“It Follows” — Best Films of 2015

by Gabriel Valdez

I called “It Follows” the best American horror film in decades. I stand by that. I also said it’s what Franz Kafka would write if he were into sex horror.

The set-up’s simple: Jay (Maika Monroe) sleeps with her boyfriend. She wakes up tied to a wheelchair. He has something and now it’s passed onto her. Instead of a disease, we’re talking about a slowly stalking, horror-movie monster that will one day catch up with her. The only way to get rid of it is to pass it on by sleeping with someone else. The monster always stalks the most recent victim, and works its way down the line, from most recent to originator.

It’s a horror villain passed along as an STD, and a metaphor for…what, exactly? On the broadest level, it’s an STD public service announcement, but it also speaks to how we deal with sexual assault as a society. It addresses the roles of women within the horror genre. It confronts the voyeurism with which society often responds to incidents of sexual violence.

In fact, in the way it goes about this last detail, I slightly prefer it to a film I’ll write about tomorrow – “Ex Machina.” Both films deal with sexual violence, trauma, and seek to confront male viewers in ways we usually aren’t, but where “Ex Machina” recreates a version of total possession in excruciating detail, “It Follows” manages to speak to this while giving its characters a little more power to fight back against these concepts.

(In fact, the films came out within a month of each other and will forever be fused in my mind because of how they invert and confront a genre that’s often used sexual assault as a set piece. They make challenging yet complementary companion pieces, though together that’s some harrowing viewing.)

“It Follows” can be tough to pin down because the details in its world intentionally disagree. While the plot’s tight, the world around the characters doesn’t seem to belong to any particular time. The movies they watch are from the 1950s, the cars they drive are from the 70s, and technology veers from the 80s to current. Different characters feel plucked from different eras, and even dress and subtly act like it. Jay is the heroine from 70s horror films, while her sister Kelly arrives from the 90s and their friend Yara would feel perfectly at home in today’s movies. Meanwhile, the musical score recalls the soundtracks Goblin once wrote for Dario Argento in the 70s.

This intentional confusion of details means that everything begins to feel fuzzy, as in trying to recall a dream. In fact, in my review, I said the film is like “watching a dream with all the fingerprints that make it yours removed. You don’t feel like you belong in it, and so you become a voyeur of all that happens.”

I still can’t think of a better way to describe “It Follows,” except to say that as a horror film, it delivers. Rather than the trend of being scary in outright ways, of making you jump or recoil, “It Follows” relies on anticipation. It’s a film about dread, not about jumping out of your seat, and it builds its tension to an incredible degree. It’s a throwback of a horror film fused with modern intentions, and it’s the best of both worlds.

It Follows poster

Images are from It Follows and Da Font.

“Tangerine” — Best Films of 2015

by Gabriel Valdez

I cannot champion this film enough. “Tangerine” is not only the best comedy of the year, it’s also one of the most groundbreaking independent films you will ever see. The comedy about transgender sex workers in Hollywood was shot for $100,000 entirely on iPhones. It’s beautifully written and everything about it communicates a care and feeling not just for how the whole film comes together, but for how these characters are presented and learned and loved via the storytelling.

Thankfully, it doesn’t make comedy of people who are transgender. It doesn’t make comedy of people who are sex workers. Their experiences can be comedic in the same way stories about any difficult job can be, and though the territory becomes tremendously sexual at points, there’s no judgment on the part of the film. The comedy comes from character, and it arises from the endearing natures of the people whose lives we’re watching.

“Tangerine” walks an almost impossibly fine line between that comedy and something much more touching – a story about people who are struggling, surviving, sacrificing something day after day in order to capture even just a moment of their dreams.

Unlike most films about transgender characters, “Tangerine” cast transgender actors in its roles. Both Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor had also worked as sex workers before. Yet the story that plays out isn’t gimmicky. It doesn’t rely on these factors as many films feel they must in this territory. “Tangerine” simply takes place in this world, one that’s rarely opened to audiences in a way that feels real instead of patronizing.

“Tangerine” doesn’t feel repainted to be more palatable for a mainstream audience. It just is what it is. It’s heartfelt, it presents the most complex and emotionally accessible friendship I saw in any film from 2015, and Taylor in particular delivers one of the best performances in the last few years.

“Tangerine” also speaks to the way that daily life erodes us no matter what we do. One of the most beautiful parts of “Tangerine” is that it presents very real stories about who we are versus how we repress and present ourselves because of the expectations the world has for us – but it doesn’t do this through its transgender protagonists as you might expect.

Instead, this is explored through almost every other character. Sin-Dee (Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Taylor) already know who they are. Despite the way the world might look at them, they know what they want and they head straight for it. It’s the world around them that feels confused and limits them through its own habits of self-denial.

“Tangerine” is incredibly funny, it taps into emotion realities most films wouldn’t dare touch, and it’s a stunning feat of independent filmmaking.

Tangerine movie poster

Images are from Girls on Film London and Indiewire.

“Predestination” — Best Films of 2015

by Gabriel Valdez

Robert Heinlein’s “–All You Zombies–” has long been considered one of the most impossible short stories to adapt into film. To reveal why would be to give the twist at the heart of the story away. Even to say that is to pretend its twist is a gimmick, instead of the very pulse that drives the film.

“–All You Zombies–” was the seminal time travel story in science fiction for decades. It was decked in controversy and a “who cares” attitude. It was the defining moment in Heinlein changing sci-fi from mere adventure tales into questions that uncomfortably probe the nature of how we’re built as a society, the judgments we adhere to simply through habit.

“Predestination” counts alongside “Gattaca” not just as the most important films Ethan Hawke has starred in during his career, but as films that exemplify what science-fiction is at its very best. And though Hawke’s performance is varied and exceptional, it’s Sarah Snook who stands out as remarkable. Again, to delve into it too deeply would be to ruin something special.

“Predestination” isn’t some small film that came out of nowhere either. The Australian Film Institute awards are the equivalent of the United States’ Oscars. “Predestination” was nominated for nine, winning four of them.

I’d highly recommend searching it out. It’s not hard to find via streaming or renting, and the film’s rhythm and mystery are second to none. This is the greatest mindbender of last year.

Predestination poster

Images are from Nerdist, Telegraph, and Coming Soon.

“Lost River” — Best Films of 2015

by Gabriel Valdez

We grow up. We lose what we were taught was stability. The world falls out from under us. The fairy tales we love risk turning from possibility to desperation as we retell them. “Lost River” is difficult to describe. It is Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut. It is not loved. It has a 5.8 on IMDB and a 42 on Metacritic. Take from that what you will. Few films have ever demolished me like this one.

“Lost River” turns the idea of post-apocalypse via mortgage crisis into a story that bridges magical realism, Italian giallo horror, and 80s small-town fantasy.

It follows two families left behind in a crumbling suburb, abandoned houses being torn down around them. Its younger characters yearn for the fantasy of the films they watch on TV; its older characters increasingly adopt fantasies of violence as their outlet. Each finds sustenance enough to carry on – not for themselves, but for those next to them, for those more helpless than they are. Yet there are also those who use the shock of failure and bankruptcy to take what they want – they are men who seek to dominate and turn the ruined environment others suffer into their own predatory fantasies.

“Lost River” calls on a range of other films as influences – “Drive,” “Suspiria,” and even “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

Christina Hendricks is awe-inspiring in her role. Saoirse Ronan is heartbreaking. Matt Smith is far more threatening and imbalanced than I thought the “Doctor Who” actor could ever play. Ben Mendelsohn is one of cinema’s most unheralded and creepiest character actors. Iain De Caestecker and Eva Mendes carry the heart of the film. I love the movies that feel like they break some part of me, so that I can rebuild that piece of myself with the hints of a new understanding.

“Lost River” is like a book I put down upon finishing its last page, yet can never fully leave. I need its characters to still exist, to still be moving forward and building their lives, finding moments to play, to look at the sky, to sing a song. They will live as people I love for as long as I remember the fairy tales and stories and myths that I’ve been told across my life.

There are books that I will never fully close, and there are movies where I’ll forever be caught between their last frame and the credits. For me to believe fairy tales still hold possibility, and stave off the loss life earns through attrition, I have to know that the people I grow to love in the stories that break and rebuild me are never fully lost.

“Lost River” will never be fully lost to me.

Lost River poster

Images are from Coyote Productions, Sensacine, and Coming Soon.

“A Most Violent Year” — Best Films of 2015

by Gabriel Valdez

“A Most Violent Year” is a unique accomplishment. It’s essentially a gangster film about the one virtuous man in the entire plot, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac). What’s unique is that it is not a plot of suffering or loss. Abel’s dedication to doing things the right way is itself a power that stands toe-to-toe with those who rob him, beat his employees, steal his trucks, and kidnap his salespeople.

His biggest fault and his biggest advantage is Anna (Jessica Chastain). She’s the heir apparent to a mobster, but she’s given up that life in order to build a family and a business with Abel. Yet she’s clearly finagled the accounting. She’s clearly kept things from him. And she will take on the war he refuses to engage in if things get much worse.

Abel must outmaneuver both sides as they clamor for outright war, as well as a district attorney who wants to make an example of him. There are also shades of the immigrant experience. As a Hispanic immigrant who’s become a business owner, it’s important to Abel that he subscribes to doing things according to the American dream. If he’s been sold on the idea this is the land of opportunity, then he will treat it that way even if no one else does.

As he maneuvers, as he makes concessions, as he forgets about those who have sacrificed to get him where he is, does he remain connected with the virtue he champions? If cheating is part of the game, and you have no choice but to ally yourself with cheaters to survive, are you still playing by the rules yourself? And are these the rules of business that “make America great?”

“A Most Violent Year” keeps you in the dark about many of its truths, but it also keeps Abel in the dark, and we feel allied to him in his determination to shed light on what’s been happening to his business. It’s one of the least predictable movies of the year, but while it draws from 70s crime drama, it takes its own path. It’s a surprisingly unassuming film, and it will not do the work of reading into its layers of meaning for you. If anything, “A Most Violent Year” suffers for being quieter than the films we usually acknowledge as American masterpieces. It’s a shame, because “A Most Violent Year” deserves that consideration.

a-most-violent-year-poster

Images are from Way To Blue, The Guardian, and Collider.

The Most Beautiful Primary

by Gabriel Valdez

Politics can be beautiful, damn it.

This beauty hides behind statistics and demographics and any number of political sciences that begin to make a voter feel inhuman.

So ignore those things for a minute. Ask what the philosophies being discussed really represent.

Are racial, gender, and community injustices root causes? Do they arise naturally, and then make the implementation of economic injustices necessary for the survival of those root causes? This would be the view of social injustice that Sen. Hillary Clinton champions.

Or is economic injustice the root cause that creates racial, gender, and community injustices, and uses the divisiveness of these as tools that feed the root cause of class indifference? This would be the view of social injustice that Sen. Bernie Sanders champions.

In other words, are racism, gender, and community bias something natural that we have to socially evolve away from in conscious ways in order to overcome? Is Clinton right?

Or are those things unnatural social constructs that are simply created and then preyed upon by economic injustice for its continuation? Is Sanders right?

That seems to be how the Democratic primary is breaking down. What are the real causes? What are the symptoms that distract us from them?

I fall squarely in the Clinton camp. Sociological studies have shown us that our biases are natural inclinations. That hardly justifies them. As a society, we’ve overcome many other natural inclinations that we deemed unwanted in order to continue existing as a healthy civilization. We consciously change our lives all the time, individually and as a society, in order to make our existences and interactions healthier.

(I mean, you’re reading this on a computer or phone that you got because it increases your efficiency at doing a number of daily tasks. We’ve already stepped irreversibly down the transhumanist path of social evolution, and we barely noticed.)

Either way, at least this dichotomy in thinking is at the core of the Democratic debate. Let’s bring demographics back into the discussion. You can see philosophy even in how groups of people lean one way or the other:

Those who’ve suffered racial injustice (people of color), gender injustice (older women), and community injustice (urban and failing industrial communities) to a greater extent than economic injustice tend to side with Clinton.

Those who’ve suffered economic injustice (young voters, low-income white voters, rural and current industrial communities) to a greater extent than racial, gender, or community injustice tend to side with Sanders.

Both candidates’ messages are evolving geographically as primary season continues, as they always do. But from the beginning, the fight for support has been over those who have been victimized most by the cross-section of these two separate philosophies of injustice:

Young voters of color have suffered the effects of severe racial injustice and the long-lasting economic impacts of the Great Recession.

Young women voters have suffered the effects of both aggressive gender injustice and those same economic impacts of the Great Recession.

And low-income white voters have suffered both the abandonment of the infrastructure of their communities and the disappearance of a reliable industrial economy.

These are the voters most “at play” for a reason, because they fall squarely between two philosophies of how to fix the world. And that they are being valued and spoken to and planned around is beautiful. It may be discussed in demographics and statistics and pop political science talking points, but the discussion itself – at its root – is about the construction of our society from the ground up.

I can’t remember anything like it in politics, anything that strikes so far down to the philosophical core of how societies choose to evolve. The arguments we have and the passion behind those arguments are very real and very crucial – these are not philosophies that share much middle ground, but they are philosophies that can and must be brought closer together.

That the Democratic primary is a discussion of social evolution is in itself a striking moment. Contrasting philosophies of social evolution are usually not the core around which any election evolves in this country, at least not since the Civil Rights movement and UFW agricultural strikes. While this primary is a very ugly one, when you can take a step back and boil down what’s really being discussed, it also might be the most beautiful one.

 

The Mid-Budget Film Awards of 2015

Emily Blunt in Sicario tunnels

Mid-budget films are an interesting breed these days. There’s been a great deal made about their extinction, though much of these claims exist in pretty selective territory. While it’s true that David Lynch, Steven Soderbergh, and John Waters have more trouble getting films funded these days, Clint Eastwood, Todd Haynes, and Denis Villeneuve don’t.

Google a couple of articles about the death of mid-budget film. Try this one, for instance. They lament that “L.A. Confidential” could never be made today, but wasn’t “Sicario” made just this year?

“The Insider” would never find a budget today! Except “Spotlight” found a budget without the benefit of Al Pacino and Russell Crowe.

“Zodiac” could never be made! Except “Gone Girl” was made just last year.

“In the Line of Fire?” If only lead actor Clint Eastwood had built an entire career of directing successful mid-budget films.

And certainly “Apocalypse Now” couldn’t be made for $32 million today! Well, considering that $32 million in 1979 is $104 million today, no it couldn’t.

Critics also lament that Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, and Bill Murray are essentially retired. Well, yeah, but funding for mid-budget comedy didn’t go with them. You may not like Kevin Hart, Jonah Hill, Anna Kendrick, Melissa McCarthy, or Seth Rogen, but their films are getting funded and make money.

These arguments also ignore the rise in what the industry rather derisively refers to as “urban” films. If you ignore the rise of Black and Hispanic filmmaking, then yes, the mid-budget film industry is struggling because you’re cutting half of it out. Yet Black filmmaking, and especially African-American comedy, is based almost entirely within the mid-budget realm. The spate of Mexican and Spanish directors Pedro Almodovar, Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo Del Toro, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu have brought up through the industry operate across that same mid-budget range.

When we talk about the death of the mid-budget film, we’re being incredibly selective with our choices.

For our purposes, we are defining a mid-budget film for 2015 as any film that cost between $15 million and $50 million to produce, and was either shown in at least 100 theaters for the first time in 2015, or (failing the theater requirement) became widely available to audiences through rental or streaming during 2015. The following was voted on and written by: S.L. Fevre, Eden O’Nuallain, Cleopatra Parnell, Amanda Smith, Rachel Ann Taylor, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez:

Best Supporting Actor in a Mid-Budget Film
Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year

We liked Kate Winslet in “Steve Jobs” quite a bit, as well as Mark Ruffalo’s role in “Spotlight.” Both earned Oscar nominations. What didn’t were Benicio Del Toro’s and Josh Brolin’s roles in “Sicario,” which also got a great deal of support from us. In the end, it was a close vote (that required a second ballot), but we decided on a role from a film that tried to play last year’s Oscar race, failed, and subsequently fell between the 2015-2016 gap.

Behind every great man is a great woman. That’s how the saying goes, isn’t it? In “A Most Violent Year,” the reality is a bit different. Behind Oscar Isaac’s upstanding businessman Abel Morales is a terrifying power player in Jessica Chastain’s Anna.

Abel handles their business legally, even as competing suppliers start hijacking their trucks, kidnapping their salesmen, and beating their drivers at gunpoint. It’s Anna who threatens to start doing things her way. As the daughter (and perhaps even heir apparent) to a mob empire, she’s largely given up those responsibilities in order to build a life with Abel on his more honest path.

Yet she’s constantly keeping her finger on the pulse of the film. In fact, as the company’s accountant, she often knows more than anyone else. She makes all involved aware that if and when she’s needed, she will involve herself in ways that others will not like. It may be Isaac who’s embodying an Al Pacino-style role here, but it’s Chastain who brings to life the lurking indignance, the quiet rage, and the unspoken threat of what happens when you make her angry.

And yes, this is the second supporting actor award we’ve given Chastain this year (the other being in big budget films for her role in “Crimson Peak.”)

All actors receiving a vote (descending order):
Jessica Chastain, “A Most Violent Year”
Mark Ruffalo, “Spotlight”
Kate Winslet, “Steve Jobs”
Benicio Del Toro, “Sicario”
Josh Brolin, “Sicario”
Mark Rylance, “Bridge of Spies”
Yo-landi Visser, “Chappie”
Rachel McAdams, “Spotlight”
Jason Mitchell, “Straight Outta Compton”
Elyes Gabel, “A Most Violent Year”
Olga Kurylenko, “The Water Diviner”

Best Actor in a Mid-Budget Film
TIE: Rooney Mara, Carol
& Emily Blunt, Sicario

When we did a check-in last September, Oscar Isaac handily led this race because of his performance in “A Most Violent Year.” Nobody even came close. Then Gabe saw “Sicario” and insisted we all needed to see it in the theaters. Then Eden saw “Carol” and insisted we all needed to see that in the theaters.

Now, all seven of us have either Emily Blunt or Rooney Mara at the top of our shortlists. Although their order varies, five of the seven of us have them going 1-2 on our shortlists. Blunt got a few more points in our system, but we unanimously decided to call it a tie. Sorry, Oscar Isaac. Both Blunt and Mara dominated their films, albeit in tremendously different ways.

Mara has been doing remarkable work for years. Her run from “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” to “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and “Side Effects” is one of the more impressive and rangy stretches of acting in the last decade. Mara’s performance in “Carol” is as vulnerable as acting gets. As the shopgirl and photographer swept up in the charms of a glamorous woman, Mara’s performance is made of utterly human reactions. From helplessness to confidence, from confusion to realization, it’s a performance to break hearts. Yet first it demands the actor break her own so that the rest of us can be let in.

Blunt is the polar opposite as Kate Macer in “Sicario.” The leader of an FBI SWAT team, she is tasked to an anti-cartel operation that doesn’t seem to be telling her the entire truth. Tough, commanding, sure of herself but distrusting of others, Blunt makes Kate one of the strongest heroes in recent thrillers.

Despite playing a very different sort of character, the unspoken treatment of Kate by the men around her most recalls Jodie Foster’s role in “Silence of the Lambs.” “Sicario” puts Kate’s life at stake a few times, but what it’s really doing is putting her entire reason for being at stake. It puts all of who she is and why she is on the table, and when Kate is finally confronted with making a choice between that and survival, Blunt makes you inhabit the impossible choice of that moment like few actors can.

All actors receiving a vote (descending order):
Emily Blunt, “Sicario”
Rooney Mara, “Carol”
Oscar Isaac, “A Most Violent Year”
Michael B. Jordan, “Creed”
Bryan Cranston, “Trumbo”
Alicia Vikander, “The Danish Girl”
Cate Blanchett, “Carol”

Best Screenplay in a Mid-Budget Film
Spotlight

We had to do three ballots to finally figure this one out. See, we liked “Carol” for its lack of frills – for its ability to get at the story, yet it’s a film that puts a little more on its performances, direction, and design. We adored “A Most Violent Year” because it depicts a gangster film from the perspective of the one honest person in the entire plot. It also depicts that determination for honesty as something that can be wielded very powerfully.

Ultimately, we chose “Spotlight,” the story of the Boston Globe investigative team that revealed systemic sexual abuse of children in the Boston area by Catholic priests. Making a film about a procedural investigation is difficult, not least because we’re inundated with procedural TV series that increasingly make procedure up as they go. “Spotlight” manages to find the drama in the process of uncovering research. It also boils down the essence of editor-reporter relationships: when you pursue a story and when you don’t, how you keep a story churning when it gets put on the backburner, when you have to break the rules that protect yourself in pursuit of a breakthrough.

“Spotlight” is a special film in how it gives its entire cast a process to work through as their characters. It also presents the investigatory process to audiences as a living mechanism to reveal truth and affect change.

All writers receiving a vote (descending order):
Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight”
J.C. Chandor, “A Most Violent Year”
Phyllis Nagy, “Carol”
Charles Randolph & Adam McKay, “The Big Short”
Taylor Sheridan, “Sicario”
Aaron Sorkin, “Steve Jobs”
Matt Charman, Ethan & Joel Coen, “Bridge of Spies”
Ryan Coogler & Aaron Covington, “Creed”
Jonathan Herman & Andrea Berloff, “Straight Outta Compton”
John McNamara, “Trumbo”

Best Director of a Mid-Budget Film
Sicario

We liked “A Most Violent Year” and “Carol,” but this was a runaway vote. “Sicario” is just too perfect of a beast. There’s a sense that every speck of dust in the film has been consciously placed where it needs to be, yet the film doesn’t feel passionless because of this. If anything, the film is yearning yet melancholy, dissatisfied yet resigned. Those are rare descriptions for a thriller about the Drug War.

Despite its sense of control, however, the actors seem to have been given free reign. They’re taking chances routinely, which is something that’s come to define Denis Villeneuve’s films. There’s a sense of history, of lives lived, of both small and large sacrifices made in each of their lives that bring them to this point. “Sicario” is less of a story, and more of a culmination of lives thrown together.

It’s this mix of organic, loose performances in a tightly controlled world that makes “Sicario” feel most real. Sometimes we feel like the universe is against us, as if we’re responding too organically to something that’s consciously leading us down a path without our knowledge. “Sicario” is drenched in that feeling because it’s more or less the truth of this film. Villeneuve has made this feeling, this sense of inevitability, his calling card on film. It is rare and powerful, and it makes his films feel truly unique and purposeful.

All directors receiving a vote (in descending order):
Denis Villeneuve, “Sicario”
Todd Haynes, “Carol”
J.C. Chandor, “A Most Violent Year”
Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight”
Ryan Coogler, “Creed”
Adam McKay, “The Big Short”
Steven Spielberg, “Bridge of Spies”
F. Gary Gray, “Straight Outta Compton”

Best Mid-Budget Film of 2015
Carol

If you’re guessing this came down to a four-horse race, you’re right. Even on our final vote, the difference between “Spotlight” (4th) and “Carol” (1st) was a difference between 2 points out of a possible 21. “A Most Violent Year” and “Sicario” were stuck in between.

Ultimately, “Carol” carried it, and for good reason. The love story at its core is exquisitely realized. Few films are able to carry their emotions on the surface while also hiding them from view. There’s a sense of privacy to the film, as if we’re looking in on someone else’s life from the outside. It makes us feel both invited and intrusive. “Carol” occupies a beautiful middle space that runs counter to the world continuously buzzing around its characters. That helps us feel the impossible space a lesbian relationship had to occupy in 1952, and in many ways in our society, still does.

It’s a beautiful film and one that travels in ways you don’t expect. Its snub for Best Picture at the Oscars is inexplicable.

All films receiving a vote (in descending order):
Carol
Sicario
A Most Violent Year
Spotlight
Creed
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Straight Outta Compton

Also check out our awards for Big Budget Films in 2015.

 

Where did we get our images? The featured image from “Carol” comes from Roger Ebert’s site, still maintained by a host of other reviewers even after the great critic’s passing. The image from “Sicario” is from Fox Force Five’s review.

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