Happy New Year! 2015 was an excellent year for cinema and fortunately, the end of the year wasn’t backloaded with the best movies. We got them all year long. In fact, the best film I saw this year was in the Spring which speaks to the wealth of fantastic projects that all studios, small and large, are outputting. The films that resonated with me the most were ones that explored the human condition and gave us characters that were tested emotionally, physically and spiritually. They grappled with moral issues, their pasts, their futures, growing up, the darkness of man, and the beauty of their own existence. Some characters emerged as stronger versions of themselves and some faced a path with no redemption. I was happy to take each and every journey with them. I hope if you haven’t seen one or two of these movies that have made my top 10 favorite movies of the year list, that you will seek them out and have a similarly gratifying time getting to know them.
Top 10 Best Films of 2015
1. EX MACHINA
Alex Garland’s directorial debut provided me with a cinematic experience that I don’t think will be recreated in my lifetime. My senses and emotions went into a tailspin moving from fascination, to sheer dread, to utter awe. The story follows Caleb Smith, a young programmer who wins a once in a lifetime chance to spend a week with his company’s CEO, the reclusive genius, Nathan Bateman. But, as the week unfolds, what was supposed to be a promising opportunity for career advancement instead becomes an unnerving examination of everything Caleb thinks he knows about himself and reality, all the while pushing us as an audience too. What makes us think our memories are real? What if everything and everyone you know isn’t real and you were just programmed to think they were? My God, this film is why I love science fiction. If you haven’t seen this movie or perhaps have only seen it once, you owe it to yourself to see it again. If only for the completely unexpected transcendent dance sequence that Oscar Isaac breaks into halfway through the movie, which proves even more rewarding when you learn the truth about his dance partner.
To say this movie was both incredibly harrowing and completely life-affirming at the same time is probably an understatement. It destroyed me, but also made my heart leap so high, I thought it might come out of my chest. When the film opens we meet a young woman and her son as they are baking a cake for his 5th birthday. They are quietly, but happily cooking in a modest kitchenette next to an adjoining living space. It is only when you are met with the realization that the room they’re in is in fact their entire world, because they are being held captive, that you get a sense of what you are in for as a viewer. Brie Larson is extraordinary as a young mom who needs to continually find the inner strength to give her son, who has lived his entire life to this point as a prisoner inside this single room, any semblance of a normal childhood, while also trying to make sense of what her life has become. Room explores the power of loss, hope, courage, family and what great lengths we will go for those that we love.
3. INSIDE OUT
Let me start out by saying that I cried through about 75% of this beautiful film. I felt profoundly connected to this little girl, her parents and to all the emotions that live inside her 11-year-old head. Inside Out is a celebration of what makes each and every one of us unique- our memories, our dreams, and our imaginations. Watching the emotions represented by Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust navigate the mind of Riley, as she adjusts to a move to a new city, is immensely moving and thought-provoking. Pete Docter crafts an inventive, warm story that taps into the spirit of childhood and delivers us two of the most heartbreaking scenes of 2015- the collapse of Goofball Island (one of Riley’s “personality islands”), and the moment when Riley’s imaginary friend, Bing Bong, makes the ultimate sacrifice so that Riley might again find joy in her life. Both scenes are vivid reminders of the passage of time and that growing up can be complicated, poignant and wonderful.
4. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
An intense, thrilling and twisted film which hooks you from the very first frame and doesn’t let go until the very last. Mad Max: Fury Road is visual storytelling at its best- weaving together action choreography using practical effects set to an electrifying soundtrack that is absolutely mesmerizing. George Miller immerses us directly into this manic, post-apocalyptic environment where biker gangs led by an evil baddie name Immortan Joe are hoarding all the food, water and gasoline from the masses. When Joe’s finest warrior, Imperator Furiosa, ferociously played by Charlize Theron, veers off course from a planned gas run to free his enslaved wives, all hell breaks loose. Most of the film is in fact one long, intricate chase sequence, with explosive and exhilarating results. Only a genius like George Miller could have thought up acrobatic warriors called “pole cats” who fight by flying across the screen on poles; or a blind, masked electric guitarist who rides with the war party while strapped to a giant assemblage of amplifiers, wildly playing thrasher metal as Joe’s army battles around him. Every frame of this film is composed as if it’s its own, standalone work of art. When Immortan Joe holds up his deceased wife in despair, I immediately recalled Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People.” Like that painting, Mad Max: Fury Road will likely be revered as a masterpiece of its medium.
The opening scene of It Follows is flat out brilliant. A door on a quiet residential street bursts open and a teenage girl flees out and down the porch steps. A neighbor asks if she is okay as the young woman stumbles down the sidewalk in her heels, and into the middle of the street. She is out of breath and then crosses the street, all the while looking over her shoulder. She circles back to her house to go back inside, only to run out again a moment later with her purse. It’s riveting and terrifying, and what becomes of her is shocking. It Follows is a straight up throwback to classic horror films of the 70s and 80s, right down to its sinister synth score. I loved every second of it. The teenaged protagonists at the heart of the story need to work together to figure out how to escape the relentless force that is pursuing them. It moves with the dogged yet determined pace of Michael Myers, yet can only be seen by its current victim, or any past victims who were lucky enough to shake it. The concept of the movie is so original, intelligent, and frightening that it leaves the viewer contemplating how they would be able to escape their fate if “it” came after them, and all the moral questions that come with doing just that.
6.THE HATEFUL EIGHT
A snow covered cross set to a haunting score composed by Ennio Morricone is our first glimpse of Quentin Tarantino’s 8th feature film, and it is magnificent. As a horse drawn carriage then appears in the distance and slowly approaches, and we are slowly and carefully eased into the cold reality of the film, I found myself gleefully settling into my seat with anticipation of what was surely going to be a bumpy ride. Tarantino’s filmmaking is always something to be savored, and I feel so lucky that I live in a time where I can experience a first run film of his the way he wanted it to be seen. Shot on 65mm and projected on 70mm (for those fortunate enough to see the Roadshow version of his 3 hour plus epic film complete with a musical overture, intermission and program) this is a genre bending western/horror/mystery film about eight despicable people holed up in a haberdashery during a treacherous blizzard. It’s filled with searing, clever, biting dialogue, over the top violence, unspeakably graphic gore and mayhem, and is basically everything you could hope for in a Tarantino movie. Every character is looking out only for themselves; all are rotten to the core; and it doesn’t matter their background, race or gender, because not a single one is immune to the possibility of being blown apart by bullets, or sprayed in the face by someone else’s brains or unseemly substance. This film is clearly not for everyone, but for Tarantino fans and those not easily offended or queasy, this is a definite must see.
7. 45 YEARS
A quiet, thoughtful and introspective look into a married couple’s life as they plan for their 45th wedding anniversary party. The big event is a week away and a letter arrives that forces both husband and wife to reexamine their marriage, their love for one another, and to discover certain truths they would rather have never known. This small gem of a movie is the perfect companion piece to Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. The marriages in both films couldn’t be farther apart but that is the truth and wonder of marriage- no one union is similar. Director, Andrew Haigh does a remarkable job at giving us a window into this delicate one, and Charlotte Rampling’s subtle and stunning performance will no doubt land her with a well-deserved Oscar nomination.
This is one of the first films I saw in 2015 and what a knockout it was. 25 year old Canadian director, Xavier Dolan shoots Mommy in an unflinching, perfectly square 1:1 aspect ratio, so you cannot avert your eyes from the struggles of the two main characters: a widowed single mother, Diane and her troubled teenage son, Kyle. Dolan wants the viewer to feel suffocated at times by their behavior, but also to commit you to feel for these two. There is a moment in this devastating story where things are turning around for Kyle and he is finally feeling alive, so he reaches out with his two hands and expands the aspect ratio from 1:1 to widescreen, and it’s breathtaking. Everyone knows that feeling when all of a sudden your life is so overwhelming and gorgeous, that it completely opens up and you are reminded why it’s worth living. Unfortunately, life doesn’t stay that way for young Kyle, and the screen reverts back to the stifled boxed in look to reflect that. Mommy perfectly encapsulates what unconditional love truly signifies and the unwavering hope that comes with it, as demonstrated in the sublime montage of a possible future, which Diane envisions for her son. This might be the most challenging, heart stopping film of 2015, but it’s a vital reminder that not all of us get a happy ending.
9.STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
Leave it to J.J. Abrams to finally make this Trekker a Star Wars fan. He is the master at giving us complex, intelligent, endearing heroines, and he has outdone himself with the creation of Rey, played vibrantly by Daisy Ridley. Rey is from humble beginnings and is thrust into a quest to find the whereabouts of the last Jedi, Luke Skywalker. She is tough, self-assured, and simply steals the movie from one of the most likable characters to ever grace the Stars Wars universe with his crooked smile, Han Solo. I could gush and gush about Rey, but I am sure most of you have seen her charisma for yourselves. I’ll just put my money where my mouth is and go out and buy my first Star Wars shirt this week from Her Universe, a Rey baseball tee. I’ll also be first in line for Rian Johnson’s follow up to see where he takes all my new favorite characters next- Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, Poe Dameron and Captain Phasma.
A powerful drama about The Boston Globe’s true story investigation into the shocking child abuse scandal of the Roman Catholic Church in Boston. Although we already know the outcome of the Spotlight team’s findings, it doesn’t make it any less appalling or compelling to watch it unfold on the big screen. In fact, it’s one of the most suspenseful films of the year, giving us a first-hand look into what went into uncovering all the facts of the tragic story, and feeling the same emotional impact these reporters did as they realized this scandal was so much bigger than they had imagined. The cast is truly outstanding. One scene that particularly stood out for me came when Mark Ruffalo’s character, completely overcome with frustration and helplessness, erupts in an astonishing emotional outburst in the reporting room. Director Tom McCarthy makes sifting through legal documents and highlighting names in a directory some of the most captivating cinema of the year.
Honorable Mentions: PADDINGTON, SICARIO, BEASTS OF NO NATION, TERMINATOR: GENISYS, THE BIG SHORT, THE REVENANT, BROOKLYN, CREED, THE VISIT, CINDERELLA, WHILE WE’RE YOUNG, GOOSEBUMPS, THE GIFT, SOUTHPAW, THE MARTIAN
Top 5 Worst Films of the Year
Oh man, I was really looking forward to this movie. I bought my ticket to see it in the historic Cinerama Dome, sat down with friends, and had my popcorn ready. Midway through the film I tried to reconcile for myself what exactly writer/director Neil Blomkamp was going for with this story of a sweet robot that is kidnapped and corrupted by third rate gangsters, played by the South African musicians, Ninja and Yolandi, but that proved an impossible feat. As every minute slowly passed in this dysfunctional disaster of a movie, it devolved into more and more of an inexplicable, preachy mess. Ninja and Yolandi completely hijack the third act, and in so doing may have cemented their place among the most annoying characters to ever grace the big screen, second only to perhaps Jar Jar Binks.
Ugh, this movie’s 133 running time felt like 4 hours. Chris Hemsworth plays a computer genius hacker sprung from jail to help uncover some global cyber terrorism threat. I mean I think that is the premise, it’s too boring to even remember, and just about everyone from the actors to the sound mixer seemed to phone it in. The pacing is glacial, we get “exciting” shots of characters tapping furiously on keyboards and some sort of CGI look at what information traveling throughout the superhighway might look like if we could actually see it. Chris Hemsworth has a longing look with his friend’s sister and all of a sudden, this woman is the love of his life. No element of this movie should have made it to the green light stage much less an actual theatrical release, but somehow it did and somehow I showed up to see it. Don’t make the same mistake.
This is another tedious movie and Shailene Woodley’s character couldn’t possibly be more screechy and self-important. Miles Teller’s talent is wasted playing a wooden, mustache twirling douchebag. This has 1/100th of the life of the first film in this series and that guarantees that I won’t be back for the next one.
I hated this movie for no reason more than because it made me question my complete adoration for Director Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig. Screw you, MISTRESS AMERICA, screw you.
5.ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL
I’m a total sucker for coming of age movies. This film felt like a poor man’s version of every good one that has come out in the past few years. Hey, let’s take the most banal plot conventions of the genre and make them even more banal. Skip this movie and see the far superior, THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER instead.