Dennis-FearCurtain

NO FEAR: THE YEAR’S BEST MOVIES


This is definitely the time of year when film critic types (I’m sure you know who I mean) spend an inordinate amount of time leading up to awards season—and it all leads up to awards season, don’t it?—compiling lists and trying to convince anyone who will listen that it was a shitty year at the movies for anyone who liked something other than what they saw and liked. And ‘tis the season, or at least ‘thas (?) been in the recent past, for that most beloved of academic parlor games, bemoaning the death of cinema, which, if the sackcloth-and-ashes-clad among us are to be believed, is an increasingly detached and irrelevant art form in the process of being smothered under the wet, steaming blanket of American blockbuster-it is. And it’s going all malnourished from the siphoning off of all the talent back to TV, which, as everyone knows, is where it’s really at these days. That’s what I heard, anyway.

Actually, I’ve always been bewildered by the capacity of some of my spiritually and cinematically aligned colleagues to consume just about everything there is to consume in pop culture, be it on TV, at the movies, on their iPods or wherever, and then summarize, recap and pontificate upon it endlessly. I know I probably see more than the average bear, but honestly, I do not have the sort of time available to me for this level of obsessive completism. Because of this, for a long while I considered discussion of the new golden age of series television somewhat beyond my ken, not because I was above regarding the medium, but because I couldn’t imagine making the time to sit down and try to get immersed in the vastness of it. (I also felt some resistance to the tendency of wide-eyed reviewers to proclaim almost every one of the latest boundary-pushing efforts from HBO or Showtime or A&E as the greatest series in the history of the medium.)

Of course, as appointment television became supplanted by the availability of whole seasons available on DVD and Blu-ray to be suitably binged upon at one’s discretion, I became a little bit more understanding– though I’m still relatively bereft of the time to gobble shows with impunity. I still don’t “get” Mad Men (I get it, but you know what I mean), and I’m still sadly incomplete on shows I really want to see like Deadwood, Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, The Wire and seemingly hundreds of others. (I stalled on Breaking Bad after two seasons and eagerly anticipate returning, yet I have no interest in The Walking Dead.)

But as strange as it may sound, in 2015 some of the best movies I saw were TV shows. The inaugural season of Daredevil was maybe the most aesthetically and morally complex satellite to be spotted in the Marvel universe so far. Seasons 1-5 of Game of Thrones (I’ve heard that winter is coming—bring it on, dammit!) was spectacularly addictive. Best of all, the three-season run of Hannibal left all previous attempts to film Thomas Harris’s enormously popular Hannibal Lecter novels in a heightened dust cloud of artistic achievement. And this is to say nothing of Mads Mikkelsen’s beautifully understated ability to wrest the role of the bad doctor from the popular, ham-fisted clutches of Anthony Hopkins. If only we could have seen these shows projected on big screens in multiplexes across the land.

HANNIBAL

But speaking of multiplexes, and art houses, and our glowing portable devices (nobody watched a movie on an Apple Watch this year, did they?), I am reminded that we are here behind the velvet curtain this week to celebrate the movies of 2015– the ones we saw in theaters– and the people who made them. What did I like best this year? That’s a loaded question that almost automatically begs an answer to its opposite—what were the year’s dreariest dregs?— and I’m sure we’ll get to all of that too. (Put on your galoshes, kids. That end of the swamp is pretty deep and murky, as usual.) But I think that anyone who tries to sell the idea that the movies in the modern era aren’t worth their celluloid/digital salt these days, in comparison to TV or just on their own, is probably not looking too far beyond Entertainment Weekly’s notions of what releases (usually the most heavily promoted ones) should be paying attention to.

EX MACHINA

In particular, I was taken by the strength of female performances this year but also the apparent bounty of roles for women, at least in comparison to years past. This is the first year I can remember where whittling down my favorite performances by female actors to a manageable five has been an impossible task, and that’s not including Cate Blanchett, who I seem to be far less impressed by, in Carol and in general, than most critics and viewers who bothered to go see it. It turns out that, by gum, there are other actresses in English-language movies that are not named Cate or Meryl after all! Among the performances I will likely never forget in 2015:  Julianne Moore (Maps to the Stars), Saiorse Ronan (Brooklyn), Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina, Testament of Youth, The Man from UNCLE), Greta Gerwig (Mistress America), Melissa McCarthy (Spy), Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Emily Blunt (Sicario), Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road), Amy Schumer (Trainwreck), Imogen Poots (She’s Funny That Way), Rebecca Ferguson (Mission: Impossible– Rogue Nation), Rachel McAdams (Spotlight), Julie Walters (Brooklyn), Elizabeth Banks (Love & Mercy), Jane Fonda (Youth), Rachel Weisz (Youth), Lola Kirke (Mistress America), Rose Byrne (Spy), Kristin Stewart (Clouds of Sils Maria), Jennifer Garner (Danny Collins), Viola Davis (Blackhat), Kathryn Hahn (She’s Funny That Way, The Visit) and Parker Posey (Irrational Man). And that’s not even to mention the five actresses I though did the best work of the year—that shorter list is yet to come. Such a bounty can only be a good thing, but it remains to be seen whether or not it can be sustained into coming years.

HAHN SHE'S FUNNY THAT WAY

Looking at a roster of names like the one I just peeled off, it’s simple to conclude that women in lead and supporting roles made an even stronger impression on me in general this year than men did in carrying their respective movies. But in the movies I saw, the men weren’t exactly Underwood deviled ham either: consider, if you will, Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Z for Zachariah), Al Pacino (Danny Collins), Jason Bateman (The Gift), Tom McCamus (Room), John Cusack (Chi-raq, Maps to the Stars), Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci, Liev Schrieber, Jamey Sheridan, Billy Crudup, Brian D’Arcy James, John Slattery, Neal Huff and Michael Cyril Creighton (Spotlight), Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies), Emory Cohen (Brooklyn), Domhnall Gleeson (Ex Machina, Brooklyn, The Revenant), Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina), Paul Giamatti (Love & Mercy, Straight Outta Compton), Martin Starr (I’ll See You In My Dreams), Tom Hardy (The Revenant), Jason Statham (Spy), Joel Edgerton (The Gift), Harrison Ford (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Samuel L. Jackson (Kingsman: The Secret Service), Alec Baldwin (Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Aloha) and Bobby Cannavale (Danny Collins). It would be, as the man once said, silly to complain.

REVENANT

There were plenty of encouraging developments in the movies of the year, as well as much to get discouraged about too, of course. And in considering it all, I had to come to the happy realization that once again, not unlike the last few years, I have been defeated in my attempt to create a top 10 list— I saw too damn many terrific movies to be able to abide by an arbitrary numerical restriction like that. Given the fluid nature of the average 10-best list, by my count I saw at least 35 movies which would have a rightful place on any such roster I might devise for this year. I do have a top 10—those are the movies that I think best defined the medium’s ability to astonish me on narrative, thematic and purely stylistic and aesthetic levels, to become something more than just reflected light designed to keep my attention and reassure already firmly held beliefs about its possibilities. But I want to mention those other 25 movies too, the ones that made going to the movies anything but a chore in 2015, because they’re just as much a part of the measure of pleasure as the ones I put at the top.

So here then, my extended list of  the 22 best movies of the year, in some rough order of preference, followed by 13 more for good measure that I included, in alphabetical order, because they were just too good to leave completely out of the conversation. I acknowledge that the 22 ranked in order are completely subject to my vacillating moods at any given moment. After all, my top two choices have been duking it out for absolute dominance ever since I saw them both on the same day about three weeks ago. So this is how it stands right now. Two minutes from now, who knows?

DENNIS’S TOP 10

ROOM (Lenny Abrahamson)

ROOM1

CHI-RAQ (Spike Lee)

CHIRAQ3

PHOENIX (Christian Petzold)

phoenix

GETT: THE TRIAL OF VIVIANE AMSALEM (Ronit Elkabetz, Shlomi Elkabetz)

GETT

MERU (Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi)

Meru Expedition, Garwhal, India

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (George Miller)

***SUNDAY CALENDAR SNEAKS STORY FOR APRIL 26, 2015. DO NOT USE PRIOR TO PUBLICATION**********TOM HARDY (tied to front of car) as Max Rockatansky in Warner Bros. Pictures' and Village Roadshow Pictures' action adventure movie "MAD MAX: FURY ROAD," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

SPOTLIGHT (Tom McCarthy)

spotlight

BEST OF ENEMIES (Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville)

WILLIAM BUCKLEY;GORE VIDAL

MUSTANG (Deniz Gamze Ergüven)

MUSTANG 1

AN HONEST LIAR (Tyler Measom, Justin Weinstein)

An Honest Liar

DENNIS’S WAY-MORE-THAN-HONORABLE MENTION

BRIDGE OF SPIES (Steven Spielberg)

BROOKLYN (John Crowley)

LOVE & MERCY (Bill Pohlad)

loveandmercy

YOUTH (Paolo Sorrentino)

THE FORBIDDEN ROOM (Guy Maddin)

FORBIDDDEN ROOM

I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS (Brett Haley)

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (Guy Ritchie)

MAN FROM UNCLE

EX MACHINA (Alex Garland)

MISTRESS AMERICA (Noah Baumbach)

THE OCEAN OF HELENA LEE (Jim Akin)

MAPS TO THE STARS (David Cronenberg)

THE GIFT (Joel Edgerton)GIFT

13 More Reasons to Think 2015 Was an Exceptional Year at the Movies (in alphabetical order)

ABOUT ELLY (Asghar Farhadi)

HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT (Kent Jones)

HITCHCOCKTRUFFAUT

KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (Matthew Vaughn)

THE MARTIAN (Ridley Scott)

MR. HOLMES (Bill Condon)

THE REVENANT (Alejandro G. Inarritu)

SICARIO (Denis Villeneuve)

SPY (Paul Feig)

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (J.J. Abrams)

TANGERINE (Sean Baker)

TESTAMENT OF YOUTH (James Kent)

TOMORROWLAND (Brad Bird)

THE VISIT (Joel Edgerton)

Best Actress

BRIE LARSON Room

ROOM LARSON

Nina Hoss Phoenix

Ronit Elkabetz Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

Blythe Danner I’ll See You in My Dreams

Teyvonah Parris Chi-raq

Best Actor

PAUL DANO/JOHN CUSACK Love & Mercy

LOVE & MERCY

Jacob Trembley Room

Tom Hanks Bridge of Spies

Michael Caine Youth

Ian McKellen Mr. Holmes

Best Director

LENNY ABRAHAMSON Room

ABRAHAMSON

Spike Lee Chi-raq

Christian Petzold Phoenix

Ronit Elkabetz, Shlomi Elkabetz Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

George Miller Mad Max: Fury Road

The Year’s Most Glorious Theatrical Experience

Seeing the restoration of Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy— Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956) and The World of Apu (1959)— one right after the other at the Nuart Theater this past summer. It wasn’t just a day spend inside watching movies—experiencing these movies in this way felt like the rarest of privileges.

PatherPanchali

Documentaries

In such a strong year for fiction films, the nonfiction documentaries I saw were just as good, as the presence of three of them in my top 10 should attest. The absolute best of the rest, in order of my preference:

IRIS (Albert Maysles)

iris-xlarge

GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF (Alex Gibney)

HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT (Kent Jones)

THE NIGHTMARE (Rodney Ascher)

STEVE JOBS: MAN IN THE MACHINE (Alex Gibney)

TIG (Kristina Goolsby, Ashley York)

THE WOLFPACK (Crystal Moselle)

THE WRECKING CREW (Denny Tedesco)

WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? (Liz Garbus)

AMY (Asif Kapadia)

LAMBERT AND STAMP (James D. Cooper)

A POEM IS A NAKED PERSON (Les Blank)

FAMOUS NATHAN (Lloyd Handwerker)

ELECTRIC BOOGALOO: THE WILD, UNTOLD STORY OF CANNON FILMS (Mark Hartley)

I BELIEVE IN MIRACLES (Jonny Owen)

Surprises (for better)…

Chi-raq, Mistress America, Tomorrowland, The Gift, The Forbidden Room, The Visit, Spy, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Maps to the Stars, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Unfriended, Hot Pursuit, Danny Collins, Poltergeist, Fifty Shades of Grey, Jupiter Ascending

…(and for worse)…

Trainwreck, The Hateful Eight, It Follows, Sisters, Minions, Bone Tomahawk

Comeback Actor of the Year

John Cusack for Love & Mercy, Chi-raq, Maps to the Stars, three performances of remarkable variance, commitment and power from an actor who had long seemed to have slipped past the point of inspiration.

Luckiest Actors Alive (2015 Edition)

Domhnall Gleeson (Ex Machina, The Revenant, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Brooklyn)

Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina, The Danish Girl, Testament of Youth, Seventh Son, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.)

Best Superheroes

Daredevil

DAREDEVIL

Ant-Man

Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker, Renan Ozturk, for enduring and making Meru

James “The Amazing” Randi, for his life’s work and for the unusual access provided in An Honest Liar

George Miller, for pulling off an action movie far beyond the capability of directors half his age

Spike Lee, for pulling off the year’s ballsiest, most improbable and exhilarating feat of cinema

Four Spy Movies That Were Better Than Spectre

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Spy

SPY

Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Oldies I Was Happiest to Revisit in 2015

Theatrically: Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West— in July my daughter and I, once absolute regulars, returned to the New Beverly Cinema after almost a year of abstinence in the wake of the August 2014 Quentin Tarantino shake-up. I haven’t been back to the theater since, still one of my favorite places on earth, but I long to, and soon. It was just too good seeing Michael Torgan inside the box office again.

POPEYE

On DVD: Robert Altman’s Popeye, which, if anything, seems more cockeyed and charming (thank you eternally, Shelley Duvall) and avant-garde than it did back during the Christmas 1980 movie season, released as it was among all the rest of the holiday lineup and from which it so clearly stood out.

First Seen in 2015

Air Mail (1932; John Ford)

air_mail_movie_1932

The Asphyx (1972; Peter Newbrook)

Chimes at Midnight (1965; Orson Welles)

Counterpoint (1967; Ralph Nelson)

Crank (2006; Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor)

Danger: Diabolik (1968; Mario Bava)

David Holzman’s Diary (1967; Jim McBride)

Demons (1985; Lamberto Bava)

Demons 2 (1986; Lamberto Bava)

Devil’s Advocate (1998; Taylor Hackford)

The Evil Within (1970; Lamberto V. Avellana)

Dear Murderer (1947; Arthur Crabtree)

Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell, Bastards! (1963; Seijun Suzuki)

Don’t Bet On Women (aka All Women are Bad) (1931; William K. Howard)

Forbidden Games (1952; Rene Clement)

From Beyond the Grave (1974; Kevin Connor)

Ganja and Hess (1973; Bill Gunn)

Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (1968; Hajime Satu)

Gun Fight (1961; Edward L. Cahn)

The High and the Mighty (1954; William Wellman)

Il Sorpasso (1962; Dino Risi)

ilsorpasso2

Isle of the Dead (1945; Mark Robson)

Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962; Sidney W. Pink)

The Killer is Loose (1956; Budd Boetticher)

The Lone Gun (1954; Ray Nazarro)

Long Weekend (1978; Colin Eggleston)

Losing Ground (1982; Kathleen Collins)

The Mini-Skirt Mob (1968; Maury Dexter)

The Never-Ending Story (1984; Wolfgang Petersen)

Night Must Fall (1937; Richard Thorpe)

Nothing Lasts Forever (1984; Tom Schiller)

The Quiet Earth (1985; Geoff Murphy)

A Place of One’s Own (1945; Bernard Knowles)

Reign of Terror (aka The Black Book) (1949; Anthony Mann)

Reign of Terror

The Sea Hawk (1940; Michael Curtiz)

Sucker Punch (2011; Zach Snyder)

Too Late for Tears (1949; Byron Haskin)

The Yards (2000; James Gray)

The Yellow Mountain (1954; Jesse Hibbs)

THE DREGS (in alphabetical order; it’s up to you to imagine which was actually the worst)

WORST IRRATIONAL PIXELS COP CARThe Boy Next Door (Rob Cohen)

Cop Car (Jon Watts)

Irrational Man (Woody Allen)

Minions (Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin)

Pan (Joe Wright)

Pixels (Chris Columbus)

Seventh Son (Sergei Bodrov)

Sisters (Jason Moore)

Ted 2 (Seth MacFarlane)

Welcome to Me (Shira Piven)

ADMISSIONS (Films of 2015 I Have Yet to See)

Anomalisa

The Assassin

Beasts of No Nation

The Big Short

Black Mass

Cinderella

The Cobbler

Concussion

Creed

The Danish Girl

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon

Experimenter

45 Years

Goodnight Mommy

Goosebumps

Grandma

The Green Inferno

A Hard Day

Horse Money

I Smile Back

In Jackson Heights

Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words

Janis: Little Girl Blue

Jimmy’s Hall

Joy

Kumiko the Treasure Hunter

Listen to Me Marlon

Magic Mike XXL

99 Homes

Our Brand is Crisis

The Overnight

Son of Saul

Steve Jobs

Trumbo

The Walk

When Marnie Was There

Winter Sleep