2015 has come and gone after another interesting year at the cinema. There were dinosaurs, X-Wings, War Boys and..umm…Dominants. Stories were told in a small garden shed and in a galaxy far far away about a wondrous robot, a musical genius and a lonely astronaut. Some movies were blockbusters; some were only played at a local art house. Nevertheless, some stood out more than others. So let’s chat about the finest films of 2015.
A beautifully shot but bruising crime drama featuring Benicio Del Toro in one of the scariest (and best) performances of the year. Gritty, dirty and damn near hypnotizing.
19. Shaun the Sheep Movie
If Minions was made with creativity and soul instead of merchandising on the brain, it would probably look a lot like this silly and super fun stop-motion animated comedy. Aardman Studios (Chicken Run, Wallace & Gromit) strikes again.
18. The Peanuts Movie
Charles M. Schulz would be proud of this faithful and surprisingly fresh animated adaptation of his beloved cartoon. Despite having bright and colorful modern animation from Blue Sky Studios, The Peanuts Movie shows kids classic melancholy of childhood and how it’s ok to be yourself. No grief, just good.
17. Goodnight Mommy
This Austrian-based horror film takes a twist on the home invasion genre and makes it all the creepier. No spoilers, just see it.
16. The Hateful Eight
Quentin Tarantino remains untouchable with his eight feature (and second Western). Imagine if a dinner theater murder mystery took place in post-Civil War America and acted out by some ace talent (like the immortal Samuel L. Jackson). Tarantino says he’ll retire on his tenth feature, so keep your eyes on him.
15. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Is it THE GREATEST MOVIE EVENT IN THE HISTORY OF TIME AND SPACE?!?!?!?!?!?! No, but J.J. Abrams used stunning visuals, exciting action and fresh characters to do the impossible: make a good Star Wars movie. Be honest, when’s the last time you saw a good Star Wars movie?
14. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
The best Wes Anderson movie Wes Anderson never made. A sweet yet off-kilter comedy about the awkward kids in high school and the ways they connect, whether it be from remakes of foreign films or cancer.
13. Avengers: Age of Ultron
Like The Force Awakens, there were ginormous expectations for the sequel to Marvel’s flagship team-up movie and it didn’t meet those expectations. But that doesn’t mean Age of Ultron wasn’t chock full of great characters and action-packed fun. The stars are the villainous yet quick-witted Ultron (James Spader) and The Vision (Paul Bettany) who will surely have a bigger role in future movies. Marvel’s bubble will surely burst someday, but let’s enjoy the ride while it lasts.
12. 99 Homes
One wouldn’t think the Florida housing crisis would be a good backdrop for a morality tale, but writer/director Ramin Bahrani pulled it off in this gripping drama about a struggling single father (a fantastic Andrew Garfield) trying to put a roof over his family’s head and seeing how far that’ll take him before his own greed claims his soul. But the real draw is Michael Shannon as the sinister real estate broker who drops a harsh reality about the current state of America: “America doesn’t bail out the losers. America was built by bailing out winners.” *Shivers*
11. It Follows
An art house movie disguised as a John Carpenter horror film, this indie sensation is more admirable for its unique story and composition than it is for its scares. That said, writer/director David Robert Mitchell creates a creepy atmosphere that feels like something out of a Twilight Zone episode while also making the precociousness of losing teenage innocence through first-time sex seem all the scarier.
And now, the TOP TEN!!!!!!
One of the best movies of 2014 was Dear White People, a satire comedy about racism at an Ivy League College. It was refreshing to see such a vibrant, sharp and poignant film about African-Americans in today’s culture. This year came another vibrant, sharp and poignant film about African-Americans in today’s culture, with a lighter touch to it.
Dope follows Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a 90’s hip-hop geek living in the rough part of Inglewood, CA. One night, he goes to the birthday party of a local drug dealer (A$AP Rocky) in order to impress a girl (Zoe Kravitz) and ends up switching backpacks with him. It turns out that backpack contains MDMA and Malcolm needs to sell it before he gets into more trouble.
Everything about Dope is energetic and alive: the actors, the writing, the direction, the music and the setting of Inglewood. When Malcolm (newcomer Moore with a breakout performance) confesses to being a geek, that label isn’t meant to build cheap jokes or create a Revenge of the Nerd-type plot. Malcolm and his friends (Kiersey Clemons and Tony Revolori in great supporting roles) are young people with passions and abilities they use to succeed in daily life. Realistic black people in movies?! Crazy concept, right? Writer/director Rick Famuyiwa gives perspective to black nerd culture and how they’re perceived in today’s culture. It knocks down stereotypes and provides a look into current black culture as a vibrant part of America.
9. The Martian
No matter what he’s done in his nearly 40-year career as a director, Ridley Scott has always belonged in space. He made space scary (Alien), he saw the paranoia and mystery of the future (Blade Runner) and built a new universe from his original work (Prometheus). 2015 saw him go back into space but this time he focused on one man and, like Bill Nye the Science Guy, firmly states that science rules.
Adapted from Andy Weir’s 2011 novel of the same name, The Martian in question is NASA botanist/astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon). After a dangerous storm forces he and his team to leave Mars but ends up separating him from the team and stranding him on the red planet, Watney must use his intelligence and pure will to think up a way to survive until he can make contact with Earth to find a way home.
Scott orchestrates everything to near-perfection, combining the visual grandeur of Mars with the grounded science done on Earth and the red planet. He keeps it all moving at a great pace and wants the focus to be on the characters more than the visuals. That’s important because those characters (adapted for screen wonderfully by Drew Goddard) are fantastic to watch. Everyone from the director of NASA (Jeff Daniels), the Mars mission director (Chiwetel Ejiofor), NASA’s PR head (Kristen Wiig), an astrodynamicist (Donald Glover), a satellite planner (Mackenzie Davis) and the NASA crew (Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Michal Peña, Sebastian Shaw and Aksel Hennie) are all fully-fleshed out and make for essential pieces of the whole picture, almost each deserving their own spin-off movie. At the center of it all if Damon, who takes the Tom Hanks route of “Mr. Can-Do” and uses his botany powers to make Mars his own personal farm. Damon hasn’t been this confident, funny, relatable or likeable in a movie in quite some time, but he’s as worthy of cheers as any Marvel or DC superhero (hell, he even makes Iron Man-flying look cooler in space). Sure, Star Wars filled the void of “intergalactic fantasy,” but Scott showed the world that there’s still excitement in our own galaxy.
Movies about journalism are few and far between because it’s hard to make journalism interesting to the general public. There can’t just be a story about reporters asking questions, doing hard research, going over the facts and making sure the truth is there. Maybe a flashy performance will be thrown in or maybe some kind of political spin will be put on it, but there’s rarely as movie about the importance of journalism and what it can do to drastically shake a nation. Sure enough, 2015 provided one of those rare movies about journalists deep in the muck.
Spotlight is also the name of the long-term investigative team at The Boston Globe, who cover stories that deal with a wide-reaching and important subject. In 2001, the team came across a story about a priest who supposedly molested more than 80 boys over 30 years and how the Catholic Church tried to cover it up. The team, consisting of Walter “Robby” Robertson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), chases the story for over a year and discover more horrifying details as to just how far the cover-up goes.
What makes Spotlight stand out is that there’s nothing flashy about it. No fancy camera angles, no long takes, no visual effects, no directorial flair. Director Tom McCarthy shoots everything in a standard format, keeping all the focus on the developing story and the work that the reporters put into it. Everything that Spotlight wants to tell the audience is out in front, and nothing distracts from it. McCarthy shows the unflinching dedication the investigative team has to the story. When Rezendes is told not to record any information during an interview, he persistently lobbies to use his notepad to make sure he gets information on the record. When the story of the one priest gets finished, the team wants to keep digging. Pfeiffer is a frequent church-goer with her family, but she wants to know the truth. Spotlight showcases the incredible dedication these reporters have not just to the newspaper they work for, but to the people who read it. The actors are all game, especially Ruffalo in what may be his best performance to date. He’s occasionally showy but there’s an understanding of just how horrifying this scandal is and how letting it go unreported might as well be turning a blind eye to sexual assault. Spotlight is a great example of why journalists put so much into their work: they deal in the truth when others want it to die.
There are many ways to tell the story of growing up: teen comedy, innocent romance, moving on from a big moment in life and so on. But there’s something to be said about a mother and son maturing at the same time, especially when the world they once knew was barely the size of the average kitchen. One way or the other, the big world can be pretty scary when seen for the first time ever or the first time in years.
Room follows five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and his mother (Brie Larson) who live in a small garden shed. This is the world Jack was born into and he thinks it’s wondrous, but it’s been a prison for his mother after being kidnapped seven years ago and sexually abused night after night by her abductor. One day, Jack escapes and garners help to save him and his mom. But when Jack sees how big the real world is and his mother sees how much the world has changed around her, the two are frightened and can’t understand what their place is in the world.
Despite having such dark story elements, Room is more whimsical and kind-hearted than you’d think. It’s a very adult take on becoming a grown-up and breaking out of one’s comfort zone (or in this case, prison). Writer Emma Donoghue (who also wrote the novel the movie is based on) captures the uneasiness Jack feels now that everything he’s ever known has been taken away and replaced with so many new things. It’s almost tragic to hear him claim that he misses what was really a restricting living hell. Donoghue also makes Jack’s mom feel alienated from everything around her when all she wanted to do was go home. It’s all driven home by two of the best acting performances of the year: Larson as emotionally raw and endearing enough to make you weep, and newcomer Tremblay as the precocious yet tragic Jack. There’s something heartwarming about how Jack and his mom can’t live without each other but they still have to become independent. Growing up is hard to do, but it’s never been told with such creativity and realism.
6. The End of the Tour
When it comes to movies, the best ones are the simplest. The ones with great writing that turns into great dialogue spoken by interesting characters. There can be occasionally showing of flair like special effects or action scenes, but the characters and the writing are the memorable elements of film. Films are stories, and people like stories for their narrative and the characters involved in that narrative. So what’s more simple than two people talking about life?
The End of the Tour is the true story of Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel). In 1996, Lipsky went to interview Wallace for an article after Wallace published his acclaimed novel, Infinite Jest. The two spent five days together talking about each other on the final days of Wallace’s book tour. Lipsky never used the audio tapes he recorded with Wallace, who died in 2008. Lipsky eventually wrote a book about his time with Wallace.
The End of the Tour may be the simplest movie of the year in technical terms, but it juggles a lot from a writing standpoint. Donald Margulies’ screenplay (adapted from Lipsky’s book) captures all of the vital points Wallace made with his scattered but poetic isms about life. One minute he and Lipsky are talking about the joys of commercial entertainment via Die Hard (the first one, of course) and the next they talk about how this crazy new thing called the Internet will eventually take over their lives (mind you, he said this in 1996). The way Lipsky and Wallace peel the layers off of each other while traveling through Gen X America. Eisenberg and Segel are an inspired pair, reading off of each other and seeing mirror images of themselves. Segel in particular is a revelation as the grounded but complex Wallace, he disappears into the role. The End of the Tour is so down-to-earth and human that it feels like a reenactment of a documentary. Nothing flashy or expansive about it, just two people being honest with each other.
5. Mad Max: Fury Road
This movie shouldn’t have happened. The creator/writer/director, George Miller, is 70-years-old and has spent the last decade making movies about dancing penguins. The star of the original movies has embarrassed himself out of Hollywood and it’s been 30 years since this franchise had a new installment. But the gates of Valhalla opened up and blessed the cinema wasteland with a flaming, speeding bullet of a franchise reboot. RISE!
Mad Max: Fury Road is another post-apocalyptic tale set in the nuclear desert of Australia where the deformed and desolate remains of humanity are led by the hulking Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his pasty, psychotic War Boys. One of Joe’s head troops, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), decides to rebel by springing his collection of slave wives and escaping to a safe haven. Furiosa encounters a sullen drifter named Max (Tom Hardy) and the two help each other evade the War Boys and ride to freedom.
Fury Road is the best kind of action movie: one that actually has a purpose to it. It’s mostly a two-hour car chase through the desert, but it’s rare that such a simple idea could be given so much attention and imagination. The production design of the cars, the War Boys, the costumes and the wasteland itself is jaw-dropping. It’s strange how the movie supposedly takes place in Australia since the obsession with cars and metal feel more like an American demolition derby. The movie hits the ground running from frame one and paces things out very well. Miller is making chaos, but it’s all organized and hits at just the right time. Miller, along with writers Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris, also constructed a deeply-woven story using the macho action movie format to tell the rise of feminism. At the head of that rise is Theron’s Furiosa, one of the most fully-formed characters in a 2015 movie. Hardy himself is a near-perfect choice for Max, being able to convey so much emotional when he has maybe 20 lines total in the movie. Fury Road is not only one of the best action movies of the decade, but it’s also a shining example of how to reboot a franchise and how to do a summer action movie. No shaking camera, no shoehorned drama, no sexy girls for the sake of sexy girls and no dated references or morals. Just put the foot on the gas and go.
Romance movies are usually associated with the term “tearjerker.” It brings out forced drama or sentiment trying to get a reaction from the audience. If the audience starts weeping, it automatically makes it a good movie. “Did you see this yet? OMG, it had me in tears!” But, as with the case for good movies, there can be real emotional pulled out if the story is good enough. I’m not one for “tearjerkers” myself *sniffle* but occasionally I *sniffle* see a *sniffle* SHUT UP, YOU’RE CRYING!!!
Based on Colm Tóibín’s novel, Brooklyn follows a young Irish girl named Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) who immigrates to Brooklyn in 1952. She meets a handsome but shy Italian guy (Emory Cohen) she falls in love with. When tragedy strikes back home, she leaves Brooklyn and then starts seeing a local Irish guy (Domhnall Gleeson). Eilis is torn between the life she once had and the new life she made for herself.
Like The End of the Tour, Brooklyn is a very simply film: a period drama with romance thrown in. But Brooklyn has the task of restoring Brooklyn itself to the 1950s, and director John Crowley’s production team do an exceptional job. The costumes, cars and music are all organized like every shot is a preserved photograph in a history museum (Yves Bélanger’s warm cinematography adds to that). The real driving factors are the excellent screenplay from Nick Hornby (Wild, An Education) and a stellar performance from Ronan. Hornby’s writing is sentimental but not in a pandering way. He knows the story is basically about homesickness and the fear of living on one’s own, so he keeps it that way without adding any unnecessary filler. Eilis just misses her family and feels alone in Brooklyn. The drama doesn’t feel forced either, it’s actually quite a relatable situation: would leaving Ireland forever be selfish or is it really unfair to sacrifice independence? Ronan makes everything work with her heartbreaking portrayal of Eilis. Everything she emotes feels legitimate and honest, like it’s coming directly from her soul. Ronan has Eilis being fragile on occasion, but brings it all back to being a confident woman finding her own identity. But when she lets her emotions pour out, bring tissues.
The depiction of gay characters in Hollywood movies has definitely improved in recent years. While it hasn’t fully formed, 2015 did come closer to treating them like real people instead of quirky stereotypes. A torrid love affair between one lost in the love once had and another who’s never known love before is a familiar story, but what were to happen if it applied to the same sex in a time when that wasn’t even considered a possibility?
Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel, Carol’s title character is a middle-aged mother (Cate Blanchett) in 1950’s New York. Carol is in the middle of a divorce with her stern husband (Kyle Chandler) and just trying to be a good mother to her young daughter. One day in a Manhattan department store, Carol meets young Therese (Rooney Mara) working behind the counter. The two spark a connection and quietly start a romance. But when Carol’s husband finds out, he threatens to take sole custody of their daughter. Carol must make a decision whether or not she should make a decision for her heart or for her family, while Therese is caught in the middle with unsure emotions.
This is not the first period piece for director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, I’m Not There), but it’s the most beautifully constructed movie of his career and one of the most stunning movies of the year. Haynes and cinematographer Edward Lachman shoot the movie with a warm glow that radiates from the screen. Everything from Carol and Therese’s first dinner together to Therese photographing Carol in the snow is natural eye candy. Their production designer (Judy Becker) deserves credit too, as she weaves the environment of the 1950s like a quilt. The story, adapted for screen by Phyllis Nagy, requires great patience and restraint from its actors as the movie’s romance slowly builds over time. That said, the chemistry between Blanchett and Mara practically beams from the movie screen the second they share a frame together. Blanchett, a gorgeous dame and a delicate flower at the same time, is powerful as Carol. You can feel her wanting to break out of all the makeup and fancy clothes she wears because she knows it’s a lie. She adores Therese, but it kills her that she can’t say it out loud. Mara is excellent as well, being the one unsure of how to be in love with another woman even though her heart has never been more sure of anything in her life. Even Chandler is great, playing a jealous brute on the outside but only doing so because he loves his wife. Even the supposed “bad guy” of the movie is given real dimensions. Carol is like looking at a painting and seeing more and more great things about it the longer you look. Carol makes your heart ache and learn how to see past what’s in front of you.
2. Love & Mercy
Brian Wilson is one of the (if not THE) godfathers of modern American pop music, pushing boundaries to make music sound spiritual and existential. With him literally trying to pull the sounds in his heads onto a reel-to-reel, it’s no wonder it almost drove him mad. But no matter what his mind may have done to him, his heart was still intact and it’s actually what saved him. So how do you tell that story and avoid the pitfalls of the dreaded cliché known as the “music biopic?”
Love & Mercy breaks down Wilson’s life into two eras: when he was a young man (Paul Dano) writing fun summer songs with The Beach Boys, and in his middle-age (John Cusack) trying to piece his life together after a mental breakdown. The younger Wilson decides to quit touring with his band to build the soundscapes in his head into what would be the classic album, Pet Sounds. The older Wilson is under the watch of a rather imposing therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), while trying to piece his life back together. The younger Wilson loves making this experimental music, but his bandmates and family think he should just keep writing songs about surfing and/or girls (sometimes surfing girls). The older Wilson meets a beautiful woman, Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), who is told by Dr. Landy that Wilson is very unstable. The younger Wilson starts losing his mind when he can’t make all the sounds in his head turn into music. The older Wilson is being severed from a woman he’s falling in love with and can’t break from the grip of Dr. Landy.
Big credit goes to director Bill Pohlad, who plays with the concept of the biopic genre by integrating dream sequences as a peek inside Wilson’s psyche. He and the script (penned by Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner) depict Wilson as a generally happy spirit but someone who doesn’t have it all together. Whether he’s young or old, there’s a sense that he’s not entirely comfortable in his own skin, but making music makes him feel like a complete person. It’s interesting how both stories are about Wilson rising and falling from grace. Both Dano and Cusack are revelatory at capturing the quiet genius of Wilson. Dano has Wilson’s youthful optimism while Cusack has the frazzled yet sympathetic appeal. Both actors capture Wilson as a man still looking to understand the world around him, with music being the only thing that ever made sense to him. Giamatti is fantastic as always, being damn near sinister in his obsessive control and abuse of Wilson. It’s as if Dr. Landy was a psychotic superfan who never wanted to share Wilson with anyone. Banks, in a rare dramatic turn, is the light of the movie. There’s a warmness to her performance that can’t be ignored as she shows general love for Wilson both as a romantic interest and a human being. And then there’s the music, of course supplied via The Beach Boys’ hits. When Dano plays a solo piano rendition of “God Only Knows,” it’s both beautiful and heartbreaking. Two words that could also be applied to Wilson’s life story.
1. Ex Machina
When you think of science-fiction movies, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind: Spaceships? Aliens? The future? Lasers? Robots? Memorable sci-fi movies are known for their awe-inspiring visual effects or futuristic technology and vision, but people may mistake these as the essential qualities of a great sci-fi movie. Others can be quiet, intimate, creeping, sexual and still be just as moving. Many sci-fi movies treat robots as a side-character or something one dimensional, but what were to happen if a machine challenged man? In our ever-increasing dependence on technology, what happens when technology fools us?
Writer Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Dredd) took his first turn at the director’s chair to ask this question with Ex Machina. A lonely programmer named Caleb(Domhnall Gleeson) at a Google-esque search engine wins a contest to spend a week with the company’s owner, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). When he reaches his enclosed estate in the mountains of Norway, Caleb discovers he was brought out to perform in a Turing Test. Nathan wants Caleb to talk to his latest project and see how human it can be. Nathan’s project turns out to be an A.I. named Ava designed as a female (Alicia Vikander) who grows interested in Caleb and the parameters of humanity. The more Caleb talks to Ava, the more uneasy he becomes with Nathan and his motives.
Everything about Ex Machina is beautifully designed: the sets, the score, the camera movement, the cinematography, the pacing and especially the acting. Garland and his team want the audience to fall for Ava as hard as Caleb does, shooting her behind clear glass and with smooth lighting. Ava’s character is meant to be a mirror for humans to examine their basic behavior. All throughout the movie, Caleb’s talks with Ava are like therapy sessions: Why is Caleb so alone? Why is he testing Ava? What does Caleb think of Nathan? It’s a cat-and-mouse game without knowing who’s who. Cinematographer Rob Hardy shoots everything like a glowing daydream, peaceful and yet knowing something is going to snap. Nathan’s house, where about 90% of the movie takes place, is like a giant maze where everyone is constantly chasing each other. The music, composed by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow (of the British electronic group Portishead) combines light touches and haunting, hammering electronic beats into a convulsing sound. It can hypnotize you and scare you at the drop of a hat. The same goes for the actors, leading with Vikander in her breakout performance of a stacked 2015 (The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Danish Girl). She’s delicate and fascinating to watch, but has moments when she grills Caleb for how humans treat technology. You’ll fear her when it’s all over, but not as much as you’ll fear Isaac as the maniacal Nathan. Whether he’s praising his intellect for reaching the next step in evolution or dancing with his robotic servant, he’s an imposing figure. Gleeson is the humanity of the movie, experiencing everything without an agenda. Ex Machina is the best movie of the year because it’s analysis of technology and human relationships is something rare. No matter what other movie there has been this year, no other one asked the questions or played with the most basic human concepts quite like Ex Machina did.