Suggested photo caption – Cate Blanchett asks: how could the Oscars be so out of touch? How could they rob Todd and our small, perfect, tender film? I guess he should’ve made a film in which I get held captive by a sexual predator, or even better, one where I’m not there at all; it’s just white guys wrestling bears.
Cate, I hear you, Because I love best-of-the-year movie lists, and because Oscar noms have come out (ahem) with some embarrassing choices, here are some of my faves from last year.
7. Spy; Joy
Two three letter-titles. So much to enjoy.
First, Spy. We’ve seen Bond and his like before. A lot. Even parodies can’t resist the spy’s machismo, however refined. Not so with Spy the movie. Sheer giddy, irreverent delight, as I discussed here.
As for Joy, most critics said it was a mess. And it is odd. I liked it, however, because it was odd. The many tonal shifts registered empathy for stressed-out working-class people’s day-to-day lives – like working-class Wes Anderson.
Plus, J-Law knocks it outta the park. This film loves a strong, daring woman. One who stands up to naysayers with equal parts confidence and vulnerability. Every time she’s tempted to give up, she looks at her daughter. Then she tries harder to be self-sufficient rather than self-sacrificing. She wants her daughter to see and become that.
So thank you, Joy. I liked seeing an onscreen working-class mother I recognized from my own upbringing – a gal who was frazzled, smart, tender and creative who just didn’t quit. As a movie, Joy took chances, and it felt cracklingly creative as a result.
Because I already wrote about this film, let me just emphasize this one detail: Saoirse Ronan’s eyes. This movie rests and succeeds on her face. So much remains unstated, but those eyes hold generations of immigrants in a single glance, for every frame.
5. Seymour: An Introduction
This delicate documentary introduces Seymour Bernstein, a man who’s spent his life teaching classical pianists. As a young virtuoso, Seymour debuted at Carnegie Hall, but felt too fraught by stage-fright to perform.
There is much to love in this poignant film. It chronicles the push-pull between being an artist on one’s own terms, and navigating the wider, often bruising, market-driven world.
You can tell a movie is good when not a single person stirs at the credits. My theatre’s (packed) audience stayed put until the last credit ended. Even for a few seconds after the lights went up, we sat there, wanting more.
4. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
How you respond to this film depends on how you feel about contemporary blockbusters – their breakneck pacing, dystopic plots and how damn tiring it is saving the universe in two hours.
I often enjoy them, especially when they’re this much fun. This time around, instead of Luke Skywalker, we get Rey. Strong, but not hard-bodied and mean. She’s slight, spritely, emotive and consistently compelling. And the movie? A perfect popcorny well-paced treat.
3. What Happened, Miss Simone?
I saw this mesmerizing documentary at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival in April, but you can find it on Netflix. It resists most music docs’ rapidly-edited montages of short musical clips. Instead, it lingers, favouring long takes and uncomfortable silences.
And oh, that gorgeous, soulful voice.
The film dances around its titular question, and never answers fully. Rather, we come to sense how much her gift cost. Thank you, Liz Garbus. Fingers crossed for you on Oscar night.
2. Inside Out
This movie: so sweet that one might miss how really good it is.
Inside Out reveals an “Imaginationland” so visually and emotionally layered that it pictures the brain, feelings and memories anew. Some read it as the first kid’s flick about depression. Yet it was more about how sadness and joy stay close, each shaping and defining the other in a dance. The result? A more emotionally intelligent story than most films being made for any age group – children or adults.
As a former midwesterner who transplanted to San Francisco (and several other places), I had to muffle weeping at seeing the internal struggle of relocating. Thank you, 3D glasses, for letting me hide behind you in the dark.
1. Carol; Spotlight
I cannot decide. I’ve tried. Really, I have. Trying left me vacillating for two weeks on this post. I love them both.
I wrote about Spotlight earlier so let me now speak about Carol. It’s the epitome of desire on film. Those looks. The slight touch of a hand. Bending closer to the phone when talking. Like Terese and Carol, I swoon, swoon, swoon.
From start to startlingly wonderful finish, I was swept up in how it embraces and celebrates being both female and queer. Here I refer to “queer” in the broader sense. Being odd and off-centre. Not fitting in boundaries, including familiar tropes of gay or straight. Favouring the push and pull of the in-between and uncertain. Liking train sets instead of dolls and being a girl. Not being afraid to hold the camera and look back.
And the nebulous world of inarticulate, intense adult desire. This film deeply respects and honours lesbian desire specifically. Phyllis Nagy’s delicate script, which Haynes understood and took to heart, never caves into mainstream pressures – which no doubt led to its Oscar snub.
Both Spotlight and Carol are perfect ensemble films that have:
- Visionary directors: Todd Haynes and Tom McCarthy each make distinctive and heartfelt, unsentimental, independent films. The more films each makes, the better they get. These are their best thus far.
- Powerful writing: These scripts are unafraid to show silences. They resist and redefine familiar conventions to reveal the complexity of real people’s lives in the subtlest of looks and moments. They show how people don’t always know what to think and say – especially when feeling things deeply.
- Incredible, at times heartbreaking acting: No one needs to scream in the woods to advertise their talents here. Think of Rachel McAdams’ face when she interviews an unrepentent abusive priest. Or Cate Blanchett’s fierce, quiet speech on the edge of tears, the only woman in a lawyer’s office full of men. The leads are in their prime, but so are their more supporting and marginal counterparts. No one in these films is extraneous or disposable.
- Cinematographically detailed worlds: These filmmakers know that while the medium of film is visual, it is nothing if not entirely connected to, and believable within, the main characters and story. Witness the scruffy banalties that belie the horror of what gets spot-lit by increasingly unsettled writers (Spotlight). Or the luscious refracted surfaces of watery colour, metaphors for longing and lust (Carol).
- Moving sound design: Sound design in both films pulls back when necessary, then moves forward in just the right moments to evoke mood. Hear Carol’s creative uses of subjective sound and both films’ soundtracks. Carol’s music builds and yearns like Michael Nyman’s did for The Piano two decades prior. Spotlight‘s edgy piano searches for a more disturbing, painful truth to be unearthed.
- Deeply human engagements with larger political, ethical questions: Each film’s sense of politics is not strict nor wielded by sticks and shouts. As different as each one’s subject matter is, they both reveal that, no matter how our lives take shape out of politics’ sight, the powers that be are always hovering at the door, shaping us for better and worse.
So that’s some of why I loved both films. I loved them while I watched them, but even more after. They make such a rich repository of tremendous skill, heart and layers, that they remind me why I love movies, even if increasingly I think the Oscars are meh.
Don’t make me decide between Carol and Spotlight. I love them both.
Honourable Mentions: Films I did not see (but probably would’ve liked)
- Anomolisa (Because it’s from the wacky mind of Charlie Kauffman)
- The Assassin (Because it’s a martial arts female assassin in action)
- Girlhood (Because it’s a story of girls and worlds on the margins, hardly ever told)
- Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (Because of how smart he is at bypassing repressive laws)
- Magic Mike XXL (Because it’s so unabashedly for women’s pleasure. Plus, dancing!)
- Mistress America (Because I adore the Nick-and-Nora pair that is Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach)
- Timbuktu (Because anything Abderahmane Sissako makes will be great)