Friday, January 1, 2016

The Best of 2015

When I was in fifth grade, Star Wars was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars.  It lost to Annie Hall, and I was devastated.  I could not imagine how a movie that made me feel so complete, that brought my little soul to life, could not be the best film of the year -- or of ever.

Now, four decades later, I imagine young souls all throughout the world pondering the question: "Is Star Wars: The Force Awakens the best movie of the year?  Is it, possibly, the best movie ever made?" Endless and breathless media reports tell us multiple times a day that it has grossed more money than any movie ever in the history of movies.  And since it's their favorite movie, might it not be the best movie of 2015?

Well, just as it was in 1977, Star Wars is a fine film -- but it's sharing the year with some truly great ones.  Maybe the hardest thing for a movie lover to do in 2015 has been to narrow the list of "best" movies of the year to just 10.

Since I'm not a professional film writer and, sadly, don't get paid to go to the movies, my moviegoing is limited by time, work, home life and an endless barrage of streaming TV (not to mention those good, old-fashioned things called books).  Nonetheless, in 2015, I managed to see nearly 50 films.  Almost shamefully, Steve Jobs, Crimson Peak, Youth and, most distressingly for me, Straight Outta Compton were not among them.

So what follows is my list of my favorite films of the year, but it isn't a definitive list, by any means. And because 2015 was an exemplary year and I can easily name 10 films as my favorites, it seems unfair not to mention five others I found particularly worthwhile, even if they fall into the "runner up" position.  So, consider as a five-way tie for 11th place (in alphabetical order):
  • Cinderella
  • Creed
  • Goodnight Mommy
  • It Follows
  • Love and Mercy
(While all are recommended, watching Cinderella on the same evening as either It Follows or Goodnight Mommy is not a trick I would suggest anyone try.)

The remainder of the list, from No. 10 to No. 1:


All Spy wants to do is to make you laugh, and if it's judged on that basis alone, it must be one of the most successful movies of the year.  You may try to resist because you've had your share of one-note comedies, but Spy surprises by being an actual movie -- and an uproariously funny one, at that.  Melissa McCarthy has some amazingly robust and willing support from Rose Byrne, Jude Law and Jason Statham, all clearly eager to have some fun.  Plus, its action sequences and glamorous locations are as genuine as those in a Bond film.  Spy was better than Spectre by far, and while it's hardly a highbrow pick as one of the best movies of the year, it's likely the 2015 film I'll return to over and over when I need a good laugh.

  Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine  

On the surface, this remarkable documentary might appear to be about the hate crimes that shocked not just the nation but the world in 1998, but that's only the devastating reason for its existence.  What Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine reveals, to much surprise, is that this slight, shy 21-year-old had a full and rich life before he died, scared and alone, on a bleak October day in Wyoming.  His friends and family reveal that he was not the martyr we have come to know him to be, but that he was a complicated, challenging young man whose life had already been filled enough with violence and tragedy.  Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine takes a subject we think we know and reveals layers and emotion we never imagined existed -- the hallmark of a great film.

  Ex Machina  

Watch it once, and this ultra-sleek and smooth thriller comes across as icy and aloof, barely raising its pulse even during a climax that put two of its three main characters into mortal peril at the hands of the third.  On that first viewing, its twists seem to come out of left field, and they are indeed surprises. Watch it again, and Ex Machina reveals just how carefully crafted it is, and how much it seems to have thought through what at first glance seems like a major loophole.  (Namely: Didn't you-know-who expect exactly what happens?)  Ex Machina reveals more of itself with subsequent viewings, and it's a movie to lose yourself in.  While it might not be the most touchy-feely movie of the year, it's one of the smartest and most intriguing, and may well be the year's real sci-fi masterpiece.


What seems to be a curiosity sits in the brain and refuses to leave, long after seeing it -- it is, to use the wordplay of one of its characters, an anomalovely movie, a gentle but insistent meditation on loneliness, regret and love.  Visually and spiritually, it owes more than a little to Sofia Coppola's low-key classic Lost in Translation, but this stop-motion animated wonder is even sadder and more melancholy.  For lonely Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), a business trip leaves him feeling so dislocated that it feels like the world is just him against everyone else.  Literally.  Because "everyone else" is voiced by Tom Noonan and they all have the same face.  (Fittingly, Michael is staying at the Fregoli hotel -- a sure sign that this is a quintessentially Charlie Kaufman film.)  Then he meets Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), who seems so delicate that she might break at any moment.  And in Anomalisa, stranger things could happen.  It's a movie that takes its time making an impact, but its  dialogue and images linger long past the final, quietly heartbreaking scene.


A no-frills, straightforward look at journalism in the days before everything fell apart, Spotlight captures both the spirit and intent of newspapering just before newspapers stopped becoming a thing. Spotlight is a potent, engrossing exploration of why print journalism remains vital, and how real journalism works.  The work of four reporters determined to go where the story leads ends up exposing one of the great scandals of our time, the Catholic church's cover-up of decades of child abuse by its priests.  The heroes of Spotlight don't wear capes or tights, they don't have flashy vehicles or super powers -- they just work hard, know how to ask the right questions, don't back down, and are committed to their jobs, and keep a watch out for misdeeds that rivals the work of any fictional hero.  Spotlight honors newspaper reporters with an unsentimental eye, and even offers some tough reminders that if the future newspapers is endangered, it's not as if the journalism industry shouldn't have seen it coming. 


When Carol finally sits down with Therese, the woman who's destined to change her life, Carol regards her with a certain wonder: "Strange girl," she observes. "Flung from space."  The movie Carol is equally unexpected and wondrous.  Director Todd Haynes replicates 1952 America with a meticulous eye for detail, but most important is the repression of any sort of sexual expression, which leaves Carol and Therese with virtually no way to communicate their intentions to each other, or even to themselves.  Slowly, Carol and Therese reveal themselves, until Carol builds to an unexpectedly emotional and affecting climax, and the joy of a simple, long-sought-after smile.  Carol makes a story about two women in mid-century America feel entirely contemporary and relatable, and serves as a touching reminder that every relationship is an act of faith and trust.


The saga of Eilis Lacey and her journey from Ireland to America begins in 1951 (interestingly, the same year in which Carol is set) and may be about a time that has faded into memory, but Brooklyn couldn't be timelier.  It's a warm-hearted reminder of why the U.S. remains so alluring to so many people around the world: It's a place filled with potential, where the promise that anything is possible still rings true.  As played by Saoirse Ronan, Eilis feels like one of the screen's great female characters, more humble than fellow Irishwoman Scarlett O'Hara but no less determined or conflicted.  When it finally revelas itself, Eilis' central conflict bears the marks of a soap opera, but Brooklyn deftly manages to skirt such melodrama, and manages instead to be a grand and memorable story, told with great style.

  Bridge of Spies  

Everything about Bridge of Spies screams "For Your Consideration" in a bid for Oscars -- but this time, the awards-season hype is justified.  The powerhouse combination of director Steven Spielberg, star Tom Hanks and screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen delivers a crafty, absorbing thriller, filled with shadows and mystery.  Hanks is a corporate lawyer who is recruited to defend an accused Russian spy during the height of the Cold War.  When Francis Gary Powers is shot down over the Soviet Union, Hanks's character finds himself at the center of global politics as he tries to negotiate the trade of one spy for another.  Bridge of Spies is based on a true story, but Spielberg never forgets that his first priority is to make an entertaining movie -- and his commitment to doing so results in his best film since at least the early 1990s, better (and more unabashedly entertaining) than even Schindler's List or Saving Private Ryan.


Mind-bendingly intense, Sicario opens on a scene of such stark inhumanity that it takes your breath away, then refuses to give it back for the next two hours.  Emily Blunt plays an FBI agent who imagines herself tough enough to handle any assignment.  She doesn't know what she's in store for as she begins the work of trying to bring down a Mexican drug cartel.  The deeper she goes, the more she realizes the futility of her situation.  Don't go in to Sicario expecting it to make sense -- the movie keeps its audiences as much in the dark as Blunt's agent.  It creates a new dilemma, both for its characters and for the audience: It's not sure who the bad guy is, because no one in Sicario is blameless, and the good guys seem as wicked as the villains.  Sicario is impossibly tense, and almost impossibly good.

  The Walk  

No film affected me as completely and unexpectedly as Robert Zemeckis's historical fantasia, a retelling of the events depicted in the nearly-as-good documentary Man on Wire, in which tightrope walker Philippe Petit recounted the day in 1974 that he strung a wire between the then-unfinished twin towers of New York's World Trade Center and thrilled the world with his astonishing stunt.  The deservedly acclaimed documentary conveyed the facts of the story, The Walk conveys the emotion.  The Walk is about the evanescence of ... well, of everything.  Its three parts are (in order) bubbly romantic comedy, giddy caper, and stunning recreation of a moment in time that will never happen again.  Each of the three parts has its strengths, and even if the first third, in particular, can seem overly sweet and cloying, the entire film is a monument to the raw, obsessive passion that drove Petit to attempt his impossible stunt.  Throughout 2015, a debate raged about whether digital effects had led films to become sterile and unimaginative.  With The Walk, Zemeckis proved what many had argued: Digital vs. practical is the wrong argument -- what matters is whether there is vision and artistry behind the camera.  The Walk uses every digital trick possible, yet never feels sterile or hollow.  A great deal of its effectiveness will be lost in the transition to the small screen; it's a film that practically begs to be seen in a theater.  Nonetheless, in its tribute to both Petit's accomplishment and to the never-forgotten majesty of those glorious lost towers, The Walk generates an emotion too rarely felt in movies: pure awe.

1 comment:

  1. Just watched Ex Machina based on your review. Was not disappointed - what a movie!!! Holy cow - the twists and turns were great! Some I saw, but a couple were true surprises!! Thanks!