Ex Best Enemies

Best of Enemies (2015)

Best of Enemies (2015)

During the 1968 Republican and Democratic National conventions, floundering ABC news shook things up, hiring conservative intellectual William F. Buckley Jr. and liberal intellectual Gore Vidal to debate the issues.

The “debate” quickly became personal and heated, culminating in an ugly exchange where Vidal called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” and Buckley responded by calling Vidal a “queer” and threatened to assault him.

This is fascinating because the two men profiled are fascinating. The personal animosity and rage were unheard of in 1968, but have since sadly become commonplace; their confrontational rivalry is the template for today’s nightly cable news channels.

Their hatred for each other did not subside with the conclusion of the program. Each man wrote an inflammatory article recounting the experience which led to a protracted legal process alleging libel and slander. Their enmity lasted for the next forty years: when Buckley passed away in 2008, Vidal wrote he hoped Bill was enjoying his time in hell.

The film uses archival footage to recreate the intensity of their time together, as well as personal written material of the two principles, with Kelsey Grammer reading as Buckley while John Lithgow stands in for Vidal.

I love politics, and I love arguments, and I especially love eclectic characters. This is a great movie about an important turning point in our political discourse.

Ex Machina (2015)

Ex Machina (2015)

Using data mined from his work as CEO of Bluebook (the world’s largest search engine), Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) has built Ava (Alicia Vikander), a humanoid robot with a sophisticated AI. He invites programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) to test his creation.

Isaac has, over the past half decade, established himself as one of the most electrifying, diverse actors in Hollywood. One of the most memorable scenes from any film in 2015 is his bizarre dance sequence with his maid.

2015 was a breakout year for Gleeson. The Revenant, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Brooklyn. His resume for the year rivals what many actors achieve in a career.

While the male leads are great, the star of this movie is Vikander. Most of the film, she exists as a disembodied face, but still makes us believe in her pain and suffering.

This fantastic essay on what it means to be human serves as a counterpoint to Spike Jonzes’s wonderful film Her (2013), and is destined to join the pantheon of sci-fi classics dealing with expanding notions of humanity.

I’ll See you in the Montage of my Anonymous Dreams

Cobain: Montage of Heck

Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)

With unprecedented access to Kurt Cobain’s personal letters, home videos, and surviving family members, Brett Morgen creates a searing portrait of the rock icon.

While the film wisely avoids portraying Cobain as a stereotypical tortured artist, it’s clear his unstable home life contributed to the angst and rage in his music.

Nirvana’s music was an important part of my adolescence, so I found this fascinating. The only omission was the absence of the band’s drummer Dave Grohl.

Anomalisa_poster

Anomalisa (2015)

Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is incapable of distinguishing between faces and sees everyone, including women, as an identical man (Tom Noonan).

When he meets saleswoman Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), he’s surprised to discovers she looks different from everyone else. Overcome, he nicknames her Anomalisa and seduces her.

Through Michael’s relationship with awkward and bland Lisa, the movie reminds us how beautiful ordinary can be; one of the most haunting scenes features a reluctant Lisa singing an a cappella version of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girl Just Want to Have Fun.”

Based on his own play, Charles Kafmann’s bizarre film is a thought-provoking take on identity, relationships, and purpose in modern existence.

I'll See You in My Dreams

I’ll See You in My Dreams (2015)

Widow Carol Petersen (Blythe Danner) lives alone in a California retirement community. After euthanizing her dog, she begins a tentative friendship with her new pool boy, Lloyd (Martin Starr), and a romantic relationship with a newcomer to the community, Bill (Sam Elliot).

It’s a delightful turn by Danner and her adventures with fellow retirees (June Squibb, Rhea Perlman, and Mary Kay Place) are touching. Starr has perfected a kind of uber outsider persona and Elliot is charming. There’s a lot of dark comedy, and Carol’s relationship with Lloyd comes close to Harold and Maude territory, except more earnest. Lonely and desperate, they need a deep connection with someone to confirm life is about something, to prove there’s a purpose to the anxiety and suffering and sadness.

Carol’s path to accepting her place in the world is bittersweet, but ends on a hopeful note. The film is a sweet affirmation about the possibility of life, and the excitement of a new day.

Lady Day to Hunt Mustangs

The Hunting Ground

The Hunting Ground (2015)

This film indicts America’s colleges and universities as a hotbed for sexual predators and “rape culture.” I’m not inclined to be an alarmist, and I believe in the presumption of innocence, but it makes a compelling argument. There is a problem brewing in American universities.

However, the problem of collegiate indifference to sexual misconduct is only one symptom of a much larger issue. Colleges and universities in the United States are money making juggernauts. They cover up sexual assaults because of possible ramifications to their bottom line. Wealthy students from wealthy families who provide big donor checks get preferential treatment. Florida State doesn’t treat Jameis Winston like other college students, because most college students don’t make their university tens of millions of dollars.

We bemoan the influence of big money in politics, we complain about the explosive growth of student loan debt, but nobody investigates the obscene budgets of our most prestigious schools. Money has corrupted our post-secondary educational system which now routinely uses capital campaigns and endowment drives as the primary benchmark to determine their value. A successful college president is worried more about the bottom line than the school’s educational mission.

Mustang

Mustang (2015)

Five Turkish sisters struggle to find fulfillment in a patriarchal society. They’re not allowed physical contact with boys or to leave their home. They’re expected to be domestic servants until they’re old enough to marry.

Inspired by a former teacher, the youngest sister, Lale leads the others on several unorthodox adventures including a surreptitious trip to a forbidden soccer game.

The two oldest sisters are married. One happily to her lover, the other to an ill-suited stranger. The third sister, unable to cope with her uncle’s lecherous advances, commits suicide. At the fourth sister’s wedding, the indomitable Lale convinces her to runaway to Istanbul and reunite with their former teacher.

This harrowing film forces us to confront the harsh realities of life in the middle East and other places of the world where women are treated as property. It’s a beautiful statement about the power of the human spirit to overcome seemingly insurmountable difficulties.

While we’re obsessed with the gender politics of celebrity tweets, there are real young women like Lale struggling with issues larger than the implication of Taylor Swift’s new haircut. This film chastens us to not get so lost in the rabbit hole of western feminism we forget the people left behind in its wake.

Last Day of Freedom

Last Day of Freedom (2015)

Years after he returned from US military service in Vietnam, Manny Babbitt killed 78 year old Leah Schneidel. He was convicted for the crime and, after a lengthy appeal process, executed in 1999.

The year before his death, he controversially received the Purple Heart.

No one denies he killed Schneidel, as his brother, Bill Babbitt, narrates the circumstances of the murder, it’s clear Manny suffered from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder stemming from his experiences in Vietnam.

This short film is a chilling indictment of the way we treat mental illness and the cruel ways we treat our veterans who sacrifice their lives and well-being to protect us, but return to apathy and indifference.

The Serene Goblin

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

The Triwizard Tournament was our first glimpse into the massive scope of the world created by J.K. Rowling and teases potential additional stories beyond the adventures of the Boy Who Lived while stars Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) and Emma Watson (Hermione Granger) proved they were more than cute kids who could remember lines.

However, the lynchpin of the series is Ralph Fiennes, It would have been easy to turn Voldemort into a Hitleresque caricature of evil, but his restrained performance grounds the film and the murder of Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson) dramatically changed the tone of the series from the child oriented wonder of the initial films towards an examination of the cost of fighting evil.

Serenity (2005)

Serenity (2005)

Sadly, Firefly and its eclectic mix of Eastern mysticism, Wild West adventure, and progressive science fiction, debuted approximately ten years too soon. It would have been a perfect match for Netflix or Amazon Prime, but 2002 network television was a poor fit for its ambitious genre bending.

It’s comforting to see Mal, Kaylee, Jayne, and River continue their adventures, while the deaths of Shepherd Book and Wash raise the stakes from the television show, making this film more about the danger of their world than the community formed on the titular ship.

At times this feels like a special finale episode, but I’ll take any excuse for more stories in this unique world.