The Films of 2015: Timbuktu

Last week Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu won the top prize at France’s Cesar Awards (it was also one of the five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars).  It’s only just now getting a release here in the U.S., but the fact that this modest African film has gotten a U.S. release at all, no matter how limited, speaks to its importance.  Set in Mauritania, it tells of the oppression of a small community by Sharia extremists.  Music and soccer are banned; women are made to cover themselves in public; a fishmonger is ordered to wear gloves while working at her stall in the marketplace.  Offenders are publicly whipped and stoned.  Then, through a series of unfortunate circumstances, a local farmer accidentally shoots and kills the fisherman who had earlier killed his prize bull.  He is arrested by the local authorities and, because he cannot pay the high fine for his crime, is sentenced to death.


Catching up

I made my first “best films of the year” list in 1997, for the films that had come out in 1996.  Because I was only thirteen years old, my tastes (and my critical sensibilities) were adolescent and unrefined.  I had begun to devour movies voraciously but I hadn’t yet figured out how to think about them.  I’ve been making lists of the year’s best films ever since, and I’ve re-ordered them as my thoughts about the films themselves have changed, or when I see new things that weren’t available to me at the time.  When I made that first list in 1997, my favorite film of 1996 was The English Patient; I still like that movie a bit more than most people, but it no longer seems to me to be even the tenth-best film of that year.  (The film currently ranked as my #1 of 1996?  Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves.) 


The Films of 2014: The year in review

On 2014.  Like any year, it had its pleasant surprises and its disappointments.  Three of my favorite working filmmakers—Paul Thomas Anderson, Mike Leigh, and Lars von Trier—turned out work that struck me as second-rate.  Television continues to rival cinema for sheer watchability.  I enjoyed the first season of True Detective and the “So Did the Fat Lady” episode of Louie more than almost anything I saw at the movies.  
But I saw six films that were very good to great, or that had some very good things in them, and a handful of solidly-made others, and for that I should count myself lucky.  There is every reason to believe that movies won’t be going away anytime soon, even as what they look like and how we watch them continues to change.  They’re being made on, and made available through, an ever-widening variety of formats and media, and while it’s tempting to grumble and grouse about that we might instead note that twenty-first century technology allows more people to make, distribute, and see films than at any other point in our history.  Which is something to be celebrated. 


The Films of 2014: Love Is Strange and Locke

There are many reasons to praise Ira Sachs’ Love Is Strange, not least of which are its performances by John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, and Marisa Tomei.  Lithgow and Molina play a recently married couple forced to sell their New York City apartment after Molina’s character is fired from his job as a music teacher at a local Catholic school.  Tomei plays the niece who puts Lithgow up while the men look for a new home.  All three actors turn in top-notch work here, and their scenes are sensitively observed; late in the film Lithgow and Molina have a scene at a bar, where they drink and laugh and hash over old infidelities and indiscretions, that’s better than roughly 90% of anything else I saw at the movies this year.  In other scenes, and in its plotting generally, the film feels slacker (there’s a subplot involving Tomei’s teenage son’s relationship with a mysterious school friend that never feels satisfactorily resolved).  On the whole, though, Love Is Strange is lovely and wise, and as perceptive about things like love and long-term relationships as it is about New York real estate.  I missed Sachs’ previous feature from a few years ago, Keep the Lights On, but based on this film alone I’d say that he ranks with Andrew Haigh and Travis Mathews as one of the most interesting of the new gay auteurs.


The Films of 2014: Still Alice

Julianne Moore stands poised to win an Oscar this year for her performance in Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer’s Still Alice, in which she plays a linguistics professor who, in her early fifties, is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.  Like nearly everyone else on the planet, I love Moore and believe her to be long overdue for an Oscar; she is—with Meryl, Kate, Cate, Carey, Viola, and Jessica—one of our finest working actresses.  But her win for Still Alice will go down as yet another instance of an extraordinarily talented filmmaker being rewarded for the wrong movie.  (See also Kate Winslet and The Reader, Martin Scorsese and The Departed, etc.)  Moore’s work in Still Alice is good; at times it is very fine, and at certain moments, playing opposite Alec Baldwin and Kristin Stewart, there are flickers of radiance.  She’s severely limited by the weakness of this material, though, which has the superficiality of a People magazine article.


The Films of 2014: Olive Kitteridge

My best-films-of-the-year list is coming soon—it will be a little later than usual, in part because I’m still catching up on odds and ends and other things from earlier in the year that I’ve missed.  One of these is Olive Kitteridge, Lisa Cholodenko’s adaptation of the Elizabeth Strout novel, which runs just a hair under four hours and recently aired as a miniseries on HBO.  The leisurely pace of the miniseries format suits the film, which ranges across some twenty-five years in the lives of its characters.  It’s a story that would certainly have suffered from being shoehorned into 125 minutes.  And so, as with last year’s Behind the Candelabra and 2011’s Mildred Pierce, I commend HBO for getting this material out there.  (At the same time I worry that as cable TV continues to take these kinds of character-driven projects under its wing they may end up disappearing from the big screen altogether.)   


The Films of 2015: The Duke of Burgundy

Another year, another erotic drama about sadomasochistic lesbian entomologists in the style of an early-’70s European art film.  Whatever else one makes of it, Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy must be applauded for its sheer idiosyncrasy.  It is, like Strickland’s previous film Berberian Sound Studio, a film that fetishizes a particular niche in cultural history that vast numbers of moviegoers probably will not know or care about, but that a devoted few will recognize and for which they will share his enthusiasm.  Berberian Sound Studio was an homage to the gialli of the 1970s (think Dario Argento) in which a buttoned-up British sound engineer was nearly driven crazy by the lush excess of Italian horror.  It was clear from that film that Strickland knows and loves exploitation cinema—that he understands the poetry and the weird beauty of those lurid, sometimes clumsily made, occasionally downright moronic films, and that he wants to keep their traditions alive.