Two Decembers ago, New Yorker critic Richard Brody wrote, “The year 2013 has been an amazing one for movies, though maybe every year is an amazing year for movies if one is ready to be amazed by movies.” True in 2013, and true in 2015 as cinema continues an upward trend towards more magic, wonder, intellect and indelible imagery.
In 2015, moviegoing proved to be one of the best in diversity. The cineplexes were chock-full of bombastic thrill rides while independent theaters specialized in cinema on the margins. Repertory houses boasted notable rescues from yesteryear while video-on-demand and streaming services brought whole worlds to those who didn’t want to — or couldn’t — make it out of the house.
And while this cinematic diversity covered a great deal of ground, certain commonalities and connections between the individual works became clear. A quick glance at the 2015 box office grosses proves that not only is there a life in the franchise, but that the franchise is Hollywood’s lifeblood. Eight of the top 10 grossing movies of 2015 were franchise installments with only Inside Out as a true original — The Martian is based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir.
Many of these movies were immensely fun — Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Furious 7, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation — but none were as impressive as Mad Max: Fury Road and Creed, both of which make powerful cases that the true art of cinematic story telling lies in the power of the image. Directors of both films, George Miller and Ryan Coogler, working with directors of photography (DoP) John Seale and Maryse Alberti respectively, combine the inherent mythology of these franchises with virtuosic imagery, using their budgets not to merely craft products, but truly political works.
This is also true of Taxi, the latest from Iran’s Jafar Panahi, a director who was placed under house arrest by the Iranian government in 2010 and forbidden from directing films for 20 years. Taxi (or Taxi Tehran or Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, as it is also known) is Panahi’s third movie since his ban, and with it he has grown more audacious and more defiant in his approach. Casting himself as a nameless taxicab driver in Tehran, Panahi picks up passengers that may or may not be acting in his movie, may or may not be in on the joke and may or may not know the meaning their words carry. In a phenomenal intersection of documentary, self-reflexive portraiture and narrative film making, Panahi crafts a deceptively warm and comforting experience, one that completely reconfigures itself in the final scene.
Taxi was not the only movie in 2015 to send viewers back into the world with a haunting finale. It is impossible to discuss 2015’s films without praising Phoenix, German director Christian Petzold’s remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Using a married couple to explore Germany’s ruin during the aftermath of the Holocaust, Petzold and DoP Hans Fromm deliver an ending so incredible it manages to suck all the air out of the room. As Petzold and Fromm show, when the past is this murky, the future is completely unclear.
This is not the case in The Wonders — winner of the 2014 Cannes Grand Prix — an Italian drama that captures a disappearing world right as it fades out. Here, director Alice Rohrwacher depicts a countryside commune of beekeepers specializing in organic honey. Rohrwacher works with DoP Hélène Louvart to beautifully capture the tender relationship between a father and his daughter, the frustrations of family and a way of life that is not long for this world.
In many ways, this is also true of director Todd Haynes’ latest elegy Carol, a story about two women engaging in a forbidden love affair in 1950s New York. Much like the necessary social restraint of the two protagonists — Therese (Rooney Mara) and Carol (Cate Blanchett) — Haynes and DoP Edward Lachman magnificently utilize 16mm film stock to imprison these women inside beautiful, crafted images that can never fully express their buried emotions. Constantly bisected by reflections — rain-soaked windows and mirrors that reveal the sensual tempest beneath — Haynes and Lachman draw on Douglas Sirk melodramas and François Truffaut’s self-conscious camera to give Carol a symphony of design and composition.
With less overt homosexual overtones, but far from lacking, Mississippi Grind is as shaggy as it is wonderful. Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) are full of stories and life, but they are also hopeless gambling addicts. Only one knows it and the other doesn’t — yet. There is no greater loser than a degenerate gambler, but maybe that is the way they like it. Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck follow their two Dostoevskyian protagonists as they reach out and defy the universe. Sometimes the universe raps their knuckles and puts them back in their place. Sometimes the gambler gets a delicious steak and lobster dinner on the house, and DoP Andrij Parekh is there for both.
Moving west, Tangerine melds imagery, technology and story in a perfect manner. Directed and shot by Sean Baker using tricked out iPhones, Tangerine follows a sex worker as she makes her way through the mean streets of Los Angeles looking for the pimp who done her wrong. Tangerine is a positively electric story and Baker — working with co-DoP Radium Cheung — captures this lightning in a bottle and produces a movie that is so solidly in the present that it feels like it is still unfolding.
The list of movies and images goes on: a happy family of cattle herders lounging in the desert dunes while an impotent Jihadists corp scurries about the sand in Timbuktu (dir. Abderrahmane Sissako, DoP. Sofian El Fani); The Hateful Eight, an ode to 1950s 70mm roadshow releases with the sweep and grandeur of the Rocky Mountains alongside close-ups of Samuel L. Jackson and Demián Bichir filling the screen with command and power (dir. Quentin Tarantino, DoP. Robert Richardson); the swooping camera that captures N.W.A’s defiant “Fuck tha Police” in Straight Outta Compton (dir. F. Gary Gray, DoP. Matthew Libatique); the constant dread of an empty frame in It Follows (dir. David Robert Mitchell, DoP. Mike Gioulakis); Adonis Creed’s morning jog through the streets of Philadelphia flanked by a group of 12-o’clock boys in Creed; the final image of Fury Road; a very intimate carwash in Tangerine; and Bing-Bong waving goodbye in Inside Out (dir. Pete Docter).
These images came to viewers via 16mm, 35mm, 70mm, IMAX, digital cinema package, 2-D, 3-D, hand-drawing and computer generation. They were dispersed in festivals, theaters, television and streaming services on laptops and tablets. In 2015, the options were endless and the magic unavoidable. There was no shortage of discoveries and surprises. It is doubtful that 2016 will be any different.