It wasn’t a particularly deep year for quality films. Some of my colleagues disagree, but some of the movies being touted as awards contenders (“Trumbo,” for example) didn’t live up to the hype for me. The top three films on my list stand far above all others, the next five are all outstanding, then there are several good films that wouldn’t be strong enough to make best-of lists in many other years. Still, the best things about year-end movie lists is they might encourage folks to seek out lesser known movies or debate those they have seen. Hopefully this list does both.
Image courtesy of epk.tv
Seven years ago, a young woman (Brie Larson) was abducted and confined to a one-room shed by her captor. This room is the only world her five-year old son (Jacob Tremblay) knows – until mother and child attempt a perilous escape. Lenny Abrahamson, who for two years in a row has produced one of my favorite movies of the year (do yourself a favor and see Frank) focuses on the mother’s will to protect her child and the young boy’s discovery of the world outside the room, and leaves us with a deeper appreciation of the bonds between mother and child. Larson should walk away with the Best Actress Oscar, newcomer Tremblay should be nominated, and Abrahamson damned well better be nominated for helping the actors achieve these performances.
Image courtesy of Netflix via The Guardian
- Beasts of No Nation
Cary Joji Fukunaga (“True Detective”) adapted Uzodinma Iweala’s novel about an African child soldier into a harrowing, empathetic, brutal, and unforgettable viewing experience. Idris Elba towers through the film in an outstanding supporting role, but new discovery Abraham Attah gives a mind-blowing performance in the lead role. This is also a significant moment in media history, since Beasts is Netflix’s first theatrically released motion picture. It did very poorly at the box office in terms of dollars, but this is the first feature film produced by a streaming service that has a real shot at winning Best Picture.
- Ex Machina
This thought-provoking, sexy, stylish science fiction thriller is so stunning I watched it on an airplane yet was still enamored. Three brilliant actors (Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac) conduct a cinematic Turing test amongst themselves and with us. Vikander, as an AI so human-like and charming she seduces Gleeson’s character and us, continues to establish herself as one of the most charismatic actresses of her generation. The content is timely, yet the film is timeless, the sort of science fiction (not science fantasy) I wish we saw more often.
Canadian poster (why not?) courtesy of epk.tv
- The Big Short
I would call this an essential movie, but people tend to resist must-see recommendations. I would tell you it provides the best explanation yet of the Wall Street collapse, but that description is far too academic and won’t get you to the theatre. And I don’t dare tell you it predicts impending economic dangers. Instead, I’ll just say it’s a hilarious, witty comedy featuring a world-class cast (Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Marisa Tomei, Rafe Spall). Incredibly, all of those descriptions are equally accurate. Director Adam McKay pulls a brilliant bait-and-switch, selling us with the comedy in order to give the best assessment yet of what led to the economic recession.
- Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs is less a biopic than a virtuoso enunciation of classic American themes (like The Social Network, this movie owes an enormous debt to Citizen Kane). Drawing on a typically polished Aaron Sorkin screenplay, Danny Boyle directs an exquisite quintet of Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, and Michael Stuhlbarg, who are occasionally joined by other outstanding players. I don’t even care if the film gets a lot of details wrong or unjustifiably glorifies Jobs. It is a joy to watch perfectly executed filmmaking.
Image courtesy of epk.tv
The next great journalism movie has arrived. Writer/director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) and a stellar ensemble cast (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Billy Crudup) dramatize the true story of the Boston Globe’s investigation into the child molestation scandal and subsequent cover-up that forever altered the stature of the Catholic church. It’s an inspiring reminder of the social role only the fourth estate can fill.
Image courtesy of epk.tv
- Love & Mercy
You might not believe this, but John Cusack is outstanding in this Brian Wilson biopic (I kid, I kid). But his performance isn’t as strong as Paul Dano’s. The two actors play Wilson at different stages of life, and both capture the genius and torturous mental illness that defines the legendary composer and musician. Love & Mercy is an unconventional biopic and a fitting tribute. Elizabeth Banks, in a nomination-worthy supporting role, does what she always seems to do – quietly elevate the film with each scene in which she appears. The glaring weakness here is Paul Giamatti’s garish performance as the psychiatrist who possibly saved Wilson’s life yet definitely infantilized him for years. I believe the real Dr. Eugene Landy was this evil, I’m just tired of seeing Giamatti play this character. Everything else compensates, though.
Image courtesy of cinemavine.com
An idealistic FBI agent (Emily Blunt) goes on a covert mission into Mexico with a shadowy task force as part of the “war on drugs.” But she discovers there is much more going on than she initially recognized. Director Denis Villeneuve uses the scenario to say some things about the narcotics trade and the government’s battle against it, but mostly he delivers a taut, fever pitch action movie that, along with Prisoners, places him in a whole new class of filmmakers. Blunt again proves she can do action, and Benicio del Toro is chilling and pitch perfect. I am professionally required to claim Mad Max: Fury Road is the best action movie of the year, but if you like your action grounded in reality, Sicario beats Max.
Image courtesy of Forbes
This was inarguably Pixar’s best movie in years, but that’s no longer saying much for a studio that has churned out formulaic sequels since being bought by Disney. Honestly, I think this one is a bit over-rated, but I’m including it here mostly because of the superb animation. (I’ve never seen skin textures like those created for the emotion characters!) There is also much to be said about a family movie willing to tackle pre-teen emotions and let kids know they should accept their sadness, fear, and anger, and therefore cope with them in healthier ways.
Image courtesy of blastr.com
- Mad Max: Fury Road
I’m including Fury Road for three reasons. One, people like lists with ten entries. Two, George Miller’s revival of the legendary Australian post-apocalyptic science fiction franchise elevates the car chase to a thing of beauty. Stunning cinematography captures impeccably executed, acrobatic battle sequences taking place on wheels. Miller’s film reminds us how much more thrilling and cinematic practically achieved stunts are. Three, I hope it angers men’s rights activists, a group for whom Fury Road sparked the most pathetic outrage of the year (and in 2015, that is really saying something). Max is not made weak because Furiosa is made strong. The moment when Max recognizes Furiosa is a better shot than he and hands her the rifle is already being cited as a minor landmark, and it’s just one of many ways the film inverts the gender power dynamics typical of the genre. Surprisingly, this balls-out action opus captures gender equality circa 2015 perfectly.
Others worth seeing:
The End of the Tour, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, The Assassin, Carol, Amy, Finder’s Keepers, Best of Enemies
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