Day two of my look at 2015 in film is all about those scenes that stick with you long after the credits roll and the light goes up and you’re forced to reenter polite society, if only for a little while.
Slow West - “Kill that house!”
While I found Slow West to be somewhat maddeningly inconsistent, unable to feel like more than a series of vignettes, there is no denying that the final vignette is a special one. With all characters converging on the cabin of Rose Ross, the paramour of protagonist Jay Cavendish, a shootout would be inevitable, but writer/director John Maclean and cinematographer Robbie Ryan shoot it in a way that feels unlike so many Western shootouts. The cabin is flanked on all sides by an impossibly golden wheat field, the perfect cover for Ben Mendelsohn’s band of ne’er-do-wells. As he makes the proclamation to kill that house, outlaws begin springing out of the wheat, firing from revolvers and rifles, only to disappear as if they were never there, all while Mendelsohn stands astride in his gloriously ridiculous fur coat getup. It is a complex scene, with many moving parts and agents with all sorts of differing interests, but Maclean balances it all wonderfully. Ending with one of the great catch-in-your-throat laughs of the year, this scene from Slow West makes it worth watching by itself.
Mistress America - Connecticut
Calling this sequence one scene is a bit of a misnomer, as it unfurls over much of the film's transition from its second act to its third, but there's no way to pare down the joy of everything that happens here to into one moment. Mistress America is quite a bit of fun for its first 45 minutes, but when Greta Gerwig’s Brooke drags her soon-to-be-half-sister Tracy (Lola Kirke), her friend who almost assuredly has a crush on her Tony (Matthew Shear) and his dramatically jealous and paranoid girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones) to suburban Connecticut in order to confront/solicit her ex-fiancee Dylan (Michael Chernus) and his wife/her nemesis Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), it kicks into another gear entirely. This world of hyper privilege feels like another planet, with a gaggle of pregnant women in the middle of a book club about Faulkner (“Holy shit, those pregnant women are super smart,” is a passing remark) and a nosy neighbor complaining about noise while the foursome’s crossing agendas butt heads all over the ultra-chic mansion. This is Baumbach by way of His Girl Friday, a manic tour of the most decadent of houses with every storyline colliding like the best demolition derby. Nothing more deliriously enjoyable has happened in the theaters this year.
Mad Max: Fury Road - Max and Furiosa brawl
The choreography of this sequence astounds me, with Max coming across Furiosa and the wives as they wash off in the sun and she tries to get the War Rig going again after it’s been choked in the apocalyptic dust storm that preceded it. Max has nothing but a scowl, a broken shotgun (though no one else knows this) and an unconscious War Boy chained to his neck. I love how this is the first time we see Furiosa is an amputee and the film doesn’t even consider it a big deal. I love how the wives see Max as another threat of the patriarchy, confronting him with a mix of fear and defiance. I love how the chain is an integral part of the fight choreography (it even pays off later in an equally great scene). I love the gun hidden in the skull on the side of the War Rig. I love the shot choices and sound design. It should slowly become clear that I love just about everything about everything in Mad Max: Fury Road, but this is a microcosm of it all.
It Follows - That opening long take
The long take at the beginning of It Follows is a statement. A static shot on a quiet pre-dawn suburban street. It pans over to a house in time to see a young woman come bursting out of her front door in a nightgown and red high heels, running away from some unseen threat. Ominous music slowly builds in the background. She runs around the street, the camera following her every move as she reassures neighbors and her father that there’s nothing to worry about. But, clearly, there is something to worry about. She jets back into the house, grabs some car keys and drives off to the bewilderment of everyone around her. The camera here is baldly voyeuristic, tracking her every move from afar and expertly setting the tone of mounting dread from an unseen malevolent force that will come to define the entire experience of watching It Follows, as well as an early indication of the sophistication of the camera work at play. The best opening scenes set the table for what is to come, and few have managed the feat as deftly as David Robert Mitchell has here.
Faults - Ansel’s comped meal
Another opening scene, though of a very different color than It Follows, this first moment of Faults is all about establishing character. Ansel, as played excellently by Leland Orser, is a pathetic and desperate individual, and nothing can convey that more than watching him scarf down a meal at a hotel restaurant, aggressively eating his fries while the restaurant manager explains to him that he already used his voucher for a free meal and would have to pay. He slowly transitions from a sort of overconfident barely engaged bluster to something altogether less composed, finding a terminus in greedily eating ketchup with a fork in order to continue his meal despite having eaten all the food. The way the shot is framed, with the waiter and manager cut off at the upper body as it slowly pushes in on Ansel, keeps them anonymous and unimportant, with a smash cut to the title card just as things get interesting. It gives the audience insight into who this man is and what he has become better than any narration or exposition ever could.
Fantastic Four - Body horror
This might seem like a joke, but there is in fact one scene (and, really, only one scene) in Josh Trank’s doomed Fantastic Four reboot that works mightily well. In interviews prior to its release (and prior to its pop culture meltdown prior to its release), Trank mentioned that one of his biggest influences in mounting his tale was films like Videodrome and The Fly, two body horror classics from the savant of the genre, David Cronenberg. And while general problems and studio meddling beat any sense of spirit out of this lifeless corpse of a movie, that one scene managed to emerge unscathed. We think of the Fantastic Four as the fun-loving family of superheroes from the 60’s that launched Marvel into the Silver Age (this was the impetus for those disastrous Tim Story films), but Trank saw something darker in their mutation, and the first scene where the characters discover their powers feels more akin to Scanners than The Avengers. This scene is probably the single darkest moment in a comic book movie this side of Watchmen, as Reed Richards crawls his way through wreckage and confusion to find his friends on fire and encased in rock, confused and horrified by their new plight, only to find himself equally distressed by the discovery that his lower body was pinned down and he’s been stretching his torso across the floor the whole time. It’s a chilling and effective scene perfectly shot and mounted, a taste of what could have been, but sadly nothing more.
Ricki and the Flash - A family dinner
I had no interest in seeing Ricki and the Flash after watching what could be one of the worst trailers I’ve ever seen that gave away every movement of the plot (including THE LAST SHOT OF THE MOVIE - come on, folks), but reassurance from critical guru Scott Tobias on The Next Picture Show and the allure of a cheap Redbox rental brought me into the fold. It is certainly not a perfect movie, but it’s a hell of a lot better than that awful trailer seemed to indicate. It is at its best during a dinner out earlyish on in the film as Ricki (Meryl Streep) is attempting to reconcile with her estranged family after her daughter’s engagement is called off. What unfolds is Diablo Cody at her best, a fast-paced tete-a-tete that introduces a slew of characters and conflicts as everyone talks over each other without devolving into an incomprehensible mess. Masterful work in a film that is much better than it seems it should be.
Anomalisa - The biggest office you’ve ever seen
There are aspects of Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman’s first new film in eight years, that feel like they have come from the sort of daring mind that brought us Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, but most of that lies in how he chooses to frame what is a very low key and straightforward story. That is until a sequence halfway through the film that finds David Thewlis’ Michael Stone summoned to the manager’s office in the bowels of his Cincinnati hotel. After traversing a seemingly endless sea of secretaries, Michael finally finds the man’s office, a cavernous yawning expanse with a tiny desk on one side and a golf cart provided for transportation. It flies in the face of the simplicity of the tale that has come before it, providing a glimpse into the mind behind the man. It’s a little taste of that trademark Kaufman weirdness, and the contrast with the mundanity behind it heightens the whole experience.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence - The music maker
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence plies its trades in the intersection of the bizarre, the surreal and the awkward, but often with an undercurrent of pitched beauty that brings it all together. Nothing exemplifies the goals of Pigeon more than this moment, where what can only really be described as a giant brass cylinder with horns protruding from it is forcefully filled with black slaves under the watchful eyes of some malevolent military organization. Soon, the pit underneath is set ablaze and the cylinder begins to rotate as a gaggle of aristocratic types watch from the porch of an opulent mansion. The sounds of the prisoners banging on the inside of the cylinder is soon subsumed by a beautiful harmony emanating from the speakers. It is simultaneously utterly horrifying and undeniably beautiful, a test of sorts to see how much ambivalence the human mind can handle. Adding to the surreality of it all is the fact that all the actors (beyond the slaves) are covered in powdered white makeup that makes them look like living dolls. It’s essentially impossible to describe exactly how one reacts to this scene, but the challenge of it all, and the beauty of it all is undeniably captivating.
The Hateful Eight (Roadshow Edition) - Those opening credits
Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to find a way to make the opening credits of his film one of the most singular experiences of the year. Immediately taking advantage of the 70 mm Ultra Panavision aspect ratio (the full 2.76:1 of Ben-Hur and Mutiny on the Bounty) by beginning the film on an extreme close-up of a snow covered statue of Jesus on the cross and slowly pulling away to reveal more of the statue while the credits roll in a whole manner of deliciously old school fonts. The fonts are fun (setting the mid-century Western feel Tarantino’s angling for) and the shot is gorgeous, but what makes the credits of The Hateful Eight is Ennio Morricone’s thunderous score. His theme, variations upon which make up nearly the entire soundtrack beyond a few anachronistic song choices (it is Tarantino, after all), is certainly the best piece of film music of the year, a slow building onslaught of paranoia in bass clarinet and bassoon giving way to the strings as the full orchestra flexes its muscle. Leave it to Morricone to mark his first Western in nearly 40 years with a theme that would sound more at home in Psycho or Vertigo than it would in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. The meld of the shot and the music, lasting nearly seven minutes until a stagecoach rumbles by the statue to signal the beginning of the film proper, is perhaps the single most breathtaking moment in cinema in all of 2015.
Join me again tomorrow for a look at the films that managed to surprise me at the theater, as well as those unable to live up to the crushing weight of their expectations