Cinema's Wild Mood Swings
On the eve of the Oscars, our resident film critic selects some of his favorite movies of 2015.
If you’ve ever seen a Bollywood film, then you’ve no doubt experienced how producers sometimes go to extremes to make a “movie with something for everyone.” These films serve up drama, broad comedy, musical numbers and even bloody violence all in the same flick. In 2015 Hollywood took a page from that book. Summer box office champ Jurassic World mashed up what felt like at least three different movies — with only the dinosaurs offering any consistency. Spectre struggled to maintain its multi-film serial format, while adding fan-service throwbacks to “classic Bond” and combining a BBC TV style ensemble that felt like Dr. Who-meets-Scooby Doo. Even more egregious was the Melissa McCarthy vehicle Spy, determined to simultaneously deliver legit action-movie thrills while spoofing them. In all cases, audiences didn’t mind. Even the best of the year’s movies exhibited this tendency, the big exception being Star Wars: The Force Awakens which was content to check off boxes inspired by the first three movies in order to reassure fans that old-school Star Wars could be safely rebooted and not screwed up. Here’s an overview of some of the best in film that 2015 had to offer at press time (pre-Christmas Day 2015 releases).
Best of Enemies
Archival news footage captures the incendiary debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal during the 1968 presidential campaign. The animosity between these patrician ideologues made for great TV back then. And now, augmented with the comments of peers and family, and retrospective interviews with the participants (who took their mutual hatred to their graves), it makes a great documentary. Best of Enemies offers a glimpse of an America that has changed much, and yet (in many sad respects) has stayed the same.
Brooklyn, Carol, and Trumbo
There was a time when movies set in what my parents called “the nifty ‘50s” signaled nostalgia, U.S. ascendancy and the fulfillment of the American Dream, but there’s no sign of that here. The view of 1950s America shared by all three of these films is colorful, dynamic…and repressive. Although Brooklyn is the most sentimental of the lot, its tale of an Irish immigrant (the luminous Saoirse Ronan) struggling to find her place in America still casts a cold eye on class and ethnic differences (albeit, white differences, as characters of color are nonexistent in all three films). In Carol Cate Blanchett’s somnambulistic and vaguely predatory title character suffers due to her sexuality in a far more muted way than does the brash, blacklisted Trumbo, played by Bryan Cranston in the film of the same name. But suffer they do and only one finds true vindication. Taken as a whole, these movies make for a fascinating triptych of midcentury America.
Easily the most unconventional American film of 2015, Spike Lee’s satire relocates Aristophanes’ ancient anti-war play to the violent streets of Chicago’s south side, where more Americans have died from gun violence than soldiers in the Iraq-Afghanistan wars. Swinging wildly from language in verse, musical numbers, raunchy sex comedy, heartfelt drama and political satire, the movie unapologetically goes after everything and everybody by any means necessary to address the violence plaguing Chicago and other American cities. Samuel L. Jackson raps straight into camera as a Dolemite-inspired narrator, signaling a theatricality that is suddenly brought down to earth with gut-wrenching reality. Jennifer Hudson, herself a survivor of gun violence, adds deep truth to the mix, as rising star Teyonah Parris fiercely leads a sex strike determined to end the mayhem perpetrated by the warring gangs. The resolve to withhold sex until the violence has ended becomes a clarion cry for women to take the power and exact social change. Co-written by KU professor Kevin Willmott, this movie harkens back to a time when movies sought to change minds. Maybe they still can.
Like Star Wars, Rocky Balboa has been with us since the 1970s, and this seventh entry to the series is almost as uplifting as the original. Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky (like his Rambo) has soared (or plummeted) to comic-book level only to return to more realistic incarnations. Michael B. Johnson stars as the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, who abandons a white-collar job to seek out a reluctant Rocky Balboa to train him for a shot at the title. What could have been a weak formula is given real grit and subtext by writer-director Ryan Coolger (Fruitvale Station), and Stallone’s performance is spot-on. A breathtaking mid-film set piece featuring a three-round fight, in real time as a single take, is one of the most dynamic sequences of the year.
The 2015 tonal whiplash continues with this energetic crime comedy-drama following a trio of African-American nerds running afoul of drug dealers. Cruising “the bottoms” of Inglewood, California, on their bikes and obsessed with ‘90s hip-hop, these three are the last kids anybody would expect to be sucked into “the life.” The movie’s fractured timeline often results in dizzying transitions, but the three leads, played by Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori and Kiersey Clemons, have charm to burn. The eccentric supporting cast and sharp dialogue make for one of this year’s true surprises.
This stripped-down sci-fi drama, directed by 28 Days Later author Alex Garland, is a compelling, provocative study of characters under pressure. Domhnall Gleeson (also in Brooklyn) plays Caleb Smith, a brilliant computer programmer summoned to the secluded estate of visionary scientist Nathan Bateman, played with controlled menace by Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis). Smith soon finds himself part of an experiment to test the artificial intelligence of Ava, a beautiful android invented by Bateman. Alicia Vikander’s turn as Ava, augmented by flawless special effects, is instantly convincing, making for a first-rate thriller with more than its share of twists and turns. Like last year’s Under the Skin, this is the kind of indie-genre production that is alive with ideas and risks.
One of the most creative and clever films to come out of Pixar, this is a true “psychological comedy” that takes us inside the head of an 11-year-old girl and introduces us to a set of squabbling characters comprising her pre-teen psyche. The voice work by Lewis Black, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling and Amy Poehler is top-notch, and the jokes never stop. At a time when so much corporate cinema is based on pre-existing intellectual property, this is a refreshing, original concept for all ages.
Love & Mercy
This biopic love story about the life of Beach Boy Brian Wilson is one of the most touching and unique films of the year. Intercutting between two periods of Wilson’s life and taking the bold chance of casting two different actors to play him, the film manages to visualize the creative process — a psychological breakdown and a spiritual rebirth – any one of which is major challenge. By focusing on the love story in Wilson’s later life, with John Cusack as reclusive, damaged Wilson, and Elizabeth Banks, as his wife Melinda, it naturally begs the question “How did he get here?” The answer comes in the earlier story, where a younger Wilson, played by Paul Dano, faces familial abuse, self-doubt and unimaginable fame. Both stories are riveting, and the filmmaking convincingly represents three visually distinct decades in a fascinating time trip.
Mad Max Fury Road
Arguably the best film of the year, Mad Max: Fury Road is certainly the most visceral, eccentric and cinematic action movie of the century (so far). Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa is the real “hero” of the film, with Tom Hardy’s “Mad” Max a necessary component but not the lead. The feminist subtext is rife in this “smash the patriarchy” tale as Furiosa rescues the enslaved concubines of the corrupt leader Immortan Joe. Pursued by Joe’s War Boys and their fleet of outrageous machines, the subsequent 90-minute chase manages to both reveal character and avoid the kind of visual repetition that, in less skilled hands, would certainly flatline the movie. Filled with mind-boggling stunts and wicked, offbeat humor, this is a true “movie as thrill ride” experience.
What We Do in the Shadows
The best comedy of 2015 comes from an unlikely place in an unlikely form about an unlikely subject: in present-day New Zealand, a documentary crew follows a trio of centuries-old vampires through their day-to-day (night-to-night?) undead lives. Flight of the Concords co-star Jemaine Clement and longtime collaborator Taika Waititi wrote and directed this brilliant send-up of horror films and reality TV. As the bloodsuckers bumble their way through encounters with old flames, new familiars and even a pack of belligerent werewolves, they eventually emerge as sympathetic, flawed and all-too-human characters. That alone makes this worth seeking out, but the fact that it’s drop-dead funny executed by truly innovative filmmakers seals the deal.