“The Revenant” Offers Much Ado About Pain

Revenant

The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015)

The Revenant, based on Michael Punke’s true-life novel of the same name, is the latest film of human torment from (now, Oscar-winning) director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Ever since his marvelous turn-of-the-millennium feature debut, Amores Perros, González Iñárritu has specialized in visually stark and emotionally baroque epics of pain and suffering, some of which achieve – or nearly achieve – their lofty ambitions of grandeur, while others seem to enjoy their misery a little too much to tell a meaningful story beyond the presentation of despair. Among the former successes, I would place his first film, as well as Babel (flawed as it is) and Birdman; among the latter failures – none of which are without interest, however – I would place 21 GramsBiutiful and now The Revenant. As if to emphasize his obsession with trauma above all other concerns, the director has spent a lot of time, pre-release, discussing the difficulties of the actual shoot, made even more arduous by his decision to shoot most of the film in natural light. There’s nothing wrong with such a commitment to verisimilitude and artistic integrity. The question, however, is whether or not the trials and tribulations depicted on screen amount to the kind of transcendent spiritual movie-going experience sought by González Iñárritu, or whether it’s all just blood and guts, a more serious version of the other winter Western out in theaters right now, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.

It’s a beautiful film to behold, though very bleak, shot by (also, Oscar-winning, twice) cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (GravityBirdman). The Revenant is set in 1823 and tells the story of mountain man Hugh Glass – played by Leonardo DiCaprio (The Great Gatsby) in an Oscar-buzzy performance – as he is left for dead by his party of fellow fur trappers after a near-lethal bear attack, only to make his way back (hence his status as a “revenant“) and exact revenge on the one of them who did him a particular wrong. Along the way he encounters a variety of obstacles, including his persistent injury, hostile Arikara natives and rival French trappers, not to mention the vast expanse of harsh and indifferent nature, at its most dangerous in the coldest months of the year. We watch him time and time again escape certain death, and after a while begin to wonder less at his supernatural powers of survival than at the director’s insistence on prolonging his (and our) torture. How many times must this man (almost) die? And to what purpose?

Still, there are many breathtaking sequences, including an opening attack by the aforementioned Arikara that is filmed as one long single take (shades of Birdman?). The savage bear mauling is a masterful combination of CGI and real-world elements. And on and on. DiCaprio, to be fair, is quite good, and if he does (finally) win his Oscar, you won’t hear me complain. He is well supported, too, with the likes of Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road), Domhnall Gleeson (Brooklyn, fast outgrowing his position as my least favorite actor with a series of fine supporting roles like this one) and Will Poulter (The Maze Runner), in what may be the best performance of the film as a young boy racked with guilt over leaving Glass behind. I didn’t really buy the pseudo-mystical dream sequences and flashbacks where Glass recalls his past life among the Pawnee, as they felt like a weak attempt by González Iñárritu to inject spiritual qualities into his viscerally violent narrative, but they are, like the rest of the film, stunningly shot. And there you have the film in a nutshell: a series of extraordinary set pieces, aided by strong actors, that ultimately amounts to … a series of set pieces, imperfectly strung together without the weight of meaning the director intends them to have. You can hit us over the head as much as you want, but that pain we feel is not enlightenment; it’s just pain.

Mr. Reed’s Metaphysical Neighborhood Presents the Best Film Acting of 2015

What follows is a list of what I consider the best acting in films released in 2015. Four days ago, I published my list of best (and worst) films of the year, and most actors in most of those films turned in admirable performances. The same goes with directors. I see no need to publish a separate “best directors” list, since if the film is good, then I credit the director. A few actors and actresses in films which I did not put among my top choices still made into this new list, since they were so mesmerizing and memorable, even if the film was not.

Therefore, the actors and actresses listed, below – each with a clip of their performance (when available, and if none is available – or if the available clip is not very good – then I include the movie’s trailer, instead) – are the 5 per category (I stick with just 5, like the Academy, though this is sometimes difficult) whose work most stands out (for me) within the context of the film they’re in; those performances which most contribute to raising the quality of the movie. All movie titles are hyperlinked to my review, and if you follow that link, you can learn more about the movie, itself, and my thoughts on what makes that actor’s performance so special in that movie.

It’s so difficult to choose, but here goes (in alphabetical order by last name within each category):

BEST ACTRESS:

Brie Larson, Room

Teyonah Parris, Chi-Raq

Bel Powley, The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years (no full review yet, so I link to my “best films of the year” page, where I have a capsule review)

Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:

Joan Allen, Room

Elizabeth Banks, Love & Mercy

Kiersey Clemons, Dope

Olivia Cooke, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina

BEST ACTOR:

Paul Dano, Love & Mercy

Michael B. Jordan, Creed

Shameik Moore, Dope

Géza Röhrig, Son of Saul (no full review yet, so I link to my “best films of the year” page, where I have a capsule review)

Jacob Tremblay, Room

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:

Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina

Michael Peña, Ant-Man

Tony Revolori, Dope

Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies

Alexander Skarsgård, The Diary of a Teenage Girl

“The Hateful Eight” Offers Two Halves: One Brilliant; the Other a Bloody, Silly Mess

Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino, 2015)

Writer/director Quentin Tarantino – since his debut, Reservoir Dogs, one of the United States’ noted auteurs – released his eighth feature, The Hateful Eight (or “The H8ful Eight,” as it is also known) for a “70mm Roadshow” on December 25, 2015. It opens in Baltimore in wide (non-70mm) release on Friday, January 8, 2016. I saw it two days after the roadshow started, and have been puzzling it over ever since, since a lot of good people lent their talents to the enterprise, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it, myself. On the acting side, we have Tarantino regular Samuel L. Jackson (Django Unchained); Tarantino “occasionals” like Kurt Russell (Death Proof), Tim Roth (Pulp Fiction) and Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs); as well as Tarantino newbies Jennifer Jason Leigh (Margot at the Wedding) and Bruce Dern (here, as in Nebraska, in full curmudgeon mode), among others. On the production side, we have the great Robert Richardson on camera. He’s a regular, too, having previously shot Kill Bill, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, for Tarantino, along with many films for the likes of Oliver Stone (including JFK, for which he won an Oscar, and Natural Born Killers) and Martin Scorsese (including The Aviator and Hugo, for both of which he won Oscars). On art direction, we have Japanese production designer Yohei Taneda (Kill Bill, Vol. 1), art director Richard L. Johnson (The Truman Show) and set decorator Rosemary Brandenburg (Public Enemies). Fred Raskin is back as editor, having done Guardians of the Galaxy since his last (and first) for Tarantino, Django Unchained. And then there is the revered composer of Western scores, Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), along for the ride (here’s the opening overture), though this being a Tarantino film, there’s plenty of other (anachronistic) music on the soundtrack, as well. What’s the point of this lengthy list? Well, it’s about as frenetically busy as the movie, itself, with about the same amount of overall meaning. In other words, the whole is less than the sum of its parts, however interesting some of those individual parts may be. It’s important to note that until the half-time break, I felt very differently.

In the roadshow version, the film is divided into two halves separated by a 12-minute intermission (with that short overture to start). It is my understanding that though the structure will be the same in the non-70mm version, there will be some shortened scenes and no intermission. I’m not sure how this will affect the experience. What I do know is that, in the roadshow version, I felt as if a spell had been broken when I returned from the break. I mostly loved the first half, which seemed headed to a similar takedown of America’s history of violence and racial exploitation that the director had explored so effectively in Django Unchained. Well scripted, acted and shot, and with that excellent musical theme from Morricone, The Hateful Eight, pre-intermission, succeeded in wrapping me in its seductive mix of vulgar pastiche (Tarantino’s specialty) and clever mystery. But then it all went to bloody hell.

Written as six chapters – not all of which make clear divisional sense, as if Tarantino is just toying with our expectations that they do so – The Hateful Eight starts on a snowy ridge, where Major Marquis Warren (a.k.a. “The Bounty Hunter,” and played by Jackson) stops a stagecoach for a ride. His horse has died, and he has a cargo of human corpses to transport to town. The passenger on that stagecoach is one John Ruth (a.k.a. “The Hangman,” and played by Russell), who has a (live) cargo of his own, Daisy Domergue (a.k.a. “The Prisoner,” and played by Leigh). I should stop to point out that the main characters all have cute little monikers – not all mentioned in the film – that serve as their identities in the “H8ful Eight” pantheon (whatever that ultimately means). Anyway, Ruth is in no mood to slow down his progress, but when he realizes that he and Warren have met before, and that they’re (mostly) in the same business, he reluctantly allows the man (and his cargo) on board. Soon, they meet another wayward traveler, and the suspicious stakes are raised. All the while, a blizzard chases them, and so they take refuge in Minnie’s Haberdashery – a lonely outpost far from town – where a strange group awaits them (the rest of the “H8ful Eight,” we assume). Are they there randomly, or does everyone have some design on Ruth’s prisoner, as he fears?

So far, so good. The mood is simultaneously chilling and funny. Tarantino is a master of the mixed tone, and he deftly alternates between wit and menace with great skill. Jackson’s presence as the sole African-American quickly makes him a target, and before long it seems as if this might just be the de facto sequel to Django Unchained, with that movie’s bounty hunter now an older man, a lifetime of killing white people behind him. Unfortunately, Tarantino has other plans, most of which mystify me, since I am no longer 12 years old.

When we come back from the break for the final three chapters, we’re suddenly in a different movie. Tarantino brings himself in as a jokey narrator (absent from the first half), and the tone shifts away from gravitas towards juvenilia. Along with that comes a sudden explosion of blood – hardly surprising, given Tarantino’s previous work – and a diminishing of the racial politics of the beginning. Dramatically, the film morphs into something both dumber and more conventional, though it keeps the same visual palette. It’s as if Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) directed Part 1, and Eli Roth (Hostel) directed Part 2, otherwise keeping the same cast and crew. Who knows? Since Roth played the “Bear Jew” (Tarantino and his nicknames …) in Inglourious Basterds, perhaps they had a deal. Whatever the intent, the result is a splatterfest without resonance, where good actors and craftspeople spend a lot of time externalizing viscera, rather than internalizing actual visceral emotions. By the time the movie ended, I had long forgotten the brilliance of Part 1, lost in the sophomoric wasteland of Part 2. If you go, I recommend you take off after chapter 3, in which case you’ll walk away dazzled by a great movie.

Mr. Reed’s Metaphysical Neighborhood Presents the Best and Worst Films of 2015

[For an explanation of my blog post title, check out my “best of” list from 2013.]

So here we go … below you will find a number of lists, including: my top two favorite films of the year; my next 9 favorites; my next 9 favorites after that, for a total of 20 best films of the year; and, finally, my (lucky) 13 least favorite films of 2015. I also add, at the end (before the “worst” list), a list of films that may not have cracked my top 20, but which I enjoyed, nevertheless. My main criterion for liking a film this year seemed to be the following: did it surprise me and tell a story in a fresh and original way?

All of the films mentioned received some kind of theatrical or online release in 2015. Where I have previously written reviews of a movie, the title of that movie is hyperlinked to my original review. If I only wrote about a film after seeing it a film festival, then I link to that write-up, however short it may be. Where I have not (yet) reviewed a film – usually because the film has yet to be released in Baltimore – I have hyperlinked the title to the movie’s imdb page and written a (very) brief capsule review of it, just to explain what I admire (or don’t).

There are a few films not on the list that might have made had I seen them by now, but for various reasons I have not. Anomalisa,* for instance, hasn’t even opened in our area yet (but I’m seeing it, finally, next week). I missed The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution when it came to the Maryland Film Festival this past May, then missed it again when it opened at The Charles Theatre in town, and now I won’t be able to see it until it’s available for home viewing, in mid-February. It’s not going to be nominated for an Oscar (though Anomalisa may be), but it’s at least been mentioned on some people’s end of year’s lists. I also missed – even though it’s been available on Netflix for some time – Beasts of No Nation. I started it, but then got distracted. I watched almost 250 movies this year – not all new ones, for sure – and some TV shows, as well, so sometimes I just … drop the ball (plus, I do have a full-time day job). For the most part, the kinds of films that I review for Hammer to Nail – mainly, micro-budget indies – did not make it onto this list, as I wanted to only include films that non-press folks would have had some chance to see in theaters … or on Netflix.

Enjoy! In a few days, as always, I will publish a separate list of the best acting and technical/artistic achievements of the year.

Top 2 Films of 2015 (in alphabetical order):**

Mustang Son of Saul Best of 2015

  • Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015)
    • Directed and co-written by Turkish-born, Paris-based filmmaker Deniz Gamze ErgüvenMustang tells the riveting tale of 5 young sisters, living in a provincial Turkish village, whose lives are turned upside down and inside out when an innocent, frisky game – with boys – in the waters of the Black Sea is misinterpreted by family members and neighbors, alike. Suddenly, the forces of tradition and morality conspire to to take away the freedom they have heretofore taken for granted. Like wild horses unwilling to accept the bridle, they fight back, but it’s not easy being young and female in a world where adult men have all the power. With a sure hand – all the more remarkable since this is her feature debut – Ms. Ergüven guides us through the intellectual awakening of her main characters and takes us on a journey of hope salvaged from despair that is a must-see for all. Despite her grand ambitions, the director never loses sight of her mission to entertain, and fills her movie with rich details and anecdotes, and even great humor. You’ll laugh and you’ll cry, both, and rejoice in discovering that cinema is not dead.
  • Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015)
    • Unlike Mustang, this movie has no diverting moments of levity. How could it? It is a concentration camp procedural, taking us through the unbearably harrowing realities of 24 hours in the life of a member of the Sonderkommando (Jews chosen by the Nazis to serve in quasi-management positions over other Jews) at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. This film is one long cry of horror, and also absolutely riveting. Another feature debut, Son of Saul is directed and co-written by Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes, who treats his subject with the appropriate revulsion while also giving us another Holocaust film that doesn’t feel like (just) another Holocaust film. This subject has been given, by now, so many different cinematic treatments that it’s hard to imagine there being anything new or fresh to say. And yet, somehow, Nemes does, indeed, offer a novel perspective. His main character, Saul, is a man with a problem – the classic dramatist’s trick – who, despite the nightmare in which he lives, is determined to solve it, giving the film an especially urgent drive. Nemes ups the film’s ante by keeping the camera close to his protagonist at all times. Indeed, much of what makes the film bearable to watch is that the Nazi atrocities are mostly out of focus and rendered through sound, since Saul is almost always in close-up. It’s a cinematic tour de force that teaches us much about the indomitable human spirit without in any way playing down the savagery of the Nazi genocide. It may be tough for some to watch, but it is well worth the effort.

The Next 9 (in alphabetical order):

Second 9 Best of 2015

  • All Things Must Pass (Colin Hanks)
  • Amy (Asif Kapadia)
  • The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller)
  • Dope (Rick Famuyiwa)
  • 45 Years (Andrew Haigh)
    • Director Andrew Haigh (Weekend) offers up what seems, at first, a gentle meditation on the ups and downs of a long marriage, with two beloved actors – Charlotte Rampling (Swimming Pool) and Tom Courtenay (Quartet) – giving terrific and nuanced performances as wife and husband of … 45 years. As the film begins, they are about to celebrate their wedding anniversary, with Kate (Rampling) – the spryer of the two – doing most of the planning. Beautifully shot in Norfolk, England, the film appears initially to offer nothing more than encomiums to a life well lived. Until it all changes, when a secret from the past emerges that threatens to undermine the security that Kate, especially, had so long taken for granted. See it for Rampling, whose face reflects the devastation wrought within as the life she thought she had been living slowly dissipates throughout the course of the film. It is a devastating journey, playing out like a thriller, except the chases and climaxes are all internal.
  • Inside Out (Pete Docter)
  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon)
  • Room (Lenny Abrahamson)
  • Twinsters (Samantha Futerman/Ryan Miyamoto)

The 9 After That (in alphabetical order):

Third 9 Best of 2015

  • Ant-Man (Peyton Reed)
    • I have a review already, so this is just a note added to deflect the surprise I know many will feel upon seeing this title here. The big budget action films that some critics have placed on their best-of lists are Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian, both of which I liked a lot (see my final list of runners-up, below), but which didn’t catch me unawares the way Ant-Man did, which continued to surprise and delight throughout. That’s why it’s here.
  • The Big Short (Adam McKay)
  • Brooklyn (John Crowley)
  • Carol (Todd Haynes)
  • Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley)
  • Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad)
  • Red Army (Gabe Polsky)
  • Spotlight (Tom McCarthy)
  • What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus)
    • Musical biopics are tricky, and often fail when done as fiction films (though not in the case of Love & Mercy, also on this list). This movie, along with Amy (see above), proved how well the documentary format can serve such a complex subject. A brilliant portrait of a brilliant woman, directed by a terrific female documentarian, Liz Garbus (Bobby Fischer Against the World), What Happened, Miss Simone? takes us through the highs and lows of Nina Simone’s life and career, offering up an indelible portrait of an inimitable artist.

12 Final Films of 2015 that didn’t quite crack the top 20 (in alphabetical order):

Worst 13 Films of 2015 (in alphabetical order):

  • Fantastic Four (Josh Trank)
  • Fifty Shades of Grey (Sam Taylor-Johnson)
  • Hot Pursuit (Anne Fletcher)
    • I did not review this, nor did I want to. It is stale and unfunny, and does no favors for its two stars, Reese Witherspoon (Wild) and Sofia Vergara (Modern Family), nor for its director, Anne Fletcher (The Proposal), who has done (nominally) better before. I don’t even think this would be funny on an airplane.
  • In the Heart of the Sea (Ron Howard)
  • Jupiter Ascending (The Wachowskis)
  • The Longest Ride (George Tillman, Jr.)
  • Lost River (Ryan Gosling)
    • This is a great vanity project for its director, Hollywood star Ryan Gosling (Drive), who, in his debut as a director, throws everything but the kitchen sink into mix – strike that, the sink is there, too – without achieving anything of merit. Beautiful to look at and utterly incomprehensible, the film is also so tedious that its mere 95-minute length ends up feeling like twice that.
  • Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs)
  • San Andreas (Brad Peyton)
  • Seventh Son (Sergei Bodrov)
  • Sisters (Jason Moore)
  • Southpaw (Antoine Fuqua)
  • Where to Invade Next (Michael Moore)
    • I used to like Michael Moore, back when he was less convinced of his own goodness. From the time of his documentary debut Roger & Me up to and including his Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine, he seemed like one of those ideologically driven filmmakers whose work was entertaining enough that even those who might disagree with his ideas might enjoy his filmmaking enough to stick around until the end, thereby walking away with a nugget or two of new information. But then, post-Oscar, Moore began to believe his own press clippings, and now, with his latest film, Where to Invade Next, he offers up nothing that we haven’t heard or seen from him before. Worse, he is has devolved into such a smug and self-congratulatory filmmaker that he no longer feels the need to present actual research on screen, assuring us that because he believes in something, it must be true. In this film, he takes us on a journey across randomly chosen countries (he never explains those choices) that ostensibly provide better services and lifestyles to their citizens than we do in the United States, and then presents only one or two examples to back up his claims before moving on to the next country. It is lazy filmmaking at its worst. If you agree with everything Moore says, then you’ll nod along in joy; if, like me, you expect some actual journalistic information, you will be disappointed. As a good progressive, I find Moore – these days – more harmful than helpful to the cause.

*[from 1/20/16: when I finally saw it, I liked Anomalisa, but did not consider it good enough to be among my top films of the year. Maybe among the runners-up, however.]

**Look of Silence[also from 1/20/16: I have to add another film to my top of the top, making it a “Top 3,” and that is The Look of Silence