It’s Oscar night, which is surely the last possible instant for anybody to potentially care about my favored titles, as far as last year’s movies go. This list would have gone up on Daily Grindhouse, but due to a transitional phase, Daily Grindhouse has been down for most of the past two weeks, so here we are.
No need for a long prologue. Does anybody read those? If you care about this list in the slightest, you’ve probably scrolled down past this paragraph already. I always joke that the introduction before a top-ten list is the best place to unburden yourself if you’ve ever committed a serious crime. You can alleviate the guilt that’s been burning you up, and still get away scott-free. Far as I know, the only crime I’m guilty of committing without being prosecuted is an egregious sense of timing.
The only thing I wanted to say is that I saw two movies this year that I didn’t feel I could cram inside a top-ten structure. Those are THE LOOK OF SILENCE and CALL ME LUCKY. Both are perfectly-crafted documentaries that provoked a real visceral response from me. Not that I don’t have the same level of respect for every movie I listed below, but as wrong as it feels to me generally to rank movies (it’s like ranking emotions) it felt borderline offensive in those two cases. That aside, this list IS in order.
10. THE ASSASSIN
Writing about movies alters your experience as an audience member. As you watch a movie, you can’t help but begin to compose whatever you’re going to write about later on in your mind, while it’s still being projected. For “normal” people it’s probably easier to sit back and let a movie happen in front of you. Writing about movies means you can’t be a spectator. You’re not exactly a participant, but you’re imposing your will and your unique thought process on the experience all the same. All of that is to say that THE ASSASSIN has a determined stillness and an insistent patience that forced me to settle down and just watch. There isn’t much story to it, but that’s part of why I keyed into its frequency — I didn’t have to track over-heated plot developments, or opine to myself about my feelings about each character. I could just watch. Especially in this attention-flicker of a day and age, there’s a boldness to a film that holds on a shot long enough to let a slight gust of wind blow through the frame. And there’s a secret liberation in knowing I can submit to that boldness rather than making myself part of the experience.
9. CHI-RAQ / THE HATEFUL EIGHT
Grouping these two together because they’re two sides of a coin in my mind, and because it delights me to do it. It’s ironic that Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino are often at odds in the press, because they occupy neighboring terrain in the landscape of my thinking. Hard to think of two other filmmakers who are simultaneously so talented and so frustrating, so right up my alley and yet so prone to adding a single scene or a character or musical cue or plot device that threatens to derail my appreciation. As hard as it is for me to choose sides when Quentin and Spike fight, it’s got to be that much harder for Sam Jackson. He’s a signature actor for them both, and he plays pivotal roles in both CHI-RAQ and THE HATEFUL EIGHT. In one he’s the Greek chorus and in the other he’s the de-facto protagonist, but in both movies his war trumpet of a voice is a defining element of the orchestra being conducted by a bold, confrontational, cinematically-hyperliterate director. CHI-RAQ is a modern-day retelling of a classical play told in verse, and THE HATEFUL EIGHT is a “spaghetti” Western with provocation on the brain, so they’re very different movies, but they’re also unified in operatic nature and in thematic concern. These are two movies about race, about violence, about America. Another similarity is that both movies, while definitely engineered to inflame conversation, drew criticisms that were misplaced. I saw many essayists question Spike Lee for making CHI-RAQ about women withholding sex from their men in order to quell violence — despite that plot coming directly from Lysistrata and being a couple millenia old — and I saw others go after Quentin Tarantino for misogyny in THE HATEFUL EIGHT when nothing good happens to anybody in that movie, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Daisy Domergue is by far the most compelling character in the whole thing. (As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I also think Quentin is working in a disreputable genre and honoring its conventions, as troubling as they may be.) I’m sure neither of these movies are particularly easy to like, and they may even be imperfect, but it’s uncommon to have one movie so defiant and lively and formally unruly in a calendar year, let alone two of them.
Oh, and Teyonah Parris is a goddamned movie star. There’s no way to look at CHI-RAQ and think any different.
8. THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY
By any objective measure, this is one of the most technically impressive films released in the past twelve months. Like THE ASSASSIN, it’s fascinating to look at and to listen to. For somebody like me, who looks at movies as moving pictures more than filmed plays, that’s not something to ignore. It’s arguable that THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY is an emotionally chilly movie, beautiful but impenetrable, but I wouldn’t be the one to argue it. I liked how this movie challenged me; I liked how it made me watch it again almost immediately to reconsider how I felt about it. Doesn’t hurt that I spent a large part of 2015 gaining a newfound affection for the giallo genre, so that by the time I got to THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY, I was waiting right in the middle of its wheelhouse. But I think any grown-up would find this movie equally as mystifying and intoxicating (it’s probably not one for the kids).
If there’s no way to stop the mounting flood of reboots and remakes and sequels and re-imaginings, then at least there’s a movie like CREED to come along and knock a franchise on its ass. I don’t have the same affection for the ROCKY movies so many fans of CREED seem to — to me, Rocky Balboa is less the draw than the friendship he forged with Apollo Creed over the course of the series. In that first ROCKY, Apollo is basically the villain, and the way he subsequently becomes Rocky’s brother-in-arms is what interests me most about the movies. It doesn’t always happen in life that a heated rival becomes a trusted friend, and to my eyes that’s as much the appeal as the victorious-underdog aspects of the franchise. We don’t get an appearance in CREED from Carl Weathers as Apollo Creed, but what he brought to the movies is still present in Michael B. Jordan’s fierce likability (he even looks like the young Apollo Creed at times) and Sylvester Stallone’s familiar but adjusted-for-weight-of-age performance. This is a sequel that comes at the idea from a dynamic angle — the son of Rocky’s most legendary rival comes to him for training in the same sport that killed his father. Rocky sees he can’t stop Donnie and feels he owes it to Apollo to protect his kid. CREED is about a reluctant mentor and an angry, hurt, haunted hero. If we’ve seen that relationship on film before, it’s not often, and never this fresh. On top of that, Tessa Thompson’s “love interest” character Bianca provides such a real, warm, unpredictable, lovable, tangible presence — it’s rare for a male-dominated movie, rare for a franchise movie, rare for an American movie. I suspect the pleasure of revisiting CREED will be less to thrill in the mechanics of the boxing sequences — which are tremendous — but more to spend time with these characters again.
When I first moved to L.A., I got a job in an office building just off Santa Monica Boulevard, which I had to cross to get to work after parking my car in the lot across the street. Since it was a TV industry job, I came and went at all hours of the day and night, which means I got a crash-course in the environment of the neighborhood. This was two blocks from the Donut Time where so much of the action of TANGERINE takes place. So when I join the many voices praising TANGERINE for its sense of authenticity, it’s coming from some direct observation from the field. But I didn’t usually stop too long to talk to the many characters I encountered on Santa Monica Boulevard, and that’s the difference. TANGERINE brings the viewer into that world, by function of form (the film was famously shot on smartphones and favors dynamic close-ups and tracking shots) and by its vivid performances, most notably from Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. Like its two lead characters, the movie explodes with energy. TANGERINE is exciting because it has real social value, making a marginalized culture spring beautifully to life and doing it not with melodrama but with recognizable relationships and a friendship that would win anybody over. All you have to do is look and listen.
5. BONE TOMAHAWK
I wrote more extensively about this movie when it hit Blu-Ray. The point I’d reiterate is that this isn’t a horror-Western. It really is a straight-ahead Western-Western. Westerns are a uniquely American genre whose usage tends to reflect the tenor of the times in which they were made. The stereotypical white-hat hero was never exactly a reality; pick up a history book or take a look at Deadwood. Westerns tell America what we’re thinking about ourselves — the more idealized Westerns of yesteryear are telling, as were the revisionist Westerns of the late 1960s and the early 1970s, as was the fact that the Western basically went away for a while, and so now is a movie like BONE TOMAHAWK, which is scary as all hell. Because that’s where we are today.
I saw this twice in theaters and wrote effusively about it elsewhere. If I’m being completely honest, it’s probably true that Michael Mann has made stronger movies than this one. But there’s still no filmmaker working today whose movies I’d rather watch — over and over.
Another one I wrote about before now. But I will keep writing about it in case it helps anybody new discover it. SPRING is a jewel. It’s not a monster movie that sort of has a love story in it. It’s a love story that sort of has a monster in it. Huge difference. Astonishingly rare thing. If this is the first you’re hearing about this one, please give it a look.
This is only seven minutes long, but it was more on my cinematic frequency than almost anything else this year, so I don’t know what all these prestige movies are doing running over the two-hour mark. This video has just about everything I need in a feature film — pretty ladies, freaky character actors, action, motion, color, scope, scary sexuality, dodgy morality, something to think about, something to tap my foot to while I’m doing it.
1. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Because I saw it three times during its theatrical run and because I bought it on Blu-Ray months ago and still haven’t dared to watch it on a smaller screen. That’s how resolutely big-screen it is.
Because there’s no reason it should have been this terrific. It wasn’t an easy movie to get made, or an easy one to make, and it definitely wasn’t a sure thing box-office-wise.
But mostly because “Let them up!” is the final line of the movie for a reason that’s even bigger than movies.