1. Selma — I noticed the absolute beauty of one composition, girls on a staircase, the exact moment before the frame blows up. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt more jolted by a movie. DuVernay’s just as visionary in her one-shot overhead view of the aftermath, with echoes of The Wizard of Oz—a terrifying but safe imaginary place for children to work out the nightmares of society, denied. Oprah Winfrey deserved a nomination too, as she did for The Butler. She does so much with her one big scene here.
2. Mr. Turner — My favorite Leigh by a significant margin. I prefer the way the characters register the horror of existence, not with uncontrollable sobs but with blank, uncomprehending stares.
3. Nightcrawler — Viewing this as a didactic commentary on the media would indeed make it seem a bit rote, i.e. everyone knows all about that already, but saying “it’s just a movie” helped me elevate this to greatness.
4. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) — It seems impossible to remember this movie as anything but a haunting dream, so it was funny to see it again and find that the filmmaking really is quite alert, grounded in physical detail and sensation.
5. Inherent Vice — From an e-mail I sent: “Yeah, Inherent Vice was great, I like how effectively it mirrored the confusion I feel when watching detective movies and wondering how the characters can so easily absorb plot developments and mazes of connections and immediately visualize their next move. That is to say, I couldn't make much sense of the story. But the way Doc uses his P.I. notepad in only the most pointless way (“something Spanish” comes to mind) allowed me to turn off from content a little bit and think of everything more in terms of language and sound. A Pavement-y effect, I guess. I wish more movies were musical in that way. Great soundtrack and score, too. Might have to see it again.” [I didn’t see it again, sadly. —ed.]
6. The Big Sleep (1946) — See Inherent Vice, above. This is the movie I meant.
7. Blow Out (1981) — The only money I ever made from writing was for a high school essay that took the physical media-cluttered mise en scene of Blow Out as its starting point. I still dig that aspect of the movie, but this time the ending turned me on most. John Travolta’s blunders on his way to saving Nancy Allen quickly become operatic in scope, and that might prove alienating to an audience accustomed to smart heroes undertaking swift rescue, but for me it’s the moment when dream edges into nightmare.
8. Still Alice — Sure to be remembered as the movie that won Julianne Moore an Oscar, but she’s actually very good in it. Key scene: In bed at night, she spills her fears but the husband just comforts her, not registering her terror, so she has to scream to make him listen.
9. Two Days, One Night — In Dardennes fashion, the title first reads as merely descriptive, but in the end doesn’t quite seem to match up. The movie spans three days, right? So instead I started to think of the title as referring to an aspect of storytelling that’s so crucial here, compression of time, and to think about how the film makes the highs appropriately high and the lows appropriately low, with such a limited window. For the highs, thank the soundtrack, which has a French version of “Needles and Pins” and Them’s (I think) version of “Gloria” during a few key driving scenes, the latter nearly manic in the way the mood shifts so abruptly. For the lows, thank Marion Cotillard, who was indispensable last year. The Immigrant had that miraculous moment when a magician appears to levitate, and where most movies would mock his unsophisticated turn-of-the-century audience, turn the camera on their wide eyes and gaping mouths, Cotillard won’t play along. She instead allows herself to be distracted by another figure in the room, and ignores the whole thing! And in Two Days, where most movies present depression and job anxiety as exotic, mysterious forces, she makes it all utterly ordinary.
10. Timbuktu — Everything I remember most about this movie—a soccer game without the ball; violent struggle at a mirror-like lake—plays like an exercise in pure cinema, in my memory. Consult a source better than me for broader significance.
11. Big Hero 6 — A nice diversion, with a small legacy: Zac and I say “furry baby” quite often.
12. To Have and Have Not (1944) — I remember when Humphrey Bogart was a constant feature of my life, and now I’m lucky to see him once or twice a year. He’s like family in that way.
13. What We Do in the Shadows — Funny!
14. All About My Mother (1999) — Prelude to…
15. Bad Education (2004) — I checked my records to find that I’d first seen this at a theater ten years and nine days previously, in Helena! In the interim it had become one of my favorite movies, and now I’ve seen it enough to declare it perfect, a labyrinth of plot and frame and revelation that’s beautiful and whole from every angle. The moment when a drop of blood trickles down Ignacio’s forehead and his face splits in half deserves applause or a standing ovation, anywhere and anytime this movie is playing.
16. Little Fugitive (1953) — For a place I’ve never been, New York City takes up a lot of territory in my mind, as an imaginary place, a collaborative work of art. Sometimes I barely believe it exists or ever existed, so movies like Little Fugitive, filmed at Coney Island in the 50s, are invaluable, make it nearly real.
17. Speed Racer (2008) — Plays even better now than it did seven years ago. I submit this as a classic due for rediscovery.
18. While We’re Young — Best use of montage since… the word referred to a technique and not just a narrative shortcut set to music? As a vehicle for a Dean Wareham cameo, this is a worthy follow-up to Frances Ha, trading a mid-to-late 20s worldview for a middle-aged one, and the romance of black and white for principled real color. I didn’t expect the movie to go down a rabbit hole of documentary and authenticity concerns, but it comes with the territory, and exposes the characters’ beliefs and worries in a way that less frantic plotting wouldn’t.
19. Citizen Kane (1941) — I remember when this movie was a puzzle to solve, and how I watched it enough times until I felt I understood what made it great. Now I can appreciate it as a terrific entertainment (eternally fresh and liberated, too; as evidence of a young artist messing around with the world he knows and making something great, it remains inspiring), but I get no joy from thinking about it.
20. Avengers: Age of Ultron — The speed with which Black Widow and Hulk jump from confessing their love to grieving the fact they can’t have kids was pretty alarming. Mourning that which will never exist? I don’t get it.
21. Ex Machina — I’m not sure what’s going on with the recent slate of movies about A.I. women in captivity, except that men will never stop finding new ways of being fucked up. I got the impression the filmmakers thought it progressive to deliver Ava to a sense of her own agency. I’d rather have seen what she does with it.
22. Pitch Perfect 2 — Reviewed here. Editorial changes didn’t quite help clarify my second paragraph’s minefield of clauses. Try this instead:
“It’s a comedy after all, necessarily hermetic. [NEW PARAGRAPH] But mostly the Bellas sing, and their musical preferences give the film a rosy, regressive approach to soundtrack that’s ultimately to its benefit. There’s no need for the world of collegiate a cappella to contain the same level of posturing and trendsetting found at the Beverly Hills high school of Clueless.”
Not sure I believe that, but as long as the copy’s legible.
23. Mad Max: Fury Road — Crazy!
24. The Stranger (1946) — Not very good. Given what Orson Welles was capable of in the ‘40s, I have to assume he filmed this in two days in a state of constant distraction.
25. Tomorrowland — This looked like it was going to be huge; a few months later I bet it will take you a minute to remember it ever existed. However much it undercuts wonder with futility, it’s still a movie about wonder, thus doomed to failure in 2015. But during its one brief shining moment, opening weekend (even better that I saw it right after a high school graduation), it played well.
26. Mad Max: Fury Road — For the second time. Not my favorite of the year by any means, but the one where I most felt the need to figure out what I’d seen.
27. Spy — Melissa McCarthy gives a somewhat milder performance than usual, so it’s great when the movie gives her one chance to riff on her persona, suddenly full of a sense of her power and throwing out crude insults until she realizes she’s gone too far. I’m always happy to watch her blitz her way through a movie but Spy shifts the angle, desk worker gone rogue serving as a sort of parable of the work it takes for a comic actor to crush self-doubt and get to that place of anarchic energy. It’s also very funny, Beaches wristwatch in particular.
28. When Marnie Was There — Much as I love Miyazaki, I’d argue that an increase in projects from different directors has reinvigorated Studio Ghibli and that their recent five-picture run, starting with Arrietty, rivals Pixar’s run from Ratatouille to Toy Story 3. (Too bad they’ve put a halt to new work.) After a handful of wonderful films about girls, When Marnie Was There is the capper, the story of a shy adolescent engaged in a supernatural lesbian romance. A late revelation makes such a reading a bit perverse, but as in From Up on Poppy Hill the film portrays young love so tenderly that its forbidden aspect hardly registers. (Clooney and robot girl’s relationship in Tomorrowland, odd as it is, passes the test too.)
29. Results — After his formally ambitious fourth film Computer Chess, Results plays like an alternate universe follow-up to Andrew Bujalski’s first three low-budget pictures. From the universe we’re used to, that is: Indie director upgrades cameras and cast for sleek approximation of his early work. But his characters retain their spirit. Every time Results threatens to take a conventional turn, the characters back down from confrontation and behave like normal people. A lawsuit threat turns into an invitation to get high, etc.
30. Jurassic World — Entertaining enough, but… if you have to ease your guilt over making a soulless studio product by constantly having your characters engaged in meta-commentary about corporate sponsorship, why bother making it in the first place? Oh well, there was still quite a bit I liked here. It’s hilarious when the two boys walk into the ruins of the Jurassic Park set, a perfect visual metaphor for the way people now perceive the 1990s to be as ancient as Maya society or something. Technology has rendered the whole 20th century as pre-history.
31. Nine to Five (1980) — I too thought Dolly Parton was terrific, and looked back at Ebert’s review to find it’s nothing but rapturous praise of her. But I don’t think she’s great at the expense of the rest of the movie, which has charms in every direction. The scene of Parton, Tomlin and Fonda smoking pot and laughing hysterically is a gift to the universe.
32. Inside Out — Reviewed here, first sentence typo not mine. It originally just said, “Bjork predicted their vision.” My premise is a bit silly, I know. Of course it’s a children’s movie and I only undermine my question of universal applicability by bringing adults into the equation. Basically I just kept wondering why the movie had to be about a kid whose family can afford to move to San Francisco. Maybe I should’ve just said that.
33. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) — A three-hour movie without an extraneous shot or scene. I forgot how deeply cynical (realistic) it is, correctly identifying America’s business interests as a threat to the very people who would fight for it. “Where we stand today is… where we stand today, wherever that is.” It’s a sad world, where war is better than business as usual.
34. Blazing Saddles (1974) — Forty years later the jokes require no explanation. If anything it almost plays like a parody of the present day.
35. Love and Mercy — People treat biopic like a bad word, as if it has nothing to offer, as if its formulas and cliches formed in a vacuum and have nothing to do with the way people think about history and famous lives. Anyway, this one doesn’t dismantle biopic convention as much as I’d been led to expect, or at all, but the cast is splendid, the sound design is superb, and the case for giving genius free reign and all necessary resources is fully convincing, after seeing the opposite. Not to mention the film depicts the Pet Sounds sessions, the world historical event I would most like to have been present for.
36. Hard to Be a God — Hard to be human, again.
37. Purple Rain (1984) — The idea that an audience wouldn’t immediately recognize the genius of “Computer Blue” and “Darling Nikki” is a plot contrivance so outlandish it nearly undermines the whole movie. But the filmmaking really clicks into place for the ballads, and even when it doesn’t, I take very seriously this portrait of the rock star as a troubled teen.
38. Car Wash (1976) — A hit-and-miss series of jokes and gags that doesn’t nearly imply any of its few dozen characters is destined for an arc, until that devastatingly sad coda has two characters completing each other’s.
Bonus (home video)
White Bird in a Blizzard announces itself as a spiritual sequel to Mysterious Skin—an opening voiceover telling of a disappearance; falling stuff (snow, not cereal) set to Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie’s score; a story set in two distinct periods, ‘80s and ‘90s; honest depiction of teenage sexuality; etc.—but Araki’s return to literary adaptation is a disappointment, especially in comparison to his masterpiece. This is the kind of movie where the protagonist’s black and gay friends deserve their own movies but instead say things like “I’m so proud of you” and “you’re my hero now,” a propos of nothing.