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ARTery critics Joyce Kulhawik, Tom Meek, Sean Burns and Erin Trahan share their top movies of the year.
A flurry of fine films has descended on the big screen in the last few weeks, almost too many to take in; but I did my best and here are my top five films of the year.
1. "The Revenant": A stunning 156 minute saga by award-winning Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu ("Birdman") starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a North American fur trapper who is mauled by a grizzly and seeks vengeance on the man (Tom Hardy) who left him for dead. But what at first seems a brutal tale of physical survival becomes a potent meditation on nature and our place in it. Filtered through the lens of an elemental adventure tale are scenes of unspeakable spiritual beauty which lead us from violence and retribution, to transcendent spiritual insight. DiCaprio caps a career of intense and varied performances with the most extraordinarily committed work he has ever done. I honestly don't know how they filmed some of what he is required to do. By the end, we don't just see what happens, we experience an epiphany of insight rarely equaled onscreen.
2. "Brooklyn": An absolutely poignant tale about an Irish immigrant girl who leaves her homeland, close family and friends, and sets out for America. She lands in Brooklyn in the 1950s where her future beckons. Saoirse Ronan as Eilis is a self-possessed young woman with a head for numbers and an open heart who navigates her way through the pangs of loneliness, first love, sudden tragedy and yet another possible future thanks to a wise screenplay by the wonderful Nick Hornby (“About a Boy,” “High Fidelity”). Ronan pierces us with the understated strength, subtlety, and utter charm of her performance. Her Eilis blooms onscreen, from a homesick girl into an intelligent young woman with a complex inner life, a radiant vitality and grace to spare as she figures out who she is and what she wants, without ever losing her dignity or her sense of self. I predict an Oscar nomination here for Best Actress.
3. "The Big Short": This ingenious, hilarious and audacious film about the home mortgage crisis will infuriate you all over again. Co-writer/director Adam McKay adapted the book and bundled an all-star cast around this mind-blowing true story of a few men who predicted the collapse of the housing bubble. While the banks were busy blowing smoke, they gambled on something that had never happened before — until it did. Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt play various investors who can't believe what they've stumbled upon: the flimflam ethics and practices of the world's most august financial institutions, which ended up triggering the global financial meltdown of 2007-'08. McKay's script penetrates the deliberately obfuscatory language banks use to keep people from understanding what's really going on, who's in on it, who's not, and what those mortgages were actually made of. Don't understand tranches? Credit default swaps? Housing backed securities? Let Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain via ingenious cameos and simple metaphors break the fourth wall and explain it all to you.
4. "Spotlight": This is a killer expose, a multifaceted, lucid and deeply potent account of what it took for The Boston Globe’s investigative unit to uncover the child sex abuse scandal that would culminate in Cardinal Bernard F. Law’s resignation and rock the very foundations of the Catholic Church. It is also a study in communal blindness, willful and accidental. Most important of all, the film is not only gripping but also steadfastly accurate. The film deftly juggles all the facets of this sprawling story, keeping them clear, grounded, and in balance, just as Globe editor Marty Baron kept a clear eye on what the real story was, not only the potential breadth of its scope, but most of all the depth of the Church’s complicity in these crimes. The film is a primer on investigative journalism, how and where to focus your gaze, when to publish no matter the pressure to beat the competition, and how that vision can make the most impact. The film hits you like an old-fashioned punch in the gut.
5. "Amy": This searing documentary about the incandescent singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse is so viscerally and intellectually alive, it’s as if she’s been conjured up again and we’ve had to suffer the loss of her for the first time. Winehouse was only 27 when she collapsed beneath the crush of drugs, alcohol, bulimia and a rabid public. The film by award-winning British filmmaker Asif Kapadia gets to the heart and soul, skin and bones of this absolutely pure artist. He synthesizes an expansive range of material: interviews from friends, colleagues, family, as well as unheard tracks, and a landslide of visuals from rough home movies to raw cell phone video. Kapadia keys us into her process unlocking layers of vocal and verbal resonance. The filmmaker captures better than anyone ever has, sudden and suffocating fame and the white hot burn of flash cameras, scalding her blind as she makes her way from doorway to limo unable to shield herself, physically falling apart. I remain haunted by this film and the artist it so clearly captures: "Amy" — one of the best films of this year or any year, ever.
This year our fair city found itself the object of the silver screen, firstly gaining notoriety for public enemy number one, Whitey Bulger, as played by Johnny Depp, in "Black Mass." But “Spotlight” was the film that topped many critics' best lists.
Elsewhere, female empowerment gained traction with diverse entries ranging from Amy Schumer as a beer drinking bed-hopper in Judd Apatow’s “Trainwreck," to Marielle Heller’s provocative coming-of-age drama, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” and “Chi-Raq," which marked a return to form by Spike Lee with a repositioning of "Lysistrata” to Chicago. Turkey’s Best Foreign Language candidate, “Mustang" plumbed issues of female freedoms and double standards within a restrictive society while matters of transgender people were floated by Tom Hooper in “The Danish Girl," and more edgily so in Sean Baker's indie cut "Tangerine," amazingly shot on iPhones.
On the epic end, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" roosted poised to resurrect a franchise and dazzle a whole new generation. Bond returned and Quentin Tarantino made good on "The Hateful Eight," while Sylvester Stallone triumphantly, and with great nuance, dusted off the Italian Stallion in "Creed" and the new installment in the "Mad Max" enterprise, "Fury Road," gunned it out of the blocks and never let the throttle dip.
1. "Mad Max: Fury Road": Thirty years after the franchise seemed to conclude on a down note, creator/directorGeorge Miller brings it back with verve and a feminist edge. As the titular Max, Mel Gibson is replaced by a muzzled and tacit Tom Hardy (with this, "Legend" and "The Revenant" Hardy's thespian stock has gone through the ceiling), but the true hero of the ever-meaner wasteland is Charlize Theron's Furiosa, large and in charge with a master plan and Max in tow for the hellacious ride through the desert sweeping sandstorm and an obstructed canyon, harried by marauding miscreants at every turn. Even in the age of computer FX and green screens, the stunt work and cinematography is jaw-dropping. Two words define it: artistic adrenaline.
2. "Spotlight": From the roots of articles and in-depth research director Tom McCarthy and his co-writer Josh Singer get the flavor of a changing Boston down pat, from the disappearing working class yielding to lux-rise gentrification, to the distinct cultural nuances of diverse neighborhoods, even the accents. The revisiting of the clergy sex abuse scandal is at once painful and cathartic and sensitively handled. The reporters at the heart of the brewing storm aren't heroic and there's no righteous grandstanding. The haunting subtlety becomes the film's strength and the strong ensemble featuring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams is superb.
3. "The Revenant": Leonardo DiCaprio takes on the role of real-life mountain man Hugh Glass, once embodied by Richard Harris — nearly 45 years ago in "Man in the Wilderness" — but this is a much bloodier and more existential ordeal as DiCaprio's Glass spends a good part of the film on his belly trying to get around after a vicious bear mauling and underhanded shenanigans by a murderous rival (Tom Hardy) that have him packed into the frozen earth and left for dead. Ghostly whispers from the past drive his slow crawl towards reckoning. If you didn't know it you might think the project came from the hand Terrence Malick, but it's helmed by Alejandro González Iñárritu ("Amores Perros" and "Birdman") and stunningly shot by the masterful Emmanuel Lubezki.
4. "Carol": Director Todd Haynes ("I'm Not There" and "Velvet Goldmine") finds himself back in territory similar to his 2002 contemplation "Far from Heaven" about coming out in the '50s. Adapted from Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel "The Price of Salt" (published under a pseudonym) the pairing of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as reluctant lovers in a scornful environment is nothing short of brilliant. The slow simmer of Blanchett's Carol extracting herself from a domineering marriage and finding herself is palpably real beyond the era or choice of partner. The score by Carter Burwell and cinematography underscore the melancholy with great resonance and synergy.
5. "The Diary of a Teenage Girl": Marielle Heller pulls off a perfect high dive with her first film, adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner's novel about a teen's relationship with her mother's boyfriend in the sexual free '70s in San Francisco. Drugs, alcohol and group sex about, but through it all Heller keeps it focused on the troubled teen trying to find herself and the bond between mother and daughter. British actress Bel Powley gives a standout performance worthy of award consideration as Minnie and the normally comedic Kristen Wiig shows she can deliver complexity and nuance as Minnie's hard partying mom. The film moves in unexpected direction and Heller guides it all with the competence of a seasoned auteur.
Another 10 that received my consideration were "Ex Machina," "The Clouds of Sils Maria," "Mustang," "Son of Saul," "Brooklyn," "Tangerine," "The Big Short," "Anomalisa," "Room" and "Creed."
1. "Mad Max: Fury Road": What a year, what a lovely year! I’m always tempted to just steal my buddy Bilge Ebiri’s line that George Miller’s breakneck, phantasmagoric magnum opus is “the Sistine Chapel of action filmmaking.” We’ve simply never seen anything like this before, leaving even the most jaded critics gobsmacked by the turbo-charged, hyper-aggressive advance in cinematic form. Seventy-year-old Miller — along with formerly-retired cinematographer John Seale and editor Margaret Sixel — orchestrate a massive, feature-length chase sequence chock-full of more character surprises and sneaky emotional payoffs than many an Oscar-grubbing melodrama. It’s a film almost entirely devoid of exposition, tossing us into a ruined future world and leaving us trusting our eyes to read the backdrop and subtext of this angry political screed. (Cliffs Notes: It’s like Buster Keaton got enlisted to help take down a rotted, rapey patriarchy.) There are a couple of extraordinary, nearly silent performances by Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy wherein she’s the damsel in charge and he’s the one most often in distress. This is the way everybody used to make movies a hundred years ago back when the whole art was first invented, except now augmented with state-of-the-art digital trickery and a thousand junkyard crap-boxes smashing into one another on fire, en route to Valhalla. Witness it.
2. "The Mend": The most swaggeringly assured debut picture since I can’t even remember when, writer-director John Magary’s rough-and-tumble psychodrama is also the most hilarious and most awful movie I saw all year. Josh Lucas stars as the wastrel, dissolute brother to a hipster basket-case (brilliantly buttoned-up Stephen Plunkett) in a rapidly gentrifying New York City. Everybody jostles with close proximity and bad vibes until eventually all the women take leave and the title, I suppose, melts into “The End Of Men,” complete with a sink full of dishes everyone pisses in as the boys devolve into their worst, most horrible selves. It’s rudely, quite terribly funny — if you can imagine a Sam Shepard play shot like “Apocalypse Now,” with a purpose and attention to framing and cuts that has all but vanished our current shaky-cam indie-film aesthetic. Former pretty-boy Lucas is a rotted-out revelation, synced to the movie’s jagged, abrasive rhythms. I loved it.
3. "Heaven Knows What": This lightly-fictionalized life story of star Arielle Holmes was shot guerrilla-style in New York City by daredevil directors Josh and Benny Safdie. When I tell you it’s about homeless twenty-something junkies scraping from fix to fix in the Upper West Side’s notorious “Needle Park” I imagine you’ll check out immediately, as most did upon its initial release. Too bad, as this is a stubborn and quite incongruously beautiful film. Holmes is a natural camera subject, even when she’s shouting curses into the lens, trying to clock the time before her next hit. And that’s what this movie understands better than most others about addiction, it doesn’t move from scene to scene but rather just from high to high, chronicling a moment to moment existence. The film almost miraculously has no past tense, it exists only in the present.
4. "Chi-Raq": Spike Lee’s most insane and audacious film is also one of his finest and funniest. It’s based on Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” except with the action moved to present day Chicago where the all-new Trojans and the Spartans are at war with blood spilling all over the streets. A gang-banger’s girlfriend starts a sex-strike to bring about peace, and the absurdity carries forth in rhyming couplets way, way too filthy to be reprinted here until her cause becomes an international phenomenon. The movie jerks from bawdy theatrical farce to disturbing, deeply felt interludes in the aftermath of too-real street violence. Oh, and it’s also a musical. I still have no idea how Spike got so many clashing tones to work in such sweet harmony, but this is a bold, brassy work unlike anything released this year, or probably any other.
5. "Bridge of Spies": There’s a casual mastery to Steven Spielberg’s latest collaboration with Tom Hanks. It feels breezy and superbly entertaining, off-handedly virtuosic and destined to be underrated. Too bad, because the film is full of tough stuff and asks questions I haven’t seen answered very well on debate stages lately, particularly about what it means to be an American in wartime, and how many of our founding principles we are willing to trade just because we’re scared. Since the movie is scripted by the Coen brothers it’s also a Kafkaesque black comedy about Eastern Bloc bureaucratic paranoia with Hanks giving one of his most sublimely persnickety performances. The film is suspenseful, very funny and more than a little bit sad. I worry it’s going to age into a cautionary classic.
In any given year, many critics would like to devote more space and time to nonfiction cinema. But since documentaries do not typically hold enough box office sway to get theatrical releases, which is what gets the coveted review, it’s easy for good films to fall through the cracks.
The fact that year-end award categories for fiction film grossly outnumber those for documentary doesn’t help. This, plus an active, highly diversified field of movie-making (a good thing) can make for unwieldy “I could have / should have seen” lists for critic and moviegoer alike. That’s why attempts to single out the year’s strongest documentaries can be an especially useful starting point for what, for fiction film anyway, is a much bigger conversation. These picks are listed in alphabetical order.
1. “Best of Enemies”: The film makes the cut for exceptional research and editing and for connecting present-day political punditry to its more eloquent roots. Desperate to become something other than the third of three major networks, ABC boldly changed its 1968 presidential debate coverage by inviting liberal novelist Gore Vidal and archconservative William F. Buckley Jr. to hash out the 10 debates on live television. This documentary is about their heated, unedited repartee, laced with antiquated words like “balderdash,” which culminated in a shouting match that each man would answer to, publicly and privately, for the rest of his life. ABC’s ratings soared and the film asserts that the die was cast for a media driven by opinion and theatrics. By focusing on men unknown to today’s youth, this film also suggests that however towering a figure seems in his age, odds are his notoriety will die along with him. Despite being known as “America’s biographer,” Vidal’s gloom about the limitations of his reach hovers over him and adds depth to this already well-considered film.
2. "Cartel Land": If the shoot-out scenes in “Cartel Land” quicken your breath, imagine how it felt behind the camera. Director Matthew Heineman shot most of the film himself, risking life and limb to document the parallel stories of Mexican vigilante group, Autodefensas, and Americans who patrol the Arizona-Mexican border as volunteers. Heineman follows both groups long enough to leave questions about their motives and practices. Of course underlying it all is whether or not the cartels be stopped. The film is unflinchingly brutal and can be added to the top of the canon of documentaries that are, perhaps more than other forms of media, telling the story of Mexico’s unfathomable corruption related to the drug trade.
3. "Seeds of Time": One role of documentary is to be the moving image record of a story that has been told in other forms. As “Seeds of Time” unfolded, I thought, ‘This is just like a New Yorker profile.’ Ten minutes later a New Yorker writer appears to interview main character Cary Fowler about his progress toward creating a global seed bank. It’s a conventionally constructed film about a conventional-seeming man who has taken unprecedented steps to unite nations on a climate change issue. He’s no Amy Winehouse (“Amy”) or Marlon Brando (“Listen to Me Marlon”) or Laurie Anderson (“Heart of a Dog”), but the magnitude of this project merits telling, and re-telling. In this case, director Sandy McLeod achieves a harmonious rhythm between the facts, the stakes and the personalities, or lack thereof. Just like a solid New Yorker profile.
4. "The Surrender": A pick from IFFBoston’s shorts program earlier this year, “The Surrender” rises to the top of this list because of its economy of form. In 23 minutes, director Stephen Maing’s shorthand of a complex policy and depiction of a nuanced character kept this viewer thinking nearly a year later. The film is about Stephen Kim, who served the U.S. State Department as an expert on North Korea until he was imprisoned for violating the Espionage Act. Like other titles made for The Intercept (a platform created by Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald (“Citizenfour”) and Jeremy Scahill), “The Surrender” is concerned with merging the craft of storytelling with adversarial journalism. In September, The Intercept announced a section devoted to “filmmaker-driven visual journalism” called Field Of Vision. With the rise in use of short documentaries for editorial purposes, such as the New York Times’ Op Docs or The Boston Globe’s Opinion Reel, this is a project to keep an eye on whether journalist, filmmaker, politician or average citizen.
5. "What Happened, Miss Simone?": Nina Simone’s meteoric rise and abrupt departure from public life couldn't be better told than in “What Happened, Miss Simone?” It’s a robust portrayal of an artistic genius, who, despite success as a singer-songwriter, wanted desperately to be the first black woman to perform classical piano at Carnegie Hall. Director Liz Garbus appropriately presents Simone in context of the Civil Rights Movement, where she became a radical voice, along with archival performance and interview footage and images from Simone’s diaries. Part of this film’s appeal is its timing. It’s a precursor to Black Lives Matter and the interview subjects, particularly Simone’s daughter and guitarist friend Al Schackman, willingly reflect on the whole of her tragic realities, reminiscent of so many other shooting, faded stars.
In addition to the five recommended titles, there are some special mentions. Find a way to see “Field Niggas,” a richly-layered visual and audio collage of one corner in Harlem by street photographer Khalik Allah. For films with inspiring female characters, “Dreamcatcher” and “Iris” are not to be missed, unlike “He Named Me Malala” which does not do justice to the remarkable young leader Malala Yousafzai. Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Look of Silence” continues to expose the pervasive acceptance of Indonesian genocide began in “The Act of Killing,” this time by way of a victim’s brother. The courage in candor award goes to Lucia Small and Ed Pincus, who with “One Cut, One Life” shift the first-person nonfiction form into one told from multiple points of view.