Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Best Movies of 2015: Part 2 of 3

My countdown of the best movies of 2015 started yesterday--feel free to check out part one here. But now, here's part two--the next batch of ten movies that were some of the best of the year.

#20: 99 Homes

The awards season has so far given a lot of attention to The Big Short, a movie about the financial housing crisis in the early 2000's. It's an important topic--one that affected pretty much everyone, but which a lot of people don't understand too much. But, I have to say that I hated The Big Short, and have been somewhat dismayed at it's success. I won't get into all of my problems with that movie right now, but I will say that I think a major reason I feel the acclaim for The Big Short is undeserved is that there was already a much better movie released this year about the housing crisis. That movie is 99 Homes, which is a raw, depressing, and beautiful film (while The Big Short comes across like that one high school teacher who swears in class because he thinks it'll make him seem cool). 99 Homes' success comes from focusing on those who were most affected by the housing crisis: the numerous low-income families who were evicted from their homes. The head of one such family is 99 Homes' protagonist Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) who loses the home he shares with his mother (Laura Dern) and son (Noah Lomax). To make enough money to survive, he enters a deal to work for real estate mogul Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), the man who evicted them from their home in the first place. This movie is brutal, and thrives on the foils of the two main characters. Garfield gives what might be his best performance to date as Dennis--a volatile mixture of desperation and inherent goodness. Shannon gives one of the best performances of the year as the villainous Carver--one of the slimiest and most compelling antagonists in recent film history. He personifies greed and all the evil that comes with it. The movie is like an all-too-real fable for the modern age. Some of its detractors have called it too melodramatic, but I can't imagine anyone to not be profoundly affected emotionally after watching this movie.

#19: The End of the Tour

It is always impressive when a film can wring fascinating drama from two people merely having a conversation, and that’s essentially what happens here. Writer Donald Margulies ingeniously wove together a screenplay adapted from recorded interviews that journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) had with author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) over the course of several days while Wallace was on tour. What we get is an introspective character study that is both poignant and thought-provoking. It helps that these interviews are pretty interesting stuff, but the true gem here is Segel, who delivers a career-changing performance as the enigmatic author. There’s both a grandeur and a profound quietness to Segel’s performance—a convincing interpretation of a shy genius who had a lot to offer the world. It’s a small film, but one that is worth the time to pay attention to.

#18: Steve Jobs

At one point considered the Best Picture frontrunner, Steve Jobs got good reviews, but didn’t really perform as well with either critics or audiences as expected. And I think the reason for this is because it’s ultimately a pretty strange movie. Rather than simply being a biopic about former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, it’s more of an examination of Jobs as a figure in pop culture. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is far less concerned with telling things as they happened then he is about trying to get to the root of Jobs. In other words, it's not a movie about Steve Jobs, it's a movie about the idea of Steve Jobs. The key to the film’s success is an incredible Michael Fassbender, who doesn’t look much like Jobs, but again this film is not too concerned with accuracy. The films draws rather unsubtle comparisons to Citizen Kane. From its powerful central figure, to its jumps in time, to its "this was the true inspiration behind the man" ending, the similarities are too present to ignore. Much like Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, Fassbender’s performance (along with Sorkin’s script) changes depending on who he’s talking to. When he’s talking to his lifelong friend Woz (Seth Rogen) he comes across as vulnerable. When he’s talking to faithful underling Andy Hertzfeldt (Michael Stuhlbarg—easily the standout supporting performance for me) he comes across as a tyrant. When he’s talking to his ex-girlfriend Chrisann (Katherine Waterston), he’s a jerk, and when he’s talking to his daughter Lisa (Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo, and Makenzie Moss depending on her age) he’s an enigmatic hero. Only when he’s talking to his confidant, Apple marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet, doing good work albeit with an erratic accent) does he ever come across as fully human. It’s a fascinating character study that, while flawed as a film, is nonetheless a very worthwhile and thoughtful film, provided you’re not caught off-guard by the unconventional storytelling.

17: The Hateful Eight

At one point in The Hateful Eight, John Ruth, a bounty hunter known as "The Hangman" (played by Kurt Russell) says, "You only need to hang mean bastards, but mean bastards you need to hang." Well, basically every single main character in this movie is a mean bastard, but they're certainly compelling mean bastards. Director and writer Quentin Tarantino never wants his characters to fit into a neat little mold, and The Hateful Eight features some of his most intriguing creations yet. And while Tarantino is known for large plots that often take place across multiple locations and times, most of this film takes place inside of a single room--a callback to his first feature Reservoir Dogs--which allows his unique knack for dialogue to truly sing. This is Tarantino's version of a locked-room mystery, and in its best moments--of which there are many--it is a high-stakes Western that is truly thrilling to watch. But like its characters, this movie is a little rough around the edges. At times, the story gets a bit sloppy, and there are a few things that don't quite make sense. But you don't care about those because Tarantino cleverly ropes you into this complex web of a movie.

I must say part of the reason I was so taken with this movie was because I was lucky enough to see it as part of its Roadshow Presentation--where it was played on 70mm film as opposed to digital, had an intermission in the middle, an overture at the beginning, and came with a program. In the program, Tarantino talks about how movies used to be an event--that they used to be treated with the same regard as going to a Broadway show, and how he wanted to capture that with this presentation. And I think he undeniably succeeded. The viewing of this movie felt very special. Don't get me wrong, the movie is good enough to be enjoyed even without all the extra stuff, but if you have a chance to see it as a special presentation, take it. It's worth it.

#16: Crimson Peak

Guillermo del Toro is one of the most visual directors working today, and in his pet project Crimson Peak, he has delivered one of the most stunning films ever made. The script—basically if Jane Austen had ever written a gothic horror ghost story—fully takes advantage of both its period piece aesthetic and gothic origins, to make an eerie and captivating film that is reminiscent of many other horror movies, but manages to find a unique tone all its own. It’s not downright terrifying, but it is definitely creepy, with an especially wicked performance coming from Jessica Chastain, doing what I think is her best work to date. Crimson Peak is a great-looking classic ghost story, and I think its reputation will only get better as time goes on and people have a chance to reflect on it. Honestly, I would have ranked it higher if not for what I think is a fairly lackluster performance from its star, Mia Wasikowska--she seems to be trying to channel another Mia, Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby, but just ends up coming across and vacant and boring. But based on its writing, direction, and design alone, Crimson Peak deserves its place as one of the best of the year.

#15: Carol

Depending on who you ask, Carol's greatest strength or its greatest detriment is that it's a fairly simple love story. I can understand the problems some might have with the film's simplicity--the story isn't all that interesting on its own, and potentially doesn't take full advantage of the fully-realized characters that it sets forth. I would argue, however, that the simple story is a sign of restraint. In director Todd Haynes' good but heavy-handed Far From Heaven, which was about an interracial affair in the 1950's, the political stigma of the time was at the forefront, and made very apparent. Carol takes place in the same era, but this time focuses on a lesbian relationship, and while the taboo-like implications of this relationship are certainly acknowledged, they are not so much at the forefront. Instead, Haynes spends his efforts in creating a fully realized romance, that features one of the most believable on-screen couples in recent memory. This is, of course, due in large part to the performances of its leading ladies, Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett. Both are alluring in their own ways. As shopgirl and amateur photographer Therese Belivet, Mara possesses a sweet charm--she gives off an air of innocence. As the socialite Carol Aird, Blanchett is instantly captivating, and possesses a certain magnetism that Blanchett exudes in her best performances. You understand why these two characters feel such a sudden connection so immediately. Blanchett gives the flashier performance--her character is far more outgoing, but what sold this film for me was Mara's nuances. You can see how differently she acts when she's around Carol and when she's not--you can see in her body, her face, and her voice how much happier she is. It's a tender and sweet romance, that succeeds because it doesn't try to overreach its bounds.

#14: Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road shouldn't work. It's from a franchise that hasn't had a new installment in years, and which no one was really asking to be revived. Plus, it doesn't have much of a story--at its essence, the story is "the bad guys chase the good guys through the desert," like a weird action movie crossover of The Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote with Wacky Races. There are lots of characters who have no story arc whatsoever, and whose origins go completely unexplained. Yet this has become one of the best received movies of this year with both audiences and critics, and when you watch the film, most will understand why. Director George Miller has created an artistic whirlwind--a true tour-de-force that simply consumes you with its visionary view. Everything is so carefully done that you don't need a fully-realized story: the design alone will carry you through the movie's runtime. The character design is brilliant here. With one look at Immortan Joe, you understand everything about him. With one look at Nux and the other war boys, you instinctively understand the culture of their society without it being explained to you in any detail. Hell, one of the most talked about characters in any movie this year was The Doof Warrior--a wordless character who managed to be fascinating simply by playing guitar (albeit a guitar that shoots fire). Every element of this film is so in sync, and Miller is so in control, that the film is allowed to operate in a world of perceived chaos and we'll still trust it and go along with it. Basically, it's good enough, that the movie is allowed to break all the traditional rules. There is no movie like Mad Max: Fury Road. But with any luck, there will be worthy successors in the future. It's a true game-changer, and I for one look forward to the inevitable lineup of action films which place an emphasis on artistry that will follow in its wake.

And, oh yeah, Charlize Theron is excellent, and Tom Hardy's restrained interpretation of Max is a wonderful reimagining of the character.

#13: Youth

Most movies stick to a certain degree of logic. There are rules that they follow to tell a certain story to the audience. Even Mad Max: Fury Road, which does so many things outside the box, follows a few key dramatic conventions. But director Paolo Sorrentino, best known for the Oscar-winning The Great Beauty, is unconcerned with such matters. His films are free-form, and tend to be a series of beautiful moments and reflections on ideas which somehow convene into a solid narrative. Most movies are like prose, but Sorrentino's are like poetry. And, like poetry, Sorrentino's films are not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but for those who are willing to embrace it, there will be a lot of value in Youth. Held loosely together by the relationship between lifelong septugenarian friends Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), a classical composer, and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a movie director, who are vacationing in the alps, Youth offers keen insight into the nature of life, love, loss, aging, art, and our own senses of self-worth. Youth is filled with some magical moments, and is truly a thing of great beauty (hehehe).

Plus, sorry to give away a great sight gag, but I didn't know that I needed to see Paul Dano eating breakfast while dressed as Hitler before I watched this movie, but it turns out I did indeed need that visual in my life. It's amazing.

#12: Mississippi Grind

Mississippi Grind already has the feel of a classic, perhaps because of its familiar story and character types. But when you pay attention to this film, you realize that there's a lot more going on in this film than meets the eye, and many of the things that feel most familiar about the movie end up being the areas where it surprises you most. Mississippi Grind follows Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn), a sad-sack gambler who's clearly smart, but slightly off, and on a bit of a losing streak, who teams up with the younger, more confident, and better-financed Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) in the hopes that it will turn his luck around. After meeting one night, each seems to recognize something in the other, and they embark on a roadtrip, with the intention of entering Gerry in a high-stakes poker game in New Orleans. As their trip progresses, they learn more about each other, and we learn more about them. What I find so fascinating about this film is the ever-shifting dynamic between them, and the film's refusal to reveal their true intentions. Are these two buds on a roadtrip, or is one attempting to exploit the other? Or are BOTH trying to exploit the other? The film features a smart script, but is highlighted by strong performances from Reynolds, and especially Mendelsohn, who is absolutely brilliant as Gerry. Gerry is the all-time embodiment of a loser--one of the most pathetic characters in film history--and yet Mendelsohn refuses to play him as such. He instills in Gerry a desperate enthusiasm, and a clear intellect which makes him all the more sympathetic. While the two of them embark on this journey together, Mendelsohn makes it distinctly Gerry's movie, a snapshot into the life of a man who has hit rock bottom.

Aside from the fascinating character study, Mississippi Grind is a gripping depiction of addiction. Curtis and Gerry gamble, and gamble often, and these scenes are terrifying to watch. While it's hard to call either of them lovable, it's impossible to not be invested in them, and as their mutual compulsion for betting comes more into focus (the film offers subtle touches, like Gerry casually flipping a coin to decide if he should make a phone call or not) the stakes of each gamble becomes increasingly nerve-wracking. Whether they win or lose, their inability to not gamble is heartbreaking and all too realistic. Even when they're not at a poker table, we see evidence of how addiction has affected both of their lives to a devastating degree (a scene where Gerry visits his ex-wife is especially powerful).

The film is deceptively simple, and takes what could have been a familiar story, and imbues it with a compelling sense of importance. Plus, its depiction of the country through montage and music is fairly remarkable. This movie sort of flew under the radar, but much like its sad-sack non-hero, it's a diamond in the rough that is immensely satisfying to spend time with.

#11: Brooklyn

If someone were to tell me they didn't like Brooklyn I flat out wouldn't believe them. This film is so absolutely charming that it's impossible to not be won over in at least some capacity. Faithfully adapted from the best-selling novel by Colm Toibin, Brooklyn is a stylish period piece, and a delightful and inspiring love story. Brooklyn follows Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan, who cements her place as one of the finest young talents working today), a young Irishwoman in the 1950's who is sent overseas to live in Brooklyn and make a better life for herself. A coming of age story, we get to watch as Eilis comes out of her shell and learns more about the world--including falling in love with the Italian-American Tony (a lovely Emory Cohen). There's not too much analysis to provide--it's not that there isn't substance or subtext, but much of it is pretty apparent upon your first viewing of the film, but Brooklyn is placed so high on this list because it is simply a joy to watch. It's sweet, but is so earnest that it never comes across as saccharine. Basically, Brooklyn is the cinematic equivalent of a hot mug of Irish Breakfast tea on a cold day. It's comforting, satisfying, and sincerely pleasant.

The movies get better and better, but there are still ten films that I liked even more than these gems! What could they possibly be? Stay tuned for the final batch of ten, coming soon.

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