Sunday, January 31, 2016

Top Ten Movies of 2015

2015 may largely be remembered by most moviegoers as the year that dinosaurs and Jedi tore up the box office, and the Academy got shamed for its all-white slate of Oscar nominees. But strip away the nostalgia and controversy, and what you have is a very solid year for film. Generally, my favorite films fell into one of two categories: they were either steadily engaging, intelligently made, and well-acted, with no obvious fumbles or missteps, or they were flawed, but had moments of such beauty or emotional transcendence that they more than made up for the weak spots. Having these two categories also made it even more difficult than usual to rank my choices; does being consistently good trump being sporadically great, or vice versa? So with the caveat that the order could have been entirely different if I’d made this list a month earlier, or a month from now, here are my top ten films of 2015:


I saw this film before I saw most of the others on my list, yet it’s quietly maintained its place at the top. I’m a sucker for films about journalism and films with strong ensembles (the two often go together, of course), and “Spotlight” is an excellent example of both. It carries obvious echoes of “All the President’s Men” in its no-fuss, no-flash, yet utterly engrossing account of how a small team of investigative Boston Globe reporters methodically unraveled the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-up of its priests’ sexual abuse of children. But it’s also a fascinating study of the power of institutions and what happens when two long-established, amicably coexisting institutions come into direct conflict—and the different dynamics of being an insider, an outsider, or somewhere in between.


I had doubts that the novel Room could be successfully transferred to the screen, even if author Emma Donoghue was writing the screenplay. After all, it’s narrated from the perspective of a five-year-old boy who’s lived his entire life in a small room with only his mother for company, and doesn’t yet grasp the larger reality beyond those four walls; how could that possibly be translated into film? Quite wonderfully, as it turns out, thanks in large part to the stellar performances of Brie Larson and newcomer Jacob Tremblay—but also to Lenny Abrahamson’s sensitive direction, which manages to make the boy’s gradually expanding view of the world our own.


It may technically be about a master martial artist, but don’t see it for the fights, as they are not the focus of Hou Hsaio Hsien’s intensely idiosyncratic foray into wuxia. It’s breathtaking in a different way, creating an immersive poetry of motion, color, and sound that seems to hail from a different world. True, Hou’s complete lack of interest in providing narrative context can sometimes make it difficult to follow some of the plot threads or understand the precise nature of the relationships between the various characters, but in the end those details don’t really matter much. The film’s best viewed as a kind of cinematic ballet depicting an evolving moral consciousness against a backdrop of corruption and chaos.

4. 45 YEARS

This is the kind of outwardly unassuming film that gets under your skin the more you ponder the questions it raises. On the most basic level, it’s a psychological study of a woman’s reaction to the revelation that there’s a crucial part of her husband’s past she’s never known about, despite being happily married to him for over four decades. Does that sound like the setup for a horror movie? Well, it is and it isn’t. No, the husband doesn’t turn out to be a serial killer or an alien, nor does the wife start seeing any literal ghosts. But nonetheless, on its deepest level this is a ghost story, or rather, the story of a woman who realizes her entire marriage has been a ghost story—only she didn’t know it. Lots of subtle, spot-on directorial choices that contribute to the film’s haunting quality confirm that director Andrew Haigh (“Weekend”) is one to watch, while Charlotte Rampling is, in a word, stunning as the woman whose placid sense of self slowly dissolves as she delves deeper into her husband’s secrets.


The visual pleasures alone make “Carol” worth seeing: every frame is so exquisitely composed it could be a work of art in and of itself. The acting, too, is exquisite, balancing Rooney Mara’s blank slate, to be gradually filled in over the course of the movie, against Cate Blanchett’s polished woman of the world, her affect so mannered it seems artificial until you realize it’s a mask (or rather, an armor), and rounded out by poignant supporting turns from Kyle Chandler and Sarah Paulson as Carol’s husband and best friend, respectively. In the end, it didn’t quite land the emotional gut-punch of Todd Haynes’ other ’50s drama, “Far From My Heaven,” but it’s still the kind of film that leaves images, scenes, and expressions burned permanently into your brain.


It’s a pity the public decided it had no interest in seeing more movies about Steve Jobs, because this is really the one they should have seen. As scripted by Aaron Sorkin, it crackles with energy and sharp, entertaining, but highly economical dialogue that trims back the Sorkin bon mots in favor of sketching vivid characters with minimal exposition or background. Steve Jobs thus emerges quickly as a selfish if brilliant asshole, yes, but just as quickly offers hints of a more complicated man with conflicting traits and desires, while the small cast of key supporting characters reveal their equally complicated feelings about this man who would alternately inspire, exasperate, and disappoint them. Because the film’s structured around three product launches, it has the tight structure and hermetic setting of a three-act play, but the performances on which it turns are very much built for the big screen. Among a gifted ensemble, Michael Fassbender appropriately stands out as the sun around which the rest revolve. Despite looking nothing like Jobs, he makes you believe in the man’s genius as well as his peculiar admixture of cruelty, kindness, insecurity, and self-confidence.


Who would have thought a reboot of the “Rocky” franchise would end up being one of the most purely enjoyable movies of the year? Rising young director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan, who previously worked together on the terrific “Fruitvale Station” (2013), score again with this rousing tale of Apollo Creed’s out-of-wedlock son, Adonis, who wants to live up to his father’s name and seeks out none other than Rocky Balboa to help him do it. The film should feel tired and formulaic, but instead shows why and how the formula works: Jordan is believably young, driven, and just a little unsure beneath his veneer of bravado; the fight scenes are fantastically shot to maximize suspense with each round; even the stock part of the love interest (Tessa Thompson) is given unusual depth and nuance; and of course, the ace in Coogler’s back pocket is Sylvester Stallone, who delivers such a warmly appealing performance as Adonis’ trainer and mentor, it’s easy to see why he’s become this year’s odds-on Oscar favorite for best supporting actor. You may not be surprised at any of the turns the story takes, but you’ll still draw in your breath and pump your fist as if you’d never seen a boxing movie before.


Another bittersweet meditation on aging, mortality, and art from the still relatively young Paolo Sorrentino, yet somehow its elegiac tone never rings false. While the narrative can feel a bit disjointed, as it tends to treat subplots as little more than vehicles for striking images, it’s anchored by the quietly melancholy performance of Michael Caine as a famous composer in his twilight years. Not as good as “The Great Beauty,” but like that film, seamlessly combines gorgeous cinematography and music for a ravishing sensory experience even as it elicits sober reflection on what constitutes a life well spent.


A lovely adaptation of the Thomas Hardy classic that fully captures the pastoral beauty of the setting and the romantic melodrama that envelops the (mostly) willfully misguided characters. Carey Mulligan is fetching and sympathetic as a Bathsheba who comes across less as the headstrong creature of caprice of the book and more of an intelligent free spirit who hasn’t quite figured out what she wants. Matthias Schoenaerts is appropriately swoon-worthy yet dependable as the moral fulcrum of the story, the aptly named Gabriel Oak, while Michael Sheen cuts a quietly tragic presence as the ill-fated William Boldwood. Not a masterpiece, perhaps, but a very pleasing, old-fashioned romance.


Shot on an iPhone, but you wouldn’t know it from the vivid hues and fluid camerawork in this fast-moving, high-energy jaunt through a particularly eventful day in the life of two transgender sex workers on the streets of Hollywood. Builds to a masterfully orchestrated comic climax that’s as hilarious as it is cacophonous, yet the scenes you’ll remember most are the quiet ones: a sad yet sublime Christmas Eve solo performance in an empty bar and the final shot of the two main characters in a laundromat, silently reaffirming their friendship.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Phoenix; Seymour: An Introduction; Bridge of Spies; Sicario; Amy; Inside Out; Clouds of Sils Maria; I’ll See You in My Dreams; Joy; The Big Short; The Man From U.N.C.L.E.; The Martian; Love & Mercy; Ex Machina; Chi-Raq

HAVE NOT SEEN: Anomalisa; Mustang; Victoria; The Look of Silence; Diary of a Teenage Girl; Beasts of No Nation; Straight Outta Compton


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