In many ways, 2015 was a year of box office duds. Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Jurassic World kept some elderly franchises going, but it seemed like every other week some big production was imploding. Stonewall was the worst; a big-budget gay film that died amidst protests from the very communities it was supposed to be celebrating.
But there was also We Are Your Friends, the Zac Efron EDM project no one saw, followed almost immediately by Bill Murray’s financial abortion Rock The Casbah and then Jem and the Holograms, the eighties nostalgia exercise that was quietly yanked from theaters after just two weeks. In November, audiences (and theater programmers) shied away from Angelina Jolie’s By The Sea, just as they ignored big-budget whaling epic In The Heart of the Sea just a few weeks later.
LGBT titles arguably fared worse than most. Elle Fanning’s lesbian drama About Ray was yanked from theaters before it ever came out, while Tom Hardy’s Legend, about the queer killer Kray twins, was abruptly postponed and then forgotten. The Danish Girl is either boring or offensive, depending on which reviews you’re reading, and the Weinstein Company is dragging their feet rolling out Todd Haynes‘ Carol, which last week was still only playing on 16 screens nationwide. It topped several year-end lists, but not this one, for one basic reason: It’s not playing within 100 miles of any of our writers.
Box office isn’t everything, of course, and this year did have a number of gems. The Council Of Matts (Matt Lawrence, Matt Keeley and Matt Craven) have picked their favorite ten titles of the year, presented alphabetically, plus one bonus film that’s arguably too obscure to qualify.
Diary of a Teenage Girl
Director Marielle Heller’s brilliant Diary of a Teenage Girl is a grimy, squeamish story about a 15-year old (Bel Powley) in seventies San Francisco who loses her virginity to mom’s dopey boyfriend, played by True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgård. (The casting is important, because how many real teenage girls have contemplated losing their virginity to Eric the vampire?) The unflinching sex scenes and nudity are extra creepy for the audience, given that Powley really does look like she’s 15.
Dope isn’t perfect. Far from it. There are plot holes big enough to drive a truck through and completely far-fetched coincidences that don’t even work to move the plot forward. That said, this movie is really funny and ultimately pretty moving, the story of a black geek from a bad neighborhood who ends up on the dark web trying to sell a backpack full of drugs.
The Duke of Burgundy
Sidse Babbett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna star as kinky lesbian lovers in the latest offering from Berberian Sound Studio director Peter Strickland. With a small, all-female cast, the pair inhabit a strange, timeless realm filled with butterfly collectors and the occasional mannequin. Largely plotless and exceedingly restrained, The Duke of Burgundy excels when it becomes clear that the women’s master-slave relationship isn’t enjoyed equally. For those of us left ambivalent by a lot of dom/sub kink, it’s also a reminder how boring certain fetishes can be when you’re not fully invested.
How do you resurrect an extinct franchise? If you’re the Jurassic Park series, you start by adding a new hybrid dinosaur, Indominus rex, that is part T. Rex and part Velociraptor. Then add a smoldering Chris Pratt, a terrifying Pterosaur attack, and, err…Bryce Dallas Howard running in heels. The result was a box office behemoth, destroying everything in its path (at least until the new Star Wars movie comes out).
Mad Max: Fury Road
Who knew action movies could actually be good? We’re being facetious here of course, but seeing an action film with almost no dialogue tell a story of such depth mostly using contextual clues. Mad Max: Fury Road was one of the smartest movies of the year, confronting issues of feminism and disability while still being gorgeous to look at…. once you get used to the over-cranking!
A documentary about trans women in Puerto Rico, Mala Mala offers viewers both the glitz and the humdrum from a variety of colorful yet human characters, from Ivana Fred, a politically-minded woman who spends her evenings passing out condoms to sex workers, to Sandy Rivera, a sex worker with a loving cisgender boyfriend. Medical, political, and economic realities are addressed, but this ultimately joyful film doesn’t try to follow one person’s story too closely, or to unnecessarily connect dots that aren’t there.
You don’t have to like hockey to appreciate Red Army, Gabe Polsky’s documentary about the Viacheslav Fetisov, the Soviet hero who captained the Red Army team for nearly a decade before involuntarily moving to the United States and putting on a Detroit Red Wings uniform. Fetisov isn’t particularly likeable – when we first see him he’s staring at his phone, ignoring Polsky’s off-camera questions. But he gradually gains our sympathies, particularly when the government siphons his paychecks and he’s left at the mercy of a sinister, know-nothing coach.
Relegated to the inexplicably bat-infested basement of the CIA, Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) pines hopelessly after a C-list James Bond wannabe (Jude Law) until she finds herself promoted to the field, chasing after an arch-villainess who dresses, as Susan notes, like a slutty dolphin trainer. It was directed by Paul Feig, who also directed Bridesmaids and created under-the-radar sci-fi series Other Space. McCarthy’s hilarious, but she’s backed up by a really great supporting cast that includes Allison Janney, Bobby Cannavale, and a career-best Jason Statham.
It’s Christmas Eve, and trans sex worker Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is back on the streets after a month in jail, but then her friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) spills the beans that Sin-Dee’s boyfriend, a pimp named Chester, has been cheating on her with some other woman. Informative without being preachy, Tangerine pulls off the rare feat of humanizing the johns as well as the sex workers. (A surprising amount of the film is in subtitled Armenian.) Named for its orange color palette, the film was shot on an iPhone 5S with a tiny budget, becoming a surprise box office hit this summer.
Welcome To Me
One of the year’s most unsettling movies, Shira Piven’s Welcome To Me stars Kristen Wiig as Alice Klieg, an Oprah-addicted recluse who wins the lottery, goes off her meds, moves into a casino and spends fifteen million dollars to star in her very own talk show, Welcome To Me, in which she eats a cake made out of meatloaf and hires a series of women to re-enact traumatic scenes from her childhood. It’s also not a comedy, although parts of it are very, very funny. With elements of media satire and more serious discussions of mental illness, it’s more reminiscent of seventies cinema than anything else out there today. Once again, Kristen Wiig deserves credit for using her Saturday Night Live success to make strange, dark comedies.
And, finally, our bonus film:
Possibly our favorite movie of the whole year was Sérgio Tréfaut’s Alentejo, Alentejo, a film which failed to pick up commercial distribution in the United States. We have no idea why, since it’s an incredibly slow-moving documentary about all-male cante singing traditions in rural Portugal. Oh wait, maybe we do know why. Gorgeously shot and totally moving, the film highlights a unique, centuries old-culture from a region known to outsiders for its wine and not a whole lot else. It screened at exactly one festival in the United States this summer and doesn’t seem to be streaming online anywhere. If you ever get a chance, though, see this movie.
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