Favorite Films and Themes of 2015

If you removed all the empty space in the atoms of every living human being, we would all fit inside an M&M.

For some reason, this math kept coming to mind over this last year of cinema. There is a bit of Pascal in such an equation, as he describes man “equally incapable of seeing the nothingness out of which he was drawn and the infinite in which he is engulfed.” His entire notion of religious faith as a sort of gamble was born out of this image of us all caterwauling through cascades of probabilities. At some point we have to assume something about who or what we are, we have to land somewhere, and it might as well be God.

Even if most of the art we see begins somewhere other than a religious leap of faith, much contemporary cinema is an exercise in assumption nonetheless. We make things of ourselves in the movies. We test different permutations of our identities. Our cultural and social perceptions are shuffled around and flipped over. We feel the pure exhilaration of movement from life-size to M&M-size and back - an affirmation of somehow being both irrelevant and grand at the same time.

Addictions and Assumptions

Films about addiction capture this revealing paradox well, and there have been more than usual good examples this year. Despite a few keen glimpses of the allure of the bottle and the camaraderie of self-aware alcoholism, Time Out of Mind is deeply flawed as a overly polished, unconsciously privileged version of destitution. Alternatively, Heaven Knows What is a solid knock on the mirage of heroin chic. Drawn from the life of its lead actor, the film is a vérité account of being stuck bouncing around the echo chamber of our heroin epidemic. The kinds of confused, half-formed communities that emerge at the ends of addiction are depicted with painful authenticity in Stinking Heaven, which is not a film I care to see again but will refer to anyone who would like to see what addiction recovery actually looks (and sounds) like.

Mississippi Grind does not even seem like a film about addiction at first. But its compelling plot device, its dark heart, sneaks up on us — like addictions tend to do. Ben Mendelsohn’s memorably understated performance reaches its apex in a moment of clarity that appears during a conversation about his estranged daughter with an escort in St. Louis. She tells him that she really is going to make something of her life. Neither of them believe her.

Most films about addiction are about the experience of constantly A/B testing two versions of life: one cushioned by a glimmering oblivion, and the real one full of tragic psychological and social consequences.

Two biopics, The End Of The Tour and Love & Mercy take us to the brink of this Pascalian exchange between addiction and sanity. Love & Mercy does this with an exquisite tenderness, its narrative structure capturing the way a recovering addict hopes they will be remembered and interpreted. I was expecting to see a Brian Wilson bio that confirmed my deep appreciation for his work, which I have always credited to a similar exposure to psychedelics at a young age. But this kind of wish fulfillment makes for a cinema version of codependency that would have, in a very delusional way, celebrated that mythical link between drug use, youth, and creativity.

Instead, Cusack’s halting, fragile Wilson transmits an impossible hope. Love & Mercy wonderfully describes his childlike faith in other people, the constancy of his creative gift, the restorative willingness to just flat out admit that he was a damaged and destructive human for the most important span of his life. He knows now he can not do much to sort out the wreckage, but he has figured out how to give himself a reprieve. (Which means Oren Moverman is somehow responsible for one of the worst [Time out of Mind] and one of the best [Love & Mercy] films about addiction this year.)

This reprieve, however, is not present in The End of The Tour. The film is an interesting curio of Wallace-isms, but is otherwise deeply misguided. It turns Wallace and the entire subtext of his addiction into one half of a really interesting dialogue, becoming a version of his life that somehow excises the ornate wrestling of Infinite Jest passages about addiction and recovery, the elaborate trajectories of his tennis metaphors, and conjurations of deeply universal yet particularly Midwestern descriptions of human frailty. One has the impression that this film was conceived as a legitimately thoughtful effort to honor DFW’s memory, but its failure to get at the intractable and self-defeating humility of addiction makes him less beautiful and less tragic in the process. It is, as Pascal’s wager suggests, okay to dance around things. This gamble only really pays off in cinema though when we find ourselves dancing around the right things.

Inside Out is just such a dance, with unexpected connections to this theme of addiction. Toward the end of the story, Anger and Fear and Disgust have led young Riley to run away from home. In what is arguably Pixar’s darkest moment, she almost makes it. This lonely and scary scene on the bus is a perfect emotional account of how these stories about addiction all get started. Resentment and contempt cast their spell. They take the reins long enough for us to make choices therapists will later tell us are “self-destructive.” In the wake of inevitable disillusionment and shame, we turn toward the fleeting therapy of sex, chemicals, and the regularities of addiction. The flipside of the positive ending of Inside Out is really grim. And it plays out around us every day — someone’s core memories winking out bottle by bottle.

I am still not sure what to make of Amy, which is such a clear chronicle of this process. Amy’s story is gripping because of the alarming contrast between her talent and her self-destruction. It is easy to overlook the inherent creativity of addicts - who are continually forced to weave complex buffers of deception to protect the gestation of their next bender. But we feel tugged through the film with her by an inexplicable need to hide, and isolate, and ultimately vanish. This tractor beam is what addiction feels like, an inescapable weight or compulsion. A powerful mythos. A constant painful sojourn through what could or should have been. We can see and hear this in the material gathered for the film, arranged and edited to maximize its final sense of loss, a tragedy of assumptions.

Spaces and Wagers

The sense of cinema as a wager or a space to fiddle constructively with our own assumptions plays out in ways more broadly than the theme of addiction. Though the year was a bit slight in terms of contenders for real contemporary classics, the films that have bubbled to the top of many top ten lists are marked by an ongoing desire in global cinema to maintain space for contemplation amid an array of cluttered and insistent media.

Space is not just an interesting item on the list of formal properties of cinema. It is its principal gift. We actually gain time in cinema, space, elbow room, freedom to think in different directions at the same time. I rhapsodize at length above about addiction as a sort of theme in cinema this year, but could have just as easily digressed on how this sense of space as a sort of Pascalian wager has played out in cinema specifically about Christian spirituality, with films like Something, Anything, As It Is In Heaven, or TV series like Rectify, Hannibal, Granite Flats, and The Leftovers really changing the game this year for what the Christian imaginary can look like in our cultural conversation about religion.

Top Ten of 2015

The making of lists such as the below every year is not just a form accounting (as it surely is), but a reminder that we must keep looking and listening, and conversely creating more room, for the unexpected if we are going to survive with any vestige of theological dignity intact. I found these films to be fair examples of such encounter:

  1. L’il Quinquin (Bruno Dumont) — I think it fair to agree with consensus that this is Dumont’s best work so far, specifically on account of his evolution into black humor, which only serves to more clearly define the fundamental humanity of his work. This lengthy, macabre story of four murders and a bunch of indescribably alluring characters in a provincial French town is best watched as originally intended — four TV episode sized servings.
  2. Horse Money (Pedro Costa) — Costa revisits the main character of Colossal Youth, who we now find wandering in a world of ghosts and half-told stories. It is hard to tell here where dream and poetry and reality diverge. The entire film is a specter receding into darkness, pulling the rest of Costa’s films along with it.
  3. Experimenter (Michael Elmereyda) — This sounds like a straightforward Stanley Milgram biopic. But it is actually a creative and engaging account of his formative social science (and social science in general) as an artful arrangement of history, trauma, biography, and identity. If we are looking for a place to begin a conversation between science and theology — this is probably it.
  4. Hard To Be A God (Aleksei German) — A film that surely belongs in the canon of great films. It is a sloppy, opaque, confusing, unrelenting, disgusting, alienating, and almost impossible film to watch. Buried beneath the muck is a sci-fi masterpiece.
  5. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz) — This masterful account of a lengthy divorce proceeding in an orthodox Jewish court draws us into the complex dramas of religion, family, and desire that play out in marriage. Really graceful, elegant cinema.
  6. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller) — Yep.
  7. Jauja (Lisandro Alonso) — No one really knows what on earth is happening in the end of Jauja, other than that it somehow feels like a fitting coda to this surreal drama of a Danish soldier tracking down his kidnapped daughter in an Argentine wilderness.
  8. Phoenix (Christian Petzold) — This complex, layered post-Holocaust drama is full of bandages, doppelgangers, deep jazz licks, and really complex forms of denial. Yet another haunting installation in Petzold’s ongoing fascination with how and why we bear witness to tragedy.
  9. Man From Reno (Dave Boyle) — One of a few good noir films I saw this year, but something stands out here about all the shots of San Francisco, the retro poetry of its lead character (a Japanese detective novelist caught in a real-life crime drama), and its tangle of leads and plot-twists. A real score for fans of the genre.
  10. Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle) — I am very Sorkin-averse, but this is Boyle’s best work. It is so highly structured that it feels like a film playing fast and lose with the details, but it wears this myth-making on its sleeve as it weaves for us a vivid glimpse of the transactional nature of our technocracies. The hallowed Jobs finds, at the end, in a world of gleaming, talking, connecting objects it is he that is “poorly made.”

Other films that could have just as easily made it on this list: About Elly; The Assassin; Black Coal, Thin Ice; 45 Years, The Kindergarten Teacher; Listen To Me, Marlon; Love & Mercy; The Mend; Mississippi Grind; Mustang; Paddington; Queen of Earth; Results; Something, Anything; Timbuktu; World of Tomorrow.

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