Warm and alive, this film is a simple story of a young Irishwoman (Saoirse Ronan) who leaves her home and her country to cross the Western ocean to Brooklyn in the early 1950s, but its modesty is in inverse proportion to its emotional impact. Writer Nick Hornby (adapting the novel by Colm Tóibín) and director John Crowley are affectionate towards--and gently amused by-- their characters. The camera is watchful of Ronan, rooting for her. In turn, her alert eyes are steady but shy, a window on her fears, heartbreak and homesickness. By the end, they repose with growing reserves of quiet strength. My favorite moment is set at the church's Christmas dinner for the aging, indigent Irishmen who dug New York's tunnels, where a man stands and sings a beautiful song in Gaelic, a song of home.
3. Love and Mercy
Brian Wilson has said he was a different person after his girlfriend (played in this film by Elizabeth Banks) rescued him from the clutches of the abusive, irresponsible Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giametti). Bill Pohldad's inventive biopic makes his metaphor literal, boasting Paul Dano playing the Wilson of "before," John Cusack playing Wilson "after." Fascinating artist-at-work sections include a shot that pans slowly around and around the studio in homage to Godard's Stones-at-work film "Sympathy for the Devil/One Plus One." Ensconcing himself, Wilson began to "play the studio" and created "Pet Sounds" while his world crashed around him, from some combination of paranoid schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, abuse of psychedelics, and the pain of being a conductor of the universe.
Opening 40 years to the day after the first "Rocky," this is a rousing, satisfying reboot, directed by Ryan Coogler ("Fruitvale Station), who co-wrote with Aaron Covington. It combines the young and vital with the traditional. On the soundtrack, hip-hop jostles with Ludwig Göransson's score, which itself dances around the iconic Bill Conti theme. If this really is goodbye to Rocky, it's a fine sendoff, bringing back this guy the way as we would like to remember him: sweet, honest, loyal, good-humored Rocky, Adrian's gallant goof. Michael B. Jordan is utterly committed.
5. Heart of a Dog
To watch Laurie Anderson's droll, homemade, eerie documentary is to be inside of her head for 75 minutes. She has a way of looking at the world that's all her own. Her documentary takes us on a journey through the "bardo" (in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the 49-day interval between death and rebirth, during which the mind dissolves) with the late Lolabelle, a very fine rat terrier who could paint, play piano, and sculpt. The film is also about Big Brother and living with fear, but you could say its true subject is the soul. We see bodies only fleetingly; Anderson herself is here mainly as a disembodied voice. Her late husband, Lou Reed, is present, but almost as a ghost, the film's secret spirit. But then, she quotes David Foster Wallace to the effect that "every love story is a ghost story." It's about release as a form of giving. “Death is so often about regret, or guilt...But finally I saw it, the connection between love and death, and that the purpose of death is the release of love.” After Lolabelle dies, Anderson's meditation teacher instructs her thusly: whenever you think of Lolabelle, give something away. She replies, but then I won't have anything left. So? replies her teacher.
"Hitchcock/Truffaut" is a book-length interview of 1966, culled from nearly 30 hours of taped conversation, wherein the young polemicist, Truffaut, took a deep dive with his master, Hitchcock. Sitting down with the bemused auteur, as well as translator Helen Scott, Truffaut cast his keen, critical eye across the entire body of work up to that time, based on the Cahier generation's theory that the work of mere "commercial entertainers" should be evaluated as art. This documentary on those sessions plays a bit like an extended version of one of the revealing video essays director Kent Jones makes for the Criterion collection, only in place of his own voice we get directors like Martin Scorsese, Arnaud Desplechin, Paul Schrader, Olivier Asssayas, Richard Linklater, Peter Bogdanovich, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Wes Anderson, all joining the conversation around this cornerstone text.
Sean Baker's salty picture drops us into the world of transsexual prostitutes Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez). They're on a Christmas Eve hunt through the Hollywood demimonde, its backstreets and backrooms, looking for Sin-Dee's transgressing boyfriend, who is also her pimp. We accept these characters to such an extent that when we happen to see them through outsider's eyes--as when Alexandra and a john stumble into the frame of bemused cops--it's slightly startling. We laugh at the absurdity of the tawdry situations, yet uneasily. These are some of society's most marginalized members, their world more threatened than most by violence. Still, there's tenderness and compassion here, and even dignity.
8. My Golden Days
Arnaud Desplechin's kaleidoscopic film is about how we construct the stories of our lives from fragments. "I remember so little," says a man (Mathieu Amalric) as he relates his life story, including his 80s adolescence and romances, to an immigration agent. One person he can never forget, though, is Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet), his first love, the young woman who was the "Catherine" of his life, if I may impose a reference to "Jules and Jim." Just as Jeanne Moreau's visage plays across every cinephile's internal, eternal screen, "beautiful and yet opaque," to quote Roger Ebert, so do traces of Esther haunt and enrich the palimpsest of his memory. Every love story is a ghost story, indeed.
9. Bridge of Spies
A consummate visual storyteller who leaves breathing room for purely formal pleasures, a serene stylist, Spielberg is one of the last of the classicists. This year he brought us this classical Cold War espionage thriller. As was the case with the Golden Age Hollywood stars, a Tom Hanks performance is the product of the character versus the star's persona. In Hanks's case it is a persona that, by now, embodies American intelligence and decency, humor and integrity. (When we violate our own best selves, the movie seems to day, we don't need outsiders to do it for us.) The great English stage actor Mark Rylance plays Colonel Abel, a Soviet operative who lived, painted and spied in Brooklyn Heights. In short, this movie is the work of a group of people who are very good at what they do vis-a-vis the cinematic arts, doing it at the top of their game. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski paints in diffuse light, his palette wintry as befits a Cold War story. His Berlin is almost bluish-white. Editor Michael Kahn has cut every Spielberg films since "Close Encounters" in 1977. The screenplay by Matt Charman received a "punch-up" (in Charman's own words) by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, whose Kafkaesque worldview Spielberg was right to suppose would suit the material.
10. Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll
Featured at the Chicago International Movies & Music Festival, this film's subject is the rich musical culture that developed in Cambodia after independence from France in 1953, featuring everything from pop balladry to Latin rhythms, many of the leading exponents of which would go on to be liquidated by the Khmer Rouge. It's haunting to gaze upon the portraits of these singers and musicians, a beauty like Ros Serey Sothea, a bad boy like Yol Aularong. There was Sinn Sisamouth, the "Sinatra of Cambodia." There was the teenage garage band Baksey Cham Krong, formed in 1959: Cambodia’s first guitar group, whose leader, Mol Kagnol, provided some of the photographs in this movie. (He tells us the band got their stage moves from Cliff Richard and the Shadows in “The Young Ones”; the Cambodians were also much enamored of Johnny Hallyday, the "French Elvis"). Later, Cambodian music was influenced by the music coming out of the radios of young U.S. soldiers, raw soul like Wilson Pickett, the rhythms and lilting guitar of Santana. There was even a heavy rock band (Drakkar). It is extraordinary that the footage of these bands, much of it in rich color, exists. King Sihanouk himself, an arts lover, shot much of it. No one knows exactly when or how this generation of musicians died, only that they were almost certainly murdered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. The director, John Pirozzi, has said, “The music is the one thing that has allowed the Cambodian people to access a time when their life wasn’t about war and genocide." Karolyn and I got to travel in Cambodia this year, and we can attest to the kindness and beauty of the country's people.
Special Honorable Mentions
Christmas, Again The first movie I reviewed for the Chicago Reader, destined to become a personal holiday favorite.
Cool Apocalypse Dedicated to Harold Ramis and Alain Resnais, this first feature by Chicago critic, author and film history teacher (and, full disclosure, my friend) Michael Glover Smith is a modest, sweet, effervescent comedy/drama about twenty-somethings in Chicago, featuring well-observed characters by writer/director Smith and a talented cast. A local, micro-budget project, the movie is about the romance of the city and of cinema. Its heart beats for the French New Wave, played to Chicago rhythms like the lulling clack-and-sway of the El.
Adieu Au Langage (Goodbye to Language)
Godard in 3-D at the Siskel was the most eagerly-anticipated cinematic event of the year for me. I recall my nights of watching "Histoire(s) du cinema," cuddled up in the darkness with my laptop, like a boy reading a book with a flashlight under the covers, as Godard whispered in my ear and images of the 20th century flickered and resolved into one another. He seemed to be reaching for the kind of dialectic which 3D technology now allows him to realize, giving us a naked man in one lens of our 3D glasses and a naked woman in the other, before kind of sliding or collapsing them together for a synthesis that might make your eyeballs detach and roll around in your head. As Kent Jones put it in Film Comment, "Godard is the only actual film poet." See this stirring, complex, densely allusive homemade film with "Heart of a Dog," for a double feature about, among many other things, living with fear, beauty, and dogs.
Honorable Mentions: When We Were Young; What We Do in the Shadows; Clouds of Sils Maria; Hard to Be a God; Goodnight, Mommy; Ex Machina;
It Follows In the enjoyably eerie “It Follows,” teen sex is the worst game of tag ever. You are cursed to be stalked by “It,” a zombie-like apparition only you can see. Mike Gioulakis's widescreen cinematography observes dreamily. The rhythm of David Robert Mitchell's atmospheric direction is almost Egoyan-like, a horror picture as conceived by Gus Van Sant. Set in a lower middle-class suburb of Detroit, the film has a palpable feeling of abandonment. There's something wistful about its dark, abandoned buildings, its teenagers left to fend for themselves.
Phoenix A heartbreaker from Germany, based on a novel by Hubert Monteilhet, it's driven by a secret the audience knows but the heel of the piece (Ronald Zehrfeld) does not. He meets a woman in a nightclub in postwar Berlin. My wife is dead, he tells her (it's understood that she died in the camps), but you could impersonate her, risen from the ashes, and together we will claim her inheritance. Like Scottie in Hitchcock's "Vertigo," however, Johnny does not realize that the woman he is shaping and the "dead" woman are one and the same person, given a new face by a reconstructive surgeon. Michael Phillips wrote a fine piece on the film's memorable use of Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash's "Speak Low."
Mad Max: Fury Road Writer/director George Miller's kinetic, visceral film takes us to the end of the world for a story of redemption amidst a season in hell. In this blasted-out desert-world, vital resources--water, gasoline, healthy young women--are hoarded by tribes of atavistic/futuristic road warriors, burning through the desert in their monster trucks. Society may have gone back to year zero, but that doesn't mean they're not having fun. These cavemen ride tricked-out death-mobiles, one of which is even kitted out with a flame-throwing electric guitar. This reboot of the "Mad Max" franchise has wild humor and cult/camp energy. Wild chases have thrilled audiences since the very dawn of cinema: here they're taken to a virtuosic level, an exhilarating feat of sustained plate-spinning. New to the series was the heart and feminist power brought by Charlize Theron as Furiosa.
The End of the Tour Suffused with elegiac melancholy, the theme of James Ponsoldt's film is the loneliness that suffuses life. Its central mystery, as seen through the eyes of a young, middlingly successful writer, David Lipsky (as played by Jesse Eisenberg, Lipsky is awkward, wheedling, jealous, ambitious): how can a man write a novel hailed as his generation's most mighty and innovative, Infinite Jest, and still be so unhappy? It's about a certain kind of American dream, and a certain kind of American depression. As presented in the film, David Foster Wallace (played in an honest turn by Jason Segel) was an open guy for whom books were a means to connect to other people, to stave off life's loneliness, but who couldn't find peace for his fine, unquiet mind.
The Duke of Burgundy Feverish film evokes the swooning, in-heat mood of an adolescent stumbling upon a secret volume of erotic lore. At the same time it is a rich, deeply adult achievement. Peter Strickland creates a visual poetry of fall foliage, the backdrop for a story of two kinky lepidopterists, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna), who study in a soft-core country mansion, occasionally lecturing to a ballroom of assembled buttoned-up women. The "dominant," Cynthia, may be only acting, but because she loves Evelyn, she wants to act well to please her, which means raising the stakes of their S&M games...and the risks. We can see the worry in her eyes, the hunger for danger in Evelyn's. Gorgeous music by Cat's Eyes.
Needs a revisit (with book in hand): After Godard's Goodbye to Language, no cinematic event excited me more in 2015 than the prospect of P.T. Anderson adapting Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice. Still, after a strong start hewing excitingly close to the novel's language, while at the same time playing with the words by placing Pynchon's narration in the mouth of Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), I must reluctantly report that I found Inherent Vice a disappointment. The idea, perhaps, was to do an Altmanesque take on the Pynchon material, with Joaquin Phoenix's mumbly take on Doc Sportello an homage to Elliot Gould's Sam Spade in Altman's "The Long Goodbye." However, the film became tiresome. Back home, I pulled my copy of "Inherent Vice" down off the shelf and leafed through it. Pynchon is far funnier. As it turned out, the Anderson projects that most mesmerized me most in 2015 turned out to be "Junjun" and his video for Joanna Newsom's "Divers." (That last, I can't stop watching.) Still, any connoisseur of the cinematic arts is happy to give P.T. Anderson a second viewing, and I look forward to it. There was that extraordinary extended scene between Shasta (Katherine Waterston) and Doc Sportello, beginning with a baring of the heart (and the breasts), and ending with abrupt sex as a tear slides down Shasta's face. And that moment when, telling a story, a woman cheerfully orients a listener by noting the tale took place right around the time she'd just performed oral sex on anther woman. And music by Jonny Greenwood, and a terrific soundtrack...
Coulda-been-contenders I look forward to catching up with sometime in 2016: "The Assassin," "Seymour: An Introduction," "Blackhat," "Crimson Peak," "45 Years," "Anomalisa," "The Martian," "Room," "The Hateful Eight," "Chi-Raq," "Mistress America," "The Revenant," "Carol," "Amy," "The Lobster," "Sicario," "Inside Out," "The Mend," "Queen of Earth," "The Diary of a Teenage Girl," “Best of Enemies,” “Cartel Land,” “Dope,” “In Jackson Heights,” “The Look of Silence,” “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation,” “Results,” “The Second Mother,” “ ’71,” “Taxi,” “Trainwreck,” "Magic Mike XXL," "Beasts of No Nation," "Buzzard," "Heaven Knows What," "Timbuktu," "Call Me Lucky," "The Big Short," "Entertainment," "Son of Saul," "James White," "Baahubail: The Beginning," "What Happened, Miss Simone?," "About Elly," "Straight Outta Compton," "Eden," "99 Homes," "La Sapienza," "Listen To Me Marlon," "The New Girlfriend," "The Ocean of Helena Lee," "Slow West," "Youth," "Where to Invade Next," "Mississippi Grind," "Experimenter," "Unfriended," "He Named Me Malala," "Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalem," "Horse Money," "Joy," "Map to the Stars," "Steve Jobs," "Grandma," "Nasty Baby," "Welcome to Me," "The Forbidden Room," "Freeheld," "I Smile Back," "Truth," "White God," "Queen and Country," "Court," "Mommy," "Results," "Fish and Cat," "Eden"