best film:  The Revenant from Alejandro González Iñárritu

The Revenant gives Inarritu back to back best films of the year which is close to unfathomable. However, 2015 is not a year with a clear winner in this category- George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road feels like a virtual tie.  But still, there is no harm in celebrating and appreciating The Revenant.

  • A masterpiece of staggering beauty and cinematic awe
  • Opens with a dream montage – incredible imagery, and then the cinematic gauntlet is thrown down with the hunting scene starting with the camera aimed down at the stream and capturing a complex tracking shot. Iñárritu brings back a variation on the drum score from Birdman, the framing of character faces from I Am Cuba, and low angle work from Welles
  • The very next sequence is a complex battle tracking shot at magic hour—it is Saving Private Ryan (visceral) meets The Thin Red Line (beautiful) and the best of both- muscular filmmaking- sumptuous photography and complex blocking/choreography.

The bear, Leo and others bleeding and breathing on the camera fogging it up– water kicking up on the lens—it is  a commitment to the authenticity of what we are watching

a blend of powerful violent visceral filmmaking and Malick’s magic hour naturalism — pantheism with a bite

Emmanuel Lubezki and his crazy, remarkable run as maybe cinema’s all time greatest cinematographer has to be mentioned and praised.  His work here with Iñárritu with natural light (like a Malick film, used almost exclusively in every frame) and the Alexa 65—sensational. But how about production designer Jack Fisk—his credits include Mulholland Drive, The New World, Thin Red Line, Tree of Life, The Master, There Will Be Blood.

  • The camera tilts up to the sky following the smoke
  • I sometimes talk about rolling tracking shots- bracketed or controlled like Wes Anderson, Kubrick in the trenches in Paths of Glory or hotel in The Shining but these here in The Revenant are floating—more like Tarkovsky or Gaspar Noe.
  • The bear sequence is impeccably crafted – a comment on the inevitability of nature, death, sadness for the cubs- shot in long take- true to Iñárritu’s style
  • Tom Hardy as Tom Berenger in Platoon (Hardy costarred with Berenger in Inception actually). He is half-scalped, has southern drawl, “All you have to do is blink” horrifying scene. It is a comment on the yin and yang nature of he and DiCaprio’s character. Berenger and Willem Dafoe in Platoon were the devil and Christ figure—and here Hardy and DiCaprio are opposites on how they treat man and nature.
  • Like all of Iñárritu’s work- especially Amores Perros, Babel, 21 Grams – he is piecing together separate strands of narrative and making a comment on how they intersect (often to hurt each other) – in one film these strands are misconnecting because of language (Babel). That is happening here. This is auteur cinema in content as well as visual style even if it is a small flaw that Iñárritu takes too long between the strands of the Chief looking for his daughter.
  • Albeit brief, the bond between DiCaprio’s Glass and his son Hawk is earned. Repetition in their laying their heads on each other chests, the surrealism sequences of past tragedy.
  • Those surrealism sequences are gorgeous. The pile of skulls set pieces, Iñárritu matches the breathing on the camera to the mist in the mountains in an edit.
  • In step with Iñárritu’s view on humanity- dog-eat-dog nihilism.  Iñárritu’s debut—people slaughtering others, cruelty, the man who befriend’ s DiCaprio’s Glass is hung by the French, the Pawnee, Arikara Indians, often called Ree, wolves eating Bison.
  • Long takes in natural lighting, no dialogue, the shot of DiCaprio getting fish, up against nature, up a ridge then overlooking the splendor of nature—brutality and loveliness mixed (Malick)– certainly a powerfully repeated motif.
  • striking sequence of the church in ruins—belongs in Tarkovsky’s world—enchanting
  • The juxtaposition of how Hardy’s character and DiCaprio’s treat nature is shown again and again comes full circle in the end- DiCaprio saves the daughter of the Chief and it saves him. Instead of attacking the man eating the bison liver DiCaprio is kind to him and he saves him in return.
  • At the 131 minute mark- the avalanche on the mountain after DiCaprio sees Gleeson scalped—set piece genius. This is Herzog carrying a boat over a mountain stuff. Awe.
  • The last twenty minutes turn into a fantastic western revenge showdown between the two foes

 

 

Mad Mad: Fury Road has to be mentioned here as well. The second greatest composition of the film (still ranking among the greatest of 2015) is the first true opening shot after the brief apocalyptic montage. This is the shot of Hardy’s Max, back to the camera, with both he and the car posing and looking out at the wasteland in the valley from the ridge…sublime. The film is largely one prolonged chase sequence. And the case for practical effects (all told anywhere from 75% of it to 90% of it was done without CGI) is made with emphasis. Other action films pale in comparison. The collective stunt work needs its own category of praise here.

The greatest frame in the film and one worthy of a spot in the annals of cinema art—is Furiosa’s scream to the heavens in the dunes at the 81-minute mark. The wind pushing the sand almost takes the place of her cry.

Shot both in parts of Africa (Namibia mostly I believe) and Australia—color brought out by the great cinematographer John Seale (coaxed out of retirement by George Miller). Of course, it’s very different from the desert he so wonderfully captures in The English Patient (second and third maybe only to David Lean in terms of beautiful desert films) and it is at least equal to that Oscar-winning film in this area. There are varying stats on the average shot length of Fury Road but the exact details are not important. Whether it is under three seconds per shot, or 22 cuts-per-minute, this is one of the most aggressively edited films in cinema history. The only film in the 2010s that feels worthy of comparison in terms of the art of editing is Dunkirk. Margaret Sixel won the Oscar for best editing (she had nearly 500 hours of footage to whittle down) for Fury Road. What a colossal achievement for her. She is George Miller’s wife. In 1991, James Cameron apparently tested out a version of Terminator 2: Judgment Day where, instead of cutting scenes out, he removed every other frame (this certainly sounds similar to how Godard experimented with Breathless and revolutionized jump cut editing). Evidently, the results were disastrous and Cameron went back to the drawing room. Here, Miller and Sixel seem to have figured it out. They do not speed up the photography (which, I think history has shown, largely does not work), they pick splices to omit. The results are a breathtaking and leaves just about every other film by comparison feel like it is playing at half-speed. Moulin Rouge! from the 2000s comes as one exception. to mind (there must be something in the water in Australia).

 

 

most underrated: There are some ugly misses here by the TSPDT consensus. It is hard to look past The Revenant at #27 from 2015. The consensus made a little progress on The Revenant since 2016 when it debuted on the TSPDT 21st century list which is good. Films this spectacular do not go overlooked for long and it should continue to rise above more artistically modest films. Sicario from Denis Villeneuve is at #34- yuck. Perhaps even worse than that are Sunset Song from Terence Davies, Tale of Tales from Matteo Garrone and Victoria from Sebastian Schipper getting left off the 21st century TSPDT top 1000 entirely (meaning they are not among the top 42 films from 2015 listed).  To miss this badly on five of the ten best films of 2015 is a problem.

 

From Sunset Song – sumptuous cinematography by Michael McDonough—the vistas— the wheat field, tree line, and pond and reflection– and then you pair that with the natural lighting interior—the entire thing looks like a work of art. Davies blends neorealism with the David Lean-like panorama— but he also has his trademark singing (amateurs, folk songs, no accompaniment) like Distant Voices, Still Lives– this is an auteur- and this shot could be from his debut.

Davies is timeless- this movie could be a lost film from 1935, 1955 or 1985. Shot in Kodak 65 (add Davies to PTA, Tarantino, Nolan with big format making a comback)— interiors shot digitally—apparently Davies had been wanting to make it for eighteen (18) years.

from Sicario– Villeneuve and Roger Deakins together again to superb results

Tale of Tales is a highly ambitious, visually-inspired baroque fantasy

Garrone really sets the frame—meticulously symmetrical and impeccably designed mise-en-scene- worth mentioning both Peter Greenaway and Wes Anderson

 

 

most overrated: If one compares Spotlight (still sitting way too high at #11 of 2015 on the TSPDT), Inside Out (#4 of 2015), or Cemetery of Splendor (#7 of 2015) to the films listed under the “underrated” heading- well- there really is no comparison. Cemetery of Splendor does not hold the beauty of Weerasethakul’s previous works. Spotlight is a fine film led by a compelling story and capable actors but it is at least a dozen slots too high and Inside Out is great- it just needs to move out of the way on the top ten to make way for superior films.

 

trends and notables:

  • More dominance from the Nuevo Cine Mexicano trio but with a special emphasis on Iñárritu of course. Iñárritu is far too often overlooked as one of the great filmmakers of his generation.
  • There is no other auteur in cinema history to rewrite his story at the age 70 like George Miller has with Mad Max: Fury Road. For years—really decades, Miller’s best work stood as The Road Warrior (or Mad Max 2) from 1981. There was not much of note from Miller since (a few archiveable films, none of them landing in their respective years top 10). It certainly felt like he was done as a cinematic artist of consequence. Mad Max : Fury Road destroys that notion—or rather, sets it on fire.
  • Star Wars came back (with The Force Awakens) and blew up the box office but still, the two biggest stories as far as film art is concerned remains the back to back consecutive year dominance of Iñárritu and the comeback of the year award to George Miller. Both of these films changed the artistic historical narrative on these two auteurs.
  • World cinema remains in a very good place in 2015. Nine different countries are represented by the top ten films. These ten films came from filmmakers born in Mexico, Australia, Hungary, the US, the UK, Canada, China, Germany and Italy.
  • one-take cinema has another worthy entry- Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria picks off where Birdman left off
  • Todd Haynes’ Carol is the third leg of the housewife trilogy (my term- but I think it fits) which includes Safe in 1995 and Far From Heaven in 2002– Haynes has made other fine films- but it is this trilogy for which he will be remembered.
  • As far as firsts go, 2015 marks the true debut of László Nemes (Son of Saul) and Robert Eggers (The Witch)- they would both have time before the decade was up to prove themselves yet again (Nemes in 2018 with Sunset and Eggers in 2019 with The Lighthouse).

Son of Saul – the key to this film is talking about the two definitions of aesthetic. There is the adjective “aesthetic”- concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty—which Son of Saul is devoid of almost completely (on purpose)- then there is the noun “aesthetic”- a set of principals underlying and guiding the work of a particular artist or artistic movement and that is where Son of Saul lands with of the greatest cinematic achievements of 2015. It may not be pleasing to your eyes and ears (Breaking the Waves from von Trier is not always either) but it is an artistic triumph nonetheless—both formally and intellectually. The decision to shoot in soft focus, or more often shallow focus, and have camera sitting right on the shoulder or neck is carried out for the duration of the work- an inspired, rigidly formal, stylistic choice. The tight aspect ratio –1.37 : 1– fits that attempt as well.

  • Star Wars is a smash- but the Jurassic Park reboot is not far behind as far as big moneymakers in 2015 and in fact, within the calendar year, it is a bit bigger. This gives Chris Pratt the #1 film in back to back years with Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014 and clearly makes him one of the biggest movie stars on the planet.
  • Daniel Kaluuya seems destined to be one of the great actors of this generation and he got his start in the archives in 2015’s Sicario.
  • Noah Baumbach is sort of quietly firing away- Mistress America is here in 2014 and that gives Baumbach four archiveable films in six years after taking sixteen years (16) for his first four archiveable films

 

 

gems I want to spotlight:  The obvious choice here seems to be Bone Tomahawk and I am not going to try to outthink it. S. Craig Zahler has a unique voice and here is where it begins.  The Witch does feel like the start of two promising careers: Robert Eggers and actor Anya Taylor-Joy.  Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster is his first English-language and it is an inarguable artistic success as well. 

A New England folk story from New England’s own Robert Eggers. Te themes are large— cursed or damned, rotten apples and pride and small lies (sins) turning into bigger lies. Like the best horror films of all-time (not quite putting this in that class yet) it absolutely works as a drama without the scares. This is a drama and the characters are harsh—the family is unraveling– ripping each other apart.

Lanthimos is a master world builder-  a world with strict rules- absurd rules. This is the voice of Dogtooth without a doubt but it does not mean there are not sequences in the film worthy of comparison to Kubrick and Bunuel.

 

best performance male:  It is Leo’s year. He is clearly one of the best actors of his generation (probably the single best) and has already been in several films throughout the 90s, 00s and 10s that were amongst the best of the year or decade. In The Revenant he gives a great physical performance in the year’s best film- it is indeed DiCaprio’s finest work.  It is different than most of his work- it is physical vs. verbal, but his weathered face is a brilliant canvas— pained, resolute— DiCaprio is aided by Iñárritu’s camera- actor friendly close-ups of those glassy blue eyes, lines like “I ain’t afraid to die, I’ve done it already”. DiCaprio’s dedication to the role is admirable but always in service of character and story and the brutality of the world of the film. Behind Leo, Tom Hardy has to be next. Hardy is an integral part to both of 2015’s big, hairy, masterpieces. Hardy’s achievements in 2015 do not come all that close to DiCaprio (or Charlize Theron) but that is more of a compliment to DiCaprio/Theron and it would be wrong to overlook Hardy just because he is standing next to the best overall male and female actors of the year.  Géza Röhrig‘s in Son of Saul runs a similar endurance test marathon of a physical performance to DiCaprio (though Röhrig does not get the benefit of how Iñárritu frames DiCaprio)- worthy of the third slot. Benecio Del Toro levitates in Sicario – adding another acting coup to his strong career. Scottish veteran actor Peter Mullan does the best work of his career (and he is standout in just about everything he has been in) in Davies’ Sunset Song. Colin Farrell made two excellent films in the 2010s with Lanthimos- The Lobster here in 2015 and The Killing of a Sacred Deer in 2017- so he is getting a combined mention here as this is where he is slightly better. I am also right on the edge with Nicolas Hoult’s work in Mad Mad: Fury Road. He gives the second best performance in the film (Theron of course) but Hardy is here for both Fury Road and The Revenant.

 

from Son of Saul– confident and experimental. Saul’s shoulder or the nape of the neck cinema if you will.

 

best performance femaleCharlize Theron may have won an Oscar for Monster in 2003 but she will be remembered forever for her work in Mad Max: Fury Road. Theron’s performance is physical with her nearly six-foot tall frame swinging her hips like John Wayne in the desert. Cate Blanchett has to be next for Carol with Rooney Mara, her costar, not far behind.  Blanchett looks like a towering figure next to Mara- big presence- she feels larger than life- regal, elegant. But Mara certainly holds her own.  Laia Costa is next for her work in Victoria and Qi Shu collaborates for the third time with Hou Hsiao-Hsien resulting in their best work of the three: The Assassin.

 

Her eyes (often accentuated by the black war paint) tell the story and Miller, deftly, refuses to bog her character (and the film) down with speeches

Carol- a film on the career Mount Rushmore for both Cate and director Todd Haynes

shots in the window – not being framed like Renoir—but reflecting in the car mainly—stunning formal and visual strength

 

 

top 10

  1. The Revenant
  2. Mad Max: Fury Road
  3. Son on Saul
  4. Carol
  5. Sunset Song
  6. Sicario
  7. The Assassin
  8. Victoria
  9. Tale of Tales
  10. Creed

 

The Assassin– two elements make this one of 2015’s best films— the wall-art photography exterior establishing shots (this is actually new for HHH after three+ decades of making films) and the interior use of silk curtains to produce his trademark layered Ozu-like mise-en-scene arrangements.

HHH holds the transitions for an extra pause on the fade to black ellipsis editing—this and the unique (slow, pensive, poised, auteur-driven) take on genre cinema recalls Jarmusch- particularly genre films like Dead Man, Ghost Dog, and The Limits of Control. Unlike Yimou Zhang or Crouching Tiger this is not an action film- there is action-  but it is clear where HHH’s interest resides.

from Crimson Peak– del Toro does not move the camera like his countryman Iñárritu and Cuarón, but his work in mise-en-scene and color—immaculate here—it is his focus and he is at least strong as Cuarón (which is a crazy high compliment)- and superior to Iñárritu. The three of them will be talked about historically 30-50 years from now just like we talk about Rossellini/De Sica/Visconti or any other three amazing auteurs that emerge around the same time from the same country or any “New Wave” like Fassbinder/Herzog/Wenders.

Embrace of the Serpent– A journey through the jungle narrative in the vein of Coppola (Apocalypse Now), Herzog (Aguirre), and others. James Gray’s The Lost City of Z the year after in 2016. The best part of the film is the volcano set piece gorgeous work—L’Avventura– like architecture as character.

Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl further confirms his talents as a visual artist

Tarantino uses the split diopter as one of his major composition tools in The Hateful Eight

Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor – it is an undeniable step down from Syndromes and a Century (2006) and Uncle Boonmee (2010) but this arrangement here is a strong one

from Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs – give Boyle credit for infusing a film with a talky Sorkin script confined to one setting a sense of cinema style

an absolute oil painting of a shot from Todd Haynes in Carol

a jaw-dropper from Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth

a frame within a frame from John Crowley in Brooklyn

Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation– this is Fukunaga’s fourth impressive entry in seven years

 

 

Archives, Directors, and Grades

45 Years- Haigh R
A Bigger Splash- Guadagnino R
Anomalisa – C. Kaufman R
Beasts of No Nation- Fukunaga HR
Black Mass- S. Cooper R
Bone Tomahawk- Zahler R/HR
Bridge of Spies- Spielberg R
Brooklyn- Crowley R
Carol – Haynes, Blacnhett HR/MS
Cemetery of Splendor -Weerasethakul R
Creed – Coogler HR/MS
Crimson Peak – del toro HR
Dheepan- Audiard R
Embrace of the Serpent – Guerra R/HR
Green Room-Saulnier R
Inside Out– Docter R
James White – Mond R
Kalil Blues – Gan Bi R
Knight of Cups – Malick R
Krisha- Shults R
Land of Mine – Zandvliet R
Louder Than Bombs- Trier R
Mad Max: Fury Road – G. Miller MP
Maggie’s Plan- R. Miller R
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl- Gomez-Rejon R
Mississippi Grind- Fleck, Boden R
Mistress America- Baumbach HR
Mountains May Depart– Zhangke Jia R
Mustang – Ergüven R
Queen of Earth- Ross Perry R
Room- Abrahamson R
Sicario- Villeneuve HR/MS
Son of Saul – Nemes MS
Spotlight – McCarthy R
Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Abrams R
Steve Jobs- Boyle R/HR
Sunset Song– Davies HR/MS
Tale of Tales – Garrone HR/MS
Tangerine – Baker HR
The Assassin – Hsiao-Hsien Hou HR/MS
The Big Short- McKay HR
The Danish Girl- Hooper R/HR
The Devil’s Candy – Byrne R
The Diary of a Teenage Girl – Heller R
The End of the Tour- Ponsoldt R
The Hateful Eight – Tarantino R
The Invitation– Kusama R
The Lobster – Lanthimos HR
The Martian- R. Scott R
The Revenant– Iñárritu MP
The Witch – Eggers R/HR
Victoria – Schipper HR/MS
Youth – Sorrentino R

 

 

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives