Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Top Ten Best Films of 2015...

With all the negativity of last week's 10 worst films of the year out of the way, let's get to the top 10 best films of the year, because despite the fact that I saw plenty of bad films to go around, the good was absolutely great.

That said, there were a lot of films that struggled to get noticed with how competitive (though not always) the yearly slate was. This was a year firmly built on the grounds of old-fashioned nostalgia being reinvigorated by new blood, as was made very evident when Jurassic World claimed the new world record for highest domestic box office opening. However, even World (as well as Mad Max and Creed) were also feeling pressure, as 2015 was dominated by two words... Star Wars. Unsurprisingly, it was a gargantuan success, besting the domestic opening weekend record, and shattering Avatar's domestic intake total. Even as I write this, it shows no signs of slowing down.

On top of that, we saw the action genre get reinvigorated in a big way with the release of George Miller's continuation of Mad Max, Pixar returned to their former glory with Inside Out, and even the Oscars are the hardest they've been to call in recent memory, with spectacular films the like of The Revenant and Mad Max, as well as smaller scale gems like Room and Brooklyn, all competing against each other. I've loved quite a number of movies this year, and I look forward to watching some of the higher profile titles I've missed (like Son of Saul) in the near future. So with all that addressed, it's time for my best films of the year list.

As always, let's start things off with some honorable mentions. Just missing out was Todd Haynes' Carol, which was a refreshingly subdued and naturalistic look at the once frowned upon idea of a Lesbian relationship that doesn't disservice it by playing it as overly fantasized, but would be nothing without Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett's powerful performances. Spotlight was a suitably naturalistic look at modern history, covering its topics of Catholic Church sexual abuse and elaborate conspiracies with disturbing detail, and made great use of a stellar ensemble cast. The Martian was an atypical return to form for director Ridley Scott, featuring one of Matt Damon's most charismatic and witty performances yet, and owing much of its thanks to Drew Goddard's hilarious and lovably geeky script. Upon reflection, I actually realized I loved Amy the more and more I thought about it, making for a powerful sit thanks to its seamless editing skills and fine soundtrack choices, as well as Asif Kapadia's superb emotional beats. Beasts of No Nation saw Cary Joji Fukunaga tackling the very heavy and gruesome transformation of an innocent young village boy be molded into a merciless killer with haunting effect, and featured Idris Elba in one of the year's most terrifying turns.
But above all else, while I technically consider it a 2009 release, the fact remains that About Elly was the best movie that I saw all year, immediately skyrocketing its way into my top ten favorite films of all time. From the moment that it began, I was entranced by its atmosphere, and every moment of Asghar Farhadi's masterpiece roped me into its emotional experience. It features more of Farhadi's signature themes of familial conflicts and life shattering secrets, but manages to blend them with the analysis of hypocrisy, with much accusations being thrown around an individual most of the characters don't even know, and actually going so far as to paint themselves as more vile people than the one they insult by their own selfish needs for self-preservation. Such things are showcased in morally gray areas with no clear cut answer, and the film is also blessed with some of the finest acting I've seen in any movie ever. The moment that it ended, I immediately jumped right back into it to experience it again. So if you still haven't seen this movie, why is it taking you so long?! Stop reading, go watch it on Netflix Instant, and then come back to this list.

And now the moment we've all been waiting for. These are my choices for the 10 best films of the year.


Number 10
Steve Jobs
Dir. Danny Boyle
Taking a page out of Birdman's book of blending stage like presentation mixed with highly stylized cinematic flair, Steve Jobs is a fitting tribute and deconstruction of its titular figure's iconography and personality. Taking place within the the structure of three separate product launches at varying points in the man's career, Steve Jobs cuts seamlessly between its various stretches of time with different camera formats as well as aspect ratios to enhance Jobs' own technological progressions, and manages to cut deep into the psychology of Jobs.

Realized by a superb Michael Fassbender, in what is the best performance he's given us thus far, Jobs may be a revolutionary and charismatic presenter, but his spitefulness and nagging perfectionism often feels aimed at his own friends like sharpened knives. At once he feels like both a passionate innovator as well as a socially conflicted recluse, with the viewer easily being able to empathize with his desires to balance his professional and personal life, but often misplaying them with condescension. It's in instances like that where a scene stealing Kate Winslet is there to play devil's advocate to his prickliness, and infuses the movie with necessary humanity. The one thing that keeps it from perfection is that its ending steers too close into sentimentality, somewhat derailing the half-and-half representation of Jobs, but I still loved this movie despite it.

Number 9
Ex Machina
Dir. Alex Garland
One of the most original Science Fiction Movies to come out in years, Ex Machina largely veers away from fantastical imagination in favor of minimalist thought provocation, and is all the better for it. Presenting a fascinating and much more natural examination of Artificial Intelligence fear, much of the movie's impact comes from the interactions with the character Ava, played by performer of the year Alicia Vikander. Her presence is always tinged with equal comfort and deception, using Vikander's ethereal beauty to its benefit, and makes for uneasy manipulation of the mind. There's always the feeling that, despite Ava's apparent sincerity and fondness for Domhnall Gleeson's Caleb, that her actions feel too perfect; too calculated, like she's playing to the weaknesses of others.

On top of that, it also carries the design of a battle of the sexes, with much focus placed on Ava's isolation and entrapment, as well as Sunoya Mizuno's Kyoko relegated to thankless maid, doting upon every need of Oscar Isaac's hard-drinking inventor with a God-complex. Those are just a few of the powerful allegories first time director Alex Garland has up his sleeve, even taking some notes in filmmaking style from his friend Danny Boyle, and taking those influences to create his own sleek style. What's even more rewarding about the film is how much more of its secrets you discover with every watch.

Number 8
The Hateful Eight
Dir. Quentin Tarantino
There's probably some irony that this came in at eighth, but regardless of coincidences, this was still a thoroughly enthralling watch. The film sees Quentin Tarantino's writing reaching some of the most depraved and nihilistic characterization of the man's career, and it becomes a fascinating analysis of the lowest of humanity's twisted villainy as the man ratchets up the intensity with every one of his signature extended conversations. This is largely owed to the perfect casting Tarantino has made, selecting a series of seasoned veterans to play such despicable characters, and each play their parts so well - from Samuel L. Jackson's gleefully antagonistic bounty hunter to Jennifer Jason Leigh's maniacally cunning prisoner - that none of them upstage the other.

As always, Tarantino has directed the film to near perfection, all in an effort to create one of the most unique theater experiences I've ever had. Making use of a terrific roadshow release format, Tarantino made a stunning tribute to the epic westerns of the golden age, and was able to get fantastic enhancement out of his crew of collaborators. Robert Richardson's alternately sweeping and intimate photography made for some of the most haunting imagery all year, and legendary composer Ennio Morricone created another fantastic score that felt like a purgatorial trip into the insanity of every character. This is a powerful viewing experience, and despite a lengthy three hour running time, never once does it lose our attention right through to its demented ending.

Number 7
Mad Max: Fury Road
Dir. George Miller
Bringing a decades old franchise shrieking back to life like a hulking and graffiti'd Frankenstein's monster on Nascar tires, George Miller's resurrection of the Mad Max series was by far the best action spectacle of the year. Certainly not an empty movie when it came to themes, Mad Max was the most surprisingly feminist action movie in quite some time. Despite the female "property" dressed in limited white clothing, not once did the film ever treat these characters in objectifying fashion, and if anything, its female characters (Specifically Charlize Theron's guilt-ridden Furiosa) were stronger than its male cast, particularly Tom Hardy's Max who really is little more than a cipher.

That said, it is light on plot in other areas. But you know what... WHO CARES?! Such a thing is easy to forgive when you have some of the best, most practical, most stunningly well shot and stylized action sequences in over a decade. Mad Max is a masterstroke of action invention, wringing so much suspense out of its lengthy set-pieces, and was even better because of its flooring practicality. Miller is like a child at Christmas when it comes to the insane car designs, smashing them up like that same child bashing his toys against each other, and frames and edits all of them with inventive color spectrums and warps in frame-rate. I mean, who doesn't love a movie where a man plays on a flame spewing electric guitar?

Number 6
Bridge of Spies
Dir. Steven Spielberg
The most low-key and Un-Spielbergy film I've seen thus far, Bridge of Spies saw him tackle the Cold War thriller with all the quiet intensity of a John le Carre spy novel. Working off a script by Matt Charman and the Brothers Coen, the film weaves through its many procedural meat and potato facts with effortless precision, as well as surprising entertainment value with Spielberg making great use out of the Coens' offbeat sense of humor to spice up the often talking heads heavy filmmaking, and cutting frequently but comprehensively between the subplots like the release of Soviet Spy Rudolf Abel to his home country, and James Donovan's plight to secure the release of two young captives.

Tom Hanks plays his reliably fond everyman self, bringing a well worn but warm familiarity as he embraces his inner Jimmy Stewart negotiator, but it's his supporting co-star Mark Rylance who receives most of the best moments, never letting us forget the seedy past of the character, but the film wisely chooses not to demonize him, contributing much of the film's warmth and wit without calling undue attention to himself. By the way, when I say Spielberg is at his most low-key, I mean it. Much like Lincoln, he largely hangs back to let his cast and screenplay roll by uninterrupted, and even most of his own collaborators tone themselves down. In fact, until the final five to ten minutes of the film, you probably wouldn't guess he directed it if you didn't know beforehand. That doesn't mean he directs the film on auto-pilot, and he does get a chance to embrace his more sentimental side. It very well could have been misplayed and disrupted the overall film's tone (ie. Steve Jobs), but with this story, by the time Spielberg does embrace that syrupy side in him, it feels earned, and closes on a wholly satisfying note.

Number 5
Dir. John Crowley
Raved ever since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Brooklyn was one of the most under the radar gems to come out all year, and didn't disappoint me once I finally got to see it. Adapted by Nick Hornby, Brooklyn revolves mostly around the emotional new discoveries and heartbreaks within Saoirse Ronan's Ellis, and it's a refreshingly old-fashioned and charming series of experiences, appropriately simplistic in its approach, and pitting us headfirst into Ellis' point of view as once alienating customs and character become more colorful and welcoming.

It's a charming, romanticized little piece of work that uses its lovable characters to its graces, and even as the film moves from the titular city back to Ireland later in the second half, such a shift is necessary to bring home the theme of acknowledging when to let go of nostalgic feelings to realize why it was necessary to move on from such upbringings in the first place. This is all thankfully carried by a superb ensemble cast, including a tender and absolutely lovable Emory Cohen. But Brooklyn is really more of a show for the young and beautiful Saoirse Ronan, finally given the role she was born to play, and her expressively complex and subdued leading turn is the best performance we've seen this decade as far as I'm concerned.

Number 4
Dir. Lenny Abrahamson
Room was one of the last movies from 2015 that I saw, and it was hands down the most pleasant surprise to come from it. Adapted by Emma Donoghue from her own source material, the first half of the film revolves entirely around Brie Larson's captive mother and newcomer Jacob Tremblay's curious son confined within the cramped but deceptively comfortable space of a small garden shed, working as a moving emotional journey centered around young Jack Newsome as he learns more and more about a seemingly inconceivable world outside his affectionately named Room, as he and his mother tend to cope with the fact that they're prisoners both physically and mentally.

Then comes the second half of the film, and rather than be the film's downfall, is honestly where the film becomes even stronger. It becomes an interesting role reversal, as the once naive Jack who knew nothing nor wanted anything outside of the world except for Room begins to ease into society like he never even left, whereas his mother who was forced to keep her composure and play moderator for Jack's benefit finds it much harder to adapt back to the way things were, seeing old friends and family as strangers wearing familiar faces and lashing out as a means of venting. The cast is uniformly excellent, particularly Joan Allen's tested and tender grandmother, and Tremblay's precocious and maturing Jack. At the center of it all is Brie Larson in one of the year's most outstanding performances, running through a hefty and unenviable series of emotional experiences, and delivers several gut punches right up to the film's bittersweet closing.

Number 3
The Revanant
Dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Following up his fantastic Hollywood and Broadway satire Birdman, Inarritu takes a step towards the gritty western landscape, giving the popular genre his own personal step, and running its characters, and its audiences through a series of challenges akin to Dante's journey through the deepest circles of Hell. Told with limited dialogue and directed with technical perfection, The Revenant is an unmatched exercise in directorial aesthetic. Framed and shot with natural lighting by his usual collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenant is unusually beautiful, capturing its desolate landscape with sweeping and haunting extended takes, and relying on gorgeous minimalism in effects artistry and sound design to immerse the viewer in Hugh Glass' many desperate struggles, particularly the nightmarish bear attack in the first thirty minutes.

Despite clocking in at two and a half hours, even if story does tend to take a back seat to Inarritu's direction, The Revenant never feels like its wasted any of its time on useless diversions. Everything is excellently interconnected, cutting between the central figures of Glass and John Fitzgerald seamlessly, and Inarritu makes exceptional use of philosophical musings and symbolism, often acknowledging that to say nothing at all can sometimes be more thematically powerful than any long-winded soliloquies. Tom Hardy has had a busy 2015, and this is the best of the performances he turned in this year, depraved by his atmosphere, and driven to insanity as a "Man who killed God". However, it's more a show for Leonardo DiCaprio, excelling with the best physical acting of his career, and is bound for hard earned Oscar glory. I can't wait to see what material Inarritu will tackle next.

Number 2
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Dir. J.J. Abrams
I know, but I couldn't help but rank the film this high. 2015 was dominated by this movie, with the Christmas season itself tending to take a back seat to its ingenious marketing campaign, and with months of anticipation leading up to it, it somehow lived up to all of its potential and then some.

The Force Awakens did exactly what it needed to: It negated the damaging impact that George Lucas's much-maligned prequel trilogy inflicted, and restored the dignity and good will towards the franchise by heeding closer to the tone and epic adventurism of the original trilogy. It's territory that was tread by similar continuations to old franchises, including Ryan Coogler's Creed, but I don't think any of those films hit the same kind of buttons as well as this one did, built upon the firm nostalgia of those older worlds and players, but never relying too heavily on those older customs, and making spare use out of its cute callbacks.

The Force Awakens largely relies on new blood to tell its story, and these new characters feel every bit as endearing and lovable as their iconic predecessors. This is mainly due to the energized performances of the new cast, from newcomer Daisy Ridley's cheerful and adventurous scavenger like something out of a Miyazaki movie, to Adam Driver's enraged and torn apart Kylo Ren. They're all memorable, each scene stealing, and each of them are fun and funny to watch, including the spunky new droid companion BB8. Of course, that doesn't mean that Abrams ignores or neglects the characters of the original trilogy, only relying on them once we've gotten a genuine chance to connect with the newcomers, with most of the older cast's best moments going to the duo of Han and Chewie.

Though the film has been criticized for creating moments similar to that of the original Star Wars, Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt put their own creative spin on such classic moments, and the action packed screenplay resulted in the most thoroughly entertaining theater experience that I had all year. As his fifth theatrical feature, Abrams has crafted both his most engaging and thrilling film yet, with him showing an irresistible enthusiasm when it comes to the epic set-pieces, and after the overly cluttered CGI in the prequels, thankfully restores the mostly practical effects artistry of the older trilogy, from elaborate makeup and suits to miniatures and models. John Williams' score is also excellent, severely underrated by most critics of the film (deemed as "not standing out" or "too subtle" despite several critics blasting his prequel scores as needing to be reigned in. Talk about mixed signals), and is my favorite Star Wars score since The Empire Strikes Back.

The Force Awakens was the biggest success of the year, but what was even better about it was that it was clearly setting up for greater things to come. With Abrams having established the groundwork for what the new trilogy can achieve, we'll next experience the continuing adventures of Rey and company in Rian Johnson's Episode XIII in December 2017. If it's anywhere half as good as this rebirth of Star Wars was, we're all winners.

Number 1
Inside Out
Dir. Pete Docter
Back when I first saw the film in June, I half-jokingly said at that moment that the year was done for me. It seemed like a hyperbolic statement at the time, but on reflection, it carried far more truth than I thought it would. It restored Pixar back to its position at the top of the animation medium, setting expectations for animation so high that even Pixar themselves felt the pressure in November with The Good Dinosaur, and has become one of the defining films of the year. It was true then, and it's true now: This is one of the greatest animated features I have ever seen.

Following up his previous successes Monsters, Inc. and Up, Pete Docter has quickly become the MVP of Pixar, evolving both in his attention to craft and his thematic maturity, with Inside Out being the studio's most high concept premise yet, and pushing the envelope even further with what can be done with animation. Docter leaves no stone unturned in his vivid imagination, with his screenplay brimming with gleeful originality (despite being superficially compared to the 80's sitcom Herman's Head), and taking advantage of every possibility that the inner workings of the mind allows, with the art-directors especially having a field day coming up with such outlandish production design, from the miles of rows upon rows of memory orbs, to the dark pits of Riley's subconscious.

Inside Out is one of the funniest films in Pixar's portfolio, with much of this being owed to the quick thinking and flawless chemistry of the selected players. From Bill Hader's spastic Fear and Mindy Kaling's snippy Disgust, to Lewis Black's impulsive Anger and Phyllis Smith's adorably dour Sadness, the most impressive belongs to Amy Poehler for Joy, who I dare say is the best character Pixar has ever invented. She's a controlling, but very well meaning character who Docter most seems to place himself in the shoes of: The form of a parent who wants nothing but the best for their child, lamenting the loss of simplistic innocence as they mature, but acknowledging that the answers are not always as clear cut as Optimism vs. Pessimism.

With 11 year old Riley being presented as both a character and a setting, the embodiment of the emotions may appear simplistic, but their actual characterizations are anything but, even acting as enhancements to Riley's personality, like she's arguing with herself whenever the emotions argue with each other. There are some that feel more irritating with others, that we consider suppressing because we don't feel like we really need them, which has become a misguided norm to teach children in modern society. But Docter refuses to take such overly simplified answers. Instead, the film looks at these kids like Riley, speaks to them at their level without insulting them, stressing to them that it's not only okay, but necessary to embrace all of those feelings, both the pleasant and the unpleasant. But more than that, it also appeals just as well to adults, acting as a gateway to relive all of those same experiences that parents know all too well what their children are experiencing, bridging the gap between the two, and even opening up important conversation pieces. Change may not be easy, but only by confronting those uncomfortable issues and being honest about our feelings can we really start maturing and lead the best, most complete life that we can.

Punctuated by a beautiful score by Michael Giacchino, and capped off by an ending that cuts to the bone, Inside Out was not just the best movie of 2015 I saw, but the year's only movie to break yours truly down to a teary mess. Call me easily manipulated, but I could not help but be moved by every second of this movie... and then be treated to some of the most hysterically funny humor of 2015 in its final five minutes as icing on the cake.

And if all of that doesn't encapsulate exactly why I think Inside Out deserves top honors, I don't know what does.

And with that, I now close my coverage of 2015. It's been a great year, and I thank you all for following me on the journey. I'll be back on Wednesday with my most anticipated films of 2016, and after that, I will be going on a brief hiatus in preparation for two new features I'm really looking forward to sharing with everyone. I'll have more details on it come March.

Until then, I'll see you at the movies...
The stuff that dreams are made of.

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