Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... for a view so clear it would scare Dr. Xavier to blind himself

Saturday, December 26, 2015

BEST OF 2015

What a year. Is this the one where time broke? Critics best of are divided and prejudiced by what they were able to see, for thanks to streaming sites literally zillions of new movies come out every second. Whether a movie is from 2014 because it was at Cannes but not released to you until 2015, or won't be released til 2016 and you can't write about yet or hasn't been released here at all so you can get all chummy and presumptive of your readers' indulgence like people still care you used to write for the Times Ah hell, I'm doing it too just by talking about how much I hate them.

Dir. David Thomas Mitchell

Scary without being cruel or callous, sweet without being corny, David Thomas Mitchell has made maybe the best horror film ever. It's hit me, myself, quite personally, reminding me not of the 80s slasher craze that traumatized me a young kid but my reaction to them; my buddy Alan and I searching closets with a butcher knife and fire poker. I'm watching it right now, for the tenth time, and swooning from its deliriously low key embrace. Those long takes, low angles, the brilliant tracking shots through abandoned Detroit cityscapes like its America's own haunted house; Mithchell's Kubrick-esque ability to bring out the uncanny in geometrical movement without Kubrick's coldness. Detractors cite its inconsistency but this is myth, baby, one of the most succinct and purely mythic and scariest films ever made, with the best scary cool analog synth score not made by John Carpenter. A dream-past reverie on that mortal moment when we realize we're now 'grown' and not 'growing' and so we begin running from death as it runs to meet us just as John Donne fast as a mental patient relentless countdown. Seeking immortality in the sexual drive, 'passing it on' through the generations (Life: the original STD), the horror of birth and fear of death commingled like atoms to form the core of what makes 80s slasher movie tropes our new Grimm's Fairy Tales archetypal lexicon; virginity is just death's cab without the meter running. Once we have sex, the driver hits the flag down and the enging clicks to life. From now on, we're running up a bill.

There's also Maika Monroe, touching and low-key as Jay, the prettiest girl in the neighborhood yet actually sweet to all the kids she's grown up with on the block-- the mere mortals--including her kid sister and her friends; how that sweetness will rally them all around her in a protective wall when needed, a kind of chivalrous loyalty we haven't seen since the Victorian age, or the way even the smallest, shyest of replies and questions seem to hurt and embarrass these kids, their voices reticent and low, making it seem like no matter what the hour they're always trying to not wake the seldom-seen parents (as opposed to the crazed lustful shouts of most youngsters in movies); how beautiful pink and blue lights and 70s suburban shadows make every shot a luminous poem alive with vaguely 30s two-strip color used on films like Mystery at the Wax Museum and Dr. X, ironic as this is on HD video, showing the extent which its qualities and debits can be employed rather than merely ignored or overcome; how there's not a single cliche within 30 miles --no pop songs, no filler, no snark or meanness, not even any yelling, or parental meddling--instead, every frame a poetic illustration of the birth-death cycle, how even if we're just the subject of someone's attraction the demons can use their form against us, that no desire is free, no matter how unexpressed. And that when in the thrall of the first whooshing noise from the electric biological clock, all else seems underwater.

Dir Quentin Tarantino
Everyone here at my Phoenix, Arizona-dwelling NRA member brother's house got ammo, holsters, and/or gun cleaner in their stocking today (it's 12/25/15) but all I wanted was this film, for our Xmas day seeing DJANGO three years ago had rocketed me into a higher time zone. And a bullet-riddled 70mm roadshow advance limited release "road show" screening of H8TEFUL was playing right next door in Tempe. It's colder here than it is in my home of New York City right now so I dig that his 8th film is set in the mountains over on the border between Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming in white-out blizzard inside and around a cozily lit all-purpose bar/stagecoach rest stop with a thunderously sly Morricone score riding below it like two ponies of Col. Rutledge's brandy. The 70mm and the blizzard environment keeps the breathtaking vistas blurred the way they are in real life when darkness falls early through thick Battle of the Bulge (also shot on 70mm) clouds, and keeps the indoor fires so vivid and analog perfect they could warm your tootsies just by moving a few rows closer.

Tarantino's out to fuck with our conceptions of 'rooting for' heroes and booing villains, and to even throw our PC feminist ire under the bus so that I use the word 'tootsies' for toes even though it goes against my liberal arts mind control programming. Such is the QT genius that this old programming freezes up, so I can cheer seeing Jennifer Jason Leigh get her teeth knocked out for using the N-word. I hope her ferocity is recognized at Oscar time! Is this her Hans Landa? Other cast members include Channing Tatum in a slight but mesmerizing performance that would make him a star if he wasn't already; Samuel Jackson as a Bass Reeves-y bounty hunter with a yen for goading a Confederate general (Bruce Dern) into reaching for his gun first and--well surprise, soo-prize--Walton Goggins demonstrating the maniacal Tarantino oomph that separates the inconsistent character actor from bona fide badass. And Bruce Dern is amazing as the general; he sounds like he was listening to real confederate generals through some time traveling tape recorder. Other cast members maybe not so much: as the 'dispassionate' hangman, Tim Roth sounds like he's trying to be Christophe Waltz one minute, and Peter Sellers doing a Richard Attenborough impression the next; Michael Madsen in Sheriff Woody cowboy vest seems lost as an enigmatic drifter, but his voice is great; Mexican actor Demián Bichir sounds like he's doing a fake Mexican accent as "Bob" but it's funny, and maybe appropriate.

It's too bad but maybe fitting that the police union condemned the film before even seeing it, for the wagon-circling-est of reasons, for it shows among many great things, black and white, blue and grey, bleeding red and reading a dubious Lincoln letter while the camera slowly rises as if up a flagpole (instead of a taut noose), and why I support the John Milius brand of seemingly self-contradicting pro-gun liberalism more than the guilt-trip crypto-fascism of the Michael Moore. Quentin does too, it would seem, for here amply illuminates the way the difference between murder and justifiable homicide/self defense sometimes hangs by a thread, and the importance of making sure your opponent has a gun in hand or a price on his head before you blow him out of his boots, lest you find yourself hung right quick. Real evil exists in the world, and when you're out in the wilderness there's no 911, so the thin blue line has to be drawn on the spot, in the bloody snow, by a boot with the toe shot off. The liberal academics who brainwashed me forget that, or simply refuse to believe it. So God bless the dying Warren Beatty in the Leonard Cohen snow; and bless the dying Jason Robards as the railroad track is laid past his bleeding body. Sometimes men with six shooters waving warrants and presidential letters like flags are all that separate us from void of chaos, anarchy, and massive carnage. Blue belly butchers and red state rednecks work together in the Tarantino west in order to preserve not just some half-assed Fordian notion of the law and civilization but because they've already seen firsthand (and even caused) the hell that overtakes a land when it devolves to wartime lawlessness, and they know they (and the country) may not survive a second glimpse.

Dir. David Cronenberg
This lurid, slow-burn haunted Hollywood saga of pyromaniac schizophrenics, ghosts manifesting as younger than their daughters, and egomaniacal stars with even more egomaniacal life coaches, could only come from an indie auteur outside the system but fluid within it, i.e. a Canadian, i.e. Cronenberg. With his pathological aversion to whimsy, he ensures the ghosts are a logical manifestation for a land where actor are all youth-obsessed narcissists trained in the art of letting their imagination get the better of them. In the same year's Clouds of Sils Maria, Binoche is playing an aging Marlene Dietrich remaking The Blue Angel as a butch Emil Jannings heading back to class to sulk after her younger wife hooks up with the strongman but in Maps, the better option to growing old and irrelevant is finally presented: burn the whole fucking cabaret to the ground. (full review)

Dir. George Miller

The weird gold patina of the action in the promos made it seem like much CGI about nothing, especially if you loved the Road Warrior (Mad Max 2) as an alienated kid, but didn't really like the first (with its then "American" dubbed soundtrack) or third (too grotesque). But Miller's fourth film takes the big truck chase climax of the The Road Warrior and stretches it two hours into the void and is full of sunbleached women, Nordic mutants and crazy vehicles. It left some critics shellshocked but most were like me, their socks blown off so far they drifted in astral winds. I have a feeling it's going to make a lot of alienated 15 year-old boys very happy for centuries to come. I know I am.

Dir. Ruben Östlund

In Majeure, an upscale Nordic family's Alpine ski vacation is interrupted after an avalanche blowback whiteout that rolls over the outdoor brunch patio causes the father to run away in panic, leaving wife and kids to fend for themselves. The white out clears, brunch resumes, the father returns like nothing's happened, but the mom's faith in him is destroyed; he only exacerbates her distrust when he tries to remember it differently, to deny and convince her of a different set of facts. Thanks to the long-held stationary camera, the white-out can no longer occur in memory as well as nature, not in this era, not when the elephant in the room has been identified and deflated, and no one can smoke, be mean to gay people, or trod carelessly over other people's feelings like the Great White Dad used to be able to do. Dad has no power, inside or out, and he gets slapped for flinching from his last slap. But fate is cruel evenly and the white outs never end.. and Östlund gives us such a wide magnificently framed canvas of events, such sublime use of the HD frame, that we feel like we could step through the screen door right into this hotel. We can smell the melting snow and rubber, the chlorine... it's intense, beautiful, and the best film about what vacation is really like on a fathers' nerves since ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW.

Dir. Patrick Brice

It's hard to make new friends as an adult these days--it takes effort. And that goes double for couples, which is why it's often up to their children. For my parents it was through the Jaycees they met all their swinging couples and my brother and it being the 70s, I remember staying up and greeting the sunrise with another family, all nine of us, where everyone loved everyone else, that was magical stuff. Where did that go? Have I become a night owl in love with staying up to sunrise because of those memories? Even the 70s had a hard time capturing that giddy high. Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice skipped the kids part, and there's The Ice Storm skipped the love part, and there's Radley Metzger's Score! and its predecessor Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? skipped both, but The Overnight gets it oh-so right, launching it into a kind of in a weird class all its own. What works so well in this film is the spontaneity of it, the actors are all excellent, and the truths and acceptances fly fast and furious. I generally avoid anything with the name Duplass associated with it, for personal reasons that really have nothing to do with them themselves, but this film is so good --with great well nuanced performances by Taylor Schilling and Adam Scott in the 'normal' couple role, and Judith Godrèche and Jason Schwartzman as the more liberated couple, in a beautiful house with an array of fabulous artsy rooms, including as we learn, separate bedrooms. The whiskey gets poured, the clothes are shed, the bong is brought out, the kids lulled to sleep, and the chips begin to fall where they may. Whether or not you experienced any nights like this yourself, either as the child or the drugged out adult, you can't help but appreciate the way inhibitions are shed when truths come out rather than vice versa, and one doesn't merely fall back on old knee-jerk circle the wagons denial and evasion, then liberation of inhibitions lead to all sorts of confessions and bonding, the bullshit all cut through in great strides. Capturing the magic of that is like lightning in a bottle, which is why this film is so very much electric.

Dir Olivia Assayas

With its trio of strong female leads ranging along the All about Eve axis, playing versions of themselves and each other with interlapping age gaps accounted for with the same weird mix of back-stabbing and tough love with which younger executive assistants are shepherded by older employers into the abyss of self-awareness and ambition. While certainly great material for the actresses to layer up in, almost accidentally summing up and illustrating the artist's great instinct for self-sabotage, his fascination with watching his/her life/work burn up in the car fire of doomed love. This time it comes from the discussion between Maria (Juliette Binoche) and her assistant Val (Kristen Stewart) about Maria's character in the play within the film, Maria's Lars Von Trier/Fassbinder nihilistic interpretation vs. Val's interpretation of Maria's interpretation as an easy rationalization that excuses self-pity, creating a false image of youth based on one's own rose-tinted memories to shield the character's own stunted maturation, of embracing a different social role as one wave in the "seas of gray hair." Kristen Stewart steals the show as Val, handling her personal assistant duties with startling cool, knowing just how to rile or soothe or otherwise push Maria's buttons while juggling deals and cars and hotel rooms and interviews and meetings with photographers without ever seeming to break her cool detached stride or get mad at her incessantly ringing cell phone. Chloë Grace Moretz is the rising star playing the younger part in the play; Valentine takes Maria to see the latest superhero movie which Moretz stars in, and Maria's mocking laughter gradually comes between them.

Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

Who knows what would have been the result if Welles made a 70s stoner detective film. Would it have been INHERENT VICE, or is there just no character titanic enough within the story to hold his interest? In the end, that may be the thing. There's no core or center to VICE, no 'hurrah' moment like the pool party in BOOGIE or the "I'm the antichrist" climax of BLOOD. Phoenix is a great actor, but he's a scrawny shell of a thing, a short wiry little weirdo whose hipster disaffect on talk shows is alienating and less clever than he thinks. We don't gravitate to him like we do to Warren William or Bogart in similar roles, or even Dick Powell or big Jeff Bridges (or his father, Lloyd Bridges, for that matter). As for VICE's detective narrative, it's more coherent than some, but trying to explain the plot to my underwhelmed GF, all I could do is relate the anecdote about Hawks calling Raymond Chandler from the BIG SLEEP set to ask who actually killed Owen Taylor and Chandler not knowing the answer either. It doesn't matter. I've seen BIG SLEEP a dozen times at least, and I'm almost ready to blame Joe Brody, but Joe's saying he just sapped him for the incriminating picture from the back of the head of Krishna, So don't even draw the connections, baby. Just soak in Eric Roberts' brilliant monologue that rips the guts out of capitalism with an LSD trowel and reveals nothing but jewelry-coated vultures beneath the black enamel topsoil, the breathing aurae of cinematographer Robert Elswit, spiderweb lines of light and shadow haloing around every actor; the great clothes and cars like some old album come to life, Phoenix a little monkey wiggling free of his angel dust entrapment cuffs and every drug you have ever done shivering to your DNA surfaces. You're home, if you're like me, in this murky mythic din of countercurrent flashbacks. Every time you smoked angel dust it was because some dirtbag laced his joint and didn't tell you til it was too late. You were only an infant but you well remember the morning when every TV channel showed only the streaky continuous feed of astronauts bouncing around the moon in molasses air, like they were underwater, the audio just transmitted astronaut chatter and space interference, hour after hour, the usual old science fiction movies of the morning pre-empted, their futuristic fiction now outmoded into ancient fact." (MO)

Dir. Anna Lily Amirpour

At last there's an Iranian vampire love story, told in resonant black and white and set in "Bad City," actually amidst the graveyards and oil derricks of Bakersfield, CA., "pumping up money" as Hank Quinlan would say, or "blood" as vampire Plainview would say. A place where rock anthems are still and forever relevant, it's forever the 80s, all while Madonna stares out from her poster and the days are marked by a junkie father's itchy paranoia. "The first western Iranian vampire movie" has a startling doppelganger effect in Sheila Vand's similarity to the film's writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour, as she's an amazing character, a specter of feminist vengeance for oppressed women in Iran's repressive milieu, wrapped in her black cape hijab like Dracula's, she preys mainly on male predators, waiting until they've shot up heroin or done some lines of coke before making her move, all the better to get high off the blood (though this is never spelled out). Gauging their response to her silent staring and seemingly everywhere at once, her playfulness as she stalks and mirrors carries itself a long way. Even with his blood rich in ecstasy, though, after a costume rave, our girl holds off indulging, instead engaging in a slow motion moment, beautifully set to a madly whirling disco ball and White Lies' "Death," a perfect song to bring them together as it builds slowly from just another click track into emotional sweep and grandeur all the more special for seeming to come so guileless and true, the Let the Right One Inverse of Sixteen Candles.


Dir. Desiree Akhavan

Here's a second great film written, directed and starring (1) a hot young second generation Iranian American woman (Desiree Akhavan) living just too much for the city. And If you've lived in NYC in your 20s and dated around with a lot of wild drinking, drugging, hipster girls in run-down apartments, shared your hopes and stash and yadda yadda, then you can tell when it's done right, by someone who knows what they're talking about. Frances Ha? No, I don't believe girls this vapid could survive five minutes. But Broad City? Yes, no doubt. Those girls are the shit. And then there's this great film, the way it constantly checks itself through blunt confessional conversation not to wreck itself backsliding into second generation Iranian-American immigrant, lesbian awakening, Lena Dunham slutty exhibitionism or Zooey-esque quirky girl cliche. All the cliche in fact I was dreading, including the white pride in opening up to a foreign culture at a foreign wedding, with colorful garb and dancing etc, or the stern old world parents that don't get their Americanized daughters bisexuality (the dad puts his foot down, mom says "I'll talk to him") or something? None of that. Here the dad is great, chill even with moving his daughter into filthy artsy flats full of strange roommates.  Mom can't quite acknowledge the coming out, as if she's literally deaf to it, but that's natural, at least there's no grandma praying over her via a goat on a spit or something like the Fat Greek Wedding (though it was original at the time); the dialogue and Park Slope vibe (I know, 'cuz I live there, bra) is spot on. Nor is the film hung up on sexual deviance and lurid over-the-toppness the way Girls is, though I like that show well enough, those are girls I would never hang out with in real life, while the girl played so stunningly here by Akhavan is so alive and believable I love her; she makes no attempt to become a type for another type to bounce off against, avoiding nearly every indie pitfall or pratfall through the kind of cut the crap honesty I hadn't seen since last year's sterling Obvious Child...

Dir. Rodney Ascher 

(From Demon Sheets: Sleep Paralysis Theories): Scientists tend to forget the way our sensorially-decoded paradigm is limited to human perception of self and their myopia makes them paranoid, like fundamentalist Christians seeing heretics in the cobwebs of their attics. If a Christian has sleep paralysis, the being looming above him would be perceived as Satan; if he had being reading David Icke, the being would be a reptilian alien; a gnostic scholar would see an archon; a UFO scholar, a flock of greys come for an abduction. That doesn't mean they're not seeing something, or that it's just "the very painting of their fear." It means they're seeing things as they really are, fluid, void of permanence, subject to our sensory decoding and all its cultural whims, shaped by our perceptions themselves, just as they are shaped by our biology. Whichever came first, it doesn't mean its not a tree until we hear it falling in the woods. If we say yo- that was a tree - some birdy just lost a perch. And payback's a bitch. Better off saying it was just the woods receiving a welcome meal for its worms and termites.

Dir. Jermaine Clement, Taika Watita

Finally we have a mockumentary as good as This is Spinal Tap. A Funny or Die production in conjunction with the NZ crew behind the late great Flight of the Conchords, this is a richly photographed, laugh-packed, low-key vampire roommate comedy that I'll admit sounded pretty cashed, played-out, and same-old-shit sort of thing on paper (a mockumentary about a flat full of unmarried 'young' male vampires? How fresh!), but in practice, the genius details start accruing immediately and never stop: there's the basement dwelling Shreck-y 'feratu, fed hikers and live chickens; Jermaine Clement as the deep voiced Vlad the Impaler/Byronic brooder; a younger maniac, an older vaguely fey gentlemen (co-director Waitita), a flatline human named Stu; a rival posse of werewolves, just for starters. With the amount of blood and killing presented so matter-of-factly (rather than masked by the usual 'veganism' copouts, moral workarounds and anorexic guilt-trips)--it emerges a well-worth repeat-viewing future cult masterwork, as instantly timeless as the centuries-old vampire myths they so affectionately satirize.

1. Amirpour didn't play the lead in her film, but did double for her in the skateboard scenes, so what does that tell you? 


  1. Great List! I have been looking forward to it all year. I am glad you came around on The Clouds of Sils Maria. You didn't seem too hip on it when it came out, as I remember (a rare disagreement) There was no Too Many Cooks this year! As close in the spirit of Television Looking at Television, I would have to give the Too Many Cooks award to Twelve Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer. I love Inherent Vice; everything about that movie worked for me. My favorite Big Hollywood Movie that didn't make your list this year was The Man From U.N.C.L.E. I watched it on blu ray last night and on TV - after seeing it twice in theaters - visually speaking, it took on a Wes Anderson vibe. The termites march on! Happy New Year, Erich! Thanks for sharing your observations!

  2. Yo, thanks Johnny. I liked UNCLE but only just (the torturing Nazi was great of course), and yr right, Amy Schumer ruled this year, but the award goes to BROAD CITY, the baddest babes in town, and betwixt those two shows, it's clear Comedy Central is becoming the true voice of sexually uninhibited feminism. Amen.


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