December has come! Once again, it’s time to start announcing the best films of the year. And just like last year, I separate my list into Hollywood films and indie films, with the disclaimer that sometimes I know some of the folks involved in these, and that not all of them are technically 2015 films, but this was the year in which I first saw them. This list includes shorts, features, music videos, and webseries. Let’s get started:
There are so few indie films made for children; it sometimes seems like the market has been hijacked by intellectuals and twentysomething hipsters who make films about themselves. IMAGINAPPED is a brilliant look into the imaginary world of two children and the larger-than-life battles they wage. Similar to CALVIN AND HOBBES, the film clues us in enough to be able to tell what’s really going on, but otherwise treats its fantastical elements are real as they are to the children. The two leads are both followed by their adult warriors who treat their battles as seriously as if this were LORD OF THE RINGS. The production value is incredible and everything is very tongue-in-cheek. This is a film that celebrates imagination and is able to work within the realm of dream logic.
This film, which is actually part of an anthology webseries entitled THE BENCH PROJECT, is all one-shot. And it focuses around a conversation that happens entirely offscreen. By any conventional logic, you would think any film that consists merely of staring at an empty bench for so long shouldn’t work, but it does because of the power of cinema. What you have here is basically a traditional one-act that, through dialog, establishes two characters, their backstory, and heavy drama. Had this just been the story on its own, it would already have been a compelling and touching narrative. But by keeping the visual entirely on a single frame, it adds an extra layer, making us feel like voyeurs listening on a drama already in progress. The bench becomes an ironic image, saying more to us than either of the characters talking. The title HEAVY METAL also takes on an extra meaning. THE BENCH SERIES is a fine webseries, but this episode, which works as a stand-alone short film, is its masterpiece.
This short uses abstract and disembodied images to tell a personal narrative about growth and the passing of time. It contains no dialog and could be thought of as an extended music video, but its cinematic language and emotional intimacy elevate it to a higher level. The result is that you feel you are being told a traditional story while at the same time uncovering a new type of filmmaking. As with IMAGINAPPED, this film works as example of dream logic. The title also calls to mind the classic poem by William Blake.
What a fantastic short film! Not only is it refreshing to see any indie short that is a period piece, but on top of that, one that is so subtle, slow-paced, and character driven! This short tells the true story of Patrick Eugene Prendergast, the assassin of Mayor Harrison and religious fanatic who turned himself in immediately. The film has great production value, but it doesn’t try to be flashy. It allows the material to speak for itself and you really get a feel for the epic sweep of history. Predergast is an enigma, one of the strangest in American history, and this film keeps history alive.
This film makes me want to drink daiquiris with a dozen dazzling dames!
This is one of those short films that is just perfect. The first shot tells you everything you need to know, the acting is spot-on, the look is just right, the sound mix is used effectively, even the name Dablovski is perfect for our anti-hero. The film starts out seemingly like it will be a SNL-sketch about a dumb guy who thinks he’s a reality TV star. But slowly, you’ll start to notice there’ a slightly sinister undertone to it all. Being shot on film plays a role in that, but something in the lighting manages to create a perfect sense of unease. Finally, in the last third, the film starts to go dark. And sad. And powerful. Look at how perfectly shot everything in the comedy club is staged. Look at the way the comedian and his background banter is used effectively as a narrative device. And it all climaxes with a very sad ending. The film, reminiscent of BIRDMAN and perhaps touching on the same themes, is a good look at where today’s “enlightened” youth find themselves today. Oh, and, by the way, I also have a character named J-Bone in one of my scripts!
5. ON/OFF (dir. Thierry Lorenzi) So right off the bat, this French short probably has the highest production value of any entry on this list, which gives it a bit of an unfair advantage. But what makes this science fiction ALIEN-homage work is how strongly it uses outer space to convey scope, grandeur, and disillusionment. The scenes in space are breathtaking and epic, but it all builds towards a twist ending that calls attention to the artifice of what we have seen…and of filmmaking itself. This is smart science fiction and great storytelling.
So, I have to confess that I didn’t really like this webseries when viewed as a whole. To go into why would require a whole other review, but in short, I thought the disjointed plot moved in fits and starts, the only arc the protagonist experiences is learning the lesson “Fuck it” yet she already had a “Fuck it” attitude from the beginning, and there is a very poor writing choice to have her experience this epiphany while being inactive during the story’s climax while Leslie, a minor character, takes the climatic action. In my opinion, WILDCATS would have been much stronger had they cut out the second half of Episode 1, the first half of Episode 2, and all of Episode 4, and just put the rest together as one stronger, streamlined short film.
But all of these flaws are redeemed by one of the greatest end credit sequences of any indie project that I watch and rewatch 74 times a day. Click straight to 4:44 on the above video and watch it. After the anti-climatic ending, the characters break into a lip-synced rendition of the Village People‘s “I Am What I Am” in which the fourth wall is broken, every single character comes out onto the dance floor, right down to a glee club Gospel chorus, and everyone goes all INLAND EMPIRE on us. Having watched it over and over again the times I have, the details just keep popping up. Look at Leslie’s dance in the background. Look at the way the glitter stays in Alison’s hair throughout. It’s just a perfect credit sequence. I think the reason I enjoy these credits more than I did everything that came before them is how incredibly joyous they are and cut straight to the point. The song itself is great, ties in with the LGBT theme of the story and of the characters in general, ties cheerleading in with the ongoing dance of life. If the series itself suffered from too many tangents, the credits benefit by cutting straight to the crescendo. Pretty soon, you’ll be watching this scene 74 times a day as well.
3. A tie between TRI-STATE & HOW TO NOT BE A JACKASS (dir. Matthew Van Vorst) I wrote a longer, detailed review of these two webseries earlier this year, that you can read here. To sum it up, I feel these two projects are flawed on their own but work better when viewed together as a whole. The first, TRI-STATE, is a series about three roommates and their misadventures. Amanda Mikhail deserves a Best Supporting Actress award for creating such a damaged yet vulnerable character, grounded in reality and tragedy. However, the series fizzles out as it goes along, due to how there are never any consequences to any of the conflicts, and the extremely odd narrative choice to not have all three characters be in the final episode. By the time we get to the end, the series appeared to no longer really be about the development of three roommates but about Skylar getting a date.
The second webseries, JACKASS, consists of perverse one-off gags highlighting absurd or insensitive things people do in various forms of relationships, in the format of a comic-strip; it’s the thematic counterpart to TRI-STATE. It is entirely about consequences, about failings in relationships, and puts pain front and center. At the heart of all this is Van Vorst’s strong direction, examining the heart of relationships with these two opposing approaches. Since then, he has also directed a pilot TINY FOR TWO, which was TRI-STATE without characters you care about, and another webseries BLONDETOURAGE, which based on the trailer, should have been called TRI-STATE: BLONDE EDITION. Van Vorst is very talented and I really hope he isn’t going to fall into a pattern of repeating himself.
In my earlier review, you might remember that I referred to my #3 choice as the highest ranking American production on my list. I believed that my top two choices were foreign productions, and I was wrong about both. My #2 choice, which is my favorite short film of the year, UNE LIBERATION, completely fooled me. Upon seeing it, I began to tell everyone about this great French film, until I learned the director is American and it was shot entirely in California! Set during the final days of WWII, the production value and authenticity of the piece swept me away. Watching it a second time, I paid more attention to the story and realized how sad and haunting the story is. If I did have one criticism, it’s that I do feel the second half relies a bit on action movie tropes. However, when I shared the film with a colleague, he had the opposite reaction, stating he disliked the melodrama of the first half but liked the grittiness of the second. This made me take a step back and realize maybe each of us looks for something different in a war movie because war means something different to each of us. Maybe UNE LIBERATION has its flaws, but the result is greater than the sum of its parts because it is a film with presence, with a voice. Art is the opposite of war, liberation is the opposite of tyranny, and this film is a symbol of both those things. On that story level, it spoke to me.
…and the best indie film I saw in 2015 was…
- UNA NOCHE (dir. Lucy Mulloy)
And so, after all these films about magic, sci-fi, and dance sequences, my #1 choice, a feature, is a simple, minimalist tale. You’ll have noticed that I tend to enjoy films about pain, suffering, and haunting imagery, and UNA NOCHE succeeds on that front. Once again, referring to this as a foreign production is not 100% accurate: it is a UK/USA/Cuban production with grant funding provided by Spike Lee. Much like THE LENGTHS, my favorite indie of last year, this is also about a triangle of lost youths. Raul, Elio, and Lila are three very real characters who go on a “trip” of sorts, but unlike Tom, Charlie, and Hanna who were lost in their alienated empty lives, this trio is politically and economically alienated, and their “trip” is a potentially fatal excursion to the US for a better life. The first two thirds of the film tell the simple story of three youths living in Cuba with dreams of leaving. The footage of Havana is very varied, depicting areas of the city not usually shown in films, from the ruins of poor quality to the resorts and the tourist spots of incredible quality to the ever-present and all-seeing Malecon. For a UK-born director, Lucy Mulloy succeeds in making Cuba a character in its own right. However, it is the final third that elevates UNA NOCHE and makes it one of the greatest indie films of all time. This final section takes place entirely at sea on a raft. From a technical standpoint alone, one marvels at the way such a small indie film is able to capture being adrift at sea and include authentic footage of shark attacks. For decades we in the US have heard tales of Cubans attempting to reach Miami soil via raft, but never has it been better dramatized than in this film. In this “chamber play” at sea, each of these three characters reach their breaking points, tensions arise, both sexual and violent, and the ending–the ending is just gut-wrenching, yet rings all too true. During what has been a historic year in Cuban-US relations, this is more than just a technically impressive film; it is an important artistic statement about NOW. About this time in Cuban history. Every single Cuban American owes it to themselves to see UNA NOCHE.
And that’s my list, folks. Tune in on New Year’s Eve when I’ll reveal my annual list of the Top Ten Hollywood films of 2015!