The First Great Movies of 2015


The Top 10 Movies of 2014 are history. We’re a month in, already! Where are the first great movies of 2015?

Off the top of my head, the three big films I’m most eager to see are: the continuation of George Miller’s “Mad Max” saga, with new leading man Tom Hardy (the trailer is crazy great); Bond 24, now officially known as Spectre, which has this 007 fan unabashedly geeking out over the fact we’re finally getting to see the Daniel Craig James Bond on skis and Christoph Waltz in what will hopefully be a gloriously theatrical performance as a (very familiar?) bad guy; and the new Werner Herzog film Queen of the Desert, which will see the celebrated filmmaker bring his inimitable brand of “ecstatic truth” to the story of English writer/diplomat/spy Gertrude Bell—who will be played by the ever-glorious Nicole Kidman.

The first 2015 film I’m determined to see in the theaters no matter what, though, will be Spike Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, which arrives on February 13. Like Herzog did when he touched base with his cinematic forebears by remaking F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, Lee’s latest will give us his contemporary take on the “blaxploitation” vampire film Ganja & Hess. Also like Herzog, Lee has a real challenge to meet in creating a remake that can both recall the greatness of the original and stand entirely on its own; Bill Gunn’s 1973 cult favorite is a true original, a hypnotic oddity. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is the film Lee (in?)famously funded through a Kickstarter campaign; it was filmed in a mere 16 days—that’s what you call Roger Corman scheduling!—and while early word is a little mixed on the results, I have high hopes.

If you twist my arm a little, I can get excited about the new Avengers and the new Star Wars, I guess. But all these movies are all a little bit down the road. What’s a movie fan to do in the meantime?

For the first three months or so in the year, movie theaters are still crowded with leftover fare from the year before, and the new films we do see appear there are usually those that studios deem unworthy of releasing during their “peak” summer season for blockbusters, or their fall/winter window for prestigious awards hopefuls. Not a completely hard-and-fast rule; it’s not always the kiss of death for a film to be released very early in the year, but it is typically not the ideal situation for a movie of true quality to first see the light of day in a movie theater in the first three or four months of the year.

So, every veteran moviegoer knows the drill: The first few months of any New Year are always best for catching up to those few “important” movies of the previous year that you missed, or simply haven’t reached “a theater near you” by the time the ball drops; indulging in a repeat viewing of a favorite movie already on your shelves; and figuring out which movie will be the first you’re going to add to your home video library in the new year.

I just did a little of all of the above, and here’s my report of my 2015 “firsts”:


2015: First Seen at the Theater

For my inaugural movie theater visit of 2015, I decided to take a little road trip to Washington, D.C.’s West End Cinema, a well-regarded indie arthouse that boasts a full bar (!) at the snack counter. (Not something I could take advantage of, as I would be driving back home to Pennsylvania the same night) I took in a horror-oriented double bill of films, both by female writer/directors, that received extremely positive word-of-mouth throughout last year: the Persian-language A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Ana Lily Amirpour’s “Iranian vampire western,” and The Babadook, Jennifer Kent’s moody thriller about a sinister storybook that comes to plague the relationship between a widowed mother and her emotionally troubled young son. A Girl Walks Home… is marvelous; imagine if Wim Wenders remade Dracula’s Daughter and you get a little hint of its unique flavor. At turns superbly creepy and darkly humorous, this highly original black-and-white film—shot in California but set in Iran—is anchored by terrific leading performances by Sheila Vand (the Girl of the title) and Arash Marandi (a trouble-prone young man who falls under the Girl’s spell).

I saw The Babadook with perhaps the wrong expectations; no less a reviewer than The Exorcist director William Friedkin called it the scariest film he had ever seen. How does a movie live up to that? For many viewers, perfectly fine, so I gather; I found a lot to “enjoy” here—though for me it was more disturbing than frightening in many spots, if you can appreciate that distinction—but I’d be lying if I said it was one of the more unnerving experiences I’ve had with a horror film. I find comparisons to Friedkin’s still-shocking classic or Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (both have been offered by fans) to be a bit much.

The road trip, however, was a blast; the theater is compact (I think the screening room for A Girl Walks Home… may have been the size of my living room) but the space has that satisfyingly hip vibe and the people running it took pride in their customer service. Like Arnie says, I’ll be back.


2015: First Repeat Viewing

Speaking of D.C.: I had already enjoyed some repeat viewings of the stellar HBO film Game Change towards the end of 2014, so when the political heat started getting turned up early this year with talk of potential candidates for the 2016 presidential race, my itch for a Beltway satire would need to be scratched by a different film. Quick, to the video shelves! The first DVD that caught my eye was Wag the Dog, director Barry Levinson’s black comedy about White House operatives who decide to take the sting out of an election-season sex scandal by manufacturing a phony war with Albania.

You’d think this movie might have dated significantly, having been so obviously designed as an acerbic commentary on the Clinton era; not so. Mocking the electorate’s knack for getting caught up in the cheese of chest-thumping patriotism? Starting a war on false pretenses? Still reasonably timely. Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman make a great team in the film, too; co-writers Hilary Henkin and David Mamet season their screenplay, based on the Larry Beinhart novel American Hero, with just the right mix of goofiness and cynicism about both Hollywood and politics.


2015: First Movie Added to the Home Library

I was about to indulge in upgrading my DVD of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to the Blu-ray version, but then I decided I should instead make my first 2015 addition to the home video library a title that was released this year. So I popped for the very welcome Blu-ray release of River’s Edge, the inspired-by-true-events story of how a group of high school friends reacts when one of their own brags about having killed his girlfriend—and then shows them the dead body.

I saw River’s Edge as a college freshman, and while I didn’t spend a lot of time in the company of the kinds of kids depicted in the movie, it sure felt authentic to me.

(It felt so authentic to me, in fact, that in one of my screenwriting classes, I became inspired to write my own variation on its bleak themes—or should I call it an “homage”…or should I call it a “ripoff”—and set it in a thinly-disguised suburban hellhole that was near my own hometown. When I handed in “Mary’s Bones,” I was a little shocked to have my instructor actually recognize the re-named town. Turns out he knew the area.)

Some critics have soured on this film somewhat, finding Crispin Glover’s wildly imaginative and unhinged performance to be, now, an example of “bad” acting; I disagree (and that’s not just because I’m partial to all things Crispin Glover). River’s Edge also boasts an early performance by Keanu Reeves that remains fresh and one of his very best; Ione Skye is still that gorgeous good/bad girl you really want to get together with; and the Lenny-and-George interplay between Daniel Roebuck (who’s the brutish and dull-witted, and yet the most philosophically inclined, killer) and Dennis Hopper (who plays the local pot dealer/recluse/blowup-doll fetishist/one-legged nutter on the lam) is still the stuff of demented pleasure. The film is grim, without a doubt, but it also contains its fair share of bizarre humor.

Today’s River’s Edge detractors also claim that the synthesizer musical score badly dates it; again, I take the contrary view. One of the movie’s central messages—which could be informally stated as Jesus, kids can be so f***ing stupid—is actually assisted by the film feeling like a time capsule. It’s the kind of thing that helps adults, especially those who were children of the ‘80s in this case, add some perspective to their lives. Every generation of adults believes the children of the next are the ones who are the idiots, drowning in immorality and a hair’s breadth away from embracing murderous nihilism.

The fact that River’s Edge comes to us like a vivid ghost from the past is a blessing; the whacko clothes, trendy exclamations like “Radical!”, and the courage displayed by some characters in rejecting indifference, hatred, and the impulse to resort to violence as a first solution—all of these elements of the film assist us in discerning the things we should be concerned about, just as it helps us dispense with the complaints we should regard as passing and trivial. We can look at the terrified kids of River’s Edge and think to ourselves, “we were them.” And we can look at our own children and think, “they are us.”

Or, like Dennis Hopper’s character Feck, we can just look at our severed leg in the middle of the road and think:

“I wonder if there’s any beer in that can.

What movie did you watch first in 2015? What classic film did you first revisit? What’s the first DVD or Blu-ray you added, or are planning to add, to your library in the New Year? Tell us!