The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.
— William Faulkner
Those who have made the mistake of getting to know me may already be aware that I am virulently opposed to the idea of best-of lists. The notion that two movies, with differing intents and methods, can be directly compared and hierarchically ranked is absurd to my mind. And yet there’s a certain undeniable value to the New Year’s ritual: reflect on the year that has passed, consider it in relation to what you’d planned or hoped for, and use that reflection to build a plan for the upcoming year. This sort of intentional stock-taking can be overdone, of course, and as anyone who lapses on their workout plans come February knows, giving yourself a pat on the back for having a goal rather than for having achieved a goal has its own dangers. But nevertheless, in moderation and taken with a grain of salt, this past-present-future thinking is worthwhile. And so I have capitulated, as best I can, to the surprisingly frequent requests I’ve received.1 What follows is not quite a list of the best movies of 2015, nor is it hierarchical in any way. From what I can tell, the order of these entries is entirely random. What this list is is 26 movies from 2015 that I think you should see, and each of these movies is paired with a past movie which is in some way similar. This pairing might be based on similarity or contrast of theme or approach, actors, directors, tone, etc. Ideally, watching each will give you a better understanding of the other, and vice versa. Enjoy.
Paddington (Paul King) and Lars and the Real Girl (Craig Gillespie, 2007)
Despite their vastly different target audiences—Paddington goes after the surprisingly large Young Ursine Anglophile niche, while Lars centres around the relationship between a man and his anatomically correct sex doll, which puts it squarely in a niche for which I lack proper vocabulary—there are notable similarities between them: both concern relative outsiders confused by and scared of the world around them; both outsiders are welcomed by families who are remarkably accepting of their eccentricities; and both have a relatively calm and sweet tone that well complements their thematic tribute to kindness and hospitality despite our differences. If you want my recommendation for something “light” or “nice,” and I know you do, this is the pairing.
Cartel Land (Matthew Heineman) and Western (Bill and Turner Ross, 2015)
Pairing a 2015 film with another 2015 film is a bit of a cheat, I realize, but in my defence, Western is a documentary with almost no temporal markers in it. It could have come out in 2003 and looked much the same. And anyway, it’s too effective a pairing to pass up: both movies chronicle the lives of people on Mexico-U.S. border towns, and their attempts to establish peace and order in the face of violent cartel activity and xenophobia. Cartel Land is more immediately or viscerally notable, as its filmmakers get into and out of some remarkably dangerous situations, but Western may be more surprising: its border towns are amigos, through and through—until the border is shut down.
The Martian (dir. Ridley Scott) and All is Lost ( J.C. Chandor, 2013)
Gravity would be the obvious choice here, for most, and that’s understandable—it focuses on a stranded astronaut’s struggle to survive and get back to Earth, just like The Martian. But there are two reasons why I feel All Is Lost is a better pairing. The first is that, much like The Martian, All Is Lost has a sort of grounded practicality that Gravity does not. Both movies restrict philosophical considerations of life, death, and big-M Meaning. Instead, Matt Damon’s Mark Watney spends most of our runtime jury rigging lifesaving contraptions using whatever wits and thingamabobs he has lying around, which (despite Our Man from All Is Lost lacking the superhuman intelligence and luck that Watney seems to find so easily) is more or less the same thing Our Man has to do. The second reason is you’ve already seen Gravity.
Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs) and Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, 2012)
Going Clear (Alex Gibney) and Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (Gibney, 2007)
Alex Gibney has a bit of a reputation amongst self-serious cinephiles like myself for being a largely consistent but somewhat uninspiring filmmaker. A quick check of his filmography will probably bear this assessment out: Gibney somehow cranks out between one and three movies a year, and yet despite their relative critical respect a surprising number of these movies disappear into the aether soon after release. The reason for this is probably simple: Gibney tends to make documentaries that appear more or less unrevolutionary—interviewees address the camera with lower third titles, stock footage fleshes out events not captured or capturable by the camera crew, and an obvious expository or argumentative theme is advanced, i.e. Basic Documentary Stuff. But to ding Gibney for failing to redefine the genre seems a little uncharitable to me. Despite his formal stolidity, Gibney has managed to make some indispensable contributions to our collective understanding of such wide-ranging subjects as Lance Armstrong, Enron, wartime torture, and, in the case of these two recommendees, systemic religious abuse.
It Follows (Divid Robert Mitchell) and No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)
It Follows is a movie that screams to be read as a metaphor, and most obvious among the candidates is probably that it dramatizes the ever encroaching spectre of Death Itself. This might be an unimaginative reading, but it seems to work without any too-painful mental gymnastics. In this sense It Follows succeeds brilliantly, with a premise that can unnerve before the movie has even started. No Country lacks the genre hooks and the maddening horror-logic of It Follows, but counters with a pitch black sense of absurdist dread care of Cormac McCarthy’s novel and the Coens’ loving adaptation.
Ex Machina (Alex Garland) and Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)
The through-line between these two shouldn’t be all that hard to spot: they both depict man-on-machine love. But despite having nigh-identical Writing 101 prompts—“What if an AI were advanced enough that a bankable 30something white guy could fall in love with it?”—the final products couldn’t be more different. Her is yearning and melancholic, while Ex Machina is acerbic in its gender politics, and contains infinitely more violent dismemberment.
Results (Andrew Bujalski) and Funny Ha Ha (Bujalski, 2002)
Funny Ha Ha is often cited as the first example of mumblecore, a genre of indie film with sub-shoestring budgets and naturalistic (i.e. kind of unfocused and meandering) dialogue/acting/plot. Think Frances Ha, except less popular. Results may or may not fit into this category—it flirts with romantic comedy throughout—but it has much the same feel. Characters postpone getting together not because one is secretly writing a magazine article about the other (who secretly has anterograde amnesia and so must be romanced anew each day), but because they just don’t feel like it yet, or they’d rather smoke a joint. It makes for an unusual watching experience, but in a genre like romantic comedy, any novelty is appreciated.
Shaun the Sheep Movie (Mark Burton and Richard Starzak) and Chicken Run (Nick Park, Peter Lord, 2000)
For anyone whose work ethic amounts to “do good work and good things will come to you,” I present Shaun the Sheep movie, a movie almost universally lauded as a beautifully animated, wonderfully inventive, cross-demographic wonder—that has nevertheless grossed less worldwide than Minions did domestically in its first three days. I don’t hate Minions (I haven’t seen it), but I find that disparity more than a little frustrating given that the critical reaction to Shaun the Sheep Movie is spot on: it really is great. And not only that, Aardman Animations has a string of good-to-great animated films stretching back to its first, Chicken Run, which have for the most part been duly noted on release and then promptly forgotten.
Slow West (John Maclean) and Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)
With Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) and The Hateful Eight (2015), Kelly Reichdart’s Meek’s Cutoff (2010), the Coens’ True Grit (2010), and Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk (2015), it’s tempting to proclaim a new trend of revisionist Westerns. Slow West seems to continue the tradition with solid performances from Kodi Smit-McPhee and an effortlessly cool Michael Fassbender, an inversion of genre expectations that is simultaneously novel and clearly telegraphed throughout the movie, and a series of final shots that are striking yet understated. But before we go coining another dubious term à la the Golden Age of Television, let us remember that none other than Clint Eastwood, a pillar of Westerns, interrogated the genre 23 years ago to some degree of Oscar-winning success.
Carol (Todd Haynes) and Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)
Todd Haynes’ Carol has taken certain parts of the film criticism world by storm with its sumptuous period detail, uniformly great performances, and gorgeous cinematography. Blue Is the Warmest Color is mostly famous for its difficult production and extended sex scenes. If you are worried about having to explain your viewership to friends or relatives I might suggest focusing on Carol (in which the sex scenes are of the typical “shirts off and then just sort of move back and forth” variety) but both are fantastically realized explorations of the joys and lasting pains of relationship.
Mistress America (Noah Baumbach) and His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)
The screwball comedy has fallen on hard times these last few decades, with the Coen brothers being some of the last champions of the form and even then not always being appreciated for it (see: The Hudsucker Proxy , Intolerable Cruelty ). It’s a nice surprise, then, to find that Mistress America, which turns into a screwball comedy for the latter half of its runtime, completely works in this modern, screwball-deprived age without any prior experience. Still, if you would like to expand your appreciation of the genre, His Girl Friday is so far my personal favourite.
The Peanuts Movie (Steve Marino) and Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009)
Taking a beloved or semi-beloved cultural property and adapting it into a feature-length film is an idea as stupid and risky as it is potentially groundbreaking: get it wrong and audiences will rail at the never-ending capitalistic rape of their childhoods; but get it right, and perhaps for a moment, or ninety minutes of moments, that childhood can be renewed. The Peanuts Movie and Fantastic Mr. Fox both adapt such properties with a perfect blend of originality and respect. Both have aw-shucks good grief sad sack kids who never seem to succeed. And both are refreshingly free of shrill sabre-toothed squirrels or zany antics, if you’re in the mood for something more mellow.
Mommy (Xavier Dolan) and Laurence Anyways (Dolan, 2012)
Quebec’s Xavier Dolan is as of this writing 26 years old, only three years older than I am. I suspect he’s already accomplished more than I ever will. He has written and directed five movies, with another set to release this year, and a seventh in preproduction. So far, each and every one of them has met with critical appreciation, and even those who aren’t fans will admit Dolan’s got style. Mommy is my favourite, while Laurence Anyways is probably his most ballsy. Watch both.
Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg) and The Staircase (Jean Xavier de Lestrade, 2004)
Bridge of Spies is hard to pair because it is about five movies in one. It starts as a spy thriller, then becomes a courtroom drama, then switches to a domestic tearjerker, then to a war movie, back to a spy thriller, then a series of tense negotiations, and then, in the final frames of the movie, we’re told that the real James B. Donovan on whom Bridge of Spies is based later went on to intervene in U.S.-Cuba relations on a scale that could fill several movies in its own right. That Spielberg is able to weave together so many disparate genre elements is a testament to his monumental talent, but for now I’d like to focus on just one of them: the courtroom drama, in which a lawyer takes the case of a singularly unpopular man with no chance of winning, because everyone has the right to representation and due process under the law. The Staircase isn’t nearly as sentimental about this as Bridge of Spies, but it puts the reality of taking this position into stark, meticulously detailed relief.
’71 (Yann Demange) and Starred Up (David Mackenzie, 2013)
Jack O’Connell is not currently a movie star, but I assure you he definitely could be. Get on this bandwagon early and impress your friends when he inevitably joins the Avengers.
The Force Awakens (J. J. Abrams) and The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, 1999)
I realize everybody already knows the story of Star Wars. Everybody knows A New Hope was groundbreaking and era-defining, Empire was even better, and Return of the Jedi was a step down that nonetheless stands up decently alongside the other two. Everybody knows that George Lucas then made an endless series of terrible decisions that led to the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Everybody knows that this trilogy was a monumental trainwreck undeserving of any cultural respect for anything except maybe those obscure technical considerations like costuming and production design. Everybody knows that of these three cinematic monstrosities, The Phantom Menace is worst of all, a cacophony of ludicrous acting, unconvincing special effects, and casual racism. And as of December 18, 2015, everybody knows that The Force Awakens arrived, the canonical Christ child immaculately conceived in the most holy mind of J. J. Abrams, to set to right all those wrongs done by the prequel trilogy and put us back on the path of polished presentation, verisimilitude, and racial inclusivity that Star Wars was founded on. Everybody knows this is the story of Star Wars. What this pairing presupposes is: maybe it isn’t?
Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller) and Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1999)
Believe it or not, there are actually two movies that are one long chase sequence, with strong and capable female protagonists. What a world we live in.
White God (Kornél Mundruczó) and Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012)
Is there a moral problem in portraying a fictional uprising of an abused underclass? Does this carry the risk of giving viewers an undeserved feeling of catharsis? Might it make light of a situation that should in no way be taken lightly, by implying it could easily be overcome with a bit of can-do attitude on the part of the oppressed? Or could it function as an instrument of change, a call to action, or a cry to the heavens for just retribution? What are the ethics of speaking for an ethnic group to which you don’t belong? What about for another species? If you would like to be troubled by questions like these, watch both of these movies.
Wild Tales (Damián Szifron) and It’s Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt, 2012)
I’ve yet to understand why short films don’t get more love and distribution than they do. They’re easy to try out, because the time commitment isn’t as large. They’re able to be formally inventive and surprising because they don’t have millions of dollars behind them. And let’s be honest: a lot of movies have approximately one short film’s worth of good ideas in them. Wild Tales approaches this problem in an interesting way: stick short films together until the sum is feature length. It’s Such a Beautiful Day is similar, being composed of what were originally three short films about the same character. Both have some of the most absurdly uncomfortable sequences I’ve ever seen, punctuated by the blackest humour around.
What We Do in the Shadows (Taika Waititi) and Waiting for Guffman (Christopher Guest, 1996)
It’s easy to think that, post-Flight of the Conchords, Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement more or less fell off the planet, but that would be inaccurate: only Bret has fallen off the planet. Jemaine has resurfaced, under the direction of Taika Waititi, in a disarmingly funny and sweet mockumentary about vampire roommates. Waiting For Guffman appears rather more mundane as it purports to document the staging of a community theatre play, but it has a similar “oh yeah, that guy” quotient with Eugene Levy, Bob Balaban, Fred Willard, and even David Cross appearing. A potentially self-illuminating question: is it funnier to find the mundane in the absurd, as in What We Do in the Shadows, or the absurd in the mundane, like Waiting For Guffman?
Brooklyn (John Crowley) and Any Entry in the Before Trilogy (Richard Linklater)
It doesn’t sound like that original an idea: what if an onscreen romance resembled actual human being style romance? What if the characters involved were all basically good people sans any ulterior motive or plot-motivating secrets? What if nothing unusual happened? Unfortunately, most movies don’t even attempt such a quixotically simple conceit. Fortunately, Brooklyn and the Before trilogy do.
Victoria (Sebastian Schipper) and United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006)
United 93 concerns one of the very real terrorist attacks that took place on September 11, 2001. Being so closely related to a national tragedy, it is often shielded from comparisons with other, fictional films. This is understandable, of course, but it does have its costs, namely that, absent a point of comparison, it becomes much more difficult to develop an understanding of how and why something like United 93 works. And so, I apologize, but I think you should try comparing United 93 to Victoria, a German crime thriller from this year. I think this could benefit your understanding by demonstrating how two similar narrative arcs—ordinary people gradually being pushed into an extreme situation, told in real time—can be approached in very different ways. Victoria is filmed in one continuous 138 minute shot, yet stretches across many city blocks. United 93 isn’t as quick-cut as something like Greengrass’ Bourne Supremacy, but is still a Greengrass movie at heart, with lots of visceral editing and handheld camerawork, and yet it stays primarily within the titular plane.
Inside Out (Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen) and Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, 2008)
Inside Out was hailed as a welcome return to form for Pixar, replete with the remarkable blend of all-ages humour, technical excellence, and emotional maturity that made it the cultural juggernaut it is today. Inside Out’s eventual reveal—the value of sadness and its intermingling with joy in adulthood—is hardly novel, but is well appreciated. Happy-Go-Lucky is a quietly virtuosic counterpoint to Inside Out’s redemption of sadness, an interrogation of the value of chosen happiness over and above circumstances.
Spotlight (Tom McCarthy) and All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976)
Q.v. “The Next Picture Show,” episodes 1 and 2.
The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer) and The Act of Killing (Oppenheimer, 2014)
In 1965, the Indonesian army murdered ethnic Chinese citizens, anyone with left-leaning politics, intellectuals, and quite a few people who just happened to be around at the time. Estimates put the death toll at around 500,000. The men responsible are still in power. Joshua Oppenheimer has made a pair of documentaries about this genocide in as many years, taking a starkly different tack with each. Of the two, The Act of Killing is the more formally ambitious, while The Look of Silence is rather more approachable. Together, they paint a striking picture of human monstrousness, the need to take stock of the past, and the potential for forgiveness.
“Surprisingly frequent” in this case being “any more than none,” but still: I was flattered.↩