Above: The 2015 documentary Amy is a behind-the-scenes look at the troubled personal life of the late singer Amy Winehouse.
Ladies and gentlemen, when the 88th Academy Awards come in February, the winners will be selected by a small myriad of people who collectively make up “the Academy.” These are actors, writers, directors, producers — anyone who has been invited to join the Academy by its governing board due to their distinction in the world of film. While this is very genteel and democratic, it is also frustrating. Since winners are collectively decided, it is impossible to know all the biases, peer pressures, politics, cat-fights, snubs, and resentments between celebs and filmmakers that inevitably go into the mix.
We can recognize patterns: the Academy, like Hollywood, is pretty liberal, but not super liberal. They award feminist characters and LGBT storylines, but they also enjoy movies like The Blind Side and a damn lot of them believe in some higher power. They have affinities for nostalgia, conventionally unattractive women, and Bruce Vilanch comedy, but comedies? Not a chance.
In the end, despite our best hunches, we are in the dark. When we tune in to that star-studded night on the red carpet, we are forced to accept that winners are chosen by a vote of their peers, and that’s that. Which is why I offer you a totally biased, transparent, single-sourced list of winners from your favorite film reviewer and queer commentator: the one, the only, Beastly Ex-Boyfriend.
The Ten Best Films of 2015:
10. Beasts Of No Nation
I was surprised when I heard they made this novel into a film. I read the book years ago, and it was hard to get through. Beasts Of No Nation, by Nigerian author Uzodinma Iweala, is a brutal first-person account of a child soldier in sub-Saharan Africa. I lived in Zambia for a few years as a kid, and my parents founded an orphanage there which I still visit occasionally. When I read the book, I pictured the kids at the orphanage carrying machetes and semiautomatics, and it deeply affected me. I was nervous to watch the Netflix film, but thankfully it is not quite as gruesome as the novel, and its roughness is balanced out by gorgeous landscape shots (it was filmed in Ghana, far north of where I lived), and by Idris Elba’s performance. Elba fully embodies the monster commander of a small paramilitary troop of young boys who ravage the lush wilderness, looting villages and killing anyone in their path.
This was the year of the ensemble film. Youth, written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, is the story of a retired orchestra conductor, Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), on holiday in the Swiss Alps at a luxurious resort that hosts a bizarre array of characters — film stars, directors, musicians, mountaineers, and anyone looking to escape from life. The film haphazardly follows many narratives, primarily focusing on Ballinger’s relationship with his daughter (Rachel Weisz). Frequently skirting into the realm of the magically surreal, the film forces us to suspend our disbelief at various points throughout as it establishes reality, then breaks it. At the end, we are unsure if any of the stories were true, and it doesn’t matter: Youth is a beautiful, musically-charged ride, and one we feel deeply, even if we can’t quite define it.
8. The Danish Girl
I’m not the biggest fan of period pieces, which is why this gorgeous film clocks in at number eight. Eddie Redmayne may well grab another Oscar for his role as Danish painter Lili Elbe, one of the first transgender women to undergo sex reassignment surgery in the early 1930s in Germany. Redmayne’s performance, once again, is fully committed: at one point he tucks his penis between his legs in front of a full body mirror to imitate a vagina, studying his slender body in different poses. The film takes pains to show, not tell (three words that Roland Emmerich needs to memorize, in that order), and without words we understand what Elbe is doing: she is exploring the woman in her male body, trying to see Lili appear in the glass.
As expected, the casting of a cisgender actor as a transgender woman has caused much controversy. Many rightfully say the casting was a missed opportunity to cast a trans woman in an iconic role — which it was. But Redmayne drew in audiences and invited them into a dialogue that is rapidly building momentum and attention: the transgender movement. I’ve always believed that film, like art, is meant to provoke, not instruct. The Danish Girl is a conversation starter that will hopefully lead to more trans actresses and actors cast in lead roles in the future.
7. The Overnight
Starring TV actors Taylor Schilling from Orange Is The New Black and Adam Scott from Parks And Recreation, The Overnight is a dark comedy about sex, weird L.A. people, and couples with young kids. When Alex and Emily (Scott and Schilling), newly transplanted to Los Angeles from Seattle, meet the mysterious but stylish pair Kurt and Charlotte (Jason Schwartzman and Sarah DeVincentis) at the playground where their sons seem to be getting along, the two couples plan a dinner date — for that very night. After dinner, it’s pot, penises, awkward situations galore, and a refreshingly honest approach to the realities of human desire. Sometimes you want to have sex with people outside your relationship, which is okay — and sometimes very strange, and very funny. Read my longer review here.
Spotlight is a good, old-fashioned, nail-biting newsroom drama about the small team of investigative journalists at The Boston Globe who, in 2001, first investigated and eventually published hundreds of stories about Catholic priests molesting young children — most frequently boys from poor homes — and the church’s massive systematic coverup of these crimes. Their reportage, which won The Globe a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for Public Service, was the tip of the iceberg of what we now know to be a massive problem in the church, and one that has undeniably smeared its longstanding reputation of so-called godliness and charity for generations to come. Spotlight is an ensemble film, so it’s hard to say who stands out. Mark Ruffalo painfully overacts as reporter Mike Rezendes, contrasting with the understated performances from Michael Keaton and Liev Schreiber (who has become such a sexy, scruffy daddy).
The many people who believed up until her death that Amy Winehouse was a trashy, media-loving drunk with no talent need to watch the heartbreaking 2015 documentary Amy. Or maybe they don’t, because they may just not get her, as many people didn’t get her Etta James-like voice, her cocktail lounge music, or her big hair. Winehouse was a rare talent at a young age, with low confidence and low self-esteem. From the beginning, she was surrounded by bad people (her father) and she latched on to bad relationships. The documentary, made up of mostly home video recordings, shows how every smoldering lyric she sang was inspired by happenings in her life — heartbreaks, family struggles, and a deep feeling of being “no good.” It’s a tragedy we won’t hear more of them.
4. Mad Max: Fury Road
I know everyone is raving about this movie, from its beautiful cinematography to its badass female lead. As the gun-toting, ass-kicking, skinhead cyborg Furiosa, Charlize Theron is a win for women in the machismo-heavy genre of blow-em-up movies — and tough guys across the Internet are pissed. Or at least they were when the film was released last May. All sociopolitics aside, it’s actually a great movie, and one hell of a headache if you aren’t prepared for two hours of nonstop explosions, fast cars, screaming, fighting, and general Mad Max fare. Tom Hardy delivers a crazier, gruffer, more taciturn Max than Mel Gibson, who played the post-apocalyptic antihero in the franchise’s original three films. Hardy is great, but Theron steals the show by force. Read my longer review here.
3. Kingsman: The Secret Service
I’m totally biased here — I went to see this movie with my ex-boyfriend last February and we both loved it. But from a strictly critical stance, Kingsman: The Secret Service has such over-the-top British camp that it works beautifully. It’s the story of a young, troublemaking street kid named Eggsy (puppy-faced Taron Egerton), who gets taken under the wing of gentlemanly superspy Harry Hart (Colin Firth, whose understated, English sass game is literally too strong to handle). It’s a tongue-in-cheek, blow-em-up spy movie that is refreshingly absent of romance or a token damsel-in-distress. And there’s a pug.
2. Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs shows us the many fights and confrontations occurring behind the scenes of three consecutive product launches — you know, those big auditoriums filled with cheering fans, where Apple CEO Steve Jobs stands onstage to unveil a new tech thingy. I was disappointed that the film never makes it to the iPhone — arguably the most iconic and important product launch of Jobs’s career. But all disappointments are swept away by Michael Fassbender’s furious performance as the tumultuous mastermind behind Apple’s elegance, exclusivity, and defiantly closed systems — features that have both frustrated users and made them cult-like followers. And Fassbender isn’t the only one who wows: solid performances from Kate Winslet (duh) and Seth Rogen make it an ensemble film with lots of yelling, bold editing, and a script that will certainly take home the writing awards this year.
And the Beastly Award for Best Picture goes to…
I wasn’t interested in Carol when I saw the trailer. I only went to see the film because Tracy Gilchrist, the editor-in-chief of SheWired, had been ranting about it in the office for weeks. (SheWired, a lesbian news and entertainment source, has published some great articles on the film.) It was the only film this year that left me stunned — I sat in the theater through the credits, speechless — and the only one I went back to see a second time. Set in 1950s New York during the height of the red scare, Carol is the story of a young shopgirl, Therese (Rooney Mara, who first garnered Oscar attention with her unrecognizable turn as Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s 2011 remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), who meets and falls in love with a significantly older, wealthier woman named Carol (Cate Blanchett).
Carol is a regal, sultry, chain-smoking society woman with a domineering ex-husband and young daughter. She’s also a lesbian in a time when homosexuality was still considered a mental illness. While Therese watches Carol move around her house, wide-eyed, we are wide-eyed with her: Blanchett’s performance is at once effortless and deeply studied. The film is set in the 50’s, so everyone has a veneer of insincerity and artificiality about them — everyone is performing for each other — but none so much as Carol, who at times seems almost sinister. When the veneer is finally stripped away, the raw and exposed woman underneath, hopelessly in love with a girl she believes she cannot have, is a performance that warrants Blanchett another Oscar.
… And just for fun, here are the Three Worst Films of 2015:
3. American Ultra
Never heard of it? It’s a stupid movie starring Jesse Eisenberg and that girl from Twilight that went utterly unnoticed through theaters back in August. There’s guns, one-liners, and a half-hearted plot about a secret government program to develop spies or soldiers or whatever, which gets shut down after only one success (who is, you guessed it, Eisenberg). It’s cut-and-pasted from bad action flicks we’ve seen before, and it marketed itself to audiences that loved Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and who probably do fist-pumps every day. As expected, it tanked — much like Kristen Stewart’s career.
2. Welcome To Me
It’s literally so bad that it’s almost good. Almost. I tried my hardest to enjoy Kristen Wiig’s weird, implacable performance as a mentally ill health nut who wins the lottery and finances her own television show — that is totally, entirely, about herself — but I was unable to discern if she was going for camp, comedy, or some version of the two. I threw in the towel when her character decides to castrate dogs on television — in gritty detail. There are some things a man cannot watch.
Does this movie even need commenting upon? It’s one thing to make a bad movie. It’s another thing for a gay director to make a bad movie that insults and whitewashes one of the most historic events in LGBT history. If you want to enjoy some good eviscerating reviews, go read this one from Gawker and this one from Vanity Fair.
Since the year’s films were so ravishingly ensemble, I’m not going to meddle with Best Actor or Actress awards — I don’t want to steal all the thunder from the Oscars. Raise a glass to another year of film and frolic.