2015 Year in Review — The Movies I Watched
This year I won’t be keeping track or counting down my rewatches (movies I’ve seen before this year) because if I’m rewatching then I inevitably know that it’s good (like “Wet Hot American Summer”, a war machine for gags). This list is much less about numbers (how many films I watched) and more about which ones I liked and why. And also time travel. Here ya go.
36. Ghost Story — Really really not good. All the scares are laughable and most of the interesting aspects of the novel — as well as the organization of the characters — are gone. A perfect example of how to make a boring, bad movie from a decent book.
35. Safety Not Guaranteed — But like, if he really was a time traveler that still doesn’t explain why he lied about his girlfriend being killed by a car driving into her house. He does seem very much mentally imbalanced, but he knows how to time travel so what do I know? A waste of time, with that shoegaze sentimentality that was good in Lars and the Real Girl but has gotten pretty old pretty fast.
34. Deliver Us from Evil — Narc meets the exorcist (but not as good as either).
33. +1 — I watched a lot of time travel/time paradox movies this year. This was one of the worst entries. There was no real quantum mechanic explanation behind this house party gone wrong flick. None of the characters made any attempt at understanding why there was an alternate, violent version of the party happening and the movie suffered for it. Lazy and unworthy of the time-loop genre.
32. The Player — I get it. It’s just not worth the time it takes. It’s nineties in every way and does not age well. Too clever for its own good, The Player’s highlights come from impressive and fun cameos.
31. Prometheus — Bland and boring for all the discussion surrounding its storytelling when it came out. The epitome of a ‘who cares’ movie for me. I’ll probably never think about Prometheus again.
30. Mouse-X — A short time-loop movie that adds nothing new to the genre, it simply displays instead of exploring.
29. Time Lapse — Pretty bad acting and pretty bad dialogue. There’s some interesting ideas here but not interesting enough to make up for the unrealistic relationships.
28. Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel — This is a movie that is mostly based around a couple of friends who get stuck in a time loop and try to get out by rationalizing and reasoning what’s going on. I should really like that. But instead it tries too hard to be a comedy and ends up mostly boring and unfunny. Too bad.
27. Starry Eyes — Some pretty intense gore. The lead does a good job but the creepy movie producers are pretty over the top. A story about a girl trying to make it in Hollywood, the premise is flimsy but it’s not uninteresting.
26. The Sacrament — a cool concept, a horror movie masquerading as a Vice documentary, unfortunately the concept isn’t deliberately followed through beyond the beginning of the film. It starts as a cousin of the found footage genre but by the end there are lots of shots that have nothing to do with the Vice doc premise. Also cults aren’t my favourite horror subject, they’re kind of lame — particularly if their motives are never explored or explained.
25. Fast 7 — It was pretty hyped up, from Rotten Tomato scores to Vin Diesel predicting an oscar win. But it didn’t have nearly enough Rock.
24. Exam — Kind of a silly film but it was also right up my alley. Basically a group of corporate business people are put into a room, each with a piece of paper. They’re told a few rules by an overseer and then they’re left to answer one simple question. Whoever answers wins a job. But the question is nowhere to be seen, so the contestants — of course, each a specialist in a different field — have to work together to figure out the question based on what they are and are not allowed to do. It’s basically a logic mind puzzle masquerading as a movie but it’s definitely worth watching if you’re interested in the mechanics of logic.
23. I Origin — Not a good movie, by any stretch of the imagination, it hits its themes too hard and too frequently the characters tell you how they feel with complete self-awareness. But I don’t always hate it when a creator’s ideas are right on the surface of the film’s plot. There’s something autobiographical about it that I can engage with. The film felt long despite never losing my interest. I got bored but I never got disinterested.
22. What We Do in the Shadows— Not always funny, but a clever concept handled realistically and well. A mockumentary about a bunch of vampire roomates. You start to really root for the vampires and also feel badly for their victims. It’s no Shaun of the Dead but it was worth seeing.
21. The Coed and the Stoner Zombie — A shitty movie that we started as a joke in the background while playing a zombie board game but then ended up being unable to take our eyes off. Partly because it was so bad it was good but also because it was legitimately engaging. I honestly wanted to know what was going to happen next because the story was so bad that it was unpredictable. I planned on turning it off after a half hour but I just kept watching all the way until it was over. A noble feat.
20. Nightcrawler — A modern day American Psycho. The scenes are written tensely and expertly. Gyllenhaal is good but not as good as I’d been hyped to believe. It’s a little on the nose and a little lacking in compelling mystery. He is exactly what he appears to be which is what the people who loved his performance wanted, I guess. The re-staging to improve the frames of his ‘news gatherings’ were the most interesting part.
19. The Night Before — I love movies that take place over the course of one evening. The movie itself is just okay but I’m interested in the concept of watching a Christmas movie in early December to really put yourself in the mood for the upcoming festivities. Maybe I’m not cynical enough but I thought it was a nice way to ignite the magic in my imagination for the holiday season.
18. Life Itself— A documentary on one of my favourite guys, Roger Ebert. A few choice quotes: “Make your heart your face.” “When I am writing, I am the person I always was.” He speaks of taking a “A Leave of Presence.” Not a particularly well made documentary, this one scores because of its particularly great subject. What a guy.
17. My Night at Maud’s — Eric Rohmer’s most famous film has some really interesting philosophy that sets up a great bind for our protagonist — He’s Catholic but has had affairs before, and he’s essentially offered to spend the night with a beautiful woman as a kind of challenge to his pious declarations. Maude is an interesting character and Rohmer is a master of interesting ideas.
16. Tango — 1981’s Best Short film Oscar winner, it starts with a boy throwing a ball through the window of a room, climbing in to retrieve the ball, and jumping back out the window. Then he keeps doing this. Over and over. And other people are added doing other things. And they continue to do them over and over as well until the whole room is filled with bustling action. It’s definitely worth a watch and is on Vimeo for free. It’s wholly engaging despite the lack of any narrative or plot aside from what the viewer may place on the action.
15. Timecrimes — Hitchcocklike in its pacing and execution, Timecrimes’ biggest fault is its characters inauthenticity. After the first act of the film, you’re almost always a step ahead of them. Still, its paradox juggling is engaging and exciting. Unfortunately, it’s hard to like a protagonist who refuses to have any knowledge of how time travel works. Flouting the advice of scientists is not recommended in making a sympathetic protagonist.
14. Hot tub Time Machine 2 — Actually plays with time travel in a really interesting way. It’s basically just a bunch of guys trying to experiment with the paradoxes in Back to the Future’s most scientific moments. Except the guys are rude man children. Full disclosure: I never saw the first Hot Tub Time Machine.
13. Trainwreck — I don’t really have a lot to say about Trainwreck. It was really funny. Amy Schumer is hilarious. So is John Cena. So is Lebron James.
12. Edweard — My friends Kyle Rideout and Josh Epstein made this movie and I’m so proud of them for doing it. It’s so incredibly difficult to make a full length motion picture. It’s even harder to make a freaking biopic set in the 1800s. They achieved it with the help and support of a huge community and that’s what struck me most about the finished product; how they honoured their locations and the process of making the film while still zeroing in on a compelling and universal story. I worked as a background performer for four days on set in Abbotsford and it was an experience I’ll never forget. Being allowed, as an extra, to peak into their video village and getting an opportunity to talk with the team as they put the story together was an awesome opportunity. The film itself is beautiful and moving. It’s a testament to Kyle and Josh’s vision and it’s a tribute to the father of motion pictures as well as the province of British Columbia.
11. American Sniper — A good story but, man, it’s pretty melodramatic. The good guys and bad guys are clearly defined and it’s as much a fight between good and evil as Star Wars, the difference being that it’s supposed to be based on a true story.
11. Selma —Everyone knows life is unfair but 2015 was the year that pop culture really drove home the kind of shitty justice we have in the Western world. Between Selma, Making a Murderer, Serial, and The Jinx my righteous idignation was through the roof. Selma is a good movie that focuses on what Martin Luther King, Jr did with his life instead of falling prey to iconizing him by focusing on his death.
10. As Above So Below — It’s not always a good movie but man is it ever thrilling. The discovery of some ancient glyphs (which when roughly translated somehow manage to rhyme) leads a group of archeologically interested young people into the catacombs of Paris. A pretty fun found footagey film but not as good as The Descent which features similar claustrophobic scares. I’d never heard of the actor Ben Feldman before but he was great. It’s like a horror version of Tomb Raider. They just keep going deeper, and the deeper they go the more sick you feel. One scare near the end got me particularly good. It also uses one of my favorite horror tropes: starting off with a large party of people and losing one person at a time, highlighted here by the fact that you lose a camera option for every person that goes missing. I watched it by myself and made at least two out-loud, scare noises. I breathed an actual sigh of relief when it ended. Pretty A-1 as far as user experience goes, which, in my opinion, should be the goal of a horror movie.
9. Triangle — Here we go. This is the entry where I really talk out my thought on the time travel/quantum mechanic/time-loop genre.
Triangle is a movie with no good acting. The dialogue is cardboard and the choices the actors make are dull. The director cares primarily about the overarching story as opposed to the singular, specific moments, so, the performers end up being serviceable, attractive readers instead of fleshed out characters. There’s no believability to the relationships between them and it seems like it slipped the actors’ minds to make an attempt. They’re here to tell the twisty, complex narrative. I want to be clear that I don’t think the acting is terrible, it’s just not good. No one is laughable or cringe worthy but no one is doing anything special. Which sort of makes it worse. It makes me curious if a good editor could make the performances in Triangle move from low-side mediocre to outstanding.
But actually, in a movie like this, acting isn’t the most important aspect. Instead the focus is on the overall story which is actually very interesting. It shows how difficult it is to make even an average movie, let alone a great one.
Triangle falls into the genre of quantum mechanics which is a little different than time travel. It focuses on an unexplained loop that a woman falls into. She ends up on an abandoned ship with a number of friends. They’re stalked by a masked figure who is trying to kill them and she finds out a secret about this killer and has to sort out the pieces. When she finally does, she wakes up in the same place as she started the movie and has to go through it all again. It’s a tangled web and the allure of the movie is to figure out how it all works. I spent longer discussing it with a friend than I did actually watching it. There are all sorts of clues and paradoxes that lead you further and further down the rabbit hole. There are some cool little easter eggs too such as the filmmaker paying homage to The Shining in more than a superficial way.
I watched a lot of time travel/quantum mechanic movies this year and came up with a few theories while also identifying some of my favourite hallmarks. Timecrimes suffered from being a step behind its audience. Primer (which I rewatched this year) understands that being a step ahead can be a benefit which is why the people who love it, really love it. It purposely marginalizes its product for viewers who are advanced in the concepts of the genre. Triangle worries too much about broad appeal and can’t quite excel. Another trope I don’t like is when the characters know nothing about time travel. It’s why movies like Hot Tub Time Machine 2 or (in the horror genre) Scream work so well for modern audiences. We want to believe, we want our stories to replicate humanity as best as they can, but it becomes a real obstacle when the characters don’t know as much about pop culture as we do; when they are pop culture instead of real people. If someone came to me and said the things that time travelers say to their friends, I’d at least follow them through on their logic. A character in a time travel movie should never brush another off because they’re ignorant of concepts their audience understands, rather, they should brush them off because they think it’s a fiction, or because of how hard it would be to believe that time travel is possible.
As I moved through the ouvre, the question became, what does each movie add to the genre? Triangle has something new to say. The protagonist has a unique early realization of just how many loops she’s in the middle of and how inevitable her situation is. She understands time-loops as well as we do so her real objective is to figure out how to break the loop she’s in. And that’s where Triangle shifts from a time travel flick to a quantum mechanic film: it is impossible to break the loop, each action you take always ends up being an unexpected cause that created the loop in the first place. So, we follow one version of the protagonist as an anchor (another of my favourite tropes) and get to see the different routes she takes in the present. That takes care of the problem of being stuck in the middle of a movie length repeating loop, instead she witnesses the loop as it occurs, constantly in motion, but also constantly changing. That was really hard to describe. Most movies in the genre give us a loop that is in perfect circuit with itself. The loop has already happened and we’re simply watching it play out to its completion. But Triangle is present tense. We see the loop, then we see our anchor start again and change the loop. So when she starts again a third time, she’s interacting with a different loop than we initially viewed. Make sense? Because she lives outside the loop, every return to the start sees another version of herself board the ship, a double, a triple, a quadruple, she’s actually multiplying the versions that she has to interact with and try to coerce them into making different decisions to change the end of her story. Whew! All in all, Triangle isn’t a great movie, but, man, it’s an excellent conversation piece.
8. Predestination — Another hallmark of modern time travel is that the beginning lulls you into a false sense of “I know what’s going to happen here” but still finds a way to twist in the end. The closer to the end the plot can do that, the better. It’s like a card game; the longer you hold onto your trump card, the better the reveal ends up being. Predestination is amazing at holding that card right up until the final moments. There’s a twist that you see coming, then a twist that you sort of see coming but still surprises you, then a final twist that leaves your mouth open. The most important part of a horror movie is the user experience. Perhaps the most important part of time travel the surprising and consistent firing of synapses.
7. Chronicle — Chronicle features an extremely likable main character. An initially awkward set-up allows us to enter a cool twist on the found footage, shaky-cam genre after the three boys receive telekinetic powers. The protagonist can control the first person camera without actually having to hold it. There’s definitely some lame aspects — a dad who rivals ‘Boyhood’ for stereotypical, unbelievable alcoholism and a high school talent show full of teens who boo the unpopular kids — but watching a bunch of young guys explore what it’s like to have magic powers in a way all boys fantasize about is pretty awesome. The climax with a super battle happening the way it would in real life is just awesome.
6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens — I don’t think I need to add too much to this conversation but, essentially, it was good, I enjoyed it, there’s nothing newly iconic about it (but lots of icon-harkening), and JJ Abrams did the absolute right thing with the first installment of his trilogy: he didn’t mess it up. I’m hoping he gets a little more ambitious with the next two.
5. Inside Out — Inside Out makes great use of the hero’s journey. It’s almost the best movie I saw this year at establishing rules and then following those rules’ mechanics to establish a fully realized universe in which the story plays (see two entries from now for the best). The kingdom inside the brain is awesome and the extension of the Pixar idea of telling a story about A but if A had feelings (substitute any of Pixar’s subjects: toys, cars, monsters, etc) is hilariously achieved when, finally, we see what would happen if feelings had feelings. Tearjerker.
4. Room — I really wish I could’ve seen Room with no idea of the subject matter, so I won’t tell you too much what the film is about. It’s an incredibly moving experience with a great beginning and a very powerful action sequence that had me on the edge of my seat and as tense as I’ve maybe ever been in a movie. There were a few untrue moments that yanked me out, particularly a male cop who is just so coppy, and a saccharine ending sequence but ultimately, the film immersed and moved me in an incredible way.
3. Mad Max: Fury Road — Mad Max does an incredible job of establishing the rules of the film without explicitly telling you. It then proceeds to follow these rules steadfastly. It is superior storytelling. Mad Max also matches its rule-following with a fantastic stream of action that perfectly understands its own tone. The dialogue is unfortunately bad, veering frequently into melodramatic over-flourishes and unbelievable moments (the whole movie is unbelievable but, story and stylewise, it convinces us of its fictions) making us wholly aware that the words the characters are saying were written by someone else. I can’t understand why some men are upset about the female content of the film, aside from the simple explanation that these men are total and utter misogynists. How sad for them. Charlize Theron and her band are heroic, awesome, and totally believable. Mad Max is feminist in the way that it treats each character as an individual instead of subscribing to cliched gender assumptions. A great film.
2. Coherence — A low budget, helluva movie, Coherence is a game as much as it is a motion picture. The making of the movie is interesting in its own right: the actors didn’t know exactly what was going to happen and were given free reign to improvise. They camped out in a house for five nights and reacted to the events that transpired. It takes my earlier theory that characters in time travel movies should know just as much as we do about the concepts of time travel and runs with it. What we get is a bunch of people truly trying to logic their way through a looping scientific anomaly. Add to that the drama of strained relationships and the fear of what’s just across the yard: another version of their very own house with a multiplying set of alternate reality versions of themselves (who may be trying to kill them in order to end up as the ‘Schrodinger’s cat’ that gets out of the box when the spacetime continuum closes back up) and you get an intimate thriller.
1. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl — A great film, with too many great scenes to mention and lots of cool, interesting shots. The dialogue is believable and authentic and the performances are all natural. It’s sort of like Juno minus the obnoxiousness. A great, great movie that I won’t explain too much. Just go see it.