The Wolfpack has the greatest source material since Jennie Livingston happened on drag ball culture back in the late 1980s.
This was a great year for films, but one that doesn’t lend itself particularly well to the conventional awards categories. For instance, I thought no actress could give a better performance than either Cate Blanchett or Rooney Mara in Carol (and they’re both obviously leads, so there’s a dilemma already), then I saw Brie Larson in Room, and then Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years. Add in the performances of Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn and Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road, and you have six award-worthy performances but only one award to give.
In self-defense, I decided to do a list of 15 highs and lows of the year, with no pretense to being inclusive, and with a particular eye to highlighting achievements of some films that are likely to be overlooked in more conventional awards programs.
- Best example of a filmmaker doing a lot with a little: Taxi, a.k.a. Taxi Tehran, directed by Jafar Panahi. Forbidden by the Iranian government to make films, Panahi has managed to produce three since the ban began in 2010. In Taxi, he drives a cab (outfitted with three cameras) through Tehran, picking up a variety of people with definite opinions they don’t hesitate to express, allowing Panahi to explore a range of social issues in an effortlessly naturalistic way.
- Best crime documentary with a (partially) happy ending: 3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets, directed by Marc Silver, which makes masterful use of archival footage to tell the story of a young life ended too soon, and for no good reason. Spoiler alert: While no one can bring back the dead, sometimes killers can be brought to justice.
- Worst treatment of an American classic: In the Heart of the Sea, directed by Ron Howard, which is bad in every way possible. It’s not enough that the story of the crew of whaling ship the Essex is subverted to the needs of 3D and a giant whale tail, but Howard also drags Herman Melville and Moby Dick into this sorry mess.
- Best old-fashioned movie: Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy, which tells the story of a group of Boston Globe reporters investigating child abuse in the Catholic Church. Spotlight film gets extra points for using a traditional film framework to celebrate a fast-disappearing tradition: that of investigative, old-media journalism.
- Best break for a young documentarian Crystal Moselle’s chance encounter with the young men featured in The Wolfpack provided her with the greatest source material since Jennie Livingston happened on drag ball culture back in the late 1980s. While The Wolfpack is no Paris Is Burning, it does provide a fascinating look a group of siblings who spent years primarily confined to their family apartment, passing the time by watching movies and recreating them.
- Most melodramatic film by a formerly subtle director: 99 Homes, directed by Ramin Bahrani, whose previous films include Chop Shop (2007) and Goodbye Solo (2008). Bahrami’s latest film, set during the housing crash, tells a simplistic moral fable of a construction worker (Andrew Garfield) corrupted by a monumentally evil real estate broker (Michael Shannon). Added bonus: The script is neatly divided into thirds, and is so mechanically written that you could set your watch by it.
- Breakout actress of the year: Alicia Vikander, with outstanding performances as Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth, Ava in Ex Machina, and Gerda Wegener in The Danish Girl. (She also narrated the documentary Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words and appeared as Gaby Teller in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Anne Marie in Burnt, none of which I have seen.)
- Best use of animation in a live-action film: Diary of a Teenage Girl, which stars Bel Powley as a young woman who uses drawing as a way to process her experiences and explore her feelings. Animations by Sara Gunnarsdottir, which draw on the style of Aline Kominsky, are a perfect match to the struggles of Powley’s character to understand the adult world.
- Most honest sex scene in a film: That between the characters voiced by David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Anomalisa, directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson. Perhaps working in animation allowed the filmmakers to avoid the prettifying and abstractions typical of sex scenes in live-action films (and by the way, the sex in this scene is also really hot).
- Most blatant example of praise going to the wrong actor in a film: The Danish Girl, directed by Tom Hooper. The awards buzz has been all about Eddie Redmayne as Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, but his performance is mostly makeup and gestures and sad old tropes about the tragedy of difference. The real life of the movie, in contrast, is brought by Alicia Vikander as Gerda Wegener, who is truly present in her role.
- Most peculiar technical work: A tie between the lighting in Trumbo, a film so relentlessly overlit that it looks like a cheap television program, and the washed-out color palette in By the Sea, which turns everything tan and gray so we can’t miss the point that the life has drained out of the central characters’ relationship.
- Most brazen recycling of an idea for a documentary: The Look of Silence, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, who had a big hit with his 2012 film The Act of Killing. Unfortunately, his second trip to the well results in a documentary that is far less compelling.
- Best depiction of the duality of living a life and writing about it: The Lady in the Van, directed by Nicholas Hytner and written by Alan Bennett. While most reviews of the film focus on Maggie Smith’s performance (which is great), I was even more impressed by Alex Jennings’ role as Bennett. This film also deserves a shout-out for including all the living actors who appeared in The History Boys.
- Best proof a film can be both philosophical and fun: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, directed by Roy Andersson. The title refers to a painting, “The Hunters in the Snow,” by Pieter Breugel the Elder, and the film is composed of 37 fixed-camera, self-contained vignettes in which the mundane and the fantastic co-occur. Everything is very serious on the surface, but the relentless creep of absurdity provides the comedy in this film.
- Worst new trend in comedy: Let’s call it the Sarah Silverman effect, when a comedy milks laughs by having attractive, well-dressed people use foul language. Sad to say, the few laughs coming from the audience during the screening I attended of the inexplicably praised The Big Short came from just this effect. I know people laugh to relieve tension, including that produced by incongruity, but to rely on this effect is just lazy writing. | Sarah Boslaugh