The cultural event of 2015 was not a book or a play or a film. Rather, it was two late-in-the-year essays by Rebecca Solnit that caused quite a stir among those with a distorted affection for the good ole days: 80 Books No Woman Should Read and Men Explain Lolita To Me.
I won’t rehash here Solnit’s entire poke in the eye at our cultural patriarchy, but do want to suggest that her critique is the same reflection in a different pond of #OscarsSoWhite. And the poking has only just begun.
People standing in the bread line for handouts of inclusion are starting to get really annoyed at how rigged the system is. Culturally, it all meanders back around to which narratives qualify as significant in our society and which ones “belong” on the fringe. Are the narrative arts an opportunity to experience empathy bridges to the lives and stories of “others?” Or are they a tool for flaunting narratives that made the good ole days not so good at all?
It’s not just a question of who the nominees are, who the directors are, or who is picking out the stories to begin with. It’s a question of whether or not these priestly editors of our culture have any genuine curiosity at all about the experience of “others?” Mary MacNamara nails the heart of the problem in her great LA Times piece: Oscars 2016: It’s time for Hollywood to stop defining great drama as white men battling adversity.
The links above to Solnit and McNamara’s essays are of far greater interest than the rest of what I have to say in this silly top 10 movie list thing that I do every year. If you’re pressed for time, click through to those gems and forget about what’s below. I’m not going to splain to you directly why movies such as The Revenant and The Martian and Bridge of Spies failed to achieve the great honor of going on my list, so the only way to understand those omissions is to read what Solnit and McNamara have to say about it.
- Mad Max: Fury Road. The first 3 movies on this list were a photo finish from the standpoint of great story and impeccable filmmaking. But Mad Max got extra credit points for being a spectacle like no other. It’s an amazing feat of cinema, subtle at the micro level of relationships and finely-painted detail, plus breathtaking at the macro level of epic sequences and epic themes. I look forward to watching this film again and again over the years and seeing something new every time.
- Carol. What was it like to be a lesbian during the McCarthy era in the United States? Well, if you have any curiosity at all about the experience of “others,” you will find this film mesmerizing from start to finish. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara give amazing performances that first and foremost serve the story. The things I most want to say about it would amount to spoilers. See this film.
- Spotlight. Investigative reporters working relentlessly to right a wrong. That’s like a genre unto itself, right? But all too often the formula’s bones stick out like an emaciated movie of the week. This film raises the bar on the genre, and the ensemble of its brilliant performances strikes methodically at something real: that the world gets changed for the better by groups of dedicated people, not heroes.
- Chi-Raq. Spike Lee’s best film since Do The Right Thing. He injects a unique brand of absurdity into the horror of the gun reality so as to do true justice to the insanity involved. One can only hope that Lee has given up on the Hollywood pipeline and will keep following the cue of his wicked tragicomic imagination. His jaggedy-edged depiction of the American experience is one of the few voices out there that gives it any coherence at all.
- Inside Out. Likely to win Best Animated Feature, but should have been nominated for Best Picture. Way better than most of the paint-by-numbers flatulence out there, both in animation and live action. Shouldn’t filmmaking awards, if they need to exist at all, pay special attention to originality? You won’t see a more original movie this year.
- Experimenter. Ever heard of the “obedience experiments” conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram to test why/how people obey authority even when they feel it’s wrong to do so? With the trial of Adolph Eichmann lingering in the background, subjects give ever-increasing electrical shocks to their fellow human beings. And the film itself is an experiment, grafting together mutually exclusive genres with in-your-face Brechtian chutzpah.
- White God. A self-organized pack of street dogs starts a rebellion against the human oppressors. It is rare for a film that is so openly metaphorical (and in many different arenas at once) to also grip your attention from start to finish while never overplaying its hand around the underlying meaning. This film puts Kornél Mundruczó on the map of world cinema, and I can’t wait to see more of his work.
- The Big Short. On the surface it’s such a playful film, but rumbling underneath that playfulness is a harsh indictment of crimes that most people would never sit through were they being exposed in documentary form. I so hope that this film is just a first step in Adam McKay using his considerable comedic talents to make more ‘serious’ films. A definite dark horse for Best Picture (along with Mad Max and Spotlight) that might deny a gold statue to that pretentiously man’s man film about bloody revenge in the snow.
- Straight Outta Compton. Okay, so maybe you have no interest in rap music or the culture that surrounds it. But aren’t you at least curious about where it came from, and more importantly… WHY? This film often feels like a documentary where the camera (surprisingly!) keeps rolling even as its subjects spiral out of control. Shame on the Academy for ignoring it.
- Steve Jobs. Michael Fassbender gives the performance of the year as the title character, and the greatest moment in the film exemplifies why the Academy snubbed it. “It’s not binary. You can be decent and gifted at the same time,” says Seth Rogan in the role of Steve Wozniak. That is the theme of the entire movie in a nutshell, and not surprisingly, anathema to Hollywood’s paradigm of rewards and punishments. Too many people would have to hand back all of their awards if having talent wasn’t considered a lifetime license to be an asshat.
Honorable mentions: A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, Anomalisa, Beasts of No Nation, Best of Enemies, Brooklyn, Ex Machina, Heart of a Dog, Love and Mercy, Phoenix, Room, Seymour: An Introduction, Tangerine, The Duke of Burgundy, The Danish Girl, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, The Hunting Ground, The Look of Silence, The Visit, Trainwreck, Trumbo, What Happened, Miss Simone?, World of Tomorrow.
(Note: following films not yet screened as of the above opinionating: The Lobster, Son of Saul, Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, Arabian Nights, Timbuktu, Creed, Concussion, The Assassin, The Tribe, Youth, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, Mustang)