Top Ten Movies of 2015 – and More

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Hello everyone! I got caught up in writing the first draft of my novel, currently 206 pages and counting, and my work here got a little pushed to the side, but there are now many ideas that don’t fit in my other media which I need to explore.

One of the pleasures of 2015 was writing regular film reviews for The Addison Recorder. I don’t know how many people read them, but it was wonderful engaging with cinema on such a level and feeling that engagement shape my own fictions. And with the year over, it is time to make the first of these lists I feel really accurate setting down since 2008, when I was again spending almost every week at movies, searching for something I couldn’t fully put into words that I wanted to shape me.

2015 was a topsy-turvy year for America, and I don’t want to say that cinema reacted specifically to that because films like these were developed for years, but I was moved by how many terrific films spoke to some recurrent themes: the triumph of the human spirit. The capacity to do the right things in the face of opposition. The confrontation of our ability to change.

There was an additional quality this year that was summed up by my fellow writer/artist Leigh Yenrick, who saw half the films on this list with me (and who I thank for joining me in some heady emotional waters…I owe her much more joyous pictures in the future). The themes of 2015 came across all the more because, as she put it, there were so many simple stories that were incredibly well-told. Almost any human being can relate to the visceral excitement of a car chase or the perceived comfort of everyday married life, but when the stories surrounding these are told by people who have poured thought, emotion, and the hard and necessary work of construction into them (for both the story of a film and the making of a film require juggling a Whitmanian multitude of parts), we as an audience receive the rare thrill of experiencing a new perspective, deeper understanding, and a sense that the world is not the same for us after leaving our seat, that we have new standards and expect more, from film and from life.

Introduction’s over. Some of these films are on Redbox, Netflix, and HBO GO/NOW. Some are still in theaters or will be back in time for Oscar. Let yourself have an experience. Without further ado…

THE TOP TEN LIST

  1. Tangerine

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The obvious statement regarding Tangerine is marveling over how Sean Baker made a beautiful film of the highest technical quality with an iPhone. What’s less obvious is that Baker made a film about 21st Century Los Angeles as it really is and as only people who lived there could know it. I did not engage with transgendered prostitutes, nor did I take a lot of taxis since a car is a standard perquisite for the City of Angels, but the sense of endless stretches of roads and freeways, of residential homes on tree-lined streets bumping up against tired strip malls and their liquor stores and Laundromats, of the particular aesthetics of cheap restaurants where you drink Mexican soda and classy bars where you drink overpriced cocktails, of never knowing what could be around any corner, of being simply overwhelmed in your quest to make something better of yourself: all of this is in Tangerine as I’ve never seen it captured before. The screenplay for Tangerine doesn’t match the production and the actors’ commitment. There are several details and plot threads left hanging or underdeveloped in the first two acts, although the ambiguous moments in the ending work. What carries the film is the friendship between the straight-laced Alexandra and the exuberant Sin-Dee, a portrait of camaraderie, support, and forgiveness large enough to welcome in others—even people they may hate for they can recognize the searching quality in others and embrace it—and small enough for them to support each other in all circumstances. Mia Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez are beautiful people who play the straight woman and joker with each other and everyone else, and their energy and empathy makes Tangerine a delight as a moving story and an energetic modern screwball comedy.

  1. She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry
Heather Booth

Heather Booth, who helped pre-Roe v. Wade Chicagoans get abortions.

In 2015, my friendship with Gina Watters, a person with a contagious affinity for true stories, led me to seek out more documentaries than ever before. There were several great ones—Amy, The Best of Enemies, Going Clear, The Hunting Ground—but this film, which got much less attention, is the one I need to single out. Mary Dore’s documentary about second-wave feminism is entertaining and admirably comprehensive for a ninety-minute film, as it encompasses the most public actions of the movement and the artistic collectives, the black and Hispanic rights intersections, and the Lavender Revolution, with a great series of interviews with the organizers, the writers, the college students in Chicago who ran private abortion services before Roe v. Wade giving it all context.

The Civil Rights Movement and certain other revolutionary actions were exhaustively taught to me in school. She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry made a gigantic impact on me because this was important history I had never been exposed to before; I had little idea of its reach and ramifications, how much truly was gained and how much could have been gained. (I now count Richard Nixon’s vetoing of the laws that would have guaranteed universal child care as one of the most destructive acts ever by a president.) The film is a stark reminder of our patriarchal society, and of how there have always been and will always be hilarious, fierce, passionate women who will fight against this grand inequality and refuse to let any rights be taken away. It should be seen as both a clarion call and an instructional piece for the ignorant like me.

  1. Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs

A few disjointed observations:

I will not stop beating the drum for Steve Jobs.

As a writer, I loved the bravado of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay and its literal three-act drama: three unified times and places with act one setting up the characters, act two introducing a whirlwind of complications, and act three culminating in sentimental payoff. All of this is set to Sorkin at his wordiest, so this recommendation comes with the caveat that if you hate Sorkin’s style, this film will annoy the shit out of you. If you buy in, it will be a marvelous watch.

As someone who recognizes Hollywood’s obsession with biopics, I greatly appreciated this nontraditional approach to the genre, even more so than in Sorkin’s other masterpiece The Social Network.

A question was raised at a party I gave shortly before writing this piece: Is the Steve Jobs created by Sorkin the real Steve Jobs? Is it possible to know the real Steve Jobs? Jobs was such an enigma that I’m not sure Sorkin answered that specific question, but he creates an instructive figure who combines his Mark Zuckerberg and President Josiah Bartlett, a visionary with supremely unlikable arrogance but also a churning sense of emotion he doesn’t want to let out. What Steve Jobs builds to is the acknowledgement that being a visionary genius and being right in the strict sense of having great ideas isn’t everything, and this is a lesson I feel the human race has to continually learn. It also makes Michael Fassbender perfect casting: Fassbender is so terrific at being a dominating asshole, but he also sincerely conveys the acknowledgment that he is indeed “poorly made.” And Fassbender brings an understated quality to Sorkin’s dialogue that keeps the torrent of words from being interminable. Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio would not have done so well.

I would like to see Seth Rogen try drama again soon.

Final note: the women of Steve Jobs primarily exist as nagging conscience figures, especially Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman and Perla Haney-Jardine as the older Lisa Brennan-Jobs. I have mixed reactions to this. It is a limiting and reductive role, but as an audience we want and need to see Jobs get put in his place, and it is satisfying to see that work be done by these women who combine understanding and a toughness Jobs could never match.

  1. Carol

Rooney Mara

I want to talk about Carol in comparison to The Hateful Eight for one paragraph.

Robert Richardson filmed the latter in 70mm Super Panavision and made an experience at once expansive and claustrophobic, and with a current of misogyny, its potency debatable but still present. Edward Lachman filmed the former in Super 16mm, which gives the film a slightly dirty, hazy, definitely dreamlike quality, and he uses that camera to document a broad, luxurious vision of lights and shades, of small apartment buildings and wide-open country spaces alike. And Carol is far from misogynistic. It is a picture that revels in its female protagonists’ awakenings and possibilities and chances to alter themselves.

Carol is a love story, a coming-of-age story, and a story of closed-mindedness. It is a reminder of the way things used to be, which is always the way things could be again if we’re not careful. (See film number nine.) It is a film in which the majority of the male characters, with the possible exception of John Magaro’s Dannie, who after a misstep respects Therese’s boundaries and shows no problem with who she is, either hold to a rigid heterosexual view of the world or exploit that view for personal gain in a society that wants the norm to be the only. The personal, eminently relatable conflicts Carol and Therese have interlock with the stigma against homosexuality so well and feed into each other, creating a work of quiet but powerful drama, helped by Phyllis Nagy’s script and Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara’s leading performances, with Todd Haynes setting the tone by never letting style or action grow too big.

  1. The Big Short

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There is so much to love about The Big Short. Adam McKay bringing his frenetic direction to a serious subject to produce a story reminiscent of the French New Wave. McKay and Charles Randolph’s script reminiscent of Shaw and Stoppard, with biting humor, inspired fourth wall-breaking, explanation of difficult concepts, and a fair but never annoying bit of speechification. The note-perfect all-star cast. The editing, its pace slowing as the story stops being about fun and games and turns destructive. And its gift to make an audience convulse with laughter, then end up outraged, horrified, and hopefully inspired to think about our country’s issues by the realization that the people we rooted for in the film if we weren’t careful sank the economy.

There is a fundamental weakness in the film, but that weakness is also essential to its structure and I wouldn’t be sure if the film could have succeeded as much without it. McKay, Randolph, and Michael Lewis (in the original book) are depicting how widespread and hard to understand the financial crisis was before the entire affair broke, and to do so they tell three stories—Christian Bale in his death metal office, Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling partnering to game the system, and Brad Pitt advising the ambitious young investors—which never truly intersect. It is annoying as a viewer, but it also serves as an artistic representation of the crisis’s unintelligibility, so it’s tough to fault.

The Big Short is also one of two ensemble cast movies who nominated the wrong person for an Oscar. Bale works hard with his unusual demeanor and faux-glass eye, but Carell is the actor I remember most. (Apart from Margot Robbie in her bubble bath and Karen Gillan—KAREN GILLAN—as a walking representative of institutional failure.) His character is righteously angry, almost to a hilarious degree, but little by little the audience gets clued into what fuels that anger, culminating in the film’s most moving scene. Carell manages to be a heated, roaring figure without crossing the line into parody—which is not easy.

  1. 45 Years

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My mother and father will have been married for thirty-seven years this August. Most of my aunts and uncles have been in similarly lasting unions. I have witnessed up close the successes and failures of my own friends’ matrimony and long-term partnerships. 45 Years is a movie about what goes into these relationships, the stories we tell ourselves to serve as their foundation, and what can make them fail. It is about thoughtlessness, selfishness, and lack of communication and how they so easily intertwine with true love and devotion because we are all too human and able to overlook that which lies outside our personal point of view. It makes you examine your own failings in your romantic history. As I wrote in my original review, it dredged up memories and emotions I wanted to forget, and the final five minutes felt like ascending the tallest rollercoaster, your insides jittery all the while.

The success of 45 Years lies in the naturalistic, complementary leading performances of Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, who are both flawless, and the direction of Andrew Haigh, who uses his intimate camera, lived-in set design, and constant white noise of radio music, wind, rain, and all the ordinary sounds of existence (although there is no sound as devastating as Rampling’s Kate clicking through a slide projector) to create an experience so excruciatingly real it hurts. This film is difficult but necessary, as some of the highest art should be.

  1. Room

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Oh, God, where do I begin with Room?

Jacob Tremblay is one of the most adorably precocious young people I have ever seen. He’s almost never off the screen and from the moment he starts narrating the film, you root for him. The performance of a child actor is in much part the work of sympathetic cooperation from fellow cast and the director, but there’s something real and inherent in Tremblay.

Emma Donoghue’s adaptation of her novel is brilliantly structured and features so many terrific choices. I love the even fifty-fifty split of Ma and Jack’s last days in Room and their first days in the larger world again. I love that Old Nick, the embodiment of obsession and loneliness at their most terrifying and evil, disappears from the movie once Room is abandoned. And I love that the stakes of both parts are equally high: Ma trying to keep Jack safe and alive in the first half, and Ma struggling to be Joy Newsome again in the second and the mental pressure that exerts.

Director Lenny Abrahamson and cinematographer Danny Cohen pull a magnificent visual trick. They shoot Room in such a way that it feels as large and encompassing as it is to Jack, then once they get into the outside world, they shoot the overwhelming majority of interiors in close-ups and angles, focusing on hallways and stairs and tight spaces, until the final ten minutes when Joy returns home…and the palette of the world opens up so vastly that the final shot of how small Room truly is carries even more weight.

And there is Brie Larson as Ma/Joy giving what for many would be the performance of a lifetime but she is so young that so much more lays ahead of her. Larson is exquisitely still, measured, and matter-of-fact even when suffering from the horror she faces, and not only do we understand her motivation, but also her moments of breaking into sadness or anger, and her final, real discovery of happiness, are visible extensions building from this stillness. It takes a lot of work to build a character that thoroughly, and Larson may have worked harder than anyone this year. She succeeded. 

  1. The Martian

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The Martian is not a comedy.

I have seen The Martian three times in three different cinemas with three different groups and I’ve had to face that nobody else shares the particular love I have for this film. Even now I cannot explain the love that has made me on all viewings hysterically laugh at the same jokes, gasp at the John Fordian grandeur of Sir Ridley Scott’s Mars, sit up at the same moments of suspense, and weep as Mark Watney sends the message he wants Melissa Lewis to give his parents, the message that begins “Tell them I love what I do.”

The Martian is not a comedy.

The Martian is, and I think this is why it charmed me so, a magnificent throwback to old Hollywood’s gift for making movies that could be everything to everyone. Apart from the surgery scene and a few f-bombs, this film could have been family entertainment. It mixes science fiction and adventure and suspense and a little romance and plenty of comic moments. It prizes intelligence, cooperation, and a sense of discovery and it celebrates everything in human nature that gives me hope for our species. It features a vast, diverse cast, all well-balanced in Drew Goddard’s clockwork screenplay, and the whole film is made with meaningful care. I loved every bit of that equation and when it all added up to a whole that was beyond satisfying, I was over the moon.

The Martian is still not a comedy. (I’m sorry, but that rankles still, especially since it is a disservice to the movie.)

  1. Spotlight

Spotlight

I am an ex-Catholic who is still devoutly religious. As Richard Sipe, the wise former priest played by an unbilled Richard Jenkins, explains at one point in Spotlight, “the church is an institution of man and that’s passing. My faith is in the eternal. I try to separate the two.” Thomas McCarthy, who directed Spotlight and co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer, examines what happens when the human and the eternal intersect at their worst and most devastating.

Spotlight isn’t flashy. It eschews fancier styles to focus on good people who decide, and then act on the decision, to undertake a tremendously difficult but necessary task to reveal institutional violation of the fundamentally decent and sacred rights of human beings. It is about our refusal to, as Live Schreiber’s Marty Baron puts it, “stumble in the dark.” The greatness of human society depends on our ability to recognizes and stop injustices, and Spotlight honors that ability and the free press, a sadly dying breed, that has always worked hard to uncover it.

The movie feels like a punch to the gut. One brilliant scene about halfway through sees Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, and Brian D’Arcy James listening to Jenkins on the phone. The camera pulls back more and more until it suddenly stops, and from that moment the already tragic, soul-shattering elements of the Catholic Church sex scandal take on a terrifying scope and power that is definitively inescapable…and seeing this film in a packed theater and hearing the audible gasps at its conclusion is unforgettable.

Spotlight is the other film that nominated the wrong man–McAdams as the compassionate Sasha Pfeiffer was well deserved in her Supporting Actress slot. Ruffalo is terrific as Mike Rezendes, whose verbal tics and hyperactive movements I responded to a lot as similar to my behavior while writing, but Keaton as Robby Robinson is the true highlight, a man of understated iron will who hints at something deeper driving him forward…right up to a final shot and cut to black that is simply perfect.

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road

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Three of the most jaw-dropping, what the heck is going on moments I will ever see in cinema: the drive into the sandstorm, Charlize Theron sinking into the sand and howling in pain at the expanse, and Theron and Tom Hardy taking charge for the final thirty-minute showdown, two road warriors against all odds and a virulent army of demonic men, with the vehicles and George Miller’s direction refusing to let up.

The first scene before the opening title appears catapults us into a world where the action never stops, a world so rich in characters and history but all of it inferable, none of it ever spoken. Instead, Miller uses his screen time to provide practical effects wonder with a the right touches of CGI, and combines all of it with a feminist statement that hits hard: men destroy the world and the women they tried to completely use give existence another, with help from one man who’s seen too much for anyone’s comfort and finds his shot at redemption by breaking from the status quo.

What makes the film special is the relationships. Mad Max and Imperator Furiosa go from mutual distrust to a partnership so strong that whenever one falters, the other steps up (as in the iconic image of Furiosa balancing her rifle on Max’s shoulder), while Nux, the most devoted of Immortan Joe’s Warboys, changes his tune when he actually gets to know the wives, who in turn overcome their distrust of him. This is a lesson for our time and for any time.

The wonderful part is that all of this comes in retrospect, after you’ve enjoyed the 70 year-old Miller and 72 year-old John Seale’s production of cars and trucks and hellish things that go driven by Doof Warriors and Bullet Warriors set to Junkie XL’s electronica, not stopping until a final, rising moment when you finally relax after sweating through your clothes.

There has never been a film like Mad Max: Fury Road.

FOUR SPECIAL MOVIES:

All of these films had significant problems. I loved them to death. The first two made me want to stand up and cheer and the last two had me grinning with an unstoppable giddiness.

The Peanuts Movie crams as much of the 50 years of Charles M. Schulz cartoons possible into an hour and a half and combines it with a sweet story and a thrilling Flying Ace sequence.

SPECTRE allows Daniel Craig to finally flex his muscles in a James Bond film made according to the Connery model with grand-scale globetrotting, big set pieces, a beautiful take-no-shit Lea Seydoux, and the return of his greatest nemesis.

Creed is an exhilarating tale with Michael B. Jordan spilling charisma all over the place, Sylvester Stallone (who looks a lot like Billy Joel) being natural and understated for the first time in ages, the luminous Tessa Thompson as Jordan’s match, and Ryan Coogler directing a flawed screenplay (like Tangerine, so much is rushed or left hanging) with constantly interesting choices and the best boxing scenes since Scorsese.

The Force Awakens blows away all memory of the prequels and gives us a heroine we needed in Daisy Ridley’s Rey. It’s a critic-proof film so opinions don’t really matter…which makes how fun it is something to celebrate.

THE WORST MOVIE OF THE YEAR

This was tough because I loathed The Revenant, 150 minutes of pointlessness, incomprehensible accents, two women—a ghost and a rape victim—and Leonardo DiCaprio working so hard but coming across more often than not as a child playing wilderness adventure. That said, there were few things better in the movies this year than Chivo giving us his very best and then some. (I wish it was for someone besides Inarritu but we can’t have everything.) So the answer to this is…

Freeheld.

Moore Page

I wanted to love Freeheld so badly as a film with great actors tackling a subject I care about but let it be said: Peter Sollett’s direction is done with no imagination or interest, let alone McCarthy’s planning, Johnny Marr and Hans Zimmer’s score is total drone, and Ron Nyswaner’s screenplay is black and white to the point of oversimplification, with no subtlety, terribly handled major beats, and single scenes that cram enough plot for five. Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are wasted, and Steve Carell manages to offend gay people, Jewish people, and any people who have ever worked for a cause with his indescribably tone deaf performance.

Freeheld is sad. Terribly sad. And I want to forget it ever existed.

BEST PERFORMANCES OF THE YEAR

The women were far better than the men…

Grandma

Brie Larson, Room

Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years

Saorise Ronan, Brooklyn

Lily Tomlin, Grandma

Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina

Rooney Mara, Carol

Daisy Ridley, The Force Awakens

Vikander Ex Machina

Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs

Michael B. Jordan, Creed

Tom Courtenay, 45 Years

Michael Keaton, Spotlight

Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies

Sam Elliott, Grandma

TWO GREAT ONSCREEN PAIRS

Mia Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Tangerine

Erin James and TJ Power, The Little Death

THE DIRECTOR I CANNOT WAIT TO SEE WORK AGAIN

Ryan Coogler

THREE FAVORITE SCORES THAT SHOULD HAVE GOTTEN OSCAR NOMINATIONS

Michael Brook, Brooklyn

Harry Gregson-Williams, The Martian

Stephen Rennicks, Room

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