Thursday, December 31, 2015

My top 10 non-2015 movies of 2015

It's time to close out the year with one of my favorite traditions, my list of my favorite movies from other years that I saw for the first time this year.

1. In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison, 1967) Given Norman Jewison's reputation for making clunky but well-intentioned social dramas, I didn't expect too much out of this movie, even though it won Best Picture and inspired two sequels and a long-running TV series. So I was surprised to find far more than a heavy-handed sermon about race relations; this is a thoroughly engrossing and effective murder mystery with a great performance from Sidney Poitier as the big-city detective stuck in small-town Mississippi. Obviously it deals with issues of racism, but it also takes on abortion and the tension between urban and rural residents, approaching the changing culture of the time in a thoughtful and nuanced way while still delivering a clear message.

2. Circumstance (Maryam Keshavarz, 2011) I'd had the screener for this movie lying in a to-watch pile since it was released locally in 2011, so obviously it was not a high priority for me. But I'm glad I got around to it, since it was not the dreary naturalist drama I was expecting. Writer-director Maryam Keshavarz explores the difficulties of living as a lesbian and a woman in modern-day Iran, but she doesn't wallow in misery. Her characters experience joy and excitement as often as terror and depression, and Keshavarz shoots the movie in lush, vibrant colors, illustrating the inner fire of those characters that even the oppressive patriarchy can't fully extinguish.

3. Too Late for Tears (Byron Haskin, 1949) This wonderfully nasty noir (which I saw at the TCM Classic Film Festival) introduced me to the great Lizabeth Scott, who plays a housewife who turns murderous when she gets her hands on a sack full of dirty money. Scott is fantastic as the femme fatale who's also the protagonist, and her unapologetic embrace of pure evil is refreshing. The movie never apologizes for having an irredeemable main character, and she gets all the juicy lines. The movie totally had me when Scott and her ne'er-do-well partner (Dan Duryea) toast, "Here's to crime! It pays!"

4. Safety Last! (Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, 1923) I've seen a couple of Harold Lloyd silent comedies with live musical accompaniment at TCM Fest in the past, and this year I got to see one of Lloyd's movies in the historic El Capitan Theater in Hollywood at a different festival -- AFI Fest, which typically has a very small repertory program. Instead of an orchestra or classical ensemble, there was a DJ mixing live, plus another musician on bass, keyboards and samples. It was a different kind of experience that enhanced the movie in a new way. The movie is spectacular on its own, though, with some of Lloyd's best physical comedy, a sweet and melancholy relationship at the center, and the justifiably famous finale, in which Lloyd climbs the side of an office building and ends up at one point hanging from the arms of a giant clock. It's one of the greatest stunts in cinema history, and it's still astonishing nearly 100 years later.

5. It's Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt, 2012) I've caught a few Hertzfeldt shorts at various animation showcases over the years, and I always enjoy his work but have never been quite as wowed as critics were by his recent short World of Tomorrow at Sundance this year (I ended up seeing World of Tomorrow at AFI Fest, and liked it about on the same level as Hertzfeldt's other shorts). Still, this sort of omnibus feature made up of three interconnected Hertzfeldt shorts (without having seen them individually before, it's hard to tell where one ends and another begins) has a pretty powerful cumulative effect, building from his typical deadpan absurdity to something profound and unsettling. The simple animation and voice work (all done by Hertzfeldt himself) allow the film to address some serious existential questions while retaining its unassuming sense of humor and approachability.

6. The Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder, 1955) Apparently this is considered one of Wilder's lesser films (and Wilder himself later dismissed it), but I was totally charmed by it, and I think that even though Wilder was restrained by production codes from including all of the sexual content in the source material (a stage play by George Axelrod), the movie is plenty salacious, and it accomplishes a lot by inference. Marilyn Monroe effectively uses her limited range to play a ditzy but deceptively sophisticated model/actress, and Tom Ewell expertly walks the line between endearing and sleazy as the married man who lusts after her. Wilder mostly sticks with the stage-friendly single locale, and the result is a smart and funny back-and-forth between two ridiculous but relatable characters.

7. Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, 2014) Like Leigh's excellent 2004 film Vera Drake, Mr. Turner takes the filmmaker's rigorous character-based improvisational approach and applies it to real-life history, in this case the life of painter J.M.W. Turner. As played by Timothy Spall, Turner is a consummate grump, treating everyone and everything (including his own family) with a sort of bemused disdain. With a minimum of fuss, he creates some of the greatest paintings of all time, but he seems to regard even that with a level of contempt. Unlike most biopics (especially those released during the crowded awards season, as this was), Mr. Turner doesn't lay out all of its subject's motivations and accomplishments in great detail, but in its impressionistic flashes, it ends up painting a clearer picture of Turner as a human being. (More in my Las Vegas Weekly review.)

8. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014) I've always been kind of lukewarm on PTA, and I didn't rush to catch up with this movie for awards-voting and list-making at the end of 2014 (obviously). But I was pleasantly surprised when I saw it at the beginning of this year, not expecting a whole lot. I liked it much more than PTA's recent more serious movies (The Master, There Will Be Blood), and instead of being annoyed by its baroque plotting, I was charmed by the way the twists and turns wash over the perpetually bewildered protagonist (played by Joaquin Phoenix). Maybe it's just my love for The Big Lebowski, but I find stoner private detectives inherently entertaining, and I was totally engrossed in this movie's seedy world, pretty much to the end of the overlong running time. (More in my Las Vegas Weekly review.)

9. Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939) It seems like a trend for me on these lists to end up with bona fide timeless classics toward the bottom, which is no doubt a result of high expectations. Anyway, obviously Stagecoach is an important and influential film that has stood the test of time, and while it may not have consistently blown me away, I did really enjoy it, especially the amazing chase sequence toward the end. Like Harold Lloyd's building climb in Safety Last!, it's an astounding feat of stunt work that looks all the more impressive because the filmmakers didn't have access to modern special effects. The rest of the movie is more low-key, and it really comes together around the romance between John Wayne's outlaw and Claire Trevor's prostitute, both outcasts with stronger moral codes than some of the supposedly upstanding characters. Their relationship carries the movie, and helps elevate it from a formulaic Western into something memorable.

10. The Threat (Felix E. Feist, 1949) Here's a random TCM discovery that turned out to be a lot of fun: a quick-and-dirty noir that runs just over an hour and features a completely unrepentant psychopath (played effectively by Charles McGraw) as its main character. McGraw plays a criminal who escapes from prison and embarks on a needlessly cruel revenge scheme, along the way showing complete contempt for the lives of everyone around him, including his associates. A good portion of the movie takes place in a cramped, overheated shack as the criminal gang awaits a getaway, and it perfectly captures the slow-building tension of frustration, fear and plain old meanness.

Honorable mentions: Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950); Lovely & Amazing (Nicole Holofcener, 2001); My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava, 1936); Particle Fever (Mark Levinson, 2013); Prime Cut (Michael Ritchie, 1972)

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