It’s been a great year. I say that without much considering the year in film, though it brought us plenty of magic over its course. I say that mostly with my daughter in mind. Anna was born in November. Steve and I already took care of mapping out the first few steps on her inevitable cinematic journey, though my true hope is that she charts her own course as quickly as possible.
My job is merely to impart a love of film (and, more broadly, the arts). The particulars are up to her. They say becoming a parent changes everything. I’m not sure about all that, but it is certainly perspective-altering. So it is with that mild caveat in mind that I put this forward: this past year at the movies, more than any I can remember, took great strides to connect us to our past, and it did so in a way that made us feel good.
Put a bit less delicately, it was defined by blockbuster sequels and reboots that didn’t suck. There’s a very cynical lens through which to view the surprising and overwhelming success of Mad Max: Fury Road, Jurassic World, Creed and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but you won’t find me looking through it.
And maybe that’s just me being a little bit more optimistic now that I have another person to share the world of film with. Maybe this is an unusual blip for the biggest parts of the movie machine. Maybe nothing has been done to address the laziness and unoriginality that has plagued the industry in this era where everything that’s got even a little bit of mass appeal is franchised and merchandised and tentpoled.
I don’t know.
What I do know is that a movie education doesn’t begin at the theater anymore. It happens on Blu-Ray and over a good Wi-Fi connection now. In that sense, what 2015 gave us is a handful of films that both connect us to our past and nudge us toward the future. Mad Max and Rocky and Star Wars (!) have new life and energy, a relevance to the present day that was fashioned in the present day. It’s more than a cinephile could have really hoped for last January.
Welcome to the show, Anna.
And on to the list for the rest of you, with a quick note of thanks for indulging me over the last few paragraphs. There are no changes to the criteria I revamped last year (while we’re at it, here are the 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011 lists).
I didn’t get to the theater as much toward the end of the year (guess why!) so my apologies to those films I missed, most especially Brooklyn, Carol, and Spotlight. I’ve heard good things.
As usual, there are also a number of movies I would have liked to have found a spot for, but just couldn’t. Timbuktu, Girlhood, Cinderella, Inside Out, It Follows, Last Days in Vietnam, The End of the Tour, Listen to Me Marlon, The Hateful Eight, Everest, Love & Mercy, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Steve Jobs just missed the cut. But I considered all of them carefully, and you probably should too.
There were so many ways this film could have failed -- a director outside of his comfort zone (Adam McKay), the potentially awkward weight of an ensemble cast that includes Christian Bale, Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling, the complex subject matter, the risky artistic choices (most especially habitually breaking the fourth wall). Turns out this was the perfect mix -- McKay taking the right risks and bringing the right mixture of anger and absurdist humor. If you’ve been waiting for the definitive movie on the financial crisis of the 2000s, wait no more.
Confession time: when I first heard there was going to be another Rocky movie, I immediately cast it off. Chalk it up to general cynicism about remakes, reboots and spinoffs and a specific disenchantment with this particular franchise, which has been on steady decline since the original. Even more stubbornly, I didn’t give it much of a chance even when I found out it would pair Michael B. Jordan and director Ryan Coogler together again. Well, I was dead wrong. Creed was the most exhilarating in-theater experience of 2015, a year filled with plenty of competition. It did what almost all other reboots/remakes/spinoffs fail to do, which is to push a beloved franchise in to a new era while paying appropriate respect to the past. Another confession: I think this might be the best Rocky movie, full stop. It’s certainly going to be first off of my shelf when my daughter shows a shred of interest in this Rocky Balboa fella her dad keeps referencing.
The brilliance of Ex Machina is in the profound impact of its twist ending. Managing to pull off a shock at the end of film without tipping much of your audience off first is hard enough on its own. First-time director Alex Garland does just that, and he also manages to turn your impression of each of the story’s three main characters on its head, dramatically altering what you think of each of them. The three stars of the film -- Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander -- feel like they’ve been in just about everything this year. All you really needed to see in 2015 to appreciate their work was this film.
Courageous filmmaking alone isn’t enough to make a best-of-the-year list, but it’s a good place to start, and I can’t think of a more ballsy film than The Look of Silence. Director Joshua Oppenheimer made us stare, right in the eyes, at the semi-forgotten genocide of Indonesia in the mid-1960s in The Act of Killing. In his follow-up to that film, he attempted to make a few of the perpetrators of those mass killings stare at it too. Oppenheimer seems to be the master of the unique angle. Neither of these documentaries are dry history lessons; instead they put a face to a part of the story, and that’s where the courage comes in. The willingness of Abdi, Oppenheimer’s subject in The Look of Silence, to confront the men who murdered his brother is staggering -- a chilling lesson in just how fragile collective memory is.
Sometime around November, I began to think George Miller’s excellent fourth entry in the Mad Max series had become just a little bit overrated. The near-universal praise for it initially was being followed with a run of critics’ awards and an almost unanimous spot on every top 10 list to be found. Surely it couldn’t be this good, could it? Well, yes it could. It is. I went back and watched Fury Road for a third time last week, and I found the same dizzying action sequences. I also discovered for the first time a plot and characters that I hadn’t fully appreciated -- a quiet sweetness (yes, sweetness!) to the band of misfits fleeing from Immortan Joe. This is an all-time great action film, first and foremost, but that is not its sole quality.
They used to make a lot of movies like The Martian. I swear. Here is a witty, ambitious blockbuster. It is funny. It is tense. It is a visual spectacle -- the kind that transports you to a place that you really couldn’t imagine without the magic of filmmaking. And here is me, clinging to a film like this because it was made with grand scale and without an ounce of consideration for merchandising or franchising. It might sound like I’m appreciating The Martian more for what it represents than for what it actually is. Maybe. But this was an awfully good film from a director (Ridley Scott) who has made the “original” blockbuster a hallmark of his career.
I’m stubbornly sticking to my guns here. The narrative surrounding cutesy coming-of-age tale Me and Earl and the Dying Girl went from Sundance darling to #OscarsSoWhite precursor over the first half of 2015. Perhaps I should check my privilege, but I’m not sure I’ll ever understand the vitriol generated by this film in certain corners. It seems to me that all of the seemingly valid criticism of the film -- that its main character Greg is a self-obsessed, selfish protagonist who does not deserve his reward at the end -- is actually the point of the whole thing. Do people remember their teenage years? For many of us in the safe, anonymous, unsatisfying middle, they were exactly like Greg’s. Growing up is, in large part, realizing you aren’t actually at the center of the universe -- that there are all these other people in the world who live as textured a life as you. Me and Earl nails this arc of self-discovery wonderfully.
Phoenix is so good that it had me name-dropping two all-time great films -- Vertigo and City Lights -- after I saw it. (Somewhere out in the ether is a recording of Steve and I discussing the greatness of this film.) Set in Berlin in the immediate aftermath of World War II, director Christian Petzold tells the story of a disfigured Holocaust survivor, played by Nina Hoss, returning to a husband that believes she is dead even when she is right in front of him. As it turns out, there is some suspicion that it was her husband who sold her out to the S.S., and her husband, still unaware that it is actually her, attempts to use this reasonable visual approximation of his spouse to collect insurance money. This is a chilling, eerie tale, both for the uncomfortable distance put between two lovers who are (at least on one side) unwittingly reunited and for the rubble-strewn visuals of the German capital. Oh, and there’s that unforgettable end, that’s a big part of it too.
Forget about Leonardo DiCaprio. Forget about that now-famous bear (well, at least for the purposes of this paragraph). Forget even about the Oscar chances of this film. Focus instead on the eye candy -- the breathtaking Canadian Rockies and the breathless action sequences that make the danger of the American frontier in the 1820s a reality. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu might have certain flaws, but his gift for the visual part of filmmaking is just about unparalleled. That particular undeniable skill of his matches perfectly with a relatively simple revenge tale that, regardless of whether it wins Best Picture next month, is a great step forward from his Oscar-winning film Birdman.
For all the grimness of its circumstances -- a mother and a son kept in captivity for years, the mother as a sexual slave -- this is a bittersweet film about, of all things, growing up and the bravery it takes simply to go out and experience new things in the world. Director Lenny Abrahamson is unflinching in his presentation of the harrowing parts of mother and son’s captivity, yes, but also of their freedom. I’d like to think the birth of my first child was not the only reason this film was so resonant with me, but I also can’t ignore it. You might expect Room to be fraught with tension -- and it is at certain moments -- but what it’s really filled with is lessons about growing up, about adulthood and parenthood. It is elemental and wonderful.