Citizen Kane 75th Anniversary Memories

Thanks, Movie City News and Variety, for reminding me that May 1st marks the Citizen Kane 75th Anniversary! I almost got through the entire day without flashing back to the story that, for better or worse, comes almost instantly to mind now whenever I think of the Orson Welles masterpiece:

On a first date I had with a young lady who would soon become my girlfriend (not to mention my fiancée), I took her to see Kane, commonly regarded as The Greatest Movie Ever Made. (Does anyone, anywhere, not know this? Not agree with it, mind you, but nevertheless know of this legendary status?) After the movie was over and we talked, walking slowly down the streets of Philly on that warm summer night, I asked her what she thought of it.

The very first thing she told me was how thrilled she was that she finally, finally understood that episode of Laverne & Shirley that had a character named “Charles Pfister Krane.”

What can I say? Sometimes you ignore all sorts of red flags. The heart wants what it wants.

(That closing is admittedly cheeky. She was/is a dear, sweet woman in many ways, and while it certainly might seem like I’m making fun of her by way of this story, the truth is that I look on it with a lot of affection. The long knives didn’t really emerge with us until we went to see Barton Fink.)

 

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Miles Ahead of Quantum Nonlocality

This past Saturday I caught Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis movie with a trumpet-playin’ pal who’s my go-to resource as a formidable authority on all things jazz. While I found Miles Ahead to be not quite as unconventional as the buzz has suggested, we both agreed it’s plenty snazzy and witty, and Cheadle really rocks the part of the late legend of #socialmusic. Part biopic and part caper flick, the film is also something of a meditation on the paradox of the artistic impulse being both very fragile and ever resilient.

(A paradox about which I mean to write a little more directly about, maybe sooner rather than later)

My friend and I also both agreed, over cautious discussions that began once the cleverly conceived end-credits/concert sequence closed out the movie, that this may not have been the exhaustive and/or “ultimate” Miles movie his ardent fans might have hoped for, but it was certainly entertaining and, as Cheadle himself defined it, definitely the kind of movie in which Miles himself probably would have wanted to star. The review I’d love to claim as my own (but can’t) came when my friend declared it the perfect beginning to what should become an extensive “Milesverse” of movies in which Cheadle and co-star Ewan McGregor become a kind of Tubbs-and-Crockett of the jazz scene.

With all those qualifications in place, I’m happy to say that the film has truly lingered for me now long after leaving the theater, and moments from it keep popping into my head at some pretty random times.

There’s one memorable scene that finds the younger Miles performing in a club; (muse and wife) Frances Taylor comes in and takes a table directly across from him. As he plays, everyone else in the crowd melts away and we’re left with only the two of them in the room–the music having created this invisible but very real and umbilical connection between his insides and hers.

Today, I was looking over (and trying to “get,” frankly) a nerdy article about theoretical physics, and it was this very scene that jumped instantly to mind as I read over a definition of “quantum nonlocality”:

“Two or more particles can act in a coordinated way, no matter how far apart they may be…the particles behave as though they are not, in fact, separated. And one possible explanation is that the particles are rooted in the deeper level of reality where distance has no meaning.”

Now, that scene in Miles Ahead is definitely not 100% analogous to that theory, but I do think it dramatizes how music, and movies for that matter, exist “in the deeper level of reality where distance has no meaning.”

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Here’s Leia…#WheresRey?

With this post, I’m admittedly way late to the discussion of how Hasbro foolishly left Rey—the main character of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it is shamefully necessary to stress—out of their recently released tie-in Monopoly game. As utterly wrongheaded a decision as that was on Hasbro’s part, the scarcity of Rey toys elsewhere did not escape the notice of fans of both genders; thanks to the Force (ahem) of the social media hashtag #WheresRey,  along with a (very wise) letter from a flabbergasted 8-year-old girl, the company changed its mind and will rightly include the space opera’s latest heroic icon in the game.

The general outcry grew for over a month before the game-making Empire (ahem, again) took action…so, not exactly a lightspeed course correction, but welcome all the same.

Today on television, Washington Post writer Alexandra Petri said it best — “Cool characters transcend gender.” The whole issue has me both baffled and having flashbacks to my toy-collecting years. Maybe I was the odd boy in the crowd, but of course I wanted Princess Leia just like I wanted Luke, Han, Darth Vader, and the walking trashcan droid. How could you “make your own adventures” without one of the three main characters?

How could you have a complete Justice League without Wonder Woman? Who would want only three of the Fantastic Four? Who’s gonna run communications on the Enterprise but Lt. Uhura? And yes, I darn well owned Batgirl, too…well, OK, because even then, I was just gaga for Yvonne Craig. Yes, I had ALL of those. (And still do, mostly boxed away. Leia, above, was easy enough for me to retrieve.)

While I have distinct memories of my parents looking at me a little funny whenever I expressed a wish to own one of the female characters, to their absolute credit, they would get those for me, too. I thought negative judgments about that kind of thing were ridiculous when I was a kid, and they’re ridiculous now.

(The real Dark Side of this whole saga is that it’s almost certain to be the case that the Rey-less Monopoly will be the one that’s “worth” something to collectors in the future, when what it’s really worth is nothing.)

 

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Scorsese & Chopin, A Match Made in My Movie Heaven

A clarification at the outset: In the tradition of not cowering totally out of hasty-blogging errors, I will note up front that the previously-published version of this piece had characterized Martin Scorsese as the (obvious) director of this project; in truth, he’s set only to produce this film, which came about from a pitch by Peter Glanz, who’s writing the script. My excitement over it, especially related to the prospect of its relationship to the music of Chopin, remains undiminished…and happily for me, a substantial portion of my discussion of the story here could remain completely intact! 

Read on:

One of the world’s most amazing movie directors could soon be making a film that includes some of the world’s most amazing music. Variety reported on January 7 that Martin Scorsese is developing a biopic of American classical pianist Byron Janis, based on the Julliard-trained musician’s 2010 autobiography Chopin and Beyond: My Extraordinary Life in Music and the Paranormal.

Credited with helping start a Cold War thaw between America and the Soviet Union thanks to his historic visit to Russia in 1960, the Pennsylvania-born Janis struggled throughout his illustrious career with punishing arthritis, a condition that did not prevent him from becoming world-renowned as a brilliant interpreter of Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Mozart, Prokofiev, and in particular, Chopin—with his special devotion to Chopin’s music also noteworthy for his discovery of two previously unknown waltzes composed by the Polish master.

The film is set up at Paramount, the studio responsible for the Scorsese pictures Shutter Island, Hugo, The Rolling Stones: Shine a Light, The Wolf of Wall Street, and this year’s adaptation of the Shūsaku Endō novel Silence.

While my earlier version of this post was mistaken in the belief that Scorsese was going to direct this movie rather than just produce, my own excitement for the Janis project can’t be overstated. In addition to counting Scorsese as one of my greatest cinematic heroes, I’ve also long considered one piece by Chopin to be the most representative of my innermost-self (at least, in as much as I understand it). That piece is the Barcarole. If you don’t know it already, here it is:

 

(Lengthy, music nerdery side note: This performance by Jean-Yves Thibaudet, while fine for my purposes here and perhaps appropriately movie-related since he has been heard on the soundtracks of films including The Portrait of a Lady and Pride & Prejudice, would not ideally be the performance of the Barcarole that I would share with you, as it’s a little frenetic for my taste. We are frequently given to attach ourselves to the first strong performance of a piece that we hear; so it was with me and the Barcarole, having first heard it on a cassette tape I purchased during my freshman year of college. Whether through overplay or carelessness, I cannot remember which now, I lost that tape some time ago and have searched my memory—and the internet!—for years, trying in vain to locate that performance which I will absolutely know the second I hear it. Others’ playing of the tune I have enjoyed to various degrees, but a true replacement for the affection that I have for that very specific interpretation, which has lodged itself in my heart note by note, has yet to appear.)

It’s possible that the Barcarole has already made an important contribution to a movie; if so, I do not know about it. If the piece happens to make an appearance in this film, I might be envious at not having made use of it onscreen myself, but I’ll also be nothing but ecstatic that it’s the filmmaker behind many movies I revere— including Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Age of Innocence, and Gangs of New York—who might be one of the key players in making this piece more popularly known.

byron-janis-leonardo-dicaprio-martin-scorsese
Byron Janis photo from Wikipedia Commons, Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Great Gatsby”

As for who’s to inhabit the principal role, one look at a photo of Janis (still living at age 87 at the time of this writing) makes it easy to imagine frequent Scorsese collaborator Leonardo DiCaprio sliding right into the part. With DiCaprio expected to take the Academy Award this year for his performance in The Revenant, casting him as Janis would no doubt speed the sometimes-rocky development process along.

(Though, to update here again, the fact that Scorsese is set only to produce the film makes this piece of casting considerably less likely. I’m guessing if anything, Scorsese might have his eyes on DiCaprio for his upcoming Frank Sinatra biopic.)

I was already charged-up enough to see this year’s Scorsese picture; some patience may be in order when it comes to anticipating the Janis film, however, since Scorsese’s Sinatra biopic has already been in development for a long time, and he also has an HBO project about Pope Celestine V in his busy pipeline.

So much Scorsese, not enough time! Play on, maestro.

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Seeing RED as Moviemakers Suck Up to Gun Culture

The featured image that I used in my previous blog post about the return of Super 8 filmmaking was something that I had previously employed as one of my Facebook cover photos. I had set up that picture using Photoshop so that it would resemble the opening image from the Dirty Harry movie Magnum Force (above, modified a tiny bit for the sake of this commentary), in an attempt to be cheeky about gun culture and just how much the design of my old camera happened to resemble a firearm.

To further connect the affection I had (and have) for the act of moviemaking to the devotion that gun owners have for their guns, I captioned the picture with that old “from my cold, dead hands” quote that we associate with a vintage video clip of Moses himself, former NRA president and movie legend Charlton Heston.

Directly related to that, today I was disappointed to find some (more) truly contemporary evidence that we indeed have a real “gun culture” problem in this country, and anyone who doubts that probably needs to have their head examined. The picture below is from the homepage for the latest RED digital movie camera that will first be used to shoot the sequel to the (fantastic) Marvel Comics hit Guardians of the Galaxy:

RED-weapon-camera
The new Weapon 8K movie camera, from RED Digital Cinema Camera Company

So…OK…WEAPON is the name of the camera. And the tagline?

“LOAD. AIM. SHOOT.”

A little further down the page, it advertises accessories for the camera under the heading “ENHANCE YOUR ARSENAL.”

What. The. Ever. Loving. F**k.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve read the words of accomplished professionals who would gave basic advice to aspiring moviemakers like “choose your weapon” when it comes to picking a camera to work with, and so on — and that’s fine as a kind of ultimately silly, blustery talk meant to raise the game inside your head, but there is something I find distinctly nauseating about this in particular. Not least because the very last thing I would associate with the act of making a movie is the commission of a violent act.

Maybe it’s just me. I find this just plain gross.

Does this mean I’m gonna personally boycott Guardians of the Galaxy 2? That would be no. Does it mean I’m eager to start a faux-outrage campaign against RED? Again, no. I’m just sharing the one little, maybe-not-so-trivial piece of news I stumbled upon today that, for me, reinforces the idea that this world has a little bit of a sickness it really needs to address.

In my mind, it’s not entirely unrelated to the kind of sickness that, for example, gives rise to fellatio-inspired fast food ads, the conspicuous absence of toys featuring a certain hit movie’s female leading character, and, of course, the grotesque appeal of the rhetorical incoherence and vituperative worldview represented by our 2016 Republican presidential front-runner. (No links of any kind there, sorry. I refuse.)

In other words, to steal a favorite phrase from a West Coast pal beloved from my college moviemaking days –

I’m just saying

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Super 8 Filmmaking Returns: Should We Make ‘Em Like We Used To?

According to a January 5 article in The Wall Street Journal, Super 8 filmmaking will become available once again this fall, as a niche pursuit, with the release of a new movie camera from Eastman Kodak designed to accept those charming (and now, what look to be charmingly expensive) film cartridges some of us can remember dropping off at the Fotomat booth for processing.

Just as we’ve seen a resurgence of interest in vinyl LP records by some audio/music enthusiasts long displeased with the sharper, colder “feel” of the digital realm, so too might we see some financially viable number of amateur and/or professional filmmakers who will be eager to return to this once-beloved, small-scale analog film format (so the thinking goes)—perhaps not only dying to revisit the tactile pleasures of celluloid but also the nerve-shredding wait that must be endured once they have dispatched their film (three-plus minutes at a time at 24 frames per second) away for processing so that they can see the fruits of their labors.

Who’s going to bite? I have an abiding love for the Super 8 format, but it’s all about the happy memories of having grown up with it as a very, very young moviemaker—and I’m not so sure that what’s on tap here is going to be appealing enough to justify the expense and the inconvenience for those of us now used to operating in a digital world, despite the seductive appeal to nostalgia.

GDA-Super-8-Filmmaking

After first being exposed to the magic of moviemaking as a fifth-grader by gaining access to my middle-school’s 3/4” U-Matic video equipment, I got my real start as a Junior League Orson Welles thanks to the Super 8 equipment my parents gave me for Christmas the next year. From dressing up the family pet as “Superdog” to a trilogy of horror films called The Dark Factor (I, II, and III) that included such highlights as chainsaw-lopped limbs, a wizened old woman with eggshells for eyeballs gushing blood from the top of her head, a boy getting hacked up with a meat cleaver for putting his elbows on the dinner table, and a final tale involving the mysterious TV broadcast of a man-on-man rape (!)—my love affair with using images and sounds to produce laughter and screams from audiences flourished.

I can absolutely remember the thrill of receiving those tiny spools of film back from processing, the seriousness with which I assembled a makeshift editing bin full of clips affixed to a cork board with push pins, and the pride I shared with my filmmaking “family” every time we set up a screening and collected $2 apiece from folks eager to enjoy our latest weirdo masterpiece.

At the same time, I can also remember the dejection of getting back film that was unusable because it was too dark, the frustration that came with editing to any real exactitude with Super 8 because an image and its corresponding soundtrack were always and forever 18-24 frames apart, and the overwhelming sense of dread that raised my blood pressure and set my teeth a-clenching when it came time to mix our music into the soundtrack—since, if you were laying it underneath the dialogue or any other ambient sound on the soundtrack, you only had one shot to get it right—or you’d have to then wipe out the entire soundtrack in order to try again, including the sound you originally captured on location.

Artist's rendering of new Super 8 camera (Eastman Kodak)
Artist’s rendering of new Super 8 camera (Eastman Kodak)

Kodak’s planned return of Super 8 to the cinema-making marketplace is getting some things right: In addition to processing the film to a reel, the development costs will also pay for a digital rendering of the material, giving filmmakers an easy first step to having the kind of serious control over the image and sound we could only dream about back in the good ol’ days. It looks like that will come with a hefty price tag, though, with processing reported to cost “$50 to $75 a cartridge.” A blog article I found online from another author from the Super 8 generation said he recalled processing of a three-minute roll of film costing upwards of $30, and I just knew that was wrong—or at least, not true of my time. I would have never been able to save enough of my lawn-cutting money to pay for my films at that price.

Lucky for me, I’m a real pack rat when it comes to my Super 8 past, and it was (way too) easy for me to lay hands on a budget I prepared on a (gasp!) electric typewriter for my 1985 epic The Dark Factor, Episode II. Thanks to this overly nerdy record-keeping, we can see that the total cost of a single roll of film and its processing wasn’t anywhere close to what it promises to be in the near future:

SUPER-8-FILMMAKING-DARK-FACTOR-II-BUDGET

While rummaging through this material, I was also pleased to see that despite my having to make the purchase of some “extra guts” (Item 13, below), the production still came in under budget!

SUPER-8-FILMMAKING-DARK-FACTOR-II-EXPENSES-MONGO-STORYBOARD

Makes me wish we had somehow splurged to realize a monster victim’s decapitation that I drew up in the storyboards (see crudely drawn frame at lower right, above) for the sequence that wound up being reduced to an arm being chewed out of its socket by the beastly, Minotaur-like “Mongo.”

Steering away from this cheery trip down memory lane, I want to close by offering some qualified props to Kodak for taking this step to revive an old-school moviemaking format. I can’t say I’m thrilled that the camera is going to have a flipout-digital rather than an eyepiece viewfinder, and I’m really not ecstatic over what looks to be an exorbitant processing cost (even taking inflation into account), despite the desirable feature of having your footage returned to you fully ready to be tinkered with on your laptop.

I’m not sure I’d take this development so seriously from an indie filmmaking standpoint; this would almost certainly not be the format I would use today if I were setting up a first feature, for all kinds of reasons…but I’ll admit it does give me a little tingle at the thought of reuniting with some folks I haven’t seen in years and dusting off that never-made script for The Dark Factor Part IV.

Hat tip to Movie City News, where I first caught wind of the WSJ article.

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Hard to Be a God, Easy to Love Filth & Despair

It’s a great way to start the New Year by getting a movie recommendation from a friend that really pops your eyeballs and charges your movie-loving batteries. And that’s what happened for me as I was passing around George’s Top 10 Movies of 2015 to the folks in my circle who are always kind enough to survey my rambling on the year’s output. One very savvy film-world friend replied in kind by telling me about a Russian sci-fi movie from 2013 he really enjoyed called Hard to Be a God, that I (a) hadn’t heard about at all, and (b) positively could not wait to see after checking out the trailer and reading about the film in an article he forwarded along.

You will probably know in fairly short order whether or not you are the kind of moviegoer who would ever watch Hard to Be a God just by watching this preview:

Like that line goes from Starship Troopers: Would You Like to Know More?

If so, I’ll refer you to the Film Comment article I was given and advised to definitely read before watching the movie; it’s not the advice one usually gets (or gives, for that matter), but since I trust this friend’s judgment I checked out the writeup…and I can only say that it whetted my appetite for Hard to Be a God even more.

I have a Hot Buttered Cinema movie-watching manifesto somewhere in the back of my mind to share at some point (one that will come out of explaining how I came up with the name of this site), but for those of you who are maybe scratching your heads right now after having looked at this trailer and maybe even having read the Film Comment article, and are still wondering why you’d ever bother watching a difficult-to-comprehend movie that’s also said to be teeming with filth and despair, I will touch on that briefly here now with a quick anecdote:

Another friend, appraising my Top 10 picks from this year, asked me why I’d want to spend any time watching sad movies. My first response to her was to make a joke and quote the really funny moment from the Woody Allen movie Play It Again, Sam, in which Woody—trying, quite lamely, to impress a date by acting like Humphrey Bogart in order to channel a dark and mysterious side he thinks she’ll find appealing—says, I love the rain. It washes memories off the sidewalks of life.

Play It Again, Sam

Maybe I could have left it at that, especially since I’m no stranger to having occasionally been as woefully inept as that character in similar circumstances, but my second answer was the real one—which was to say that sad movies remind me that I am not alone.

(I mean that in both the narrowest and the broadest sense, which means I would share the “no man is an island” philosophy…but let’s not get too diverted into the thick of those weeds right here and now.)

If you (have the amazing, wonderful, spectacular good fortune to) know me, you know that a terrible and terribly untimely sadness indeed came to pass as a chapter in my life. All the more reason, some people might think, to avoid movies that make the brow furrow, the stomach churn, or the eyes water. Not so, at least for me.

At the beginning of Life Itself, the documentary about the late, great movie critic Roger Ebert, we hear him say this: The movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us. When a movie that I see dramatizes something that’s sad, even or especially if it brings a tear to my eye, the experience of it—or, later, my memory of it—becomes something for me to call upon any time I might fall prey to the “nobody understands” dilemma.

Thanks to movies that evoke these feelings, I can take comfort in the realization that obviously, somebody else understands, because there they are—sad, awful, feelings being beamed right back at me from someone else’s real or imagined experience. The better a movie is at conjuring up this strongly emotional connection for me, the more powerful and long-lasting the reward. I know how they feel, and they know how I feel.

Crucial to the appeal of the movies (or any “storytelling” art form, of course) is our ability to recognize some part of ourselves—whether we can adequately describe it or not—during our interaction with them. To better understand ourselves and others, what better way could there be than to expose yourself, from this relatively “safe” distance, to the full roster of the human experience?—not just to its nobility, humor, and happiness, but also to the complete range of misadventure, fear, and tragedy that any or all of us have already known or are likely to encounter in our all-too-brief tenure here together?

There are many “movie geeks” who would simply turn up their noses at the idea others would want to avoid certain types of films. I will never be one of those people—or, I might more honestly say, I am no longer one of those people—but I will admit that it’s equally alien to me that anyone could find it anything other than cathartic and comforting, and indeed quite magical or sacred, to have your whole self transformed, however temporarily or permanently, in every way that good movies can accomplish.

You will note I said good movies. There are movies that make me sad, but they’re not sad movies. The movies that make me sad are bad movies. And those, yes, I like to avoid whenever possible.

In the old Lon Chaney movie The Unholy Three, there’s the line: That’s all there is to life, my friends: a little laughter, a little tear.

There’s also a little joy, a little vindictiveness, a little trust, a little violence, a little action, a little friendship, a little fear, a little filth, a little hope, a little despair, and a little love.

A little everything, in case that point wasn’t more than obvious. And that’s exactly what I want from my movies, too.

charlie-chaplin-dogs-life

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George’s Top 10 Movies of 2015

The pursuit of nostalgia may have hit critical mass as a trend in the films of 2015. Whether we are looking at the resurrection or reconfiguration of decades-old pop film franchises like the Star Wars, Mad Max, James Bond, and Rocky series, the (sometimes more, sometimes less successful) big-screen relaunchings of classic TV favorites like the Peanuts characters and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., reverent tributes to the music of Brian Wilson or the heady days of the iMac launch, melancholy ruminations on the fragile genius of the World’s Greatest Detective, or Quentin Tarantino’s return of the boldly old-school 70mm Cinerama “roadshow,” this year’s cinema tended to look back a lot more than it looked forward.

creed-mr-holmes-peanuts-movie

The Walt Disney Company released a movie called Tomorrowland and received what could fairly be called a genial shrug of indifference, while the same studio’s decidedly “retro” continuation of George Lucas’ celebrated space opera just became the fastest-to-a-billion box-office behemoth whose canny marketing will be aped (in vain, mostly) by others for years to come.

This year’s talked-about indie chiller It Follows made horror hip again by channeling the spirit of Halloween shock maestro John Carpenter; a ragged VHS tape (remember those?) of the Coen Brothers’ classic film Fargo set a young Japanese woman on a haunting and humorous treasure hunt; Spike Lee’s latest ambitiously used an ancient Greek play to tell a cautionary and satirical tale of our violent modern times; and in one unforgettable documentary, the late, legendary actor who changed movie acting appeared to us as if reborn, thanks to the existence of self-recorded audio tapes we had never heard before.

it-follows

The usual rap on modern-day movies is that originality is as extinct as the dinosaurs that helped catapult the fourth Jurassic Park movie into the box-office stratosphere, but that complaint is itself tired and worn out. Mostly you’ll hear it from cynics who “love” movies but generally restrict themselves to the most mainstream of multiplex fare—never going the slightest bit out of their way to take in offbeat films like Charlie Kaufman’s strange and touching stop-motion animated drama Anomalisa (if I explain to you how to pronounce that I’d be giving you a spoiler) or bad-boy director Gaspar Noé’s sentimental 3D porn film (Yes: Those words don’t typically belong together!) called Love.

anomalisa-love

The same folks who lament they “don’t make ’em like they used to” (oh, how I grew to loathe that complaint at my former online home) will disparage the Marvel Comics movies as some sort of fresh blot on cinema history but fail to see them for what they really are—a massively more expensive (and expansive) evolution of the gloriously fun and popular Saturday afternoon serials of old. We’ll hear about how movies are dumb from many a professional or amateur movie critic, but those same people would be ignoring the success of Ridley Scott’s wonderfully nerdy The Martian, or perhaps steering clear of a lacerating film like The Big Short because they won’t like its politics or because the subject matter is simply too dense for easy discussion.

I wouldn’t want to see every year in movies as focused on the past, but you also won’t hear me complaining about it or making any kind of ridiculous indictment of the industry over it. I might have been a little nonplussed about how Sam Mendes wrapped up his distinguished caretaking of the 007 films with the long-awaited return of Bond’s most famous foe, for example, but many of my top picks this year are more than representative of the success I feel films this year had with treating historic matters of style and substance as entertaining and even relevant to our present and our future.

Counting down my Top 10 Movies of 2015 now from 10 to 1:

love-and-mercy-elizabeth-banks-john-cusack-paul-dano

10. Love & Mercy

First thing’s first: I have to confess that I’m no devoted fan of Brian Wilson or the Beach Boys. Not because I actively dislike the music, but because I simply never happened to pursue any knowledge or enjoyment of them.

After viewing this small-scale but largely ambitious biopic of Wilson—portrayed in his youth by Paul Dano and in middle-age by John Cusack—I’d also have to admit that I wasn’t exactly compelled to rush out and buy a copy of Pet Sounds, but this affecting film about the relationship between creativity and madness was certainly powerful enough to open me up to the possibilities of lowering my general but dispassionate resistance to doo-wop style tunes. Dano is getting most of the press for his work in the film, and he’s terrific, but I’d put Cusack’s quieter contributions on an equal footing. Also deserving of much praise is the performance of the still-underappreciated Elizabeth Banks as Wilson’s wife and manager—the woman whose strength and compassion saves a troubled man from emotional ruin.

kumiko-the-treasure-hunter-rinko-kikuchi

9. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

A story arose around the 2001 death of a young Japanese woman whose body was found in a Minnesota field, suggesting that she had mistaken the events of the Coen Brothers’ dark comedy Fargo as real, and that she had come to America in a desperate search to locate the money Steve Buscemi’s character buried in the snow.

As it turned out, she had “simply” committed suicide. This haunting and weirdly humorous film made about that urban legend could have been thin or unrewarding if it were only “about” how it and the Coens’ film messed about with reality and fiction, but the real value of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter lies in its potent and poetic exploration of human loneliness and the mysterious qualities of mental illness. Rinko Kikuchi, whose star began to rise with her Oscar-nominated supporting turn in the 2006 film Babel, is mesmerizing in the the title role; she took a turn towards big-budget fare with the giant-monster mash Pacific Rim, and certainly deserves to see more giant paychecks and showcase parts.

chi-raq

8. Chi-Raq

Spike Lee’s got a lot of nerve making a movie like Chi-Raq…and by “a lot of nerve,” I mean it’s hard to think of another filmmaker today who would be ballsy enough to turn the classical Greek comedy “Lysistrata”–about women withholding sex to persuade men to end their warlike ways—into a modern-day, quasi-musical exhortation on the plague of 21st-century urban gun violence and the potential of female empowerment to end it.

Deliberately preachy but potent all the same, Lee’s latest “joint” attacks both thug culture and the American firearms fetish—its satire swinging so hard and creatively for the bleachers that, every once in a while, in the midst of all the (yes, very very funny)“nappy dugout” humor, it threatens to look trivial or foolish…right before it punches you in the gut, over and over, with soul-shearing force. The child in the street; the sermon by John Cusack; Teyonah Parris’ Lysistrata proclaiming the destiny of all women; Nick Cannon’s tears.

The movie even comes close to shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, for a split second, right at the very very end. Lee does something with the soundtrack that is, I think, supposed to make your heart skip a beat. Like I said, he’s got some stones. Lee’s Chi-Raq is totally alive as a work of imaginative filmmaking and (sadly) more than relevant to think about right now.

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7. Room

I became an instant Brie Larson fan after Short Term 12, the tough-but-sensitive film in which she played the supervisor of a group home for troubled teens; she’s the caretaker of a much younger child in this adaptation of the 2010 Emma Donoghue novel about a woman held captive and the young boy who knows of no other world than the cramped space he was born inside. While Larson’s character is terrifyingly aware of their dire predicament, she aims to protect her child from the horrors of their situation by indulging his belief that their entire universe exists only within the dingy confines of their captor’s homemade prison. How the truth comes to be known to the boy and how his mother adjusts to that new reality fuels the fire of this involving indie drama.

The movie is narrated by the young boy (just as the novel is told from his point of view), and there were times I resisted this device and felt above it somehow, as if it were too “movie of the week” for my taste—but the film was just too accomplished and intriguing to let that kind of snark hold full sway. Larson’s performance is persuasive, and I’d be happy to see her win the Oscar I think she should have been in contention for earlier.

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6. Listen to Me Marlon

You might think there would be nothing new or worthwhile to be said about the life and times of Marlon Brando, but you’d be wrong—especially when the person talking is Brando himself.

This thoroughly engrossing documentary account of Brando’s personal and artistic journey is made up of a spellbinding mix of archival footage and private audio recordings the actor made in which he muses about his biography and his work on the stage and screen. Both intimate and staggering in scale, the film effectively puts you right in the room with Brando as if he were engaging you in the most revealing (if yes, one-sided) of conversations. When it ends, you wish it would go on and on, and in that feeling there can be no greater tribute to one of cinema history’s most larger-than-life legends.

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5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Millions of fans held their collective breath. Brilliant, teasing marketing pulled those fans along for months and built anticipation to a fever pitch, revealing not too little but—crucially–never too much. And what is there left to be said about the year’s biggest movie?

There’s a cliché oft-invoked whenever a dusty old story is revamped for modern appeal but altered sufficiently to be somehow alienating to its original audience. You know it: “This ain’t your Daddy’s… (fill in the blank).” Here is the exception: This is your Daddy’s Star Wars, but made so cleverly as to embrace moviegoers’ near-mythic memories while also pointing everyone’s way to a brighter cultural future.

In J.J. Abrams’ decision to favor more old-fashioned filmmaking techniques rather than the more plastic-feeling digital era the Lucas prequels embodied, The Force Awakens takes exactly the correct stylistic approach to resuming the story that “ended” with 1983’s Return of the Jedi. And while there’s plenty of hay to be made by pointing out how baldly the new film recycles the plot of the 1977 original (which is really Part IV, so…oh, never mind), it’s to be celebrated that nearly forty years after “A New Hope” was personified by a blond, blue-eyed Buck Rogers type, our newest hope and hero can actually be a heroine.

It’s also to be lamented that there was any fuss at all (and yes, there was some fuss) that another of the film’s heroes happens to be a black man. Sometime soon, though, as we must with all science fiction stories, there should (and will) definitely be some thorough examinations of what the film might actually be up to by having that character be the one with a slave name that is discarded for the new one his white rescuer friend gives him.

Yes, this movie is definitely about more than just “fun”…but there’ll be plenty of time for Star Wars and the Social Sciences another day, because there’s no getting away from the fact that yes, this movie sure is fun.

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4. The Big Short

Quick: Explain the financial disaster of 2008.

If you think that’s easy to do, you’re likely not the audience for The Big Short—because, as one particularly incisive line from the film states, you probably want to blame it all on poor people and immigrants. This slick, driving, merciless satire about the housing bubble and the near-collapse of the world economy (as seen through the eyes of those who tried to make a lot of money by predicting the catastrophe nobody saw coming but them) is a demanding and dazzling movie that’s like David Mamet, Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, and Michael Moore all stuffed into one cinematic crack pipe—but wouldn’t you know it, it’s directed by the guy who made Anchorman.

The ensemble cast is across-the-board electrifying, with Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, and Brad Pitt the high-octane standouts. The script makes no apologies for its complexity, and even with the highly amusing way it kinda-sorta tries to “dumb down” the thorniest of subject matters, the whole picture is as sufficiently hard to comprehend as “whodunit” in The Big Sleep—and just as with the Bogart classic, in the end, the film is too gripping for that to be a criticism.

The Big Short is a backwards-looking Network for our times, a fiercely critical attack on a world whose survival appears to depend on having nonsense and corruption at its core, perversely guarding the fortunes of those privileged few on the inside while the rot (literally) threatens the lives of everyone on the outside. To channel for a moment its verbal blunt-force trauma: It’s mandatory viewing if you give a shit about the world around you.

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3. Brooklyn

Those of you in the “don’t make ’em like they used to” camp have absolutely no excuses for missing Brooklyn, an intensely moving romantic drama about a young Irishwoman (Saoirse Ronan) who emigrates to America in the 1950s and falls in love with a gentlemanly young Italian man (Emory Cohen)—only to have a family catastrophe return her to Ireland, another suitor (Domhnall Gleeson), and the turmoil of having to choose between homelands.

Ronan—she pronounces her first name the traditional “seer-sha” in Ireland but “sur-shuh” in America—is positively luminous in a three-hankie film of such gentle authority that it carries off the sort of innocence and sweetness that would make lesser movies unendurable. But in Brooklyn, every moment of its tender romance, crushing heartache, and near-poetic yearning sings with absolute authenticity.

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2. Mad Max: Fury Road

If the most satisfying achievement of the latest Star Wars film was to recapture a particular brand of movie magic last felt three decades earlier, director George Miller proved it was not only possible to achieve that feat, but also to make “everything old new again.” The fourth Mad Max movie was made by a 70-year-old man but looks like the work of a cocky wunderkind, tossing every crazy thing he can think of at the screen to see what will stick. Everything sticks.

With the “universe” of Miller’s Max epics richly expanded to approach the scale of Lang’s Metropolis or the Frank Herbert Dune saga, and the wildly intense action an explosion of mad-circus invention, there’s yet more to be thankful for in his revisiting of the long-dormant postapocalyptic franchise—and that’s his decision to reinvent the action-movie heroine as a force to be reckoned with rather than an appendage or simple damsel-in-distress. Just as there was a mini-viral uprising of idiots incensed that there would be a black Stormtrooper in Star Wars, the prominence of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa character met a pathetic call to boycott this film, a decidedly unmanly gesture made by morons who apparently believed that a woman’s equality—in an action movie, forget about in real life—represented some kind of genuine insult to men.

Maybe you feel like there’s no Mad Max without Mel. Not so; the wondrous, chameleon-like star Tom Hardy (whose villainous turn in the brutal revenge drama The Revenant is scary good) makes for the perfect road warrior in this movie. There’s talk of even more Max to come, and I’m plenty Mad now to have to wait for it.

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1. Spotlight

A lot of things vaulted Spotlight to the top of my favorites list this year. I was riveted by the stellar performances of a top-drawer ensemble cast that includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel McAdams; I couldn’t get enough of Liev Schreiber, who gets a lot of mileage out of his smaller role with quiet but forceful gravitas; I particularly enjoy Great Journalism Movies, and the gripping true-story script and excellent direction by Tom McCarthy (whose debut film The Station Agent I really love) recalls and lives up to the standards of other Great Journalism Movies like All the President’s Men and Zodiac. I am also always drawn to stories about the ways in which passion can fuel one’s work, as well as how that passion can heal or destroy—and how sometimes one of those things may not be possible without the other.

Then, there’s the importance of the story itself—the Boston Globe’s unmasking of the Catholic Church hierarchy as a den of pedophile enablers. That is the sort of thing that real and courageous journalism should be about, something that seems to have been substantially forgotten in an era where the desire for access breeds cowardice, the quest for attention encourages hyperbole, and the facts become irrelevant and subordinate to ideological posturing.

Spotlight ultimately serves the basic purpose its title implies, and this illuminating movie should be seen as both an instrument of shame and a source of inspiration. It’s about what we must discover about the past in order to reckon with the present and the future, and as such, for me it is the defining work of a year that found moviemakers (and hopefully some moviegoers) aching to do both things at once.

A pretty great year for Hot Buttered Cinema!

Got a different list? Tell me about it. And happy moviegoing in 2016!

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