Fuse Feature: The Zeitgeist in Film — 2015

Here’s one more wrap-up of the year in film.

By Tim Jackson

For me, four themes stood out in 2015: Traditional families are in flux; sexual identity is fluid; women’s rights are under siege, and musical genius has a shadowy side. All the films I mention below are available in various ways: in theaters or on Netflix, Amazon, Redbox, and HBO.

Struggling Moms

A scene from "Goodnight Mommy."

A scene from “Goodnight Mommy.”

The thrill of the Austrian film Goodnight Mommy was how it created a stillness that got under the skin like a primal nightmare. The mother of twin boys comes home, her face in covered in bandages from plastic surgery. Her strange behavior embodies the worst fears and nightmares of childhood; the film’s graceful beginning turns memorably grisly.

In M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit it is the grandparents who are acting weird. Mom leaves the kids for a week to go off with her boyfriend and it’s over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s (and grandfather’s) house the young ones go. Childhood is about navigating the unknown; this film has all the elements of a satisfying fairy tale.

The mother in the Room (Brie Larson) is raising her son in an underground bunker simply called Room, where the boy (a remarkable Jacob Tremblay) was fathered by the woman’s abductor. Irish director Lenny Abrahamson takes the disturbing premise of Emma Donoghue’s book and screenplay and comes up with a suspenseful drama about the power of a mother’s love in the face of incredible challenges, both psychological and sociological. The occasional moments of schmaltz are redeemed by the movie’s noteworthy performances.

In I Smiled Back, Sara Silverman plays Laney Brooks, a mother with a dependency on cocaine and alcohol who is steeped in self-loathing. The film is heavy on aberrant behavior and short on cause or reason, but this unabashed depiction of middle-class suburban addiction provides a useful moral lesson to a culture dedicated to self-interest and self-medication.

Women Fight Back

Stories about women’s rights made for some of the year’s best films.

Never has a divorce proceeding been as comical and absurd, obscene and frustrating, as the conflict in the Israeli film Gett: The Trial Of Viviane Amsalem, a riveting and wonderfully acted courtroom drama. According to Jewish religious law, a wife must obtain a “gett’ (full consent) from her husband in order to obtain a divorce. Vivian’s passive-aggressive husband exemplifies the absurd iniquity of this patriarchal set-up for the perpetuation of legal tangling.

French director Céline Sciamma follows up her award-winning film Tomboy with Girlhood, a look at black teens in the projects of a Paris suburb. The film is less about race than about the power of friendship and the universal dreams felt by girls who are coming of age in less than ideal circumstances. The movie features a remarkable cast of non-professional actors.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl, cleverly adapted from the graphic/prose novel of the same name, features British actress Beth Powley, who is utterly convincing as a highly sexed adolescent who indulges in some very questionable behaviors. The character is saved from the dark side by her gift for drawing and storytelling. Based on life of its author, Phoebe Gloeckner, this is what real female liberation looks like today.

Todd Haynes’ erotic and stylish melodrama Carol is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s ‘gay’ novel The Price of Salt. By examining social and personal conflicts of identity in the Eisenhower era, Haynes is clearly putting a critical lens on inequities regarding sexual orientation in America today. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are subtly brilliant.

A scene from "Mustang."

A scene from “Mustang.”

The French and Turkish production Mustang is the dark tale of five lovely sisters orphaned by their father and now being raised by their uncle. Because the women are seen playing with boys, their guardian decides he should cloister them away from erotic temptation and marry them off as soon as possible. This marvelous film, which revolves around what the director calls “the constant and hideous sexualization of women,” turns out to be liberating and hopeful.

Transgender Stories

Transgender stories and performances have come a long way since Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda in 1953.

Jeffrey Tambour as Maura Pfefferman in the Amazon series Transparent is, like the series itself, honest and heartfelt.

A scene from "Tangerine."

A scene from “Tangerine.”

Tangerine is colorful and tawdry; it features transgendered actors Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor as prostitutes in the underbelly of Los Angeles on Christmas Eve. Shot entirely with cell phones, the film is filled with garish colors that match its protagonist’s garish behavior. This is world about which many of us know very little.

In The Danish Girl, Eddie Redmayne gives a flawless performance based on a real life figure, Einar Wegener, a woman trapped in a man’s body. After overcoming formidable obstacles, he became the first recipient of sexual reassignment in 1931. Alicia Vickander is also excellent as Wegener’s artist wife. It is a sympathetic and romanticized depiction of the trials and tribulations of of Wegener, who later painted under the name Lili Elbe.

Troubled Musician Bios

We’ve had many music history documentaries recently (Muscles Shoals, The Wrecking Crew, Fifty Feet from Stardom, Sound City), but this year’s releases focused on a selection of troubled artists.

The revelations about the titular hero of What Happened, Miss Simone? are sad and unfortunate. This is a well-told story of one of the greatest vocalists of the century, Nina Simone, a fine pianist and committed activist who struggled with a deeply troubled marriage and the onset of mental illness.

Amy takes skillful advantage of the expansive amount of archival footage available on its subject, singer Amy Winehouse. There is a melancholic inevitability to her self-destruction, but the film clearly demonstrates — through Winehouse’s performances and evidence of her songwriting creativity — that this was an artist with uncanny gifts who could have, and may have been, one of our greatest jazz vocalists.

Kurt Cobain in a scene from "Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck."

Kurt Cobain in a scene from “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck.”

Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck veers into overkill when it comes to examining the controversial musician’s life and death: animated sequences, commentary, personal journals, artwork, home movies, interviews, and performance footage. The result is an explosive narrative that’s a bit long, but a must for anyone fascinated by the artist’s career.

The unconventional narrative film Love & Mercy does what few traditional biopics are able to do: get inside the mind of its subject, in this case Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Paul Dano and John Cusack portray Wilson at different ages. Wilson is also seen through the eyes and mind of Elizabeth Banks, who plays Wilson’s second wife, Melinda. She provides the audience with a powerfully illuminating window into the consciousness of the troubled composer. This isn’t a documentary, so the facts may be in question — but the film is ultimately unique and engaging.

Tim Jackson is an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art in the Digital Film and Video Department. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, many recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed a trio of documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater, and Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups. His third documentary, When Things Go Wrong, is about the Boston singer/songwriter Robin Lane, with whom he has worked for 30 years. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.

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