Joy – 5

This movie was a test of your appetite for Jennifer Lawrence and her hairstyles: I loved her going in but had seen quite enough by the end. My Robert DeNiro fuse was quite a bit shorter and was exhausted almost from the start: his comic persona didn’t fit a character that wasn’t actually funny. Once more I felt struck by the curse of the “true story”: certain things made no dramatic sense, but since they (or something like them) actually occurred, the screenwriter apparently felt no need to justify them – Joy’s showdown with the Texas patent thief being most prominent. In retrospect, it’s hard to think of a single scene that rang true. It’s sad that the team that made Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle came up so empty this time.

Top Ten 2015

My Top Ten this year is a bit of a cop-out, although not without precedent among major film critics: with no clear standout movie I will list my favorites in alphabetical order. Spotlight was the closest to a flawless movie, but it didn’t have the emotional power of Brooklyn, which was almost indistinguishable from Carol as the sensitive portrait of a young woman discovering herself. Phoenix was the best foreign film, edging out Number One Fan, but not as good as Barbara, the director’s previous effort. Straight Outta Compton captured a music scene new to me in documentary fashion, but so did Amy, which was an actual documentary. Timbuktu and Theeb were equally powerful and enlightening depictions of Muslim and Arab cultures. While I’m comparing apples and oranges, I can add Tangerine, also satisfying my diversity goals. I may be overrating Trumbo and The End of the Tour compared to other critics, but both caught me at a good time and, if the list is sufficiently flexible, are worth honoring. So, again, here’s the list:

Amy. I went in knowing nothing about Amy Winehouse or her music and departed with a sad appreciation of both. This documentary was so intrusive it made the viewer feel complicit.

 Brooklyn, the season’s softest, sweetest film with an award-worthy performance by Saoirse Ronan, a beautiful script by Nick Hornby out of Colm Toibin and impeccable supporting actors. The feel-good film of the year.

Carol was another novel-based film with built-in depth that constantly churned under the glossy surface of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara’s silky performances. It was also the best (American) period piece of the year.

The End of the Tour taught me everything I sort of wanted to know about David Foster Wallace in the form of an ego struggle between a writer and a reporter, skillfully portrayed by Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg.

Number One Fan (Elle L’Adore) restored my faith in French cinema, as everyday-but-slightly-loopy people with everyday problems get caught in a murder investigation, a cleverly delightful detective thriller.

Phoenix was the movie we all talked about and, perhaps, wanted to see again. It required a leap of faith that left some behind, but as a psychological mystery it was the year’s most intense cinema.

Spotlight was not quite All the President’s Men but it was the next best thing, a rare “true story” that played out as drama. I loved its depictions of journalism, Boston and the Catholic Church’s pedophilia scandal, with telling end credits the coup de grace.

Straight Outta Compton. For joyous musical fun, this was the year’s best treat, although Love And Mercy was not far behind. The story was full of cliché, but Gangsta Rap was enough original to carry the day.

Tangerine was raw, gritty and thoroughly engaging, a view of LA I never want to see, populated by characters I’d just as soon avoid, as well; but the whole thing was oozing with enough energy and humanity to fascinate.

Theeb was a plain story, told with the sparseness of the desert it inhabited, a pared-down spaghetti Western or Lawrence of Arabia. It had a perfect young male lead, it captured the Arab character and it brought back memories.

Timbuktu had more story, more characters and more beautiful scenery than Theeb, but they both put you in a world we so little understand, from Mali here to Jordan there. For haunting images, this film led the way.

Trumbo was Hollywood history – always a lark – and knowing the outcome didn’t diminish my pleasure in getting there. Trumbo pinballed against a dozen similarly vibrant characters; he didn’t change, but each interaction had its fascination.


Individual Awards, with Oscar nominees in bold, my other choices in regular:

Best Actor: Bryan Cranston, Paul Dano (Love and Mercy)

Best Actress: Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, Nina Hoss (Phoenix), Amy Schumer (Trainwreck)

Best Supporting Actor: Sylvester Stallone, Mark Rylance

Best Supporting Actress: Rachel McAdams, Rooney Mara, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mickey O’Hagan (Tangerine)

Notes: Obviously, the women stood out for me more than the men. I chose Stallone over Rylance only because Stallone was such a surprise and Rylance could have performed his role in his sleep. I don’t know why Blanchett is considered the lead while Mara, who has more screen time, is supporting (the film’s title, maybe?), but both are equally deserving, as are Segel and Eisenberg in End of the Tour, which hurt my selection of either. There really isn’t a strong male lead in any of my Top Ten – hence the choice of Cranston, who hogs the screen without being off-putting.

The Wrecking Crew – 3

A boring portrait of L.A. studio musicians that goes nowhere, despite – or maybe because of – a multitude of musical teases. Sort of how not to make a documentary. (Airplane viewing)

Danny Collins – 6

Annette Bening is a wonderful actress. Everything else is by-the-book as Al Pacino plays a Neil Diamond character trying to rescue his lost soul, or is it humanity, unconvincingly prompted by the unlikely (based on a true story) appearance of a letter from John Lennon. Lennon’s songs give the film a bit of undeserved heft. (Airplane viewing)

Youth – 7

Gorgeous shot after gorgeous shot, in what feels like a Technicolor remake of Last Year in Marienbad. The dialogue is wading-pool deep, which made me wonder if last year’s The Great Beauty only resonated because it was in Italian. Michael Caine was pleasant, if unconvincing, while Harvey Keitel seemed to have wandered in from a different movie set.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – 7.7

As advertised, total escapist fun. The new droid is adorable, the sets are intriguing, the weird characters, humanoid and not, are engaging, and the story is ageless. The female lead is commendable: she’s strong, smart, has a British accent and is not required to show cleavage. Everyone else is adequate, but the movie comes alive when Harrison Ford shows up. The references to Wizard of Oz that were so prominent in the 1977 original make a welcome return. In substance, the movie was as nutritionally satisfying as a bag of popcorn – but equally enjoyable.

Hateful Eight – 3

“How bad can a Quentin Tarantino movie be?,” we asked ourselves. The answer, it turns out, is “worst movie of the year, and most pretentious movie of the century.” It starts with a boring “Overture” by Ennio Morricone, just to link Tarantino with the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. It’s shot in Panavision 70 and shown in “Roadshow” format, for no cinematic purpose but to link the film, we are reminded, with Ben-Hur and Lawrence of Arabia. The shots of the snowy setting aren’t particularly spectacular; they just make us feel cold. Worse, though, is the acting: Tarantino seems to have told his stars to act like they are in High Noon. The result is corn, the pace is like molasses, and the only actor worth watching is Jennifer Jason-Leigh. The plot, as much as we saw of it, was stupid. I should probably title my review, Fearsome Four, as we left, sighing relief, at “Intermission.”