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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 11, 2016

entry arrow12:05 AM | Personal Best: Forty (Actually 44) of My Favorite Films From 2015, Part 4

Lists are a good way to gauge film in two respects: first, as a reflection of personal taste (which always evolves), and second, as a picture of what constitutes diversity in filmmaking best for a moment in time. I'll probably look at this list in the future, and say, "What was I thinking?" But for now, this is my Top Ten, for better or for worse. Read Part 1 (nos. 40-30) and the explanation for my choices here, Part 2 (nos. 29-20) here, and Part 3 (nos. 19-11) here. Let's get on to the fourth and last batch of movies, the top ten, that delighted me this year...

10. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Roy Andersson, dir.)

I love a film that defies explanation but does not alienate. That's a rare balance, and when it succeeds, it deserves applause. Andersson's latest effort, the last in his "Living Trilogy," which includes Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and You, the Living (2007) [both unseen -- yet -- by me], defies narrative logic, and then some, and it deserves a thousand rounds of clapping: it begins with the titular bird, perched on a branch as a display in some museum, observing the goings on around him and by extension the rest of the film. The rest of the film, of course, are mysteriously presented episodes shot in tableaus, capturing the strange minutae of pale-faced robotic people in some European country -- most likely Sweden itself -- going about the small absurdities of their daily lives. It's existential, for sure. It doesn't make sense. It's all lovely.

9. Carol (Todd Haynes, dir.)

Give yourself a favour and watch Todd Hayne's film -- his first since his HBO mini-series Mildred Pierce -- twice, and in a row. The first time is to behold the crisp formality of the filmmaking -- the elegant cinematography and production design, the impeccable direction and editing; and the second time is to immerse yourself, finally, in this love story between two women in the conservative heat of the 1950s. The latter might not immediately make itself apparent in the first viewing because the film has a bewildering coldness to it that fogs the brilliance and warmth of its romance, and I think it's because everything is so crisp in construction -- and great beauty, alas, is distracting. Once the story embraces you, it becomes the very paragon of compelling. This is a rare happy-ending from the forever cynical Patricia Highsmith, whose novel The Price of Salt the film is based on, with savvy adaptation by Phyllis Nagy.

8. The Martian (Ridley Scott, dir.)

You cannot deny the power of this crowd-pleaser, an increasingly rare demonstration of Hollywood studio-filmmaking at its finest when it wants to be. It is assuredly directed by a veteran director who has managed to create perhaps the most positive film in the whole arc of his long and impressive career. Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded in Mars gives a performance that is virtually the equivalent of walking on a tightrope, going between drama and comedy in subtle measures. There no villains here, only the deadly challenge of the seemingly impossible. It is a film that makes you happy, that makes you believe in science, and that makes you believe in humanity. We need to celebrate films such as this. It is all too rare. Thus, it lands a spot in my Top Ten.

7. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, dir.)

How is this possible? A belated sequel to a long-dormant franchise, directed by an old director whose last beloved film centred around a talking pig, shouldn't capture our imagination and our adoration this much -- but it has. And it's all a perfect combination of directorial chutzpah, bewilderingly beautiful cinematography, fantastic performances -- and a feminist twist to a traditionally testosterone-filled narrative. Much has been said already about Miller's film, and of late, it has been gaining recognition for the sheer inventiveness of its scale. This is bravura filmmaking. People will talk about this film for years and years.

6. Brooklyn (John Crowley, dir.)

Director John Crowley and screenwriter and novelist Nick Hornby's adaptation of Colm Tóibín's book is earnest in its conceit: life is hard, but it can be surrounded by the kindness of good people. This is why I love the film, because it is frank in its depiction of Irish lower class poverty and New York immigrant blues at the turn of the 20th century but it embraces earnestly a believable brightness in its navigation of a young immigrant girl's life and the way it is touched by many people. True, there is a villain or two in the film -- but the real obstacle is just the way life is often slow in making you realise for sure what it is that you truly love.

5. A Borrowed Identity (Eran Riklis, dir.)

There are twists and turns in this Palestinian/Israeli drama nobody can foresee, especially if you expect the tried-and-true formula of this particular sub-genre of film: anger, clash, recrimination. We follow a young Palestinian boy growing up in a neighbourhood of radicals all wilfully fighting the presence of Israelis in their midst. His father, however, wants him to land a good spot in a good school -- and that means leaving home to matriculate in an Israeli institution. The usual clash of identities and culture ensue (but in a different kind of unfolding). The difficulty becomes even more so when he falls in love with an Israeli girl and becomes the best friend of an invalided Israeli boy. Beyond that, the larger political upheavals engulfing this part of the Middle East are more or less skirted or are hinted at with obvious attempt at subtlety -- except for a speech our guy makes in the middle of the film, where he voices out what he truly thinks of the Palestine stereotype being banded about in the book they are studying for class. He makes a startling decision in the end, and by that time, we are forced to take a second look at the life he has lived. This is a film that gets under your skin, and upends our expectations.

4. Boy and the World (Alê Abreu, dir.) and World of Tomorrow (Don Hertzfeldt, dir.)

Two animated films of such rudimentary designs do more to our imagination than most of the films from 2015 with more ambition for the grandiose, such as the utter disaster that is Brad Bird's Tomorrowland, which fails to make us feel anything for its flesh-and-blood characters, despite the film's good intentions. Alê Abreu's Boy and the World and Don Hertzfeldt's World of Tomorrow -- see the link between the three films? -- on the other hand, ask us to follow a cast of stick figures, and the result -- buoyed by a fine balance of narrative control and spiralling imagination -- is more crazily emphatic.

3. Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, dir.)

It is easy to see why many critics see Ergüven's film to be a kind of Turkish parallel to Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides (1999). We get the same willowy set of teenage and pubescent girls -- beautiful, ethereal, long-haired, and hormonal -- who are punished for their youthful exuberance by fundamentalist family members into the prison and cocoon of their homes. Coppola's story is a tragedy told in nostalgic tone by the boys in the neighborhood that the girls had enchanted into a kind of arrested longing; no such romanticism exists in Ergüven's film, which soon escalates into a war between the younger girls and the relatives who want to marry them off to men they don't know over the course of a summer. It's a beautiful and devastating film, but it ends with a hopeful note. And makes us realise how backwards most of the world still is in its obsessive control over women's bodies and fates.

2. Phoenix (Christian Petzold, dir.)

This film is my favourite surprise of 2015 -- I watched it as a matter of ticking off a checklist of films with buzz, and I ended up inexplicably enchanted and thoroughly devastated. This is not an easy film to watch: there is a formal hardness to it that can be off-putting, but it makes such a fine case of empathy, which lies in the fates of Nina Foss's character, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, who still longs to be with the husband who might have informed on her to the Nazis. Plastic surgery to her face has given her a new lease on life, and unexpected inheritance gives her the promise of putting the past behind, perhaps with a move to Israel. But she insists on looking for her husband whom she still loves without reservation, who then only recognises her as a doppleganger to his dead wife. He makes a proposal: he wants her to pretend to be his wife so that he can cash on in her inheritance. She relents -- and our anguish begins. It's a quirky take on My Fair Lady and Vertigo, with the darkness of the Holocaust and the darkness of the human heart as the background. And that ending...

1. Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle, dir.)

I didn't expect to like Danny Boyle's adaptation of Walter Isaacson's biography of the Apple founder this much. I expected to admire it highly, the same way I admired screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's effort to dramatise the founding of Facebook by Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher's The Social Network -- and in fact I expected it to be a kind of thematic sequel to the 2010 instant classic: more of the same, thrilling the form-admiring cineaste in me. The structure of Steve Jobs indeed was what drew me in. Sorkin's decision to lay out the demons and desperations of Jobs in three acts, all centring around the launch of a major product, is genius, a storytelling device that made it a paragon of cinematic collaboration: the ensemble acting has compelling arcs, the direction is challenged to pursue tautness in the narrative, the production design showcase a feel for the passing of time that adds to the drama. The film is a fantastic example of how story comes first in any narrative. Without story, nothing matters. Steve Jobs is all fantastic and dexterious storytelling, and that is why it is my No. 1 film of the year.

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[1] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich