Movies That Made Me the Happiest In 2015
This isn’t a “best of” list.
We like to quantify things. We live for it. To stack things up and compare. Lists are fun and easy to read. A great way to pass a spare five minutes at work. Maybe we might even get the chance to become angry with a specific choice or with the order. In fact, it’s pretty much guaranteed, since if there’s one thing everyone knows, it’s what’s better than everything else.
But, seriously, how do you quantify a subjective experience? “Through criticism!” is the cry and I suppose that’s true, but too often it’s the lack of an “I” that bears out the flaws in the system. The problem is that subjective experience lives in the heart of our emotions and for many acknowledging the role our feelings play in our lives is a sign of weakness. To admit that a work of art manipulated us is to admit that we can be manipulated, so to fight against this the natural inclination is to deny our emotions and opt for “objective” clinical analysis instead. And clinical analysis has its place, but given the choice between feeling the joy of playing with a living, breathing puppy or knowing how that puppy works after I’ve cut it up, I know which one I’m sticking with. (The one that doesn’t result in a dead puppy.)
Truthfully, it’s good to fight about movies. It’s fun. It’s a major reason why we rush to see them while they’re still fresh in the public consciousness. You don’t want to be one of those weirdos who wants to talk about a movie that came out all the way back in 2013. (That said, it’s wise to choose your moments. If someone is still in the full flush of rhapsodic bliss, it’s always a dick move to jump in with anything less than complete agreement. You’ll have time to disagree and express your POV later. It’ll wait. The world won’t end if you allow someone to be happy for five minutes.)
Anything that exposes the passion within us is a good thing, a great thing, a thing to be celebrated. But we don’t have to be jerks about it. So, that’s why this isn’t a “best of” list. Because I can’t honestly assert that any of these films are better than any of the films you would put on your list. This isn’t a definitive list of great films; it’s a catalogue of the movie experiences that hit me the hardest this year. The ones that reminded me why I love this art form as much I do. It’s a collection of all the wonderful emotions I felt at the movies in 2015.
It’s a happy list.
The Fury Awakens
Based on what I’d heard and the amazing trailers, I had high hopes for Mad Max: Fury Road, even though it was rebooting a franchise I didn’t have any emotional attachment to. Truthfully, it was one of my biggest pop-cultural blind spots, having only ever seen Beyond Thunderdome back when it originally came out. Obviously, I corrected this before going to see Fury Road, but I found myself strangely underwhelmed. I loved the initial weirdness of Mad Max (how had no one ever told me that it features a scene where his wife serenades him with a sexy sax solo?!?!?), but to me it felt more like a typical AIP biker movie than anything extraordinary. If I had no prior knowledge of the film and you told me it was set in a then-contemporary Australia, I’d have had questions, but I would have finally bought it. The Road Warrior surprised me because I had always assumed it was a film entirely composed of non-stop action set pieces, but that only really ended applying to the final act. And Beyond Thunderdome was Beyond Thunderdome. It had Tina Turner in it. So I kinda liked it.
But despite this, I went to Fury Road filled with genuine visceral excitement. I just got the sense this was going to be something special and it wasn’t simply because of the hype. I tend to be ambivalent about hype and am seldom swayed by it either way (there being—ultimately—no difference between wanting or not-wanting to see a movie because of it). There was just a sixth sense in this case. Thinking about it made my nose itch.
And that nose itching was completely fucking justified.
Around forty-five minutes in, I found myself moved to tears (my ducts spurred by The Splendid Angharad’s declaration that neither she nor her fellow prisoners would ever return to the slavery from which they were escaping) and from that point forward my eyes never dried. I was overwhelmed by a simple story told on an epic scale, filled with desperate barely articulate characters who’d had enough, who dreamed for more—who had hope, even though reality constantly battled to take it away from them.
I was witnessing a film that bore all the hallmarks of an action blockbuster, yet also maintained the themes of a low-budget indie. Was there a more explicitly political film this year? How else to explain the fact that so many members of the core desired audience responded to something so objectively “FUCK YEAH!!!” with a shrug and a “meh” than because they were not willing to embrace a film where the title male character is nothing more than a cog in a revolution against a tyrannical patriarchy? Even if they couldn’t articulate it, they had to sense that this movie wasn’t about them. It wasn’t for them. It didn’t give a shit about them. Either they bowed to the magnificence of Imperator Furiosa or they got the fuck out of the way.
I walked out of Fury Road exhilarated, overwhelmed and dehydrated. I left it certain that I had an experience I would not experience again this year, if not this decade.
My hopes were not as high for The Force Awakens, even though this WAS a series in which I could claim some investment. The first memory I can put an age to is my seeing the first film at the Twin Drive-In in the back of the Dombrosky’s station wagon. I was two and half. I mostly remember how good the popcorn we snuck in from home tasted, but there’s no doubt the experience sowed the seeds of my future movie fandom.
For years I slept on Empire Strikes Back bed sheets. Return of the Jedi was the first film I ever saw in the theatre more than once. Princess Leia ranked with Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman and The Dukes of Hazzard’s Daisy Duke in the trinity of strong beautiful ass-kickers who ignited my passion for such characters.
But I still kept my expectations measured. “I’ll probably like it,” I told myself. “And that will be good enough. It doesn’t have to be life changing. It can just be a movie.”
And that’s the attitude I took with me to the theatre. All I wanted was a pleasant two hours being reunited with characters I grew up with.
The last thing I allowed myself to expect was that I would relive my Fury Road experience.
Which is why I’m still reeling from the fact that that’s exactly what happened.
Watching TFA I was reminded how subversive these films are, the cute robots, aliens and fuzzy teddy bear antics disguising how much darkness they contain. Thinking about it, the series isn’t that different from the Mad Max films. The lives of those in the Star Wars universe are those of quiet desperation on extremely inhospitable planets, where everyone is at the mercy of a fascistic tyrannical order completely willing to commit genocide at a moment’s notice if it suits them. Rey is a survivor as much as Max Rockatansky and she too scavenges a vast desert wasteland. She just has a better chance of bumping into an adorable mechanical beach ball along the way.
The more I think about it, the more I find myself coming back to an offhand line spoken by Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma. “Who told you, you could remove your helmet?” she asks the stormtrooper who will go on to become a young man named Finn as the story progresses. It’s meant to illustrate how the First Order rules by taking away people’s identities and reducing them to a faceless, nameless horde raised from birth to follow without question, but it also made me think about how so many people came to embrace Boba Fett as a character, even though in the movies he’s something of a joke—as cool as his suit is, it doesn’t stop him from being accidentally fed to a carnivorous sand monster by a blind Han Solo.
For many the relative incompetence of the films’ more iconic villains (a group to which we can now add Captain Phasma) is a flaw, but watching TFA I realized it’s what the whole damn thing is about. Cowards hide behind masks, because they allow them to appear stronger and more intimidating. What is Darth Vader really, but an old asthmatic burn victim? See him without his mask and you wouldn’t even cross the street to avoid him, much less run in the other direction.
The heroes are the ones who don’t look intimidating. Who people are apt to lookover or not give a second glance. A blond farm boy, a princess with a weird hairstyle, a short green imp, a seven-foot tall dog, a beeping rolling trashcan.
Add now to that list, a young woman who trades scraps for food and a young man who has no stomach for being an anonymous force of evil.
Sure, Rey’s legacy is that of a Jedi, so her destiny is that of a “chosen one”—an archetype sure to cause many a jaded eye roll—but who she is and how she is portrayed transcends this cliché and turns it into something special and that is what I think explains why I found her character so moving.
In retrospect, it’s easy to dismiss Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker. Especially in favour of a character as effortlessly cool as Han Solo. But I’d argue that without him A New Hope might’ve done all right at the box office, but we probably wouldn’t be taking about it today. And for precisely the reason that people criticize him now. As a blank slate, he allowed nearly every young boy who saw the film to imagine themselves in his place. Having grown up we all like to think of ourselves as witty rogues like Han, but at the time we all fought to be the one who played Luke—not only because he got the light sabre, but because the story was about him.
Daisy Ridley’s performance as Rey isn’t anywhere as raw or clumsy as Hamill’s. In fact, it’s one that allows viewers the rare treat of seeing a future movie star appear to us fully formed and already worthy of our attention and adulation. But watching her I found myself envisioning a generation of young girls fighting for the chance to play Rey—to be the hero of the story who doesn’t need to be rescued, who thinks for herself, who fights back, who tells the boy she doesn’t need him to hold her hand. Because she can do it all on her own.
TFA isn’t life changing. For us old enough to have already had our lives changed. It’s a different story though for those who are now the age we were when the original trilogy appeared. This is a move that will spawn a million dreams. That will inspire. And it does so without any cynicism, no matter how cynical the mere existence of any billion-dollar franchise may inherently be.
Sure we know the story. But we knew the story the first time. It doesn’t matter because it doesn’t belong to us anymore. It belongs to them. And now it belongs to more of them than it did before.
And, I’ve got to say, I’m jealous that their version is better than ours.
Call Me Enemies
This year I got to live out one of my life dreams and spent a week in New York. I love big cities. Especially ones that appreciate that the world doesn’t end at 9 p.m. And as a movie lover it was a joy to actually walk around in the one I’d probably seen depicted more than any other. But, I’m not much for sightseeing. The landmarks I did see I saw because I stumbled upon them along my random travels. “Oh,” I’d think as I walked past a famous building, “there’s Carnagie Hall. Practice, practice, practice!”
So, I didn’t see the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty or Ground Zero. But I did go to the IFC Cinema three times.
Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly.
I made it a priority to find this theatre when I learned that it would be showing the new movie by my favourite current filmmaker. Who you might recognize from his role as the dude in that 80s John Candy talking horse picture.
Bobcat Goldthwait’s films should be—by all rights—the stuff of immense cult fandom, but oddly it appears to be only his first—and, by far, worst—film that’s achieved that kind of attention. Since Shakes the Clown, he’s amassed a feature filmography filled with small films that take on initially shocking subject matters (a woman whose past contains that one inexplicable moment when she performed oral sex on her pet dog, a man who exploits the accidental death of his son in order to live out his dream of being a respected writer, a man and a teenage girl who go on a killing spree spurred on by other people’s thoughtlessness and rudeness) but fills them with characters so human and relatable that we root for them despite the atrocities they may commit.
Perhaps the best anecdote that describes watching a Goldthwait film comes from his commentary on Stay (aka Sleeping Dogs Lie), where he describes what happened at a festival screening of the film. The movie opens with the main character casually (and without any explanation or justification) admitting to her spontaneous doggie blowjob, and one woman in the audience was audibly repulsed and demanded that her friend leave the screening with her right then and there. But her friend refused to go and the woman reluctantly stayed. By the end of the film, Goldthwait’s daughter nudged her dad and pointed over to the woman. She was weeping—moved to tears by the film’s final scenes.
“Yeah, you cry bitch,” Goldthwait’s daughter joked to him as they noted the woman’s transformation from revulsion to whole-hearted acceptance.
If there’s a better four word summation to describe the experience of watching a Bobcat Goldthwait film, I’ve yet to come across it.
Which brings us to Call Me Lucky, a sometimes laugh-out-loud funny documentary about a comedian who was repeatedly raped and nearly killed by a stranger when he was a young child. But more importantly it’s a film about a person who uses their pain and despair not to lash out (although—on stage—Barry Crimmins lashes out plenty) but to make a difference and help others.
Cinematically, Call Me Lucky is nothing special—a typical documentary featuring people talking—but the story it tells is a heartfelt, emotional one that features a climax worthy of any piece of Hollywood Oscar bait. Originally Goldthwait wanted to make it as typical biopic, but—spurred on by cash donated by his best friend, Robin Williams—he went this route instead and proves himself to be an incredibly versatile and remarkable filmmaker.
He made this bitch cry three times before the credits rolled.
The other doc I saw in New York was Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s Best of Enemies, which is another cinematically unremarkable talking heads film, but one I could watch on repeat 100x over.
It tells the tale of the series of 1968 debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley on ABC during the Democratic and Republican conventions. For the first time two of the country’s most significant public intellectuals would be given the opportunity to debate the issues in front of a large national audience, but even though they were chosen for their obvious ideological differences, it was their genuine and sincere hatred for each other that fueled the debate and created a sensation that would go on to change how the partisan divide would be addressed in the media over the decades to come.
It’s a portrait of two passionate, brilliant men with enormous egos who had a gift for words it's hard to find today. It’s a tale of good versus evil (where you have to decide which side is which based on your own personal values and philosophy) without a clear winner and where we’re left wondering if maybe the fallout was too large a price to pay. Not just for the combatants, but for a society where differences in political opinion now feel like taking sides in a war where any attempt at compromise is seen as a defeat and where “winning” has become more important than doing the right thing for everyone.
Best of Enemies proves that watching truly smart people argue can be as thrilling as watching gifted athletes throw punches and that the consequences can be just as devastating. The lesson I took from it is that sometimes the smartest thing a person can do is decide not to let loose with a devastating witticism and choose instead to try and listen. Except this is a lesson you’re unlikely to learn when—as was the case with Buckley and Gore—you’re often the only person in the room worth listening to.
Joy & Marmalade
A few years ago I wrote an article for xoJane about how much I enjoy the act of crying. It’s something I embrace and am oddly proud of despite how abhorrent many people find it. In that article I mentioned what happened when I saw Brad Bird’s Ratatouille, which up to that point held the record for my most extreme emotional breakdown. (It was the scene where the evil food critic was suddenly reverted back to his childhood that did it to me.) Well, now I think it’s at least a tie, since I pretty much had the same reaction when Bing Bong did what he did to save Joy.
As clever as Inside Out is conceptually, I find myself most moved by its depiction of a young girl who doesn’t want to surrender to her negative feelings, even though they’re totally justified. I’ve seen some criticism that insists Riley feels like an automaton rather than a living-breathing girl, but I have no idea where that’s coming from. For me she was as real as any non-anthropomorphic Pixar character ever has been. And I found her inner and outer journey profoundly moving.
Paddington, on the other hand, didn’t make me cry, but it did make me laugh. A lot. And hard. Of all the films I saw in 2015, none could claim to be more charming. Despite being totally centered on an expensive CGI digital creation, the film reminded me of my favourite mid-century British comedies, as it featured the wit and cleverness that made the best Ealing films so perfect and timeless.
In one case you have a bittersweet film about a character who personifies the feeling of joy and in the other you have a film that invokes that feeling as perfectly as you can ever imagine. Either way, that's a pretty great night at the movies.
Love is Pain
My two favourite love stories of 2015 (he wrote not yet having seen Carol) include an art house ode to 70s euro-softcore eroticism and a stoner-action flop whose negative critical reaction leaves me totally mystified.
The Duke of Burgundy is an exceptional film. Funny, sexy and sad, it delivers its desired style in a way that renders it utterly unique. As familiar as it may seem to those who enjoy pretentious European porn of a certain period, you come away from it knowing you’ve never seen anything like it before.
But it’s the humour that has stuck with me the most. Few films can make me almost weep with laughter with a gesture as simple as a character pouring herself a glass of water. It’s a film that forces us to confront the inherent absurdity of our sexual desires in a way that never feels prudish or shaming. Instead, it simply presents the realities of the situation in a way almost no other film has.
Of course, the situation is deliberately fantastic, as the film depicts a sadomasochistic relationship that takes place in a world without men and where the chief form of recreation/entertainment comes in the form of lectures about butterflies. It sounds like a satire, but what makes it work is its complete sincerity. Writer/Director Peter Strickland never once gives us an excuse to dismiss what we’re seeing as a lark. We’re expected to take the drama of the situation seriously, which makes it all the funnier and more moving.
It’s a film where a character can get sincerely excited at the thought of owning a human toilet and come off as adorable rather than a monster. It asks us to acknowledge the ridiculousness of our desires and shows how difficult it is to base love around a fantasy that requires constant vigilance (and many glasses of water) to keep going.
It’s also the most gorgeous movie I saw all year (again, I’ve yet to see Carol).
Currently American Ultra has a 44% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has even appeared on some critics' worst of the year lists and yet here it is among my favourites of the year. I wrote a whole essay that attempted to explain this and would link to it here had it not been deleted from the site it was posted on (I’m looking into it), so I’ll sum up: American Ultra is an amazing love story that succeeds by virtue of the incredible chemistry between its two leads, but that love story is obscured by a premise many took issue with based solely on the advertising and by the fact that the actors playing the two leads invoke feelings of unwanted recognition and distrust based on the previous films they’ve appeared in.
I’m convinced that the majority of the negativity shown to the film is because of what the critics and audience were sold rather than what they were given. And what they were given was the best love story of the year (I will get around to seeing Carol, I promise).
This happens a lot with movies and the only corrective is time. Eventually people will figure out what’s going on in American Ultra and recognize that it’s so much more than a stoner rip-off of the Bourne movies. That it’s a film about two people who don’t need anything else other than each other and who—despite the outrageousness of their situation—love each other in a way that feels truly authentic.
Every interaction between Stewart and Eisenberg felt completely genuine, which made the despair he felt at the thought he might be keeping her from realizing her potential all the more moving. At the same time we knew he was right and she probably could do better than some wake & bake convenience store clerk, while we also could see the sweetness he possessed that would allow her to ignore his faults.
Add to this a fun plot, some bloody violence and Connie Britton and I’m left with a movie where I don’t give a fuck how annoying Max Landis may be—it deserved to do a lot better than it did.
Okay, I’m nearly 4000 words into this, so let’s just capsulize the rest.
Spy: I was worried about the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot. Not because I took any issue with the gender reversal (I think it’s a great idea), but because I had yet to see a Paul Feig/Melissa McCarthy joint that I actually liked. Bridesmaids had one funny scene (that I didn’t even think was that funny) and The Heat didn’t even have that. Fortunately that changed with Spy, which clicked in all the ways those two other films stalled. Also, the world needs more Rose Byrne.
The Martian: A great movie about people working together where the only real conflict is the situation, but it was the disco soundtrack that put it over the top for me.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation: All hail Rebecca Ferguson! In a year featuring many strong female characters, Ilsa Faust ranks among the most awesome.
Trainwreck: I want to see LeBron James get the fucking Oscar. The scenes between him and Bill Hader rank among the funniest of the year.
The Big Short: You hit me like a Moneyball!
Kingsmen: The Secret Service: Best anal sex joke of the year? I don’t know, but it’s the best use of “Freebird” since The Devil’s Rejects, that’s for sure.
He Never Died: A flawed film, but Henry Rollins performance was probably my favourite from any dude this year.
Ok, that's enough from me about 2015. I don't care where you go, but you can't stay here.