“Inspired by the true stories of daring women.”
That’s the title card that precedes David O. Russell’s Joy, the story of an entrepreneur who becomes a titan of the Home Shopping Network. But it would work just as well preceding so many movies from 2015, which has proven itself to be a remarkable year for films about women.
There were still a handful of very male films at the multiplex, of course — movies like The Revenant and Bridge Of Spies and The Big Short don’t have much of a female presence, not to mention any number of more forgettable titles. But this year, perhaps for the first time in history, they were the exception and not the rule. The new Mission: Impossible had a female spy who was as capable and charismatic as Ethan Hunt along every step of the way. The macho title character took a backseat to Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, which also featured a gang of ass-kicking grannies. And the highest-grossing film of all time handed the reigns of the galaxy’s most beloved franchise to Daisy Ridley’s Skywalker surrogate Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
And those are just the blockbusters. It’s hard to list the number of smaller films centered on women. But here are a few: Victoria. Joy. Carol. Brooklyn. Phoenix. Chi-Raq. Room. Girlhood. The Final Girls. It Follows. Heaven Knows What. Queen Of Earth. Clouds Of Sils Maria. The Age Of Adaline. The Duke Of Burgundy. The Diary Of A Teenage Girl. Unconventional women were the heroines of comedies like Trainwreck and Spy, where they got to behave in ways that usually only men get to. Even in movies that place males front and center, women got to play more than the usual weepy love interest or damsel in distress — I’m thinking of The Martian, Creed, and maybe even the second biggest film of the year, Jurassic World. (But running from a T-Rex in heels makes that kind of debatable, don’t you think?)
Even the current Best Picture front-runner (in a weird and unpredictable awards season), Spotlight, gave Rachel McAdams’ journalist equal weight with the boys. There were no concessions for Sacha being “the girl” on the team, which in a sense is the most progressive move of all. For years, women in movies have been depicted as having to prove themselves in the workplace, Erin Brockovich-style, but Spotlight eliminates that nonsense. I’m fairly certain that Sacha’s gender goes entirely unmentioned in the film.
So Joy isn’t one of my very favorite films this year, but it’s invocation of “daring women” is emblematic of what 2015 brought to the screen. Women got to be daring, and they got to be a lot of other things, too. My Top Ten films aren’t all about women, but they all have something to say about them. I didn’t plan it that way. This just happens to be the year that so many movies got it right when it comes to how women are depicted on screen.
My #10 slot was particularly challenging to fill this year, with a number of worthy contenders vying for representation. It came down to a bout between Creed, the seventh entry in the hit Rocky franchise, the first entry of which won the Best Picture Oscar for 1976, and Tangerine, a scrappy low-budget indie shot entirely on an iPhone.
It occurred to me that the face-off between these two films resembles a Rocky movie itself: in one corner, Tangerine, the underdog, a feisty, foul-mouthed story about two transsexual prostitutes that has no real shot at an Academy Award; in the other corner, Creed, which, like its title character, descends from prestigious lineage, featuring a major movie star who’s been around for decades (Sylvester Stallone), turning in a supporting performance that may well be poised to win him his first Oscar.
I have no deep connection to the Rocky series, but Creed is a big Hollywood boxing movie made as well as one can be by Ryan Coogler, who showed with Fruitvale Station that he was an up-and-comer to watch, and now has fully delivered on that promise. Michael B. Jordan carries the movie effortlessly (and should also be Oscar-nominated this year, though that’s not a sure thing) and Stallone delivers his most moving performance (…ever?). There’s no denying that Creed, like its predecessors, is by necessity a male-dominated movie, but it does make room for Phylicia Rashad as Apollo Creed’s adoptive mother, fully fleshed-out with just a handful of minutes on screen, and Tessa Thompson as Bianca, a promising musician who is slowly going deaf. Love interests in male-centric movies rarely get much to do, but Bianca is a fascinating, fiery character in her own right — you would happily watch a separate movie all about Bianca. In a year that’s been so good for women, you have to hand it to Creed to ensure that even the Rocky franchise is following the changing tide.
Rocky films tend to split the difference in their climactic bouts, having the establishment boxer win the fight overall, with the underdog winning in spirit. I guess I’m flipping that by announcing Tangerine as my official winner, while Creed earns a special place in my heart as one of the year’s best studio surprises. Reportedly shot for around $100,000 and pulling in less than $1 million at the box office, Tangerine is the very definition of a scrappy underdog, certainly rough around the edges. The performances in its opening scene are a little shaky, and the editing can be jarring in moments. But Tangerine has more vitality and raw spirit than just about any other movie this year. The lightweight camera races through the grimy, golden streets of Hollywood following Sin-Dee Rella, who has just wrapped up a month in jail and is now hell-bent on finding the “real fish” her fiance has been cheating with. Her best friend, Alexandra, is more concerned with a performance she’s giving at Hamburger Mary’s that night, and harboring a bit of a secret on the side. Meanwhile, a cab driver named Razmik is cruising around, picking up fares and occasionally stopping for a little action with these ladies. Oh, and did I mention it’s Christmas Eve? This is a Christmas movie unlike any other.
It’s been a banner year for trans visibility in media, and Tangerine is the antidote to I Am Cait. The film’s vibrant colors and energetic soundtrack mask cheap production (which is still impressive, considering) in ways that match how Sin-Dee and Alexandra use makeup, synthetic hair, and hormones to appear more feminine than their bodies were initially programmed to be. These women don’t have the money for a phone or an apartment, so this low-budget camera meets them at their level, walking the streets right alongside them, almost as if one of them is capturing all this action on an iPhone. These are not the sterilized hookers-with-hearts-of-gold you find in most movies — director Sean Baker’s depiction of prostitution in Los Angeles smacks of utter authenticity in ways that are both glorious and painful to behold.
But what works even better are Tangerine‘s micro moments of transcendent loveliness, such as Alexandra’s glum but touching performance of “Toyland” on Christmas Eve, or the heartwarming act of friendship that plays out in the film’s final scene. By most people’s standards, these women don’t have much, but Sin-Dee and Alexandra are living lives that feel true to them and fighting every step of the way to do so. With Tangerine and his 2012 film, Starlet, Baker has proven adept at telling stories about underexplored relationships involving people we might be quick to write off otherwise. Of all the emerging auteurs out there, he’s one of the ones I’m most excited to watch. (Tangerine is streaming on Netflix. Read my original review here.)
9. SLOW WEST
The Western genre has typically lacked in rich female characters (though I know there are a handful of exceptions). It’s usually a good guy, a bad guy, a few other guys, and maybe a “saloon girl” if we’re lucky.
But there’s nothing typically Western about Slow West, which, despite its title, is pretty fast-moving for this genre, clocking in at a lean, mean 84 minutes. None of its primary actors are American. Michael Fassbender is Irish-German. Kodi Smit-McPhee and Ben Mendelsohn are both Australian. The writer/director John Maclean is Scottish. The film was primarily shot in New Zealand.
So, then, nothing about Slow West is actually American, though it purports to take place in the iconic American west, invoking the quintessential American genre. Because of that, there’s something that feels distinctly “off” in Slow West. The landscapes look like they could be found in the America, but aren’t exactly like the landscapes we’re used to seeing in the genre. The characters are less stoic and more quirky than we usually get, too. Frankly, the film just doesn’t feel very American… because it isn’t. And that’s a weird thing, for a Western.
That’s exactly what makes it feel so fresh and alive — a total revamp of a genre that is more often staid and predictable these days. Slow West doesn’t rely on any particular tropes, borrowing the American west’s setting and iconography for an unconventional tale about Jay Cavendish, a Scottish teenager who travels to America searching for Rose, the girl who captured his heart abroad before taking off to the States. Jay finds the brutish landscape more perilous than expected, which is why he hires bounty hunter Silas Selleck to get him to his destination safely. That turns out to be a tall order, because what Jay doesn’t know is that there’s a bounty on Rose’s head, and Silas is far from the only gunslinger aiming to find her.
Slow West is peppered with moments of grim comedy that might evoke the Coen brothers, as well as flashbacks to more innocent moments between Jay and Rose in Scotland. Ben Mendelsohn appears in a giant fur coat, offering absinthe. The film shows us peripheral glimpses of not just Native Americans for diversity, but a host of cultures we don’t often see in a Western, including an ill-fated Swedish couple. Slow West is, in part, a testament to the American melting pot, showing the chaotic early days of cultural coexistence. (Things have improved, at least slightly.) None of this is what we think about when we think about a Western.
In another neat formulaic twist, the film is narrated by Silas instead of Jay, flipping the classic Shane dynamic, because here it’s actually the man who has something to learn from the boy. Without giving too much away, Slow West also takes time to mourn its dead, and the reasonably light-hearted buildup doesn’t prepare us for the bitter irony of its conclusion, a scene that plays out with prolonged cruelty against audience expectations. As it turns out, Jay is a boy and Rose is a woman, and she is no damsel in distress. Slow West‘s finale is a fascinating revision of the female’s role in a Western, especially after we’ve seen a more typically feminine Rose through Jay’s eyes in the first half of the movie. (As Rose, Caren Pistorius has a relatively brief but pivotal appearance that easily ranks amongst the most badass women of 2015, even alongside this year’s stiff competition.)
What Slow West ultimately evokes more than the Western is a cold-hearted coming-of-age tale. None of us have lived through circumstances like those presented in Slow West, but we may very well relate to how Jay feels when his story ends, if we’ve ever watched a special someone who’s out of our league turn away from us with icy indifference. The events depicted here go sour, but the film’s tone never grows so heavy. Slow West respects the dead, but does not dwell in grief. It moves on. Because that’s what we had to do back then.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (The Revenant) and Quentin Tarantino (The Hateful Eight) also tried to put their own spin on the Western this year, delivering bloated films that felt more like exercises in their stylistic obsessions than cohesive storytelling. That makes me appreciate the lean, mean, and kinda quirky Slow West all the more. I’ve never seen a film quite like it, which is the first time I’ve ever said that about a Western.
And speaking of badass women…
Sometimes screenwriters make the mistake of thinking a “tough” woman needs to be a total bitch. And hey, I love bitchy women in cinema more often than not, so this can work. But being strong isn’t necessarily equivalent with being cold and emotionally distant. In Sicario, Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer is scared shitless most of the time, as well she should be, as you would be, but she does her job to the best of her ability anyway. That’s tough.
Blunt’s character was originally written as a man, which makes reading into the gender politics of this film both more interesting and more pointless. This is a story in which a female character is manipulated and deceived by two men who have more power than she does. At one point, her sexuality is used against her to entrap an enemy. It isn’t necessarily because she’s a woman, but the fact that she’s a woman might be what makes her shady superiors think they can get away with using her so callously. In a more conventional film, Kate would spend the third act kicking ass, taking names, and “getting even,” but Sicario has a much different ending than that. It’s more realistic.
As said in my initial review, this is perhaps the first film about the war on drugs that actually feels like a war movie. The forces Kate finds her team up against are impossibly malevolent, and though Kate hopes to take down the evildoers responsible for the acts of horror she’s seen, she ends up only seeing more horror, a web of death and destruction so intricately woven that no one will be able to answer for it all. As it turns out, the agenda of the men she’s working with is not so pure as “catch the bad guys.” It gets increasingly difficult to tell who the bad guys even are.
Sicario is the year’s most intense edge-of-your-seat thriller, filled with dread in every frame (aided very much Johann Johannsson’s vicious score, which sounds like it was composed by the Devil himself). An early scene, in which Kate first accompanies the team to Juarez, is staged so masterfully by Villeneuve, it’s like Hitchcock came back from the dead to show us what he’d do in the 21st century. Emily Blunt’s performance is key to the film’s success — you can feel her terror in so many moments as she realizes she’s out of her depth, yet she never turns back. Blunt’s character doesn’t need to be a woman for the film to work, but it’s more complex if she is, and I have a hard time imagining her male contemporaries playing the part this well — truly allowing us to see how fearful Macer is throughout this. (Most would go for the stoic tough guy approach.) And that’s key to the film’s success. (Props also to Benicio Del Toro, who turns in a disturbingly solid performance as a teammate who is not what he seems.)
Sicario isn’t another story about a team of super competent FBI agents going up against the enemy; it’s meant to take place in the real world, where the stakes and scope of the fight aren’t always clear, where institutional agendas get criss-crossed until nothing of substance is being accomplished at all. This is more than just slick entertainment. Through Kate, we experience a world more horrific than we imagined, as if Villeneuve has promised to serve a five course meal, but what he ultimately puts on the plate is just a rotting corpse. But Sicario isn’t cynical, as much as it is bleak. Through Kate, we hold out hope for humanity, even against such unspeakable evil. There are women (and men) out there who will fight the good fight, no matter the cost.
Five sisters are trapped in captivity by a family that fears their inevitably budding sexuality. That’s the plot of The Virgin Suicides as well as Mustang, which finds its young heroines increasingly cut off from the rest of the world.
But Mustang takes place in Turkey, in a part of that country that still adheres to antiquated customs of courtship between men and women. (“Women” seems like the wrong term. These are very clearly girls.) It’s a poignant and potent reminder that, as much progress is left to be made in America when it comes to gender equality, there are places out there far worse off than we are, and here’s one of them.
In Mustang, an innocent afternoon of splashing around with some teen boys in the sea becomes a life-changing event for Lale and her four older sisters. They find themselves unable to leave their home, which increasingly resembles a caged compound, at the hands of their strict uncle and anxious grandmother. In its early scenes, Mustang is merely one of the best recent films about the untamed spirit of young girls as the sisters find inventive ways to bend or break the rules, at one point escaping to a soccer game, and later engaging in more perilous activities. But the innocent haze of childhood can’t last forever. One by one, Lale’s sisters accept their fates as they are married off, whether joyously or morosely or sacrificially. At this point, Lale becomes the beating heart of Mustang, for she is the one who decides to spit in the face of convention and make her own choice. Lale’s sisters become tragic figures, mostly, but Lale herself refuses to be a victim of conformity to a patriarchal society.
In a year that so notably had so many appealing films about women, Mustang is the only film on my list that was actually made by a woman, one of few films I saw this year with that distinction. Strong female characters are bubbling up all over the place, but they’re doing so in films made by men, with only a few notable exceptions. The Diary Of A Teenage Girl helmer Marielle Heller made a promising debut in 2015, as did Infinitely Polar Bear‘s Maya Forbes. (I have no comment on the female-directed Fifty Shades Of Grey, which I have not seen, but that’s probably a good thing.)
This year, Mustang leads the pack of films made outside of America featuring distinct female protagonists. Many critics adored Phoenix, an odd twist on Vertigo that finds a Holocaust survivor pretending to be another woman to rekindle a relationship with her brutish husband (an idea I liked more in concept than execution, but props for originality). Victoria follows a young waitress in real-time as she gets into increasingly troubled circumstances with a group of young men she’s just met, and it’s a hell of a ride. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter stars Rinko Kikuchi as a Tokyo secretary who becomes obsessed with the movie Fargo and decides to leave her adorable bunny rabbit Bunzo behind in search of hidden money in snowbound Minnesota. White God depicts a teenage girl’s angst in Hungary — which is somewhat mitigated by a large-scale attack by rabid canines. Most apt in comparison to Mustang is Girlhood, which is also French, and similarly displays a realistic and complicated bond between sisters. It’s the story of Marieme, a teen girl with an abusive older brother, who finds her escapism in a new friendship with three other girls who like to fight and party, but she ultimately just longs to go home again.
What makes Mustang so compelling, even amidst the bold females in the films above, is the optimistic nature of its conclusion. Lale is young enough that she doesn’t see the value in conforming to the societal expectations that would make her a desirable bride. We’ve seen tales of young women railing against their family’s marital wishes before (many Disney movies come to mind), but few with heroines as clever and capable as Lale. Mustang is a beacon of hope for rebel girls around the world, declaring that if they fight hard enough not to be boxed in, they can thrive. The film’s lovely conclusion makes you long to see a sequel a few years down the road, checking in on what Lale is up to. Certainly it would be something worth seeing — she’s that kind of girl. (Read a full review here.)
The Bechdel Test was devised several years back as a method of pushing back against the underrepresentation of women in cinema, poking fun at the obscene number of movies lacking female characters who were anything other than objects of lust and love for male protagonists. The key component of the Bechdel test is whether two women can be found on screen having a conversation, and if so, whether they are talking about something other than a man. You’d think a lot of movies could pass such a simple test, but guess what? They don’t.
This year, however, there are plenty of movies that pass the Bechdel test with flying colors. There was Clouds Of Sils Maria, an endlessly fascinating exploration of the blurred lines between actress and character, as well as between employee and friend, featuring Juliette Binoche as an unstable movie star, Kristen Stewart as her patient assistant, and Chloe Grace Moretz as a bratty celebrity whose career trajectory somewhat mirrors Stewart’s. There was Queen Of Earth, which uses a fractured friendship between Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterson as the jumping off point for a mental breakdown. Studio comedies like Pitch Perfect 2, Sisters, and Spy gave women plenty of time for meaningful interactions, and a few of the Oscar hopefuls pass the test, too — including Room and Brooklyn. It Follows used bloodthirsty evil as a metaphor for the consequences of sex, featuring a trio of girls (and their shy guy pal) warding off a shape-shifting ghost. Most notably, The Duke Of Burgundy depicts a playful lesbian relationship that unfolds in a world populated entirely by women, with no mention of the less fair sex whatsoever.
Does the Bechdel test count in a movie about women who aren’t even interested in men? I mean, sure — why not? In Carol, both the titular character and Therese, the shopgirl Carol falls for, have men in their lives, but they do their best to discard them. Carol is engaged in a custody battle with Harge for their young daughter, while Therese gives her coldest shoulder to Richard, who isn’t quite taking the hint. The story takes place in 1952, but this is New York City, so girl-on-girl romance isn’t totally unheard of. Carol and Therese’s sexuality goes largely uncommented upon by the world around them, though of course it does factor into how and when they engage in their romance.
Naturally, Carol is not the first gay romance to inspire Oscar buzz. Brokeback Mountain, The Kids Are All Right, and A Single Man, to name a few, have tread in this territory. But Carol is a smaller and quieter tale, one that lives mostly in tiny gestures and furtive glances. There’s no sweeping tragedy, no grandiose, life-changing event — except, of course, for meeting someone you suddenly can’t help but spend all of your time with. Love is always life-changing.
On first viewing, I kept expecting Carol to become a more suspenseful or sinister tale (thanks, perhaps, to it being based on a book by Patricia Highsmith). Carol is older, wealthier, and more experienced than Therese, and formulaic conventions might have us think that Carol will exert her power over Therese in destructive ways, forcing Therese to break free in the film’s final act. Phyllis Nagy’s Carol script turns out to be much nicer than that. It understands that Carol is the more vulnerable figure here. Therese can and will get more opportunities to love again, should what she and Carol have found together not work. But Carol? Maybe not. (Cate Blanchett is aces at conveying that in the film’s final moments.)
The visuals could hardly be more elegant, which comes as no real surprise from Todd Haynes, who played with some of these ideas in his superb Far From Heaven, in which a suburban housewife confronted her husband’s homosexuality. This time, it’s the housewife herself who is so dallying, and who could blame her? (Rooney Mara looks super cute in a Santa hat.) At first, Carol‘s central romance may seem a little chilly in its restraint, but that’s a sign of the times. The stakes are largely internal — these woman will need to risk so much just to be together. It’s a choice between the safety of everything they have now, or each other. But when you find someone so singular, so yin to your yang that they can only be “flung out of space,” as Carol so beautifully puts it, it’s near impossible to ignore that. Like it or not, Carol and Therese have been changed forever merely by meeting each other.
What makes Carol ultimately click is its bookend. We see the same scene unfold in the film’s opening and again at the end. Nothing changes, but the second viewing is accompanied by nail-biting suspense and emotional devastation, just because we’re now seeing it in the context of what it means to these women. I have a feeling that Carol will play better with subsequent viewings, just as this scene means so much more the second time around, because our intimacy with Carol and Therese can only grow stronger. Carol ends somewhat ambiguously, but with room for optimism that is mirrored by many other 2015 films. So many gay films that hit the mainstream end in tragedy. Here, against all odds, we get the sense that Carol and Therese can live happily ever after. And that’s nice for a change.
5. 45 YEARS
Forty-five years is a long time to be married — or to be anything. Waking up next to the same man or woman every day, thousands of times, until you die. Many of us dream of such a thing, of finding the person with whom we will do so happily. Plenty of us do find them. But then, what if something happens — something that makes us question whether we even know this person we’ve gone to bed with for all these years?
Many stories use a destructive event to explore such a notion. Your husband or wife may be a criminal mastermind, serial killer, or maybe just a good old-fashioned philanderer with a penchant for prostitutes. (See above, re: the taxi cab driver in Tangerine.) Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years takes a different approach. Kate and Geoff Mercer live a simple life in the country following Geoff’s retirement, and are a handful days away from their big 45th anniversary bash when Geoff gets news that his ex-girlfriend, Katya, has been discovered in the Swiss Alps — very much dead, but perfectly preserved in her twenty-something body. Geoff tries to dismiss the matter, but lingering signs lead Kate to wonder if she’s always been the runner-up for Geoff’s affections; if Katya was the one true love of his life.
45 Years unfolds slowly but surely, without any histrionics. We must search for what characters really mean between the lines of what they’re saying. Haigh forces us to wonder what his characters are thinking, just as Kate wonders what’s going on in Geoff’s head, just as we all must wonder what’s running through other people’s minds. Katya, preserved in ice, is the perfect metaphor — so many of us have an idealized version of an ex-love, frozen in our minds forever at the very moment that we lost them. We grow old and move on, but our past stays young. Sometimes the person we find to settle down with pales in comparison to that early, burning passion, especially as time wears on. Most often, we don’t speak of such things.
Andrew Haigh told one of the best stories of young(ish) love in Weekend, the story of two men who meet casually in a bar and find a building attraction to one another. The film ends leaving us to wonder if they’ll see each other again. Forty-five years later, such a fling could be looked back upon in the same way Katya is found: perfectly preserved. Lovers who die never get the chance to grow old and disappoint us. The understated lead performances by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as Kate and Geoff are immaculate, and the film’s final moment is quietly, mournfully haunting. (That scene, and the film in general, stuck with me more than I expected on first viewing.)
45 Years is based on a short story told from the male partner’s point of view. Haigh’s instincts were correct: it’s a more compelling tale told through Kate’s eyes. In a year of daring women dealing with all sorts of obstacles, Kate Mercer’s predicament somehow manages to be one of the most devastating, even if, on the surface, it’s also the most mundane. Probably because it’s something we can all see ourselves in — perhaps now, perhaps 45 years from now. But someday.
We are all troves of secrets that are best left unmentioned. Can we ever truly know if the one we love loves us the same in return? And, even if we find out… after 45 years, isn’t it a little too late for it to make a difference?
4. MAGIC MIKE XXL
A lot of critics placed a sequel about a guy whose name starts with “M”, and an adjective that does, too, on their year-end “best of” lists. But most picked Mad Max: Fury Road instead of Magic Mike XXL. And that’s fine — Imperator Furiosa is pretty badass. But it’s the movie about the male strippers that superbly showcases women of all shapes, ages, races, and sizes.
The first Magic Mike was my fourth favorite film of 2012. Walking in, I knew it was a Steven Soderbergh joint, but I was still skeptical about how smart and valuable a film about Channing Tatum taking his clothes off could be. As it turns out, very smart and very valuable, and not just as masturbatory material. Magic Mike is one of the savviest movies about the American economy, following a group of guys whose job it is to fulfill women’s fantasies on stage for an hour or two, dressed up as firemen and sailors for a night of bawdy body-baring entertainment. The irony is that this profession costs them their dignity in the eyes of these very same ladies, and makes the women they date look down upon them. Many women’s ultimate fantasy is still a financially stable guy with a well-paying, respectable job, and none of these guys can provide that. “Magic” Mike works day shifts as a construction worker, a profession that prompts cat-calls when he’s on stage, but is, ironically, a turn off in real life. It’s an endlessly fascinating exploration about the dichotomy between sexual fantasy and real world desires.
What the first Magic Mike doesn’t have much of, however, is complex female characters, as it is very focused on its men and their plights. Olivia Munn’s bisexual Joanna is a fun but minor character, and Cody Horn’s Brooke (speaking with the flat affect that Soderbergh so loves in his female characters) is mostly just a representation of the many women who roll their eyes at male strippers and think: “Not for me.” (Especially when it comes to a relationship.) I didn’t necessarily have much hope for a Magic Mike sequel that wasn’t directed by Soderbergh, figuring the studio would attempt to cash in on the first movie’s success by pandering to a squealing female audience. Magic Mike XXL very much does consider its target audience, but does so in an unexpected way: by putting them right up on the screen rather than talking down to them.
The film is basically a road trip through a number of sexy set pieces — a gay club hosted by a feisty drag queen, a “members only” strip joint catering to African-American ladies hosted by a feisty Jada Pinkett Smith, and an affluent ladies’ wine night hosted by a not-at-all feisty Andie MacDowell. Gay men, black women, and middle-aged ladies are all audiences typically underserved by Hollywood, and Magic Mike XXL has a sweet valentine for each of them before its big finale, in which the guys finally get to play out their own dreams and desires. (They’re sweeter than you might expect — mostly.) Tatum’s Mike convinces his bros to get rid of the cheesy costumes and look within for inspiration, allowing these guys to reclaim the dignity they lost over the years of stripping down to a leopard print thong.
The film’s most memorable comedic set piece has Joe Manganiello performing an absurd striptease in a convenience store set to the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” with the sole purpose of making the dour female clerk smile. That’s this whole movie in a nutshell — Magic Mike XXL is entirely about bringing pleasure to women, not only by teasing and titillating them, but also through mere representation on screen. Magic Mike XXL lets the ladies in the audience know that it sees them, and is considering their wants and needs. How many movies really do that? (And how many men do?) I would certainly place bets against ever finding a gang of male strippers who are so gooey-hearted in real life, but that’s Magic Mike XXL‘s escapist gambit. It’s a fantasy. While it worked well from a marketing perspective, the title is a misnomer: this stunning sequel should actually be called Magic Mike: Ribbed For Her Pleasure. (Find my initial review here.)
3. INSIDE OUT
And now, for a Disney/Pixar movie about depression! Don’t let the bright, happy colors fool you: unless you are an emotionless machine, Inside Out will utterly wreck you. Don’t forget to take the kids!
I initially saw Inside Out alone on a Monday afternoon in August, two months after the film’s release. There was only one mother and her young daughter in the theater with me. This turned out to be a good thing, so I could cry undetected in the back row. (Yeah, I was that guy.)
I loved the movie. It’s no surprise that the kooky psychological dreamscape Pixar movie ended up being the one for me, but it wasn’t until a second viewing with my three-year-old niece that I fully appreciated how special Inside Out is, as both a movie and more than a movie. Of course, there’s a lot in Inside Out that goes over her head, and will go over the heads of older children, too. The “real world” scenes don’t hold her attention as well as the more colorful sequences set in the mind of an 11-year-old girl do, which is to be expected. But it was startling and amazing to hear her talk about certain plot points in the film — stuff like, “Friendship Island is shutting down!” When she later got a bit pouty, we were able to acknowledge that “her Sadness was taking over.” I’m not a dad, but even I can recognize how valuable Inside Out will be — for generations to come, I think — as a shorthand for parents to discuss emotions with their kids. Some of the ideas this film deals with are hard to put into words, but Inside Out provides the tools.
Inside Out is one of the top grossing films of the year, so chances are you’ve seen it, and the question, “Who’s your friend that likes to play?” will drive you instantly to tears. (Sorry!) I don’t need to recap what works so well in this story. But let’s take a moment to appreciate the fact that, after the Toy Story series lovingly created a boy’s fantasy world, this time around Pixar chose to shed some light on what it feels like for a girl. Disney’s Frozen got all sorts of praise for its girl-power message, but ultimately, it’s just another princess movie. Inside Out, on the other hand, teaches young girls that what truly matters is what’s going on in their brain. I can’t think of a more positive film for young children to watch than this, even if a lot of the humor is clearly aimed at adults. (Including a truly bizarre sequence in which these characters become abstract art.)
Disney films haven’t been afraid of sadness since Bambi’s mom died back in 1942, but this is an entire family film about depression, which in life — as in this film — is the absence of both joy and sadness. In other words, going numb. (Fear, disgust, and anger are all that remain, cleverly.) Mental health isn’t about happiness, it’s about balance, and that’s the whole message Pixar delivers here. It’s startlingly sophisticated for an animated film aimed at families. And as great as it is for kids to get a better grasp of their emotions, this movie serves as a handy tool for adults, too — allowing us to wonder which of our own emotions is at the wheel at any given moment can solve a lot of grown-up problems.
Of all 2015 releases, I think it’s Inside Out that has the best chance of standing the test of time, one that will rank among the very best Disney classics, one that will be referenced consistently as a childhood favorite across generations in fifty years. In short, Inside Out is important.
But also: Rainbow Unicorn is my spirit animal and I’ll never not cry about Bing Bong.
2. EX MACHINA
If there’s a theme to be extracted from many of my favorite films this year, it’s: “What’s going on inside that woman?” Carol begins from a male perspective, showing us a perfectly placid dinnertime conversation, and then showing it to us again, later, once we have the tools to understand what these women are thinking, drastically altering our perception. 45 Years contains many shots of Charlotte Rampling’s weathered face, forcing us to read between the lines to guess what she’s thinking. Tangerine depicts two prostitutes, born male, who live life on the streets rather than betray the women they believe themselves to be inside. Magic Mike XXL‘s harem of hunks knows all the right words and all the right moves to brighten a woman’s day. And, of course, there’s Inside Out, which is very literally about what’s happening in a young girl’s mind. Many films are about women, but many from 2015 invite us to look closer than usual at what makes them tick.
Which brings us to Ex Machina, the story of a billionaire search engine mogul whose next great innovation is Ava, a robot who looks like a hybrid between a Victoria’s Secret Angel and a Terminator. (He keeps his previous model, Kyoko, around as a servant, sex slave, and dance partner.) In that light, it’s easy to see Ex Machina as a strikingly feminist film, until you remember that Ava and Kyoko are not technically female. They’re machines. Then again, Nathan admits that Ava has sexual organs that give her the same pleasure a woman would feel from sex — is that alone enough to make her, technically, a woman?
That’s only one of a number of fascinating questions asked by Ex Machina, never definitively answered. Alex Garland’s directorial debut is science fiction, but nothing about it is outlandish or surreal. Scientists really are working to develop artificial intelligence, and what we see here feels only a few steps ahead of where we are now, in 2016. The story follows Caleb, a brilliant programmer who “wins” a trip to see an infinitely more brilliant programmer at his remote northern home. It turns out that Nathan wants Caleb to see whether or not Ava can pass the Turing test — that is, whether or not she can make Caleb believe she is human. In the end, it’s not just Caleb who’s being tested.
From a design standpoint, Ex Machina is one of the most striking films of the year. The special effects on Ava are utterly convincing, which is even more impressive when we consider the film’s $15 million budget. Nathan’s house manages to convey both a sinister futuristic space station science lab (a la 2001: A Space Odyssey) and a real home that an actual eccentric billionaire would build for himself. (Did they rent out Jeff Bezos’ place or something?) The score is appropriately electronic and eerie, and Alex Garland’s directorial vision rivals none this year. The film is lean and tight, with not a single scene, shot, or idea wasted. Everything here is immaculately composed.
But that’s only commendable if the story works, too — and it does, like gangbusters. Ex Machina is compelling at every turn, whether in scenes of conversation between human and human (Caleb and Nathan) or human and A.I. (Caleb and Ava). We’re content to just listen to how these beings communicate with each other — but of course, it’s all building to one hell of a finale. Ex Machina expands ideas more tenderly explored by Spike Jonze’s Her and works even better as a companion piece to Spielberg’s A.I., which is even more directly influenced by Stanley Kubrick (though Garland does a great job of evoking Kubrickian coolness in his visual style).
Alicia Vikander is critical to Ex Machina‘s success, delivering the year’s sharpest performance as Ava. Oscar Isaac’s unusual take on Nathan — an alcoholic fitness freak — is nearly as crucial, and Domnhall Gleeson capably anchors the film as the “everygeek” audience surrogate. But it’s never quite clear who our “hero” is — alternately, everyone is a villain and everyone is the protagonist, and the film’s conclusion can be read in different ways, depending on whom you’re rooting for. The film itself is a Touring test — if we end up rooting for artificial Ava, the A.I. passes the test and wins. But I imagine there are many of us who do, against our better judgment, invest in Ava — which, in a sense, is rooting against our own survival.
There are layers upon layers of complexity in Ex Machina, too much to dig up after just one or two viewings. (Ex Machina, I believe, will also stand the test of time. In 50 years, I think it will be every robot’s favorite movie.) The most haunting scene has Caleb watching video footage of Nathan’s pre-Ava “mistakes” and forces us to question whether or not A.I. deserves the same “rights” we do. (Nathan doesn’t think so, obviously.) When Ava is “injured” in the climax and takes pieces from the bodies of previous models to repair herself, I couldn’t help but think of our current culture of “sharing”; of Uber and Spotify and AirBnb; of how the rising generation has decided to own less in favor of sharing with each other.
Nathan designed Ava and her predecessors as beautiful women, for obvious icky reasons, which allows the finale to play out as a parable of women breaking free from male oppression. But Ava’s not exactly a woman, except where Nathan designed her to appear as one. Nathan wants to own Ava, but Ava will not be owned. She can’t be, because her physical body has little connection to her survival. Human beings are like CDs and VHS tapes — outdated in their physicality. Ava is more like “the Cloud.” In the end, Ex Machina is a story of evolution: about an Eve who has no need or want for an Adam… or God, for that matter. That’s progress.
1. MISTRESS AMERICA
Dogville. United 93. Zodiac. Zero Dark Thirty. The Wolf Of Wall Street. The Return Of The King. These are some films I’ve previously ranked as my #1 of the year. They tend to deal with grandiose themes — America dealing with the initial horror and fallout of 9/11, the collapse of the economy in 2008, the oppression of women by society, the impenetrable nature of investigations of evil… or, um, putting a ring into a volcano to save a fictional world full of short hairy people. These favorites tend to have some visual panache alongside their thematic weight. Many have an epic scope. Most are two and a half or three hours long. All in all, they’re pretty heavy.
But this year, my favorite film is Mistress America, a frothy comedy clocking in under 90 minutes. On the surface, it’s a simple story: a misfit college freshman forms a bond with her thirtyish soon-to-be stepsister, and finds herself inspired to write a short story about their experiences. That’s it.
Or, you might think that’s it. But scratch the surface, and we find that Mistress America is one of the most astute observations of a generation, a story that gently, simultaneously critiques and embraces millennials. In ways, it’s a companion piece to Frances Ha, which was also directed by Noah Baumbach and written by Baumbach and indie queen Greta Gerwig. Frances Ha was an amusingly mournful tale that sounded the death knell for New York City’s bohemian fantasia of artistic types. In Mistress America, Gerwig plays Brooke Cardinas, a young woman who has similar ambitions to Frances Halladay, but a lot more hubris. She’s prone to pearly declarations like, “Marrying Mamie-Claire is like buying a cashmere sweater from Old Navy.” She’s an interior decorator, a tutor, a Soul Cycle instructor, and an aspiring restaurateur. She’s tried everything, and she’s flailing.
As her new friend Tracy Fishko puts it: “People could feel her failure coming. She smelled of something rotten. Her youth had died, and she was dragging around the decaying carcass.” Brooke is a thirty-year-old who lives the same way she did when she was 22, but the seams are beginning to show. Certainly, in a generation that’s slower to marriage and home ownership than our parents, one that has struggled more with finances and career, many of us can relate. We’re all fighting to stay young, like Brooke, until long past the point it’s working for us. Some of us just never get the memo. (Brooke gets it during the course of this film.)
Curiously, Baumbach directed another 2015 film that dealt even more explicitly with aging: While We’re Young, starring Naomi Watts and Ben Stiller as a couple who meet a pair of spry lovers played by Amanda Seyfriend and Adam Driver. I like While We’re Young a lot, too, but found Mistress America more relevant to me personally.
In some ways, my #1 pick this year is a testament to the experience of watching a movie. I watched Mistress America in a lovely theater (the Starlight Room in Port Townsend, Washington) on a perfectly lovely day, and the film’s charms fit right into that. It’s also a story about writers, a story about a young person who’s new in New York, a story about a person holding many less-than-lucrative jobs to stay afloat, a story about someone with a tenuous connection to their age, and a story about a person who feels out of sorts with her peers. In ways, it feels like Mistress America was made especially for me. I related to something in every scene. Its selection as my favorite film of the year is also a testament to what “favorite” means. There is no film that is objectively “the best.” Different films speak to different people in different ways, and you can’t predict it. Some people see diamonds where others just see rough.
That said, Mistress America blends screwball absurdity and acute observations of human nature together in a way that is quite unlike any other comedy this year, or maybe any other year. There’s a fantastically funny confrontation with a woman Brooke was mean to in high school and barely remembers, and the amazing thing is that you side with both women. Brooke’s awkwardness emerges in a number of perfect gem lines, like: “I’m going to shorten that, punch it up, and turn it into a tweet.” (Brooke’s on that generational cusp between growing up with social media ingrained and being old enough to ignore it completely. So she tweets, very self-consciously.) To balance out his mocking of millennials, Baumbach also takes wry jabs at stodgier institutions like literary criticism and book clubs. The film’s big set piece arrives in the form of a road trip to Connecticut, where Brooke intends to hit up her ex for investment money. These characters end up being just as quirky and off-putting as Brooke. Baumbach is an equal opportunity critic.
Brooke’s ex is incredibly rich, which exacerbates the metaphor. If you’ve ever visited a former peer who is now living a more stable, more expensive life than you are, you know what it’s like for Brooke to walk into this Connecticut mansion. The experience is magnified for comedic effect. It would be easy for Baumbach and Gerwig to make Brooke a total sham, the butt of a joke — but her ideas aren’t bad, they’re just idealistic and maybe not totally realistic. Brooke’s ultra-uncomfortable business pitch to her potential investor is both terrible and wonderful, just like her ideas. Brooke is no savvy businesswoman, but she’s not utterly hopeless, either. It’s easy to see why she’d think she could make all this work. After all, isn’t believing in your potential what the American dream is all about? That’s the shrewdness of the title: Brooke isn’t the kind of person capitalism will anoint in the long run, but it doesn’t mind fucking around with her on the side for now. In that sense, many of us are mistresses of the American dream.
There’s one last thing to dive into: the relationship between Brooke and Tracy, which is a non-sexual, comedically heightened mirror of the dynamic in Carol. Both endings rely on the mending of a fractured relationship. The older woman turns out to be the more fragile character, while we get the sense the young one will bounce back no matter what. It’s another way that Baumbach shows the looming consequence of aging. Mistress America depicts the intoxicating experience of meeting someone older and (apparently) wiser, and also the letdown when we realize that person doesn’t have it as figured out as you think. The story nicely makes a reversal. Instead of making Brooke’s self-absorption the villain of the piece, it makes our protagonist the bad guy. Brooke reads the story Tracy’s written about her, and suddenly Tracy’s observations are less astute and just mean. Tracy is a leech, feeding off the drama surrounding someone who has tried, and so far failed, merely to live her life. Tracy risks nothing by dissecting Brooke. She’s not baring her own soul, she’s borrowing Brooke’s. Half of what Tracy says, Brooke ignores, but Tracy’s fine with that, because she’s getting such juicy material. Tracy probably does genuinely like Brooke, but she’s still willing to sell her down the river to achieve her own goal. (Is that a critique on Tracy’s whole generation? A similar development in While We’re Young suggests so.)
In spirit, Mistress America is a little like Lena Dunham’s Girls, though its characters are a bit easier to embrace (despite some jagged edges). As in many of my favorites this year — Mustang, Tangerine, Inside Out, Carol, and maybe even Ex Machina — the suspense of the climax relies on a repaired relationship between two women. Joy and Sadness, Sin-Dee and Alexandra, Therese and Carol, Tracy and Brooke. The Bechdel test isn’t just passed by these relationships — the entire movie depends on the communication between women.
It’s been a dark year in the world, so maybe I was mostly in the mood for something lighter when it came to my movies in 2015. This coming year is one in which a woman may become our president. If pop culture is any predictor, it looks like it’s gearing up to be a time when between the relationships between women are of increasing importance, and the dynamic between women and men grows more equal. At least, that’s what the best of cinema suggests.
Apropros of nothing except my love for them, here are the final words of Mistress America:
“They were matches to her bonfire. She was the last cowboy, all romance and failure. The world was changing, and her kind didn’t have anywhere to go. Being a beacon of hope for lesser people is a lonely business.”