You don’t need me to tell you that 2015 has been a big year for film. By the time this reaches the presses, many of us will be punch-drunk from repeated viewings of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, or engrossed with the many critically acclaimed pictures fanning their feathers for Oscar season, or both. There’s Tarantino’s big picture The Hateful Eight, Iñárritu’s The Revenant and McCarthy’s Spotlight, the tiny journalism film that could—to name only a few.
But just because award season has ignored or forgotten a picture doesn’t mean that it isn’t awesome! Here’s a rough survey of a few extracurricular movies to indulge in, perhaps during those frigid movie months of January and February, when studios tend to dish out their very worst.
Welcome to Me, dir. by Shira Piven
Kristen Wiig stars as Alice Klieg, forever clad in a fanny pack and inordinately preoccupied with Oprah Winfrey. Her borderline personality disorder diagnosis means she lives on disability and has mandated sessions with a therapist. When Alice suddenly wins the Mega Millions lottery, she goes off her meds and spends a large chunk of the winnings to produce a daily, two-hour long television show called “Welcome to Me,” which becomes, in essence, a horrifying manifestation of a narcissistic woman’s wildest dreams acted out in bizarre teleplay.
The film is hilarious and poignant in its look at the creative and destructive consequences of an unfettered mind. Audiences will need to forgive the movie’s somewhat cheap, claustrophobic finish. It looks like television, basically, but with cinema-quality ideas and performances.
Available on Netflix streaming.
The D Train, dir. by Andrew Mogul and Jarrad Paul
Back in May when I first saw The D Train, I gave it a mostly negative review. But six months later, the story is worming its way into my heart. Jack Black stars as an uncharismatic man whose idealized memories of high school in Nowhere, America have become a morbid fixation. Meanwhile, in Hollywood, his former classmate Oliver Lawless (James Marsden) has achieved a modicum of commercial success by starring in a sunscreen commercial. Long story short, the fates of the nerd and the hunky D-lister become intertwined in unexpected—even erotic—ways.
On first viewing, I was turned off by the irregular pace, the lack of overt humor and what I deemed to be a thin and often implausible story. That implausibility and sitcom-level of consequence remain a problem, but Black and Marsden are so good that I’m inclined to let it slide. The irregular pacing buries the lead, and for most of the film, you’re wondering where it’s going, who it’s for and why. The D Train is marketed as a comedy, but it is more wry than expected as it probes ideas of longing, disappointment and self discovery. Perhaps it is apt that the film seems to be messily discovering itself along the way.
Irrational Man, dir. by Woody Allen
Woody Allen has made a movie every year for decades. The quality wavers, sure, but even the bad ones are not without their merits. Irrational Man doesn’t pave new ground in plot or ideas, and yet…
Abe is a rough-around-the-edges philosophy professor, swarmed by women but preoccupied with his disillusionment. (Nothing says “Fuck it” like a guy hitting a flask in mixed company in broad daylight.) He’s played by Joaquin Phoenix with a casualness that is instantly likable and arresting, akin to his performance in 2014’s Inherent Vice. An ethical crisis leads to murder, reinvigorated passions, and more ethical crises in all the ways we expect an Allen film to go. There are no big shocks, but it is still smart storytelling and a strong performance by Phoenix.
The End of the Tour, dir. by James Ponsoldt
Conversations about The End of the Tour tend to reduce it to a “David Foster Wallace biopic,” but that’s not entirely correct. What we get more than that are the egos of two talented writers in a kind of buddy movie setup where feelings are explored and latent rivalries surface. Jason Segel stars as Wallace with an eerie authenticity, met by Jesse Eisenberg’s turn as David Lipsky, the man whose book was adapted for the film. Wallace’s suicide casts a shadow on the action, but mostly we are riveted by the intelligent and nuanced conversations between two men who are very much alive.
The Gift, dir. by Joel Edgerton
The Gift got such a warm reception upon its release, I’m a little disappointed by how summarily forgotten it has become this award season. I wrote about The Gift at length in October, and I admired Edgerton’s unexpected pivots in an otherwise tried-and-true genre. Rebecca Hall’s performance as the wife who slowly realizes her own strength continues to resonate in particular. The academy may ignore you, girl, but Vanguard Seattle remembers.
Love and Mercy, dir. by Bill Pohlad
Forget Pixar’s beloved Inside Out or the romantic, nostalgic Brooklyn. To me, Love and Mercy is the most palatable of all the year’s many feel-good movies. The film stars John Cusack and Paul Dano as older and younger versions of Brian Wilson, the troubled genius behind The Beach Boys. The ecstatic dramatization of Wilson’s eccentric recording methods for the now iconic Pet Sounds album alone are almost worth the price of admission.
In Cusack, we get a subdued picture of the 1980s Wilson, who escaped years of drug use and depression only to find himself under the tyrannical lock and key of an opportunistic doctor (Paul Giamitti). His romance with future wife Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) is made all the more tender by its realism.
Goodnight Mommy, dir. by Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz
Goodnight Mommy stars creepy Austrian twins and a bandaged-up mother sharing a giant, sterile, countryside home in the middle of a cornfield. If that isn’t a set up for horror and intrigue then I don’t know what is. The sparse, careful storytelling manages our expectations and then shifts our alliances until they’ve practically put a bloody knife in our hands.
Goodnight Mommy is my narrow pic for best horror of 2015 in a year that was particularly hot for the genre. Close seconds are David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows and Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, although the latter is more strictly a Gothic romance. (It was marketed as horror, which judging by the tone of certain reviews would explain why some critics and audiences weren’t impressed.) There’s no question about Goodnight Mommy, though, which serves some severely squeamish moments as it spirals to its conclusion.
Heart of a Dog, dir. by Laurie Anderson
The unconventional, autobiographical and mystical documentary by musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson has been shortlisted for the best documentary category at this year’s Academy Awards, but actually becoming a nominee is a bit of a long shot. Anderson’s film combines animation, moving and still images over a narration that can come off as pretentious at first, but trust me…it will grow on you. The film focuses on love and grief and the ephemeral nature of both. Anderson is the wife of the late Lou Reed, and the dog in question is her beloved and charming rat terrier named LolaBelle.
Other stand-out documentaries this year include The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s splendid second film about the 1968 Indonesian genocide (which I am more confident will get a best documentary nomination), Amy, the film about the late musician Amy Winehouse, Montage of Heck, the Kurt Cobain centered bio, and Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.
Tangerine, dir. by Sean Baker
This is a rare, special film that offers us a “day in the life” of some of Los Angeles’s realest and baddest characters. The film stars Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor as Sin-Dee and Alexandra respectively, a couple of transgender sex workers who over the course of Christmas Eve get into a series of adventures, both trivial and deathly serious. I am most reminded of Linklater’s piviotal 1991 film Slacker, which used a similar format to chronicle life in his hometown of Austin, Texas on a similarly bleak budget. (Tangerine was shot on iPhones and then edited on a home computer, which should be of particular interest to budding filmmakers.)
In Rodrigeuz and Taylor, we get perfect and devastating performances, along with Mickey O’Hagan as the hardened white girl caught in the crossfires. More than anything, Tangerine does important, groundbreaking work in humanizing the faces of a culture we might know little about, or even dismiss entirely. If you only see one of these films, make it Tangerine.
Available on Netflix streaming.