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

In “Listen to Me Marlon,” Brando, As Always, Mesmerizes

Listen to Me Marlon

Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley, 2015)

This is not the first documentary about the great American actor Marlon Brando (there have been quite a few, in fact, including the comprehensive made-for-TV Brando in 2007), who died in 2004 at the age of 80, but it’s the first to feature so many words straight from the mouth of the notoriously private thespian. Director Stevan Riley (maker of the excellent Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007) gained access to the home tapes that Brando recorded over the years, mostly (but not exclusively) for self-hypnosis exercises, on which he ruminates on his life and his career. Combined with archival footage, these recordings allow Brando to narrate his own story, as if from the grave, guiding us on his journey from youth to old age. It’s a fascinating film that clearly intends to be the definitive account of Brando the man, and which comes awfully close to achieving that goal.

We open on the moment in 1990 when Christian, Brando’s son with actress Anna Kashfi, shot and killed the boyfriend of his half-sister Cheyenne. From this nadir, guided by Brando’s vocal palliatives (“Listen to me, Marlon,” he urges), we jump back to the 1940s and the actor’s arrival in New York, where he met Stella Adler, who would become his teacher and launch him into the career that made him famous the world over. As most people who were alive in the 20th century should already know, Brando revolutionized acting for both stage and screen in the 1940s and 1950s, taking the then-fresh ideas of the method school of acting and popularizing them through his success. As a restless and somewhat introverted soul, however, Brando was never at ease with his fame, and as this film makes abundantly clear, struggled throughout his life to reconcile what he saw as the silliness of his profession with a desire for a life of meaning. Those of us who love and admire many of his screen performances – his two Oscar wins, for On the Waterfront and The Godfather among them – can attest to just how meaningful Brando was to us, but to the man, himself, acting frequently left him feeling depleted and subsequently aimless. This film chronicles all of Brando’s misgivings, coming full circle back to 1990 and the aftermath of Christian’s crime (followed, 5 years later, by Cheyenne’s suicide). It’s an unhappy end, but not exclusively so. For in his final days, Brandon seemed to be more at peace with the importance of acting and how his own films may have touched others.

Riley constructs his movie with great care, and many of his own “methods” work wonderfully. I love the fact that there are no talking heads, leaving Brando as our (mostly) sole narrator. I also love the footage he found of Brando’s digitized head, which speaks to us as if from inside The Matrix. Unfortunately, some of the audio on the tapes is difficult to understand, at first (at least until our ears adjust to the hiss), and this fact is not helped by Riley’s misguided insistence on the use of intrusive non-diegetic music (most distracting during the sequences on The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris). Despite these weaknesses, however, the film is, overall, extremely successful at painting a clear and moving portrait of a very complex human being. It is a must-see for all Brando fans, as well as anyone who likes biographical documentaries.