So here we are, smack dab in the middle of the dog days of summer (and if you don’t get that little saying, try lying out on the sidewalk in 100-degree heat for 15 minutes or so, like Fido does, and see if a light bulb doesn’t go off). The dogs are often howling in movie theaters too—at times it seems as though August has replaced January in the hearts of moviegoers as the dumping ground for pictures not really worthy of our attention (or a serious investment in the marketing department). Movies like Pixels and Fantastic Four have their perverse fascination—just how bad can they possibly be? Both were greeted with reviews so scathing and unyielding in their acidity that studio heads can only pray nothing in October, November or December will be perceived as worse, and I have to admit a certain curiosity. But that curiosity is fortunately not so strong as to encourage me to pay full admission prices to find out for myself, which I fear would only be interpreted by the studios as a vote of confidence that theyr’re just giving the public what it wants. (That’s what Redbox and discount movie houses are for.)
And even that August dumping ground rap seems not particularly applicable when you look at what’s out there this month. F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton, the docudrama retelling of the origins of the pioneering gangsta rap group N.W.A., and Guy Ritchie’s retooling of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., both of which are getting good-to-very good reviews, make their debuts this weekend, and if we’re smart we’ll all get out there and catch Diary of a Teenage Girl, Goodnight Mommy, Phoenix, Best of Enemies, The End of the Tour, The Gift, Tangerine, Listen to Me Marlon, She’s Funny That Way, Mateo and The Shaun the Sheep Movie, all either already in theaters or scheduled to appear in August, before they disappear down the swirling drain of audience indifference to make room for Oscar bait season. (Los Angeles residents also have a week with the digital restoration of Rene Clement’s 1952 classic Forbidden Games to look forward to before August folds its tent.) See? Plenty of reasons to get into a movie theater when it’s hellishly hot and let someone else pay for the air conditioning.
And with pictures like Black Mass, Sicario, Stonewall, The Walk, Steve Jobs, Bridge of Spies, Crimson Peak, Spectre, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, Snowden, The Hateful Eight and that low-budget space picture everyone seems to be aflutter about just waiting in the wings, it still seems a bit early to pronounce judgment on whether or not 2015 has been a “good” movie year.
But I’ll go ahead and say that it’s certainly had some better-than-good movies in it so far, and, dare I say, some of them might not even be on the wide-ranging radar screens of the box-office or the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. While I have your hearts and minds, let me run down a quick list of the best things I’ve seen in 2015. I’ll keep it to movies that were actually released to theaters or streaming systems in 2015, and not revival stuff or old favorites. And keep in mind that though I see a lot of movies, I’m not privy to advanced screenings or other critic-type privileges, so there’s a lot of stuff I have yet to catch up on myself. (Again, thank you, Redbox, Netflix and the Regency North Hollywood discount house!) Here then, in ascending order, are 20 nifty titles that made seeing movies seem like a blessing and not just a ticket to get my ears and eyes pulverized.
A Poem is a Naked Person (Les Blank) I’m not sure if Blank’s free-form documentary on Leon Russell (his first feature-length film) is a major discovery, as some have claimed, but it’s certainly a fascinating look at Russell’s creative process and the wild peripheral Southern (and Southern country-rock) culture surrounding it and a must for Blank completists.
Ant-Man (Peyton Reed) A superhero movie that, at its best, seems almost tossed off, loose and light, refreshingly unconcerned with the end of the world. It takes its protagonist’s shrunken perspective to heart and grabs us with a wittily rendered story in which the stakes are apocalyptic only if the thought of being run over by a toy train set gives you nightmares.
Spy (Paul Feig) Probably the year’s best flat-out laugh generator, with Melissa McCarthy getting her mojo back (playing all those different personas in the espionage game is a plus) and Rose Byrne stepping out as a comic actress who can, and does, go toe-to-toe with her costar in winning the audience over.
Tig (Kristina Goolsby, Ashley York) Comedian Tig Notaro fashioned a life of loss and a diagnosis of cancer into a groundbreaking moment of comedy and a pivotal point for her own life, and this intimate documentary tells her story in a way that is, much like her onstage work, neither maudlin nor deadpan dismissive, but instead inclusive and invigorating. (Available now on Netflix Streaming)
Kingsman: The Secret Service (Matthew Vaughn) This vividly, hilariously violent shagging of the legacy of British stiff-upper-lip espionage (pop culture division) is a riot and a tonic. It’s also a high-water mark for director Vaughn, who made the first Kick-Ass, star Colin Firth, and maybe even for super-creepy-villain Samuel L. Jackson.
The Salt of the Earth (Juliano Ribiero Salgado, Wim Wenders) Beautifully rendered chronicle of photographer Sebastiao Salgado’s 40-year career across the continents. Wenders and his co-director (Salgado’s son) capture with rigor and sensitivity the quality not only of Salgado’s visual intuition and sense of observation but also the humanity that eventually transformed him as an artist.
The Ocean of Helena Lee (Jim Akin) From my review of this gorgeous and ethereal paean to a girl’s summer of discovery: “There’s real tension here between being set loose and aimless in a sun-splashed paradise to contemplate the world, the idle idyll of summer, and the vast indifference with which these days of heaven seem to be enveloped… This is a movie that is, at its heart, very European in its storytelling temperament—that is to say, it rather proudly stands outside the sort of narrative behavior one usually encounters in a movie populated with and made by native Southern Californians.” (The Ocean of Helena Lee is available on Blu-ray and DVD and on iTunes, all through Shootist Films.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (Alex Gibney) A fearless, maddening, illuminating documentary that throws enough light on the inner workings of Scientology, Tom Cruise, John Travolta and the strange biography of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, to make you shiver in broad daylight.
I’ll See You In My Dreams (Brett Haley) From my review: “(Haley’s) storytelling becomes even more confident as the movie goes along, and he guides us through the sorts of developments and possibly disabling narrative traps that have been mishandled so frequently since the cringe-inducing likes of Terms of Endearment. His touch is confident, so disarmingly light and marked with such ease that by the time (the movie) arrives at its overwhelming and beautifully modulated final shot, the whole thing seems even more like a minor miracle.”
Love and Mercy (Bill Pohlad) This bifurcated look at the life and legacy of Brian Wilson, split between his Pet Sounds years and the devastated path of Wilson’s middle age under the scurrilous influence of Dr. Eugene Landy, looked on paper like a recipe for disaster. But against all odds, Pohlad’s disquieted, elliptical visual style and the miraculous coexistence of Paul Dano and John Cusack’s portrayals of Wilson, which makes sense immediately upon seeing them juxtaposed on screen, coalesce into one of the most original screen biographies ever made.
Tomorrowland (Brad Bird) Here’s a movie that has some deadly serious things to say about our pop culture’s romance/infatuation/obsession with all things dystopian, and does so with Bird’s customary deftness, visual invention and spirit of confrontation. The director’s ability to conjure access to both the grandeur of classic sci-fi and the swift grace and sharp wit of his animated features is at a peak here.
The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle) The story of the Angulo Brothers, held virtual prisoners in a Lower East Side Manhattan apartment for their entire lives by their alcoholic father, and who learned of the outside world only through exposure to violent movies on DVD, is probably the most unlikely of harrowing, inspirational tales you’ll ever see. Moselle’s touch guides the narrative away from exploitation and fully toward illuminated empathy.
Ex Machina (Alex Garland) There will arrive a moment in human history when we’ll find ourselves staring into the eyes of a replicant, unable to scan the difference between man and artificial intelligence. Garland stages that moment, graced by sharp, original work from actors Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson, with a surfeit of cool style, razor-laced comedy and an escalating, eerily apt paranoia regarding the seductive powers of the ghost in the machine.
Wild Tales (Damian Szifron) An electrifying black comedy anthology consisting of six stories constructed around themes of revenge and how that singular emotional impulse can often escalate out of control, far beyond its original intent, or perhaps to its own morbidly logical ends. The movie is tipped in the sort of poison that inspires ferocious, convulsive laughter to accompany the portraits of crumbling societal pretense and bureaucratic black holes in which the characters find themselves ensnared.
Inside Out (Pete Docter) Alongside The Incredibles and the Toy Story trilogy now sits another Pixar masterpiece. It’s a supreme act of narrative empathy, not to even mention the biological and emotional sort that gives the movie its unique heart, built around the psychological development of an 11-year-old girl, as seen and felt from the inside. The girl’s individual temperaments are personified by a host of brilliant voiceover talent, of which Amy Poehler (Joy) and Phyllis Smith (Sadness) are standouts among a cast of standouts.
Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller) Part of the joy of the movie comes from recognizing the degree to which its chaos is precisely modulated, our eyes being offered exactly what we need to see. Yet the movie never plays like a control freak’s vacuum-packed vision. It’s like an epic summing up of everything that has ever compelled Miller to put images on film. Essentially one long, extended chase, Fury Road is so dynamically, startlingly choreographed that you begin to feel as though Miller himself is possessed by the glorious promise of unchecked propulsion.
An Honest Liar (Tyler Measom, Justin Weinstein) The movie of the year for me so far. It’s an engrossing and moving documentary about the life of magician/skeptic James “The Amazing” Randi, who has dedicated his life (he’s currently 87 years old) to exposing tricksters claiming to possess actual psychic powers. Randi has long held that aside from the credulousness of those rubes who seem so desperate to believe, even the most intelligent person can be fooled, and what turns AN HONEST LIAR from merely interesting to deeply fascinating is seeing just how thoroughly his maxim proves true. (You can see it now on Netflix Streaming.)
BEST MOVIE EXPERIENCE OF 2015 SO FAR:
The Apu Trilogy (Satyajit Ray), comprised of Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1957) and The World of Apu (1959). The last time I saw these movies was about 35 years ago, on rickety, well-worn 16mm—seeing them again, having grown-up in the manner (if not the circumstances) of Apu in the interim, makes me feel like I was seeing these luminous treasures for the first time. Ray’s remarkable achievement is in telling the story of Apu, who begins life well after the first film has gotten under way, completely absent any pandering sentiment, through the prism of a world represented for its beauty as well as its unforgiving harshness and indifference, and then expanding the vision of the world’s possibilities so we might understand them in the way Apu does, each tiny revelation absorbed or ignored organically, without the telltale signposts of assigned significance. For every moment of joy along the way, there is also the pain of loss and the struggle of everyday existence, of survival, all of which is rendered with such observational confidence, such almost offhanded grace, that the movies feel more lived in than simply seen.