“Girlhood” — Best Films of 2015, Runner-Up

by Gabriel Valdez

“Girlhood” opens with a football game. Despite being a French-language film, it’s American football, not soccer. Both teams are composed entirely of women. It makes no sense within the context of the film’s story. It doesn’t seem that a disadvantaged school in France would feature a women’s football program. What’s really going on?

“Girlhood” doesn’t care about your expectations, that’s what’s going on. The film, about four young women growing up, cares about its characters and it will fiercely defend them. In a movie that feels as remarkably real as this, if a football game suddenly needs to happen, or the lights go out upon a first kiss, it doesn’t matter that it’s not real. It’s real to the characters. What’s remarkable about “Girlhood” is how protective director Celine Sciamma is of their experiences.

Everything in “Girlhood” is real, until a particular feeling requires that it stop being real. What else is more accurate to the world of a child? These moments may only happen a handful of times in “Girlhood,” and they are usually understated, but they are special.

“Girlhood” is a film about safe harbor – the lack of it at home, the ways we learn to stand up for ourselves and others, the moments we step into our lives utterly alone and scared because of it, how we learn to create our own safety amid the worst of life. It presents moments where fantasy doesn’t always take place, but characters somehow always strive for fantastic ideals anyway. Sometimes they do so blindly.

After that football game, we see the group of high school-aged women walk home at night. They split into groups, fewer and fewer as they each get closer to home. Bands of men wait for them, to leer, to harass. At first, the women talk so much you can’t make out a word…but when they near the men, they all fall silent. It seems a simple thing, but Sciamma handles it with a deft hand. It’s the silence and its nature that feel overwhelming. In the face of it, hearing so much you can’t keep track becomes a comfort.

The strength of “Girlhood” is that it’s a coming-of-age film that feels experiential. It puts you in every moment, lets you inhabit it alongside its characters. The moments in between major events mean as much as the moments when something crucial is happening; they reveal how a character understands and fits into her world.

The French title of “Girlhood” is more accurately translated as “band of girls.” It may’ve been translated the way it is to take advantage of the similarity to last year’s critical favorite “Boyhood.”

I had a problem with “Boyhood” that Alessia Palanti stated better than I knew how. She wrote in her review, “After so many years the final result is dotted with formulaic plot points, cliches, a number of feel-good heteronormative Americana stereotypes, and an uninteresting family…I can see why it would capture an audience’s attention, and how its middle class, familiar, life scenarios could forge mutual understanding between film and viewer. But is this what boyhood really is? And if so, should we really be so celebratory?”

The problem with “Boyhood” wasn’t just cultural. It was the nature of it. It was nostalgic, not experiential. It didn’t feel like life as it was lived, but rather life as it was remembered. “Girlhood” feels like life as it’s lived, and it mixes in the greater fears and hopes of everyday living because of it. This is my runner-up for film of the year.

Girlhood poster

Images are from Variety and PSU.

 

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“Clouds of Sils Maria” — Best Films of 2015

by Gabriel Valdez

“Clouds of Sils Maria” feels like a captivating play, which is appropriate because it’s about aging actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) taking on an incredibly challenging play. The role that introduced her to the world was the ingenue Sigrid, a young manipulator who sends an older woman reeling toward suicide.

Now, Maria returns to play the older woman, Helena. How does this fit into her life, with her own divorce, and the fresh death of the man who wrote the play and originally cast her? Her closest friend is her young assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart). They read the parts, discuss the play, hike the Alps.

“Clouds of Sils Maria” isn’t really a movie about what happens to its characters, it’s a movie about what’s thought by its characters as the world turns around them. It’s a movie about acting, aging, maturity and immaturity, layers of meta-commentary, the generational evolution of taste, the clash of perspectives that creates, the boundaries where socializing and social media meet. It’s a film of interplay between two people who love each other and work together and act together, and increasingly don’t know where those lines begin and end.

There’s a melancholy to the film, yet also a pleasure to its performance. It doesn’t uplift so much as it insists that life is a continued resurgence. It’s a chamber drama, but one of the best in recent years. In my book, Binoche gave the best performance of last year and Stewart wasn’t far behind.

There are some moods in which you don’t want to watch a think-piece, yet “Clouds of Sils Maria” has a natural quality that transcends this. It’s a complex film easily accessed, captivating in the same ways a play can be – it relies on its writing and acting, and doesn’t get in the way of those things. There’s a feeling of being in the theater while watching it, despite its number of locations and outdoor interludes. There’s a feeling that you should applaud in the end and step out into the warm night to compare it to other plays, to meet the actors backstage afterward and hear the particular foibles of the show that night.

In that way, “Clouds of Sils Maria” feels like a very private experience as a film. I wonder if I come back to watch another night, what inflection Binoche might do differently, what timing Stewart might adjust. It wouldn’t surprise me. Some films feel like you can leave their worlds and the characters will still exist without you. “Clouds of Sils Maria” feels like you can leave its world, and the actors will still be running their performances. It doesn’t make the film feel less real, it just makes you aware of all the levels on which it can be real. It’s a rare feeling that makes this a unique and special film.

Clouds of Sils Maria poster

Images are from The Amherst Student and IMDB.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” — Best Films of 2015

by Gabriel Valdez

What is there left to say about “Mad Max: Fury Road?” It’s arguably the greatest action film ever made. It’s thematically thick and boasts a nuanced story that unfolds its characters through action rather than dialogue. It doesn’t treat the viewer as stupid or needing explanation. It simply leaps into its world and expects you to keep up at its breakneck pace.

Because everyone else is going to talk about it in particular ways, and I’ve already discussed its feminism and how it uses choreography to create visual myth, I’m going to do something more esoteric. I’m going to tell you why the film closest to “Mad Max: Fury Road” is one of the last you’d ever compare it to: John Carpenter’s “The Thing.”

They’re both broadly sci-fi, but for all intents and purposes, they belong to completely different genres – “The Thing” is alien body horror. “Mad Max: Fury Road” is post-apocalyptic demolition derby. One takes place almost entirely in one location. The other never stops moving.

I compare the two because of the specificity in each film. Both enjoyed an overly long scripting process. “The Thing” was pushed back considerably. Because of this, director John Carpenter decided to take the time to plot out extra elements in the film. It meant small details that would’ve normally been overlooked instead got their own unspoken story lines. There’s a throwaway argument early in the film about who had keys to emergency blood transfusions. It might’ve served only as an opportunity for characters to turn on each other and cast suspicions. Carpenter noticed layers he could add to this. He added notes for each scene, including moments that hint the keys’ potential paths via subtle details in other scenes. It’s always backgrounded, and it’s unlikely you’ll notice on first viewing, but it gives you the sense there’s more going on in the world than just what’s happening in front of the camera.

For a film where the very question of who’s human and who’s a flesh-ripping alien creates the tension of the story, these extra details – even if we don’t consciously notice or connect them at first – serve to ground us in the film’s reality. There are stories happening that we only see pieces of, suggestions of. These elevate the horror of a film by letting our mind run wild with the possibilities. Instead of a routinely effective story, we’re offered a more complete glimpse into a nuanced horror world. That wouldn’t have been there without the delay that allowed Carpenter to keep on making notes, to add the details that make us feel his world’s rhythms.

George Miller effectively worked on and revamped the story and sequences of “Mad Max: Fury Road” for a decade. The stunts and shots were already mapped out in extreme detail by the time the stunt crew even started working on them. But this is detail and what I’m looking for is nuance. The film is filled with suggestions about when it might take place in the original “Mad Max” trilogy’s timeline. All the details disagree, adding even more fuel to the concept that we’re being told a myth that transcends time rather than a story that fits within it.

Character is realized through action, but the action is so detailed that it feels expressive in the way dance often is. I’ve long said the best fight scene should act like the best dialogue scene. Something should change for everyone within it and we should understand what that is. This is precisely what happens in a movie where action scenes almost never stop. Most action scenes have a few moving parts – that makes them simple and we’re left to rely on emotional investment to suspend our disbelief. “Mad Max: Fury Road” has that emotional investment, but it doesn’t waste it filling in cracks in its artistry. Instead, each sequence is detailed in ways that make us understand how dozens of moving parts interact together. That’s brave, and it’s the kind of madness earned through years of pre-planning.

To get even more tangential, developers have sometimes said that the holy grail of video game development would be a world that takes place at the level of detail our own does: a block of a real city, where real people make unpredictable decisions that are unique to their own complex motivations, and even those motivations evolve. Worlds can be built in grand scopes, but the way they translate to audiences is via details so minor you don’t always register them in a conscious way. This is the true measure of world-building. This is what films like “The Thing” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” do. They marry genres built for grand scale to the finest detail imaginable on a cinematic level. That’s how you transcend genre, by delivering a world so nuanced, it feels like it could live without the artist’s hand.

Mad Max Fury Road poster

Images are from Nerdist and Coming Soon.

“Ex Machina” — Best Films of 2015

by Gabriel Valdez

I was protected in high school from the abuse of hazing because of my sister. Four years ahead of me, she went to the incoming seniors before she graduated. She said if they hazed me, she would be back for them, and they wouldn’t be happy about it. They never touched me.

I tried to extend that shield when I could, and a few times I was able to for certain friends. I discovered earlier this year that one of those friends went on to sexually assault a number of women, using his position as a publicist within the music industry to grope them and attempt to pressure them into having sex.

When I found out, I felt like I had done something wrong by protecting him at 14, that I somehow should have known better. I felt what he did in the future was some failing of mine by taking some momentary part in his life in the past. I described the feeling to one of the closest people in my life like this:

You work to make sure there isn’t a fire at your feet. You stamp out what you can, you keep the people that you can safe in the ways you know how, and you be there for them when you can’t. And you feel like maybe, you’ve made a change, that maybe the small effect you’ve had can make a difference. And then you look up from your patch of ground only to realize the whole city’s burning, and you feel lost and it feels overwhelming. You’ll return to making what change you can, but in that moment, you’re lost. The damage done in the world is irreversible.

As a society, we are hateful to women. There is no argument to be had that we are not.

“Ex Machina” felt like looking up and seeing the city on fire. It can be a problematic film to champion because of that. In order to make a horror film from the lessons we teach men about possessing women, it demonstrated that possession in no uncertain terms. It does so through creating an A.I. and then asking its protagonist – and its audience – whether she’s human. If she isn’t human, she’s a thing kept, a possession, an object. If she is human, the very act of keeping her entrapped, of possessing her, is an act of assault. “Ex Machina” uses the Turing Test as a code through which we judge our own social assumptions. While the most blatant of its transgressions are suggested rather than shown, the space in which “Ex Machina” suggests them is as claustrophobic as cinema gets.

After its opening weekend, I experienced something that rarely happens. Through the window of discussing the movie, I had dozens of conversations with men about the lessons we’re taught regarding women, the things society ingrains in us to endorse and ignore. These conversations are normally extremely difficult to start with other men. They’re easily dismissed. They don’t happen. When they do, they run the course of shallow agreement, declining the real work of self-analysis.

For a few weeks, “Ex Machina” changed something in the men who had seen it. We talked about these things. We shared stories of what we’d seen, of things that some people had done, of realizations, of opportunities to help that we missed, of friends and loved ones who were forever changed because of acts of male possession. Men need to look up and see the city is burning, and we need to do it together, and we need to believe and support the women who have been shouting “Fire!” all their lives to us.

And for a minute, because of a movie that made a horror out of the gender roles we’re taught when young, I felt as if many men looked up together and saw the fire and talked about it as we rarely do. I only wish that could be the norm. I wish it didn’t take a movie to make that happen. I wish it wasn’t a momentary effect. I wish we didn’t all lower our eyes to our patch of ground again and pretend the city’s not burning down around us.

Ex Machina poster

Images are from Hollywood Reporter and Tale of Two Dans.

“Under the Dome” — Best Films of 2015

by Gabriel Valdez

One of the most important films of the last year is one that most Americans don’t even know exists. Chai Jing’s “Under the Dome” was a call to action for Chinese viewers much the same way “An Inconvenient Truth” was for the American public a decade ago. Hopefully, it will fall on more receptive ears.

What is the film itself? Chai connects the dots between pollution, the Chinese government, and a range of health concerns, addressing a live audience. This is interspersed with some remarkably brave (and often risky) investigative journalism into China’s polluters and corrupt bureaucracy. She exposes a range of government regulations as effectively toothless, and highlights both key departments and individuals who have been left powerless by the government to enforce the law.

Where “An Inconvenient Truth” focused on a holistic scientific view, “Under the Dome” bites into a far more journalistic approach. It’s more boots on the ground than PowerPoint presentation, and it has a more accessible emotional undercurrent because of it. This makes the film more immediate and gives us some of the best journalism of the past year: the film includes at least one midnight trespass into a factory and a sting operation organized with police.

What makes the film work is Chai’s own story – her daughter was born with a tumor and she worries about the health effects of growing up in China. Chai also connects it to her long history as a reporter, seeing landscapes change before her eyes and the here-today, gone-tomorrow nature of local industrial economies. Chai creates a story that is about China as a whole and about her own personal concerns as both a reporter and a parent. This makes “Under the Dome” a very human documentary.

Though a great deal of information is conveyed, the film isn’t dry. Chai does a masterful job of telling the story of how corruption is a bureaucratic invention just as much as it is a symptom of greed. It’s not just about fixing something that’s broken; it’s about changing entire ways of life.

Chai released the film at no cost. Within three days of its February 28 release, “Under the Dome” had been viewed 150 million times. Chinese censors took action – on March 2, 2015, Chinese media was instructed to stop reporting on the film. In less than a week, the film was completely removed from Chinese websites, after more than 300 million views.

It’s still freely available in many other countries, including the U.S. You can watch the entire film on YouTube at the top of this article, all at once or in episodic chunks. Either way, I encourage you to do so.

Under the Dome smog

“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.

Movies and how they change you.