It was the year of the Western (five of them on this list) and strong examinations of feminine power. Other themes included a suicidal wire walk, the Mexican drug-war, and an alternate world out of Hieronymus Bosch. Watch them all. It was a strong enough year that I extended my usual list of ten to almost double that amount.
1. The Hateful Eight. 5 stars. I’ve seen this three times since the Christmas release. It’s a bottle drama, slow burn, and murder mystery that explodes into Tarantino stew. Think Twelve Angry Men, except these men will do exactly what Juror #3 pretended on Juror #8 with the knife. They are despicable killers, trapped together in a roadhouse during a blizzard; only two are alive by the end, and even those two just barely. It’s not a political film, by any means, but there is implied commentary on race relations after the Civil War, and a shocking use of the female lead as a blood-drenched punching bag. At a certain point there is a shift from a heavy deployment of the n-word to a vengeful use of the b-word, the subtext being that while men may be divided by racism, they can at least bond over a shared contempt of a woman. Naysayers are calling it Tarantino’s most indulgent film, which it certainly is, but the indulgence works for rather than against.
2. The Walk. 5 stars. The Exorcist affected me physically more than any other film, but The Walk is a close second in this regard. Audiences suffered extreme vertigo, and I was sweating and shaking non-stop during the final act. Obviously I have an extreme fear of heights, and I can only imagine the harm my psyche would have suffered had I seen it in 3D. I still have a hard time with the fact that this story is entirely true. How anyone could want to do what Philippe Petit did on that morning of August 7, 1974, is well beyond the reach of my understanding. He walked back and forth over that wire between one tower and the next, eight times, for over 45 minutes, while spectators and police officers could only look on aghast. This man was (is: he’s still alive) an artist in the purest sense.
3. Victoria. 5 stars. The entire 2 hours and 15 minutes was shot in a single take and it’s not a gimmick; it’s immersive as hell. In the first hour, a Spanish woman bonds with a group of troublesome but affectionate German guys on the streets of Berlin. Frankly I could have watched their casual conversation forever; the characters are that compelling. But the second part is even better in full throttle: one of the guys passes out drunk, and Victoria gets recruited to fill his role in a bank heist which the guys are being blackmailed into doing. The best scene is their celebration after the heist in a dance club, with the loud rock music fading in favor of a minimalist piano score playing over their manic frivolity. It makes Victoria seem trapped in a naively dangerous bliss, but is strangely precious. The final sequence is the police chase on foot, and while an unhappy ending is guaranteed, it’s impossible to predict. Full review here.
4. Hard to be a God. 5 stars. Based on the 1964 sci-fic novel about an Earthling observer on a distant planet trapped in the middle ages. This world is basically an alternate European village as imagined by Hieronymus Bosch. Grotesque peasants muck about in mud and blood, doing all they can to avoid being decimated in petty factional wars. There is an imperious chieftain called Don Rumata, whose sovereignty derives from being supposedly descended from a god. Torture is the way of life, intellectuals are killed, and progress never comes in this filthy world. (Just as in the first Narnia book, it’s always winter and never Christmas, so on this planet it’s always the middle ages and never the Renaissance.) It’s an entirely convincing portrayal of a world in arrested development, and a trip to hell that competes with some of the worst horrors of Dante’s Inferno.
5. Room. 5 stars. The power of this film has to do with the way it sets fire to the imagination. The acting performances are fine (the child actor quite excellent for his age), the script adequate, and the escape scene at the midpoint incredibly intense. But I don’t think any of these elements are responsible for Room’s massive acclaim. The emotion and pain I felt for the mother and child had as much to do with imagining every possible consequence on their psyches, especially the boy’s. The five-year old Jack has lived his entire existence inside a single room (a shed) with his captive mother, believing “Room” to be the entire universe. Suddenly freed, she is reunited with family in the real world to which he is shockingly introduced for the first time. It hurts to watch this play out, but it’s worth it, and the film does end on the triumph of the human spirit.
6. Bone Tomahawk. 4 ½ stars. The horror Western had been tried twice before, with Dead Birds (2004) and The Burrowers (2008), but with unimpressive results. Bone Tomahawk goes for the jugular and hits a home run. Not only is it savage and terrifying, it makes us care about the characters. As a result, the third act is extremely upsetting when we see people split down their middles and torn apart before being eaten by a clan of cannibal Indians. These Indians are so fearsome and obscene that they are hardly acknowledged as distant kin by other Indian groups. It’s set in a frontier town in the 1890s, where a woman is abducted by the cannibals and taken away. Four men pursue — the sheriff, his deputy, the woman’s husband, and another man who feels responsible for making the abduction possible. When they get to the Indian caves, the face-off is like nothing you’ve ever seen in the Western genre.
7. Sicario. 4 ½ stars. The Sicarii were “dagger men” who assassinated agents of Rome. Sicario are modern hitmen, in this case an American task force stabbing against an empire just as vile: the Mexican drug cartels. The force is a mix of DEA, CIA, and FBI agents, and their motives range from the vengeful to the impersonal to the unwitting. That last is Emily Blunt’s character, who hardly knows what she’s involved in, and is appalled to find herself on illegal missions involving murder. (There’s an unforgettable scene where she is shot twice by her colleague for daring to question him — in her bulletproof vest, to be sure, but fucking still.) On one level, Sicario is about the hopeless drug war, but it’s really the story as old as Rome, showing how people react to the might of an enemy outside their borders: by becoming monsters like them. Mexico and America emerge as twin purgatories; the only difference is that America has moral facades to duck under.
8. We are Still Here. 4 ½ stars. Here’s a savage homage to cinema’s golden age, set in the ’70s and shot exactly like a ’70s horror film. The first half is a slow burn that gets us familiar with the town and characters, with lots of lingering shots of New England winter scenery. It’s a remote snowy town in Massachusetts, and the characters are a married couple who move in to a house with a nasty legacy. Soon they believe they can hear the voice of their dead son (who was killed months ago in a car accident months), but they’re being fooled by the spirits of the previous residents who are starving for torment and slaughter. When one of their guests holds an impromptu séance, the slow burn is over, the shit hits the fan, and Hell comes to this little home and tears people apart. A rare horror film that’s really scary.
9. Carol. 4 ½ stars. A love affair between two women was unspeakable in the ‘50s, and that era provides the perfect canvass for an examination of feminine hungers and pains. The novel on which it’s based (The Price of Salt) left the sex unspoken; the film gives it just enough voice to make it a worthy retelling in the 21st century. (Sort of like the Jane Eyre miniseries of 2006 did.) It was shot on Super 16 millimeter film, resulting in muted colors and a grainy anthropomorphic look that feels like a ’50s effort, especially on top of all the shots through through windows and glass. Watching Carol is like being pulled through a looking glass and tasting forbidden love in an austere time. I’ve always been in awe of Cate Blanchett, and this is probably her best performance. Which is saying a lot.
10. Joy. 4 ½ stars. You don’t have to be a hard-core capitalist to be inspired by this true story of Miracle Mop creator Joy Mangano. It’s a testimony to the classic American dream, as well as a woman-empowerment story, that drives the message home not by preaching, but rather by the sheer drama of the events. This is third time David O. Russell has used Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper together, and as far as I’m concerned their best outing. (I thought Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle were okay but nothing great.) Joy has the balls to portray capitalism as brutal and unforgiving, but in the end rewarding if you can persevere through endless setbacks, getting shafted and kicked in the teeth umpteen times, without ever playing the victim card or assuming entitlement. Jennifer Lawrence nailed this big-time.
11. The Force Awakens. 4 stars. I’m not a Star Wars fan, so take my praise with a mountain of salt. But I do think this episode blows away most of the franchise, including A New Hope. The bone of contention is the recycling of countless plot points: another Death Star; Rey, the “new Luke”, climbing around inside it; watching Han Solo’s death by lightsaber, as Luke saw Obi-Wan’s; BB-8, replaying R2-D2, carrying crucial information for which the baddies hunt him down. Yet it hardly amounts to a mild bother, due to the dramatic scale. They are so numerous and comprise the infrastructure of the film that gives deeper resonance with the past. In the case of Return of the Jedi, the second Death Star was lazy and unoriginal, but here the repeats come together purposely. I was taken aback by how a Star Wars film, of all things, could affect me. Especially, of course, Han’s death.
12. The Keeping Room. 4 stars. You could call this a frontier feminist piece, and a terrifying home invasion set on a South Carolina farmstead in the last days of the Civil War (1865). The bad guys are two northern deserters who besiege three women: two sisters played by Brit Marling and an older Hailee Steinfeld from True Grit; their slave is played by Muna Otaru, and for me she is the understated star of The Keeping Room. The farmstead exists in a quiet dreamy aesthetic until shattered by the arrival of the union men, and what follows is a Western version of Straw Dogs. The younger sister is raped in her bedroom; the older sister mistakenly shoots the slave’s brother returning in the night, thinking him to be one of the union men; she is appalled by her error, and her slave forgives her in an emotional scene. There is paradox too, in the way one of the union men, fatally wounded, begs for a sort of understanding before dying.
13. The Revenant. 4 stars. I can hardly think of another film that has made me so grateful for my comforts in life. You can feel the cold and horrible working conditions that made crew members up and quit. They were really out in this god-awful wilderness. Leo DiCaprio ate a real bison liver. He swam in that freezing water. (But no, he did not get raped by the grizzly bear.) Like The Hateful Eight, this western is all about a director’s nostalgia for the pre-digital era and a return to old-school reality. Parallels to Tarantino’s film continue; as the New Yorker critic puts it, the two films were released on Christmas Day, and would have been a suitable double-feature of “malice and mistrust, in which characters are trapped in extreme weather conditions and settle their differences with extreme violence”. Merry Christmas.
14. Slow West. 3 ½ stars. This was the first of the five Westerns from this year. It’s a road journey in 1870, taking a young man (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his bandit protector (Michael Fassbender) through Colorado and Indian territory. The youth is looking for a fugitive woman who was his girlfriend in Scotland, and has paid the bandit to protect him, but it turns out this bandit it looking for the same woman to kill her for a bounty. The way things turn out isn’t predictable. It’s a romance, but also an examination of manifest destiny and the way the American legacy has impacted natives and immigrants. It hardly qualifies as a thriller, and yet the final shoot-out is exactly that — a prairie barrage so tightly edited and savagely orchestrated that you find yourself ducking for cover as the bullets fly. This one flew under the radar and while not excellent by any means, deserves more attention.
15. Ex Machina. 4 stars. I haven’t seen a cerebral sci-fic movie like this since 1997’s Gattaca. It’s a character study that explores what kind of “soul” might lurk inside an artificial intelligence, and the Swedish actress (Alicia Vikander) had the tall order of playing an AI nearly indistinguishable from a human being. She must be neither too human nor too robotic, and she pretty much nails it. The surface plot involves an imitation game hinging on the idea that if someone doesn’t know that he’s is talking to a computer, it makes sense to call the computer intelligent. But the experiment devolves into a multi-layered web of deceit, and it’s never clear what’s real and misdirection, or just how dangerous the AI is. Ex Machina offers as many thrills as it does abstract rewards, a rare accomplishment in an arthouse film.
16. Mad Max: Fury Road. 3 ½ stars. I have to give it credit as an impressive road chase, but unfortunately that’s all it is. There is no real story to be invested in, hardly any dialogue, and frankly not much thought driving the plot, which makes it ultimately a disappointing heir to The Road Warrior. Here’s where it does score: considering the constant barrage of crashes and explosions, I never once felt battle fatigued. That’s saying something, as I’m easily tired by action sequences (I disliked Braveheart for this reason). But there’s enough variation in technique to keep the action above redundancy. On big screen this is an orgasmic ride, no question. It’s also not likely something I’ll ever watch again. See here for truly great post-apocalyptic films; The Road Warrior remains one of the best.
(See also: The Best Films of 2006 The Best Films of 2007, The Best Films of 2008, The Best Films of 2009, The Best Films of 2010, The Best Films of 2011, The Best Films of 2012, The Best Films of 2013, The Best Films of 2014, The Best Films of 2016.)