I watched 58 movies that were released in 2015, just one more than last year. It was a solid, but not spectacular year in story telling. While I saw some great movies, nothing captivated me like last 2014’s Calvary or Force Majeure. What stood out this year, though, was how the movies looked. Film is making a comeback – from Super 16 (Carol), to 35 mm (Spectre) to 70 mm (Hateful Eight). Practical effects are making comeback (Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens). And beautiful, lush cinematography was on display this year (Carol and Brooklyn being standout examples). The diversity of styles and techniques put to use in 2015 points to a bright future for film making.
My Top 10
The Boston Globe didn’t discover the clergy abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, but their investigative reporting department (Spotlight) dragged it into the light in an unprecedented way. This film from Tom McCarthy sticks close to actual events and demonstrates that, while old media continues to collapse in the age of the internet, there is no substitute for the meticulous, taxing work of journalism. Spotlight has perhaps the years most impressive cast, but what really makes it work is that the performances are so collaborative. There’s no sense that anyone is trying to steal the movie, but that they’re all embodying this difficult piece of history.
Based on a best selling novel by Emma Donaghue, Room offers the harrowing story of a young woman who has been held in captivity for seven years, and of her child who has never known any other life. Brie Larson gives one of the best performances of the year as a mother whose maternal devotion has enabled her to do something truly heroic – raise a bright, imaginative, loving child despite the horrific circumstances in which they live. Roomis interested not only in how Joy (Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay) has survived or how they will escape, though. The movie devotes equal attention to the difficulty of adjusting to life in the wider world – for mother, child, and all of those who love them. The marvel is that a movie about such a difficult topic can be so beautiful, tender and moving.
3. Ex Machina
A dark, disturbing film noir/sci fi/psychological thriller all in one, Ex Machina is a movie of great visual style and needle sharp acting. Domhnall Gleeson is a wide eyed young IT worker who gets the visit of a lifetime to the isolated home of a tech billionaire (Oscar Isaacs), only to find that he’s less a lucky contest winner than an unwitting test subject. Isaac’s Nathan has taken artificial intelligence farther than anyone before, and his latest model, Ava (Alicia Vikander), may have plans of her own. Ex Machina is a sleek, icy, gleaming wonder to look at, and Vikander’s career took off like a rocket with this role.
4. 99 Homes
There were two movies this year about the 2008 housing crisis, but I haven’t yet seen The Big Short. It’s hard to imagine that it could top Ramin Bahrani’s chilling film about the victims at the bottom of that economic calamity, and the predators who managed to profit off of them. Andrew Garfield is solid as a blue collar worker whose is losing his grip on the bottom rung, and finds a way out through a deal with…well, if not the devil, then one of his colleagues. Michael Shannon is astonishing in this role. He seems, at turns, quite reasonable and utterly diabolical, and it’s all woven together seamlessly. 99 Homes oozes moral outrage without every becoming clumsily preachy.
Tangerine was shot on an i-phone with the lead roles played by non-professional actors, both trans women – and yet nothing about the film feels cheap or gimmicky. It’s a very, very funny comedy with a brisk pace, following two best friends (Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) as one of them seeks the pimp/boyfriend who cheated on her while she was in jail. As distant as this world is from my own, I found the characters to be deeply sympathetic. Director Sean Baker seems to know and respect the characters who populate this film, and that regard is transmitted to the viewer. A moment when a worn down prostitute finds herself with no place to go is heartbreaking, and the last scene of the film is a deeply moving depiction of sacrificial friendship. Kudos, too, for a beautiful, burnished color palette, after which the movie is named.
George Miller’s long awaited addition to his Mad Max franchise keeps some things in tact. There’s little dialogue from anyone, much less our taciturn hero, Max (Tom Hardy). The landscape is post-apocalyptic desert. The surviving humans are a motley, mostly ruthless bunch. And the visual style of this civilization is somewhere between Steampunk and biker bar. The plot? What plot. Vehicles chase each other in one direction, and then turn around and do it all over again. But what a cinematic treat Max Max: Fury Road is! That color palette, those names, the bizarre visual touches (henchmen swooping in on poles, the baddie who shreds on a flame-throwing guitar), and the most intimidating, Amazonian female action hero in ages – Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. Title notwithstanding, she’s the real star of this movie.
7. Steve Jobs
Few 2015 movies have been more divisive than this one. I cannot speak authoritatively on whether or not it fairly depicted what the real Steve Jobs was like, but I can say that as a piece of cinema, it’s terrific. Director Danny Boyle brings his brash and energetic style to what is almost a movie-symphony. Adding Aaron Sorkin’s high energy dialogue ensures that absolutely nothing in Steve Jobs will lag. Michael Fassbender is, as always, excellent in the lead role – but it’s the supporting roles that stuck with me. Seth Rogen has never been better than as Jobs’ first partner, Steve Wozniak; Kate Winslet is flawless as his “work wife” Joanna Hoffman. Jeff Daniels and Michael Stuhlbarg are impressive, too. Steve Jobs looks and sounds amazing. I’ll let someone else sort out whether it tells the truth.
New Zealanders Taika Waititi (Boy) and Jemaine Clements (Flight of the Conchords) co-wrote and co-directed this horror comedy on the down side of being undead. With a mockumentary format and droll humor WWDITS makes its vampires sympathetically out of touch and put upon. Broad comedy (including projectile vomiting and some very messy bloodletting) is fused with the quiet awkwardness that Conchords fans know well. 2015 was a strong year for comedies, but none of them made me laugh more than this one.
9. It Follows
It Follows deliberately evokes classic 70s and early 80s horror films; with its pulsing, synth-organ score, suburban teen protagonists, and the slow, steady encroachment of evil. Despite the role that sex plays in the story, It Follows is not a straightforward morality tale. Yet all of the ideas it evokes – of betrayal, and abuse, and shame, and disease – centered around a group of loyal and loving children, only drive deeper how much is broken about the world in which they are growing up. Our world. It Follows is completely effective as horror, but it’s also profoundly sad.
10. The Wolfpack
Documentarian Crystal Moselle ran into the Angulo brothers on the street in New York and was captivated by the homeschooled brothers otherworldly appearance. Her hunch that these boys had a worthwhile story paid off in a major way with this movie about children who have been raised in almost complete isolation, in the middle of the largest American city. The Angulo parents sheltered their sons from what they saw as a menacing world outside, but exposed them to thousands of movies (including some very strange viewing choices for children, such as Reservoir Dogs). Watching The Wolfpack raised conflicting feelings for me. The movies and isolation worked like a pressure cooker producing some astonishing creativity in the Angulo boys – but it came at a very high price. My own movie-love and my many years of homeschooling made The Wolfpack feel personal me.
Rounding Out the Top 20…
And the worst of the worst…
1. Get Hard – It’s just an extended joke about prison rape. And prison rape isn’t funny.
2. Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 – If ever a movie did not cry out for a sequel, it was Paul Blart: Mall Cop. And the sequel is everything you hoped it wouldn’t be. Kevin James falls down and bumps into things a lot.
3. Audacity – Lord, save us from your tone deaf film making followers, particularly when they treat sexual minorities as targets rather than human beings.
4. Stonewall – A miserable failure as a piece of social history, and an embarrassing melodrama as a personal story. Roland Emmerich’s tribute to the gay rights movement went horribly awry.
5. The Longest Ride – A slow, slogging, silly Nicholas Sparks romance about the love affair between an art student and a bull rider with a score to settle (against a bull). The whole thing feels like bull.