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The films I will remember having watched in 2015:

December 29, 2015

Many of these films are from 2015. Many are not. Feel free to add to the list, make suggestions, or question certain choices. 

Have you read Orwell's "On Shooting an Elephant?" This is somehow similar.
’71 (2015)

Yann Demange’s film about the Irish Troubles is like a lot of other films and then not quite. In terms of its suspenseful plot and labyrinthine alleyways, ’71 walks in the shadows of film noir, looking and sounding like A Most Wanted Man (2013) but, in truth, feeling a great deal more like The Third Man (1949). The apartment buildings of Belfast are as dark and confusing as the sewers in Vienna, into which Harry Lime escapes only to be killed.

Unlike these two other films, however, the audience’s point of view identifies most with the individual hiding behind enemy lines, rather than those either searching for a fugitive or hiding a refugee. Through the eyes of a young British solider, who is separated by violence from his unit, the film positions the colonizer in a place of weakness. Something similar occurs in Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday (2002), but, overall, the sentiments in ’71 are far more British than Irish.

Perhaps, then, the discussion of colonial power structures in ’71 is most like David Lean’s epic film Lawrence of Arabia (1962). After all, the British are uncomfortably in control at the end of both films. Yet, the young soldier is never permitted to be as madly heroic as the ambitious Lawrence. Where Lawrence proclaims, “For the Arabs,” the young soldier in Demange's film meekly retreats from the idea that a foreigner’s military uniform can make straight the crookedness of history.

Thus, the film is not so much about Irish independence as it is about a British epiphany on the limitations of power, providing ’71 with at least one more distant cinematic cousin: Green Zone (2010), which allows Lawrence’s proclamation to be delivered not by an American soldier lost temporarily in Iraq, but by an Iraqi who is lost forever in a desert of sifting bloodlines. There’s probably more to be said on all this, but I’ll stop here. The movie is good. 

Araya (1959)

Directed by Margot Benacerraf, this film is one of the most visually poetic I think I’ve ever seen. I saw it on a night Turner Classic Movies dedicated to female documentarians. The hour and a half is well worth it. A contemporary comparison might be Waste Land (2010), which Lucy Walker and Karen Harley directed. Absolutely stunning.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

In a world of Donald Trump, Kardashians, and think pieces, we in the first two decades of the 21st Century are prone to thinking we live in an age of absurdity that is somehow new and fresh in its senselessness. David Lean’s classic about a World War Two prison camp, however, is here to remind us that the world’s tragic implosions are an old and ancient inheritance. I had watched this film growing up, but something about watching it in these modern times made it even more cosmically disturbing.  

Cesar Chavez (2014)

Okay, I’m a sucker for Michael Peña, who plays perhaps his most serious role in this biopic. I don’t know if the film is necessarily great, but I think it is important. Need proof? Try counting on one hand even just how many of our nation’s historical Latino or Hispanic figures have been featured in Hollywood efforts. I’m guessing the list probably looks something like the following: La Bamba (1987), Stand and Deliver (1988), Selena (1997), and something with or without Antonio Banderas.

Danny Collins (2015)

Like the film at the start of this list, much of Danny Collins is about a past that cannot be escaped. Al Pacino’s title character is haunted by his unmet potential and a letter gifted to him by John Lennon in 1971. And, due to the gravity of regret, the film spends most of its efforts looking backwards. That is, until the final frame, when a father and son hold onto each other and stare into the camera lens of the world yet to come. Possibly the most upbeat film on this list.

End of Watch (2012)

I wrote at length about this film last spring. Here’s a link. I stand by those words. In another era or a different political climate (or reality), this film might have received more attention and acclaim.

Ex Machina (2015)

Award season will quickly be upon us, perhaps, it already is, and with it, there is a good chance that certain films find themselves just outside the orbits of legitimate recognition and prestige. Ex Machina will most likely be one of these films, but that soon to be fact does not mean that Alex Garland’s effort is not the most unnerving film of the past year. I wrote about Ex Machina with some length here, but, in short, the question the film raises is not so much whether Ava can think for herself, but can anyone, including the film’s audience.  

Green for Danger (1946)

If you like Alfred Hitchcock’s brand of humor, then find a moment to watch Sidney Gilliat’s film about a murder in a World War Two hospital. It’s hilarious. I laughed a lot, out loud even. And, if you don’t want to take my word for it, then take Bill Hader’s. I watched it after I saw he had recommended it and not Trainwreck (2015).

Incendies (2010)

After seeing Denis Villeneuve’s most recent effort, Sicario, I went back through all his films I had yet to see, which happened to be most of them. Anyway, I thought Incendies was the most fulfilling of the bunch, like a less-contrived and more startling version of Alejandro Gonzàlez Iñàrritu’s Babel (2006).

Browsing the movie shelves at the last Blockbuster on earth.
Inside Out (2015)

We’re in the midst of a lot of Hollywood films about young girls, but Inside Out may be one of the few films in this tidal wave that feels like it’s about a girl who could actually be alive in the real world. Maybe I’m wrong about that. Maybe I’m not. Regardless, the film, like most of what Pixar does, is really well done, even if everything the company does is formulaic.

Locke (2013)

I actually wanted to go with The Drop (2014), where Tom Hardy play the hapless Bob like he’s doing an impression of Marlon Brandon in On the Waterfront (1954), but my wife fell asleep during The Drop and stayed awake for Locke.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

A Bond film without Bond, can it be? Yes, yes, it can.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

Admittedly, I’m a late comer to Robert Altman. Also, I can’t stand M.A.S.H. (1970). But watching Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller late last winter might have been two of the most enjoyable hours I spent in 2015. From the somber notes of the film’s opening ballad to the flames licking the Presbyterian steeple, I can’t exaggerate how many times my mind has wandered to Altman’s remote northwest setting and its falling snow and thought, “That’s the all of it—everything, sad and true.”

Nightcrawler (2014)

If anything, Nightcrawler was the Ex Machina of 2014, raising an unlimited number of questions about what is real and what is artificial, about what makes humanity and what crosses the line. And, what’s more, neither film was foolish enough to definitively answer any of its questions. By the way, has anyone noticed how Jake Gyllenhaal is the real Leonardo DiCapprio?  

A Most Violent Year (2014)

This film had a really awkward release date, not really a 2014 film and not really a 2015 film either. I thought about not including it, but it worked so well for my students in Film Studies this year. The cast is stellar, and J.C. Chandor works hard, maybe too hard, to avoid the violence the title promises. Yet, in the end, the dream itself proves to be the gun, the trigger, the bullet—the mechanism entire.

Selma (2014)

For every reason you can imagine.

Award season might wear down Emily Blunt's character more than the Cartel ever could.
Sicario (2015)

Another film destined to occupy the same outer orbits as Ex Machina and Nightcrawler. I expect to write more on it in the coming months. If not, then I will at least say that it did not disappoint. The directing and cinematography both deserve Oscar nods, as does Emily Blunt. She is superb.

Spotlight (2015)

Like everyone else who occasionally writes about movies, Spotlight is probably one of my three favorite films actually released in the last year. I would write more, but I expect between now and the Oscars there will be plenty more time to do so.

Sugar (2008)

John Hoffman recommended it, and it’s probably my favorite baseball film now. More than that, it may be one of the most powerful and anticlimactic immigrant stories ever told. It may also be the least contrived film on this list.

Wadjda (2012)

After seeing it for the first time, Iwrote about Wadjda here. That said, I have never seen students respond to anything the way my students last spring responded to Haifaa Al-Mansour’s film about a girl and a bicycle.

Bryan Harvey tweets @LawnChairBoys.

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