Not much of a year for Big Entertainment or Big Sincerity. Spotlight, Trust and The Martian proved to be nothing more than – in the immortal words of Ice Cube describing Boyz 'n the Hood –“After-school specials with cussin.’” The Revenant, the film I most looked forward to, turned out to be worse than a snow-covered macho grunt-fest; it’s a boring snow-covered macho grunt-fest. Form without content – that’s ‘decadence, right? And long an issue with Hollywood tentpoles. This year’s disillusion – each year brings its own –stems from decadence-creep crawling from tentpoles to supposedly more personal, if still large-scale, expressions. 2015’s best, save one, aren’t tentpoles. They’re willfully idiosyncratic visions of genre kicks, artfilm, agitprop or all three at once.
1) BONE TOMAHAWK – How did first-time writer/director S. Craig Zahler enable Kurt Russell’s most human, nuanced performance since…ever? How did he see that Patrick Wilson has layers? Zahler’s wild ideas have no business in a Western but belong here. He vests in genre conventions, demonstrates the depth and worth of those conventions, then transcends them while smashing them into neurons. His screenplay’s witty and self-aware but never self-conscious or precious. Stars and bit players work in balance and each makes clear the necessity of the other. Zahler’s technique seems at first raw and slightly amateurish, but slowly reveals the breadth of his sophistication, which Zahler (kinda) conceals because he might feel full of shit if he didn’t. The film grants increasing pleasure the more you know its references but never makes knowing its references key to enjoyment. The story offers soaring joie de vivre, but mercilessly, pitilessly remembers the brutal mortality beneath. Plus, the invaluable Richard Jenkins, character actor supreme.
2) VICTORIA – Nicholas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy of tight, naturalist, low-budget, mean-spirited street-Noirs are among the smartest, most thrilling thrillers. Clearly influenced by Refn, Sebastian Schipper – writer/director of this tight, naturalist, low-budget, weirdly hopeful street-Noir – had the courage or idiocy to shoot his 134-minute romance/caper in one unbroken take, one unbroken shot that wanders the demimonde of Berlin in the wee hours. That unbroken shot proves neither stunt nor gimmick. Schipper’s amphetamine narrative drive and hood-rat street-dialogue make you forget it’s happening. At the same time, that one shot brings the story alive as a signal episode in Victoria’s life – like a cherished memory or dream. Like Refn, Schipper’s a cineaste and tells his story in pure cinema. The performances never falter; the suspense never lets up. Victoria is what a thriller should be: gritty, tough, hilarious, bumbling, romantic and almost escapist. Because, really, who in a street-Noir ever escapes?
3) BLACK COAL, THIN ICE – The homicide cop hero of this quirky, blood-drenched, yearning Neorealist Chinese policier believes he’s the last feeling being in a universe of bureaucratic indifference and small-time corruption. Too bad for him his precious feelings prove a liability in today’s meatgrinder China. The unrequited love he pursues – in his monosyllabic, existentially crushed way – will only ruin him. Director Yi’nan Diao got his Dreiserian portrait of the wreckage of working-class lives past the censors by pretending that social context is background, not the whole point of the exercise. Shot in haunting pastels, Black Coal evokes the Korean policier masterpiece Memories of Murder. Like Memories, it’s an economic critique, a study of ordinary folks chiseling out daily survival and a classic of murky suspense.
4) THE GETT – Why divorce is so expensive? Because it’s worth it!
5) CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA – What an incongruous commercial success: a drama with hardly any apparent drama about sophisticated people splitting hairs over their art. Olivier Assayas’ most watchable pictures – Carlos, Summer Hours – don’t meander. His most heartfelt films do. The intuitive camera, the jarring cutting, the untied narrative threads, the schematic plot and the even more schematic play-within-the-film should push you away. But Assayas’ camera and edits follow states of mind – not action. They nourish narrative purpose and emotional tension. Assayas’ off-kilter compositions illuminate the tiniest, most potent exchanges – every shot, cut, word and gesture bears meaning and the dialogue rewards attention. Assayas draws an extraordinary performance from Juliet Binoche. She emerges from her career-long veil of beauty and testiness to show genuine unease and kindness. Kristen Stewart’s a revelation. So present, true to each moment, charismatic – a shockingly subtle actress and a movie star.
6) EX MACHINA – Any movie bearing this gift belongs in the Top Ten: http://www.digitalspy.com/movies/news/a624000/watch-oscar-isaacs-incredible-ex-machina-dance-scene/
7) MAD MAX FURY ROAD – The year’s best long-form commercial for a video game. Maybe one day someone will acknowledge underground comix master Spain Rodriguez’ early ‘70’s Route Zero as the prime source for so many Mad Max ideas and bitchin’ cars…http://www.lastgasp.com/d/4224/subvert-3
8) MERU – Mountain climbers aren’t necessarily insane; they just do insane things. Then they come home and try to be people. And that can prove harder than bagging a knife-edge 22,000-foot peak in the back of the back of the beyond of Pakistan. The surprisingly touching aspect of this ingenuous, homemade saga derives from the contrast between the climbers’ embrace of their insane urges in the wild and their brief, laden moments of self-preserving rationality at home. The most human, immediate and true climbing movie ever made. Mind-blowingly gorgeous and insane.
9) THE TRIBE – Global capitalism is one harsh toke. The underclass never bonds against oppression and eats its own with gusto. The more desperate the circumstances, the more everyone’s social/human value derives from how the powerful can exploit them. Love offers no redemption; vengeance offers plenty. Newcomer Miroslav Slaboshpitsky presents a fully realized, unwavering fable – deadpan camera, instinctive performances, metronomic cutting, compelling subculture and unspeakable degradation.
10) IT FOLLOWS – Yes, the fantastic aspect proved inconsistent and violated its own rules. But the notion of culpability transferred from person to person by indulging in the slightest human connection, that shit’s all too real.
11) BLACK SEA – As our new Michael Caine, Jude Law proves the truth of Barry Gibbs’ assertion that “You can’t pander insincerely.” Like Caine, Law shifts from blockbuster to low-rent genre without a trace of condescension. Like Caine, he plays far more compelling and unhinged characters when he’s free from having to act classy – as Law proved in Dom Hemingway. Like Caine, Law never mails it in. And, like Caine, Law likes nothing more than to mock himself or go berserk with rage or both. Despite several less-than-credible plot points, Black Sea is a submarine movie – the absolute bestest kind of movie there is. Law makes it shine.
12) WHITE GOD – Ki engedte ki a kutyákat?
13) SON OF A GUN – Violent, workmanlike, 1970’s-style, unselfconscious Aussie crimesploitation. When Ewan McGregor gives a shit, few match his charisma.
14) THE SALVATION/SLOW WEST – The art-Western returns and not even Tarantino can stop it.
The Hateful 8 – The Most Disappointing Film of 2015
As Lester Bangs wrote of a certain album, Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful 8 is “stupid with none of the virtues of stupidity.” It’s dispiriting – because I love his movies so – to see him so vest in such a C+ idea.
Pauline Kael said that Godard’s genius did not run to making masterpieces; Tarantino’s seems to. There’s little middle ground in his oeuvre: fucking amazing or self-indulgent crap – that’s his range.
Remember, this is the one filmmaker in America under no limits – absolutely no artistic or financial pressure. Tarantino can make any film he wants any way he wants and find eager backing and distribution. And this puny exercise in what he mistakes for épater la bourgeoisie is the best he can do with that rare, precious license?
Tarantino’s films – good and bad – delight in surface without a glimmer of narrative, character or visual metaphor. All that breathtaking style and not a molecule of content. Only his exacting stylistic rigor gives Tarantino’s great films depth. Without rigor, what remains are his base urges. Foremost is the urge to always go too far. The Hateful 8 delights in going too far, and goes nowhere at all.
His cramming genre conventions full of steroids – like shooting a so-called Western that’s 90% interiors in 70MM and crowing about it – leaves me as numb as if I sat through Transformers III or Titanic or Pearl Harbor. Tarantino’s last two films left me numb. Everything prior granted me exhilaration. Has Tarantino gone numb himself? Can he feel anything without jacking up the Grand Guignol to 11?
English novelist Margaret Drabble writes about characters who prefer the numbness of depression to the sharp pangs of anxiety. Sound drama always provokes anxiety, especially for the creator. Creating art means not knowing what’s going to happen and living with that uncertainty. If the creator can no longer stand the anxiety of creating, he or she no longer creates drama. All 2015’s best films were profoundly unpredictable – I mean, I figured Charlize Theron would survive Fury Road, but that was about it. When the writer knows before he or she starts writing what every character will do or say, the resulting work is always schematic, forced, Dead On Arrival. It becomes, like The Hateful 8 or The Revenant, a showcase for the director as puppeteer. Characters never speak or act like living beings; they’re only illustrations of the director’s ideas, notions and themes. There is no uncertainty, no drama, no depth. This is why movies today can be impressive and even entertaining, but remain empty and unsatisfying.*
I’ve long considered Tarantino a genius adolescent – an 8th grader at heart. His glee for obscure film references, transgressive speech, graphic violence and cheesy soundtracks all speak to a stunted consciousness. But now it’s time to regard his work as expressing a fully formed artist, for good or ill. Tarnation’s puerile machismo’s not adolescent – he hasn’t and will never outgrow it.** It’s purely American, a thoughtless shorthand that obviates any profound questions or comedy underlying Tarantino’s joyous bloodletting and woman-lynching. Hateful 8’s gory slapstick is as sophisticated as adult Tarantino gets. There’s something permanently unflowered in the dude – he ain’t gonna mature.
* Thanks Greg Burk of metaljazz.com
** Thanks Sarahjane Blum