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2015 in Movies

This year's movie-watching is shaping up to be better than last year's, number wise (final tally was 240, counting vintage and rewatches), and as usual, my attempt to do a top 10 changed very quickly into a top 20.

I'd really like to do a full and proper review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, because I have loads to say about it and very consciously did NOT include it in my top 20 (no way I can rank something like that, nostalgia too high). I've also done separate lists on my favorite film discoveries and my favorite females in movies (as this year has been a better year than most for women). But before I get into the main list, here's a rundown of the rest.

REGRET LIST: STUFF I DIDN'T GET TO (YET):
45 Years
99 Homes
Amy
Beasts of No Nation
Chi-raq
The Clouds of Sils Maria
Diary of a Teenage Girl
The Look of Silence
Love & Mercy
White God


STUFF I'VE SEEN TOO RECENTLY TO PROPERLY EVALUATE WITH A RANK
Anomalisa - A work of staggering genius. I just wish I hadn't been spoiled on the conceit of the film.
The Duke of Burgundy - Homage to European fetishistic lesbian fare of the 60s and 70s. Gorgeous.
Tangerine - Amazing little movie about trans sex workers (played by actual trans women) in LA; shot on an iPhone 5; great soundtrack; SO MUCH ATTITUDE (but not just attitude). I feel certain that this would end up on my list if I had another couple of weeks to marinate on it.

EVERYTHING ELSE NOT IN TOP 20, A-Z:
Ant-Man - A pleasant surprise.
Black Mass - Underrated; a great performance from Depp and makeup that actually looks BETTER close up than at a distance.
Brooklyn - I must have been overhyped for this one. Appreciated it, but didn't really connect.
Cinderella - Beautiful and solid retelling of the fairy tale (with foot cutting, ewwwwww!).
Crimson Peak - Liked it a lot, but my early-20s self would have been ALL OVER IT.
The Danish Girl - Standard prestige pic. A few good moments, but the whole was blah.
The Final Girls - LOVED THIS! Most emotional slasher movie death in cinema history!
Furious 7 - You either dig these movies or you don't, and I dig them. Great farewell to Walker.
The Gift - Was really loving this until the last 5 minutes, which pissed me off so much I hated the rest on principle.
Goodnight Mommy - Wonderful and genuinely scary movie. Evil kids, man. Get me every time.
It Follows - I liked this a great deal, but I had some issues with the main conceit and how the ending works with it.
Jupiter Ascending - Such a glorious hot mess.
Jurassic World - Entertaining, but weirdly sexist? And boo to the pointless death of that one character.
Legend - Great performances by Tom Hardy. Good film, not great.
Macbeth - Cool visuals (Birnam Wood was GENIUS), but I didn't love it. Ending should be exhilarating; this felt more like the end of Antony & Cleopatra (JUST DIE ALREADY).
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation - This was fun; good action scenes, which you expect from these movies, but I wonder how much more mileage they can get from this formula.
Mr. Holmes - Lovely little film that reminded me of the 90s Miramax period pieces. Ian McKellan is heartbreaking.
Paddington - Thoroughly charming.
The Peanuts Movie - I mostly loved it but the ending felt wrong to me.
Pitch Perfect 2 - Tries to give every character their own movie and it's way too crowded.
Run All Night - Solid. Good performances by Liam Neeson and Ed Harris.
Sicario - Kind of baffled that this is on so many Top 10 lists. It's pretty good (especially Benicio del Toro), but not zomg amazing.
Spectre - Didn't suck, but disappointing. Ugh, theme song.
The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water - This was Gilliam-level surreal and I loved it.
Spy - Fantastic! Another home run for McCarthy and Feig. (AND ROSE BYRNE! AND STATHAM!)
Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens - OH MY HEART, I WANT TO CRY JUST THINKING ABOUT IT
Tokyo Tribe - BIZARRE, but a lot of fun.
Trainwreck - Hilarious subversion of usual rom-com tropes. Amy Schumer is the real deal.
Youth - Pleasing, but perhaps a little full of itself.





The Second 10





20. What We Do in the Shadows (dir. Jermaine Clement, Taika Waititi)
It's like The Real World, but with vampires, sharing a flat in New Zealand. I'd never seen Flight of the Conchords (which Clement is probably best known for), so I didn't really know what to expect, but this movie is a delight. Very funny, effectively scary when it wants to be, and actually rather sweet.

19. Kingsman: The Secret Service (dir. Matthew Vaughn)
Man, did people not get this movie, much like with Kick-Ass a few years ago. At its heart, Kingsman is a movie about class warfare -- the upper class literally exterminating the poor, under the guise of reversing climate change. It is also clearly a riff (and a self-aware riff at that) on Bond movies, down to the purposely crude joke at the end. I love everything about this movie -- the writing, the dynamite cast, what it has to say (or, more accurately, what it pointedly does *not* say) about violence, and even Vaughn's uncanny sense of where to put a well-chosen song ("Freebird" will never be the same again).

18. Bridge of Spies (dir. Steven Spielberg)
Spielberg seems at his best when he has a good script, and it doesn't hurt that this one is co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen. This is one of Tom Hanks's better roles in a while, but the real standout is (unsurprisingly) Mark Rylance. Probably my favorite thing about the movie is the absolutely pervasive tension throughout, particularly when Hanks's character is trying to make his way (alone) to his negotiation meetings, to say nothing of the hand-off scene in the climax. An excellent and strangely timely flick.

17. The Revenant (dir. Alejandro G. Inarritu)
I'm not a huge Inarritu fan, but this is not like his previous work. It's good old-fashioned pulp, rather than pseudo-philosophy. It is a BRUTAL "cruelty of nature" movie, in more ways than one, and I can't imagine what kind of hell it was to film (and, unlike some critics I could name, I *do* care about degree of difficulty). Leonardo Dicaprio is such a huge star that it's easy to forget what a legitimately gifted actor he is and he is in fine form in this movie. Tom Hardy is every bit as good, and Fitzgerald is the kind of role I think he would like to always play, instead of people trying to make him into a "movie star." Beautiful film, but not for the faint of heart.

16. Bone Tomahawk (dir. S. Craig Zahler)
This movie follows a path that hundreds of westerns before have trod -- the kidnap and rescue scenario. The Searchers, The Professionals ... even the comedies/spoof Three Amigos and Shanghai Noon follow this formula. But Bone Tomahawk's baddies are cannibal troglodytes instead of bandits. There's great character work here, and clever (often hilarious) dialogue. It's a "road movie" for a lot of the time, but from the opening scene we know that some unspeakable Bad Thing is out there, waiting to happen to people. The movie builds a great tension that way and just when you let down your guard and are maybe getting a little bored - WHAM. There's some spectacular gore (one word - wishbone) and a real sense of hopelessness in the third act, but the end is fairly satisfying.

15. Trumbo (dir. Jay Roach)
This is pretty standard biopic fare, about blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who wrote dozens of screenplays under pseudonyms for less reputable film studios. Two of those screenplays, for Roman Holiday and The Brave One, won Oscars, even though Trumbo himself was a pariah in the industry. What makes this movie sing is the writing and the amazing cast, especially Bryan Cranston as Trumbo himself and Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper. Like Bridge of Spies, this movie is scarily appropriate for our own times, with its exploration of paranoia and intimidation.

14. The Big Short (dir. Adam McKay)
I said right after I saw this movie that I probably only understood about 25% of it, but I still thought it was brilliant. This is a more entertaining movie than I could have imagined could be made about the previous decade's housing and credit bubble. Part of why it works it because the director, Adam McKay, and his co-writer, Chris Henchy, have accepted from the start that it's a subject people will find boring and hard to understand, so they work extra hard to explain things in entertaining ways. The rest of the work is clever, smart dialogue and some incredible performances that keep you in the loop on what's going on, even if you don't completely understand everything that's happening. It's the kind of thing that made an average episode of The West Wing compelling (in other words, it's right up my avenue).

13. Baahubali: The Beginning (dir. S.S. Rajamouli)
I was shown one scene from this and immediately needed to see the rest. I put this at the end of my "MeNAT" lineup and it did not disappoint. Well, the out-of-sync Amazon subtitles did, but not the film itself. This is a hero myth, and it follows similar rules of logic, so it's best not to take everything at face value, filtered through a modern mindset. There are spectacular visuals, but they aren't just pretty things to look at -- they have narrative value. This is part one of two films, which seems to be the trend these days, but this movie earns its second chapter with a stunning cliffhanger that impresses on us that there is a great deal more story to tell.

12. Creed (dir. Ryan Coogler)
I have never been the biggest fan of the Rocky franchise. I like it well enough, don't get me wrong, but the original feels like a product of its time for me, and the sequels (excepting Rocky Balboa) are underwhelming, aside from the 1980s kitsch factor in III and IV. But Creed breathes new life into the series, mostly by passing the focus onto a new character, Apollo Creed's son, Adonis (Michael B. Jordan). But even though he's not the main character, Sylvester Stallone's Rocky still steals the heart of the film by finding new reasons to fight. It feels like the series has come full circle, and I'm pleased to see Stallone at the forefront of the Oscar speculation for his role. This will be his legacy, and it's a darn good one.

11. Spotlight (dir. Tom McCarthy)
Like The Big Short, this is a movie that seems made to infuriate. It is almost impossible to believe that such horrible things could have happened on the Catholic Church's watch, except that we now know they definitely did. This is our generation's All the President's Men, where we see the nitty gritty of reporters investigating and putting the story together (and inevitably figuring out that it's a much bigger story than they originally thought). It's not flashy, and no one is drawing attention to themselves in any aspect of the film -- the story is what matters most, and it's told extremely well.

The Top 10





10. Steve Jobs (dir. Danny Boyle)
"When you are a father, that's what's supposed to be the best part of you, and it's caused me
two decades of agony, Steve, that it is, for you, the worst."



In stark contrast to Spotlight, this movie is less interested in 100% factual accuracy than in crafting a complex character portrait. Centering this film around three key events, and a series of conversations that couldn't possibly have happened in such close proximity in real life, is a ballsy move, since it's a technique that would almost certainly have been more accepted on the stage than in a film. But I love the way each "act" of the film shows us how much Jobs' relationships with all these people have evolved, especially his relationship with his daughter. And I don't care if it's fictionalized, I will never be over "I'm gonna put music in your pocket."





9. Carol (dir. Todd Haynes)
"There was a time I would have locked myself away -- done almost anything -- just to keep Rindy with me.
But what use am I to her -- to us -- living against my own grain? Rindy deserves joy.\
How can I give her that, not knowing what it means myself?"



Like Haynes's previous film, Far From Heaven, this film deals with social issues seen through the lens of 1950s American culture, and both Carol and Therese seem like prisoners caged by societal expectations. The love story itself is fairly standard, if you ignore genders, but considering that it's a gay love story, it's refreshingly light on tragedy. That's not to say it's not without drama, but it's rare even today to find a homosexual romance that doesn't end with one or both parties dying as metaphorical punishment. Blanchett and Mara are fantastic, as is Sarah Paulson in a supporting role, and it's so immaculately filmed and designed that it's like stepping into another world. This is an elegant wedding cake of a movie.





8. Son of Saul (dir. László Nemes)
"I'm a prisoner, like you."



This would be an incredible movie even if it weren't the director's first feature film. From the very first shot, where we see nothing but the out-of-focus background of the scene until our protagonist walks toward us and into sharp focus, the movie has your attention and doesn't let go. Saul is a prisoner in Auschwitz and works as a "Sonderkommando" - the people forced to work the crematoriums and dispose of the bodies. We spend almost the entire movie looking over Saul's shoulder at the surrounding carnage, shown to us in a way we've never really seen before. It's just so ... matter-of-fact that it's somehow even more chilling. And throughout all of this, the characters are fully aware that they are about to experience this kind of death themselves soon.





7. The Martian (dir. Ridley Scott)
"I'm gonna have to science the shit out of this."



Ridley Scott still knows how to make good movies, when he has a smart, disciplined script. Drew Goddard wrote one of the better novel adaptations I've ever seen (of one of the best novels I've read recently), and it helps that the movie's star is incredibly charismatic and capably carries the film with very little interaction with other actors. The movie has a difficult task in keeping things interesting and in making sure that the audience knows what's going on and how Mark Watney uses his science knowledge (especially his botany background) to figure out how to realistically survive on Mars for over a year. It succeeds more than admirably, and I'd like to think that this movie could inspire us as a society to devote more resources to space exploration and science in general.





6. Straight Outta Compton (dir. F. Gary Gray)
"Ain't that some shit? Speak a little truth and people lose their minds."


Like last year’s Selma was a movie about fifty years ago but also a movie about right now, Straight Outta Compton is a movie about twenty-five years ago and also a movie about right now. It is impossible to watch the opening sequence of this movie, or the scene outside the recording studio where the members of N.W.A. are harassed by the cops, and not think of Sandra Bland or Tamir Rice or any of the number of black people who have unjustly died at the hands of scared white policemen. As much as it’s an “Avengers assemble” or “behind the music” story, this movie is just as significantly a story about Los Angeles in the late 80s/early 90s and how terrifying it was (and still is) to be a black person in America. And for anyone who is bemused by #BlackLivesMatter or wonders why people would burn down a CVS, this movie is as good a piece of art as any to make it clear that sometimes the only way to alert people to the fact that there’s a problem is to start a fire. Or just yell “F*** THA POLICE."






5. Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland)
"Isn't it strange, to create something that hates you?"


Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson, recently seen as General Hux in Star Wars) is invited to the estate of billionaire inventor Nathan (Oscar Isaac, aka Poe Dameron) to administer the Turing test to one of Nathan’s AI robots, named Ava (Alicia Vikander, who gives one of the best performances of the year), and things go from oddly curious to burn-it-down terrifying in a matter of days. The story explores the nature of AI and agency, a bit like <i>Her</i>, but in a more sinister and cynical (and I’m afraid more realistic) way. Nathan is intimidating from the start, and Oscar Isaac has a way of looking at someone and speaking to them that feels like they shouldn’t even breathe without his permission. This sets up a great sense of unease throughout the movie, but the more we see of Ava, the more it feels like Nathan shouldn’t be the one we’re worried about. I love how on Ava’s side the movie seems to be, even while making us afraid for what she’s capable of doing to preserve herself. This is a fantastic little movie, and if you’re finding yourself on the Oscar Isaac bandwagon, this movie needs to be seen, if only to see his fabulous dance scene.






4. The Hateful Eight (dir. Quentin Tarantino)
"When you get to hell, tell 'em Daisy sent you."


To borrow and paraphrase a line from Oliver Stone’s Nixon, when we look at Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained, we see what we might want to be — idealistic (albeit violent) heroes who burn with righteous indignation. When we look at The Hateful Eight, we see what we are, and it’s not pretty. Tarantino’s take on an Agatha Christie-esque closed-room mystery is both exhilarating and a little depressing to watch. It seems like his most subdued film to date (relatively speaking, of course). The color palette is not as vibrant, there aren’t a lot of pop culture references, and there aren’t as many anachronistic music cues. But it’s unmistakably Tarantino, and he creates a cast of characters who are all pieces of shit in their own way and really deserve every bit of what happens to them. The challenge in piecing together what happened is made even tougher by the fact that these are all unreliable narrators. Everyone is on point here, cast wise, but we spend the most time with Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh (who's getting well-deserved Oscar buzz for this role) and Walton Goggins, so for me they stand out more than Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern and Demian Bechir, who are still quite enjoyable. Also look for Zoe Bell and (wait for it) Channing Tatum in small roles. Also also, this is the first Tarantino film to have an original score, by Ennio Moriccone, no less (apparently drawn from themes he wrote but never used in his score for The Thing, another movie this one resembles).






3. Room (dir. Lenny Abrahamson)
"Hello Jack. Thanks for saving our little girl."


Lesson learned: don’t judge a movie by its marketing. I was not impressed by the trailer for this movie, though I’m not sure how it could have been sold differently. And at the risk of seeming superficial, the movie looked so dour and depressing that I was not excited about seeing it at all. But all the critics were talking about it, and it was on a lot of short-lists for Best Picture and blah blah blah, so I felt duty bound to see it. AND I’M SO GLAD I DID. Brie Larson is incredible here, and I feel certain she has at least an Oscar nomination (if not the award itself) coming soon. However, the film works largely because of a performance by Jacob Tremblay that has to be experienced to be believed. He’s the anchor of the film, and his escape is easily the most tense moment in the film.  He also narrates the film, and the incredible metaphors he uses to describe his world (both before and after learning how big the world really is) made me cry such ugly tears. In particular, his description of what happened to his mother in what is essentially the climax of the movie is so heartbreaking I almost could’t take it. What a fantastic, miraculous movie.






2. Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller)
"Out here, everything hurts."


I said it many times this summer when the movie came out, but every Mad Max movie after the original has been more about the people Max comes across and reluctantly helps than it has been about Max himself. So I see no incongruity in a Mad Max movie that turns out to be about these badass women. George Miller, in his 70s, has made a movie that ought to embarrass every other filmmaker about their own work. Action scenes that you can actually follow because they don’t try and make things more exciting with quick cuts. Practical effects that make the stakes feel higher and the world of the film seem more real. FEMALE CHARACTERS WITH AGENCY WHO KICK ASS WITHOUT BEING SEXUALIZED (WHAT A CONCEPT!). I’m so grateful this movie is in my life, and I will probably never stop enjoying the salty tears of “meninists” who are butthurt that a Mad Max movie celebrates and sympathizes with abused women. RIDE SHINY AND CHROME!






1. Inside Out (dir. Pete Doctor, Ronnie del Carmen)
"Crying helps me slow down and obsess over the weight of life's problems."



A month or so before this movie came out, I saw a scene Pixar had released, where Joy was getting the other emotions in gear for Riley’s first day at her new school. She draws a circle around Sadness and tells her that *her* job is to keep all the Sadness inside the circle. And I instantly felt sorry for Sadness, because she can’t help who she is. And at that moment I got kind of overwhelmed, because — knowing the Pixar formula, as I do — it seemed very much like they were going to make Sadness the unsung hero. Sure, she would be the one people didn’t like or understand, and she might get in the way, but she would ultimately be seen as a hugely important asset to the team. And ... that's exactly what happened, and it made me happier than any other experience I had in the movies this year. There are a LOT of things to love about this movie -- the voice acting, the ideas, the adorable character designs, the production design (which will probably be ignored by the Oscars because animation doesn't count), BING BONG -- but what I love the most is that it shows us how important our own sadness is and why we should value it instead of always trying to suppress it, and I think that's an important thing for children to learn as well.

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