Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Top 10 Films of 2015 (Part I)


2015 the year in film has now passed us by and I have caught myself up on the vast majority of the major titles released this past year. After a great deal of shuffling, I finally have a list of my 10 favorite films of the year that I'm content with.

The overall year in film was a strong one, and my list is dense with titles that made a compelling case for the top overall spot. That being said, some of the most acclaimed films of the year won't be found here, most notably George Miller's "Mad Max: Fury Road", which I admired tremendously for its audacious craftsmanship and strongly feminist perspective, but was ultimately left cold by the general campiness of the whole thing. Also, Todd Haynes' "Carol", another staple of these types of lists, left me cold as well with its overly refined and mannered approach to the material.

As far as films which almost made the cut, John Crowley's "Brooklyn" was a delightful and charming throwback anchored by Saorise Ronan's central performance. There was also Bill Pohlad's Brian Wilson Biopic "Love & Mercy", a brilliant exploration of a musical genius and a deeply fragile mind. It's also worth mentioning that J.J. Abrams' "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" was, for me, the strongest film of the Star Wars" franchise. However, that reflects more on my underwhelmed feelings about the franchise as a whole than on the newest installment, which is perfectly entertaining but formulaic and conventional. That being said, Daisy Ridley gives a breakout, star-making performance worth noting.

But alas, without any further adieu, here are my first five selections for the top ten films of 2015...

  • 10) "Creed" (Dir. Ryan Coogler)-
On its surface, "Creed" is nothing more than a nearly flawless execution of the well-worn boxing picture formula. That's nothing to balk at, but it probably wouldn't be enough to place the film on this list alone. What makes "Creed" great exists outside of the frame and runs deeper in the DNA of the film itself. There is the presence of star Michael B. Jordan and writer/director Ryan Coogler, who broke through on their last collaboration with the deeply moving and socially conscious film "Fruitvale Station". A reboot of the "Rocky" franchise was an unexpected choice as a follow-up for these two rising talents, but it's clear Coogler wasn't just selling out and cashing in on his indie credibility. In his second collaboration with Jordan, Coogler has again written for him the type of complicated young black male character who so rarely gets to be the hero of a film, especially a mainstream studio film like this. Jordan brings out a sensitivity masking a boiling hot temper in his performance as Adonis Creed, and again reminds us all why the young Denzel Washington comparisons are warranted. There is also the fact that the film is an extension of the "Rocky" film legacy, as indicated by the presence of Sylvester Stallone reprising his most iconic film role. Stallone is not an actor who possesses great range, but there is an almost magical authenticity to his screen presence, especially in this role, that resists the inherent artificiality of cinema like teflon. Though Stallone has long been a wealthy movie star, he is able to slip into the persona of this blue collar Philadelphian with ease. He isn't playing Rocky Ballboa in "Creed", he just is Rocky Ballboa. In this iteration of the character, he offers up his finest performance to date. 

  • 9) "Anomalisa" (Dir. Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson)-
It's so rare that a film captures the mundane nature of our daily lives in a cinematically compelling way, but the great writer/director Charlie Kaufman ("Synecdoche, New York", "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") and co-director Duke Johnson have managed to do so this year with "Anomalisa". While the power of animation is often in its ability to render impossible and imaginative environments, "Anomalisa" utilizes stop-motion animation to create an utterly ordinary world that feels identical to our own. Nonetheless, it's only through animation that this story could convey its thesis in such a unique and thought-provoking way. David Thewlis (in an achingly soulful voice performance) plays Michael Stone, a man in the midst of a midlife crisis who experiences his life and everyone in it as monotonous and just more of the same. In a clever bit of voice casting, Tom Noonan voices nearly every other character Michael encounters (be it his wife, his son or even the hotel desk clerk) with an identical inflection in his voice each time. The only exception to this is Lisa (voiced in another soulful performance by Jennifer Jason Leigh), whom Michael encounters in the hotel he is staying at and draws an immediate connection with because of the way she stands out against the crowd. This relatively daring approach to animation never takes away from the sense of realism imbued in the script, and Kaufman and Johnson even manage to pull off a disarmingly intimate and tender love scene. Though Kaufman maintains his singularly cynical world view, he continues to offer poignant insights about how we experience our daily lives.

  • 8) "Sicario" (Dir. Denis Villeneuve)-
Director Denis Villeneuve's "Prisoners", both his first english language film and major studio film, was my #10 movie of 2013. With "Sicario", he continues to display his gift for crafting moody and tense genre films with a cerebral edge. "Sicario" takes on a political dimension in tackling the War on Drugs in Mexico and not pulling any punches in displaying what a tremendous waste of time and resources that war has been. The nihilism of "Sicario" could become overwhelming or hopeless to the point of indifference if not for the grounding presence of Emily Blunt as FBI agent Kate Macer, both the audience's narrative and moral lynchpin in a film otherwise lacking in that quality. Kate's gender makes her a unique but welcome commodity in a film of this ilk, and the possibility of re-writing her role for a male actor had been discussed before the film was made. Thank god that didn't happen, not only because woman deserve the same consideration as men for these types of roles, but also because the frequently underrated and under-appreciated Blunt is indispensable to "Sicario". She perfectly embodies the idealism of her character without it ever feeling out of place in this bleak environment and delivers the finest performance of her career to date. Though often praised first as a master craftman, which he certainly is, Villeneuve also deserves praise for his overall skill with actors. The supporting ensemble deserves laudits right alongside Blunt, with fine work delivered by the always dependable Josh Brolin as Kate's boss and especially Benicio del Toro (worthy of the Oscar buzz he's receiving) as a mysterious figure within Kate's task force. The below the line elements of this film are some of the finest of the year, with particular praise owed to Joe Walker's tense editing, the great cinematographer Roger Deakins' moody lensing and, especially, the eerie and chilling score composed by Johann Johannsson. 

  • 7) "Inside Out" (Dir. Pete Docter)-
With modern classics like "Finding Nemo", "WALL-E" and "Up" under their banner, Pixar has established themselves as a pillar of cinematic excellence, animated or otherwise, in the 21st century. That being said, their last few efforts have fallen below that high standard with uninspired sequels like "Cars 2" and "Monsters University". "Inside Out" is a return to the Pixar gold standard, easily ranking as one of the finest achievements of a studio who has had their fair share of them. Like the best Pixar efforts, "Inside Out" not only avoids pandering to the young audience at which they are aiming to appeal to, but is also a film willing to explore complex themes and emotions (quite literally, in this case) that most adult films don't dare to address. The setting here of the inner recesses of a young girls' mind offers the creative minds at Pixar both a playground for the endless imagination that is their specialty, while also providing them a foundation to explore more challenging themes about adolescence and the integral role each of our emotions (even the ones we don't like) play in defining who we are. As children we are almost singularly defined by the emotion of joy, but as we begin to grow up, the other, more difficult emotions like sadness start to take on a more prominent role in our development. This is not the most upbeat subject matter for a film aimed at children, but it is an important idea for them to be able to understand and a concept we can all gain from better understanding at any age. The voices for each emotion are flawlessly cast, especially Lewis Black, who's entire act is boiled down to its purest essence here as Anger. The reliable talents of Mindy Kaling and Bill Hader are put to good use as Disgust and Fear, respectively, but the core of "Inside Out" rests in the relationship between Amy Poehler's Joy and Phyllis Smith's Sadness. Poehler's ability to play plucky without becoming grating is central to her performance, while Smith, whose voice so effortlessly suggests melancholy, is perhaps the true MVP. 

  • 6) "Ex Machina" (Dir. Alex Garland)-
2015 was not just a great year for movies, but also a great year for the science fiction genre in particular, and signaling good things to come at the very beginning of the year was Alex Garland's "Ex Machina". Garland, a genre writer perhaps best known for his Danny Boyle collaborations "28 Days Later" and "Sunshine", makes his directorial debut here and it's an assured piece of work. "Ex Machina" is an intriguing work of science fiction for many reasons, chief among them being the way Garland keeps everything grounded and on a very intimate and human scale. The film could just as easily operate as a stage play (like a number of other films this year), taking place almost exclusively inside one location and centered around only three characters. Unlike the spectacle-driven sci-fi of which we are so accustomed, "Ex Machina" is an actor-driven film, offering its three stars juicy, complex roles to sink their teeth into. Domhnall Gleeson (having a remarkable run of films this year) plays Caleb, a computer programmer at a Google-like company where he is selected by Nathan (Oscar Isaac, in yet another great performance), the super-genius brainchild of the company, to come to his secluded manor and check out the new project he's been working on. That project is Ava ( Alicia Vikander, in the breakthrough performance of the year), a robot designed by Nathan who appears to be artificially intelligent. From this intriguing premise, "Ex Machina" goes in many unanticipated directions but never in a way that feels cheap or gimmicky. That is because "Ex Machina" is informed by character, and the actors (especially Isaac and Vikander) are able to suggest so much internally through subtle physicality. This is one of the most intelligently written and thought-provoking films of the year, exploring themes of human sexuality and man playing god in ways I've never seen done before in film. That being said, Garland never lets things get too heavy to the point of self-seriousness, showing a light comic touch at unexpected but vital moments. 

My top five films of 2015 will be revealed in Part II, which will be posted in the next few days.

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