Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Wide Angle: 2015 in Review

Regular readers have surely noticed that the Amblog hasn't been updated in a long time. I still can't say for certain what the future holds for this space: consider it a very long, indefinite hiatus. (And don't forget to check out the What Were We Watching podcast!)

However, I am bound by tradition and ego to give my thoughts on the movies of 2015. As always, my disclaimer: Awards are silly. I like to think of this as more of a journal for posterity.

Top Whatever

Many big Hollywood blockbusters, even when they succeed in giving us a visceral thrill, still come across as programmed and choreographed. But Mad Max: Fury Road was anything but safe: it was a runaway semi truck that smartly used its franchise pedigree as a springboard instead of a crutch. Because while we don't need any more detailed explanation of honestly-who-cares mythology, we definitely need more pustulous warlords, fiery car crashes, and electric guitars that are also flamethrowers.

Vampire mockumentary: those two words accurately describe What We Do In the Shadows, and also sound like a half-hearted attempt to chase an old trend using one of the most exhausted conceits of the past few decades. Shadows is a miracle, a lively comedy about a boarding house for undead bloodsuckers in New Zealand that uses vampire lore as a starting point to exaggerate and examine the dynamics of friendship.

There are few friends on the grimy streets of Hollywood for the struggling transgender sex workers of Tangerine. Yet even in an environment that breeds despair, hardship, and heartbreak, they are able to build a world that sustains a simulacrum of family life - a reserve of humor and camaraderie to ward off the pain caused by manipulative pimps and insecure johns.

The characters of Mistress America, Noah Baumbach's latest whip-smart farce of the modern leisure class, come from more privileged backgrounds, which makes cracking their facade of sophistication a conspiratorial affair for the audience. We ultimately root for its protagonists, a wide-eyed college freshman and her dilettante stepsister, because we see a way to forgive our own silly preoccupations and fantasize about finding such opportunities to embrace true personal growth.

The truth is hazy in Sicario, a dark dispatch from the Mexican drug cartel wars. There is intense metaphoric potential in an idealistic FBI agent trying to suss out the agendas of her new partners, a smirking CIA operative and a local ally with a shadowy past, but the film admirably embodies the spirit of realpolitik. It's not a journey of heroism or cynicism - it's an innocent's initiation into a world of hard-won knowledge.

One of the best gearshifts in recent memory occurs about halfway through Room, a story told through the eyes of a 5-year-old boy who has lived his entire life as a captive in a cramped emergency shelter with his mother. While that experience is dramatic enough, Room is truly about an individual's ability to not only withstand trauma but absorb it, to let it stand as a separate part of herself and find reasons to endure beyond basic survival.

There is no way that Steve Jobs can be an accurate depiction of the events it portrays, and that is exactly why it is an essential piece of cinema. It's a breathless theatrical broadside pitting the Apple co-creator against a Greek chorus of friends and enemies (though most people are often both to Jobs) during his rise, fall, and rebirth in a natural evolution of the biopic form: taking license with the subject's chronology to gain a deeper, more meaningful understanding of his philosophy.

Don't mistake the investors and financial analysts of The Big Short for white knights - their investigation of the percolating subprime mortgage crisis that eventually brought the national economy to its knees was done in the spirit of making the rich even richer. But that only adds another layer of complexity to an already compelling, zany, and almost-unbelievable story of capitalist hubris and the average American's yearning for a slice of the good life.

As a competition between man and nature to determine which can be the harshest, The Revenant would be one of the grittiest survival stories of all time. On top of this, however, the film considers the calculus of revenge in a mountain man's quest to avenge his son despite a constant array of mortal danger, and what physically animates the body and mind after the soul has been decimated.

Finally, Anomalisa shows how the mundane can transform into the sublime, as in its tale of a motivational guru incapable of seeing individuals as anything besides dull, unimpressive automatons until he befriends a beguilingly shy fan. It's a reminder that whenever we cast ourselves as the protagonists in our own dramatic narratives, we risk ignoring the potential of the supporting players.

Other Good Stuff

Inside Out explored the complex world of human emotion with sensitivity, humor, and insight, while Ex Machina wondered if the wrong combination of those brain impulses could create something monstrous. Both Brooklyn and Carol followed budding romances in 1950s New York, one an affirmation of courage and pluck, and the other dealing with the sometimes difficult consequences of exposing one's true feelings.

Joy made a live QVC product pitch seem as tense as a scene from Network; its depiction of a modern-day Cinderella who acts as her own fairy godmother was just as refreshing. The Hateful Eight reckoned with the dubious mythology of the American West, as well as its enduring archetypes of outlaws and lawmen.

And Star Wars: The Force Awakens was the perfect kind of comfort food, basking in the warm glow of nostalgia while introducing a group of new, charismatic friends to invite into our imaginations.

Small Things In Movies That Brought Me Joy

- Mortdecai's description of The Standard, a trendy hotel on the Sunset Strip, as "a concrete brothel"
- Seth Rogen's video selfie freak-out about impending fatherhood in The Night Before
- the guy taking a moment to save his margaritas from attacking pterosaurs in Jurassic World
- Kate Winslet's subtle Eastern European accent in Steve Jobs
- the visual effects of Pixels, a benchmark in CGI/live action integration that almost nobody noticed
- Jeff Bridges using his natural accent to portray a medieval wise man in Seventh Son

Just the Worst

The lazy stereotypical humor of Get Hard, the dumb machinations of The Visit, and the overall incoherence of The Last Witch Hunter all rank as lowlights from 2015. But the top of the dung heap belongs to The Boy Next Door, a sleazy sub-Lifetime thriller starring J.Lo as a high school classics teacher sexing up a student who goes from exploited teenager to manipulative psychopath overnight.

Flawed But Fascinating

I loved the premise of It Follows without caring much for the execution - a horror film that possessed the heart of a sensitive indie drama, and managed to contain the most annoying elements of both. Some peace and quiet might have improved Tomorrowland, as its worthy message about imagination as motivation gets lost in a lot of clamor.

But how could I settle on anything other the patron saints of flawed-but-fascinating movies, the Wachowski siblings, and their baffling space opera freak-out Jupiter Ascending. Featuring a byzantine plot about extraterrestrial bloodlines, genetically-spliced human/animal hybrids, and Channing Tatum in anti-gravity rollerblades, it's completely out of sync with conventional popcorn movie tastes - which is exactly why it demands to be seen.

Biggest Disappointments

Though I already began to sour on the Marvel Cinematic Universe last year, the overstuffed and underwhelming Avengers: Age of Ultron didn't exactly inspire a change of heart. Crimson Peak was a big bummer, squandering the panache and vision of Guillermo Del Toro on a half-baked story. And while Magic Mike XXL likely met any reasonable person's expectation of a male stripper movie not directed by Steven Soderbergh, it's strange how the movie not only downshifted into guilty pleasure mode, but also was designed to disavow the existence of its more thoughtful, melancholic predecessor - a choice that reveals XXL's unflattering perception of its audience.

Most Pleasant Surprises

An adaptation of a little-known comic book starring an unknown lead and an against-type star more comfortable in romances than shoot-em-ups sounds bad on paper, yet Kingsman: The Secret Service was one of the most kinetic and confident films of the year. The Gift flew under the radar during the summer, so not many appreciated how this nasty, low-key thriller subverted typical genre expectations. We already knew the deft and humorous Ant-Man was going to have a different vibe, but even after the high-profile firing of director and co-writer Edgar Wright, it still turned out to be a much-needed change of pace in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Best Performances

If you think I'm missing some heavy hitters, that's by design. I try to omit some of the obvious to make room for the not-so-obvious.


Brilliant on both sides of the hero-villain divide, it's difficult to say which Tom Hardy performance I enjoyed the most in 2015. Though he spends much of the first act of Mad Max: Fury Road bound and captive, his Max Rockatansky is the ideal pulp hero: an man of action who commands the narrative, but doesn't dominate it. Despite his character's name being in the title, Hardy performs a version of heroism that leaves plenty of room for the contributions of his allies. A greater subtlety is on display in The Revenant, this time in a murderous fur trapper trying to cover up his many misdeeds. Hardy handles the big monologues with aplomb (and a Baltimore-ish accent), but his genius is in the way he physically inhabits his villany, haggard and hunched and wild-eyed, as if evil is slowly consuming him from the inside.

Samuel L. Jackson is known for his prolific filmography, but rarely does he get a truly meaty role like his button-pushing bounty hunter in The Hateful Eight. Nobody delivers Quentin Tarantino's bruising dialogue quite like Jackson, and it's refreshing to see the actor get to expand his range beyond anger and annoyance, and ensnare his rivals thanks to his mind instead of his muscle. Similarly, his idiosyncratic bad guy in Kingsman: The Secret Service could have come across as a bundle of quirks, but Jackson successfully tones down his natural menace to create a memorably kooky billionaire. (And his drive-by in Avengers: Age of Ultron proves that the straightforward, suffer-no-fools Jackson is alive and well.)


Steve Carell walks a fine line as an abrasive hedge fund manager in The Big Short, and succeeds in perfectly balancing his character's repellent qualities with a strangely ennobling tenacity. Speaking of determination, few leading men were as ferocious and assured as Michael B. Jordan in Creed - it would be easy to root for him even without Rocky Balboa's endorsement. It's even harder to step out of Han Solo's shadow, but John Boyega nearly stole Star Wars: The Force Awakens with his infectious glee and big personality. The future of the Force is in good hands.


The high-stakes drama of Room wouldn't be as effective if not for Brie Larson, keeping both the audience and her young co-star, Jacob Tremblay, grounded in the tender, complex relationship between mother and son. Familiarity was the strength that Greta Gerwig brought to her scattered hipster socialite in Mistress America, reflecting the lives and Instagram accounts of a million Millenial strivers. And kudos to Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez for animating a largely unseen world and giving Tangerine a much-deserved sweetness among the tart disappointments of life on the streets.


While the characters portrayed by Guy Pearce, Cobie Smulders, and Kevin Corrigan in Results initially appear to be plucked from different movies, their slow-burning chemistry mirrors how real-life friendships are often forged through uncommon bonds. On the other hand, the differences between Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, and Domhnall Gleeson in Ex-Machina strain their little collective until it must collapse in a shocking and thought-provoking fashion. Finally, praise be to Charlize Theron, along with the Wives and Vuvalini of Mad Max: Fury Road for effortlessly slipping into the role of distaff wasteland warriors and upstaging the dude who essentially becomes their valet.

The Golden Ham

Last but not least, a distinction that might be my personal favorite: the year's most superlative scenery-chomper.

Though I relished Jason Statham's return as a hyper-masculine wrecking ball in both Furious 7 and Spy, as well as Tobey Maguire's raging paranoia and cartoony Brooklyn accent in Pawn Sacrifice, there is one performance that (quite literally) screams for recognition.

Playing an evil alien plutocrat in Jupiter Ascending, Eddie Redmayne seemingly loses all control over the volume of his voice, shifting from "old man whisper" to "pre-pubescent drill sergeant" at the drop of a hat. It didn't affect his Oscar buzz for The Theory of Everything, however, as Redmayne won Best Actor honors just weeks after Jupiter debuted in theaters. Not bad, 2015.

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