Josh’s Top Ten of 2015
I’m not usually one to be contrarian, but it seems that this year I find myself at odds with many of the other BP writers – I found this movie year to be a particularly disappointing one. Not at all to diminish those who’ve already submitted lists (seriously, they’re an awesome, talented, and intelligent group of folks), but for some reason I found myself walking out of a lot of 2015’s big draws feeling underwhelmed. Even some of these top ten left a lot to be desired, but fortunately a top ten list doesn’t have to be “a list of ten amazing movies I saw this year.” Here’s the ten I liked more than the others.
10. The Revenant*
Iñárritu, even though he won big at the Oscars, got a lot of criticism from those who found Birdman talky and pretentious. With The Revenant the filmmaker seems to have gone in the other direction, scrapping long-winded dialogue for extended beauty shots. The story is thin here, and the filmmakers do little to add to the basics of the true story (with the notable exception of the satisfying[?] change to the story’s end). The visuals are the redeeming element here. While over-indulgent at times, and unfortunately marred by the inclusion of almost exclusively CGI fauna, the film is full of beautiful moments. Not to mention some spectacular camera work from Emmanuel Lubezki.
9. Ex Machina*
We’re in a cultural moment where people are hungry for sci-fi, and when that need is usually met by schlock like Chappie, it’s exciting to see some real live smart sci-fi. Ex Machina has a lot of flaws, but is bolstered by some very intriguing ideas about identity and artificial intelligence (Her, anyone?). The sexual element can’t be denied either, as the two male characters are in positions of power over the female ones, and are both willing to manipulate them for personal gains, even if they might appear noble on the surface. Oscar Isaac and Domnhall Gleeson have a great chemistry together, and Alicia Vikander brings a complex inhuman humanity to Ava.
8. The Hateful Eight
In a film industry increasingly tantalized by digital formats and 3D, we can always count on Quentin Tarantino to point us back to the movies that came before. Rife with references to Sergio Leone, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and The Thing, Tarantino doubles down on his love of film cinematography by hyping his 70mm road show cut of The Hateful Eight. While the film isn’t able to capture the blazing tension of Inglourious Basterds, it is able to keep its audience engaged for nearly three hours in one location. The dialogue is the clever kind we expect from Tarantino, mixed with just enough of his self-satisfaction to be bothersome at times. Memorable characters abound, and it’s nice to see Samuel L. Jackson getting to act for Tarantino in something more substantial than a caricature like Django’s Stephen.
Spotlight offers a simple, no-nonsense retelling of a story that most of us remember. But since our memories of the scandal have been reduced to late-night TV jokes, the film encourages us to look back and remember what it was like when the truth first came to light. Tom McCarthy directs a film about journalism in a journalistic style: information heavy, and to the point. While the message about systemic injustice even in our enlightened 21st century isn’t new, Spotlight’s take on our response to such injustice is thought-provoking. Michael Keaton gives a performance free of Birdman’s bombast, engaging and effective while subdued.
6. The End of the Tour
My own personal affinity for David Foster Wallace had me predisposed to either love or hate this film depending on the portrayal of one of my literary heroes. While I take some issue with Jason Segel’s performance, my response is positive, overall. Some of Wallace’s ideas get a chance to take the forefront here (their conversation at the Mall of America is one of my favorite moments) as well as some weighty explorations about artistic envy. Jesse Eisenberg’s Lipsky finds himself on the uncomfortable line between critic and artist – he’s a writer himself, but approaching Wallace as the critic, and holds a Salierian grudge against the weirdo author whose genius he can’t deny.
5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens*
Speaking of personal affinities… I have to recognize that if I wasn’t the Star Wars fan that I’ve been since age 6 or so, this movie probably wouldn’t be this high on the list. You’ve already heard all the positives – good use of practical effects, fun throwbacks, and introduction of new, charismatic characters. I’d agree with all of that, but there’s something else specific I got out of this one. Being now old enough to be excited, then disappointed by reboots (from Get Smart to Smashing Pumpkins), Abrams’ Star Wars showed me that no one is ever going to make a movie that feels the same as A New Hope – and that’s ok. His film builds on the anthology and pleases in many of the same ways, and that’s the most we should expect. We already have A New Hope. While I’m pessimistic about the directors slated to continue this saga, The Force Awakens made it fun to return to the Star Wars universe.
At its heart, Brooklyn is a story about growing up. Specifically the part of growing up that means eschewing the safety of “home” to start a new life, both exciting and frightening. As Eilis, Saoirse Ronan transforms from a shy immigrant who cries herself to sleep at night into a savvy woman who can quickly and easily command attention and respect from friends and family back in her native Ireland. Her choice between forging farther into a life of exhilarating risk or into a life of comfortable simplicity is embodied in her choice between lovers. Uneducated, plucky Tony can offer her a life that will always be full of new things, even if that means risking her comfort. Suave, well-off Jim instead offers a plush life in the world she’s always known. Eilis’ bravery in flying to ills that she knows not of is both an example of the blind jump inherent in new adulthood, and the courageous spirit of the immigrants who sought a new home in America.
3. Coming Home
Whether he’s making a martial arts flick or a personal character piece, Zhang Yimou always has a thoughtful and beautiful approach to his films. Coming Home is no exception. It is an intimate, heart-breaking tale that celebrates loving commitment even in the face of insurmountable odds. It deals with responsibilities and expectations of family, forgiveness for wrongs that can’t be undone, and the acts that embody true love. Gong Li plays the amnesiac Feng beautifully. She captures the emotions of a lost woman desperately clinging to the idea that her life can be normal again, that everything will be back to normal the minute her husband returns. When he does return, unrecognizable to her, his dedication to returning her memory is as poetically tragic as her desire to see to reunite with her husband. A wonderful character study, expertly acted, and stunning to watch.
In a weird filmic coincidence, Christian Petzold’s film bears striking resemblance to Coming Home. Both are films about a character who returns from wartime atrocities only to find their spouse does not recognize them. But Phoenix is a tragedy of a different color (with an ending that is oddly more uplifting). While Coming Home’s Lu is determined to stick with his wife even if she never remembers him, Phoenix’s Johnny is quick to use the wife he doesn’t recognize for personal profit. She floats in an uncomfortable tension between her desire to be recognized, and her righteous anger at Johnny’s callous usage of her. It concludes with a gut punch of an ending, too good to spoil.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
Mad Max: Fury Road is a wild, unapologetic, rocket of a movie. It knows exactly what it’s trying to do, and succeeds almost one hundred percent. It shakes off the imposed responsibility most sequels feel to pander to fans of the franchise and creates a totally new world, a cousin of the previous films instead of a cloying Frankenstein’s monster. It doubles down on unbelievable stunts (I have to imagine that studio execs were left conspicuously unaware of some of them), and moves with an energy unmatched by any action/adventure film I’ve seen in a long time. If that wasn’t enough, it gave us one of the coolest bad-asses the cinema has ever seen in Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. That this original and thrilling tour-de-force comes from 70 year old George Miller makes it that much more fun.
Of course, there are the contenders I didn’t see. There’s always the chance I missed all the best ones, and films like Creed, Room, Tangerine, The Look of Silence, Amy, Straight Outta Compton, 45 Years – the list goes on – could have redeemed the year for me. Either way, I’ve got some catching up to do, so here’s to retroactively finding those missed gems of 2015, and looking forward to the top ten of 2016.
*film features Domhnall Gleeson, whose agent is just knocking it out of the park right now.