“Roughly Speaking” on the 2016 Oscar Nominations

Rodricks Oscar Noms

Today, Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed (that’s me) – Chair and Professor, Department of Film & Moving Image, Stevenson University – joined Dan Rodricks on his Baltimore Sun podcast, “Roughly Speaking,” where we discussed the just-announced 2016 Oscar nominations, giving our opinion on what we agreed with and what we didn’t (here are my own lists of the best films, the best acting, and the best artistic and technical work of 2015). We also talked about the fact that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has, once again, mostly ignored people of color in its choices.

Here is the link to the show.

Enjoy!

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

“The Big Short” Is a Terrific Romp Through Financial Disaster

Big Short

The Big Short (Adam McKay, 2015)

What is it about Michael Lewis? He’s an author of nonfiction bestsellers whose books keep on being optioned for fiction films (not counting Next: The Future Just Happened, an actual documentary): first came The Blind Side, then Moneyball and now The Big Short. Lewis is a great journalist and an excellent writer, and his works are filled with vivid details about their subjects; I can see why Hollywood would keep calling. I’m just surprised that we haven’t seen more documentary filmmakers attracted to his stories. Then again, sometimes the tales he tells are so outlandish that they seem like something only a screenwriter could invent. Still, if truth is stranger than fiction, then what is lost in its translation to a conventional dramatic form? In the case of The Blind Side, quite a lot (though the film was a hit), since the cloying three-act structure imposed in the name of inspirational narrative diluted the power of the unadulterated original. Moneyball, however, made with greater restraint (and much less of a hit), approached the fine nuance of its source. And what of The Big Short? It’s a giant whale of a story: the global financial meltdown of 2008, rooted in the housing crisis. What will work best? Restraint or bombast?

It turns out both, though they work wonderfully in tandem. When I first heard that the film was co-written and directed by Adam McKay – who gave us Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, The Other Guys and Anchorman 2, all films marked by outrageous comedy, subtlety be damned – I feared the movie would make a mockery of its theme and devolve into caricature and pastiche. I was wrong. McKay takes a difficult topic – including CDOsCDSs and other toxic assets – makes it eminently understandable to the layperson, and has a terrific amount of fun with it in the process (embracing, rather than ignoring, his roots in broad comedy). He also elicits fine performances from a strong ensemble cast that includes Christian Bale (American Hustle), Ryan Gosling (Drive) and Brad Pitt (Fury). Steve Carell (Foxcatcher) is better than he has been in many of his recent roles, but still can’t tone it down enough to suit me. He doesn’t, however, ruin the movie. Nor does McKay’s decision to switch tones in the last 15 minutes and preach at the audience about the sins of the financial sector. The previous almost-two hours are strong enough to leave an impeccably favorable impression.

If you’ve read the book, all of the major players are here. One by one, we meet a group of men (there are no women) who start to see that the housing bubble of the mid-2000s is built on corruption and lies. They all, at different times and in different places (though some do meet and collaborate), decide to “short” the system by betting against the housing market. They’re the smartest guys in the room, and our heroes. They’re also, in many ways, no better than the bankers who brought down the world’s economy, since they’re in it for their own gain. In fact, if you lost money back then, a lot of it could be in their pockets. But for much of the movie’s running time, the morality of who did what and for what reason is immaterial. McKay opts, instead, to revel in the utter ridiculousness of how the clearly fraudulent housing market could have thrived, in the first place. Brisk and flashy – though quiet when it needs to be – the movie frequently cuts away from the plot to real-life celebrities – Margot Robbie (in a hot tub), Selena Gomez – who stop the action by addressing the audience directly to explain this or that bit of financial mumbo-jumbo. They’re not the only ones to break the fourth wall: even the characters within the story sometimes stop what they’re doing to talk to us, as well. In short, there’s a delightful spirit of cleverness and fun that endlessly animates Lewis’ splendid research. You won’t win your money back by watching The Big Short, but you will have the consolation prize of a great time, and learn a ton about why you lost your money in the first place.