by Abe Rose
Dir. Spike Lee
Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq is a modern-day retelling of Aristophane’s Lysistrata set to the violent streets of Chicago, with dialogue sung and spoken in rhyming couplets. If that sounds like it would result in something like a relatively safe Broadway musical, this is not your typical West Side Story. It is angry, powerful, and argumentative, yet also rhythmic, farcical, and vibrant. The original play Lysistrata is an anti-war satire, in which the women unite to deny men of sex until the war ends. 2500 years after Lysistrata was written, the play still feels like it’s pushing the comedy beyond boundaries of appropriate taste. One of the oldest stories in the world is, in fact, a sex comedy. You don’t always have to take a step into the future to be bold, sometimes taking a step backwards by 2500 years is even bolder.
Since the beginning of the Iraq War, more people were murdered in Chicago than American forces were killed in combat. To make its point clear, Chi-Raq does not shy away from referencing the stories of Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, the Charleston shooting, and far too many other recent tragedies. While it may sound insensitive that these killings would be scooped up and used for the purpose of satire, we have to remember what satire was originally intended for. Satire is meant to roast the incompetence of the politicians and the political systems that fail us, and then apply cold water to the burn. Chi-Raq is angry with the violence and furious with the reinforced status quo. If violence truly is embedded in human nature, perhaps there is something even stronger embedded even deeper: the need for sex. By denying sex, even the mightiest empires could topple over in waves of the desperate and erect.
9.) It Follows
Dir. David Robert Mitchell
Imagine a monster without a face. This monster does not run, and it does not chase. It simply walks sluggishly, like something from a nightmare. You can try to run from it, but it will eventually reach you, then kill you, and there is nothing that can stop it. It Follows is one of those rare horror films with streaks of philosophical undertones. By personifying death, it provides an unsettling reminder that death will eventually reach us. Like the tortoise catching up to the hare who had a lifetime head start, death always wins in the end. It Follows would be a movie that Voldemort would be terrified of.
The film sets up the rules of the monster very early on. It can look like anyone (a friend, stranger, father, mother…) It will follow its victim until it catches and kills. And once it has done that, it will follow a new target: the person that the victim last had sex with. And then it will kill him or her, and up the sexual ladder it goes. But if someone is being followed by this monster, then he or she can pass the monster onto a new victim through sex. In this film, as is the case with many teen horror movies, sex is a death sentence. It buys time for the people passing on the monster, but their deaths are simply delayed, not dismissed.
There are echoes of the realities of sexually transmitted diseases, and post-traumatic stress disorder, but the film does not act as a stiff approval of abstinence-only lifestyles. It uses the avenue of the teen horror genre to explore the philosophical underpinnings of sexual exploration. Through these teens’ musings about their thoughts on sex, the thesis of the film becomes clear. It Follows is about the horrifying realization that we all eventually die, and although sex can be liberating, it cannot save us from that empty feeling that the clock is ticking, and doom is coming for us all eventually.
Dir. Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman
Michael, the stop-motion animated protagonist, stays at the Fregoli Hotel. The name of this place may give us keen insight as to what is exactly controlling this stop-motion puppet’s behavior. The Fregoli Delusion is a very rare syndrome in which someone perceives everyone around him or her to be the same person but in different costumes. To Michael, everyone including all men, women and children look and sound like someone voiced by Tom Noonan. Michael feels his grip on his sanity slipping, as he cannot seem to connect with anyone. “Who are you?” he asks his wife. After all the years he’s been married to her, she remains a complete stranger to him. The same goes for his son.
Anomalisa is a story that must be told in an animated format. It simply wouldn’t make sense to have a whole movie filled with Being John Malkovich-esque live-action dopplegangers. It makes complete philosophical sense for a puppet to try pull off its own face and question its own existence, but a live human doing that would encroach on Hannibal Lecter territory. And by surrounding Michael with troves of Tom Noonan puppets, it makes the moment so much sweeter when Michael discovers an anomaly, a woman puppet that is different. Lisa’s voice and face are not like anyone else’s. The film takes a mid-life crisis and puts it through the Charlie Kaufman blender, giving us an introspective drama filled with laughs, toy figurines, and philosophical rabbit-holes to tumble deeply into.
Dir. Lenny Abrahamson
Not to be confused with The Room, the other movie that may be equally hard to watch, albeit for extremely different reasons, this Room explores dark, dark territory. Its plot is taken from one of those horrific stories that make for sensationalist news, front page headlines, and expensive interviews on 60 Minutes. A seventeen-year old girl is abducted, kept in a ten-by-ten garden shed, repeatedly raped, gives birth to a child in captivity, and raises that child for five years. The producers of this movie must have had a hard time in the advertising department; with a premise like this, what kind of audience is this movie exactly meant for?
But Room is not sensationalist, nor does it concern itself with graphic exploitation. It is mostly seen through the eyes of the child born in this captivity. To him, Room is an endless place of possibility. It is the whole world. Never having seen the outside, or even knowing that an outside world actually exists, his worldly information all comes through the TV, the two-dimensional, flat-imaged thing of magic. This screams of comparisons with Plato’s Cave. A sick, twisted version of Plato’s Cave, albeit.
It is important that the film focuses on Jack’s perspective. Whatever his mother is thinking or feeling does not come easily to him, as his innocence protects him from the grim reality surrounding him. The tone of Room is a delicate balance between inquisitive wonder of the boy, as the endless possibilities of a new world open up to him, and the tragic reminder that the world is closing in on the mother, trapping her in a Room without possibilities. It is delicately nuanced in tone, as are the key performances, which are two of the very best of the year.
6.) Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
Dir. J.J. Abrams
It seems we are in the post-honeymoon phase of the release of Star Wars Episode VII, a time in which people look beyond the 800-million dollar revenue and start to notice peculiar similarities with the original Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. The criticism that the new Star Wars film is rehashing the original, is largely missing the point. As Abrams has pointed out, the tropes in this film have been around far longer than the original Star Wars. As the originals used mythological devices older than Joseph Campbell, so does the new one. Recognizing that the two movies are similar is the first step into a larger world of storytelling; the same fairy tales and archetypes are told and retold because we universally respond to them in the same manner.
The central characters of the originals have been elevated to the status of legends. “Luke Skywalker? I thought he was a myth,” Rey questions at one point. In her world, the Skywalker family is mythological, just as in our own world, the Skywalker family has become a part of our cultural mythology. We have been with Luke as he rescues the princess, we have agonized with Leia as Han is taken away to be frozen in carbonite, and were baffled along with the gang as a tribe of teddy bears overtook the Empire. But Finn, Rey, and Kylo Ren are missing out on that empathy. They weren’t there, like we were. They have been handed the torch, but they don’t know where the torch came from. They miss out on the significance of finding the old, rusty Millennium Falcon, or seeing R2 come back to life. We were there when the myth was first spoken, we hear the dramatic irony, and we can see the parallels with Rey being an orphan on a desert planet, dreaming of the stars. The parallels strengthen the story, not weaken it. In finding Rey, like Luke before her, a nobody can once again feel like he or she is important enough to change the galaxy.
Before the release of the film, I often wondered how they could make a villain to top Darth Vader. Simply put, you can’t. Vader has been immortalized as one of the greats, like our version of a Poseidon or Hades. The storytellers have realized that, and wisely go in the other direction. Kylo Ren is an incredible villain, not because he is stronger than Vader, but because he knows he is weaker than Vader. Because he is conflicted about the path he follows, that somehow makes him more unpredictable and more dangerous. He’s like a Putin of the Star Wars universe, a child of the Empire. Let me continue with this analogy: Putin idolizes the glory days of the Soviet Empire, in which he was at one point a KGB officer. He sees the rise of democracy and NATO as Western encroachments on Russian sovereignty, and he seeks to restore Russia to its zenith peak during the Cold War. It’s not always the old villains that pose the biggest threat; it’s the children who grow up idolizing the past that can be the most dangerous. Star Wars has found its Putin.
Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu
Reviewing The Revenant brings up the age-old question for critics, on whether or not writing about the true history of a historical film constitutes as a spoiler. It’d be somewhat difficult to review Titanic without mentioning the iceberg, (spoiler alert?) just as it would be difficult to review The Revenant without mentioning the bear. In real history, a trapper named Hugh Glass led an expedition up the Missouri river in 1823. He was viciously mauled by a bear and left for dead. He had to crawl 200 miles to get back to civilization and take vengeance on those responsible for abandoning him. Had I learned stories like this in history class, I would defend history like a gentleman with honor, white glove throwdown and all. History teachers, take note; teaching this kind of story is how you can excite your classes.
It’s an incredible premise, but Iñárritu isn’t interested in merely crafting a historical revenge movie. He uses the story as a base but brings his own pallet to paint the film with rich images of nature. His cinematographer uses only natural twilight to color the canvas. To the cinematic layman, that would mean that the filmmakers had only a few hours to film each day, whereas, they could have cheated the light by using artificial means. With long takes, and expensive daily shoots, it puts a lot of pressure on the actors to get the performance right the first time. Given that Leo nearly got hypothermia and had to eat raw liver bison, this is a clear sign that this man needs an Oscar or he will take on even more suicidal roles.
It’s through the lens of this bloody revenge story that we see the larger context of historic racism. While it’s not totally true that in real history, Hugh Glass had a biracial son that he wanted to avenge, the film uses this revenge device to explore the treatment of the Pawnee people. There really were people at this point in history who acted on their belief of “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” It’s an incredibly ugly part of American history that largely gets glazed over. Especially in children’s books, there are many well-intentioned, but terribly misguided stories that try to take all the different Native American tribes, and homogenize them into “The Friendly Indian.” In the children’s book, Journey to a New Land, a character writes “I met an Indian today! He was not fierce.” It’s a great attempt to wash away the blood and sins of some of America’s forefathers for their the racist treatment and horrific massacres of the people of the First Nations, but these stories largely remain ignorant about Native Americans, themselves. There were incredible warriors among the Native Americans, and had disease not spread across the Americas, much of the West likely could not have been won by sheer force. The Revenant pays much honor to the Pawnee and Arikara people. It respects their cultures, it marvels at their incredible prowess as warriors, and it does not shy away from the ugly treatment that they received. The Revenant is historically important for reminding us about these often ignored horrors.
4.) Son of Saul
Dir. László Neme
There’s never been a Holocaust film quite like Son of Saul. Shot entirely in a 40-mm lens, the film stays planted on one singular man, a Sonderkommando, a Jewish worker forced to aid in the systematic killing of his people. The Nazis would typically have one group be set aside to clean the showers of the dead bodies, or as they dehumanizingly refer to as “pieces.” After a few months, the Nazis would then kill the Sonderkommandos and start all over again. Because every shot is set over the shoulders of this one man, we can never see a clear, objective view of all that is happening. There are screams when the shower doors close. There are whimpers as naked men and women are lined up to a mass grave to be shot. By focusing on only one individual, we, as the audience, feel trapped and limited. Saul has to keep busy, and not stop and stare, lest he find himself sharing that mass grave. As observers, we are imprisoned with Saul. Because he is not free to see all that is happening, neither are we. And by hearing the screams, our imaginations have to fill in the rest, which is terrifying given how good most of our imaginations can be.
There are thematic whispers of Elie Wiesel’s Night, in which Wiesel recounts his personal experiences of the Holocaust and finds that not only has the Nazis committed violence against flesh and bodies, but they have committed war against the soul and culture. By the end of his experience, when he is able to see himself in the mirror, he instead finds a haunting image of death starting right back at him. In this film, Saul has hardened. He is single-mindedly determined to give his son a proper burial, even though, ironically, he is at a death camp. Even if it means putting his own life and the lives of his fellow Jewish brethren at stake, he is more focused on aiding the dead rather than the living. While the Rabbis keep silent, and the Torahs are left unread, Saul attempts to preserve something of his dignity, of his culture, even if it means he is damning those around him to death. He is not fighting to save his life, but rather to save his soul that is shouting, “I’m still here.”
Dir. John Crowley
For anyone who has packed up and begun the long journey to a new land, whether it be across the seas, or even across the state, there is a lot to relate to in Brooklyn. In the 1950’s a young Irish woman leaves her home in search of a new one in Brooklyn. A plot like this takes on enough of the kind of romantic material that Nicholas Sparks would sink his teeth into, but Brooklyn is without any false or forced melodrama. The film is a rich, warm, and bittersweet one. I wouldn’t describe it as a coming-of-age, but rather a coming-of-independence; it is about decision-making that affects personal life trajectories in hundred and eighty degree turns. Brooklyn is a movie placing where home actually is. Is it where you originally grew up with your family, or is it the place where you build your life now?
The romance in Brooklyn is one of the sweetest to blossom in years. There was a time in my life before I met my wife that I found myself identifying the most with unfulfilled romances ripe with longing, like the kind in The Apartment. Maybe it’s because I’m older now and have had more experience, for I now find myself relating more to the kind of romance in Brooklyn. Here are two independent people far from home, dirt poor, but see a future with each other. It understands that starting a relationship is like starting a small fire; it must be carefully tended or the flames go out. The lure of home is strong, and the longer you tend one fire, you neglect the other that you left smoldering in the other home.
Brooklyn is a movie that makes the city of Brooklyn so magical, you’d forget it wasn’t even shot in Brooklyn. It was filmed in Montreal. I don’t know if this Brooklyn existed for real like it does in the film, with the Italians almost perfectly getting along with the Irish, but c’mon, this is a romance. The movie makes this version of Brooklyn seem like the kind of place that you’d want to fall in love in.
2.) Inside Out
Dir. Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen
Pixar has given emotions to toys, cars, bugs, fish, rats, and now they have gone full meta by giving emotions to emotions. By personifying emotions like Joy, Sadness, Anger, and Fear, Pixar has weaved a complex narrative that simultaneously works as a disturbing childhood drama, and as a Charlie Kaufman-esque journey into the mind. Unlike other Pixar films which could all be considered strictly fantasy, Inside Out is rooted in hard reality. Riley’s emotional breakdown is not the type of thing you typically see in a children’s cartoon. The movie uses the personified emotions to illustrate what is actually happening to her. When she becomes apathetic, Joy and Sadness lose control and are plunged into darkness. When she has outgrown the silliness of imaginary friends, Bing-Bong literally fades away. When she loses emotional trust in her family, her Family Island crumbles. The film is devastating, because all of the inner workings of her mind serve as illustrations of a girl losing joy and sadness to the turbulent confusion of adolescence.
1.) Mad Max: Fury Road
Dir. George Miller
George Miller seems to reinvent the world of Mad Max each time he revisits it. If the first film was a Suzuki Book 1 violin recital, the latest would be the concert of the London Philharmonic Symphony, complete with pyrotechnics and flame-spewing guitars. It takes the cumulative knowledge of filmmaking and uses it all, reaching as far back as the days of the silent era of Buster Keaton. The choreography is almost ballet-like. You wouldn’t think that pole jumping from spiky death cars could look so graceful. Each set piece and costume looks like a collision between metal engine, and Viking warriors on motorcycles. This is a masterfully crafted film.
It is the third sequel to the franchise, and could also be considered a reboot of the series. But it is not in an any sense a retread, like what we’ve come to expect from the sequel-centric summer blockbuster machine. Mad Max: Fury Road is revving full speed ahead, leaving other CGI-dependent action movies in the dust. George Miller has dared to attempt the kind of insane, death defying stunts that has been missing from film for almost a hundred years. It’s breathtaking.
Mad Max: Fury Road uses the muscular, grizzled-jawed masculine hero, who mostly stays silent except for a few grunts and growls. But he isn’t necessarily the central focus of the movie. It’s Furiosa’s show, really. She is the one with the plan, and is more than capable of saving those dependent on her. She is not a glorified sex symbol, either. She is the type of character that filmmakers should have been using in action movies years ago. Furiosa’s mission is to save objectified women who are sought after by a nutcase in power, Immortan Joe. She is returning them to a society without barbarism, or cruelty. All of them on Furiosa’s team are resourceful, strong, and most importantly, treated like equals. While many film studios have been reluctant to approach female tropes differently, Mad Max: Fury Road zooms through, and hopefully all the studios will get on their flaming motorcycles and follow pursuit.
Because Mad Max: Fury Road has been so incredibly well received critically, and named the number one film of the year by over 160 professional critics, it raises serious questions about the genre biases set in place by awards ceremonies. Mad Max played opening night, but out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Word is, had it been eligible, it likely would have taken the Palm D’Or. Even at the Golden Globes, Mad Max was nominated for Best Picture, but in the Drama category because there is no category for Action movie. Why not honor an action movie, a summer blockbuster, a sequel, and a post-apocalyptic road chase movie, if it just so happens to be the best of its kind ever?
Click here for Part I of the top 20 through 11 films of 2015.