By Darin Skaggs
Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq is a movie made for social issues happening right now and is based on the Greek play called Lysistrata. In that way it makes the movie already seem timeless. It is a furious picture all about race relations and the unnecessary violence it has caused. It is desperate to find an answer to all the race issues happening in the news recently. Teyonah Parris plays Lysistrata who gathers a plethora of ladies to start a sex strike against their men until they come together and stop the violence. Lysitrata’s boyfriend is played wonderfully by Nick Cannon who goes by the surname Chi-Raq which is in its self a surname for Chicago. It is clear that Cannon’s character is puffy headed, but also it works as a symbol for what Lee thinks is wrong with Chicago and could bring along what he wants and needs the city to become. Even with this serious and focused anger, Lee knows just what the film needs. It needs to have a creative and beautiful look and a very rich sense of humor. Samuel L. Jackson plays the narrator who, of course, guides the plot along and even gives his own opinion on the ridiculousness of the situation or the attractiveness of some of the women. The first scene is a conversation about how turned on Chi-Raq and Lysistrata are with each other that is all performed like a poem, which sometimes feels like it is straight from the Greek play or is a rap performance, again blending the two to make a creative wonderful work of art.
14. QUEEN OF EARTH
Alex Ross Perry’s 2014 film Listen Up Philip is a movie I liked quite a bit, but now he has made Queen of Earth which is a film that is leaning more toward my taste. The plot is minuscule: Two friends, Catherine and Virginia played by Elizabeth Moss and Katherine Waterson respectively, spend their vacation time in a lake house. They do not get along. The situation gets worse. There are some flashbacks. And that is about it plot wise. What the film acts as for those willing to be patient and sit through its methodical pace is a compelling psychological thriller and a character study in depression. In present day, Catherine finds herself in the saddened state and Virginia has to deal with it, but in the flashback the roles are reversed. There are no big events unless you count the party scene and an argument could be made for the ending, but emotionally the film is packed to the brim with captivating character moments. I love it.
13. THE LOOK OF SILENCE
The Look of Silence is billed as a counter piece to another Joshua Oppenheimer documentary The Act of Killing, but you do not need to see it to get the full impact of the film. It is a documentary about Adi Rukun, whose brother was brutally murdered by a group of men who killed anyone who was suspect to be a communist. This happened a few years before Adi was even born. Adi watches interviews of the people that were either somewhat, or completely related to the death of his brother, he questions his mother and broken father, and even meets with some of the people responsible. What makes this film so important and so harrowing is watching Adi face his pain head on while he interacts with the persecutors who are nowhere near brave enough to talk about their sins.
12. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
It seems too easy to put J.J. Abrams’ monumental Star Wars: The Force Awakens in my top fifteen, but I could not help myself. The Force Awakens is a fantastic action flick, with near perfect new characters and a good mix of the old ones. It was the Star Wars movie we were all wanting, so meticulously made. The studio, director, writers listened to the complaints of the prequels and made the movie all the fans wanted, which could have not worked. It did though. Rey played fantastically by Daisy Ridley is a great new character and the villain Kylo Ren, portrayed by Adam Driver does great work here, he is everything Anakin should have been in the prequels. Every scene seems to have something to offer. Lately I have been thinking of the single take shot where Finn excitingly watches Poe in his X-Wing take out a bunch of Tie Fighters and Stormtroopers, never missing a shot. All the practical effects are wonderful, but all the action taking place in the air is computer generated, which was risky due to all the special effects hate for the prequels but just like the rest of the effects even these ones are amazing. Honestly, I cannot wait for the future of Star Wars.
11. THE BIG SHORT
There was a hand full of movies this year that were filled with concentrated rage like Chi-Raq, Spoltight and a few more we’ll get to. Another one is Adam McKay’s The Big Short which is all about the housing collapse in 2008 and the people who made millions on that. The director has only dipped his feet in the comedy genre and is quite good at it. This film works as a drama, but has so many comedic qualities. Hiring great actors like Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt and Christian Bale helps the film along, but also acts as sort of an old timey way of filmmaking of getting familiar faces that would attract an audience to get across your personal, angry political views. It also incorporates strange celebrity cameos as they explain the most difficult parts to understand when describing the housing crisis details. It is vastly entertaining and wonderfully made.
At one point when talking about Sean Baker’s Tangerine, I called it an adventure film, while my friend called it a buddy comedy. In a way I think we were both right and in another way it completely doesn’t matter. Whatever pointless genre you stamp on this movie, you cannot deny that it is an extremely fun time. The film stars Kiki Rodriguez as Sin-Dee, a transvestite prostitute who just recently got out of jail and finds out her pimp/boyfriend may or may not have been cheating on her. Furious she, and her reluctant friend Alexandra, a fellow transvestite played by Mya Taylor, go on a mission to find him and do who knows what. Alexandra, while sometimes occupying her friend, goes off on her own adventures, dealing with angry men, putting on a show at a local eatery and hanging out with a taxi driver in a car wash. The film never tries to make a statement about how difficult it is to have so many “different” qualifications; it merely wants to create an exciting, unique and visceral experience.
The strange thing about John Crowley’s Brooklyn is that it is full of melodrama, there is a big speech of triumph for the main character and the central plot is a love story. These are all things that if you describe it to a film fan they might dismiss it immediately, but the film takes such care in handling the film that it all works. You care about the moment Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen) tells the main character Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) he loves her, Ronan’s performance perfectly emphasizes fear, but the kind of fear that expresses happiness. The lines written by Nick Hornby are believe and relatable that you know she probably loves him back, but doesn’t know how to articulate it to him yet and the setting is so beautiful around the damp park walkway where they can have this intimate moment, but could also have a moment of someone walking by. They might notice, they might not. They are a couple in love, in the stage of fear the other doesn’t feel the same way you do. The whole film takes seemingly simple moments in life and conveys them so beautifully on screen.
8. THE HATEFUL EIGHT
Tarentino’s new film is a marvelous next step in his career. Never before has he been this angry, nor his violence so consequential and conflicting with morals. Every character and their decisions is questionable, every story beat leaves a bad taste in your mouth and it all culminates in a furiously passionate play like film all about how humans treated each other and how little it has changed. The cinematography is so beautiful, as the first hour is spent with John Ruth (Kurt Russell) taking the near evil fugitive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) by stagecoach to the hangman. On the way he picks up fellow bounty hunter Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and could-be-or-not-be new sheriff Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins). The snowy landscapes are amazing to look at and even when we get in the packed cabin for the last two hours of the movie, the production design is wonderful. The whole crew comes together to create a masterful piece of art. Even all the performances are top notch that I dare you to pick a favorite.
7. A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE
This film is ridiculous, even the overdramatic title tells us the movie before it evens begins will be off the rails. And it is. Roy Andersson’s crazy film is loosely strung together by two extremely unsuccessful gag gift salesman, the film is told between a number of strange vignettes like a scientist talking on the phone while a monkey receives shock therapy for some unexplained reason or the bartender who sings while accepting kisses for payment instead of money for some Navy men’s beers. The film is an amazing dark comedy, constantly bringing you to moments of shock and being so absurd most of the time that it cannot help but make you laugh. All of it seems random, and honestly it just might be, but the larger theme is always there; the struggle and terror of humanity being in a troubled state. So much terror like the aforementioned monkey shock therapy and the odd slave/cylinder trumpet machine/art performance (that is literally my best description of it) that happens makes the ending seem like the whole piece was just a way of saying do not complain about minuscule mistakes because it could be much worse right now.
Lenny Abrahamson’s Room does exactly what it is trying to do. It could, at any decision, fall off the rails and become cheesy and overly melodramatic. It does not though; it brilliantly finds the perfect balance of realistic moments and immense sympathy. In the film Brie Larson plays Ma and Jacob Trembley plays her son, Jack, who have been trapped in a shed that they refer to as “Room.” In the first half we see who these people are; Jack is a normal kid, curious about everything and always asking questions to find out. Ma is a sad character, for obvious reasons, but clearly has real love for her son and we see moments of joy when they are together. When they escape we then have to see these characters the film has made us care about adjust to the outside world, which Jack has never seen and Ma has not seen for seven years. The performances are some of the best of the year, including supporting performances from Joan Allen and Tom McCumus. The adjustment is not as easy as it sounds, and the filmmakers know it, we see Jack feeling the need to go back to Room, due to that being the only place he has known and a comfy one at that. Ma struggles with being out of Room and knowing everyone else got to be out of it making their own decisions. The movies theme, love, is what makes it alright in the end for everyone and one of the more effective movies to come out in a long while.
5. INSIDE OUT
I’m reluctant to join the bandwagon of people claiming that Pixar is back with their movie Inside Out, especially with their never ending reign of sequels that are forthcoming and mediocrity of The Good Dinosaur, but it is clear that they have made a fantastic work of art and, maybe, their best movie yet. The film takes place mostly in the head of a young girl named Riley as emotions Joy (Amy Poehler), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith), control her decisions and, of course, her emotions. The plot happening outside Riley’s head is fairly simple; Riley’s dad gets a better job, they move and she has trouble adjusting. She eventually wants to run away back to her old town. That is it, but the movie understands that these moments are emotionally complicated and potentially devastating if they are kept inside and not talked out.
The first movie I saw from the year 2015 was Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, so the fact that it made my top ten was both surprising and delightful. If you have seen it, first of all you know why it is in my top ten but most importantly you know how visually stunning the whole production is, as well as a deep emotional beauty the film strikes. The movie sticks to the Disney classic pretty much beat for beat. What new aspect they do go for is exploring the challenge of being and staying a good person. Ella (Lily James), she is given the name Cinderella as a mockery by her step-sisters later in the film, is encouraged by her parents to stay strong and keep her imagination. Even with her mother on here deathbed relays the advice the Ella keeps throughout the film “Have courage and be kind.” Bad moments happen to Ella from there on, but she takes that advice to heart. To borrow a Christian phrase, she turns the other cheek instead of spitting in the face of those who wronged her and finds real love. It is a truly moving optimistic view at humanity.
3. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
There are so many nice touches in George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road two hour, epic, barren land, road chase. It is great to find that Miller let his wife edit the film because he knew if a male edited it the movie would just look like every other action film. The fact that he made that choice and the film works as a pro-feminist piece is equally thrilling as the set pieces. The eldest son to Immortan Joe screaming about his stillborn brother being perfect in every way or the naked women on top of a telephone pole being bait for older, awesome women to come and kick your butt are such great, creative touches to the picture. Let’s not forget The Doof Warrior shredding on his guitar contributing to the actual score and the motivation of the riders chasing our main characters.
At its most simple description Todd Haynes’ Carol seems like a look at how hard it was to be a homosexual back in the 1950’s, but it is more than that. A lot more. It is all about that, but it is also exploring young love, love from an older person and maybe even falling out of love with others. Frankly there is just so much going on in this movie, including great beauty from the cinematographer Edward Lachman. He and Haynes make a gorgeous film that looks like it was made during the time of when the film is set. The two leads, Therese (Rooney Mara) and the title character Carol (Cate Blanchett) are absolutely spectacular. Carol plays this seductive, stunning, drifter of lovers currently setting her sights on Therese’s child-like, innocent character. The film is truly harrowing, beautiful and one of the best of the year.
To talk about Rick Alverson’s awkward, hard to watch, almost despicable film Entertainment with the passion I feel for it to put it at the top spot is tough, but I know this is one of the greatest achievements ever made. In the film a nameless comedian (Gregg Turkington) goes around southern California performing with his opening act a vulgar clown (Tye Sheridan). His jokes though are as nasty and rude as the clown’s gestors. When not on the stage the man calls his daughter, who never picks up the phone, which could be several different, but all depressing conclusions. When he is not doing that he is just taking tours in the desert waste land that is Kern County. I feel like I could write about this movie scene by scene with the seatless airplane he enters symbolizing his current fanbase or the broken down car symbolizing his wrecked emotional state. Every inch of this movie can be dissected and torn apart that could lead to answers to grief, depression and the career of making people laugh. Without this film we could not get some amazing, strange performances out of Sheridan, John C. Riley and Michael Cera. Sometimes it feels like Alverson is using this movie as a pallet cleanser to get all the bad thoughts out. I could go on, Entertainment is a masterful, rough work of art that, if you have the patience, you should see.