First, let me state the obvious: the end of the year can be equally fun and stressful. A part of me enjoys poring over all the movies I’ve seen over the year, figuring out the highlights and lowlights and the many, many films falling in between. But it’s also frustrating to arbitrarily rank completely different works next to each other, and it becomes even more annoying when the awareness of how silly it all seems comes seeping in (“Is this small Hungarian drama better than the latest entry in a blockbuster franchise?” followed by “What am I doing?”). I still enjoy doing it though, even if I do it through clenched teeth. The fact that I keep doing it every year must mean that I find some value in it.
Over the last several years, the repetitiveness of a top ten has started to feel dull to me. When I read people’s lists, I tend to do the same thing: look for any usual suspects, see how my opinions align with theirs, and then move on to whatever else will distract me from being productive. It’s more interesting to see where people differ from the consensus, or to learn about the smaller films drowned out by the leaders of the pack. I’ve seen a handful of great films this year, and I’ve also seen what I call solid films: movies that are hard to find fault with, yet don’t generate a strong enough reaction to stick out from the crowd. As a result, a lot of these films get lost in the shuffle, so I decided to single some of them out.
But before I get to those, I’ll get the negatives out of the way. I guess I should start things off by addressing the flaming, revving engine in the room: George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, hailed as one of the best action movies ever made, left me feeling underwhelmed. I have plenty of admiration for Miller’s aversion to exposition, his attention to detail, the way he pushed the title character to the sidelines for a stronger (and more interesting) heroine, and his preference for practical stunts/effects. The film did a fine job making me aware of these elements, but I never found myself immersed or engaged with all the on-screen carnage. Even after watching it a second time, I still felt at a distance from the action, partly because Miller’s stripped down approach just exposed the framework for me (The Raid: Redemption is a good example of when “back to basics” works extremely well). It’s hard for me to go along with a film when I can see its machinery in motion, but based on where I stand with the consensus I’m fine to pull out the “It’s not you, it’s me” card on this one.
Franz and Fiala try their damndest to make it look like the boys have reason to be worried, but it doesn’t change the fact that Goodnight Mommy is empty, manipulative trash, with a twist ending that’s only shocking in that someone brought a twist that trite out of retirement.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call Fury Road the most overpraised film of 2015 though. I thought it was okay, and at the very least I can understand why people have taken to it. On the other hand, I have no idea why Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s Goodnight Mommy has been hailed as a terrific film (a Metacritic average over 80 and, in a baffling move, Austria’s official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film category). This grueling movie deals with young twin brothers who, when their mother comes home bandaged up from a facial surgery and crankier than ever, think she’s an imposter pretending to be their mom. In typical horror fashion, the boys’ only course of action is to tie up and torture her until she comes clean about her true identity. Is she really some sort of evil fake mom? Franz and Fiala try their damndest to make it look like the boys have reason to be worried, but it doesn’t change the fact that Goodnight Mommy is empty, manipulative trash, with a twist ending that’s only shocking in that someone brought a twist that trite out of retirement. If this is one of 2015’s highlights in horror, then the genre is in dire straits.
And then there are other films that, while falling into that aforementioned middle area between best and worst, seemed to resonate strongly with others. Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth turned into my biggest disappointment of 2015, a film that felt directly geared towards my sensibilities but was never able to rise above its influences. Some of its high praise felt more like a reflexive reaction to the fiercely committed performances of its two leads, which might have stuck out to me more if they weren’t tied to something so muddled. Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria, Laszlo Nemes’ Son of Saul and Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe all earned raves for their use of long takes and reliance on form, yet people were too busy being impressed by the effort put on screen to pay attention to what these films were doing on a substantive and/or ethical level. On the documentary front, Asif Kapadia’s Amy was offensive in its hijacking of Winehouse’s life story to push Kapadia’s own thesis forward, and Meru was the exact kind of forgettable middlebrow material that gets a fair share of recognition before disappearing into the void.
Dave Boyle’s Man From Reno is one of those movies, the kind of consistent and all-around good genre movie that should be on more people’s radar.
Alright, so I’m probably coming across as too much of a negative person right now, but 2015 was a very good year for film. The only problem is that there’s so much coming out it’s difficult to stop and spend some time admiring some of the strong work, meaning some films don’t get their proper due. Dave Boyle’s Man From Reno is one of those movies, the kind of consistent and all-around good genre movie that should be on more people’s radar. Taking two separate storylines – an author fleeing the press tour for her new book and a small town sheriff’s discovery of a bizarre crime scene – and slowly bringing them together through a complex mystery, Boyle creates a fun and earnest throwback to classically style detective stories. Man From Reno may not be one of 2015’s best films, but it has an assuredness that shouldn’t go so unnoticed.
And then there are the other films that are so fantastic it’s a shame that no one saw them, or even got the chance to see them. Take Yury Bykov’s The Fool, which only got a (very) brief theatrical run in New York City in the fall. It follows Dima, a plumber who hopes to get a proper job with his small town’s government someday. Bykov quickly establishes the title’s meaning through Dima’s mother, who calls him a fool because he still clings on to morality in a society that exists without it. From there, Bykov angrily hammers that point home once Dima discovers a government owned apartment building (housing low class citizens relying on welfare to survive) is so structurally unstable it can collapse at any moment. When he goes to inform the town’s mayor and her colleagues, he discovers just how rotten and corrupt his country’s institutions have become. The Fool is excellent political filmmaking, a righteously furious flipside to the rigid flatness of 2014’s Leviathan, and it’s disappointing to see Bykov’s terrific film fall to the wayside. Then again, the fact that it got released at all should be seen as something to celebrate.
While Queen of Earth may have let me down, I can’t say the same for Christmas, Again, Charles Poekel’s directorial debut which shares several names with Perry’s film (specifically editor Robert Greene, cinematographer Sean Price Williams and actor Kentucker Audley). Noel (Audley) spends yet another holiday season living in a trailer in New York City, selling Christmas trees on a lot while dealing with issues that Poekel barely makes explicit, save for Noel’s girlfriend leaving him. This is a great showcase for everyone involved, especially Audley, who plays Noel with an unshowy, understated quality that’s increasingly hard to find. Another film linked by Alex Ross Perry that should have gotten some more love was Bob Byington’s 7 Chinese Brothers, a hilarious take on the annoying manchild subgenre that shouldn’t work at all. Jason Schwartzman, the kind of actor who these kinds of roles are made for, plays what amounts to his character from Listen Up Philip without the intellect or success, and his dickish behaviour here is even funnier than it was in that film. Perry winds up making a cameo here in a brief sequence that’s both disarming and genuinely funny, the best part of the film next to Schwartzman’s real-life pet dog Arrow.
Rather than drone on endlessly about all the small delights I’ve seen this year, I’ll just do a few quick mentions instead. People Places Things was a huge surprise for me, a film that looks like a pile of Sundance clichés but has a clever script and one of the most underrated performances of the year from Jemaine Clement. The Stanford Prison Experiment, aka the other social psychology film of 2015, takes a straightforward approach to portraying the titular experiment and succeeds, creating a tense experience helped out by a great ensemble. When Marnie Was There isn’t exactly underrepresented (it has its fair share of strong supporters, including myself), but compared to Studio Ghibli’s last several releases it felt largely ignored, a shame considering its gorgeous and moving supernatural tale is the best thing the studio’s produced in years. Dominik Graf’s Beloved Sisters flies by despite its three-hour runtime, it’s the sort of inspired and unorthodox costume drama that makes you wish there were more like it. And Robin Campillo’s Eastern Boys is the kind of provocative drama only the French can excel at, with one lengthy sequence that’ll stay nestled in the brain of anyone who sees it.
The Stanford Prison Experiment, aka the other social psychology film of 2015, takes a straightforward approach to portraying the titular experiment and succeeds, creating a tense experience helped out by a great ensemble.
So while I had my fair share of disappointments this year from films that dominated the conversation, even if it might have been for a short amount of time, I continued to find myself getting surprised and excited about so many films that didn’t receive the same amount of exposure. Rather than stay within the bubble of consensus best picks during this time of year, it might be better to branch out a bit and check out the quality movies that don’t necessarily have a number between 1 and 10 next to their title. A lot of great films are out there just waiting to be discovered, and the feeling of stumbling on an unknown treasure is, in my eyes, much more fulfilling than trying to play catch-up.