The Top Five for 2015

Maps To the Stars

Woman in Gold

Phoenix

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

The Hateful Eight

 

Honorable Mention

The Wolfpack

The Man from UNCLE

Spectre

Carol

 

MAPS TO THE STARS

Julianne Moore is one of my favorite actors, and has been for around 20 years.  She won the 2014 Oscar for Best Actress for *Still Alice*, a heart-breaking movie about a Columbia professor living with early onset Alzheimer's.  She gave a delicate, nuanced performance in that movie, totally deserving of the Oscar.  But she won Best Actress at Cannes that same year for *Maps To the Stars*, which is much more up the Cannes alley, meaning completely off the hook in its weirdness.  This is the blackest of black comedies - - the darkest comedy I've seen since *A Clockwork Orange* (yes, I do classify that as a comedy).  Moore plays an intolerable, self-absorbed, washed-up movie actress and the great Mia Wasikowska plays her assistant.  John Cusack and Olivia Williams play Wasikowska's parents, and they even worked in a small part for Robert Pattinson.  The cherry on the casting sundae: Carrie Fisher, playing herself.  A few high points in Moore's performance- - she has a tirade while on the toilet, revisits childhood traumas while getting a massage (research for a role), and does a dance of glee when she gets the news that a little boy has died.  What else could you expect from David Cronenberg, the director of *Dead Ringers*, a movie about identical twin sadistic gynecologists?

 

WOMAN IN GOLD

This movie covers a lot of genres, but still has a sure sense of what it’s doing and where it’s going.  It’s a buddy movie, a road movie, a thriller, a courtroom drama, and probably a few other genres I’ve left out.  It works because it’s based on a true story, so it all has the ring of truth, also because the two lead actors are so good and have such wonderful chemistry.  Helen Mirren is of course sublime as the thorny Viennese woman looking for justice.  The surprise of the movie is Ryan Reynolds, who does such a lovely job as her lawyer.  It’s a real grown-up role for him, and he’s wonderful.

 

PHOENIX

The best movie of the year.  A haunting pseudo film noir about a young woman, a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp.  She has facial reconstruction surgery and goes searching for her husband.  She finds him and the story takes many unsettling twists and turns, examining issues of identity, trust, revenge, moral responsibility, the whole megillah.  It’s a quiet movie but has one of the most jaw-dropping, stunning endings in any movie EVER.

 

STAR WARS EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS

What a marvelous movie.  We saw it in IMAX 3D and the use of the format was never gratuitous or gimmicky, it just made the movie more vibrant and beautiful. The movie felt like a love letter to the fans of the original three films, aka Episodes IV through VI.  I had a few quibbles with the performances or characters (Daisy Ridley was a little too twitchy, and the character of Finn was a little too goofy), but what a joy to see the story moved forward in such a satisfying way.  Can’t wait for Episode VIII.  Is it really coming out next year?

 

THE HATEFUL EIGHT

I saw this twice.  The first time was with Richard, not long after it opened, at a theater where they were showing it in 70 mm, the unusually wide, narrow, and visually rich format that Tarantino used when he shot it.  He adapted it for the more typical (and still "widescreen") 35mm, but his artistic vision was being upheld in approximately 100 theaters in the US, and of course I had to go to one of those theaters.  For a concise description of 70mm, please read:

 

http://coolmaterial.com/feature/5-reasons-you-should-see-the-hateful-8-in-70mm/

 

Our first viewing of the movie also had an overture and an intermission, which gave the experience more of a sense of occasion.  But let’s face it, that audience was full of rabid Tarantino fans, and they were not disappointed!  Richard thought the movie was a little slow, but I thought the deliberate pacing in some sections were essential to create the shock of the fast-paced, violent sections. My second viewing was more like a normal movie: there was no overture and no intermission.  It was nearly as exciting, but then in my experience my second viewing of a movie is often my favorite: I anticipate my favorite moments, but am not yet completely familiar with the movie.

 

The general structure of the movie made me think of Tarantino’s first movie, *Reservoir Dogs*, but it also had me thinking warmly of Agatha Christie!  Tarantino seems to have come to a point in his career where he doesn’t feel like he has to show off.  He can push the envelope and do things that only he would do, but he also has the maturity to hang back and let the story tell itself.

 

Every performance is fantastic, but special mention has to go to Jennifer Jason Leigh, who gives the performance of her career (which has been remarkably long and varied).  She was astonishing.  There’s talk that Tarantino is adapting the movie into a play.  It had better play New York, is all I have to say!  I have a few ideas about casting, too, as you might imagine…

 

 

Honorable Mention

THE WOLFPACK

Such a unique, disturbing movie.  It’s a documentary about six brothers and their sister who are raised in a housing project on the lower East Side in Manhattan.  They’re confined to their apartment for fourteen years, sometimes leaving the apartment up to nine times a year, one year never leaving the apartment at all.  Their father is a tyrant with good intentions (the worst kind?), their mother is perhaps a bigger victim than they are (perhaps not).  Stockholm Syndrome in the extreme.  The film focuses on the six brothers, their sister gets very little screen time.  The brothers become obsessed with movies and get in touch with the outside world through movies and especially through restaging and filming their favorite movies.  They gradually find their way out of the apartment and their parents have to deal with them becoming young adults and needing to venture outside.  It’s a fascinating movie.

 

THE MAN FROM U. N. C. L. E.

One word kept coursing through my brain during this movie: frisky!  The script is clever, the direction is self-assured (but never cocky or smug), it’s a delight.  Brilliant use of music.  And the performances are spot on: they all get the tone right, which I would describe as “a dash of camp”.  And can we all agree that Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer are delicious?  Reminds me of something my friend Dolores said when *The Count of Monte Cristo* came out in 2002, starring Guy Pearce and Jim Caviezel, both of whom she adored.  She said, “Turkey AND ham?”  Why choose?  And as if all that wasn’t enough, the women’s fashions are off the hook!  But never off the rack.  You probably know that I have a thing for early 60s European haute couture, and this movie features two sides of that incomparable coin: the cute young woman (played with spunk by Alicia Vikander) wears sort of sporty dresses, and the frosty grande dame (played with marvelous froideur by Elizabeth Debicki) wears high style rich bitch gowns and jewels.  And the wigs!

 

SPECTRE

The new James Bond movie, done by the same director (Sam Mendes) and writing team (John Logan, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade, plus Jez Butterworth for *Spectre*) as the last movie, *Skyfall*, which I also loved.  And of course the same James Bond, Daniel Craig, who gets more chances to be funny than he has previously in the Bond franchise.

 

*Skyfall* had Javier Bardem as the greatest Bond villain ever, and one of the greatest star entrances ever.  *Spectre* has Christoph Waltz as the villain, and though his character isn’t as extraordinary as Bardem’s, his entrance is nearly as fantastic.  Léa Seydoux is the Bond girl, she’s a welcome change for the Bond girl tradition.  Not really pretty, but beautiful, if you know what I mean.  There’s something a little off about her face, in a most appealing way.  The movie has a spectacular opening sequence.  I was fully expecting the opening credits to get my Best Opening Credits award, but they were a disappointment.  Sam Smith’s song is OK but the arrangement needed a little more grit.  The overall vibe of the song was mopey, it needed to be menacing and sexy.

 

CAROL

I’m a big fan of Todd Haynes.  This looked like it was going to be a second helping of *Far From Heaven*, and I was totally up for that, but *Carol* is different in an essential way: *Carol* is a movie set in the 50s, *Far From Heaven* is a movie FROM the 50s.  Haynes used some contemporary indie movie techniques in *Carol*, whereas *Far From Heaven* was classic Hollywood invisible filmmaking - - and *Carol* had a contemporary score by Carter Burwell (faux Philip Glass, I didn’t like it), *Far From Heaven* had an opulent throwback score by the great Elmer Bernstein.

 

OK, enough of that.  It was a gorgeous movie, like a Hopper painting come to life.  Two stellar performances by Cate Blanchett as the older woman and Rooney Mara as the younger woman.  I totally and completely identified with the younger woman: for all of the delicious 1950s period detail (the department store, the hair and makeup, the clothes and jewelry), I was transported to 1994 and my first boyfriend, Alan Sikes.  The young woman in the movie was experiencing love for the first time, diving into it and blissful beyond words, but knowing in some dark corner that the relationship was doomed.  I was there.

 

Other categories

 

Best Cameo, Female

Elizabeth McGovern as a judge in *Woman in Gold*.  I got so used to seeing her as Cora on *Downton Abbey*, it was a treat to see her with her own hair.  She had a short role, and made me smile.

Best Cameo, Male

Max von Sydow in *Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens*.  Not a big part, but what a thrill to see him in the most eagerly-awaited movie of the year.

Remembrance of Movies Past

I saw Carol Channing do an interview and performance back in 2003.  I bought her memoir (*Just Lucky I Guess*, an invaluable book) and asked her to sign it.  Of course I had to talk about my favorite movie ever, *Thoroughly Modern Millie*:

 

ME: I’ve seen *Millie* 41 times.

CAROL: Oh, my dear!  You have?

ME: Yes.  When I was in high school, whenever I was feeling sad, I would watch that movie, and I would feel better.

CAROL: Oh, thank you, it means so much to me to hear that.  It’s a good movie!

ME: Yes, it’s a great movie.

CAROL: And we had so much fun making it!  I just love Julie Andrews.  And Mary Tyler Moore, she was a joy to work with.

ME: Well, thanks again.

CAROL: Thank you, take care!

 

I’ve now seen it 45 times.  It’s not a short movie, it’s 2 hours and 15 minutes long - - so if you do the math, you’ll see that I’ve spent 101.25 hours of my life (over 4 full days) watching that movie.  And not a single minute was wasted!

 

My husband Richard had never seen it, can you believe that?  And I was his second boyfriend who had chosen it as his favorite movie (or did it choose us?).  The moment finally came last March, we watched most of it on the Long Island Railroad on my portable DVD player on a trip out to visit our friend Dennis in East Hampton.  We watched the rest on our way back.

 

Richard thought the movie was cute and funny, but WAY too long and slow.  I don’t see it that way at all.  It was interesting watching it for the first time in 10 years - - in some ways it was like seeing it from a fresh angle, but how fresh could it really be, when I’d already seen it 44 times?  That movie is imprinted on my DNA.  I’m going to die, they’re going to open my brain, and there will be Julie Andrews, James Fox, and Mary Tyler Moore doing “The Tapioca”.

 

Movie That Needs To Be Made

Simon Pegg was the best thing in *Mission: Impossible - - Rogue Nation*.  He played the tech expert and he pumped new wind into the sails every time he was onscreen.  I suggest that he be given his own spinoff series, where he gets his wish to be the secret agent.  Of course he would save the world, but he would fall out of chairs and make funny comments as well.  The title of the series: *Mission: Improbable*.

Eagerly Anticipated

*Beauty and the Beast*.  This story has been filmed many times, best by Cocteau and by Disney - - this one is directed by Bill Condon (*Gods and Monsters*, *Mr. Holmes*) and with Emma Watson (Hermione Grainger from the Harry Potter series) and Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley from *Downton Abbey*) as the title pair.  Also with Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Kline, and Audra McDonald!

 

*Florence Foster Jenkins*.  A biopic of the notorious lousy opera singer, starring Meryl Streep, directed by Stephen Frears (*Dangerous Liaisons*, *The Queen*).  Also with Hugh Grant and Nina Arianda.

 

*Alien 5*.  You know how crazy I am for the *Alien* movies, love all four of them (I do not see *Alien vs. Predator* as part of the series).  The word on the street is that a fifth movie is in the works, starring the inevitable and indispensible Sigourney Weaver, directed by Neil Blomkamp, who did *District 9*, *Elysium*, etc.  Great choice for the director.

 

*Julieta*.  The new Almodóvar movie, coming out in April.  Always a treat.  The summary from imdb: “Julieta’s life in 2015 finds her on the verge of madness; 30 years later, we see a more prosperous time in her life.”  The only person I know in the cast is Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma.

 

*Everybody Wants Some*.  The new Richard Linklater movie, also coming out in April.  The summary from imdb: “A group of college baseball players navigate their way through the freedoms and responsibilities of unsupervised adulthood.”  I know no one in the huge cast, which is intriguing.

 

Follow-Up on Previous Eagerly Anticipated

2012

*Days and Nights*, written and directed by Christian Camargo, loosely based on Chekhov’s *The Seagull*.  Stunning cast: Allison Janney, Katie Holmes, Jean Reno, Ben Winshaw, William Hurt, Cherry Jones, and Mark and Juliet Rylance.  An indulgent piece of crap.

 

Most Deserving of a Comeback

Whatever happened to Sean Young?

 

Viva La Diva

This year we have our first repeat offender - - Cate Blanchett was the 2007 Viva La Diva for *Elizabeth: The Golden Age* and *I’m Not There*.  She’s back this year as the wicked stepmother in *Cinderella*.  She had one of the most divine entrances of a character I have ever seen.  I could describe it, but why not just watch it?  The use of staging, costume, lighting, and framing of the shot - - breathtaking!

 

Nice Try

*Love and Mercy*.  I wanted to love this movie, and I was disappointed that I only enjoyed it.  I wanted it to be more experimental than it was - - the premise was experimental, with Brian Wilson being played by two actors, Paul Dano and John Cusack.  But it felt tentative.  There were moments where it went off in unexpected directions, like the nervous breakdown scene, which was one of the best ever, but on the whole it felt like your typical Hollywood biopic, and who needs that?  I saw in the final credits that the score, by Atticus Ross, often used original Beach Boys recordings as its source material.  But you couldn't really HEAR the original songs, you just sort of got fragments of it, or the impression of it.  I wish the director had done a bit more of that in the actual filmmaking.  You have a limitless range of things you can do when you make a movie about someone who's crazy.  So why not do them?

 

*Hail, Caesar!*.  The new Coen Brothers movie about a Hollywood fixer in the 50s, starring Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, George Clooney, Frances McDormand.  Again, I so wanted to love this movie.  Richard and I saw the preview and said, “It might not be good, but we’re going to love it!”  Well, it wasn’t good and we didn’t love it.  It was like a gorgeous 1950s aeroplane, sleek and shiny - - the crew is working hard to make sure the passengers have a good time.  The plane sometimes speeds down the runway, but it never takes off.

 

Horrorable Mention

*Unfriended*.  Such a clever little horror movie.  The whole thing takes place on a computer screen: the lead high school girl is video chatting with her boyfriend and four of her friends cut in.  They get a call from a friend of theirs who had committed suicide a year before as a result of online bullying and of course all kinds of weird supernatural things start happening.  But, as in *The Blair Witch Project*, the real horror is what the people do to each other.  It also reminded me of *Saw*, in the sense that all of the inventiveness and originality happens in the script.  The movie was shot in sixteen days, cost $1 million to make, and grossed $54 million.  Those are the stats that Hollywood likes to see.

 

How Could I Have Missed It?

*Life of Pi*.  What a beautiful movie, a masterpiece of filmmaking by Ang Lee.  I can’t even imagine how stunning it must have been in the theater.

 

Break-Out Performance, Female

I know that Rooney Mara was in *The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo* and *Side Effects*, neither of which I saw.  She was great in *The Social Network*, but it was such a small role.  Her role in *Carol*, for me, qualifies as a break-out performance mostly because of her impact in the role.  She was extraordinary, really nailed it and had such tangible chemistry with Blachett.

Break-Out Performance, Male

I’m giving this to Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver in *Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens*.  Like Mara, they’d both been in other movies that were noticed (and Driver, I hear, is quite the thing on *Girls*), but this movie launches them into a new orbit, yes?  They both deliver, they’re perfect in their roles.

Best Credits

*The Man from U. N. C. L. E.*  Spectacular opening credits, slick and smooth, a masterful mix of film clips, mid-century modern design, and music.  Perfectly set the tone for the movie, which is what the credits should do.

Fast Five

Top Five Greatest Montages

  1. *Reds*

  2. *The Purple Rose of Cairo*

  3. *Team America*

  4. *Clueless*

  5. *Marie Antoinette*

Drek

*A Very Murray Christmas*.  This was a made-for-Netflix movie, but it was so dreadful, I had to include it.  You know how I love Sofia Coppola, I think she’s one of the most talented directors out there.  She was on my Top Four Favorite Directors list before it became a Top Eight.  How the mighty have fallen.  *A Very Murray Christmas* is torpid, charmless, and unfunny.  One thing and one thing alone made it worth seeing: Maya Rudolph has a priceless ten-second bit at the end of the credits.

Briefly Noted

*Mad Max: Fury Road*

Oh what a thrilling and twisted movie!  Such sumptuous and disturbing visuals, clearly the work of a first-class director.  I didn’t realize until afterwards that it was directed by the same man, George Miller, who directed the other three Mad Max movies.  I would never have believed it was directed by a 71-year-old director, it was so full of energy and bursting with ideas.  I do wonder how it’ll hold up on DVD.

*Mission: Impossible - - Rogue Nation*

I think we can agree that Tom Cruise has become fossilized in his persona, but he still gives good value!  The skeleton of these movies is somewhat James Bond-esque, but the difference is that Bond has fun and has sex.  No fun and no sex for Ethan Hunt. 

*Crimson Peak*

The preview made it look so fantastic, and I adore director Guillermo del Toro.  It was good, but not as good as it could have been.  The final smackdown between Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain makes the whole thing worth seeing.

*The Martian*

Such a wonderful movie-going experience.  The 3D aspect was well done, and Matt Damon gave the best performance of his career.

*The Revenant*

Very exciting, an interesting balance of being original and still holding fast to the formula.  A stellar performance by Leo, and Tom Hardy was also fantastic.  The biggest thrill of the movie, for me, was hearing Messaien (one of my favorite composers) in a major Hollywood movie: a piece of his was playing when Leo emerged from his nap.  One last note: the bear looked very fake to me.

 

Guilty Pleasure

*Black Sunday, aka *The Mask of Satan*.  I can’t remember what it was that first turned me on to this movie.  It might have been lead actress Barbara Steele, who I knew from *8 ½*.  Or I might have read about director Mario Bava in an article about old horror movies.  In any case, I first saw it sometime around 2004, right after I joined Netflix.  I talked with my brother Howard about it, and said one of the joys of the movie is the overripe, highly romantic score.  Howard said, “Oh yeah!  The music from Italian horror movies, they’re their own fabulous sub-genre.”

 

And the whole movie is on youtube!  I won’t expect all of you to watch the whole thing, but I strongly urge you to watch the entrance of Barbara Steele at 14:52.  The fog, the way she’s framed, her wig, her eye makeup, her cape, her two Great Danes (!), and of course that marvelous score.  Absolutely unparalleled filmmaking.

 

New Category: On Second Thought

This year’s new category is a chance for me to re-examine a movie that hadn’t worked for me on first viewing.  The movie for 2015 is *Lincoln*.  Here’s what I said about it in 2012:

 

“Gorgeous to look at, wonderful performances by everyone in it, but so damn BORING.  I know plenty of people who love it, and I sort of understand what they see in it.  I know Richard loved it because he’s a history buff, and he thought they perfectly put across the dinginess of that time.  But I felt like screenwriter Tony Kushner took a story bursting with drama and drained all the blood out of it.”

 

Richard and I saw it on DVD with our friend Dennis sometime last year and I really got into it.  Maybe I needed to disengage from the hype surrounding the movie on its release, maybe it’s a movie that works better on DVD than it does in the theater.

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