Friday, January 1, 2016

The Best Movies of 2015: Part 3 of 3

The countdown is finally down to its last installment. After naming my picks for the best performances of the year, and starting my countdown with my pick for the 30th best film of the year, then continuing it with the next batch of ten, we're finally coming into the home stretch. It's time for me to announce my picks for the ten best films of the year. It's a pretty great lineup if I do say so myself, with plenty of movies I think everyone can agree on, and a few weird choices thrown in there. So, let's get started: here are my selections for the 10 best movies of the year!

#10: Spotlight

The current frontrunner to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, Spotlight is one of the year's most acclaimed movies for very good reason. Spotlight follows the investigative journalists who exposed the Catholic sex abuse scandal, and handles this delicate subject matter with a steady and sensitive hand. The secret to Spotlight's success is that it really does focus on the journalists and the work they do rather than on the scandal itself. By doing so, it allows Spotlight to avoid coming across as preachy, while still making its point loud and clear. Everything about this film is subtle--the direction, the writing, and the acting--it's all level-headed and calm, but carries with it an astounding amount of gravitas. This isn't just a great movie, it's an important one.

#9: The Walk

Although it received critical acclaim when it was initially released, everyone seems to have forgotten about this movie by the year's end. And that's a real shame, because this movie was one of the biggest surprises for me this year. The Walk tells the true story of Philippe Petit as he famously walked on a tightrope between the Twin Towers. Now, this story was already told in the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, and when I first heard about this movie was being made, I kind of thought it would be redundant. Man on Wire is excellent, and already tells the story of how this happened in an entertaining way--wouldn't any film adaptation of it come across as an imitation? And one that doesn't feature the real man who performed the feat? Well, The Walk completely won me over, thanks in huge part to director Robert Zemeckis. While Man of Wire tells the story of Petit's famous walk better, The Walk does a better job of showing WHY this walk was important, and in the film's incredibly final half hour, actually transports you to the tightrope so you feel like you were there. Zemeckis has a long track record of creating true movie magic--films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Forrest Gump, and of course Back to the Future truly capture our imaginations and transport us to these fun and fully realized worlds. The Walk, for me, deserves to be thought of in this upper echelon. Throughout the whole movie, not just the final sequence, Zemeckis finds some wonderful moments of magic and whimsy, all leading up to this breathtaking walk, which was certainly one of the most unforgettable scenes of the year. I also think that Joseph Gordon-Levitt did a good job with a really tough role--anyone who saw Man on Wire knows that if he had played Philippe Petit as accurately as possible, he would have come across as a cartoon character as opposed to a human being, but I think Gordon-Levitt found a good balance of playing a toned down Petit. He captured Petit's spirit, while still coming across as an actual human.

#8: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

This is undoubtedly the weirdest movie on my list, this Swedish film from director Roy Andersson is truly unlike any other movie I've ever seen. In lieu of a plot, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence consists of about two dozen unconnected scenes. Each of these scenes is just one shot--the camera sits in a fixed position and doesn't move for the duration of the scenes. And the scenes are weird--all of the actors (none of whom are actors by profession) wear a bizarre prominent white makeup. It's as if these characters are all clowns, but they're clowns who exist in a world utterly deprived of joy. And then the scenes themselves are just bizarre. There's the shy king who stops into a cafe during war time to hit on one of the barmen while a seemingly endless parade of soldiers marches outside. There's the old man who has a flashback to what his favorite bar used to be like, until that flashback turns into a dirge-like musical number where the barmaid trades shots for kisses. There's a series of mysterious phone calls, where we only hear one side of the conversation, and that side of the conversation is always the same but with different people speaking the lines. Oh yeah, and one of those phone conversations takes place while a monkey screams in the foreground as part of some disturbing science experiment. There are, of course, the two toy salesmen (the closest this movie has to protagonists, and the only characters who feature in more than two scenes) who repeatedly deliver a downtrodden pitch for their utterly useless products (one of my favorite movie lines this year is their somber refrain of "We want to help people have fun.") And then, of course, there is the only scene in the movie that isn't filmed from one fixed position--and I won't say too much about what it is, but it happens to be the single most disturbing and baffling part of any movie this year.

Confused yet? Well, let me tell you something to confuse you even more: Watching A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is the most I've laughed at any movie this year. This movie is hilarious--it's so awkward and odd and absurd, that you can't help but laugh at the whole experience. With the exception of that one disturbing scene I mentioned, I don't think I stopped giggling throughout the entire movie.

"We want to help people have fun."
That being said, I don't know if I'd recommend this film for everyone. When I saw it, even though my friend and I were laughing throughout, pretty much everyone else in the theater hated it. Over half of them walked out before the movie was done, and early on, someone even chastised us for laughing so much (my friend politely informed them that this movie actually is a comedy). My recommendation is to watch a scene or two on youtube--like this one, or this one of the salesmen--and see what you think. These scenes are pretty indicative of what the entire movie is like. If you hate them, you will hate the movie. But if, like me, you find these scenes fascinating, then check out this movie and you'll be in for an experience you won't soon forget.

#7: The Martian

It's tough to make a popular movie. Movies with their eyes set on being major box office successes often walk a fine line between artistic integrity and commercial appeal. As much as I hate the trend, I can understand why producers seem to place emphasis on explosions and effects as opposed to clever writing, because explosions are more likely to get people into the seats. When blockbuster movies tend to fail as a piece of film, it has become fairly common for directors to take to social media and complain about how the studios prevented them from making the film they wanted to make--that happened twice this year with Joss Whedon for Avengers: Age of Ultron (the movie was fine but not incredible) and Josh Trank for Fantastic Four (the movie was a complete and utter disaster). This is why it's so exciting to see a blockbuster movie that figures out a good balance between smart filmmaking and mass entertainment, and I don't think I've ever seen a movie accomplish this balance as well as Ridley Scott's The Martian. I think this might just be the absolute best popcorn movie ever made. It's a movie you can turn your brain off for and enjoy--it's hilarious, but it's gripping and exciting too. But it's also a movie that offers plenty of food for thought, and holds up to analysis if you wish to examine it artistically. The film is about Mark Watney (Matt Damon), an astronaut and botanist who gets stranded on Mars after his crew mistakenly believes he died in a violent sandstorm. After he's stranded, the movie splits its time between Watney figuring out how to survive on a completely inhospitable planet, and the crew at NASA who are trying to figure out how they can possibly bring him back home. The acting across the board is strong, with everyone playing their part well (the standout of the supporting players, for me, was Chiwetel Ejiofor) but the movie clearly belongs to Damon. For the movie to work we have to really be rooting for Watney, and Damon definitely succeeds in making him likable (although he's aided by a great script which gives Watney numerous endearing and funny lines). He uses his humor as a defense mechanism, to help make his situation not seem so bad. But then there are moments where he freaks out, and this is what elevates Damon's performance from good to great. He pulls off these moments of frustration, of anger, and of fear perfectly. I enjoyed The Martian as an entertaining movie. But I also enjoyed it as a cinematic symbol of the value of human resourcefulness, ingenuity, and spirit.

#6: Ex Machina

We go from the big budget The Martian, to a smaller sci-fi film that approaches the genre in a much darker and smaller way. Ex Machina is about Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson, who had one heck of a year), a computer programmer who is invited to the reclusive home of computer genius and multi-billionaire Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) for what he thinks will be a week-long retreat. When he gets there, however, he finds that there's a more significant purpose for his visit: Bateman has created artificial intelligence, and wants Caleb to be the human component of a Turing test for his robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander, who also had a heck of a year. So did Oscar Isaac for that matter. Good job, cast of Ex Machina!) As Caleb tests Ava, it becomes clear that there is far more at play. Nathan's arrogance turns into a sinister megalomania, and some unexplained occurrences begin to take place which completely disrupt any semblance of normalcy. As Caleb explores the true intentions of both Nathan and Ava, what we get is a three-part cat and mouse game between Nathan, Caleb, and Ava, and we don't find out until the very end which of them is a cat and which of them is a mouse. Written and directed by Alex Garland (in his directorial debut) the film never lags in momentum, building ever-increasing stakes and a tremendous amount of tension from its isolated setting. The acting too is top-notch. Gleeson is affable and appropriately geeky as Caleb, and imbues within him a necessary sense of intellect and inherent shyness. I'm pretty convinced at this point that Isaac will never give a bad performance, and his portrayal of Nathan is commanding--Nathan's a complete asshole, Isaac never lets us forget how dangerous this guy truly is. We believe he's capable of anything, and Isaac brings an incredible amount of sheer menace to almost every scene. There's also a good performance from Sonoya Mizuno as Nathan's silent housekeeper Kyoko. But the true revelation here is Vikander. Ava was always going to have to be at the center of the story. Is she human, or not? How aware is she of what's going on outside of the room in which she's always lived? Is she helpless and sympathetic, or is she dangerous and in far more control than she lets on? Vikander's performance manages to walk a perfect balance. You love this character, and truly believe that there is a humanity to her, but she also keeps the performance from being too natural that you forget her robotic origins. For most of the movie, she is a blank slate, and her performance ingeniously allows for any interpretation you may want to throw her way. Do you believe that she's plotting an escape and manipulating Caleb? Congratulations, that theory works with Vikander's performance! Do you believe she genuinely has feelings for Caleb and is an innocent who merely wants him to like her back? Congratulations, that theory works with Vikander's performance! Any theory that you may create in your mind about the true nature of Ava is allowed by Vikander's versatile acting. And, at the end, when all the mysteries of Ex Machina are revealed, her performance still holds up. Ex Machina is an example of sci-fi at its best: it utilizes inhuman and impossible ideas to allow for a more thorough examination of humanity. It will make you question everything you think you know about how your own brain works, and will do so while telling one of the most tightly orchestrated stories of the year.

#5: Clouds of Sils Maria

I'll get right to the point: Clouds of Sils Maria is one of the best screenplays of the decade. Written and directed by Oliver Assayas, it plays with its audience's minds the same way Birdman did last year, and constantly makes you question what is being presented to you. Clouds of Sils Maria is about actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), who got her big break over twenty years ago when she was cast in the role of Sigrid in a play, and then subsequent film, called Maloja Snake which propelled her to stardom. We find out that Maloja Snake is about a volatile relationship between the young Sigrid, and her boss Helena, who begin a romantic relationship that soon turns manipulative and utterly destroys Helena's life. At the start of the play, the playwright dies and a revival of the production is announced: with Maria playing Helena this time. Maria is accompanied by her young assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), while the role of Sigrid will be played by the scandal-ridden Hollywood actress Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz). The movie is truly about the dynamic between these three women, which is constantly called into question. Valentine and Maria seem to have a relationship that might be like that of Sigrid and Helena's--and scenes of the two of them running lines are almost indistinguishable from their real conversations. The play is woven together to constantly blur the lines between reality and the play within the film, and it's an exciting mindgame to witness.

On top of the screenplay, the casting is inspired. Not only does Clouds of Sils Maria play off of the reputations of these actresses (some of Jo-Ann's scandals are clearly based off of tabloid headlines involving Stewart), but they deliver three excellent performances. The ensemble work between the three is nothing short of extraordinary--the relationships that they build with each other helps their performance as a cast build far beyond the already good performances they pull off individually. If there was one standout performance, however, it would be Stewart's. She won the Cesar Award--the French Oscar--for her work in this, and in doing so became the first American actress to do so. The movie is a masterclass in acting, writing, and directing, and one of the most fascinating movies I saw all year. It's definitely a movie you have to pay attention to, but this complex tapestry of a film is one worth trying to unravel.

#4: Creed

It's tough to keep a franchise going for seven movies. Things tend to lag and get stale, and you experience inevitable comparisons to originals that are now considered classics. When Creed was first announced as a new addition to the Rocky franchise, people let out a collective "huh?" No one was asking for another Rocky movie, especially has the franchise has had some missteps in the past. But Creed is like a shot of adrenaline, which revitalizes the franchise to the point that I wouldn't mind several more Creed films. But it's not my fourth favorite film of the year because of how it compares to the original--I rank it so high because it's such a good standalone film in its own right.

Creed follows Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed who dreams of being a fighter and building a legacy of his own. He moves from L.A. to Philadelphia and enlists Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, of course) to train him. The story here is very familiar--it's an underdog story that clearly pays homage to the original Rocky. But while Creed is notable for the similarities between it and Rocky, it's also notable for the differences. Creed is its own film, and Adonis is his own hero. I'm fairly certain that everyone already agrees that Jordan is one of the most promising young talents out there, and he continues to prove why with this performance. At the start of the film, he's living in a mansion and has a steady job, where he just received a promotion. His decision to become a fighter is a really bad one on paper, but Jordan does a great job of showing us Adonis' passion: it's clear that this is the only thing he will be happy doing. Adonis is headstrong, and at times arrogant and angry to a fault, but you never stop rooting for him. If Rocky Balboa was the old face of Philadelphia, Adonis Johnson represents the new Philadelphia, and maintains the same sense of inherent goodness and powerful resolve that made Rocky such a great hero.

Speaking of Rocky, Stallone is back and fulfilling the role of trainer this time--Rocky has become Mickey. Stallone is wonderful, giving one of the absolute best performances of the year. In many ways, it's unfair. Stallone has played this role for so long, and understands this role so intimately, that he possesses such a strong sense of this character that most actors can only dream of. It's a joy just to watch Stallone exist on screen in character. Every moment he's on screen is so natural and so deliberate. Sure, there are particular scenes where he's allowed to really showcase his acting chops, and those are incredible (one scene in a hospital made me cry--if you've seen the movie you know which one) but every second Stallone is on screen is simply a joy to watch.

Creed is a testament to director and co-writer Ryan Coogler--this is simply one of the best made films of the year. The fights are amazing--you really feel like you're in the ring in a way I've never felt before. Many have talked about it before me, but there's one fight in the middle of the film that is absolutely extraordinary. Done in one take, the scene is a masterclass in sound mixing and cinematic staging. Creed is a great movie on both a technical and an emotional level. Whether you've seen the previous Rocky movies or not, Creed is really not one to miss.

#3: Room

The premise of Room is not the most appealing one. It's about Joy Newsome, known in the film as Ma (Brie Larson) who has been kidnapped and held captive in a renovated garden shed for seven years. For five of those years, she's also had her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) by her side. To shield him from the pain of their situation, Ma has told Jack that their prison, which they call Room, is the entire world, and that nothing exists outside of it. Much of the movie focuses on their day to day routines and Ma's attempts to keep Jack happy and herself sane. But then, after his fifth birthday, she decides that it's time for them both to try and escape.

If this all sounds depressing, don't worry, it definitely is. But Room is also wonderful in its outlook and insight into the mind of a child. Those involved in the making of Room have managed to mine great joy out of small moments in a horrifying situation. Seeing Jack happy, and seeing the satisfaction that this brings Ma, is both devastating and beautiful. The film is, unsurprisingly, held together by the incredible performances of both Larson and Tremblay--they operate as one wonderful unit. For each one, the other is quite literally the entire world, and the closeness of these characters can't help but be powerful. Written by Emma Donoghue, who also wrote the book it is adapted from, and directed by Lenny Abrahamson, Room creates one of the most distinct worlds of the year. It takes a nightmarish situation and makes it feel very real, but in a way that provokes thought as opposed to being flat out disturbing. Horrifying and inspirational, it's a remarkably effective film. At times, it almost feels like an improbably fairy tale with how it creates heartwarming moments out of much darker origins. In the later part of the film which (spoiler) takes place outside of Room, the film isn't quite as strong, but still holds its audience at attention and offers some incredible moments. This is a film that truly stays with you long after you have left the theater.

#2: Anomalisa

One of the best screenwriters of all time is Charlie Kaufman. When I look at his filmography, I'm struck by how many of his films feature truly original concepts. Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Syencdoche NY, these are all movies that offer something truly unique. It's amazing to me that one mind can come up with so many ideas that are so completely realized while being definitively one-of-a-kind. And so when I heard that Kaufman was releasing his first film in about eight years, I was really excited. And once again, Kaufman has created a movie completely without peers--one that is truly unlike anything else. It's hard for me to discuss it without giving away the plot, which I'm going to go over in the next paragraph, so if you're concerned with spoilers and want to experience this movie fresh, then skip over the next paragraph, but know that despite being an animated movie, this is one of the most innately human movies of the year and that it really is not to be missed.

Anomalisa follows Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a customer service guru and reasonably well-known author who is in Cincinnati on a business trip. But there's something about Michael: to him, for the past eleven years, every other person in the world has had the exact same face and voice (all voiced by Tom Noonan, who somehow manages to make his characters distinct even though he must deliver his lines with no differentiation in his voice and with almost the same cadence). Until he is shocked to overhear in the hall outside his hotel room a different voice, that of Lisa Hesselman (Jennifer Jason Leigh). He is, understandably, intrigued--and the film wonderfully portrays Stone's desperation and enthusiasm as he rushes into the hall to find the source of this new voice. A romance begins between them that night, and I loved how simple it was. Lisa is not an extraordinary person--she's kind of awkward and offbeat, and much of what she says is rather plain. And yet watching the film, you, like Michael, absolutely fall in love with her for the very reason that she's herself. And, really, I can't think of a more apt way to display what it's like to be in love with someone: when you are in love, you love a person's personality and characteristics no matter what they are precisely because those traits belong to them. At one point, Lisa sings a charming and thoughtful rendition of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," for Michael and it's the first time he's heard a person sing in years (early on, he tries to listen to some opera on his ipod which is sung atonally and perfectly by Noonan). Lisa, oblivious to how Michael perceives others, says she loves Cyndi Lauper because "she's not afraid to be herself." Little does she know that, despite her own insecurities, she is a symbolic embodiment of that own sense of self-identity.

Pictured: many Tom Noonans.

I don't want to say too much more because I think that this movie is filled with poignant moments that you have to experience for yourself, and which each person will interpret differently. This is a movie about how we operate as people, and everything is geared towards that level of introspection. From Michael's profession working in customer service where he lumps all people together as a singular "consumer" and gives advice on how to appeal to them, to the fact that the hinges are kept on the models' faces to showcase the mechanics of how our expressions operate, the film is full of subtle and not so subtle touches which make us think about the nature of humanity more than pretty much any movie I've ever seen. It took an animated film to shine a light on real people so perfectly.

And, while this should go without saying if you've seen any Charlie Kaufman film ever, there's plenty of offbeat humor and outright weirdness--especially in one incredible sequence involving a hotel manager, a distorted hallway, and someone's face literally flying off.

#1: Phoenix

Most people have not heard of this film. But, you know who has heard of this film? Anybody who has spoken to me this past year, because ever since I saw it, I've said "this is going to be my pick for the #1 movie of the year." A German film (which was criminally deemed ineligible for the Foreign Language Oscar due to a technicality), Phoenix is about holocaust survivor Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), who has  reconstruction surgery to restore her face after suffering injuries in the concentration camp. She seeks out her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) who believes that she died in the war, despite her friend Lene's (Nina Kunzendorf) belief that Johnny betrayed her to the Nazis which led to her capture. When Nelly finds Johnny, he doesn't recognize her, but does think she looks enough like  hisbelieved to be dead wife that he recruits her for a scheme: he asks her to pretend to be his dead wife so that he can collect her inheritance. Nelly, wanting to be with Johnny again, and curious to find out if he betrayed her or not, agrees to the plan, and goes about being coached to be like her old self. The premise is downright Hitchcockian (it's clearly inspired in part by Vertigo), and gets more and more complex and mysterious as more information is revealed.

This is, quite simply, a perfect film. It's a truly masterful work by director Christian Petzold, who uses each moment to his advantage--I can't think of a single line that was out of place, or a single frame that wasn't utilized. Very little is ever said outright--it's all simply inferred from quieter clues. And much credit should be given to the performances, especially from the three most prominent performers, Hoss, Zehrfeld, and Kunzendorf. As Johnny, Zehrfeld is a true enigma, and we are as in the dark about him as Nelly is. Could he be a sleazy villain, or is he a misunderstood good guy who genuinely loves his wife? Or could he lie somewhere between these two camps? Zehrfeld makes every possibility equally plausible. Kunzendorf almost steals the movie as Nelly's friend Lene--an angry and capable woman who comes across as a voice of reason. Kunzendorf portrays her with a level of strength that makes you trust her instantly, and is a truly commanding presence on the screen. But the undeniable star here is Hoss. Nelly is vulnerable, yet completely in control. Nelly never speaks her motivations out loud, but we understand why she does everything she does thanks to the confidence that Hoss brings to this performance. She's sensational to watch, especially as she runs a complete gamut of emotions. Her performance builds and builds up until the ending--one of the absolute best endings in the history of film. I won't give away how it ends, but I will say that, as the title would suggest, it is a moment of complete rebirth for Nelly. In the more than capable hands of Hoss, this character ends the movie completely transformed into a new version of herself, and it is astonishing to watch. This movie, and Hoss' performance in particular, is a masterclass in acting.

I also want to make a note about how this movie deals with the subject of the holocaust. It's a holocaust movie, but one that takes place after the war has ended. The film doesn't focus on the war, but its lingering ghost is an all-pervasive backdrop. And I think that this film deals with the holocaust better than almost any film I've ever seen. Nelly has clearly been through a lot, but never talks about it. Before her surgery, we never see her face except under bandages and don't know the extent of her injuries or how she received them. There's only one scene where she actively talks about her time in the holocaust, and even then she's unable to finish the horrifying story she tells, and tells it only after falsely stating that it was a story she heard, not one she experienced. The fact that she is unwilling to talk about the camps makes their presence all the more apparent, and is what makes this film's treatment of the delicate subject so powerful. As Johnny coaches her to act like herself in front of their friends, she frequently says, "Surely they'll want to know about what it was like living in the camps, shouldn't I think of stories to tell them," and he assures her "no one will ask." And indeed no one does. This silence speaks volumes, and is equal parts chilling and heartbreaking. The way that Phoenix deals with this subject shows admirable restraint--restraint which extends to its storytelling as a whole. Pound for pound, frame for frame, in terms of acting, writing, directing, importance, story, character, and mood, Phoenix is, to me, a no-brainer pick for the best film of the year. It's thought-provoking, but also entertaining--a mysterious thriller that will keep you guessing in the best way.

Oh, and in case you missed it in theaters, Phoenix is currently on Netflix. Watch it. You will not regret it.

Bonus Pick: Yes! Ham Goes Up An Escalator

As great as Phoenix is, I think we can all agree that the real best movie of the year was this masterpiece from the website clickhole. If it doesn't win the Oscar for Best Cinematography, it'll be a huge snub.

Well, those are my picks for the very best films of 2015. What are your thoughts? What movies did I get right, and what movies did I get wrong? And what movies do you think I missed entirely? Share your own top ten lists in the comments, and I look forward to another year of great movies in 2016!

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