Sunday, January 28, 2018

UW-Cinematheque Blog Posts, Part I

Since my second semester in UW-Madison's graduate film program, I have written on average two essays per semester for our Cinematheque's blog. The essays are contingent on the Cinematheque's programming, which is consistently inspired. Even though we are only at the second week of the Spring 2018 semester, I believe the essay I just had published, on Arthur Ripley's The Chase, will be my only submission this semester (master's exams to study for!). So having written five essays so far, I will link to all of them below; this is a "Part I" entry that I will surely follow up with in future semesters.

I do this partly for my own indexing purposes, as well as to present evidence to you that, while it is less frequent, yes, I am still writing film criticism. Of the five, I like my Something Wild essay the most, but I'd like to think they all are worth your time.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Favorite Cinema of 2017

Scroll down to view my list of 2017 favorites, plus new-to-me old movies and various acting honors (and my least favorite movies, too). Up here I will offer some thoughts on the year's cinema and my selections, instead of individual blurbs for each below.

Everett McGill in Twin Peaks: The Return

You will notice I invoke the word "cinema" this year, instead of "films" or "movies," in this list's title—very French. To me, the word "cinema," in 2018, connotes certain intentions, know-how, and competence—I see it as a qualitative term. Meaning that there are a lot of movies, but not all movies are cinema. Bullshit, you might think this formulation is, but I am seriously invested in the inverse of this line of thinking: Cinema does not have to be a movie—a single, feature-length, moving-image narrative with a theatrical premiere—either. So cinema excludes some, but it also includes, well, what? Television, for one, in addition to media from other platforms (Tim Heidecker's fake, live-streamed murder trial, anyone?). 

The reasons for this are industrial and technological, as well as—I firmly believe—auteurist. With Twin Peaks: The Return—my favorite cinema of 2017, and this decade, by a country mile—it is not controversial to call David Lynch the show's primary author. Yet it would also be a mistake to label Lynch a "showrunner" in the vein of Matthew Weiner or David Chase, who each led a writers' room. Instead, Lynch communicates his artistic sensibility through stylistic and structural means—that he directed every one of The Return's 18 hours is the crucial point of distinction. Even its most classically plot-driven hours betray startling experimental tendencies, from the juxtaposition of tones (see the John Ford-meets-grindhouse brilliance of Mr. C's arm wrestling scene in Part 13) to the commitment to duration (see Bushnell waiting by Cooper's hospital bed in Part 16). The finer details of Lynch and his collaborators' cinematography and especially sound design remained illegible upon Showtime's initial, compressed broadcasts, and only with the Blu-ray and (hopefully) circulation of DCPs will the Twin Peaks theatrical experience, pseudo or not, be realized. Regardless of how one watched it, though, Twin Peaks: The Return impressed many, and frustrated others, with its unique storytelling architecture, finding ample time for dead ends, cosmic jokes, and sequences of wordless passage. If much of The Return's acting and visual style is utterly alien to the medium of television, its structure is slightly more familiar, making its departures from editing norms intriguingly, productively uncanny.

In some of the year's other notable cinema, bold editing choices transformed countless hours of footage into art. In Faces Places, Agnès Varda's associative match cuts enrich a travelogue into a personal work of deep yet spontaneous reflection. In the year's best documentary, and my favorite 2017 "film" proper, Ex Libris, Frederick Wiseman organizes board meetings, lectures, and other dry bits of footage into the rarest kind of political art: one contingent on reality, made from bottom-up. With Song to Song, Terrence Malick—at this stage, American cinema's most acquired taste—spans emotional extremes through quick cutting. In HBO's Big Little Lies, Jean-Marc Vallée does much of the same, playing his characters (who are brilliantly performed and staged) off one another while also diving deep into their individual head spaces. 

An ingenious combination of restricted narration and accumulation elevate Marjorie Prime and The Unknown Girl into two of the most paralyzing, emotional works I have ever seen. Staying Vertical, meanwhile, spirals ever closer to some intimidating state of nature through provocative yet grounded leaps of logic and Guiraudie's signature depiction of fluid sexuality at odds with assumed identity. Asghar Farhadi's The Salesman has the weight and irony of Greek tragedy, while A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies's labored yet exquisitely textured biopic of Emily Dickinson, reconciles a boisterous wit with a terrified and repressed homebody. Alexander Payne's Downsizing, also flawed, nevertheless presents American cinema's most detailed and honest story of class aspiration in ages; a work of supreme structural integrity, it slyly ties moments of uplift to corporate rhetoric. On the other hand, S. Craig Zahler's politically useless Brawl in Cell Block 99 more than gets by on its stoic and physical performances (above all, a stellar Vince Vaughn), ever-putrefying production design, and unfashionably measured pacing.

The Human Surge
The titles above I more or less expected to like—I came in with goodwill for their auteurs. Two new-to-me international figures left a strong first impression: Anocha Suwichakornpong, from Thailand, and Eduardo Williams, from Argentina, both made avant-garde, class-conscious narrative features with By the Time It Gets Dark and The Human Surge, respectively. With its three distinct acts, distinguished by continent and camera format (Super 16 for Buenos Aires, digital filmed off monitor with Super 16 for Mozambique, RED for Philippines), The Human Surge left a mark, as an especially virtuosic and enigmatic rethinking of "slow cinema" conventions.

Call Me By Your Name surprised me more than perhaps any film on this list. Luca Guadagnino's style is a bit impersonal, and he indulges in some stylistic tics that irritate: namely, three Sufjan Stevens needle drops that feel precious and telegraph too much (though further queering Sufjan is welcome in itself). But where it counts, Guadagnino, screenwriter James Ivory and the cast cut deep. The "countdown to midnight" sequence is particularly masterful—sparely designed and digressive, its evocation of hunger elicits a most unusual and effective suspense. Michael Stuhlbarg's monologue at the end is also as good as you might have heard, the rare full-stop speech that activates tacit intellectual and emotional through lines instead of closing them off. It's a comfy, fairly idle gay love story, which is itself also welcome, but the allusions to antiquity and expansive emotional register place the film's accomplishments within the finer trends of Italian narrative art (i.e., di Lampedusa's novella The Professor and the Siren, a recent discovery of mine).

If we are still discussing pleasant surprises, let me also plug Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok, the first Marvel Cinematic Universe movie to be included on my year-end list. Its narrative economy captured my attention, but my main reason for inclusion is quite base: I simply found it very funny. The three last movies I have yet to mentionGood Time, Phantom Thread, and The Son of Joseph—also made me laugh, but I ultimately found them moving thanks to their wholly committed performance styles and gorgeous music.

My thanks if you have read to this point; see below for my list, whose selections by now should come as no surprise. Like last year, I am copying Dan Sallitt's color-coded list format, which ranks films in descending order of red, orange, green, blue, and purple. (Red is an exceedingly rare designation for me.) And, finally, a big asterisk: 2016 festival premieres Sieranevada (Cristi Puiu, Romania) and Yourself and Yours (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea) never received US theatrical release—a minor crime in a year of major ones. If they did, they would easily be included in my Top 5 below.

Geena Davis, Jon Hamm, and Lois Smith in Marjorie Prime

Favorite Cinema of 2017 (NYC One-Week Theatrical or Television)
3. MARJORIE PRIME (Michael Almereyda, USA)
4. STAYING VERTICAL (Alain Guiraudie, France)
5. THE UNKNOWN GIRL (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium)
6. SONG TO SONG (Terrence Malick, USA)
7. BIG LITTLE LIES (Jean-Marc Vallée, USA)
8. THE HUMAN SURGE (Eduardo Williams, Argentina)
9. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (Luca Guadagnino, Italy/USA)
10. DOWNSIZING (Alexander Payne, USA)
11. BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (S. Craig Zahler, USA)
12. A QUIET PASSION (Terence Davies, UK)
13. GOOD TIME (Ben Safdie & Josh Safdie, USA)
14. PHANTOM THREAD (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA)
15. THE SALESMAN (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)
16. THOR: RAGNAROK (Taika Waititi, USA) 
17. THE SON OF JOSEPH (Eugène Green, France/Belgium)
18. BY THE TIME IT GETS DARK (Anocha Suwichakornpong, Thailand)
19. FACES PLACES (Agnès Varda & JR, France) 

On Netflix: Staying Vertical, The Unknown Girl, The Son of Joseph
On Amazon Prime: Marjorie Prime, Song to Song, A Quiet Passion, Brawl in Cell Block 99, The Salesman
On Fandor: The Human Surge
On iTunes: By the Time It Gets Dark
On HBO and Showtime, respectively: Big Little Lies and Twin Peaks: The Return

Honorable Mentions: Thirst Street (Silver), Hermia & Helena (Piñiero), Wormwood (Morris), Person to Person (Defa), Logan Lucky (Soderbergh)

Favorite Short Film: Spiral Jetty (Ricky D'Ambrose)

Favorite Stand-Up Special: Norm Macdonald: Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery (On Netflix)

Three Movies I Expected to Hate But Find Myself, For Reasons I Still Don't Understand, Quite Taken With: A Ghost Story (Lowery), Kékszakállú (Solnicki), Transformers: The Last Knight (Bay)

Still Ambivalent About: The Lost City of Z (Gray), Wonderstruck (Haynes), Nocturama (Bonello)

Did Not Take To: Lady Bird, Get Out, Coco, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Mudbound,

The Post

Seriously?: The Shape of Water, Darkest Hour, Battle of the Sexes

Unambiguous Dreck I Saw for Whatever Reason: Underworld: Blood Wars, Power Rangers, Kingsman: The Golden Circle 

More Ambitious Disasters (aka Least Favorite): mother!; Wind River; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; War of the Planet of the Apes; Baby Driver; All the Money in the World 

Adèle Haenel and Olivier Bonnaud in The Unknown Girl
Favorite Lead Performances:
  • Adèle Haenel, The Unknown Girl 
  • Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, Big Little Lies
  • Kyle MacLachlan, Twin Peaks: The Return 
  • Vince Vaughn, Brawl in Cell Block 99
  • Lois Smith, Marjorie Prime 
  • Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name
  • Cynthia Nixon, A Quiet Passion 
  • Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread 
  • Peter Saarsgard, Wormwood 
  • Robert Pattinson, Good Time
  • Lindsay Burdge, Thirst Street 
  • Kim Min-hee, On the Beach at Night Alone 
  • Haley Lu Richardson, Columbus
Cynthia Nixon and Joanna Bacon in A Quiet Passion
Favorite Supporting Performances:  
  • Naomi Watts, Miguel Ferrer, Sheryl Lee, Amy Shiels, Robert Forster, Laura Dern, Matthew Lillard, Dana Ashbrook, Jim Belushi, and Catherine Coulson, Twin Peaks: The Return 
  • Tim Robbins and Geena Davis, Marjorie Prime 
  • Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me By Your Name
  • Jennifer Ehle and Joanna Bacon, A Quiet Passion 
  • Alexander Skarsgård, Robin Weigert, and Jeffrey Nordling, Big Little Lies 
  • Damien Bonnard, Thirst Street (also excellent as the lead in Staying Vertical)
  • Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
  • Buddy Duress and Taliah Webster, Good Time 
  • Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread 
  • Hong Chau and Christoph Waltz, Downsizing 
  • Tiffany Haddish, Girls Trip
  • Jeff Goldblum, Thor: Ragnarok
  • Lakeith Stanfield, War Machine 
  • Mary Lee Kennedy, Ex Libris 
  • Bene Coopersmith, Person to Person 
  • Betty Gabriel, Get Out
  • Patti Smith and Lykke Li, Song to Song 
  • Fabrice Luchini, Slack Bay
Marlene Dietrich in Angel (1937)

15 New-t0-Me Favorites
Older movies I saw for the first time in 2017, limited to one per director. For 100 old movies I loved, see this ridiculous list on Letterboxd.

1. Angel (1937, Ernst Lubitsch, USA)
2. Daisy Kenyon (1947, Otto Preminger, USA)
3. Claire's Knee (1970, Éric Rohmer, France)
4. Le Trou (1960, Jacques Becker, France)
5. *Corpus Callosum (2002, Michael Snow, Canada)
6. The Devil Is a Woman (1935, Josef von Sternberg, USA)
7. The Last Detail (1973, Hal Ashby, USA)
8. Ivan the Terrible: Parts I and II (1944 & 1958, Sergei Eisenstein, USSR)
9. The Gleaners & I (2000, Agnès Varda, France)
10. The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968, Straub-Huillet, West Germany)
11. Lancelot du Lac (1974, Robert Bresson, France)
12. To Sleep With Anger (1990, Charles Burnett, USA)
13. Black Narcissus (1947, Powell & Pressburger, UK)
14. Remember My Name (1978, Alan Rudolph, USA)
15. Margaret (2011, Kenneth Lonergan, USA)


And for the record: I watched 457 movies last year, the majority of them old movies. (My viewing diary, with ratings, can be viewed here.) Looking ahead, the one 2018 release I saw ahead of time was Paul Schrader's First Reformed, starring Ethan Hawke. It was by far my favorite of the Telluride Film Festival, documentary-like in its cataloging of current political and economic outrages, with an ultimate metaphysical turn that knocked me out. Look for it here next year (this year?).

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Favorite Films of 2016

Another year of publishing this list just under the wire, but this time, it will be rather bare bones. I guess I'm busy. If you have not heard (on social media, I have been almost silent), I am now living in Madison, Wisconsin, as a PhD candidate in UW-Madison's Film department—the house Bordwell and Thompson built. On top of scholarly coursework, I TA two sections for an Intro to Media Production course. So far I enjoy this town, my friends, and—at least half the time—the work. Come May, I'll try to take stock of my first school year here, so watch this space.

About movies: While my taste has grown more stringent, I still watched over a dozen feature films last year that came close to greatness. Things to Come, however, is the most accomplished by a significant margin; I have not seen a better new movie since Like Someone in Love or maybe The Immigrant, which premiered in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Isabelle Huppert and Mia Hansen-Løve's Things to Come skirts expectations more slyly than Elle (which I still enjoyed, as evidenced below), and is at once immediately accessible, at the level of craft and performance, and subtextually underdetermined. It took me a second viewing to appreciate the subtlety of its vision, and I expect another will elevate it to all-timer status.

So, my Top 15 (+3 less perfect films that I still admire) of 2016 NYC theatrical releases is below. Like many an online cinephile, I am copying Dan Sallitt's color-coded list format, to segment my selections into more or less equal groups. It looks quite lovely, too.

Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2016)
  1. Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve, France)
  2. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-Soo, South Korea)
  3. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, USA)
  4. Sully (Clint Eastwood, USA)
  5. Silence (Martin Scorsese, USA) 
  6. Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater, USA)
  7. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, USA) 
  8. Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)
  9. No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, France/Belgium)
  10. Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick, USA)
  11. Cosmos (Andrzej Żuławski, France/Portugal)
  12. My Golden Days (Arnaud Desplechin, France)
  13. Short Stay (Ted Fendt, USA)
  14. Three (Johnnie To, Hong Kong/China)
  15. Creepy (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan)
  16. OJ: Made in America (Ezra Edelman, USA)
  17. Elle (Paul Verhoeven, France)
  18. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, Germany/Austria)
All told, I saw 121 2016 releases and, according to Letterboxd, last year I watched 431 films, from the silent era to the present (~5% of them were directed by John Ford). I compiled an excessive list of 100 favorite older movies I watched for the first time in 2016, viewable here. The Top 10 of that list is as follows:

Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985)

  1. Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985)
  2. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford, 1949)
  3. Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000)
  4. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973)
  5. La Chienne (Jean Renoir, 1931)
  6. The Mother and the Whore (Jean Eustache, 1973)
  7. Fat Girl (Catherine Breillat, 2001)
  8. Chimes at Midnight (Orson Welles, 1965)
  9. I Walked With a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943)
  10. Seed (John M. Stahl, 1931)
And because it's a tradition: The worst 2016 movies I saw were Suicide Squad, Hardcore Henry, The Lobster, The Purge: Anarchy, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The last one, for jettisoning any consistent human characterization, proved to be the most crushing disappointment. I cannot say the poverty of the rest surprised me, yet I watched them anyway—why, indeed.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Top 25 Films of 2015

It’s late, but it’s here. I wrote most of this in early January, but then I stopped, and delayed, Oscar night, the twilight of 2015 cinema’s relevance.

But, then, that isn’t true. In the time between drafting a list and publishing it, I rearranged the titles within innumerable times, and axed at least four from it completely. The list, as it stands, is one I intend to stand by, for the films praised very well have the potential to be timeless. Not every one will make it that far: I will no doubt quibble here and there a year—nay, a few hours— from now, but I feel my taste has recently evolved for the better. I am somewhere between the auteurist and the Reverse Shot or Film Comment crowds, in some unholy marriage by my lonesome, and naturally I think it’s a good place to be. I am sure to change some more by this time next year, and I vow to shake off this writing hiatus I’ve been on in order to get there.

As for the quality of 2015 movies, in toto? Marvelous, as always. To wit:

1. Mad Max: Fury Road
Directed by George Miller

Mad Max: Fury Road single-handedly restored my faith in Hollywood cinema—so much so, I still believe it in its essential goodness after sitting through the rest of the year. It takes a village to build a spectacle of this order, so I must bow to editor Margaret Sixel, costume designer Jenny Beavan, DP John Seale, composer Junkie XL, production designer Colin Gibson and the sound, make-up, VFX, stunt, even catering crews. But most of all it takes a visionary to shepherd a project through four years of production (plus a dozen years of starts and stops) and maintain the most dazzling, idiosyncratic formal language.

It takes a George Miller, then, to navigate an aggressively depersonalized blockbuster system and emerge with a film of such great power and sensitivity. I have seen this four times now, and each time I have been amazed by the grace of this gritty, hulking thing — how it flows from desperation to loss to reconciliation, starting and halting in movement while maintaining the most cogent narrative arc. Citations for excellence can be found in its dense, varied frames, which pack memorable close-ups and group shots, crane shots and wide angles; its rare screen performances, particularly for an action film, that suggest more than they emote or say; and its archetypal structure, which spins myth, contemporary fears and democratic ideals into a gender-flipped Journey of the Hero. It’s American genre cinema’s foremost achievement since Unforgiven.

2. Carol
Directed by Todd Haynes

Beneath Carol’s familiar beats and frosted beauty churns a direct, wordless language not fully formed. We begin with married Carol (Cate Blanchett) passing key phrases (gloves conveniently forgotten; poached eggs, spinach, and a martini for lunch) to salesclerk Therese (Rooney Mara), testing her desires and inaugurating her into a robust, cosmopolitan womanhood worthy of Bacall or Stanwyck. “Mommy’s Baby,” reads a sign behind Therese at the store where she works and the two meet, just one instance of Haynes, the semiotics major, teasing his audience with the many, conflicting roles Carol fulfills for Therese at once.

With a mutual glance as its inciting incident and loving attention paid to the feel of a hand, the poise of fingernails, the smell of perfume, Carol escalates its romance through mostly non-verbal means, befitting a stage where neither “gay” nor “lesbian” are spoken — only “morality clause,” in a divorce lawyer’s office. Most uniquely, the film reflects on its own appeal — namely, watching a movie star and star-in-the-making fall in love — by having Carol and Therese regard each other while together (“Flung out of space”) or, more powerfully, when alone. Take the heartbreaking close-up of Therese on the train, so compassionate in its proximity, or that later shot of Carol watching Therese from a cab, her eyes and lips together, somehow, beaming pride, longing, and wonder.

Haynes fashions a feature-length push-pull between touch and look, connection and projection, intimacy and isolation, that Mara and Blanchett complicate through performances too nimble to pin down. As is to be expected from Haynes, his movie bears a formidable intellectual weight, but what is so stirring is how the leads seem to be aware of that; a gesture will land and the other will consider it, and respond, and consider some more, into the next scene where they are apart and Carol’s husband (Kyle Chandler) or Therese’s boyfriend (Jake Lacy) will want to talk about their future but she knows, and we know, that he just doesn’t have a clue.

This is a vast, considerable American movie I expect to love more and more as the years roll on and I with them.

Essential Reading: Richard Brody at The New Yorker; Melissa Anderson at The Village Voice; Miriam Bale’s interview with Todd Haynes, on Indiewire; Jim Gabriel’s tweet about Haynes’ blocking.

3. The Mend
Directed by John Magary

This extraordinarily potent debut by John Magary is at once genre-less and immediately accessible. I honestly still don’t know how to write about it: It revels in a cackling, “problematic” (not my word) sense of mischief, yet also derives dramatic incidents out of glints of light. It watches Josh Lucas fester in a Harlem brownstone, yet also features intimidating sequences of dance. Most of all it maps a realtime, ever-changing flow chart of codependency between its three leads, and everyone else. It’s a strange, living film, very much its own. (On Netflix.)

Essential Reading: Dan Sallitt on Twitter; LETTRISTB0XD on, well.

4. Jauja
Directed by Lisandro Alonso

Just another Argentinian, Conradian, gorgeous, slapstick, slow-ass western starring Viggo Mortensen and his hat. God forbid we have too many of these.

Essential Reading: Quintín at Film Comment.

5. Results
Directed by Andrew Bujalski

The idea that people can change, and for the better, is not inherently laughable, but in movies the tidiness of this narrative usually is. We are defined by our bad habits as much as by those deemed favorable, so “overcoming” the former to secure a happy ending, as many screenwriting manuals recommend, does a disservice to the self-defeating nuances of human behavior — not to mention happiness.

Results presupposes its characters — two personal trainers (Guy Pearce and Cobie Smulders) and one wealthy schlub (Kevin Corrigan, incredible) — to be irreparably insecure and misguided, oscillating between BIG emotions and inward quiet while never quite meeting the demands of the present moment. This seems a messy, even slight approach to making a movie, but Bujalski builds a coherent, satisfying narrative out of unruly and tentative interactions, and a very funny movie to boot. Bujalski’s asymmetric compositions, active blocking and weird, subtle sound editing are their own, delightful thing, for me at least. This is one of those your-mileage-may-vary movies that may look out of place so high on such a list, but I think it’s close to perfect. (On Netflix)

Essential Reading: A.O. Scott at The New York Times; Richard Brody.

6. Experimenter
Directed by Michael Almereyda

Well over the halfway mark I feared this Stanley Milgram biopic was growing too Brechtian for its own good, but one banal, lingering shot of a hospital waiting room near the end reoriented my views completely. I realized this was a strong, sad film (with comic supplementary) about the beautiful potential of human communication, and how our routines, impulses and, ultimately, our frail bodies keep all that potential corked. I haven’t seen the “life of the mind” considered with such formal precision and star wattage since...Lincoln? (And this one is more profound, I would say.) Almereyda’s choice of final shot is proof enough of his genius. (On Netflix.)

Essential Reading: Amy Taubin at Film Comment; Alex Engquist on Letterboxd.

7. The Assassin
Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien

I submit my review as testimony. I’ll mention, as an aside, that this one seemed to really get under some people’s skin, huh? I’ve heard from some otherwise patient cinephiles who could not stand the slow pace and cryptic narrative (PRO TIP: This character flow chart really helps). I couldn’t even finish the movie before hearing complaints, from an old man who sat behind me at the Laemmle Royal on Santa Monica Boulevard. During the quietest scenes, he was cursing up a storm, how this movie was “bullshit” and how he wanted to leave, until a theater full of scolding whispers shamed him into doing so. In this or any other life, the man is probably not a Hou Hsiao-hsien fan. Sucks for him.

Essential Reading: Aliza Ma at Film Comment

8. In Jackson Heights
Directed by Frederick Wiseman

Another year, another Wiseman in the Top 10. Calling him the best documentarian alive won’t jazz up the crowd, so: How does cinema’s most eloquent analyst of institutions and defender of liberalism sound? Still no? A witness to the glories and inevitable frictions of diversification? Maybe? A tireless champion of humanism? Yes, you said yes?! The H-word---that one always does the trick.

Essential Reading: Jaime N. Christley at Slant Magazine; Jay Neugeboren at The New York Review of Books; Manohla Dargis at The New York Times.

9. The Look of Silence
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

Releasing not one but two documentaries about the Indonesian genocide of 1965-66 no doubt qualifies your work as Important. Joshua Oppenheimer deserves this somber reputation, however, as he is an artist testing the limits of his chosen form in order to not simply “raise awareness” but question, with the viewer, why that awareness was not there in the first place. The Look of Silence respects the limits of its inquiry—keeping the present tense, tracing the lineage of trauma, representing violence through language—more rigorously than its predecessor from 2012, The Act of Killing, likely besting it, in due time, as the more coherent work. Yet, as Fred Camper spoke of Shoah, at the core of The Look of Silence “lies an absence”: an absence, specifically, of Ramli Rukun, the brutally tortured and murdered brother of our questioning hero, Adi. Ramli’s invocation stands in for the approximate million of men, women and children purged whose value we cannot fathom.

Essential Reading: Eric Hynes at Reverse Shot.

10. Creed
Directed by Ryan Coogler

I doubt anyone is itching for my take on #OscarsSoWhite … I’ll just say I am pleased anytime the Academy’s integrity gets called into question, and so publicly. The Oscars showcase a depressing standard for the “best” of the art, and that is due to a number of reasons: 1) Over the holidays, when the kids are in the house, some five thousand industry types pull from a shallow pool of watermarked DVD screeners with no obligation to reach the credits (or so the gossip goes); 2) Their taste is bad (this is the most important point IMO); 3) The Academy is, as you know, overwhelmingly old, white and male. So of course they will fail to recognize the most electrifying young male performance since … I was gonna say James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, but without indulging in hyperbole I will conclude that very few actors have what Michael B. Jordan has. Toe-to-toe with Stallone and guided by the ever-growing Ryan Coogler, Jordan flips terseness, impatience and obsession into screen virtues. He’s a true movie star, with next to no peers.

Essential Reading: Armond.

11. The Iron Ministry
Directed by J.P. Sniadecki

Disclosure: J.P. Sniadecki is a former professor of mine, one of the very best. Like any film student at Cornell between 2013 and 2015, I have watched his other films, and what impressed me about The Iron Ministry, beyond its formal choices and political weight, is how much of J.P. we get in his documentaries. I’m not implying a Michael Moore approach: J.P. always holds the camera, never injects his opinion, lets his footage speak for itself, often at length (his and Libbie Dina Cohn’s People’s Park traverses a Chengdu urban park in one, 80-minute take). But we do hear him speak, in fluent Mandarin, to Chinese commuters and authorities and watch his arm extend to pick up fresh barbeque or bum cigarettes. J.P. Sniadecki’s pointed, polyphonic cinema has deepened, thanks to wiser instincts, Ernst Karel’s modernist sound design and, most of all, his canny balance of politics and personality, beaming from his subjects and his own self.

Essential Reading: A.O. Scott.

12. Approaching the Elephant
Directed by Amanda Wilder

This doc explores alternative education systems and the power dynamics within, so it’s certainly up my alley, but if you’ve seen none of the documentaries on this list, this is the one to check out first. In less than 90 minutes, first-time director Amanda Wilder familiarizes us with the students and vexed teachers of Teddy McArdle Free School and moves us past our brought-in notions to mourn its loss. Now defunct, this experiment in New Jersey’s Passaic County is one of over a hundred small institutions (many others have thrived for years and continue to do so) that shapes its curriculum around the interests, and democratic input, of its precocious students. As incisive as Frederick Wiseman’s famed High School (1968) and even more heartbreaking, Wilder’s film traces the enormous, increasing difficulties in nurturing an active citizenry. (On Netflix.)

Essential Reading: Craig Keller at his blog.

13. Joy
Directed by David O. Russell

We’re back to underrating David O’Russell movies again, so they must be good. The first thirty minutes of Joy span extremes of feeling — in DeNiro’s entrance alone, we slip from cheer to rage to hugs and back — without resorting to cheap miserablism that could so easily generate dramatic stakes (and more Oscar buzz). Instead, through a hypnotic, nonlinear editing style, Russell foregrounds the interiority of Jennifer Lawrence’s Joy Mangano as she sees her Miracle Mop to success. Her rags-to-riches arc is a familiar one, but its subtext less concerns fame and happiness than it does control and power. Toying with his Sirk and Scorsese influences (i.e. life-draining televisions and corner apartment shakedowns, respectively), Russell navigates a tricky, fascinating space between reality and fantasy, where Joy gradually comes to leverage her own power. Forget those X-Men paperweights: This is JLaw’s superhero movie.

Essential Reading: Vadim Rizov at Reverse Shot.

14. Li’l Quinquin
Directed by Bruno Dumont

Here’s one for you TV bozos. Broadcast in France as a miniseries but in reality a just a long, serialized art film with a commercial hook (murder in a quirky town, à la Twin Peaks), Li’l Quinquin can be watched in episodic quadrants or in just one 200-minute go, as I did. Dumont interweaves two main storylines, that of a charming but vulgar young boy (Alane Delhaye) coming of age, with that of an inspector (Bernard Pruvost, indescribable) tracking down a serial killer who chops up his victims and leaves them inside dead bovine. With his surprisingly sensitive assistant (Philippe Jore), the inspector fails to gain any ground in the case, and their unorthodox methods manifest in some shocking slapstick and running jokes. Pruvost’s twitchy, untrained face is a riot of mise-en-scène, a bottomless well of comedy and disturbing indifference. By the end, with the bodies continuing to mount, Dumont’s vision turns genuinely upsetting, his line between nihilism and salvation vanishingly thin. (On Netflix.)

Essential Reading: Adam Nayman at Reverse Shot; Richard Brody.

15. Magic Mike XXL
Directed by Gregory Jacobs

On the first Tuesday of July, my buddy John and I zipped over to the freshly renovated AMC theater — if a fleet of crimson La-Z-Boys with unknowable crevices is your idea of an improvement — at Palisades Center to see the much-praised movie that opened the week prior. Our cashier, a guy our age, initiated sincere small talk, about the trickle of business that night or Jurassic World or something, before getting to our order. When I said “Magic Mike XXL,” he looked up from his touch screen register and said, jokingly, “You sure? That movie’s for girls, man.” I nodded rapidly, saying, “Yep, yep, no, yeah, that’s the movie,” and we both got what we drove ten miles to pay for, but as a perpetual muse of l'esprit de l'escalier who has since seen the film (twice), I want to correct this assumption.

Aside from the notion that maybe I wanted to see Channing Tatum and Matt Bomer dance shirtless and it is was 2015 and that should be cool, Magic Mike XXL offers much, in wisdom and pleasure, for heterosexual men. Among the little things: dance moves, dick jokes, a weapons-grade Jada Pinkett, and Tatum awkwardly hitting on Amber Heard, which should give even the most beta male hope. But really, the focus on five male strippers, while loaded with undeniable appeal for gay or female viewers, opens space for a film-long riff on the eternal question, “What do women want?” free of condescension or mystification. From Tatum pushing his squad’s dance routines toward personal expression to Donald Glover confiding in Bomer his humble plans for happiness, this film stresses the labor involved in curating a livable sense of self, in marrying work with art, in building an honest and mutual romance even when you are already fiendishly attractive. The men of Magic Mike XXL treat the women in and around their lives as equals, to be consulted, entertained and pleased — a progressive fantasy, in some quarters, but one brimming with enough color and cheer to confound the most ingrained of prejudice.

Essential Reading: Vadim Rizov; Fariha Roísín at Movie Mezzanine.

16. Buzzard
Directed by Joel Potrykus

The inexorable stratification of our economy isn’t ALL bad if we also get vicious, ingenious comic allegories like Buzzard. (On Amazon Prime.)

Essential Reading: Peter Labuza at The Film Stage; Nick Pinkerton.

17. Bridge of Spies
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Spielberg’s most Dad Movie yet. So most of the bit parts are cartoons, and Spielberg plus John Williams plus “the Constitution says...” equals a whole lot of corn, but I can’t bring myself to much care. Impeccably blocked backroom thrillers with an unabashed set of values are a breed of one, and $40-million prestige projects are almost as rare. I’m just grateful Spielberg is carrying the torch for ol’ Hollywood classicism and not printing money at this point.

Essential Reading: Jake Mulligan at Dig Boston; Niles Schwartz at The Point Mag; Kent Jones at Film Comment.

18. The Walk
Directed by Robert Zemeckis

The flaws here are not very subtle: the dialogue tends to thematize before attempting believable conversation; Ben Kingsley and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are always giving 110%, of which only a fraction can be called acting; this Lower Manhattan is clean and Disneyfied four decades before Bloomberg, with cops who don’t swear. Yet, improbably enough, even the irritants somehow fold into The Walk’s charm? Typically, and for tragic reasons necessarily, Zemeckis runs with digital tools, which have advanced to a point of stunning fidelity yet cast, now as uncannily as ever, a film of unreality over the locations rendered. So The Walk’s reverence for the Twin Towers, mirroring Philippe Petit’s, takes on a moving, multivalent quality, one that reincarnates their presence, reminds us that they are gone, evokes the terror felt if a person up high were to fall.

Upon approaching the complex for the first time, Philippe rests his chin on the bottom of the South Tower; the camera pans up and we see cool columns of steel vanishing into the clouds; the camera pans back down to Philippe, in pain, who before spiraling into another breathless pronouncement, says, “It’s not real!” He refers to the folly of their creation, which erected not the one but two tallest buildings in the world, but he would more accurately be diagnosing the image on screen. This shot is a low-key triumph of CGI, and it's humbling by quite literally facing Philippe with the tower he vows to conquer. The movie's main event, while effortlessly colossal and inducing of palm sweats, never loses perspective either (save for the red-eyed seagull, maybe) by cutting often to the gaping bystanders watching from the ground. The more smiles I see, the more treacly the music, the more likely I tune out, but here, the double miracle on display — Philippe's and the towers' — moves me to a dissonant, overwhelming place.

Essential Reading: Nick Pinkerton.

19. Mistress America
Directed by Noah Baumbach

Appreciated here. New favorite line: “We just ran Apocalypto on Blu-ray. Stunning. Stunning.”

Essential Reading: Vadim Rizov

20. The Forbidden Room
Directed by Guy Maddin

"Cavern Cinema."

Watch: “The Final Derriere,” for a magnificent taste.

Essential Reading: Jonathan Romney at Film Comment; Tanner Tafelski at Desistfilm.

21. Something, Anything
Directed by Paul Harrill

Aesthetically, many lesser films resemble Something, Anything. Spiritually, morally, emotionally, however, this is nigh uncharted ground. Ignoring the fashions of contemporary independent cinema but with a finger on the everyday struggles of many Americans, this film follows a young woman (Ashley Shelton, amazing) through a stark, transformative crisis in her life. For his feature debut, Paul Harrill assembles an ambitious narrative through miniscule actions and anticlimaxes, letting us occupy our protagonist’s headspace as she grapples with and tries to assert her own free will. It’s also the rare, curious film with themes of female empowerment and Christian teachings. (On Netflix.)

Essential Reading: Michael Oleszczyk at

22. Chi-Raq
Directed by Spike Lee

Spike Lee, showing how liberal cinematic art is a blend of fantasy and documentary, grace and spittle, dance numbers and statistics. Packed with a million ideas and some leaden scenes too (i.e. Knights of Euphrates), Chi-Raq is by turns incoherent and eloquent, a test from any critical angle. My reservations wither, however, the more I consider how Lee managed, yet again, to make such a personal film out of the most incendiary of politics. (On Amazon Prime.)

Essential Reading: K. Austin Collins at Los Angeles Review of Books; Violet Lucca at Film Comment.

23. Bone Tomahawk
Directed by S. Craig Zahler

The only movie on this list that deserves to be called “unforgettable.” Because I still can’t get out of my head that...scene, in the cave, the most violent movie death I have ever sat through. It’s all the more stupefying against the rest of the film, which is a leisurely paced, clever, old-timey western. First-time director S. Craig Zahler should buff up the mise-en-scène next time around, to become the great genre auteur I want in my life, but his facility with actors (Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, Patrick Wilson, Sean Young!), dialogue and brutal allegory qualifies Bone Tomahawk as one of the (un)pleasant surprises of the year. (On Amazon Prime.)

Essential Reading: Jeannette Catsoulis at The New York Times.

24. Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation
Directed by Christopher McQuarrie

Fight me.

Essential Reading: Matt Zoller Seitz at

25. Heart of a Dog
Directed by Laurie Anderson

Laurie Anderson’s elegy to her dog, friends, and husband, Lou Reed, has stuck with me more than I might have expected when I left the Film Forum in November. Perhaps because I have listened to it in audio form a couple times since, and because I find that words and music-only experience, off headphones, to be even more intimate and affecting than her film. Give it a listen — it’s on Spotify.

Essential Reading: Melissa Anderson; Manohla Dargis.


If I had to keep listing, what else comes to mind...

The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq

Heaven Knows What
45 Years
The Good Dinosaur
Amour Fou
Felix and Meira
Saint Laurent


A Longer, Alphabetical List of 2015 Movies That I Recommend


The Actors:

Best Lead Female Performances (too many): Cate Blanchett, Carol; Rooney Mara, Carol; Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years; Ashley Shelton, Something, Anything; Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road; Arielle Holmes, Heaven Knows What; Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn; Nina Hoss, Phoenix; Jennifer Lawrence, Joy.

Best Lead Male Performances: Michael B. Jordan, Creed; Peter Sarsgaard, Experimenter; Bernard Pruvost, Li’l Quinquin; Kurt Russell, Bone Tomahawk and The Hateful Eight; Michel Houellebecq, The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq; Josh Lucas, The Mend.

Best Supporting Female Performances: Winona Ryder, Experimenter; Rose Byrne, Spy; Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria; Tessa Thompson, Creed; Angela Bassett, Chi-Raq; Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight; Isabella Rossellini, Joy; Cobie Smulders, Results; Jada Pinkett Smith, Magic Mike XXL.

Best Supporting Male Performances: Kevin Corrigan, Results; Sylvester Stallone, Creed; Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies; Guy Pearce, Results; Samuel L. Jackson, Chi-Raq; Emory Cohen, Brooklyn; Benicio del Toro, Sicario; Richard Jenkins, Bone Tomahawk; Bobby Moynihan, Sisters.

Other Random Superlatives:

Purdy Pictures: Mark Lee Ping-bin, The Assassin; Edward Lachman, Carol; John Seale, Mad Max: Fury Road; Timo Salminen, Jauja; Sara Mishara, Felix and Meira; Eric Gautier, Aloha; Roger Deakins, Sicario.

Smart Editing: Margaret Sixel, Mad Max: Fury Road; Kathryn J. Schubert, Experimenter; Robin Schwartz, Results; Chris Teague, The Mend; Affonso Gonçalves, Carol; David O’Russell and his FOUR editors, jeez, Joy.

Favorite Soundtracks: Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight; Carter Burwell, Carol; Judd Greenstein, Michi Wiancko, The Mend; Dean Wareham, Britta Phillips, Mistress America; Junkie XL, Mad Max: Fury Road.

Memorable Scenes From Other Films: “Diamonds,” Girlhood; Charles XII’s invasion, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence; Border crossing, Sicario; Laser tag, L for Leisure; Storm drain, Blackhat; Courtyard, It Follows; Football, The Princess of France; Trainyard, Run All Night; Daisy’s song, The Hateful Eight; All of Shaun the Sheep Movie.

Greatest Older Movies I Watched For the First Time in 2015:

  1. Only Angels Have Wings (1939, dir. Howard Hawks) 
  2. Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975, dir. Chantal Akerman)
  3. The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967, dir. Jacques Demy) 
  4. Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, dir. Béla Tarr) 
  5. An Autumn Afternoon (1962, dir. Yasujiro Ozu)
  6. L’argent (1983, dir. Robert Bresson) 
  7. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder) 
  8. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971, dir. Robert Altman) 
  9. They Live by Night (1948, dir. Nicholas Ray)
  10. Safe (1995, dir. Todd Haynes) 
  11. (A ranked list of 50 can be found here.)

Other Great Reviews Not Included Above:
Worst Movies: Steve Jobs, Tomorrowland, Jurassic World, Goodnight Mommy, Fantastic Four, Terminator Genisys, Me and Earl and fuck I don’t even wanna type it.

Almost as Bad: Room, Son of Saul, White God, Trumbo, Spectre.

Failures, But I Had Fun: The Hateful Eight and The Revenant

The Ida Award for Most Underwhelming Second Viewing: Clouds of Sils Maria

Best New Film Book I Read: Dennis Lim’s David Lynch.

I Bought This Acclaimed 2015 Movie on Blu-ray But It’s Not Gonna Arrive Until Next Month, And Then and Only Then Will I Watch It Despite Since Ordering It’s Appeared on Netflix: Horse Money.

Haven’t Seen, Do Regret: Arabian Nights, Horse Money, Theeb, Ricki and the Flash, James White, Junun, Veteran, By the Sea, Field Niggas, Office, The Kindergarten Teacher, Christmas Again, Of Men and War, other movies I’m forgetting at the moment.

Didn’t See, Feel Like I’m OK…?: Mustang, The Tribe, Entertainment, Concussion, Macbeth, 99 Homes, The Wolfpack, Youth.

For 2016 Consideration, Despite Already Seeing It and Believing It a Masterpiece: Cemetery of Splendour

All 129 NYC Theatrical Releases from 2015 (+ 2 from 2016, via NYFF) That I Saw: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence; A Very Murray Christmas; Advantageous; Aloha; Amour Fou; Anomalisa; Ant-Man; Approaching the Elephant; Avengers: Age of Ultron; Best of Enemies; Black Coal, Thin Ice; Black Sea; Blackhat; Bone Tomahawk; Breathe; Bridge of Spies; Brooklyn; Buzzard; Carol; Cemetery of Splendour; Chi-Raq; Clouds of Sils Maria; Creed; Crimson Peak; De Palma; Digging for Fire; Eden; Entourage; Ex Machina; Experimenter; Fantastic Four; Far From the Madding Crowd; Felix and Meira; Fifty Shades of Grey; Focus; Furious 7; Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem; Girlhood; Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief; Goodnight Mommy; Grandma; Hard to Be a God; Heart of a Dog; Heaven Knows What; Hitchcock/Truffaut; In Jackson Heights; Inside Out; Insurgent; Irrational Man; It Follows; Jauja; Joy; Jupiter Ascending; Jurassic World; Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet; Kingsman: The Secret Service; Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter; L for Leisure; Learning to Drive; Li’l Quinquin; Listen to Me Marlon; Love & Mercy; Mad Max: Fury Road; Magic Mike XXL; Me and Earl and the Dying Girl; Meru; Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation; Mississippi Grind; Mistress America; Paper Towns; Pitch Perfect 2; Phoenix; Queen of Earth; Results; Room; Run All Night; Saint Laurent; Shaun the Sheep Movie; Sicario; Sisters; Slow West; Something, Anything; Son of Saul; Spectre; Spotlight; Spy; Star Wars: The Force Awakens; Steve Jobs; Straight Outta Compton; Taken 3; Tangerine; Taxi; Terminator Genisys; The Assassin; The Big Short; The Diary of a Teenage Girl; The Duke of Burgundy; The End of the Tour; The Forbidden Room; The Hateful Eight; The Gift; The Good Dinosaur; The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2; The Hunting Ground; The Iron Ministry; The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq; The Look of Silence; The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; The Martian; The Mend; The Princess of France; The Revenant; The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water; The Taking of Tiger Mountain; The Visit; The Walk; Timbuktu; Time Out of Mind; Tomorrowland; Trainwreck; Trumbo; Tu Dors Nicole; Unfriended; Welcome to Me; What Happened, Miss Simone?; What We Do in the Shadows; While We’re Young; White God; Wild Tales; 45 Years; ’71.