Niles Schwartz looks back on some of the best and most thought-provoking films from 2015.
Carol (Todd Haynes)
Based on Patricia Highsmith’s pseudonymously published novel The Price of Salt, Carol is a “love that dare not speak its name” set up between married upper-middle class Carol (Cate Blanchett) and naïve saleswoman Therese (Rooney Mara). Around the plot points of attraction, temptation and escape, with interruptions from Carol’s frustrated husband (Kyle Chandler) and divorce proceedings, is a dreamlike luxuriation in images that is constantly calling attention to how we see. Few films described as “chilly” have been so interested in the idea of “love at first sight,” nor have they had a proclamation of “I love you” bleed through the screen with such earnest feeling (that statement was denied its day in Haynes’s earlier Far from Heaven and I’m Not There). In Haynes’s work there’s a running theme of people trying to figure out themselves and their desires through logic, and coming up against the fact that desire can just happen. There’s something religious about Carol, a perfect marriage on its terrestrial surfaces of heaven and earth, ethereal private longings and the material grid of phenomenonality.
Hard to Be a God (Aleksey German)
“We’re learning to fly! Mostly downwards!” German’s final film (in fact, he died while finishing the editing), thirteen years in the making, is one of the most repellent, transfixing, oblique and startling things viewers could see in 2015. Or ever. Black and white and smothered in dirt, blood, snot, spit, piss and shit (not literally, I hope), Hard to Be a God adapts an old Russian science-fiction novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (best known for Stalker, adapted by Andrei Tarkovsky) about a scientist on an alien planet where civilization is still a few hundred years behind Earth. There was no Renaissance on this planet; universities were destroyed, artists and intellectuals killed. We have to submit to this world’s bizarre syntax and customs for three trying hours, but the journey of submission is as rewarding as it is perplexing. Hard to Be a God has its kin this year in the more easily digestible Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant, but its considerations of civilization and its discontents are presumably intimate ones for German, who doubtless was thinking of the troubled history of Russia during his lifetime. The film’s Don Quixote helmets are striking props with reference to the construction of reality and identity in a godless world.
Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg)
As my secular bible, Cervantes’ Don Quixote seems to lurk behind most every text or film I encounter, so my confirmation bias is probably in play when I look at the office of an East Berlin lawyer in Steven Spielberg’s espionage masterpiece Bridge of Spies and see, amidst the Lenins and Marxes, a Quixote figurine on a shelf—though I’m not sure, because it’s slightly out of focus. Regardless, the film, written by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers, is Cervantean in how it lays out the gap between real events and narrative. That issue is the subject of our first encounter with attorney James Donovan (Tom Hanks), as he discusses an insurance case with a colleague. Someone lost control of his car and plowed into five other vehicles; Donovan’s client is the insurance company representing the perpetrator, and according to the company the accident represents one event (and subject to a single payout), while the opposing view is that it’s five separate events. The accident is “one thing,” says Donovan, and to parse it out with his colleague’s rigorous specificity would make the insurance business unsustainable. “And then no one is safe.”
This judicial argument addresses the problem inherent in all storytelling. In Don Quixote Cervantes explored the confused relationship between reality’s infinite variables and the summarizing reflection of it in art—for instance when Sancho Panza tells a story about a goatherd who, during a journey to reach the woman he loves, must carry his flock of three hundred across a river one goat at a time. Sancho describes the goatherd’s endeavor goat by goat, individually. Breaking the tedium, Don Quixote interrupts and asks why Sancho doesn’t just say “he ferried them all over,” resulting in a brief rhetorical argument after which Sancho forgets the story’s outcome. Sancho’s story could have taken years to finish, hitting endless tangents along the way, just as Donovan’s insurance case could be indefatigably drawn out. While it’s easy to see this as another cornball Spielberg dad-movie, I sense the more multifaceted and formally considerate director of AI and Lincoln is doing something rich here, insisting that we take this movie home with us and dissect its consoling warmth. It also has Hanks giving one of those performances that is too good to win awards (I’d say the same for Spielberg’s direction)—the kind of seemingly effortless, downplayed bravado Ralph Fiennes pulled off last year in The Grand Budapest Hotel, or Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis before that.
Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrera)
A thinly (basically not-at-all) veiled dramatization of the Dominique Straus-Kahn sexual assault controversy from 2011, Gerard Depardieu plays “Devereaux,” a respected banker whose future may include the French presidency, and Jacqueline Bisset his heiress wife, Simone, who endures her husband’s vices as his line to power becomes more assured. Welcome to New York is like a contemporary Goya capricho: hyperbolically raunchy, ugly, venal and yet real enough to pulverize any snide detachment. It’s a sequel of sorts to Ferrera’s notorious Bad Lieutenant (1992), soaked in the same Catholic despair. But here the God that’s dead is idealism. Devereaux confesses in voiceover: “What a magnificent God. To believe everything would be okay.” He’s a man who in youth worked toward the beacon of progress and equality. “I understood the futility of struggling against this insurmountable tsunami of troubles we face. Things will not change. The hungry will die. The sick? They will die too. Poverty? It’s good business. Wise men are comforted by their limitations. I am overwhelmed by this revelation.”
Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs)
There are several points of view on Channing Tatum & co.’s sequel to the 2012 male-stripper juggernaut: its dismissal as junk; a refreshing feminist consideration of the female gaze; a covert auteur challenge by cinematographer/editor/producer Steven Soderbergh (who’s handed the reins over to his longtime assistant, Gregory Jacobs). I think Jacobs has made a song-and-dance musical masterwork that embraces its multitudes from junky dude-bro romp to an art film of sculpted obliques and pagan rituals reminiscent of Fellini Satyricon (1969), possibly the best kind of song-and-dance movie since Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979). Time will tell if that kind of praise is too much, too soon. And even some of the film’s think-piecey champions have risked trivializing it by emphasizing its supposed gender politics (I think having the aggressive male dancers roughly handle not-exactly-consenting women as R. Kelly plays in the background is problematic, to say the least). The point of view here remains male, but point of view is also the point. While playing as a comic looking glass mirror to the lessons learned of Soderbergh’s original, Magic Mike XXL is no less anguished about sensationalism and commodification. It reaches its glorious apex with its simulation of “real life,” as in Dick Richie’s faux wedding. At its end is the narcotic aesthetic of advertising, and while we delight in looking at the film’s players, note how we are denied a view of the fireworks they’re seeing in the distance.
The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
A sensual puzzle of fabric floating in tightly honed compositions, The Assassin isn’t exactly conducive to ADHD times. I admit on viewing it the first time my mind began to wander before the film sucked me back in with its unsettling aromas of spatial beauty and intrigue. But no film of 2015 pursued me, even into my dreams, as relentlessly as this one. The slow austerity, enhanced by the limitations of the screen-aspect ratio, is Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s mousetrap, like the fix the titular assassin (Shu Qi) finds herself in: as punishment for failing to carry out an assassination because of human feeling, she’s commanded by her master (Fang-Yi Sheu) to kill her cousin (Chang Chen), to whom she was once betrothed to marry. The flickering candles and gentle wind in those fixed frames breathe sympathy and looseness into courtly ritual and lean wuxia precision. The Assassin has its share of violence, but the opera and firm artistry of the picture funnel into the assuring exhalation of its outcome, as the imperious demands of social duty are washed away and the assassin blends into the landscape as another human being.
Blackhat (Michael Mann)
After Heat in 1995, Michael Mann had been planning an adaptation of William Gibson’s cyberpunk Neuromancer sequel Count Zero, a project perhaps hampered by the financial failures of Johnny Mnemonic and Strange Days. But as with Gibson’s post-9/11 novels (beginning with Pattern Recognition), Mann has been determined to show that the future is happening now. Blackhat makes cybernetics the main focus of an airport paperback plot where the U.S. Department of Justice (personified by an excellent Viola Davis) and Chinese PLA (faced by Wang Leehom) recruit a convicted hacker (Chris Hemsworth) to help catch the perpetrator of cyber attacks on financial markets and nuclear power plants. A committed film formalist whose principle inspirations were Eisenstein and Vertov, Mann’s method and medium are fused with his content; the beautiful and smeary digital cinematography for which he’s known renders the world as data—and the blips in the code remind us that what we’re seeing is messily “rewritten,” much as the hacker does with the original code in the story. Blackhat is more a cinematic essay about images and the postmodern condition than it is the thriller critics and audiences roundly rejected. Not that it is surprising that the studio dumped it in January. In its rhythms, tones, and gestures it’s possibly the strangest film to be wide released since Terrence Malick’s The New World in 2005.
Heart of a Dog (Laurie Anderson)
Installation artist and experimental musician Laurie Anderson’s film begins as a personal reflection on her late, piano-playing dog Lolabelle and becomes a cleansing audiovisual meditation on love and death, memories and the future. Like the mind in a free-flowing meditation, it’s a cartwheel of images transmigrating endlessly into each other, Anderson’s mind a camera taking snapshots and perusing them. Joining memories of Lola are Anderson’s thoughts about others who have moved on, including artistic colleagues, her mother, and—while he’s not mentioned by name, we see and hear him—husband Lou Reed. The wonderment of how Lolabelle sees the world (or doesn’t see; she eventually goes blind) carries over to how the world, and the nature of images, changed after 9/11. Suddenly cameras were everywhere and everyone became data, the records held in a database in Utah. “If you see something, say something,” Anderson quotes the ubiquitous Orange Alert airport notices, adding the amusing last part of the official signage, “hopefully it’s nothing.” The outside world being processed as it is with so much nothing, the retreat is to the interior, where the struggle is to find and release love and empathy, such as only the knowledge of death seems to allow.
The Mend (John Magary)
When “funny/sad” is an indie-film cliché, how refreshing to see a small scale dramedy with such teeth and empathy, thanks in no small part to its central pairing of Josh Lucas and Stephen Plunkett as brothers who’ve assumed the downside/upside inheritances of developmental dysfunction, until circumstance puts them on ostensibly the same wounded platform. Lucas—in one of the year’s best, and unsung, performances—plays Mat, a loser who drags his old laptop around town, the vestige of spoiled dreams of commercial web design. Drunk, horny, and, after a break-up, homeless, he sneaks into a dinner party held by his legal-aid brother Alan (Stephen Plunkett) and his dancer girlfriend Farrah (Mickey Sumner). While Alan and Farrah leave for Canada the next morning, Mat wakes up to a pleasant Home Alone fantasy, lapping up “the good life” of a stable, middle-class New Yorker and sharing the space with his on-again-off-again girlfriend Andrea (Lucy Owen) and her adolescent son. Alan comes home sooner than expected, heartbroken but silent about an obvious breakup with Farrah. What follows is drunken, hopeless and desperate sibling tension. The human drama is fantastic, thanks to the fine actors and pathetic hilarity, but the film really works because of Magary’s absorption of contemporary New York and the people on the periphery. There’s “slice of life” and then there’s the soul’s landscape, wherein the geography a person’s choices seem plotted out well in advance. Surely every male-driven New York story first-feature has Mean Streets looming behind it, but as Mat is a true blue Johnny Boy descendent, so Magary is the real deal, his wildly amorous and bellicose pen writing each painful step with the tenderness of a saint and the prick of a demon.
Irrational Man (Woody Allen)
While a lot of otherwise intelligent people have insisted that Woody Allen is endlessly recycling his anxieties and perversions in a one-film-a-year system, I see his late period as being a golden one. In it, you find frustrated participants clawing for satisfaction in a universe where God is playing hide-and-seek. For a movie apparently written by an out-of-touch octogenarian who directs like he just doesn’t care, I was immediately rattled by how sharp Allen’s first directorial move was, as a philosophical quandary modeled on Kierkegaard begins with Ramsey Lewis’s “The ‘In’ Crowd.” That’s a pretty funny joke, and it set the incisive, wicked cackles of a romantic fun-house mirror maze of distorted reflections and solipsistic chattering (the dueling voiceovers of Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone, lecturer and student, are reminiscent of De Niro and Pesci in Casino, another film about chance that also, interestingly, featured the Lewis song). Of course Irrational Man hits notes of murder and guilt featured in more roundly acclaimed Allen films like Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point, but here the outcome is radically different, and the resonance pronouncedly more melancholy. And while we think about repetition, consider how repetition is what Irrational Man has on its mind, something that in one sense renders daily life banal, while in another makes it profound, the self struggling to sanctify the everyday.
Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako)
Few films feel as important right now as Sissako’s intimate drama of Muslim villagers under the imperious rule of jihadists, Timbuktu is as much a contemplative religious film as it is an urgent political drama. The Sub-Saharan landscape feels vast and free, and yet the black flags of marauding and hypocritical conquerors keep everyone under an iron thumb. Resistance isn’t political here; it’s just the cost of day-to-day living, whether that requires performing music or social intermingling. The main storyline is simple, as a pleasant family man accidentally kills a fisherman with whom he’s had long-running disputes (culminating in the fisherman killing a cherished cow). The governing jihadists arrest the murderer and demand that he produce an exorbitant number of cows to compensate the victim’s family. The other alternative is death. Meanwhile, athletes play football with an invisible ball (and you will chuckle), adulterous lovers are buried up to their necks and stoned (and you will gasp in horror), and a young hip-hop artist renounces his vocation to become a jihadist, performing like an actor for the video camera (and you will shake your head and whisper, “What the hell?”) That last example is important because Sissako knows that the jihadis are dependent on moving images to arrange their public face, whether through posted videos of decapitations, stonings or testimonials. Timbuktu gives us a much-needed alternative picture of a silent world that doesn’t have access to the tools fundamentalism has used so propitiously. As the controversial philosopher John Gray has noted, radical Islam does not embody a medieval worldview necessarily; on the contrary, it is modern to the core.
Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
I’m kind of surprised more people didn’t ask, an hour or a day or months after seeing it: How is it that Mad Max: Fury Road even exists? A $150 million R-rated franchise reboot, released thirty years after its last installment, with scant dialogue or exposition. Our title player (Tom Hardy) is muzzled for nearly the first forty minutes, after which he issues mostly perfunctory grunts and grimaces. He does use a certain word more than once though: “mine.” And yet one of the big talking points of Fury Road is how it belongs to Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who hatches an escape plan for the enslaved wives of a post-apocalyptic dictator husband Immortan Joe. Fury Road is something so different and good that it can’t help but provoke exaggeration (as a film, it is itself so beautifully exaggerated). Does the action never end? No. There are some sustained oasis moments where the audience and characters can lean back and converse. Is Furiosa the main character, and not Max? Well, the “mine!” impulse makes us—like the characters in Miller’s world—give it to one or the other, but the formal consonances in the film remind us that Max and Furiosa have a reciprocating need for one another (after Max gives his blood to save Furiosa, he opens up to her and tells her his name). Without each other, and the complicated alchemy that goes into the making of this artificial world, these players are merely puppets in a corporate manufacturing plant of Warner Bros., and indeed the engine revving up with the opening studio label suggests as much, as do the lifeless doll heads on the helmets of Immortan Joe’s soldiers (that, along with a frame rate suggesting animation, feels like Miller tipping his hat to the Brothers Quay). The entire movie is a mechanical apparatus working in unison, the non-diegetic music score becoming the stuff performed on-screen by the likes of the guitar wielding Doof Warrior, while the ferocious warriors bathe their mouths in chrome and plead with us to witness them.