Welcome, everyone, to the only top 10 list you'll need for 2015. What's that, you say? It's the end of January and we've already moved onto 2016? Well, shut up. You're being difficult and we don't need that kind of negative energy here. You're about to embark on an overview of the finest films of the last calendar year, one I enjoy writing and I think you'll enjoy reading.
Quick note: I haven't seen The Big Short or Bridge of Spies, so in an alternate universe they'd maybe make the list. But for now, this is as definitive as it gets.
Another gem from the thoroughly uncompromising mind of Charlie Kaufman. After listening to his episode of WTF with Marc Maron, you almost can’t believe that voice belongs to the man who created such a wide array of bendy, entrancing movies. He sounded almost afraid to let his mind dip into these new places, at least at first, knowing that it can be a fruitless, uphill endeavor to produce such unconventional screenplays. But thankfully, we live in a world where he’s able to get things made; where his puppets can fuck, unfettered, before our very eyes.
He also noted that his movies are the kind you really have to see twice to totally grasp, which is the kind of statement I’d usually respond to with a silent lewd gesture (Inherent Vice, I’m looking in your direction). But when it comes to something like Anomalisa, with a dozen quick quips that I missed the first time around and so much emotion and thought packed into every meticulously planned animated gesture, it practically demands a second viewing.
From my review:
It’s almost impossible to review this movie without picking it apart, piece by piece. In a way, it’s like going to a therapist: the value is in addressing the elements out loud (or on paper) and rearranging them to fit. Which, in a way, mirrors Anomalisa‘s meticulous stop-motion animation. Every step the characters take down a hallway is slow and precise; every movement is captured. Critics have called it “the most human movie of the year” because Kaufman and Johnson depict moments you couldn’t capture with real actors. You couldn’t hold on two people having sex like they do and make every second mean so much; it’s an incredible achievement.
The sweetest, and maybe the simplest, movie of the year. There are no bells and whistles here; director John Crowley and writer Nick Hornby don’t employ melodrama or toy with your emotions. It’s an honest story of young people in love where the characters grow and change and make decisions in line with where they are at that moment in their lives. And, surprise surprise, it produces something magical.
It’s a shame that Emory Cohen hasn’t received much awards praise (although Detroit, New York, and San Diego all named him a “breakthrough performer”) because his Tony subverts the “young Italian kid” stereotype so well. His tenderness isn’t a ruse; he doesn’t have four other girlfriends. He genuinely loves Saoirse Ronan’s Eilis, and she him, which makes her emotional trials and tribulations later on that much more powerful. It’s a brilliant bit of character development, one more storytellers should emulate.
I’ve heard several people say they still haven’t forgiven Ronan for ruining James McAvoy’s and Keira Knightley’s love in Atonement; I think anyone who sees Brooklyn will have no trouble absolving her of those sins.
From my review:
Crowley keeps the film sliding along with the barest but surest touch. The passage of time is recorded not in days or weeks but by events; no one offers up the season or the year for context. We know we’re moving forward because Eilis is growing visibly comfortable in her surroundings and interactions. Again, not the most novel concept, but it’s depressing to think how many other directors don’t use their chosen medium in this way.
I can’t say whether Carol’s award season snubs are a shot at “queer cinema” or the traditional preference towards more accessible dramas (which may be one and the same) but there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s a truly engaging and maybe even groundbreaking work of art.
What sticks with me the most, weeks after seeing it, is the ambiguity of the ending. As has been noted all over, it avoids the “two characters driven apart but forever pine for each other” elements of many same-sex love stories; there’s a clear path for their togetherness. But is that a good thing? We don’t know, and we can’t, which is why Carol stands out. Love can be fleeting and uncertain, for straight people and for gay people, and it’s unexpectedly refreshing for a movie to give two women the same treatment a man and a woman would receive.
It’s also another great example of using striking visuals and the power of the cinema to show, not tell, which 2016’s bushel of fine films was surprisingly good at it. Or, at least, all the ones I liked were.
From my review:
[Todd] Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy tell their story of love without ponderously reiterating the sexual orientations of its protagonists. Instead, it’s there in the hoops they must jump through to be together, in the anger Carol’s husband feels at being tossed away for a woman, in the utter desperation Carol’s and Therese’s eyes share from a life deprived. And their eyes speak volumes; Blanchett and Mara, brilliant actresses the both of them, communicate more through gazes and facial expressions than they do with words.
It won't take home many awards (besides maybe a nice gold statuette for Sly Stallone) but a big part of me thinks Creed will end up being the most beloved movie of the year. Ryan Coogler, the 29-year-old wizard behind Fruitvale Station and now this reinvigoration of the Rocky franchise, paid homage to his elders and also opened up a whole new franchise for his corporate overlords, which is every studio executive’s wet dream in this year of lord 2016.
It's been said over and over, most recently by David Sims of The Atlantic, but you knew Stallone was bringing something special to the table when he nailed a silent version of the "old man and the cloud" joke. And not nearly enough has been made of Michael B. Jordan's work here; he captures every scene he's in, which is literally every scene, and his physicality is only topped by his charm.
From my review:
More than anything, this is a movie for now. From explaining what jawn means to having Adonis pose for “IG” with Bianca’s headliner at a show, it’s one of the few screenplays with modern references that its actors look comfortable reciting. But to take that even further, it’s a movie about being black in America. It’s a movie about the actual working class, a title that Italians and the Irish mostly gave up long ago but Hollywood has clung to in an effort to make a boatload of ‘safe’ white-centric movies.
It’s weird to say it, but I truly feel this could be a turning point for mainstream American cinema. Where were you when a black director and two black leads took over a series and made it their own? And people of all sorts loved it?
THE LOOK OF SILENCE
In The Act of Killing, director Joshua Oppenheimer gives the perpetrators of an Indonesian mass murder a stage on which to indict themselves further. In The Look of Silence, its companion piece, he finds an even more tragic angle by focusing on a man whose brother was killed.
The man is an optometrist named Adi, and the eye exam he gives while interviewing each mass murder lends itself to the film’s striking poster. With colorful devices strapped to their faces, it makes them look like supervillains; their actions are even more effective in that regard, but it’s a definitive visual. They may not be the most evil men in history, or even living, but they’re on the short list.
Watching Adi’s father crawl on the floor, blind and deaf but still clinging to life, is one of the most uncomfortable moments ever captured on film. But it’s necessary, as are both of Oppenheimer’s films on this subject, because sometimes punches shouldn’t be pulled. It’s just as uncomfortable to think about how easy it is to ignore genocides that take place halfway across the world, the murdering of thousands and the continued rule of those murderers. I can’t imagine summoning the courage to make this kind of documentary, let alone appear in it and challenge the power of those willing to kill, but The Look of Silence deserves every bit of praise it receives.
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
The big, giant movie that could. It might be the only $150 million blockbuster that’s also considered an “underdog,” but there was certainly a risk in shoveling money at a Mel Gibson-led franchise from the 1980s and it’s paid off in spades. A movie with a character named the Doof Warrior who rocks out on a fire-spewing guitar just got nominated for Best Picture, people.
George Miller, the visionary behind Mad Max: Fury Road, is a genius. If you couldn't tell after his work on Babe then it's apparent in the first 30 minutes here, when Max is used as an involuntary blood donor and then Charlize Theron’s Furiosa escapes with someone named Immortan Joe’s wives and then there’s a massive truck battle that ends with a sand storm. Even if you’ve never seen another Mad Max movie (and I haven’t), there’s no threat of being left behind. The insanity is all-encompassing.
And it holds up upon a second viewing, and even a third. You won’t be as surprised by the craziness, the men swinging on poles and the sharp objects being smashed into faces, but you’ll appreciate the technical handiwork even more. Basically, this isn’t a fun movie that we all got overly excited about and then realized it’s only fine after the fact (picture an alternate universe where Fast Five got 10 nominations). This one will stand the test of time.
This one falls apart without the eerie relationship between Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. I still have no idea how you explain to a 10-year-old kid that a) you’re an actor, b) this is a movie, c) this is your fake mom, and d) you live in a small metal box and hide in a wardrobe at night while a man comes in and does things to her. But he nailed it, and Brie was marvelous, and I’m frankly surprised that Room isn’t cleaning up at awards shows.
It also contains one of the most touching cinematic moments of 2015: when Tremblay’s Jack is free from the room and living with his grandmother, only he and Larson’s Joy are having significant trouble adjusting. He wanders out into the living area one night to bump into his step-grandfather, who comes with none of the baggage of the actual family and finally cracks the boy’s tough exterior.
It also opens the door for all the reconciling and togetherness that slowly emerges afterwards. Sometimes there’s too much history, too much stuff, keeping family members from saying what they need to say and being honest with each other. For something this debilitating, only an outsider can make that difference. And again, in line with the year’s high points, director Lenny Abrahamson doesn’t force that realization. He just lets it be.
The best scenes of 2015 include the two boxing matches in the aforementioned Creed, anything you want to pick out of a hat in Mad Max: Fury Road, and the convoy scene in Sicario. Oh, and the night vision scene in Sicario. More or less, everything cinematographer Roger Deakins and director Denis Villeneuve touch here turns to gold.
No one is really sure why Benicio del Toro didn’t get a Best Supporting Actor nomination, but I’m tickled pink that the score and the photography were recognized. I could see John Williams snagging yet another lifetime achievement award with a Best Score win for The Force Awakens, but it would be a sting of sadness in my heart if composer Jóhann Jóhannsson doesn’t take home gold for a second straight year. It was that good.
Sicario isn’t perfect, but its finer elements are overwhelmingly striking. This is another one, along with Creed and Mad Max, that’ll find itself in never-ending replays on whatever passes for basic cable in two or three years. And we’ll all be happier for it.
From my review:
It’s the latest, and greatest, in a series of popular entertainments (starting with The Wire) that represent the War on Drugs as a soul-crushing, never-ending affair. Everyone has their part to play—from the dealers trying to survive in a floundering city to the cops who make their living destroying the head only to see three more grow back—and countless participants with varying degrees of involvement end up crushed by its perpetual machinations.
In that way, Sicario made me think of The Matrix, only this hopeless endeavor doesn’t exist behind the scenes as computer code. Its players are largely self-aware, its temptations are far too addicting to ever be defeated, and its violence somehow continues to find new peaks.
For starters, nobody can say “Spawt-light” quite like Michael Keaton. He should’ve gotten another Academy Award nomination for that titular recitation alone.
But furthermore, as a fan of Thomas McCarthy since The Station Agent (and with the desire to put The Cobbler out of everyone’s minds as soon as possible) I couldn’t more proud (odd word choice, but go with me) of the work he did here. I went to Boston University from 2004 to 2008 and lived there for three more years after school; I also studied journalism and was raised Catholic. So Spotlight hit home in numerous ways for me, and the manner in which he and his cast told such a soul-crushing story fit like a glove.
There’s a reason that Spotlight is currently Bovada’s odds-on favorite to win Best Picture, despite The Revenant being poised to clean up in so many other major categories. It’s the spiritual successor to All the President’s Men but without the fame and glory; there was no pride in exposing the Catholic Church and its priests’ sexual abuses, only the desire to uncover wrongs and shine a light on what others want to cover up. That’s just good journalism, and the way it was depicted is fantastic moviemaking.
From my review:
The ensemble cast, led by Keaton as team leader “Robby” Robinson and Mark Ruffalo as boisterous reporter Mike Rezendes, fits into their roles like a glove. Stanley Tucci even gets his best role in years, as an Armenian lawyer who’s challenging the Church in his own way. There’s not a weak link among them; Liev Schreiber, in particular, is a standout as new Globe editor Marty Baron. His understated approach is perfect, embodying the quiet wisdom of an outsider who’s fully aware of his propensity for stepping on toes.
Some may know me as an abashed Aaron Sorkin hater, but He's usually at his best when poking holes in egocentric blowhards (The Social Network, A Few Good Men) and Steve Jobs is so exception. An outrageously talented cast (Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg) is perfect for what they're asked to do, which is pontificate endlessly on the brilliance of one man.
My only critique was of director Danny Boyle's occasional visual flourish (the projection against the wall of a rocket taking off as Jobs is speaking of space, for example), which seemed like an forced reminder that he was doing more than just pointing a camera at some actors and filming what happens. But that, nor the oddly forced reveal of Jobs's father, didn't take away from a wholly entertaining and, if not honest, then illuminating portrayal of a genius his friends and family all seemed to hate but the world ultimately reveres.
It may be the most nominated film of 2015, and a welcome use of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s talents, but The Revenant still couldn’t sneak onto my list. And despite Oscar Isaac’s dancing and the emergence of Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina couldn’t either. Scratch what I said earlier; the enthralling Phoenix had the best scene of 2015. Results was a fantastic romantic comedy with thought behind it, a wonderful dip into an unexpected genre from Andrew Bujalski. Inside Out was another home run from Pixar (surprise surprise) and finally, Best of Enemies basically explains the genesis of talking heads (not the band) with a modern history lesson that I found fascinating.