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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Monday, January 04, 2016

entry arrow5:14 AM | Personal Best: Forty (Actually 44) of My Favorite Films From 2015, Part 1

Save for one controversial film list I wrote for Spot.ph years ago, I have never attempted to rank the films I have seen for any given year: the whole process is fraught with painful choices, and I am a masochist only for love. (Ha.) Truth to tell, I still have difficulty genuinely answering people who ask me what my favourite film of all time is -- I waver between Tokyo Story and E.T. The ExtraTerrestrial and Citizen Kane and Grave of the Fireflies -- so I do not even want to entertain the notion of having to come up with a list of a film year's best. Which is why, for this inaugural effort, I have chosen 40. Because I tuned 40 this year. Because "best" should always lean towards generosity. Because my choices are informed by an interest to consider not only the artsy, but also the gloriously commercial. Because choosing the traditional ten is largely a reductive exercise in a fine year full of fantastic films. Because there is an increasing cinematic richness that do not only encompass Hollywood: films from other countries populate this list with a regularity that is testament to worldwide abundance. Which makes it quite ironic then that, save for one title, I have not made any effort to include Filipino films -- largely because I have yet to see most of them. I have written about this before. Local movies have a distribution problem that should not be ignored anymore; it is far easier to catch a film made in Mali or India than one from the Philippines. (If you want a list of great Filipino movies from 2015, here is Richard Bolisay's and here is Oggs Cruz's and here is Jonell Estillore's. Their choices, I suspect, are top-notch and well-considered. Long live Philippine cinema!)

What a film year this has indeed been, and one strongly steeped in nostalgia. The best efforts in that backwards-looking exercise are reboots of beloved films including Creed (for Rocky), Star Wars: The Force Awakens (for Star Wars: A New Hope), Sleeping With Other People (for When Harry Met Sally...), and Max Max: Fury Road -- but there are also the disappointing retreads that came courtesy of Terminator Genisys, Jurassic World, Poltergeist, and Point Break, among others. They will remain unmourned, even if one -- Jurassic World -- has become a box office behemoth. And, of course, I do not have words for the utter disappointments of Joy (truly unjoyful), The Hateful Eight (truly hateful), The Good Dinosaur (truly bad, if gorgeous to look at), and The Little Prince (which jettisons our favourite book, and proceeds to create another story that remains unforgivably uninteresting).

So here is my list. To begin, let's start with ten runners-up, which should overall make an even fifty, and these include, in alphabetical order, Bridge of Spies, Chi-raq, Cinderella, Creed, The Danish Girl, The End of the Tour, Ex Machina, The GiftSpy, and Youth.

40. We Are Your Friends (Max Joseph, dir.)

This was my guilty pleasure of the year, and simply because it is one of those rare films that take a dip into the unexamined world of DJs and EDM. If I had seen Mia Hansen-Løve's Eden, that film would probably take in this spot on my list -- but this one is a witty and tightly constructed film that sings, dances, and just happens to star Zac Efron. A complete surprise of a movie.

39. Sleeping With Other People (Leslye Headland, dir.)

There is no reason to make this film, a loose retread of Rob Reiner's glorious rom com When Harry Met Sally, which came complete with the scintillating screenplay by the late great Nora Ephron, the one-liners of Billy Crystal, and the ascendant luminosity of Meg Ryan. This one has none of that, and is, on the whole, a foul-mouthed homage. It also asks us follow two mostly unsavoury characters with sex on their brains. But for some reason, the homage feels inspired and the film works -- the way a tightrope walker manages to clear a very thin piece of string. Here's one for audacity.

38. By the Sea (Angelina Jolie, dir.)

The critics have considered this marital melodrama set in southern France (and starring the real-life married couple Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt) as a tepid misfire -- but I love the languid narrative of this film, and its unflinching look into the vagaries and temptations of married life. It reminds me of the unhurried sensibility of Bernardo Bertolucci at the height of his cinematic exploration of human frailty and sexuality.

37. Paper Towns (Jake Schreier, dir.)

Regular YA literature, transposed to film, gets no respect, even when the material and the adaptation -- such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Fault in Our Stars -- are masterful and engaging. They get good notices, good box office -- and are then promptly forgotten by critics. For the most part, in Hollywood, YA is all about dystopic worlds with teenagers running away, always, from some fantastic mortal danger. I'm bored with that tendency, and so I love this adaptation of John Green's novel because it sets a different mode about teenage lives, and surprises us because the true love story in its heart is not really between a boy and a girl, although it markets itself as being so. Plus, this was a way better film than the agonising banality of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and the promising but eventually disappointing Dope.

36. The Intern (Nancy Meyers, dir.)

The films of Nancy Meyers don't get any respect either: they are constantly being accused of being aspirational commercials about the lifestyle of rich white people. So what? Is it forbidden to make films about this specific social class? The only failure is film made clumsily, and this film is not clumsy -- and it reminds us that Meyers made the incandescent Something Has to Give. This one, starring Robert de Niro in a gentle turn that has to be considered sterling achievement in the wake of his recent slumming, is a surprising examination of life beyond retirement -- gilded at the edges, yes, but how delicious and funny this film is.

35. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, dir.)

When it ended the first time I saw it, I felt happy and relieved -- convinced that Abrams had done a great job in botching up a franchise that has been hobbling of late. It doesn't exactly hold up upon repeat viewings -- and many people have also accused it for being unoriginal -- but the film works. Period. I've always thought of this latest instalment in the Star Wars saga as a necessary corrective, and a necessary reminder. If it apes the narrative and the vision of A New Hope, I think it was to fulfil two paramount goals: to gently ease us away from the rancid memory of the prequels, and to recalibrate the story to virtual factory settings so that a more ambitious vision of the mythology can arise. The reminder has been accomplished, and we are pleased. Now let's wait for the rest of the new trilogy to astonish us.

34. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller, dir.)

The film should have made for prurient story-telling, but it is testament to the sensibility and the creativity of the filmmakers that a story of a young teenage girl's steamy affair with her mother's boyfriend has come off as sympathetic and bold, all at once. It was uncomfortable watching the film, especially the graphic way we see the affair evolve,  but it unfolded in a very sure way, helped by a cinematography that seemed calculated to show us the lush mindset of a teenager brimming with sexuality. You may want to take a shower after, but the film makes you think.

33. Tangerine (Sean S. Baker, dir.)

Famously a film shot by iPhone cameras, and famously a film that gave us the powerhouse performances of two transgendered actresses, it came off to me as shrill and chaotic upon initial viewing -- and I was at a loss for how this DIY effort had captured critics and audiences alike. But by the end of the film, when it quiets down to a fantastic denouement, I realised the film's bold but subtle power. It is not perfect, but there is gold in its imperfections.

32. It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, dir.)

This is not Paranormal Activity nor The Conjuring -- and hence, you must be prepared to enjoy a horror movie that dispels its fright through slowly growing dread instead of jumpscares. The premise is unnerving and smart: a curse is sexually transmitted, and the ghouls that come for you are slow moving figures that look like anyone, coming to you steadily but surely -- until they come at you with certain deadliness. The film is really an experiment in form. It doesn't scare you the normal way -- but it lingers in your consciousness days after.

31. Goodnight Mommy (Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, dirs.)

If Michael Haneke and Eli Roth spawned evil together, the result would be this German film. A mother comes home to an isolated country house after having undergone extensive plastic surgery, and her face is all bandaged up. But her young sons are entirely unsure if this woman in their midst is truly their mother. The horror begins, and it deepens because we are completely unsure who the monster is. Or are. There are twists and turns here that are guaranteed to shock, leaving you with only one kind of feeling: delicious devastation.

30. Inside Out (Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen, dirs.)

Pixar redeems itself with this return to form -- this is a compelling story, with fantastic design, and tweaked just right to mess with our emotions. And perhaps that should be the case, given the fact that the film is really a study of one person's emotional life -- in this cafe, a young girl by the name of Riley devastated by the changes wrought by her parents' move to the big city. It felt a little too calculating for me upon first viewing -- but it grows on anyone willing to undertake this emotional adventure.

To be continued...

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[1] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich