There's a Chinese curse that I like. It goes: "May you live in interesting times." Interesting is ambiguous; but my year was good. The ambiguity is entirely internal. I struggle with good. To paraphrase one of the better-written films of this past year, I'm badly made. I'm closer to being at peace with that these days, for what it's worth. Anyway, enough about that.
2015 was the first full year in my role as General Manager of the Alamo Drafthouse in my home state of Colorado. It's been the best, the hardest, job I've ever had, marrying as it does my experience in multi-unit retail management with, you know, all this movie stuff. In the last year, we've welcomed artists I've admired forever, screening their films on film. Alex Cox came with his personal 35mm prints of Walker and Straight to Hell, Lucky McKee with May, Robert Harmon with The Hitcher, Gary Sherman with Death Line, Allison Anders and Illeana Douglas with Grace of My Heart. Larry Fessenden--who had a central, crucial impact on my career in its early steps here--brought a 35mm print of his Wendigo. Stuart Gordon joined us for Dagon and Re-Animator, Rutanya Alda for Mommie Dearest, Lexi Alexander for Punisher: War Zone and Green Street Hooligans, John McNaughton for Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and Nancy Savoca for Dogfight. Critic Matt Zoller Seitz came out to introduce The Grand Budapest Hotel. We even did live commentaries over Looper with Rian Johnson and Sinister with Scott Derrickson.
I couldn't have achieved any of that without my Creative Manager Steve Bessette, who is, without hyperbole, the best in the business at what he does. Our special programming plans for 2016 are already beyond my wildest...anyway, enough about that. I love Steve. 2015 was when I met him.
2015, I went to Los Angeles to record Blu-ray commentaries for Cherry 2000 and Miracle Mile at the good grace of their director, Steve De Jarnatt. Oh, and he came out to the theatre to do Miracle Mile with us, too, along with his rarely-screened short film Tarzana. It was the closing of a circle. I call this other Steve my friend now, too. Yet I am still very much the 16-year-old kid who watched Miracle Mile on VHS, and I don't know how to reconcile that part of my life with these other parts of my life.
2015, I wrote a book about Walter Hill's life and career and, over a bottle of champagne, we talked about it. There's work to be done on it, but I'm happy with the first draft and 2016 will see the editorial process begin. I love Walter Hill the person. I wrote a chapter for Matt Zoller Seitz's upcoming book on Oliver Stone. I have another project lined up that already has a publisher. I don't know how to reconcile this, either.
2015, I retired from teaching, but they're calling me a lot and maybe I'll go back. Part-time, though.
2015, I saw the first Quentin Tarantino film I've ever seen that I didn't like very much. It felt like showing off. It felt like bullying. I don't really like to be bullied. I liked Steve Jobs very much, but I liked other films more. Michael Fassbender, however, is fantastic in it. I didn't like Room. I probably won't 'get' Carol for another couple viewings or so. I went to Telluride in 2015 and saw the new Charlie Kaufman movie there. Son of Saul played there three times. On 35mm. There was an issue each time. A lot of the kids up at the fest had run dailies for Tarantino while he was in the area shooting The Hateful Eight. Man, the stories...
Here're my thirty favourite films of 2015, including, for the first time, a few shorts.
Aristophanes's "Lysistrata" reconfigured as an outraged rejoinder to cycles of violence, cock-measuring contests, gun fetish, and a no-sex revolution staged by women to affect real change at the only place such a thing is possible: crotch-level. If our ills are bestial, our solutions must be as well. While it's discursive to the point of impressionistic, it's also a moment for our most vital elder statesman of American film to rediscover the kind of furious capacity that defined his earliest work. Driven by rage, Lee is the real deal, and the older I get, the more I move to his particular groove. He is, along with Walter Hill, the most underestimated American director of the last forty years. This is his The Warriors, complete with Samuel L. Jackson's running chorus and emotions writ vibrant, saturated, and dangerously unstructured. It's Lee's time now. He hasn't aged a day.
28. Magic Mike XXL
27. The Big Short
A "For Dummies" guide to the banking crisis. Adam McKay's flick taught me more than I wanted to know about what exactly happened to the custodians at the gates of our financial well-being (sometimes with Margot Robbie in a bubble bath), and made me feel sick for a few days afterwards. Affected and ADHD but not without purpose, The Big Short makes the list because it's funny, slick, and outraged--impotently, like we all are. It's the sort of movie they used to churn out in the 1970s: mainstream product with big-name stars, an agenda to push, and something to teach in a way neither dry nor didactic. Well, a little didactic.
26. Experimenter is Michael Almereyda's Errol Morris version of a biopic of Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), the guy who told people they were delivering electric shocks to strangers and encouraged them to keep going even after the strangers' apparent demise. Almereyda uses obvious rear-projection, introduces literal elephants in the room, and has Milgram address the audience directly, all as a means of discussing how everyone is a thing, with hard-wiring that supersedes the software most times. It's a theme in 2015. I'm a fan of Almereyda's stuff; this is his best work since Hamlet.
25. What We Do in the Shadows
23. The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
22. Jafar Panahi's Taxi
21. Queen of Earth
I love Alex Ross Perry. I love Listen Up, Philip, and I love Queen of Earth. It's Persona, of course, and The Duke of Burgundy, kind of, in journalling how two best friends keep going to a cabin for a little peace and quiet but end up transferring personalities and eroding their sanity over the course of years--months? It's not entirely clear. What is clear is that Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston are brilliant; that Perry is a fearless provocateur; and that Queen of Earth is singularly unsettling, often delightfully so--not unlike the recent Stranger By the Lake, maybe. Can't wait to see it again with someone I love.
16. 45 Years
14. Hard to Be a God
Aleksei German's final film is a doozy: disgusting, distended, and ultimately transcendent in the same way as Vincent Ward's The Navigator or anything by J.G. Ballard can be transcendent. It finds humanity in its filthy cycles, as a group of travellers from Earth discover not only a world stuck in the Dark Ages, but also that the Prime Directive is a load of shit. Intervene all you want, people are animals and they tend towards ugliness and venality. The title suggests to me Satan's rationale from "Paradise Lost"--the bit that goes, "Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven"--as do all the little jealousies and rituals exposed in a three-hour gambol through muck and murk. The best Bela Tarr movie in a year without one.
13. Cemetery of Splendour
Apichatpong Weerasethakul's new film. This is what I got--a poem by William Carlos Williams called "The Red Wheelbarrow":
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
12. Beautifully conceived and confusingly distributed, Bone Tomahawk features this year's most gruesome kill, housed in a brilliant, weird-western conceit involving cannibalistic troglodytes and a hunting party led by Kurt Russell. The delights don't end there, as there's a beautiful monologue by Richard Jenkins (!) about a dimly-remembered flea circus and, more broadly, about the idea that the gap between reality and desired reality isn't so great after all. And meaningless besides. The performances are rock-solid, the horror premise is rock-solid, and the easy comparison to Ravenous is nonetheless on point.
10. The Revenant
8. Ex Machina
Nobody films gunfights with the terrifying immediacy of Michael Mann. Nobody. Blackhat is violent, propulsive, and absolutely kinetic throughout. Chris Hemsworth is the prototypical Mann protagonist: functional, adept, the product of Mann's obsession with work and tools of the trade. This is an auteur piece in the best sense of the word, and its instant disappearance speaks more clearly to the loss of historical context when assimilating art. It's this year's Miami Vice: a film destined to be resurrected and combed over as part of a greater whole. Most troubling about its obsolescence is that Blackhat is actually entertaining. It doesn't take a historian, in other words, to appreciate it--but it does take a Philistine to dismiss it offhand.
6. Kumiko the Treasure Hunter is David and Nathan Zellner's ode to movie-love that becomes obsession and the conduit to a world composed entirely of interiors. Their Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), a low-level functionary at a Tokyo firm, discovers an old, beat-up VHS of Fargo and becomes convinced that it's a treasure map to a better world. It is, in its way, analogous to the central intrigue of The Force Awakens, where another map leads to the promise of another, better, half-remembered world where what is thought to be folklore turns out to be, you know, not folklore. The endings to both films are ambiguous. Poetically so. Tragically, too, in their way, as the things we're all chasing are gone now and maybe never existed in the first place. They are the manifestation of "hiraeth." Cinema--good cinema--is the manifestation of "hiraeth."
3. The Assassin
Another poem--this one by Wallace Stevens, "The Snowman":
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
2. It Follows
1. World of Tomorrow
Don Hertzfeldt is a genius. He makes films that are funny, sad, existentially fraught, and filled with surprise and delight. His animations are simple, deceptively so, and when he complicates them with photographs or video, the effect can be overwhelming. World of Tomorrow is twenty perfect minutes encapsulating everything I'm interested in when it comes to art. It deals with possible futures, time travel, proximate realities. It has clones who are aware of their own mental and emotional deterioration, and it has a little girl protagonist who's blithely unaware of the conversation happening around her, except that she'll remember most of it in great detail 300 years into the future. The piece reminds me of a lot of things, but, curiously, the key movie that comes to mind is Michael Winterbottom's Code 46, which similarly deals with memory, time, and loss. The revelation of World of Tomorrow's central MacGuffin--the retrieval of a specific childhood memory--lands with extraordinary emotional gravity. I've watched this little film so many times already. I can't get through any part of it without crying. When Emily 3 tells her Prime that she no longer falls in love with rocks, or that she loved her husband like they were originals, I lose all intellectual distance. It's the best thing I saw this year because of that--and because it holds in its twenty minutes moments that illuminate all the other best films of 2015.
BILL CHAMBERS - TOP 10 LIST
10. The End of the Tour
A pick I'm slightly sheepish about. But it lingered for me. Would they have made it had David Foster Wallace not killed himself? Well, would they have made Last Days, Mishima, or Sylvia, either? The use of R.E.M.'s "New Orleans Instrumental No. 1" over the opening scene encapsulates the movie's palpable bittersweetness and has a near Proustian effect of conjuring the 1990s, here distilled to a couple of days spent driving in cars with the heat blasting, having conversations that vainly strive to get to the bottom of the bottomless. That seems about right. A pretty good biopic with an affecting Jason Segel performance; but a superlative snapshot of the last analogue decade.
Yes, it's The Virgin Suicides, but stripped of its distancing effects (period trappings, male narrator). Unexpectedly, the end result is Straw Dogs. Such an urgent film, politically as well as viscerally, that you don't feel the narrative bumps.
8. Magic Mike XXL
Joyous (certainly compared to its less-than-chill predecessor), but with a sneaky melancholy that keeps it from floating away. This and Chi-Raq did make me wonder, though: Where did all the gay people go?
7. 45 Years
A story of deep betrayal told almost entirely through body language and shot composition. So masterfully made that I forgot I was watching a watermarked screener with bad audio.
Even a non-believer would have to agree: the year's best stabbing.
5. The Look of Silence
The Act of Killing is devastating because it doesn't offer any moral opposition to the glibly boastful first-hand accounts of Indonesian death squads; The Look of Silence is devastating because it does. If it seems a little conveniently Herzogian that the protagonist's profession is to help people see better (and Herzog returns as executive producer, along with Errol Morris), well, the truth is that all of this feels like a cosmic gift to a documentarian. Unfortunately.
4. Mad Max: Fury Road
Mustang on a $150M budget--which buys an awful lot of eye candy, all of it gloriously bizarre. Furiosa is the creation of the year, if not the decade--there should be Shepard Fairey posters of her, or of Immortan Joe if he's feeling (even more) ironic. Surprisingly, the small screen does not diminish the action, but it just might amplify the strangely moving interpersonal stuff.
Girls just want to have fun.
Imperfect, but pitch-perfect. Stallone is so good, it makes up for all three Expendables movies.
For me, the most suspenseful movie of the year, because I kept waiting for some bum note to break its gentle spell. It's a film about how you can't make life decisions without hurting somebody, somewhere, though it doesn't see any maliciousness in this need to grow. It's wise, and humane, and maybe a little tasteful for my tastes, but it's the only movie on here that makes me feel good in an uncomplicated way.