Wednesday, January 27, 2016

On Racing Extinction and why the Oscars matter

Director Louie Psihoyos' documentary Racing Extinction is a powerful call to action for anyone concerned about our planet's future.

I love the Academy Awards. That love is among the main reasons I devote so much time and energy to this site. I do not claim the Academy is infallible. Hell, I do not agree with even a majority of the winners most years, though I would argue they are more in the ballpark than many critics would have you believe. For me, it is not necessarily about the winners. It is about what an Academy Award stands for – if not for an objective best, then for the quest for transcendence through art.

It is a lofty goal that maybe the Academy does not always live up to, but even its existence is good for art, artists, and fans. The diversity scandal in which the Academy is embroiled saddens me because it undermines the soul of the institution, which is as much about pointing a way forward for the film industry as cherishing and preserving its past. Diversity is more than the future, though. It is the now, and the Academy is distressingly behind.

Activist Shawn Heinrichs surrounded by shark fins in Racing Extinction.
President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and the governors board are to be commended for their quick work in making adjustments to the membership and voting guidelines to address concerns of racial and gender diversity within the Academy. Change has been a long time coming, and it is arriving late, but progress is progress, and I hope the Academy will not be satisfied by a few new rules and instead press on to become an all-inclusive organization that represents and reflects the whole film community.

In the wake of this current, though sadly not new, controversy, some have called for a boycott of the Oscars ceremony, Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Michael Moore among them. I would not fault anyone for making an ethical decision or abiding a personal moral code, but I cannot help but feel a blanket boycott is a bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. This feeling became more acute after viewing the masterful documentary Racing Extinction.

Every year, when the nominations are announced, I begin the frantic process of tracking down and watching the more obscure nominees that I failed to see in theaters – a list which this year includes the fantastical Swedish oddity The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared and the gorgeously animated When Marnie Was There. Last night, I caught up with Kirby Dick’s campus sexual assault documentary The Hunting Ground and Louie Psihoyos’ Racing Extinction.

Psihoyos won an Academy Award six years ago for his dolphin slaughter exposé The Cove, and while his second feature unfortunately has not been nominated for Best Documentary, it will be included in the broadcast as a Best Original Song nominee for J. Ralph and Antony Hegarty’s “Manta Ray.” We will talk about the song’s chances next month in our Countdown to the Oscars feature, but right now, I want to address the greater importance of this film.

Racing Extinction concerns the human-caused mass die-offs of an alarming array of the planet’s species – from some of the earth’s smallest creatures, the phytoplankton that provide the oxygen we all breathe, to its largest, the blue whale. While it is not as singularly focused as The Cove nor as accomplished from a filmmaking standpoint, it makes up for these minor shortcomings with the strength of its convictions and the power of its message.

This is not a global warming movie, though that topic is addressed, too. Racing Extinction is about the myriad ways human interference has forever altered the global ecosystem, overfishing sharks and manta rays to near extinction, wiping out frog and bird species left and right through sheer carelessness, and yes, raising the temperature of the earth to dangerous levels. Every single one of us is in part responsible for the state of things, but the beauty of Psihoyos’ approach is that he tasks each of us also with taking responsibility for being part of the solution.

A blue whale dives ever deeper in Racing Extinction.
Too many films of this type present a doomsday scenario and leave it at that. Well, anyone who is paying attention – which is to say, anyone who would watch a documentary like this – is well aware of the mountain we have to climb. We just need a guide. The reality presented in Racing Extinction is dire, but it is paired with hope for a brighter future and faith that humanity has the will to work toward that future. Nihilism has never been useful, and Psihoyos knows this. Instead, he fosters urgency with optimism, which makes Racing Extinction a must-see film.

I was familiar with Psihoyos from The Cove and his photography and conservation work. I am an admirer, but I would have been unlikely to seek out Racing Extinction had it not been nominated for an Academy Award. Frankly, there are just too many movies to see everything, and the Oscar nod was just the motivation I needed to discover this wonderful documentary. Others hopefully have sought out the film as well for similar reasons. I do not know if the original song nominees will be performed on the Oscars telecast this year, but if they are, it will provide a great showcase for this film’s necessary message, and one hopes even more people will be drawn to it.

That is the power of the Academy Awards and the mission of an organization such as the Academy. Issues of diversity absolutely should be raised, and that conversation should continue in the film industry far beyond the Academy. Maybe the Academy Awards are silly and inherently problematic, but they also provide a forum for awareness and consideration of the world and our place in it. I hope that at least is a mission we can all support.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

#IndustrySoWhite: On Hollywood, diversity, and the Oscars

Sal's Famous Pizzeria burns in writer-director Spike Lee's masterpiece Do the Right Thing.

Ordinarily, I would not jump into the fray on an issue such as this. People a lot smarter than I and better attuned to the discussion have written about the now infamous #OscarsSoWhite hashtag and its many implications. It just seems for an issue this important, though, that more discussion is always better than less. The more we talk about race, identity, diversity, and equality, the better we can understand these topics and address problems, while the people who shut their eyes and cover their ears will be left behind.

Most of you know the facts: In the last two years, not one black, Asian, or Hispanic actor has been nominated for an Academy Award. That covers 40 nominations, and all of them have gone to white actors. I would argue history shows the Best Director category is even worse for black filmmakers. The last three Best Director winners have been either Hispanic (Alfonso Caurón for Gravity and Alejandro González Iñárritu for Birdman) or Asian (Ang Lee for Life of Pi), which equals the number of black directors ever nominated for an Oscar for directing.

Now, we can sit and discuss merit all day – nominations are subjective; there are only five slots per category; etc., etc. – but that misses the point. Spike Lee, a recent honorary Oscar winner who somehow has never been nominated for Best Director, shined a light on the real issue this week in announcing his boycott of this year’s Academy Awards ceremony. He said:

As I See It, The Academy Awards Is Not Where The ‘Real’ Battle Is. It's In The Executive Office Of The Hollywood Studios And TV And Cable Networks. This Is Where The Gate Keepers Decide What Gets Made And What Gets Jettisoned To ‘Turnaround’ Or Scrap Heap. This Is What's Important. The Gate Keepers. Those With ‘The Green Light’ Vote. As The Great Actor Leslie Odom Jr. Sings And Dances In The Game Changing Broadway Musical HAMILTON, ‘I WANNA BE IN THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENS’. People, The Truth Is We Ain't In Those Rooms And Until Minorities Are, The Oscar Nominees Will Remain Lilly White.”

The statement echoed the sentiment Lee expressed in his honorary Oscar acceptance speech, and he is right. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is about 6,000 people. Its president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, has made great strides in the last couple years to open the doors to a more diverse and inclusive membership, and she has announced initiatives to do even more toward those ends. Lee and others have applauded her efforts, but it is an uphill battle.

Writer-director Ryan Coogler on the set of Creed.
When it comes to diversity in Hollywood, the Academy is not the disease but a symptom. As Lee identified, the disease exists in the board rooms and executive offices of the studios. These are the places where movies with all-white casts and all-white filmmakers are greenlit and where “black movies” are represented by an incredibly narrow and stereotyped view of the world. The Academy can only choose from films that get made, and if studios do not want to make movies with black actors and filmmakers, well, the choice is already made.

However, the Academy is not blameless. When presented with great films, no matter who made them or stars in them, it is incumbent upon the Academy to recognize that greatness. Last year, Selma was unjustly ignored by the Academy everywhere but in Best Picture and Best Original Song. It is objectively wrong that Ava DuVernay was not nominated for Best Director and David Oyelowo was left out of Best Actor. Merit may be subjective, but there is no legitimate argument to be made against Selma.

This year, there were perhaps no snubs as egregious as those, but the Academy still willfully ignored the best young filmmaker in the game (Ryan Coogler and his excellent Creed) and two of the most interesting performances of the year (Abraham Attah and Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation). At the same time, a token nomination here or there is not going to change the culture. The problem is systemic, and it is the system that must be broken down and built again.

The studios must change, and the Academy must change because the audience has damn sure changed. In Lee’s independent masterpiece Do the Right Thing, they burned Sal’s Famous Pizzeria to the ground because he refused to put any black people on the wall of fame, despite his almost exclusively black clientele. The studios could learn a thing or two from that scenario if they bothered to pay attention – but then again, they didn’t make that movie, and they still don’t make movies like that. Some folks never learn, but they need to, and they need to pay attention to the lessons the audience is teaching.

#OscarsSoWhite... Again. I Would Like To Thank President Cheryl Boone Isaacs And The Board Of Governors Of The Academy Of Motion Pictures Arts And Sciences For Awarding Me an Honorary Oscar This Past November. I Am Most Appreciative. However My Wife, Mrs. Tonya Lewis Lee And I Will Not Be Attending The Oscar Ceremony This Coming February. We Cannot Support It And Mean No Disrespect To My Friends, Host Chris Rock and Producer Reggie Hudlin, President Isaacs And The Academy. But, How Is It Possible For The 2nd Consecutive Year All 20 Contenders Under The Actor Category Are White? And Let's Not Even Get Into The Other Branches. 40 White Actors In 2 Years And No Flava At All. We Can't Act?! WTF!! It's No Coincidence I'm Writing This As We Celebrate The 30th Anniversary Of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's Birthday. Dr. King Said "There Comes A Time When One Must Take A Position That Is Neither Safe, Nor Politic, Nor Popular But He Must Take It Because Conscience Tells Him It's Right". For Too Many Years When The Oscars Nominations Are Revealed, My Office Phone Rings Off The Hook With The Media Asking Me My Opinion About The Lack Of African-Americans And This Year Was No Different. For Once, (Maybe) I Would Like The Media To Ask All The White Nominees And Studio Heads How They Feel About Another All White Ballot. If Someone Has Addressed This And I Missed It Then I Stand Mistaken. As I See It, The Academy Awards Is Not Where The "Real" Battle Is. It's In The Executive Office Of The Hollywood Studios And TV And Cable Networks. This Is Where The Gate Keepers Decide What Gets Made And What Gets Jettisoned To "Turnaround" Or Scrap Heap. This Is What's Important. The Gate Keepers. Those With "The Green Light" Vote. As The Great Actor Leslie Odom Jr. Sings And Dances In The Game Changing Broadway Musical HAMILTON, "I WANNA BE IN THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENS". People, The Truth Is We Ain't In Those Rooms And Until Minorities Are, The Oscar Nominees Will Remain Lilly White. (Cont'd)
A photo posted by Spike Lee (@officialspikelee) on

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Academy Awards nominations announced

The Academy has spoken, and their words say Spotlight remains the film to beat. Writer-director Tom McCarthy’s investigative journalism drama had been seen as weak coming into nominations morning, but that assessment always felt a little off base. While The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road may have been called out in seemingly every category (actually it was 12 for The Revenant and 10 for Mad Max: Fury Road), the big winner was Spotlight, which showed up everywhere it conceivably could have with nominations for Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, and Editing.

That said, after its triumph at the Golden Globes, many will see director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Western revenge saga The Revenant as the likely frontrunner now that it is also the nominations leader. While Spotlight is sitting pretty above the line, it looks like The Revenant and George Miller’s post-apocalyptic action epic Mad Max: Fury Road will battle for supremacy in the below-the-line categories. Both were nominated in the same 10 categories – Picture, Director, Editing, Cinematography, Production Design, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects, Makeup and Hairstyling, and Costumes – while The Revenant also picked up acting nominations for Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy.

In addition to Spotlight, The Revenant, and Mad Max: Fury Road, the other films nominated for Best Picture are The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, The Martian, and Room. The biggest surprise of the morning was the overall strength of Room, which also earned nods for Brie Larson in Lead Actress, Emma Donoghue for Adapted Screenplay, and Lenny Abrahamson’s direction. The Martian had a strong showing with seven nominations, while Bridge of Spies earned six and The Big Short came away with five. Brooklyn pulled up the rear in terms of Best Picture nominees with just three nominations, failing to score in either Production Design (rightly) or Costumes (unfortunately).

Carol (six) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (five) led the way among films not nominated for Best Picture but took very different routes to get there. Carol came away with nominations for Actress, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Costumes, and Score, while Star Wars: The Force Awakens showed strength in the crafts categories with nominations for Editing, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects, and Score.

Regarding those acting categories we were all so curious about, the Academy went the easy way with tough decisions and listened to the campaigners. As a result, Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) and Rooney Mara (Carol) both showed up in Supporting Actress for their co-lead performances, probably shutting Vikander out of Supporting Actress for Ex Machina. On the other hand, the Academy avoided the question of Paul Dano in Love and Mercy by not nominating him at all. Sylvester Stallone did make it into Supporting Actor for Creed – to tremendous applause in the room – along with Hardy’s surprise nomination.

As far as my personal reaction, I could not be happier for Charlotte Rampling’s Best Actress nomination for 45 Years, my favorite performance of the year, and Mustang’s recognition in the Best Foreign Language Film category is a wonderful delight, though not wholly unexpected. As a huge fan of Abrahamson’s career and of Room, I was excited to see him show up in Best Director, and despite Vikander missing out in Supporting Actress for Ex Machina, I was thrilled to see that film show up in Original Screenplay and Visual Effects.

Snubs? Well, I will leave that to others. Many of my favorite films showed surprising strength this morning or showed up in categories where they had only slim hope, so I had a great morning. Others will grip and grouse, and that is their right. You are more than welcome to do so as well. Let me just say, though, people like to complain about the Academy Awards nominations every year, but in my experience – more than a decade now of following this race – the Academy gets it right more often than it gets it wrong. Take that for what it is worth.

The ceremony is still more than six weeks away, and there is a lot of room for movement in this race. From where I am sitting, it is still Spotlight out in front with The Big Short, The Revenant, and Mad Max: Fury Road not far behind. It should be a fun race all the way to the end with almost no category already decided, although DiCaprio should probably start working on his speech, just in case. As with last year, check in here at Last Cinema Standing throughout the next month and a half for analysis and predictions in all 24 categories as we make our way to the red carpet and Oscar night.

Click here for a full list of nominees.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Waiting game: 2015 Oscar nominations predictions

The critics’ awards are pretty much behind us, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association handed out its honors on Sunday, and with the announcement today of the Directors Guild nominations, the most important industry groups have had their say. All that is left is for the Academy to announce its nominations, which it will do bright and early Thursday morning. Before that, let’s take a look at which films have dominated the awards season thus far and what we might expect from the Academy.

We discussed the critics’ groups around this time last month, when it seemed like writer-director Tom McCarthy’s journalism drama Spotlight would be the runaway champion. With the critics, anyway, that trend held true as Spotlight was awarded best film by group after group across the country, with a stray mention for George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road here and there.

Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies.
As the industry started to chime in, though, the ground started to shift. The craftspeople such as the cinematographers, the art directors, the sound designers, etc., flocked to films such as Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant, while Spotlight has been left in the dust. This was to be expected since Spotlight is not exactly the kind of flashy film that draws a lot of appreciation for its technical achievements. However, Spotlight has hit with the four industry groups that matter most – Screen Actors Guild, Producers Guild, Directors Guild, and to a lesser extent, the Writers Guild.

Even after its shutout at the Golden Globes, Spotlight is still sitting pretty. The same goes for The Big Short, which was also shut out Sunday but has done fine with the guilds. The Revenant has obviously been a technical juggernaut, and its triumph with the HFPA certainly gives it some momentum. Remember, though, that the Academy nominations were submitted before the Golden Globes, so that momentum only means something if the Academy has already gone for The Revenant in a big way.

So, let’s take a look at what the guilds have given us to work with:

Producers: The Big Short; Bridge of Spies; Brooklyn; Ex Machina; Mad Max: Fury Road; The Martian; The Revenant; Sicario; Spotlight; Straight Outta Compton

Directors: Adam McKay (The Big Short); Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road); Ridley Scott (The Martian); Alejandro González Iñárritu (The Revenant); McCarthy (Spotlight)

Actors: Best ensemble – Beasts of No Nation; The Big Short; Spotlight; Straight Outta Compton; Trumbo

Writers: Best original screenplay – Bridge of Spies; Sicario; Spotlight; Straight Outta Compton; Trainwreck. Best adapted screenplay – The Big Short; Carol; The Martian; Steve Jobs; Trumbo

For good measure, let’s throw in the British Academy nominations, which came out late last week:

BAFTA: The Big Short; Bridge of Spies; Carol; The Revenant; Spotlight

If you look closely, the only two films to show up on all five lists are The Big Short and Spotlight. No other movie shows up more than three times. Regardless of anything else you here, those are your frontrunners right now for Best Picture at the Oscars. The Revenant is close behind, though the likelihood of Iñárritu winning Best Picture and Best Director the year after winning both for Birdman is slim. Bridge of Spies, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, and even Straight Outta Compton look strong based on what we know now.

Still, what we know now does not amount to much. Everything could change – or nothing could, admittedly – with the Academy’s announcement Thursday. So, let’s make some guesses as to how the top categories might shake out.

Best Picture

My reasoning in this category is pretty much outlined above, so I will not go over it too deeply here. The big question now is how many films the Academy will choose to nominate. It could be anywhere from five to 10 but usually ends up on the high side around nine. So, that is where we will draw our prediction line. Based on everything that has happened up until now, here are the nine films I think are most likely Best Picture nominees (in order of likelihood): Spotlight; The Big Short; The Revenant; The Martian; Mad Max: Fury Road; Bridge of Spies; Brooklyn; Carol; Trumbo.

Best Director

This category rarely lines up directly with its guild counterpart, but most of the time, four out of the five make it. Last year was anomalous in that Bennett Miller was nominated for Foxcatcher despite that film not being nominated for Best Picture. I would not predict that happening again. The weakest name on the DGA list might be Scott for The Martian, but it is hard to know who else might slip in besides maybe Steven Spielberg for Bridge of Spies. So, against my better judgment, I am predicting it to match the DGA exactly (in order of likelihood): Inarritu for The Revenant; McCarthy for Spotlight; McKay for The Big Short; Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road; Scott for The Martian.

Best Actor

Not much has changed in this category since we last covered it, except that a few contenders have probably fallen by the wayside. Paul Dano in Love and Mercy for instance is likely to be shifted to the supporting category, while Will Smith (Concussion) and Johnny Depp (Black Mass) really have not picked up any momentum. For the win, Leonardo DiCaprio may finally be in line for an Oscar. Regardless of his feelings about it, which I covered here and here, his peers sure seem to want him to win, based on the standing ovation he got at the Golden Globes. Anyway, here are my Best Actor predictions, which have not changed since last month (in order of likelihood): DiCaprio for The Revenant; Bryan Cranston for Trumbo; Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs; Matt Damon for The Martian; Eddie Redmayne for The Danish Girl.

Best Actress

Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn.
On the other hand, Best Actress is very much in flux since we still do not know how the Academy will choose to categorize Rooney Mara in Carol and Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl. Both have been campaigned as supporting contenders, but the Academy could still choose to place them (correctly) in the lead category. Either way, both are almost surefire nominees. The rest of the lineups in both categories simply depend on their placement.

Brie Larson’s performance in Room is picking up steam as the most likely winner, while Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) and Cate Blanchett (Carol) are right there as well. Despite the film’s lackluster reception, Jennifer Lawrence should still make it in for Joy, which leaves one space. I am guessing the Academy will place Vikander in lead and Mara in supporting, giving us (in order of likelihood): Larson for Room; Ronan for Brooklyn; Blanchett for Carol; Lawrence for Joy; Vikander for The Danish Girl.

Best Supporting Actor

Despite the mild controversy, which really should not have been any controversy at all, over his acceptance speech, it sure was fun to see Sylvester Stallone win an award at the Golden Globes. It is possible he will repeat that performance – with a better grasp of his thank-you list – at the Oscars, but I still have serious reservations about his chance for a nomination. Creed has not caught on with any of the guilds, and its heat seems to have died down since it was a considerable box-office hit in November and early December.

The heat on Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies, though, just seems to be picking up as he has pretty much run the table with the critics’ awards. Michael Shannon, well liked and universally admired by his peers, seems a safe bet to be 99 Homes’ only recognition, while both Spotlight (Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton) and The Big Short (Steve Carell and Christian Bale) have multiple performances that could be highlighted. Bale seems like a sure thing, and while I cannot imagine the Best Picture frontrunner not getting an acting nomination, it is possible Ruffalo and Keaton split the vote and neither makes it.

Other than that, Jacob Tremblay (Room) and Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation) have dropped off the radar a bit, but I would not be shocked to see one or either end up with a nomination. Then, there is Dano as well. My predictions right now are (in order of likelihood): Rylance for Bridge of Spies; Bale for The Big Short; Shannon for 99 Homes; Dano for Love and Mercy; Stallone for Creed.

Best Supporting Actress

If we guess that Mara will end up here, she is a definite nominee and the biggest threat for the win, especially considering it is a co-lead performance. Winslet, who just won the Golden Globe in a bit of a surprise victory, is probably safe. Jennifer Jason Leigh has showed up on most lists for The Hateful Eight, and the Academy loves Quentin Tarantino, so she seems likely to benefit, plus she is great in the movie.

Helen Mirren has received a few mentions for Trumbo, and Kristen Stewart has been a critical darling for her turn in The Clouds of Sils Maria, but I expect only one of them to be nominated as I am going on a limb and predicting a double nomination for Vikander, here for her stellar performance in Ex Machina. Rest assured, if it happens, it will be one of the most pleasant surprises of the morning for me. Rachel McAdams also has an outside shot for Spotlight. My predictions (in order of likelihood): Mara for Carol; Winslet for Steve Jobs; Leigh for The Hateful Eight; Mirren for Trumbo; Vikander for Ex Machina.

Below the line & final thoughts

Cate Blanchett in Carol.
In the crafts categories, we can expect Mad Max: Fury Road, The Revenant, and Stars Wars: The Force Awakens to dominate. All three could get in for Editing, Art Direction, Sound, Sound Editing, and Visual Effects. Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant are also frontrunners for Cinematography, along with Carol. Carol could be a more low-key force in the crafts given its gorgeous design elements, so look for it in Costumes and Art Direction as well. The same goes for Brooklyn and The Danish Girl. Bridge of Spies has showed strength with the crafts guilds, and it could be in for well-deserved recognition in Art Direction and Cinematography.

The Best Editing category is usually the strongest bellwether of Best Picture, and in addition to The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road, expect to see The Big Short and possibly The Martian. If Spotlight fails to nab an Editing nod, that will be its first real sign of weakness. I am not expecting that to be the case, but it could happen.

When the final tally comes in, I expect The Revenant to lead the list and for Mad Max: Fury Road not to be far behind. Iñárritu’s Western epic could hit in the following categories: Picture, Director, Actor, Cinematography, Editing, Art Direction, Sound, Sound Editing, Costumes, Makeup, Visual Effects, and possibly Adapted Screenplay. That would give it 12. Mad Max: Fury Road could show up in all those places except Actor or Adapted Screenplay and wind up with 10.

As I said back in December, this is a wide-open year, and that makes it a fun year. Even after the nominations come out, we still will be flying mostly blind. When the guilds start to announce their winners at the end of this month and the beginning of February, we will know more, but for now, let’s enjoy the feeling that any movie we love is a potential nominee and maybe even a winner.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Year in Review: Top 10 Films of 2015

The best films tell us something about ourselves, something about what it means to be human. Sometimes, the picture is not so rosy, but look out the window. It is not so rosy out there either. The world is perched on a ledge, and it could tip at any moment. I do not mean to sound like a harbinger of doom here in my little movie column, but when we go to the cinema, it is because of what is going on in the world. Either we are seeking an escape from the darkness or a reflection of it.

Well, I have never been one for escape, so each of my top 10 films of the year is representative of the society we have built and the culture we have bred. If it sounds like a dour evening of programming, it is in some ways, but in these depictions of a world askew, I find hope. These are bleak films, yes, but this is because they dare to confront us with human truths, and if we are to find a way forward or some kind of light at the end of the tunnel, we must first open ourselves to honesty.

In one way or another, every film below is about people – or a dog or a machine – trying to take the next step toward a deeper understanding of themselves and the world they inhabit. Their circumstances may be dire, and they may not always succeed in their quests, but the search for truth and meaning is always worthwhile. These are the top 10 films of the year because for whatever else they are, they are celebrations of the search for truth.

Before we get to the list, here are five other fantastic films from 2015 that exemplify the perilous march forward, either for individuals or whole movements: The Second Mother; Everest; Room; Suffragette; Macbeth.

The Top 10 of 2015:

10. The Kindergarten Teacher, directed by Nadav Lapid

For Nira (Sarit Larry), the kindergarten teacher at the center of the story, beauty comes with a responsibility. If one is capable of recognizing something beautiful, it is incumbent upon that person to share it with the world. Nira would love to be that beautiful thing, but she knows she is not. Instead, she finds it in the poetry of a 5-year-old boy, Yoav (Avi Shnaidman). Once she finds it, she can think of nothing else but sharing this boy’s poems with an ungrateful world.

Lapid has called Nira a warrior for poetry, a warrior for beauty in a world that has neither the time nor inclination to enjoy it. Lapid creates a universe – not unlike our own – in which people would rather watch inane television shows, talk about their sex lives, and drink away their worries. That Yoav is destined to be unappreciated causes great pain in Nira, and she acts out. Perhaps her decisions are irrational or extreme but only in the world in which she and Yoav live. In a better place, where beauty and poetry meant more, Nira would be hailed as a righteous hero, and it is that world for which she fights.

9. Ex Machina, directed by Alex Garland

All of Ex Machina is a test. We learn this almost from the beginning. Nathan (Oscar Isaac) brings Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to his secluded compound to test a new artificial intelligence program, Ava (Alicia Vikander). The goal is to see whether this machine can imitate humanity so well as to be indistinguishable from it. The obvious ethical question is if Ava is so human she fools Caleb, does she deserve to be treated like a human, or is she still simply a robot? Ava asks what will happen if she fails the test, and she is told her memory will be wiped and she will be broken down. At this point, Ava demonstrates the most human thing of all – the will to survive.

Isaac, Gleeson, and especially Vikander are tremendous as three characters who each represent a different path for humanity. Nathan is an innovator, but he is cruel. Caleb is kind but weak. Ava is strong but alien. Garland suggests only one of these will inherit the earth, and he forces the audience to choose an allegiance. We can create the future, fight the future, or be the future, but if we choose wrong, then we have failed the test, and the repercussions will be severe.

8. White God, directed by Kornél Mundruczó

Mundruczó set out to make an angry, unflinching film about his native Hungary and the growing inequities that have torn the country apart from within. He certainly has made that, but he has also made a beautiful fable about a girl and her dog. That two such disparate stories could be told not only parallel to each other but in concert is a testament to the remarkable filmmaking and storytelling on display in White God.

After Lili’s (Zsófia Psotta) father forces her to abandon her beloved dog, Hagen, the film charts the course of these two outsiders as they try to make their way back to each other. Both are abused and degraded by systems set up to keep them on the outside looking in. The wonder of Mundruczó’s story is that he makes Hagen the hero. Hagen is the one who finally cannot take it anymore and rises up with an army of the oppressed.

That they are dogs is what makes the story a fable, but in that fable, Mundruczó uncovers undeniable truths about the despicable ways we treat each other. He argues that if we cannot find some empathy inside ourselves, we are doomed to be destroyed, not by some outside force but from within.

7. 99 Homes, directed by Ramin Bahrani

Adam McKay’s The Big Short has received much acclaim and many accolades this year for the way it tackles the financial crisis and housing market meltdown of the mid-2000s. That film is a big, flashy, star-studded, smart-ass look at the world of Wall Street, but for me, it does not compare to 99 Homes. Bahrani’s film chooses substance over style and has the guts to examine the human toll of the crisis. While The Big Short laughs and jokes its way around big numbers and big ideas, 99 Homes goes for the throat, takes hold, and never lets go.

There are no winners in Bahrani’s film, only those who keep their dignity intact and their souls unstained – and there are not many of those either. Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a good man who wants to do right by his family, but the only way he can do that is to give up a piece of himself. Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) is a bad man who also wants to do right by his family. He has already given up every part of himself to the system he serves and spends his days collecting the broken pieces of others. Bahrani creates a dichotomy in which we can either give in and be destroyed or fight back and be crushed anyway. 99 Homes may be a dark statement on our time, but it never feels anything but true.

6. The Revenant, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

It would be hard right now to find another auteur operating at the consistently high level at which Iñárritu works. The Mexican-born director has made just six feature films, and each is a masterwork. In 2014, he gave us the acid-tongued satire Birdman, which amazed with its vibrancy and technical wizardry. In 2015, he returned with The Revenant, a stone-faced adventure epic set in the Old American West. The technical mastery remains – in particular, director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki’s lush cinematography – but this time, Iñárritu uses his storytelling gifts to far more humanist ends.

The story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) dragging his broken body hundreds of miles through the snow to find those who left him for dead could easily be positioned as a revenge saga. In fact, the marketing would have you believe that is all it is. It is not. The Revenant is about grief and guilt, survival and strength, nature and progress. Against the vast expanse of frozen tundra, Glass is barely a speck on the horizon, and his personal tragedy is just one of many tragedies suffered every day on this land. As he wills himself back to civilization, he discovers his true home and his duty to the universe.


 Complacency is a byproduct of a successful society. Certainly in the U.S., most of us have the luxury of being insulated from the truly terrible acts committed in this world. Even if we are not satisfied with what we have, we have the choice to go out and seek something more or something else, which is its own kind of privilege. Mustang is an important film because it has the ability to shock us out of complacency by showing us a world in which people do not have a choice.

Five sisters in a small Turkish village are held hostage by their family and forced to participate in a culture that has no place in a modern society. They fight back against their oppressors, but an entire system has been set in place to hold them down. However, Ergüven wisely does not fill her film with sorrow but rather rage. Mustang is an angry cry against inequality and an urgent call for justice. The subjugation and degradation of women is not a cultural issue but a human rights issue about which none of us can afford to be complacent.

4. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, directed by Roy Andersson

Every scene in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is shrouded in death, but this is not a film about dying. It is a film about being alive. There is no more precious gift than life, and if it sometimes takes a morbid reminder of this fact, then so be it. Life is not always pretty or fun or sweet, as we are all well aware, but you know what – it sure as hell can be all those things, and when it is, the struggle and the pain seem worth it.

There is no story to speak of in Andersson’s film, just a few connecting threads here and there, loose tendrils of lives intersecting almost imperceptibly. In fact, the frame is filled constantly with life. People go about their business in the foreground, and the rest of the world goes about its day in the background. It quickly becomes clear that neither is more important as the next scene, or three scenes later, could focus on one of those background players, or we may never see any of these people again. Few films capture the simultaneous majesty and randomness of life as well as this, and as the film wanders, it pulls viewers along, making us a part of its wondrous tapestry.

3. 45 Years, directed by Andrew Haigh

Put next to films about the financial crisis, the systemic abuse of women, and rampant inequality, the small-scale marriage drama 45 Years may seem to involve fairly low stakes, but for its characters, the stakes could not be higher. Haigh’s film is a deeply penetrating look at the damage we inflict on each other when we refuse to be honest with ourselves. It concerns the way old wounds do not heal when left unattended but rot and infect everything they touch. The tragedy is that it could all be easily avoided if we were stronger, more open people. Instead, we become guarded, thinking we are protecting ourselves, but we are just causing further pain.

Kate and Geoff (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, who give two of the best performances of the year) have been married 45 years and still seem deeply in love, but when news from the past shakes the foundation of their bond, they realize the fragile nature of everything they have built. Bit by bit, Kate’s world crumbles around her, and all she can do is sift through the rubble, searching for a reason to carry on with life the way it was before. She wants to bury the past, discard the truth, and ignore all those old wounds, but she cannot. Everything is in the open now, and she must confront her new reality or be destroyed by it.

2. Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy

Spotlight is another film about people who would rather ignore the truth, and the film’s heroes are the Boston Globe reporters who refuse to remain silent. They uncover decades of abuse hidden by the Catholic Church, and everyone else would prefer to pretend the problem does not exist or will go away on its own. The Spotlight team, however, cannot abide the lie and goes to great lengths to ensure the truth will see the light of day.

McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer’s screenplay works as both a thrilling legal procedural and a moralistic drama. The film understands the mechanics of journalism and the lives of reporters like few others before it, but it never gets so bogged down in minutiae that it fails to tell a human story. The victims are the heart of Spotlight, and in his construction of the film, McCarthy guarantees we never forget the real people who suffered because of a corrupt system.

Finally, what Spotlight reminds us is that this work is never done. The Catholic Church still harbors and hides pedophile priests in cities around the world and places not fortunate enough to have teams of reporters, lawyers, and investigators dedicated to the truth. In the end, justice is our responsibility, and we must seek it everywhere, not just from the Catholic Church but from governments and Wall Street and schools and big business. Spotlight is a great film because it shows us how good people can change the world one truth at a time.

1. The Tribe, directed by Miroslav Slaboshpitsky

For sheer audacity, there is no film that could match Slaboshpitsky’s tale of humiliation, rage, and defiance set at a Ukrainian boarding school for the deaf. Apart from being told entirely in Ukrainian sign language, the film is shot in a remarkable series of long takes that makes the audience complicit in the abuses and atrocities being perpetrated in this insular society. After a while, the silence becomes so unsettling it is almost unbearable. We want to scream for these kids and the suffering they endure, but we cannot. We remain quiet, passive observers, and in so being, it feels like we are allowing this to happen.

Sergei (Grigoriy Fesenko) is a new student at the school and quickly becomes embedded in the school’s ruling gang. The gang controls the student body through intimidation, fear, and brute strength. They sell drugs, deal in other contraband, and operate a prostitution ring. Anya (Yana Novikova) is one of the prostitutes. Sergei falls in love with her and wants to escape this life together, but she rebuffs him. This is the life she knows, and she refuses to give it up. From there, the story spirals into hate, madness, and violence so rapidly the audience is left gasping for air.

There was no other film this year that offered the mix of sensory overload and emotional devastation in The Tribe. It is not a fun night at the movies, but it is something more. Cinema is a beautiful medium because it inserts viewers directly into the lives of others. If those lives are not always pretty or happy, so much the better. In life, we shut ourselves off from the pain of other people, either because we wish not to feel pain or because we do not want to be reminded of our own. The Tribe is a daring, confrontational rebuke of that numbness. We want to hide, but The Tribe forces us to open ourselves to feeling.

Thank you for being a part of Last Cinema Standing's 2015 Year in Review. Be sure to check out the other installments in the series by clicking any of the links below, and keep coming back for continued coverage of this year's Oscar race and the year in cinema that will be 2016.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Year in Review: Top 10 Performances of 2015

On Tuesday, I called this the year of the ensemble, and many of the best films of the year were stacked with wonderful performers giving themselves over to a theater-like atmosphere of community and trust. As a result, this year was not overflowing with big, showy, movie-star performances – with one notable exception we will discuss below – and instead, 2015 was a year of talented actors, young and old, delivering the type of subtle, measured work that often goes underappreciated.

The following 10 achievements come from seven very different films, which share in common only the commitment and perseverance of their actors. The characters they play run the gamut from prisoners and spies to survivalists and robots. In each case, though, it is like the audience is witnessing a magic trick, watching as one person disappears and another appears in an instant to transport us to worlds we could otherwise never know.

Before we get to the list, here are five more performances that certainly belong in the conversation for the year’s best: Benicio Del Toro in Sicario; Marion Cotillard in Macbeth; Paul Dano in Love and Mercy; Rinko Kikuchi in Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter; and Günes Sensoy in Mustang.

10. Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald in The Revenant

Hardy has built his career on chameleon-like character work. It is a cliché, but if you had told me the same actor was Charles Bronson in Bronson, Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, Eames in Inception, and Fitzgerald in The Revenant, I simply would not have believed you. Hardy had a magnificent year with turns as Max in Mad Max: Fury Road and the Kray brothers in the critically acclaimed Legend, but those pale in comparison to his portrayal of the antagonist in the year’s darkest adventure story.

Hardy makes Fitzgerald completely unsympathetic while still giving the audience time and space to come around to his point of view. His actions are incredibly self-serving and cowardly, but one may never question his will to survive. For a film that is all about the triumph of the human spirit against impossible odds, Hardy is the kind of fearless actor who dares to show us the dark side of the human spirit. Fitzgerald is not evil, just weak, and Hardy’s performance is that much stronger for the choice.

9. Jacob Tremblay as Jack in Room

This may be a bit of a mild spoiler for Room, so if you have not seen it, I insist you run out and see it as soon as you can, then come back and finish up the list – or you know, just skip to the next entry. Everyone else still here? Okay. The moment Jack first meets a real dog might be the most uplifting three seconds in recent cinema history. A boy who until a month or so before had no idea the real world existed meets the animal he has long dreamt of but could never really imagine. It is a moment that reminds us why we watch movies, and its success is all due to the look on Tremblay’s face.

If it were that moment alone, Tremblay might have earned a spot on this list, but from the first scene to the last, the then-8-year-old child star of Room makes the audience feel every second of his experience. He simply radiates childlike wonder, curiosity, and exuberance. In an otherwise bleak tale, he is the shining beacon of light for every other character, but without Tremblay’s mature, controlled performance, the role could come off as too cute or cloying. Instead, it is one of the most memorable elements of an eminently memorable film.

8. Brie Larson as Joy in Room

Joy is the shadow of Jack. She is the one who knows the life she is missing, the life she has lost. She does everything she can to keep Jack sheltered from reality, but the truth is always staring her in the face. She is a young woman who is nearly destroyed by the contradictions she is forced to live with every day, and the only reason she keeps it together is for the sake of her son. Larson embodies this torment with an achingly physical performance that ensures the audience comprehends the torture she endures.

Still just 26, Larson has been appearing onscreen since she was 9 years old – something which no doubt allowed her to connect on a deeper level with her young co-star. Apart from 2013’s Short Term 12, though, she has never had a role as raw as this to sink her teeth into. No one would have doubted the lifelong actress could pull off this part, but even Larson’s most ardent fans and supporters must have been floored by the grit, determination, and strength of this performance.

7. Michael Shannon as Rick Carver in 99 Homes

Albert Brooks has a great speech in Broadcast News about the devil. In it, he says, “What do you think the devil is going to look like if he’s around? Come on! Nobody is going to be taken in by a guy with a long, red, pointy tail.” It is my favorite scene in one of my all-time favorite movies because it gets at a core truth about people. We do not fall prey to evil because we are evil ourselves. We fall prey because evil is often seductive and alluring. Carver is a bad guy who rarely acts like a bad guy. He comes off as a pragmatist and an opportunist, but few of us could identify him as evil, which is what he is.

By walking that line and never betraying the darkness inside the character, Shannon pulls us into a web of deceit and treachery the way only a true villain can. He is inviting rather than menacing. He is calm rather than raging. While the world collapses all around him, Shannon portrays Carver as a man who will sit back and wait for it to finish, then go collect the deeds on the rubble. I have said before that along with Michael Fassbender and Leonardo DiCaprio, Shannon is one of the best actors of his generation, and with performances like this, I do not think I will be proven wrong any time soon.

6. Tom Courtenay as Geoff in 45 Years

Courtenay is an absolute acting legend who could have had any career he wanted. In 60 years of screen work, he has just 51 credits and often has gone years between film or television gigs, preferring instead to focus on the stage. Considering the universal acclaim he has enjoyed, things have not worked out too badly for him. For the rest of us, as people who mostly cannot make to British theater productions very often, we are surely missing out. Nowhere is that more evident than in Courtenay’s stellar work in 45 Years.

The audience never meets Geoff before the opening scene of the film changes his life forever, but through Courtenay’s portrayal, we are able to understand the kind of man he was and the kind of man he has become. We see him lost in thought, sulking, sullenly contemplating the five decades of his life since his first love died in an accident. Yet, Courtenay also gives us glimpses of the loving husband and anarchic spirit that are buried by unexpected news from the past. We cannot exactly root for Geoff, but because of Courtenay, we can certainly understand him.

5. Alicia Vikander as Ava in Ex Machina

Last year was a remarkable breakout year for Vikander, who appeared in the critically lauded Ex Machina, Testament of Youth, and The Danish Girl. She does not look to be slowing down in 2016 with Derek Cianfrance’s highly anticipated The Light Between Oceans, a new Wim Wenders film, and a role in the next Bourne film. If she is not a household name by now, she should be by the end of this year, and she has earned it, not only by starring in quality films but by generally being one of the best aspects of those films.

Her performance as Ava is so studied and mannered it is almost otherworldly, which is the point. She is a humanoid robot meant to test our capacity for telling the difference between a human and a machine. The question of whether Ava has what we would call a soul is the central drama of Ex Machina, and Vikander’s portrayal of this alien being keeps the audience in the dark right up to the final frames. Meanwhile, we are as transfixed by Ava as the characters, and that is due to Vikander.

4. Yana Novikova as Anya in The Tribe

The Tribe is a swirling maelstrom of rage and disaffection, and at the center of all this pain is Anya. The plot may revolve around Sergei (Grigoriy Fesenko), the new arrival at a boarding school for the deaf, but Anya is the film’s soul. We cannot know how long she has been a part of this makeshift society, but we can see how she has accepted her place in it. There is a gang that runs the school, and she is simply a cog in their machine. She wants out, but she knows no matter where she goes, her options are limited, so she stays.

Novikova is heartbreaking in the role. Like most of her co-stars in the film, Novikova is deaf and had never acted before The Tribe. Her performance makes one wish there were more call for deaf actors. Hell, someone should probably just write a movie around her. Every moment she is onscreen in this essentially silent film, your eye is naturally drawn to her. Almost without uttering a single noise, she brings you into Anya’s world of disappointment and lost innocence. There is no comparison in cinema history for this work, and this is just as well because the performance is incomparable.

3. Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass in The Revenant

I talked about this a bit in my review of the film, but I am going to repeat myself here because I want to be very clear. Apart from it generally being an honor, DiCaprio does not care if he wins an Academy Award. The cynical among the film commentariat would have you believe his choice of films and roles is influenced by a burning desire within him to win a small gold statue. Consider this, though: Maybe his choices are informed by a sincere wish to do amazing work. Wouldn’t that be novel – sincerity?

It seems necessary to repeat this because some have criticized DiCaprio’s performance in The Revenant as simply Oscar bait. If these critics mean DiCaprio’s physical and mental dedication to portraying the grueling journey made by Glass is the kind of performance the Academy often awards, they are correct. DiCaprio should win an Oscar for his wholesale transformation from famous actor to frontiersman, and if he does, some will deride that victory, but they will be wrong. DiCaprio’s portrayal of Glass is career-defining work by an actor at the height of his powers.

2. Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel in Bridge of Spies

Like Courtenay, Rylance is a brilliant British actor who has devoted himself to the theater, earning multiple Tony and Olivier (the British version of the Tony) awards in the process. He has just a handful of screen credits, but after his turn in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, you can expect that to change. In fact, Spielberg has already brought Rylance on for his next film, The BFG, a dark children’s literature adaptation. I do not have to see it to know Rylance will be amazing in it. Rylance delivering an awesome performance is a fact of life, like the sun rising or a stone sinking.

Abel is a suspected Soviet spy who is captured and railroaded through the court system, not because it is just but because the institutional fear of communism demands it. His lawyer, James Donovan (Tom Hanks), is incensed by this miscarriage of justice, but Abel remains cool. Rylance plays Abel as a studious man at peace with the things he has done and the consequences thereof. When Donovan asks if he is scared, Abel asks in return, “Would it help?” It is a wonderful line, and Rylance sells it with the calm conviction of a condemned man who has done nothing but follow his conscience.

1. Charlotte Rampling as Kate in 45 Years

This could be nothing else. From the minute this film ended, I knew I had just seen the performance of the year by a living legend of European cinema. Rampling has created indelible characters her whole career, from The Night Porter to The Verdict to Swimming Pool, but the most remarkable thing about Kate is how unremarkable Rampling is able to make her. Kate’s life has pretty much gone according to plan. She met a man, got married fairly young, became an apparently well liked school teacher, and retired to the countryside with her beloved husband. By all indications, hers is a dream life.

At the start of 45 Years, the dream is over, and Kate wakes up. For an hour and a half, we watch as this woman’s fragile existence is torn apart from within and without, and Rampling’s performance turns an otherwise low-key marriage drama into a Shakespearean tragedy. Every note of pain and remorse registers on Rampling’s face, and she uses her body the way other actors use a monologue. There is not a false note or wrong step to be found in Rampling’s portrait of a woman grappling with the lie at the center of her life and searching for the strength to face the truth.

Check back tomorrow as we conclude our Year in Review series with Last Cinema Standing's Top 10 Films of 2015.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Year in Review: Top 10 Quotes of 2015

A great film quote for me is one that contains within it the entire meaning of a film. It is a tremendous feat for a writer, director, actor, or producer to come up with a line that sums up the disparate thematic elements of a complex work of art. In fact, it is nearly impossible. That is what makes the following 10 lines from some of the year’s best films so remarkable. Almost effortlessly, they tell us everything we need to know about the characters, their circumstances, and the meaning of all they are experiencing.

10. “Don’t get emotional about real estate” from 99 Homes, written by Ramin Bahrani

99 Homes is a Faustian story about a good man, Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), who makes a deal with the devil, Rick Carver (Michael Shannon). Nash makes this deal – he will help Carver remove people who are delinquent on their mortgages from their homes – to save his own family’s home. His actions are not necessarily noble or heroic, but he does what he thinks he needs to do to keep a roof over his son and his mother’s heads.

Throughout the film, in his more private, unguarded moments, Carver tells Nash not to get emotional about real estate. It sounds like good advice, but the devil of course is a smooth talker. Nash’s downfall certainly is precipitated by his getting emotional about real estate, but he is rightly emotional. Those emotions are what make him human, what make him flawed, and they allow him to hold on to the little part of his soul the devil has not gotten his hands on yet.

9. “That’s not a reason” from Everest, written by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy

Early in the expedition, Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), who went on to write Into Thin Air about his experiences on Mount Everest, asks the group of climbers he has joined the obvious question: Why do this? The climbers look at each other, smile, and blithely reply in unison, “Because it’s there!” It is an oft-repeated line about the mountain that daredevils use to defend the indefensible, and as I pointed out in my review of the film, the man who originally spoke those words died on Everest.

So, Krakauer pushes further, saying, “That’s not a reason,” and he is absolutely right. “Because it’s there” is meant to project bravado and confidence. Krakauer’s line cuts right through that. No one needs to climb this mountain, and everyone on this journey will learn that along the way, but Krakauer saw it from the beginning.

8. “We make up half the human race. You can’t stop us all” from Suffragette, written by Abi Morgan

Director Sarah Gavron’s tremendous rallying cry for equality Suffragette has been unfairly forgotten as the year has worn on. It created little positive buzz upon its release, died a quick death at the box office, and has been passed over pretty much universally throughout awards season. It deserved a much better fate. The story of the British suffragette movement of the early 20th century is tragic and sadly still relevant. This is the kind of history that should be taught in schools, but it will not be because it is too dark, too messy, and too real.

Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) is new to the movement at the start of the film, but it does not take her long to become convinced of its inherent rightness. There is no justice in a world where women cannot vote, and there is no democracy either. Any government in which women have no say is fraudulent, and the movement recognizes this. Watts says this line to the police inspector (Brendan Gleeson) tasked with destroying the movement, and while he may be able to arrest her and silence her comrades, she is right. He cannot stop half the world from taking what it has earned.

7. “It’s getting harder to walk up that hill. What does that mean?” from Creed, written by Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington

Sylvester Stallone in Creed.
Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is a childhood hero to generations of movie fans. Think of it this way: Children when the first Rocky movie came out in 1976 are reasonably old enough now to have grandchildren to share the series with, but those kids will likely look up to Adonis Johnson, née Creed (Michael B. Jordan). He represents new blood and new life for the series, which is why this film is named for him and not Rocky.

Rocky remains, though. Each day, he trudges up the hill at the cemetery to visit Adrian and Paulie, and each day, it gets a little harder. This is life. He is getting older. So are we. It can be a shock to see our heroes age this way onscreen because it usually does not happen like this. More often, they come back one time too many, trying to recapture a spirit that never left in the first place and doing more harm than good to the legacy. But in Creed, Coogler, Covington, and Stallone have created a graceful portrait of a legend who is long past his prime but can still make it up that hill.

6. “Life teaches you really how to live it if you can live long enough” from Amy, directed by Asif Kapadia

Kapadia’s powerful Amy Winehouse documentary is a tale of manipulation, media hysteria, and self-destruction. It is not an easy watch, but it is an important film, depicting the downfall of a talented performer and entertainer who was devoured by an industry that took what it could from her and left no more than a shell. While it is not traditionally “written,” Kapadia and editor Chris King create the narrative by assembling the right footage and the right interviews and deploying them at the exact right time.

No moment is better chosen than that of Tony Bennet, one of Winehouse’s heroes, reflecting on the singer’s death. Bennett is obviously an old pro at this game. He has been around a long time and seen many triumphs and tragedies. He has grown both older and wiser in that time. His quote, which comes near the end of the film, is a mournful observation about youth and the irony of a life that often does not make sense until you can look back and make sense of it.

5. “No one explains it. You’re born knowing what you can and cannot do” from The Second Mother, written by Anna Muylaert

We all feel the generation gap. It is that moment when you realize you no longer have much in common with people younger than you – or that general feeling that you have nothing in common with people older. In The Second Mother, Val (Regina Casé) is brought to this realization by the arrival of her estranged teenage daughter, Jéssica (Camila Márdila). Val is a live-in housekeeper and nanny for a wealthy Brazilian family. Her life is governed by rules of conduct and propriety, which she believes are essential for keeping everything in its right place. Jéssica blows all of this up.

Jéssica did not grow up this way. If she is invited to swim in the pool or eat some ice cream, propriety be damned, she is going to do as she pleases. To Val, her daughter is taking liberties to which she is not entitled. Jéssica asks who invented all these rules, who taught them, and Val tells her no one should have to teach her. She should just know. It is a crushing reminder there are people in this life who believe they are lesser than others and believe they deserve less. The truth is these things are taught, and Jéssica was simply lucky enough not to grow up around the mother who would have taught her.

4. “If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a village to abuse one” from Spotlight, written by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer

Everyone knew, and no one did anything. That is the core of McCarthy and Singer’s exploration of the journalistic investigation that uncovered the decades of abuse perpetrated by pedophile priests in the Catholic Church. Silence was the rule, not the exception, and no one wanted to believe the organization in which so many had invested their faith – and in a very real way, their souls – could be so irreparably corrupt. But, it was, and the evidence was always there. Someone just needed to look.

The beauty of Spotlight is in the way the reporters slowly come around to the idea that this problem is not just one or two bad priests, but it is systemic. The church itself is rotten, and it has defiled everything it has touched. Every single person involved is culpable in some way, either by direct action or inaction. The more details that come out, the more sickening it all becomes, and the more you just want to take a torch and burn this whole village to the ground.

3. “I want to help you. I’m just trying to figure out how” from Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, written by David Zellner and Nathan Zellner

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a tragedy that plays like farce. It is black comedy borne of depression and alienation. Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is a stranger in a strange land on a quixotic quest to find a mythical treasure she believes is implied by the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. In her journey, she meets friendly people who simply want what is best for her, but there is a language barrier and a reality barrier that no one can break through.

She is not solely in search of buried treasure but of something she can use to justify her whole existence. Her life in Japan has been one degradation after another, so she comes to America to seek something outside herself to define who she is and who she could be. The policeman (David Zellner) who says this to her genuinely wants to help, but there is nothing he can offer that will change the reality of this woman’s life. His kindness may be the most she has ever known, but in the end, it means nothing.

2. “This is the story you get” from Room, written by Emma Donoghue

Joy (Brie Larson) has invented the entire world for her son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay). Their captor and abuser has kept them locked in a shed for seven years of Joy’s life and all of Jack’s, but within that shed, Joy has given Jack the universe. It is not the real universe, though, but a fabrication intended to help him cope with their circumstances. When those circumstances finally become unbearable, she must tell him the truth so they can break out together.

Everything up to this point has been a story to help Jack understand his life, and the truth, in all its horror, is a story he rejects. He says he does not want to hear this story, but Joy tells him this is the story he gets. This is true for him, but it may be even truer for her. No one would have chosen the life she has had, but she did not get to choose. Joy gets this one story of her life, and Room is about choosing not to focus on what has already happened but on the chapters still to come.

1. “It’s so beautiful but horribly sad, too” from A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, written by Roy Andersson

Nils Westblom and Holger Andersson in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch.
Jonathan (Holger Andersson) and Sam (Nils Westblom) drift through their lives. There is nothing particularly remarkable about these traveling novelty salesmen, except that they are alive, as are all the other characters in this film, as are we. No one fully appreciates this in the moment, and it would be impossible to do so, but for every added second we find value in, life becomes increasingly precious.

Exemplified by Jonathan and Sam, there is even value in drifting. In A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, their drifting becomes our window into the worlds of countless people whose lives are just as precious to them as ours are to us. It is a reminder that every individual on this planet matters, even if our stories will go on without them and theirs without us. Jonathan comes to this conclusion while listening to a song that reminds him of his childhood, and though he says this line about that song, he could just as well be speaking about the whole of the human experience, so beautiful but horribly sad, too.

Check back tomorrow as Last Cinema Standing takes a look at the Top 10 Performances of 2015, and check back each day this week for continued Year in Review coverage.