2015's Top Ten Films

2015 was so backloaded that I found it difficult to look past the last three months of the year. Not only did virtually all of the Oscar contenders debut in the last quarter (with Mad Max: Fury Road as the notable exception), so did many of the year’s big blockbusters including the latest from the Bond, Rocky, and Star Wars franchises. Even the new Tarantino film, The Hateful Eight, was a Christmas release. I had trouble keeping up with everything coming out in November and December. For my top ten I made myself remember that there was, in fact, a whole year’s worth of films to consider. When I did look wider, it became clear that there was much to choose from, as evidenced by my Honorable Mention List:

Bridge of Spies
Diary of a Teenage Girl
The Martian
Steve Jobs
Straight Outta Compton

With my favorites the theme is that there’s no theme. It’s a healthy mixture of indies and studio films. Quality can come from anywhere, be it a director driving his cast and crew through brutal conditions, to another basing a film mostly on a series of conversations. It can be the latest entry in the biggest franchise of all time or a story shot on cell phones:

10. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (dir. JJ Abrams) – No film this year, and maybe no film ever, had greater pressure to succeed. It had to restart a franchise, justify Disney paying billions for Lucasfilm, and satisfy a devoted but critical fan base. The Force Awakens accomplishes all of these goals by staying true to the key Star Wars themes while also having fun with them. Abrams, who also co-wrote the film with franchise vet Lawrence Kasdan, balances the new characters with the old ones. They have the right mix of action, story and humor. In his return as Han Solo, Harrison Ford is the best he has been in many years. Han tells Chewbacca “We’re home” and the fans feel the same way.

9. Infinitely Polar Bear (dir. Maya Forbes) – Writer-director Forbes based the story on her own childhood growing up with a bipolar father. The love comes through clearly in this touching, authentic film. Forbes finds the humor without ever making fun of the disease. She presents the illness, and its ramifications, as an amplification of the struggles of parenting and growing up. Mark Ruffalo brings his trademark intensity to the lead role. He is matched by the two girls playing his daughters (Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide). The believability of their relationship makes the film work. Infinitely Polar Bear avoids pandering and mental illness movie clichés. Its joy and sadness are earned, not forced.

8. The End of the Tour (dir. James Ponsoldt) – I never expected to enjoy a film this much that mostly consists of two people talking with each other. The End of the Tour covers five days when Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) interviewed novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel). Ponsoldt shows faith in the screenplay, adapted from Lipsky’s book, and builds the movie around the conversations. Wallace and Lipsky cover writing, fame, envy, and simply making your way in the world. Eisenberg’s nervous intensity plays well off Segel’s Zen-like calm and bemusement. The film takes the time to get to know these men as they get to know about each other, slowly adding depth to the story and layers to the characters. When the film ended, I was sorry I couldn’t spend more time with them.

7. Tangerine (dir. Sean Baker) – Baker, who co-wrote the film, and his cast and crew deserve much credit for making a film centered on two transgender friends. He deserves credit for shooting an entire film on three iPhones. Most of all, he deserves credit because after five minutes you forget about how the film was shot and the gender status of the leads. The film sweeps you up in the chaos and humor of the story and the characters. Baker keeps a fast pace, slowing down just a bit at the end to see some of the sadness. Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor give brash, funny, nuanced performances. I hope TV and film’s increased focus on transgender stories will give Rodriguez and Taylor more opportunities to make use of their prodigious talent.

6. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (dir. Stanley Nelson) – AFI Docs gave Stanley Nelson their lifetime achievement award last year and also hosted a sold-out screening of Black Panthers. Both the man and the film deserved the honors. Nelson has a well-honed ability to capture all aspects of a movement and the times that spawned it. He did this with his documentaries on Jonestown, the Freedom Riders and the Freedom Summer, and does so again here. Nelson covers the movement’s leadership but spends more time with the foot soldiers, the anonymous men and women who dedicated their lives to this cause. It’s through these interviews and archival footage that Nelson best shows why the movement had such power. With thorough research and candid interviews with former agents, Nelson also illustrates the FBI’s ultimately successful attempts to splinter the group. The film somehow is comprehensive and meticulous while also alive and vibrant. Nelson never lets it become dry or didactic. He also doesn’t play up the Panthers’ resonance with the Black Lives Matter movement. He doesn’t have to.

5. The Revenant (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu) – Like Tangerine, but on the other side of the spectrum, how The Revenant was shot became as much of a story as the movie itself. Iñárritu had a method to his madness. The shooting in extreme conditions largely with natural light helps create a more immersive cinematic experience, as does his one-take fluid camerawork for most scenes. The film puts you right there with the characters, and with them you feel an ever-enveloping sense of dread. Leonardo DiCaprio strips away his movie star charm and looks, transforming himself into a 19th century woodsman out for revenge. While he has little dialogue, he conveys much with his eyes and his whole body. His performance, like the film itself, succeeds on a primal level

4. Love & Mercy (dir. Bill Pohlad) – Pohlad, working off an excellent screenplay from Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner, subverts the traditional music biopic model by simultaneously focusing on two distinct stages of Brian Wilson’s life: the mid-late 60s (played by Paul Dano), when he was at the height of his creativity but descending into drug use and mental illness; and the late 80s-early 90s (played by John Cusack), when he was barely functional and under the thumb of a controlling psychiatrist. By presenting two different but related stories, Love & Mercy trusts the audience to make the connection without having to get from point A to point B. More than any other film since Amadeus, Love & Mercy beautifully captures musical genius. It also asks whether this talent is a Faustian bargain that can destroy the genius’s soul. Dano and Cusack give two parallel textured and heartbreaking performances as Wilson. Like some of Wilson’s best work, Love & Mercy is both innovative and poetic.

3. Truth (dir. James Vanderbilt) – One of two exemplary films this year about journalism, Truth would serve as a fitting companion piece to The Insider. Both wonderfully capture the corrosive effect of corporate and political influence on television news. Vanderbilt pulls no punches in telling about how a “60 Minutes” crew assembled a story on allegations that George W. Bush went AWOL in his National Guard service, then saw their careers disintegrate in the story’s aftermath. He shows the competing pressures leading to mistakes in the research and does not excuse the sloppiness, while also arguing that the consequences were much more severe than these mistakes warranted. Beyond its message, Truth succeeds as a thriller. Vanderbilt deliberately builds up the tension while also giving his stellar cast a chance to shine. Cate Blanchett’s work here was overshadowed by her other star turn in Carol, but this performance is even more compelling. Robert Redford nails the mannerisms and gravitas of Dan Rather without ever slipping into an impression. Truth never did find an audience, but I believe people will gradually discover it on video.

2. Inside Out (dir. Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen) – For so much time, Pixar couldn’t miss. Every film was a funny, poignant, original story flawlessly executed. In recent years, Pixar’s efforts, while still enjoyable, didn’t have the same spark or newness, with many sequels in the mix. Inside Out brings the studio back to the level of Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Up. The core concept, physicalizing a person’s inner emotions, isn’t completely new. Fox had a sitcom in the early 90s, “Herman’s Head,” with a similar idea. With Inside Out the creativity is in the execution, going beyond the emotions to illustrate different worlds in an 11-year-old’s brain. The emotions themselves are perfectly cast. Who else but Lewis Black could play “Anger”? The film gets laughs from how the emotions play off each other, but moves the story into how these emotions develop as the child learns and grows. As with all Pixar’s best, it has a basic human truth at its center: that as you get older situations aren’t as clear cut and that every emotion has a critical role.

1. Spotlight (dir. Tom McCarthy) – The second terrific film about journalism. Like Truth, Spotlight takes you inside how reporters construct a story. However, while the “60 Minutes” team had to rush to get their story on the air, the Boston Globe team at the center of Spotlight had time for a long investigation into the Catholic Church’s cover-up of child molesting priests. So, instead of a thriller, McCarthy presents Spotlight as a procedural. Just as the Globe took its time, McCarthy takes the time to show the story coming together piece by piece. He also allows his strong cast, including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Liev Schreiber time to fully develop their characters. Spotlight avoids easy clichés and challenges our assumptions about who is in the right. McCarthy who co-wrote the film, treats the story with the respect and seriousness it deserves, helping to explain why the Catholic Church was able to conceal the abuse for so long. He also, in an understated way, makes his film a tribute to the kind of professional, long-form investigative reporting that seems less common these days. McCarthy, who initially made his name as an actor, had earlier directed The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win Win, all gems that never received the recognition they deserved. Spotlight is a fitting title for the film that finally gets him the acclaim worthy of his achievements.

Adam Spector
February 1, 2016

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