2015 has come to a close, and every film critic and blogger has already put together their “end of year” lists. Alas, I still don’t have access to a few of my most anticipated releases as of this writing (The Revenant and Anomalisa in particular), so I can’t make my full “top films” list yet (edit: I have now. It’s right here). However, I feel comfortable putting together a “top stuff” list. Here are some of my favorite film elements of the year.
Best Opening Scene: Faults
There were several movies this year with extended and impressive opening scenes, several managed in just a single take. It Follows and Buzzard both come to mind. None are as effective as the opening scene of Faults. Faults opens by showing us just how low our hero, former cult deprogrammer Ansel, currently is. Ansel eats his breakfast at a hotel restaurant, when he is informed that his vouchers were used the day before and no longer valid. What unfolds is a genius display of desperation, and it perfectly shows everything we need to know about the character.
Best Ending Scene: Phoenix
As you’ve probably guessed if you’re following this blog, endings are perhaps the single thing I most strongly consider when judging a film. There was one in particular that stood out to me this year, and that movie is Phoenix (ending spoilers, skip ahead if you don’t want to know anything). What gets me about Phoenix is the simplicity of the ending. There’s no fireworks, no huge twist reveal. It’s just one, simple, lovely song, sung from our heroine to her husband, and the silent reaction that comes with it. This one gesture contains all of the pathos that’s been building throughout the film, and it’s a beautiful ending to a suspenseful movie.
Best Score: Crimson Peak
This was a tough one; there were a lot of great scores this year. Carol is getting a lot of critical acclaim (rightly so), and It Follows (by FEZ composer Disasterpeace) is far and away the one I’ve listened to the most. However, I’m going to give some love to the Crimson Peak score. Much like the movie itself, the score gets derailed anytime a “ghost” theme arrives, but strip those out and you have the lovely gothic romance score that fits the movie Del Toro was really making. It makes you wonder how good this movie could be if it could simply embrace its non-horrorness and didn’t have to repeatedly insist on cheap scares and bad CGI every few minutes.
Best Director: George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road)
It has to be George Miller. The guy is 70 years old, comes back to the action-filmmaking game after 30 years, and basically injects the genre with more energy than any film since The Matrix. I will be extremely disappointed if the Academy doesn’t recognize this achievement in some way.
Best Cinematography: Carol
There were a ton of deserving films this year. My pick is Carol, mostly due to the very deliberate camera placement, blocking, and mise-en-scène expertly designed to show the audience exactly what the director intends. Take for instance a scene midway through the film, when Rooney Mara’s character Therese is packing for a trip while arguing with her boyfriend. The entire scene plays in a single take; as the argument progresses back and forth, the characters move from room to room, with the boyfriend practically chasing Therese around the apartment. Eventually Therese exits the scene through a door in the center of the frame, that is mostly obscured by other walls, while the boyfriend is left alone and frustrated. If this scene were to play silently, the audience would still be able to follow the character movements and visually interpret the turmoil the characters are going though. This is but one of many, many instances of visual storytelling in Carol; every frame is expertly constructed and gorgeous.
Extremely close runner up for this category: Sicario. A very different film with much grander scope, and Roger Deakins at his finest.
I Didn’t Get It (Category Stolen from Filmspotting SVU): Turbo Kid
A lot of people seem to love this movie; I really don’t understand the appeal. Especially in a year that contains Fury Road, Turbo Kid feels like a low-rent Mad Max film with outdated gender politics and without much beneath the surface. There is certainly some commentary on nostalgia culture, but Turbo Kid seems to embrace the phenomenon, believing that living in a fantasy world of pop culture can turn you into a superhero. The only woman in the film of note is actually a robot whose primary characteristics are whimsy and clinginess towards the protagonist. I guess if you love B-movie gore and violence, this movie offers that in spades; it really did not work for me.
Most Disappointing: Spectre
Terminator: Genisys was certainly a consideration here, but honestly I’d be a fool to expect greatness from a modern Terminator sequel. Spectre, on the other hand, had everything going for it. The return of Skyfall director Sam Mendes and possibly the final Bond performance of Daniel Craig led to Spectre being a highly anticipated release. Sadly, it did not deliver. The worst thing that can be said about this film is that it is really, really boring. Nothing that takes place in the first 60 minutes is of any consequence to the plot of the film. Christoph Waltz’s character is completely wasted in the film, barely appearing before the climax, and then only with some bizarre narrative twists that make little-to-no sense. It certainly doesn’t help that the story feels eerily similar to this year’s Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, a movie that is, in my opinion, superior in every way.
Best Crowd-Pleaser: The Martian
If there is one movie that I feel can be recommended to practically anyone this year, it would be The Martian. This movie has everything an audience could want: comedy, drama, the whole planet uniting around a cause, Matt Damon being charming, some realistic future technologies, and a main character that mostly survives by “science-ing the shit” out of his problems. Truly science fiction at its best.
Most Difficult/Bizarre: Hard to Be a God
Here’s the best way I can describe this movie: remember the “bring out your dead” scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the camera starts on an old woman smacking a carpet with a screeching cat? Well turn that into a 3 hour black-and-white Russian film, and you’ve got Hard to Be a God. This movie is a complete slog and simultaneously brilliant. The plot features humans that have traveled to a planet stuck in its “Middle Ages,” including every disgusting and depraved detail. Characters regularly will walk into frame just to make a face at the camera or smear mud on their faces, for literally no obvious reason. The film is very difficult to follow, but it is also very humorous at times and makes some interesting macro observations about humanity. I’m not sure I would recommend it to any sane person, but if the trailer grabs you, it’s on Netflix.
I Can’t Believe They Pulled It Off: White God
Picture how difficult it can be to get your dog or cat to pose for a photo. Now imagine casting a live animal in the nuanced lead role of a motion picture. This is the task White God attempts. Hagen, the film’s furry hero, goes through an enormous range of emotions, more than I thought possible for any canine movie star. The movie doesn’t stop there though; almost the entire supporting cast of the film are dogs. Throughout the third act, more than 200 dogs appear on screen simultaneously. White God is a Hungarian allegory about social revolution. It’s powerful and heartbreaking, and not an easy watch. However, it is worth it if for no other reason than some of the greatest animal direction ever put to film.
Movie That I Never Would Have Seen If It Weren’t For Making These Lists, and I’m Glad I Saw Because It Was Great: Tangerine
Tangerine follows two transgender prostitutes on the streets of Los Angeles on Christmas Eve. The movie is largely known for being completely shot on an iPhone, giving it a hyper-saturated and frenetically-edited style. The movie is gives a highly unique and believeable view of the shadier side of Los Angeles. It is frequently hilarious, yet ends on a bittersweet note that completely recontextualizes the rest of the film. I probably never would have seen this film if it weren’t for end-of-year lists, and I’m happy to recommend it. It is also available on Netflix as of this post.
That’s it for now, to be continued. I’ll be posting my Top 10 in the near future, once I’ve seen the few remaining on my list.