Here's my most memorable ten movies of 2015. Please indulge me as I ramble a bit, quote Werner Herzog extensively and bring up a movie that I saw last year, but was released in some cities this year, and one that I can't seem to stop watching. If you know me, you know which one.
These are not in order. Except for the first film...
Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Inherent Vice is perfect and a perfect obsession and was my obsession late last year and throughout 2015 and I refuse to not count it as a movie released this year. Again, the movie ruled a good portion of my year. O.K. my entire year (I even put it on the ten best American Films of all time for the BBC). Why? Well, I'm not sure and that makes it even more seductive. But I kept watching it, almost as a comfort, even as I kept thinking that the world is crazy, that the world is heartbreaking, but ... oh what can you do? Listen to Can and look at the beach. And just hope there's a Doc Sportello out there, somewhere. Paul Thomas Anderson's moody funny funky melancholic mystery seeps into your soul, like the Neil Young songs and that faraway boat or just that almost inexplicably beautiful opening shot of Gordito Beach. It's so simple and it says so much. The movie doesn't so much require multiple viewings, it pulls you in just far enough, while remaining just enough out of reach, that it makes you feel as if you need it. There are those who yearn to untangle the plot (I think it's quite easy once you see it a second time, or in my case, nine times, in spite of how dense and confusing it is to so many viewers and critics), but for me, the experience of watching Inherent Vice is trying to find something; something elusive, something you attempt to hold on to. But you know you're not going to, like your own freedom. Personal freedom seems key to the movie, and not just as related to 1970 (a perfect time period), it seems key now, perhaps even more, and that resonated with me in such a powerful way I would find myself tearing up over moments I originally found funny. Like Josh Brolin eating a plate of pot.
The plot sits there almost as a mind trick -- one part is working out the narrative, another part is working out the emotion in your mind -- and then it all intertwines together in a sneaky way that feels less confusing and less strange the more you watch. Who is controlling things? Who are these weird entities in charge? Like the Golden Fang? It seems absurd, and then you see freaky Nixon on TV, and scary Trump on TV and nothing seems absurd any more. It's all very real. And it's personal. It’s universal. And then it's also Los Angeles. That feeling of living in this city of dreams, but also feeling trapped here in some kind of continuous time loop (like how the seasons don't really change) and how, like the movie, you'll never get to the bottom of this sprawling insane place. You wonder why you stay on those days the city's dark undercurrent suffuses you with sadness, and then you know why you stay, when you’re just looking at something, a building, a gap between buildings, the water and that melancholic romance overcomes you. Like Los Angeles, Inherent Vice is a lover we can never leave, even if they don't want us anymore.
The Revenant (Alejandro G. Iñárritu)
One of the most powerful, viscerally exciting, terrifying and beautiful films I've seen in a long time, it feels, at times, like watching Hemingway or Faulkner or Conrad. I've heard critics complain there's not much going on here, it's too long, it's thin, or that it's too on-the-nose, etc. and so on. It's too violent. Too... too, too. Well, it's about a man (Hugh Glass) mauled by a bear, left for dead and crawling through the freezing cold snowy wilderness to survive and seek revenge while enduring and repairing a torn-up back and a crushed leg. I'm not sure why that needs to be subtle, or how it could be subtle or not "on the nose." And yet, there's so much mystery and wonder here too. As gloriously shot by that genius Emmanuel Lubezki, nature is its own character full of glory and full of hell -- and you can't solve nature. Werner Herzog, discussing the jungle in Burden of Dreams, completes this thought, and in spite of all the beauty nature brings us, Hugh Glass would probably agree: "It's an unfinished country. It's still pre-historical. The only thing that is lacking is - is the dinosaurs here. It's like a curse weighing on an entire landscape. And whoever... goes too deep into this has his share of this curse. So we are cursed with what we are doing here. It's a land that God, if he exists has - has created in anger. It's the only land where - where creation is unfinished yet. Taking a close look at - at what's around us, there is some sort of a harmony. It is the harmony of... overwhelming and collective murder. And we in comparison to the articulate vileness and baseness and obscenity of all this jungle - Uh, we in comparison to that enormous articulation - we only sound and look like badly pronounced and half-finished sentences out of a stupid suburban... novel... a cheap novel. We have to become humble in front of this overwhelming misery and overwhelming fornication... overwhelming growth and overwhelming lack of order. Even the - the stars up here in the - in the sky look like a mess. There is no harmony in the universe. We have to get acquainted to this idea that there is no real harmony as we have conceived it. But when I say this, I say this all full of admiration for the jungle. It is not that I hate it, I love it. I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgment."
Carol (Todd Haynes)
Cate Blanchett slinking, skulking, in the department store in that mink coat, as I have written before like some 50s David Bowie. Or maybe a big cat. She's so striking it's almost shocking when she unravels how human and vulnerable she is. A powerful adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's "The Price of Salt," it’s a road movie, something of a thriller, a period picture that faces a taboo theme in 1950s America -- lesbianism, and a love story that's full of beautiful and painful yearning. Sublime. (Read my interview with Todd Haynes at Filmmaker Magazine and my piece on the much-needed oddity of Patricia Highsmith at The Daily Beast)
The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)
It's 70 mm. It's bloody. It's a lot of talk. Jennifer Jason Leigh goes all crazy on us (crazy smart), and we needed her to go there again. Part snowbound western, a la William Wellman's Track of the Cat or Andre De Toth's The Day of the Outlaw, part Petrified Forest, and even Ten Little Indians, The Hateful Eight works its confined, pressure cooker, political plot with some virtuoso performances that are both down and dirty and incredibly stylized. It's gorgeously shot out there in the snow, but it loves its characters and their faces and their enormous fur coats crammed together in that haberdashery, you can practically smell animal pelts from the screen. It's old fashioned and radical and though Tarantino is the master of cinema references, he always makes his own rules. Samuel L. Jackson and Jennifer Jason Leigh tear it up. Walton Goggins is brilliant. It's one of Tarantino's oddest movies and one of his best. (Look for my massive interview with Quentin Tarantino coming very soon in the February issue of Sight & Sound – we dig into a lot.)
Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg)
A picture that is almost certifiably insane can confuse viewers -- is the nut factor glossing over what might be wrong with it? No. Because, would I want it any other way? Of course not. Hollywood satires or explications seem only to work when the director removes the safety harness and dares to be impressionistic, ghoulish, batshit crazy (Sunset Blvd. and Barton Fink are prime examples) and Cronenberg (adapted by Bruce Wagner from his brilliant novel) goes there. Incest, burn victims, dead dogs at parties, terribly shot self-immolation by the swimming pool and all.
Love (Gaspar Noé)
Gorgeously shot hardcore sex and 3-D never felt so intimate. And sad. So very sad. You'll think about a turtleneck sweater and a door as much as an erect penis. And that lingers.
Amy (Asif Kapadia)
Amy is surprisingly shattering -- you know what happens -- but as a tale told by edited existing footage when that is now entirely possible – you feel almost part of her story. Could we have seen Janis or Hendrix or even Cobain's downfall chronicled in this way? No. That we can watch a person rise and fall because everything is recorded, whether by their own hands or, as a celebrity, by the paparazzi, not only redresses her tragic tale, but comments on our lives being so relentlessly chronicled; our voyeurism, which is just norm and rarely questioned. Amy Winehouse has had a camera in her face since 16, so watching a decade of her life ascend and then smash to pieces puts us in the story that builds almost into a horror movie. You want to reach in and grab her out of there.
Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
I wasn't even sure how I felt (as in, deeply) about this movie other than I was overwhelmed and I couldn't forget it. And I saw it again. It was so inventive, so unrelenting, so beautiful to behold, and shot with such an assured grip on its controlled chaos, that it felt beyond mere action -- poetic and at times, potently emotional. I disliked that guitar player (sorry) and I was worried, aesthetically, that it was some kind of Burning Man spectacle, but it turned into its own creation. I've heard some naysayers (there are a few) complain that the characters basically take a U-Turn and that's it -- just one big stupid U-Turn. But I like how simple that is, especially with Furiosa in charge. Driving is powerful (see Two-Lane Blacktop and no, it's not as good as Two-Lane Blacktop, and it's very different). A U-Turn can mean something. I'll get back to you on that.
By the Sea (Angelina Jolie)
As I wrote, and read my entire piece here: How Jolie does this through all of this insane glamour and out-of-reach beauty is testament to her power as a filmmaker. She knows how to shoot herself and her husband, she knows what we want to look at (them, the beautiful furnishings, the clothes, the cars, the ocean, the French touches, her breasts) and she knows how a languid moment and patiently held shot can make a viewer imbue a scene with their own feelings and thoughts. The more you look at Vanessa, and her unhappy marriage with Roland, the more your mind wanders toward wondering many things, even things about your own life. In pacing, style and much of the look, Jolie appears to have studied Antonioni, Godard (Contempt, especially) and Wertmüller with By the Sea. There’s even a touch of Polanski’s Bitter Moon in here. With cinematography by Christian Berger, DP for numerous Michael Haneke pictures, and a lush score by Gabriel Yared that, at times, spikes the movie with menace (perfect for Jolie) and the music by the likes of Jacques Dutronc and Serge Gainsbourg, the picture places these American movie stars in a decidedly European art-house milieu. But to Jolie’s credit, it’s not mimicking; this is a movie all her own.
A Poem is a Naked Person (Les Blank)
Filmed in 1972-1974 and finally released to the public in 2015, Les Blank was the perfect director for Leon Russell. Half concert film, half chronicle of a small town (Russell's recording studio is in Grand Lake, Oklahoma), you soak in the music, atmosphere and soul, but you really never get to know Russell, which is just as it should be. He remains ever elusive and like Blank, unclassifiable. I saw the film on the big screen this year with T-Bone Burnett conducting the Q&A with Leon Russell. Russell was asked why he wasn't happy with the picture at first and he answered: "I thought I'd look like James Dean and I ended up looking like Jimmy Dean." Well, not really. He looks like Leon Russell. Watch the trailer. See the film. Have a better next year.