Monday, January 11, 2016


Dear Readers, wouldn't you agree that wherever two or more smart, funny, impassioned film writers are gathered together, it's usually a lot more fun. Most podcasting evidence to the contrary, I still believe this is true, especially if you get the right people together. So, as in days past, it's time once again to throw open the doors to the very tall backyard institution known as the SLIFR Movie Treehouse and start talking, one last time (at least until the Oscar nominations overtake everyone and everything later this week)  about the year just past. There's not nearly enough room inside our little treetop cabin as in, say, Minnie's Haberdashery, and if anyone decides to film our sessions it'll be with an iPhone rather than an Ultra Panavision 70mm rig (Tangerine beats The Hateful Eight! Yes! Donuts for everyone!) So, for space and time considerations, I've had to keep the number of us on the intimate side, which is much better for the back and forth anyway. Nonetheless, I think we've assembled a pretty nifty club this year, and we're all looking forward to what shapes up, so without further ado...

Hear ye, hear ye! The 2015 session of the SLIFR Movie Treehouse is now reconvened!

It’s been a few years since we’ve opened the doors to the Treehouse, the movie club with the distinction of taking place higher off the ground that almost any other gathering of erudite and articulate film fans (we’re up around 25 feet, I’m guessing). But after having spent several year-end seasons isolated in my own opinions, I felt like being sociable again. So I sent out invitations to four of my favorite film commenters to breathe life within the rickety walls of the Treehouse once again, and to my great delight they all accepted. Two of them already have official outlets for their film writing. The other two are writers whose work I first became familiar with through the august efforts of the Muriel Awards, then followed chiefly via their witty and wise commentary on Facebook. And all four I consider friends even though, as is increasingly often the case in the world of blogging and of Zuckerberg-influenced social interaction, none of us have actually met in person. (I have hopes of at least partially rectifying that situation in 2016.) Joining me in the SLIFR Treehouse this year are: 

Odie Henderson is based in Clifton, New Jersey and makes his living writing computer code, but is better known in online circles as a film critic for who also writes extensively for his own sites, Big Media Vandalism and Tales of Odienary Madness. In 2013 he programmed a film series at the Off Plus Camera Film festival in Krakow, Poland and has been known to perform a karaoke version of EU’s ”Da Butt” upon request.

Marya Murphy has been called "a less-effeminate Oscar Wilde," and "a Twitter personality," neither of which has yet to lead to a lucrative job offering, though she has scored a free computer and opera tickets. She has produced several critically-acclaimed films (CanaryAround the BayBabnik and Amity) and continues to act, write, edit and generally film-make when her selfish eight- and 10-year-old aren’t demanding to be fed, clothed and educated. Marya hails from Redwood City, CA.

Phil Dyess-Nugent was a freelance writer and film critic. His work has appeared in Nerve, Hi-Lobrow,  The A.V. Club, Global Rhythm, The High Hat, The New Orleans Times-Picayune, and the University of New Orleans Press anthology Please Forward: How Blogging Reconnected New Orleans After Katrina, as well as numerous personal blogs with deceptively clever titles. He is currently either retired or unemployable, depending on whether you ask him about it before he's had his coffee. 

Brian Doan is an Affiliate Scholar in Cinema Studies at Oberlin College, where he taught courses in film and popular culture from 2006-2011. In addition to academic research and publications on film, comics, TV and advertising, he is a contributor at and blogs at Bubblegum Aesthetics. Brian also enjoys the music of Prince and is actively annoyed by the work of Seth MacFarlane. 

What we’re going to undertake here over the course of the next week (and maybe, depending on stamina levels, slightly beyond) is basically an exchange of correspondence in which we will engage each other on the subject of the year in movies—our favorites, our least favorites, disturbing and encouraging trends, hopes for the future, and just about anything else that created a blip on our radar as we spent time gazing at the silver screen, or our laptops and tablets and phones,  absorbing the range of cinematic offerings available to us. Rather than trying to convince anyone, least of all ourselves, that the Treehouse represents some sort of carving out of a Supreme Court of film scholars, I’m envisioning a series of exchanges that will emphasize the way our personalities and tastes interact and feed off one another—those looking for the unleashing of nasty barbs and blood in the water will probably be disappointed. I’m really looking forward to seeing what we come up with, and if you spent a serious amount of time with the movies of 2015—would you be reading this if you hadn’t?—I hope you’ll enjoy your time eavesdropping in the Treehouse as much as we will hanging out up there.

So let’s get this started, shall we?

This is definitely the time of year when film critic types (I’m sure you guys who I mean) spend the time leading up to awards season—it all leads up to awards season, right?—compiling lists and trying to convince anyone who will listen that it was a shitty year at the movies for anyone who liked something other than what they saw and liked. ‘Tis the season, or at least ‘thas (?) been in the recent past, for bemoaning the death of cinema, an increasingly detached and irrelevant art form being smothered under the wet, steaming blanket of American blockbuster-itis and going all malnourished from the siphoning off of all the talent back to TV, which, as everyone knows, is where it’s at these days. That’s what I heard, anyway.

Actually, I’ve always been bewildered by the capacity of some of my spiritual colleagues to consume just about everything there is to consume in pop culture, be it on TV, at the movies, on their iPods or wherever,  and then summarize, recap and pontificate upon it endlessly. I do not have this sort of time available to me, and for a long while I considered discussion of the new golden age of series television somewhat beyond my ken, not because I was above considering the medium, but because I couldn’t imagine making the time to sit down and try to get involved in the vastness of it. 

Of course, as appointment television became supplanted by the availability of whole seasons available on DVD and Blu-ray to be suitably binged upon at one’s discretion, I became a little bit more understanding-- though still relatively bereft of the time to consume with impunity. I still don’t “get” Mad Men (I get it, but you know what I mean), and I’m still sadly incomplete on shows I really want to see like Deadwood, Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, The Wire and seemingly hundreds of others. But in 2015 some of the best movies I saw were TV shows-- the inaugural season of Daredevil, maybe the most aesthetically and morally complex satellite to be spotted in the Marvel universe so far; seasons 1-5 of Game of Thrones (I’ve heard that winter is coming—bring it on, dammit!); and best of all, the three-season run of Hannibal, which leaves all previous attempts to film Thomas Harris’s enormously popular Hannibal Lecter novels in a heightened dust cloud of artistic achievement. And this is to say nothing of Mads Mikkelsen’s beautifully understated ability to wrest the role of the bad doctor from the popular, ham-fisted clutches of Anthony Hopkins. If only we could have seen these shows projected on big screens in multiplexes across the land.

But speaking of multiplexes, and art houses, and our glowing portable devices (nobody watched a movie on an Apple Watch this year, did they?), I am reminded that we are here in the Treehouse to talk primarily about the movies of 2015 and the people who made them, so I will steer the conversation back in that direction as a way of getting us started. And I guess the best way to do that is to ask you all, what did you like best this year? That’s a loaded question that almost automatically begs an answer to its opposite—what were the year’s dreariest dregs?--- and I’m sure we’ll get to all of that too. (Put on your galoshes, kids. That end of the swamp is pretty deep and murky, as usual.) But I think, for a medium whose epitaph has been pretty regularly invoked for several years now, that anyone who tries to sell the idea that the movies aren’t worth their celluloid/digital salt these days, in comparison to TV or just on their own, is probably not looking too far beyond Entertainment Weekly’s notions of what releases (usually the most heavily promoted ones) should be paying attention to.

I want to talk about the strength of female performances this year but also the apparent bounty of roles for women, at least in comparison to years past. Did any of you feel like this was an unusually strong year for women in movies? This is the first year I can remember where whittling down my favorite performances by female actors to a manageable five has been an impossible task, and that’s not including Cate Blanchett, who I seem to be far less impressed by, in Carol and in general, than the average bear. It turns out that, by gum, there are other actresses in English-language movies that are not named Cate or Kate or Meryl after all! Compiling my list of favorites in preparation for this little get-together, it seems that women in lead roles made a much stronger impression on me in general this year than men did in carrying their respective movies. Such a bounty can only be a good thing, but it remains to be seen whether or not it can be sustained.

I wanna know what you all thought were the most encouraging developments in the movies you saw this year, as well as the most discouraging. What were your favorite individual moments?

Once again, I have been defeated by my attempt to create a top 10 list— I saw too damn many terrific movies to be able to abide by an arbitrary numerical restriction like that. Given the fluid nature of the average 10-best list, by my count I saw at least 35 movies which would have a rightful place on any such roster I might devise for this year. I do have a top 10—those are the movies that I think best defined the medium’s ability to astonish me on narrative, thematic and purely stylistic and aesthetic levels, to become something more than just reflected light designed to keep my attention and reassure already firmly held beliefs about its possibilities. But I wanna mention those other 25 movies too, the ones that made going to the movies anything but a chore in 2015, because they’re just as much a part of the measure of pleasure as the ones I put at the top.

Okay, that’s more than enough from me for now, and more than enough to keep us occupied for a week, even before you all get a chance to chime in. Onto my best movies of the year, in some rough order of preference, with the acknowledgement that such order is subject to my vacillating moods and the changes I might subject it to at any given moment. My top two choices have been fighting it out for dominance ever since I saw them both on the same day about three weeks ago. So this is how it stands right now. Two minutes from now, who knows?


ROOM (Lenny Abrahamson) 

CHI-RAQ (Spike Lee) 
PHOENIX (Christian Petzold) 
GETT: THE TRIAL OF VIVIANE AMSALEM (Ronit Elkabetz, Shlomi Elkabetz)
MERU (Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi) 
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (George Miller)
SPOTLIGHT (Tom McCarthy) 
BEST OF ENEMIES (Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville) 
MUSTANG (Deniz Gamze Erguven) 
AN HONEST LIAR (Tyler Measom, Justin Weinstein) 


BRIDGE OF SPIES (Steven Spielberg) 

BROOKLYN (John Crowley) 
LOVE & MERCY (Bill Pohlad) 
YOUTH (Paolo Sorrentino) 
THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (Guy Ritchie) 
EX MACHINA (Alex Garland) 
MAPS TO THE STARS (David Cronenberg) 
THE GIFT (Joel Edgerton)


ABOUT ELLY (Ashgar Farhadi) 

THE MARTIAN (Ridley Scott)
MR. HOLMES (Bill Condon) 
THE REVENANT (Alejandro G. Inarritu) 
SICARIO (Denis Villenueve) 
SPY (Paul Feig) 
TANGERINE (Sean Baker) 
THE VISIT (M. Night Shamlayan) 

What say you, good people? 


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