“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.

“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.


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

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