Monday, December 28, 2015

The Best Films of 2015

As I sat down to finalize my top ten list of the year a few days ago, I found that both my number one and two choices were no brainers. In previous years I can remember struggling up until the very last minute on my top pick. In 2013 I almost flipped a coin to decide between “The Wolf Of Wall Street” and “Inside Llewyn Davis” (I picked “Wall Street,” though now I would have “Llewyn Davis” at number one no problem). Even last year it wasn’t apparent that “Whiplash” was going to take the top spot until the last minute (I stand by it. That movie just keeps getting better). This year I saw “Mad Max: Fury Road” in May and called it my favorite movie of the year at the time. Seven months later nothing has changed and I saw my second favorite movie back in September. At this point I feel extremely confident in my top two choices—I think they will remain in those spots two or twelve months from now and will be seen and talked about for years to come.

It’s the other eight I’m not so sure about.

This is not to say my other eight choices aren’t great but that they could easily change. Hell, if I were to reopen this list even next month I feel as though certain movies could drop off and others would take their place, which makes any sort of ranking at this time pretty much superfluous. At one point I considered leaving the remaining eight unranked but that felt like a cowards way out and the only thing people like more than lists are numerically ranked lists. 2015 was another superb year for movies and I know I left off a number of great titles. In no particular order: “Room,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E, “Inside Out,” “The Revenant,” “Ex Machina,” “The End of the Tour,” “What we do in the Shadows,” “Beasts of No Nation,” “Spy,” “Creed,” “Love and Mercy,” “Spotlight,” “Steve Jobs” and “Bridge of Spies” are all fantastic films that were in consideration. (In the case of “Spotlight,” it sat on my list for quite some time and only very recently did it miss the final cut).

OK, enough talk, lets get on to the list.

10. The Overnight (Patrick Brice)

Patrick Brice’s criminally under seen swinger comedy (starring Adam Scott, Jason Schwartzman, Taylor Schilling and Judith Godreche) is one of the few comedies I’ve seen of late where I’ve been on edge practically the whole way through-- never being able to predict its twist and turns. Brice blends together the right amount of sheer awkwardness and outrageousness. You’re made so uncomfortable you want to seek refuge underneath your seat, while at the same time you want to stick around to see just how crazy things can get. And yet, through the various twists and turns, Brice ultimately crafts an endearing and introspective drama/comedy about self-reinvigoration and coming out of your shell.  A lot of times comedies tend to be bogged down in plot and exposition; “The Overnight” demonstrates that creating a successful and substantial comedy can be as easy as bringing two couples together for one crazy night.

9. Cartel Land (Matthew Heinman)

In the documentary “Cartel Land,” director Matthew Heinman makes what may be the first nonfiction vigilante thriller. Set in Mexico, the film follows a group of vigilantes as they go around freeing towns that are under the iron grip of the drug cartel. Yet, the film goes deeper than the simple notions of a vigilante thriller and as we find out things aren’t so black and white. Heinman has balls of steel as he imbeds himself in the midst of the chaos, capturing this messy conflict with startling immediacy. “Cartel Land” is a thrilling piece of documentary filmmaking and provides a new, fascinating perspective on the U.S/Mexican border drug war.

 8. Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs)

In some ways, “Magic Mike XXL” is the silly male stripper movie we expected to get with Steven Soderbergh’s “Magic Mike” a few years ago. The plot can best be summed up as: a group male strippers (led by Channing Tatum) strip on their way to a stripping convention. That’s it. The stakes are low. Even the most serious hiccups the gang encounters along the way are no big deal. But with strippers this likable and attractive who cares about plot. Director Gregory Jacobs wisely keeps the focus on the group of strippers as they goof around with one another; their bromantic chemistry becomes infectious. They may not be the most fleshed out characters but the bond they share feels true; their friendly ribbings and antics are surprisingly endearing and the movie never once slips into forced sentimentality.  “Magic Mike XXL” may not have the depth or dramatic kick of “Magic Mike” but it’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch and you just want to spend time with the characters.

 7. Queen Of Earth (Alex Ross Perry)

Alex Ross Perry’s feature is a bizarre, chilling, mesmerizing portrait of one woman’s (played by “Mad Men’s” Elizabeth Moss) psychological breakdown and the degrading effect said breakdown has on her relationship with a lifelong friend (Katherine Waterston). I went in to this movie knowing absolutely nothing and it troubled me greatly. It’s a psychological horror movie about depression; through the exceptional performances from Moss and Waterston, Keegan DeWitt’s eerie score, Sean Price William’s dreamy cinematography and Perry’s elegant direction, “Queen of Earth” brings deeply internalized feelings of panic, anxiety, alienation, sadness and concern to the surface with unnerving, disturbing energy. The final disturbing shot of Moss giggling madly gave me chills and is forever burned in the back of my mind.

 6. The Gift (Joel Edgerton)

Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut “The Gift” can best be described as a creepy stalker movie but it’s not the dumb creepy stalker movie you think it is. It’s predictable yet not predictable, never going quite where you expect it to go.  I wouldn’t classify it as horror but like the best horror movies it relies on subtlety—gradually building suspense, just waiting to burst. The movie is cold and meticulously constructed; it feels both mundane and menacing. It’s a slow burn up until the final minutes but what a stressful slow burn! The picture engages you on a deeper, psychological level; it stays just on the cusp of exploding into over-the-top B horror. It sets up camp in your psyche and refuses to leave. Topping things off are three knockout performances from Edgerton, Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall, three performances that have gone sadly unnoticed.

5. Son of Saul (Laszlo Nemes)

Laszlo Nemes Holocaust movie “Son of Saul” hit me hard. I left the theater feeling emotionally depleted; I sat on the bus on the way back to my house in a daze and it took me a few hours to finally get back to my normal self. I can’t remember the last time a movie had that kind of effect on me.  That’s really all that needs to be said at this point (stay tuned for a full review in a few weeks on here). “Son of Saul” is an immersive, uncomfortable and all around unforgettable experience.

 4. Brooklyn (John Crowley)

Delightful. Positively delightful. That’s how I felt walking out of John Crowley’s period piece “Brooklyn,” about an Irish girl Ellis (Saoirse Ronan) who immigrates to nineteen fifties Brooklyn. The picture is brimming with humor and heart and I watched with a big grin on my face practically the whole way through. Ronan is simply phenomenal, giving (in my view) the best performance of her career so far; I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Even though Ellis finds love (in the form of an Italian American played by Emory Cohen) Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby wisely keep the focus on her character’s personal journey, her coming of age in a strange new land and her decision whether to stay or go back to Ireland. About twenty minutes in I already wanted to watch “Brooklyn” again. That hardly ever happens to me.

 3. It Follows (David Robert Mitchell)

David Robert Mitchell’s dreamy, beautiful, terrifying “It Follows”—about a young woman who contracts a sexually transmitted demon—is arguably the best horror film of the past few years. Like the best serious horror films, “It Follows” relies on subtlety; tension quietly rumbles beneath the surface, flaring up every so often in a scene of sheer horror, before dying down to recharge. Mitchell lets most of the individual shots linger, allowing the viewer to soak in the anxiety and ominousness even longer. On the whole, Mitchell takes his time, letting each scene unfold gradually. A majority of horror films go to great lengths to try and scare the audience. They employ “jump scares”-- cheap, empty thrills that wear off immediately. It’s like filmmakers are afraid of boring the audience. “It Follows” is free of such cheap scares. It’s also refreshing to see a group of believable, likable teenagers at the center, teenagers that aren't just sacks of meat waiting to be killed off by the antagonist. As the heroine, up and comer Maika Monroe gives a genuine, understated performance, among the best of the year.

2. Sicario (Denis Villeneuve)

Denis Villeneuve’s abandon-all-hope-ye-who-enter crime feature “Sicario” is simply sublime. Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan craft an intimate, character driven neo-noir that takes us inside the U.S/Mexican border drug war. “Sicario” certainly doesn’t shy away from gruesome violence but the film is more focused on how said violence is just the outer layer of a complex, utterly messy situation rife with corruption and shady doings on both sides of the border. The thrill and intrigue of “Sicario” comes from the moral complexity of the characters. The traditional notions of good and evil, just and unjust, don’t apply anymore. Everyone has their own agenda and self-manufactured definitions of right and wrong, definitions they can bend and reshape as they please. Emily Blunt is in top form as an outsider F.B.I agent who is brought into this crazy utterly messy world but Benicio Del Toro (as a mysterious mercenary, who works on both sides of the border) is the standout delivering one of 2015’s very best performances.

Additionally, the film is handsomely photographed by master cinematographer Roger Deakins, while Johann Johannsson’s score is understated and terrifying, highlighting the sense of dread and hopelessness pulsing throughout. Though ultimately, it all comes back to Villeneuve’s graceful, directorial hand.  He moves the picture along at a steady unhurried pace, usually stretching sequences out to create maximum tension and paranoia.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)

I’m still a little shocked I loved George Miller’s end of the world actioner “Mad Max: Fury” as much as I did. For one, I don’t consider myself a fan of the “Mad Max” franchise; I’ve seen the first three only a few times each. Also, due to various issues (ranging from lack of financing to unsatisfactory weather conditions) it took more than a decade for this latest installment to be completed. And the minute the first theatrical trailer dropped the expectation level skyrocketed.  But none of that matters now because “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a supreme achievement. I don’t like to throw around the word “masterpiece” when talking about recent movies but I can confidently declare that it’s a masterpiece and will be talked about years from now.

The picture is batshit insane and brilliant at the same time, visually stunning (yes, I know that’s thrown around a lot but it really is!) and narratively rich. Miller foregoes tedious plot exposition and simply drops us into the midst of the action, pushing forward. He establishes the world and the mythos without over explaining, gives us complex three-dimensional characters and does so without heavy-handed dialogue. The film is predominantly visual storytelling-- Miller packs so much Miller packs so much activity, detail and depth into each and every scene, hell, each and every shot (that’s only slightly hyperbolic). Now in his seventies, the Australian director has somehow crafted the biggest, boldest, most exciting blockbuster of the decade, perhaps even last decade, putting younger action directors to shame. I’ve watched “Mad Max: Fury Road” more than any other film this year and it never grows stale. Every time I sit down to watch it again it grabs me and I can’t do anything else. When the credits roll I feel electrically charged and revved up.

I could go on but instead I’m going to leave it at this: I fucking love this movie.

Well, that does it for me. See you all next year!