Sunday, January 31, 2016

"The Danish Girl"

 4 / 5 

Like its title character at a party, The Danish Girl doesn't know how to enter or exit gracefully, stumbling on the way in and devolving into histrionics on her way out, and even thought the modest uncertainty that gives way to maudlin theatricality seems entirely appropriate for the character, the tonal shifts leave the film just shy of where it wants to be.

Where it wants to be is clearly telegraphed in those final moments, when Eddie Redmayne, playing a woman named Lili Elbe who was previously a man named Einar Wagener, wakes up in a hospital and asks to be wheeled into the garden.  If you've seen a movie made in the past, oh, 70 years or so, you know Lily/Einar/Eddie isn't coming back from that garden, and the scenes might as well have super-imposed arrows pointing to Redmayne flashing the words, "For your consideration! Best Actor!"

The Danish Girl does feel almost that desperate by its end, which is a genuine shame, because everything that has led up to it has been subtle, thoughtful and unexpectedly involving.  It's likely that most audiences who watch The Danish Girl will neither be Danish nor transsexuals nor even -- despite all of the recent furor over the decision by Bruce Jenner to become Caitlyn Jenner -- particularly aware of or comfortable with the emotional state of a man who believes himself to have been born the wrong gender.

As the film begins, Einar Wegener is a Danish artist living with his talented, free-spirit wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) in their artists studio in 1920s Copenhagen.  She paints portraits, he paints landscapes.  They love each other quite a lot, and work together frequently.  One morning, a model doesn't show up and Gerda can't paint.  Einar offers to help be her stand-in, and slides his legs into women's stockings, fits his foot into a ballet slipper, and feels the rustle of the ballgown he places over himself.  He blushes.  He should not find this arousing, but he does.

Yet Einar knows he is not a transsexual, not a man who likes to wear women's clothes.  The Danish Girl hints quite broadly that Einar isn't the only one who knows of his true internal identity -- Gerda seems utterly enchanted by the idea her husband could become a woman.  More than that, a woman who men find attractive.  Einar and Gerda create an identity for Einar's alter-ego: Lily, the shy cousin of Einar, visiting from the countryside.

But as soon as they spend time in public with Einar's new identity by attending a local artists' ball, they both realize it is not a game.  Immediately, Lili attracts the attention of men at the dance.  She is flattered, but she is also confused.  Einar knows he is not a homosexual -- he is not attracted to men as a man.  But when he becomes Lily, he not only gains a surprised suitor, but the man appears to have guessed Lily's secrets -- and doesn't mind at all.  It sets Einar's head spinning, not to mention Gerdas.  They, after all, remain husband and wife -- but doesn't a husband get a secret life?  Don't we all?  Do the vows of honoring and obeying matter if the spouse says the best way to honor and obey is to dress as a woman and arouse the interest of men?

The Danish Girl is at its best when it delves into the confusions and secrets of Einar and Gerda.  They are a fascinating couple, played with equally fascinating depth by Redmayne and, especially, Vikander.  Watching them try to negotiate the rules that might allow their deeper love to remain intact feels both modern and urgent -- and The Danish Girl is at its best when its period setting fades into the background and you wonder how much of the story is at least equally, if not more, relevant to today?

Einar and Gerda love each other.  That is never in doubt.  And Lily turns to Gerda as her only source of strength in a confusing and upsetting world.  Those who meet Lily, like Einar's old childhood friend Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts) may not accept her immediately, but they have a remarkably easy time accepting Einar's transition, understanding that this is what he wants to become.

Redmayne negotiates tricky territory carefully, with a quiet confidence and loveliness that make it easier, in a way, to accept Lily than the strangely aloof Einar.  Redmayne plays Lily as the character of truth in the story -- though she's also stunted in her awareness of the world; she has only ever experienced it from a man's perspective.

Outdoing even Redmayne is Vikander, who earlier in 2015 played the robot in Ex Machina.  She's a full-blooded human in this one, tender and caring, patient yet angry for not understanding exactly what Einar is proposing to do.  Vikander finds a way to make the sort of grief she's experiencing accessible and comprehensible.

Visually, The Danish Girl is a minor masterpiece; it's one of the movies that you wish you could frame and project in the house; every moment of it has a beautiful image at its core.  It's a ravishing beauty of a film

It's just that when the emotional stuff ends, when the discussion of the hows, whys and what-it-means-to-mes have all been had, the movie has little to do but show Einar's recovery from his surgery (which is described in sufficient enough detail to be concerning, I suppose, to younger children, older adults or strong conservatives).  Despite being two hours long, I wanted to see more, wanted to know how Lily gets along in day-to-day life, and what kind of relationship she has with the man who once chased her when she was a closeted homosexual.  The movie is filled with intriguing possibilities, but it sticks mainly to the story at hand.  It's a good story.  A little sappy in the end, but a good story nonetheless.

The Danish Girl starts by taking an idea that has fueled comedies from Victor/Victoria to Bosom Buddies, then explains why transgenderism is nothing like that at all and how we've gotten it all wrong, why this is -- or, at least, was -- an anguished way to lead a life, and why it's better to risk death than live another day without liberty.

In that, it's odd how much it turns itself into a moving and captivating story even the conservatives could get behind.  Watching The Danish Girl is probably the last thing a conservative would ever think to do -- but they might be moved, as I was, to discover a real person is at the heart of the gender switch, a person who has hurt and ached and loved all of his/her life, and is ready to find out, so many years after it should have begun, what life can really be like.

Viewed Jan. 30, 2015 -- DVD

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Catching Up: "The Gift"

 4 / 5 

Here's a movie Alfred Hitchcock would have loved.  The deliciously pitch-black humor and frequently malevolent world view of The Master of Suspense can be felt in almost every frame of The Gift, and though the film is the work of a first-time director and writer, it would not at all be a surprise to find out that Joel Edgerton studied Hitchcock's American films; the film he has made owes a lot to those movies in the best possible way.

Edgerton is also one of the stars of The Gift, which has a bigger cast than the three people at its center, but they are extraneous.  The movie is really about what happens when Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn Callum (Rebecca Hall) move from Chicago to L.A. and run into a man named Gordon Moseley (Edgerton), who Simon used to know back in high school.

These aren't twenty-something, or even thirty-something young adults -- they're all well into their 40s, they can even see 50 coming up, so high school isn't a nostalgic blast for them, it's a distant memory.  So, it's odd to reconnect, and so quickly, with one of Simon's old high-school pals.  Simon thinks there's something off about Gordo, who they nicknamed "Weirdo" way back when.  But Robyn thinks Gordon is a nice guy, maybe a little off, but also maybe just lonely the way people in L.A. can be.  She doesn't mind that Gordo comes by in the middle of the day, long after Simon has left for his downtown office.  Robyn makes them tea, Gordo sets up the TV in the new house, and they like to talk.

Gordo likes to leave gifts at the front door.  That's weird, right?  And the family dog goes missing.  Coincidence?  Something's going on, and Simon is convinced Gordo is behind it.  Why?  Because ... because!  Because the guy was named "Weirdo" in school, that's why, isn't that enough?

It makes Robyn a little curious.  She works from home, or mostly she tries to keep quiet and calm at home.  There's an indication something has happened in her past.  It started with a miscarriage, but it got ... worse.  Simon seems to be extra cautious around her.  She doesn't seem particularly fragile ... except for those few moments when she isn't quite right.

The Gift sets us on edge like this a lot, and Edgerton's screenplay and his assured directorial eye plays nicely with our uncertainty.  Robyn and Simon move into one of those glass-walled mid-century architectural homes, and Edgerton's camera loves to play with the idea that from certain places in the house, we can see both Robyn and Simon, though they can't see each other.  This is a handsome, well-designed film, to be sure, and its visual flair is augmented by the confident pacing and editing.  It's not a movie that telegraphs its intentions, it's one that reveals the things that, in retrospect, you wish you had noticed despite all those open walls and huge picture windows that seem to reveal everything -- but Edgerton manages to keep just enough hidden, nonetheless, filling the screen with reflections, shadows and visual doubles exactly the way Hitchcock did.

Despite the impressive design, the movie wouldn't work if the characters weren't compelling, and they certainly are: Simon is determined to get a promotion and start a family; Robyn wants to recover from a detour that took her into experimenting with pills; and Gordo wants to be friends again with his old pal.  But, no, it has to be more than that ... doesn't it?

There are a number of plot revelations in The Gift, some a little surprising, some massive game-changers.  The latter are ones that Robyn learns for herself, and it's information she wishes she hadn't known.  Like that moment in Psycho where Norman kills Marian, or the one in Vertigo when Scotty sees Judy, Robyn's discoveries set the story off in surprising directions, and a very late plot development pulls an insidious little twist as it continues shifting our sympathies for two of the film's most difficult, most fascinating characters.

In Hitchcock films, the good guy frequently became the bad guy, only to become the good guy again, until we weren't so sure where he stood.  The same happens here.  The characters played by Edgerton and Bateman, particularly, straddle the line between good and evil so carefully that they take a certain amount of (well-deserved) glee playing both sides.  These are essentially good guys who go bad -- unless they are essentially bad guys who know how to play at being good.  They're fascinating, and The Gift ends with one of them playing perhaps the ultimate head game, one that also leaves us scratching our heads and furrowing our brows ... but also smiling, because this is sinister entertainment, and it works so well.

Like any good guest, The Gift knows when to make its departure, and it fades out at just the right moment, when virtually nothing has been settled except that the bad guy gets his way.

Perhaps.  Hard to know for sure.

The film ends with an open-ended sense of uncertainty that could undermine a lesser movie, but in this case just leaves the audience wearing a nasty little grin.  You almost feel bad for the people in the story you just watched -- if only, in their own ways, they didn't all deserve exactly what they have coming to them.

Viewed Jan. 23, 2016 -- VOD

Sunday, January 17, 2016

"The Big Short"

 3.5 / 5 

This is one audacious movie, not just for its complex structure, which has it following as many as five different but interconnected stories at once, but for its attempt to create narrative fiction out of complicated non-fiction -- economic non-fiction, to boot.  The Big Short scores high marks for its technical merits and artistic virtuosity, the trouble is, it can't quite stick the landing.

For most of its length, The Big Short goes out of its way to clear things up for those of us who only watched in astonishment as the housing market collapsed in 2007 and 2008.  We learned a little about what was happening at the time, but never quite enough, and The Big Short knows that.  Its screenplay, by director Adam McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph, finds a multitude of ways to explain what we need to know.

In one terrific sequence, an investment banker played by Ryan Gosling uses a tower of Jenga blocks to demonstrate what's going to happen and why.  At other times, readouts on the screen give us additional information and definitions.  And at a few critical points, the movie gets really clever by having Margot Robbie in a bathtub explain subprime loans, or Selena Gomez at a blackjack table try to clarify "synthetic CDO."

Yet, for all of it, two critical things happen while someone who's only functionally literate when it comes to economics watches The Big Short: First, the clarity dissipates, and just as the film seems to be reaching a climax, it's easy to lose sight of exactly what's going on; and second, the narrative loses its thrust.  As the goings-on become murkier and murkier, it's hard to care about what's happening.

Here's the thing: What you think is going on in the last 30 minutes of The Big Short indeed is what's going on.  But it's being done so slyly, through stealthy phone calls and some emails, that it's easy not to be sure.  Dramatically, it hurts the movie, and it drains it of much of the zesty, sharp-tongued fun that came before.

Because up until then, The Big Short is an undeniably entertaining movie, as if irascible, left-wing economist Robert Reich wrote a movie about why the housing market failed.  Well, in point of fact, he did make a movie, a terrific one called Inequality for All that puts forth many of his own views, the kind that rankle conservatives to no end.  Substitute Reich for some fantastic actors, and to a certain degree, you've got The Big Short.

Typically, movies that star Steve Carell, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Marisa Tomei and other big-name actors in bit parts (Melissa Leo has a particularly unique cameo) worry about things like story flow and character arcs.  Those are the furthest thing from the mind of The Big Short.  Shot with handheld cameras that make it feel like the faux-documentary of The Office, it's more concerned with getting the details and the facts right.  There is no character growth -- save, perhaps some soul-searching done by Carell's character -- and perhaps there needn't be.

The Big Short wants to get its message out to the widest possible audience, using the best possible vehicle with the most appealing stars.  It's essentially a how-it-happened docu-drama (frequently a dock-comedy) that seeks to keep us angry about the way so many bankers defrauded the public and conned the system to the point of collapse.

But it wasn't all bankers.  The Big Short gets a little short-sighted itself when it doesn't dig any deeper into the story it presents (as just one example) of a stripper who owns five homes because she hasn't had to pay more than 5% down on each.  The movie has a lot to say about the mortgage industry that helped her do that, and the banking industry that funded the mortgage industry -- but little about the greed of the everyday homeowner who just couldn't wait to buy houses s/he couldn't afford.

By following four different groups of people who discover, pretty much simultaneously, that there is a way to predict the coming housing crisis, The Big Short keeps things moving.  It moves so fast it never even pauses to catch its breath, and it is made my skilled artists who know how to juggle so many different stories and still make the film alluring.  But as it nears its end, as the system collapses, it becomes harder and harder to follow, and the movie neglects that careful over-explanation that exemplified its first half.

It's also so breezily entertaining that it's easy to forget we're watching four sets of guys who are eager to get very rich by watching others get very poor, and despite some claims of soul-searching, the movie never does quite find a way to make them feel entirely sympathetic; they will only win if everyone else loses.  (Spoiler alert: None of them refuse to take the money, they just feel sort of semi-bad about it.)

Still, despite some shortcomings, The Big Short is worth seeing, both as a helpful reminder of what happened back then, and as a movie that manages the swell trick of being both entertaining and informative.  Never let it be said that the old '90s concept of "edutainment" is dead ... it's apparently just migrated from children's TV shows and theme parks to Oscar-nominated movies.  When The Big Short ends, you'll find you've laughed a little, you've learned a little, and you still have a lot of questions.

Viewed Jan. 16, 2016 -- DVD

Saturday, January 16, 2016


 4 / 5 

An unexpected grace and dignity infuse Room, a movie in which two people have to make the most of what very, very little they have.

One of them, known mostly as "Ma" in the movie but actually named Joy Newsome, was kidnapped when she was 17 and held captive by a man called "Old Nick," who locked her in a storage shed sealed by an impenetrable door, only one skylight high above her to remind her of the world from which she was separated.

The other is Jack, and he is her son.  When the movie begins, he's just about to turn 5.  Joy is 24 now, and if her world seems bleak, consider that she spent two years on her own before Jack came along.  Somehow, she has managed to raise him to speak, read, think, function.

"Room" is all Jack knows, and up until now, Ma has never told him that there is anything else.  He has taken what little he has seen of the world -- on television, in children's books -- and processed it through the brain of a boy who has never even considered that there could be life beyond these four walls, or that there is anyone else in the world except Ma and, once in a while, Old Nick, from whom he must avert his eyes.

Room begins with a situation that is hopeless, despairing and claustrophobic, and thanks largely to the luminous work of its two leading actors -- Brie Larson as Ma and Jacob Tremblay as Jack -- manages to contain love and warmth, even as the creeping dread of futility sets in.

About an hour in to Room, in a scene filled with anxiety and tension, Ma and Jack manage to escape.  That leads into the film's second half, which is slightly less focused, at least at first.  Ma and Jack are reunited with her parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy), but it turns out much has changed over the past seven years.  How, or even if, Ma and Jack can adjust to freedom drives much of the film's plot -- but just simmering under that plot is an even more intriguing theme: Was life in "Room" as bleak as it seemed?

Of course it was.  Held against her will, repeatedly raped, living in squalor and filth, "Room" held nothing for either of them.  Yet, it was the totality of Jack's life and, as he says at one point, "Ma was always there."

Room deconstructs the gothic fairy-tale gloom of the sequestered, neglected Rapunzel, splitting a single character into both the innocent child in the tower who doesn't know the world exists so can't miss it (Jack even has extra-long hair), and the young woman who must escape.

For a while, Room is much like Ma/Joy herself, who has trouble finding her own way through life once she's released.  The film's middle third is a little meandering, a little too unsure of how it feels about what has happened.  Yet, the two main actors are so compelling and have created such fully realized characters that as long as one or the other of them are on screen, Room remains captivating.  (Larson has deservedly been nominated for an Oscar; how Tremblay was overlooked, given the Academy's penchant to recognize young performers in "adult" categories, is a head-scratcher; his is a truly extraordinary performance.)

Room is at its surest when it explores how deep the bond is between mother and son, and how these two people have made a world out of just each other.  Its final moments reinforce that connection in a scene that resonates with the profound sense of love and equally profound sense of loss that permeate Room.

Viewed Jan. 16, 2016 -- DVD

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Catching Up: "Steve Jobs"

 2.5 / 5 

To publish this review, my fingers slid and danced across the sleek aluminum surface of my MacBook Pro.  I tapped, pinched, swiped and dragged my hands, and to someone dropped into this century from the middle of the last one, it might have appeared I was practicing some new art form, a combination of typing and magic.

For those of us who knew an entire life without computers, it can still feel a little like an illusion, all the things we can do with our MacBooks and our iPhones and iPads and everything else Steve Jobs had a hand in creating.  Could one man really have been responsible for all this, for this shift in the way we do almost everything?

Well, no.  Steve Jobs (played in the film by Michael Fassbender) was many things, no doubt, but he was not a computer engineer or a mathematician or a designer or a marketer or a coder or an architect.  He knew how they worked, though, and how to put them together. He had people who worked for him who did all those things, who made them all happen, and based on the evidence presented in Danny Boyle's film Steve Jobs, he had nothing but disdain and contempt for those people, while they, in turn, sometimes idolized him, sometimes respected him, sometimes feared him, sometimes hated him -- but couldn't help but want to please him.

Everyone needed to make Jobs happy, and for their trouble, Jobs made the lion's share of the money and got almost all of the fame and glory because ... well, because he could.  Jobs was the salesman.  He didn't create the thing, he didn't design the brochure, he didn't build the showroom, but, boy, could he sell it.  Even when the results were disastrous, you couldn't fault the showmanship.

The script for Steve Jobs rather too neatly divides itself into thirds, each one set on the day of a major product launch: the 1984 introduction of the Macintosh, the 1988 unveiling of the NeXT computer, the 1998 debut of the iMac.  (Two of them were spectacular failures.)

It's a highly theatrical setup that makes Steve Jobs feel almost like a filmed play, and that sharply limits its ability to explore Jobs's emotions (if he had any) and internal motivations (which he most certainly did) without resorting to words.

They're Sorkin's words, which means they're the best, most well-chosen words money can buy -- but they are words, not actions, and time after time, Steve Jobs violates the old chestnut of a rule that has guided moviemaking for so long: show, don't tell.  Steve Jobs has to tell just about everything, facts and emotions alike, but it doesn't actually convey much.  Audiences who walk in knowing nothing about Jobs or Apple will likely end up confused and frustrated, because amid all those words there is little room for explanation.

Each third contains almost the same characters and same setup, so Steve Jobs feels a little like a real-life Groundhog Day as Jobs' head of marketing Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), his former partner Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), his sometime boss and mentor John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), his estranged girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) and their daughter Lisa (played by a trio of young actresses) appears in every iteration, along with various put-upon, abused members of Jobs's team.

Twenty minutes before each product launch, Jobs's personal life comes crashing down and barging in, mixing and matching with what he's supposed to be rehearsing for.  Jobs could have opened his own nightclub in Casablanca, because everybody comes to Steve's, invited or not.  The setup feels contrived, at best, and though it's a sort of neat idea that the film is going for, it feels claustrophobic and confining, and to provide any sort of perspective at all, the movie has to resort to a number of flashbacks at key moments.

It's also got a huge liability in the way it portrays Jobs as a merciless, humorless tyrant whose relentless attention to business detail may make him fascinating on the page, but don't translate into an effective character.  He's angry, hostile, belittling, demeaning and humiliating -- and those are the good qualities.  It's thoroughly unpleasant to watch him harass and debase everyone around him, and when the film tries, in its last few minutes, to find his humanity, it's too little and too late.

That said, Steve Jobs is well-performed by everyone, it's beautifully shot in three different formats (a technique completely lost on the TV screen), and it manages wonderfully to depict three very different eras, even though we're basically only seeing the inside of buildings.

Technically, Steve Jobs gets everything right.  But movies aren't computers, and in the case of Steve Jobs, technical mastery just isn't enough.

Viewed Jan. 11, 2016 -- DVD

Friday, January 1, 2016

"The Revenant"

 3 / 5 

The Revenant creates a new category of cinema: movies as extreme endurance sport. The film is grueling to watch.  The question, I suppose, is whether the superlative filmmaking skill on display helps make the experience of watching The Revenant any easier, and for me the answer was no -- its unending pain and violence leads to no catharsis, just a sense of forlorn despondency.

The Revenant makes Mel Gibson's ultra-violent movies The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto look like fun family films.  If the film has a specific philosophical point it's trying to make, it seems to boil down to: Life is hard, then you die, except when you don't, and that's even worse.

It takes place, to be fair, in a bleak time -- the early 1800s, not too long after Lewis and Clark journeyed across America.  Back when our elementary school teachers taught us about those two explorers, we imagined that their journey was difficult and fraught with peril, but pictured them as proud, intrepid men.  If we imagined their experiences to be anything like what happens in The Revenant, third graders everywhere would throw their history books down screaming and go cower in the corner.  The Revenant is not kids' stuff; I'm not even sure it's adult stuff.

The movie proposes that the only worthwhile measure of a man is his ability to withstand physical pain and mental anguish.  It's a macho movie, for macho men who think Bear Grylls is a wimp.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, an early American fur hunter who's on an expedition through the country's vast, untamed wilderness of the Louisiana Purchase when his party is attacked by Native Americans.  Most of them die, shot through the neck and head with arrows, hacked to death, trampled, beaten, left for dead bleeding in the frozen river.  This is the easy part of The Revenant.

The survivors begin making their way back to Fort Kiowa in what's now South Dakota when Glass crosses the path of a grizzly bear and her cubs.  In one of the most savage scenes in any big-budget studio film, the bear attacks Glass with unrelenting ferocity.  We watch every rip, every tear, every slice.  When he's finally found, he's so gravely wounded that survival seems impossible, but the expedition leader (Domhnall Gleeson) manages to stitch his wounds.  He orders two members of the remaining unit to stay behind, and Glass's half-Native American son also remains.

But fellow trapper Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) sees no point in trying to keep Glass alive, and when Glass's son objects, Fitzgerald kills him.  He and the frightened, bullied Bridger (Will Poulter) leave Glass for dead in the harsh wilderness.

With grievous wounds, Glass inches his way toward survival -- and revenge.  It's an undeniably gripping story, told with incredible artistry.  The film crew, led by director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, must have suffered for the sake of the movie.  Watching it, I imagined that there might be a story behind the film as great as the legendary history of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo.

The Revenant is a spectacular film to behold, and also to hear, with an ethereal, not-always-musical score by a number of composers, including Riyuichi Sakamoto, that marries with the stunning images from cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki in ways I've never seen happen on film before.

Beyond that, The Revenant is a film that dares you to watch it, and offers no emotional reward if you do.  What happens to Glass at the end of the film, where it all leads, is as grim and hopeless as everything that has come before.  The Revenant is an undeniable accomplishment.  So is sitting through it.

Viewed Dec. 31, 2015 -- ArcLight Hollywood


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.