In a good year, I’ve been known to publish a top 20. This year’s standouts were as obvious as they were few and far between. As such, more thought went into selecting the bottom ten. I could just as easily have called it quits with three by Kevin James, three by Adam Sandler (they both share in the blame for Pixels), and four Apatow factory byproducts, but that would have been too easy.
Note that four of the ten honorees held their local premiers at the Digital Gym, where the booking of late (give or take fanboy frights and the occasional telenovela) is the finest to hit town since this reporter parted company with MoPA. Would some beneficent, deep-pocketed cinematic soul brothers and/or sisters out there please pony up the funds needed to fit the booth with a Sony 4K projector? The addition would catapult the Gym into the ranks of the big boys, a hall where artistic champs would be proud to showcase their might.
Onward to 2016. In fear of repeating a line that’s been called into play for almost two decades’ worth of ten-best lists, I’ll refrain from noting next year can’t get much worse.
1) The Assassin
Hou Hsiao-Hsien expends more time and thought on composing individual shots than most directors do on complete features. Ten minutes in, it became clear this triumph of style over subject was unlike anything that opened in 2015. No surprise that the paucity of plot and the promise of limited, austere “action” scenes kept audiences at bay. Too bad. Not even Tarantino’s 70mm fantasy fulfillment looked this good on a screen.
2) Black Souls
One of the most original gangster films since Don Corleone bought it in the orange grove. Director and co-writer Francesco Munzi has assembled what could amount to the quietest gangster chronicle ever made, with many of the key character shadings imparted in slight gestures and nimble movements of the camera.
Al Pacino snapped a career losing streak that dates back to Donnie Brasco. Even more impressive: between this and Danny Collins, he managed to crack both my top and bottom ten! (Manglehorn director David Gordon Green, also responsible for the inexorable Our Brand Is Crisis, came close.) With its long, precision-crafted parallel editing, sound design, and constantly evolving lap-dissolves, Manglehorn is almost as much an epistle to a certain tendency in ’70s cinema as it is tender homage to the power of Pacino.
4) In Jackson Heights
The sites and sounds of the the world’s most culturally diverse neighborhood act as linking devices for “nonfiction filmmaker” Frederick Wiseman to stitch together a tapestry of seemingly irreconcilable roars, coolly knocking down barriers to rough out a microcosmic portrait of a community struggling to find harmony between old-world loyalties and assimilation in a new land.
This year’s surreal wild ride showcased a hygienically challenged young lass, awash in a sea of bodily fluids and banking on an anal fissure to reunite her with friends and family. Stop me if you’ve heard this one. In his fourth film, director David Wendt’s establishment of a near-scientific system of lexicography proves him to be the Sergio Leone of scat. There hasn’t been anything quite like this since Dogtooth.
Slowly but steadily, a pair of case-hardened homicide detectives discover they have more in common with each other (and the serial killer they tenaciously pursue) than initially thought. Spanish director and co-writer Alberto Rodríguez puts a fresh (even if seamy) spin on a genre that’s long been taken for granted.
7) The Gift
The ads scream Fatal Attraction, but rest assured this is not a typically minted crime of passion. For his first time doing double-duty behind the camera, Joel Edgerton unwraps a gift that doesn’t stop giving, right up until an indeed disturbing climax — never saw it coming — designed to haunt and resonate for days after. Download it tonight!
8) Black Sea
Director Kevin Macdonald and screenwriter Dennis Kelly know full well there are only “10 moves you can make” on a submarine picture. They make them all, both men exercising great prudence when cutting and shuffling the cards in this year’s most enjoyable genre feature.
9) The Prophet
An assortment of seven acclaimed, stylishly diverse animators are each assigned a chapter of Kahlil Gibran’s Hallmark Greeting Book, with former Disney animator Roger Allers handling the framework and bridging sequences. Parents, refusing to remove the Pixar blinders, flocked to the studio’s exhortative, dialogue-centric Inside Out, while shunning this visually sumptuous delight.
Shot exclusively on cellphones, I’ll be damned if director and co-writer Sean Baker’s audacious, expressionist use of color and smooth, aggressive camera movements don’t put the technology to the test.
1) Belle and Sébastien
If Nazis were as dopey as the ones depicted in this child’s Bertesgarten of good versus evil there would have been no ovens, due to their inability to spark a pilot light.
2) Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2
Once I ran from Kevin James. Now I run to him. A movie? This doesn’t qualify as television! As astonishingly inept films go, this is mandatory viewing.
A stern, monochrome, relentlessly depressing video lecture aimed to supplant the historical fundamentals our parents and public school teachers failed to instill within us.
4) By the Sea
Angelina Jolie, trying hard to tap into the Antonioni vein, comes up vain in this year's #1 vanity production. At least when Liz and Dick took us on paid holiday vacations, the star couple had the good sense to pack master stylists like Joseph Losey and Vincente Minnelli to ride herd on the camera. It was a screening of three and I didn’t have the heart to awaken the pair of snoozing seniors seated two rows behind. Their snoring kept me awake.
Unable to get out from under a career pirated by Disney, Johnny Depp continued to strain what little acting credibility there is left in this fluffball revival of Terry-Thomas.
One Trainwreck a year is enough. Skitsters Tina Fey and Amy Poehler clearly show they don’t have what it takes to sustain a one-joke premise, let alone pander to the Apatow crowd.
100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
7) The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
Released by Buena Vista International, aka Disney, this Swedish-language import is banking on Garp and Gump groupies to gobble another goopy assemblage of happenstance and madness as a cheery metaphor for eternal happiness. Ah, phooey!
Jake Gyllenhaal looked ring-worthy, but audiences expecting an Oscar contender were instead sucker-punched by maudlinness. (Child custody cases and boxing don’t mix!)
9) Danny Collins
Geezer porn. What little hope of satire there was in this tale of an aging rock star are dashed the minute Leukemia and ADHD enter the picture. Al Pacino makes the worst of the biggest disaster his name’s been attached to since Author! Author! while writer-director Dan Fogelman stops short of a bone marrow transplant to ripple the hearts of Academy voters.
Todd Haynes does not deserve to smell Douglas Sirk’s shit. Didn’t the director already make this picture about guys? That explains Kyle Chandler’s figment of a character. Dartboard Plotting 101: When all else fails, in order to advance the story without sweating a drop of creativity, have a character walk into a room looking for one object only to find another that’s more crucial to the plot. Carol asks, “Would you get my blue sweater out of the suitcase?” You mean THE SAME SUITCASE THAT JUST HAPPENS TO HAVE A GUN HIDDEN IN IT? I predict Oscars all around.
Moments of Distinction
The actress as auteur: Sairose Ronan (Brooklyn), Cynthia Nixon (James White), Jane Fonda (Youth), Carla Juri (Wetlands), Selma Blair (Sex, Death, and Bowling), Rachel McAdams (Spotlight), Brie Larson (Room), Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight), Rosemarie DeWitt (Digging for Fire), Rebecca Hall (The Gift), Viola Davis (Lila & Eve), Elizabeth Banks (Little Accidents), Kitana Kiki Rodriguez (Tangerine), Jennifer Lawrence (Joy), and Iris Apfel as “Herself” in Iris.
The actor as auteur: Al Pacino (Manglehorn), Parviz Parastui (Today), Albert Brooks (Concussion), Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies), Nelson Xavier (Trash), Jason Bateman and Joel Edgerton (The Gift), Fabrizio Ferracane and Peppino Mazzotta (Black Souls), Kôji Yakusho (The World of Kanako), Harvey Keitel (Youth), Paul Dano (Love & Mercy), Raúl Arévalo and Javier Gutiérrez (Marshland), Liev Schreiber (Spotlight), Jason Schwartzman (The Overnight), and, what the hell, Sylvester Stallone (Creed).
Cinematography: Ping Bin Lee (The Assassin), Thomas Hardmeier (The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet), Sean Baker and Radium Cheung (Tangerine), and Luca Bigazzi (Youth).
Screenplay: Francesco Munzi, Maurizio Braucci, & Fabrizio Ruggirello (Black Souls), Paul Logan (Manglehorn), Joel Edgerton (The Gift), Benoît Debie (Love), Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy (Spotlight), Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch (Tangerine), Jake Johnson and Joe Swanberg (Digging for Fire), Patrick Brice (The Overnight).
Number of top-ten grossers seen: One, Inside Out, and I couldn’t wait for it to end. As for the rest, he’s not my Bond, never saw a movie with the word “Jurassic” in its title, six Star Wars pictures were enough for me, etc.
Biggest disappointment: After Burying the Ex, one can no longer say Joe Dante is incapable of making a bad movie.
I liked it, you didn't: Upon leaving the screening of Tomorrowland, I turned to a friend and said, “I like this movie so much that it’s bound to flop.” Leave it to Brad Bird to transform a script based on a quarter of a theme park into perfectly entertaining family fare.
You liked it, I didn't: Ex Machina proved that you don’t need an array of CGI or buckets of blood to tickle a fanboy’s fancy, just so long as the lead actress gets naked. Fury Road was the fourth installment in George Miller’s Mad Max series. He could have quit halfway through Beyond Thunderdome.
A lot of big names left checked out in 2015, but none had a greater impact on little Scooter than Hollywood’s beloved “mean little kid,” George “Foghorn” Winslow. He appeared in ten films (three of which I’ve yet to see) over a seven-year period, a relative speck in the cinematic firmament, but I dare say there’s not a child actor — not even the Our Gang kids and Foghorn’s heir apparent, Froggy — that made me laugh harder at the inherent nastiness of childhood.
It was none other than Cary Grant who “discovered” the six-year-old’s raspy, sonorous lisp and world-weary delivery on Art Linkletter’s radio show, People Are Funny, and convinced director Norman Taurog to give him a role their upcoming production, Room for One More. It wasn’t that impressive a part, with Foghorn providing much needed comic relief in an otherwise saccharine tale of a family addicted to adoption.
In memory of George “Foghorn” Wilson
In time, Foghorn established a presence that was something much more than just another helping of Claude Jarman Jr. or Butch Jenkins. Whether he’s scalping the always uninteresting Hugh Marlowe in Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business or in Frank Tashlin’s glorious Artists and Models, where he mistakes a letter opener for a poison dart waiting to be flung at Jerry Lewis’ head, this kid lived life on the edge.
Foghorn retired from showbiz at the age of 12, joined the Navy, and spent his remaining years delivering mail in Camp Meeker, CA. The video contains scenes from the three above-mentioned titles as well as clips from Mister Scoutmaster, where a rummage sale confrontation with Clifton Webb escalates into a battle of wits, and as the only man for Marilyn Monroe in another Hawks masterpiece, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Rest in peace, oh gravelly voiced skipper.