Monday, January 04, 2016

twenty fifteen

The recently deceased movie year was a strange one, oddly unmemorable in spite of its loud, grandstanding, ultimately joyless blockbusters.

The highlight, for me, was the productivity of the fearless Kristen Wigg, who seems less interested in being a Movie Star than a working actor guided by an ecelctic, willfully uncommercial taste in the projects she pursues.  She's an SNL survivor in no urgent rush to become a "brand."

So, rather than indulge in your average movie critic's wet dream of composing a Ten Best list, I'm opting for a collection of 2015 observations that I think are more fascinating than the year's movies themselves.

Here goes...

Star of the year.  Easy.  The aforementioned Ms. Wigg, who did potentially audience-alienating, but bracingly good work in "Welcome to Me," "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" and "Nasty Baby," as well as team player stuff in the mainstream "The Martian."  Plus, she was all over the small screen in the "Wet Hot American Summer" reboot, the second season of the goofy mini-series "The Spoils Before Dying" and the straight-faced Lifetime spoof, "A Deadly Adoption" (the latter two with the equally game Will Ferrell).  And yet there was too far little of Wigg in 2015, the year that she became the female equivalent of Steve Carell.

Wigg's output is certainly more impressive than the sitcoms that the fabulously talented Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have been churning out.  "Baby Mama"?  "Sisters"?  They deserve - and can do - much better.

The revolving door.  The movie year 2015 produced a number of films with good pedigrees that enjoyed their 15 minutes (if that) and then went away as if they were never made. Chief among them were those that seemed to be made with awards in mind - "Pawn Sacrifice," "Truth," "The Walk," “Suffragette,” "Steve Jobs," "Freeheld," "By the Sea," "Macbeth,"  Love and Mercy,"  "The End of the Tour,"  "99 Homes," "Black Mass," "The 33,"  "Infinitely Polar Bear,"  "Our Brand Is Crisis," "Everest," "A Walk in the Woods," "Mr. Holmes" and "I Smile Back," Sarah Silverman's curious, rather abrupt venture into dramatic territory. "About Ray," the Elle Fanning transgender drama and a favorite on the film-festival circuit, didn't even get its 15 minutes. (Reportedly, it's been shelved, at least temporarily.)

Each one opened with a certain among of fanfare and potential and then, before you knew it, the film were gone.  Kaput.  "Freeheld"?  What's that?

A notch or two below them (read: less award-worthy) were "Aloha," "Miss You Already," "Self/Less," "Rock the Kasbah," "Mississippi Grind," “Sicario,” "The Rewrite," "Remember," "Five Flights Up, "Lily and Eva," "A Little Chaos," "While We're Young," "Mistress America," “Mission Impossible: Rouge Nation,” "The Gunman," "Burnt" and "The D Train."

Star marketing.  Little on screen was as exciting or as suspenseful as how effectively Disney whipped the moviegoing public into a frenzy over a franchise that, a decade ago, everyone thought was stone cold dead.

007.  It took me an entire decade to finally realize that Daniel Craig may not be the best candidate to play James Bond.  His blue-collar discomfort was never more evident than in "Spectre," in which he wore a series of tuxedos and tight designer suits as if they were straighjackets.  Fact is, Craig isn't the least bit debonair.  He's much more interesting than that.

Sell it, baby, sell it! Anyone who watches Turner Classic Movies on a regular basis (and who doesn't?) is aware of how much air time is devoted to the relentless pitching of products - DVDs, books, eponymous film festivals, cruises, localized screenings, bus tours and now wine - wine!  The wine ads couldn't be escaped, running like clockwork, seemingly between every screening. (And, frankly, the idea of an inebriated movie geek frightens the heck out of me.)  I just wish Turner had the same commitment to its year-end TCM Remembers memorials.  This year, it manged to overlook  Martin Milner, a regular in Turner movies.

A big hand for the little lady. Quenten Tarantino's ambitious "The Hateful Eight" was greeted with conflicted reviews - praised for its attempt to revive the 70mm roadshow spectacle and criticized for the amount of blood and carnage that it spreads across the Ultra Panavision 70 screen.  But no one has called Q. T. on the grotesque sexism of his film. "The Hateful Eight" is essentially an all-male Western with (for most of its running time) only one female character, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. She is abused in every way possible (and Tarantino even invents a few new ways) and the audience (of mostly males?) is encouraged to laugh at every abuse.  The reason for all the abuse?  Well, she murdered someone, see?  But so have all of the self-righteous men who are slapping, kicking, belting and insulting her.  (I personally don't think any of them are "men," even though they are played by people with penises.)  Tarantino makes all of this acceptable - the abuse and the audience laughing it off - by presenting the victim as something less than human.  Leigh's character is certainly unlike anyone I've ever encountered, male or female.  She's a sub-human here, a "thing" that spits, cusses and snarls.  Venom comes out of her mouth, instead of words. So who cares how she's treated?

This is not to detract from Jennifer Jason Leigh's acute, feral performance.  She finds a certain wit in the character and works beyond the call of duty to satisfy both her director's vision and and her own actorly instincts.

I've no problem with fake blood caused by fake violence, but the way this character is presented and treated is anything but fake.  It's pure, undisguised sexism that detracts from the filmmaker's core mission to create an old-fashioned, broad-shouldered, extravagant movie-movie.

Movie of the year.  For some reason, the only film that stayed with me this year was Hiromasa Yonebayashi's "When Marnie Was There" ("Omoide no Mânî"), a small but ambitious Japanese anime about self-loathing.  And could it be a coincidence that the enigmatic title character is named after a Hitchcock heroine?  Also, there was time very well-spent with David Cronenberg's "Map to the Stars," Isobel Coixet's "Learning to Drive," Niki Caro's "McFarland, USA," Tom McCarthy's "Spotlight," Woody Allen's "Irrational Man," David O. Russell's "Joy," John Crowley's "Brooklyn," Jay Roach's "Trumbo," Asif Kapadia's "Amy," Lee Toland Kreiger's "The Age of Adeline," Alex Garland's “Ex Machina,” Kent Jones' "Hitchock/Truffaut" and... Hey, wait! Am I constructing one of those "Best of" lists here?

Am I?


Marvin said...

Joe, fabulous article/summary on films in the year 2015. Yeah, you kind of constructed a best ten list toward the end of the article. But I forgive you. Wonderful, enlightening, engrossing. I give you 4 stars and an Academy Award. Marvin

Sheila said...

Where's "Carol" on your year-end list?

joe baltake said...

"Carol" will be covered separately with its own essay. Thanks for asking.

Jill said...

I'm happy that someone at long last has brought up the toxic sexism of "The Hateful Eight." I would like someone to explain why the character that Leigh plays in the film had to be a woman. Why not a man? It would have been less disturbing if all the men where heaping the abuse on another man.

joe baltake said...

Good point, Jill. There's absolutely no reason why the character, named Daisy, couldn't have been a guy called Dan. Only Tarantino can explain the reasoning.

Tim K. said...

Joe! The Michael Caine-Harvey Keitel film opened here in New Jersey where it played for one week and then went to a single early-morning showing in its second week. Then, it closed. Gone. Another film about which no one cared!

chris said...

Thanks for bringing up the non-stop huckstering on Turner these days. It used to be only one in a while, an ad for a DVD set or a book. Then it escalated. It's become truly annoying and for some reason disturbing.