me anxious.  I can't tolerate excessively violent films at all. I literally checked out into a kind of dissociative state during The Passion of the Christ and can't remember a single thing that happened after Jesus showed his mom that dining table he was building.

I'm not saying that violent or loud, special-effects-laden blockbusters are inferior in any way; on the contrary, I wish I could enjoy them more.  But I'm not built for that kind of entertainment,and I've decided I'm not going to subject myself to it anymore. Doesn't matter to me if it makes me less relevant. I saw Mad Max Fury Road to stay relevant, and I dearly wish had that 2 hours and 15 minutes of my life back to watch Clouds of Sils Maria a fourth time.

If, however, you like to hear about films that make you think, laugh, feel empathy, consider new viewpoints or maybe even want to be a better person... then bookmark this page and come back often! You're my kind of reader.,

4. I've increasingly become one of those people who "wait for the DVD" (or, more accurately these days, for home streaming availability).

For most of my life, I was a person who ran to the theater to see every new movie I could.  Nowadays I find I can easily wait for many new releases to become not-so-new and available on my home screen.

Why? Because I've become cheap and lazy and now believe that people who talk out loud during a movie should be sentenced to a few months of hard labor in a North Korean prison camp.

Ha Ha!! JUST KIDDING!  I'm really not cheap or lazy.

But with so many entertainment options competing for my hard-earned dollars, I do take a look at whether the expense of seeing a brand-new movie justifies the cash outlay.  In the Chicago suburbs where I live, a full price movie with popcorn and a Coke Zero is going to set me back well over $20. If, for example, I'm seeing The Force Awakens or Jurassic World  (it could happen), I'm willing to pony up that cash for the big screen experience. But if it's a sensitive little indie drama (like most of the films I prefer), it's going to be just as enjoyable in my living room with a bag of comparatively very low-priced Orville Redenbacher's.

Translation: I don't see as many brand-new films as I used to. Prepare for lots of advice about what to stream on Amazon or Netflix.

Oh, and about that hard labor sentence for movie talkers. Yes, I'm exaggerating for shock value and black comic purposes.  But I truly believe the theater-going experience has been forever tainted by people who confuse a multiplex auditorium with their own living room. I don't pay twenty-some dollars to hear Mildred and Gertrude argue with each other about how Matt Damon is going to get home from Mars; I paid to hear Matt Damon explain that to me himself in the voice-over.

4. I don't see movies for a living... or for a life.

As an overconfident 16-year-old, I was sure I'd grow up to take over Pauline Kael's job at the New Yorker (or maybe Gene Siskel's post at the Chicago Tribune).  Somewhere between youth and middle age, I took a detour into an IT career. This means I spend all day working on a computer, and I often do not feel like spending the evening hunched over another computer - no matter how much I want to write about that great movie I saw over the weekend.

Translation: I may go a week - or many weeks - without posting anything, especially when I'm up against an urgent deadline at work. This last statement is what we IT project managers call a "level set." I've now set the level of your expectations for the frequency of my blog posts.  And with that, I'm relieving myself of all guilt about sporadic posting.

More importantly,while movies are a significant, highly enjoyable part of my life, they are by no means my whole life. And frankly that's how it should be. My faith, my family, my friends - those come first, and those relationships inform the way I look at movies and what I take from them.

But that's much more than enough about me.  It's time to talk about movies. And I'll be back soon to do just that.