Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Year in Review: Best & Worst of 2015

It was just last year when I discussed in this same space how easy it was to see the bad in the previous year of cinema and how difficult it was to see the good. Well, things sure do have a way of turning around as this year featured a number of great developments just begging to be called out and nothing as egregious as the Sony and The Interview debacle last year.

Even the worst things about the year identified below are not so much irrevocably bad as they are trends in need of correcting. In that spirit, I would call 2015 a year of optimism, a year that pointed the way forward to a better cinema landscape overall. Nothing is perfect yet, and it never will be, but we seem to be on the right track, and that is worth celebrating.

Four best things

1. Women in film

Anne-Marie Duff, Carey Mulligan, and Helena Bonham Carter in Suffragette.
Here is one of those things that is not perfect yet, but it sure does seem to be moving in a positive direction. Women have been sorely underrepresented behind the camera in the history of film, and they have not been treated too well in front of it either. There have been small steps toward progress in the last decade – including Kathryn Bigelow becoming the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director for 2009’s The Hurt Locker – but this year, it felt like we took a couple giant leaps.

A number of remarkable films in 2015 were written, directed, and produced by women, including Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang, Anna Muylaert’s The Second Mother, and Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette. Director Isabel Coixet put women to work behind the scenes in every department of the Patricia Clarkson vehicle Learning to Drive. Director of photography Maryse Alberti has a fair shot at becoming the first woman nominated for the Oscar for cinematography for her stunning work on Creed.

More generally, great stories about women were everywhere this year from writer-director George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road to Pixar’s Inside Out. As Carey Mulligan identifies in Suffragette (in a quote we will discuss more tomorrow), women make up half the human race. Hollywood can no longer afford to ignore them, as it has done in the past, and any industry that excludes women from the process will not remain viable for long. There is a long way to go, but 2015 showed us a way forward.

2. Ensemble acting

Some of the best performances this year were delivered not by individual actors but by groups of actors. It was a bit of a strange year for acting as few films really offered the opportunity for huge star turns – though there were a number of stellar performances, which we will cover later this week. Instead, this felt more like the year of the ensemble.

SpotlightThe Big ShortEverestMustang, and a host of others were all defined by talented actors ignoring vanity and ego and giving themselves over to the story. Each of these films works like a finely tuned machine, and every performer is part of what makes the machine run. We all like to see great actors chew scenery – I would give anything if Daniel Day-Lewis were more prolific – but there is nothing like watching a wonderful ensemble share the workload in a totally selfless way.

3. Reinvigorated franchises

Paul Rudd in Ant-Man.
There is a sequel problem in Hollywood, and everybody knows it. Studios box out original stories in favor of proven products they know will sell. It is generally a low-risk, low-reward enterprise as these studios spend unimaginable amounts of money to make unimaginable amounts of money at a small profit, but we will get to that in a minute. This year felt like a banner year for sequels – or reboots or remakes or however you want to fit these films into the canon. More than ever, it seemed like we had intelligent filmmakers with great stories breathing new life into franchises thought long dead and into series seemingly sapped of creative energy.

None were more invigorating than Miller’s wildly inventive and just plain wild Mad Max: Fury Road and Ryan Coogler’s impeccably crafted, fiercely independent Creed. Add to that Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man, which gave a much-needed jolt of energy and fun to the flagging Marvel Cinematic Universe. These movies had a lot to live up to because of their forebears, and they exceeded those expectations in every way. If only more franchise films could be like these, the movie-going world might be a better place.

4. Spectacle at the movies

Studios and theater chains are always trying to come up with the next big thing to get audiences to come out to the movies – 3D, IMAX (and its bastard cousin lieMAX), smell-o-vision, and all sorts of other gimmicks that tended to come and go with the wind. I usually try to avoid these sorts of tricks because they rarely add anything to the films they accompany, but this year, some of the best directors we have tried on some spectacle for size and delivered a few special experiences.

With the help of IMAX 3D, Robert Zemeckis brought the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center back to life in his virtuosic Philippe Petit biopic The Walk. Maser of gothic horror Guillermo Del Toro used the IMAX format to build one of the most haunting and lush visual extravaganzas of his distinguished career in Crimson Peak. Baltasar Kormákur put viewers on top of a mountain, then made them look down in his exquisite and underrated Everest.

Perhaps no one tried to return spectacle to the cinema universe this year more than Quentin Tarantino with his The Hateful Eight roadshow. I may have been lukewarm on the movie, but the passion Tarantino showed – and has always shown – for making sure his film was seen in the right way, the best possible way, should inspire more filmmakers to take such risks. An overture, intermission, super-widescreen presentation, and even a program made for one spectacular night at the movies.

Four worst things

1. Movie-going experience

Now, for the flipside of that coin, I will present something of an “Old man yells at cloud” scenario. I love going to the movie theater. It is why this site exists and is so named, but this year, more than ever, I felt the difficulty in enjoying the cinematic experience. One could point out the fact that I live in noisy, busy, crowded New York City, but I would counter that two of the best cinemas in the country are located here – the IFC Center and the Lincoln Center – and suggest that if you really think about it, no matter where you live, you have probably found movie-going at least a somewhat daunting and annoying prospect.

It starts before you even walk in the theater as average ticket prices in the U.S. reached an all-time high in 2015, topping $8.60 – although, fair warning, if you visit me in New York City, you are looking at $15.50 for a regular ticket; and if you want to see one of those spectacles I mentioned at the only real IMAX theater in the city, it’s $22.50. Already, this is clearly cost prohibitive for a family of three or four. Snacks? Well, we all know those are expensive, but it is a price I am willing to pay because almost all of that money goes directly to the theater, as opposed to ticket sales, of which studios get the lion’s share.

Anyway, now you have your expensive ticket and expensive food, and you get to sit in an old, uncomfortable seat with terrible sight lines to see the badly projected digital image while sitting behind the guy in the hat and his girlfriend using her phone while the teenagers behind you talk about whatever the hell they talk about. I am not sure how to fix all of this, but I think we can all agree it is a problem. Maybe that is the solution. If we all agree this is a problem, we can all agree to be a little kinder and a little more courteous to each other at the movies.

2. Specialty box office

Still, none of that seemed to stop the cash registers from filling up across the country as box office records seemed to fall every week – a little movie called Star Wars: The Force Awakens might be helping that cause right now. Of course, those higher prices are certainly a factor in all those records as actual movie attendance continues to dip. If 10,000 fewer people see a blockbuster, though, no one is going to cry, but if even 1,000 fewer people see an independent movie, the whole industry suffers.

It was a bad year at the specialty box office as independent movies struggled to find an audience. Some survived long enough to pick up viewers from on-demand services, but you and I both know that is not the same thing. I mentioned the IFC Center and the Lincoln Center. Depending on where you live, there is probably a little independent movie theater within driving distance. Most of these are great places, where they really care about the programming and the experience they offer. Visit these places. Help keep their doors open, and help keep little gems from disappearing from theaters altogether.

3. Sagging franchises

Jake Johnson in a Jurassic Park T-shirt in Jurassic World.
So, we saw the good this year with those reinvigorated franchises I mentioned above, but we also saw the bad. Judging from the wild success these movies had at the box office, I may be in the minority opinion on this one. In fact, I am out about to call out the Nos. 4, 6, and 7 highest grossing movies of all time (without adjusting for inflation or higher ticket prices because we do not need to get into that right now).

Okay: Jurassic WorldAvengers: Age of Ultron, and Furious 7. The numbers say a vast majority of you saw these and saw them in theaters, but were these movies actually good, or was it just some blend of nostalgia and brand loyalty driving ticket sales? From where I am sitting, it seems very much like the latter.

Jurassic World plays like a meta-commentary on itself, constantly alluding to how much better the original film is, then largely failing to offer anything new or interesting. Avengers: Age of Ultron represented the total reverse of Ant-Man. It drags, it is convoluted, and worst of all, it just is no fun. Meanwhile, Furious 7, the seventh entry in a franchise that was never that good to begin with, is the reason for the term “diminishing returns.” Of course, I could be wrong about all of this, and the billion or so other people who saw these movies could be right. That would be fine, too.

4. Missed opportunities

Finally, as much distaste as I have for franchise films, particularly bad ones, there is something much worse – a missed opportunity. There are some stories just crying out to be told well, and there are talented filmmakers who seem on the verge of making memorable art. When these elements come together and the resulting film is less than it could be, it is frustrating, to say the least.

Crystal Moselle’s documentary The Wolfpack takes an interesting subject – a family that has been locked in its home for years by a dictatorial father – and makes the least interesting movie she could. Moselle has a wonderful filmmaker’s eye, but she has missed the story, choosing instead to focus on the teenage and adult sons’ obsession with films and filmmaking. I wrote recently about David O. Russell’s Joy, another intriguing story but simply told by the wrong person. Russell can be a good director, but Joy was not his story to tell.

The biggest missed opportunity of the year, though – and therefore, the biggest disappointment of the year – was writer-director Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth. Starring Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston, the film explores jealousy, hate, pain, and female relationships in a unique way with a clear filmmaking vision, and it features great performances from two great actresses. Yet, it fails on every level.

I attended a Q-and-A with Perry and Moss for this film, and they were a fun, intelligent, informative pair who clearly had an idea for what they wanted to do with this film. I wanted so badly to like it. Knowing how smart and skilled they both are just made the experience of watching the film that much more frustrating. I cannot wait to see what Perry does next, and whatever it is, I will be first in line. For now, Queen of Earth is 2015’s biggest missed opportunity.

Check back tomorrow for more of Last Cinema Standing’s Year in Review as we count down the Top 10 Quotes of 2015, and check back each day this week for continued Year in Review coverage.

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