Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Another one from our big yearly roundup:
What movie do you think is missing from our Best Films Of 2015 list?
Rarely do I see a film that makes me squirm as often as I did while watching the superb Austrian horror film Goodnight Mommy. I’m rather jaded when it comes to horror-movie beats, but in addition to being an incredibly well-crafted little shocker, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s film manages to include multiple scenes of horrifically compelling imagery that caused me to avert my eyes in discomfort. And not because there was anything particularly grisly being shown (although when the movie does go down that road, holy hell, is it painful), but because I genuinely worried about what was going to happen. There’s a nighttime scene with a specific kind of insect that still gives me shudders thinking about it. That kind of commitment to unnerving thrills, and the expertly-shot manner in which the movie’s slowly building dread comes to a rattling boil, deserves special recognition. It Follows justifiably swallowed up a lot of the attention this year in the horror genre, but Goodnight Mommy is going to be one that endures, too.
I’m surprised that Room didn’t appear on more of our critics’ lists; I thought it was an emotionally effective, absolutely harrowing story that was well made and well acted. Maybe not enough of our people are parents: Room tells the story of a woman who’s been kidnapped and kept in a confined space for seven years, and who gives birth to her attacker’s child not long into her confinement. (Minor spoiler that I think most of the reviews give away straight ahead.) The movie is divided neatly into the woman’s captivity and her life afterward, and it addresses both of those states with nuance and compassion.
Let’s be clear: Unfriended is not high cinema. The acting is barely passable, the dialogue is insipid, and the characters are some of the most shrill and irritating facsimiles of human beings you’ll ever encounter in a feature film. (Although, given that it’s their job to get slaughtered one by one, in increasingly ludicrous ways, this might be seen as more of a feature than a bug.) So why am I stumping for it? Because it’s clever, and damn if I don’t love a clever horror movie. The film’s central conceit—everything happens in real time on the screen of a young woman’s laptop, as she Skypes with her horrible friends and one very angry intruder—is even better in execution than in concept, complete with desperate Google searches and some fascinating insights into the main character’s thoughts through the things she types but chooses not to send. Director Leo Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves really only have one great idea to work with here—two, if you count twisting “Never Have I Ever” into a Saw-esque game of lethal revelations—but they play it to the hilt, achieving something immensely satisfying out of a bunch of dumb component parts.
I’m not usually one for rom-coms, but something about Sleeping With Other People worked for me. And I think that something was the honesty with which both sides of Alison Brie’s character were shared. Too often, this genre portrays the female lead as a down-on-her luck gal who is either sitting around single or simply meandering through a subpar relationship. Sleeping With Other People instead shows the damaging relationship Lainey (Brie) carries on with the ever-unattainable Matt (Adam Scott), from its college beginnings to present day, throughout which Matt seriously mistreats her. Which brings us to the two scenes that slayed me: The first takes place when Lainey’s male lead Jake (Jason Sudeikis) takes matters into his own hands, seeking vengeance on Lainey’s behalf in a hilarious and public manner. The second, however, is my favorite, because it gives Lainey a chance to assert herself and also allows Mark to understand how he’s hurt not only her, but others around him. It’s a big fuck you, delivered in the subtlest of ways. Where other rom-coms would settle for over-the-top antics, that moment is just one of the examples of the movie’s ability to create fully fleshed-out characters with a real sense of agency.
The remarkable coming-of-age tale The Diary Of A Teenage Girl has every opportunity to be too much: Too quirky, too preachy, too icky, too cliché. But, in adapting Phoebe Gloeckner’s acclaimed graphic novel, first-time director Marielle Heller works with deftness and confidence, sensitively tapping into the puzzle-box that is the adolescent mind. Set in the 1970s, aspiring illustrator and high school student Minnie (Bel Powley) experiences a sexual awakening after losing her virginity to her mother’s (Kristen Wiig) aimless boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård). The fact that Diary somehow pulls this off with humor and warmth should be enough to qualify it for our list, but then I’d be neglecting to mention its trio of surprising performances: Wiig has never been more convincing, Skarsgård manages to find humanity in a man who makes despicable decisions, and Powley is simply extraordinary. As Minnie, she nails the aching nuances of burgeoning femininity where others would go broad with hormones-run-amok. It’s a special movie that, at the very least, boasts a blast of a soundtrack, throwing back to the decade without hitting the typical musical cues.
As the guy who tallied up the votes for this year’s list, I know which ones got left off by a narrow margin, and that includes a lot of the movies already named here, and some more that I wish had made it. I’ll go with one I think should have made the list, and maybe would have if its distributor weren’t keeping it so tight to its chest: Quentin Tarantino’s 70mm Western The Hateful Eight, which is the most challenging movie he’s made, and the one that really shows his gifts as a straightforward dramatist. This is a slow-going, deliberate, and very theatrical film that eventually degrades into gory, nihilistic violence, but it is capped off by an ending that’s surprisingly (Or is that perversely?) moving and hopeful.
I’ve already used my annotated ballot to stump for Son Of Saul, which, quite shockingly, no one else voted for in our best-of poll. (A film set over 24 hours at a concentration camp didn’t get a lot of love. Go figure.) So I’ll use this opportunity to sing the praises of something I’m much less surprised but no less disappointed didn’t make our list: Gett: The Trial Of Viviane Amsalem, a thorny Israeli film about a married woman (Ronit Elkabetz, who also co-wrote and co-directed) attempting to secure a divorce against her prideful husband’s wishes—a real uphill battle with Israeli law, which is fundamentally stacked against her. A courtroom drama in the purest sense of the word, Gett never leaves the nondescript courthouse where it’s set; the film turns the trial of its title into a series of false starts and endless delays, accumulating a farcical outrage as Viviane’s domestic life is put under the microscope (and that’s progress, given her husband’s ability to delay the proceedings simply by not showing up). It’s powerfully political filmmaking, and relevant to any society which puts more value in a man’s word than a woman’s—which is to say, this is a movie about more than just the ins and outs of the Israeli legal system.
I feel like the documentary Amy deserves to be on our “best of” list partly because of what it isn’t: a bunch of talking heads going on about the short, tragic life of Amy Winehouse. Considering the salacious, well-documented details of her battle with addiction, Amy could have gone wrong on so many levels. But director Asif Kapadia deftly made a humane, evenhanded portrait of an artist whose incredible talent was outmatched by her personal demons. That sounds trite, and yes, the story is a familiar one, but Kapadia still made it gut-wrenching. Winehouse’s struggles were more complicated than the tabloid stories about her indicated, and the deeply sensitive artist with the knockout voice deserved the nuance Amy provides.
Look, I’m biased. I’m Philly born and bred. I rep this city hard. So like any good Philadelphian, I have a love-hate relationship with Rocky. He’s a cliche that has come to define my home for much of the world. But I have rarely been so elated in the theater as I was while watching Creed. Ryan Coogler does an excellent job of returning the franchise to the boxing ring. Michael B. Jordan is intense and engaging, and Sylvester Stallone returns Rocky to the sweet fool of the original without buying as much into the caricature that latter films fell into. But more importantly, a movie has never intrinsically understood my city like this one has. Sure, the otherwise great Tessa Thompson says “jawn” weird, and Rocky is reading the wrong newspaper (he’d read the tabloid Daily News, not the broadsheet Inquirer. I should know I worked for the former, and currently work at the latter). But Coogler got to the heart of the city, featuring both New Philadelphia and the neighborhoods where boxing gyms still turn out prize fighters that will always have a little dirt under their fingernails. Coogler also made sure to turn his lens on black Philadelphia, a community the rest of the franchise decided to ignore. I loved every minute of Creed, and so did the theater I saw it in—who cheered at the fight scenes and booed when a shot of Eagles graffiti showed up on screen. Welcome back Italian Stallion, and welcome to Philly, Adonis.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the heck out of Mad Max; Inside Out; and this year’s high-profile, critical-consensus films. But the one that’s stayed with me all year was Ex Machina. Writer and director Alex Garland manages to take a high-concept premise—a reclusive, Steve Jobs-like genius (Oscar Isaac) invites a young employee (Domhnall Gleeson) to test the android he created (Alicia Vikander) to see if she’s truly intelligent—and tuns it into a claustrophobic, tense thriller, as the three circle each other through an hour and a half of vicious psychological manipulation and constant shifts in the balance of power. Garland expertly ratchets up the tension, confining nearly the entire film to one location and only four characters (Sonoya Mizuno plays Isaac’s unsettlingly mute servant), and forcing the audience to question the humanity of all four characters by the end. Garland was already an accomplished screenwriter, having written 28 Days Later and Sunshine for Danny Boyle, and adapting Never Let Me Go for the screen, but his assured work in Ex Machina proves him to be a major new talent behind the camera as well.
I agree with both Mike and Molly’s choices; both of those were on my ballot without making the final 20, as was Mistress America, which I wrote about as my ballot outlier. Ultimately my ballot is a great guide to movies I think deserved to be on the list that didn’t make it, so I’ll pick a movie from there that I haven’t written much about and say Mississippi Grind. I heard good things about this gambling movie starring Ben Mendelsohn as a born loser (naturally) and Ryan Reynolds as his new friend, who at least looks and acts like a winner, but when I caught up with it, I was surprised by just how well acted and skillfully made it is. It’s the kind of movie that starts out strong (in this case with a terrific scene where Mendelsohn and Reynolds meet at a poker table) and seems capable of toppling over into a pile of disappointment at any moment; its characters are similarly perched. But the movie never really tumbles; Mississippi Grind stays sad, funny, and relatively unpredictable the whole way through. I got a way bigger kick out of it than I got from most of the year-end awards contenders.
I’m not surprised Spotlight didn’t earn a place on this list, as I found it decidedly not cinematic. But what it’s lacking in visual flair it makes up for in workman-like spirit; it’s the perfect example of a compelling story well told. The film follows The Boston Globe’s investigative team “Spotlight” as they slowly uncover the extent of sexual abuse conducted and then covered up by the Catholic church. As with its spiritual predecessor, All The President’s Men, Spotlight lovingly depicts the minutiae of great reporting. But while that 1976 political thriller kept its focus squarely on its intrepid journalists, Spotlight gives equal attention to the victims of sexual abuse at the center of its story. Without ever exploiting their trauma, the film acknowledges that even the most dedicated investigation would be nothing without these brave survivors coming forward to tell their stories—in some cases repeatedly and for years. If Spotlight is ultimately a celebration of investigative journalism, it’s equally a condemnation of the way society—and even well-meaning reporters—can all too easily turn a blind eye to horrific open secrets taking place right next door.
I never would’ve expected to find myself contemplating this film for a best-of list when I went to see it. The only reason I even went was because my daughter wanted to go, but I have to be honest: I thought Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella was swell. It’s a story I know backward and forward, as does just about everyone, so there was no reason to anticipate that I’d find myself so invested in the proceedings, but Branagh delivered a lovely film that looked gorgeous, had a strong script from Chris Weitz, and featured a wonderful cast, starting with Lily James as Cinderella and including top-notch performances from Cate Blanchett, Stellan Skarsgård, Richard Madden, Hayley Atwell, Ben Chaplin, Rob Brydon, Derek Jacobi, and Helena Bonham Carter as Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother. It might not be for all tastes, but I got lost in the fairy tale straight away and had a smile on my face all the way through to “and they lived happily ever after.” Well, except during Blanchett’s bits. Man, was she despicable… and deliciously so.
It’s been a big year for the Western, but the closest our list comes is the dystopian spawn of Stagecoach and El Topo, Mad Max: Fury Road. I’d recommend another in addition, Lisandro Alonso’s knockout Jauja, about a Dane on the hunt for his daughter in 19th century Argentina. There’s a scene in The Knick where characters are blown away watching “The Big Swallow” in a kinetoscope. That’s what I feel like watching Jauja—like I’m looking through a window into some mythic realm so unfamiliar it’s spooky. The corners are rounded, the colors are yellowed, the exotic landscape is hiding all kinds of secrets. In the opening an elephant seal bobs out of a pocket in the middleground you didn’t even know was there. Jauja takes Alonso’s contemplative portraits of men on the outskirts of civilization and adds professional actors (Viggo Mortensen in the Viggo Mortensen role, a multilingual yet taciturn historical military man), a period setting, a fully fictional story, and maybe even some magic to achieve his biggest minimalist movie yet. And as always Alonso gives plenty of room to think about what you’re seeing—the theatrical blocking and natural settings, the toy soldier, the historical reckoning—but that only heightens the delirium by the end. Jauja’s an elusive movie, but it’s well worth the chase.
Nobody makes movies likes Matías Piñeiro—tricky, intricate, literate little things that mobilize theatrical precedents in the service of purely cinematic storytelling. The Princess Of France picks up where Viola left off, switching out Twelfth Night for Love’s Labor Lost but otherwise retaining the post-modern conceit of following young Argentine actors so caught up in their Shakespearean pursuits that they start to seem like (modern, autonomous) doppelgängers of the Bard’s characters. Even leaving aside the bristling brilliance of Piñeiro’s writing—which splits the difference between adaptation and invention—I’m hard pressed to think of another director with such an eye for beauty, which starts with the casting of his (mostly female) ensembles and extends to the way that he keeps his camera so desirously close to the action. Except, of course, in the brilliant, bird’s-eye opening shot, which is one of the great, funny, paranoid curtain-raisers of recent years—and I’d say the best movie soccer scene of all time. Olé!