These films are all that I need, when I’m lying here in their arms.
Hello, once again. We are still counting down my Top 20 Films of 2015. If you missed the previous two parts, where we looked at #20 – #11 and #10 – #6, then you can find them at the links provided. Before we get into the Top 5, though, I want to re-state something I mentioned near the start of the first part of this trilogy: the Top 4 (I need one more viewing of #5 before I assign it this honour) are some of my favourite films of all-time. Like I said way back when, it has been a fucking asshole of a year, but the films that I did love I loved. Even when the year was sinking lower than I ever thought possible – and we’re almost at that list, hang in there – these were the films that I could cling to as a reminder that it’s not all horrendous, that I can watch over and over again and not get tired. So, with that out of the way, and because I can’t, I won’t and I don’t stop…
There may be spoilers (and there are HUGE spoilers for the #5 entry). Proceed with caution.
Dir: Denis Villeneuve
Star: Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin
“We’re going to dramatically overreact.” Matt Graver, technically, hid nothing from Kate Macer. She correctly guesses very early on that he’s CIA – or, at the very least, not DOD – and she discovers very quickly that the methods that he and everyone else on their team are using are so far away from any concept of legal that it would be darkly funny if she had any power or say in the matter. Yet, despite it all, and despite Matt telling her to her face before they set off on their big raid that she and Reggie are quite literally only here so that the CIA can do their thing on American soil, she still keeps pushing on, going deeper and deeper, covering herself in more and more muck, out of the incredibly naive and foolish belief that, despite even her FBI superiors telling her that the goalposts have changed, she can solve things by-the-book. That she can turn this fucked up situation into a simple Good-Bad scenario, that she is still there to do the right thing.
The situation, however, is fucked. The Drug War is such a fucked situation, pretty much incapable of any permanent and non-horrific resolution, that those who don’t compromise or adapt in some negative way are doomed to die. Walk in and try to do good, try to bring order and subscribe to a simplistic Black-White view of the situation’s morality, and at best you will be studiously ignored as everyone else continues to do what they are doing. The world does work not that way, it does not operate in a clear-cut manner, and if you try to act like it does then you will be chewed up and spit out. Kate is foolish to think that she can change things, but she’s not an idiot because she represents the part of us that wants to believe. The part of us that wants to think that things are that simple, that the worst parts of the world can be fixed without having to get our hands dirty. Sicario smacks that idea down firmly, not least with how those who are supposed to do the fixing are often merely just trying to manipulate the situation to their own selfish ends anyway. People are monsters, everybody is complicit somehow.
Sicario, though, operates on another layer even from that due to having Kate as the lead character, working just as much as a metaphor for the various ways that men and the patriarchy abuse, beat down, and devalue women. Kate, despite being one of the best in her field and being one of exactly two characters in the entire film (the other being Reggie) who has a non-screwed moral compass, is brought into the film’s events purely so that Matt and the rest of the CIA have a legal loophole for their incredibly illegal operation. They don’t care about anything else she can bring to the mission, unless that asset is “being bait”. She is kept in the dark all of the time, her attempts at due process are laughed off, she is belittled when she doesn’t do exactly what she is told, she is physically beaten down repeatedly when she gets in the way of the others’ highly objectionable objectives, she is threatened at gunpoint to sign away the last of her principles. The one time she lets her guard down, she comes seconds away from being strangled to death.
In every scene, you want Kate to succeed. You want Kate to bring the whole thing crashing down, you want to see her at the very least wipe the insufferable smug off of Matt’s face, but she cannot. She’s powerless, playing a rigged game set-up by the most condescending jocular bro-men possible, where the rules were decided long ago and cannot be changed. If men barely respect or give any kind of a shit about what a woman thinks in the everyday, why would they suddenly do so in a situation as resolute and unsolvable as this? It is painful to watch, it is frustrating to watch, and it is absolutely intentional. You feel helpless, you feel powerless, you feel like Kate, seeing how absolutely fucked this Man’s World is and incapable of doing anything to change or stop it. Sicario is a film where everything is a given from the outset, there’s no way in hell this can be changed, and anything can happen, as the exact level of horror and hopelessness becomes ever more clear.
I left both screenings of this film drained and shaking, having been put through the ringer and barely having breathed for its entire 2 hour runtime, such is the sustained level of tension that Denis Villeneuve manages to conjure up. Sicario managed to remind me, after a seemingly endless stretch of dreadful-to-average movies, of just how amazing cinema could be. Pure unfettered bleakness has rarely been this faith-reaffirming.
04] Magic Mike XXL
Dir: Gregory Jacobs
Star: Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello, Jada Pinkett Smith
I told you. I told right back in July that this was going to happen. I told you, in no uncertain terms, that Magic Mike XXL was going to be on this list and that it was going to be very high up and that it was going to be because really really ridiculously good looking men gyrated in my direction for 115 minutes. Here’s the thing: movies like Magic Mike XXL aren’t supposed to get made. Pushed through the big studio system, created and aimed near-solely at a straight-female, homosexual, and bisexual audience, shot in those gazes, and utterly shameless in being nothing but a fantasy for those people. This movie shouldn’t exist. Hollywood does not acknowledge any of this. If this movie did exist, it would be as one of those no-budget DVDs you shamefully fish out of a Reduced bin in some store you feel equally ashamed to be in and pray to God that the cashier doesn’t look at too intently in case they start judging you.
But Magic Mike XXL does exist. It exists in the near-plotless, mostly conflict-free, relentlessly positive-and-upbeat way that was released in cinemas across the globe, and it ends up so quietly revolutionary as a result. A film that ends up celebrating the joy and love that the stripping industry can bring, that’s proud of that fact instead of ashamed of it by making everyone involved happy instead of secretly miserable. A film that is open and free about sex and sexuality, refusing to look down on or demean these women for wanting to worship and gain pleasure from these hunks of perfectly-sculpted man-meat, refusing to shame or insult its cast for wanting to either sleep around casually or find the perfect partner, and refusing to play bisexuality or drag for “oh, shit!” or “ew, gross!” laughs. A film that is so loving and open and playful and safe, desperate in its desire to please underserved audience demographics and to project their potential fantasies up on screen.
A film with its own goddamn MC in the form of Jada Pinkett Smith, who nearly slips out the backdoor with the whole movie in broad daylight – a performance with such raw charisma, such attention-grabbing force, such a captivating personality, that it nearly turned me into one of the many women on-screen screaming their approval at her, as she leaves you hanging on her every single word. In a year of outstanding performances, this is the one that has stuck with me most. From the very frame that she walks into shot, she owns the film through a combination of weaponised sexuality, raw charm, an enrapturing delivery, and just a hint of self-awareness to provide the little wink required to make the connection with you. Why is she not in more movies? In fact, more importantly, why is she not MC-ing my own life? Imagine how great your life would be if you had Jada Pinkett Smith MC-ing your every move to thousands of strangers who would be adoring fans by the time she was through with them.
And then there’s basically everything to do with Joe Manganiello. In the weeks leading up to the film’s release, I would find myself constantly admiring the figure on the poster: abs that you could cut diamonds with, facial hair that gave him just the right amount of rugged charm, his perfectly coiffed hair. It couldn’t prepare me for the Joe Manganiello featured in-film, an adorably charming lunk-head with cute-if-silly ideas, who (correctly) believes that the only boyband worth a crap are Backstreet Boys, who always knows just the right thing to say at the right time, and who can turn a gas-stop convenience store into a hotbed of sexual tension with minimal effort. And then there’s his segment during the finale which, as previously mentioned, caused reactions in me I wasn’t even a hundred percent sure were even possible. I don’t care that he’s not the real Joe Manganiello, who most likely isn’t anything remotely like the one featured up on screen, because this was a film that was presenting me with my fantasy man, one I didn’t even realise I had.
Four and a bit paragraphs is nowhere near enough space for me to extol the virtues of Magic Mike XXL – maybe yet another article on it will have to come down the pipeline in the future when I am more certain on my sexuality – but this wonderful, joyous miracle of a film that shouldn’t exist in the way that it does, and that the world is legitimately bettered by it doing so, has done more for my sexual awakening and confidence in identifying as at-least-somewhat bisexual than anything I can recall. I thank everyone involved with it for that.
03] Mad Max: Fury Road
Dir: George Miller
Star: Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult
Mad Max: Fury Road is the kind of movie that’s somewhat easy to take for granted after the initial shock of just how near-perfect it is has worn off. I don’t mean this as an insult, I must stress, but it’s the kind of movie where, after having viewed it, its every decision in terms of direction comes with an air of “duh, of course!” Of course making Max Rockatansky a mostly-silent supporting character in the movie bearing his name makes sense! His story’s already been told in 3 movies prior to this, why push him to the forefront and cause the story to feel like it’s going through the motions? Of course the majority of the stunts and chases in the film are achieved via practical effects or camera trickery with CGI only being used for flourish and when absolutely necessary! It provides weight and heft to action on screen and looks spectacular, why waste the $150 million budget on unnecessary and poor CG that’s just going to look out-of-date in a few years? Of course there’s a guy playing battle music throughout the film in-universe on a guitar that’s also a flamethrower! It’s fucking awesome, why the fuck wouldn’t you add that to your movie?
It’s a film that has clearly been agonised over – which, since George Miller first came up with the germ of an idea that would become Fury Road back in 1998, makes sense – every frame meticulously designed, every line carefully considered, the handling of the feminist and sex-slavery themes studiously researched and checked, yet comes off as completely effortless when being watched. A 2 hour chase scene, for all intents and purposes, confined primarily to one vehicle, that never once drags or dips in quality. Always finding new spins on its concept, always finding new images to wow the viewer with, always finding time to develop and add new shades to its cast members, never losing the manic sense of fun that fuels so much of the film. There’s a tangible feeling that George Miller felt like he had something to prove, an unconscious desire to show today’s mediocre blockbuster landscape exactly how it’s supposed to be done.
And, yes, then there’s the fact that this is a $150 million R-rated action movie about overthrowing the toxic, misogynistic, world-destroying patriarchy and replacing it with a matriarchy. The way that The Five Wives direct their question of “who killed the world?” solely to men, the way that Nux is brought back from the destructive masculinity of War Boy culture through the kindness of Capable, the slow evolution of Max’s relationship with the fleeing women going from working out of self-preservation to an active ally determined to help them in the best way that he can, the interactions between The Five Wives that make each of them feel like real people who don’t always get along without devolving into ‘cattiness’ and ‘bitchiness’, the sheer diversity of the female cast with regards to age and character and even race, how the Wives keep up their agency throughout the entire film instead of disappearing into the background when the action starts kicking off, the sequence with the sniper rifle that has been analysed and discussed to death over the past year…
I want to be even a tenth as amazing as Imperator Furiosa. A strong, immensely capable, and inspiring figure of female strength. A woman who has had to serve and submit to Immortan Joe’s regime in order to survive, yet never lost her moral compass. She may claim to be liberating The Five Wives for redemption, but there’s clearly something more self-less powering her actions as evidenced by just how hard she fights Max when they first meet. She’s badass but not stoic and emotionless, demonstrating her caring nature and a willingness to let her emotions out publically when things get too much. She requires a prosthetic arm yet the film refuses to make her weaker or portray her as somehow inferior because of this – relatedly, there’s an excellent piece by Brent Walter Cline on this that you should read. Her entire existence is just empowering to me, an immediately iconic figure who represents the best possible parts of us. An ideal to strive towards whilst still being human.
I’ve spent roughly two hours trying to write this one entry and I’m still not happy with it. For one: Fury Road has been talked about and dissected so much over the past year that finding any unique angle that doesn’t just result in regurgitating better work is near-impossible. For two: writing about and thinking about Fury Road just makes me want to go and watch Fury Road again which is kind of a writing momentum killer. And for three: well, cliché as it may sound, Fury Road really does speak for itself. It’s so close to being absolutely perfect, to being everything I have ever wanted in a movie, that just watching the thing does a better job of explaining its brilliance than I ever could. So you should go do that. Right now. Even if you’ve already seen it 6 times.
Dir: Todd Haynes
Star: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara
Romance is subjective, what one person finds romantic may not be what another person finds romantic and that’s perfectly fine and they are entitled to think and feel that way, but for me romance has been dead at the movies for a long time. The relationships in big blockbusters feel token, another element of ticking off a box on the “Male Power Fantasy” card, the films that pivot solely on whether boy and girl will hook up have recently been picking scenarios that I find questionable, funnily enough I do not find Stockholm Syndrome or falling for an actual goddamn Nazi totes romantic, and the leads have often had the sexual chemistry of Paul Merton and a tub of lard. This is immensely disappointing to me as, despite how I may often come across, I am a hopeless romantic and I want to get lost in beautiful tales of two people overcoming various odds and obstacles to be together. The movies, however, seem unwilling to provide me with something that satiates that part of me.
The exact moment I realised I was in love with Carol came from one tiny little moment in the grand scheme of things, nothing huge, but was the moment in which I realised that I could not stop loving this movie even if I tried. Carol and Therese are sharing a night together, trying various perfumes, fiddling about with Therese’s new camera, and listening to a record of Billie Holliday’s “Easy Living” that Therese bought Carol for Christmas. The camera slowly pans from the wall down to the bed, then past the record player and eventually settles on the two of them, observing from a distance yet making the viewer privy to the intimacy of the scene. Halfway through the shot, long before the two appear on-screen, the song ends and, with this pure loving joy in her voice, Carol simply says “again,” whereupon Therese places the needle right back at the start of the record. It’s that delivery, that pure joy in Carol’s voice, that made me realise exactly how much I wanted these two to get together, when I realised exactly how much my heart ached over the sheer beauty of the romance on-screen.
Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara give one of the best performances of 2015. Not two of the best performances, one of the best performances. Their work here is symbiotic, what one does, the other matches or contrasts or compliments effortlessly. From the moment they lock eyes from across the main floor of a department store, Carol and Therese are fated to be together, there is no other possible outcome to this story after a connection as raw and instantaneous as that. Blanchett and Mara keep up that connection, that tension, throughout the whole film practically making the palpable sexual tension, which may as well receive its own starring credit and be third billed, a character in its own right, whilst still working as singular characters with their own arcs and anxieties and feelings outside of those they feel for each other.
But it’s that tension that powers Carol. Todd Haynes and Edward Lachman, the film’s DP, spend much of the movie keeping the camera at some amount of distance from Carol and Therese, close enough that we can still get a sense of intimacy yet not so close as to smother them both and make it feel like we’re invading their space. Phyllis Nagy’s script is filled with deliberate word choices, with our two leads slowly dancing around each other and their own feelings, careful to not try pushing things too far too fast and also being wary of how those outside of their relationship would react – since 1950s New York is the kind of time and place that finds homosexuality to be an illness that needs curing. So every little bit of progress feels huge: a covering of a hand, a touch on a shoulder, Carol straight-up asking Therese to come over to hers feels like a public declaration of love, a small scene of them smelling different perfumes on each other’s necks has more tension than most horror movies, the moment when they finally indulge their passion for one another caused me to cry at the pure romantic beauty of it all, and three simple words near the end acted like a knife to the heart.
Carol is the best film of 2015. It is unquestionably and inarguably the best film of 2015. I had to spend 10 minutes locked in a toilet stall after the film had finished composing myself because I was worried that I was going to burst into tears again, so overwhelmed was I by the pure romantic beauty that I had witnessed. It’s perfect. It’s basically perfect.
01] Inside Out
Dir: Pete Docter
Star: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind (voices)
In the beginning of September, I finally told my mother that I am miserable. Contrary to how such an act may sound on paper, the whole thing was very nonchalant and low-key. We were having tea at home, she made some kind of comment about how I’d been more upbeat that week compared to the rest of the Summer break, most likely delivered in a “that’s the Callum I know” way as she tends to do, and I told her that I’ve not been happy all break because I’m just miserable all the time. I’d been miserable for years, the periods when I am happy or upbeat are just that, periods not permanent, that the best way for me to work through those downer periods is to be allowed to be miserable instead of being berated for not disguising my sadness and irritation and disgust, and that I’m fine with that. That’s who I am and that’s OK. I accept it.
As far as I can recall, I haven’t always been this way. I do remember having a happy childhood and being a constantly positive young member of society. Even during Secondary School, where a good long stretch of it were some of the worst years of my life so far, I didn’t feel the way I do now. I most remember it coming on in Sixth Form, as the friends I made during Secondary School or carried over from Junior School began to drift away or moved elsewhere completely. Living with my parents was really taking its toll on my emotional state – living with my mother was an exercise in smothering overbearing parenting and an atmosphere that refused to allow any room to be upset in any way, but living at my dad’s never felt like Home, due to the fact that he lived with his horrible girlfriend and her hellacious daughters in a village far away from anywhere notable, not since we moved there at the start of Secondary School – I struggled with college work I had little interest in, and failed to make or maintain any real, genuine connections with anyone, so I constantly felt adrift. Neither here nor there, looking for a state of belonging.
It’s not a good place to be emotionally and I started to retreat into myself. Outside of the connections I made online through various writing pursuits – only one of which still remains in the same way today – I began what I’m pretty sure was some sort of self-destructive venture. I put less and less effort into my college work, I hid my misery and contempt for being stuck at home less and less, I let my relationships with close friends I’d had for years wither away as I put in minimal effort to save them, I’d cycle through the same five or six albums over and over and over and over and over and over again and wallow in my misery without trying to better my situation. Why should I? What exactly could I better? What would I gain from improving a situation I didn’t want to be in and didn’t belong to, only stuck here because there were no other alternatives available? The only two reasons as to why I got out of bed everyday were the hope that this wasn’t permanent, and because the entire concept of death (and specifically the unknown) terrifies me to such an extent that I have to keep going.
Things seemed to improve during my first year of university – I eventually made some friends, I mostly aced my various assignments, I could feel my Internet writing improve dramatically. I felt some sense of belonging. Returning home for the Summer quickly put pay to that, a firm reminder of just how little like Home home felt, of how immensely frustrating having to live with and rely on my parents for support was. I failed to keep up my friendships with those I knew at the student accommodation, and the one person on my course that I thought I’d become a firm friend with was switching courses for the second year and never returned my texts. I started to seriously worry about the feasibility of my chosen career path, that I was never going to get out of Scunthorpe. This all continued into my second year of university, growing more and more as the year progressively got worse and worse, I really started to get mad at myself for being incapable of being happy all the time. To wake up every single day crushingly miserable, lacking the energy to even put up the veneer of happiness, hating every single facet of myself, and eventually just spending evenings staring at walls.
Then, as mentioned before, I returned for Summer break to a house that wasn’t home.
If this entry has appeared incredibly self-indulgent so far – we are now on paragraph five and I’ve yet to even mention Inside Out’s name – then I do apologise, but I need you to understand. I need you to understand my headspace to at least some degree. I need you to understand the place I was in, and had been in for what felt like eternity, prior to seeing Inside Out. Because Inside Out is more to me than just a film. I could sit here and rattle off a load of superlatives about its subtly gorgeous animation, or its pitch-perfect vocal performances, or its perfect balance of hysterical comedy and heart-wrenching sadness, or its masterful storytelling, or how it functions as a redemption story for Pixar after an up-to-that-point unimpressive venture into the 2010s. But wasting time on all of that would not explain why Inside Out is My Film of 2015.
No, Inside Out is My Film of 2015 because it connected with me like no other film that I can recall and has helped me work through personal issues that have plagued me for 4 years. Because it doesn’t talk down, because it doesn’t condescend, because it couches its somewhat general message (it’s OK to be sad) in specificity (don’t force yourself or your kids to be happy all the time and stigmatise any non-positive emotion as “an attitude” or worse) and backs that up with realistic and relatable scenarios and images (Riley first seeing the new house), its hits like a rocket-propelled jackhammer. It’s OK to be sad, it’s OK to be miserable, it is OK. Riley’s mother’s leading emotion is Sadness yet there is nothing wrong with her. That is who she is.
And as Riley broke down sobbing in front of her parents over her inability to remain happy, for them and for herself, I finally understood. I truly understood that the way I feel, the way I have felt for what seems like forever, is just who I am and that this is not a bad thing. This is who I am. This is OK. I wrote at length about this realisation but expressed scepticism that I would accept it right away, since Inside Out came along during one of my few Up periods that Summer and the real test would be if I would feel the same way once the misery returned, as it always does. Yet, as the Summer dragged further on and as I returned for what will most likely be my final year of university, I have discovered that it has in fact took. I am no longer sad or angry at being miserable. My self-loathing no longer extends to that part of me. I have accepted that this is how I am, that this is a part of me that is not temporary, and that this is OK.
Hence why I could tell my mother about this in the most matter-of-fact way possible, not feeling like a failure for having done so, and not feeling any need to have to fix this in some way, shape or form. She may not seem to accept it, my Diabetes diagnosis came soon afterwards and she’s taken to that as a catch-all explanation as to why I was so openly miserable all Summer, but whether she does or does not no longer bothers me. This is who I am, I accept that, and maybe, because I have now realised and accepted that, I can accept the other parts of me – crippling loneliness, dissatisfaction with how I look, a desire to belong, fear of failing to make it far outside of where I am from, the fact that I can’t stop crushing on all of my friends to varying degrees – that I disparage and despise on a daily basis.
Inside Out was responsible for this. Inside Out showed me this and facilitated this and took this thing that had been plaguing me for at least 4 whole years and got me to accept it. To grow from it. So, from all of my heart, to everyone at Pixar Animation Studios and everyone else who worked on Inside Out in some capacity: thank you. Just… thank you.
Tomorrow, we ring in the New Year with the Top 10 Performances of 2015.