The Envelope Please

It’s time for the best lists of 2015. You can make best TV or book lists no matter where you live, because you have the same access as the big city, but for movies Podunk suffers. This year’s list of movies I saw contains fourteen that were really 2014 films. Many of them didn’t arrive where I live until long after New Year’s. Several didn’t show up in Podunk until they had already won Academy Awards, including “Ida” and “Whiplash” and “Mr. Turner.” Many documentaries and foreign films never reach Podunk, except years later on pay-per-view or PBS, so I have had little chance to see 2015’s offerings in those categories.

That said, we play the hand we are dealt, so I have a “best-pictures-I got-to-see list” with several caveats. I rarely go to films devoted to people punching each other in the face, so haven’t seen “Creed.” I haven’t seen “Concussion” because I’ve got a pretty good idea the trailers have told me all I need to know. I understand “Room” is a really good film, but I haven’t been up for being harrowed. Maybe I will stiffen my spine eventually. “The Danish Girl” is the latest entry in a category that might be called alt sex. I’m fine with your choices, but don’t feel the need to pay ten bucks to watch you decide on your orientation. I understand “Daddy’s Home” is really funny, but I have a Will Ferrell allergy.

Before the list begins, I note a couple trends. First, a marked rise in geriatric films. We now seem to have movies about teens or slacker young adults or people on Medicare. The films about people in midlife are largely devoted to crime or derring-do, which hardly reflects my life experience.

This year saw us subjected to “Danny Collins,” “Love Is Strange,” “Still Alice,” “Exotic Marigold II,” “Mr. Holmes,” “The Intern,” “Grandma,” “Five Flights Up” and probably several more I’m missing. Everyone from Pacino and De Niro to Morgan Freeman and all the British Sirs and Dames were on screen falling to pieces, getting Alzheimer’s (even Sherlock Holmes) or being patronized by young whippersnappers who eventually come to appreciate the wisdom of the decrepit. In the immortal words of Dorothy Parker reviewing Winnie the Pooh – Tonstant Weader wanted to fwow up.

A happier development was the appearance of several slick, sophisticated creep shows, thrillers with something on their minds. “The Gift,” “Good-bye Mommy” and “Ex Machina” were not just entertaining, but thought –provoking and well made.

Movies that others admired sometimes left me cold, these included the latest James Bond and Jurassic cash cows, and “Star Wars: The Force Is Depleted.” “Inside Out” seemed so enamored of its own cleverness that it fell short on heart, and “Brooklyn” was praised for being old-fashioned but that seemed to me to mean slow and cliché-ridden.

Movies that were acceptable that I hoped would be better included “Trumbo,” “Bridge of Spies,” “Mr. Holmes,” “Suffragette” and “Grandma.” In almost every case they featured promising premises, fine performances by skilled actors, but a sort of low voltage script and direction that tended to induce sleep rather than rapt attention. The biggest disappointment in this regard was “Joy” with a fine cast, yet a normally amped up director, David O. Russell, somehow squandered material ideal for the luminous Jennifer Lawrence with an oddly meandering, low energy treatment.

So, the Envelope please.

Best Picture by several lengths to my mind is “Spotlight.” A great ensemble cast with a finely crafted script show how a group of reporters with dogged persistence uncovered the scandalous story of child abuse at the hands of clergy, and how the Catholic hierarchy covered it up. Rather than treat this sensational story sensationally, the film proceeds by what a great novelist once called “a gathering web of insinuations,” a method that leaves the atrocities off screen but gains power by doing so. Great drama, and a cautionary tale about what will happen when the press ceases to exist and we are left in the hands of infotainment for our news.

The second best film of the year was “The Martian” which managed to put the science back into science-fiction and pulled off a cross between “Robinson Crusoe” and “Apollo 13.”

Several foreign films were must-sees. Best of the bunch may have been “Phoenix” about a woman who has been betrayed by her lover to the Nazi. She goes to the camps, he goes free. Her survival and his going free are implausible enough, but she subsequently requires reconstructive surgery which allows her to track him down and exact her revenge without being recognized. But, hey, Shakespeare asked us to swallow a lot of ridiculous premises to set the drama in motion. Once you are aboard “Phoenix,” it unspools with the merciless inevitability of Greek tragedy.

“Haute Cuisine” and “Gemma Bovary” were also good, and “What We Did on Our Holiday” is a very funny film about a family falling apart and trying to not let the children see it. It stars Rosamund Pike and David Tennant as splitsville parents forced to attend the birthday party of the children’s grandfather while keeping up the charade. Billy Connolly steals the show as the dying old man who tells the kids he wants to go out in style, with a Viking funeral. They oblige.

“The Big Short” wasn’t as good as the book, but probably as good as a movie on such a subject could be, a black comedy about bottomless Wall Street corruption that is clever but perhaps a little short on characterization of the oddballs who saw the iceberg coming while everyone else told them the ship could never sink.
The best shoot ‘em up thriller of the year was “Sicario” about the bleak drug wars on the Mexican border and the moral hazards that infect criminals and crime fighters alike. Going in, I doubted Emily Blunt had the weight to be an action hero, but she was ideal since the plot turns on her conflicted feelings in the face of extra-legal measures that are being urged on her. Only belatedly does she realize she is being set up as a patsy. “It’s Chinatown, Jake.”

“Love and Mercy” manages to make the sad saga of Brian Wilson’s unraveling absorbing, largely due to fine performances by John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and “Diary of a Teenage Girl” are somewhat melodramatic renderings of the miserable experience of being a teenager, but both are smart and funny and ultimately moving. And if you are into thrillers or movies about superheroes who blow things up, you might as well have a laugh along the way – both “Ant-Man” and “American Ultra” delivered. And the previously mentioned “Ex Machina” is a cool enough take on a genre piece to be on the list.

Those are my 2015 picks, until the rest of them trickle down to Podunk.

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