Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Best Movies of 2015: Part 1 of 3

2015 has been an interesting year for movies. What overall strikes me as the theme of 2015 has been its consistency. Last year, there were a handful of really incredible films. This year, there were fewer amazing films, but I feel like there were a lot more movies that were solid across the board. If I look at the top ten films of this year, it doesn't compare with my top ten films of 2014. But if I look at my list of the top thirty films of this year, for example, it 's a stronger group than 2014.

And so that's what I've decided to do. I'm going to go through the top thirty films of the year, as I feel that this sort of consistency really does deserve to be recognized. I'll be releasing it in three installments, so below you'll find my picks for the #30-#21 films of the year. But don't let these relatively low rankings fool you--all of the movies on this first installment genuinely deserve to be seen. I'm actually surprised that I ended up ranking them so low, but there were just too many good movies which I felt I had to place higher.

Before we get into this list, though, even with this expanded field I have some honorable mentions. My #31 film of the year is Pawn Sacrifice, a solid film about the legendary chess matches between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, which just barely got beaten out by my #30 pick. I also almost included Straight Outta Compton, which is an uneven film, especially in its second half, but featured some powerful moments and some exciting storytelling. Also, Ant-Man was a lot of fun, and a movie I enjoyed a lot more than I would have expected.

I also want to give a shout-out to The Stanford Prison Experiment, the movie about the notorious psychology experiment of the same name. While not a bad movie by any means, it was ultimately a bit forgettable. It's merely a depiction of true events, without offering any sort of extra commentary or insight. But I will say that this depiction is very well done, thanks to a truly extraordinary young ensemble cast. And I mean ensemble in the true sense of the word--this cast, divided into prisoners and guards, operates as one cohesive unit. These performances are not about individual glory, but the way they work on the same collective brainwave is truly impressive and often very powerful. The performances alone would make this film worth seeking out.

I also would recommend watching Tangerine. This film truly made history--the Oscars push for actresses Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor is the first ever Academy Awards campaign supported by a film producer launched for transgender actresses. The movie was made on a shoestring budget, to the point that they had to use iphones to film it. Unfortunately, I could tell, and found the film quality really distracting, which is why it didn't quite make my list. But the writing, and the performances of Rodriguez and especially Taylor are standout. Plus, I feel this film should be watched by anyone who still doesn't understand the controversy surrounding the casting of Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl. I truly feel that Tangerine makes a case for why both his performance and that film as a whole are pretty irrelevant artistically.

My last honorable mention is for the movie World of Tomorrow, an animated short film by Don Hertzfeldt. I limited my list to only feature films, which is why this 17-minute movie doesn't make it, but even with its short runtime, it deserves a mention. In a very small amount of time, this movie manages to be one of the most entertaining, thought-provoking, funny, and at times heartbreaking movies of the year. It's a mini-masterpiece, and worth seeking out.

This is a character from World of Tomorrow. His name is Simon. He is a monster who lives on the moon. He's on screen for less than a minute. He made me cry. It's a beautiful movie.
Also, I should point out that while I was lucky enough to see pretty much everything this year, there are still a few movies I wasn't able to get to. The main film that I've heard great things about but not seen is Mustang, the French entry for Best Foreign Language film this year. Plus, I haven't seen a lot of the acclaimed documentaries this year, such as Amy or Listen to Me, Marlon. And while documentaries usually don't crack my "best of" lists, it's not completely unheard of. But, again, I saw almost everything and feel pretty comfortable in the thirty titles I'm about to submit to you as the best of the year. So, without further ado, let's begin the countdown!

#30: Legend

I seem to have liked this movie a lot more than most. Many have said that while Legend features an excellent performance from Tom Hardy (my pick for the very best performance of the year, in fact), the film itself feels generic, as if it’s merely trying to imitate other, better movies. I can certainly see this point, and yet the movie definitely worked for me. It is reminiscent of other gangster films—at times, it goes past the point of homage and becomes a direct rip-off of Goodfellasbut that’s kind of the point, I think. Hardy plays Reginald and Ronald Kray, two twin gangsters in 1960’s London. Reggie is suave, charming, and sharp. Ronald, on the other hand, is absolutely insane and decidedly psychopathic. A huge reason why they become gangsters is precisely because Ronald loves the idea of being a gangster like he sees in the movies. Many of Ronald’s destructive tendencies are born out of this fascination, and he tries to emulate the old-time gangsters of the silver screen at every opportunity in his own life. So I think that this by-the-numbers gangster movie feel is intentional, and helps to showcase how the Krays saw themselves as playing a certain role in society. But even if the film as a whole isn’t one's cup of tea, it would be worth seeing for Hardy’s performance, again my pick for the best performance of the year. If you didn't know any better, you would never guess that these characters were played by the same actor, that's how distinct these performances are, even though there's only minimal physical distinction between the two of them (the film features some excellent subtle makeup). Even if Hardy had played only one of the twins, it would have been an Oscar-worthy performance, but the fact that he plays both is truly remarkable. And he's not the only strong performance in the film--I also was a huge fan of Emily Browning as Frances, the film's narrator and the wife of Reggie Kray.

#29: Bridge of Spies

Here’s an understatement for you: Steven Spielberg knows what he’s doing. Bridge of Spies is not destined to be considered his magnum opus, but his knack for filmmaking is still apparent in every single frame. Everything about this movie is solid—it’s well-written, well-acted, and well-directed. The fact that it’s this low on my list is only indicative of how many great movies were released this year. Tom Hanks gives an understated performance as lawyer James Donovan who must negotiate the trade of a convicted Soviet spy for two American prisoners of war. Perhaps most impressive about Hanks’ performance is how he doesn’t feel the need to show off, and lets supporting players take the scene—especially the brilliant Mark Rylance as the Soviet spy, who is unsurprisingly already receiving lots of awards recognition for his performance as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. This is a slick spy thriller that is highly entertaining and incredibly smart.

#28: Extraordinary Tales

Extraordinary Tales didn’t get a huge release or really any advertising at all, which is sad because I think it could have had the makings of a Halloween classic. An animated anthology film, Extraordinary Tales tells five different Edgar Allan Poe short stories—each with a different animation style and a different narrator. Anthology films are typically uneven, but there really is not a weak link in these five films—each one effectively capturing the magic of Poe’s stories. The weakest is probably “The Masque of the Red Death,” which is told with hardly any of Poe’s language—an interesting idea that is fine but not quite up to the strength of the other four. The strongest for me was by far “The Tell-Tale Heart,” animated in an eerie shadow-heavy black and white and using narration by the great Bela Lugosi (other narrators include Sir Christopher Lee in his final film role, and director Guillermo del Toro). None of the films are a replacement for actually reading Poe’s work, but as far as adaptations go, Extraordinary Tales offers five strong and spooky offerings. The animation is gorgeous even as each style is distinct. It’s definitely worth seeking this obscure film out.

#27: What We Do In The Shadows

What We Do In The Shadows, a mockumentary about a group of vampires living together in New Zealand, is a lot of fun, and easily the silliest movie of the year. This movie isn’t all that concerned with making a statement or telling a single coherent story—it just aims to be entertaining, and it undeniably succeeds. Instantly quotable, What We Do In The Shadows was one of the more enjoyable movies of 2015 thanks to its often clever and always hilarious script, committed performances, and surprisingly complete design elements. If you haven't seen it yet, it's pretty much guaranteed to make you laugh.

#26: Irrational Man

Woody Allen has always been one of my favorite filmmakers, but I will admit I was not too excited to see his latest movie based on how it was advertised. It looked boring and problematic and was not something I was going to go out of my way to see. But I was able to attend a free screening of it, and I was very glad I did! I never would have guessed from the advertising that this film is actually one of Allen’s best scripts in years—a tightly-constructed crime thriller that I found genuinely surprising and engaging. I don’t want to give away too much—there are many twists and turns here that best go unsaid—but I feel it’s definitely worth giving a look, even if it was let down by its advertising campaign. It's funny, insightful, and it features an excellent performance by Parker Posey.

#25: Infinitely Polar Bear

Most people have probably not heard of this one. Infinitely Polar Bear is a small independent film which not too many people talked about this year, in part because of its minimal advertising and distribution, and in part because of its admittedly terrible title. This title is perplexing and clunky, but the film is quite worthwhile and very dear. Writer and director Maya Forbes tells the true story of her own childhood growing up in the 70’s, specifically when her mother (Zoe Saldana) went back to school and left Forbes and her sister in the care of their father Cam (Mark Ruffalo), who had recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The film is very intimate, which gives it a certain amount of charm, but also makes its more serious moments incredibly effective and at times terrifying. Ruffalo is getting some Oscar buzz for his supporting work in Spotlight, and as good as he is in that film, he’s better here, creating an incredibly realistic and sympathetic portrayal of Cam. The film works specifically because of how good he is. Forbes and Ruffalo do not shy away from showing how difficult Cam was to be around, and at times you truly fear for his daughters’ safety. But they also highlight his better qualities. We see what makes him wonderful and Infinitely Polar Bear ultimately comes across as a love letter to Forbes’ complicated father. Ruffalo fully commits to the role, and through his performance we understand how Cam sees the world. When he behaves in an unorthodox way, we completely understand why he feels his actions are justified even when they clearly are not. While Ruffalo is extraordinary, I also want to commend Imogene Wolodarsky, who plays young Maya Forbes (named Amelia in the film). I found out afterwards that Wolodarsky is actually Forbes’ own daughter, which might be why this performance feels so incredibly authentic and beautiful. Wolodarsky is assured and completely natural in the role, and matches Ruffalo note for note. I’m not one for nepotism, but after seeing Wolodarsky’s performance, I cannot imagine anyone else playing Amelia. Saldana, and Ashley Aufderheide who plays the second daughter, are also excellent. It’s a gem that flew under the radar, but absolutely deserves to be seen.

#24: Spy

There are a lot of fun but ultimately forgettable comedies out there, and it would have been easy for Spy to be nothing more than a lighthearted spoof. But, instead, this Melissa McCarthy vehicle really went a step beyond. For one thing, it is absolutely hilarious--Jason Statham's performance parodying the roles he usually plays is possibly the funniest thing I saw all year. But Spy managed to not just be a funny comedy, but it's a great spy movie too. The action is really good, and the plot is genuinely compelling. Plus, this cast is incredible. While many talk about the wonderful ensemble work in movies like Spotlight or The Hateful Eight (both of which do have really great ensemble work, don't get me wrong) Spy  might have the most uniformly committed and talented cast of the year. Everyone is performing at peak level, including Statham, Rose Byrne, Jude Law, Allison Janney, Peter Serafinowicz, Bobby Cannavale, and the very funny Miranda Hart, a British import who makes a great first impression for most American audiences (I was already a fan of hers from her appearances on British panel shows). But leading the pack is McCarthy. Many have criticized McCarthy for always playing the same roles, and while I understand the point that a lot of her character operate on the same energetic wavelength, I think this undermines how versatile McCarthy is. She's both a fearless comedian, and an impressive actress, who brings a lot of depth to the character of Susan Cooper. This is not a repeat of her Oscar-nominated performance in Bridesmaids--here, she is a highly competent character who is one of the most likable protagonists of the year.

#23: Fort Tilden

Another one that most probably haven’t heard of, Fort Tilden received a VERY limited release and was mostly released on demand as opposed to in theaters. I can understand why—after all, there are no big names in it. But this is an unknown gem that is definitely worth seeking out. A biting commentary on the rich white millennials, Fort Tilden goes from being amusing to vicious at the drop of a hat, to powerful effect. This movie is not afraid to take risks, and manages to find that rare moment of uncomfortable comedy that really makes its audience think and reflect. I watched this movie because it looked funny, but it is so much more. Moments of it ended up staying with me in a way that few other movies this year could match. It’s a smart script, and a truly surprising film. Fort Tilden is basically the anti-summer-blockbuster, and is all the more wonderful for it.

#22: Trumbo

Biopics are a dime a dozen each year, thanks to the rich variety of interesting historical figures whose stories lend themselves to cinematic interpretation. And a lot of biopics end up falling into a certain generic mold that the Oscars love, but which can become somewhat tedious in their sameness. Well, I'm glad to tell you that Trumbo...doesn’t break that mold. But rather than being tedious, it shows why that sort of mold exists in the first place, and why these sorts of films can be effective. Telling the story of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), Trumbo is more interested in informing its audience than challenging them, but in doing so makes its statement loud and clear, and does so in an often entertaining and stylish manner. The standout here is Cranston, who embodies Trumbo and crafts a superb performance that goes beyond a mere impersonation. After his game-changing performance on Breaking Bad, Cranston proves that he can be just as effective in film as he was on TV.

#21: Love & Mercy

Speaking of biopics, Love & Mercy happens to be that rare biopic that actually can break out of the generic Oscar-y mold and tell a true story in an interesting way. Love & Mercy tells the story of The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, and focuses on his younger self when the band was becoming successful (played by an excellent Paul Dano) and his older self as he faces mental health problems in the aftermath of his fame (played by a less excellent but still very good John Cusack). Love & Mercy’s greatest feat is that these two storylines always feel coherent—it never feels like you’re watching two different films. Wilson is a sympathetic character, and I’ll admit that the movie made me completely rethink any previous conceptions I had about the music of The Beach Boys. Love & Mercy doesn't just tell you Wilson's story, it captures his spirit, and tells an emotional story that fully utilizes the strengths of Dano, Cusack, and also Elizabeth Banks in a fantastic dramatic turn.

But as much as I loved these movies, there are still 20 films from this year that I liked even more! Be sure to check out which films fill out my list in the coming days. And in the meantime, let me know your thoughts on all these films in the comments!


  1. Love & Mercy.....yeaaaah! Do you think Dano has a chance to win Supporting Actor?

    1. I don't know if he has a chance at winning, but he's definitely in the running to get a nomination. Unfortunately, this is the most competitive acting category this year and is really crowded, so it's tough to call. He is really good though, and certainly deserves a nomination.

      My prediction is that Mark Rylance will win for Bridge of Spies. But I do think there's at least a possibility that Sylvester Stallone might get it for Creed, which would be both deserved and heartwarming.