2015 doesn’t really stand out to me as a great or bad year for films, but I did find it to be a very diverse year and think the tide may be turning away from the Comic Book garbage that’s monopolizing our eyes in theaters these days. The most thoughtful and artistic writing and storytelling has moved to television to be sure, but I think all the entries in my list remind us of what the format of cinema can do that sets it apart as a medium.
The Top 10 of 2015:
10. “Carol” (Director: Todd Haynes)
Every frame in “Carol” feels like it is exactly what it’s meant to be. It’s shocking that director Todd Haynes wasn’t nominated after delivering such a masterfully directed film. You can take issue with the gender politics and the pulpy thread that runs through it, but this film employs a patience and composure that I find rare these days in mainstream cinema. It’s definitely a slow burn, but once it got going I felt myself completely pulled into the world and plight of the Rooney Mara character.
9. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon)
There’s a major moment at the end of this film that almost derails the whole thing for me, but I choose to ignore it for all the imaginative way it deals with teenage angst and the whimsy it uses to convey the bittersweet nature of maturing into adulthood. It’s definitely manipulative in how it draws out your emotions for the main characters, but it does it so honestly and unapologetically. The performances are great all around and were able to pull out real empathy from me which doesn’t happen all that often.
8. “Amy” (Director: Asif Kapadia)
Proof positive that we were robbed culturally of a true musical genius. I’ve always casually respected Amy Winehouse’s music, but seeing this compelled me to rip through her catalog and I felt a profound sadness after knowing I’d reached its end. Unlike most documentaries, the interviews with people who knew her are only played as voice over above the found footage and press clips from her life in an elegiac and respectful way that keep the focus completely on her and her battles. There’s few better films that accurately show the pitfalls of fame and how as a society tend to tear down those who fly above the rest.
7. “Entertainment” (Director: Rick Alverson )
A weird and soul-twisting movie that leaves you feeling like you’re waking up from a long night of alcohol and drug binging. I realize that might sound in fact awful, but what I mean is the effect of how thoroughly it physically burrows into your core. I loved director Rick Alverson’s “The Comedy,” and it’s clear he’s finding his style here with this hallucinatory and visually piercing look at one man’s sad foray into the world of performance. Comedian Gregg Turkington plays his alter-ego stand up character Neil Hamburger for the film’s lead. Hamburger is a sort of caricature of a 60s’ era bad comedian. Written by Turkington and Tim Heidecker, “Entertainment” plays like a perverted love letter to kitsch and the residual culture created by failure and broken dreams.
6. “Room” (Director: Lenny Abrahamson)
The whole sequence of the boy (played by Jacob Tremblay) escaping the room he’s been kept in with his mother his whole life was perhaps my favorite scene of the year. I can usually guess what beats a film is going to hit, so for me there was legitimate suspense as to whether he’d get out on the first try or be taken back and forced to get out some other way. Now, the film is most about the Brie Larsen’s character and her son adjusting back into society after dealing with a horrific tragedy, and that portion of the film certainly has its bumps. But the majestic handling of that scene hit me instinctually I carried that with me through the remainder of the movie. It asks a lot of important questions about identity and love, and although it falls short of being amazing, given the subject matter the sum of its parts amounted to a rich and provocative film going experience.
5. “Mad Max: Fury Road” (Director: George Miller)
Leave it to the master George Miller to bring back quality action movies in a time where we’re resorting to blowing up galaxies just to keep peoples’ interests in the genre. “Mad Max” can be attacked for not having a plot or being superficial, but I think that’s overlooking the deep cynicism and lust for basic goodness that pervades through the film. Most people loved it for the big action pieces and the use of practical effects rather than completely relying on CGI. While I enjoyed the mastery of that as well, what I appreciated was the creativity in showing us what a complete degradation of society would look like and what a moment of respite from it would mean. It works to me on an allegorical level in the way the best westerns from the past have. Throw in the almighty Tom Hardy and the ever so alluring Charlize Theron and it easily made my top ten.
4. “Diary of a Teenage Girl” (Director: Marielle Heller)
Criminally under-watched by film goers this past year. This flick very comfortably takes us to uncomfortable places in its depiction of a young girl’s sexual experimentation while growing up in 70’s era San Francisco. Bel Powley should have received much more recognition for her breakout performance in the lead role. The movie takes a lot of dark psychological turns, but moves so lyrically through the heroine’s imagination that even the ugliness she encounters seems to serve a greater purpose. Aleksander Skarsgard and Kristen Wiig both turn in great supportive looks playing the lead’s love interest and mother.
3. “Ex Machina” (Director: Alex Garland)
Artificial intelligence is a hot topic these days amongst filmmakers, but “Ex Machina” sets itself above the pack with a very quiet and poised depiction of the meaning of being human. It’s tight with a tone of foreboding that never hits you over the head and still leaves you surprised by the end. This is also definitely the best film starring Oscar Isaac and Domnhall Gleason of 2015.
2. “The End of the Tour” (Director: James Ponsoldt)
It would be easy to dismiss my joy of this film to just being another white guy who reads David Foster Wallace. But that aside, what this movie does really well is examine how greatness is commoditized and then mythicized, much to the chagrin of those possessing it.
I thought Siegel deserved a best actor nomination for his understated impression of DFW. Jesse Eisenberg, as the Rolling Stone journalist assigned to cover Wallace, also delivers in the role of someone who so badly wants to be great, but knows he isn’t when confronted with the real thing. For aspiring writers and artists this message is of course especially potent, but the film still maintains an air of inclusivity by focusing on the small and seeming innocuous conversations between its two leads. I could have followed them for another couple of hours, but then again I’m a sucker for intellectual banter.
1. “Mommy” (Director: Xavier Dolan)
A visceral and exhilarating look at the relationship between a mother and her son. Directing wunderkind Xavier Dolan really knows how to deliver a small story that feels larger than life. I’m always partial to movies about real human problems, but the beauty of “Mommy” is how Dolan also uses the form of his movie to deliver the message. It’s one of those movies that makes you excited for filmmakers and the future of cinema.
Worst Movies of 2015:
“Manglehorn” (Director: David Gordon Green)
Can we all just admit that whatever made David Gordon Green exciting as a film maker is completely dead and buried? I sat there just waiting for something to happen like a chump for the whole 97 minutes of it. This was supposed to be Pacino’s vindication for direct-to-DVD level trash like “88 Minutes.” Come back to the light Alfredo!
“The Hateful Eight” (Director: Quentin Tarantino)
When I hear people applauding this movie I feel like the child at the end of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Tarantino at best, serves as a visual artist or avant-garde film maker. At worst, he’s a sexist, racist fanboy who gets off on torture and hides behind what he calls homage, to conceal his lack of a greater intellect or philosophy to storytelling. That being said, I love “Pulp Fiction,” “Reservoir Dogs,” and “Jackie Brown.” But even a broken clock is right twice, or in this case three times a day.
Tarantino on the BBC: I’m shutting your butt down.