From “In Jackson Heights” to “Inside Out,” here are film critic Carlos Valladares’ picks for 2015’s best.
5. “Mistress America”
The year’s funniest movie is Noah Baumbach’s and Greta Gerwig’s “Mistress America.” It’s a rip-roaring millennial satire that follows a young college freshman (Lola Kirke) on her quest for the perfect short story. She’s aided by her soon-to-be-stepsister (Gerwig), who wants to initiate her own startup, become a restaurateur and pursue her passion to be a freelance artist and dancer all at the same time. The two women conspire to make Gerwig’s dreams of owning a restaurant come true and schlep up to Connecticut with a carload of equally lost millennials to pitch their idea to a rich modernist couple in a loft straight out of Tati’s “Mon Oncle.”
Even describing the plot of “Mistress America” doesn’t do justice to its marvelous, taut construction. It has a plot, sure, but it feels more like a series of sketches cobbled together like loose stepping-stones.
The screenplay (written by Baumbach and star Greta Gerwig) perfectly mimics the snobbiness of college-age intellectuals, their sense of entitlement mingled with their defiance of society. Crucially, their satire never devolves into cruelty and blanket meanness. For many of us watching “Mistress America,” Gerwig and Baumbach’s bashful-yet-bratty wackos invite us to reflect on our own tics. They aren’t above relentlessly mocking these characters (and therefore us); but they’re also clever enough to see what they (we) possess is something richer, a warm and curious soul that exists beneath the stereotype.
4. “Inside Out”
After floundering for a while, Pixar came back huge this summer with an emotional masterpiece. “Inside Out” literalizes our emotions, staging an all-out battle between Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) inside the mind of a young girl in the middle of a move from Minnesota to San Francisco.
Trains-of-Thought, abstract expressionism, Triple-Dent gum earworms and cotton-candy-composed imaginary friends named Bing Bong are just a few of the joyous toys conjured up by Pixar’s Pete Docter (who directed the equally devastating “Up.”) Along with its crackerjack cast of NBC alums (Poehler, Smith, Mindy Kaling serving up sass as Digust and glass-shatter-brained Bill Hader as Fear), it’s stuffed with more laughs per second than any other movie in recent memory. Buried under its eye-popping colors and pastel prettiness, however, is a film with a sensitive soul and some of the most tear-inducing scenes of this year. (“Who’s your friend who likes to play…?”) It ranks among the greatest Pix movies ever made, right up there with “WALL-E,” “Up” and the Toy Story trifecta.
2015’s most exciting independent flick (now on Netflix) is Sean Baker’s hymn to L.A. hookers “Tangerine.” It’s a scraggly and oftentimes beautiful rumination on urban life in 2015 Los Angeles. An American independent film worthy of its grandfather John Cassavetes and its grouchy and radical uncle Jean-Luc Godard, “Tangerine” is the “Shadows” or “Breathless” of iPhone cinema. Shot guerilla-style on specially-modded iPhone 5s, its digital images of 2015 Los Angeles capture the sprawl of the sun-bleached city with wonderful ephemerality.
In the course of one wild and crazy night, we follow two transgender prostitutes: bombastic Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana “Kiki” Rodriguez) and her best friend, cool-calm-collected Alexandria (Mya Taylor). Rodriguez and Taylor — who kick ass and take names — pulsate with a jittery electricity unmatched by any other performance this year. The camera huffs and puffs trying to keep pace. It’s a film that perfectly captures the transitory feeling of living in a big city: screechy, grimy, often jarring, but always unexpected and imbued with an unconventional soulfulness. It’s also a crucial leap forward for trans representation in the cinema, placing the transgender community on the map with such force that it cannot be ignored. Baker realizes cinema cannot exist in a bubble where everyone is white, middle-class, has neat-o jobs and speaks English. Instead, he proves his artistic maturity through his lively representation of the multi-ethnic, multi-sexual, multilingual realities of today.
With “Joy,” director David O. Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle”) crafts his most mature film yet. It is a jumpy, mercurial, pro-feminist biopic starring Jennifer Lawrence as the passionate Joy Mangano (inventor of the Miracle Mop). With the support of her family and her father (Robert De Niro), she fights to convince the world her idea is worth a damn. She runs into many obstacles along the way — including a shrewd Bradley Cooper as an executive at the QVC network — but Russell’s assured hand keeps “Joy” moving at a manic, whipfast pace. It has the look and feel of a confident old classic, as Russell applies a screwball sense of direction and a light comedic touch — courtesy of his stock company of zany actors like JLaw, De Niro and Cooper — to create a bold work of subtle art.
The haters will hate, but we don’t have to listen. O. Russell is a true-blue humanist, one who is so overwhelmed with emotions and passions that he, like all of us, struggles in communicating those passions. His latest work only reaffirms his commitment to bringing “Joy” to the world, whatever the odds.
1. “In Jackson Heights”
The best film from this year is also the hardest to see. “In Jackson Heights,” a mammoth 3-hour documentary that’s an ode to a homogenized America, should be required viewing. Regardless of your race, color, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, Frederick Wiseman’s documentary investigating the world’s most diverse neighborhood — Jackson Heights in Queens, New York — pulls you into its moving mosaic of colorful locals. After an extremely limited release in New York and Los Angeles (where I managed to catch it; only eight people were in my theater), “In Jackson Heights” comes out on DVD and VOD in 2016, where I highly, highly encourage everyone to check it out.
Contact Carlos Valladares at cvall96 ‘at’ stanford.edu.