2015 was a complicated year for me, and not just because I was diagnosed with incurable glioblastoma in December. I also worked in a fairly demanding position (but with plenty of great help) on the World Science Fiction Convention, Sasquan, which was held in Spokane in August last year, and my work environment was so stressful all year that, on top of the stress from the Worldcon prep, I ended up developing a bad case of shingles in July. One result of all this was that I didn’t watch as many movies last year as I did the year before. However, looking over the list of what I did watch, 2015 looks like a very good film year to me. So here’s my look back at the films of 2015 — a little later than my year-in-review usually is.
I saw 44 films in the theater this year, down from 58 in 2014. I usually rank these things by how many times I pay to see them in the theater, and even the number of films I saw more than once in the theater is down from 2014 (six compared to nine).
The one movie I saw three times in the theater was by far my favorite movie of the year: Mad Max: Fury Road. I don’t find much to add to my original review, except to confirm that Miller was in fact playing with audience expectations in any number of ways and to re-stress that Max’s heroism in the film is embodied in an act of healing as much as of violence. Related to that, another way the story condenses its themes down is that way that stealing bodily fluids and giving bodily fluids is used to embody evil and good. I think this is a brilliant work of pop artistry, honed and burnished to the last baroque detail and upping the standards for vehicular gladitorialism (sorry) and blockbuster feminist heroism for a new generation.
Next are the movies I saw two times in the theater:
Ex Machina: And see also a follow-up review, Deuce Ex Machina. This is probably my second favorite movie of the year. Not only did it seem like the smartest science fiction story, exploring interesting ideas about artificial intelligence, both scientific and moral, but like Mad Max: Fury Road it challenges viewers to examine why they identify with some characters and not others, and especially whether and why we identify with male characters instead of female and expect them to be the heroes. I liked this movie the second time through, but I did find one piece of expectation manipulation that felt a little bit like cheating (see the second review for details). Still, this was a smart, elegant, sexy, creepy little masterpiece, following very nicely on the heels of the artier Under the Skin from 2014.
Inherent Vice: This is a little weird to me, because I don’t remember seeing it twice. It’s in my log that I did, and if I didn’t simply mislog it somehow, I can vaguely summon up a memory that I went to see it a second time because I was so disappointed in the first viewing and wanted to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. I see that in my review I said I probably needed to see it a second time “before I can really dig into it.” If that’s what I did, it sure left no impression the second time around, for whatever reason. Once again I can’t add much to what I said in my review. “Shambolic” is probably the key word to express my perspective on the proceedings, and also “influenced by Robert Altman.” (I completely bounced off of Nashville on DVD last year, and I’ve never liked The Long Goodbye, which is the direct antecedent to this.) This was not a favorite film at all, but a huge disappointment.
The Taking of Tiger Mountain: Tsui Hark’s adaptation of the the classical Maoist Peking Opera (or actually of the novel, Tracks in the Snowy Forest, that was also made into the opera) about the People’s Liberation Army taking control of the country from the Japanese after World War II is his best film since Time and Tide (2000). This is another great action film, but it’s also a great battle of wits. It’s shamelessly nationalistic and patriotic, but it also pokes fun at itself (and its audience) in the end. Good old-fashioned fun that I compared jokingly to Raoul Walsh’s shamelessly nationalistic old Hollywood war pictures with Errol Flynn, but you know what, there’s something to that comparison.
The Assassin: I was worried that I would find this Taiwanese art house wuxia film too arty and intellectual, but it seduced me not only with its sensuous visual and aural beauty but also with its tricky, fragmented, jigsaw-puzzle narrative. If there was a more beautiful depiction of natural landscapes in film this year, it was only in The Revenant, and I would still give The Assassin the edge, because it doesn’t use adrenaline to get you excited about what you’re looking at. Just the opposite, this is a very calm, sedate, slow, meditative film. That it still functions as a wuxia narrative, even if an extremely offbeat and oblique one, is some kind of miracle. It’s an adaptation of an ancient Chinese story — something like Beowulf in age in the European tradition — and it assumes that you know a lot about Chinese history, but even though I don’t know a lot about Chinese history, I was mesmerized.
Carol: Speaking of films that I worried would be too arty and intellectual, I’ve had a problem connecting to Todd Haynes’ movies since Velvet Goldmine (1998). Still, they’re always worth watching, and I looked forward to this one because it was an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel. I loved it. As film critic (and friend) Kim Nicolini says, it’s about two women who are unreliable narrators and dishonest with themselves and with everyone around them. The reason is that they live in a society that doesn’t recognize their feelings for each other as normal or legitimate, and the film has a sickly, repressive feeling to it, as the women’s love for each other is almost literally policed by a disapproving community. As Kim says, the sense of claustrophobia (fear of the closet) is palpable and painful. On that level the story functions within Haynes’ favorite genre: melodrama, in which women suffer because of the social roles they’re trapped in. Another work of mesmerizing visual beauty, but more for its faces and interior settings than for its landscapes.
Song of the Sea, which was released in 2014 but not shown in Seattle until 2015
The number of films I saw more than once in the theater may have been down compared to last year, but there were an unusual number of films I saw only once but would very much like to see again as soon as possible. I’m just going to list these and link to my reviews without going into detail about why they made this particular cut: The Hateful Eight; The Revenant; Star Wars: The Force Awakens; Song of the Sea.
Girlhood redefines the French movie
But then I also want to list a bunch of films I saw only once that seemed singular in ways that maybe won’t compel me to see them again: What We Do in the Shadows; Brooklyn (which I haven’t reviewed yet, oops); Crimson Peak (I bet I actually do watch this again eventually, such gorgeous gothic eye candy!); Dope; Girlhood; Joy (also not reviewed yet, oops, I’m really behind); Maps to the Stars; The Martian; A Most Violent Year; Phoenix; Predestination.
Then there were the disappointing movies: Inherent Vice (See above in twice-seen movies); Furious Seven (I thought Furious 6 was the best action film of of 2013, and it has held up on TV since then, so this dud was a let-down, even though no other film that I’ve seen from the Fast & Furious franchise has been as good as the sixth); Self/less (Tarsem Singh has made two of my favorite eccentric and outrageously gorgeous films of recent years, so it was depressing to see him come up with something so bland, generic and uninspired); Sicario (There’s actually a lot about this film that I loved, which may be why I found the denouement such a cop-out and let-down; still very much worth seeing, however).
Catherine Deneuve in Polanski’s Repulsion (1965)
Meanwhile, at home I watched a total of 49 movies, down from 101 (!) in 2014. Once again I saw a lot of terrific, amazing movies, and I’m not even going to try to list the best of them. Instead I’ll just mention two of the series I started, with neither completed yet. First I started watching Roman Polanski’s films in (almost) chronological order from the beginning. I got as far as Cul-de-Sac (1966) before I concluded that Polanski’s view of life and humanity is too bleak and sour for me. Not that he doesn’t have good reason for his bleak view, as someone who saw the Holocaust up close as an adolescent. However, I cheated a little on the chronology and also watched Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974). It almost seems a shame to stop where I did, because two of the next ones are two of my favorites by him: The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) and Macbeth (1971).
Sylvia Chang and Kenny Bee in Tsui Hark’s Shanghai Blues (1984)
I started a similar series of Tsui Hark films, inspired by my enthusiasm for his latest (see above in twice-seen movies) and finally going back to his earliest films and starting something like a chronological survey. Tsui’s goofy, manic outlook is more in tune with mine, and I want to keep working my way through his filmography in the coming year, as I’m finally getting back to the movies that I first fell in love with upon digging more deeply into the Hong Kong film industry starting about fifteen years ago.
Again, it was a marvelous year for movies as far as I’m concerned. I just wish I had more time/energy for writing about the older films I watch, not just the new ones. Whatever happened to the days when I was watching silent films anyway? I miss them!