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The Top 10 Films of 2015

February 16, 2016

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Seeing as how we are two months into 2016 (which has already seen the release of one stupendously great Coen brothers film), I’ll try to work through the backstory quickly so we can get to the main event. I saw 42 of the films that 2015 had to offer and overall I didn’t think it was an incredibly great year. Of course there were films that I missed (chief among them Anomalisa, Room, Bridge of Spies, 99 Homes, and 45 Years) and maybe they will shift my opinion by the time I get around to them in the future. Yet even amongst a general feeling of large view mediocrity, there were several films that I loved in 2015. These were the bright spots:

Call Me Lucky, Dir. By Bobcat Goldthwait

This documentary about Barry Crimmins, a comedian I had never heard of before watching the film, starts as a look at the Boston comedy scene in the 1980s and evolves into something more as Barry’s honesty about his childhood changes the direction of his life pursuits.

 

The Hateful Eight, Dir. By Quentin Tarantino

The latest wordy, deliberate, alt-history film from the master of bloody violence and bubblegum dialogue attempts to tackle many big themes through the lens of pseudo-western film archetypes. I thought the message about hatefulness lost some power by becoming ultra hateful in itself, but Tarantino is always an interesting voice.

 

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Dir. By Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

This one stuck with me longer than I expected upon walking out of the theater. The title is indicative of the perspective of the film, but also of the theme of how we approach friends who are going through tragic illnesses. A necessary film of the year for me.

 

Sicario, Dir. By Denis Villeneuve

Director of Photography Roger Deakins is one of the best DP’s in the business right now and his gorgeous cinematography can cover a multitude of story wrongs. Emily Blunt is a great lead character, but the shift in narrative toward the end of the film detractes from the mood built up during the first half. Luckily Deakins is there to pick up the slack.

 

World of Tomorrow, Dir. By Don Hertzfeldt

This (Oscar nominated and available for viewing on Netflix) animated film tackles such heady themes as memory, time, heritage, and future and was absolutely one of the two or three best things that I saw in 2015. However, it’s only 17 minutes long, so I didn’t feel comfortable including it in my top 10, so it’s here in the honorable mentions. Check it out though because it is so, so great!

 

  1. The Martian

Dir. By Ridley Scott

My favorite part of the tale of the man left behind on the red planet, is how the film understands that it isn’t just about that man and is able to handle the delicate balance of having three separate and important character groups in three different locations around the solar system without making any of them feel forgotten or underserved. It’s a smart thing when a film uses all of its faculties to enhance its story and there are a couple of moments when The Martian’s sound design really increases the tension of Mark Watney’s lonely stay on Mars. As someone who is not the biggest Ridley Scott fan, I was quite pleased with the subtle touch and balance he brought to this film and I hope he continues in this direction in the future.

 

  1. Timbuktu

Dir. By Abderrahmane Sissako

“Don’t kill it, tire it!” Those words, uttered at the beginning of the film, encapsulate the purpose of Timbuktu’s look into a small Malian town struggling under the occupation of Islamic Jihadists. It’s a life that I know nothing about, but this portrait of many different people dealing with restriction and oppression is powerful and affecting. While there isn’t much hope in the situation, there is hope in the people and their resolve for standing up for each other and their passions even as outsiders attempted to drain those passions.

 

  1. Mistress America

Dir. By Noah Baumbach

This is probably the fasted paced (non-Mad Max division) film on this list. Baumbach’s second film released in 2015 is a coming-of-age type of story that follows a college freshman, Tracy, as she adjusts to both new life in a big city and her mother’s announcement that she is getting married and Tracy will have a new sister-in-law. There is a 25ish minute segment part of the way through the film when all of the main characters gather together at a house in the suburbs and there is a madcap momentum to the blocking, dialogue, and confrontations of that sequence that really elevate the entirety of the film from something good to something great.

 

  1. Steve Jobs

Dir. By Danny Boyle

Less a story of the man of the title and more of an exploration of creative vision, forward thinking, and (of all things) parenting. The screenplay by Aaron Sorkin is the biggest hero of this film as it tracks Steve Jobs in the moments before the launch of three of crucial products. There is so much interesting Sorkin-ese dialogue in the film and he’s great at exploring themes and ideas with the words that come out of the character’s mouths. Thankfully Danny Boyle is able to highlight that beautiful dialogue without allowing his often over-the-top visual presence to obfuscate the words.

 

  1. Ex Machina

Dir. By Alex Garland

Released back in April of 2015, Alex Garland’s powerful Ex Machina stayed with me throughout the remainder of the year. The film is essentially a three person, one location play with Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, and Domhnall Gleeson carrying everything with their eerie chemistry. Isaac’s in particular imbued the film with an appropriate amount of humor to help this fairly dark tale avoid a sense of unrelenting grimness and Gleeson’s sincerity made the ending all the more heartbreaking. But Vikander is the revelation here as Ava, the artificial intelligence that kicks off the plot and allows the film to become an exploration of humanity, relationships, and the ways we end up manipulating each other for our own means.

 

  1. Love & Mercy

Dir. By Bill Pohlad

As someone who doesn’t know much about the Beach Boys, I was happy to learn a little bit about them through this film, but the reason Love & Mercy is one of the five best films of the year is because of the way it explores creative expression and how to approach relationship with someone with a mental illness that we can’t always understand. Paul Dano and John Cusack work in tandem to embody the person of Brian Wilson, displaying his tortured genius and also his vulnerability to being taken advantage by others without the best intentions. The film knows exactly how to portray the band and their legacy without exploiting their music for emotional manipulation and that allows the characters and themes to speak for themselves.

 

  1. The Look of Silence

Dir. By Joshua Oppenheimer

This documentary about the “Communist” genocide in Indonesia in 1965 and 1966 follows an optometrist, Adi, as he travels around the country talking with and giving eye exams to many of the people responsible for carrying out the genocide. Adi’s brother Ramli was murdered during the genocide and this is Adi’s way of finding healing and exploring the human hearts that lead to such heartless killing. Many of these men haven’t even told their families all that happened in ’65-’66 and the ways they attempt to rationalize such atrocities is painful to hear, but revealing of the darkness and separation that are present in all of our hearts. In the end, Adi and this documentary work to correct their (and our) vision so that those who died, and these events, are not forgotten.

 

  1. Spotlight

Dir. by Tom McCarthy

It’s not often that you can find a drama where all of the characters are good at their jobs and drama isn’t mined from someone making an uncharacteristic mistake, but from them continuing to pursue their work with precision and passion. That really describes the journalists and lawyers of the story behind Spotlight, but also the director, writers, and actors that bring this story to light. It’s a case were the form of the film serves to highlight the characters and themes of the film, so that everything comes together to form a strong cohesive whole. And ultimately, despite tackling a huge story that is worthy of anger or rage, the film avoids being flashy and instead focuses on the people affected and the freedom that comes from being able to be vulnerable and talk about difficulties from the past that you thought no one would be able to understand.

 

  1. Carol

Dir. By Todd Haynes

From the grates of a New York City subway station, to a knowing smile passed across a crowded restaurant, Todd Haynes’ Carol is a careful and painstakingly crafted drama set in 1950’s New York about two women dealing with different relationship expectations of the day. There is a lot of subtlety to this film and a deep meaning in all of the glances, touches, and movement between characters. As someone who isn’t great at discerning subtlety when it comes to actual human interaction, it was fun for me to observe, explore, and seek to interpret the reasons behind such things with these characters. Instead of separating me from the film, that subtlety actually drew me in without completely confusing me, which is quite an accomplishment.

 

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road

Dir. By George Miller

Now, with all of those words written about the 14 previous films on this list, only one film truly lit my brain on fire with a flame-throwing electric guitar and that film is Mad Max: Fury Road. What I am most impressed with when thinking back on the film, is how everything about this crazy, crazy film feels so assured and almost commonplace in a way that isn’t pointing at itself and self-satisfyingly saying “look at what we are able to accomplish!” It never feels out of the ordinary to have spikey cars driving around the desert, or a dude pulling bullets out of his teeth for his pistol, or to have a strong female character right alongside a strong male character. While everything about the visuals of the film are gorgeous and over-the-top, it nevertheless feels like Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t trying to make a point, it is simply displaying the way film should be.

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