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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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Tuesday, January 05, 2016

entry arrow9:50 AM | Personal Best: Forty (Actually 44) of My Favorite Films From 2015, Part 2

In the films that I come to love, I look for quirk, for a strong narrative line and finish, for brave vision, for respect to human intelligence, for making new of what's old but at the same have great respect for what came before. Read Part 1 (nos. 40-30) and the explanation for my choices here. Let's get on to the second batch of movies that delighted me in 2015...

29. The Peanuts Movie (Steve Martino, dir.)

The idea of this new movie utilising Charles Schulz's beloved comics characters actually getting made was initially galling in two respects: first, the animation was going to be CGI -- a departure from the endearing flatness of the comic strip (and the small movies that it spawned); and second, we would finally see the previously unseen little red-head girl of Charlie Brown's eternal fancy. How dare they mess with a classic? But mess Martino and Blue Sky Studios did -- and the result is a surprisingly faithful take to an old favourite, just with new dressing and a new character.

28. Jess and James (Santiago Giralt, dir.)

What a strange road trip movie from Argentina this is: it's not entirely a successfully made one -- there are the garish uses of sound, for example -- but it's one that has so much faith in its quirkiness, both in the telling and in the characterization, that all you can do is surrender to the ride it promises. Two young men -- both gay, both listless, and both remarkably similar in looks -- meet up, have sex, and for some reason they decide to take to the road together, ostensibly to search for the other one's estranged brother. There are no life-altering lessons to find here, no dramatic or meaningful denouements to make you shudder. But it's a satisfying adventure nonetheless, steeped in unbridled sexuality that feels organic and sinful. The film may have something to say about the restlessness of youth or the plastic appeal of beauty, but maybe not.

27. The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, dir.)

Any film from this Greek filmmaker is guaranteed to be a seductive head-scratcher. But Lanthimos mostly succeeds in his presentation of his surreal fantasies because the worlds he creates to be inhabited by his strange characters are so complete and consistent in their own infernal logic that all you can do is follow the inevitable twists and turns. There is a distance or a remove that we feel for the uncanny situations we witness, but once you get the unsettling notion that the fables Lanthimos concocts are allegories of our real world, the discomfort sinks in, and deliciously so. In this film, the most accessible in Lanthimos' body of work, we are thrust into a reality where single people are made to check into a hotel for 45 days, and get turned into an animal of their choosing if they don't find a mate by the deadline. Such an intriguing premise! Films of similar ambition usually botch up the arc of their narrative, challenged by the ridiculousness of their concept -- but strangeness is part of the regular vocabulary of Lanthimos, so he never falters. I loved Dogtooth and Alps; The Lobster only confirms my admiration for him.

26. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter (David Zellner and Nathan Zellner, dirs.)

How do you describe this film? A young Japanese woman -- tortured by the alienating confines of Tokyo, stumbles upon a video of the Coens' Fargo, learns from the film about the money that's buried in the snowy landscape of North Dakota, and -- blurring the boundaries between the real and the imagined -- proceeds to look for the treasure on her own. Tragedy ensues. It is of course based on a real story, but as told in this film, it speaks a lot about the grating noise of our world, and our longing to escape from it, even if it sometimes kills us. A sad, very moving film.

25. Far From the Madding Crowd (Thomas Vinterberg, dir.)

Remakes of classic films rarely surpass their originals. So here I am risking everything to proclaim this: Vinterberg's take is even better than John Schlesinger's 1967 original starring Julie Christie. (Both are based on the Thomas Hardy book.) While Christie herself was incandescent in that role, Carey Mulligan is no pale imitation either: she exudes an uncanny tender sexuality to the role of a independently minded young woman who inherits her uncle's farm and decides to manage it herself; Mulligan makes the role her own, and does the comparison to Christie proud. And there is of course the quiet animal stirrings Matthias Schoenaerts brings to the movie. He will make you blush. He will make you press pause many times. Yes, he will.

24. The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, dir.)

Peter Strickland is a divisive Greek-British filmmaker that is the perfect complement to Lanthimos: whereas Lathimos' strangeness are confined to a closed world with its own rules and logic, Strickland releases that strangeness to the world that we are more familiar with. It doesn't always work, like in Berberian Sound Studio (2012), which I nonetheless loved, but in this new sapphic BDSM affair, it works splendidly. The set-up is intriguing: a young, beautiful woman keeps house for a tyrannical older woman, who inflicts all sorts of abuse on her -- and then we find out that nothing really is as they look or seem. Then the drama plunges into something deeper, encasing us in a throbbing sensual world full of silky textures and butterflies and longing and despair. I'm not sure I can watch this film again, but it is memorable.

23. Best of Enemies (Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, dirs.)

It has been a strangely so-so year for documentaries: a lot of good ones, yes, but not a lot that engaged me very thoroughly. The biographies we got about Amy Winehouse, Nina Simone, Kurt Cobain, and Marlon Brando (I have yet to see the ones on Ingrid Bergman and Nora Ephron) were solid documentaries, most of them much-admired -- but they didn't get to me in an emotional or intellectual level. Best of Enemies, the documentary about the popular 1968 televised debates between two intellectuals and authors, the liberal Gore Vidal and the conservative William F. Buckley Jr., is a bit above the usual fray of nonfiction biographies because it is ultimately about a cultural war, and sheds much light about the role of pundits, the shenanigans of personal politics, and the power of television culture. Because it raises its two personas to the stratosphere of cultural currents, and does a fine job of delineating the genius and intellect of both men, I've come to love this documentary over the rest.

22. Heneral Luna (Jerrold Tarog, dir.)

Much has been said about Heneral Luna, the sole Filipino film in this list, a lot of them admiring and also a lot more critical. I get the potshots thrown at the film, but I remain convinced of its singular power. It's not faultless or flawless, but it does provide a fascinating study of filmmaking vision, something you don't see very often in Philippine cinema. That it proved popular was a kind of a wake-up call to a lot of people in the country. It has to be celebrated if only for that alone.

21. The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu, dir.)

Talk about filmmaking vision! This is the film that fully embodies that quality and aspiration of artistry that's always difficult to ascertain. And it does this with a simple story: a legendary fur trapper in 1823 Montana and South Dakota leads a band of reckless men in their danger-filled trade (vicious Indians everywhere!). He gets into a bloody rivalry with another trapper, gets mauled by a bear, and then gets left for dead by everyone else. He somehow survives and vows revenge. Not much of a story, but oh how it's cloaked in magnificent, jaw-dropping cinematography and tight, vigorous editing. It is a spell-binding film, if a bit too relentless in its bloody machismo. It has a twin in this regard in Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, released in the same season, but Iñárritu's experiment in beautiful desperation is the better movie.

20. Ant-Man (Peyton Reed, dir.)

Edgar Wright's controversial departure from the project looked as if this superhero film was doomed at the get-go, and it came at a time when there was already growing discontent over the relentless over-saturation of films made from comic books. Instead, Peyton Reed's Marvel movie surprised us with its smaller-scaled delights and breathless and tight humour, bolstered by the likeable performances by everyone in the cast. After the mind-numbing spectacle of mayhem and destruction we've suffered through Avengers: Age of Ultron and Man of Steel, the very idea of a final confrontation staged in a child's toy set in a small bedroom is a breath of ironic fresh air.

To be continued...

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