The Year's Best Films
1. Chi-Raq The right film at the right time, Spike Lee’s latest is his most creatively fertile and socially immediate narrative feature in years. A grabber from its opening sequence, a lyric video for Nick Cannon’s gut-punching "Pray 4 My City" (complete with a U.S.-map graphic made up of assault weapons), Lee’s film reformats Aristophanes’ classical comedy Lysistrata—of women withholding sex to force a truce—as a hopeful wail for our modern urban war zones. Lee and co-scripter Kevin Willmott audaciously employ verse dialogue for their combination of boisterous take-no-prisoners satire and poignant elegy for fallen African-Americans of yesterday, today and tomorrow, twinning a chant of “No Peace! No Piece!” with Lee’s career-long motto “Wake Up!”
2. Democrats Danish documentarian Camilla Nielsson had the smarts and chutzpah to win amazing access to the drafting of and referendum around Zimbabwe’s new constitution (from 2010-2013) under the ongoing rule of strongman Robert Mugabe. This document of historical sausage in the making vividly characterizes the men behind the pens—Mugabe’s man Paul Mangwana and opposition party representative Douglas Mwonzora—especially in how the contentious and corrupted process eventually brought out surprising mutual respect.
3. Cartel Land Matthew Heineman’s documentary about the “War on Drugs” introduces us to vigilante groups and their semi-charismatic leaders on either side of the Mexican border while laying bare the pernicious influence of the Mexican cartels and their witting and unwitting sponsorship by limbs of the U.S. government. Tim "Nailer" Foley of the Arizona Border Recon and Dr José Mireles of the Autodefensas make fascinating anti-heroes, and the film’s jaw-dropping footage and elegant construction give maximum impact to the madness of the drug war.
4. Timbuktu This French-Mauritanian drama from Abderrahmane Sissako (Bamako) won a nomination earlier this year for Best Foreign Language Film. In its subtle treatment of life gone wrong—in Mali circa 2012—the specific (the erstwhile jihadist takeover by Ansar Dine) speaks to the general crisis of fundamentalism and the pernicious effects of social impositions like Sharia law on ordinary people like cattle herder Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino) and his loving family. Rapturous photography compliments Sissako’s wedding of the literal and the symbolic to observe, poetically, resistance under occupation and irreversible tragedies of personal and cultural destruction.
5. The Cut This year, the world woke up to the “European refugee crisis” (according to the UN Refugee Agency, the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide reached 59.5 million by the end of 2014). But German director (of Turkish descent) Fatih Akin walked ahead of this cultural curve with his astonishing and visually ravishing epic of an Armenian-genocide survivor (Tahar Rahim of A Prophet) traversing the globe in search of his daughters. Beginning in 1915, the story takes us from the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey) to Lebanon, Cuba and the United States as one man meets seemingly endless despair—and the cruelties of natural and man-made borders—with unquenchable hope and love.
6. The Big Short Easily one of the smartest and one of the angriest movies to appear in cineplexes this year, Adam McKay’s take on Michael Lewis’ nonfiction book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine wielded star power and the backing of a major studio (Paramount) to good effect: making comprehensible to the average moviegoer what Bernie Sanders calls the “rigged economy” or, in other words, the conditions that allowed the previous decade’s housing and credit crisis and maddeningly persist today. The film’s Master-of-the-Universe anti-heroic outliers (producer Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, et al) thrive by virtue of their superior education, their intellects and a bit of luck, but as they and we watch even the “losers” (read corporations and big banks) somehow win the game, that old sinking feeling returns with a vengeance.
7. Beasts of No Nation Cary Joji Fukunaga’s searing adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s novel considers the devastating effects of war on a people and their homeland and, more specifically, the phenomenon of child soldiers, seen here in an unnamed West African country. Fukunaga’s own dazzling cinematography never feels flashy; rather, it feels like the essential filmic language to evoke the horror of a boy’s journey from son to orphan to conditioned instrument of genocidal civil war. Shot through with incisive and heartfelt performances by Idris Elba and fourteen-year-old Abraham Attah, Beasts serves as a nightmarish psychological take rather than a literal political one, and as such stands out as one of the most potent, most purely cinematic films of the year.
8. Welcome to Me No comedy went for the gut this year like Shira Piven’s Welcome to Me. This satire for the Age of Narcissism made the most of a darkly hilarious script by first-time-feature-screenwriter Eliot Laurence and a fearlessly funny performance from the do-no-wrong Kristen Wiig. Though Wiig’s character suffers from borderline personality disorder (admittedly dicey territory), Alice’s looking glass is universal to modern life: the screen as a vehicle for oversharing, spying, obsessing, and generally refusing to accept a mere fifteen minutes of fame. Reminiscent of classics like Network and Being There, Welcome to Me is the comedy to answer our cacophonous modern world of reality TV, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.
9. 45 Years Writer-director Andrew Haigh has a knack for burrowing under the skin of those who lead lives of ostensible creature comforts but creeping emotional discomfort. Best known for “gay-themed” projects (the lovely film Weekend and the nearly departed HBO series Looking), Haigh here adapts David Constantine's heterosexual-themed short story "In Another Country" to examine how a man and woman, poised to celebrate the titular anniversary, are forced by one bit of news to reexamine their entire history together, including the viability of their marriage. Haigh’s typically sensitive direction abets performances of heartbreaking personal and relational frailty from Charlotte Rampling and the unjustly neglected Tom Courtenay.
10. In Jackson Heights Octogenarian documentarian (and Top 10 perennial) Frederick Wiseman returns with another of his rigorous adventures in community and societal institutions, this time allowing us to be a fly on the walls and streets of one of America’s most culturally diverse neighborhoods, where 167 languages are spoken and hopeful immigrants proliferate. Our three hours spent with Wiseman in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City don’t seek out “if it bleeds, it leads” or “sex sells” sensation. This is journalism of a higher order, letting us draw our own conclusions from remarkably unaffected subjects as they work or play, establishing footholds or holding fast to the best of life in a community threatened by corporate-fueled gentrification and bureaucratic challenges.
Runners-up: Horse Money, The Assassin, Queen of Earth, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, Son of Saul, Girlhood, Spotlight, What We Do In the Shadows, The Duke of Burgundy, Mr. Holmes, Love & Mercy, The Forbidden Room, The New Girlfriend, Jafar Panahi's Taxi, Sicario, The End of the Tour, Brooklyn.
More top docs: The Look of Silence, Listen to Me Marlon, The Pearl Button, The Hunting Ground, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.
The Year's Worst Films
1. Little Boy Though its official synopsis calls the film “an instant cinematic classic,” I disrespectfully disagree. No film this year was more blithely offensive than this faith-based one in its implication that Fat Man and Little Boy, the bombs that decimated Nagasaki and Hiroshima, are (perhaps literally) the answers to a seven-year-old boy’s prayers to bring his father home from WWII. Watching this film wrestle with its racial politics and confused theology is like watching a cat try to escape from a pile of yarn.
2. The Boy Next Door This idiotic cliché parade doesn’t even rise to camp value, despite telling the tale of suburban mom Claire (Jennifer “Jenny from the Block” Lopez) flinging with teen Noah (Ryan Guzman), who goes psycho when rejected. While it’s true that no one can live without J-Lo and not risk insanity, this toothless thriller couldn’t muster any thrills or even dare to make what’s treated like a sexual “transgression” transgressive in the least (Claire is separated from her husband, and Noah’s a legal nineteen).
3. Aloft This very serious, very dull adult drama from Peruvian filmmaker Claudia Llosa wastes the time of actors Cillian Murphy and Jennifer Connolly, along with any indie-film fans unfortunate enough to give it a whirl. Two hours feel like two years, and given Llosa’s obfuscatory mismanagement of symbolism, tone, and dialogue, eyes will roll.
4. Chappie They don’t come much more annoying than this Neill Blomkamp sci-fi actioner stitched together from the parts of vastly superior movies (like Robocop and, well, Frankenstein). I’d say this story of a runaway robot might be bearable if you take a drink every time a slaphead yells “Chappie!”, but since that would send an inordinate number of readers to the hospital, I’ll just advise you to stay away completely.
5. We Are Your Friends This dimwitted DJ drama starring Zac Efron pumps up bad EDM and empty visual flash, and in the process accidentally evokes one of those YouTube ads you skip after five seconds. 96 minutes of watching Efron and his bros dream of crossing over the Hollywood hills gives new meaning to life in “the Valley.”
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