It’s almost Oscar Sunday, aka my last “official” day to consider 2015 films for my Best Of list. (I extend the date to Oscar Sunday because many films are released late in a true calendar year, and then sometimes only in NY and LA, so it takes them time in the new year to screen closer to home.) I might still have a few days, but this list is locked down as far as I’m concerned. (Honorable mentions are listed alphabetically at the end).
Russell, Lawrence, and Cooper do it again, this time digging deep into what used to be known as the lower-middle-class. It’s not a tale of the American Dream achieved, it’s a tale of the American Fantasy realized.
9. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
This is the exact film the franchise needed. It taps into the nostalgia of the original films without getting mawkish, it introduces a diverse cast of incredibly charismatic characters, it looks back, it looks ahead, and the action is enthralling as hell.
7. THE BIG SHORT
McKay and company take an incredibly complex subject – the mortgage crisis of the late 2000s – and makes it as understandable and as entertaining as film based on that period in history can be. Oh, and it should come with a trigger warning.
A phenomenal entry in a legendary franchise. The reverence of the past is pitch-perfect, and the film is worthy of standing next to the 1976 film that started it all, Rocky. This is Michael B. Jordan’s franchise now.
6. DANCING ARABS (aka A BORROWED IDENTITY)
Two teens fall in love, but there’s a catch: he’s Arab, she’s Israeli. This os a sublime film about the glory of young love, the challenge of religious identity, the pressures of family, and the despair caused by an unforgiving geopolitical climate.
Five sisters struggle to break free of the confines of a repressive culture and a repressive family. They each handle it in their own way, sometimes to devastating ends. This is the best foreign film of the year.
4. THE RUSSIAN WOODPECKER
It’s a documentary about a man with a stunning – and plausible – Chernobyl theory. A great story with a great storyteller and great storytelling divinely convergence to create a documentary of considerable historic consequence. It’s also the best doc of the year.
This is a magnificent coming-of-age story wrapped in an immigrant’s tale and soaked in romance. Star Saoirse Ronan is breathtaking.
2. EX MACHINA
This film is brilliant, drawing inspiration from the likes of Frankenstein, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Pinocchio, and even Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It’s also the flip side of the Iron Man coin in the most interesting of ways.
This film – about the uncovering of the Catholic priest sex scandal in Boston in the early 2000s – is tremendous. It never exploits the victimized and it balances well the complex issues of the time. There is no finer ensemble cast in 2015, anchored by MVP Mark Ruffalo.
Honorable Mentions: 45 Years | Amy | Ant-Man | Clouds of Sils Maria | Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem | Kumiko the Treasure Hunter | Mad Max: Fury Road | Man From Reno | Memories of the Sword | Mommy | Queen of Earth | Red Army | Room | Spring | The World of Kanako | Two Step | Unfriended | Winter On Fire | Youth
When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s, I had it pretty good as a member of the upper-middle-class (a socioeconomic designation recognizable today only to those of a certain age, now that the present-day middle class is a singular, albeit dwindling, entity). It was a very nice way to grow up, but it wasn’t the only existence I’ve known. In my early 20s I resided, at least for a little while, at the other end of center: lower-middle-class. As much as I remember the privileges and benefits that came with being a member of the former, I also remember the worries and struggles of being confined to the latter. Writer/director David O. Russell taps deep into those latter worries and struggles in Joy, his latest collaboration with his muse, Jennifer Lawrence.
Lawrence plays the title role, a struggling divorced mother of two living the quintessential lower-middle-class life. She has a dead-end job that forces her to work third shift, she lives in a small home with an her mother (Virginia Madsen), her grandmother (Diane Ladd), and, in the basement, her ex-husband (Édgar Ramírez). When her father (Robert De Niro) is kicked out of his home by his girlfriend and sent to live with Joy et al, the young divorcee reaches her emotional breaking point. But a seemingly unfortunate mishap inspires Joy to invent the Miracle Mop, a mop that offers the cleanliness of hands-free wringing and the convenience of a re-washable mop head. It’s a device she thinks will revolutionize cleaning for housewives everywhere. With the help of a QVC executive (Bradley Cooper), Joy hopes to see her dream become a reality.
In a review of 2011’s Margin Call, one I wrote for a now-defunct film site, I noted just how well writer/director JC Chandor portrayed on screen not only the execution of a corporate layoff, but the emotions that come with one: “… the tension, the speculation, the wondering if your shoulder will be tapped next, the simultaneous feelings of relief and guilt that come with keeping your job.” I haven’t experienced that degree of realism in a film since … that is, until Joy. Unlike with his last two outings – the quirky-charactered Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and the groovy ’70s-themed American Hustle (2013) – here Russell, who cowrote the screenplay with Annie Mumolo, drives through the surface of his film and taps into something (in this case a socioeconomic class) in ways that go far deeper than character and clothing.
Russell marvelously presents the palpable hopelessness associated with being part of the lower-middle-class, but does so beyond the obvious (albeit ever-present) financial constraints of such an existence. Constructing characters who live under perfectly normal circumstances but giving them crippling apathy, Russell creates a sense of surrender in those characters that keeps them repressed and resigned to underwhelming existences. No one ever blames anyone else for their lots in life, no one ever says “poor me,” but no one does anything to improve their situations, either. Her parents, her half-sister (Elisabeth Röhm), and her ex-husband aren’t stuck in a rut, they’ve chosen to set up camp there because to not do so would take greater effort. Even her grandmother, the narrator of the story and the one with high hopes for Joy, does little beyond hoping.
Except Joy. Her backstory is wonderful. A child full of dreams with a knack for creating things is inspired by her grandmother, but ultimately she is repressed and smothered by the apathy of the rest of her kin until she becomes one of them. It’s familial subversion at its most awful and most accurate: they are not successful so she will not be successful. They suffer in their existence so she will suffer with them. Even when she is successful, her family is never really all-in. They support her, but there is always this unsettling combination of jealousy of her success and anticipation of her comeuppance that lingers in every scene.
When she is faced with an unexpected and devastating challenge, this lower-middle-class group of repressed people do not rally around Joy to show their support or lift her spirits; instead, they instinctively collaborate to drag her back down, their faces screaming “I told you so,” and going so far as to question why she should have dared to be successful anyway, when all that was bound to get her was failure. And that failure only gives them the resolve to remain apathetic. “See?” they think to themselves, “That’s what trying hard gets you – failure. We can’t fail if we do nothing, and not failing is almost like success, and that consolation prize will do, thank you ver much.” It’s weapons-grade passive-aggressive behavior seated around the Sunday dinner table.
What makes Joy’s ultimate success so interesting is that it isn’t the typical American Dream achieved, so much as it’s the typical American Fantasy realized. Joy gets all the credit in the world for wanting to break the cycle of negativity that has suffocated her since childhood, but hers isn’t that deliberate path of spending years to improve her life. She doesn’t climb a corporate ladder nor does she go to night school. She has a great idea, she takes a chance, and she makes it big. There is nothing wrong with this kind of success, but it certainly plays into the lower-middle-class fantasy of having problems solved by hitting the lottery, where hitting the lottery to solve problems is Plan A … and Joy’s lottery hit actually fuels her family’s cannibalistic fire. These are people who think they deserve what Joy has, despite the fact they’ve done nothing to get there, and quickly forgetting they were, at times, impediments to her success.
I have known people like this. It’s frightening how right Russell gets it.
In a collection of terrific performances, Lawrence is an exponentially brighter light than her costars. She loses herself in this role, and despite her Hollywood aura, J Law disappears in the opening scene and is forever Joy, even when glammed-up for an appearance on QVC. Cooper, in a smaller role than expected albeit a critical one, is also in top form. (And a quick positive shout-out to Melissa Rivers, playing the part of her mother, Joan Rivers, a woman as much an icon of televised shopping as an icon of comedy).
With Joy, Russell and Lawrence (and Cooper) ascend to another level as creative collaborators. Unlike their mixed previous efforts, this film transports the viewer to a destination that cannot be defined by tics, tunes, or tailors. It’s a destination that can only be measured by the trial, error, success, defeat, and perseverance it takes to survive there – a survival celebrated by the defiant display of the scars earned along the way.
All the President’s Men is an important film to me as it’s one of the first “serious films” I remember renting as a young teen, when more and more catalogue titles became available on VHS during the ascension of the home video market in the 1980s. That film is the reason why, to this day, when I buy an actual print newspaper that isn’t my hometown paper, I buy The Washington Post – it’s the newspaper of Watergate, and of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and of Ben Bradlee. Fast-forward thirty years and thousands of movie screenings later and I once again find myself enthralled by another film about real-life newspaper investigative journalism … and another Bradlee is involved.
That film is Spotlight, whose story opens in the summer of 2001 when editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), fresh from Miami, joins The Boston Globe and meets his editorial staff, including Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton). Robby is the leader of a special team on the paper known as “Spotlight.” Unlike other reporters, the members of the Spotlight team – Robby, Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) – perform longer and deeper investigations into much larger stories. Baron, who is expected to cut staff as a response to dwindling interest in print media (during the rise of the Internet), takes Spotlight off an existing story and directs them to look into allegations of sexual misconduct perpetrated against children by priests in the Boston Catholic community. What starts with allegations against one priest grows into an investigation of dozens of clergymen, as well as an examination of the Church’s knowledge of the atrocities and how those atrocities may have been covered up for decades by Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou). Robby and his team, with oversight by Robby’s immediate boss, editor Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery), are stunned by what they find, which goes beyond the rape of innocent children.
As journalism-based procedurals go, Spotlight is superb thanks in large part to its phenomenal cast. While there is no single star in this ensemble, it’s hard not to call Ruffalo the MVP. He disappears into the role of a reporter who has great fire and passion, who has masterful investigative skills, and whose marriage is suffering because of it all. What’s evident early on is how excited Rezendes is to investigate the case. While others – all Boston born-and-raised – seem a little hesitant given the scope, and especially the complexity, of the case, Rezendes begs for the challenge. He’s a seasoned veteran with the enthusiasm of a cub reporter looking to make his mark.
Also excellent is Keaton as the leader of the team. His character is in a unique spot of having to manage down, manage up, and manage himself, as he has a tie to the story no one realizes (and it isn’t what you think). Sneaky-good, though, is Schreiber. In a film where each member of the cast has moments to shine, all of his moments are quiet and subdued, but so very impactful. If this cast were a band, everyone else would get their solos while Schreiber lays down a bass line that keeps them all anchored. Other great character actors with key roles include Stanley Tucci, Jamey Sheridan, Billy Crudup, and Paul Guilfoyle. From a casting perspective, it’s an embarrassment of riches.
The procedural aspect also shines thanks to director Tom McCarthy (who co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer). It isn’t just the way the story gradually unfolds, with bits of information leading to greater bits of information until a big moment occurs, it’s the importance of the hard work McCarthy gives great attention to. In this, the Google era, watching people pull old newspapers clips, dig through musty old basement records, and transcribe data from books into what looks like Lotus 123, should be an absolute bore. But in McCarthy’s hands, it’s a fascinating study of a bygone era of roll-up-your-sleeves investigation performed by people whose passion for what they do shines in even the most mundane of tasks. Like Rezendes, McCarthy takes on this challenge directly and eagerly, reveling in these scenes instead of offering some obligatory montage and moving on to (seemingly) more interesting things like beating the pavement and questioning people. There’s plenty of that, too, but to a well-measured degree.
While making research look sexy, McCarthy is also wise to avoid the temptation of sensationalism. For as deplorable as it is, child molestation, especially perpetrated by a collective that is held to a higher standard, can invite a late local news approach to storytelling. Not here. While the entire story sits on a foundation of horror, that horror is never exploited. McCarthy, (again) not unlike his journalist characters, presents the facts, deals with the dicier details maturely, and constructs his story accordingly.
Most impressive about McCarthy’s work here is how he is able to present a host of facets to the story and make it all so cohesive. Boston is a big city but the close-knit community makes it more like a small town, and either you belong (Spotlight’s core staff are Catholic and local to the city) or you don’t (Baron is not from Boston, has no ties to the city, and is Jewish). The influence of the Church over political, judicial, and yes, even journalistic interests is so strong, many people involved turn a blind eye to the church’s culpability (at best), or deny it (at worst), with several doing so behind the shield of “I was doing my job.” (The importance of the Catholic Church to Boston is by far the strongest theme in the film). It even looks hard at the Globe‘s unknowing involvement in the years prior to this investigation.
At the end of Spotlight, I cried. A small part of that is probably because, as a Catholic, I carry the burden of being affiliated with an organization that systematically covered up, and in the process enabled the continuation of, heinous crimes against children. But I think the larger part of my breakdown was born of the storytelling itself. The film demands – and earns – such an emotional investment, once the Sunday edition carrying the front-page, above-the-fold story hits the streets at the end of the film, there is an overwhelming sense of relief that makes a strong emotional response unstoppable. That’s five-star filmmaking.