Sunday, December 20, 2015

Five Favorite Films of 2015

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.

Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River, which was booed by the audience and trashed by critics when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014, is a film that almost nobody saw this year for that reason. Its cinematic release was extremely limited. The movie showed in only three theaters in New York and Los Angeles and grossed just over $45,000 in the US. Fortunately, I happened to be in New York the one week that the movie screened at the Angelika Film Center there. Although many have accused Gosling of ripping off David Lynch (and yes, Lynch’s films obviously influenced the movie’s elliptical style), Gosling’s shy brand of coolness is stamped all over the movie.

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 most important film of 2015 is Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight. I saw it when I was at a conference in Chicago, but it’s set here in my home city of Boston. Following a team of investigative reporters at the Boston Globe who won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing the tragic breadth of the Catholic church’s cover-up of the city’s decades-long priest sex abuse scandal, the impeccable ensemble cast (especially Mark Ruffalo as the film’s ethical backbone) and the cumulative emotional impact work with devastating precision. What impresses me even more in retrospect is how carefully such explosive subject matter is handled in the film. Never once does the material tip in the direction of the sensational, rooting the movie in genuinely moral territory from start to finish.

Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out, directed by Pete Docter, is perhaps the only cartoon that will ever appear on a list of my favorite films. It’s often as profound in its ideas as Spotlight, and that’s really saying something. The movie takes place mostly inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley, who’s recently relocated with her parents from the midwest to San Francisco. As Riley starts to grow homesick, missing her former town and her friends there, the emotions in her head, voiced by an array of comedians and TV personalities, begin to wrestle it out with one another: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader).

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.

Ridley Scott’s latest venture, The Martian, I saw at a beautifully restored art deco theater in Brattleboro, Vermont. The packed Saturday night audience was easily the most subdued and well-behaved I’ve had the pleasure of viewing a movie with in years, reminding me of just how important that aspect of moviegoing can be, and how much it can affect our enjoyment of a film. The crowded house also provided a nice counterpoint to the on-screen desolation; an American astronaut, played with equal parts humor and gravitas by Matt Damon, gets stranded alone on Mars after a storm separates him from the rest of his mission crew. What follows is high and gripping entertainment, as Damon’s character engineers ways to grow food and survive on an inhospitable planet, while we await his rescue by the NASA folks down on Earth.

Of course, recent hits such as Alfonso CuarĂ³n’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.

Finally, another movie that I saw in New York over Thanksgiving, Josh Mond’s James White, is a little film that I’m very glad I had a chance to watch. A family drama set in Manhattan, just after the death of the protagonist’s somewhat absent father, it comes complete with a boost of adrenaline, thanks to the energetic performance of Christopher Abbott in the title role, an aspiring magazine writer who’s trying to find his path and seriously flailing. Cynthia Nixon’s fierce and soulful portrayal of his mother, a cancer patient nearing the end of her life, is award-worthy, masterfully evoking her character’s delicate strength. A heartbreaking dialogue between the two in their apartment’s bathroom contains the finest writing and delivery of any scene that I saw this year.