Monday, January 11, 2016


Hi, I'm Phil, and a world with Donald Rumsfeld and Garry Marshall still in it after Vilmos Zsigmond and Haskell Wexler have already left is not what I signed up for. (Just kidding, Gar. Loved you in Lost in America!)

2015 was a terrific year for small movies that burrowed deep into private obsessions and cultish passions, illuminating out-of-the-way pockets of experience and people who have waited a long time for the chance to be treated as equal partners in the pop culture mainstream. The emergence of movies like Sean S. Baker's Tangerine is an inspiring story, but having lived through the 1990s, I don't want to oversell the whole "creative spirits from the fringes of society are coming for your multiplex!" aspect of it. I'm old enough to remember when the " plucky outsider with minimal resources crashing the studio gates" story of the year was El Mariachi, and at the end of the day, it's possible that the big lesson of Robert Rodriguez's career is that there are people you maybe shouldn't encourage. Of course, the big difference now is that talented outsiders may not have any interest in even finding their way to the studio gate unless they have a belly full of beer and are itching to unzip. Baker's movie was midwifed by the Duplass brothers, bless them, who have gone from making movies that often look like overextended TV skits to creating an HBO TV series that plays like the world's longest, whitest indie movie. Tangerine blows the pants off most of the Bros.'s oeuvre, but it's still kind of weird watching a movie that was shot on a phone that is, in turn, fated to be watched by people looking for something to stare at on their phones.

My ever-evolving list of my ten favorite movies of the year, for the moment:

1. Clouds of Sils Maria (d. Olivier Assayas)
2. Crimson Peak (d. Guillermo del Toro)
3. Experimenter (d. Michael Almereyda)
4. The Mend (d. Joe Magary)
5. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (Guy Ritchie)
6. Phoenix (d. Christian Petzold)
7. Shaun the Sheep Movie (d. Mark Burton, Richard Starzak)
8. Spotlight (d. Tom McCarthy)
9. Tangerine (d. Sean S. Baker)
10. Wild Tales (Dami├ín Szifron)

If there is anything linking these movies, it's that they all keep me happy and satisfied for most of their running time while, on some level, surprising me. In a year notable for many strong performances by women, Phoenix is Nina Hoss's triumph; if the script feels less unpredictable than those of her previous collaborations with Christian Petzold, you never know for sure which way she's going to jump next, and her sureness and intensity can cause you to forget to breathe. The Mend has echoes of Sam Shepard's True West and Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, but Joe Magary is that one independent filmmaker in a thousand who has mastered a style that aims to be exciting in an abrasive, off-kilter way without just feeling assaultive. 

The thrilling, fully realized visual poetry joined to the beating, pulpy heart of Crimson Peak is the best possible reason for great moviemakers to fall in love with genre storytelling. Spotlight may at first appear to "just" be a superbly acted, straightforward torn-from-the-headlines ensemble piece--the kind of thing that might have gotten compared to a made-for-HBO movie back when that was an insult--but just as it seems to be winding down, it spikes deeper into the collective guilt of a community shaped by repression and denial than might have been anticipated. (As James Wolcott once wrote of a Clint Eastwood movie I don't like, it's a movie that closes like a fist.) Shaun the Sheep just made me happier than any movie I saw this year, with the possible exception of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., a wholly unexpected (and commercially unsuccessful) treat from Guy Ritchie that, in a just world, would have not just launched a franchise, but taken Spectre's lunch money and beaten it up in front of its girlfriend. In this year's animation sweepstakes, I give the decision to Aardman's baby over Pixar's excellent Inside Out, if only because there is no hint of a Master's thesis on the wonders of childhood imagination about it.

Some of the big movies that failed to crack my top ten are impressive sumbitches. I can't honestly say that there was never a point, while watching Mad Max: Fury Road, that I didn't think to myself, okay, this has gone on a while now for a movie that basically only has the one dance move. As a George Miller fan, I will be the first to say that the glory of George is how high he can peak on the visually stunning adrenaline-charged meter, but that his limitation has always been how long he always wants to stay up there. But for most of the first hour, and for passages in its second half, I probably felt as exhilarated while watching this movie as at any other time in my life, including all previous go-rounds with Max, back when he looked like Mel Gibson and his creator was so young and hungry that it seemed like a safe bet that he'd be grinding out another one of these things every three years.

(And so long as we're talking about actors, how about that Tom Hardy, huh? I love this lunatic! Spotlight fills one of its small roles with Billy Crudup, who should probably be credited as "Bill" or even "William" by now, and who walks among us as the living embodiment of the truism that all the movie critics yelling at once cannot make a man a major star if he insists on only playing leads in movies that no one goes to see. And in Without Limits, The Hi-Lo Country, Almost Famous and suchlike, Crudup was clearly doing his best to hold up his end of the bargain as a prospective young male star of tomorrow. With Hardy, you get the feeling that he was maybe a little indifferent to the idea of playing Mad Max, but then he found out that he would really be wearing the leathers and chin stubble while playing humble sidekick in the shadow of Oscar-winning action star Charlize Theron--the title heroine of Aeon Flux!--and then he was like, "Hold me back! Give me that contract! Do I need to sign in blood?")

Todd Haynes' Carol may be the most sheerly ravishing movie I saw all year, and the contributions of cinematographer Edward Lachman and costume designer Sandy Powell deserve cannot be slighted. (I'm a big Carter Burwell fan, but I couldn't shake the feeling that his score sounded a lot like the Barton Fink theme with a case of the droops.) I also liked Cate Blanchett a lot more than Dennis, though she needs to rethink her manicurist. It is a little remote, though, never quite catching fire even during the bedroom scene. This may be the point, or it may just be what happens when you faithfully transcribe Patricia Highsmith when she's telling herself, "It's not a thriller, this one's not a thriller!" 

I have more of a problem with Creed, which is one of the best-received movies of the year, and one that it's hard not to root for; it came out three months after Fantastic Four, a movie that must have left its star, Michael B. Jordan, feeling that his career was in immediate need of proof of life. He's excellent in it, as he was in Fruitvale Station, the movie that put him and his director, Ryan Coogler, on the map, and it's a superb piece of craftsmanship. The teasing, early scenes between Jordan and Tessa Thompson had me thinking that Coogler ought to make a romantic comedy, until I remembered that he's now made two feature-length movies without giving the slightest indication that he might have a sense of humor.

But then there's… Stallone. Did I mention that I remember the 1990s? Did I also mention that I remember the 1980s, the period when Sylvester Stallone was astride the world of popular culture as like an exceptionally meat-headed colossus? How can people stand to even look at this asshole? Some people apparently have tender feelings for Stallone; David Edelstein once wrote a review of Copland, Stallone's failed attempt to redefine himself as an Actor (join' head-to-head with de Niro and Keitel!, on Harvey Weinstein's nickel!) after his megaplex superstardom dimmed, in which he mentioned that "a former associate" of Sly's had told him that the Italian Stallone was "the most frightened man in Hollywood." Reading Edelstein's incessantly polite notices of the most recent, geriatric Rocky and Rambo movies, I have sometimes had the awful thought that he found this description more endearing and touching than pathetic and hilarious. 

But when you remember the Time magazine cover that featured Stallone-as-Rocky side-by-side with real-life "white hope" Gerry Cooney or the aid and comfort that Rambo gave to the hoaxers who promoted the idea that MIA soldiers in Vietnam were being kept alive and in chains in the mid-'80s, it seems clear that not only has Stallone's influence on our world been almost wholly malignant, but that his shitty movies have been the least of it.

Creed has been praised for reclaiming the franchise (and, if you insist, the Rocky "mythology") in the name of celebrating a young black hero struggling to reclaim the legacy of the father he never knew, but it also celebrates Stallone, who's up there on the screen, doing that lovable-moron thing he specializes in (actually looking up in bewilderment when he's told that some photos his new friend has taken on his phone are "up in the cloud"), talking to the tombstones of all the other characters from his earlier movies (who were all played by better actors) who he killed off so he'd have someone to grieve, and finally getting his own goddamn health scare to be bullheaded about, because once you let Sylvester Stallone into your revitalization of his own moribund, overextended franchise, it's only a matter of time before his own corrupt storytelling instincts seep into your own, like poison from an insecticide factory contaminating the local water supply. 

I'd rather Coogler have made a prequel with Jordan as the young Apollo Creed, and maybe found some way to involve Carl Weathers, whose performance was one of the best things about the original Rocky and the only good thing about the first two sequels. (I never saw the one where Rocky defeated Communism.) I suppose that would have been less "mythic," because the star power wouldn't have been as significant.

Reading the token acknowledgements here that TV is more "important" now than it's ever been, and may have supplanted movies in some ways, reminds me of the good old days when the critics submitting their year-end lists to Film Comment might include something from television-- Max Headroom, the 1985 BBC version of Bleak House, the Twin Peaks pilot, The Singing Detective, Homicide: Life on the Streets-- tucked in among their big-screen finds. Back then, the implicit suggestion was always that this one item was too special to be lumped in with the rest of the video swill; it deserved to be bumped up to "honorary movie" status. Nobody thinks like that anymore, and the most exciting TV I saw this year, such as the second season of Fargo and Jessica Jones on Netflix, has a pop vision and an eagerness to interact with, comment on, and, in some cases, redefine our world that we were always lucky to get from the occasional movie. I don't mean to suggest that we get this, the whole package, from every decent TV show, either, but the dividing line between the two media is getting thinner all the time, and that cuts (at least) two ways. 

A new-style anthology show like Fargo (or a gutsy serialized drama like The Americans or the recently departed Justified) offers the pleasures of good genre filmmaking, with less of the familiarity one used to associate with series TV: characters who seemed to be more or less regulars get killed off, characters who seemed meant to serve more or less as audience identification figures suddenly do nasty things that complicate the relationship between characters and the audience, and the level of stasis that series TV used to depend on is challenged and violated. 

But the movie event of the year, Star Wars: Harrison Ford's On Board With This One, is cunningly, even kind of brilliantly shaped to give the audience almost exactly the same experience it has watching (and re-re-re-rewatching the dusty old original, tweaked in such a way that it seems kind of new. (Because it's 2016, more than one commentator rushed in to praise J. J. Abrams & Co.'s oddly familiar-seeming franchise reboot as a "remix" of George Lucas's moldy oldie.) Movies like this and other big franchises like the Hunger Games movies feel like the new "old-school" TV; if the first one clicks, people will turn out in droves, again and again, to find out what their favorites are up to this season. They won't even riot and burn the theater to the ground when the studios maximize their earning potential by splitting the final installment into two halves, so they can release the same movie twice, in two different fiscal revenue periods. Even President Snow might think that was some cold-blooded money-grubbing shit.

Incidentally, the concluding film in the Hunger Games series and David O. Russell's semi-botched but not uninteresting Joy-- winner, hands down, of the commemorative award (named in honor of whoever used to cut together the "Next week, on Mad Men!" teasers, honoring the movie whose trailer worked hardest to prevent anyone from figuring out what it was actually about) confirm Jennifer Lawrence's status as the premier movie star of our era and the single solitary person doing the most to keep the art form alive while carrying an entire industry on her back. Some things are constant, can I get an amen!?


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. 




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