Last year, I resolved to watch 100 movies I had never seen before. Finishing off with an auspicious Netflix double-feature of The Last Unicorn and Christopher Nolan’s Following, I achieved my goal! See the full list here.
I feel like some sort of summation is in order, and so find hereinbelow my very own listicle!
The eleven best movies I saw in 2015:
Presented in ascending order. Asterisks denote movies I saw in the theater.
11. Primer (2004)
The first feature film by Shane Carruth and winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Primer is a time travel movie that got me excited about everything that was possible on even the slenderest of shoestring budgets, and also gave me a massive headache. Drink a pot of coffee and take notes as you watch it. Special mention also to Upstream Color, Carruth’s beautifully dreamy and amorphously sinister second feature.
10. Nightcrawler (2014)
I think the thing that I find most unsettling about psychopathic characters is that the modern world so often seems to be tailor-made for them. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom is just one of those psychopaths, who speaks in business clichés and does nothing but exploit, exploit, exploit, never feeling remorse and always reaching higher echelons of success. It’s horrifying. It’s the American Dream.
9. Whiplash (2014)*
There’s a lot to love about this stylish, tense psychodrama, which feels like a spiritual sibling of The Black Swan. It left me with a pounding heart and a vague sense of unease about all art, and about the often-toxic attitudes handed down by legendary artists to their apprentices.
Bonus: watch this music video for Bhi Bahaman’s “Moving to Brussels,” featuring Keegan Michael Key doing his best psychotic JK Simmons impression:
8. Chef (2014)
Let me tell you a secret: this used to be a list of 10 movies. Then I remembered Chef, and I had to extend it to 11. Chef is a beautiful, simple, mouthwatering movie about family and food.
7. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)***
Fun. Super fun. I’m amazed by how improbably good this movie is, given its accelerated development schedule, script troubles, and the sheer number of directors who turned it down. Beyond the nonstop nostalgic wow-fest that Star Wars has always been (disregarding the three that shall not be named), the thing that impressed me the most about SW:TFA was how much J. J. Abrams has matured as a filmmaker, and how masterfully he has interwoven his own narrative and visual styles with the heritage of the series.
6. Smoke Signals (1998)
This film, featuring a screenplay by poet and novelist Sherman Alexie, is far from perfect. It’s also smart, loving, and lyrical. Alexie’s script depicts likable, flawed, resilient characters set starkly apart from the hard edges and sharp corners of the world they inhabit.
5. Inside Out (2015)**
Pixar seems to be a factory for technically-perfect tearjerkers, and although the broad commercialism of their products does make me a little uncomfortable, it’s hard to argue with a movie that’s as keenly observed as this one. I don’t know how well Inside Out (or many of Pixar’s properties) will age, but there in the dark, thinking about the turmoil and loneliness we all undergo as we grow up, reflecting on joy and sadness as inseparable and equally necessary emotions, it felt like Pixar was speaking directly to me. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the definition of good cinema.
4. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)*
An art film disguised as an action blockbuster, Fury Road is somehow equally successful at being both. I admire everything about this movie and how it was made. And it’s got some kickass explosions.
3. Reality (2014)
This movie is not for everyone. The latest from writer-director-cinematographer-editor-composer Quentin Dupieux (best known for 2010’s Rubber, about a murderous psychokinetic car tire) follows—among other characters—an aspiring filmmaker who works days as a studio camera operator for some kind of awful cooking show (hosted by John Heder in a rat costume), and who is rapidly losing his mind in the face of an unanswerable creative question. No, this movie is not for everyone. As near as I can tell, it was made just for me.
2. The End of the Tour (2015)*
My brother gave me a copy of Infinite Jest for Christmas two years ago. I finally finished reading it just in time to catch The End of the Tour in its limited theatrical release. I had my doubts going in, but Jason Segel’s portrayal of David Foster Wallace is nuanced, gentle, and absolutely convincing. As played by Jesse Eisenberg, David Lipsky’s on-screen relationship with Wallace is beautifully constructed from strata of envy, cautious kinship, and mutual respect. I was at first disappointed to discover that, although The End of the Tour depicts Wallace around the time of Infinite Jest’s publication, the film really has little to do with the legendary book. It’s clear, though, that this is for the best: the film instead focuses on the hopes, fears, and insecurities of a practicing artist who has been blindsided by his sudden success. Because of this, it is accessible to anyone, regardless of their familiarity with Wallace’s work. My pick for the best movie of 2015.
1. It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012)
This is a bit of a cheat because I saw the first two of the film’s three installments (Everything Will Be OK and I am So Proud of You) in 2010, but it wasn’t until 2015 that I watched them assembled together, with the final chapter in place. The animation, with its picture-in-picture-in-picture mix of drab grayscale interrupted by vivid flashes of color, and its depiction of stark and sometimes-indecipherable images, is so formally daring that it could easily overshadow and utterly sink the story. It is to animator Don Hertzfeldt’s credit, then, that he is able to balance these stylistic choices against a simple, bittersweet story of a lonely man coping with an illness. That this film had me howling with laughter in one moment and weeping in the next is a credit to Hertzfeldt’s absolutely beautiful writing. In the end, It’s Such a Beautiful Day is a movie about being human, and all the strengths and beauties and joys and frailties that entails.
The five worst movies I saw in 2015:
I don’t like to be a Negative Nancy, but not every movie I saw this year was a winner. Here are a few that made me sad/angry/aggressively ambivalent:
5. Radio Free Albemuth (2010)
Philip K. Dick adaptations are a crap shoot. They tend to be either devastatingly excellent (Blade Runner, Total Recall) or inexcusably terrible (Paycheck, Total Recall). Radio Free Albemuth, though, suffers from a somewhat different disease: it’s just an utterly unconvincing movie. Mark Duplass recently equated the independent film industry with Wal-Mart, and movies like this were exactly what he was talking about: bland, uninspired knock-offs of blockbuster-style epics. I’m willing to forgive the sort of problems in production quality and scope that are inescapable in low-budget independent science fiction. I’m even willing to cut the filmmakers some slack as they toil vainly to make the movie look more expensive than it was (rather than, oh, say, just trying to make a good movie). But it’s unclear whether Radio Free Albemuth was made on purpose. Actors, director, production crew, editor… it feels like the entire production crew sleepwalked their way through the movie, and when it was over, it was as if it had never existed.
4. Rocky (1976)
I know that Rocky wasn’t made for me, or anyone like me, but I have a hard time understanding what anyone sees in such a relentlessly bleak story. Apart from a couple excellent moments from Burgess Meredith, I found that I had very little sympathy for any of the characters, who always seemed to make the same bad decisions over and over, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing—seemingly at random—but never changing. This may be a fairly realistic depiction of real life, but it sure is depressing. Side note: Rocky has the worst sound production of any feature film I have ever seen. I find it utterly inexplicable why movie sounds as bad as it does.
3. Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (2012)
I find myself more or less alone in my fondness for Tim and Eric: Awesome Show Great Job!, but the fact stands that I’m absolutely tickled by analog glitches and intentionally-awkward timing. I know I shouldn’t have expected much, but have you seen Eric Wareheim’s music videos? Have you seen Ham? He’s a genius! It was with great disappointment, then, that I finally sat down to watch T&E’s BDM and found it to be soulless, stylistically bland, and deeply unfunny.
2. Goodbye to Language (2014)
My excitement about this movie—the promise of Jean-Luc Godard’s triumphant return to form, the introduction of a new cinematic vocabulary for the Internet age—was surpassed only my disappointment upon finally seeing it. There’s a woman. She has a relationship, it might be a bad relationship. There’s some shaky home video of a dog by a lake. There’s some voiceover. It’s directionless, pseudo-philosophical bullshit, filled with world-weary pretentiousness in the truest sense of the word ‘pretentious.’ There might be something genuinely interesting about the idea that our language—written, verbal, cinematic—is insufficient for our contemporary needs. But… whatever Goodbye to Language is… is not the solution. I’ve always been smitten with the French New Wave and Godard in particular, but I had such an intensely negative reaction to this film that it has forced me to reevaluate whether I ever actually liked Godard in the first place, and I just don’t know anymore. I just. Don’t. Know.
1. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
This movie is two and a half hours long, and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have a plot. It features Jimmy Stewart as a clown, plus something about a love triangle involving a trapeze artist, and subscribes wholeheartedly to that old saw, “When your movie is a mess and nothing makes any sense, throw in a train derailment.” It’s an incoherent, story-less mess, is what I’m saying. It may indeed be the worst movie I’ve ever seen. It won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1953.
Tangerine is unlike any movie I have seen before. I can’t really say that I enjoyed watching it, but it’s definitely stylish, smart, wickedly funny, and it deserves to be commended for centering around the types of characters who are rarely—if ever—taken seriously in mainstream cinema. It just missed my top ten, but Tangerine will forever change the way I think about narrative and character.
I have seen this movie. It’s in my list. I have the ticket stub. And yet I have no recollection of Cinderella whatsoever. So it can’t have been that bad, right? I’d remember being furious about paying to see a bad movie in the theater… but it also can’t have been very good. Right?
Jem and the Holograms (2015)*
Jem and the Holograms was mysteriously hated with a scalding viciousness that I don’t understand. It certainly wasn’t a great movie, but I thought it was pretty good. Recognizing that I am very far removed from the film’s target audience, I thought that the way it referred to YouTube and the Internet was quite smart, and the way it addressed how fame and its pressures are sometimes heaped on young performers who are ill-equipped to handle them was fascinating. All the stuff with the robot was super dopey and I have no basis by which to compare it to the Hasbro property from the 1980s, but I thought it had some not-inconsiderable merit.
I was surprised how easy it was to accomplish this viewing goal. 100 movies may seem intimidating, but all it took was a steady diet of Netflix and an occasional weekend at the movies. More than anything, it forced me to be a little more adventurous, to avoid constant rewatching of comfort movies in favor of the unknown. It was a beneficial process, and I will absolutely be renewing my resolution for 2016. Another year, another 100 movies I’ve never seen. I can’t wait to see what I discover.