Sarah’s Top Ten of 2015
Every year writing my top ten list is a struggle and like most years the ranking order of the films is fairly fluid with the exception of my top two. This was a year where I saw the majority of films on the small screen which might have impacted my list to a degree, but in a year of underwhelming “blockbusters” I don’t feel underserved by the circumstances in which I saw most of these films.
10. One and Two
One and Two was a films I only discovered because of Battleship Pretension. I got to review it for the site and really enjoyed it. A family of four are living on a farm alone behind a big wall. The father is a strict disciplinarian while the mother is a more sensitive, nurturing figure. Eva and Zac are the two children and they have the ability to transport themselves. They can only do it over short distances and they have to see where they are going. The father does not approve but their mother is more understanding. After the mother dies Eva is sent away by the father and Zac is left to run the farm with him. Not only is the supernatural element of the film interesting, especially once Eva is in the modern world beyond the wall, but the dysfunctional family dynamics are fascinating. The father is misguided nearly to the point of madness and the children are just acting out like typical teenagers. Eva feels trapped and is desperate to see the world while Zac is more cow-towed and is afraid to leave the farm. Watching the family try and fail to function while these two special children struggle with their own self-identity and uniqueness make the film an interesting watch.
One major complaint about time travel films are that they create paradoxes when you think about their timelines. Predestination manages to sidestep this criticism by being a film about a time travel paradox. Ethan Hawke is a time agent who travels back to the 70’s as a bar tender, he hears an incredible tale told by a patron. He offers that patron a chance to right the terrible wrong done to them in the past which leads to you learning more about the bartender and patron. To describe the plot of Predestination is really an exercise in futility, but what I liked so much about the film is that it doesn’t matter if the whole thing makes sense because it doesn’t. At the heart of the plot is the effort by the time agency to stop a bomber nicknamed the “Fizzle Bomber”. Hawke is really the anchor for the story but the film is really about the bar patron played by Sarah Snook. Snook’s performance as her many characters throughout the film, each with their own strong motivations, take you on an incredible journey of discovery that you only get all the pieces to at the very end. Predestination sets up the rules of time travel clearly and organically and since the whole thing is set in an alternative-Earth you can easily just go along with some of the more extraordinary elements of the film. I don’t think the film would ever really make total sense but since it is a paradox, it doesn’t have to.
8. The Man From U.N.C.L.E
The Man from U.N.C.L.E was the most fun I had at the movie theater this year. I have never seen the TV show it was based on so I cannot comment on how much of it was an homage but it was a lot of fun to watch. I also think The Man from U.N.C.L.E shows a growth and maturity for director and co-writer Guy Ritchie. Ritchie brings his signature flare and style to the film without slipping too far into his usual bag of tricks. No doubt he uses many tricks in the film but they feel purposeful here rather than just flashy. The cast is a key part of why this film is so much fun. Henry Cavill as Solo and Armie Hammer as Illya make a comedic duo constantly trying to “out spy” each other. While Alicia Vikander is playing her own game. Elizabeth Debicki plays Victoria who is always immaculately dresses, dripping with jewelry, and oozing sex. Hugh Grant, Sylvester Groth, and Jared Harris round out the cast. The film is a web of lies, tradecraft, and double-double crosses keeping the audience on their toes. Ritchie brings plenty of humor to the screen often using the action scenes to heighten the comedy. The film is far from flawless and was probably over the top for some viewers but it really worked for me and was the most fun I had at cinema this year.
Our past always catches up to us, at least that is what movies would have us believe. In Match Patrick Stewart plays an aging ballet choreographer, Tobi Powell, who is being interviewed for an academic paper, or so he thinks. Carla Gugino plays the author of the paper Lisa and her husband Mike played by Matthew Lillard has his own agenda with Stewart. Gugino gives an openly emotion performance that is a balance to the powerhouse that is Stewart, while Lillard’s performance as Mike, the guarded cop, rounds out the trio. There are moments in the film when Stewart just shines, such as when he describes the sweaters he knits to Lisa, when he watches soap operas in Santa pajamas and knits, when he teaches Lisa to breathe while standing on a rooftop. You learn about Tobi’s complicated history as a dancer and man, but also about Mike’s childhood being raised by a single mother and the toll that has taken on his marriage to Lisa. Most of the film is shot in a single apartment building but they use the space beautifully utilizing the roof, the hallways, and staircases so the film never feels stagnant or claustrophobic. It is beautifully acted, well written film that should not be missed.
6. Ex Machina
Ex Machina is in an almost modern adaption of the story of Frankenstein and his monster. Though instead of nuts and bolts you have structured gel and search engines. In Ex Machina, Nathan our modern day mad scientist, has created Ava an artificial intelligence who is being tested by Caleb for authenticity. Nathan is played by the rising star Oscar Isaac. Isaac sporting a shaved head, full beard, and jacked frame dominates every scene he is in. Isaac capture the arrogance a billionaire, genius like Nathan would likely have. Domhnall Gleeson, as Caleb, is the opposite of Nathan. He is timid, uncertain, and lacks confidence. When Nathan asks him to do the test he is intrigued. The third point in the triangle is Ava, the AI, played by Alicia Vikander. She is clearly a robot as you see her servos and mechanics that make up her body, but she has a human face. She speaks and acts like a human, making the testing difficult. Caleb is besotted by her and wants to help especially once her starts to see Nathan’s true colors. Ava like Frankenstein’s monster wants to be free and experience the world, but her master will not let her. The film makes you ask yourself questions: would you allow a computer program to be “killed” if it was as believably human as Ava? If it isn’t truly alive can it be killed? Is consciousness and self-awareness enough for something to be considered alive? I don’t have any answers nor does the film but for a film to make you ask is a sign of a good film. The film is scientifically and emotionally complex and it is fun to watch the dynamics play out.
5. Clouds of Sils Maria
I won’t lie, Kristen Stewart kept me away from this film for a long time. I’m glad I got over my K-Stew block because Clouds of Sils Maria was a movie made for me. As an amateur thespian myself I find films about stage actors and stage productions fascinating. What I particularly like about Clouds of Sils Maria is the blurring of the lines between the characters in the film and the characters in the play within the film. When the film is most successful are in the moments when you do not know if the actors are being themselves of the people in the play. Often you do not know until someone blows a line or a movement. Juliette Binoche as always gives a delightful and complicated performance as Maria an actress who tackles the play that began her career from a new characters perspective. Stewart plays Valentine who is Maria’s personal assistant. Stewart gives the most complex and nuanced performance that I have seen from her. Chloe Grace Moretz as the teen celebrity Jo-ann Ellis, is a drunken mess and delight to watch in the film. She harnesses her inner Brittney Spears and Lindsay Lohan and creates a wonderful counterpoint and sometimes mirror to Maria in the film. Clouds of Sils Maria doesn’t shy away from the ugly truth of Hollywood and celebrity and all the back-stabbing and ego-massaging that must happen with actors. The script and acting are beautiful only to be out shown by the gorgeous mountain settings or Switzerland, Germany, and Italy.
Grandma was the last film that I saw before I made my list. Lily Tomlin is enough to get me to watch a movie but the film as whole kept me engaged. Grandma is the simple tale of Elle (Tomlin) and her granddaughter Sage going around town trying to raise money for an abortion for Sage. Elle is a tough, hippy grandma who won’t stand for any crap from any body and is willing to do whatever it takes to help Sage. The characters we meet along the way range from an uptight coffee barista, to a sassy tattoo artist, to an old flame played by Sam Elliott. Tomlin and Elliott on screen together are a force and one of the most interesting parts of the film. Julia Garner as Sage brings a youthful angst to the film that feels real and frustrating. While the film tackles the heavy topic of a teenager aborting a pregnancy it is surprising light and often laugh out loud funny. It also highlights the often difficult relationships between mothers and daughters. Marcia Gay Harden plays Elle’s daughter and Sage’s mother. There are moments of real fear, anger, and love between the three of them that keeps the film grounded. Elle is also dealing with the loss of her partner of 38 years to cancer and you see how she takes that pain out on the world and the people around her. Tomlin is a force in the film giving a multi-faceted performance that both entertains and challenges the audience.
Brooklyn is a fairly simple tale of an Irish immigrant who leaves behind her familiar life for the unfamiliar surroundings of Brooklyn, NY. Ellis played by the talented Saoirse Ronan struggles in her new life until she meets the handsome Italian named Tony and falls in love. Ellis struggles with the push and pull of her old life and her new. Ronan, as always, gives an impressive performance. She is finally able to act in her native Irish accent and she brings truth and vulnerability to her character. The supporting cast from the unstoppable Julie Walters to the charming Domhnall Gleeson add humor and depth to the film. I have always been a sucker for a love story and Brooklyn doesn’t shy away from the romance. You fall in and out of love right along with Ellis. I knew the film was written by Nick Hornby whose films I usually do not like so I had slight hesitation going in, but I was delighted by the film. The period details feel authentic from the costumes to the set design. Brooklyn took me on an emotional journey and I was on board every step of the way.
2. Far From the Madding Crowd
I love period films, it’s just the truth. I love the costumes, the language, the manners, I love it all. Far from the Madding Crowd has all of the above and a wonderful cast to boot. The film stars Carey Mulligan as the intrepid Bathsheba Everdene, a young woman who inherits a failing farm from her uncle. She works hard to restore it to its former glory with the help of a young shepherd and former flame, Gabriel Oak, played by the steely-eyed Matthias Schoenaerts. Mulligan has proved herself capable of leading a film and this is no exception. She captures the vigor and strength of Bathsheba while never losing her youthful energy. The real find of the film for me was Schoenaerts. He captured the quiet stillness of Oak while still showing his hurt at loosing Bathsheba. Like the tree he is named after he is stalwart and loyal but not unfeeling. The film is beautiful from start to finish, cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen gives the film an almost fairyland like quality at times. When Bathsheba is happy the world is bright and beautiful, when she is sad it takes on a more gothic look. Beyond the cinematography the sets and the costumes are gorgeous and capture the period perfectly.
1. Z for Zachariah
With a cast of three Z for Zachariah requires a lot of its actors and the talents of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Margot Robbie, and Chris Pine are up to the task. After an unnamed nuclear event renders most of the US uninhabitable one woman, Ann played by Robbie, whose farm has been spared the fallout meets a stranger on the road, John played by Ejiofor. Together they start to make a life on the farm planning ways to survive the coming winter and figuring out their complex new friendship. When a stranger, Caleb (Pine) shows up and challenges the balance on the farm and relationships are tested. This film targets a theme I find endlessly fascinating: in the face of society breaking down, how do humans react? Though this film is set in a dystopia it never feels false. People make mistakes, push boundaries, and struggle, they also laugh, think big, and cling to the past. John, Ann, and Caleb are an unlikely trio. Ann and Caleb are both religious where John is a scientist, their individual faiths are tested a number of times as is their faith in each other. Z for Zachariah is just one of those films that worked for me as a complete film. I loved the world building, the characters, the soundtrack, the story, they all worked for me so this had to be #1 film of the year. I hope you watch it if you missed its small release in 2015.