Any top-10 list worth the ink used to print it won’t bother trying to identify the “most important” or “highest quality” artworks of a given period. One reason for that is because most “important art” is terrible. Another reason is that to think in terms of “best” or “most” is to be downright clinical—and as our readers know, we don’t write this film section to help you fill your prescriptions. So when you read our “Top Films of 2015” feature next week, know that it only signifies one thing: the films listed are the ones that rented the largest amount of space in this writer’s head. Nothing more, nothing less: they’ll be the 10 movies that refused to move the fuck out.
That’s why, when you’re reading any worthwhile top-10 list, the one to look to first is entry #10. That’s the anomaly. The wild card. The sixth man who becomes a starter, because his inimitable energy adds whatever his fundamentals might lack. And we’ve been lucky: there’ve been a few sixth men on the bench of the American cinema this year.
So here—“for your consideration,” as the industry we’re surveying likes to say—are three movies that won’t be on our top-10 list next week. But what does it matter that we’re leaving them off? They’re going to outlive any best-of features you read between now and New Year’s. The commercial cinema is a factory, and these three look like nothing else that came off the production line this year.
directed by Michael Mann
Take an individual image from a Michael Mann movie—something at random, like a close-up of an actor talking—and it might resemble an image plucked from any other Hollywood thriller. It might also look like abstract art, if you get the right one. But movies aren’t just individual images. And Mann orders his shots, ordinary or otherwise, in the same way that a recently lapsed alcoholic orders his: with great passion. In another movie, it’s just a street-level composition that stares up at a skyscraper. But once Mann links it with two eyes looking up, it becomes something like an existential inquiry. Normally we just look. Mann’s movies make us work at that—he compels us to actually see.
His films do a lot of other things, too, and Blackhat checks off each of the auteur’s boxes. There’s a stone-jawed lone wolf (imprisoned hacker Hathaway, played by Chris Hemsworth) who’s set on an increasingly complex mission (he’s working with US and Chinese government officials to track another hacker) and meanwhile finds himself falling in love with someone who speaks a different language (Wei Tang, playing sister to one of the officials). The educated badass (Hathaway’s got philosophies, but they all dissolve into one-liners) eventually taps into his own inner villain, which allows him to figure out his enemy’s plan (gaming stock crashes and national disasters for profit). He even quotes another of the director’s movies (Manhunter) while he does it (“That’s what you’re doing, isn’t it, you son of a bitch?”). Mann’s got more recurring features than Esquire—his movies are like a men’s magazine with a philosophy degree.
That might sound like an insult. And when we hear some of those aforementioned one-liners, we mean it as one. But men’s magazines have something that most Hollywood movies don’t: a voice. Mann’s pictures—Heat, Collateral, and Thief among them—tell stories taken from pulp fiction. But his own voice is defined by sensual facts. In Blackhat, it might be a fire-tinged survey of shrapnel as it precedes a larger explosion. Or the sight of Wei Tang’s exposed shoulder sneaking away from the strap of her tank top. There are two sex scenes, and they’re shot with similarly impressionistic qualities: The first is between people, and the second is between a USB drive and its corresponding port. The combat shifts between the same two worlds; first they hack with laptops, then they do it with knives. Since he first began working with digital photography—and became more willing to compose unwieldy and disorienting photography—Mann has been playing around with the relationship between technology and tactility. Now he’s made it the subject of a whole movie.
BLACKHAT. NOW AVAILABLE ON DVD, BLU-RAY, AND VOD SERVICES.
directed by Noah Buschel
Bud “the Saint” Gordon sprints his way, left to right, straight through the first shot of this modern-day boxing noir. But that doesn’t mean he’s got anywhere to go. He threw too many fights to contend in his own right. Now the kid he’s been training is getting asked to make the same dives. And his “day job”—making collections for a local crime boss—is threatening to get him locked down in a more literal sense. There’s a boxing movie out, right now, that’ll make you feel happy and uplifted. This isn’t the one.
On that note: It’s s no accident that Gordon (Corey Stoll) and Sylvester Stallone’s famous fictional boxer share a profession outside the ring. (Rocky once broke legs for a loan shark). The original Rocky changed the whole subgenre of boxing movies: Before Sly went the distance, they were movies about getting beaten down, noirs and crime pictures about men facing their last punch. Rocky made it so boxing movies became about punching back. Creed gave the Rocky character a revival—and Glass Chin gives him a counterpoint.
Director Noah Buschel is about as well known as Gordon is. Which is to say, he’s not. But in five films, he’s carved out a voice as specific as the other two filmmakers we’re talking about here today. He knows how to use physical space to enliven a character’s inner life, and this time he watches as everything closes in on Gordon. Shots start out from afar, studying an entire location, before slowly zooming in on the aged pugilist. Those images get tighter as the movie goes, working their way toward a climactic close-up that lets you study each of Stoll’s facial crevices. By the time we see him get into a shower, it looks like a jail cell. He’s flying nowhere. And every composition knows it.
GLASS CHIN. NOW AVAILABLE ON DVD, NETFLIX, AND VOD SERVICES.
directed by Robert Zemeckis
Highwire artist Philippe Petit stands on top of the Statue of Liberty, stares into the screen, and starts talking. Some characters break the fourth wall, but he breaks the clouds. That’s appropriately hokey: The Walk doesn’t have “edge.” It’s barely got corners. But when Zemeckis makes you look down, your palms will be sweating too. It’s 1974, and Petit—previously profiled in the nonfiction feature Man on Wire—is walking a tightrope strung illegally between the two World Trade Center buildings. Sure, everything we’re watching, including the birds overhead, is digitally rendered. But it wasn’t real when George Melies’ rocket flew into the smiling face of the moon, either. And Zemeckis finds the same palpitation-inducing wonder that Melies’ silent-era magic tricks must’ve drawn. This movie was originally composed for 3D exhibition, and even without it, its defining feature is depth. If there’s an antagonist, it’s the sky—each shot gives it imposing scale. The Walk’s imagery has vanishing points that you stare into as though they were the void. You leave knowing that you’ve seen something no other movie has shown you. Not this year, anyway.
THE WALK. WILL BE AVAILABLE FOR RENTAL ON VOD SERVICES, INCLUDING AMAZON INSTANT, ON 12.22.