The Best Films of 2015

duke of burgundy

As I previously wrote, Peter Strickland’s strange, sublime film is “not just a kinky parade of verbal abuse, face-sitting, being tied and locked up and other unmentionables alluded to behind closed doors; it’s also a profound, intriguing, complicated love story.” It’s that last part that makes The Duke of Burgundy truly special, in part because it’s so unexpected: come for the dizzying homage to Italian horror, soft-core erotica and the avant-garde masterworks of both Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage, and stay for a fascinating, eloquent exploration of what it means to play a role in a loving, sexual relationship—and how not fulfilling your partner’s expectations throws everything out of whack (as detailed by Borgen actress Sidse Babett Knudsen, whose stunning lead performance is for the ages).


Not all will agree, but I believe Todd Haynes has yet to make a bad film. His very best—Safe, Far From Heaven and now this Patricia Highsmith adaptation—all have female protagonists reacting against boundaries set by their respective cultures. What distinguishes Carol’s early ‘50s lesbian relationship apart from Far From Heaven’s heterosexual interracial dalliance (set a few years later) is more complex than a shift from the suburbs to the city, or different gender or class dynamics: it’s the love story itself—As expected, Blanchett and Mara are both terrific and the attention paid to recreating meticulous detail is top-notch; still, it’s all in service of a bravely slow-building screenplay that feels even more nuanced in retrospect after you take in its absolutely perfect final scene.

look of silence

Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion piece to The Act of Killing may leave admirers of the earlier film underwhelmed—it doesn’t have as ingenuously entertaining a hook and it never reaches the same level of catharsis, either. However, it’s just as essential a documentary for laying bare the long-lasting consequences of Indonesia’s 1965 genocide of over two million Communist citizens. Whereas the preceding film focused on the killers, this one is from the perspective of the victims’ families as filtered through a middle-aged ophthalmologist (his brother was murdered before he was born) who confronts the killers in the guise of an eye exam. His attempts to start a necessary dialogue about something that’s still not talked about are by turns revealing, shocking and nearly heartbreaking (and, in at least one case, somewhat hopeful).


Like the three titles above it on this list, Anomalisa provides exceptional insight regarding the human condition; unlike those films, it does so with puppets. An inventive, visually distinct, full-length, stop-motion extravaganza even better than Fantastic Mr. Fox, Charlie Kaufman’s latest (co-directed with animator Duke Johnson) could have come from no other mind. While it’s best to go into it cold—the film’s conceptual twist is most effective as you gradually comprehend it, and thus too good to give away—I will say the relationship that develops in the second half (with strong voiceover work from David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh) is just as lovingly executed and uncompromised.

kumiko the treasure hunter

I’ve raved about this odd little film since I first saw it at a festival nearly two years ago, and I continue to mention it whenever someone asks for a recommendation. Admittedly, it’s not for everyone but I would hope most people I know could take to this wondrous mash-up of David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch, built around a reference to Fargo (the movie, not the TV series) that traverses from Tokyo to Minnesota and has as perhaps its most beloved character, a noodle-eating pet rabbit named Bunzo. Rinko Kikuchi, best known for Babel and The Brothers Bloom, brilliantly portrays the stubbornly insular misfit while filmmaking team the Zellner Brothers survey a structure that allows for both rigid symmetry and inspired surrealism.


My most middle-of-the-road selection, but a damn near perfect film for what it accomplishes. Recounting The Boston Globe’s 2001-02 investigation of sexual abuse cover-up within the local Catholic archdiocese, director/writer Tom McCarthy constructs this story in a simple but effective linear fashion, almost building the narrative block by block until the immensity of it all becomes resoundingly clear. The great ensemble includes spirited flashy turns from Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo, but thankfully, far more subtle work from the likes of Liev Schreiber and Stanley Tucci (both nearly unrecognizable here) doesn’t get overshadowed. Easily the best Boston-set film of the modern era.


As a cineaste, it’s often to your advantage to remain open to anything. For instance, I never guessed a two-hour plus, excessively talky Israeli drama about a woman trying to get her husband to grant her a divorce would’ve made my year-end list; even as the action never, ever left the courthouse, I found it constantly riveting—a testament, perhaps, to its writer/director/star Ronit Elkabetz, whom I had noticed in earlier films like Or (My Treasure) and The Band’s Visit. It’s a name you should know, and Gett masterfully revivifies the courtroom drama for a specific time and place that nonetheless scans as relatable to a discerning viewer of any culture.


Funny, intense and sexually graphic in equal measures, this 1976 San Francisco-set coming of age tale is the sort of indie gem you didn’t think anyone still made. In adapting Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel, first-time director Marielle Heller conjures up a meaningfully imaginative world for its 15-year-old heroine, Minnie (a breakthrough role for charismatic, convincing British actress Bel Powley). Although exceptionally raunchy and raw at times, Heller lets her story play out refreshingly without judgment or moralizing, allowing Minnie to reach a place of catharsis that’s not without consequences. And, the resulting wisdom she gains from her experiences is genuinely powerful.


In retrospect, I was correct in calling Guy Maddin’s last feature a transitional effort, because this is a leap to another plane entirely. Still recognizably a Maddin film (although co-directed with new accomplice Evan Johnson), this takes the limitless reach of stuff like Brand Upon the Brain! and just runs with it, stitching together a dozen or so short films into a massive, nesting doll-structured epic that reprises all of his pet themes and twists and turns them into something that feels new, even if it looks ancient and ephemeral. Admittedly, it’s a lot to take in, but there’s no other title in this top ten I currently want to watch again and again.


Put aside all the much-discussed talking points (entirely shot on an iPhone, has two transgendered actresses as leads, takes place on Christmas Eve in seedy Los Angeles) and you’re still left with a thoughtful, surprising, one-of-a-kind film. It doesn’t appear that way in its abrasive, hyperactive first ten minutes, but as it organically develops a rhythm and gets deeper into this small world full of richly-defined misfits, it increasingly endears as a cultural slice-of-life and eventually, as a portrait of friendship—specifically how you’ll put up with a friend, or just simply be there for them in good times and bad.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 2014 Cannes Palme d’Or winner (it first played Boston last March) was inspired by a few Chekhov stories, which explains the intense, mesmerizing twenty-minute long conversations in the midst of the usual astonishing and vast Turkish landscape shots.

A surprise breakout from the new indie horror film ghetto, and a deserved one: this cunningly executed, mostly psychological notion of terror shrewdly reaches its fullest fruition not in Detroit’s ravaged, abandoned neighborhoods but in its aging, nondescript suburbs

Debra Granik’s nonfiction companion piece to Winter’s Bone benefits considerably from her foresight to center on Ron Hall, a grizzled biker and Viet Nam war veteran suffering from PTSD who proves to be a natural, compelling subject.

Some balked at the idea of Andrew Bujalski making a romantic comedy (especially right after Computer Chess), but this likable effort ends up nearly salvaging the genre for his generation; of course, it helps to have a superb trio of leads (Kevin Corrigan, Guy Pearce and Cobie Smulders).

15. 99 HOMES
Like The Big Short, it’s far from a perfect study on the housing crisis, but Michael Shannon’s turn as a self-serving realtor is nearly up there with his great work in Take Shelter, and Andrew Garfield resumes his pre-superhero career as an actor to watch.

Co-directed with four other people, Albert Maysles’ final film (following the pleasant, if middling Iris) simply views riding an Amtrak train as a transformative journey with a sense of community not found in any other means of long-distance travel, and it deserves a place at the table with Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter and Salesman.

17. ROOM
A few minor quibbles (the score, Jacob Tremblay’s unnecessary voiceover) kept this off my top ten, but this gutsy literary adaptation has lingered longer in my mind than expected. Brie Larson more than makes good on the promise of Short Term 12, as does director Lenny Abrahamson on Frank.

The year’s most underseen, vital documentary recaps a black Floridian teenager murdered by a white middle-aged adult for playing his music too loud. As much about the need for gun control as the value of the Black Lives Matter movement, I can’t name a more relevant (and moving) documentary from this year.

Remember Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace dominating awards buzz when this premiered at Sundance a year ago? Remember the likes of DiCaprio, Fassbender and Damon once seeming ideal for such a small but articulate, stimulating project? Remember how some films used to be concerned with ideas and observed behavior, as opposed to plot-centric actions and speechifying?

Every few years, Francois Ozon emerges with another lush dramedy that reminds us he’s a big talent, albeit one too French (or too gay) for the film crit cannon to fall over for. This charming Ruth Rendell adaptation has Romain Duris in a dress, which the actor pulls off with effortless aplomb, just like his director does with this tricky, lovely story.


About Elly, Amy, Brooklyn, Call Me Lucky, Ex Machina, Girlhood, Grandma, The Hateful Eight, Heart of a Dog, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Packed In A Trunk, Phoenix, Sicario, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Tom At The Farm, Tu Dors Nicole, What Happened Miss Simone?, What We Do In The Shadows

Last Ten Films: From Blockbusters to Outliers

Tom At The Farm

Tom At The Farm


My last ten films seen in chronological order, between December 23, 2015 and January 8, 2016.

The Hateful Eight (Tarantino, 2015) 8/10
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Abrams, 2015) 7/10
People Places Things (Strouse, 2015) 6/10
The Stanford Prison Experiment (Alvarez, 2015) 6/10
Tom at the Farm (Dolan, 2013) 8/10
Queen of Earth (Perry, 2015) 7/10
Joy (Russell, 2015) 5/10
Results (Bujalski, 2015) 9/10
The Fallen Idol (Reed, 1948) 7/10
La Sapienza (Green, 2014) 6/10

The two “blockbusters” leading off this sequence both surprised me. The first, inspired by 1970s New Hollywood, is the Tarantino film I’ve enjoyed most all the way through since, oh, Jackie Brown, partially because I adore the 70mm “roadshow” presentation but mostly because for all its ugliness/misoygny/voluminous bloodshed, the construction’s tighter than Inglorious Basterds and it adheres to a stronger, more plausible moral code than Django Unchained. The second, heavily inspired by, um, Star Wars: A New Hope works because it places character and plot way ahead of special effects and mythology. Sure, the Hans/Leia/Chewy stuff is a little cornball, but it sure as hell resonates as well as any fan (either fervent, or in my case, near-nonexistent) could want.

With the exception of Joy (third time decidely not the charm for Russell/Lawrence, though the latter gives better than she gets) and The Fallen Idol (Carol Reed and Graham Greene’s persecuor to The Third Man, and every bit the warm-up to that), the rest are Chlotrudis-eligible films (nominations are due this Friday) I’ve been busy catching up on at home. No real stinkers so far, but nothing revelatory either (apart from Results, which will likely secure a place in the year-end best of list I’ll be posting soon). Nearly all of them contain at least one recommendable facet: Elisabeth Moss’ fearless performance in Queen of Earth, La Sapienza’s striking cinematography and editing (the (purposely?) stitled acting in it threw me off a bit), a great sense of place and utilization of claustrophobia in the occasionally-fascinating-but-often-excruciating The Stanford Prison Experiment and Jemaine Clement’s winning underdog persona keeping People Places Things afloat.

Slighly better than most of them? The film Xavier Dolan made between Laurence Anyways and Mommy, a belated release here (and a minimal one at that, as it played for one week last summer in Salem, though luckily one can stream it on Amazon). Not as good as either of its bookends (or I Killed My Mother), this contained, Hitchcockian thriller (complete with anachronistic orchestral score) is intriguing as a peculiar, potential outlier in Dolan’s catalog—as is his character’s (purposely?) awful, shaggy, bleached hair.

Last Ten Films: Returns and First Reactions

The Forbidden Room

The Forbidden Room


My last ten films seen in chronological order, between November 29 and December 21, 2015.

Spotlight (McCarthy, 2015) 10/10
Heart Of A Dog (Anderson, 2015) 8/10
The Forbidden Room (Maddin/Johnson, 2015) 9/10
Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (Hartley, 2014) 6/10
Iris (Maysles, 2014) 7/10
Tu Dors Nicole (Lafleur, 2014) 8/10
Trumbo (Roach, 2015) 7/10
The Decline of Western Civilization, Part II: The Metal Years (Spheeris, 1988) 8/10
Meet Me In St. Louis (Minnelli, 1944) 7/10
Youth (Sorrentino, 2015) 6/10

Ten titles viewed for the first time—itself a first for this series. Actually, I watched Spotlight twice during this period. Fully living up to the hype it has received all season long, it’s a damn near perfect film, which is not to say the most innovative or stylistically dazzling or even lovable film of the year. But, between a solid ensemble cast (ranging from Mark Ruffalo’s effective and earned outbursts to Liev Schreiber’s poker-faced allure) and an intensely focused, start-to-finish gripping narrative, it’s still easily and deservedly a Best Picture front runner, unless the Academy opts for something more populist.

I’m happy to report that The Forbidden Room is a return to form (and then some) for Guy Maddin (and co-director Evan Johnson) after the stillborn Keyhole. Rejuvenating his love of early-cinema ephemera, it plays like a Greatest Hits clip reel, only with all “new” material. Admittedly, its sheer scope overwhelms—I found myself stumbling to keep up after the 60-minute mark, but here that’s less a deterrent than encouragement to return to it again and again. At best, it could very well end up a visual equivalent to one of my favorite albums, The Avalanches’ Since I Left You, whose layers and density only clicked and gained meaning over time.

Heart of A Dog could also probably further benefit from another viewing. I would’ve appreciated Laurie Anderson’s artier tendencies more back when I was taking an avant-garde cinema class in grad school, but her ability to tell stories like no one else (primarily through content and perspective, but also her vocal cadences) keeps her from slipping into archness and solipsism. Unfortunately, those latter qualities nearly sunk Youth for me. It’s my first Paolo Sorrentino film, and while he’s unique and clever (and knows his way around a musical cue), he’s no Fellini and his pretensions feel stilted (comparatively, for me, Wes Anderson’s gradually connect and continually expand.) Michael Caine’s unforced, beatific presence ends up Youth’s greatest asset; the great, over-the-top Jane Fonda cameo is as exactly long as it needs to be.

A leftover from TIFF 2014, Tu Dors Nicole is almost a minor masterpiece: a languid, somewhat pokey, black-and-white coming-of-age tale set in a sleepy Montreal suburb, sweetly, lightly spiked with magic realism and naturalistic performances. Iris is a decent epitaph from the late Al Maysles (along with In Transit), its kindred spirit of a subject coming off like a genuinely wiser, better-adjusted “Little” Edie Beale. Trumbo is a good, old fashioned middlebrow biopic: fairly obvious (Helen Mirren’s Hedda Hopper is brilliantly acted and flimsily one-sided) and studiously surface-level, but painstakingly crafted and entertaining, with Bryan Cranston affably carrying the picture. Electric Boogaloo is even more of a blast, a valhalla of ‘80s B-cinema in all its shoddy glory, but it would benefit greatly from taking time to breathe as the relentless pace of the clips and talking heads interviews quickly becomes wearying, leaving little room to develop some much-needed context.

Only two older titles this time out, and they have little in common. Meet Me In St. Louis, a MGM musical I’ve always been meaning to see, is as grand an exhibit for Judy Garland’s greatness as The Wizard of Oz or A Star Is Born; predictably, it feels lacking when the focus isn’t entirely on her (which thankfully, isn’t too often). In a way, The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years is also a musical, fully documenting a hyper-specific era that now seems as distant and foreign as the Minnelli film likely did in 1988. Certainly more fun than its punk-scene predecessor, it’s also far more revealing, quickly transcending its initial, real-life This Is Spinal Tap trappings, growing increasingly surreal in some respects (I’ve honestly never seen anything like Chris Holmes’ debauched pool interview before) but also remaining relatable as you can increasingly discern (but rarely belittle) the chasm between aspiration and reality (often self-acknowledged) for these poodle-haired rockers and their fans.

Last Ten Films: Playing The Part

The Duke Of Burgundy

The Duke Of Burgundy


My last ten films seen (in chronological order, between October 26 and November 26, 2015).

The Search For General Tso (Cheney, 2014) 7/10
Anomalisa (Kaufman/Johnson, 2015) 9/10
The Assassin (Hou, 2015) 7/10
The Decline of Western Civilization (Spheeris, 1981) 5/10
Room (Abrahamson, 2015) 8/10
The Duke Of Burgundy (Strickland, 2014) 10/10
Brooklyn (Crowley, 2015) 7/10
The Conversation* (Coppola, 1974) 10/10
Best In Show* (Guest, 2000) 9/10
White God (Mundruczó, 2014) 7/10

(*At least my second viewing)

Peter Strickland hasn’t made a safe follow-up to Berberian Sound Studio; if anything, The Duke of Burgundy is even further out there, paying intricate homage to not one, but two subterranean genres. It reprises the previous film’s Giallo fixation, and pours over it a soupcon of classy sexploitation as its two lead characters are involved in a lesbian love affair. Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a wealthy, middle-aged lepidopterist and Evelyne (Chiara D’Anna), her younger housemaid, initially appear to have a working relationship with master-and-servant undertones; within the first fifteen minutes, those undertones become explicitly sexual overtones.

However, the film is not just a kinky parade of verbal abuse, face-sitting, being tied and locked up and other unmentionables alluded to behind closed doors; it’s also a profound, intriguing, complicated love story. While Cynthia plays the master role, it’s increasingly apparent that Evelyne is the person leading the whole pas de deux, dictating much of the action, feeding Cynthia many of her lines. Meanwhile, Cynthia feels less and less comfortable in her role as she falls deeper in love. Strickland parses this dynamic carefully via interactions between the two women that often ask what it means for a lover to play or even live up to her role. The slightest shift, the smallest change in routine or crack in a façade can bring a significant, occasionally devastating result.

The Duke of Burgundy is a both an extreme visual and aural feast, from its deliberately lovingly retro opening credits (greatly enhanced, like the rest of the film, by a beguiling psych-folk score from the band Cat’s Eye) to its stunning lighting and cinematography (watch out for Evelyne’s eyes as she repeatedly looks into the microscope) to its overall period design, which heavily suggests late ‘60s/early ‘70s without ever definitively pinpointing it. I could also go on about the Stan Brakhage-like editing, the rich butterfly motifs, the many scenes where the narrative seems to pause and temporarily fade away as if dangerously entering a dream state. Knudsen is also flat-out brilliant in expressing the wide chasm between Cynthia’s assumed role and her actual self. Although not for everyone, Strickland has made a daring, stimulating, one-of-a-kind, as filling as a seven-layer-cake confection that affects the senses in a way only film as an medium can—that he did it with an all-female cast (when’s the last time you saw a film that had one?) is the extra icing on top.




I’ll write about Anomalisa in more depth once it’s released nationally in January (and I have a chance to see it again), but I suspect cineaste buzz regarding Charlie Kaufman’s foray into stop-motion animation (co-directed with Duke Johnson) will be off the charts come then—it’s as very much its own thing as Synecdoche, New York (or for that matter, Her) was, and I can’t imagine how Paramount will market it. As for other new titles, Room excels mostly because of Brie Larson’s performance, which will surely nab her the Oscar nomination she deserved two years ago for Short Term 12. I’d tighten up the second half and nix Jacob Tremblay’s so-occasional-it’s-pointless annoying voiceover, but this might be the most challenging film (subject matter-wise) to win the audience award at Toronto. Brooklyn also benefits from a solid, film-carrying lead performance; I hadn’t really noticed Saoirse Ronan in anything since Atonement (never saw Hanna), and here she renders what could’ve been another middle-of-the-road prestige indie quite watchable (Emory Cohen also comes into his own as her affable beau.)

If I were rating The Assassin on technique and style alone, it would get a higher mark. The narrative begins and ends strongly but sags in the middle—a problem I’ve often had with Hou’s work (in particular, his historical epics). But if you have a chance to see it on a big screen, by all means go. On that note, I think I might’ve gotten a little more out of White God had I seen it in a theatre, especially for the film’s already-famous wide shots of dogs running through Budapest’s streets. Sort of a gloss on The Birds but told from both perspectives, it’s interesting in how it shows/contrasts processes of learned behavior for both canines and humans. However, I can only recommend it with the caveat that it does contain many scenes of animal cruelty—all humanely staged, as the credits take great pains to point out, but I couldn’t sit through them again. Although far from the best new doc I’ve seen this year, I have no qualms recommending The Search For General Tso, a thoughtful, fizzy think-piece on Chinese-American food and the secret history behind the titular, seemingly omnipresent take-out staple.

As for older titles: Best In Show remains the funniest Guest-related mockumentary, though not the one with the most heart (or the one with the most soul)… The Decline of Western Civilization has value as a cultural artifact, a decent record of Los Angeles punk circa-1980, but the scene itself simply isn’t as intriguing or as good as its New York/London progenitors. I have higher expectations for the sequel (AKA The Metal Years), currently sitting in my DVR queue… I have yet to watch The Godfather Part II (someday, I promise), but I’ll bet The Conversation is Coppola’s best work, made at a smaller scale he’s tried to recapture in recent years and probably never will post-Apocalypse Now. A big name star (Gene Hackman) playing a rather prudish (but brilliant) character, a crisis of conscience, intricate sound design and camera work, a plot twist that remains startling 15+ years since the last time I saw it: is there, or could there possibly be any modern analogue to all of this?

Last Ten Films: What Happened, Movies?

What Happened, Miss Simone?

What Happened, Miss Simone?

My last ten films seen (in chronological order, between August 24 and October 23, 2015):

My Winnipeg* (Maddin, 2007) 10/10
Phoenix (Petzold, 2014) 7/10
Harold and Maude* (Ashby, 1971) 10/10
Sicario (Villenueve, 2015) 8/10
Freeheld (Sollett, 2015) 5/10
The Master* (Anderson, 2012) 9/10
What Happened, Miss Simone? (Garbus, 2015) 8/10
Portrait of Jason (Clarke, 1967) 6/10
Back to the Future* (Zemeckis, 1985) 9/10
Steve Jobs (Boyle, 2015) 7/10

(*At least my second viewing)

I do not normally take sixty days to watch ten films; I could blame this drop in moviegoing on a deficit of interesting new titles (also, I already saw Grandma at PIFF and 99 Homes at TIFF), family commitments, and, of course, television. Can any recent indieplex title match Mr. Robot for style, originality and occasional batshit insanity? If David Simon’s six-hour HBO miniseries Show Me A Hero was released theatricality, it would place in my top ten films of the year. So, in all of September, I only saw Harold and Maude—one of my all-time favorites. This was my first viewing on a big screen with a large audience, whose reactions only further enhanced my appreciation of this singular cult romantic comedy.

Fortunately, as the weather worsens and Oscar season kicks in, I have more reasons to spend a few hours indoors in front of a movie screen. While Sicario is probably too violent and relentlessly bleak to gain much awards traction, it’s a near-great film featuring two very good performances that end up in a yin/yang symbiosis before the credits roll, with supposed lead Emily Blunt simply becoming less and less integral to the story which Benicio del Toro increasingly, effectively dominates. Still too bleak for me to want to sit through again, it’s the rare issue film that excels at establishing and sticking to its thesis until a logical, if harrowing conclusion.

Steve Jobs is the most guilelessly entertaining new film on this list; chalk up its rating to a trio of good, sure-to-be-feted performances: Michael Fassbender, steely and charismatic as Jobs; Seth Rogen, his near-tragic, Fozzie-bear-like Steve Wozniak a role he was born to play, and Kate Winslet, mesmerizing (although submerged in wigs and accents) as Jobs’ longtime marketing executive Joanna Hoffman. As someone repeatedly disappointed by Boyle’s post-Trainspotting oeurve, this is one of his better efforts; the tension between his cinematic flourishes and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s talky interludes is even sublime at times. Still, it loses points for being an emphatic crowd pleaser (read: more than a little corny and calculated).

Phoenix is an equally accomplished film with a different problem. Painstakingly constructed and beautifully written, this novel adaptation and post-World War II German gloss on Vertigo is Petzold’s solid follow-up to Barbara, with the song standard “Speak Low” cannily providing running commentary. However, it all hinges upon what you make of a rather implausible plot point. I enjoyed the film despite it, even if I couldn’t believe it. Still, it’s not implausible as to why Phoenix was made; I can’t say the same for Freeheld, a dramatization of an 2007 Academy Award-winning documentary short. Detailing the fight of a dying police detective to leave her pension to her female romantic partner, the short was timely and sobering; this film, on the other hand, seems little more than an excuse to give a few talented actors juicy parts. Julianne Moore, Ellen Page and Michael Shannon (as Moore’s professional partner) are all terrific, but you’d expect them to be, and what surrounds them is superfluous if not stale, regrettably never fully coming to life.

The Netflix-only What Happened, Miss Simone? surely would’ve received some theatrical distribution in another time. Opening with footage from a scintillating 1976 concert (later released as Nina Simone, Love Sorceress), it then proceeds like your standard (if impassioned) film biography, but what a story (and what archival footage)! Garbus gives meaning to all of Simone’s contradictions and quirks and also emphasizes how underappreciated a talent she was in her lifetime. I wonder what Simone would’ve made of Jason Holliday, the gay, black prostitute/aspiring nightclub performer who is sole subject of Shirley Clarke’s long-hard-to-find avant garde classic. Simply placing the camera on him for a few hours and plying him with endless cocktails, Clarke certainly anticipated the “look-at-me-and-I’ll-(hopefully)-show-you-what-you-don’t-expect” notion that drives a lot of today’s reality TV; however, while intermittently fascinating, I found Portrait of Jason overall to be a slog—perhaps seeing it within a theater’s confines (as opposed to home DVR) would’ve made for a more effective setting.

As for the three rewatches here (not counting Harold and Maude), Maddin’s “docu-fantasia” holds up the best and is perhaps his most successful effort to gradually, beguilingly draw the viewer into his strange world (seeing it also stoked my anticipation for The Forbidden Room). Maybe The Master is not the game-changer I remember it being (certainly not on the level of There Will Be Blood), but I can imagine returning to it every few years without boredom. Back To The Future was seen in a theater on October 21, of course; influence of childhood nostalgia aside, it’s still the best blockbuster of its era, and now looks like one of the more audacious ones, too—would the oedipal stuff between Marty and his mother even be thinkable in a studio film today?

Last Ten Films: Unknown Pleasures

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

The Diary of a Teenage Girl


My last ten films seen between July 27 and August 23, 2015, with number ratings out of 10.

Tangerine (Baker, 2015) 9/10
Boogie Nights* (Anderson, 1997) 9/10
Irrational Man (Allen, 2015) 5/10
Brazil* (Gilliam, 1985) 10/10
The End Of The Tour* (Ponsoldt, 2015) 8/10
The Trip To Italy* (Winterbottom, 2014) 7/10
Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (Pennebaker, 1973) 6/10
Best of Enemies (Gordon/Neville, 2015) 6/10
Mistress America (Baumbach, 2015) 7/10
The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Heller, 2015) 10/10

*indicates that this was at least a second viewing

Two exceptional new indies bookend this list; both may very well end up in my year-end top ten.

I’ve seen enough coming-of-age films to contribute to a Chlotrudis poll about them, but I’ve seen nothing quite like The Diary of a Teenage Girl: funny, intense and sexually graphic in equal measures, it’s also a period piece, set in 1976 San Francisco. And, it kicks off with a whopper of a revelation: 15-year-old protagonist Minnie (Bel Powley) has just lost her virginity to Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), who is not only twenty years older but also her mother’s (Kristin Wiig) boyfriend.  Divulging this news via a diary recorded in her bedroom on cassette tapes, Minnie’s not ashamed of what happened, but clearly transformed: you sense the thousands of hormonally charged emotions rushing through her as she both carefully considers while also allowing herself to be swept away by the newness and immensity of it all.

In adapting Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel, first-time director Marielle Heller fluidly and inventively incorporates animation into Minnie’s world. An aspiring comic book artist, Minnie’s drawings often leap off the page and onto the screen, creatively depicting the realms of her imagination and how it co-exists with her reality. Which gets complicated as she continues her clandestine affair with Monroe, for her emotional maturity hasn’t yet caught up with her recent sexual liberation. Exacerbated by an unstable, overly permissive environment (Monroe, her mother and assorted friends often hang out at home drinking, dancing and snorting lines of cocaine), Minnie wants to be bold and free, but is she ready to take responsibility for her actions? Heller lets this all play out refreshingly without judgement or moralizing, allowing Minnie to reach a place of catharsis that’s not without consequences. However, the resulting wisdom she gains from her experiences is genuinely powerful.

Skarsgård is ideally cast as a slacker/loser who is nonetheless nice to and fully aware of his desire for Minnie (however misguided it is) while trying, not always successfully, not to exploit or take advantage of her. Although somewhat overshadowed by her co-stars, Wiig steps into the fun mom role with ease, while Christopher Meloni has a few good, acidic moments as her intellectual, withholding ex-husband. Still, this is rightfully British actress Powley’s film. Both charismatic and convincing, she manages to make Minnie a believable American teen (she was 21-22 during filming) and has a winning enough persona to create a distinct young heroine for the ages (think of Thora Birch in Ghost World, or even Ellen Page in Juno). Although exceptionally raunchy and raw at times, this uncommonly perceptive coming-of-age tale is highly recommended for anyone going or having once gone through puberty, regardless of gender, sexuality or era.




Tangerine, Sean Baker’s so-microbudget-that-it-was-shot-on-an-iPhone (though it looks good enough that you’d never guess) feature appears to be a throwback to indie film’s golden age (‘80s Jarmusch, but also New Queer Cinema) in that it seems like it came from out of nowhere to saturate the festival and arthouse circuits (it has quietly grossed $600K in six weeks). It’s far more modern than that—innovative, actually, in how naturally it presents its two male-to-female transgender leads, Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. Some may balk that they’re both playing prostitutes (respectively named Alexandra and, ahem, Sin-Dee), and at first, the film can barely keep up with this motor-mouthed duo as they seem to invite drama and create chaos wherever they go.

Happily, within 10-15 minutes, Baker and his leads establish an identifiable, endearing rhythm as they traverse L.A.’s seedy sidewalks and parking lots and the corner donut shop which serves as the film’s home base. The story centers on a single day-into-night search for the girl rumored to be sleeping with Sin-Dee’s pimp/boyfriend Chester (James Ransome). Then, Baker introduces a parallel narrative involving Armenian cabbie Razmik (Karren Karagulian) whose path intersects with the leads intermittently until both strands eventually, fully align with an extended screwball exchange back at that donut shop.

The film succeeds largely in part of Baker’s direction of his cast. From the start, you pick up on Taylor’s and Rodriguez’s chemistry; both are also strong enough to carry scenes individually–especially Taylor, whose karaoke performance is a highlight (she could easily achieve Laverne Cox-level fame with a higher-profile role). Karaguilan maintains his protagonist status even as the film reveals increasingly less savory facets of his character. Ransome’s Chester is like an older and slightly (but really not much) wiser iteration of the actor’s best-known role, fuck-up Ziggy from season 2 of The Wire. For all its zesty trash-talk and colorful situations, Tangerine is more or less about friendship—how you’ll put up with a friend, remain loyal to them, or just simply be there for them in good times and bad. Remarkably, Baker emphasizes these points in the final two scenes not with cloying sentimentality but via a lived-in bond between Alexandra and Sin-Dee that feels honest and earned.


As for other new titles: preferable to While We’re Young but certainly no Frances Ha, Mistress America is as scattered as Greta Gerwig’s more ambitious-than-talented New Yorker, although it’s at least pleasantly fizzy, like that Whit Stillman film she starred in a few years back. Based on her droll turn here, I’d bet on Lola Kirke maintaining a more interesting career than her older sister Jemima (currently saddled with the worst-written character on Girls). Best of Enemies is indeed best when showing clips from the Buckley vs. Gore debates but occasionally fumbles when it tries placing them in a meaningful context. The End of The Tour mostly held up to a second viewing, but this time Segel’s Wallace seemed a little more novel than real; I’m not really aching for a third viewing. Despite Joaquin Phoenix’s and Parker Posey’s decent effort to fit into the Woodyverse, Irrational Man is a lukewarm Hitchcock pastiche that doesn’t catch fire until the final climactic scene (and even then, not worth sitting all the way through for).

Two of the older titles I hadn’t seen since the late ‘90s: Brazil has aged as well as one could hope—one of the key films of the ‘80s, really, and seeing it on the big screen definitely heightened its impact. Boogie Nights is also still a blast, but it loses some steam in its second half (though not in the brilliant, startling “Sister Christian”/Alfred Molina sequence); I think I now prefer Paul Thomas Anderson’s last three films to his first four, (which does not prevent me from wanting to see all of them again and again). The Trip to Italy, re-watched more for the scenery than the Coogan/Brydon banter remains solid entertainment for those who like that sort of thing; Ziggy Stardust succeeds less as a piece of filmmaking than as a document of David Bowie at his delirious peak, as fabulous as Liza Minnelli the previous year and as influential and original as David Byrne would prove a decade on in the cinematically superior Stop Making Sense.

Halfway through 2015: Movies

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter


A companion to this list, here are my ten favorite films of 2015, so far, in alphabetical order.  I’m including titles technically from last year that didn’t open in Boston until 2015 and also festival titles, most scheduled for a release in the next six months.

Last year, I had a clear and obvious favorite at this point; this year, not so much. For me, the biggest surprise so far has been Gett, a talky, Israeli procedural set entirely inside a courthouse–ordinarily not my cup of tea, but for nearly two hours, it’s consistently riveting. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter also held up to a second viewing–I anticipate The Look of Silence will as well. Still, I suspect (hope?) that I haven’t come across my favorite film of year just yet.

99 Homes
The End of The Tour
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem
In Transit
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
The Look of Silence
Packed In A Trunk
Stray Dog
Two Days, One Night
Winter Sleep

IFF Boston 2015 Wrap-up

In Transit

In Transit


Now in its 13th year, the Independent Film Festival of Boston is the city’s only film festival that matters—not to discount all the various niche festivals that pop up throughout the year in venues ranging from the Museum of Fine Arts to Belmont Studio Cinema, but IFF Boston is the only one I adjust my schedule around. You always sense that it is conceived and programmed by people who clearly love independent film and want to cultivate a community of fellow cineastes to spread the word about upcoming independent releases and other titles that may never even receive theatrical distribution.

If 2014 was a relatively weak year for documentaries, 2015 is shaping up to be an exemplary one if IFF Boston’s slate is any indication. In addition to playing two titles I saw at TIFF, one great (The Look of Silence), the other very good (Do I Sound Gay?), IFF Boston’s highlights were mostly non-fiction. Stray Dog, Debra Granik’s follow-up to her unlikely hit Winter’s Bone is companion piece about Ron Hall, who had a small role in the earlier film. A grizzled biker who runs a tiny RV community outside Branson, Missouri, Hall earned the nickname that gives the film its title for his tendency to adopt and raise small mutts. As with the characters in Granik’s earlier film, one is tempted to initially view him as a stereotype, a figure likely far removed from a majority of the film’s potential audience. However, Granik soon reveals more about him: it’s not exactly surprising to find out he’s a Vietnam War veteran struggling with PTSD, but it is unexpected seeing him learning to speak Spanish on the computer in order to communicate more with his Mexican wife of less than two years.

Granik’s foresight to center on Hall proves keenly perceptive, as he’s a natural and compelling subject, candid about the demons he overcame and those he continues to confront. Employing a strict cinéma vérité approach, she excels at building a rich and ultimately moving portrait of Hall and his community, masterfully observing them without judgment. Another vérité filmmaker, the late Albert Maysles, appeared at the festival with his final two projects: Iris (which I’ll try to catch when it plays theatrically this month) and In Transit, which he co-directed with four other filmmakers. Originally conceived as a doc about passenger train travel on multiple lines all over the world, in its final cut, In Transit is solely about Amtrak’s Empire Builder, the busiest long-distance train route in the U.S. (stretching from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest). As we pass through a variety of settings and meet a diverse number of passengers, it’s increasingly apparent how this means of travel can be a transformative journey with a sense of community not found in, say, flying or even taking a Greyhound bus. As always with Maysles, one detects a humaneness that is neither exploitative nor idealized; this is a beautiful career capper for the man (with his brother David) behind  Grey GardensSalesman and all the rest.

Bobcat Goldthwait (of all people) also creates an affecting portrait in Call Me Lucky, his first feature-length documentary (he’s been a longtime fixture at IFF Boston, although I haven’t seen any of his narrative films). You may not know who Barry Crimmins is, but you should and for the film’s first half, Goldthwait forges a sound argument for his subject’s greatness. As an articulate, incensed, politically charged stand-up comedian in the 1980s, Crimmins was ahead of his time (and to be fair, also of it with his bushy mustache and propensity to have both a beer and a cigar in hand on stage). He never became a household name for multiple reasons, chief among them for devoting much of his time to running Ding Ho and Stitches, two comedy clubs that cultivated a superlative stand-up scene in Boston (many from it are interviewed, including David Cross, Marc Maron and Goldthwait himelf); his uncompromisingly angry demeanor might’ve also been a deterrent, but something else contributing to that anger also held Crimmins back. Goldthwait structures the film’s second half around revealing this early-life trauma, which not only alters how we perceive Crimmins but also unavoidably changes the film’s overall tone. To his credit, Goldthwait pulls off this shift well enough to the point where Call Me Lucky still resembles one unified narrative. The worst you can say about the second half is that it’s a little flabby as a surplus of interviews distracts from the main arc. Fortunately, ongoing footage of Crimmins today, both in life and work (his stand-up retains nearly as much bite as in his heyday) plays a crucial part in the film’s triumph, illustrating the man’s accomplishment and resilience while never obscuring his impossible-to-fully-shake torment.

City of Gold

City of Gold


On a lighter note, City of Gold at first seems like little more than a puff piece in which Jonathan Gold, Pulitzer Prize winning Los Angeles Times food critic conducts a tour of his favorite restaurants in the sprawling metropolis he has always called home. However, he was one of the first major market critics to take a less exclusive approach to his profession, making room (and often going out of the way) for food from practically every culture and neighborhood in L.A., from mom-and-pop establishments in Little Ethiopia to a Korean joint in a grungy San Gabriel Valley strip mall (he was also an early devotee of food trucks). Resembling a Jewish David Crosby, Gold’s understated exterior is a deceptive mask for his enthusiasm and openness for seeking out the unlikely and unexpected, while his writing translates his findings into relatable prose without dumbing things down for his mass readership. An affable slice of comfort food, City of Gold would make a nice chaser to Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen’s epic, personal doc about the city as it appears on film—this, on the other hand is the city as it appears via its food, expertly showing how the best intro to a culture or a community is to sample its cuisine.

I’d bet someone could make just as enlightening a documentary about Minnesota (practically L.A.’s opposite in terms of weather and disposition), but Lost Conquest ain’t it.  An exploration of the state’s Viking-related culture, the film hinges on the notion that Leif Erickson and his cohorts may have somehow made their way there from the Atlantic Ocean, settling in 1000 A.D. There’s no proof (or much likelihood) that this happened, but obviously that doesn’t prevent a plethora of eccentrics from wanting to believe the myth. A gestalt of crackpot theories, dueling (and probably fake) historic runes, artisanal sword-makers and general Scandinavian tenacity, Lost Conquest is too silly by half, but at least it doesn’t take itself too seriously (the Viking reenactments are more entertaining for their meta-ness). Although not a great film by any means, Made In Japan fares much better thanks to its remarkable subject, Tomi Fujiyama. The first lady of country-western music in Japan, she performed at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in 1964 to a standing ovation. Catching up with her nearly a half-century later, the plucky, amiable Fujiyama sounds and plays as robust as she ever did, her surprisingly husky voice still otherworldly, her fireball personality absolutely undiminished. Following her and her husband as they return to America in hopes of playing the Grand Old Opry one more time, the film leans a little too heavily on this premise, almost to the point of exhaustion. Still, Fujiyama is such a delight to watch, whether performing with musicians less than half her age or once again taking in the sights and sounds of the culture that deeply inspired her.

As for narrative features at IFF Boston, I was slightly less enamored of Special Jury Prize and Audience Award winner WildLike than most. It’s about a fourteen-year-old girl (Ella Purnell) sent to live with her uncle in Alaska. After he crosses a line with her, she escapes and sets off on her way back home to Seattle, alone, with very little cash. The clumsy first act appears very much like the work of a first-time filmmaker (Frank Hall Green) and Purnell is adequate at best. Still, I can see why WildLike (what a clunky title!) was so well-loved—it improves dramatically once Purnell hits the road, partially thanks to the stunning summertime Alaskan prairies and vistas, but also to the film’s ace-in-the-hole, Bruce Greenwood, excellent as a fellow traveler who becomes Purnell’s reluctant ally. The camaraderie they develop over time feels real and earned, and the final act is genuinely suspenseful and clever.

The End Of The Tour

The End Of The Tour


Although the festival missed out on some Sundance narrative titles I had hoped to see (most notably Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room), the opening and closing night films were both solid. The End of The Tour marks director James Ponsoldt’s second time opening the festival, the first being 2013’s The Spectacular Now. While the earlier film updated (and, to an extent, subverted) teen romantic comedies, this forgoes the biopic’s structural trappings to focus less on lives and careers and more on a specific incident between two real people. In 1996, shortly after the publication of his magnum opus Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace was interviewed for Rolling Stone magazine by reporter David Lipsky, who flew out to Wallace’s then-home of Bloomington, Indiana and spent five days with him, accompanying him on a book tour stop in Minneapolis. The interview was never published, although Lipsky wrote his own book about it (which this film is adapted from) after Wallace’s 2008 suicide.

The result is like an epic, ongoing conversation between Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and Wallace (Jason Segel). While Eisenberg plays Lipsky as another variation on the wiry, guarded onscreen persona he has been perfecting since The Squid and The Whale, it’s not an overstatement to say Segel is a revelation—barely recognizable with his long stringy hair and omnipresent bandana, he all but disappears into the role. Instead of a calculated attempt at departing from his usual nice-guy comedic presence, his Wallace is seemingly unstudied and graceful—a thing of beauty, really, when you consider the perils of playing a famous figure. Although it loses momentum as the second half becomes somewhat monotonous, it’s the rare film focused on ideas rather than actions, on personal dynamics instead of life-altering decisions. For those very reasons, I’m not sure how large an audience it will attract when it comes out later this summer—it’s more a future cult classic than an event film.

I’ll be surprised if IFF Boston’s closer, Me And Earl And The Dying Girl is anything less than an indie smash. Winner of both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance (like Whiplash last year), this young adult novel adaptation combines Wes Anderson-style whimsy with the melodrama of The Fault In Our Stars; it also contains heavy dollops of French New Wave, Harold and Maude and nearly everything else in The Criterion Collection, all set to a omniscient soundtrack of lovely mid-70s Brian Eno songs and filmed in a grungy section of Pittsburgh with loads more character than the suburban enclaves of The Perks of Being A Wallflower. Thomas Mann (as Greg, the “Me” of the title) gives a refreshing, natural lead performance, with Olivia Cooke (as cancer-stricken Rachel) a good match/foil for his insecurities without ever drifting into manic pixie dream girl territory; Nick Offerman (disarmingly spacey as Greg’s father) and an affable Molly Shannon round out the mostly unknown supporting cast.

An emphatic crowd pleaser like Little Miss Sunshine or Juno, it’s so far receiving the same mixed critical reaction as those films, and I understand why—it wants to be funny yet also a tearjerker, left-of-center but familiar, capturing the trials of an average high school student but within a blatantly exaggerated high school environment. It’s manipulative and arch and yet, for all its acknowledged influences, really, truly its own thing. I suspect it will find a wider audience than anything else I saw at IFF Boston, but it exudes the same spirit this film festival and countless others like it were founded upon. It doesn’t feel like it came from a studio, a focus group or a campaign to infiltrate the market as much as possible—as corny as this sounds, it feels completely heartfelt and how often do you see anything so devoid of cynicism these days?