The New York Times just ran a list of wedding stories from couples who met in improbable circumstances: hitchhiking in Ireland, getting bathed in blood at a Gwar concert, during a murder trial or medieval re-enactment. Falling in love with a movie at a film festival can feel just as fortuitous: You stumble into Theater 4 instead of Theater 5 and suddenly a movie you hadn’t even heard of charms itself into your Top 10.
In 2015, that thunderbolt struck me twice. At Sundance, I wandered into the Brazilian dramedy The Second Mother, the story of a live-in maid whose headstrong daughter moves into her employers’ home, because it was the only film that fit my two-hour window. Confession time: I figured if I didn’t like it, it’d be perfect to nap through. But director Anna Muylaert and her 61-year-old star, Regina Casé, had me twisted into knots at each casual insult in this McMansion of well-meaning people hammering the social castes back into place. Dana, I was overjoyed that The Second Mother made your Top 10 list, too. It deserved to make the Foreign Language Oscar shortlist, dammit.
In September at Fantastic Fest in Austin—a must for anyone who loves cheap beer and crazy genre flicks—one of my craziest film-geek friends physically dragged me into a full screening of the German thriller Victoria and strong-armed me into a folding chair. I had no idea what I was in for, but from the first glimpse of our slender heroine, a Spanish immigrant, dancing alone in a Berlin nightclub, my heart filled with dread. After all, this is a festival whose program guide features categories such as Fishhook Violence, Chicks in Chains, and Confetti Cooch.
Even among such delights, Victoria’s feat is unique. It’s a 138-minute single-take thriller that plays out in real time as that drunk girl (a phenomenal Laia Costa) stumbles out of the bar around 4 a.m., befriends a quartet of local hoodlums, and tags along on a disastrous adventure that will change all of their lives before sunrise. The camera races behind the actors while they steal beers, drive vans, and even break for a piano solo. Even better, the gimmick has a point: In the rush, we see how tiny choices snowball into terrible consequences. Two unthinking hours can lead to a lifetime prison sentence—a hell of a hangover. I’d love to watch a real-time #ALLMYMOVIES-style feed of Alejandro Iñárritu watching Victoria and weeping that this marvel leaves him no more worlds to conquer.
Interestingly, director Sebastian Schipper acted a bit part in Run Lola Run, another format-breaking German marvel that had a huge impact in 1998. I drove 40 miles from my college town, Norman, Oklahoma, to see it at the nearest art house. Victoria is equally astonishing but never got on movie nerds’ radar. It wasn’t so much ignored as overlooked.
When Run Lola Run opened nearly two decades ago, it hustled for attention among 336 new releases. In 2015, there were 689. That’s more than 13 a week. It’s impossible to watch them all. Well, not impossible, but my outside hobbies include showering, eating, and karaoke. We professionals catch up with the year’s 100 key films by awards season and squeeze in another 100 or more on top of that.
Still, I’m haunted by the certainty that there are great, small films I haven’t seen. We critics dream of unearthing that next great talent and persuading audiences to pay attention. And in such a crowded marketplace, even known names need a boost. Not enough people saw Malin Akerman break hearts with a sad striptease in the horror comedy The Final Girls; Ryan Reynolds’ vulnerable schizophrenic in The Voices; or the New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, which has the year’s best throwaway quip, from Jemaine Clement, explaining why bloodsuckers prefer virgins. I also loved the punk rock nihilism of Buzzard—another movie about escalating disasters—and Spike Lee’s heedlessly over-the-top Chi-Raq, a sex comedy about gun violence that I’d argue is the most vital film of the year.
Every flick I’ve mentioned in this entry is already available to rent online, which excites me more than Tarantino’s resurrection of 70 mm. Now when critics hail an indie film, there’s a better than ever chance that readers will actually be able to see it. In five years, a movie geek in Norman will be able to click on any art-house film review and watch it that night.
Now. I have my reservations about putting too much faith in streaming video. Not every film ascends to the cloud, not even ones that were once generational touchstones. This summer, I struck out trying to watch Revenge of the Nerds. (I got a thing for Timothy Busfield’s Poindexter—he’s as good of a physical comedian as John Belushi’s Bluto.) It wasn’t on Netflix. No site had it for rent. It wasn’t at the library. Finally, the 11th movie store I called had a copy. It was going out of business that week and told me just to keep the disc. So if you want to watch Revenge of the Nerds in Los Angeles, you’ll have to borrow my copy.
As for Mark’s question about which films offended me in 2015, hoo boy. In The Cobbler, Adam Sandler discovers he can steal any of his customers’ bodies by putting on their shoes. Three times, he slips into some sneakers to commit a crime, and every single time he chooses the skin of someone black. How did director Tom McCarthy miss that—or worse yet, why did he make that choice? Especially when Spotlight proves he’s otherwise level-headed and astute? I was irritated that producers Ice Cube and Dr. Dre attempted to bleach history in the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton and that F. Gary Gray allowed them to treat the founding of Beats By Dre as just as heroic as belting “Fuck tha Police” in front of a stadium of Detroit cops. San Andreas was a ghastly ode to selfishness, a disaster movie that applauded Dwayne Johnson for abandoning his job as a government-employed first responder and leaving two cities of civilians to suffer while he hunted down his wife and daughter. And Angelina Jolie’s sobbing character reveal in By the Sea was a nasty bit of anti-female narcissism. I’d have thrown my popcorn at the screen if my friend and I weren’t busy stifling our laughter.
Who would have guessed that 50 Shades of Grey would be more feminist than the latest film from the UN’s most glamorous special envoy? Such were the surprises of 2015. David, you gave Anastasia Steele’s whips-and-chains love story a thumbs up, writing, “Fifty Shades may not make you come, but you’ll still be glad you went.” (Zing!) Is there room for adult eroticism in today’s PG-13 multiplex? Now that “basic” is the insult du jour, who wants to go in on funding Basic Instinct 3? I’m thinking a blonde in yoga pants pouring a hot skinny vanilla latte on her lover’s chest.
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