Judging from my five favorite movies of 2015, or the five films that stayed with me the most, this has clearly been a somewhat unusual year for cinema. Genres like animation and outer space adventure tales, which I’ve previously enjoyed but never taken too seriously, suddenly offered films that left me thinking more deeply than they had before. Two of my favorite movies of the past twelve months were box office hits, rare for the films that appeal to me the most during any given year. It makes sense in a way, as global capitalism marches on, that there’s a gratifying balance to be found between the blockbusters and the small independent movies; some talents will trickle up, while others will trickle down.
The narrative of Lost River is intentionally slim: a young man named Bones (Iain De Caestecker, handsomely approximating Gosling himself) strips copper from abandoned urban buildings and sells it to help support his kid brother and his mother (Christina Hendricks), who ends up in a rather interesting line of work herself. They’re trying to save the house that they’re about to lose. Several subplots emerge: Bones has a quasi-romance with a neighbor (Saoirse Ronan), gets pursued by a towering, brutal bully (Matt Smith), and discovers a flooded town that explains the movie’s title. The scrappy characters and dreamlike, frequently transfixing images, underscored by Johnny Jewel’s pulsating electronic soundtrack, mean more than the sum of those storylines.
The result is a very American product (by a Canadian-born director) that’s both contemplative and phantasmagoric, combining the grotesque surrealism of writers like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor with the hypervisual verve of a graphic novel. Coincidentally, I watched the film immediately after I saw the fun and riveting horror flick It Follows at the same theater. Both movies were filmed in Detroit, and both use that legendary location’s current decrepitude and ruined grandeur to sad and exhilarating effect, another element that makes Lost River feel distinctly American to me.
The inside of Riley’s mind, wide and sprawling as a world of its own, comes to life in a way that couldn’t be conveyed in any other medium. The film is mostly about memory, and the sorrow inherent in the notion that some of our memories, notably those from childhood, will simply be lost over time. In the film, memories are represented by colorful spheres; as Riley’s memories rack up, workers keep them safely shelved, plucking out the ones that have turned gray. The wasteland of forgotten memories where Joy finds herself later in the movie, an endless slope of darkened, discarded spheres, is an image that hasn’t left me since I saw the film several months ago. Neither has the movie’s central message: sometimes Sadness has to be allowed to take control.
Of course, recent hits such as Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar could easily have made The Martian seem like a copycat film. And as much as I loved Gravity, I think there’s a bit more humanity in The Martian overall. The science of Ridley Scott’s movie also feels more thought-out and authentic, perhaps because of its fictional source material, the eponymous 2011 novel by Andy Weir on which the film is based. It’s refreshing to see a scientific film that seems both accurate and respectful of its audience’s intelligence.