The 2015 Review, Part Two

Ask me what my favourite band, or song, or television show is, or book, or even movie, and I’ll struggle for an answer. The best I can do is come up with the ones that I like, or find interesting. So, when I thought back on the movies I’d seen this year, that’s what I settled on. Besides, who needs another top 10 list? Not me. And I promised I’d never do one anyway.

But it’s late, and I’m lazy. These aren’t necessarily the best movies of the year, all told, but they’re ones I’m still thinking about as 2015 ends.

Dope

The first ten minutes of Dope are a barrage of statements and ideas that, if nothing else, are relatively fresh. Opening in a teenager’s bedroom, it shows a flurry of retro imagery, with old Dr. Dre and Eazy-E posters alongside a Super Nintendo and an N.W.A. cassette case. The 90s are still dominating the frame when it cuts to the flattop-sporting Malcolm, our protagonist, getting out of bed. But he has an iPhone, and the first dialogue we hear is him enthusing about Bitcoins. Freeze-frame while the voiceover explains the obvious: Malcolm is a geek. A 90s-obsessed hipster who listens to a cassette Walkman and raids flea markets and record stores for vintage sneakers and hip-hop vinyl. He and his friends are bullied for this, obviously, and for being too white. Malcolm gets good grades and has his own band, and all he wants is to get through his final year of high school.

A particularly telling early scene between Malcolm and his guidance councillor lays out the stakes. Malcolm wants to get into Harvard, and his councillor calls him arrogant for his approach and essay. Malcolm name-drops Neil deGrasse Tyson, and declares that writing about a stereotypical upbringing as a poor black kid with a single mother is nothing but cliches. He wants to be different, to stand out and be recognized for his intelligence and creativity. Which is why he’s presented an essay titled “A Research Thesis to Discover Ice Cube’s Good Day.” This is the conflict for both the character and the movie as a whole. To represent a particular experience while also trying to be separate from it and unique. And, for what it’s worth, it walks that line well.

A few minutes later, Malcolm confronts that old staple, the corner drug dealer (played with casual malice by rapper A$ap Rocky) who wants a favour. A single favour, of course, that will drag Malcolm into a world of trouble. Yet, even this interaction, which has been done a million times before, has its own little surprises. Asked why he dresses the way he does, Malcolm explains that the 90s were the golden age of hip-hop, but the two albums he names as examples are immediately called out as not even being from that decade. Not everything is as cut and dry as its first presented.

What follows is a fun little coming-of-age crime comedy built on that framework of cliches. Underneath the slightly pandering facade of 90s aesthetics is a more contemporary heartbeat. Conversations about drone strikes and logical fallacies punctuate the action of a plot that updates a standard drug-flipping narrative with references to the dark web and Tor browsers. And maybe that whole 90s vibe is meant to show how little things have progressed at a basic level? Being neither American nor of African descent, I’m so far removed that I have no perspective or context to judge that.

But I can enjoy a fun and interesting movie, which Dope definitely is. It’s not perfect. Malcolm’s punk band, while catchy (and written by Pharrell Williams), has about as much to do with the genre as Avril Lavigne, and their syncing is all kinds of suspect. Not every cliche works, but it gets through on pure enthusiasm and energy when it has to. The soundtrack is great, and if Hollywood has provided an endless supply of high-school comedies about white kids from the suburbs, why not one from the other side of the tracks? Put it beside Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow, and hopefully there’s more to come.

Paddington

Dope came out of nowhere for me. I knew nothing about it till I saw it, and only saw it on a random recommendation. It was a pleasant surprise in a literal sense. Paddington, however, was a pleasant surprise for a different reason. And the reasons is that I, like most people, I’m sure, expected it to be yet another cynical and terrible cash-in on a classic property. I remember the Paddington Bear books from my childhood, and couldn’t imagine how they’d translate into a feature-length film. It could have gone so wrong in so many ways.

Happily, it didn’t.

A disaster forces a young bear from “darkest Peru” to flee his home and take up residence in London. As in the books, he gets his name from Paddington Station, where he first meets the Browns, a pleasant family that decides to adopt him. What follows is a fun fish-out-of-water tale, an easy allegory for immigration, and a whole lot of sly, sunny-day humour. And there’s not a cheap pop culture reference in sight.

Credit goes to Paul King, the director. There’s evident love of the source material, but also so much style and flair on the screen that there’s always something going on, and quite often it’s beautiful. The set-piece gags, based around Paddington’s clumsiness, are staged well, and all work. However, it’s the details made it for me. The colour-coordinated outfits and decor of the Brown’s nosy neighbour, played by Peter Capaldi, and his flat; the way the tree mural in the Brown’s stairwell grows and changes depending on the family’s moods; how the doll house in the attic opens up to show the entirety of the Brown’s house and everyone in it; the the live band that seems to follow them around the city.

The performances are all great as well. Hugh Bonnevile is perfect as Henry Brown, the uptight father. Sally Hawkins is charming as the bohemian mother, Mary Brown. Even the kids are good, and not overused. Nicole Kidman, who I normally do not care for, is delightful as the villain, while recognizable British comedy actors pop up all over the place in scene-stealing bit parts.

Paddington did well enough to merit a sequel, which I’m on board with as long as Paul King gets to direct the same cast. Spending more time in that specifically-designed storybook London is, after having experienced it once, something I would love to do again.

It Follows

It seems like every year there’s at least one new film that will right the horror genre’s course, whatever that means. I’m no aficionado, but I do like fun movies, and horror often delivers there. Which means I generally stick to the VHS-inspired slapstick gore of lower-budget movies that want the viewer to laugh at the kills more than they fear the killers. I try the more earnest efforts now and then, but almost always find disappointment. Like the recent darling You’re Next, which tried to turn the classic home invasion narrative on its head, and did, for a while, until the inevitable and obvious twists.

I didn’t know anything about It Follows before seeing it, except that everyone who had seen it thought it was amazing. Which is what they all said about You’re Next, so I expected to have the same lukewarm reaction. Continuing the theme from the last pair of movies, I was pleasantly surprised.

It Follows is, above everything else, a mood piece. Usually that doesn’t work for me. I tend to be literal, and have a low tolerance for the surreal outside of comedy. But here, it works. The glossy soundtrack and slow-motion late-summer trashy suburban visuals make it engaging before the creature has made its first appearance.

Which bears explaining. The premise of It Follows is simplicity itself. Jay, a young woman, goes on a date with a strange man named Hugh. After they have sex, he knocks Jay out, ties her to a chair, and explains the creature to her. It follows (naturally) the victim until it catches him or her and delivers a sudden and brutal death. It moves slowly, at a walking pace, but never stops. There’s a little more to it, and plenty of metaphor and allegory can be read into the creature and how it works, but I didn’t need any of that to have a good time.

What works about the movie is that it eschews classic jump scares. The creature, which takes on various human forms, is not slavering or angry, does not scream, grunt, or shout. It doesn’t chase and stab. It simply moves through the world, patiently, until it catches its target. Playing into the creature’s pace, the director, David Robert Mitchell, sets up lingering wide shots with plenty of space in the frame. Dread builds not as the music ratchets up and the victim enters a dark room, but as the viewer tracks the crowds at the periphery of a scene. By making every pedestrian a potential menace, the movie turns even simple dialogue scenes into tense exercises in paranoia.

It Follows isn’t perfect, and it won’t be for everyone, and I doubt it will be a bold new direction for horror. I’m reminded most of Let the Right One In, though their content and intentions are nothing alike. But that was another horror movie that didn’t try to leap out at me from a corner, or shock me with a surprising twist. It was what it was, confident that its style is part of its substance, and that scaring someone means more than forcing a reflexive reaction to a loud noise and sudden movement.

If you think It Follows is up your alley, do yourself a favour and go in as blind as possible. Maybe even skip the trailer.

Maybe now Twitter can stop emailing me about what I’ve watched.

What did you like this year?

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