Aesthetic Drift #7 by Brett Pribble
The Ten Best Films of 2015
With the Oscars dropping on Sunday night, I’ve decided to hurl out my own opinion about the best films of the Trumpian Year of the Pig: 2015. I didn’t include documentaries or foreign films because I didn’t have time to watch enough of them, but I did spend countless hours watching English language features. And while I think the Oscars got a few things right this year, here’s a healthy serving of what I’m eating up.
Nothing says love and romance quite like receiving a severed finger in the mail. Onur Tukel writes, directs, and stars in this fresher than fresh horror-comedy-meditation on relationships and commitment. His character Ron is a cynical high school teacher just dying to tell the tale of how in college he accidentally sliced a man’s fingers off. After failing to reveal this on live radio, he spills the beans about his sordid past on a double date with friends. This confession throws Ron’s world into chaos. His best friend’s girl tells his wife that he fingered her at a party. At work, his condescending lectures to his class about resolving international conflicts peacefully lead to his own fanatical paranoia (“You may be Italian, but I’m Turkish. And Turkish people are fucking crazy!”).
Did I mention that Ron receives amputated body parts during all this? While trying to keep his love life and irritated students in check, he discovers severed limbs the mail, his laundry, and even his Chinese food. Is his cuckolded former friend Les the culprit, or is something more nefarious at play? If you like your comedies with a dose of ghastliness, a touch of social commentary, and a dash absurdity, mark this one in your queue.
If you’ve been waiting your whole life for a movie about a narcissistic puppet dealing with existential crises, well friend, your wait is over. In this haunting oddity, Charlie Kaufman demonstrates once again his ability to craft a bizarre, wholly original work of art. Some of his previous screenplays include Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In 2008, he released his first directorial effort and possible magnum opus, Synecdoche, New York. His sophomore effort Anomalisa illustrates once again that he belongs both in the writer’s room and behind the camera.
The puppets in Kaufman’s movie simultaneously feel both real and fake. Their expressions, movements, skin—all appear life like, but they are held together by strings to remind us that they are just puppets (like all human beings). The protagonist is British author Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis). He’s travelling to give speeches after writing a successful book about Customer Service in America. But he hates customer service and customers. He doesn’t like anyone, not the cab driver making jokes on the way to his hotel, not his wife and kids back home, not his ex-girlfriend he rings for a booty call, not anyone. Everyone is the same: fake, boring, meaningless. And for this reason Kaufman chooses to have every character but Michael voiced by the same male actor (Tom Noonan). Well, there is one exception. Jennifer Jason Leigh voices Lisa, an insecure fan of his he meets in the hotel. Her voice sounds unique and beautiful to him, and it’s through her that this movie finds its poetry.
But like every hot jolt of excitement a new romance provides, it eventually fades. This movies drifts in the black hole at the center of every skeptic’s heart. Everything is ultimately meaningless. We’re always alone. Life is completely absurd. It’s a script that would make Albert Camus proud. But it still has its meaning and resonance in the way it drifts back and forth between heartache and heart failure. Most beautiful things are tragic in their own way.
- Clouds of Sils Maria
It’s a question we’ve all heard: does art imitate life or does life imitate art? Olivier Assayas takes us to the French Alps to explore the answer. In the filmmaker’s latest piece of thought porn, Juliette Binoche is Maria Enders, an aging actress tasked with starring in a new rendition of the play that gave birth to her celebrity. Only this time her character won’t be the young femme fatale that she is famous for. Instead, she’s forced to play an older woman manipulated by the younger vixen. This mirrors the 1980 film Rendez-Vous, also directed by Assayas. In it Binoche plays a young actress at the brink of stardom. Binoche herself (now in her fifties) doesn’t command the attention she once did as audiences are drawn to dystopian teen romances.
And who could teach Binoche a thing or two about this generation’s pop-culture obsessions better than Twilight heroine Kristin Stewart? She inhabits the role of Valentine, Maria’s assistant, with ease and potency. Valentine convinces Maria to take on the role of the older character because (unlike Maria) she sees strength in her. Stewart owns this performance, and it’s a shame she wasn’t nominated for Best Supporting Actress. It washes away any bad taste that Twilight might have left in your mouth.
This richly textured movie is a film within a film. Valentine and Maria practice the roles of the characters in the play to wrench Maria from her doubts. Meanwhile, it becomes clear that the sensuality extends beyond their roles and into each other. If you enjoy complex characters and crackling dialogue more than chase scenes, you’ll be lured into Sils Maria’s vibrant landscapes and erotic tension. Chloe Martez is also excellent as the Lindsey Lohan-esque troubled young actress taking over the femme fatale character from Binoche. There are enough layers here to watch this movie several times and take away something new with each visit.
- The Revenant
In a supporting role, Tom Hardy steals this film as murderer John Fitzgerald. He looks directly into the camera with burning eyes at the end of a monologue about his pa finding religion: “In that moment, he told me, he found God. And it turns out, that God, he’s a squirrel. Yeah, big ‘ol meaty one. I found God, he used to say. While I was sitting there basking in the sublimity of mercy, I shot and ate that son of a bitch.”
The quest to slay Fitzgerald for killing his boy is the only thing that keeps protagonist Hugh Glass’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) heart ticking. The theme of survival—in all of its barbarity, selfishness, and grace—courses through every frame this beautiful film. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki turns a lush wilderness into savage ghost lands. You’re so immersed in the bloody trees that you can feel snow cutting your flesh and freezing your limbs. Critics who claimed writer-director Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Birdman was just a gimmick ought be silenced by the scope and ambition of this staggering work.
It’s said that the more a character wants something, the more we want it too, and Hugh Glass wants to avenge his boy so fiercely that he’ll eat raw bison, sleep inside horse carcasses, and endure being mauled by a grizzly bear to attain justice. Watch this film and see if you can survive the beating it puts you through.
Dread. Ominous, pitch-black dread wails through this movie like a soul falling straight to hell. But hell is a better place than the cartel controlled neighborhoods of Juarez. That’s where FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) travels in director Denis Villeneuve’s finest work yet. After a raid on an Arizona house leaves her with nothing more than rows of corpses wrapped in plastic, Kate seeks an answer. Josh Brolin, with more than a touch of patronization, is happy to give her one: go on a secret mission to capture the head of a cartel in Mexico. The details of how, why, and where are murky, but Blunt’s Kate is willing to go along with it.
Through her eyes, the film’s singular conscience, we sail through a nightmare world. The shadows and contours of it are filmed in brilliant detail by Roger Deakins (probably the best cinematographer still working—just watch most Coen Brothers films from the last two decades if you don’t believe me). In this nightmare, we’re left to ponder if the war on drugs can ever work, and even if it could work, is it worth the moral price we’d have to pay to win it? Josh Brolin’s morals went out the window a long time ago, and Emily Blunt does a great job struggling with hers. Also along for the ride is a demon more mysterious than Josh Brolin: a former prosecutor named Alejandro played by Benicio Del Toro. Del Toro won the Oscar for his role in the last great movie about the futility of the war on drugs, Traffic.
While this isn’t the first movie to deal with this subject matter, the tight and rule-breaking script by Tyler Sheridan breathes new life into the genre. As the film states at the beginning, Sicario is the Mexican word for hit man. This may seem a relatively clear and simple title on the surface, but much like the movie’s themes, it proves more complex.
We hear about their stories on the news: women kidnapped and forced to live in captivity for years. On May 6, 2013, Amanda Berry escaped the home of Ariel Castro with her six-year-old daughter. Shortly thereafter, Castro pled guilty to 937 counts of rape, one of which led to Amanda’s daughter, Jocelyn. Before escaping, Amanda created a schoolhouse in her prison to give Jocelyn some semblance of normal life. It’s easy to see parallels between this story and Room. The book of the same name that it was adapted from was actually influenced by an Austrian case in which a 42-year-old woman told the authorities how her father imprisoned her and fathered seven children from her.
It’s impossible to imagine experiencing such terrors. But that’s exactly what Room does. The fact that the film is imbued with hope, love, and beauty is nothing short of a small miracle. Brie Larson is brilliant as Ma. Imprisoned seven years in an outhouse with her five-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), she does everything she can to shield the dark reality of their situation from him: their imprisonment, that Jack is a product of rape, that Old Nick visits them to sexually assault her, and her desire to kill herself if it weren’t for loving her boy. Filling Jack’s life with games and distractions, she convinces him that the world doesn’t exist outside of the room they inhabit. It’s just the two of them and the window in the ceiling.
The story is told from Jack’s perspective, which was a genius decision. It allows the universe to take on a magical quality instead of grim desolation. Room is about imprisonment, but it’s also a thriller about escape. What if they found a way to get free? And how then would a child react to experiencing other people, animals, nature, the world—if he was raised to believe the entire universe was contained in four by four walls? Unlike the outhouse Ma and Jack are trapped in, the amount of emotions and ideas Room wrestles with is numerous.
Melancholy permeates every facet of this bewitching adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt. If you swooned over the wistful imagery of Todd Haynes earlier works, Carol will not disappoint. It swims in murky puddles of the ‘50s that Haynes treaded in Far From Heaven. Some like to romanticize the ‘50s as a golden age. The economy was booming and a man could provide for his family while his wife stayed home and took care of the kids. But what if that man didn’t fit into society’s idea of the model life? What if he (or she) was black or gay or simply refuses to go with the flow? How golden would things be then?
This movie is about such questions, as Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara struggle to live out their lesbian love affair. But it’s more about the somber mood than the somber message. It allows you to wallow in New York’s rainy streets, the expressions of desire and innuendo on the faces of its talented actresses. It basks in the midcentury style of its cinematography: cool and warm magentas and greens, pronounced but limited color. At times the camera is positioned away from the characters, allowing us to ease drop on their conversations, which further highlights the fear and alienation of homosexuals in the ‘50s. Adding to the visuals is the dreamy score by Carter Burwell, which further plunges you into the movie’s melodrama and sensuality.
Blanchett and Mara are a couple to be remembered. Blanchett’s Carol is always in control, always three steps ahead (if perhaps a bit self-defeating) in her luxurious coats, and Mara is perfect is the younger artist, the naïve and curious Therese. Kyle Chandler does excellent work as Carol’s jealous husband who wants her to stay home and raise their daughter with him. In order to tame her, he’ll hire private detectives and attempt to declare her unfit to raise a child—for her perverse sexuality. It’s indeed a melancholy romance, but one with traces of hope and gallons of beauty. Lose yourself in its sumptuousness.
- Ex Machina
What makes us human? What makes life valuable? These are some of the questions mined by Alex Garland’s psychological thriller. Films have touched on these questions in the past, but in comparison to this movie most have only grazed the surface. More often than not, philosophical inquiries are pushed to the side so that explosions and fight sequences can take center stage. Alex Garland has written some of the smartest Sci-Fi screenplays out there (Sunshine, 28 Days Later), and for the first time he got to direct one of his scripts. Ex Machina seeks out a more analytical science fiction viewer, one more interested in ideas than eye candy. Though, there is plenty of imagery to marvel over in this slick addition to the genre. Alicia Vikander is Ava, an artificially intelligent android with a machine-like body and a human face. The CGI is fantastic, but the best special effect is Vikander’s acting. She is confident, alluring, and wiser than any natural born male gives her credit for.
We are introduced to Ava and the world that keeps her hostage by Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). He’s flown into the secluded compound of his billionaire boss to test whether or not she has human intelligence. Oscar Isaac gives a tour de force performance as Nathan, Caleb’s brilliant employer. Isaac seduces Gleeson with his masculine charms. They share beers and shoot the shit about life like two dudes in a frat house. But in an instant, Nathan shifts into a terrifying monster. He’s both mentally and physically threatening. He didn’t just create Ava to improve the world—he views A.I. as the inevitable end of the human race. He wants to be a God (“If you’ve created a conscious machine, it’s not the history of man. That’s the history of gods.”). Like many brilliant sociopaths, he’s lacks empathy, and Ava is nothing more to him than one more thing to control and manipulate to fortify his manhood. His relationship with Ava, and her struggles against him, work at giving the film an underlying feminist message.
But for all its themes, Ex Machina is still a thriller. It puts you in a vice grip and never lets go. Caleb’s feelings are blown back and forth like little leaves. What does Nathan have planned for him? Why would a billionaire genius need an underling like him to test Ava? Was Ava programmed to exploit his emotions? Is Nathan right about the inevitability of machines taking over? In a fortress designed like a Kubrick film from the ‘70s, we are taken through a maze of danger and ideas that’s hard to forget. Eat your heart out, Avatar.
- The Diary of a Teenage Girl
The title of this film initially gave me pause. Not another quirky indie film like Juno, I thought. Not zany, millennial garbage masquerading as something meaningful. Luckily, you can’t judge a film based on its title. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a true gut punch. Forget hybrid T-Rexes that can blend into their environments. You’ll experience the claws of life ripping into you with much sharper precision if you spend a day in the life of 15-year-old Minnie Goetz.
In the opening scene of the movie, Minnie (Bel Powel) smiles with exhilaration and says, “I had sex last night. Holy shit!” She triumphantly struts through Golden Gate Park in slow motion as the song “Looking for Magic” by The Dwight Twilly Band plays. Little do we know, the sex she had involved losing her virginity to her mom’s 35-year-old boyfriend. The skeazy boyfriend, Monroe, is expertly played by Alexander Skarsgard as a manipulative man-child with touches of humanity. While the film shocks you, causing your full body to recoil in disgust, it avoids being just another public service announcement about sexual predators by telling the story from Minnie’s point of view. We experience her excitement, sorrow, horniness, and the plethora of other emotions that come with youth. Because we’re yanked between revulsion and joy as whimsically as the actions of a teenager, the film contains lurid complexity. She has Monroe take a picture of her face after losing her virginity and later says in her audio diary, “This officially means I’m an adult!” But you can tell she senses something acrid has taken place, but she’s too caught up in the moment to see it.
Unapologetically honest, The Diary of a Teenage Girl triumphs by not portraying a young girl’s sexuality as fragile or simple or repulsive. It revels in the splendor of female sexuality without exploiting or objectifying it. As far as characters go, there are few as intricate and alive as Minnie Goetz. You’re compelled to root for her as she grows in her pursuit of love, art, and sex. We follow her through cocaine hazes and the glam rock streets of ‘70s San Francisco. The comic book artwork of Aline Kominsky-Crumb flows in and off the screen, symbolizing Minnie’s inner world. She imitates Kominsky’s comics in her own art, and in one scene has a conversation with a walking cartoon of Komnisky. “I just want to be touched. I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” Minnie says to her. “Maybe you’re a nympho,” Kominsky replies before adding, “Eh, I’m just fucking with your head. Everyone wants to be touched.” I agree with Kominsky. Everyone does. And everyone should see this movie.
- Beasts of No Nation
Netflix struck gold with its first major feature film. If there’s one film in 2015 that that will be remembered as a masterpiece, it’s Beasts of No Nation. It’s not an easy film to watch, but it shouldn’t be. After showing signs of his brilliance directing the first season of True Detective, Cary Fukunaga demonstrates his true artistic power with this jewel of a film. Acting as writer and director, Fukunaga adapts Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel about Agu, a young boy who is forced to become a soldier after losing his family in an unspecified African country.
Agu is played by first time actor Abraham Attah, who shows more range and intensity than most award-winning actors. Your heart breaks for him and then breaks for him a dozen more times. After witnessing grave atrocities and having nowhere left to call home, he becomes easy prey for the ruthless Commandant played by Idris Elba. Elba’s performance is towering. He is terrifying yet charming, savage yet tender. Elba gives the most convincing performance of any actor this year. The fact that Idris and the film itself didn’t receive Oscar nominations is the clearest example that the voting system in the Academy is flawed. While I wasn’t impressed by Will Smith’s “snubbed” performance in Concussion, it’s easy to see how those claiming the Academy lacks diversity would pounce all over this one. Elba blows away all of the actors nominated for Best Supporting Actor (and the SAGs agree with me, who awarded him the prize), and no film nominated for Best Picture takes a tenth as many chances as this one.
It’s easy to see how some might be put off by the grim savagery depicted in this film. The horrors of Africa aren’t something Americans like to think about. Africa is a far away place with atrocities we have no idea how to mend. No one likes to think of child soldiers taking over villages with machine guns and machetes. It’s punishing to watch a sweet boy like Abu slaughter women and children. But this is the reality of many nations in Africa. The fact that we want to turn away from it is all the more reason to embrace it.
But don’t think this is just a depressing movie about child soldiers. It’s also an elegant story with arresting cinematography. At times the landscape becomes neon shades of pink and blue, which further emphasizes how surreal the world has become to Abu. And through all of his suffering, Agu still brings us a glimmer of hope. But not before he asks in despair, “Sun, why are you shining on this world? I am wanting to catch you in my hands, to squeeze you until you cannot shine no more. That way, everything is dark and nobody’s ever having to see all of the terrible things that are happening here.” And yet, he does maintain hope. He’s stronger than most adults will ever be.
Some critics said the film would have a greater impact if it referred to a specific country and conflict. But these critics missed the point. Fukunaga is interested in more than just a single conflict because children have been turned into soldiers in many countries, and more of them will surely be again in different nations in the future. Much like the First Season of True Detective, watching this film leaves you wondering how a loving God could allow such horrors. The film provides no God, but it does give us a devil. Elba is an acting wizard as the Commandant. He is both nurturing and petrifying when he tells Abu, “I will always protect you because you are my son. And a son always protects his father.” Human beings are capable of greater depravity than any fallen angels.
The main reason Beasts of No Nation didn’t receive any Oscar nominations is likely due to its distributor, Netflix. Many members of the Academy had to wait for the screener (or watch it on Netflix) instead of seeing it in theaters because AMC, Regal, Carmike, and Cinemark all refused to show it. The major chains protested Beasts because Netflix didn’t allow theaters 90 days of exclusivity before releasing it on its streaming service. Nevertheless, Netflix managed to show it in 31 theaters in 30 US cities, which qualified it for Oscar contention. But whatever the reason for it not being nominated, whether because the subject matter was too challenging, or new streaming technology too intimidating, or because it didn’t appeal to old white men—Beasts of No Nation will be remembered as a classic.
- The Hateful Eight: Tarantino brings his signature dialogue to a western horror hybrid that includes delicious turns from actors Walton Goggins and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Easily the most polarizing film of the year, it deserves a shout out simply for giving pretentious people something to debate about.
- Mad Max: Fury Road: Director George Miller recreates everything magical about his trilogy from the ‘80s (especially Road Warrior). This film made every other big budget summer blockbuster feel like an exercise in punching yourself in face. The cinematography is beautiful, the car chases through the Australian desert are impeccably choreographed, and its upending of gender roles is refreshing. Charlize Theron steals the show as Imperator Furiosa, a female warrior fighting for the freedom of other fierce women. This certainly isn’t your father’s action hero.
Brett Pribble teaches writing courses in Orlando, Florida. He’s afraid of sharks and often isn’t sure whether or not he’s dreaming. He was previously published in Saw Palm, The Molotov Cocktail, and 10,000 Tons of Black Ink.