05. The Revenant
The knock on director Alejandro González Iñárritu is that he favors style over substance, flair over character and what not, but it’s tougher to take issue with his latest effort. It’s man vs. nature. It’s as basic a storytelling trope as one can take on. The Revenant can exist and excel with a stylistic look when all we have to do when alone in the wild is look at the wild.
At least that’s what we find ourselves dealing with via the eyes and cries of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass, based on the real-life trader who was left for dead after a vicious bear attack. The movie embellishes aspects of Glass’ true tales (which are quite fascinating in their own right), but it makes for a tighter story through the lens of Iñárritu. Long tracking shots are nothing new for the director, but the opening battle sequence is as impressive as anything seen since Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan D-Day. As for DiCaprio, he’s topped anything he’s ever done before.
While nature’s elements cause nothing but havoc for Glass, the filmmaking team surrounding Iñárritu come through for everyone involved. Emmanuel Lubezki will probably win his third consecutive Best Cinematography Oscar for his magnificent work with natural light. Of the score, composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto, and The National’s Bryce Dessner, our own Michael Roffman says, “Altogether, it’s a haunting collection of tearful strings, glazed synths, and engulfing bass that mirrors the scenery and action at hand with compelling results.”
Love it or hate it, The Revenant will stick with you. We loved it. And it’s stuck with us.
The only reasonable explanation as to why the vital Sicario was shut out of every applicable Golden Globe Award category is that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association skipped it, ostensibly to watch Steve Jobs twice. Why else would the tense and timely drama be denied nominations for Best Motion Picture, Best Director for Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners); Best Original Score for Johann Johansson (The Theory of Everything, doing a 180 here), and — most egregiously — Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Benicio del Toro? It doesn’t make sense.
Despite the snubs, Sicario remains one of the best (and best-reviewed) films of the year: a sweeping and brutal account of the disastrous War on Drugs that blurs the lines between right and wrong, villains and victims, winners and losers. In the end, everyone is left standing on either side of the explosion with blood dripping from their hands, blinking in disbelief — or worse, desensitization — at the havoc they’ve wreaked on each other and among themselves. The film offers no easy answers, nor easy solutions, but there is plenty of carnage to suggest that the current strategy, on both sides, is little better than chaos. FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) learns this the hard way when she is recommended to work under the morally lax CIA Special Activities Division officer Matt Braver (Josh Brolin) and Matt’s mysterious partner, Alejandro Gillick (del Toro), to devastating results.
Sicario opens with corpses hidden in the walls and a detonated bomb sending body parts flying, and the bloody climax, orchestrated by Gillick, is just as horrifying. That this is not a horror film, per se, but a meditation on true (and ongoing) events is what keeps viewers’ nerves lit and frayed. Even after the final frame gently fades to black, we still have much to fear.
03. Inside Out
Pixar’s first animated offering of 2015 was a revelation. Not necessarily for its central conceit – the all but forgotten Fox sitcom Herman’s Head toyed around with the concept of turning different aspects of a man’s personality into characters and letting them interact with each other back in 1991, and Bob Odenkirk and David Cross brought their own skewed vision to it with Mr. Show’s “Old Lady, Gay Guy, Biker, and Japanese Man” skit in 1996 – but the way in which it was handled.
Inspired by a move in his old childhood and the emotional changes that he was witnessing in his pre-teen daughter, director Pete Docter worked closely with psychology experts to develop the story of a young girl named Riley and the way her Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust interact in the face of a crisis, and that level of dedication and care is evident in every single scene of Inside Out.
Ostensibly negative emotions like sadness and fear are never far from children’s entertainment. Disney’s entire cinematic output would disappear without them. But even the best kids’ films tend to treat those feelings as an exploitable resource. Animated parents die and other gut-wrenching tragedies occur to make young audiences cry and connect to the story they’re watching.
Inside Out yanks at the heartstrings no less ruthlessly than its predecessors (Bing Bong!), but it also takes a child’s grief seriously as valid fictional subject matter and a vital part of a full and functional life. The fact that audiences of all ages are finding this equally whimsical and thoughtful film so cathartic is a testament to how long we’ve been waiting for this kind approach.
02. The Look of Silence
The task of the documentary film is to remember – to counteract the forces that repress or obliterate memory even when those forces remain very much in power. Like its predecessor, 2013’s The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence is a documentary that remembers at the risk of its own crew. Countless names have been redacted from the closing credits sequence, all replaced with a simple “Anonymous.” It is a haunting reminder that, for the survivors and families of the Indonesian mass murders of 1965 and 1966, the horror persists.
This is partly because the truth behind those massacres remains buried, actively repressed by those on both sides. The Act of Killing focused on the perpetrators, launching a fascinating exploration into how mass murderers rationalize their actions. The Look of Silence turns its lens on the survivors forced to interact with these murderers on a daily basis, and in doing so it paints a more complete picture of a society at war with itself.
At the film’s emotional core is Adi, an optician whose brother was killed in the massacres. Under the auspices of fitting them for new glasses, Adi confronts the men responsible for murdering his brother and millions of other innocent people. It’s a brilliant framing device that director Joshua Oppenheimer exploits to full effect, putting men with a demonstrated taste for power in a vulnerable position and then forcing a confrontation. Blurry vision is a symbol for how Indonesian society approaches its own history, and Adi is determined to achieve clarity even if it means forsaking his own safety.
The Look of Silence isn’t the most powerful documentary film of 2015; it’s the most powerful film, period. It should be required viewing for students of history, yes, but also for students of humanity. In case you’re wondering, that should be everyone.
01. Mad Max: Fury Road
In a film climate where many enjoy reading about the hype cycle leading up to a film’s release more than watching movies, or so it seems, it’s rare that a film can cut through the noise and the skepticism and all the people who’ll decide to hate it even if it’s great for the hell of it. It’s even rarer that such a film could become a massive mainstream hit, bringing in audiences from all walks of life, and seemingly rarer beyond that when such a film can do all of these things without trafficking in the sort of reductive nonsense that’s come to bog down so many modern studio movies.
But Mad Max: Fury Road doesn’t just cut through the noise. It stomps on it, hits it with a car door, drives over it, turns around, drives over it again for good measure, all while a faceless man plays a burning guitar over the wreckage.
George Miller’s lunatic rock opera of War Boys and many mothers and the repressive regime that holds them all back isn’t just any one thing its many effusive reviews have cited. It’s not just the best and most coherent big-budget summer film of the franchise era, or a master class in storytelling economy, or cinematography porn, or one of Hollywood’s strongest feminist statements in years, or an instant classic. It’s all of those things, and it’s so many more beyond them, a vision of dystopian hell that couldn’t be more fun to revisit over and over again. And rest assured, we all will. Witness it.
01. Mad Max: Fury Road
02. The Look of Silence
03. Inside Out
05. The Revenant
06. Call Me Lucky
08. It Follows
13. 99 Homes
14. 45 Years
15. The Hateful Eight
16. While We’re Young
17. Going Clear
18. The Assassin
19. Heaven Knows What
20. The End of the Tour
24. The Overnight
25. Furious 7