Stephen Miller

AI researcher, startup cofounder, podcaster, person, etc.

Review: Personal Shopper

Scrawled notes left on a counter. Unkept promises. Routes you might have taken had you been anyone but yourself; others attempted, blocked by barriers you didn’t even know were there. That thought which felt so sturdy inside, only to evaporate in the space between utterance and impact. Bouncing dots on an iPhone screen, spooky action at a distance signifying real thumbs on real glass, abruptly vanishing and reappearing like a pulse till suddenly: words. Gray, motionless, cold. Information. All of the “meaning” with none of the dance.

We’re all haunted by something. In the wonderful Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas’ lead is haunted by her own past — by a beauty and liveliness that can’t last forever, can’t simply be conjured back into existence by virtue of acting it out. In Personal Shopper, she’s haunted by everyone else; by a failure to connect, or a desire to become, or both. Sometimes that takes the form of a letter, a text message, a whisper of grief or rote transaction in a posh fashion boutique. Sometimes it’s a literal ghost materializing in frame. This film is best entered blind, so I don’t want to ruin much by way of exposition. All I’ll say is it’s an enigmatic ride in the best possible way: there are crescendos of magical realism which absolutely floored me, and questions brought up which I’m not sure I’ll ever resolve. Assayas’ direction is excellent, his mood-building is confident and on-point, and Kristen Stewart gives yet another captivating performance. See this movie.

Or, at least, listen to Chris and me struggle to unpack it in this week’s episode.

Best Films of 2016

Best Films of 2016

Things I wanted to see but hadn’t yet: Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Krisha, Cameraperson, Birth of a Nation, Elle, Toni Erdmann, Edge of Seventeen

More ramblings: if one novel isn’t enough for you, you can also find my 2015 and 2014 top 10 lists.

Podcast: you can listen to a similar (but not identical) list I gave with my friends over at The Spoiler Warning.

Introduction: The Stories We Tell

Here’s a hot take for you: 2016 was a rough year. And while the reality of production schedules makes any causal link between the year in pain and the year in film highly questionable, the temptation is too strong to resist. So let’s ignore reality for a second, and pretend that every movie we saw this year was conceived of 15 minutes before we stepped in the theatre. What aches are they reacting to, and what is their response?

The first thing that I see is an overwhelming hunger for diversity. Not necessarily in the kinds of people who create films (though small improvements are being made here as well), but in the way their stories are being told. Soundtrack-heavy coming of age flicks, genre-defying documentaries, quietly contemplative tragedies, bombastic Golden Age throwbacks, dazzling exploitation flicks, and moody sci-fi pieces all have a place on this list. Cathartic outlets pointing in a thousand directions; a triumphant burst of things held too long inside.

I also see a strong rebuke to the politics of the day. Some of those are quite literal. I see heartfelt portraits of the poor and working class, white and black, rural and urban, struggling to find footing in a world that has left them behind. I see attempts to grapple with otherness and division: studies of race, gentrification, and the all-too-rare coming together of people. I see sexual awakenings; repressed teenagers, gay, lesbian, and straight, throwing labels aside and stepping fully into their skin. If there’s an abstract enemy, here, it’s cynicism and misanthropy. Some fight against it with full-bodied, sentimental joy: escapist fantasies, glorious tales of comeuppance and strength. Others try to break through it by sheer excess: parodies so pure they cease to be satire, love stories so cold they eventually feel warm. Still others try to sanctify it, flip it on its head: glowing odes to an inwardness that destroys all for art, for grief, for love. As if we’re trying to tell ourselves that this closed, jaded rut we’re stuck in isn’t due to a lack of meaning, but a protective response to its blinding, beautiful excess.

A true Top 10 list is too difficult to reign in, especially in a year with such beautiful excesses. So, in accordance with annual tradition, I’m going to shamelessly cheat every chance I get. Not only are the #10-#6 slots reserved for named awards with winners and runners up, but the #5-#1 awards are now for thematic pairs rather than individual films. Films that speak to similar aches, and complement each other in interesting ways. Flattening the list into a Top 15 + a handful of honorable mentions would be a reasonably solid reflection of my feelings, but where’s the fun in that? You only get one swing at a year like this. Put the pedal down and drive it like you stole it.

10-6: Awards: Winners and (Noteworthy) Runners Up

10. Dallas Buyers Club Award: Born to Be Blue

Born to Be Blue Every year I give this award to what I would call my least sexy favorite; the kind of film that will probably gather positive acclaim but zero buzz, that isn’t looking to rock the boat so much as propel it steadily forward. This is about recognizing the virtue of sturdy, unassuming filmmaking, and that label easily applies to Born to Be Blue; a soulful biopic about heroine-addicted jazz great Chet Baker. An ode to the all-consuming, life-threatening totality of art, the film could be thought of as Whiplash’s gentler older sibling. Artful without being cloying, melancholy without ever tumbling into masochism, I found it a quiet joy to watch. Ethan Hawke walks an impressive tightrope here. Baker is virtually Platonic in his role as tragic figure, and his self-destructive tendencies are laid out bare in Hawke. At the same time, he gives us just enough glimpses of genius to root for him without beatifying him, planting tiny seeds of doubt about our own urge to attribute labels. Reminiscent of its younger brother, the film ends with a provocative question: can moderation and free expression truly coexist, or must everything eventually burn? And is it really a tragedy if the victim sets himself on fire?

9. Annie Hall Award: Don’t Think Twice w/ Little Men

The Annie Hall Award is given to a talky flick, nearly always set in New York, which shines in its examination of human relationships. With Little Men, like former honoree Love is Strange, Ira Sachs continues to cement his tiny niche as poet laureate of the New York rent explosion. The film follows a budding friendship between two Brooklyn teens, the son of a shopkeeper and the son of her landlords. Rent increase and eviction hangs thick in the air, and we watch as the kids navigate the messy space laid out by their parents, trying to carve out a semblance of identity in the process. Sachs handles the melodrama with subtlety and wit: every performance is wonderfully small, and no one is cheapened or vilified.

Don't Think Twice This year’s winner, Don’t Think Twice, also has something to say about competing motives. Namely, the desire love instills in you for the other’s success, and the comfort of symmetry which made that love possible in the first place. Birbiglia introduces us to a tight-knit improv troupe, legends in the local comedy scene but barely getting by in life. The spectre of future success finally becomes a reality when a subset of the group are asked to audition for a barely-veiled riff on Saturday Night Live. As the story plays out, these competing impulses wear on the group: they want to root for each other’s victories, but those very victories only serve to alienate. I found the emotional beats remarkably true to life, but what I really loved here was how many tiny aspects of comedy Birbiglia gets right: the use of humor as coping mechanism against sadness, the spark of delight from finding something funny in the scorched earth where nothing funny can grow. I love that everything put to screen, from professional highs to personal lows, feels intimate and true. And the moments on the improv stage — so corny on the surface, so cringeworthy from the trailer — are pure magic.

8. Take The Premise And Run Award: The Lobster

The Lobster As the name suggests, this one is given to a film which sets up a very specific premise and watches as its logical conclusions play out; a story whose elevator pitch alone contains multitudes. So let’s start with the elevator pitch for The Lobster. Imagine a world where everyone is forced, by law, to be in a relationship. Singles are sent to a resort with the express purpose of meeting other singles, and those that fail after a certain timeframe will be turned into the animal of their choice.

Are you convinced to see it, or need I go on? It’s as if Charlie Kaufman and Wes Anderson had a misanthropic Greek baby. Or, in the world of the film, as if they bonded over a shared interest in hotel management and loneliness, graduated to a double room, argued like hell over the relative virtues of “heartfelt meaninglessness” and “quirky meaninglessness”, and were given a child to stop the shouting. Either way, I love the ornery bastard. It’s a wonderfully biting satire about relationships, and the constant pressure society imposes (or we impose upon ourselves?) to maintain them.

7. The Airplane Award: Hail Caesar with Eddie the Eagle and Zootopia

Typically I leave a slot on my list for blockbusters, for massively successful crowd-pleasers that also happened to be great. If 2016 had a diversity of strengths, though, it had one clear weakness: “great” blockbusters were virtually nonexistent. Nearly every highly anticipated adventure / thriller / tentpole left me wanting. So instead, I’ll pivot slightly and call this the Airplane Award, reserved for films that have the sort of broad, rewatchable appeal to make them perfect for a long plane ride. And I’d know, because all of these contenders were films I watched multiple times, on very long plane rides.

Hail Caesar Eddie the Eagle might be the most pure dose of happiness I saw all year, a throwback to those uplifting sports flicks which were so ubiquitous in the 90’s. It’s goofy, tender, and kept me beaming from ear to ear. Zootopia (full review) also kept me beaming, and with its refreshingly frank take on otherness and the need to accept one another, it even managed to sneak in a few tears along the way. But Hail Caesar was the complete package: the sort of film that reveals more amazing layers with each successive rewatch. It’s puzzling to me, in a year where La La Land garnered ubiquitous acclaim for its retro Hollywood flare, that so many people seem to have forgotten this gem. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t love La La Land; only that I really really loved Hail Caesar. It has all the hallmarks of the best of the Coens’ oeuvre: delightfully funny, wickedly off-kilter, supremely confident and visually sumptuous. But what makes this a true gem, and possibly even an outlier in their work, is its earnest desire to inspire awe. We can laugh at Tatum’s sexually repressed sailor dance, or Johansson’s synchronized swim in a too-tight mermaid suit, but there’s something seriously impressive — even moving — about the spectacle. For a few moments in the dark of seat 22C, the world feels full of magic and possibility. The world after touchdown? Would that it were so simple.

6. The Act of Killing Award: OJ Made in America w/ 13th and Weiner

This award is reserved for documentaries which shed new light on social or political issues and, to the surprise of no one, 2016 was an excellent year for those. Ava Duvernay’s 13th is a powerful examination of the inherently racist impact of our justice system, and ought to be required viewing. It pairs very nicely with The New Jim Crow. Weiner, on the other hand, pairs nicely with a stiff drink and a sense of deep, political despair. It’s a mesmerizing display of egomania which, largely due to the insane access Weiner granted the filmmakers, manages to communicate the bizarre, indefatigable charisma of its subject. If I’m honest with myself, by the end I was almost rooting for him to win.

OJ: Made In America For both insight on institutional racism and a portrait of self-destructive charisma, though, OJ: Made in America stands peerless. A five-part series standing at just under 8 hours, it’s a sprawling behemoth that really ought to have been redundant. What need does the infamous OJ trial, one of the most widely covered media events in history, have for further analysis? What stone could possibly have been left unturned? The answer lies in the film’s massive scope. Beginning with the riots in 1960’s LA, it aims to tell not only what happened and why, but what sharp cultural wounds had been opened in the process. It paints OJ in the light he was actually seen by his supporters and detractors: a symbol of race and upwards mobility. Despite countless conscious efforts to personally disavow his symbolic role, it followed him wherever he went. As we discover the world he was brought into, and watch how he pushed against and steered it throughout his career, the deep chasms that separated public opinion become striking and profound. With a keen eye for narrative, and incredible access to virtually everyone involved in the case, this is the filmic equivalent of a page turner. At the end of its behemoth runtime, I would have happily watched more.

5-1: “Best Of” Thematic Pairs

5. Rewriting the story: Moonlight and The Handmaiden

In a year where the lines of battle have been so clearly drawn, it’s tempting to see identity as a sort of deterministic inheritance. Who made you the unwilling heir of your demographic, your social class, your assumed goals? Who defines you? These films respond with resounding conviction: through honesty and determination, you define yourself.

Moonlight In his intimate and brooding Medicine for Melancholy, Barry Jenkins documented a day in the life of two San Francisco 20somethings, and their fumbling attempts to untangle identity amid issues of class, race, and belonging. In Moonlight he goes the other direction, telling very little but revealing immeasurably more. We watch as Little (Chiron) attempts to unravel the life fate has thrust upon him: growing up penniless and (effectively) parentless in a drug-addled neighborhood of Miami. Too young to understand why he’s being bullied, or even really understand sexuality at all, he is taken in by a drug dealer whose surrogate fatherhood provides shelter from the storm. We watch his life unfold in two subsequent acts: first with the story he chooses for himself out of defensiveness (hardness), and eventually a hint of the story he permits himself to write (softness, love.) This is a gorgeous film, bursting with self-assured style and haunting symbols. I loved the scenes of light and dark; of learning to swim as a sort of baptism into manhood, of the blues and reds and yellows of the city streets he haunts. External forces and textures are constantly coloring Chiron’s outward appearance, but his eyes betray the bright light inside. It’s quiet, revelatory, and solidifies Jenkins as a voice to be reckoned with.

The Handmaiden The Handmaiden is stylistically about as far from Moonlight as you could get: there is nothing quiet about it. But through the vibrant filter of his signature style, Park Chan Wook gets at a surprisingly similar conclusion. Sookee, a Korean servant girl born into poverty, is brought to the house of Hideko, a Japanese heiress who seems stuck in a catatonic lack of meaning, waiting helplessly for a loveless marriage to sweep her away. Both of their inheritances dictate the same story: servitude, repression, self-imposed numbness. It’s virtually impossible to explain how the plot progresses without ruining one of the many wonderful twists of its puzzling, double-crossing narrative. Suffice it to say that neither woman goes quietly into that good night. Like Moonlight, the film mingles issues of class and sexuality with gorgeous visuals and a supremely confident sense of pacing and plot. It’s provocative and violent, but also heartfelt and lovely, and a hell of a lot of fun to boot. If Moonlight ends on a delicate question, The Handmaiden ends with a roaring exclamation point: we write our own narratives. We rise up and steer the skin.

4. Rewiring the heart: Paterson and Manchester By The Sea

But what if we can’t rewrite the story? What if change is outside our grasp? These films argue for a bulwark that can’t be eroded: the ability to change one’s own perception. Rewiring the heart so nothing, good or bad, can truly uproot it.

Paterson In Paterson (full review), the act of rewiring is intentional and optimistic. The titular character lives a life that, by most measures, ought to be a recipe for ennui: stuck with a routine blue collar job in a routine blue collar town, reliving each day with endless repetition. But Paterson chooses to see meaning in life’s tiniest details; each gorgeous, hilarious, and uniquely his own. He lives in a self-imposed rhythm, taking each day as it comes and turning its tiny revelations into poetry. As Jim Jarmusch piles tiny accents and aberrations into his schedule, we see the exceptions that prove the rules — the accumulated weight of wrongnesses that temporarily bring the rhythm to a halt. It’s a deftly revealing balancing act, the filmic equivalent of meditation. Like the best films, it’s about everything and nothing: the inherent selfishness of creative endeavors, the way people in your life act as flavor and counterweight, the unsung heroes who listen more than they speak, the genius of William Carlos Williams, the light of a match and the color blue. It’s visually striking, whimsically funny, subtly fantastical, and imposes a slowness on the audience that I found absolutely refreshing.

Manchester By The Sea Manchester By The Sea (full review) also centers around an inward protagonist, but his quiet contemplation comes less from a desire to slow down than a need to survive. Grief has plagued Lee’s life for years, and he’s learned to wrap it around him like a cocoon. His nephew Patrick, on the other hand, is new to the game. So when Lee’s brother and Patrick’s father, respectively, passes, each respond in notably different ways. Lee shuts out the periphery and focuses on forward motion. Reduces conversation to absolute necessity, looks past every gaze at a 45 degree angle. Patrick assumes the best defense is a good offense, diving headfirst into band practice, friendships, girlfriends, boats. But while these interactions seem meaningful on their surface, there’s something performative about it; a shot aimed to look sincere but still throw the game. I saw this film as a quiet apprenticeship in grief; Lee fumbling to teach Patrick, through osmosis, what his own limitations fail with words. That it’s better to grieve imperfectly and silently, and maybe even destructively, than not at all. To rewire your heart to take things as they come, to strip all artifice and conscious performance and simply experience life’s lows, highs, and (most strikingly) banal plateaus. Wonderfully acted and gorgeously serene, it’s a bitter pill well worth taking.

3. Reimagining the present: Sing Street and Swiss Army Man

Film has always been a means of escape, but in 2016 that need has seemed more urgent than ever. These films explore the way one’s imagination, or the capacity to dream, can be used to break free from troubling circumstances. The way the little worlds we build for ourselves can elevate our status within them.

Sing Street Sing Street should arguably be #1 on this list, because it’s the only film this year that made me both cry and laugh out loud on three separate viewings. It has also been the soundtrack to my life for numerous days on the road. Like Once and Begin Again, Carney’s film is a shamelessly sentimental ode to the transformative power of music. In Once it was the power to bring together; in Begin Again it was the power to create joy. This time, that power is to create hope; the mystical way that playing or hearing the perfect song can transport you, can make you transcend the daily grind and dream for something more. Like any good coming-of-age story, it involves the uncertain guy winning the unattainable girl, and there are plenty of gratifying emotional beats to be had there. But like the shamelessly schmaltzy About Time before it, the central romance here works best as a Trojan Horse for deeper concepts of family, contentedness, and belonging. I love every character in this movie: the parents on the brink of divorce, the misfit kids who find a tribe in the Duran Duran and Joy Division freaks of the world, and particularly the stoner older brother with a bleeding heart of gold. I love the pacing: at just over 100 minutes it never overstays its welcome, but still pauses to give feelings room to breathe. I love the scenes of making music, so intimate and rejuvenating and gloriously 80’s adolescent. Perhaps most crucially, the songs themselves are fantastic. Carney may be a one trick pony, but that one trick contains multitudes, and his powers over it are only growing deeper with time. Finally, always remember: no woman can truly love a man who listens to Phil Collins. I can’t recommend this crowd-pleaser highly enough.

Swiss Army Man If there’s an opposite of “crowd-pleaser”, Swiss Army Man might be it. Twistedly like Sing Street, it’s a coming-of-age tale, a story about an inward guy pining for an unreachable girl, an ode imagination’s transformative powers, and has an absolutely killer soundtrack. So why is it so polarizing? The key difference lies in the innocence of its leads and the purity of its message. Swiss Army Man is anything but clean. It’s a jubilant bromance between a loner and a corpse; a heartfelt indie which goads you to like it then farts at your praise; a bizarro Where the Wild Things Are where Childish Wonder and footie pajamas become Deeply Repressed Male-ness and a dress made of garbage. An erection is used as a compass. Teeth are used to shave. A dead hand touches a wigged stalker on a bus, and its rigor-mortis clench warms your heart. “Just kiss her already!” you’ll want to shout at the corpse, and it’s never quite clear if you’re joking. This is a truly manic film that loves toying with the audience. And the truths it’s shouting are more elemental than profound: everybody’s awkward, everybody dies. Whether you love it or hate it might depend on exactly which elements you see in your own psyche. I identified more than I’d care to admit.

2. Recontextualizing the past: Tower and Arrival

Another recurring theme of the year has been that of looking back, of grappling with the aches and sins of our collective past. These films argue that “grappling” is not enough; that by reliving the past we might actually sanctify it, transubstantiate its wrongness into something akin to beauty.

Tower The past Tower concerns itself with carries a particularly painful resonance today. In 1966, a sniper climbed the clock tower at the University of Texas campus, and began firing on any innocent civilian he could find. I don’t know his name, because to Tower’s endless credit, it isn’t remotely concerned with him. Instead, reminiscent of Ari Folman’s wonderful Waltz With Bashir, the documentary acts as group therapy for the tragedy’s survivors, allowing them to relive their memories through a blend of rotoscoped reenactments, intimate interviews, and sparingly used archival footage. The result is gloriously engaging, and perfectly communicates the dread and immediacy of the event; the sudden loss of certainty, the fear that the world is burning. If that sounds heavy, it’s because it is — but that weight soon gives way to lightness. Because at the core, Tower is not about the tragedy itself, but the human response tragedy elicits. It’s about the heroism — or cowardice — of regular folk thrust into terrifying situations. It’s about the things you learn about yourself when everything around you crumbles. Some people find themselves paralyzed by fear; they learn to accept their weakness, to accept that not everyone can save the day. Others find themselves propelled by a force they didn’t know existed; they run selflessly into harm’s way to protect, assist, or even simply empathize with a person in need. Through it all we see a tapestry of human love and human fear, woven by real, imperfect people in immaculate detail. Together they rewrite the narrative arc of the past, from one of devastating loss to one of empathy and shining connection. I loved every minute of this movie.

Arrival Arrival (full review) reaches a similar conclusion, albeit through drastically different means. Denis Villeneuve’s moody sci-fi follow-up to the personally disappointing Sicario (full review), Arrival strikes the perfect balance between arthouse flick and dazzling blockbuster. It follows the classic formula of vintage science fiction, thrusting characters into extraordinary situations in order to reveal tiny mysteries about our own, ordinary lives. To say much of anything about the plot would be to spoil it; in ways that will become self-evident when you watch it, it succeeds precisely where Interstellar (full review) failed. But what left me breathless was how many other, contradictory ways it succeeds on the side. In the sense that minimalism is a virtue, this is a minimalist film: CG is used sparingly and to haunting effect, and exposition never threatens to trip up its emotional rhythm. In many ways, though, this is also a maximalist spectacle. It’s a hypnotic fugue through memory and loss, with a heavy doses of Terrance Malick and hints of Eternal Sunshine. The opening moved me deeply, and it only pays off more as the story unfolds. It’s a story about the oneness of all things, about the beauty of loss and the way, with a slight shift in perspective, every painful moment can be seen as an accent or notch in one living, breathing human experience. I found it mesmerizing.

1. Reclaiming the future: American Honey and Mustang

Every response so far — changing the narrative, shifting the frame of reference, imagining a better present, baptizing a painful past — has been mostly internal. Sometimes, though, the pressures of the world call for a drastic external response. To break free from repression. To reclaim the future. Two films this year, both directed by women and starring teenaged girls, showcased that unquenchable drive towards freedom. In a year desperately lacking in hope, they carried an urgency that stuck with me long after other messages dissipated.

American Honey From a distance, American Honey (full review) doesn’t look much like a story of freedom. If anything, its trailer implies a cautionary tale of redemption; a hip-hop Bonnie and Clyde gone horribly wrong. Star escapes the poverty of the deep south to join a roving mag crew — heavily-pierced hustlers who travel from town to town, shilling unwanted magazine subscriptions before eventually graduating to more forceful, intimate, and scarring confrontations. What made me fall in love with American Honey isn’t that it avoids the classic redemptive arc — there are highs and lows in Star’s journey to be had, questionable decisions on stark display. It’s that it paints these highs and lows as something spiritual and necessary. This is a generous film. The sort that truly believes in the goodness of its subjects. Hurting, naive, flawed, reckless, and prone to make a few more bad decisions after the credits roll, but good to the core. It tells us that Star will end her journey a wiser person than when she began, and that she’ll make it through her circumstances alive. That Jake is more than a white trash fuck up with a rat tail and cheap suit; or, better, that no one needs to be “more” than anything to be fully alive. That those rowdy kids you see in the parking lot, cursing in front of your children, chugging $3 liquor, blasting hip hop too loudly and hitting too hard — they aren’t Prodigal Sons waiting to be saved in Act III. They’re already on the van to salvation, rickety and swerving. Andrea Arnold observes her crew with the delicate touch of an anthropologist, treating her bruised subjects with a near-perfect blend of naturalism and style. Through the gentle lull of the open road, the thrill of an ear-splitting radio radio beat, and sex scenes so delicate the sunlight practically fogs up the lens, there’s a gorgeous, tactile empathy forever on display.

Mustang The same could be said for Deniz Ergüven’s directorial style in Mustang (full review) (technically 2015, but foreign releases come late to the US and, as established, I make the arbitrary rules here!) Indeed, the parallels to Arnold’s work run deep. Set in modern day Turkey, the film tells the story of a group of sisters raised in a strict religious household. Like American Honey, it’s about liberation and the myriad choices we navigate en route. It’s also a film that breathlessly defies expectations. Looking at the poster, you might reasonably come to one of two conclusions: note the cast and assume it’s a charming portrait of sisterhood, or note their stares and assume it’s a gut-wrenching drama. What’s remarkable about Mustang is how perfectly it does both, and how much more it finds room to do on the side. Tonally it has shades of Sofia Coppola, but in scope it’s more like a Turkish Persepolis: a keenly observed coming of age story, an intimate glimpse of an underseen culture, a damning finger at the oppression polluting said culture, a cry for help and a shout of resilience in the same breath. Even the weightiest symbols (the wall, the gun, a meticulously folded sheet), when not devastating us, have the power to make us smile. If American Honey feels like an anthropological study, Mustang feels like a secret diary, striking that impossible balance which only stories rooted in truth can maintain: to simultaneously mock, mourn, and miss the same thing. Damning outrage at what it did, smiling familiarity with the particular way it did it, nostalgia for how it was yours to feel. A cathartic cleanse of things lost in the fire, and a rallying cry for brighter futures ahead.

Here’s to…

…more unlikely, unrealistic, baseless, vapid, messy, sprawling, necessary, mysterious, beautiful, transformative, full-blooded dreams of bright futures ahead.

Review: Manchester by the Sea

“The worst is all the lovely weather. I’m stunned it’s not raining. The coffee isn’t even bitter, because what’s the difference?”

Quoting LCD Soundsystem is quite possibly the hipsterest way to start a review. But watching Manchester By The Sea (4/5 stars), I couldn’t shake James Murphy’s words. In film, a world quite literally exists to amplify and solidify tragedy: soundtracks swell, memories replay in soft focus, cameras linger on empty chairs and undusted bedrooms. A primed audience watches and feels the weight of the protagonist’s grief. But the nefarious thing about real-world tragedy is that it’s completely invisible. There’s no camera to project towards, no color palette to mute, no profound metaphor hiding at the frame’s periphery. No change occurs that you didn’t instigate; no one knows a feeling you didn’t willingly thrust upon them. The world is out there, and your grief is in here, and no one else wants it. You inherited this sadness; you’re its sole and rightful guardian. How will you tend to it?

Some of us choose to romanticize grief, burn it in mental celluloid: fumble a soundtrack on the keyboard, pen a script of memories like bad poetry, throw a fist-full of stage dust and shout “action” to no one. Lee, however, is not like me. Maybe he’s never been that way, or maybe he was before time and pain eroded it. We do know he’s lived through more hell than anyone ought to, and life never gave him room for a proper mise en scène. So when the nurse tells him there’s nothing they could do for his brother, he leapfrogs straight to Acceptance. He’ll need to take a few days off work, of course. The kid will need someone to pick him up from school, probably. The funeral, he’ll have to have one of those, is there like a number or a guy or something? Focus on the details. Impose upon no one. Reduce conversation to absolute necessity, look past every gaze at a 45 degree angle. Roll forward quietly, calmly, a stone. And it /is/ technically forward motion, but that grief — who’s tending to it?

Patrick, his nephew, tries to split the difference. He’s had years to prepare for this, to fortify his walls. And he’s decided the best defense is a good offense. Adopt a dark sense of humor. Distract yourself with hockey and band practice and boats. Surround yourself with friends (plenty) and girlfriends (two). Have them over to reminisce the night after It Happens, and laugh loudly like healthy people supposedly do. Move on, fall in love, keep with the routine, don’t let anybody see you break. But as he “shares with” these friends, as he’s “falling in love”, he isn’t being any more open than Lee. His gaze is 5, maybe 10 degrees to the left: a shot aimed to look sincere but still throw the game. He isn’t giving them his grief, he’s performing it near them. So where is it, actually?

In a shallower film, the answer would be “inside” and both would explode. Thankfully, this isn’t the sort that speaks in explosions. But as we watch them navigate this bizarre thing — the banality of grief, whether orphaned or owned, the phone calls and morbid plans and utter tedium — we see glimpses of their fault lines and moments of their escape. Those moments are eye-opening and lovely and sad, and their quiet aftermaths, set in a gorgeous New England seaside, are even better.

It’s in the dynamic between Lee and Patrick, though, where the film really thrives. They bear witness to each other’s failures. Lee is an adult who wears inwardness on his sleeve: his outbursts might be stronger, but at least he knows the limits of his walls. Patrick is just a kid: he doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know yet. But he knows his uncle’s pain. He’s been studying that for a lifetime. And that unspoken apprenticeship; the quiet, fumbling understanding that it’s okay to not be okay, that it’s better to grieve imperfectly and silently and maybe even destructively than not at all, is at the heart of the film. Maybe Lee can teach Patrick, through osmosis, what his own limits fail with words. Maybe we can absorb something too.

I loved this humble, awkward, defiantly-non-awardsy film. It is absolutely not the broad, gut-punching melodrama its trailer makes it out to be. Every character feels lived-in and appropriately small, and Casey Affleck in particular is a total revelation. Chris and I reviewed it last week:

Review: Arrival

In the best science fiction, science is an excuse and fiction is a buffer. An excuse to present a character with an impossible scenario, and a buffer where ideas can open and grow. When the truth inevitably sinks in — that you are the character, and the impossible scenario is your existence — both fade to the background. “How” and “what” are means to an end; they matter only insofar as they wall off that garden. If they’re hokey, or grandiose, or assert themselves too eagerly, they distract from the ideas they were built to protect. And if the ideas themselves fail to bear fruit, the whole thing dissolves into empty spectacle. That’s why Interstellar was such a big disappointment: it placed too much emphasis on a maximalist “what”, then forced in a “why” that rang hollow. Without a core, it crumbled.

Arrival succeeds wonderfully by that definition: it presents a fascinating scenario, gives its ramifications ample room to flourish, then goes for the jugular. In ways that will become self-evident when you watch it, it succeeds precisely where Interstellar failed. But what left me breathless was how many other, contradictory ways it succeeded on the side. In the sense that minimalism is a virtue, this is a minimalist film: CG is used sparingly and to haunting effect, and exposition never threatens to trip up its emotional rhythm. In many ways, though, this is also a maximalist spectacle. It’s a hypnotic fugue through memory and loss, with a heavy dose of Terrance Malick and hints of Eternal Sunshine. The opening nearly brought me to tears, and it only pays off more as the story unfolds. It’s also a gripping, anxiety-riddled exercise in building dread; as masterful as any in Sicario, but with the critical human element Villeneuve’s last outing desperately lacked. Amy Adams is wonderful here, and even if she’s the only real character to be found, she’s more than enough. It’s also a rousing crowd-pleaser about ingenuity and the oneness of things; heavy shades of Contact and Close Encounters with a decidedly more mystical hue. It’s visually gorgeous. It’s emotionally profound. Its themes run deep and borderline zen, brimming with symbols that will reward repeat viewings.

If it sounds like I’m talking about some mind-blowing reveal, please know that I’m not. There are literal twists to be had, of course, and you’ll love them or hate them depending on your tolerance for “what”s and “how”s. But this isn’t a Nolan flick, thankfully: it’s not meant to strike that chord. The true heartbeat of the film is emotional, not literal, and its conclusion plays out well before the credits roll. A truth which ripples and recurs through subtext and text, leaving accents and notches on one living thing. It’d be a shame to get caught up in a point or direction. Lose yourself in the whole of it.

I loved this film, and I loved being able to have this conversation moments after the credits rolled.

2016 Oscar Predictions

Oscars 2016

The Oscars are only an hour or two away, so I thought it’d be fun to give my predictions, personal favorites, and snubs. For more details check out my Best Films of 2015 list.

Best Picture

Will Win: The Revenant, if prior buzz is any indication

Should Win: Spotlight by miles

Snubbed: I’m shocked Carol didn’t get a nomination; if it had, I’d probably be vying for it over Spotlight right now. Anomalisa also should have been nominated, and would have deserved a win over any of these.

Lead Actress

Will Win: Brie Larson for Room

Should Win: Larson was wonderful, and I’d love to see her win this (especially after Short Term 12 got no love.) In fact, save Jennifer Lawrence (I haven’t seen Joy) all female nominees in both acting categories were excellent this year. But Charlotte Rampling might deserve it more than any of them, for her heartbreaking turn in 45 Years.

Supporting Actress

Will Win: Jennifer Jason Leigh seems to be a heavy favorite for The Hateful Eight.

Should Win: Rooney Mara for Carol; she probably should have been in the running for Lead actress, and I still would have rooted for her.

Snubbed: Alicia Vikander was nominated for the wrong movie; she was good in The Danish Girl, but she was outstanding in Ex Machina. I would have also liked to see Kristin Stewart for Clouds of Sils Maria and Katherine Waterston for Queen of Earth.

Lead Actor

Will Win: Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant.

Should Win: There’s no competition in my mind. The only person who came close was Eddie Redmayne, but despite his technically excellent performance, the movie was just too weak to register.

Snubbed: Cranston and Fassbender just feel out of place here. He couldn’t have won it, but I would have loved to see Michael B. Jordan get noticed for Creed.

Supporting Actor

Will Win: Sylvester Stallone for Creed.

Should Win: Sly was fine and all, but I think it’s coming almost solely from a place of nostalgia. Every other nominee gave a stronger performance. Mark Rylance would get my vote for his captivating turn in Bridge of Spies.

Snubbed: Ruffalo was good, but Liev Schreiber and Michael Keaton probably deserved more recognition for their turns in Spotlight. Also Paul Dano for Love and Mercy and Oscar Isaac for Ex Machina.

Director

Will Win: Iñárritu for The Revenant.

Should Win: Iñárritu earned it as far as I’m concerned, but George Miller (Mad Max) and Adam McKay (The Big Short) would both make me equally happy.

Snubbed: Todd Haynes for Carol. This was supposed to be his to lose. Also would have loved to see Sean Baker get a nomination for the electric Tangerine.

Animated Feature

Will Win: Inside Out was Pixar’s best movie in years, I doubt this will be the year they give it to someone else.

Should Win: Anomalisa was my favorite film of the year; it goes without saying that it was the best animated film for the year too.

Documentary Feature

Will Win: By all accounts, Amy is the heavy favorite; one of those rare documentaries that people actually saw.

Should Win: Cartel Land was a remarkable feat of documentary filmmaking; I wouldn’t mind if it won. But The Look of Silence was absolutely profound. Oppenheimer deserves this win, and a retroactive win for The Act of Killing.

Foreign Language Film

Will Win: Son of Saul

Should Win: Son of Saul deserves it, though Mustang would also be a great pick.

Original Screenplay

Will Win: This is probably the only one Spotlight will win

Should Win: My brain says Spotlight but my heart says Ex Machina or Inside Out.

Snubbed: Will saying Anomalisa make me too much of a broken record?

Adapted Screenplay

Will Win: Like Spotlight, this will probably be the consolation prize for Carol.

Should Win: As much as I liked Carol, I’m not sure writing was its primary strength. If this is about the art of adapting a story to the big screen, my money would be on The Big Short or The Martian.

Cinematography

Will Win: The Revenant

Should Win: All strong picks in this category, but I’d go for Carol.

Editing

Will Win: This one’s a toss-up, but I’m guessing the Academy will go for the “slicker” editing of The Big Short.

Should Win: This is where I think Mad Max should start sweeping the technical categories.

Music (Score)

Will Win: Bridge of Spies, because the Academy loves them some Spielberg.

Should Win: Carol or The Hateful Eight.

Snubbed: Was I the only one who loved the score of Ex Machina?

Music (Original Song)

Will Win: I really don’t care.

Should Win: See above.

Live Action Short

Will Win: My money is on Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gute)

Should Win: Everything was haunting, and probably the most technically well-made of the shorts. But Shok was my personal favorite. As long as the manipulative Day One doesn’t win, I’ll be happy.

Animated Short

Will Win: World of Tomorrow.

Should Win: Absolutely World of Tomorrow, if only as penance for Hertzfeldt’s It’s Such A Beautiful Day having not gotten recognition years ago.

Sound Editing

Will Win and Should Win: Mad Max.

Sound Mixing

Will Win and Should Win: Mad Max.

Visual Effects

Will Win and Should Win: Mad Max.

Production Design

Will Win and Should Win: Mad Max.

Costume Design

Will Win: Weirdly The Danish Girl, because of Hollywood’s obsession with European period pieces.

Should Win: Honestly, no costumes this year really struck me. I guess Mad Max?

Review: The Witch

If you know me, you know I’ve never felt a shortage of anxiety. Nor a surplus of sleep. So the superficial charms of the horror genre — the rollercoaster of adrenaline, the future terror of a dark bedroom — don’t exactly bewitch me. When I do muster up the courage (and cash for nerve-reducing theatre booze), I don’t do it to be thrilled or seduced. I do it to be struck. Not necessarily by a statement or a story, but a new spin on something inside. If fear is a reflection of deep emotional truths, a great horror film acts a sort of visual thesaurus, expressing a general feeling in specific, evocative shorthand. It coaxes something out of you that you didn’t know you knew.

So what should I do with The Witch? To its credit, it never even tried to rob me of sleep — less Craven than Kubrick (and more Bergman than either) it abstains from jump scares with an almost Puritanical resolve. Despite every byline to the contrary, Robert Eggers clearly did not set out to make a “scary movie” so much as a moody, formalist drama about scary things. And by any formal rubric, it’s a very impressive debut. The soundtrack is Under the Skin levels of eerie, the attention to detail admirable, the tone thick and wonderfully consistent. It’s a great exercise in restrained, dread-infused mood building, wholly deserving of praise for its construction. But I can’t pinpoint what, if anything, it actually set out to build.

Which isn’t to say that I need story to be king, or that I can’t appreciate tone-driven art on its own terms. I just couldn’t find any new emotional ideas to latch onto here. Certainly not in its individual parts. In perfect fairy-tale form, every image in this movie is a direct portrayal of a fear I already had, phrased in diction I already knew — creepy twins chanting, possessed children rising from beds, zealously religious knife-wielding mothers. And not in the way it weaves them together. Like a concept album or illustrated storybook, it deftly blends everything into a uniform aesthetic (in this case, muted, gray 17th century New England), but the particular context — while admittedly fresh — only served to alienate me. The whole didn’t add to the parts. Thematically there are promising glimmers of originality: the story functions as a sort of upside-down Job, where God is silent, faith is terrifying, but Satan is personal and proselytizing. Zealots in the Hands of a Jealous Devil. But whenever it seems to push the message one way — against the oppression of religious hysteria or towards something more fantastical — something seems to come along and undercut it. It’s interesting, but muddy.

Maybe that’s as good a summary as I’ll get for The Witch: interesting but muddy. I’m left praising the craft and dedication and subtlety, and wondering what all that subtlety was for. Nothing expanded on my own imagination while I watched it, and when I went to bed that night, nothing was lodged in my skull. Chris, Carson, and I had a good disagreement about it in this week’s 400th episode.

Review: Dirty Grandpa

Missed Connections, 01/24/16, San Francisco, California

To the young white male with the hoodie and plug earrings who sat behind me during Dirty Grandpa.

You probably don’t remember me, but we both attended today’s 4:50 pm showing at the Century Cinemas on Market St. I sat in row 11 or so, slightly to the left. You sat in row 14, dead center. I believe you came alone, though you seem to believe you were surrounded by friends. You had short spikey hair, a black hooded sweatshirt, and a constantly-open mouth which, against all odds, did not contain braces. You are the Platonic Ideal which Sid from Toy Story roughly approximated. I’ve seen you many times through a mirror dimly, but tonight I saw your face.

I didn’t turn around to get a look at that face til the movie was almost over; you know, about the time that regressive fiancé character announced she’d slept with knock-off T.J. Miller for reasons known only to the screenwriter. You were too busy shouting “HA HA HA NO F***IN WAY MAN NO F***IN WAY THIS IS LEGIT UNREAL” and accepting a thousand imaginary high fives to notice my stare. I only watched you for one, maybe three seconds max, but I wish I could have held my gaze for eternity. I want to know who you are inside. I want to know your soul.

Do you mind if I call you Spence? I’m somehow certain it’s your name. Spence, that look was the conclusion of a 90 minute journey we shared together. It began with the trailer for How To Be Single, when Rebel Wilson came on screen and you belted out a hearty, five second guffaw. No joke had yet been delivered, save the mere existence of obese women — a concept which, like many, I now know you find utterly hilarious. I whispered to my friend that this was going to be a long movie. I had no idea how long.

For the next hour and a half I did not watch Dirty Grandpa. I watched Dirty Grandpa and Spence, a bizarre work of performance art wherein character and audience become blurred beyond distinction. Every time Robert De Niro cursed, you shouted “WHAT NO WHAT NO WHAT” as if it were an uproarious punchline. When women made sexual references, you cried “WHAAAAAHHAHAHA” til you audibly gagged. When gay or minority characters came on screen, you shouted “OH NOOONONO” even before the hacky bits flooded in (and, oh, would they ever, Spence, would they ever. And you always had a louder laugh queued up to greet them.)

I want to know what it’s like inside your head. Why, during all 100 obligatory “party” scenes, did you shout “WOOOOOOOO ATTA BOY” like your buddy was doing a keg stand? Did you truly believe yourself to be on Spring Break with Zac and Robert and teenage Rose Byrne and [censored out of respect for Ms. Plaza, who I assume was forced into this at gunpoint.] When they dance in the club, do you get sweaty? When they chug Natty Ice, do you taste its lukewarm, uriney numbness? Did you physically inhale Jason Mantzoukas’ crack cocaine? Is that what made this so much fun?

You weren’t the only person who laughed at this movie. But you were the only person who laughed at every frame of this movie, soaking in its texture like a gourmet meal. When you entered the theatre, you became the Dirty Grandpa, soaring out of your chair, through the screen, and down I-75 in a pink Mini Cooper (or, as you and De Niro shouted in unison, a tampon / labia / vagina on wheels. Because pink stuff is for girls and, well, girls, am I right?) People got shitfaced. Insults were spoken. Things hit things, genitals were mentioned, and your road trip was a glorious success.

I need you to save me, Spence. Save me, because I’m stuck on the outside and it’s a cold, lonely world. Here with the older women in the front row and that 30-something couple on an awkward date and the rest of the silent, uncomfortable crowd. Watching a terribly pointless collage of every other terrible movie, in the presence of a Rocket Power character taken corporeal form. Like Edward Norton to Emma Stone, I want to see the world through your cartoon eyeballs. I want to know how you found yourself in the snobbiest, hipsterest, least Spence city in the country, and how you maintain your joy. And when I finally know you, I want us to sit down together, write a script chock full of all those words that make you laugh so hard, and sell it to Lionsgate for six figures.

Sincerely, Hipster with the gray sweater in row 11

Review: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

I never thought I’d say this, so I’ll just rip it off quick like a Band-Aid stuck in Jon Krasinski’s beard: Michael Bay made a pretty good movie about Benghazi.

It takes every bit of willpower I possess not to qualify that sentence somehow; maybe throw in an adjective or two to weaken “pretty good” into something more backhanded, like “shockingly serviceable” or “not too terrible.” Something to help me preserve my bleeding-heart liberal cred. I mean, come on. An action movie about a current military event with overt political propaganda value. Set in the Middle (“quick, throw Jafar eye-liner on every vaguely ethnic person we can find at central casting”) East. Released in January. Directed by Michael. Goddamn*. Bay.

And who knows, maybe this is just what January does to me. But I’ll say it again: Michael Bay made a pretty good movie about Benghazi.

The most surprising part is that 13 Hours isn’t really an anomaly. If anything, it sees Bay fully embracing the things he’s frequently ridiculed for: hyperstylized, over-the-top, testosterone-fueled action. Virtually everything else has been stripped away, leaving an odd combination of Lone Survivor and Mad Max. There are only two things in the movie: the calm before the storm, and the storm.

And what better a way to tell the story of Benghazi? Not the politics, not the broader social ramifications, but the story lost in the shuffle: what happened, to whom did it happen, and why might it earn its outrage regardless of politics? To that end, Bay’s total adherence to action feels downright restrained. He isn’t interested in flag-waving martyrdom or sweeping generalizations, he’s interested in a few specific people. Regular, working citizens who have a job to do and do it well, despite their absurd, intractable situation. He hones in on that story — the fear, the insane danger, the overwhelming discomfort of being an unwanted presence in a foreign country — and becomes a pretty perfect voice to it**. Even his typically out-of-place humor is totally at place here; this is exactly how these men would lighten the tension, isn’t it? Bay clearly isn’t interested in solving said intractable problems, nor making gods and demons out of his subjects. The title is the only scope he cares about: 13 long, unnecessarily bloody hours that no human deserved to suffer. And he does that suffering far more justice than most “nuanced” military flicks I’ve seen.

* Actual middle name

** Except for the women. In typical Bay style, there is precisely one female character of note in this movie, and her primary function is to complain, utterly misread situations, and literally fall on her face. Her redemptive arc begins when a burly man tells her “I need your eyes and your ears, not your mouth” and ends when she calls said man is a hero. It makes Emily Blunt’s Sicario character look like Imperator Furiosa.

Best Films of 2015

Best Films of 2015

tl;dr: here’s a list with no explanations

Things I wanted to see but hadn’t yet: Mustang (Update: Review Here, almost certainly would have made my list), Son of Saul (Update: Review Here, also list-worthy), Heart of a Dog, Phoenix, Victoria, Amy, Steve Jobs, Trumbo, Buzzard

You can hear my friends and I discuss our lists at The Spoiler Warning Podcast. You can also find more reviews at my Letterboxd page. Here’s a link to last year’s list.

Intro I Always Feel Compelled To Write For Some Reason

Every year since…2008?…I’ve shown up on The Spoiler Warning to make a Top X Films Of The Year list. In the early days it was typically a no-brainer. On a good year I might have seen 15 movies, 5 of which I’d actively dislike. Whittling it down to a Top 5 yielded easy, if predictably college-dude results: The Dark Knight, Up In The Air, Inglorious Basterds, Inception.

Now on a reasonable year I’ll catch 75 movies, with maybe half being quote critically acclaimed endquote. Needless to say, this list-making thing has become a lot more challenging. Gone are the days where I could slap a gold medal on the latest Nolan flick and move on. I’ve begun to recognize that A) there are so many good, worthwhile movies out there, and B) not all varieties of “good, worthwhile” are created equal in my mind. The more I watch and discuss film, the more I need to carve out my own unique value system: of all the good and worthwhile things, what do I most value?

This year I became convinced that I am not Big Spectacle Guy. There is one movie notably absent from this list, and it rhymes with Schmad Schmax. I can’t fault it. It did everything right. It was an overwhelming, masterful distillation of an auteur’s vision. It was big and spectacular, and I am simply not Spectacle Guy. Instead I’m embracing that the thing I care about, above all else, is what a movie says and how well it convinces me to listen. In a world overrun with stimuli, I’ve found myself (often unconsciously) digging for messages: how is the filmmaker using his/her platform and what does it instill in me? It doesn’t need to teach me something new, per se, but it should illuminate some (literal or emotional) truth. These are not the only kind of movies, nor do I subscribe to some snobby belief that they’re objectively better. But they are mine.

Looking over my list, I see not only a plethora of messages, but a trend in the type of message: namely, the blurry line between good and evil, high and low. Some films on my list are about the danger of blatant “heroes” and the virtue of modest, quiet persistence. Others give hate, ignorance, or depravity a human face. Others toy with the very idea of a distinction, convincing us to root for one character only to switch “teams” in the final act, or to put faith in a savior only to end with an anticlimactic thud. All of them convince me that generalizations are lazy; that truth is messy and takes serious work.

This is meant to be a Top 10 of sorts. 1-5 are straightforward, Best Of material. 6-10 are named awards, each with a winner and runners up. There the order is ill-defined at best. Is my runner up for #7 better than my runner up for #8? Is it genuinely “worse” than my top choice for #10? I have absolutely no idea. I loved them all. Let’s just get to the movies.

1-5: The “Best Of”

1. Anomalisa

Anomalisa Typically my #1 pick is set in stone months before these lists get made. So maybe I’m crazy for picking Anomalisa (full review), a movie I only had about 48 hours to wrestle with before recording. But I’ve got to go with my gut on this. Charlie Kaufman’s heartfelt, hilarious, deeply odd little film struck all the right chords. In a sense, this is the perfect complement to The End of the Tour (full review): it’s a story of why day-to-day existence is so damn hard — not due to grand suffering *cough*Revenant*cough* but due to sheer monotony. And in its own, subtle way, it’s a testament to why that monotony is beautiful. It has the best dialogue of the year, a breathtaking visual style that would put Pixar to shame, and possibly the most tender sex scene I’ve seen in my life. Oh, did I mention they’re all puppets? Laugh if you want, but this is as far from Team America as it gets. It’s beautiful, human, and true.

2. Ex Machina

Ex Machina As an AI researcher who also loves movies, there probably hasn’t been a film more tailor-made for me than Ex Machina (full review)…with the possible exception of Her. But while Her had Spike Jonze, Joaquin Phoenix, and the promise of sappy indie tears (my three favorite things), this had nothing to foreshadow its greatness. If anything, I went in dreading an overly-serious bit of pseudointellectual fluff. But I can’t stress how quickly it won me over, how flawless it is in every aspect. It works as a genuinely compelling think-piece, a brooding thriller, a gnawing drama, and a spectacle all at once. Perhaps most importantly, it’s clever enough to know when to hold back on the specifics, to ground itself more in emotion than in imagined “facts.” To me this is Hollywood at its best; phenomenally acted, beautifully textured, thought-provoking, exhilarating, and crowd-pleasing to boot. If you’re wondering why Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, and Domnhall Gleason seem to be exploding this year, let this film be your primer.

3. The Overnighters

The Overnighters This one is a cheat however you slice it, since it was clearly released in 2014. But it didn’t hit VOD til 2015, and if Rotten Tomatoes is any indication, that was many critics’ first introduction to it. It was certainly mine, and I was floored.

There’s not much to say about The Overnighters (full review) that I haven’t already said. Documentaries tend to move me by exploring something big, shocking, or overwhelmingly tragic. This did the opposite, showcasing the power of the format to depict the small, intimate, and human. It follows a pastor in a small town in North Dakota, where a massive spike in low-income immigration has provoked a moral crisis. As a pastor, he believes it his duty to help any neighbor in need, and opens the church grounds for homeless men to sleep in. But as a pastor of a specific congregation, he also needs to keep the peace — and his congregants are far from comfortable with opening up their “home.” In keeping with my theme, there are no explicit good guys or bad guys here; just regular people, full of faith and conviction and (often misguided) fears. It’s artfully shot and utterly relevant in the current political Zeitgeist. If you have a religious upbringing, a heart for social justice, or even just liked Show Me A Hero (full review), I’d urge you catch this on Netflix immediately.

4. Spotlight

Spotlight When I reviewed Mad Max: Fury Road I described it as a sort of gourmet bacon; a crowd-pleasing joyride so excessive that its very excess became a virtue. I couldn’t believe how fresh, how shocking straightforward muchness could be. In a similar vein, Spotlight (full review) might be compared to gourmet toast and black coffee. White bread, decaf. This is an ode to level-headed restraint, a film which resists excess at every turn. It’s a fantastic ensemble piece without a single showy performance. An urgent exposé on a horrifying subject, whose primary refrain is “let’s not rush this.” An utterly riveting drama about refusing to get caught up in drama. A wonderfully directed, meticulously constructed film that never calls attention to its craft. It’s so quiet, so subtle, so totally devoid of Oscar moments, yet somehow it’s also the perfect Oscar movie. And it carries a timely message: dramatic conviction has the power to blind, and only a measured response can expose it. In a world of tweet storms and clickbait journalism, the highest virtue just might be boring, unsexy patience.

5. Carol

Carol If I were to describe Carol (full review) in one word, it would be “hypnotic.” It is, in many respects, the dessert to Spotlight’s just-the-basics meal; lushly textured filmmaking where every frame is meant to be savored. This is the perfect episode of Mad Men, and like Mad Men, synopses are misleading at best. Carol isn’t about what it was, but how it felt to be there. A lesbian romance set in 50’s New York, the film is billed as a heartbreaking tale of Forbidden Love a la Brokeback Mountain. And while it works on that level, it most resonated with me as a meditation on the feeling of being lost, and the paradoxes inherent in finding yourself. Carol is the victim of a repressive sort of glamor, but that same glamor is what draws us to her. Therese is yearning to escape her do-as-you’re-told life, but her ultimate freedom comes from being helplessly swept up in someone else. Gorgeous cinematography and perfect acting aside, I can’t fully rationalize my love of Carol alongside some of these “weightier” choices. And maybe that’s the point. Sometimes you just need to be swept up in something.

6-10: Awards: Winners and (Noteworthy) Runners Up

6. Stephen Isn’t As Snobby As Commenters Say He Is, Sometimes He Likes Stuff People Actually Saw Award: The Martian, w/ Inside Out and Creed

The Martian If you were to take this list at face value, you’d probably get the sense that “artsy fartsy” is the sole genre I enjoy. And while I do love me some independent cinema, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the huge number of great, big-budget crowdpleasers that came out this year. This is by no means an exhaustive list (see: Furious 7 (full review), Spy, The Walk (full review)), but I wanted to highlight the three most pleasant surprises. Inside Out is the first great Pixar movie in five years, and arguably the best in longer. Blending the secret-society-hiding-in-plain-sight joy of their vintage classics with the human-centric emotions of their later output, it perfectly encapsulates the Pixar mantra — an unabashedly childish movie about putting away childish things. Creed is a phenomenal underdog story in every sense of the word; in no universe did I expect the 7th Rocky sequel to put up a fight. But Ryan Coogler’s electrifying direction and Michael B. Jordan’s charismatic performance revitalized a tired franchise and delivered an absolute knock-out.

If ever there were a blockbuster with my name on it, though, The Martian (full review) would be it. The AV Club’s A.A. Dowd perfectly described it as the secular God’s Not Dead. This is an intoxicatingly optimistic, joyous celebration of the drug of problem solving, far less concerned with making converts than preaching to the choir of addicts — of whom I happily count myself a member. There’s nothing subtle or edgy about it. Mark Watney is a stand in for our geekiest aspirations, rummaging through his inventory to solve a real life point-and-click adventure game. That it works so well is largely a testament Damon’s overwhelming star power. But it’s also evidence of Ridley Scott’s timeless ability to mesmerize…Exodus notwithstanding. Make fun of the Hollywood Foreign Press all you want, but this made me laugh more than any so-called “comedy” of 2015. Til they make a separate category for Most Delightful, I’ll consider that Globe well-deserved.

7. The Act of Killing Award: The Look of Silence, w/ Cartel Land

The Look of Silence It’s been a particularly excellent year for vital, hard-hitting documentaries. Cartel Land may, in fact, be the hardest-hitting of the bunch. Like Sicario (full review) it examines the reciprocal nature of the drug war, but to its infinite credit, it never succumbs to the pitfall of mistaking brooding vagueness for a point. With unprecedented access, the camera follows both the cartel and the morally-questionable vigilantes that fight it. Bullets fly. Heroes turn to villains before our eyes. And if at times it felt a bit voyeuristic, the truth on display was always mind-boggling.

Some truths run deeper than others, though, and none were as revelatory as those in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence (full review). A follow-up to the eponymous Act of Killing (full review), it aims to give the Indonesian genocide a human face. Where Killing chose the face of evil, though, Silence turns its attention to the innocent. We follow Adi as he interviews the very people who tore his family apart: the man who murdered his brother, the official who reaped the profits, the cowardly uncle who guarded his cell. At once unflinching and artfully subdued, it has no interest in soliciting easy, throwaway sympathy. Adi isn’t seeking pity, he’s searching for a way forward. And redemption can be far more complicated than grief.

8. Dallas Buyers Club Award: Love and Mercy, w/ Brooklyn

Love and Mercy Two years ago I awarded my number one slot to a traditional, not-particularly-showy movie which blew me away by sheer consistency: Dallas Buyers Club. While I’ve since recanted that choice, I do think there’s room on any list for wonderfully-executed, basic filmmaking. Sometimes a great biopic, or a great romance, can stick with you longer than any “challenging” think piece. Brooklyn is one such film. A coming-of-age story set in 50’s New York, it might be the most gorgeously sentimental film of the year. Saoirse Ronan gives a star-making performance as Irish immigrant Eilis, but the supporting turns (particularly Emory Cohen) are no less endearing. As a romance it falls a bit short of masterful, but as an ode to the immigrant experience it floored me. If it hit a single wistful note, though, Love and Mercy hit about 50 in unison. Was it a Brian Wilson biopic? An off-putting romance? A story about creativity and mental illness, or about captivity and exploitation? Or was it just a simple ode to the thrill of making music, and an excuse to turn a timeless album into a soundtrack? I can’t label it. But while some notes (the Cusack / Banks romance) felt discordant and others (Dano in the Pet Sounds studio) transcendent, there was something seriously moving in the cacophony.

9. Whiplash Award: The Revenant, w/ ‘71 and Tangerine

The Revenant The Whiplash Award is reserved for singular, focused films which overwhelm me by sheer intensity. This year there were three contenders, and it’s really where my rankings break down: each of these held the title at some point in the last 20 minutes of making this list. And they couldn’t be more different. Jack O’Connell singlehandedly stole this award last year, and he nearly did it again with the criminally underseen ‘71. A moody, pressure-cooker action flick set in Belfast at the height of the Irish Troubles, it combines the earnestness of Gangs of New York with the nihilism of In Bruges. And speaking of earnestness, who could have seen Tangerine coming? When critics started raving about a movie shot on an iPhone 5 that follows two transgendered prostitutes on the streets of LA, I was hugely skeptical. And for the first 20 minutes or so, I felt vindicated. But somewhere along the way, all that abrasive, jarring energy transformed into something hilarious, tender, and vibrant — like Spring Breakers with a heart and soul.

But this time around I have to give it to The Revenant. I may have some issues with Iñárritu’s style. He sometimes feels unnecessarily heavy, falsely burdened by the belief that glorified suffering equals meaning. What I can’t deny, though, is his power to captivate. This one stands out as a grand cinematic statement, an awesomely ambitious slice of chaos that my snobby hipsterdom has no right to dismiss. It’s my Mad Max of the year, over-the-top and wildly engrossing.

10. “Talky Flick” Award: Clouds of Sils Maria, w/ The End of the Tour, Queen of Earth, and 45 Years

Clouds of Sils Maria This award (formerly “Take the Premise and Run”) has always been tricky to define; the moment I think I have it pegged down (“high concept”, “low fi”, “character-driven”?) an outlier comes along and upheaves it. The best descriptor I can give is “play-like”. These are films which are dialogue-centric, involve a very small cast of characters, and take place in a narrow window of time following a relationship-straining event — think A Separation, or The Loneliest Planet. It’s a testament to an amazing year in film that The End of the Tour (full review) is only one of three honorable mentions. Anchored by perfect performances from Segel and Eisenberg, it’s a wonderfully stripped down little film that cements James Ponsoldt (Smashed, The Spectacular Now) as one of my favorite contemporary filmmakers — if I weren’t handicapping for my rampant David Foster Wallace fanboyism, it probably would have been much higher on the list. Queen of Earth (full review) is perhaps the polar opposite; a deeply uncomfortable, Bergman-esque psychological drama about the deterioration of a female friendship. Amid a sea of samey indies, its bare-bones, hyperrealistic style was a serious gut punch. 45 Years is also a gut punch, but there’s nothing hyper about its realism. It’s an acutely-observed, sparse relationship drama that haunted me long past the credits rolled. Charlotte Rampling earns her praise and then some.

Speaking of phenomenal acting, Clouds of Sils Maria has it in spades. Juliette Binoche is typically great, of course, but Kristen Stewart is a total revelation. Then again, I shouldn’t be surprised; if the film is about anything, it’s the murky line between “highbrow” and “lowbrow”, between “serious” actors and crowdpleasing stars. Like last year’s winner, it deftly combines the broad and laser-focused, with piercing dialogue giving way to gorgeous shots of nature set to a bombastic soundtrack. It’s a layered, complex, compelling piece of work. But most importantly, the conversations were genuinely fun to be a part of — one moment the two share (in a bar after a terrible superhero movie) had the best chemistry I’ve seen on screen this year.

Misc Awards / Defied Ranking

Vintage Stephen Award: Room, w/ Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Room Despite not quite making the list, heartfelt indie flicks hold a special place in my heart. These “Sundance-y” winners tend to come in two flavors: stylish with hip detachment, or heartfelt but understated. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl achieved the rare accomplishment of being both. Like 50/50 meets Scott Pilgrim, it both says something sincere, and says it with the flare of a seasoned auteur. Even if it falters a bit in its obligatory tear-jerking conclusion, I’ve got nothing but love. Room (full review), on the other hand, flipped the genre on its head. A heartwrenching drama about a mother and son living in captivity, it doesn’t have a “hip” or “quirky” bone in its body. At the same time, it almost completely avoids the melodrama its dark subject matter ought to lend itself to. What’s left is less a tragedy than a tragic thought experiment; sadness is only context, background. The foreground is Ma (a brilliant Brie Larson) and Jack’s imagined universe, a sort of Allegory of the Cave set in the post- television era. That’s where it shines.

Tree of Life Award: Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max I read enough film reviews to know that leaving Mad Max (full review) off a list is tantamount to heresy. So I thought it’d be fitting to, at least, give it the honorary Tree of Life Award, named for the movie I objectively respect more than I’m subjectively drawn to. Which isn’t to say I wasn’t drawn to this movie; I thought it was an overwhelming accomplishment. But that’s largely it. Like a great Metal band or the perfect Horror movie, I’ve learned that some incredible, enormously impressive things are simply not meant for me, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Respect from one Miller to another.

It’s finally…

…over. Brain is dead. No more energy left for conclusions. Watch crazy movies about puppets. Sing Beach Boys songs. Cry on airplanes. Trust me.

Review: Anomalisa

You learn a lot about a director when you meet him inhibition-free. This week I met three. Quentin at his Tarantinoest impresses and shocks in equal measure: he wants you to know he’s the smartest guy in the room, then launches into a three-hour riff on The Aristocrats. Alejandro at his Iñárritmost might actually be the smartest guy in the room, but give him a sip of liquor and he’ll just go on and on about how “life affirming” Nietzsche is and something about misery and bears. Three hours of raving about the “beauty of communication” later you’ll realize he’s never even asked you your name.

Charlie at his most Kaufmanesque. Now that’s a guy to drink with. He always comes prepared with a few hilarious anecdotes to power through that awkward, sober, shoe-gazing prologue: the cab driver on the way over who wouldn’t shut up about the zoo and the chili, the awkward moment in the elevator when no one could make eye contact. One beer deep and you’re talking art, philosophy, movies, lit; he’s got an opinion on everything, and none of it feels consciously smart. Three rounds in and he says enough chit chat, how are you doing — like, really, how are you. He doesn’t make it weird and he doesn’t get pushy, but he also doesn’t undercut it with a joke. So you talk about all of it: the loneliness, the monotony of day to day life, the feeling you can’t shake that everyone and everything is blurring together. That existence might be profound on paper, but it damn sure doesn’t feel like it from where you’re sitting. You make a self-deprecating crack about your “angsty phase”, but he doesn’t smile. He says yeah, I feel that too, and it isn’t a phase.

He says meaning is what you make of it. Some nights you’ll make a surplus, and you’ll learn to squeeze those nights for everything they’re worth. Clementine and Lisa are moments, not saviors, and they won’t bear the weight of your fantasies for long. Commit them to memory as vividly as possible, because most nights you won’t make much. Most nights you’ll sit and remember the better nights, the times you felt on the cusp of something new. When those are worn out you’ll take solace in the faint glimmers: that goofy doll you bought on a business trip to Tokyo, that beautiful film about puppets that moved you in spite of yourself. But the real secret, he says, the alchemy, is making something out of boredom. Notice how peculiar, how hilarious the shape of your loneliness is; how these empty, monotonous transactions are distinctly yours to have. Remember their texture and share them with someone else. It might not add up to Meaning or Truth, but it certainly helps pass the time.

You think it reminds you of what the other guy was saying about Nietzsche, and that “life affirming” sounds a lot cornier than it feels. You order another velvet martini while Charlie launches back into the cab driver bit. In the background Tarantino says something vulgar about Mexicans while Iñárritu gently weeps. You soak in every eccentric detail. Tonight you’re on the cusp of something new.