Thursday, January 21, 2016

My Favorite Crime Flicks of 2015

Alleluia - Fabrice Du Welz - When a struggling single mother named Gloria (Lola Duenas) finds she's been scammed by a gigolo named Michel (Laurent Lucas) she hunts him down and, in the greatest new twist on a lonely hearts killer story, becomes so much more than his accomplice, she becomes his tormentor. Oh man, the slow realization on his face as he watches her inner psycho bloom and he realizes he's snagged a shark with his fishing pole is one of the most deliciously chilling moments on film in the last decade. This flick escalates from sad to suspenseful to scary as hell and ought to influence as many future horror as crime film makers. Best moment: Michel and Gloria dance around the fire.

Buzzard - Joel Potrykus - Joshua Burge plays Marty, a misanthropic temp worker at a bank, who skates by on as little effort as possible and whose only ambition in life seems to be ripping off the low-hanging fruit of societal systems and institutions. In the opening scene he takes advantage of a loophole in the bank's checking account promotion like he's in a Seinfeld episode or he's Adam Sandler in Punchdrunk Love filling his grocery cart with pudding, but he doesn't give a shit about how he's perceived by the incredulous teller who stresses how bad it looks that Marty works for the bank. Marty answers matter-of-factly "It doesn't matter... it's irrelevant." It's as close to a moral stance as Marty ever takes - actually, I take that back. There are a couple other times Marty is genuinely morally outraged: when he discovers that another con artist has ripped him off, and Marty fails to find any sense of shame on the part of his victimizer with his reasoned appeals and twice when he's caught in a criminal action and the marks refuse to let him off the hook - that's when we get glimpses of all the scary potential within him. But Marty's criminality expands to every area of his life. He owes nothing -certainly not decency, or consideration- to co-workers, family or even those who are trying to help him. Marty's serial-victim is his co-worker Derek (writer/director Potrykus) who is nicely juxtaposed to Marty. Derek's another lonely guy without any perceivable ambition who is content to coast through life simply doing his cushy job and living in his parent's basement, but he desperately wants a friend and finds nothing but contempt from Marty - who could have an anonymous easy life if he didn't hate everybody and everything so much that he's driven to rail so pathetically against it at every opportunity. The idea that Marty is lazy is unfounded - he works hard at pet projects - he's just not that bright. We get the feeling that if he survives long enough he may blossom into a very dangerous man. This film is funny as hell, but unnerving too as the extremities of Marty's commitment to anarchy and self-preservation run up against his absolute refusal or inability to imagine consequences for his actions or lack thereof. Office Space meets Taxi Driver? Clerks by way of Nightcrawler? It's a portrait of a uniquely American strain of sociopath (correct usage? I think so) and while on the surface may seem an outlier for discussion on a crime film blog, I think it's the best example of pure criminality on the list. Best moment: the Party-Zone sequence is as funny and sad as anything I saw last year.

Cop Car - Jon Watts - Two young boys running away from home stumble across an un-attended cop car in the middle of nowhere and take it for a joyride, only to later discover a bound and beaten man in the trunk. Meanwhile the Sheriff (Kevin Bacon) comes back to the from digging an unmarked grave to find his car and intended grave-deposit missing - sending him on a desperate search for his car and quarry, sans y'know car. That's it. That's all the story you get. Why are the kids running away? 'Cause they're ten years old and that's what they do (I did). Who's the guy in the trunk? Well, you're in luck 'cause he's Shea Whigam and that's always a good thing. Guess what else is in cop cars... guns! Lots of guns! Kids + guns + dude in trunk + homicidal cop X wide open spaces a minus time to spare = great fuckin movie. The whole cast is solid and the director's tone-management is amazing. Balancing the boys' innocent fun and their inevitable collision course with grim menace without losing the pleasures of either takes serious fucking chops. The whole thing ends just as badly and excitingly as you're hoping it has the guts to and hoping that it spares you at the same time and I'm down for Watts' next effort right now. Best moment: the final one.

The Mule - Tony Mahoney, Angus Sampson - A first time drug mule is stopped at customs in Melbourne returning from Thailand with twenty condoms full of dope in his guts. He refuses an x-ray and the authorities have the latitude to hold him without charges for seven days. Now he is under house arrest in a hotel room with 24/7 police chaperone and a shitload of will power not to take a crap. Unfortunately his criminal team mates (some of whom are also his football team mates who he was with in Bangkok for a game) are plotzing all over the place, not betting on their man inside or their man's insides - they're offing each other and making plans to off him to cover their asses should he evacuate his. But they should know better. He's the titular character after all, not only a body cavity smuggler, but also possessed of the stubbornness oft attributed to the equidae-family member beast of burden. Wikipedia says of the mule It has been claimed that mules are "more patient, sure-footed, hardy and long-lived than horses" which pretty much sums up Ray (co-writer/director Sampson). The film opens with Ray receiving an award from his team, sort of a MVP thing with the acknowledgement that he's far from the top of the roster - in fact he may not even make the cut next season - but he holds the record for showing up and digging in for the most consecutive games. In other words, kid's got heart. And so does the movie. For as much as the plot description sounds like it precedes a broad comedy, this is a drama with (ahem) guts and a captial-T Thriller with terrific turns from each cast member including Hugo Weaving, Leigh Whannell, Ewen Leslie and John Noble. It's o-fucking-fficial now, Australian crime flick exports are a better product than the domestic selection overall. Best moment: Ray's mother tries to do what's best for her son.

Son of a Gun - Julius Avery - A bright young kid in prison (Brenton Thwaites) is taken under the wing of a professional thief (Ewan McGregor) who protects him on the inside in exchange for the kid executing a plan to break his mentor out once his brief sentence is over. Once everybody's outside it becomes a heist flick and a double-cross-a-thon. Sure it's not new territory, but it is fertile, if not hallowed, ground and covered with competence, conviction and a minimum of bullshit. Hard edged and nasty, but not overly hardboiled or cartoonish, this picture has prison fights, shootouts and armed robbery, but has chops enough to make each fresh and intense - wait, lemme put it this way: this film has a genuinely thrilling car chase. I just said car chase and thrilling in the same sentence. In a non automobile-centric film that's damned impressive. It's because the action is integral to the story and a natural part of the characters' lives which we're invested in and not (only) because it's so well executed. Adding tremendously to the atmosphere are supporting turns from Matt Nable, Eddie Baroo, Sam Hutchin, Tom Budge, Jacek Koman and Damon Herriman in full Dewey Crowe drag, but feeling dangerously unbalanced rather than pathetic. The soundtrack, the photography and the unforced atmosphere that manages to simultaneously hold excitement and dread, cold-bloodedness and tenderness point to a sure hand's crafting. No idea if Avery's interest lies in crime specifically, but here's hoping. It's a kick ass debut. Best moment: Sterlo (Nable) gives the kid life advice.

Suburra - Stefano Sollima - Progress and big business, political heft and street muscle, religion and skullfuckduggery collide in the most intoxicatingly brutiful gangster movie I've enjoyed in a long time. For seriouses I think this one wins the decade for gangster flicks. Its pitch black corruption and pitiless violence staged within beautiful compositions give me a painfully rigid erection at the prospect of an original series springing from and continuing on with the same material. Netflix has its first masterpiece as far as I'm concerned. Best moment: the seventh day for Number 8.
Two Faces of January - Hossein Amini - Opportunistic American ex-pats in Greece cross paths, purposes, hot blood and cold cash in this adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name. Rejoice Highsmith fans, 'cause though I haven't read the source material, the film feels so very right, and by right, of course, I mean wrong. They brought out the venal, opportunistic and the striving of these characters. They brought the nasty and the desperation all around. And, more importantly, by doing all of that, they preserved the humanity of these characters. They are far more relatable and readily investable than your average Tom Ripley in film adaptations (save perhaps for Alain Delon in Purple Noon who brought us in very close) where most of the attention seems to be given to how skilled he is at getting things done. This trio (Colette, Chester and Rydal - Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen and Oscar Isaac respectively) have mostly already done what got them into their situations and what we get to focus on is the cost of their choices. The results are pretty thrilling. (Side bar: how amazing has Mortensen's post-Lord of the Rings career been? Dude is consistently one of the most intriguing performers and choosers of projects out there and, to my mind, deserves a lot more credit  for both aspects that keep him a vital presence. After decades of bit parts in big movies, he lands the lead in the biggest ones, then has the freedom to make bold choices in little films). Best moment: Rydal and Chester's double date night is terrific. The two recognize themselves in the other, but do not disengage for intriguing tension.

Two Step - Alex R. Johnson - A desperate con man just out of jail takes aim on the fortune of a previous mark recently left to her grandson. In a year full of promising near misses (Bad Turn Worse, Cut Bank), Two Step emerges the year's clear champion of small-time Americana noir thanks to its human warmth and cold blood. James and Dot (Skyy Moore and Beth Broderick), the spring/autumn newly minted neighbors mourning a loss provide the warmth while Jason Douglas brings the ice and James Landry Hebert's hapless, friendless, clueless Webb emerges as the true protagonist at the center of this film. Hebert delivers a performance that ought to launch him to movie star status. Jewel of a flick in the tradition of Blood Simple, Red Rock West and One False Move. Best moment: Webb and Amy (Ashley Spillers) come full circle.

Wolf - Jim Taihuttu - A first generation immigrant to Denmark fights for his place in the world through petty crime and kickboxing. But damn. It plays better than that. Just... trust me. It does. Love the black and white photography, the familiar/exotic urban setting, and the assurance that the character's struggles are universal. For Majid (Marwan Kenzari) the biggest obstacle to his own happiness and success is himself. He's stronger in character, smarter, more level headed and patient than his friend Adil (Chems Eddine Amar) who wants everything he believes comes easily to Majid, but Majid is a dumb fuck to most of the world - hotheaded, ignorant and brutish. The balance of perspectives is well handled and Majid's confusion in the world and horror at his own self-destructive actions are shared by the audience. Every opportunity looks very different from the base and the summit, as does every price and consequence. Kind of an anti-RockyBest moment: the armored truck heist is pretty great - ballsy, tense, sloppy, brutal.

Young Ones - Jake Paltrow - A community of hardy and resilient, if desperate, folks eke out a hardscrabble existence in a drought-plagued near future. Among them, Ernest (Michael Shannon) who runs a mobile mercantile with which he supplies the government workers who divert the water supply to more populated areas, Flem (Nicholas Hoult) an ambitious farmer with a vision to make the land fertile again and Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee) the son of Ernest, torn between his father's and Flem's ideas and ideals. The film's structure gives each character their own chapter in a more or less linear narrative that adds up to something resembling a novel more than a film, but holy crap, what a movie. Couldn't believe I'd not heard of this one at all before it popped up on Netflix, but I gave it a blind try and watched it in a single sitting - more and more rare, kids. Afterward I looked for reviews and was puzzled by the tepid to cool critical response I found online. Sounded like folks were disappointed that it didn't do more large-scale Hunger Games-style dystopia world-building - something the film clearly has no interest in doing. Did they see the same film I did? Maybe it's just the onslaught of YA-future-scape pictures souring their appetite for anything not set in the here and now, but I'd say this has far more in common with say John Steinbeck than Suzanne Collins. It's a small-scale, lived-in, neo-dustbowl sci-fi/western family saga full of great visual touches, wide-open spaces and dark implications. Do yourself a favor and get on this one pronto. Best moment: Ernest and Flem speak plainly.


Lauren said...

Love these lists, I never fail to add a few titles to my Netflix queue. Cop Car was totally rad, and it's not just because I'm half Australian that I'm in love with Aussie crime films. They are dong a bang-up job. Thanks for all this greatness!

jedidiah ayres said...

Aussies consistently produce compelling crime shit. The Mule & Son of a Gun were amazing... Mad Max too

Monson said...

Great, thanks, I didn't know about any of those

Barry Graham said...

Just watched Son of a Gun. Top notch.

Anonymous said...

Great to see Young Ones on your list (good to see it on any list). I really enjoyed the structure of the story which may be one of the reasons it got such a cool response from most folks. Often (for me) when Michael Shannon is not on screen in a movie I may remain but with less of a focus… in this one both Nicholas Hoult and Kodi Smit-McPhee kept me there in the story and the action. I have been very impressed with Smit-McPhee and his choices as an actor.

- david middleton

jedidiah ayres said...

Yeah, all three were strong. I never know how much credit to give young actors for their project choices, but I'll agree Smit=McPhee has a strong track record