Thursday, December 31, 2015

My Top 75 Films of 2015

Yes, yes, Top 10 lists of movies or any other work of creation are inherently silly and inconsequential undertakings, usually done more for the vanity of the critic than the films being assessed. They're more about starting arguments than anything else, which some people dislike but I see as one of the most fundamental functions of a critic.

So if a top 10 list is a lark, then what's a top 75?

I have never gone higher than the number 10 on my year-end list of "the best" films, usually throwing in some eight to 12 other titles, unranked, that I think must be included in any discussion of the year's worthy cinematic achievements. Heck, some years I feel like I'm padding out the top 10.

I admit I take somewhat perverse pride in being known as a "tough" critic,  rarely giving out my highest score -- four stars, five Yaps or an "A," depending on where the review is appearing -- and have sometimes gone several years at a time without awarding it to any movie.

So the main purpose in a list of 75 is underline how significant a movie year I think 2015 was. Truly amazing, memorable years that are chock-full of seminal films only come along every once in a great while, like 1939 or 1968. The last one, by most reckonings, was 1994. I think this year will join them. I gave out my top score to an unprecedented five films in 2015, and the bottom half of my top 10 all got serious consideration for the honor.

In listing six-dozen-plus films, I'm telling you how terrific the movies were this year. I'm begging you to pay attention and be passionate. I'm shouting at you to get enthused about cinema and try to watch everything you find interesting. Because this year, the movies have been sooooo good.

A top 75  list is my way of saying, "Wow."

Here they are, with commentary as deemed necessary.

1.    Spotlight

2.    Room

3.    The Big Short

4.    Mad Max: Fury Road

5.    The End of the Tour

My two favorite films were "Spotlight" and "Room," and I agonized over which to declare #1. Ultimately I went with the former because it's an "important" movie that doesn't wear its importance too heavily (as opposed to the occasionally dreary and cumbersome "Concussion," #70.)

The tale of a team of investigative journalists at the Boston Globe uncovering an epidemic of sexual abuse by Catholic priests never flexes its muscles or demands that you pay attention. It simply lays out the arduous, vital work that goes on at many media outlets, even as they shrink ever smaller and became the hybrid print version of "clickbait."

"Spotlight" and "The Big Short" bear a great many similarities, featuring ensemble casts that have no true leading performance. (Something that may hurt them during the awards season.) They're crusading films that look back into the recent past to show how great misdeeds were brought to light, and ask why it didn't happen sooner before a lot of people got hurt. Their tones diverge drastically, with "The Big Short" using the scalpel of humor to make its points.

"Room" and "The End of the Tour" also are kindred films, essentially existing as feature-length conversations between two people, with other characters breaking in as necessary. The heartbreaking story of a woman and her 5-year-old son kept prisoners in a single room, "Room" featured the two standout performances of the year, Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. Just amazing work, so intimate and so true.

I knew Larson could act, and the same for Jesse Eisenberg, but Jason Segel's performance in "Tour" was  a game-changer for me. The funnyman star of TV and some dorky movies permanently altered my view of what he was capable of as an actor, playing a smart and self-loathing author whose writing style served as a precursor to today's mode of hyperlinks and annotation. It's bothersome that the film seems to have been shunted aside, both at the box office and in awards chatter.

"Mad Max: Fury Road" lies in a category of its own making: a sequel to an iconic but long-dormant action movie film franchise. In bringing in a capable new actor, Tom Hardy, to play Max, and then having him serve as second fiddle to the real protagonist, Charlize Theron's Furiosa, writer/director George Miller showed that he's not afraid to shatter conventions, including those he helped create. An exuberant mix of over-the-top action and surprising character exploration, "Fury Road" was the best time I had at the movies this year.

6.    Amy

7.    Love & Mercy

8.    Mr. Holmes

9.    Son of Saul

10.   Steve Jobs

Great performances drove "Love & Mercy," "Mr. Holmes" and "Steve Jobs." All are portraits of famous individuals, fictional and not, that try to pierce the veil of iconography that have shrouded them for decades. "Amy" serves a similar function in a non-narrative form, a documentary that is both sympathetic and unsparing to the late singer Amy Winehouse. It was the best doc in a standout year for the genre.

"Son of Saul," which will not see wide release in the U.S. for a couple of months, shows how stories from the Holocaust and World War II never fade in their power. In following around a Jew kept alive to clean up the human detritus of the Nazi genocide, "Saul" uses many of the filmmaking techniques I found so distracting in "Birdman" to actual cinematic effect. The use of a very shallow focus, so we only see clearly what is in the foreground, is groundbreaking.

11.    The Martian
12.    The Revenant
13.    Dope
14.    Mistress America
15.    Kingsman: The Secret Service
16.    Brooklyn
17.    Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
18.    Pan
19.    Beasts of No Nation
20.    Sleeping with Other People
21.    The Hateful Eight
22.    The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
23.    Paper Towns
24.    Bridge of Spies
25.    My All American

This next group comprises what would normally be my "also-rans." In virtually any other year, most of them would have easily found a spot in my top 10 or even top 5.

"Bridge of Spies," "The Martian," "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," "Brooklyn" and "My All American" are all genre pictures that represent the peak of their expression. "Dope," "Paper Towns" and "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" endeavored to tear down the mass media conception of teenage life. "Sleeping with Other People" was the best and smartest romantic film of the year.

Quentin Tarantino used a confined space to his advantage in "The Hateful Eight," spaying blood and gleeful dialogue in equal measures. (Even my frequent acting-impaired whipping boy, Channing Tatum, enjoys a solid, brief turn.) The countdown on the stage version is already running; first two rows bring plastic sheeting!

I've been up and down on Noah Baumbach, but he released two enthralling character studies this year with pet actors Greta Gerwig ("Mistress America") and Ben Stiller ("While We're Young," which technically is a 2014 film but didn't get into theaters until mid-2015).

"Kingsman" and "Pan" were risky adventure fantasias that, respectively, paid off and didn't. "Beasts of No Nation" shows us that production for streaming services, already nipping at the heels of broadcast TV, is ready to give theatrical movies a run, too.

"The Revenant," which most people won't see until 2016, is one of those love-it-or-hate-it films. I loathed director Alejandro Iñárritu's camera tricks in "Birdman," tracking his actor around like a cinematic wraith. He uses many of the same techniques here in following an intrepid frontier tracker (Leonardo DiCaprio) who struggles to survive after being mauled by a bear.

Much like "Gravity" and "The Martian," it's an effective bit of old-school "you are there" filmmaking. It doesn't really amount to much more than a very well-made harrowing adventure, but I admire it for what it is.

26.    Cinderella
27.    Coming Home
28.    Infinitely Polar Bear
29.    Paddington
30.    The Good Dinosaur
31.    Legend
32.    By the Sea
33.    Inside Out
34.    3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets
35.    While We’re Young
36.    Avengers: Age of Ultron
37.    For Grace
38.    99 Homes
39.    It Follows
40.    Bone Tomahawk
41.    Star Wars: The Force Awakens
42.    The Lady in the Van
43.    Straight Outta Compton
44.    Slow West
45.    Trumbo
46.    White God
47.    Ex Machina
48.    The Danish Girl
49.    In the Heart of the Sea
50.    Anomalisa

It was a somewhat weak year for animation and comedies, at least in contrast to the dramas and documentaries. Just a few notes:

"Bone Tomahawk" is a great Western/horror mashup, and allowed Kurt Russell to repurpose the same walrus mustache he had in "The Hateful Eight."

As good an evil music biz Svengali as he was in "Straight Outta Compton," Paul Giamatti is even better in essentially the same role in "Love & Mercy."

I liked "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," but I also liked the reviled prequels and think #7 is about on par with #1 in the franchise. (Here's my rank, best to least best: V, VI, IV, III, II, VII, I.) I felt similarly about "Jurassic World" (#73) compared to its predecessors.

"Legend" would've been better if they hadn't so consciously been trying to make "the British Goodfellas." Tom Hardy can do anything, except deign to speak his dialogue clearly if doing so conflicts with his "acting choice." (Thank God the "For Your Consideration" DVD included subtitles.)

Michael Shannon ("99 Homes") also can do anything, and is understandable.

"Ex Machina" starts out as really bold science fiction and then makes a lot of safe, boring choices.

I expect I'm on the only critic in America who put Angelina Jolie's "By the Sea" on his best-of list, even if it was at #32. I stand by it.

"It Follows" shows that supernatural horror films are at their best when they don't feel the need to explain every metaphysical nook and cranny of their story. Leaving the "how" and the "why" open-ended heightens our fear.

Michael Fassbender ("Slow West") looks awfully good in a cowboy bandit rig. Of course, he looks awfully good in just about anything. (Or, as "Shame" showed, absolutely nothing at all.)

"For Grace" was a new paradigm: a documentary made by a newspaper, The Chicago Tribune. I'd love to see more of this. It's about restaurants, becoming great and sacrifices.

"Paddington" was a delightful British family flick that got dumped into American theaters in January without fanfare or press, and still managed to find an audience.

"Anomalisa" was wonderfully inventive but ultimately too quirky for its own good. Like the memorable advice from Robert Downey Jr.'s "Tropic Thunder" character, you should never go full Charlie Kaufman.

Here's the rest, sans comment:

51.    Creed
52.    Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
53.    Goodnight Mommy
54.    Peanut Gallery
55.    Diary of a Teenage Girl
56.    Crocodile Gennadiy
57.    Black Mass
58.    A Brilliant Young Mind
59.    45 Years
60.    The Peanuts Movie
61.    What We Do in the Shadows
62.    Southpaw
63.    Escobar: Paradise Lost
64.    The Connection
65.    The Duff
66.    The Walk
67.    Wildlike
68.    Woman in Gold
69.    Grandma
70.    Concussion
71.    In the Name of My Daughter
72.    Far from the Madding Crowd
73.    Jurassic World
74.    Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine
75.    Jimmy’s Hall

No comments:

Post a Comment