Anyone who claims that this was an unremarkable year at the movies is itching for a fight; bring on the gloves. If you were left unmoved in your cinema seat this year, you haven’t bothered to seek out the right films, my friend.
No matter what genre your inner cinephile resonates with, there were offerings this year that restructured the genre. If I do not sound objective and impartial while introducing my best films list, it is intentional. I would posit that objectivity has no room in film writing. If you do not have the capacity to fall madly, irrationally, violently in love with a movie, then you shouldn’t write about film. When we sit down in that cinema seat, we bring with us a lifetime of biases. We bring with us what happened to us that morning, and who we broke up with earlier in the year, and whose loss we are mourning for longer than we would care to admit. The archeology of our mental and emotional state, both the immediate and the calcified, influences our individual reactions to a film. And it should. Because this is what grants diversity in film opinion. If all of us liked the same films, we would be a boring, hopeless lot. Intense, forehead-vein popping debate about films is what fuels my engine. And my favorite film reviewers, the ones I read religiously, are not necessarily those whose tastes in film align with my own; they just happen to write like a dream about why a specific film meant so much to them, based on their junction in life at the time they watched it.
So herewith is the list; they represent my personal favorites. As in previous years, the main criterion for inclusion of a film was that, in some small way or large, it altered my emotional circuitry, often irreversibly. Hence, many films that I respect a lot but which didn’t necessarily shake me up (e.g., CAROL, THE BIG SHORT, SPOTLIGHT) are not on this list.
Since I have had a longtime (and happy) affliction of listomania, there will be two other lists: Best Mainstream Films and Best Films Seen At Film Festivals. This year I will be posting two additional lists: Most DisappointingFilms of the year, and Most Overlooked Films. So there will be plenty of cinematic muck to roll around in, you little piglets.
1. ROOM: How often do we hear news stories about events so far flung from norms of human behavior as to make us wonder how they could even have transpired. And yet they happen. Based on the novel by Emma Donaghue, ROOM presents us with a five year old; the only world he has seen is a shed in which he has been living with his mother, both imprisoned by a captor. Isn’t it so that evil in the real world is matter of fact, often standing unremarkably in plain sight until it is recognized? ROOM takes this premise and considers it without prurience, or the slightest concession to sensationalism. And like the best films, ROOM transcends its setup, as its theme comes more visibly into focus in the second half: this is a movie about recovery. Are we not, each one of us, in some manner, recovering in life. And what is it that heals us. It is the routine, banal constancy of little things. A dog. The unconditional affection from a grandparent. A kind person’s presence. By quietly commenting on the human capacity for resilience, ROOM demonstrates more emotional honesty than other film this year. Featuring performances by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay that are minor miracles, ROOM is the best film of the year.
2. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD George Miller's MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is stark raving mad. But then don't you have to be a little bit insane to get into history books. And this film unapologetically claims its place in cinema as the superior action film made to date. In this fourth installment set in the post-apocalyptic world of previous Mad Max films, a woman revolts against her feudal master and escapes with other young girls enslaved for the specific purpose of breeding. Along the way Max becomes a reluctant accomplice, as the film’s architecture gets defined by a single chase across the desert. If you want to watch something agreeable and neatly contained and with a traditional storytelling arc, then maybe this film is not for you. But otherwise, watch this film as a masterclass on three-dimensional storyboarding. On the project management of physics in action sequences. On how to reinvent a franchise. Watch how effortlessly it makes the audience a participant; you will forget to breathe. FURY ROAD is a challenge to the whole new generation of action filmmakers working today, urging them to follow its audacious path into the genre's future.
3. THE REVENANT Relentless and breathtaking, THE REVENANT is why I go to the movies. It is reason we all should. A man in frontier era America is left for dead and has to claw his way back to exact some small piece of retribution [‘revenant’ means one that has returned from the dead]. And his journey becomes our journey: horrifying and crushing, but also majestic and ultimately, sublime. Critics of the film have found the protagonist’s Job-like trials unrealistic, comical even. But the unrelentingly dire isn’t mutually exclusive with reality; the film is based on the real life story of American Frontiersman Hugh Glass. After helming a series of films that were multitych confluences of several stories, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu made a leviathan leap last year with BIRDMAN, filmed to seem like a single uninterrupted take. And here with THE REVENANT, Inarritu is working on an exalted plane, better for having shaken off his innate affinity for intertwined stories in favor of a singular uncluttered tale of survival. Composed entirely of long takes, and shot using only naturally available light, you will see things that just haven’t been previously projected on a cinema screen; this is work of exceptional craft. And in the last page of the story, the film makes an understated case that it is the casual, unthought acts of goodness that will ultimately save us. And there is grace in this karmic assertion.
4. BROOKLYN There’s a scene late in BROOKLYN, in which the simple act of a girl placing an unopened letter into a drawer drew a loud gasp from the theater audience, both times I saw the film. This speaks to how invested the audience was in a story told right. Scripted by Nick Hornby from the novel of the same name by Colm Toibin, this is the story of a young Irish girl who emigrates to America in the fifties. If you watch this film and it doesn’t fill you up, you can be no friend of mine. There has been a tendency for decades now to see sentimentality as a vice, a crutch for lesser filmmakers. But when done right and with authenticity, it can be the most powerful thing in the movies. Case in point, BROOKLYN, which like SHORT TERM 12 last year, demonstrates that what we feel will always trump what we see in the movies. BROOKLYN is about growing up and making peace with where you came from. Anyone who has written letters across the oceans and felt achingly homesick will empathize. And the film is lusciously romantic, unapologetically so. It is also blessed with Saoirse Ronan playing the lead in the sort of role that becomes defining for an actor. I want to hug this movie, and hug it, and hug it.
5. EX-MACHINA A canny examination of what it means to be human, this is a sly, sexy, sci-fi head-trip. Where films like AI: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE and even 2001, A SPACE ODYSSEY have struggled to crystallize the inherent irony with artificial intelligence - that the more successful we get with imparting intelligence to a machine, the more that machine will want to refuse orders from humans - EX-MACHINA drives home this concept with admirable simplicity. Much of the film is a cat and mouse game between a female robot just starting to bloom under the first stirrings of consciousness, and two humans who only seem to be playing the roles of Creator and Emancipator. Willfully intellectual and magnificently violent, with some of the best production design this year, this film is a gift that any self-respecting cinephile ought to unwrap in a hurry.
It’s a shame that in all the awards season clatter, this film is not being celebrated more. A girl new to New York is taken under the wings of a seasoned, know-it-all played by Greta Gerwig. One of the joys of this film, which has the best script of any movie released this year as far as I am concerned, is to see how it translocates our allegiance between the two characters at different times during the movie. MISTRESS AMERICA also has the single funniest sequence this year, an almost slapstick Noel Cowardesque piece set at a suburban home where a multitude of characters interact with precision timing. Gerwig’s character has a deliberate artifice (and an off-kilter cadence to her speech) but we eventually come to realize a sly, back-handed authenticity to her. As luminous an actor as she is, Gerwig’s greater contribution may be as that stealth writer that Hollywood will be all too late in recognizing. Inspired by Woody Allen and Robert Altman alike, and a familiar cousin to FRANCES HA (the previous film co-written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach) this is an urbane, smart, and ultimately wise comedy of manners.
7. DOPE Every minute of this film is thrillingly alive. A loving send-off to urban eighties films such as FRIDAY and BOYS IN THE HOOD, this movie manages to transcend genre. The coming of age story of an intelligent young black man trying to break free from his surroundings with help from his two just as poorly adjusted friends, is giddy and inspired and sexy. I believed these characters and rooted for them. A film can achieve this level of specificity only when it is allowed to be a singular vision, in this case, coming from the mind of Rick Fumuyiwa, who wrote and directed this film. Thank goodness for smaller films that still get made without studio meddling. On the list of this film's achievements is also the altogether winning breakout performance from its lead actor, Shameik Moore. What a sweet, sweet film this is.
8. KINGSMAN, THE SECRET SERVICE When was the last time a movie actually thrilled you, made you giddy with what was unfolding on screen. At one point, I found myself yelling (thankfully in my internal voice) at the screen: "Run, run, they are right behind you". And I am for the most part a dour, unexcitable moviegoer. Like GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY last year, THE KINGSMAN knows about joy. Not exactly a spoof yet also tipping its hat at Bond and Bourne films alike, THE KINGSMAN knows that the one thing most scarce in spy thrillers these days is good old-fashioned fun. And so it demonstrates how being goofy is not mutually exclusive with being clever. Maintaining a balance of polished urbanity and preposterous cheekiness on a minute-by-minute basis, the film also occasionally crosses lines of propriety with glee.
9. FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD This is the most romantic film of the year. A woman in 1890s Victorian England must decide between three men who individually represent ardor, stability and lust. Thomas Hardy knew a thing or two about women navigating a man’s world while circumventing the roles thrust upon them. And the surprise of this film is to realize how much is unchanged in the century and a half since Hardy wrote the novel on which the film is based. At one point, the lead played luminously by Carey Mulligan, says, "It is difficult for a woman to express feelings in a language made by men to express theirs". Instead of a literate Merchant Ivory-like adaptation, or a feminist injunction, this big-screen treatment goes by a different ideal: swoon. It understands that true love is about the flicker of glances, the unsaid things between locking eyes. And Carey Mulligan and Mathias Schoenaerts glower like the best of cinematic foils. This is a film that is far more interested in images than in words.
10. BRIDGE OF SPIES Spielberg has always been a filmmaker of grand actions. THE BRIDGE OF SPIES is his first film that is measured deliberately in small gestures; what we have here is the first anti-Spielberg film. And it a fine turn for him to make in his career. Initially reluctant to watch yet another Cold War thriller, I settled down with relish after the first half hour, surprised to find this a work of understated precision; there is a gleaming burnish to the craft and rigor with which the film has been created. More important are the questions asked. Does the vicious treatment of an American spy captured in Russia give Americans the licence to treat a Russian spy with matched cruelty? The human instinct has long been to abandon liberal values in pursuit of retaliation after the occurrence of something heinous. The blood-thirst for justice has trampled on decency repeatedly in history. BRIDGE OF SPIES, which is foremost an exceptional thriller, quietly makes a plea to be watchful about not losing our humanistic higher ground in times of conflict. This film will hold up well for Spielberg’s legacy.
11. THE END OF THE TOUR This film recounts the 5 days spent by Rolling Stones reporter David Lipsky interviewing David Foster Wallace who had just published his masterpiece, ‘Infinite Jest’. But don’t let that description fool you. The meeting of two literary minds, one noticeably envious of the critical success of the other, and the second grappling with sudden fame as much as his own demons, forms the basis for the most literate and probing film to get a theatrical release this year. Without being reductive or pandering, the film asks questions about celebrity, ethics, fame, and selling out. The writing here never tries to simplify the two men; they are both complex, conflicted, contrary individuals. Jason Segal, playing Foster Wallace, evokes a person who has never swum mainstream and is caught unprepared when his book is suddenly declared a masterpiece, pushing him into limelight. How does one hold on to one’s true self, warts and all, whilst being demanded to be a commodity that can be marketed for easy consumption? Foster Wallace may come off as sometimes insecure, and petulant, and jealous, but he is also achingly, resolutely human. Jesse Eisenberg, playing Lipsky, delicately conveys the arc of a journalist who goes from respectful bystander to politely inquisitive questioner to crossing-the-line provocateur. You make two intensely intelligent strangers spend time together for days, and they are bound to combust. And yet, when Lipsky leaves at the end of the interview, the ache of loneliness in Foster Wallace’s eyes is one of the saddest things to be seen at the cinema screen this year.
12. MR HOLMES This film is, note for note, gloriously right. It takes one of the world’s most famous fictional characters (Sherlock Holmes) and makes something wistful, and wise and smart and complex and very mortal out of it. It works at many levels. At one level it is a Sherlock Holmes mystery. But it is also a rumination on Holmes as a ninety-three year old battling dementia. The terrific script and these fine actors (the chief amongst them, the incomparable Ian McKellan) tap into the futility of fully understanding human behavior. About the challenges, and yes the joy, of loneliness. About the necessity of exorcising guilt in the sunset of one’s life before it is too late. And it is about unlikely connections – in this case, between a once famous man now in exile in the ninth decade of his life and a ten year old boy. Like STILL ALICE last year, this film too holds a mirror to the horror of a formerly brilliant individual fighting to retain wisps of memory too quick to slip away. And yet, for all this existential inquiry, the structure of this film, and its plot, is neat, ordered, gleaming.
13. SPY / THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. / MISSION IMPOSSIBLE:ROGUE NATION
So singed is our skin from repeat burns from typical studio blockbusters, that when a big Hollywood film comes along and does something with poise, it takes our breath away. Such was the case with this triptych of stellar studio films released in 2015, all of which did the spy/action-film genre proud.
Comedy is the hardest thing to do in cinema, and to do it well within genre conventions harder still. Melissa McCarthy finally gets lead material worthy of her, and one of the great joys of SPY is to watch how the movie is quietly, stealthily feminist. Look hard, look well, you will not find a single fat joke here. And McCarthy’s character may be caught off-guard when her fervent wish to be an on-the-ground spy is finally granted, but she is never inept; the filmmakers have no desire in watching their lead fumble. So many things are not right with the media we consume these days; we have substandard horror films tailored to teens playing in multiplexes every weekend and the Kardashians dominate television ratings. SPY somehow restores my faith in big-budget Hollywood films.
Let’s count the ways that MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION gets things right. Instead of the skinny teenage supermodel that Hollywood likes to routinely dole out as the female interest for such ventures, lets praise those who picked Rebecca Ferguson and gave her a meaty role: as a character who not only stands shoulder to shoulder with Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, but bails him out repeatedly (it is surely no coincidence that Ferguson has more than a passing resemblance to Ingrid Bergman, also a Hollywood import from Sweden). She takes her heels off before launching into action, thank you very much! (Bryce Dallas Howard, take note!). When James Bond is bent over under the weight of the world these days (see Nolanization of the cinematic universe above), it is refreshing to see Ethan Hunt take over duties from Bond as the exuberant and yes, sometimes outlandish spy; the release of SPECTRE later this year didn’t help dispel these concerns. The scene in the Vienna Opera House, adroitly and patiently layered, and implemented with crisp precision, is alone worth the price of admission. And finally let us give thanks to the script writers for avoiding any overtly romantic ties between the Cruise and Ferguson characters.
16. THE GOOD DINOSAUR The other Pixar film released in 2015 has taken up a lot of ink, and rightly so; INSIDE OUT is a grand act, working at multiple levels and taking on nothing less than an exploration of how our brains react, often irrationally. But INSIDE OUT has been celebrated enough; just because THE GOOD DINOSAUR is more traditional, and more simple-minded in its storytelling, does not make it any lesser an accomplishment. In another year, DINOSAUR would have been lauded for a return to form for Pixar to the sort of clean, open-hearted and emotionally resonant storytelling that the studio has built its reputation upon. But somehow critical opinion about the film has been bogged down by accusations that the story is too dark. But that isn’t fair; didn’t BAMBI or DUMBO or even Pixar’s own UP deal with darker themes of death and abandonment. THE GOOD DINOSAUR is a lovely, straight-up entertaining, coming of age tale.
17. McFARLAND, USA When a good sports film works, it really works. This one is based on a true story. A fallen from grace football coach (Kevin Costner) gets assigned to a school in the titular small town in Central California and realizing that the predominantly Hispanic kids in school are uncommonly good at running, he decides to coach them for a cross country track team instead. This film by Niki Caro (WHALE RIDER) has a terrific sense for place. Of farming towns populated by migrant families that pick produce. Of cultures that assimilate. Of people living simple lives. And that is enough. Even as the film proceeds exactly as expected, by refusing to insult its characters and by regarding them without judgment, its observations ring with truth. This film will not be on many best-of-year lists, but it merits wider recognition.
18. THE CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA This is unashamedly an ouroboros of ideas that eat themselves. This latest work from Olivier Assayas is an experiment, a puzzle. It is unrepentantly intellectual. But it is also gloriously meta about all things cinema. Inspired by everything from ALL ABOUT EVE to SUNSET BOULEVARD to Chekov’s THE SEAGULL, this film has much to say about celebrity, its waning with time, and the price it takes to stay in public consciousness. A famous actress of a certain age (Juliette Binoche) agrees to play the older character in a revival of the two-hander play that first made her famous in the role of the younger ingénue. Her smart, strong willed personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) tries to handle her problems, both prosaic and emotional. And Chloe Grace Moretz plays the Hollywood starlet taking on the younger role in the play, even as she is trying to keep an affair with a married man under wraps. If the characters in the film are aware of their similarities to those in the play they are rehearsing for, they do not let on. The relationships in the film are amorphous, resisting classification. Look closer; is some of this a reflection on Kristen Stewart's own real life, having been the Hollywood It Girl and having survived a media storm related to her relationship with a married director? It is all part of the clumped ball of yarn given to you to try to untangle. If you love and breathe cinema, then you need to watch this film. It doesn’t give easy answers, and yet the film has a fully satisfying ending. It is a conclusion based on words, not flashy plot contrivances.
In another year, I would have pridefully defended any of the top five as the best film of the year. In fact, if you ask me another week, the order of those top five films will change. This is a good problem to have when faced with an embarrassment of riches, such as we did in 2015. Other worthy films that could not make it on the list include INSIDE OUT, BLACK SEA, CARTEL LAND, WHILE WE'RE YOUNG, AMY and TANGERINE. What a year this has been.