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Monday, February 1, 2016

Noah’s Official 2015 Movie Awards

**for my official Top 10 Favorite Movies list for 2015, click here**

            Continuing with our final look-back at the movies of 2015, and after a hiatus from doing this last year, I am back to provide a little bit of added color to my Top 10 list with some of my own personal awards to remember the best, worst, quirkiest, and most memorable stuff I had the fortune of witnessing over the course of watching the roughly 5 dozen films that currently sit on my “Seen” list.  All awards are of my own design.  I expect to receive full credit and funding from the Academy any day now. 

            Oh, and a great big spoiler blanker from here on out.  Last warning. 

The Anti-Twilight Award for Best Vampire Film- 
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

            For too long, the existence of Twilight has hung over the world of the sexily undead like the carcass of a massive, sparkly albatross.  No more, for the Iranians have arrived to remind us in the West of how a REAL vampire gets down to business.  Despite lacking the pure physical presence of the classic Vlad Draculs, Sheila Vand is a stunning anchor for this combination horror/love story.  It ends up feeling oddly appropriate (and maybe even a bit subversive?) that, even as a vampire, she drapes herself in the full-body dress that restrictive regimes like those in Iran have made so infamous.  The single, all-black form seems to suck in all light around it, giving the character her own unique way of striking terror into the hearts of both her victims and the audience. 

The Laverne Cox Award for Best Unexpected Trans-Related Side Story-

            Predestination was a tightly-written and wickedly clever bit of sci-fi madness, second only to Ex Machina in that particular genre this year.  But I more or less expected that going in.  What I was wholly unprepared for was a sudden deviation from the main plot in the second act when a new character walks in unannounced, and begins to tell us the whole story of how he, designated as female at birth, eventually (for several very specific reasons I won't detail here) had to transition to being a man.  How this ties into the larger plot of the movie I won’t dare spoil, but I will say that the real miracle isn’t that what amounts to a short-film-within-a-film  ends up being surprisingly moving and emotionally touching, but that the switch from it out of the realm of time-traveling sci-fi is handled so flawlessly that, at first, you don’t even realized you’ve been detoured into a whole other film. 

The Facepalm Award for Year’s Biggest Letdown- 
Queen of the Desert

            For a while, it looked like this one would go to Tomorrowland, easily the weakest Brad Bird vehicle so far when compared to The Iron Giant and the incredible work he’s done with Pixar.  However, the film did have a few scenes or moments of real poetry, plus an absolutely perfect ending to a shaky story that at least made the film worth seeing, if only once.  It was a misfire, but a creatively interesting one. 

            Queen of the Desert, on the other, disappoints in how utterly unremarkable it is on every conceivable level.  Nothing about is actively bad- there are no offensive historical errors or stereotypes on display, the acting is fine, and it’s competently made- but given how hugely underappreciated Gertrude Bell is, and how much rich material there is in her life to make a Grade A masterpiece out of, the film being this boring is arguably worse than if it had been straight-up awful.  Even the camerawork is surprisingly unnoticeable, especially given Werner Herzog’s legendary propensity for being so extremely devoted to getting the perfect shot, he actually advocates getting arrested if that’s what it takes.  What a bummer. 

The Happy Feet Award for Best, Most Bodacious Dance Number- 
Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina)

            We all thought we loved Ex Machina for its brilliant and multi-layered story, sleek visuals, stunning effects, jaw-dropping ending, and breakout performances by Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and a fantastic Alicia Vikander.  But we were wrong.  We loved it for the scene where Oscar Isaac breaks out his moves and makes every dancer who’d spent a lifetime training weep in utter shame at their lack of grace and craft.  Simply marvelous. 

The Alpha and Omega Award for Most Ubiquitous Screen Presence- 
Domhnall Gleeson

            Every now and then, for no particular reason, an actor or actress will have a year where they make the jump from being occasionally recognizable from a few early bit roles to suddenly being everywhere, and even for casual moviegoers there is no escaping them.  This year that person was Domhnall Gleeson, who had lead or significant side roles in 4 major big-screen movies.  Even more amazingly, all of them either directly made my Top 10 list (Brooklyn and Ex Machina) or eked out an Honorable Mention (Star Wars: Episode VII and The Revenant), making him the most-represented actor in any such list I’ve yet made. 

            Only time will tell if this is just a flash in the pan or if he will be part of the next generation of great screen actors, but given how he’s impressed so far (plus the fact that he’s the son of the legendary Brendan Gleeson), I’m willing to bet money it’ll be the latter. 

The Puck Award for Best On-Screen Narration- 
Samuel Jackson (Chi-Raq), Ryan Gosling (The Big Short)

            Chi-Raq and The Big Short are both great, remarkable movies (hence why both cracked my Top 5), and a big part of what makes them such a joy to watch are the two cheeky, wisecracking, all-knowing narrators that guide us through the scenes of destruction and depravity each film makes us bear witness to. 

            Samuel Jackson always seems to be playing the same character in all his films, but damn, he does it so well I just can’t help but love it anyway.  We all love it.  As Dolmedes, he slips in between the lines of racial division to deliver a potent mix of jokes, wisecracks, polemic admonitions, and lyrical wisdom, which, in addition to a stellar lead performance by Teyonah Parris, ends up being the glue that holds together the film’s many disparate parts. 

            Ryan Gosling, on the other hand, I think has always been a bit underrated by people (possible because his name and face bear a close resemblance to the significantly less-talented Ryan Reynolds).  He might not be nearly as crass or as fascinatingly horrible as Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfourt, but his curious blend of smarts, slime, and quasi-racist humor are their own fascinating sideshow, even though its surrounded by an entire class of top-level actors doing what they do best. 

The Wrench-Your-Heart-Out Award for Most Moving Death Scene- 
Still The Water

            Still The Water is, in a sense, a very Japanese film in how minimalist it keeps its scenes and overall story.  This is no better displayed than right around the middle, when the long-suffering mother of the main character passes away, surrounded by her family and seemingly half the town.  It seems to drag on for ages; she grows weaker with each passing minute, but she can’t quite let go just yet, and eventually she asks the women of the town to sing to help her soul along.  It’s agonizing, painful, and uncomfortable to watch, and in that sense perfectly conveys the deep sadness of having to wait and watch for the end of a loved one. 

The Cloning Award for Strangest Duplication of Character Design and Story Role- 
Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World) and Evangeline Lilly (Ant-Man)

            Alright, someone needs to fess up.  One of you copied the other.  We all know it happened, now just tell us who the guilty party is.  I mean, forcing two great actresses into side roles where they struggle with poorly-explained emotional issues and get a romance shoe-horned in in the most awkward way possible is bad enough, but then you go and do THIS? 

            Seriously, look at them!  Blink and they are one! 

The Pacific Rim Award for Most Mind-Fuckingly Insane Action Sequence- 
Colin Firth and the Westboro Baptist Church (Kingsman: The Secret Service) WARNING: VIDEO VERY NSFW

            Jesus Christ, what the hell.  This scene.  Holy shit. 

            As part of their efforts to thwart the bad guy’s plan to use mind control technology to destroy the world, the Kingsmen send Colin Firth to investigate a famously racist and homophobic church (okay, it’s not CALLED the Westboro Baptist Church, but who do they think they’re kidding?) where they believe he will test it.  Lo and behold, he does, and Colin Firth the trained world-class assassin is caught up in it.  What results is one of the most spectacular, mind-numbing, excruciatingly brutal bloodbaths I have ever seen.  The madness needed to think up every step and every way in which Firth slaughters a room full of the worst of humanity AND to see it through to completion boggled my mind.  What has been seen cannot be unseen. 

The Screw High School Award for Best Use of Pomp and Circumstance- Kingsman: The Secret Service (VIDEO ALSO NSFW)

            After the Westboro Massacre (see above), I thought I had seen the ballsiest, nuttiest, dare-you-not-to-laugh-at-this thing I would see all year.  I was wrong. 

            At the very end of the movie, as the action climax in the villain’s bunker comes to a head, the day is saved when the good guys are able to reverse-engineer the chips in the necks of the villain’s army and allies (which include, we learn, almost every world leader INCLUDING Barack Obama), causing them to quite literally blow the head off of every single bad guy around the entire globe, leaving the mastermind of the whole affair alone and defenseless (sort of). 

            For reasons I am too emotionally well-balanced to fathom, the filmmakers chose to depict this sequence of events by having each head blow up in a cloud of multi-colored smoke, and each set or group of exploding noggins goes off in time to the strains of that infamous high school graduation classic, Pomp and Circumstance.  And it is glorious. 

The Loony Tunes Award for Most Absurd Situational Survival Feats- 
Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)

            I liked The Revenant a lot.  It was gorgeous to look at, it was terrifying seeing the lengths to which Leonardo DiCaprio was forced to push himself in his (hopefully no longer futile) quest for Oscar gold, and the scenery made me really, really, really want to go to Canada.  But let’s be honest, as well-made as the endeavor was, the things the main character survives get pretty ridiculous by the end, to the point where I almost felt it would have made more sense to replace Tom Hardy with a roadrunner. 

The Homer Award for Most Lyrical Script- 

            A really, really good screenplay (or script) is incredibly hard to write.  How much harder must it be to use a storyline that’s thousands of years old, update all the language to make it sound like a fit in the 21st century, have almost the whole damn thing rhyme, and STILL get actors who can make it sound natural as breathing?  That is the task Spike Lee set out to accomplish with Chi-Raq, and he succeeded marvelously.  I adore the language of this film, every broken-meter bit of it.  This is the rare film I plan to watch again with subtitles just to make sure I can savor every sentence (and to catch all the inside jokes and literature references I missed the first time around). 

The Step Aside, Katniss Award for Best Breakout Female Action Hero- 
Rey (Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: Episode VII) AND Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road

            Slowly but surely, we are getting more hard evidence to counter the pig-headed notion of the Studio Ancients that action/fantasy/sci-fi/blockbuster franchises starring woman can’t be smart, fun, or financially successful.  The Hunger Games franchise alone proved this, but truth be told I never found the films to be that great, especially since they (like David Russell) tended to criminally underuse the long-ignored talents of a certain J-Law. 

            Thankfully, along came these two ladies this year to push things forward a bit.  Rey and Furiosa were fun, interesting, and emotionally complex characters, grounding both of their respective films and providing the bulk of the narrative heft to each, which was particularly welcome given the previously male-dominated nature of their respective franchises.  Plus, they’re both badass as all shit.  More of this please, 2016.  I want more. 

The Star Wars Prequels Award for Biggest Missed Opportunity- 
The ending of Victoria

            There was a very specific moment in Victoria- a German film that, unlike Birdman, actually WAS done in a single, exhilarating take- when I firmly expected and wanted it to end, a point that would have made the ending ambiguous and given the story a wonderfully dreamlike quality.  It’s a sign of how strong I found the first half of the film to be that, if it had ended there, it would have easily soared into a spot on my Top 10.  

            But it doesn’t end there.  Instead, it goes on.  And on.  And on.  And on.  And it soon becomes clear that it’s doing this just for the sake of “completing” its story, to provide full closure to each character and everything that happens, even though it was never necessary to do so.  The result is a second half that drags way too much and, sadly, spoiled a lot of the goodwill I had for it up to that point.  This doesn’t in any diminish how impressive of an accomplishment the film and its performances are- it’s a remarkable movie either way and absolutely worth seeing- but it does, in my view, hold it back from the greatness it could have achieved. 

The LOTR Award for Best Translation from Book to Film- 

            Translating the prose of a great novel to the screen is always a challenge, since much of what makes a book powerful is antithetical to what a movie needs to achieve the same effect.  And for all the films that pull it off, there are just as many, if not more, than fail in the translation as are lesser works as a result.  This year, I found Brooklyn to be the best adaptation because the filmmakers clearly understood that the core of the story’s power comes in its straightforward and unvarnished presentation of the main character the world she inhabits, and a profound understanding of the sacrificial nature of life, and knew exactly how to bring that same sense across in movie form, which made it not only the best book adaptation of the year, but also one of the best movies of 2015 overall. 

The Whiplash Award for Worst Turnaround Following an Oscar Win- 
Eddie Redmayne (A bulging sack of impotent rage, Jupiter Ascending)

            Oh Eddie Redmayne.  Clearly you won gold for the wrong film.  Eddie’s somewhat-overblown Oscar moment was almost immediately followed by the general release of what many consider to be one of the biggest, most bloated, and most disappointing bombs of 2015, an original sci-fi work by the Wachowski’s that failed spectacularly at the box office and may have further damaged the prospects of future original sci-fi works for some time as a result.  And the glorious crowning moment of this failure was every single time Redmayne opened his quivering lips to deliver some of the most deliciously over-wrought dialogue since the glory of Jeremy Irons in Dungeons and Dragons.  Shine on, you crazy diamond. 

            And finally, my 4-Star club, for all the films I saw this year that, whether or not I officially reviewed them, I consider to be worth a 4 out of 4 star rating. 

4-Star Club:

Ex Machina
Mad Max: Fury Road
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
45 Years
Crimson Peak

            And there you have it!  Coming up next, a quick celebration of the best in film scores AND, at long last, my picks for who should win gold out of this year’s particularly controversial slate of Oscar nominees.  Til then. 

-Noah Franc 

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