This is one of the best films of 2015.
The year's best thriller is also one of the year's most powerful films, the story of two very different FBI agents who are assigned to investigate the disappearance of three civil rights workers. The place is Mississippi, the time is 1964, and the two agents represent two different traditions within the agency. Gene Hackman plays the old pro, a former Southern sheriff who has carried some of his old work habits over to the FBI--including the Good Ol' Boy approach in which he hangs around the local barbershop to pick up leads on likely perpetrators. Willem Dafoe plays his partner, a bright, gung-ho young agent who believes in "shows of force" and calling in the National Guard. As their investigation continues, we begin to get a dramatic sense of the time and place. Some of the silliest objections to this film have argued that it exaggerates the situation--that it takes incidents that occurred over several years in many different cities, and put them all together into one short period in one small town. But director Alan Parker is not trying for flat realism here; he wants to heighten the emotions and underline the passions of the time, so recent in the past, when the nation passed the turning point on civil rights. This is not a documentary, but a battle cry. What's most surprising is the time the film finds for quiet moments--especially a subtle, tender relationship between Hackman and Frances McDormand, who plays the wife of a racist. She has provided her husband's alibi--but Hackman senses that, in her heart, she has a sense of fair play to which he can appeal.
In ways almost impossible to describe, this is the most delightful film of the year. It is also seemingly one of the most depressing--yet it has a current of offbeat humor that keeps bubbling to the surface. William Hurt plays a travel writer who has fallen into a deep and intractable depression. His young son was killed a year ago, and now his wife (Kathleen Turner) wants a divorce--because, she observes, he doesn't seem to be able to feel anything anymore. This is not really a new condition; in his travel books, he gives his readers hints on how to insulate themselves from their surroundings, how to travel without feeling as if you've left home. He comes from a family of homebodies, and some of the movie's funniest scenes involve his sister and two brothers, who live in a menagerie of eccentricities in the old family home. Then one day change comes into his life, in the person of a dog trainer (Geena Davis) who believes she is just exactly what he needs. He resists her. He tries to flee her. But her life force is irresistible, and tugs at him implacably, asking him to come out and play. This is one of those films where the story sounds depressing, but the experience is heartwarming and exhilarating.
Here is another almost undefinable film, set in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and centering on the complicated life of a surgeon (Daniel Day Lewis) whose wish is to float above the mundane world of responsibility and personal commitment, to practice a sex life that has no traffic with the heart, to escape untouched from the world of sensual pleasure while retaining his privacy and his precious loneliness. In the pursuit of these goals, he has the cooperation of a woman named Sabina, (cq) who also believes that she enjoys sex without commitment. Then one day the doctor goes to the country, and meets an innocent young woman named Tereza. He falls in love with her; he actually loses his heart, this man who doubted that he even had one. She follows him to Prague, and they are in love there, but the man stubbornly tries to maintain his sexual freedom, and the situation grows even more complicated when Sabina and Tereza find that they like one another. Their private turmoils take on a different meaning when the Russian tanks roll into Czechoslovakia, and they are all forced to redefine what they mean by happiness, by lightness, by being. The movie was directed by Philip Kaufman ("The Right Stuff"), based on the novel by Milan Kundera, and it is among other things the most erotic film since "Last Tango in Paris."
Here is a great film that fell between the cracks. I saw it for the first time at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987, and found it a courageous mixture of vision and melodrama--a movie not afraid to go over the top in its search for emotional impact. But "Shy People" never found a successful releasing strategy in the United States, and has never even played in most cities. Now it is on video, where it has a second chance. The movie stars Jill Clayburgh as a sophisticated New York magazine writer who goes with her daughter (Martha Plimpton) to visit a long-lost cousin (Barbara Hershey) who loves in the bayous of Louisiana. The women could not possibly have less in common, and the contrast in their lifestyles almost leads to an explosion--except that at some deep, almost mystical place, these two women do share kinship. Director Andrei Konchalovsky ("Runaway Train") is uninterested in timid 1980s notions of realism; he pulls out all of the stops and lets this material go where it will.
This remarkable film was shot entirely on location on the streets of Bombay, and tells the story of Chaipau, a street orphan who moves in a society of other homeless children, and copes as best he can with a world that is completely indifferent to him. Like another great film, "Pixote," from Brazil, the story finds a surprisingly resiliency in its hero, who works as a tea boy, insinuates himself into a world of brothels and drug dealers and marginal poverty, and somehow even seems to grow there. The film was directed by Mira Nair, who conducted workshops among the street children of Bombay while developing the script, and discovered her star, Shafiq Syed, living on the streets.
The year's funniest comedy was a collision between British eccentricity and American craziness. It starred Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis as two American lovers, pretending to be brother and sister, who get involved with Michael Palin in a jewel-robbery caper. When another member of their gang is arrested, Curtis attempts to seduce the trial judge (John Cleese) while Kline goes through torments of jealousy. The movie exploits every weakness and obsession of every character--particularly Palin's almost insane love for his tropical fish. And it has lots of fun with scenes embarrassing and humiliating the uptight Cleese character. "Wanda" was directed by Charles Crichton ("The Lavender Hill Mob"), a legendary veteran of the classic Ealing comedies.
This is a moody, introspective, oddly seductive film about angels. Set in the lonely urban landscapes of modern West Berlin, it stars Bruno Ganz as an angel who has been granted immortality, but grows restless with the need to live forever. Eavesdropping on the lives of human beings, watching their joys and sorrows without being able to share them, be begins to feel that he would rather become a human--accepting inevitable pain and death--than float forever above the field of real emotions. The movie was directed by Wim Wenders, and it bears a certain relationship to his great "Kings of the Road" (1976), another film in which two lonely wanderers shared their bafflement about the world of real people and real emotions. In that case, the men were recently separated from women; in this case, they are angels who have never touched a woman, or anything else in the physical world. The longing is much the same.
Here was the year's wacky special effects extravaganza, a virtuoso combination of live action and animation. The story is set in postwar Hollywood, where cartoon characters ("Toons") and human beings exist side by side. The story stars Bob Hoskins and a feisty rabbit named Roger in a backstage musical with gangster movie overtones, involving shady dealings in the halfway world between the Toon ghetto and the neighborhoods where the flesh-and-blood people live. The most extraordinary thing about the film was the way the animated characters were integrated into the human world--shadows and all. We've seen cartoon characters sitting on people's shoulders before, but in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" they were also pulling in their lapels, socking them in the jaw, and (in the case of the pneumatic Jessica Rabbit) suggesting a little hanky-panky.
Here is one of the most affecting and powerful documentaries I've ever seen. Its ingredients are deceptively simple. The director, Bill Couturie, has taken passages from dozens of letters written home by U. S. servicemen in Vietnam, and has combined them with newsreel footage and home movies shot in Vietnam from 1967 to 1969. In many cases, the footage was too shocking to be seen on TV at the time, but even more disturbing are the many cases where Couturie has been able to find actual film of the soldiers whose letters are being read--some of them doomed to die not long after. The movie begins with Beach Boys music on the sound track, as newly-arrived draftees swim in the surf. It ends with the utter desolation of spirit that comes with death and defeat in a pointless war. The movie played theatrically here and there around the country, and was also aired on HBO, which helped finance it. Now it's on video. If you or anyone in your life were deeply touched by Vietnam, this film will present the war in a deeper and more moving way than any other film you have ever seen.
While some Americans were fighting in Vietnam, others were protesting the war in the streets at home. "Running on Empty" tells the story of one couple (Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti) who have been fugitives for 20 years, ever since they bombed a building in a protest, without knowing there was a man inside. Their whole lives have been spent on hold, in a shadow-world of false names and assumed identities, but now their oldest son (River Phoenix) is old enough to go to college. The question is, how can he do that without blowing the family's cover? The most powerful scene in the movie shows Lahti meeting with her own alienated father (Steven Hill) and asking him to help his grandson. The movie was directed by Sidney Lumet, who says a great deal not only about war and protest, but also about families, and about how we must always eventually pay our dues to the past.
Now, then. Having listed the year's 10 best films, I must go ahead to admit that any "best 10" list is an arbitrary, unsatisfactory, and highly subjective way to rank films. What is the real difference between the fourth place film, and the one in sixth place? Who knows? And here is my list of the year's "second ten"--films that are not in the top ten only through a whim of the selection process.
11. "The Last Temptation of Christ" was the year's most controversial film--Martin Scorsese's attempt to deal honestly with the duality of Christ's nature. If Jesus was fully man and fully God, then did he not feel all of the ordinary temptations and weaknesses of the flesh? And how did he feel about them? Although this film offended the religious sensibilities of many people, I found it to be a thoughtful and devout work, a rare film that made Jesus seem real, and not just a portrait on a religious postcard.
12. "Au revoir les enfants" was French director Louis Malle's boyhood memory from World War Two, of a Catholic boarding school where a handful of Jewish students were enrolled under false names, to protect them from the Nazis. The film's hero becomes best friends with one of the boys, but never quite realizes what the secret is--until he betrays it with a thoughtless glance that he will regret for a lifetime.
13. "Clean and Sober," directed by Glenn Gordon Caron, starred Michael Keaton in the portrait of a man who loses his job and his self-respect through abuse of cocaine and alcohol, and then begins the laborious climb back to happiness through a rehab program and AA. Keaton has never been better--or more desperate and wired--and Kathy Baker's performance, as a woman he meets in treatment, was equally strong.
14. "Bagdad Cafe" was a sleeper from the West German director Percy Adlon, starring Marianne Sagebrecht as an overweight German tourist who is abandoned by her husband in the California desert, and finds her way to a forlorn roadside truck stop. The proprietor of the establishment is an oddball black woman, played by CCH Pounder (cq) as a moony type who has gathered a large extended family, including Jack Palance as a retired stunt man. The two women turn the cafe into a roaring success, and the movie was intriguing enough that it's going to be recycled into a TV series.
15. "Cop," directed by James Harris, starred James Woods in one of two brilliant 1988 performances--the other one was in "The Boost" --and rarely has his wired intensity been better used. The movie looks and feels like a violent cop thriller, but Woods puts a spin on the material. As the cop, he's so wild-eyed and off the handle that we begin to suspect he's a bigger danger than the serial killer he's tracking down. The movie's last shot is a true shocker.
16. "The Thin Blue Line" made headlines at year's end, when it resulted in a retrial for Randall Dale Adams, a convicted Texas cop-killer. The documentary, by Errol Morris ("Gates of Heaven") made a convincing case that Adams was framed for the crime, and the evidence made a strong circumstantial case for his innocence. Even more dramatic was an interview in the film with David Harris, the chief witness against Adams, who all but confesses that he committed the murder himself.
17. "Madame Sousatzka" starred Shirley MacLaine in one of her best performances, as an aging piano teacher in London, trying to guide the latest of a string of talented students through the first uncertain steps toward a concert career. Because she herself was pushed onstage too early in life, Madame tries to hang onto her pupils as long as possible, until sometimes they have to make it clear it's time for her to let go. A heartwarming portrait in a truly absorbing film by John Schlesinger.
18. "Things Change" is the second film by playwright David Mamet, who demonstrated in 1987's best film, "House of Games," that he is a major filmmaking talent. This film, lighter and funnier, was wonderfully well-acted by Don Ameche, as an old shoeshine man from Chicago who is hired to impersonate a murder suspect, and ends up being mistaken for a top Mafia boss. Mamet regular Joe Mantegna is a study in controlled desperation as the Mafia flunky who steers the old man to Nevada, and Robert Prosky, as a real Mafia boss, establishes an instant rapport with Ameche -- no matter who he is.
19. "Stormy Monday" is the film they'll overlook when they start handing out acting awards for Melanie Griffith's work in "Working Girl." She was terrific in that film -- but look at her work in this sleeper that dripped with atmosphere. It's a thriller directed by Mike Figgis and set on a seedy British waterfront where Griffith is a party girl who gets caught between two tough guys (Sting and Tommy Lee Jones). If you like the film noir with its wet pavements, lonely street lights, shiny cars and low necklines, here is a movie to treasure.
20. "Little Dorrit" is the kind of movie you can take off your shoes and relax in. Six hours long and shown in two installments, it's a leisurely, detailed, surprisingly absorbing film version of the Charles Dickens novel, with fine performances by Sarah Pickering as the daughter of a man who has been in debtor's prison for 20 years, Alec Guinness as her father, and Derek Jacobi as the middle-aged man who falls in love with her. She loves him, too, but neither one of them discovers that until the end of the film. The first part is seen through his eyes, the second part through hers.
...and then, if you wanted, you could add ten more fine films:
"Mystic Pizza" told the bittersweet story of three teen-age girls who learn a little above love and a lot about life in their last summer before college.
"Torch Song Trilogy" was another movie starring the playwright of the original material -- in this case, Harvey Fierstein, in a funny, hard-edged performance as a drag queen who accepts his homosexuality -- but still struggles with shyness and loneliness.
"A World Apart" contained a brilliant Barbara Hershey performance as a South African woman whose political struggle against apartheid is seen through the unforgiving eyes of her daughter.
Mike Nichols' "Working Girl" had that Melanie Griffith performance as a Staten Island secretary who thinks she's as smart as her boss--and impersonates her to prove it.
I also admired "A Cry in the Dark," for Meryl Streep's coldly controller performance; "The Accused," with Jodie Foster as a battered rape victim; Clint Eastwood's "Bird," with Forest Whittaker as the doomed Charlie Parker; "Rain Man," with Dustin Hoffman oddly likable as an unchanging victim of autism; Marcel Ophul's "Hotel Terminus," a documentary on Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon; Stephen Frear's "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid," a portrait of modern London falling apart at the seams; "The Naked Gun," as subtle as a fourth-grader with a water pistol; "Patty Hearst," with Natasha Richardson's uncanny portrait of the kidnaped newspaper heiress; "Vice Versa," with Judge Reinhold inspired as an adult in a kid's body, or vice versa; and John Water's "Hairspray," with last performance by the legendary Divine.
Also "I've Heard the Mermaids Singing," Patricia Rozema's portrait of a shy assistant in an art gallery; Tom Hanks as the kid who gets his wish to be "Big"; William Hurt having an onscreen breakdown in Gregory Nava's "A Time of Destiny"; Dennis Quaid as a man who reports his own murder in "D.O.A."; Tom Hulce as a most convincing retarded man in the heartwarming "Dominick and Eugene"; Chevy Chase at his funniest in years in "Funny Farm"; Spike Lee's outspoken "School Daze"; the harrowing and enlightening portrait of teenage suicide in "Permanent Record;" James Spader's overlooked, chilling performance as a modern-day ripper in "Jack's Back"; the intelligence of "Lady in White," a modern ghost story; Kathleen Turner as a woman trapped between two nightmare realities in "Julia and Julia"; Maggie Smith as a lonely spinster and a closet drinker in "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne"; and Rob Lowe and Meg Tilly in the labyrinthine thriller "Masquerade."
Also Gene Hackman, grounded behind enemy lines in "Bat*21"; Kevin Anderson and Richard Gere, disenfranchised farmers in "Miles from Home"; Ben Kingsley as a lonely, passionate expatriate in "Pascali's Island"; "Spike of Bensonhurst," with its neighborhood boxer as an anti-Rocky figure; Theresa Russell as a hallucinating housewife imagining Gary Oldham as her son, or lover, in "Track 29"; the classic automobiles in Francis Coppola's "Tucker: The Man and His Dream"; Michael J. Fox's journey through the urban cocaine jungle in "Bright Lights, Big City"; Sean Penn and Robert Duvall in "Colors"; Arnold Schwarzeneger and James Belushi as unlikely cop partners in "Red Heat"; and Ann-Margret as a middle-aged sex symbol in "A Tiger's Tale." And the most intelligent political movie of the election year? The re-release of John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate."
Matt Zoller Seitz reviews and reflects upon Jesse Eisenberg's New Yorker piece about film critics.