25. Furious 7
Furious 7 felt doomed. Sure, the series enjoyed a late-period renaissance in its fifth and sixth entries by repurposing itself as a high-octane heist machine rather than a drag-racing douche fest, but the highly anticipated seventh suffered a number of setbacks. For one, director Justin Lin, the genius behind its reinvention, was moving on to more prestigious projects, and his replacement, James Wan (Saw, The Conjuring), had yet to prove he could handle an actioner of this scale. And then there was the unfortunate death of series star Paul Walker, who died in a car crash midway through filming. It doesn’t get much more foreboding.
Yet Furious 7 succeeds, not in spite of the setbacks but by weaving them into the fabric of its existence. Wan compensates for his newness by stepping up the intensity of the film’s countless stunts, chases, and pile-ups, a necessity in a series where each entry simply must be more insane than the last. Furious 7 gives us the latest and greatest luxury sports cars ping-ponging between a pair of Dubai skyscrapers, Ronda Rousey kicking ass in an evening gown, and Kurt Russell extolling the benefits of Belgium craft beer, not to mention the image of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson flexing off an arm cast before using a handheld minigun to shoot a helicopter from the sky. Wan’s camerawork is clean, with every ovation-worthy stunt unfolding with clarity and precision. Transformers this is not.
And then there’s Walker. His brothers worked as body doubles, and a fair amount of CGI was used to finish out his scenes. It feels seamless, but what’s truly affecting is the film’s elegiac epilogue, which finds a sweet, simple way to write Walker out of the story without exploiting his tragedy or sinking into cynicism. I didn’t cry at many movies this year, but Furious 7 made me misty. It might be hard to believe for those who saw the frosted tip that was 2001’s The Fast and the Furious way back when, but this series has grown into something altogether satiating, a feast for the eyes and heart as much as for the pumped fist.
24. The Overnight
Patrick Brice’s The Overnight, his follow-up to the sinister Creep, stars Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling as an insecure couple, newly moved to California, who attend an impromptu dinner party hosted by their continental new neighbors (Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godreche). As the seemingly innocent night draws on, and social niceties give way to latent sexual tensions, Brice deftly manages to mix smartly played dick ‘n butt jokes (Hint: the poster makes so much more sense after seeing the film) with an indirectly poignant exploration of adult relationships.
In many ways, The Overnight mirrors last year’s The One I Love in being about dissatisfied couples seemingly dealing with the idealized versions of themselves (it doesn’t hurt that both couples look vaguely similar – a lanky white guy with brown hair and a stick-thin California blonde). At the heart of it all, it’s trying to figure out what makes relationships and marriages work in your 30s – the realities of kids, finances, and the sheer numbing effect of time on love and sex is something that the film explores with hilarious aplomb. Brice gives the proceedings a wonderful veneer of tension, with a very Duplass-y handheld indie approach that doesn’t offer a lot of visual flair (except in a few key moments of stylization), but keeps us laser-centered on the characters’ antics.
On top of all this, it’s just funny as hell – Scott’s Ben Wyatt-esque earnest anxiety and Schwartzman’s charmingly giving yuppie douchebaggery are a match made in comedic heaven. The climax (so to speak) wusses out a bit on the film’s bigger implications about sexuality and relationships, but this doesn’t diminish the film’s dry wit.
The comforts of love take shape in tiny actions: a lingering glance, the pressure of a hand resting on a shoulder, the sound of a love letter unfolding, raised eyebrows that encourage you to continue talking until all the details of your story have been wrung out. When adapting Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt for the screen with Carol, Todd Haynes not only knew the importance of this, but the value of addressing it across the board.
And so the love affair between married woman Carol and youthful department store worker Therese comes to life through lavish fur coats and an emotionally bare score, never once leaning on lesbian sensationalism as a crutch. The true magnetism of it all hangs on the performances of Cate Blanchett as Carol and Rooney Mara as Therese. They defy the era’s social conformity discreetly — in person, you would miss it if you weren’t paying close attention — while still bending under its unimaginable pressures. As it all unfolds, the richness of their performances comes as a surprise; though, when have they given us reason to expect otherwise?
In theaters, we often look to monologues or forbidden sex scenes to articulate the depth of a couple’s affection. In life, that bond is evident in everyday stitches. Carol captures those with grace, looking straight ahead without waiting for applause. As such, it’s loud in the quietest of ways, reminding viewers that it’s often those with their lips sealed who have a greater story to tell than those squawking on the sidewalk, a heel popped up in the air as they kiss.
No horror film of 2015 had a monster to match how the tabloid media is presented in Amy. It is an insatiable, parasitic thing, sucking more life out of its celebrity-victim with every flashing camera bulb and every headline smeared across the cover of the local daily. Director Asif Kapadia (Senna) makes no bones about assigning blame for the premature death of British pop singer Amy Winehouse. It’s the media’s fault, his film insinuates early and often, putting us inside the raw footage of Winehouse’s life to evoke a visceral reaction of disgust. Or maybe it’s despair, because there’s a more uncomfortable truth lurking beneath the surface of Kapadia’s film: really, we are the ones at fault.
Amy is a difficult film to watch and not just because of its tragic ending. Kapadia combed through hours of unreleased footage to present an intimate portrait of Winehouse as she appeared outside the spotlight. What we see is a troubled, insecure, and irresistibly charming young woman who was foisted inside a life she was woefully unprepared to live. By relying so heavily on footage pulled from handheld recorders, web cams, and other first-person videos, Kapadia’s film underlines the unique plight of the modern celebrity: she simply can’t disappear. The stuff of her life becomes fodder for clickbait journalism, her flaws are laid bare, and her life is rendered unlivable. Amy asks the question: Would you want to live like that? When the answer is inevitably no, it points us toward a mirror.
There’s something to be said about the power of following one’s passion. Iris Apfel, now 94, has been, as she puts it, worshipping at “the altar of accessory” for decades and decades. She’s a fashionista. A lover of design, fabric, and the art of dressing up while secretly dressing down.
Albert Maysles’ Iris is a love letter to the life and times of the eloquent and affable Apfel and her hyper-specific and frankly quite pleasing interests in body and interior aesthetics. With her hootish glasses, self-deprecating wit, and millions of miles of fabric in her New York home, Apfel’s a character alright. Maysles frames his subject in a crisp, clean organized fashion, and Apfel’s story takes on a sort of bigger statement about living a live well lived and how lucky it is when a person gets to sustain themselves on passion.
Apfel, in spite of her age, runs around to shops, goes to fashion shows, teaches NYU students, you name it. Her boundless enthusiasm is so very appealing, and strangely enough a sort of model for healthy living. Through Apfel’s amusement and love for her work, Iris takes on very profound qualities in its minute 79-minute runtime: it becomes a sweet-natured statement of lust for life. Do what you care about, and nothing can stop you. That’s a heart-warming message that the film tells plainly and perfectly. Iris is a wonderful, kind, and giving doc, but not without being a funky, curious, and cool one.