On Cinema 2015

Thoughts on all the theatrical releases I watched from this year

A good film makes me feel something, makes me think differently. It changes me, at least momentarily, by putting me in a new frame of mind. At its best, a film stays with me forever, perhaps changes me profoundly. And yes, a good film is its craft as well. But more so, the magic of movies comes from their more dreamlike properties.

Perhaps it’s a futile exercise to rank anything, but it’s nice to recall my experiences, to take inventory of certain things like movies in order to remind myself of what I’ve experienced — the ideas and sensations and the moments that contained or birthed them — and cherish those experiences again. This is my personal aim in writing up this list, and to share some suggestions as well.

Overall, 2015 was just an okay year in cinema. There were no perfect movies made, really. Nothing close to my new favorite movie ever. But it was still a great year to watch movies, because watching movies is great. (I keep a Google spreadsheet of everything I watch, with a rating system and everything. You can see it here.)

My Top 10

The Lobster
Clever and dark and funny and mysterious. It so perfectly envisions the surreal world it creates. Yorgos Lanthimos previously made Dogtooth, which is mind-blowing. There’s a deep sweetness in his misanthropy and/or a deep cynicism in his comedy. I just love his work.

I watched this at home alone, since it has no Germany release date set. I’d watch it again, with you.

The Look of Silence
This is the chronicle of an Indonesian man’s search for something like closure regarding the horrific genocide in his country. The filmmaking is empathetic, clever, patient, nuanced and extremely poignant. Perhaps the best documentary ever made, somehow even better than its predecessor, The Act of Killing.

I tried many times to watch this in Berlin theaters with a like-minded friend, but continued failing. It didn’t help that there was no English version of it. I ended up watching it on my laptop one late night, and it still captivated me. I will forever consider the issues and mood of this.

Inside Out
Such feels! The idea is terrific enough — the inner-workings of a child’s brain, personified— and Pixar’s execution is typically delightful. But it’s the emotional intelligence that makes this film so special. The story’s depth is simply transcendent. Tears just thinking about it.

This is the last film my ex and I went to see together. My perception is colored by the experience insofar as I was vulnerable, ready to really feel it. And yes, the relationship, like childhood, fades and is stored forever deep within me like a yellow-blue ball.

The Big Short
Can we ever be angry enough with disaster capitalism and the crash of ‘08? Given that there is such little justice in the world, probably not. But Adam McKay crafts a story that resembles comeuppance, and turns awfully dry material into peppy, exciting cinema. Anchorman, Talladega Nights and The Campaign don’t exactly hide the filmmaker’s interest in scathingly critiquing America, but now he truly puts the indictment in front of the comedic persona.

Usually I read German subtitles while watching movies — it’s a great way to learn. But this banking language is way too dense, way too fast. My German friends were rather lost, unfortunately, even with subtitles. Beware. Drink coffee.

The End of the Tour
A simple, understated movie about one writer’s admiration of another writer. Through sharp writing and straightforward direction, the movie offers insight into ideas of jealousy, success, expression, integrity, ideas versus reality, and other big thoughts that sneak up on you. It leaves me thinking long and hard about “life” and what it’s all worth. …To be satisfied by yourself somehow, I think.

It was nice to see this at the Brooklyn Academy of Music while visiting my old neighborhood. There’s a New Yorker spirit to this somehow, even though it takes place mostly in the Midwest.

Action movies are great when you can really feel the action, and when they’re about real things — real important things like the colossal mess of the drug war. Denis Villeneuve masterfully crafts a powerful, visceral film out of the confusion, fear, danger and absurdity of such CIA business.

Was great to see this with Bobby & Jessica in a Berlin theater. It will still hold up on a smaller screen, but make it as big as possible, and with good speakers!

If there is a fountain of youth, perhaps it exists at an opulent Alpine resort. At least the topic is discussed there, where this movie takes place. But the title misleads. There is more jouissance packed into this film than such a generic title could fit. This is Paolo Sorrentino’s follow-up to La Grande Bellezza, and it’s worthy.

This was a nice date movie, playing in one of the lovely single-screen Berlin cinemas. The mood is romantic even though it’s not a love story. There’s just plenty to savor and discuss on a leisurely stroll into a dimly lit bar.

Knight of Cups
This might be my favorite of Terrence Malick’s visual poems. It’s still not perfect — it lags plenty, is rather monotone, is simply too long — but the story, such that there is one, intoxicatingly romanticizes the dalliances of the fashionably careless. It’s a beautiful commercial for wayward souls amid superficial spoils.

Celine and I got high for this. Do the same, and take more hits halfway through, because in the theater, it did drag. Alternatively, get “high on life” if that’s a real thing.

The Revenant
This film is designed to inspire awe, and it does just that. Alejandro Iñárritu has crafted a gorgeous and technically perfect film. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is remarkable to look at. I enjoy getting swept up in this film’s cinematic sense of self. Regrettably, I don’t stay in it; I drift out over the course of its bloated running time, waiting for the rather tired revenge narrative to end. It’s first act is some of the best cinema ever.

I wish more attention was paid to the politics of imperialism, and less between the colonizers themselves. And the dreamier, Malickian sequences could be stronger, more emotionally resonant. I’m not thinking too much about this movie after the fact, which is a problem, I think. But in certain moments — outstanding.

Cobain: Montage of Heck
I’m not sure if you have to love Nirvana to love this film, or if you need to relate to the raw angst that defined Kurt Cobain’s life. Obviously it helps. This brings me right back to adolescence, when I really felt those things. Nowadays, not so much… I prefer angst more polished and relaxed. But this is so well-constructed, so thorough and creative that it reconnects me wonderfully to Kurt’s edgy spirit.

Berlin’s Kino International is a palace of a theater, and seeing Kurt’s big face up there playing the Unplugged gig felt like some sort of spiritual culmination — the cherished 90s energy displayed in the most vaunted and austere of ways.

+ Five More

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Institutionalized belief systems are asinine and dangerous and harmful to everyone involved (including society at large and the state, whose taxes it stupendously dodges). Here is proof. The more you know…

This is an HBO movie. I guess not everything needs a theatrical release, and surely it sufficed to watch this with my friend Claudia, drink wine, then discuss how religion poisons everything. The world sure is crazy.

On the surface, Carol is a staid, stuffy movie with the rhythm of molasses. It feels like the 1950s it depicts. Under that is a curious, tender love story that barely scratches the surface. Todd Haynes directs it with with painstaking care. It’s heart-aching — the many shackles we place on our most human impulses.

I watched this in a dark auditorium alone, letting the weight of its sadness wash over me, and walked out in strange state of lightness, like in a daze.

Mistress America
Noah Baumbach perfectly channeling vintage Woody Allen. Quirky, spirited, light and infectious. Who cares if it sounds like a movie? The witty banter that we never quite come up with in real life is part of the fun. This movie puts me in a nice mood.

I watched this in Los Feliz while visiting friends in LA. It’s more of a New York film, for sure, but was still a great outing as as group of target audience friends. It’s not especially cinematic though — perhaps a living room is the ideal place to watch this one, as the movie indeed climaxes in one.

Diary of a Teenage Girl
Great coming-of-age flick, told with creative flourish and come-as-you-are straightforwardness. I just love honest films about people who feel so genuine. Tons of empathy here.

I watched this alone in a theater all by myself — the auditorium was completely empty. I moved around between seats, wondering if the couches near the front were better than the couches in the back. (The back is always better.) Inspired by the dialogue, I took notes on my phone, free to even text and disturb no one, but also enjoy the theater experience.

The story is an incredible one, best left unspoiled. The drama unfolds with ease, as tense as it may be. It’s quite a thing to see it all, more or less, from a child’s eyes.

I remember my friend Rob telling me about this book and how revelatory it was. The plot was spoiled for me as a result, but the occasion in which I saw it certainly wasn’t.

Solid Entertainment

Mad Max: Fury Road
A cinematic feat of action and style, it also works on a deeper level, politically: water can indeed become a precious resource, controlled by those in power — this is sort of a cautionary tale masquerading as blockbuster fare.

The Hateful Eight
Tarantino’s most straightforward film — it’s really just a play. Has much of his great dialogue and knack for storytelling, but misses the cinematic zeal. Could be shorter. Still: great, unique storytelling.

This word is the name of an investigative journalism team at a Boston newspaper that reported on the systemic pedophilia rampant in the Catholic church. The topic is a profoundly important one: how institutional religion preys on the young, and how diabolically complicit everyone is in the pandemic crime. The film, though, is a rather traditional procedural. Nothing extraordinary to watch. Reading for hours on Wikipedia is as illuminating. Still, if this gets people to consider the heinous behavior of religion for two hours, it’s a well-made movie worth its while.

Straight Outta Compton
Illuminating origin story of iconic hip hop scene is great as a character study, and also as a mirror for our own troubled times — Fuck the police. #blacklivesmatter

The Gift
A movie about surfaces, appearances, and all that lies beneath. Thrilling. Quite deliciously so.

Wild Tales
Six unrelated Argentinian stories, all greatly entertaining, told with moral complexity and panache.

Cartel Land
End the drug war.

The Danish Girl
Lovely and heartfelt. I was surprised by how empathic this story of gender dysphoria is.

While We’re Young
Very amusing indie flick from Baumbach that juxtaposes Generation X & Y, especially appealing to those who can relate to both. The narrative doesn’t measure up to all the clever insights, preventing this from higher acclaim.

Amy Schumer’s stand-up routine made into a movie, just slightly marred by Judd Apatow’s sentimentalism. This voice — the ironic, self-aware basic bitch — is so damn refreshing. She’s hilarious.

The Martian
Just plain fun. Some food for thought as well, and some annoying bits. But solid blockbuster fare.

Once it gets going, this is a gripping story of a woman’s perseverance in business. Inspiring, even if it is just about a lady inventing a mop. It is certainly not about joy — the implication that it might be is rather frustrating. But as is evident throughout this list, it seems to be a theme: to name films with overly simple words, regardless of their summation of the subject. Marketing.

“Good Movies”

The Salt of the Earth
Documentary about Sebastião Salgado, who photographs weary humanity, tragedy, pain and also the circle of life that flows through all of nature. Straightforward, beautiful in that National Geographic way.

A bit gimmicky — it’s all shot in one take in one Berlin night — and a bit amateurish, but the emotional reward is considerable.

I Am Michael
Fascinating story about a gay-rights activist who evolves somehow into a Christian pastor. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

Z for Zachariah
Cool sci-fi last-people-on-earth fable. Lots of room for thinking.

Irrational Man
Just plain fun. Avoids some of Woody Allen’s late-career pitfalls, but not all of them. Still the April-September fantasy romance.

Lush, lovely, straightforward and sentimental movie about immigration. It took me some convincing, but I feel won over, if barely. The title, like so many titles on this list, is way too reductive. I’m annoyed that some of these words and names are taken by stories that hardly sum them up.

Love & Mercy
Biopic about Brian Wilson of the the Beach Boys. It verges on saccharine, but it’s really well done.

A Most Violent Year
Basically an updated Godfather. I actually like it more, since it feels all contemporary. But I’m not big on the mafia genre.

Well-made story about the blacklist — Hollywood writers essentially banned from their profession because of the communist scare in the 1950s — and one man’s impressive fight against it. It’s good… just sort of dull. It packs good themes into conventional storytelling.

I’m surprised by this film’s out-sized, campy sense of humor. Laughs out loud. Definitely more fun than the average superhero flick, but still with usual superhero tedium mixed in.

Jurassic World
Solid. It is what it is.

Cool Movies to Have On in the Background

It Follows
Perhaps Quentin Tarantino said it best: “This movie is so good, I’m mad that it’s not great. It doesn’t follow its own logic.” The much-hyped “indie horror” doesn’t lack for style or what feels like vision, but it’s certainly flawed. Still worth a look, and worth looking at.

This movie has a great aesthetic. The look and feel and soundtrack are all on point. The script not so much. And it breaks under its own undeserved gravitas.

I love Rick Alverson’s The Comedy. This one manages to be even more ironic, which is great, except that whereas inverting “comedy” leads to something like tragedy, inverting “entertainment” leads to something like boredom. This filmmaking style is delectable, but also a bit painful.

Crimson Peak
Guillermo del Toro definitely knows how to make a film. There’s no doubt about that. It’s perfectly constructed and envisioned. But the material is somehow off for me. Maybe because the symbolism is too pat — it’s about a girl getting her period, hence the title. Or maybe the story meanders too far from its fable structure. Not sure.

I’m along for the ride again with Neill Blomkamp’s post-apocalyptic allegorical style, but District 9 and Elysium are both better. Some good ideas packed into a mix of daring and convention.

These Are Fine

This is a fun throwaway. Nothing wrong with a well-done action/comedy now and then.

Doc about the most serious of mountain-climbers. Better and more interesting than Everest. It helps to really care about adventure sports, which I don’t. Still, compelling when given a chance.

Here’s a fable that keeps it simple, and succeeds in doing so. There’s really nothing wrong with this movie at all, except that it’s very familiar, and of course it borders schmaltz.

The Overnight
Fun, chill movie whose target audience I fall into. It’s about young couples in LA with young kids. Hi-jinx ensue. Like watching TV.

I Smile Back
This is a pretty cool indie flick about self-destructive behavior. Maybe it feels deeper than it actually is tho.

Average Movies

Steve Jobs
Talky. Whatevs.

True Story
The story of journalism and career success is well done enough, but lacks plenty.

Every Thing Will Be Fine
This is a straightforward drama about a writer that Wim Wenders shot in 3D. The photography is occasionally gorgeous, but not enough to breathe life into this slog.

Bridge of Spies
Spielberg. Nice storytelling, but so little to say. Nothing at all special, and every shot manages to be too long.

I wanted to see the thrills of mountain-climbing brought to cinema, but the build-up was too much to sit through. I stopped.

Spectacular Misses

I expected so much from Charlie Kaufman, my favorite screenwriter. Such a disappointment! I’ve read the good reviews — did the critics not watch the same movie as me? Depicting boredom is not deep. It doesn’t become more meaningful the longer it lingers, either — it becomes more boring. It’s a whole 90 minutes of this: a listless, pathetic character who isn’t worth our time. The puppet gimmick doesn’t work at all. The pacing and feel of the animation is totally off. Same for the annoying voice gimmickry. So little works here, I’m just amazed people are impressed. The emperor wears no clothes!

Andrew Bujalski is a mumblecore filmmaker known for deliberate challenges. Here he takes a stab at a more typical rom-com, but he makes it weird. Which is to say he seems to go out of his way to make it bad. I admire it like a car crash, but that’s about it.

Gaspar Noe has made us feel intense violence (Irreversible — astonishing and unforgettable), he’s made us feel a drug trip (Enter the Void — daring, interesting…) and now he tackles graphic sex. There is nothing here, though, but a lot of self-obsessed preening that masquerades as shock. He manages to make young love-making into a bore. And the storytelling is wretched. Seriously disappointing.

Accidental Love
This movie was pieced together from what was once a David O. Russell film. It’s amazing how bad a good director’s footage can become when in the hands of clueless producers. This is almost qualifies as a freak-show curio for cinephiles to study.

Bad Movies

Hot Tub Time Machine 2
I actually stand by the original quite a bit. That was a really good comedy. This one captures a sliver of that spark but mostly belly-flops.

Horrible Bosses 2
I like the energy of this group well enough, I suppose. Enough to put it on, but it’s like eating a whole bag of chips at once. Nothing quality about it. Just salty. Not crispy enough, either.

People, Places, Things
Not all indie films are good.

I watched this on a plane and it passed the time okay, I guess. I really don’t even remember.

50 Shades of Grey
My ex read the book so I thought I’d give it a go with her. Obviously a waste of time.

Unseen. My Queue

Best of Enemies

Er Ist Wieder Da (He’s Back)

When Marnie Was There

The Stanford Prison Experiment

Louder than Bombs

The Yes Men Are Revolting

Nasty Baby


007: Spectre

The Avengers: Age of Ultron

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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