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We are a bit past the halfway point, and the lists of what are so far the best movies of 2015 are already popping up. Here’s a good one by a friend on WordPress: Humanizing the Vacuum (and inspiration behind this post). If you prefer something more popular, take a look at these lists by the critics of Variety, though I would disagree that some films are worthy (White God and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl stand as some of this year’s worst films, in my view).

As for my list, for now, below are the top 10 contenders for this best films of 2015. There’s a hint to my preferences in their order, but it could change by Dec. 31. Note: many link to reviews on Independent Ethos, so click through the titles for deeper thoughts on these titles:

Some facts about these films:  Three of them premiered in my neighborhood at Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival (Flowers, Theeb and Voice Over), and one premiered at the Miami Jewish Film Festival (Gett). A couple came out a year earlier but didn’t hit theaters in Miami until this year (Inherent Vice and Mr. Turner).

I never found the time to write reviews for two of these. Let me just say Girlhood is an amazing French film following a group of girls from the projects of Paris who have more in common with American girls that you would imagine. There’s a very universal need to physically connect, and it’s depicted with incredible grace in the film by French director Céline Sciamma.

Mr. Turner deserved more recognition at the end of last year. Watching it, you will not have to second guess why it was nominated for a cinematography Oscar. It should have won over Birdman. It’s less about flash yet incredibly transporting. It also deserves notice for its lead performance by Timothy Spall. You might as well throw in production design, and heck, even editing. I literally yelled “Oh my God!” and broke out laughing between cuts of Turner spitting on a painting and a close-up of a mountain. If you never experienced it on the big screen, woe unto thee. The second best thing you can do is purchase it on blu-ray (buy it here and you’ll be supporting the Independent Ethos).

To see some contenders that are trailing behind these films, check out my list on Letterboxd (that’s a hot link). If you don’t already follow me there, you should. There’s where you will get my most intimidate reactions to films I catch — in almost real time.

Do you have a list of favorite films of 2015? Let us know in the comment section.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Me and Earl posterSince its buzzy debut back in January at Sundance, I am sure the issue has come up a billion times: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has an issue with tokenism. During a preview earlier this month it was hard to keep my mind off how isolated the lead character is from his peers, and it translates in the movie in an egocentric manner that becomes hard to shake off for far too much of the movie. By the time the payoff arrives, the cost feels too high, and you just want to be rid of this titular “Me” character.

Thomas Mann gives Greg an awkward charm for a guy who does not wish to stand out at his high school. He is ironically gregarious, trying to make friends with everyone, from goths to jocks, as to blend into the background. Yet, the only person he considers a friend, but refers to as his “co-worker,” is Earl (RJ Cyler), an African-American kid from a destitute neighborhood he has known since childhood. They make home movies together that are naïve-art adaptations of classic movies (their version of The Third Man is entitled “The Turd Man”). But this collaborative relationship and shared affection for the film canon and their smart aleck reinterpretations never seems to fulfill him. It is only after he gets to know terminally ill Rachel (Olivia Cooke) that he finds a true friendship and a genuine urge to create something original at the casual behest of Earl. That he has to learn this from a “dying girl” offers a grim premise that could have said a lot about the disconnection of earthy, grounded-in-reality relationships had the film presented us with solidly developed characters in scenes that don’t feel trite and falter to their manipulative, sentimental designs.

No one is allowed to stand out beyond Greg, and it’s hard to find him likable because the character only seems driven by exterior forces. His mother (Connie Britton) is the one who pushes Greg to spend time with Rachel after she is diagnosed with Leukemia. After he shows up at Rachel’s house, he is invited in by her ridiculously depressed, wine-swilling mother (Molly Shannon). Rachel sees through the farce of Greg’s appearance. Still, after a cynical chat in her bedroom about her prognosis and the abundance of pillows in her room and Greg’s reference to masturbation, Rachel is charmed. The viewer gets an easy way in to Greg because Rachel, a cancer-stricken cipher, who shows little autonomy, is reduced to a person trapped in her bedroom filled with craft projects of her design to characterize her.

Earl suffers his own reduction. He is Greg’s sidekick who either offers callous statements (his catch phrase seems to be “Did you feel dem titties?”) or profound statements that shake Greg image-abd1674e-0988-4c0f-9fc6-0215f92bbc39out of his somnambulant egotism. Earl has an older brother (Bobb’e J. Thompson) who figures into the film in flashbacks to the younger days of the two friends. He’s a mere bully who sits on the porch to his family’s ramshackle house and sicks his pit bull on Greg whenever he comes by. There’s not much more to say about Earl, as the only benefit of his presence is as a kind of conscience for Greg, when he needs it. Otherwise, they have a miniscule almost ambivalent relationship.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, brings his talents from television (“Glee” and “American Horror Story”) to infuse the film, adapted for the screen by Jesse Andrews who wrote the original novel, with a saccharine preciousness that grows tiresome quick. Gomez-Rejon overwhelms the drama with wearisome references to Criterion Collection DVDs, making for a convenient litmus for Greg and Earl’s taste for cinema and — God forgive him — about 20 pieces of music from Brian Eno’s catalog of early masterworks, even including obscure collaborations with Krautrock greats Cluster. It’s great music, but beyond a few seconds of atmospheric extra-diegetic melodies for transitions between scenes, the music never has space in the film to meld with the drama and settle in as thematic. Peter Jackson did it much better a few years ago in The Lovely Bones (Brian Eno and The Lovely Bones), a film for which Eno also composed or reshaped his music. The only exception is the use of “The Big Ship” during the film’s climax, a piece that also accompanied a similarly dramatic moment in The Lovely Bones, so even the decision to allow that piece to breath in Me and Earl feels like it loses some credibility. 

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Criterion product placement and the abuse of Eno’s music can hardly save this film from its problematic story. Referencing so much great art does not transfer over to Gomez-Rejon’s film. Early on, the film is weighed down by the tropes of high school malaise, and when Greg finally comes to his revelation that he has lost a friend, the film hits every trite note that turns loss of a loved one into sentimentality to weary effect. Depending on what triggers the tears for you, the filmmakers try to bring it up. Sure, there were people sobbing all around me in living surround sound, but all I saw was manipulation of heartstring plucking.

Beyond its precious tone that minimizes death to a sentiment, obscuring an egocentric story about a kid who (maybe) learns empathy at the cost of losing a friend to death, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has that bigger issue: tokenism. A chance for Greg, a white kid, to learn about his best friend and recognize him beyond “co-worker” is never developed. They pair up as outcasts who never connect. Even worse, Rachel is presented as a darling young person about to die throughout the film, as if that’s the only thing that characterizes her as a human being. For all its sincerity, the movie is ultimately a disappointing appropriation of cool without genuine heart that plays the audience in a rather condescending way. A lot people will love it, but it’s only because it’s pushing easy buttons that make us human. Still, there’s nothing really human about this movie, which feels like was produced by an algorithm instead of someone with heart.

Hans Morgenstern

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl runs 105 minutes and is rated PG-13 (references to sex, drugs with some salty language). It opens in limited release at several multiplexes in our Miami area (visit this page for dates screening locations near you in other cities). For indie supporters, it opens at O Cinema Miami Beach on July 1. All images in this review are courtesy of Fox Searchlight who also invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)