Film Critic David Edelstein Says 2015 Offered An 'Embarrassment Of Riches'

Dec 24, 2015
Originally published on December 24, 2015 8:48 pm

Film critic David Edelstein had no shortage of material to consider when it came time to make his top 10 list this year. He shares his favorites with Fresh Air's Terry Gross:

1. Room
"The story of a woman held captive ... by a sexual psychopath and the child she raises remarkably well in that space."

2. The Big Short
"Adam McKay's rollicking adaptation of Michael Lewis' book about the 2008 collapse of the subprime mortgage market — talk about a mix of tones. ... I wasn't surprised at all that Adam McKay brought in Adam Davidson [from This American Life and NPR's Planet Money] as an adviser, because there was something wonderfully NPR-ish about the little explainer breaks in the film. ... By the end, I really felt that I knew what was going on. It was the most entertaining economics class that I could possibly imagine."

3. Inside Out
"In which Pete Docter uses all the colors on Pixar Studio's palette to deconstruct the psyche of an adolescent girl — and my psyche too, let me add — and a lot of other people's."

4. Listen to Me Marlon
"Assembled from hundreds of hours of audiotapes made by Marlon Brando ... it illuminates the genius of the greatest of all film actors and the art of acting itself. ... Brando fell open in the course of that film. You learned he was extraordinarily self-hating, he was his own worst critic. He could look at a movie like On the Waterfront and say that he didn't pull it off. ... You also learn that because of how he was raised — with a very cruel father and an absent mother — he put a premium on freedom that ultimately destroyed him. He rebelled against every form of authority there was. ... He was a victim of his own greatness in many ways."

5. Heart Of A Dog
"Laurie Anderson's lucid dream of a movie, which plays like a Rod Serling adaptation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead."

6. Spotlight
"Tom McCarthy's stunning portrait of The Boston Globe reporters who exposed a vast network of pedophile priests protected by the church."

7. Timbuktu
"The amazing Mauritanian movie about marauding jihadists who bring Sharia law to a multicultural [Malian] city on the edge of the Sahara. The movie is a mix of satire and melodrama and tragedy, and somehow it jells."

8. Experimenter
"This is Michael Almereyda's very playful biopic of social scientist Stanley Milgram, who devised that 1961 study in which volunteers were commanded to deliver an electrical charge to other volunteers and — heaven help us — [they] did."

9. Mustang
"This is sometimes a very funny, sometimes [a] tragic story of five very boisterous Turkish sisters whose uncle turns fundamentalist and starts marrying them off."

10. Chi-Raq
"Spike Lee's anti-gun epic, it's an adaptation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata. It's messy. It's tonally unbalanced, but it's terrific agitprop filmmaking."


Interview Highlights

On themes and patterns in 2015 movies

Even if you consider that there aren't enough women and nonwhites in positions of power in Hollywood, we have a very inclusive mainstream American cinema now. ... The new Rocky [character] is African-American. ... The biggest opening in film history [in Star Wars], the main action hero is played by a woman barely out of her teens named Daisy. ... Charlize Theron and a militant matriarchy overthrow crazed chauvinists in Mad Max: Fury Road, and women bring the patriarchy to their knees in Chi-Raq. Reporters take down bad fathers of the [Roman Catholic] Church in Spotlight. This is a very progressive kind of mainstream cinema we're looking at.

On his favorite performances

Brie Larson in Room, I don't know how to praise her enough. ... Saoirse Ronan is the most transparent young actress I have seen in many years. In Brooklyn she is able to play an absolutely irreducible character — she's naive, but she's worldly. She's frightened, but she's bold. She's a mass of contradictions and all you know is that she's alive in front of your eyes. She takes a movie that is actually a very small movie and makes it epic.

On Joy, directed by David O. Russell

I love David O. Russell. I think of him as cinema's great poet of disequilibrium, meaning in movies like The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook you just have these masses of neurotic people going at each other like crazy, a very de-centered frame. It's funny — David O. Russell is known for having something of a horrific temper, and for causing a lot of chaos on sets, but he's also one of these guys who is an ostentatious meditator. He will stop everything to meditate and center himself.

So he's this funny combination of a Buddha with a hair trigger, and that is in his movies. You see these characters who are in these horrible, chaotic situations, trying to find the signal amid the noise, trying to find that little place of stillness where they can renew their spirits, and [Joy] is about that.

Copyright 2015 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our film critic, David Edelstein, has made his best-of-the-year list, which we're going to talk about. And even though the new "Star Wars" film is not on his list, you can't talk about the year in film without acknowledging the "Star Wars" phenomenon. The film has already broken several box office records.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: This phenomenon really renewed my respect for what George Lucas did, which was find a way of melding those old-time space fantasies with a little bit of science and a lot of sword and saucery (ph) and some spirituality, a sensei, an oedipal father-son conflict, special effects. And here's what's really important - the score by John Williams. Again and again, you feel the Pavlovian effect of music - the "James Bond" theme, the "Rocky" fanfare, "Star Wars" - how many of us went into the theater craving to hear that. And the movie - I don't know, it's a triumph of fan culture. What Lucas tried to do in his much-loathed "Star Wars" prequels was madly ambitious. It was like he was trying to redo "Lawrence Of Arabia" to show the fall of a Democratic Republic and the corruption of a passionate hero. But the fans wanted a beat-by-beat remake of the original, and that's what Disney and that's what the brilliantly unoriginal J.J. Abrams have given them. And it is beating all records, and it will continue to beat all records and people love it.

GROSS: David, how old were you when the original "Star Wars" came out, and...

EDELSTEIN: I was too old.

GROSS: ...How did you react to it then?

EDELSTEIN: I was too old. I was too old. I loved the fact at the beginning a ship went over my head - couldn't believe that I'd never heard anything like that in a theater before. But I was not really a sci-fi geek. I was a horror geek. I loved the fact that Peter Cushing, who played Dr. Frankenstein and Van Helsing in all the Hammer horror movies with Christopher Lee, was in the movie. So I was way out of the mainstream for that one. But I wore out the John Williams soundtrack. And I don't think you can underestimate the importance of that score in the history of film music, and in particular the history of this film. Here's the scary thing though - studios have talked about franchises and they've talked about tent poles, which are franchises that hold up the studio. And now they're talking about universes that span multiple movies with multiple spinoffs and TV shows and books and merchandise and games. You have the Marvel universe, the DC universe. Now you're going to get the "Star Wars" universe. And I swear Disney has said it wants a new "Star Wars" film every year for as long as people will buy tickets, and that's really scary to me. That really...

GROSS: What do you find terrifying about that?

EDELSTEIN: Well, because it takes so much of a studio's resources to put - studios don't want to make a $20 million movie anymore in the hopes of making 60 million or 70 million. They want to make a $200 million movie with the hopes of making a billion. So with all the studio resources monopolized by these universes and tent poles and franchises, the gap between the indie cinema and the studio cinema has grown so vast. And I'm somebody who really loves studio movies. I love mainstream Hollywood movies. I really feel sad that the movies that get me most excited these days do not come from the studios because in my ideal world they would. The only way a director like David O. Russell gets the resources he does is because he works with Jennifer Lawrence. And that's the only way now that a director will get resources to make a so-called grown-up movie. And even then it's just a fraction of the resources.

GROSS: So one more little detour before we get to your 10-best list. Do you think this was a good year for movies?

EDELSTEIN: You know, I went back and I counted all the favorable reviews I did on this program, and it was something like 39 out of 45. Now, of course, I pick films that I tend to like because they're more interesting. But any year where there were that many things to see and to love is a good year. It's like - a colleague of mine once said this is a year where there are 50 number-two movies, but I can't think of a number-one movie that we can all agree on. It wasn't the year where a single masterpiece dominated our imagination and had us talking and had us debating in the way that in some years past there has been.

GROSS: OK, let's hear your top 10, and we anxiously await. You want to start with number 10 and dramatically work your way up to number one?

EDELSTEIN: Well, my number-10 movie came in right at the last minute and slipped in. It's "Chi-Raq." It's Spike Lee's anti-gun epic. It's an adaptation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata. It's messy, it's tonally unbalanced, but it's terrific agitprop filmmaking. Number nine is a Turkish film called "Mustang." And this is a sometimes very funny, sometimes horrendously-tragic story of five very boisterous Turkish sisters whose uncle turns fundamentalist and starts marrying them off. Number eight - "Experimenter" - this is Michael Almereyda's very playful biopic of social scientist Stanley Milgram who devised that 1961 study in which volunteers were commanded to deliver an electrical charge to other volunteers and, heaven help us, did. Number seven - "Timbuktu," the amazing Mauritanian movie about marauding jihadists who bring Sharia law to a multicultural Mali city on the edge of the Sahara - the movie is a mix of satire and melodrama and tragedy, and somehow it gels. Number six is "Spotlight," Tom McCarthy's stunning portrait of The Boston Globe reporters who exposed a vast network of pedophile priests protected by the Church. Number five - "Heart Of A Dog," Laurie Anderson's lucid dream of a movie which plays like a Rod Serling adaptation of "The Tibetan Book Of The Dead." Number four is a documentary not a lot of people know called "Listen To Me Marlon" by Stevan Riley. Assembled from hundreds of hours of audio tapes made by Marlon Brando, it illuminates the genius of the greatest of all film actors and the art of acting itself. Number three is "Inside Out," in which Pete Docter uses all the colors on Pixar studio's palette to deconstruct the psyche of an adolescent girl. Number two - "The Big Short," which is Adam McKay's rollicking adaptation of Michael Lewis' book about the 2008 collapse of the subprime mortgage market - talk about a mix of tones. Finally, my number-one film is "Room," which is the story of a woman held captive from her teens by a sexual psychopath, and the child she raises remarkably well in that space.

GROSS: The documentary about Marlon Brando that includes reading from his journal is on your 10-best list. Tell us something interesting you learned about Brando from seeing this film.

EDELSTEIN: Brando fell open in the course of that film. You learned he was extraordinarily self-hating. He was his own worst critic. He could look at a movie like "On The Waterfront" and say that he didn't pull it off. He could make you look at it in a light - you'd look at those classic scenes - yeah, maybe it is a little stagey. He thought that was one of his lesser achievements, that he didn't do it. But you also learned that because of how he was raised - with a very cruel father and an absent mother - he put a premium on freedom that ultimately destroyed him. He rebelled against every form of authority there was. He was a victim of his own greatness in many ways.

GROSS: So when you look at the movies that came out this year, do you see any themes or patterns holding them together?

EDELSTEIN: Even if you consider that there aren't enough women and nonwhites in positions of power in Hollywood, we have a very inclusive mainstream American cinema now - accommodation, assimilation. The new Rocky is African-American, but the old Rocky is his mentor. Rocky moves into the vacuum where the kid's father isn't. And race isn't an issue in the movie because on screen, for whatever reason, politics, business, both gender and racial barriers are toppling so fast. The biggest opening in film history, the main action hero is played by a woman barely out of her teens named Daisy. And George Lucas' "Star Wars" universe was very male. He was very adolescent when he it came to - ew, girls. And the other protagonist in the movie is black. Jennifer Lawrence is maybe the next biggest action hero, bringing down a Roman fascist bread-and-circus patriarchal, underclass-repressing - a lead in "The Hunger Games. And this Christmas in "Joy," she's also an inventor, triumphing overthrow oppressive patriarchs, including her own dad, played by Robert De Niro. And women bring the patriarchy to their knees in "Chi-Raq." Reporters take down bad fathers of the church in "Spotlight." This is a very progressive kind of mainstream cinema we're looking at.

GROSS: I'm with our film critic, David Edelstein. We'll talk more about the year in movies after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my conversation with our film critic David Edelstein about the year in movies.

So what were some of your favorite performances this year?

EDELSTEIN: Well, Brie Larson in "Room" - I don't know how to praise her enough. You've seen her before. Every time you see here, it's as if you're seeing her for the first time. Saoirse Ronan is the most transparent young actress I have seen in many years. In "Brooklyn," she is able to play an absolutely irreducible character. She's naive but she's worldly. She's frightened but she's bold. She's - she's a mass of contradictions and all you know is that she's alive in front of your eyes. And she takes a movie that is actually a very small movie and makes it epic. There's a film called "Z For Zechariah" that almost no one saw. It's a little post-apocalyptic chamber drama. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a performance the likes of which I have not seen this year. A very - he plays a survivor who comes and lives in a farmhouse with a young woman. There's a lot of sexual tension needless to say. This is the sort of performance that will be nominated for no awards because nobody saw the movie. It's not even that good a movie. But you're looking at a major performance by a major actor. Jennifer Jason Leigh in "The Hateful Eight" and doing the vocals for the new Charlie Kaufman co-directed film - animated film - "Anomalisa," Jennifer Jason Leigh is back. She was down-and-out for a little while. But she gives the most hilariously awful performance in "The Hateful Eight" as a woman who is psychotic and vicious and keeps getting whomped in the face, and she uses her battered, bloodied face as a kind of a badge of honor. And she brings so much soul to "Anomalisa." It's so wonderful to see her back. "Spotlight" has this amazing ensemble cast. It's really hard to pick out a lead, but Michael Keaton, somehow or other, on his kind of jittery, edgy shoulders holds the movie together. And there's a performance by John Slattery that is very under-sung and under-appreciated. It's so low-key. It's hard sometimes to appreciate the momentous things that are happening under the surface. Also, Billy Crudup as a lawyer in the film is absolutely hilarious. Sylvester Stallone in "Creed." Look, the guy milks it, but I think he's earned it at this point. It's a funny thing when you see him now in his old age. When "Rocky" came out, directed by John Avildsen, Avildsen kept the camera pretty far back, so Rocky was this kind of shambling little guy in this larger city. He was a little guy buffeted by forces of nature. And he built himself up, and he went in the ring. But then when Stallone became a big star and took control of the camera, he brought it in close and down low so that he loomed large in the frames with his big muscles that he became camp. And now that he's gotten older, directors are taking the camera back again, and he's this lovable little man - chaplain-esque figure almost in the landscape. And we love him. We see what it was that we loved about him in the beginning before his ridiculous ego took over. It's been a year of so many wonderful movies. I could talk about Charlotte Rampling in the film "45 Years." I could talk about Cynthia Nixon in the film "James White." It's - as usual it's an embarrassment of riches and awards. It kind of breaks my heart every year when performers are called losers who give performances of a lifetime but just don't happen to get the right number of votes on their ballots.

GROSS: With the holiday weekends coming up, do you have any movies that will have opened nationally, not just in New York and LA, that you'd recommend people see over holidays if they have more time for movie-going?

EDELSTEIN: Well, apart from the ones on my 10-best list, I can very guardedly recommend "Joy," which is David O. Russell's latest collaboration with Jennifer Lawrence. I love David O. Russell. I think of him as cinema's great poet of disequilibrium, meaning in movies like "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook," you just have these masses of neurotic people going at each other like crazy - a very sort of de-centered frame. It's funny, David O. Russell is known for having something of a horrific temper and for causing a lot of chaos on sets, but he's also one of these guys who is an ostentatious meditator. He will stop everything to meditate and center himself. So he's this funny combination of a - he's sort of a Buddha with a hair trigger. And that is in his movies. You see these characters who are in these horrible, chaotic situations trying to find the signal amid the noise, trying to find that little place of stillness where they can renew their spirits. And this movie is about that. It's about a young woman. She's an inventor. She invents this kind of mop, and she takes it to QVC. And its the very beginning of its trajectory. And she tries to sell this mop. And she comes up against the most sort of oppressive forces of capitalism in the patriarchy, including her own absolutely crazy dad. And the movie is really fun for about three-quarters of it. But David O. Russell is building a pedestal to his leading lady, to Jennifer Lawrence's shining strength. And once that pedestal is built, it's inspiring but it's nowhere near as much fun. It's an example of how an artist is much better when he's insane than when he's sane. I think that when David O. Russell finds his equilibrium on screen the movie becomes far less interesting than when in some way he has lost control of the material or at least he is covering people who have lost control. When his characters grow up, when they become centered, when they become heroes, conventional heroes, it's a much duller movie. But I still recommend it because I really love Jennifer Lawrence. I think she's a real movie star. And she's a perfect leading lady for David O. Russell.

GROSS: David, thank you so much. And I wish you happy holidays and a happy and healthy 2016.

EDELSTEIN: Well, thank you, Terry. Same to you.

GROSS: David Edelstein is FRESH AIR's film critic and film critic for New York Magazine. If you're looking for things to listen to over the holiday weekend, we've got some good movie-related interviews from this week you can hear on our podcast - interviews with Jennifer Lawrence, who is starring in the latest "Hunger Games" film and in the new film "Joy," Adam McKay, who wrote and directed the new film "The Big Short," and Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, who directed the new animated film "Anomalisa." Tomorrow, on the Christmas edition of our show, we'll feature our interview with Nick Lowe. He brought his guitar to the studio and performed some obscure and some original Christmas songs from his album "Quality Street." I hope you'll join us, and all of us at FRESH AIR wish you a very merry Christmas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.