Another Great Year for Movies: Top 10 of 2015
2015 was a great year for film! I feel as though this is said every year around this time. I certainly said it last year and the year before. And while not every year is equal (they can’t all be 2007) my impression has been that every year we are given genuine all-time great movies that I will return to years down the line. That in mind, it’s kind of useless to say that any given year was a great year. Rather, let’s simply recall that art is a gift and an act of bravery and we ought to be grateful that it’s here.
These were some of my favorite films of the last year. As usual, I do not rank them because picking favorites is hard enough so they are presented in alphabetical order. (The number ten seems to be getting bigger every year. This year it got up to thirteen!)
This is the last movie I saw in 2015 and the first one on my list. In a sense the audience knows exactly what they’re getting from Charlie Kaufman and in another, more accurate, sense we have absolutely no clue. “Anomalisa” has been called a human and heartbreaking film. These things are true but they miss that the film is seethingly hostile to the set of middle aged, well-to-do, male narcissists who are the film’s primary focus. A subtly angry and overtly challenging film.
Clouds of Sils Maria
“Clouds of Sils Maria” is what “Birdman” would have been if it had been made by an adult. Although asking many of the same questions that last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner thought it was asking – how can an artist be honest in a dishonest world; what is the role of the aging artist; can one make art within a commercial system – director Olivier Assayas succeeds where Iñárritu fails by maintaining healthy distance from his characters and exercising enough self-awareness to allow the audience to separate depiction from approval. Kristen Stewart gives another in a growing list of spot on performances which will surely be ignored come awards season.
If I had to pick a favorite this year (and I do not) “Creed” is probably it. There is a lot to say about this movie but I want to focus on one scene. Early in the film, Adonis Creed fires up YouTube and projects onto the wall the “Rocky” fight between his dad, Apollo, and Adonis’s future mentor, Rocky. Positioning himself over the projected image of Rocky, Adonis shadowboxes the dead father that he never knew and also to nearly everything you need to know about the film’s themes. In a single brief shot director Ryan Coogler presents the central conflict of the movie, Adonis both trying to live up to his father’s name and break away from his legacy, while also showing, on the metatextual level, that the movie respects its cinematic heritage but is prepared to update for a new internet age. It’s a gorgeous, layered and complex shot which makes me very excited to see what Coogler will do next.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Surprisingly, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is the best comic book movie of the year. Sorry, Avengers. When a movie is focused on the sexual relationship between a 15-year-old girl and her mother’s 30-something boyfriend there is a clear danger of being preachy, puritanical or irresponsible, or some combination of those things. “Diary” dodges all of those traps. Director Marielle Heller treats her lead’s blossoming sexuality with the nuanced complexity it deserves while still acknowledging that she is being abused by this older man. Too often young female sexuality is treated as either non-existent or simplistic and fragile. “Diary” is one of the few films that treats the subject with the tone and complexity it deserves.
Duke of Burgundy
Ostensibly about BDSM relationships, “Duke of Burgundy” uses that angle as a way into examining the power dynamics of all relationships. Taking place in a world with literally no men, where everyone is an entomologist, this odd British film is sensual and sexy without being explicit, romantic without being sentimental, lush without being stuffy. It’s a careful balance and “Duke” nails it.
The best sci-fi movie of the year featuring Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson. Sorry, Star Wars. The question of the humanity and consciousness of robots and AI is well tread sci-fi ground. First time director Alex Garland finds new territory within these themes by transposing the AI question onto gender relations. That is to say, how can these men of science develop AI responsibly if they’re still grappling with the question of whether or not women are people?
The Hateful Eight
I hope sincerely that 70mm filmmaking becomes the new 3-D. “The Hateful Eight” is one of the most jarring, expansive and disturbing experiences I’ve had in a theater. This is a grimy, angry and brutal film pointing a finger squarely at its audience. Tarantino is not offering the catharsis and revenge that we got in “Django” and “Basterds”. Here everyone is a villain and the only release they find from the great evil of America’s racism comes from directing their violent brutality against the only woman in the room.
The Look of Silence
Like its companion piece “The Act of Killing”, “The Look of Silence” is somehow more than simply a study of the gut churning history of the Indonesian genocide, although that would be enough to make it an important movie. Joshua Oppenheimer and his astonishingly brave crew follow the story of Adi, an optometrist interviewing the men who killed or directed the killing of his brother he never met. As the optometrist looks for anyone willing to take responsibility for this murder he is met with an endless procession of deflection, projection, denial
and outright lies. This is a movie where the line “Let’s get along like the military dictatorship taught us” is delivered without irony. A more personal movie than “Act”, and all the more heartbreaking for it, “Look” speaks to the human need to place responsibility and hold perpetrators accountable. It is a movie about justice.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Much has been said on how the action sequences in “Mad Max: Fury Road” are a masterclass in visual storytelling. And they are. But, for me, the movie is at its most profound and resonant when Charlize Theron acts with her entire body delivering emotional character beats physically – when Max asks her why she’s rebelling against her boss/captor, when she learns that she can trust Max, when she discovers that the Canaan that she’s been searching for no longer exists (pictured above). With only a few dozen lines of dialog to work with Theron builds a character through movement and physicality with the depth we expect from our prestige dramas.
Magic Mike XXL
At some point during “Magic Mike XXL” – probably the gas station scene – the movie goes beyond simple fun and becomes pure cinematic joy. “Magic Mike XXL” eschews every traditional marker of toxic male competition and rivalry in favor of a joyful celebration of honesty, sexuality and self expression. The movie is so averse to conflict it eventually becomes an anti-narrative cutting the audience short every time the story looks like it will develop some kind of hostility or antagonism. Instead we return to hanging out with a bunch of guys who only really care that the women in their lives have fun. It is over-the-top, silly, hilarious, and absurd but more importantly it is blazing in its unabashed sincerity.
I’ve posted about this earlier but I’ll say it again. My favorite thing about “The Martian” is that there is no villain or rather that Mars is the villain. The actual people in the film are all working toward the same goal – rescue Mark Watney. By not using an antagonist the filmmakers open up the movie to focus on its themes – cooperation, competence, loyalty. Every chance there is for someone to work against the mission the movie cuts the other direction, mostly notably when the Chinese are introduced. Everyone is working together toward the same goal and that is a truly beautiful thing. Also, “The Martian” gave as the word “pootatoes” and we can all be grateful for that.
Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach have somehow improved upon 2012’s “Frances Ha”. Gerwig plays Brooke, a person who I imagine every 20-something has met at some point – ambitious to the point of absurdity, charmingly narcissistic, flighty and exhilarating. She drives the narrative rushing from one half-baked idea to the next, sister-in-law-to-be Tracy, played by Lola Kirke, in tow. Gerwig chews the scenery but it is new-ish comer Kirke who gives the story the weight and stability it needs to function as she is pulled between Brooke as role model and Brooke as subject for her writing project. In so doing the film examines the responsibility of the artist to their subject and to themselves.
Making an investigative journalism movie invites comparison to “All the President’s Men”, the gold standard of the genre. “Spotlight” dodges this problem by simply being a straight procedural. The events in question carry their own gravity and do not require the melodramatic late night parking garage meetings its predecessor did. “Spotlight’s” true gut-punch moment comes when the team of journalists we’ve been following learn that the evidence they’ve been scouring the city for has been sitting in their archives all along, ignored. That’s the real message here. The Catholic Church’s disgusting crime belongs to all of us because we let them get away with it and we still are.
Notable movies that I have not seen: “The Big Short”, “Son of Saul”, “Jurassic World”, “Spectre”, “The Revenant”, “45 Years”, “Tangerine”
If I try to make this list again in a week it would almost certainly be different. So please, comment, tell me what I got wrong or right. What gem did I miss? What pile of garbage did I unduly praise?