Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

28 December 2015

More 2015 Films. Awards-Season Edition. Part 2.

Adam McKay's The Big Short is funny and smart and moves quickly.

It is also filled with delightful, interesting characters, and a whole bunch of total morons. The Big Short is about how the housing bubble burst in late 2007, and it follows a group of guys who bet against the housing market and therefore made a profit off of the collapse of the economy of most of the world. In other words, it is kind of about guys who profited off of everyone else's bad luck.

But it is a tribute to Adam McKay that this film keeps its characters in perspective enough that they are mostly likable guys. The film's much bigger challenge is explaining the complicated financial situation that really occurred back in 2007. This is definitely a tough row to hoe for a comedy, but The Big Short takes a very clever, Brechtian approach. Instead of trying to tell us all of the things we need to know in some kind of expository way where the information is embedded in dialogue that the characters would never actually say (à la CSI), The Big Short's narrator simply stops the film, addresses the audience, and tells us that "now chef Anthony Bourdain will explain what you need to know". The Big Short is the most Brechtian of this year's films, and it had a true Brechtian effect: getting its audience emotional about information. My sisters and I left the theatre pissed; the mortgage crisis affected all of us very much.

The Big Short is also filled with some pretty excellent performances: Steve Carrell and Christian Bale are particularly good, but the film boasts great performances by Finn Wittrock, Ryan Gosling, Hamish Linklater, Adepero Oduye, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, John Magaro, and Brad Pitt. Oh my god, and Melissa Leo has a hilarious cameo. Again, let me underline that this is a hilarious movie about the mortgage crisis and the collapse of the world economy. It is also a film that explains this crisis to its audience, and points out why it happened, who was responsible, and who was affected by the actions of these criminals, none of whom was ever indicted.

Oscar possibilities for The Big Short: Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay seem the most likely. To my mind Picture is a long shot and Screenplay is a lock, but who knows. If people see it, they will respond favorably.
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France's entry this year for the Best Foreign Language Film award is called Mustang, and it is directed by the Turkish-French director Deniz Gamze Ergüven. Mustang is a powerhouse of a film and one of the absolute best of the year.

Mustang follows five sisters living in a small town about an hour from Istanbul. The girls have almost all hit puberty, but are all very much still girls. Early in the film, a crazy village lady accuses the girls of being whores, and their grandmother and uncle, who are raising them, basically lose their minds, lock the girls in the house, stop sending them to school, and begin marrying them off one by one.

The film is made like a suspense-movie, and Mustang is packed with surprises and peripities that you will not see coming at all. It's a story of religious extremism and the ways that religions attempt to control the bodies of women and work to destroy them.

I cannot recommend this enough. It's enjoyable, exciting, and packs an emotional punch. I loved the young women in the film in the extreme. Ergüven's work is extraordinary, and she fills Mustang with lighthearted moments as well as dangerous ones, so that even amid the strict control of the religious nutjobs in the movie, the possibilities for freedom and pleasure shine through. These girls' personalities are bright and beautiful, and they cannot be completely contained by the rules and strictness placed upon them.

Oscar possibilities for Mustang: this film will be nominated for Best Foreign Language picture for sure. No question. It's one of the best movies of the year.

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This is, perhaps, going to seem a little crazy, but Hungary's entry for Best Foreign Language picture is even better. László Nemes's Son of Saul is my favorite film for 2015. 

Son of Saul is a film about Auschwitz, so it isn't going to be for everyone, and it is at times very very difficult to watch. This is a movie about horror, and there isn't any hope to be found in it. Nemes has designed his picture so that it attempts to communicate this as best as it can. It is, to my mind, basically a perfect film, with one of the best central performances of the year, by Géza Röhrig.

I don't want to spoil the movie, but the main character Saul works for one of the Sonderkommandos in the camp. He gets rid of the bodies of Jews that have been gassed, he burns corpses, he shovels ashes into a river, he rifles through the belongings of people murdered by the Nazis in order to pay off guards. This is a portrait of the Final Solution that is like nothing you've ever seen. And the filmmaking is so exquisitely good, that it is organized so that we see every aspect of the camps: the doctor's surgery rooms, the ovens, the yard, the officers dining halls, and the showers. It's absolutely fucking harrowing. And it does not let up. This is not a film that is designed to let up. Nemes wants to show us genocide without the bullshit peddled to us by films like Life Is Beautiful or The Book Thief.

Central to the plot of Son of Saul is the main character's quest to find a rabbi to say Kaddish for a small boy who has been killed in the gas chambers. Early on in the movie he says to one of his companions that he wants to do this: to find a rabbi who can say the prayer for the dead correctly, to mourn for this boy. His companion says "we do say Kaddish for them", and Saul replies simply It isn't enough. To put this another way, the central thrust of Son of Saul is an attempt to mourn correctly for the genocide of European Jews. But this is a task that is already doomed to failure. It isn't enough. It cannot be enough.

Son of Saul had me by the scruff of my neck for its entire running time. It's never boring, not for one second, and it is mostly simply terrifying. Death is around the corner for this man at every instant in this film, and I found this more exciting than any action movie this year. I sat in my seat willing Saul to find a rabbi, to say this prayer, to be successful at mourning. I guess it won't spoil anything for me to say to you that things do not end well for Saul, whether or not he is able to mourn for the boy. The camps were a closed system of power and destruction, designed to destroy as many Jewish lives as possible, and there is no hope to be taken from a story that bears witness to this destruction with any accuracy.

Oscar possibilities for Son of Saul: It's going to win the Oscar for Foreign Language. Done and done.