Monday, January 25, 2016

2015 Year in Review: The Top 10 Films of 2015

And finally, we get to the top 10. It was difficult to come up with list this year – not only because I wanted to add another 3 or four titles, but even the ranking was difficult – 1-3 could really go in any order, as could 4-6 and 7-10. It was a tight year.

10. It Follows (David Robert Mitchell)
It has been a great couple of years of horror films – Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and Adam Wingard’s The Guest both made my top 10 list last year, and David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is a heartbreaking omission from my top 10 list this year. This movie has the best premise of any horror film in recent memory – some supernatural force, passed on through sex, haunts those who it infects until it can kill them – and the only way to get rid of it, is to pass it on (and even then, your reprieve is only temporary. The cinematography – long tracking shots – is brilliant, as is the score – both elements add to the overall creepy atmosphere of the film, which is had genuinely scary moment, but is really more deeply unsettling than anything else. The man cast of teenagers (led by Maika Monroe – even better here than she was in the aforementioned The Guest) are all in fine form as well. Admittedly, the pool scene climax is a little silly - but the final shot is brilliant, and redeems it. This is one of the best horror films in recent years – and one of the best films of any kind this year.

9. Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)
Director Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria pulls off something very tricky – it both feels like a throwback to an earlier era of art house cinema, and yet is relevant to today’s movie climate. On one level, the film very definitely resembles the work of one of Assasyas’ key influences – Ingmar Bergman. Afterall, the film mainly centers on two women - an actress (Juliette Binoche) and her assistant (Kristen Stewart) – on a remote island, by themselves, who talk – a lot – about identity, among many other things. If you know, and love, Bergman like I know – this setup feels familiar, because indeed it is. But Assayas isn’t just making a throwback, because while the setup is classic Bergman, there much in the film that is relevant to today’s movie culture – conversations about superhero movies vs. art – in a far less bombastic way than last year’s Birdman, hell the film even gives Stewart a rather impassioned speech in defense of those types of movies. At its heart, it is about these two women – the aging actress, who is just now dealing – in middle age – that she is no longer the ingénue, and her assistant, who is more complex than we realize. Throw in a great performance by a third actress – Chloe Grace Mortez, as a “Hollywood bad girl”, and you have even more insight into stardom, acting and art. Assayas has been a hit or miss director for me over the years – but this is one of the best films he has ever made (right alongside Carlos).

8. Ex Machina (Alex Garland)
One location, four character. That is all there is in Alex Garland’s directorial debut – but it’s still the best sci-fi film of the year – and one of the most intelligent in recent years. It is a film that only gradually reveals what it is really about. On its surface, its about the genius, billionaire founder of a search engine company (Oscar Isaac – brilliant) who invites one of his programmers (Domhall Gleason) to his remote estate to give the Turing test to his latest creation – an A.I. named Ava (Alicia Vikander – even better than Isaac) to figure out if she really think like a human being. The characters played by Isaac and Vikander both have hidden motives – and poor dumb Gleason cannot figure out what they are until far too late, as they both toy with him. The below the line message of the film may just be about misogyny – both active and passive, as Isaac is basically building himself various sexual playthings, whereas Gleason cannot see Ava as anything more than a damsel in distress, that he must save. Garland, a novelist and screenwriter making his directorial debut, has written a great screenplay (which shouldn’t be surprising) – but has also directed a visually great film – the special effects are amazing, as is the chilly art direction and cinematography. An intelligent sci fi film that has haunted me all year.

7. 45 Years (Andrew Haigh)
Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years is a portrait of a British couple approaching their 45 anniversary (when they’ll be having a party) – when a letter arrives that throws their seemingly happy lives into chaos. Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) seem perfectly happy – and they may well have been for most of their marriage. But when the body of a woman that Geoff was involved with before they met is discovered (this is no murder mystery), and he Kate learns more about her husband’s past before they met, it throws everything she thought she knew about her marriage, her husband – hell her life – is no longer true. Haigh trusts his two leads immensely – allowing them space to do much with very little – especially Rampling whose never vocalizes the turmoil that is tearing her apart. Courtenay talks more – but he’s that rare actor who is able to show you his character is thinking as he speaks – making sure he says the right thing – and doesn’t say the wrong one. The film is heavy on symbolism – the mirrors, the attic, the soundtrack – without beating you over the head with it. I missed Haigh’s breakthrough film – Weekend (2011) (now a must-see), but with 45 Years he has crafted a devastating portrait of a long-term marriage – a film that stands alongside Michael Haneke’s Amour and Sarah Polley’s Away From Her (two very different films) about longtime marriages. It also has the single most devastating, ambiguous final shot of any film this year. A brilliant film that is guaranteed to make any married couple who see its uncomfortable.

6. Brooklyn (John Crowley)
Brooklyn is many things – a touching immigrant story, about how strange and frightening someplace new can be, until all of sudden it feels like home. A romance, as the woman at the center Elis (Saorise Ronan), a good Irish lass in Brooklyn falls in love with a kindhearted, sweet Italian fellow (Emory Cohen). A story of the lures of home, as Ronan heads back to Ireland in the last act of the movie, and how easy it would be to slip back into her life there. It is a period piece – set in the 1950s – and with art direction and costume design that come out of our ideas of what that decades was like. It is a deceptively simple film – that ends up being incredibly moving, because of how open and honest it is – and how extraordinary Ronan’s performance in the film really is. She plays a woman who, for a while anyway, makes herself into whatever those around her want her to be – it’s why she is able to slip back into her role in Ireland so easily, because it’s what everyone around her wants – and she gets confused. Is this what she wants as well, until, all in an instant, it becomes clear just what it is she desires – and assets herself. This all may look very simple on the surface – but it isn’t. But the screenwriter, Nick Hornby, director, John Crowley, and Ronan pull it off brilliantly.

5. The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)
Quentin Tarantino delights in torturing his characters, and the audience, in The Hateful Eight – a more troubling, and troublesome film, than his last two films. Those movies – Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained – were as violent as The Hateful Eight was – but, for the most part, let the audience cheer on that violence because it was mainly directed at bad people, but characters who had been oppressed, and were fighting back. Truly, does anyone really feel bad when Shosanna kills a theater full of Nazis in Inglorious Basterds, or when Django slaughters everyone who works at the plantation in Django Unchained? Of course not. But it’s all very different in The Hateful Eight – as the oppressed and oppresors alike, are all treated the same, and Tarantino delights in switching gears from one scene to the next, and undermining your expectations. I won’t argue that with those who thought the film was racist and/or misogynistic – I don’t see it that way, I think it’s Tarantino wrestling with those two ideas in many ways – the racism, overtly, as it’s talked about at length in the film, and misogyny, covertly, as it isn’t (and perhaps that’s the point – that at least America was at a point then when race was something to be discussed – where as men’s misogyny was treated as a given – or perhaps that’s reading something into the film that isn’t there). I do find the film uncomfortable at times – more uncomfortable than anything Tarantino has made before. But I think there’s value in that discomfort – that if we’re honest with yourselves, we need to deal with. And aside from all that, The Hateful Eight is just a great movie, with an amazing ensemble cast, ripping into Tarantino’s rich dialogue with glee – with Robert Richardson’s glorious 70MM cinematography, from the snow covered vistas that begin the film, to the more intimate conclusion, to Ennio Morricone’s score – as great as anything he has ever done, a dark, foreboding, almost horror movie like score. There are better films than The Hateful Eight this year – but I’m not sure there’s one I’ll revisit more.

4. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
Mad Max: Fury Road is so good that it almost makes me mad at director George Miller – who abandoned making Mad Max – and action movies – 30 years ago to make a (admittedly impressive) variety of dramas and children’s fare – seriously, aside from The Road Warrior and this, Babe: Pig in the City is the best thing Miller has ever done). Mad Max: Fury Road is an action masterpiece – a pure adrenaline rush from beginning to end – that is basically one giant car chase, yet so masterfully shot, edited, choreographed, scored and designed that you don’t really care that the story is basically non-existant. Besides, miraculously, the movie does actually have some brilliant performances in amongst the madness – Tom Hardy is in fine form, taking over for Mel Gibson, as is Nicholas Hoult, who at first seems batshit insane, and then almost sympathetic, and Hugh Keays-Byrne as the evil Immortan Joe. Towering above them all is Charlize Theron, as Imperator Furiosa, a new feminist hero, who is the most kickass film hero (male or female) of the year. Mad Max: Fury Road is a film that never gets old – its pure cinema, and it’s brilliant every time I watch it. Why the hell wasn’t Miller directing these for the past 30 years? With this film, he proves himself better than just about any other action director currently working.

3. Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson)
Anomalisa is pure Charlie Kaufman. The screenwriter behind Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – and writer/director of Synecdoche, New York, returns for the first time in 7 years with this movie about a man in Cincinnati on business who is completely miserable. Everyone around him looks and sounds the same, and he takes no joy in anything. Then, he meets Lisa (an amazing Jennifer Jason Leigh) – and for one night, he feels renewed, until it comes crashing down again. Make no mistake, the prison that Michael (voiced by David Thewlis) has made is entirely self-made – the people around him are normal, he’s just lost the ability to see them as individual people. He treats Lisa horribly after that first night – but ironically, it is she, not he, who truly does change for the better after that – he goes back to the same self-made prison of misery. And yet, while the main character is, in short, an asshole – he remains a sympathetic one – one that if we’re all honest, we’ll see a little of ourselves in, and will hopefully not allow ourselves to became as jaded as he is. I cannot believe I’ve made it this far and not mentioned the fact the film is animated – brilliantly, in stop motion animation, with meticulous attention to detail, nor Kaufman’s co-director, Duke Johnson, who helped bring the movie to life. Yes, you could have made Anomalisa in live action if you wanted to – but it wouldn’t be the same film – and it wouldn’t be nearly as good. This is a reminder of just how great Charlie Kaufman is – let’s just hope we don’t have to wait until 2022 to see his next film.

2. Carol (Todd Haynes)
Todd Haynes’ Carol is one of the best cinematic love stories in quite some time. It is an expertly crafted, gorgeous film about two women, in 1950s New York, who, fall in love – neither quite sure what it mean or the consequences of it. The title character is played by Cate Blanchett, in a bold performance, that calls to mind actresses of the era of when the movie is set, who were not afraid of bigger, more melodramatic moments. She is the wife of a rich man, although they are divorcing. It’s Christmas, and while shopping in a department store for her daughter, Carol sees Therese (Rooney Mara), and the two talk, and casually flirt – their eyes lock, and Therese has no idea what hits her. She is really the central character in the film, and Mara carries it beautifully, while seemingly not doing all that much. There are few movies I can recall that are so erotically charged – this isn’t about sex (not completely, since its well into the movie before there is sex), but in the way the two woman look at each, the sexual tension that is heavy. Haynes is one of the great directors of our time – and this is the first film he did not also write (the screenplay is by Phyllis Nagy) – although it feels like it could be his. The cinematography by the great Edward Lachman is the best of the year (and in this year, that’s saying something). The film is quietly groundbreaking – how many gay love stories do not focus on pain and misery, and end in death, but rather are allowed to end with at least the promise of happiness. That final scene is a stunner. This is perhaps Haynes’ best film – a stunning masterpiece on every level.

 1. Inside Out (Pete Docter)
I am willing to admit that were I not the father of two girls (ages 4 and 2) than Carol, or perhaps Anomalisa, would probably have taken the top spot on my top 10 list – two films that are probably a little bit more respectable, or at least cool, for a 34 year old cinephile to have at the top of their list. But putting anything other than Inside Out at the top this year would have felt dishonest – because no film moved me more than this film, nor made me laugh more, nor exhilarated me more with its sheer originality. This Pixar masterpiece takes place almost entirely inside the head of an 11 year old girl, sad that she has had to move and leave everything she knows behind her. It is about her emotions – represented by individual characters, working together, at times fighting against each other, for control of how she feels. The film is a tremendous comic adventure – full of bright colors, fun action sequences, lots of humor and jokes, wonderful vocal performances by movies stars – even though the best vocal performance is by a non-movie star, Phyllis Smith from The Office as Sadness – and everything you would expect from Pixar, who puts in years into ensuring their films look great (and they all look great, even if the stories are not always up to snuff – like The Good Dinosaur). But there is a wonderful melancholy underpinning to the film that hit me in just the right spot. As much as the film resembles many other animated films for children, its actually its antithesis – basically arguing that sadness is natural and necessary, and taking time to feel that is important – which flies in the face of other animated films that break into song every time some feels down to chase that sadness away. It also hits at something sad for parents – yes, I’m talking about poor Bing Bong. Watching his final scenes in the movie made me completely lose it – and not just because Bing Bong nobly sacrifices himself for the greater good (although, that likely would have been enough) – but also the simple realization I had in the theater that pretty much every memory even my eldest daughter has will end up just like Bing Bong. So yes, I will acknowledge that having children perhaps turned me into a big softie – and that’s why I picked Inside Out as the year’s best (after all, the last time a Pixar film came close to number #1 on my list was 2008’s Wall-E – and I had it at #2 behind a Charlie Kaufman film). And I am completely okay with that. I firmly believe that Inside Out is a masterpiece no matter how you look at it. Through my eyes, it’s perhaps something even more.

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