FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH
The Top Ten Films of 2015
Most of my contemporaries were able to get their top ten favorites of last year out before the award season followed. But I chose to hold off until I gave as many as I could a fair chance. Also, I found that I had to revisit some, for I might have been too harsh in the beginning and did not see all the merits of those highly-lauded films. At the same time, there were others I might have favored from the start whose glitter had waned soon after.
Funny how that happens when we first see a film, read a book, listen to music or even appreciate a work of art. The question being, is it worth coming back to? Will it be remembered next year or years later? Does it grab us emotionally? Does it have the power to make us cry, cheer, laugh or elicit any number of emotions? These top ten that I present to you did strike a chord, and at least for this critic, will not slip my mind in years to come.
There will be those who will argue over my omission of such favorites as “Carol,” “Spotlight,” “Steve Jobs,” “Anomalisa,” and what some are saying is Spike Lee’s best film “Chi-Raq”. And, generally one does not offer an explanation. But I feel compelled to. I could not help but find “Chi-Raq,” “Anomalisa,” and “Steve Jobs” a bit self indulgent. Spike Lee’s stagey, in-your-face film (albeit admirable and worthy subject matter) and Charlie Kaufman’s quirkiness were not easy to embrace, while Aaron Sorkin’s script for “Steve Jobs” has me saying, “Wow, what brilliant dialogue!”. But, would everyone actually talk like that? And, why would anyone want to see a movie about such a tremendous a**hole? It’s all hard to swallow. The same could be said for Tarantino’s ego as well, but I have to admit to a fondness for his love of bad cinema turned on its ear.
I found the subject matter of “Spotlight” arresting, but I longed for the days of director Alan J. Pakula (“All the President’s Men”). And as far as “Carol” goes, the whole venture is one beautifully rendered production with exquisite acting. But the film left me cold. I had no feelings for the rich socialite as well as many of the other characters. In fact, I found “The Danish Girl” a far more compelling affair.
That said, you will notice that littering the list are a small handful of independent genre films. It was not just their creativity, but the sheer passion they shared for their subject matter that held my attention and had me (and others) talking about them long after their release. For that alone I’ve embraced these films over the other more popular choices.
Here is my two cents worth, just before the Oscar telecast. The list is in no particular order, except for one. The unique film that could have had a straight forward, almost movie-of-the week telling if placed in the wrong hands. The story could have been exploitive, jarring, or just turned into a mere weepy. But my #1 pick from 2015 transcended like no other film. May I present…
Room – For some, this film may be too hard to watch; a young woman kidnapped and kept in a room for seven years while having a child by the kidnapper, and in the later five years, attempting to lend normalcy in her child’s life. Yet, if you can get past the subject matter, you will find a true work of art due to the strength of its two characters, and the way director Lenny Abrahamson and writer Emma Donoghue craft this harrowing tale. The film is poetry in motion.
Here’s a story that in the wrong hands could have been tawdry or played to our basic emotions, turning it into a simple three hanky movie. But the artists behind “Room” elevate their audience, and deliver far more than expected. The time in the room is not just claustrophobic. The interaction between child and mother is one of strength, frustration and immense love. There is a subtleness to the subject matter that makes it bearable to watch. But that does not give us a chance to let our guard down and breath easy, for this is a testament to not just one’s survival, but to the power of motherhood.
Once we escape the room, we find that adapting to the outside world is nowhere near as easy as one would expect. And, we find so many things we all take for granted. This breathes new life to our very existence. Abrahamson and Donoghue have delivered a powerhouse of a film that will long be remembered, and for many of us…cherished for a very long time.
The Revenant – Having not been a big fan of director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s other work, I was pleasantly surprised to find this one more subdued in its telling. The story of a frontiersman who narrowly escapes a massacre, only to be subject to a vicious bear attack, and then fighting for survival, and left for dead as his son is murdered is a traumatic tale. But at least for this critic, where Iñárritu’s other work seemed to hammer us with his messages or style, this film is more bare bones. Yes, there is the occasional glimpses of artistry, but we do not find it overwhelming, merely enhancing.
Leonardo DiCaprio gives it his all as Hugh Glass, the frontiersman. He makes us feel the pain, anguish, and the fight to survive and avenge. He’s so damn brilliant in his role, it nearly overshadows the other performers that are at the top of their game as well. Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald and Domhnall Gleeson as Captain Andrew Henry are those men, and nearly unrecognizable as the actors we know. The whole adventure is a rush and exhausting, and Iñárritu’s direction sweeps us off our feet. The bear attack is the most realistic depiction I have ever seen on screen, and I couldn’t help but squint at the sight. When it’s all said and done, “The Revenant” leaves one breathless.
Inside Out – Perhaps not the best Pixar film ever made, but for sheer creativity and pure joy it outruns most of the pictures in 2015. Some have even gone as far to say that “Inside Out” may be the best sketch comedy put to film. The wildly clever idea of showing us the inner workings of a young girl’s mind as she and her family are uprooted from their Midwest life and flung into the very busy lifestyle of San Francisco manages to be sad, funny and touching. Giving her emotions personas and taking us on a wild adventure through her memories and psyche is both fascinating and heartwarming.
Mad Max: Fury Road – Make no mistake, I will acknowledge that the screenplay should have had more Max, and that actor Tom Hardy was wasted, reduced to grunts and seven lines of dialogue. Ah, but the pure pageantry of action overrides any flaws in this spectacle that we have not seen since the likes of perhaps silent movies. It’s almost hard to comprehend that 70 year-old director George Miller blew much younger action filmmakers off the map with his brand of mayhem and madness.
“MMFR” was one of those that I had to revisit. I was too harsh in the beginning, wanting more to the Max character. But in exchange for Max getting the short shrift, Miller introduced a wonderful new character, Imperator Furiosa, an absolute kick-ass performance by Charlize Theron, that dethrones former action queens Sigourney Weaver (“Alien” franchise) and Linda Hamilton (“Terminator”, “T2”). Add to that, Miller bringing back Hugh Keays-Byrne (Toecutter, the main villain from the original “Mad Max”), and a bevy of beauties as “The Five Wives” along with eye-popping visuals, and you have the kind of epic we haven’t seen in many, many years.
The Martian – Sir Ridley Scott with the right material can work wonders, and so he did with his latest film starring a very likable performance by Matt Damon and others. It helps that the book was so witty and enjoyable. Director Scott and lead star Damon captured all the suspense, futility and excitement of astronaut (and McGyver-like character) Mark Watney’s journey of survival against all odds on the planet Mars with its uncompromising conditions. Everything presented appears plausible, and the special effects are seamless. “The Martian” is a wonderful tale of hope against the most severe adversity facing one man.
Ex Machina – Bold, beautiful, enchanting and a paradox not only describes this thought provoking film, but also one of its stars, Alicia Vikander as Ava, the first truly artificial intelligence brought to fruition. Alex Garland has fashioned an odd thinking man’s thriller that keeps us on the edge of our seat and guessing all the way up to the end. Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, the unsuspecting techie that wins a weekend with his brilliant boss, Nathan (an off-the-wall memorable performance by Oscar Isaac). Nathan is a scientist/inventor/entrepreneur, but he also may be a bit mad. He’s called on this techie as a human lab rat to check out how close to human he has made his new breakthrough.
Visually stunning with an intriguing study of human character and their flaws, “Ex Machina” takes us into the kind of sci-fi territory rarely seen with such expertise. The only drawback (too many) is the controversial ending that left some with a bad aftertaste. It’s an argument that can easily be made, but it cannot diminish the power of this fine film.
The Hateful Eight (road show version) – From the very start, Tarantino pays homage to the spaghetti western with a somber image and score by none other than Ennio Morricone. And, when the credits appear, the writer/director jars us with his title. It does not quite sit right with the movie we thought we were seeing, but this is a Quentin Tarantino film. And, if one has followed this self-professed film geek’s career, you know where he will be going with his brand of storytelling – love it or leave it – it’s pure Tarantino.
This is part “Reservoir Dogs”, part very dark comedy, part drawing room mystery theater with the expected wonderful banter, and splattering of blood and vomit that would even make the legendary Sam Peckinpaw (“The Wild Bunch”) flinch. Once again, we haven’t seen such colorful characters since “Reservoir Dogs”. The tale is a raucous mean-spirited western that takes no prisoners, and is unabashedly bold in its offing of some of our favorite characters.
The writer/director unfolds his story like a book. Even going as far as to recap the second half of the film, lest anybody be confused. Every single cast member is brilliant, and Tarantino creates another classic moment in cinema history with a confrontation between Samuel L. Jackson and the legendary Bruce Dern that rivals the scene from his very first script “True Romance” that had Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper go mano a mano.
Predestination – Another pedigree in the science-fiction genre. The writing/directing team, the Spierig Brothers (“The Undead”) give us one of the most fascinating time travel adventures with a wonderful heart and soul. Ethan Hawke plays a time-traveling Temporal Agent whose mission is to enforce the law before it’s broken. His final mission proves to be the most difficult, capturing the person that has alluded him throughout all his journeys.
In the meantime, Hawke’s agent comes upon a downtrodden man, whose remarkably sad tale seems to capture the agent’s heart. The agent in turn offers the chance of a lifetime; to go back and correct the wrong done to him. But, is there an alternate plan in mind?
And, that’s where this weird tale (or tales) takes so many wild and wondrous curves. For some, the Spierig Brothers story may be hard to follow, but if one hangs in there, the pay off is remarkably satisfying. Sarah Snook (“Steve Jobs”, “Jessabelle”) as the unwed mother (which is the only thing I’ll reveal) is heartbreaking. She is such a pivotal part of this story and her transformations from a young innocent to a hard bitten and angry person is truly Oscar-worthy. I would say Ms. Snook is the very reason to see this film, but the Spierig Brothers must be applauded as well, delivering such an original piece of work. This is a movie to own and watch over, and over again.
It Follows – Possibly one of the creepiest and smartest movies of the horror decade. With a ghoulish nod to the John Carpenter classic “Halloween” and Herk Harvey’s “Carnival of Souls,” writer/director David Robert Mitchell delivers a cautionary tale of the benefits of abstinence. But where “Friday the 13th” and countless other “do the dirty deed and die” films of the ’80s had their maniac slice and dice young victims, “It Follows” has a far more subtle approach and dips into the supernatural.
Once a young woman goes on an innocent date, she discovers the unwanted gift that keeps on slowly stalking until “it” catches up with her. “It” can be a family member, a friend, or just a stranger in the guise of an elderly woman. And, no matter what form “it” takes, this entity is guaranteed to chill us to the bone. Now, here’s the kicker; “it” doesn’t stop with just the young woman. If “it” catches up to her, then “it” moves on to the last person she had sex with. And, the only way to keep “it” away from her, is for the young woman to have sex with someone else, which will protect her until “it” catches up with it’s next victim.
This frightful film fires up on all cylinders. The music score is as threatening as the entity itself. The cinematography takes us back to that wonderful fresh ’70s feel. And, we actually care for the cast of characters. In the end, “It Follows” follows along the dreaded footsteps of the Carpenter classic that left us apprehensive of shadows and the dark.
Brooklyn – And now I bookend this list with a picture that was nearly just as dear to my heart as the first film I mentioned (“Room”). Simple, sublime, and beautifully thought -out, “Brooklyn” is a wondrous movie that manages to sweep us off our feet while having us examine the many facets of love, home, and family. Director John Crowley manages to capture so many memorable images, and at the center of it all is an absolute stellar performance by his star, Saoirse Ronan as Eilis, the unassuming wide-eyed Irish immigrant that travels to New York in the ’50s, and finds a new life while struggling with the one she left behind.
Crowley and screenwriter, Nick Hornby (from a novel by Colm Toibin), take us on the journey of this young woman who leaves her small village in Ireland for what she hopes will be a better life. We see from the beginning that Eilis desires more than what her village and its residents have to offer, and Brooklyn, New York becomes her calling. But not only does the trip there prove to be a tumultuous one that leaves her with much apprehension, her stay becomes just as lonely, and she begins to long for her family, and what she may think is her comfort zone.
Gradually we see Eilis blossom into a more self-assured young woman. The change is both entertaining and heartwarming. And, just when life seems to be getting so much better for our girl, life falls out from under her, and Ireland is calling her back. It’s a very complex turning point, and one that is handled with such care. We struggle along with Eilis and her decisions, and root for her all the way. We can only hope that she has the fortitude to persevere through the storm of emotions that disrupts her life, and come back as a stronger person. In the end, Crowley and company deliver a genuine life-affirming message that stays with us long after the picture is over. We leave with a smile on our face, and perhaps a song in our heart that makes us happy that they still make movies like this.