Monday, January 11, 2016

The Best Films of 2015

This year I found myself bristling with disappointment at the movie theater. With the ever-escalating number of productions being made, this might be attributable to cinematic burnout--though I prefer to chalk it up to refined taste. In general, I just found this year's crop of movies to be thuddingly blah (sorry to repeat an old trope, but the best TV was way more engaging). Even more irritating is the fact that, uncomfortably often and for whatever reason (ignorance as prime), the critical mass covered up for the industry's downfalls by goofily overpraising a great many titles while outright ignoring so many outstanding, less hyped ones. I was confounded by the adoration that many felt for year-end Oscar bait (Room is a particularly drab dislike of mine; I'm much less mystified toward the love for the accomplished yet problematic Spotlight, The Big Short, and Brooklyn, while the critical march behind the dynamic but narratively threadbare Mad Max: Fury Road leaves me wondering whether any film writers had ever seen the original George Miller movies on big or small screens). Anyway, it's an off-year, but I'm not a complete sad-sack: as with all years, I could at least find 25 (really, 27) pictures to be passionate about, and many more to simply recommend. Here are my choices for the best in 2015 cinema:

1) Inside Out (US, Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen)
Visually lush and, frankly, raucously funny, this was the 2015 film that really made me FEEL more than any movie out there. Brilliantly performed by its cast (I particularly loved Phyllis Smith as Sadness and Richard Kind as the fading imaginary friend Bing-Bong), the movie is conceived with such lithe, detailed care that it transformed the way I think about my own thoughts (and I suspect it did the same for many a filmgoer). It might be a difficult movie for some Pixar fans to love, as it's essentially about gloom (many parents were likely challenged to explain its details to their kids) but I think that's its prime attribute; we don't get many movies about that subject (and certainly none directed at children, who are always smarter than we think). As a person that suffers from depression (a daily struggle), Inside Out honestly helped me gain insight into my past, present, and future; that it made me laugh, cry, marvel and cheer was a generous bonus. How I adore it! 

2) 45 Years (UK, Andrew Haigh)
Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay deliver the performances of a storied lifetime in this dazzling dissection of a marriage's secret history. Impressive in its economy, it speeds by, its laconic pace never feeling rushed as every coming moment finds a fresh reveal in the weathered faces of our leads. It's so haunting, it almost feels like a ghost story, and it has the single most stunning closing shot of any 2015 movie--one that, when coupled with a final song and dance, reduces me to shivering tears.

3) Wild Tales (Argentina, Damien Szifron)
Revenge has never been more hilariously, devastatingly fun. Six stories of backstabbing goodness, impeccably directed by newcomer-of-the-year Szifron. I solemnly swear: you won't forget this movie once you see it--it really gets your heart racing in a heaping variety of fashions! The single best anthology movie ever (with each story hitting at 100% maximum impact), it's also the film I'd recommend everyone drop what they're doing immediately and watch. It's that freakin' good.

4) Creed (US, Ryan Coogler)
It revives the joy and character-driven competition of the still underrated Rocky--a huge surprise! And what a cast! Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson and especially Sylvester Stallone are all so wonderful in it that it's easy to forgive its adherence to a basic formula, though when a formula is concocted this well, it reminds you why they exist in the first place: when justly mixed, they work magic on audiences. Terrific editing, scoring, sound, and Maryse Alberti photography (my gosh, that one-shot fight sequence is a miracle)! Just an impeccable Hollywood production on all fronts, spearheaded by Coogler, a writer/director who obviously cared deeply about his charge.

5) Amy (UK/US, Asif Kapadia)
The documentary of the year, and one that implicates all of us who once reduced this supreme artist down to a late-night punchline. Inventively constructed largely from Winehouse's personal video recordings (quite a dashing choice there), it's not a movie I expected to have move me to tears, but it did (it was the scene with Amy and Tony Bennett that really gut-punched me). Most importantly, it's led me to fully appreciate the impeccable artistry of its subject--and, make no mistake, she was an outright genius.

6) Anomalisa (US, Charles Kaufman and Duke Johnson)
A film about loneliness, and the ability we all have to alleviate it, in ourselves and in others (though it's also about the inescapability of it all for some). Superbly crafted, with intense performances by David Thewlis and Tom Noonan (whose flat delivery of nearly all the character's voices--male, female, child, adult--is somehow perfect). Especially remarkable is Jennifer Jason Leigh, who vibrantly enlivens the title character with hurt, shyness, and joy. It's one of the year's top performances and, in the realm of animated voice turns, perhaps the best of all time. Her a capella delivery of Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" was just otherworldly.

7) The Revenant (US, Alejandro G. Inarritu)
Totally exciting and epic--a strapping western stripped down to basic elements, like all good westerns should be. The film makes you feel, down to your toes, the Herculean effort that went into making it, and I love that, even if others find that aspect of it annoying (why are some downgrading this movie for that?). In this tale of survival, Leonardo Di Caprio pushes himself to the absolute limit, and is nearly matched in disheveled ferocity by Tom Hardy (who had a heckuva year, and deserves to be talked about more as one of this film's most valuable players). And we should give major credit to Emmanuel Lubezki whose photography is so athletic, so absolutely gorgeous, that its gonna be hard to deny him his third Oscar in a row. How can this team top this?

8) Chi-Raq (US, Spike Lee)
Lee's most unremittingly vital movie in years--poetic, raucous, sexy and dangerous. An extremely funny and creative work, with an astounding cast (led by a revelatory Teyonnah Davis) and almost literally musical dialogue largely done in rhymes as a tribute to its source material, Aristophenes'  Lysistrata. With all that's going on in it, it adroitly maintains its focus on the avalanche of gun violence on US streets, managing to be more insightful than even the most understanding documentary could be. As a bonus, it pops with a sense of nearly-off-the-tracks wildness not seen since the early days of Robert Altman and Mike Nichols! Enlivened with exemplary songs and a Terence Blanchard score.

  9) The End of the Tour (US, James Ponsoldt)
A moving, layered work about male relationships, the processing of fame by the unfamous, and the acceptance of fame by those who kinda don't want it. Jesse Eisenberg is slyly duplicitous as the Rolling Stone reporter visiting newly-minted genius David Foster Wallace for an in-depth interview. As Wallace, Jason Segel delivers 2015's most eye-opening performance, filled with pain, smarts and exuberance (how in the hell is he not being talked about more in this awards season?). The modern equivalent to My Dinner with Andre, another movie in love with words and ideas.  

10) The Tribe (Ukraine, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky)
Slaboshpitsky's tour through the criminal underbelly roiling beneath the halls of a school for the deaf is maybe the chanciest film of the year. Filmed completely without words (or subtitles), it manages to say everything while saying nothing, meanwhile ratcheting up our attention to the sound of its surroundings and its ferocious characters. Masterfully directed in widescreen with a constantly roaming camera, I can easily say I've never seen anything like it. 

11) Sicario (US, Denis Villeneuve)
Thrilling and constructed with complete assurance, with its strangely passive protagonist imparting a sense of impotence toward the hopeless drug war. Supreme contributions, too, from photographer Roger Deakins and composer Johann Johannsson. And, of course, Benicio Del Toro's extraordinary hero/villain sends us to unimaginable extremes.

12) (TIE) Bridge of Spies (US, Steven Spielberg)
The sign of a master who still knows how to spin a great yarn. Spielberg is assisted by the efficiently surprising screenplay by Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers, and with his usual coterie of collaborators (chief among them cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn, as well as lead Tom Hanks), you can totally feel the director settling in to do some fine work. Mark Rylance's immense though controlled supporting performance is a major asset!


Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Israel, Shlomi Elkabetz and Ronit Elkabetz)
This terrific courtroom drama from the Israeli filmmakers who brought us The Band's Visit a few years ago stars co-director Ronit Elkabetz as a wife desperate to convince her cold-fish husband to grant her a divorce. Faced with a dour rabbinical court who refuses to consider a woman's point of view, all manner of leeway is given to the uncooperative husband, to the point where this trial goes on for a radically long time (you will seriously shake with rage over the injustice of it all, and be astonished at the accompanying absurdity). Stark in its almost black-and white look, and claustrophobic in its confinement to the courtroom only, Gett features some of the best acting of 2015--a really intense ensemble at work here, led by a devastating Elkabetz, whose pleading, tired eyes piece your soul. 

13) A Despadida (Farewell)  (Brazil, Marcelo Galveo)
A sad and ultimately rousing goodbye, and hello, to life. Nelson Xavier's heartrending turn as The Admiral, an old man venturing out from his family-imposed sickbed to experience one final day of independence, is one of the marvels of the year. I hope more people get clued into this masterwork of Brazilian cinema, which is a lot more life-affirming than it might initially sound. 

14) Dope (US, Rick Famuyiwa) 
Wow, what a marvel this one was. Shameik Moore is terrific as a geeky L.A. kid trying to get ahead in a tough world that has no time for his college ambitions. Famuyiwa's intelligent yet always entertaining writing ensures us we're in capable hands as he steers us one way and then another through a seriously unpredictable turn of events. Tony Revelori and especially Kiersey Clemons are equally effective as Moore's best friends. I still wonder why more people aren't talking about this exciting, expertly-built film!

15) Krisha (US, Trey Edward Shults)
A truly original work, coming from a utterly personal space. If John Cassavetes were still alive, he would've loved this. Krisha Fairchild (playing herself, like everyone is in the film) is commanding as the drunken, unreliable black sheep of the family coming home for her first Thanksgiving meal in a while. In fact, this might be the most accurate Thanksgiving movie ever made, complete with an eventful dinner (wait and see what happens to the turkey) and even more eventfully wringing emotions. Lovingly shot and edited, this is a must-see for anyone who adores absolutely independent indies.

16) Two Step (US, Alex R. Johnson)
This taut Texas noir, quiet and gritty, sported one of the year's finest scripts (by director Johnson) and also a supremely capable ensemble cast led by the menacing yet somehow sympathetic James Landry Hebert and, in a biting supporting performance, the imposing Jason Douglas. Fun but also totally calamitous--we can feel the agony in its every move. And what a grasp it has on its Texas surroundings--a film that completely earns its comparisons to the Coens' Blood Simple, though it does so resolutely on its own terms.

17) The Gift (US, Joel Edgarton)
Among 2015's most underrated movies is this writing/directorial debut by actor Joel Edgarton, here deftly walking the line between intimidation and anguish as the put-upon boyhood target of bullying yuppie jerk Jason Bateman, with Rebecca Hill as Bateman's on-edge wife; all three performances are phenomenal. A baldly involving work that shrewdly subverts its genre and our expectations of it. 

18) God Bless The Child (US, Robert Machoian and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck)
Visually stunning in its simplicity, this day-in-the-life of an older sister trying to keep her younger brothers in line while their mother is away is the year's most little-seen gem, and the film on this list that really needs a bigger audience--one that's ready for something completely new and challenging.

19) Straight Outta Compton (US, F. Gary Gray)
Arguably the most effective musical bio-pic ever devoted to a band rather than a single personality. The terrific screenplay really does something unique with the genre (especially in its first two-thirds), and the superb cast, led by Jason Mitchell as Easy-E and O'Shea Jackson playing his father Ice Cube, is equally impressive. Gray's direction is right on point, assisted by sharp editing and Matthew Libatique's evocative photography. You don't need to be a rap fan to love this one; in fact, it'll be an education to the positive if you aren't. 

20) Mad Max: Fury Road (Australia, George Miller)
While it's rather anemic on the screenplay front, there's no denying that this massive fourth entry in Miller's apocalyptic series is a visual feat that makes one positively giddy with its adrenaline-fueled chaos. Magnificently realized by this master of so many genres, but who is defined by his grasp of space, time, and movement. I must say, moments of this film transported me back to 1979 and 1981, and to when my jaw first dropped watching the most amazing stunts ever filmed. The fact that the film is bringing moviegoers to the conclusion that the real is better than CGI (which is still a player here) is enough for me to downright love it, even with my misgivings.

21) Carol (US, Todd Haynes) 
I'll be able to appreciate this film more as time progresses. I generally prefer my movie romances to have a bit more intellectual connection between its protagonists, but I can't deny that pure passion exists, and as such, this is the movie that illustrates it. Impossibly sensual, it's feels like a piece about memory as well, and the patina through which we view our most soul-shaking moments. Cate Blanchett is terrific (she had another magnificent year with this, Cinderella, and Truth), but it's Rooney Mara, with her shattering stare, who really makes it work. Incredible direction from Todd Haynes proves he's a master at this kind of storytelling (not that it needed proof), but photographer Ed Lachman, working in 16mm and shooting through a continual array of  reflecting and watery windows, is clearly his second in command.  

22) Spy (US, Paul Feig)
The funniest live-action movie of the year, by a wide margin. It confirms Melissa McCarthy's standing as a major comedic force, while never forgetting to give face time to its impressive supporting cast, with action star Jason Statham being a particularly adept scene-stealer. It's simple: I just had total fun here.

23) Tangerine (US, Sean Baker)
Boy, was I surprised by this--a wholly engaging comedy about the bumpy friendship between two transgender prostitutes combing the brightly-colored streets of Los Angeles in search of a heartbreaking pimp. The fact that it's shot on an I-Phone never feels like a gimmick and instead enables the filmmakers to get ridiculously creative with their low-budget visuals. And I have to add: are there two more dynamic performances in American movies this year? Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor are just delicious in their hysterical ferocity and, ultimately, in their togetherness. Somewhere, John Waters is smiling...

24) I'll See You in My Dreams (US, Brett Haley)
So sweet to see the always lovely Blythe Danner get a role worth her mettle, in a movie that has real respect for the aged and their ability to get back in the thick of things. Terrific support from all, but particularly Martin Starr and the incredible Sam Elliott. It's a movie that I simply responded to on a personal level, though I was quite mindful while doing so. A perfect movie for a Sunday afternoon, and those are often the kinds of films I feel need more love.

25) TIE: Heaven Knows What (US, Ben Safdie and Joshua Safdie)
The drug war as played out on the streets. Arielle Holmes plays herself in this film based on her memoir, and that in itself is incredible. As much a tale of survival as The Revenant, this tour through the hell of NYC heroin addiction is perhaps the most honest that we've seen since the 1970s and Panic in Needle Park. But the personal connection here is immediately palpable, and the filmmakers never shy away from its nastiest aspects. Not a film for everyone, though--it takes a strong constitution to go down this rabbit hole. I almost didn't make it out.


James White (US, Josh Mond)
Devastating drama with Christopher Abbott extremely impressive in the title role as a self-destructive son taking care of his cancer-ridden mother (Cynthia Nixon, who is absolutely superb) while he smashes his senses night after night at NYC clubs. Completely real, and utterly devastating in its close-up examination of abject misery. If anything, it might be TOO hard to watch. But, for sure, this is among the best directorial debuts of the year, with two of the annum's most detailed performances.

OF NOTE AND RECOMMENDED (in alphabetical order): 31/2 Minutes Ten Bullets, 99 Homes, Almost There, L'Annee Prochaine (Next Year), Apartment Troubles, Barely Lethal, Best of Enemies, Bone Tomahawk, Boychoir, Brooklyn, Cartel Land, Christmas Again, Danny Collins, Dante's Down the Hatch, Deli Man, The Duff, Experimenter, Far From the Madding Crowd, Finders Keepers, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, I Am Michael, Infinitely Polar Bear, Irrational Man, The Hateful Eight, Kumiko The Treasure Hunter, Labyrinth of Lies, Learning to Drive, Little Accidents, Love and Mercy, Mad as Hell, Magic Mike XXL, Match, Merchants of Doubt, Meru, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Mr. Holmes, Mistress America, Montedoro, Results, Runoff, Spectre, Spotlight, The Stanford Prison Experiment, Unfriended, Wild Horses, Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Steve Jobs, A Walk in the Woods, What Happened Miss Simone?, WildLike, The Yes Men are Revolting, Youth

LOVED LAST YEAR, RELEASED THIS YEAR: Sunshine Superman, '71, Stray Dog, Iris, Eden (Mia Hansen-Love), Red Army, I Believe in Unicorns, Time Out of Mind

SOME FINE ASPECTS, BUT WAY OVERRATED: Ex Machina, The Martian, The Big Short, It Follows, The Assassin, Everest, Victoria, Clouds of Sils Maria, Trainwreck, White God, Beasts of No Nation, The Lobster, Goodnight Mommy, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, The Diary of a Teenage Girl

BLAH: Avengers: Age of Ultron, Jurassic World, While We're Young, Pos Eso (Possessed), Particle Fever, Pitch Perfect 2, Welcome to Me, Five Flights Up, The Runner, Cop Car, Ant-Man, Black Mass, Song One, Kingsman: The Secret Service, 1971, Truth, The Seven Five, The Voices, A Murder in the Park, American Ultra, Criminal Activity, The Walk, I Smile Back, The Intern, Mississippi Grind, Grandma, Pawn Sacrifice, Where to Invade Next, Trumbo, Concussion, Joy

THE WORST: Fort Tilden, Mortdecai, Entertainment, True Story, The Peanuts Movie, Jupiter Ascending, Room, Hot Tub Time Machine 2, Sisters, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, Ricki and the Flash, Son of a Gun

STILL HAVEN'T SEEN: Son of Saul, Queen of Earth, The Duke of Burgundy, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Timbuktu, Theeb, Seymour: An Introduction, Hard to Be a God, Kahil Gibran's The Prophet, Mustang, Girlhood, Shaun The Sheep Movie, What We Do in the Shadows, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, The Look of Silence, Heart of a Dog, Phoenix, Taxi, Hitchcock/Truffaut, We Are Still Here, Boy and the World,  When Marnie Was There, The Hunting Ground, The Lady in the Van, Gueros, Approaching the Elephant, The Forbidden Room, The Danish Girl, Love, Macbeth, A War, Slow West, Maggie, The Brand New Testament, In Jackson Heights (By the way, it makes me angry how hard these sorts of movies are to see for audiences outside of NYC and LA...isn't there a damn better way to get these kind of titles out there to concerned viewers? I know there is!)

GREAT PRE-2015 FILMS I DISCOVERED THIS YEAR (in preferential order): I Promised to Pay (aka Payroll) (Sidney Hayers, 61), Marwencol (Jeff Malmberg, 2010), Call Northside 777 (Henry Hathaway, 48), Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Elio Petri, 71),  Welfare (Frederick Wiseman, 75), What a Crazy World! (Michael Carreras, 63), That Sinking Feeling (Bill Forsyth, 79), Countdown to Looking Glass (1984, Fred Barzyk), Forty Guns (Samuel Fuller, 57), The Hit (Stephen Frears, 84), The Iceman Cometh (John Frankenheimer, 73), Love and Betrayal: The Mia Farrow Story (Karen Arthur, 95)Playboy's Roller Disco and Pajama Party (Tom Trbovich, 79), Night Nurse (William A. Wellman, 31), Cry Terror (Andrew L. Stone, 58), No Place Like Home (Lee Grant, 89), Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (Robert Parrish, 69), Night Train to Munich (Carol Reed, 40), Riot (Buzz Kulik, 69), Words and Pictures (Fred Schepisi, 2013), The Devil and Miss Jones (Sam Wood, 41), Boomerang (Elia Kazan, 47), Canyon Passage (Jacques Tourneur, 46), Devil in a Blue Dress (Carl Franklin, 95), Cry Wolf (Peter Godfrey, 47), How To Beat the High Cost of Living (Robert Scheerer, 80), Bill (Anthony Page, 81), Thunderbirds Are GO! (David Lane, 66), My Old Lady (Israel Horovitz, 2014), Not as a Stranger (Stanley Kramer, 55), The Facts of Life (Melvin Frank, 60), Murder in Coweta County (Gary Nelson, 83), Odd Man Out (Carol Reed, 47), Cause for Alarm! (Tay Garnett, 51), Gideon's Army (Dawn Porter, 2013)

GREAT FILMS REDISCOVERED: Hooper (Hal Needham,78), Sharky's Machine (Burt Reynolds, 81), Ladybug Ladybug (Frank Perry, 63), Murder on a Sunday Morning (Jean-Xavier de Lastrade, 2001), The Mist (Frank Darabont, 2007), Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009), Old Enough (Marisa Silver, 84), The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (Preston Sturges, 44), The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges, 42), Between the Lines (Joan Micklin Silver, 77), The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski, 2010), Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 47), Girlfriends (Claudia Weill, 78), United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006), General Orders No. 9 (Robert Persons, 2009), Son of Frankenstein (Rowland V. Lee, 39), Sherman's March (Ross McElwee, 85)

BLAH FROM THE PAST: Neighbors (2014), The Judge, The Hindenburg, The Conjuring, Flawless, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, Chaplin, The Razor's Edge (46), The Best of Everything, Mosquito, Reptilicus, The Thing with Two Heads, Tomboy, Roller Boogie, Take This Job and Shove It, The Visitor (79), Love of a Stranger, My Son John, The Hobbit trilogy, Lockout, Unearthed, Black Sabbath, Return to Mayberry, Hoffa, The H Man, Ginger in the Morning

GREAT TELEVISION (in order of preference): Show Me A Hero, Making a Murderer, Master of None, Fargo, The Jinx, Mad Men, Mr. Robot, The Unsinkable Kimmy Schmidt, Ray Donovan, Off The Air, Veep, Louie, Downton Abbey, American Crime, Documentary Now!, Masterchef Australia, Real Time with Bill Maher, Ash Vs. Evil Dead, The Slap, Mike Tyson Mysteries, We Bare Bears, W/ Bob and David

Finally, I'm pleased to present the MOVIE GEEKS UNITED year-end wrap up, where Jamey Duvall, Jerry Dennis and I each talk about our top ten films of the year. It's always an involving listen, so if you have a couple of hours, check it out! 

And now, on with 2016...and thanks for reading!

1 comment:

Zach Murphy said...

Good list! I'm glad to see Dope and Creed on here.