Stephen Miller

AI researcher, startup cofounder, podcaster, person, etc.

Best Films of 2015

Best Films of 2015

tl;dr: here’s a list with no explanations

Things I wanted to see but hadn’t yet: Mustang (Update: Review Here, almost certainly would have made my list), Son of Saul (Update: Review Here, also list-worthy), Heart of a Dog, Phoenix, Victoria, Amy, Steve Jobs, Trumbo, Buzzard

You can hear my friends and I discuss our lists at The Spoiler Warning Podcast. You can also find more reviews at my Letterboxd page. Here’s a link to last year’s list.

Intro I Always Feel Compelled To Write For Some Reason

Every year since…2008?…I’ve shown up on The Spoiler Warning to make a Top X Films Of The Year list. In the early days it was typically a no-brainer. On a good year I might have seen 15 movies, 5 of which I’d actively dislike. Whittling it down to a Top 5 yielded easy, if predictably college-dude results: The Dark Knight, Up In The Air, Inglorious Basterds, Inception.

Now on a reasonable year I’ll catch 75 movies, with maybe half being quote critically acclaimed endquote. Needless to say, this list-making thing has become a lot more challenging. Gone are the days where I could slap a gold medal on the latest Nolan flick and move on. I’ve begun to recognize that A) there are so many good, worthwhile movies out there, and B) not all varieties of “good, worthwhile” are created equal in my mind. The more I watch and discuss film, the more I need to carve out my own unique value system: of all the good and worthwhile things, what do I most value?

This year I became convinced that I am not Big Spectacle Guy. There is one movie notably absent from this list, and it rhymes with Schmad Schmax. I can’t fault it. It did everything right. It was an overwhelming, masterful distillation of an auteur’s vision. It was big and spectacular, and I am simply not Spectacle Guy. Instead I’m embracing that the thing I care about, above all else, is what a movie says and how well it convinces me to listen. In a world overrun with stimuli, I’ve found myself (often unconsciously) digging for messages: how is the filmmaker using his/her platform and what does it instill in me? It doesn’t need to teach me something new, per se, but it should illuminate some (literal or emotional) truth. These are not the only kind of movies, nor do I subscribe to some snobby belief that they’re objectively better. But they are mine.

Looking over my list, I see not only a plethora of messages, but a trend in the type of message: namely, the blurry line between good and evil, high and low. Some films on my list are about the danger of blatant “heroes” and the virtue of modest, quiet persistence. Others give hate, ignorance, or depravity a human face. Others toy with the very idea of a distinction, convincing us to root for one character only to switch “teams” in the final act, or to put faith in a savior only to end with an anticlimactic thud. All of them convince me that generalizations are lazy; that truth is messy and takes serious work.

This is meant to be a Top 10 of sorts. 1-5 are straightforward, Best Of material. 6-10 are named awards, each with a winner and runners up. There the order is ill-defined at best. Is my runner up for #7 better than my runner up for #8? Is it genuinely “worse” than my top choice for #10? I have absolutely no idea. I loved them all. Let’s just get to the movies.

1-5: The “Best Of”

1. Anomalisa

Anomalisa Typically my #1 pick is set in stone months before these lists get made. So maybe I’m crazy for picking Anomalisa (full review), a movie I only had about 48 hours to wrestle with before recording. But I’ve got to go with my gut on this. Charlie Kaufman’s heartfelt, hilarious, deeply odd little film struck all the right chords. In a sense, this is the perfect complement to The End of the Tour (full review): it’s a story of why day-to-day existence is so damn hard — not due to grand suffering *cough*Revenant*cough* but due to sheer monotony. And in its own, subtle way, it’s a testament to why that monotony is beautiful. It has the best dialogue of the year, a breathtaking visual style that would put Pixar to shame, and possibly the most tender sex scene I’ve seen in my life. Oh, did I mention they’re all puppets? Laugh if you want, but this is as far from Team America as it gets. It’s beautiful, human, and true.

2. Ex Machina

Ex Machina As an AI researcher who also loves movies, there probably hasn’t been a film more tailor-made for me than Ex Machina (full review)…with the possible exception of Her. But while Her had Spike Jonze, Joaquin Phoenix, and the promise of sappy indie tears (my three favorite things), this had nothing to foreshadow its greatness. If anything, I went in dreading an overly-serious bit of pseudointellectual fluff. But I can’t stress how quickly it won me over, how flawless it is in every aspect. It works as a genuinely compelling think-piece, a brooding thriller, a gnawing drama, and a spectacle all at once. Perhaps most importantly, it’s clever enough to know when to hold back on the specifics, to ground itself more in emotion than in imagined “facts.” To me this is Hollywood at its best; phenomenally acted, beautifully textured, thought-provoking, exhilarating, and crowd-pleasing to boot. If you’re wondering why Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, and Domnhall Gleason seem to be exploding this year, let this film be your primer.

3. The Overnighters

The Overnighters This one is a cheat however you slice it, since it was clearly released in 2014. But it didn’t hit VOD til 2015, and if Rotten Tomatoes is any indication, that was many critics’ first introduction to it. It was certainly mine, and I was floored.

There’s not much to say about The Overnighters (full review) that I haven’t already said. Documentaries tend to move me by exploring something big, shocking, or overwhelmingly tragic. This did the opposite, showcasing the power of the format to depict the small, intimate, and human. It follows a pastor in a small town in North Dakota, where a massive spike in low-income immigration has provoked a moral crisis. As a pastor, he believes it his duty to help any neighbor in need, and opens the church grounds for homeless men to sleep in. But as a pastor of a specific congregation, he also needs to keep the peace — and his congregants are far from comfortable with opening up their “home.” In keeping with my theme, there are no explicit good guys or bad guys here; just regular people, full of faith and conviction and (often misguided) fears. It’s artfully shot and utterly relevant in the current political Zeitgeist. If you have a religious upbringing, a heart for social justice, or even just liked Show Me A Hero (full review), I’d urge you catch this on Netflix immediately.

4. Spotlight

Spotlight When I reviewed Mad Max: Fury Road I described it as a sort of gourmet bacon; a crowd-pleasing joyride so excessive that its very excess became a virtue. I couldn’t believe how fresh, how shocking straightforward muchness could be. In a similar vein, Spotlight (full review) might be compared to gourmet toast and black coffee. White bread, decaf. This is an ode to level-headed restraint, a film which resists excess at every turn. It’s a fantastic ensemble piece without a single showy performance. An urgent exposé on a horrifying subject, whose primary refrain is “let’s not rush this.” An utterly riveting drama about refusing to get caught up in drama. A wonderfully directed, meticulously constructed film that never calls attention to its craft. It’s so quiet, so subtle, so totally devoid of Oscar moments, yet somehow it’s also the perfect Oscar movie. And it carries a timely message: dramatic conviction has the power to blind, and only a measured response can expose it. In a world of tweet storms and clickbait journalism, the highest virtue just might be boring, unsexy patience.

5. Carol

Carol If I were to describe Carol (full review) in one word, it would be “hypnotic.” It is, in many respects, the dessert to Spotlight’s just-the-basics meal; lushly textured filmmaking where every frame is meant to be savored. This is the perfect episode of Mad Men, and like Mad Men, synopses are misleading at best. Carol isn’t about what it was, but how it felt to be there. A lesbian romance set in 50’s New York, the film is billed as a heartbreaking tale of Forbidden Love a la Brokeback Mountain. And while it works on that level, it most resonated with me as a meditation on the feeling of being lost, and the paradoxes inherent in finding yourself. Carol is the victim of a repressive sort of glamor, but that same glamor is what draws us to her. Therese is yearning to escape her do-as-you’re-told life, but her ultimate freedom comes from being helplessly swept up in someone else. Gorgeous cinematography and perfect acting aside, I can’t fully rationalize my love of Carol alongside some of these “weightier” choices. And maybe that’s the point. Sometimes you just need to be swept up in something.

6-10: Awards: Winners and (Noteworthy) Runners Up

6. Stephen Isn’t As Snobby As Commenters Say He Is, Sometimes He Likes Stuff People Actually Saw Award: The Martian, w/ Inside Out and Creed

The Martian If you were to take this list at face value, you’d probably get the sense that “artsy fartsy” is the sole genre I enjoy. And while I do love me some independent cinema, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the huge number of great, big-budget crowdpleasers that came out this year. This is by no means an exhaustive list (see: Furious 7 (full review), Spy, The Walk (full review)), but I wanted to highlight the three most pleasant surprises. Inside Out is the first great Pixar movie in five years, and arguably the best in longer. Blending the secret-society-hiding-in-plain-sight joy of their vintage classics with the human-centric emotions of their later output, it perfectly encapsulates the Pixar mantra — an unabashedly childish movie about putting away childish things. Creed is a phenomenal underdog story in every sense of the word; in no universe did I expect the 7th Rocky sequel to put up a fight. But Ryan Coogler’s electrifying direction and Michael B. Jordan’s charismatic performance revitalized a tired franchise and delivered an absolute knock-out.

If ever there were a blockbuster with my name on it, though, The Martian (full review) would be it. The AV Club’s A.A. Dowd perfectly described it as the secular God’s Not Dead. This is an intoxicatingly optimistic, joyous celebration of the drug of problem solving, far less concerned with making converts than preaching to the choir of addicts — of whom I happily count myself a member. There’s nothing subtle or edgy about it. Mark Watney is a stand in for our geekiest aspirations, rummaging through his inventory to solve a real life point-and-click adventure game. That it works so well is largely a testament Damon’s overwhelming star power. But it’s also evidence of Ridley Scott’s timeless ability to mesmerize…Exodus notwithstanding. Make fun of the Hollywood Foreign Press all you want, but this made me laugh more than any so-called “comedy” of 2015. Til they make a separate category for Most Delightful, I’ll consider that Globe well-deserved.

7. The Act of Killing Award: The Look of Silence, w/ Cartel Land

The Look of Silence It’s been a particularly excellent year for vital, hard-hitting documentaries. Cartel Land may, in fact, be the hardest-hitting of the bunch. Like Sicario (full review) it examines the reciprocal nature of the drug war, but to its infinite credit, it never succumbs to the pitfall of mistaking brooding vagueness for a point. With unprecedented access, the camera follows both the cartel and the morally-questionable vigilantes that fight it. Bullets fly. Heroes turn to villains before our eyes. And if at times it felt a bit voyeuristic, the truth on display was always mind-boggling.

Some truths run deeper than others, though, and none were as revelatory as those in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence (full review). A follow-up to the eponymous Act of Killing (full review), it aims to give the Indonesian genocide a human face. Where Killing chose the face of evil, though, Silence turns its attention to the innocent. We follow Adi as he interviews the very people who tore his family apart: the man who murdered his brother, the official who reaped the profits, the cowardly uncle who guarded his cell. At once unflinching and artfully subdued, it has no interest in soliciting easy, throwaway sympathy. Adi isn’t seeking pity, he’s searching for a way forward. And redemption can be far more complicated than grief.

8. Dallas Buyers Club Award: Love and Mercy, w/ Brooklyn

Love and Mercy Two years ago I awarded my number one slot to a traditional, not-particularly-showy movie which blew me away by sheer consistency: Dallas Buyers Club. While I’ve since recanted that choice, I do think there’s room on any list for wonderfully-executed, basic filmmaking. Sometimes a great biopic, or a great romance, can stick with you longer than any “challenging” think piece. Brooklyn is one such film. A coming-of-age story set in 50’s New York, it might be the most gorgeously sentimental film of the year. Saoirse Ronan gives a star-making performance as Irish immigrant Eilis, but the supporting turns (particularly Emory Cohen) are no less endearing. As a romance it falls a bit short of masterful, but as an ode to the immigrant experience it floored me. If it hit a single wistful note, though, Love and Mercy hit about 50 in unison. Was it a Brian Wilson biopic? An off-putting romance? A story about creativity and mental illness, or about captivity and exploitation? Or was it just a simple ode to the thrill of making music, and an excuse to turn a timeless album into a soundtrack? I can’t label it. But while some notes (the Cusack / Banks romance) felt discordant and others (Dano in the Pet Sounds studio) transcendent, there was something seriously moving in the cacophony.

9. Whiplash Award: The Revenant, w/ ‘71 and Tangerine

The Revenant The Whiplash Award is reserved for singular, focused films which overwhelm me by sheer intensity. This year there were three contenders, and it’s really where my rankings break down: each of these held the title at some point in the last 20 minutes of making this list. And they couldn’t be more different. Jack O’Connell singlehandedly stole this award last year, and he nearly did it again with the criminally underseen ‘71. A moody, pressure-cooker action flick set in Belfast at the height of the Irish Troubles, it combines the earnestness of Gangs of New York with the nihilism of In Bruges. And speaking of earnestness, who could have seen Tangerine coming? When critics started raving about a movie shot on an iPhone 5 that follows two transgendered prostitutes on the streets of LA, I was hugely skeptical. And for the first 20 minutes or so, I felt vindicated. But somewhere along the way, all that abrasive, jarring energy transformed into something hilarious, tender, and vibrant — like Spring Breakers with a heart and soul.

But this time around I have to give it to The Revenant. I may have some issues with Iñárritu’s style. He sometimes feels unnecessarily heavy, falsely burdened by the belief that glorified suffering equals meaning. What I can’t deny, though, is his power to captivate. This one stands out as a grand cinematic statement, an awesomely ambitious slice of chaos that my snobby hipsterdom has no right to dismiss. It’s my Mad Max of the year, over-the-top and wildly engrossing.

10. “Talky Flick” Award: Clouds of Sils Maria, w/ The End of the Tour, Queen of Earth, and 45 Years

Clouds of Sils Maria This award (formerly “Take the Premise and Run”) has always been tricky to define; the moment I think I have it pegged down (“high concept”, “low fi”, “character-driven”?) an outlier comes along and upheaves it. The best descriptor I can give is “play-like”. These are films which are dialogue-centric, involve a very small cast of characters, and take place in a narrow window of time following a relationship-straining event — think A Separation, or The Loneliest Planet. It’s a testament to an amazing year in film that The End of the Tour (full review) is only one of three honorable mentions. Anchored by perfect performances from Segel and Eisenberg, it’s a wonderfully stripped down little film that cements James Ponsoldt (Smashed, The Spectacular Now) as one of my favorite contemporary filmmakers — if I weren’t handicapping for my rampant David Foster Wallace fanboyism, it probably would have been much higher on the list. Queen of Earth (full review) is perhaps the polar opposite; a deeply uncomfortable, Bergman-esque psychological drama about the deterioration of a female friendship. Amid a sea of samey indies, its bare-bones, hyperrealistic style was a serious gut punch. 45 Years is also a gut punch, but there’s nothing hyper about its realism. It’s an acutely-observed, sparse relationship drama that haunted me long past the credits rolled. Charlotte Rampling earns her praise and then some.

Speaking of phenomenal acting, Clouds of Sils Maria has it in spades. Juliette Binoche is typically great, of course, but Kristen Stewart is a total revelation. Then again, I shouldn’t be surprised; if the film is about anything, it’s the murky line between “highbrow” and “lowbrow”, between “serious” actors and crowdpleasing stars. Like last year’s winner, it deftly combines the broad and laser-focused, with piercing dialogue giving way to gorgeous shots of nature set to a bombastic soundtrack. It’s a layered, complex, compelling piece of work. But most importantly, the conversations were genuinely fun to be a part of — one moment the two share (in a bar after a terrible superhero movie) had the best chemistry I’ve seen on screen this year.

Misc Awards / Defied Ranking

Vintage Stephen Award: Room, w/ Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Room Despite not quite making the list, heartfelt indie flicks hold a special place in my heart. These “Sundance-y” winners tend to come in two flavors: stylish with hip detachment, or heartfelt but understated. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl achieved the rare accomplishment of being both. Like 50/50 meets Scott Pilgrim, it both says something sincere, and says it with the flare of a seasoned auteur. Even if it falters a bit in its obligatory tear-jerking conclusion, I’ve got nothing but love. Room (full review), on the other hand, flipped the genre on its head. A heartwrenching drama about a mother and son living in captivity, it doesn’t have a “hip” or “quirky” bone in its body. At the same time, it almost completely avoids the melodrama its dark subject matter ought to lend itself to. What’s left is less a tragedy than a tragic thought experiment; sadness is only context, background. The foreground is Ma (a brilliant Brie Larson) and Jack’s imagined universe, a sort of Allegory of the Cave set in the post- television era. That’s where it shines.

Tree of Life Award: Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max I read enough film reviews to know that leaving Mad Max (full review) off a list is tantamount to heresy. So I thought it’d be fitting to, at least, give it the honorary Tree of Life Award, named for the movie I objectively respect more than I’m subjectively drawn to. Which isn’t to say I wasn’t drawn to this movie; I thought it was an overwhelming accomplishment. But that’s largely it. Like a great Metal band or the perfect Horror movie, I’ve learned that some incredible, enormously impressive things are simply not meant for me, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Respect from one Miller to another.

It’s finally…

…over. Brain is dead. No more energy left for conclusions. Watch crazy movies about puppets. Sing Beach Boys songs. Cry on airplanes. Trust me.

Review: Anomalisa

You learn a lot about a director when you meet him inhibition-free. This week I met three. Quentin at his Tarantinoest impresses and shocks in equal measure: he wants you to know he’s the smartest guy in the room, then launches into a three-hour riff on The Aristocrats. Alejandro at his Iñárritmost might actually be the smartest guy in the room, but give him a sip of liquor and he’ll just go on and on about how “life affirming” Nietzsche is and something about misery and bears. Three hours of raving about the “beauty of communication” later you’ll realize he’s never even asked you your name.

Charlie at his most Kaufmanesque. Now that’s a guy to drink with. He always comes prepared with a few hilarious anecdotes to power through that awkward, sober, shoe-gazing prologue: the cab driver on the way over who wouldn’t shut up about the zoo and the chili, the awkward moment in the elevator when no one could make eye contact. One beer deep and you’re talking art, philosophy, movies, lit; he’s got an opinion on everything, and none of it feels consciously smart. Three rounds in and he says enough chit chat, how are you doing — like, really, how are you. He doesn’t make it weird and he doesn’t get pushy, but he also doesn’t undercut it with a joke. So you talk about all of it: the loneliness, the monotony of day to day life, the feeling you can’t shake that everyone and everything is blurring together. That existence might be profound on paper, but it damn sure doesn’t feel like it from where you’re sitting. You make a self-deprecating crack about your “angsty phase”, but he doesn’t smile. He says yeah, I feel that too, and it isn’t a phase.

He says meaning is what you make of it. Some nights you’ll make a surplus, and you’ll learn to squeeze those nights for everything they’re worth. Clementine and Lisa are moments, not saviors, and they won’t bear the weight of your fantasies for long. Commit them to memory as vividly as possible, because most nights you won’t make much. Most nights you’ll sit and remember the better nights, the times you felt on the cusp of something new. When those are worn out you’ll take solace in the faint glimmers: that goofy doll you bought on a business trip to Tokyo, that beautiful film about puppets that moved you in spite of yourself. But the real secret, he says, the alchemy, is making something out of boredom. Notice how peculiar, how hilarious the shape of your loneliness is; how these empty, monotonous transactions are distinctly yours to have. Remember their texture and share them with someone else. It might not add up to Meaning or Truth, but it certainly helps pass the time.

You think it reminds you of what the other guy was saying about Nietzsche, and that “life affirming” sounds a lot cornier than it feels. You order another velvet martini while Charlie launches back into the cab driver bit. In the background Tarantino says something vulgar about Mexicans while Iñárritu gently weeps. You soak in every eccentric detail. Tonight you’re on the cusp of something new.

Review: The Big Short

Look, I like Adam McKay. I quoted Anchorman as much as the next dumb 8th grader. But his movies were always banished to the ghetto of “guilty pleasure”: loose-scripted, goofy, throw-it-on-during-a-lull-in-the-party fun. So if I had intel that the director was about to follow up Anchorman 2 with a biting dramedy about the 2007 housing collapse, I would have happily shorted those box office returns. Assuming, of course, I had a clue how one goes about shorting something.

Despite McKay’s efforts (and about 30 episodes of Planet Money) I’m still hazy on how shorts actually work. But I do know my dividends would have been…non…remunerative? (Aaand bailing on the finance lingo.) The point is, The Big Short wound up being surprisingly great. Blending the breezy vibe of Oceans 11 with the cynical panache of Wolf of Wall Street, it’s a tight, fourth-wall-shattering ensemble piece that somehow manages to be playfully overacted, earnest, and restrained in the same breath. “Overacted” means Christian Bale as a barefoot savant who rants about CODs while his glass eye twitches to a Metallica bass line, and Steve Carrell as a fire-breathing investor with the populist idealism of Bernie Sanders and the grace of Donald Trump. “Earnest” means up-punching outrage; not just at the sleazy brokers, callous bankers, or spineless government employees, but at the Free Market echo chamber that rendered them inevitable. “Restrained” because the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and that echo chamber is a lot easier to mock than it is to fix.

The Big Short knows that as fun as it is to cheer for protagonists and the villain’s come-uppance, the truth is messier. Like a good Tarantino flick, it lulls us with the cadence of hero worship only to throw our hypocrisy in our face. We root for the “underdogs” who are rooting against the banks, but their windfall only comes from our tragedy. So when Wall Street burns and they’re the only ones fiddling, it’s hard to celebrate but harder to blame them — after all, I was intoxicated too, and I only had $12.50 on the line. It’s an absurd situation, bred by an absurd, deeply unintuitive system. And the only response to absurdity — be it “I love lamp” or the American economy — is to laugh.

Review: Carol

It’s been a hectic holiday season, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t get to a few movies worth seeking out. No, I haven’t seen Star Wars yet. But I did catch a double feature of nontraditional romances, which Chris and I squeezed in just before flying off to Europe. I’ll start with the great one.

Carol is easy to love but hard to explain. Whoever made the trailer clearly faced the same dilemma: meaningful looks and lines were precariously cut-and-pasted into a “Forbidden Love” narrative a la Brokeback Mountain, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find it in the actual movie. Digging for narrative would, at any rate, miss the point. Carol is the perfect episode of Mad Men; a protagonist-free period piece about life at a crossroads. Therese is a 20-something in 50’s New York, saddled with an aw-shucks boyfriend and aimless yes-ma’am job. Carol is a wealthy mother in the midst of divorce, brimming with over-the-top starlet charm and loneliness. The two fall in something, though I’m not convinced it’s love. Like Mad Men, the movie embraces a particular contradiction: nine parts ambience and one part disillusionment, it sweeps you up in the glamour of a bygone era while convincing you the glamour is a lie.

Variants of that contradiction pop up everywhere. Blanchett’s Carol is a victim of hollow “old money” glamour (a la Blue Jasmine,) but that same glamour makes her a spellbinding force (a la Galadriel.) Mara’s Therese is struggling for agency in a repressive society, but her ultimate freedom is found in succumbing to someone else’s (hardly democratic) control. Its substance never feels entirely certain, but its texture makes complete emotional sense. Lushly shot and wonderfully acted, I found it to be hypnotic and totally devoid of the usual gimmicks. It’s worth getting swept up in.

Review: The Good Dinosaur

Normally I’d start one of these reviews with a preface about Pixar, but The Good Dinosaur isn’t a Pixar movie by any reasonable standard. It’s hardly a movie at all. It’s supplementary material for a killer SIGGRAPH paper about rendering flowing water and photorealistic landscapes. Some intern found the demo reel on a hard drive, rigged a few models from an abandoned Toy Story spin-off (“Rex and the City”), and outsourced the narrative to an alien whose understanding of pathos consisted of Land Before Time sequels, the Ice Age video game, and scattered Wild Thornberrys reruns.

I can’t speak for the kids; Pixar probably had them at “talking dinosaurs.” To an adult viewer, though, there are only two redeeming qualities here: gorgeous scenery and Sam Elliott. The rest is pure filler. It’s a limp remix of every Disney movie, with gratingly-one-dimensional characters, a defiantly half-baked universe, and powerful themes of “be brave, or hopeful, or I don’t know, maybe run around through some bushes or something.” Vaguely cute things happen for 90 minutes, then it ends. The message, if there is one, is the polar opposite of Brad Bird’s Randian “some people are special” motif: some people just aren’t special or interesting, but if they stay alive long enough the bar might be lowered to include them. If nothing else, it’s good to see Pixar practice what it preaches here. The bar can’t get much lower.

Having not seen Cars 2, I’m calling this as the worst Pixar movie to date. Chris and I had a surprisingly fun, and mercifully brief, conversation on last week’s mini-episode.

Review: The Hunger Games: Mocking Jay Part 2

I’m not usually a contrarian, but I think I might be watching the wrong Hunger Games. I thought Catching Fire was a huge step down from the exhilarating premise; it remains the highest-rated of the four to date. Critics of Mockingjay Part 1 complained of its heaviness; I found it to be spineless, Twighlight-esque fluff. And word on the street is that Part 2 is a huge disappointment, a slap in the face to diehard fans. I thought it was the only sequel that felt true to the first installment.

Which isn’t to say it’s a great movie. Like almost every Harry Potter film, it’s hard to watch a Hunger Games sequel without understanding the fan service that belies it. Character behaviors are frequently over-the-top and jarring, alluding to known motivations rather than actually convincing us of them. This means steely performances, piercing stares which are only meaningful insofar as they’re held way too long, flimsy romantic subplots which an original screenplay would have jettisoned, and monologues that feel plucked from a motivational Tumblr. The first largely avoided this trap, but that was before it became an action-figure-producing phenomenon. The longer the series exists, the more it’s going to re-enact an established story rather than tell its own. It is what it is. I can waste every review bemoaning it, or I can accept it and move on.

I respect Part 2 for the same reason I respect the HIMYM finale: it commits to its logical conclusion at the risk of alienating its target demo. For the first time since 2012, the series has shown that it isn’t afraid to confront actual darkness — not bad-guy-does-bad-things-while-we-“boo” darkness, but darkness bred by mob bloodlust, class warfare, unchecked vigilantism and good intentions misplaced. There are moments here that hit a serious nerve. (My favorite, a visceral shaky-cam crowd shot, felt more in line with Children of Men than a franchise blockbuster.) There are themes (the cycle of violence, the reciprocal nature of “enemy”) that resonate more deeply in the current political climate than anyone could have planned. Most importantly, there’s that exhilarating sense of unpredictability the first movie did so well. Collins proves she isn’t afraid to totally dismantle her series if it suits the plot, and even if spoon-fed lessons eventually dampen the impact, it’s hard not to admire her audacity.

Some things never change with YA franchises: it doesn’t trust the audience, the romance is lame, and the epilogue should be avoided at all costs. But overall I actually liked this one, and I’m heartened to see a series with such a broad fanbase tackle something bigger than “Gale vs Peeta.” Chris and I reviewed it at:

Review: Room

If there’s one thread that runs through the “Modern Indie,” it’s a refusal to compartmentalize the human experience. Everything and nothing are sacred, profound. And in a world full of Melodrama and Very Special Episodes™ , that usually means subversion. Banal experiences get elevated to universal truths; lofty ideals and characters come crashing down to earth. It’s a contortion act that tends to call attention to itself.

Room is subverting something, but you never feel that strain. Conceptually it reads like a terrifying Very Special Episode : a girl is abducted by “Old Nick” and locked in his shed. Two years in, she gives birth to a son. Seven years in, she devises a plan to free him. Yes, it is harrowing. No, it’s nothing like The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. If ever a subject matter earned its melodrama — long tearful monologues, slow-motion embraces — this would be it. Far be it for me, or the movie, to sneer.

And it doesn’t sneer. Nor does it avoid those long tearful monologues or slow-motion embraces, when appropriate. But its terrifying concept isn’t heightened to melodrama or irreverently flipped: it’s just context. A terrible thing happened, and rather than dwell on how sad life would be, the bulk of the movie simply asks “what would life be?”, playing more like a documentary than a drama. When we meet Joy (“Ma”), she’s settled into her sad routine. Jack, now five, has only seen the world through a television set. Like Life Is Beautiful’s Joshua, he navigates his circumstance through a universe of Joy’s invention, full of mechanisms and constraints that we only glimpse in passing. Things in Room are real. Things in TV are fake. Bed is real and Bowl is real, but Dog and Tree and TV things. Sometimes Old Nick brings TV things into Room, but it comes at a high cost.

Brie Larson is getting awards buzz over her turn as Joy, and for good reason. It’s one of those half-invisible performances that’s so believable you forget to notice it. The whole movie felt a bit like that to me: for such heart-wrenching material, it stays remarkably down to earth. Joy is a wonderful parent, but she’s also bitter and less mature than she’s forced to pretend. Jack has his adorable moments, but also abrasive, petty, and downright annoying ones. And just like the first half argues that tragedy can’t overwhelm life, the second half shows that joyful circumstances can’t monopolize it. To someone looking for a feel-good movie, that might be a bitter pill to swallow. I loved it, because I believed it.

Avoid trailers at all costs, and seek this one out.

Review: Spotlight

In our 2014 recap, I left my #6 slot reserved for the “Dallas Buyers’ Club Award”: a conventional, non-boundary-pushing narrative that manages to blow you away by sheer consistency. Nightcrawler won out, though Gone Girl (like most David Fincher projects) probably fit the bill better. Zodiac is the patron saint of the genre.

It’s probably not a coincidence that all of those movies are about some form of journalism. More specifically, they’re about the process by which Truth becomes Story; it might be distorted (Nightcrawler), sensationalized (Gone Girl), or obsessively constructed (Zodiac), but there’s always some mechanism at play. Sometimes the mechanism is subtext, an invisible hand that toys with characters’ lives. Here, the mechanisms are the true characters.

First is the protagonist: patient, level-headed, good-old-fashioned reporting. In 2001, an investigative branch of Boston Globe (“Spotlight”) was assigned to cover allegations of molestation in the local Catholic church. For a subject ripe for melodrama, the film that chronicles it is refreshingly understated. The horror of the story is rarely the focus — we already know the ending, and are living the epilogue. Spotlight is about the mechanics behind that story. It’s about how Rachel McAdams subtly calibrates her interview style to calm a nervous subject; how Michael Keaton pivots between boys’-club chumminess and disarming directness; how Mark Ruffalo looks up from his notepad to repeat an interviewee’s name, giving just enough eye-contact to convey sympathy while respecting his bruised, stoic ego; why Liev Schreiber chooses to stall publication long after HuffPo would have waged a clickbait culture war. It’s about characters setting aside drama to do their job; phenomenally acted to the point of being invisible.

Which isn’t to say it sidesteps the difficult questions; like Calvary, Spotlight has plenty to say about faith and disillusionment. But it’s never framed as a “gotchya” moment or lazy Religulous-esque indictment. The antagonist, if there is one, isn’t a specific villain. And despite characters’ repeated urges to “focus on the system”, I don’t think it’s a specific organization either — not even the obvious one at the center. It’s any system which discourages self-criticism, and any hierarchy which puts undue trust in its leaders. The Catholic Church, of course, is guilty. But so is Boston itself, whose members and media repeatedly looked the other way in the name of community pride. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Penn State, and the way collective hope — be it in God or the Home Team — can smother individual unease. Grand, dramatic conviction has the power to blind, and only a measured response can expose it. The two reasons no one trusts Schreiber are actually one: he’s a Jew and he doesn’t like baseball.

I really enjoyed this movie. Chris and I unpack it in this week’s episode.

Review: Spectre

I finally caught Jurassic World this weekend, and boy was it underwhelming. I’d call it “artless”, but I never expected art from a movie about Chris Pratt and dinosaurs. It’s the sheer joylessness that hit me. It felt like no one was invested, and no one wanted me to be. Impressive visuals are no substitute for awe, and a horde of CG velociraptors are infinitely less scary than carefully placed ripples in a glass of water.

Maybe it’s a fourth-installment curse, but Spectre suffers from that same joylessness. Setting aside the (unflattering) comparisons to Rogue Nation its plot will elicit, there aren’t specific missteps here. In fact, there’s nothing specific at all: it’s the generic average of every Bond movie. Slick locations, countless fight scenes, a hero who seduces and kills with chilling proficiency, a mild-mannered mastermind bent on destruction, and every conceivable vehicle to blow up. That’s the whole script. It’s so confident you’ve seen it before, it forgets to tell a story. Daniel Craig is hurting? Léa Seydoux is in love? Christoph Waltz has a personal vendetta? Why waste valuable screen time convincing me when you can just telegraph beats from better movies and say “you probably see where we’re going with this, right?”

In a year of massively successful Mission Impossible and Fast and Furious sequels, what makes Bond stand out? Certainly not the stakes. Spectre may throw us in a helicopter, sportscar, plane, train, and speedboat, but giddy ridiculousness just doesn’t suit it. And definitely not relevance, unless Snowden-esque conspiracies and a single use of the word “drone” still do something for you. No, the one thing Bond has in its wheelhouse is coolness. Restraint. That put-upon ease of the popular kid in highschool, too comfortable in its skin to try to impress you. Skyfall did things at its own pace, brooding and strange. Spectre bets you 10 bucks it can ollie over your head. Even when it shoots for style, like that long-take opening scene, it feels more like a Goodfellas fan saying “get it?” than a film with a grasp of itself. Sam Mendes is invisible here.

The other weapon it thinks it has is nostalgia; this is probably the most Vintage, and least empathetic, Daniel Craig has been. Everything from the Aston Martin to the decidedly-not-modern female characters screams “remember the good old days?” Like Jurassic World or Kingsman, it wants to mock its cake and eat it too — to be meta about its redundancy while simultaneously using it as a crutch. But pointing out emptiness doesn’t make you less empty…just a little desperate. Sometimes less is more, and in this case less Moore would have been better.

It’s not worse than Quantum of Solance, but it’s hard to feel optimistic about the future.

The Great War for Civilisation

“In all, it was to take my father’s generation just twenty-three months to create these artificial borders and the equally artificial nations contained within them…And it is, as I often reflect, a grim fact of my own life that my career as a journalist— first in Ireland, then in the Middle East and the Balkans— has been entirely spent in reporting the burning of these frontiers, the collapse of the statelets that my father’s war allowed us to create, and the killing of their peoples.”

Where do I begin with a book like this? At just over 1100 pages — 60 hours according to my optimistic Kindle — it’s a sprawling, unfocused behemoth. It’s messy, opinionated, depressing, exhausting, and frequently in need of an editor. It’s also fantastic.

My primary reason for reading about the Middle East was to know the bare minimum: who is who, where did they come from, why are they fighting, and how do they relate with us? Wikipedia, in principle, might have sufficed. But if 8th grade history class has taught me anything, it’s that bullet points are only helpful in hindsight; names, dates, and nations will invariably blur together til the moment you make them personal. In writing this book, Robert Fisk is attempting to do the impossible: to describe 30 years of history in the (broader) “Middle East”, and to make each bullet point personal. In one novel we learn about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Iran/Iraq war, the Gulf War, the Algerian civil war, the first and second Intifada, September 11, the war in Afghanistan, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the growing unrest which continues today throughout the Levant. Not in passing, but in beautifully written, emotive detail.

The trick? It’s all in the first person. As foreign correspondent for The Times then The Independent, Fisk has seen more than one would think possible. He’s stood on the front lines of all aforementioned wars, borne witness to air raids and suicide bombings, snuck past Russian troops in the backseat of shabby taxis, climbed into charred tanks and bunkers (including Saddam’s), and nearly been killed on multiple occasions — including being stoned by a mob in post-9-11 Afghanistan. The book begins with a face-to-face interview with Bin Laden in 1996, jumps back to unrest in Soviet-occupied Kabul at the turn of the 1980’s, and ends on the streets of U.S.-occupied Baghdad.

You can tell this was culled from decades of reports; the prose is carefully written and consistently breathtaking. It’s also deeply opinionated. But to criticize Fisk for a lack of objectivity is, I think, to entirely miss the point. Too often, “objectivity” is a euphemism for detachment, and detachment is anything but unbiased. Detachment always favors the status quo, the thing that says “everything is going fine” and sweeps moral quandaries under the rug of “necessity”. He wants to force us into an uncomfortable place, to understand how it feels to be on the receiving end of all of this chaos, and what might actually breed hatred for the West beyond a vague haze of “hating freedom.” And you don’t get that with bullet points.

Fisk’s reporting has been demonized as anti-American, anti-Semitic, pro-Saddam, pro-Osama, pro-terrorist propaganda. Hell, it’s probably been called pro-Putin and pro-Assad too, depending on what year it is. Needless to say, I wouldn’t be giving this 5 stars if I thought any of that were true. What it is, is deeply, compellingly humanitarian. It’s a howl of outrage against anyone, anywhere, that either needlessly kills or uses strategic diction to diminish the sadness of killing. And with the world already in unison about one subset of outrages (brutal dictatorships, sadistic killings in the name of religion), blaming Fisk for emphasizing a less-heard subset is a bit like waving an #AllLivesMatter sign in Ferguson. He repeatedly acknowledges that both sides have suffered, that many people we overthrew committed crimes against humanity, that nothing “excuses” bloodshed. But, at the same time, that it’s possible to understand motive without condoning the action.

“Is there, I ask myself, a key to all this, some incident, some lone truth that will illuminate all that we have done to the Middle East, the anger we have created, the terror we have inflicted upon those we now regard as our enemies? Is there some way in which to communicate this without reiterating the demands of the self-righteous, some way in which the death of innocence can be portrayed outside the framework of hatred? Osama bin Laden does not have to be the voice of those who have suffered. He has no monopoly over their grief and pain. He was never appointed their representative on earth.”

On its surface, the layout of the book may seem scattered. In the two years between the Iran/Iraq war and the Gulf War, for instance, we take a ~400 page detour to discuss his father’s World War I service, the Armenian Genocide, the Algerian Civil War, and the Israel/Palestine conflict. Emotionally, however, it makes perfect sense. The overarching theme of the book is the recurrence of history: war, oppression, bloody revolution. Iran/Iraq echoing the trenches of World War I, Saddam’s wrath against the Shiites and Kurds echoing the Armenian Genocide, post-liberation Iraq echoing post-FLN Algeria, our invasion of Afghanistan echoing the Soviets’, and on and on. When fascism was the fear, we supported the Soviets. When the Soviets were the fear, we supported Saddam against Iran, and Osama’s Sunni guerrillas against Socialist-controlled Afghanistan. When “terror” was the fear we supported scattered militia against Saddam’s Ba’athist and the Taliban’s Sunni “governments”. Now bloody anarchy is the overwhelming fear, and who’s left to support? Who haven’t we both battled and armed?

Again, I don’t think Fisk has all the answers. If I have any real criticism of this book, it’s that he sometimes trades his beautiful emotional equivalences (the tragedy of all suffering) for explicit, literal ones (“X is a thug, there is no difference between Y and Z”) — which makes the lack of a positive foreign policy solution more pronounced. Though there are clearly a few takeaways (don’t ever invade Iraq or Afghanistan, don’t support oppressive dictators, don’t strong-arm the UN), I have no idea what I would do if I were in power, inheriting this terrible history. But the one convicting principle, and the reason to read this book, is that at the very least we should be transparent about our messy ethical dilemmas — no, let’s call them sins. We should acknowledge the anger at the root of violence, condemn evil even when it comes from our “allies” — not cry from the rooftops about ISIS crucifying and beheading people, then turn a blind eye when Saudi Arabia has it as a part of its legal system — and be open about the terrible trade-offs our tangled allegiances have provoked. We shouldn’t hide behind words like “collateral” as a buffer from human suffering. We should actually stand for freedom and justice, for all its terrifying unpredictability. We should feel the weight of our history whenever we turn on the news, and above all, we should mourn with those who mourn.

“Soldier and civilian, they died in their tens of thousands because death had been concocted for them, morality hitched like a halter round the warhorse so that we could talk about ‘target-rich environments’ and ‘collateral damage’ — that most infantile of attempts to shake off the crime of killing — and report the victory parades, the tearing down of statues and the importance of peace.“

This has been a messy review, full of cherry-picked history lessons and likely one-sided takeaways. I’m sure as I start reading the likes of Thomas Friedman and Noam Chomsky, I’ll hear different outrages emphasized, and maybe with enough competing biases I’ll settle on something constructive. But I’m glad that for once I didn’t need to glance at Wikipedia to write this, and won’t when I’m reading other “objective”, historical accounts. I actually remember these names, dates, and nations, because Fisk made it personal.