Sadly, I didn’t produce as much content in November as I would have liked to. My excuses are, number one, that November tends to be my busiest month for my non-culture-writing activities, such as work commitments and volunteering; and number two, that I’ve always been sensitive to sudden temperature changes, with Chicagoland weather being particularly schizophrenic this November. We got a foot of snow during the weekend before Thanksgiving; four days later, Turkey Day itself topped off with a high temperature of 60° F. Combined with the seasonal-affective depression I’ve been prone to these last few years, I spent a lot of my November free time tired and lethargic, not particularly interested in watching and writing.
As for December’s content and commitments, I already made a huge dent in my movie watching, with five full-length review in the works. In addition, I submitted my year-end nominations to the OFCS, and have a better idea of where my television coverage will go from this point forward. Look for a new series of TV capsule reviews called My Week in Television starting stoon, kicking off with coverage of Jessica Jones (Netflix) and The Man in the High Castle (Amazon).
The best of 2015 (so far)
If I had to pick my year-end best of for movies right now, here’s what it would look like. I expect my “official” year-end picks to reflect a few light differences when I announce them early in the new year. I watched everything so far available to me that I expected would factor into my year-end picks, but there’s still 31 days to go. Plus, what follows is based on what I submitted to the OFCS, and my own personal rules differ somewhat. List-making is rarely an exact science, as is criticism in general.
Top 15 movies
- The Nightmare (best documentary feature)
- Ex Machina
- It Follows
- Mad Max: Fury Road
- Inside Out (best animated feature)
- We Are Still Here
- The Duke of Burgundy
- What We Do in the Shadows
- Phoenix (best foreign-language feature)
- Love & Mercy
- The Voices
- Song of the Sea
- Best director: George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
(Runner-up: David Robert Mitchell, It Follows)
- Best actor: Tom Hardy, Legend
(Runner-up: John Cusack, Love & Mercy)
- Best actress: Brie Larson, Room
(Runner-up: Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina)
- Best supporting actor: Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina
(Runner-up: Benicio del Toro, Sicario)
- Best supporting actress: Phyllis Smith, Inside Out
(Runner-up: Jessica Chastain, Crimson Peak)
- Best ensemble cast: Inside Out
(Runner-up: What We Do in the Shadows)
- Best original screenplay: Inside Out
(Runner-up: What We Do in the Shadows)
- Best adapted screenplay: Room
- Best editing: It Follows
(Runner-up: Mad Max: Fury Road)
- Best cinematography: It Follows
(Runner-up: We Are Still Here)
- Best original music: It Follows
This month’s content
Reviews of current or recent releases
- Blood in the Snow 2015: The Dark Stranger (for Cinema Axis)
- Blood in the Snow 2015: She Who Must Burn (for Cinema Axis)
- Hannibal: “…And the Woman Clothed in Sun” / “…And the Beast from the Sea”
- Hannibal: “The Number of the Beast is 666” / “The Wrath of the Lamb”
TV Good Sleep Bad
- Episode 4: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Room at the End“
* * *
Other movies I watched this month include…
Inside Out (Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen, 2015)
The Golden Age of Pixar, in which association with the brand wasn’t merely synonymous with quality but a sense of escalating greatness, may be positioned firmly in our cultural rear-view mirror, but in terms of consistency they’re still probably the preeminent feature-animation house in the country, if not necessarily the English-speaking world. And this kind of multi-layered narrative has always been their strong suit, give or take a Cars or a Brave.
That being said, Inside Out is a genuine tour de force for the studio and perhaps the first genuinely great Pixar film since Finding Nemo (I’m saying this as somone strongly disliked The Incredibles and hasn’t seen Up or Toy Story 3, so take that with a grain of salt if you need to). With the best cinema, all elements–design, score, performance, technicals, so on–serve to reinforce the emotional core of the film and I can’t think of a single recent animated feature (not even Song of the Sea or The Lego Movie) that does this as well as Inside Out does. The “secret life” of Riley Anderson’s emotions may be an anthropomorphized metaphor of abstract concepts, but it works because it so accurately reflects what so often goes on inside our own heads.
For me, the revelation with the film is the cast. I expect pretty pictures and decent writing from Pixar, but I’ve never been a particular fan of this particular axis of comic actors. (I’m pretty sure I’m the only person who’s never laughed at a single thing he’s ever seen on an episode of Parks and Recreation.) But they all knock it out of the park here, particularly Amy Poehler (Joy) and Phyllis Smith (Sorrow), the latter of whom pretty much emotionally anchors the entire film.
My rating: Pro.
Suffragette (Sarah Gavron, 2015)
Quick precis: in most country, the right of women to vote is less than a hundred years old. The world has changed a lot since then, but nowhere near as much as many of us wish it had.
It works very, very well as a historical drama of the 12 Years a Slave school, in that it’s all about standing up for the cause of right in the face of brutal, brutal opposition. Gavron’s direction and the production design team’s recreation of early-20th-century working-class London go a long way towards making the environment credible, but the film really belongs to lead Carey Mulligan and supports Anne-Marie Duff, Natalie Press, and Anne-Marie Duff, who sell the fuck out of the material.
It does bug me, though, how much of the publicity focuses on Helena Bonham-Carter, whose character is one of the less essential ones, and Meryl Streep, who appears in a single scene (and whose character would arguably be more effective if she didn’t appear in the film at all). But hey, that’s show biz.
My rating: Pro.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (Alex Gibney, 2015)
The question “What, exactly, is Scientology?” has a difficult and complex answer, made all the more so by the fact that the Church of Scientology simply seems not to want anyone outside it and most of those within it to know said answer. Most portraits of the organization paint it as a sort of pay-to-play secret society, sort of like a theoretical denomination of Christianity that sold individual books of the Bible on an upward sliding scale and made you sign an NDA every time you wanted to read it.
Screenwriter/filmmaker Paul Haggis wasn’t the first Scientologist to publicly break with the “church” and Lawrence Wright’s book Going Clear wasn’t the first exposé of it, but they seem to have sparked a wider interest in knowledge about the organization that goes beyond Xenu, Battlefield Earth, and Tom Cruise jumping on a couch. Alex Gibney takes Wright’s book and runs with it, interviewing many of Wright’s subjects (and Wright himself), painting a picture of an organization founded by a paranoid egomaniac who at least wanted to untie the knots in his brain (L. Ron Hubbard), and who was succeeded by a paranoid sociopath (David Miscaviage) determined to hold onto the reigns of power by any means necessary.
It doesn’t quite have the depth and breadth of coverage that the book has, but it’s a fantastic exploration of the cult mentality, examining what exactly it is about Scientology that makes it so attractive to practicioners–celebrities in particular–and why they’ve stayed loyal long past the point of insanity.
My rating: Pro.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (Francis Lawrence, 2015)
The Hunger Games series concludes in a suitably Hunger Games-y manner, with lots of discussion about how to market an icon of rebellion, a big stupid series of death-defying (and logic-defying) traps, fantastic performances by revered character-actors, and whatever the costume and makeup designers think they’re doing to poor Elizabeth Banks. I’m not kidding you, by the end of the movie her false eyelashes have fucking spikes attached to them.
On the plus side, Jennifer Lawrence is one hundred percent the icon the film needs her to be, the script doesn’t shy away from the darker bits, Donald Sutherland’s President Snow finally feels like an actual character, and the production design team goes all-out with their peculiar brand of Imperial Rome-meets-Structuralist Russia. Sadly, the action centerpieces don’t improve on their predecessors and the screenplay assumes we’re a lot more invested in the love triangle between Jen, a Hemsworth brother, and Josh Hutcherson (whom my worthy constituent Jay Cluitt rightly describes as “half a potato”) than we actually are.
It sags a bit–okay, a lot–in the middle, particularly for an extended sequence in which I can only assume Lawrence is lobbying for the chance to direct The Descent III. But the beginning and end are pretty good; and hell, if you made it as far as Mockingjay Part 1 you might as well finish the whole thing off, right? Right.
My rating: Pro.