At the very least, I can never be considered short on care as it relates to categorization. Creating lists, organizing likes and dislikes, and inventorying my tastes is tantamount to ripping open Christmas gifts for me. My tombstone might just say “Hey, at least he made careful lists”. That being said, I always feel the pull to be like the cool kids and create a list of my own favorite films for the year. In the spirit of my podcast cohorts, I give unto thee my best of 2015:
10) Mississippi Grind: Once again, A24 studios has provided us with an excellent character-focused film. Ben Mendelsohn stars as a lovable loser type, and Ryan Reynolds as the charismatic (big surprise there) card shark that crosses his path. These two wayward souls travel down the Mississippi River, encountering other colorful and damaged personas on their way to the typical ‘big game’ scenario. As cliche as it may sound, the film is far more introspective than that, and manages to be immensely fun. Writer/directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Sugar, Half Nelson) crafted this sneaky good gambling flick, and I enjoyed it so much that it knocked Creed off this list.
9) The Revenant: In the movie world, I believe there are a handful of ‘automatics’, or directors that automatically make excellent films. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is one such filmmaker; I’ve been impressed with everything I’ve seen, including 21 Grams, Babel, Birdman, and now The Revenant. To call this a “frontier revenge” story is simplifying how impressive the film truly is. For all the brutality, there exists no excessive gore; for all the muck, grime, and blood, there is true beauty; for all the action, there is a linear, clean filmmaking style. For all we know of Leonardo DiCaprio, he defies his image and becomes a tough, brooding character. Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has once again mastered how to shoot a film; this one, like his other works of art in Birdman, Gravity, and Children of Men, this is something to behold. The only thing keeping this from being higher on the list is the “watchability” factor- one endures the film, and appreciates it, but certainly breathes a sigh of relief upon its completion.
8) Sicario: As dark and foreboding as director Denis Villenueve’s (Enemy, Prisoners) latest film is, we never get the sense that it is boring. Sicario deals with a woman navigating a man’s world (Emily Blunt), and all of the hellish aspects therein. We’ve seen this type of story before, but the filmmaking, the score, the mood, is just perfect- to the point where Sicario stops being a drug cartel film and barrels through to feeling of pure horror. I couldn’t take my eyes off it, especially when Benicio Del Toro slowly and menacingly chews through his scenes.
7) Inside Out: Pixar’s 15th feature-length film ranks as one of it’s best, and if you haven’t seen it yet, I’m sure you will soon. Aside from how absolutely gorgeous the film is rendered, this story of what goes on inside a young girl’s head is both humorous and immensely touching. As they are wont to do, Pixar identifies the parts of both children and adults alike that we find precious, then personifies them in the most creative and unique ways. Even the voice work, led by Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith, is top notch. Most importantly, Inside Out shows us another talent that we didn’t know Pixar had- the ability to be simultaneously entertaining AND educational. This is a film that is already being used to help people understand how our mind works, how it stores things, and how our emotions are always in a delicate balance. What a magnificent, beautiful film this is- for everyone.
6) Brooklyn: Chances are, you didn’t have the opportunity to catch this at the theater near you. I strongly advise you to do so when it becomes available to rent or buy. Brooklyn is a rapturous film that captures a period of time for a young Irish immigrant (Saoirse Ronan) in, well, Brooklyn in the 1950s. Shes goes from a timid, socially awkward clerk to a woman torn between her birth and adopted homes, as well as between two possible lives to lead. It’s a love story, to be sure, and it carries the kind of real warmth, passion, and whimsy to place itself in the pantheon of the greatest in the genre. Think Shakespeare In Love, An Affair To Remember, or whatever you consider to be a great film that happens to have a love story in it. It’s also one of the more beautifully shot films you’ll ever see, with soft lighting and lush scenery that jumps off the screen.
5) Steve Jobs: With multiple film projects out there reflecting on the life and times of the late Mr. Jobs, it would be easy to dismiss this as another attempt to capitalize on his still famous and current name. However, the ingenious pairing of writer Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, The American President) and director Danny Boyle, combined with the strength of multiple standout performances makes this one of the year’s best. I knew nothing of Steve Jobs except his name, and this film gives us the chance to experience the entire length of his life through the framework of his greatest professional triumphs and flops. There is an energy to this film that most cannot match, and it’s required. Where there are brilliant subjects to be filmed, there must be brilliant filmmakers. I’ve always been a fan of Boyle, but his ‘freneticism’ coupled with Sorkin’s sharp ear for words make this the greatest achievement of his career. If it wasn’t so cold at times, I’d say this was the year’s most accomplished film. Even Seth Rogen is great (yes I said GREAT) in this film.
4) Straight Outta Compton: F. Gary Gray’s daring rags to riches biopic of N.W.A. is simply an electric film. There’s the music of N.W.A., sure, which incites emotion, whether you like the beats or not. There’s the story of friends growing up in a racially charged, violent environment, and how their subsequent influence on our culture is clearly undervalued. Then there are the business challenges that N.W.A. faces as they become more successful, up to and including the point where they disband and professional thug Suge Knight masquerades as a partner. Some argue that the editorial choice to omit certain shadier aspects of the real story clouds the film’s quality. I’d argue that as consumers of pop culture, we already knew most of the bad, and if we didn’t, find a computer. As it is, the run time exceeds two and a half hours of well-crafted and well-performed story. I always believed Gray had it in him to create something Oscar-worthy, and the brash energy of Straight Outta Compton is just that film. It’d be brave of the Academy to nominate this, and recognize the filmmaking and cultural significance of this story.
3) Comet: I’d be a fool to not recognize the emotional impact this film had on me. Recommended by a good friend, this little film that no one saw in the theater arrived on Netflix in 2015 to little fanfare. It wasn’t so much that my friend recommended it to me- it was the effusive nature in which he did. Then, our show’s resident professional sang its’ praises. I finally got to this in October, and since it wasn’t really released until this film year, I’m counting it. Justin Long and Emmy Rossum have such fantastic chemistry, and they are both so perfectly cast as individuals playing out their love story over time. The film dabbles in concepts of time and space, of fate and destiny, and comes off as something of a dream with the ethereal soundtrack and hazy camerawork, but it’s the genuine emotion of our leads that engages us. We want these people to be in love, or if nothing else, to experience something grand; Comet stirs your emotions, making you remember that it truly is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.
2) Ex Machina: To quote my review from April, this is “a film that that truly belongs in the upper echelon of the genre, which is no small feat for a rookie filmmaker”. The director in question is Alex Garland, a creative science fiction mind that manages to invoke the greatness of someone like Kubrick without ever directly copying his style. Now more than ever, I feel we are on the cusp of creating something similar to (if we haven’t already) the robot Ava (Alicia Vikander in an award-level performance), and the question of whether or not we should is right there as well. Ex Machina has all the trappings of a great science fiction film- style, sound, ideas, topical subjects, whilst being carried by an ominous tone and three amazing lead performances. This film stayed on top as my number one film until very recently, which gives you an idea of how strong it was.
1) Spotlight: I’m a sucker for films with journalists, or films about journalism. Spotlight succeeds on so many levels, be it the incredible performances by some of the top actors working today (Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton), the pace of the film, and the attention to the abhorrent subject matter. I’ve always believed in good journalism’s ability to shine a light on the darkest parts of our society, and in turn assist in their eradication. As it was pointed out to me, Spotlight‘s subject matter may be one of the last great examples of this very purpose I speak of. The Catholic priest sex scandal, specifically as it related to the Boston area over the past 30 to 4o years, was one of the more egregious abuses of power in this country’s history, and everyone involved had a stake in allowing it to happen. This film understands everything about this story, including the viewpoint of victims, and the responsibility felt by those in charge of reporting it, the vanguards of society. Not only is this an important film in the way it shows us how unchecked power can corrupt, it serves as a continued warning for our future. In my mind, this is the most important, the most deftly performed, and the best edited film of the year, once again showing how important journalism is, and how it should be.
**Honorable mention to: Creed, Room, Cinderella, The Hateful Eight, Love & Mercy, The Martian, Trainwreck.