by Joey Saunders
I’m torn when it comes to lists or award shows because not only are they terribly subjective, but there’s no possible way for me to see every TV show or film that came out in 2015. Still, I’m solipsistic enough to think that my opinions not only matter but that they might be valuable to someone. So, without further bullshitting, I’ll gladly tell you what I thought of “Star Wars,” why “Mad Men” was Important with a capital ‘I,’ which LGBT-themed flicks and shows are worth your time, and which ones are only worth seeing if you feel morally obligated to see everything Julianne Moore is in.
OK, let’s get it out of the way: “Freeheld” was a disappointment. We all expected disaster-flick director Roland Emmerich to botch “Stonewall.” But “Freeheld,” based on a heart-wrenching true story about a terminally ill police detective (Julianne Moore) who wants her partner (Ellen Page) to receive her pension after she dies, was an even bigger disappointment, in a way, because its creation involved so much talent.
“Freeheld” was one of several Oscar-baiting movies this year that had LGBT themes. Another, “The Danish Girl,” directed by Academy Award-winner Tom Hooper, focuses on the true story of Lili Elbe, the first identifiable trans-woman to successfully undergo gender reassignment surgeries. Most of the film takes place in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but it disregards much of Elbe’s actual story, replacing it with a startlingly blander version. The story was captured with painterly care by cinematographer Danny Cohen, and the chemistry between lead actors Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander is the film’s most flattering feature. Still, it could have been better.
While Redmayne took some ire from Internet bloggers and cultural critics for being a cis-male playing a trans-woman, “Tangerine,” directed by Sean S. Baker, features genuine trans-women but most of its modest buzz came from the fact that it was shot on iPhones. This was one of the most interesting and weirdly hopeful films of the year. It’s a triumph of propulsive visual energy and storytelling over the clatter of macro-budget CGI spectacles starring handsome white men. You should watch it; it’s on Netflix. Be prepared to feel like you’ve gone down a rabbit hole, only with West Hollywood in lieu of Wonderland and the rabbit is on meth. “Tangerine” is a kinetic dramedy about a young, trans sex-worker who gets released from a brief stay in jail only to learn her pimp is bumping uglies with a cis-gender white girl. The insanity that follows is hilarious and politically incorrect while remaining surprisingly human. We laugh with and at its main characters, to be sure, but the final act lands a tonal summersault that really shouldn’t work, but it does, and its emotional resonance jolts you.
Most people will probably never see or even hear about “Tangerine,” but frequent Moore-collaborator and prolific director, Todd Haynes, has, with “Carol,” made the likeliest LGBT contender for Best Picture since “Brokeback Mountain” trotted into cinemas a decade ago. “Carol,” while its source material, Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Price of Salt,” has the nostalgic, pulpy flavor of Haynes’s earlier work, “Far From Heaven,” it stands on its own as less homage than genuine period drama and romance. It was filmed on sumptuously grainy 16mm by Edward Lachman, evoking a yesteryear aesthetic. The eponymous Carol is a glamorous lesbian played perfectly by Cate Blanchett who courts a gamine store clerk, Rooney Mara, with photographic ambitions. It’s one of my favorite films of the year and deserves all of the critical praise and awards buzz it’s getting. The picture is a huge leap forward in the realm of Hollywood’s LGBT prestige films for the same reason the novel was a groundbreaking work in its genre: the ending. “Carol” is rendered so excitingly with suspense, wonderful supporting performances, romance, and loving craftsmanship that the only complaint you might come away from it with is that your time with these women feels cruelly brief.
While a lesbian romance is center-stage in “Carol,” it would be difficult to describe “Spotlight” as an LGBT-themed movie, but to leave it out of a conversation about the year’s best films would be sacrilege. Tom McCarthy has directed a journalistically restrained, laser-focused film on The Boston Globe’s 2002 Pulitzer-Prize winning uncovering of the Roman Catholic Church’s phenomenally troubling child sex abuse cover-ups. The film doesn’t trivialize the abuse or milk the scandal for tragedy or drama. It is a procedural that depicts the work of an incredible team of investigative journalists played by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel McAdams with an ensemble of talented actors including Liev Schreiber, John Slattery and Stanley Tucci. There’s some great work from Michael Cyril Creighton in a small role as a gay sex-abuse survivor. The film’s writing is particularly masterful, going to great lengths to make its dialogue seem authentic when it could have easily come across as expository due to the film’s dense subject matter. One scene cleverly inserts information about the nature of pedophilia and how priests, and all pedophiles, don’t usually target young boys because they’re gay, but because boys are usually easier to manipulate and less likely to tell.
Surviving unthinkable sexual trauma is also a theme in “Room,” directed by Lenny Abrahamson. It features terrific performances all around, particularly from Brie Larson and 9-year old Jacob Tremblay. Larson plays a young woman who was abducted as a teen and imprisoned in a sound-proof room. Her captor rapes her, she has his child and raises him in the room. He becomes her remaining vestige of hope and sanity and, when he’s old enough, she plans to tell him about the outside world and maybe even plot an escape. It has its horrific moments, but it’s a thrilling, poignant movie with tremendous warmth.
Similarly poignant and psychologically insightful, but with considerably less rape, is Pixar’s “Inside Out.” This year’s blockbuster conversation was dominated by “Star Wars” (and we’ll get to that), but “Inside Out” was the most moving and emotionally intelligent big-budget film this year. While it arguably oversimplifies emotional psychology, the film is a helpful tool that could be used meaningfully to assist young children (and probably most adults) in naming and understanding their feelings. Pixar’s storytelling geniuses anthropomorphize a pre-teen girl’s emotions, Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader). The film draws much of its inspiration from the work of psychologist Paul Ekman (although they leave out the sixth core emotion, surprise) and the results are fittingly therapeutic.
The only major studio film that might have been better was George Miller’s psychotically entertaining punk-feminist, dystopian action flick, “Mad Max: Fury Road,” which kind of stars Tom Hardy but actually stars Charlize Theron. Amid all the fire tornadoes, explosions and hyper-violence, its most incendiary elements are its strong female characters and its astonishingly sinewy heart.
But what about “Star Wars?!” OK, OK. Episode VII was fine. The best thing about it was the fact that we get new heroes to the biggest movie ever who happen to be respectively female and black. Also, Adam Driver’s performance as our new villain, Kylo Ren, was probably a lot better and more nuanced than it had any right to be. Other than that, the movie leaned hard on nostalgia and recycled plotlines to keep things upright. The original “Star Wars” films were a success because they recycled ideas of familial relationships (particularly fathers and sons), mythology and TV serials and slipped them into a fun, familiar sci-fi adventure plotline. Even that discounts the fact that John Williams’s score does a lot of the heavy lifting. This new incarnation, “The Force Awakens,” outside of casting decisions, doesn’t feel new or interesting yet. It feels re-recycled. It’s fun, but half the time you feel like director J.J. Abrams is just shoving things in your face going, “Look! It’s C-3PO! It’s Han Solo! OK, you like them, right? Feel something!” Mostly though, we just feel recognition.
Best Movies of 2015 in no particular order:
• “The Big Short.” I didn’t mention it above, but this one is a raucous, dark comedy from “Anchorman” director Adam McKay, with an unlikely subject: the housing crisis and subsequent economic collapse. It boasts great performances from Steve Carrell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt, just to name a few. Think of it as the hilarious brother to 2011’s underrated “Margin Call” and a spiritual cousin to Martin Scorsese’s recent triumph, “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
• “Inside Out”
• “Mad Max: Fury Road”
• “Sicario.” Another one that didn’t quite fit above. This is a heart-pounding thriller about the Mexican drug cartel told from the perspective of a fantastically overwhelmed FBI agent played by Emily Blunt. It was released too early to be a serious Oscar contender, but everyone does amazing work, especially Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins.
• “Clouds of Sils Maria.” This one, I almost wrote more about above because it features a play about a doomed lesbian romance that echoes the real-life aromantic relationship of an aging actress, played by Juliette Binoche, and her assistant, played by Kristen Stewart. Stewart, particularly, gives a superb, disquieting performance. There is a scene in a bar where Binoche and Stewart wax philosophical about a ridiculous superhero movie they just saw; it is gleefully, purely acted. The quixotic, multilayered film has its fair share of meta-resonance and real-world connections. It plays a bit like a female-centric companion piece to last year’s Best Picture winner, “Birdman.”
Here are a few honorable mentions as well as some movies that I haven’t been able to see yet, but are on my list: “Ex Machina,” “Anomalisa,” “The Revenant,” “Bridge of Spies,” “Creed,” “The Martian,” “Brooklyn,” “While We’re Young,” “45 Years,” “Timbuktu,” “Beasts of No Nation,” “Chi-Raq”
As far as television goes, this weird thing happened where a lot of people either got tired of admitting AMC’s “Mad Men” was the best thing to ever happen to television, or some of them just decided to be critical of the show because it was so critically acclaimed and they wanted to be different. It remains a self-evident truth that people who don’t like “Mad Men” are bad people. If you haven’t seen it, it isn’t your fault, just do your best to find the time to, y’know, not be horrible.
“Mad Men,” created by Matt Weiner, achieved the incredible feat of remaining flawless throughout its final season and ending with the perfect amount of closure and ambiguity. Its finale belongs in the pantheon of great series finales alongside “The Sopranos,” and “Six Feet Under.” And while, yes, “Game of Thrones” was exciting and shows like “Broad City” and “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” were riotous, “Mad Men” went out like a champion as one of the most perfect, literary, and emotionally satisfying and truthful television series of all time.
The series was particularly relevant to the LGBTQetc. community, not just because it featured gay characters, like Sal, but because its themes were so searingly applicable to the psychological challenges gay men and women commonly face. Don Draper, played by Emmy-winner Jon Hamm, has a secret identity and struggles with serious mommy and daddy issues. To cope, he forms an addictive personality seeking validation from monetary success, meaningless (usually adulterous) sex, and liquor. He finds some fulfillment in his creative triumphs. But, he’ll be the first to admit, “happiness is just the moment before you need more happiness.” The themes are universal, but I could probably write a book about how specifically pertinent they are to the gay community. Sadly, I only have room for a few words left, so you’ll just have to trust me, “Mad Men’s” final season was the best thing on TV in 2015.
Here are some other great shows:
• “Transparent” (Amazon)
• “Catastrophe” (Amazon)
• “The Americans” (FX)
• “Game of Thrones” (HBO)
• “Master of None” (Netflix)
• “Jane the Virgin” (CW)
• “The Leftovers” (HBO)
• “Broad City” (Comedy Central)
• “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (Netflix)
• “Jessica Jones” (Netflix)
• “Last Week Tonight” (HBO)
• “Louie” (FX)
• “Fargo” (FX)
• “Silicon Valley” (HBO)
• “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” (HBO)
• “Looking” (HBO)
• “Nathan For You” (Comedy Central)
• “Mr. Robot” (USA)
• “BoJack Horseman” (Netflix)
This year? Well, you have new seasons of all of the above to look forward to (except “Mad Men” and “The Jinx”). Plus, you’ll get new seasons of LGBT crowd-pleasers like “Orange is the New Black” and “Ru-Paul’s Drag Race” (including an All Star edition). Since Kansas City is a limited market, promising motion pictures like “The Revenant” – Leonardo DiCaprio’s surest bet for an Oscar since 2004 – and Charlie Kaufman’s mesmerizing animated film, “Anomalisa,” have either recently opened or will soon do so. An onslaught of massive movies will come out in 2016: the latest from Potter-penner J.K. Rowling, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” as well as “Batman vs. Superman,” “Deadpool,” “Captain America: Civil War,” and new Star movies, both “Trek” and “Wars.”
The movies with less fanfare that may be worth our attention are usually released later in the year, but there are a few promising flicks slated to bow in the front half of 2016. One such film, “Hail, Caesar!,” the latest from cinematic geniuses Joel and Ethan Cohen, debuts on Feb. 5. The star-studded cast includes George Clooney, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton and Frances McDormand. The action is set in 1950s Hollywood where Josh Brolin plays a man tasked with keeping movie stars in line. It looks like the sort of dark, quirky comedy-thriller that the Cohens are known for.
“Story of Your Life,” an indie sci-fi joint from “Sicario” director Denis Villeneuve, hasn’t even had a trailer released, but it has generated insider buzz and boasts a curious premise and talented thespians. It stars Amy Adams as a linguist recruited by the military to figure out if alien spacecraft that have landed come in peace; Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker also star. Release for this one has yet to be announced.
Jeff Nichols’s next film, “Midnight Special,” on the other hand, is scheduled for March 18. His “Take Shelter,” and Matthew McConaughey starring in “Mud” were thrilling and emotionally intelligent. With “Special,” Nichols will mix this skill for human drama with a mysterious, supernatural element. The story involves a man, played by exemplary character actor and “Take Shelter” star, Michael Shannon, whose son’s special powers make him a target of government forces and a band of extremists.
Speaking of extremists, violent white supremacists face off against a punk rock band in Jeremy Saulnier’s “Green Room.” This might technically be considered a 2015 release since it first made a splash with audiences and critics at the Toronto film festival; however, its official release date is April 15. This bloody thriller stars Patrick Stewart, Imogen Poots and Anton Yelchin.
Still, I’m most excited for “Silence,” the next film from one of Hollywood’s most consistently successful directors, Martin Scorsese. There’s no release date yet, and the script is from Jay Cocks who wrote one of my least favorite Scorsese films, “Gangs of New York,” but even Scorsese’s lesser works have an undeniable, venerable quality. “Silence” stars Andrew Garfield, Liam Neeson and the “Star Wars” franchise’s new bad boy, Adam Driver, among others. It’s the story of two 17th-century Jesuit priests who search for their mentor in Japan and are met with intense persecution.
Perhaps, as 2015’s credits roll and we begin this new episode, I might suggest a New Year’s resolution? 2016 will hold many literal elections, but every time you buy a movie ticket or binge-watch a TV series, you cast a vote for that piece of entertainment. So, take a break from spandex and spaceships from time to time and seek out a piece of entertainment that challenges you. Or at least a movie or TV show that features characters like you and your friends, LGBT characters, flawed characters, non-white characters. Without the groundwork laid out by successes like “Brokeback Mountain,” Hollywood would have never even made room for failures like “Freeheld” or “Stonewall,” and we would never get modern masterpieces like “Carol.” So get out there, cancel that new gym membership, and seek out good movies and TV. t