Looking Back at 2015 in Film

Inspired by an excellent (and touching) Facebook post by @Escapay, I wanted to write a summary of my 2015 in film.

This isn’t quite a best-of list (I haven’t seen many of the films that will likely be nominated at this year’s Academy Awards, though those are not necessarily the “best” of the year), nor is it limited to 2015 releases. This is a simply a reflection on the films I’ve seen this year, new discoveries, and special movie memories.

Here’s a look back at my 2015 in film:

  • 268 films seen (0.73 movies per day!)
  • First movie seen: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
  • Last movie seen: Apur Sensar (1959)
  • Noteworthy films new to me this year (but not from this year – in no order):

    • Alien Anthology – finally completed the original quadrilogy by seeing Alien 3 & Alien: Resurrection
    • American Sniper
    • Apu Trilogy
    • Day for Night
    • Dressed to Kill
    • Inside Llewyn Davis
    • In the Realm of the Senses
    • Make Way for Tomorrow
    • Sister Act
    • A Special Day
    • The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
    • 2001: A Space Odyssey
    • Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
    • Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
    • Whiplash
    • Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
  • Most-watched:

    • Descendants (4 times)
    • Dressed to Kill (4 times)
    • Inside Out (4 times)
    • Into the Woods (4 times)
    • Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (4 times)
  • Opening night screenings:

    • Cinderella at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, CA. Before the movie, we went to Cabo Wabo at the Hollywood & Highland shopping center for dinner & margaritas. Our waiter asked if we were there for the independent film showcase also taking place down the street, to which we replied “No, we here for Cinderella!”
    • Entourage at the Pacific Theatres in Glendale, CA.
    • Inside Out at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, CA.
    • Descendants at….home. (Does it count to watch a TV movie on “opening night?”)
    • Crimson Peak at the AMC in Burbank, CA.
    • Star Wars: The Force Awakens at the Pacific Theatres in Glendale, CA.
  • Other memories:

    • I got Netflix’s disc rental service so I could finally see Sister Act.
    • Touchstone. With Sister Act, I realized my familiarity with Touchstone movies was very limited. This year, I finally got around to watching some of its better-known films including SplashSister Act 1 & 2Down and Out in Beverly Hills, and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.
    • Anime & Studio Ghibli. I had mistakenly written off Anime altogether, but was so blown away by Oscar nominee The Tale of the Princess Kaguya that I wanted to give the medium another shot. This introduced me to Castle in the SkyMy Neighbor Totoro, and Spirited Away (all of which I liked), as well as Kiki’s Delivery Service (which I couldn’t finish).
    • Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me – watching this “together, remotely” with Aaron Wallace, after his first time watching the Twin Peaks series. I’ve been a lifelong fan of the show, but had never seen the movie until this fateful night. While still paying attention, we texted our reactions through most of the film; I felt better knowing Killer BOB is just as scary to Aaron as he is to me!
    • This inspired numerous “together, remotely” viewings with @Escapay, who tallies 13 such occasions this year. There was definitely an emphasis on Disney and classic Hollywood – I can remember PocahontasCinderella II: Dreams Come TrueCinderella III: A Twist in Time, and Some Like It Hot, and there are certainly others I’m forgetting.
    • Weekend on dual screens – my TV, and my iPad (via the Netflix app). This was my first real visual essay, so I played both screens in sync and would occasionally pause & screenshot as needed for the scenes I wanted to write about. Not easy, but certainly a satisfying experience and I’m immensely proud of my Criterion Blogathon entry for this film.

What were your favorite films & discoveries from 2015? Any special movie memories? Reply below in the comments!

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Looking Back at 2015 in Music

  • Favorite 2015 albums (in no order):

    • Ryan Adams – 1989. I’m not a Taylor Swift fan, at all, but this alternative country cover album of her entire 1989 smash hit record is a double-edged triumph: (1) showcasing the strength and versatility of Miss Swift’s songwriting, and (2) the musical finesse of Ryan Adams for adapting electronic pop music into thoughtful, heartfelt alternative rock. Highlights: “Welcome to New York,” “Style,” “Out of the Woods,” “All You Had to Do was Stay,” & “This Love.”
    • Miley Cyrus – Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz. Genuinely artistic experimental psychedelic album by pop’s most button & boundary-pushing young startlet. It also features some of her best and most mature music. Highlights: “The Floyd Song (Sunrise),” “Space Boots,” “BB Talk,” “I Get So Scared,” “Lighter,” & “The Twinkle Song.”
    • Delta Rae – After It All. This genre-bending swirl of country, Americana, and stadium anthems by a North Carolina sextet is an exhilarating work rich with complex instrumentation and soul-piercing melodies. Highlights: “Anthem,” “Outlaws,” “You’re the One For Me,” & “After It All.”
    • Michael Giacchino – Inside Out (Original Soundtrack). It’s almost laughable to think how this score took a couple listens to grow on me. This sweeping, ethereal soundtrack is what gives this tremendous movie its soul. Certainly one of the best wholly instrumental musical scores in recent years (and endlessly listenable), the highlight tracks “Bundle of Joy,” “Nomanisone Island / National Movers,” & “Tears of Joy” will reignite all the feels you probably had watching the film.
    • Madonna – Rebel Heart. The Queen of Pop’s longest album to date, and her most personal work in years. Highlights: “Unapologetic Bitch,” “Joan of Arc,” “Wash All Over Me,” “Rebel Heart,” & “Graffiti Heart.”
    • The Tallest Man on Earth – Dark Bird is Home. Very fortunate to have stumbled upon this one. Early this year, I was way into iTunes’s featured free songs, and one week “Timothy” from this album was featured. I had never heard of the artist The Tallest Man on Earth, but the song struck a cord and I couldn’t stop listening. Once Apple Music became a Thing, I started exploring more into the albums featuring individual songs I loved, and was stoked to find an entire album of rich, folky goodness. Highlights: “Darkness of the Dream,” “Sagres,” “Timothy,” & “Dark Bird is Home.”
  • Noteworthy albums new to me in 2015 (but not from this year – in no order):

    • Erasure – The Innocents  (1988). Erasure wasn’t even on my radar pre-Looking (which featured the excellent “A Little Respect” in an early episode), and thanks to Apple Music I finally dove deeper into this album to find a treasure trove of 80s pop glory. Pulsating keyboards and stellar, emotional chord progressions make this the kind of record you’ll revisit again… and again… and again. Highlights: “A Little Respect,” “Phantom Bride,” “Yahoo!,” “Imagination,” “Weight of the World,” & “When I Needed You Most (Melancholic Mix).”
    • Girls – Album (2009).  Another Looking influence (remember the Girls songs in Season 2?), Girls’s Album is the ultimate California indie rock piece – muffled production, catchy tunes, and unique instrumentation all contribute to a consistently entertaining, San Francisco surf-ready musical experience. Highlights: “Lust for Life,” “Hellhole Ratrace,” “Summertime,” & “Curls.”
    • Amy Grant – Heart in Motion (1991). This is the stuff that synthpop dreams are made of. Solid songwriting and terrific production leave little question why this Christian/pop crossover exploded onto the scene back in 1991.  Highlights: “Baby Baby,” “Every Heartbeat,” “Ask Me,” “Galileo,” & “I Will Remember You.”

Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz (2015)

“Yeah, I smoke pot. Yeah, I love peace. But I don’t give a f***, I ain’t no hippie.”

Miley Cyrus snarls out this introduction in the first, A Capella, lyrics to her latest musical experiment, Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz. Completely separate from her record label, Miley collaborated with The Flaming Lips for arguably her most ambitious record to date: a sprawling 23 song, over 90-minute psychedelic pop epic.

And what an epic journey it is. Contemporary artists, especially younger ones, coming to fruition in the era of iTunes, often build albums founded on a handful of strong singles or album tracks, without being one cohesive whole. Dead Petz is anything but, however; like a drug-induced opera (which this very well may have been), this album is one complete, layered work. The whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts.

From the angst-ridden declaration of the opening song “Dooo It!”, Miley takes us through heartbreaking lows, uneasy hesitation, frustrated emotions, tongue-in-cheek sensuality, tripped-out drug clouds, then finally to soft, subdued piano.

While her previous albums like Can’t Be Tamed and the excellent BANGERZ fit more cleanly within single genres, Dead Petz is uneven, arguably unpolished; yet reflects so many different experiences of Miley’s, that so many of us have surely gone through. This album is extraordinary in how richly it conveys complicated emotions in such an authentic, moving way.

We feel her devastation in “The Floyd Song (Sunrise).” She sings, “Death, take me with you. I don’t want to live without my flower” as a piercing guitar licks down the scale.

We empathize with her ambivalence as she nervously chatters through her “BB Talk” hip-hop confessional, seamlessly blending her youthful indecisiveness with intuitive convictions. (Not to mention how we laugh out loud at the tongue-in-cheek lyrics: “F*** me so you stop baby talking.”)

We stop and reflect in the slow, deliberate rock ballad “I get so scared thinking I’ll never get over you.” Like in BANGERZ (particularly the song “Drive”), Miley demonstrates a genuine desperation and uncertainty regarding her love life. Even in her early 20s, she fears she has loved, lost, and won’t be whole again.

The true knockout of the saga is the closing track, “The Twinkle Song.” Miley drifts through simple chords, recalling “I had a dream David Bowie taught us how to skate board but he was shaped like Gumby.” She bounces through fantasies, some comic and others tragic, landing on one “When you said you loved me. But what does it mean? What does it all mean?”

The portrayal of Miley Cyrus by the media, and admittedly at times by herself, is a kaleidoscope of chaos. She has as many faces as genres she conquers in this ambitious, artistic triumph. Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz begins with an assertion (“Yeah, I smoke pot”) and ends with a question. It subverts what we think we know about Miley, and maybe about ourselves, dismantling preconceived notions and opening up to introspection and wonder.

Ball of Fire (1941)

 

Boogie!

You hear the rhythm rompin’.

Boogie!

You see the drummer stompin’.

Drumboogie, drumboogie.

Boogie!

It really is a killer.

Drumboogie, drumboogie.

The drum boogie woogie.

So begins the siren song by “Sugarpuss” O’Shea (played to perfection by the one and only Barbara Stanwyck) to her soon-to-be-smitten beau, Professor Potts. Sugarpuss, a nightclub singer mixed up with the wrong crowd, is not only the titular “Ball of Fire” but also the “drumboogie” itself – a “rhythm rompin'” force to be reckoned with.

Like the best comedies, Ball of Fire is more than a witty script, but features a genuinely funny story. Potts is one of eight scholars (all older, stuffy men) who have been living in virtual exile for years compiling a new encyclopedia. Working A to Z, alphabetically, they’ve come to “S” and Potts (the youngest of the bunch, a roughly 40-year-old Gary Cooper) realizes he is out of touch with Slang. He hits the streets, train cars, and a nightclub (where Sugarpuss is performing) to study the contemporary jargon of the day.

After the memorable number “Drumboogie” (performed by Gene Krupa & orchestra), rich with language Potts doesn’t comprehend, he visits Sugarpuss in her dressing room, requesting her help in his studies. She’s in a jam herself, a witness and possible accomplice to criminal Joe Lilac and his gang. She agrees, as a means to keep herself off the radar of the police.

As the professors, especially Potts, fall more in love with her, she grows increasingly weary of her plot with Joe Lilac to jump ship and abandon the old men. Her true alliance is the heart of the drama and leads to a warm and truly satisfying ending.

Beyond its two terrific leads (Stanwyck a well-rounded leading lady and the well-meaning buffoon Cooper) Ball of Fire also features a strong supporting cast of characters, including the charming seven professors (many of whom you may recognize) plus Dana Andrews playing “tough guy” Joe Lilac. These “types” all culminate in a manic finale sequence that would make Preston Sturges and his notable ensembles proud.

While Ball of Fire loses some steam by the end, its clever premise and genuine characters strike a chord through all the narrative chaos. This is a screwball comedy with real heart, further cementing Stanwyck as a true Ball of Fire in classic Hollywood.

Weekly Round-Up: December 20-26, 2015

Hope you all had a very happy holidays!

Okay, I only saw one movie last week:

  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) – Yep, still good the third time around. Tremendously entertaining sequel with terrific new characters – definitely worth the 32-year wait after Return of the Jedi. REQUIRED.

Also, honorable mention for the Judy Garland TV Christmas special, which I may have seen twice in four days.

What do you watch with your family over the holidays? Reply below in the comments!

Weekly Round-Up: December 13-19, 2015

This past week was pretty busy – as the holidays are approaching, a lot more time has been focused on visiting family & friends (as it should be!) leaving smaller pockets of time for entertainment.

After a couple false starts (starting movies and falling asleep instantly), I realize I’ve only seen one complete movie this week:

  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) – Okay, I saw this twice last week and am seeing it again today. Tremendously entertaining sequel with terrific new characters – definitely worth the 32-year wait after Return of the Jedi. REQUIRED.

Have you seen The Force Awakens yet? Reply below in the comments!

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

The seventh episode of the monumental Star Wars saga opens just like every Star Wars should. The iconic print logo and opening fanfare. The introductory prologue written in yellow. A wide shot revealing an ominous spacecraft.

Followed by a cut to the interior of a rattling space pod, overhead light flickering on the helmets of stormtroopers about to invade. As traditionally as this film begins, it suddenly jumps and disorients us within a dark, confined space.

The Force Awakens is a brilliantly constructed and spectacularly told film. It manages to both give audiences what they want, while subverting action film norms through its consistently surprising narrative. The tropes of action films are often mocked, and almost always dismantled, by the charming relationship between the sharp, powerful, self-sufficient heroine Rey and the occasionally old-fashioned-minded Finn.

Not that you can blame him – Finn is a product of the First Order, a neo-fascist return to the days of the Galactic Empire. He knows only the world he was taught, and his antiquated attitudes are a product of the only life he knows. There is even a metafictional irony in this, as Finn is one of few black heroes in any blockbuster film – he himself is an anti-traditional male lead (another trend this film will hopefully dismantle).

They join forces (along with some other familiar faces) against Kylo Ren, the terrifying new villain played to chilling perfection by Adam Driver. While it’s hard to imagine anyone filling Darth Vader’s shoes, Kylo Ren seems to come as close as you can get.

[Semi-Spoiler] And the best part is, we’re deeply invested in these characters and the story by the time familiar faces arrive. This is a terrific decision by the filmmakers, to allow us time to get to know the new stars, who will hopefully carry this new trilogy, before bringing back iconic figures from the originals. [End Semi-Spoiler.]

I had the opportunity to see this on its debut Thursday night, with a terrific audience: applauding as each new character is introduced on-screen, cheering in key moments (like the first lightsaber “unsheathing”), and gasping at plot surprises (there are plenty). I didn’t get to watch the original Star Wars back in May 1977, but seeing The Force Awakens on opening night sure feels like the next-best thing.

Weekly Round-Up: December 06-12, 2015

 

  • A Night to Remember (1958) – Considered by many to be the definitive Titanic movie, this drama tells the story of the ship’s fateful last hours from the perspectives of RMS officials and passengers of all classes. While visually impressive and there were several elements that clearly inspired James Cameron’s version, I found its narrative unfocused and couldn’t make an emotional connection. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Aparajito (1956) – This second film of the Apu Trilogy sees the Ray family relocated to urban Benares. Apu enters school and excels in his education, as his relationship with his mother grows in complexity. At once more joyful and more tragic than its predecessor Pather Panchali, I am very eager to see how Apu’s story concludes in the third and final film Apur Sansar. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Holiday Inn (1942) – Cute musical about a retired showman (Bing Crosby) who opens a Connecticut club open only 15 days a year – the holidays. Several memorable numbers (some for the wrong reasons) including the introduction of the classic “White Christmas” make this film RECOMMENDED.
  • Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997) – Offbeat comedy about two pals who pretend to be successful at their high school reunion. Driven by strong performances from the two leads (Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow) plus a dry sense of humor, it’s easy to see why this has become a cult classic. RECOMMENDED.
  • The Woman in Question (1950) – A sort of Laura meets Rashomon, this drama unfolds the mystery of a murdered fortune teller from multiple perspectives – both admirers and enemies. The keystone (the victim herself) is portrayed terrifically by Jean Kent, essentially playing multiple characters in the hyper-stylized flashbacks. Unfortunately, this movie loses steam about halfway through but the first half is wholly compelling. RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week?

Weekly Round-Up: November 29 – December 05, 2015

This past week took things to a prehistoric level, with no fewer than three viewings of dinosaur movies:

  • The Good Dinosaur (2015) – A gorgeously animated, delicately told prehistoric western about a young dinosaur and his pet human finding their way home. (I liked it so much I watched it twice last week!) HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • All That Heaven Allows (1955) – Strong melodrama about the romance between a widow and a younger man, and their struggle against societal pressures. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • My Own Private Idaho (1991) – A young male prostitute goes on an international search for his mother. I must be missing something, because I don’t understand why people like this movie. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Pather Panchali (1955) – The story of a struggling family living in rural India. Beautifully shot and genuinely moving. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Shame (2011) – A sex addict reaches his breaking point when his sister comes to stay with him. Tremendously directed for how seriously it takes takes its subject matter. Certainly not for everybody, but HIGHLY RECOMMENDED if you’re okay with emotionally draining sex scenes!
  • Jurassic World (2015) – Mindless CGI sequel/remake of Jurassic Park. The scenes of Jurassic World as an operating theme park are the film’s strong suit. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Youth (2015) – Thoughtful, emotional story of a retired composer and the people close to him. RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week? Am I wrong about My Own Private Idaho or Jurassic World? Let me know in the comments!