By The Taste Basket Team
It’s that time of year, when the world falls in love… with “Best Of” lists.
And so here’s Installment #2 in First Watch, our own little celebration of what we watched this year.
The Taste Basket Twist on the standard “important films and TV shows of 2015” compilation is this: each writer will cover two works, one released in 2015 and one which he or she just saw for the first time in 2015.
Why are we doing this, you might ask? Like, why jeopardize our street cred by admitting to the Internet that until this year, we hadn’t seen some of the classics? Well, it’s like this: nobody, of course, is perfect. Especially snooty pop culture bloggers. Seriously, we’ve got baggage.
And, with an enormous number of movies and shows out there, not one of us can say we have seen everything. Honestly, we’re perpetually filling in our viewership gaps. That almost comes with the job.
True to our mission since we started this thing last year, we strive to write openly and personally about art and entertainment, old and new. So why just focus on the new stuff when there’s so much memorable film and television out there?
Here’s our thoughts, our critiques, our recommendations and our tributes. Thanks for reading, and Happy New Year!
On Green Room (2016)
Alright, I can explain. This film will see a wide release thanks to A24 by mid-April 2016, but I was lucky enough to catch it this year during its premiere weekend at TIFF—and I love it too much to not say something now.
Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room is, in a word, “dank.” That’s if you’re going by the dictionary’s definition (“wet and cold in a way that is unpleasant”) or how your brother’s pot dealer might say it, which pretty much means “extremely cool.”
In fact, the primary setting itself is dank incarnate. Imagine a backwoods, dimly lit, skinhead-infested DIY music venue owned and managed by Sir Patrick Stewart. It’s crude, but formidable; a refreshingly terrifying locale for a whip-smart new genre film.
Punk rockers The Ain’t Rights (among them, Anton Yelchin and Alia Shawkat) open their set with The Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” and though they survive the crowd’s initial jeers and airborne bottles, they’re held hostage in the back room when they accidentally discover a corpse.
The gory ensuing events in the titular room are powerful because they’re devoid of any kind of poetry—instead, they’re unapologetically real. We’re treated to the spectacle of hardened punk musicians bursting into tears upon realizing their puniness. We see them devise elaborate escape plans and still wind up shanked, or mauled by attack dogs. Even when the opportunity arises for a handy motivational monologue from the bass player, he’s interrupted by a new threat from outside that needs immediate attention.
While there’s strength in Green Room’s starkness, the film is also endearingly aware of its own pulp. The blood and guts aren’t CGI; they’re callbacks to practical effects from camp royalty like The Evil Dead. Duct tape becomes bandaging, tattered set lists provide important murder clues and Stewart inspires chills and nervous chuckles alike as stone-faced Neo-Nazi leader Darcy.
If Murder Party didn’t already, Green Room undoubtedly establishes Jeremy Saulnier as a totally dank new Master of Horror—so remember the name, folks, because you certainly won’t forget this gritty movie once you see it.
On Twin Peaks (1990-1991)
Mark Frost and David Lynch’s 25-year-old two-season supernatural crime-drama Twin Peaks certainly owes much of its popularity with today’s young folks to the lightspeed, stream-ready archival nature of modern technology, but more than that, to the very particular armies of meme-swapping, free trade coffee-drinking, black lipstick-and-crewneck sweatshirt-wearing ’90s revivalist hipsters the Internet’s managed to alchemize in a weird flurry of nostalgia and innovation. Really, it’s this one sect of people who urge that Twin Peaks is preciously cool, thereby proving that it’s still culturally important.
I’d be lying if I said one (or more) of these artsy ambassadors didn’t land me here. Color me flattered, I guess, because I was marked someone who probably likes Twin Peaks before I even watched Twin Peaks—and for years I was haunted by the shadow of my future cooler self whose knowledge of what’s “Lynchian” wasn’t limited to Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive.
This summer, a buddy and I finally took the plunge and began streaming the series, and whether or not you think I’m more “with-it” now, I want you to know: I’m not being ironic when I say I genuinely loved (and still love) this thrillingly oversaturated, always unpredictable little slice of television.
You’ve heard about it, right? A girl-next-door named Laura Palmer turns up murdered, and her sleepy Washington State town spirals into otherworldly chaos. Not too long ago I wrote about Parks and Recreation and the latent strangeness of Pawnee, but that’s nothing compared to what develops in Twin Peaks. I mean, c’mon: dancing dwarves who speak in reverse; oracular nightmare giants; demons, aliens and “The Owls Are Not What They Seem”; Log Lady (may she rest in peace)—all happening while everyone’s in bed with everyone to the cheesy, borderline grating synthy soundscapes of Angelo Badalamenti.
It’s important, though, not to reduce Twin Peaks to “trippy,” because even though it’s experimental, it does something that a David Lynch film can’t do: it gives us a cozy little setting to care about. The fictional town is full of folks who, while eccentric and sometimes evil, are just as lovable as the players in any NBC sitcom or soap opera. Whether you’re more like an Agent Dale Cooper, enamored of the simple life, or an Audrey Horne, determined to fight your way out, we all can say that Twin Peaks, WA is a wildly meaningful place. I can’t wait for its return to TV in 2017.
On The Big Short (2015)
Subprime mortgages do not make for the sexiest of subject matter, but sizzle-reel trailers of the film treatment of Michael Lewis’ book on the housing bubble sure make them look the part. Don’t be fooled. Adam McKay’s ensemble piece is a kind of rebuttal to The Wolf of Wall Street—well, for those who read The Wolf of Wall Street as an endorsement of getting greedy (admittedly not hard given the sheen Scorsese put over it).
With A-Listers in bad haircuts and jolty, documentary-style cinematography, The Big Short juggles idiosyncratic characters, complicated concepts and morally thorny business maneuvers with an impressive amount of ease and a minimum amount of glamour.
It loses some points for one of its better features: having celebrities explain CDOs and the titular “shorting.” These cameo breakaways don’t quite mesh with the tone or takeaway, but we can chalk that up to the sensibilities of our unreliable narrator and oil slick Jared Vennet (Ryan Gosling).
Certainly, McKay has proven his mettle away from Will Ferrell flicks, and it will be interesting to see if Oscar buzz can buoy him to more prestige work. In the interim, this thorough, unflinching and often fun fileting of Big Banks and the governments that bail them out might prove an effective tool for the Sanders campaign.
On The Last Picture Show (1971)
“Everything is flat and empty here—and nothing to do,” so says wilted debutante Lois Fowler (Ellen Burstyn) to her daughter Jacy (Cybil Shepherd) early on in Peter Bogdanovich’s opus—but she didn’t have to. A sparse, even Chernobyl-like mise-en-scene (boldly in black and white) and a molasses-slow pace renders Anarene, TX as a perfectly discrete place for a loss-of-innocence plot.
Jacy, Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges) are three high school seniors scrambling with status, sex and loneliness. It would be a slight to reduce this film to plot points, though, as the light touch of the storytelling makes the dramatic turns in the teetering town seem as quotidian as the grit in its residents’ teeth. Monumental shifts in relationships and lives are shrugged off or cut away from. In the case of the filmmaker’s favorite subject, Shepherd, instants of agony, embarrassment or heartbreak are lingered on in close-up.
Though distinctly the work of an auteur, Bogdanovich nonetheless demonstrates the influence of his well-known mentors. There’s a lot of Corman in the scrappy production design, there’s the shadow of Stella Adler in his direction of actors and the way the film is framed shows a man indebted to Orson Welles’ cinematographer Gregg Toland’s depth-of-field and John Ford’s panoramic lens. As an influencer, one can trace American Graffiti, Diner, Dazed and Confused and The Myth of the American Sleepover back to Picture Show. But Picture Show did it first and, dare I say, better.
On The Gift (2015)
I love going into movies blind, with no preconceived notions regarding the general vibe, plot or cast, and wholly free from the subconscious sway critics may have upon the viewing. I feel that our most honest opinions are realized when we treat movie-going this way, and that was precisely the case with The Gift. Walking into the theater, I hadn’t even seen the trailer and knew nothing outside of the primary cast and a very vague description of the premise.
It’s easy to brush this one off as just one more in a long line of predictable stalker films that never stray from the tired but tried-and-true path. It starts out with all the familiar makings of any respectable thriller: you have the likable couple (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) looking for a fresh start; the seemingly harmless, enigmatic stranger (writer-director Joel Edgerton) whose burgeoning presence begins taking a toll on our “heroes”; the all-glass house for our stalker’s viewing pleasure; the stranger appearing around every corner; and even the policeman who basically says no laws were broken, and you’re more or less on your own.
But I was pleasantly surprised by a movie that supplied a dramatic U-turn in the stalker formula, and contained not one, but TWO of the most effective jump scares I’ve ever witnessed on film. It has all the tensions of a good Hitchcockian thriller, with the growing paranoia and claustrophobia of Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy.”
And though there’s a clear-cut antagonist, our protagonists are decidedly more morally ambiguous than blameless victims. The denouement really leaves you stewing over the lingering question: Who’s the real bad guy here?
On Hard Luck (1921)
Unsurprising to anyone who knows me, I live for old movies, especially silent slapstick. Of all the hilarious, influential works churned out by even the most beloved, prolific stars of yesteryear, many of them are unfortunately lost forever, whether due to carelessness, the ravages of time or vault fires.
One that was presumably gone for all eternity: Buster Keaton’s Hard Luck, his only major lost film. For over 60 years, the world was deprived of the scene Keaton said garnered the biggest laugh of his career, until the film was partially discovered in 1987. The last three minutes were also uncovered recently (in what year, I couldn’t find anywhere).
The Great Stone Face once again teams up with director Edward F. Cline in this rather loosely plotted film that frequently changes direction and finds Keaton meandering from one scenario to the next with virtually no segues. When the master of misfortune loses both his job and his girlfriend, he ultimately decides to end it all by way of various (failed) suicide attempts. The trolley he lays before switches tracks, the falling cabinet misses him, the branch from which he hangs himself breaks and the poison he guzzles is a concealed bottle of whiskey.
Drunken and despondent, he stumbles into a mission to find a rare armadillo, thus beginning a series of seemingly aimless hijinks which culminates in Keaton jumping off a highdive, missing the pool and creating a hole that leads to China.
Hard Luck is rife with unresolved subplots and ends rather abruptly, making it rather weak as compared to Buster Keaton’s other masterpieces. Even so, it’s worth a watch.
On The End of the Tour (2015)
James Ponsoldt’s biopic about author David Foster Wallace is quiet and small in scale, but in a good, “less is more” kind of way. It follows David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), a slightly successful reporter for Rolling Stone, as he accompanies Wallace (Jason Segel) on the last days of the Infinite Jest tour in the late ’90s.
Lipsky starts in as the eager, story-fishing journalist we’ve all seen before, but as his relationship with Wallace develops, he finds himself interviewing his enigmatic subject between casual snack runs to 7-Eleven and shitty John Travolta movies. To put it plainly, the two become friends.
While David and David’s dynamic may be warm, the writers never let their guards down, which allows for some of the more stimulating moments in the movie; with Wallace spinning yarns about the paranoia-inducing side of fame, what’s phony about giving an interview in the first place and the inherent loneliness of being the smartest guy in the room.
The biopic has a paint-by-numbers formula: Take a famous subject, make it about the subject’s life leading up to a significant event and let the box office receipts and Oscar nods roll in. Even so, Ponsoldt’s film forgoes conventionality and flashiness in favor of creating a thoughtful portrait of its complicated subject, drawn from a second person’s perspective. And that’s the beauty of The End of the Tour: it’s the film-embodiment of David Foster Wallace and his ideals—and we’re all like David Lipsky, just-made friends vying for a better understanding.
On Back to the Future (1985)
For last year’s First Watch, I reviewed The Breakfast Club, an ’80s high school classic that everyone gave me shit for not seeing up until I did. For this year’s First Watch, I’m reviewing Back to the Future, an ’80s high school classic that everyone gave me shit for not seeing up until about two months ago—when I did. You could say “history repeats itself,” and actually, it’s that very concept that’s at play in this Robert Zemeckis film.
As if you didn’t already know, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) gets thrown into the past after Doc Brown’s (Christopher Lloyd) experiment with a time-traveling DeLorean goes awry in every sense of the word, leaving Marty to navigate through the fictional town of Hill Valley, CA, creating and fixing paradoxes left and right, all just so he can find the required plutonium to get back to the future and maybe have sex with his girlfriend.
What The Breakfast Club was to the high school film, Back to the Future is to the time-travel film. It’s a playful skewering of ’50s culture that also happens to playfully skewer ’80s culture, all while Marty and Doc run in and out of time loops. The movie is a hilarious adventure and an expertly executed exercise in time-hopping. Arguably, you don’t make a time-travel movie without picking its pockets for ideas, whether you’re doing Groundhog Day or Looper.
30th anniversary or not, Back to the Future has put its stake in the sands of time. And no holes in the space-time continuum could ever change that.
On Teen Beach 2 (2015)
For Teen Beach 2, the glorious sequel to Disney Channel’s Teen Beach Movie, let’s talk about a marriage of historicism and feminism that even a critically acclaimed TV show like Mad Men couldn’t land.
Both Teen Beach films interact with the 1960s and the decade’s gender politics, but focus on the West Coast and beach culture rather than Mad Men’s New York elite. In Teen Beach Movie, surfing teens Mack and Brady are transported inside Brady’s favorite ‘60s beach movie, Wet Side Story. There, Mack is appalled by the way the women are treated and their lack of agency. On their mission to find their way home, Mack teaches Lela and the other girls that they can be whatever they want to be and can be just as good as the boys at whatever they choose to do.
Teen Beach 2 takes this idea even further. Wet Side Story’s Lela and Tanner find themselves pulled into Mack and Brady’s present reality, and despite their shock over modern technology, Lela becomes so infatuated with the freedom she has in 2015 that she refuses to return to Wet Side Story, even though their absence is killing the other characters in the film. In the end, Mack convinces her to go back and change the movie, to make it about her. Wet Side Story becomes Lela: Queen of the Beach and effectively changes reality by bringing feminist ideas into the mainstream in the early ‘60s.
The Teen Beach films use their historical settings and characters in a more interesting and dialogic way. Rather than glossing over or accepting the way things were, the presence of the modern characters allows the film to comment on these issues directly. By showing an alternate reality at the end of Teen Beach 2, in which the most popular film of 1962 was about a woman claiming her own space and following her dreams, the film also shows how far we have to come.
Plus, unlike Mad Men (except for one Season 7 fantasy sequence), Teen Beach has campy musical numbers.
On Mad Men (2007-2015)
In the penultimate episode of Mad Men, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) walks triumphantly down the hall of her new job at McCann Erikson, portfolio under arm and cigarette hanging out of her mouth. The now-iconic shot is Peggy’s strongest moment, the end of her journey from sheepish secretary to strong-willed and confident ad agent. But the following episode sees it all washed away.
She turns down an offer from Joan to start their own female-run production company to stay at McCann Erikson and decides she’s in love with Stan. That the show thinks this love is the happiness the character deserves underlines the major problem with Mad Men. In many ways, the show is more about the women than the men who are often in the foreground. We follow Don Draper (Jon Hamm), yes, but a large amount of the emotional momentum, especially in the first half of the series, comes from the female characters—Betty, Peggy and Joan especially. But as the seasons drag on, these women’s plights fade more and more into the background to make way for Don’s descent into drunken listlessness.
In theory, the premise of the show should allow it to demonstrate how little has changed for women and women in the workplace since the 1960s, but Mad Men too often offers scenes of how terrible everyone was in the ‘60s to make that point effectively. Sally and Bobby play with plastic bags over their heads. Betty and Don litter after a picnic. Roger performs in blackface. Characters smoke and drink while pregnant. These scenes aren’t historically inaccurate, but by indulging in them, it weakens the parallels to modern day life. The historicism of the show works against its feminist potential. So when Peggy realizes in the final episode that the key to her happiness is Stan, not work, it was frustrating but not surprising.
At least I watched Teen Beach 2 this year.
On Love & Mercy (2015)
It’s tough to take any sort of music biopic seriously after having seen Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, which brilliantly satirizes the repetitive, exhaustive formulas used to build almost every single film about a legendary musician. These films often run the risk of being stale, uncreative and overly long, attempting to cram an important person’s entire life into a two-hour runtime, never feeling like a true, standalone picture but instead an itinerary of things dramatic biographies are supposed to include.
Love & Mercy, an intense and highly emotional character study of The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson at two different stages in his life, sets a new bar as to what music biopics—and biopics in general—can and should be.
By subverting the rules of the biopic we’re so used to, this film masterfully stands in as a darkly compelling psychological drama, real life aside. It’s also touching, scary and a bit heartbreaking. The film very smartly chooses to narrow in on a couple benchmark eras of Wilson’s life, bouncing back and forth between the writing and recording of Pet Sounds (where we see Paul Dano) and the height of his unrelenting mental decline in the 1980s (as portrayed by John Cusack).
The Dano parts are a spectacle: he’s an amazing actor who completely transforms into ’60s-era Wilson, and the making of Pet Sounds is unlike anything I have ever seen in a non-documentary film. It’s so authentic and well-researched that it feels like we’re in that room, taking part in the creation of that album. However, I was surprised at how much Cusack’s performance moved me.
His Wilson is far more reserved, sweet, sad; at every moment, he struggles to fight his demons, and with every mouth tic and empty stare, Cusack plays it perfectly. When he meets Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), Wilson finds a reason to free himself from his life’s many toxins and attempt to find happiness. Love & Mercy is a really beautiful film.
On Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (1988)
This film is dated, tacky, unnecessarily complicated and pretty stupid. I loved it so much.
I’d always known of Elvira, the popular late-night TV horror hostess (Cryptkeeper meets Valley Girl) portrayed by Cassandra Peterson, but I had never really experienced the character in a substantial way. Despite her status as Queen of Halloween, Elvira had always been more of an image to me—something I affiliated with old beer commercials and a Six Flags Fright Fest attraction. Now, at the tail-end of 2015, I can say that I’m a huge fan without feeling like a poser.
The plot of this film is ridiculous. Elvira quits her job as late-night TV horror hostess and strives to seal the deal on a Las Vegas act, but needs $50,000 to do so. Conveniently, she’s been included in the will of her recently deceased great aunt Morgana, who was a witch of some kind. She’s entitled to Morgana’s spooky mansion, a poodle and a secret spellbook she mistakes for an old recipe book. She also has a warlock uncle who’s obsessed with obtaining the spellbook in order to kill Elvira and wage warlock war on Earth, and she and her generic macho man boyfriend need to stop Uncle Warlock before the world becomes infested with warlocks? I don’t know, this film is absurd, guys.
Elvira turns everybody at a picnic super horny by accidentally using Hamburger Helper in a witch spell mixture, takes part in a very ’80s montage with some very ’80s neighborhood teens as they paint her spooky mansion a very ’80s splash of loud colors—and of course, she cracks several sexual innuendos throughout (“How’s your head?” “Haven’t had any complaints yet!”). This cheeseball goth-fish-out-of-water flick is hilarious, atmospheric and at times really clever, chiefly because of Peterson’s charisma and legitimately great comic timing. It’s some tasty cinematic junk food.
On Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Wow. Where to even start? If you haven’t seen Mad Max: Fury Road yet, stop. Just stop right now and go watch it. This movie is bonkers in all the right ways. Don’t worry about George Miller’s original trilogy, although if you have spare time, Mad Max and The Road Warrior are some sweet old-school action movies in their own right. But Fury Road is a whole other monster—one you have no choice but to jump on, grab its flaming horns for dear life and have a hell of a time riding.
Pro tips for watching Mad Max: Fury Road:
(1) DO NOT ask plot-related questions in the middle of the movie. Just don’t do it. You’ll miss out on the visual references to classic films and stunning works of cinematographic art that George Miller slaved away on for nearly a decade.
(2) Accept that, whatever your political and social stances, this movie is a movie first and foremost. If it was going to be a dissertation on women’s rights or nuclear disarmament or any of the myriad topics the movie deftly portrays, that’s what it would have been.
(3) Accept that this movie does discuss some very germane and paramount social and political topics to 21st century audiences. They create the film just as much the acting, cinematography, editing and stunt work does. You can enjoy the movie as a movie, but don’t discredit its intelligence.
That’s it. Have fun. Live. Die. Live again on the Fury Road.
On Being Two Isn’t Easy (1962)
Most of us can’t remember much about our early childhoods, which may be more a blessing than a curse. Endless encounters with vibrant newness combined with the inability to affect any real change in one’s physical world seems terrifying and dispiriting. Being Two Isn’t Easy, the 1962 slice-of-life comedy by Kon Ishikawa, takes that notion and mediates it with the observational, endearing and often humorous commentary of a child experiencing his small world and the people who inhabit it.
The film chronicles the first two years of the life of Taro (Hiro Suzuki), a precocious toddler living with his parents (Eiji Funakoshi and Fujiko Yamamoto) and grandmother (Kureko Urabe) in 1960s Tokyo—a supremely simple plot. It’s Taro’s nuanced insights that make the film the delightfully philosophical work that it is. At one point, he complains about not receiving a compliment from his parents for being able to escape his crib. His goal is to ascend the steep staircase outside their cramped apartment, but he is thwarted. He muses on adulthood, saying, “They only look for faults. That’s why grown-ups are always unhappy.” His observation is undeniably wise beyond his years, but misinformed by the egotism that all small children possess.
Being Two Isn’t Easy is an enchanting film that, while simplistic, speaks to universal human experiences and resonates with deeply personal aspects of the viewer. It is also an interesting study of gender roles and child rearing for a non-Japanese viewer. An overall entertaining movie.