Brandon’s Top Films of 2015

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1. The Duke of BurgundyPossibly the least commercial movie about a lesbian couple in a BDSM relationship possible. Equal parts an intentionally-obfuscated art film & a tender drama about negotiating how to balance romantic & sexual needs in a healthy relationship, The Duke of Burgundy isn’t for everyone, but it is the most beautifully-shot film of the year and a surprisingly poignant portrait of a timeless romance. If you have the patience for its languid pacing & reliance on repetition, the rewards are rich & plentiful.

2. What We Do in the Shadows In a year when a surprisingly limited number of American comedies hit the mark, this gem from New Zealand geniuses Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi was an easy pick for best comedy of the year, if not the decade. You’d think that a mockumentary about vampire roommates in modern times would be the last breath of a dying genre, but What We Do in the Shadows is readily-available proof that the stake hasn’t been driven into its heart quite yet. This is a hilarious film that only improves upon repeat viewings, with a wealth of quotes waiting to make their way into your daily vocabulary. Now leave me to do my dark bidding on the Internet.

3. Ex Machina – Just really solid, well-constructed sci-fi. I can’t think of a film from this year that got a bigger effect out of so few, subtle moving parts. A lot of what immediately stands out about Ex Machina is the incredible talent of its three lead actors, but the film also has an intense, well-curated visual language to it that can make your blood run ice cold with the most minimal of efforts.

4. Tangerine The movie from 2015 I’d most like to watch/discuss with (the greatest human being walking the Earth) John Waters. Tangerine is a raucously fun, poorly behaved whirlwind of an adventure through Los Angeles’ cab rides & sex trade. For a movie shot entirely on iPhones it’s got a surprisingly intense cinematic eye & despite leaning hard towards over-the-top excess there’s a very touching story at its heart about the value of friendship & makeshift family.

5. Mad Max: Fury Road – Probably the most intensely weird & go-for-broke action film of the past decade. George Miller may be in his 70s, but this is the work of a youthful spirit grinding the gas peddle hard to the floor, hands off the steering wheel. In a time where CGI is casting an insufferable blandness across most action properties, Fury Road is a practical effects masterwork that feels like a breath of fresh air, despite the chokehold it takes on your senses.

6. Magic Mike XXL – The first Magic Mike film is a somber, reflective drama that just happens to be centered on a gaggle of male strippers. XXL, on the other hand, is an over-the-top road trip comedy where said strippers act like an over-aged boy band: horny, sassy, and high on drugs. One of the most unashamedly fun movie-going experiences of the year, not to mention the lagniappe of its intense cinematography.

7. The Diary of a Teenage Girl – An incredibly uncomfortable coming-of-age drama about a young girl in 1970s San Fransisco exploring her sexuality in wildly dangerous ways. Its comic book art visual palette works like a major asset instead of a gimmick & relative newcomer Bel Powley delivers what might be the best lead performance of the year.

8. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens – Interstellar was the most hilariously over-complained about movie of 2014. The Force Awakens easily earned that distinction in 2015. It’s a genuinely fun, intricately detailed return to form for a franchise that hasn’t been nearly this satisfying since 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. If you need insight into just how much the movie bends over backwards to please its audience, just take a look at the beyond-adorable BB-8. What a little cutie.

9. Straight Outta Compton – As far as its historical accuracy as an N.W.A. biopic goes, Straight Outta Compton might be shooting about 20%. All of its self-congratulating indulgence aside, it’s a 100% awesome (or “dope”, if you will) late-80s/early-90s pastiche with a killer soundtrack and some stunning visual work from regular Aronofsky-collaborator Matthew Libatique.

10. Felt – A hazy, disconnected portrait of a visual artist coping with a past, vaguely-defined (but likely sexual) trauma. Felt is an unforgivingly intense gaze into a super-specific form of art therapy, even before its meandering pace crashes in a grandly violent display at the film’s conclusion.

11. White God – As most revenge movies tend to go, the endless parade of abuse in this film’s early storylines are not nearly as fun or as easy to watch as it is when shit hits the fan. It just so happens that in this case the revenge is carried about by a massive herd of stray dogs that have a very good list of reasons to tear down an entire city. It’s an incredible, one-of-a-kind spectacle.

12. Appropriate Behavior – Writer/director/actress Desiree Akhavan brings an impressive amount of authenticity to a genre that’s been a little too popular to feel truly distinct lately: the drama-comedy about the 20-something New York City woman who just can’t seem to figure her shit out. This a dark, but hilariously raunchy work & for my money its far more satisfying than its most (financially) successful comparison point from the same year – Trainwreck.

13. Spring – Part of what makes Spring so fun is that it’s such a difficult film to pin down. Is it a tender romance drama or a modern version of a natural horror? What’s more important: its central doomed-to-be-seasonal romance or the horrific nature of its shape-shifting sci-fi beast? Let’s just split the difference & call it the most interesting answer to Linklater’s Before Sunrise/Before Sunset series to date.

14. It Follows – In a lot of ways it feels like John Carpenter’s entire aesthetic is making a (much deserved) cultural comeback. Weirdo action films like The Guest & Drive have at least incorporated his distinct soundtrack work into their highly-stylized worlds, but It Follows takes the homage a step further and constructs more or less what a modern John Carpenter horror would look and sound like. It isn’t as successful as Carpenter’s masterworks like Halloween or The Thing, but its haunting sexually-transmitted-curse premise & killer synth soundtrack make for some remarkably weird & memorable moments.

15. Driving While BlackPresented on the surface as a laid back stoner comedy, this film actually packs a surprisingly powerful (and unfortunately timely) political punch in its depiction of “the extra layer of bullshit on top of regular life” that black people have to face daily in modern America. Detailing the public harassment & personal violation of being constantly persecuted by the police on the receiving end of racial profiling, Driving While Black walks an impressive tightrope of feeling like an important movie, but never losing track of being consistently funny.

16. Creep/The Overnight – Writer/director Patrick Brice just had a pretty incredible year. His first two feature films, Creep & The Overnight, earned wide distribution withing months of one another and both stood as darkly funny, often hilarious reminders of how much of an impact a director can pull from a great script, a limited set, and just a handful of actors. Although one is a found footage horror (Creep) and the other is a twisted play on the traditional sex farce (The Overnight) they pair nicely in their lean towards minimalism & in their collective declaration of Brice as a talent to watch.

17. Queen of EarthThe two minute trailer for Queen of Earth might be the best short film of the year, but the movie itself is a lot more delicate & detached than the psychological horror that the ad promises. It’s difficult to pin down exactly what transpires in this film (I personally see it as a vicious, yet subtle tale of revenge through drawn out emotional torture), but the seething hatred mounting between its two leads is bound to bore a hole into your memory no matter where you land on its plot.

18. Predestination – Predestination is neither a wholly unique work nor an exercise in good taste. It is, however, an example of the virtue of sincere, traditional acting & storytelling and how those elements can elevate ludicrous material into something special. Although its major twists & reveals may occasionally be telegraphed, it’s fascinating to watch the film reach those conclusions in its own time and on its own terms. There’s a sci-fi tradition to its sincere, pulpy sense of tonal balance, but it’s a vintage tradition that’s unconcerned with the new territory that sci-fi cinema’s been exploring in recent years.

19. Goodnight Mommy – There’s a major twist at the core of Goodnight Mommy that most discerning folks will be able to catch onto within minutes of the film beginning, but that withheld reveal in no way cheapens the ugly brutality of its horror imagery or the delicate beauty of its art film surreality. Goodnight Mommy is not looking to outsmart you with its plot, but rather to tie you down & torture you with its relentless horror film intensity. As a bonus, it also functions like cinematic birth control the same way that great works like The Bad Seed, The Babadook, and We Need to Talk About Kevin have in the past. It’s a very specific genre that I’m always a sucker for.

20. Mistress America Noah Baumbach’s latest pulls an incredible trick of not only exposing the harrowing emptiness behind a know-it-all, creative-spirit Millenial’s Everything Is Perfect & So Am I facade, but also making you feel sort of bad for her when the illusion crumbles. Like the film’s protagonist who looks up to this human anomaly, we want to believe that someone so free & so in tune with The Ways of the Universe could actually exist, but by the end of the film you’re left with the feeling that the very idea of someone living that impossible lie on a daily basis is not only far from admirable, it’s also deeply sad.

H.M. Girlhood – Despite what you might expect from a film about roving packs of French girl gangs, Girlhood is far from an on-the-nose melodrama with explicit messages about the powder keg of poverty & puberty. Instead, it’s a brutally melancholy slow burner about an especially shitty youth with dwindling options for escape. It’s far more open-ended & hazy than I was anticipating, opting more for a gradual unravelling than a grand statement. It’s that aversion to closure & moralizing that makes the film special when it easily could’ve gone through the motions of rote Lifetime Movie schmaltz. Besides, its mid-film, impromptu music video for Rihanna’s “Diamonds” easily ranks among the year’s most uplifting moments in film.

-Brandon Ledet

Mistress America (2015)

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fourstar

Noah Baumbach is extremely adept at making me feel like shit. While from the outside his signature films The Squid & The Whale, Margot at the Wedding, etc. may look like the kind of cutesy indie dramas that often earn the quaint moniker “Sundance darlings”, they actually pack much more of a devastating emotional punch than you’d first expect. Baumbach’s parade of broken, often vile characters truly get under my skin, mostly because they’re so real & so relatable. What’s even worse is they have the nerve to make me laugh at the same time, despite myself. Even if I don’t personally identify with the moral reprobates Baumbach brings to the big screen, I can at least recognize their traits in real life people that stalk this cursed Earth, often people I love or at least find amusing. For instance, the deeply unpleasant film Greenberg hosts a lead performance from Ben Stiller so heartlessly misanthropic & cruelly self-centered that I left the film shaking so thoroughly with anger that I couldn’t help feeling as if part of my discomfort was that I recognized aspects of his destructive behavior in people I know intimately or, shudder to think, myself at my worst. It was so tempting to reduce my reaction to Greenberg to “Fuck that movie!” but at the same time it was near impossible to ignore that it had struck a chord, unpleasant or not. In a lot of ways, Baumbach’s latest film Mistress America is the spiritual opposite of Greenberg, yet both films somehow strike that dark, too-close-to-home chord of discomfort.

Mistress America, which Baumbach co-wrote with actress Greta Gerwig (who portrays the titular human anomaly Brooke), strikes a funny, but acidly damning portrait of Millennial pretentiousness. Brooke is anything & nothing simultaneously. She’s a creative spirit with no follow-through to finish any of the many projects she conceives. She drifts in & out of people’s lives without ever emotionally engaging with them in any specific way, leaving behind a trail of destruction that she is far too self-absorbed to even notice. She constantly rags on “rich people”, but obviously coasts on a certain level of privilege she won’t acknowledge. Brooke tries to be everything to everyone, even going as far as adopting different costumes (sometimes on an hourly schedule) depending on the task at hand: pencil skirts for business meetings, workout gear for the health nut part of her day, non-prescription glasses & sweaters for tutoring sessions, etc. While tutoring a math student she’s shown describing the nature of “x” as a variable that “can’t be nailed down”, which is very much on the nose. However, when she later describes herself as “kind & fearless”, she’s completely off the mark. Brooke may think she knows every last thing about how the world works, but the truth is she doesn’t even know the first thing about herself.

At the same time, though, her boundless energy & roaring self-confidence can be intoxicating, especially to a young admirer. Brooke’s soon-to-be stepsister Tracy (played by Lola Kirke) is mildly critical of, but completely starstruck by Brooke, who is, by all means, an impossible person (the kind that lives in Times Square & spontaneously gets invited onstage at concerts). Alone on a college campus in New York City, Tracy is an emotionally vulnerable freshmen who is looking for a sense of self-purpose & personal identity. Tracy yearns to be a pretentious literary type, but just doesn’t have the heart for it. In Brooke she sees the unbridled moxie she wishes she possessed herself. As she fawns over & begins to imitate Brooke, the film gets similarly excited, picking up speed in a delirious manner & getting drunk on self-awarded power. However, Brooke’s modern day Holly Golightly lifestyle is not nearly as glamorous as it may seem on the surface & Tracy quickly discovers that her hero is a broken, selfish narcissist not so gracefully transitioning from the twilight of her frivolous 20s into a much less flattering frivolous adulthood.

In a lot of ways Brooke is more of a collection of empty platitudes & thinly veiled attempts to be quotable than a real person. While casually posing for a friend’s Instagram photo she asks, “Must we document ourselves all the time? Must we?!” When Tracy explains she wants to be a stort story writer, Brooke responds “I read that TV shows are the new novel.” Other self-generated clichés include “You can’t really know what it is to want until you are at least 30,” & “There’s no adultery when you’re 18. You should all be touching each other all the time.” She’s also prone to introducing herself to new friends with the account that “I watched my mother die […] Everyone I love dies,” a personal catchphrase that feels all the more disquieting because she sounds like she doesn’t mean one word of it. It’s no wonder that Brooke is so proficient at Twitter fame, schmoozing businessmen, and coaching a spin class. Her vapid phrasings can be downright inspirational at times . . . as long as you don’t pay attention to what she’s actually saying.

It’s possible that not everyone will engage with Brooke in the same adversary way that I did. Like Tracy (who Brooke deems “Baby Tracy”) it’s feasible that some audiences could fall for her surface charms. It seems like no mistake to me, though, that the more Tracy imitates Brooke, the less unique & likable she becomes as a protagonist. In a lot of ways her newfound confidence turns her into an insufferable jerk & a bully. Also amplifying this feeling is the vibrant 80s synth soundtrack, which always feels like it’s building to a significant breakthrough moment that it never actually reaches. In so many ways, this echoes Brooke’s entire, vapid existence. She thinks that she’s the star of the show (and life is certainly nothing if not a staged production in her case), but she’s actually the butt of its cruel joke.

Mistress America pulls an incredible trick of not only exposing that fragile emptiness behind Brooke’s Everything Is Perfect & So Am I façade, but also making you feel sort of bad for her when the illusion crumbles. Like Tracy, we want to believe that someone so free & so in tune with The Ways of the Universe could actually exist, but by the end of the film you’re left with the feeling that the very idea of someone living that impossible lie on a daily basis is not only far from admirable, it’s also deeply sad. Brooke is the kind of person you’d love to talk to at a party & someone you could have a general sense of concern about, but not a presence you’d want to connect with on any intimate level. She’s far too fleeting & brutally egotistical for that & Mistress America has an emotional bodycount to prove it. Like with a lot of Baumbach’s work, it’s the kind of film that makes you feel truly awful for laughing, a conflicting sensation I personally enjoy very much.

-Brandon Ledet