Settled Dust: 2015’s Good Movies, Worthwhile Oddities, Better-Than-Expecteds, and Didn’t-See-That-Comings
I steered clear of assembling a year-end list at 2015’s year end because did anyone really need one more hoarse dork discussing the merits of SPOTLIGHT (yay Whistleblowers!) versus BROOKLYN (yay Women!) versus THE REVENANT (yay very cold Leo!)? The Oscar-prognosticating has reached such an unbearable, frenzied pitch over the last few years, and the sense of privilege, extreme anxiety and pretentiousness of the filmmakers, actors and films that make up the majority of ten-best lists commonly leads to my boycotting said films until the hype dies down. Will Smith may very well deserve an Oscar nomination for CONCUSSION, but I won’t know until I force myself to watch the thing this coming September (date subject to change without notice, depending if another three Bruce Willis video-on-demand releases come out that month). I will note that Smith’s willingness to play a serious part after MEN IN BLACK 3 and before SUICIDE SQUAD was mighty generous of the millionaire superstar, and I feel a little guilty that I’m not creating brand new superlatives never before heard to spew in support of such noble effort.
Same goes for films I actually saw and loved, like MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. At some point in 2015 you were considered a mental deficient if you didn’t rally around MAX and its “feminist message” (I rallied, I rallied, now leave me alone!). Let’s not even start with films like TRUMBO and the above-mentioned REVENANT, where poor, never-until-now-Oscared Leo Di Caprio had to wrestle with bears and stuff to earn his award. I managed to loathe these last two films sight-unseen and will perhaps view them at 3 am in March 2037 on my deathbed, as I attempt to catch up with everything I have ever missed in life.
So, yes, I prefer films that catch me on the elbow, not ones they ram down my throat, to borrow a phrase from the Dean of Music Critics, Robert Christgau. So here is a rundown of 15 films (well, 15 films and a book) you in all probability didn’t see in 2015, including many you may not have heard of, that are worth your time, attention, and admiration. You may even find yourself loving some of these films as I do. All have their charms.
BONE TOMAHAWK (Director: S. Craig Zahler)– This one went the Stealth Cinema route (also the title of my book, coming Fall 2016!), opening for a week at a few unexceptional theaters around the country while appearing on Video On Demand, and then free on Amazon Prime within a month or two of its release. This one isn’t exactly a sleeper at this point, as it received predominantly favorable reviews, but this is mid-to-low-budget genre film-making at its finest. First time helmer S. Craig Zahler wrote an erudite, unfussy script that reminds me at times of the Coen brothers’ ability to mix tremendously dry humor into a most unfunny situation. The film, best described as a Western/Horror hybrid that takes its time developing character and conflict before giving free rein to some rather extreme blood and mayhem, is a reminder of what is missing most in Hollywood these days: the mid-budget genre picture that isn’t set up as a “tentpole,” “reimagining” or “rollercoaster ride.” BONE TOMAHAWK relies not on commercial might but on good old storytelling and performance skill to insinuate itself in your brain without leaving you overwrought and drained after five climactic set-pieces in a row.
Twenty years ago the film would have hung on at an upscale Manhattan movie theater for eighteen weeks, and then perhaps made some late coin off of star Kurt Russell’s turn in Quentin Tarantino’s HATEFUL EIGHT, which came out mere weeks after this. But TOMAHAWK was one and done in the theaters, and now merits your discovery. Russell and Richard Jenkins’ male friendship in this film is one of the best I’ve seen in cinema (the best being Denholm Elliot and Ben Gazarra’s in Peter Bogdanovich’s magnificent SAINT JACK, due to soon be reissued on Blu-Ray). See this.
EX-MACHINA (Director: Alex Garland) – This absolutely unsettling and regrettably believable sci-fi drama did receive attention, and great reviews, but was forgotten by Oscar Time as it had the bad luck of coming out early in the year, and from a small distributor to boot. I don’t know one person of any age or gender who saw it and didn’t find it captivating, so risk being the first and see it for yourself. Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac are both worthy of the accolades they received, and of course a disastrous side-effect of its success is that Vikander is now rumored to be the star of one future over-budgeted superhero film or another (I refuse to Google to clarify which project she is now attached to, knowing that whatever it is, I. Will. Not. See. It). If she’s unlucky enough to score a hit with the costumed nonsense, it will keep her from actually appearing in anything truly good for several years. So enjoy this!
The Documentaries! Video On Demand and pay cable channels’ thirst for original content has been a boon of sorts for documentaries, the one genre that was more likely to be buried in the old film economy than in the new. There are so many recent docs of quality, it’s hard to know where to start, but I’ll focus on four from last year that served different significant purposes:
SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION (Director: Ethan Hawke) — Credit to Ethan Hawke, who most certainly didn’t get rich making this portrait of a fairly eccentric New York City music teacher, Seymour Bernstein, who abruptly gave up on a noted performance career to focus on education. Bernstein is a true New York character in the best sense, and the film does capture perfectly one of those souls we’d like to believe this City is made up of, although we know as they die off they’re being replaced by junior Trumps and trust-fund kids of no apparent character. Hawke is an interesting case; he had a lot to overcome with me, as when I was a student at Queens College he had the bad habit of dancing with girls I liked in New York City clubs. But his work has been steady and of a high caliber, as has his choice of film-making partners. With this informal documentary, which doesn’t do much beyond introducing me to Seymour and making me want to know more, Hawke has done great service. The DVD release also includes as a bonus the full recital that Seymour did which is excerpted at the climax of the film, and is worth seeking out for classical music enthusiasts.
THE NIGHTMARE (Director: Rodney Ascher)– A curious documentary from Rodney Ascher, the maker of ROOM 281, the terrific examination of hidden meaning in Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING. THE NIGHTMARE is about sleep paralysis, the very real condition where people while asleep feel paralyzed as a wicked presence enters the room and disturbs them. It is a subject not really understood or researched in detail, but it’s a condition I’ve had since childhood, so as you might expect I was spellbound by this. The risky choice Ascher made is in dramatizing the events described by sleep paralysis sufferers in chilling detail, and in not relying on a lot of clinical talking heads. The film thus plays more like a horror film then a documentary about a physical/mental ailment, but the gambit pays off. THE NIGHTMARE does an impressive job of explicating the near-indescribable affliction to the unknowing. Disturbing and memorable, THE NIGHTMARE is a must-see.
LISTEN TO ME MARLON (Director: Stevan Riley): Made up only of audio recordings of Marlon Brando musing on his life and career, with clips and photos providing visual support, this film absorbs viewer interest instantly and provides a late glimpse into the mind of a most fascinating, troubled and brilliant man, a genuine American artist of the 20th century. Fans of Brando or the cinema must partake of LISTEN TO ME MARLON.
MIDDLE VILLAGE – (Director: David Lee Madison): David Lee Madison (who I spent time at College with) makes a most welcome and odd documentary about growing up in the unexceptional community of Middle Village, Queens. This film represents an encouraging development in 21st century cinema: access to high quality technical equipment combined with passion can result in a quality feature film on a personal, non-commercial subject. Having spent no time at all growing up in Middle Village, Queens, I can tell you Madison, who strolls around his community ruminating with sidekick Brian O’Halloran from CLERKS, captures something universal and appealing in his specifics and offers a wistful look back that isn’t overly mawkish. This film isn’t insignificant, and it also isn’t great, almost by design. It definitely qualifies as a didn’t-see-it-coming, a film that has no apparent right to exist or be as good as it is, yet here it is. It won’t blow you away but it will charm you and leave a smile on your face.
MANGLEHORN (Director: David Gordon Green)/ THE HUMBLING (Director Barry Levinson)/ JOE (Director David Gordon Green)/ SALOME (Director Al Pacino)/ WILDE SALOME (Director Al Pacino)/ “I WANT YOU IN MY MOVIE” (Author Lawrence Grobel) – All herald the comeback of Al Pacino, eccentric artist. Pacino had a tough patch, taking over-sized pay for artless crap like 88 MINUTES and RIGHTEOUS KILL. But now well into his 70s, he seemingly has decided to give up on traditional leading-man parts to pursue the character parts he always excelled in and pursue private passions, giving Pacino-disciples dividends for sticking around through SIMONE and TWO FOR THE MONEY. In 2015, he started in David Gordon Green’s MANGLEHORN and Barry Levinson’s THE HUMBLING, both for my money better than the overrated DANNY COLLINS that got some attention towards the end of the year. THE HUMBLING, based on a Phillip Roth novel, has thematic and dramatic similarities to 2015 Oscar-winner BIRDMAN, which likely lead to its being somewhat buried in Video-On-Demand land. But in its obsession with “the actor” and his role in life, it hearkens back to Pacino’s brilliant LOOKING FOR RICHARD and provides good parts to Greta (FRANCES HA) Gerwig and a resurfaced Charles Grodin. The understated MANGLEHORN is a thoughtful character piece about a cranky store owner directed by the talented David Gordon Green, who also gave Nicolas Cage one of his few recent good roles in 2014’s harrowing JOE, a film that effectively mixes eerie naturalism with some broadly melodramatic flourishes, and which I’ll bring up here as well.
The fact that many reading this will likely admit to not having heard of many of these releases only shows what is wrong about the current state of cinema, where 6,000 screens are given over to ALICE IN WONDERLAND and NEIGHBORS sequels NO ONE WANTED but quality films featuring familiar stars get no traction.
Even more happily, Pacino’s long-in-production RICHARD-like exploration of Oscar Wilde’s SALOME has belatedly arisen (ten years after production commenced), as both a full production of the odd play and a cheeky documentary on the making of it entitled WILD SALOME. Only screened a few times in the U.S., Pacino’s two films have come out in tandem on DVD in England, but on NTSC discs that will readily play on American players. Don’t ask me about this haphazard release, just be grateful they’re available at all after a decade in limbo. The films are not entirely a victory (Pacino’s original theatrical run in the play met with largely negative reviews), but they brought Jessica Chastain her first serious exposure on film and will appeal to those who find LOOKING FOR RICHARD’s preoccupied qualities intoxicating. A book on the making of the films, “I Want You in My Movie!” by Lawrence Grobel, also captures much of those qualities, is available through Amazon, and is most worth reading for Pacino enthusiasts.
POUND OF FLESH (Director: Ernie Barbarash)– Ernie Barbarash’s lean Jean Claude Van Damme vehicle makes this list because it is a damn good Van Damme vehicle. No it’s not Oscar-bait, nor is it ambitious like Van Damme’s enjoyable loopy JCVD. But honorable efforts at long-standing genres deserve respect too, and Van Damme’s strangely enduring desire to be seen as a real actor unlike, say, Steven Seagal, has paid off at junctures, including this one, where he plays it straight as a man whose kidney is stolen hours before he was to have it removed for his ailing niece. Director Barbarash keeps things moving proficiently and stages the fights effectively, including one where Van Damme keeps whacking people with a bible in a nightclub while clubbers flood the room with flashing light as they take cell-phone photos of the melee. I wish a stronger actor, such as Matthew Modine or somebody, played Van Damme’s estranged brother/sidekick, but even as is the film moves towards an oddly touching finale and will stick with you a bit. Action fans should see POUND OF FLESH, it’s a cut above.
THE REWRITE (Director: Marc Lawrence)– What if Hugh Grant and Marisa Tomei starred in a perfectly amiable romantic comedy and no one came? My review, found here, stands. Middlebrows deserve charming entertainments too! Not earth-shattering, but smile-inducing.
DA BLOOD OF JESUS & CHIRAQ (Director: Spike Lee)– Spike Lee is one of many capable Auteurs having trouble finding their footing in the new no-middle-class financial reality of both life and cinema, but he’s battled back a bit using unorthodox strategies: Kickstarter for DA BLOOD OF JESUS & Amazon.com for CHIRAQ. Neither film is 100% successful; I was drooling when I heard Lee would attempt an African-American vampire film on the cheap, and let down when I learned he would be remaking Bill Gunn’s GANJA AND HESS, only THE great African-American vampire film. Lee couldn’t come up with his own vampire movie? DA BLOOD nevertheless proves thought-provoking and watchable, even engrossing, but it’s no GANJA AND HESS. CHIRAQ, which got a lot of press, is his eager, ambitious, and, OK, slightly potholed remake of Aristophanes’ LYSISTRATA, focusing on the out-of-control gun violence in contemporary Chicago. As might be expected, such broad satire on such a serious subject doesn’t always pay off, and parts are downright cringe-worthy. But the final product is impressive and distinctive, and a generation ago would have received much more attention than it did when it came out at the end of last year.
KNOCK KNOCK (Director: Eli Roth) It pains me a bit to put this here. I had never much liked an Eli Roth film before, and found his HOSTEL series dreadful and rather depraved. But KNOCK KNOCK, a dark-comedy horror film remake of 1977’s DEATH GAME, produced by that film’s star Colleen Camp, is notable, unsettling, and well-made. Building out of an exaggerated but plausible premise of a decent family man giving into temptation when two nubile, willing young women offer themselves to him, KNOCK KNOCK turns screws efficiently for 90 minutes, with stars Keanu Reeves, Lorenza Izzo and Anna De Armas ( who is one to definitely watch, a Spanish-born Cuban-raised actress with real ability, displayed in a very different light in Reeves’ other V.O.D. release of the year, EXPOSED) selling the erotic soft-core and horror movie elements equally well. KNOCK KNOCK is good, disquieting, memorable stuff. Damn you, Roth. Good show.
So there’s a list of 15 (or 16) quality works worthy of respect and admiration. I bet you saw two, tops. I saw them all, and am the better for it. Yeah, Yeah, SPOTLIGHT was good too. But you already knew that, for everyone told you. Now I’m telling you different. Happy exploring!