BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC It was a memorable year for big Hollywood blockbusters even if the best of them (Mad Max, Star Wars, Mission Impossible) were pieced together from ancient sources. But as someone who still shells out the premium to watch films in theaters, I don’t want to be catered to, I want to be shocked and thrilled by something I’ve never seen on screen before. Bemoaning the state of the U.S. film industry can seem like my default setting yet as I pieced together this year’s film list I was pleasantly surprised to find that almost half of the dozen films I’d listed were U.S. films that somehow were summoned to life amidst the super-hero ruled world in which we now live.
The film that Russian master Aleksei German died making, Hard to be a God finally arrived on these shores, an awe-inspiring mud-encrusted creation that suggests Mike Judge’s cult comedy classic Idiocracy remade by epic brooder Andrei Tarkovsky. A monochromatic sci-fi epic, the film follows a project by Earth scientists to seed the Renaissance of an identical planet inhabited by medieval barbarians. Our hero Don Rumata trudges across this idiotic, brutish landscape as his ability to communicate with the populace is constantly thwarted petty violence and unadulterated stupidity while forces are rising up to kill those displaying signs of intelligence. German thrusts you into experiencing this frustrating world in an audacious manner that is at turns mind-numbing and fascinating and ends up being an altogether savage picture of society we haven’t seen before.
Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe was another alien landscape seemingly revealed on screen for the first time but one that was distressingly reality-based. Here, it was the world of modern day Ukrainian school for deaf youth, speaking in sign language that is left untranslated. The camera hangs back so way can watch these juvenile delinquents like studying bugs in a jar and without words one’s intense scrutiny of these teens posture and movements pays off by exuding a mysterious power.
Olivier Assayas maintains his stratospheric level of excellence with Clouds of Sils Maria. Juliette Binoche plays an actress facing aging in show business as she rehearses a new part with her somewhat prickly young assistant, played by Twilight‘s Kristen Stewart. Binoche’s character’s reflections on aging are only deepened by the fact that we’ve watched her grown older on screen for decades, which lays the groundwork for another unusually wise and moving film from the master.
The Who were the subject of one of the quintessential rockumentaries, Jeff Stein’s 1979 profile The Kids Are Alright explored the band from their beginnings to the end of the Keith Moon era. James D. Cooper’s documentary Lambert and Stamp reveals that no story of the band’s birth is complete without duscussing the odd-couple management team who made them stars. The Who’s story is re-framed as a great scam in which the working class Stamp and the gay aristocratic Lampert, scheme, steal and lie their way to worldwide fame. Unusually intimate and surprising, it’s one of the year’s most moving documentaries.
Just as it was shocking that it took till 2014 to get a major fictionalized film of Martin Luther King Jr. it is surprisingly that the explosive story of The Black Panther Party would not have a major documentary until now. Stanley Nelson Jr.’s documentary Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution assembles all the important people and footage to tell this story of a revolution’s rise and its government-engineered fall with power and insight. It may have arrived late but in light of the Black Lives Matter movement the film has appeared right on time.
Kornél Mundruczó’s Hungarian film White God details another revolution, this time among the canine set. A young girl’s abandoned dog survives the dog fighting world to lead a revolution from the city pound. There is something beautifully spooky about one hundred plus real dogs quietly stalking the city and Mundruzo’s moody atmosphere makes us feel that something mysterious and inexplicable is afoot with man’s former best friend. The genre of the “dog film” goes back to the silents and Rin Tin Tin yet White God again feels like something we’ve never seen on screen before.
Sean Baker’s Tangerine should be a new holiday favorite as the fresh out of jail Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) storms across L.A. on X-mas Eve on the trail of her no-good cheating pimp boyfriend. It’s a nice development that Baker has no judgments towards his transgendered prostitute leads but the fun is really in the cavalcade of eccentric characters that swing through this seedy and phantamagorical joyride.
Results is the latest wry comedy from Mumblecore master Andrew (Computer Chess) Bujalski. Using name actors for the first time, Bujalski leaves his usual modern day hipsters out of this tale, instead focusing on a pair of gym rats (played by Guy Pearce and How I Met Your Mother‘s Cobie Smulders) as they argue their way into romance, prompted by a shiftless lower-class newly-minted millionaire who walks into their gym. (the always-rumpled Kevin Corrigan) Bujalski’s films are built around the smallest of incidents yet it is his comedic eye that imbues his comedies with their unique perspective.
Marielle Heller’s Diary of a Teen Age Girl dares something few American films do, to honestly examine the sexuality of teen age girl. Based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s heavily-autobiographical graphic novel, Bel Powley beautifully captures the 15 year old Minnie, whose sexual curiosity leads her to seduce her mother’s boyfriend in 1970s San Francisco. Diary doesn’t shy away from the complications of this taboo relationship but it never makes Minnie a victim either, allowing the contradictions of this affair to stew in the viewers mind.
Youth is the latest from Italy’s Paolo Sorrentino, giving us a fantastic look at the final days of two successful older friends, one a retired conductor/composer (Michael Caine) the other a still-working film director. (Harvey Keitel) Their stay at a luxury Swiss resort leads them to a Fellini-esque survey of the lives they led. While so much of cinema revels in the fantasy of youth, Sorrentino’s film traffics in the attractive fantasy that we’ll arrive at life’s end with enough wealth and wits about us for one last glorious victory lap.
Adam McKay has spent his career intelligently crafting big stoopid Hollywood comedies like Anchorman and Talladega Nights, but what if he used his powers to do something really smart? He does with The Big Short, an examination of the 2008 Wall Street bailout as seen through the eyes of three parties that first foresaw its arrival. This very modern comedy breaks down its story into little Funny-or-Die-length bits that bring the infuriating realties of the finance bubble to life with an anything-goes style. Brought to life by engaging comic performances by Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carrell and others, The Big Short is full of laughs right up to the finale, where we realize how thoroughly the American public was swindled.
Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales was Argentina’s Best Foreign Film nominee for the Oscar and it is some undeniably bravura film-making. The rare anthology film without a bum chapter, Wild Tales taps into that modern vein of anger, showing how giving in to life little irritations can quickly snowball into life-or-death battles. A road rage battle on a deserted highway is a highlight but the film’s ending chapter is a real kicker, with a jealous newlywed bride creating the biggest wedding disaster ever captured on film.
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