Cinema Versus 2015: Dave’s Top Ten

Okay, I know it’s February 2016. I am well aware that the year I am writing about right now ended 56 days ago. One of the problems with not being a critic or a film festival hopper is that it takes a while to get to see all the films you want to see from a given year. It wasn’t until about a week ago I felt confident putting down what I considered to be my favorite films of this surprisingly solid year of cinema. Sure, there were some stinkers in 2015; some films that didn’t quite live up to the hype, films that disappointed movie goers across the country, and even some that are getting tons of praise that I just don’t understand and may even win a bunch of Oscars!

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Unrelated image from The Revenant

But, we’re not here to talk about the bad films.

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Unrelated image from Chappie

I said we are NOT here to talk about the bad films. We’re here to talk about the ones that I liked the most! It was tough narrowing it down to just ten. There were many films I had to chop off of the list (which was quite tragic), but I can stand by the 10 films I present for you below. I will note before we begin that I have NOT seen all of the films I’d like to see from 2015. Some notable blind spots are Mustang, Anomalisa,Embrace of the Serpent, Creed, Youth, and most importantly Bone Tomahawk (which I know is streaming on Amazon Prime, so I don’t know what I’m waiting for).

Anyway, without further adieu, here are my top 10 films of 2015.

10. 45 Years

45 years

Writer-Director Andrew Haigh’s (name pronounce Hagchgchghch, I assume without doing any research) devastating tale of a long marriage compromised by a secret of the past managed to depress me unlike any other film I’ve seen this year. Spectacular performances from both Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay really highlight the true sorrow of what it’s like to realize and come to terms with the fact that your relationship, and the life you’ve built around it, may be nothing more than a lie. All feelings, all emotions, all events that you have shared come second in the mind of the person you love with all your heart. Now, that is drama, that is life, and this is a film that sticks with you. I guess it’s time I checked out more of Andrew Haigh’s work.

9. What We Do In The Shadows

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From New Zealand filmmakers Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi (of Flight of the Conchords fame) comes one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in years. The premise alone makes me chuckle: a mockumentary about vampires trying to live in modern day New Zealand. How could that possibly not be funny? I honestly don’t even have much to say about this one. If you haven’t watched it yet, do yourself a favor and watch it now instead of listening to me babble about my favorite movies. Make your friends watch it. Quote it constantly. Eat some bisghetti. The icing on the cake? There’s a sequel coming in the near future focusing on the local werewolf pack. It’s gonna be called We’re Wolves. I mean, seriously.

8. Ex Machina

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If you know me, then you know I have a soft spot for sci-fi. Now, that doesn’t mean that I greet all science fiction films with open arms. I’m actually pretty judgmental about the genre, especially considering that there is a LOT of dreck out there. So, when a high-concept sci-fi film about robots, set primarily in one location, with a very minimal cast comes out, naturally I’m intrigued, but with a fair share of skepticism. Alex Garland’s directorial debut Ex Machina (at least to me) delivers in being a thought provoking, compelling AI story, and more importantly, a nuanced character drama. The sparse setting allows us to focus on what is essential to the story: the characters, and through them allows us to explore a twist on the AI box experiment. There are a lot of other goodies sprinkled throughout: gender politics, Kubrick-inspired camerawork, retro-futuristic sets, and a dance scene that stands as one of the best scenes of 2015, all of which add up to an impressive directorial debut from Garland. I do think that a more steadied hand behind the camera could have improved the film a bit, but I’m very interested to see what future endeavors he has up his sleeve.

7. Room

'Room' is a journey out of darkness, director says

Coming in at number seven is Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, a film I liked so much, I don’t even mind the fact that I had to drive all the way to Jersey to catch a decent showtime. The film has a lot going for it. Jacob Tremblay (who plays Jack) easily delivers the best male performance I’ve seen this year, and he’s not even 10 (suck it, Leo). Brie Larson, who plays his mother, also knocks it out of the park, and manages to convey to the audience the full emotional weight of the situation, despite the fact that the film is not from her perspective. It’s from Jack’s. Now, I’m not going to spoil what Room is all about if you don’t already know. A great deal of the film’s impact comes its ability to keep moving in unexpected ways. A great deal of that brilliance, as I stated earlier, is thanks to it’s perspective. We see everything through Jack’s eyes, giving us at the viewer a very unique vantage point. At the same time, we are able to easily decipher the truth behind it all without any clunky exposition or dialogue exchanges.This really is one of the best releases of 2015, and if it weren’t for another film on my list, it would be my pick for Best Picture at the Oscars.

6. Phoenix

PHOENIX

Christian Petzold’s holocaust drama Phoenix has the distinction of being a film that subverted my expectations twice while I viewed it. I entered the film knowing only the premise: a disfigured holocaust survivor returns to post-war Berlin after receiving facial reconstructive surgery and seeks out her husband, who may have been the one that sold her out to the Nazis. Now, this is a great premise. It conjures up film noir imagery, a jazz filled score, a frenzied pace, and a twisted tale of violent revenge. The film was not quite like that though. It is more subdued, more tragic. It’s not giddy about its revenge plot; in fact, our main character, Nelly (played wonderfully by Nina Hoss) doesn’t even seem all that interested in revenge . She simply wants to get back the life she lead before the war . As I watched the film, and realized where my expectations had been incorrect, I began to settle for something a bit less flashy. A character drama about identity and what it means to an individual. Certainly nothing wrong with that. By the time we reach the climax of the film, the moment where all tensions boil over, everything that had been built up comes crashing down  (a scene that I consider to be the best of the whole year), I realized that this truly was a story of revenge, but not revenge earned through bullets. No, the best revenge can be earned by surviving, and crafting a new, better future for yourself.

5. Inside Out

INSIDE OUT

Allow me to wipe a tear from my eye before I begin rambling about Pixar’s emotional powerhouse Inside Out. Now, if you’ve been following this sporadic blog, you’d know that I’ve already spoken ad nauseam about Pixar, so I’ll keep this mini-review brief. Inside Out, the story of a 12 year old girl and the emotions in her head as she moves from the Midwest to San Francisco is emotionally DEVASTATING. I’ve seen my fair share of films this year, and this is the one I have to try the hardest to hold back the tears while watching. By personifying the abstract idea of emotions, Pixar manages to tell a completely honest and earnest tale of growing up and of depression. The fact that this animated film, with its bright and colorful characters and its Bing Bongs (oh God, here I go again…) can portray the most accurate view on depression I’ve seen on film is astounding and should really be celebrated. And remember, it’s okay to be sad.

4. Hard To Be A God

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Alright, first, I know this is technically a 2013 film. I didn’t exactly have the ability to see this in the US until 2015 though, so I’m counting it as a 2015 film. Secondly, I dare you to find a film as uncompromising , unrelenting, bleak, and utterly insane as Hard to Be a God. Aleksey German’s dream project (which he unfortunately died before being able to complete) tells the tale of  scientists sent to a planet where the humanoid inhabitants are trapped in the dark ages. The job of the scientists is to help get this civilization back on the right track without violating the prime directive interfering through violence or murder. This vision of pure insanity is told in a way where all characters appear to be aware of the camera’s presence. The stare at it, the perform for it, they dangle chicken feet in front of it. We are there on the planet Arkanar. We’re with the scientist Don Rumata as he tries to teach the simpletons to accept knowledge, to honor intellectuals, and to appreciate his free-form jazz saxophone solos (I kind of agree with the villagers on that one, actually). We are in the mud, the muck, the violence, and the ignorance of this backwards planet. It not only feels real, it makes sense. Ignorance prevails, and the attempts of the educated to help seem arduous, tedious, and futile. Because of this film, I have to wonder how it is that our society ever managed to evolve beyond living in our own filth, how we’ve managed to accomplish anything. The film even makes me ask a truly disturbing question, have we really come much farther, or are we still just as backwards? Terrifying.

3. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

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Alright, remember when I said I had a soft spot for sci-fi? The softest part of that soft spot is dedicated to Star Wars. I make no excuses for the fact that The Empire Strikes Back is my favorite film of all time. I feel as though the entire potential of cinema is on display on that film. Something truly unique, powerful, and wonderful was born out of these stories. It transfixed me as a child, and continues to do so as an adult. My formative years, and you could also say my loss of innocence, was defined by the arrival of the Star Wars prequels. Star Wars was no longer this perfect thing. It was made by men, and therefore prone to fault. I learned that all good things will one day turn to rubbish: a cynic was born.

By the time the prequels were done, I had left my angsty teenage years, and I learned to balance the cynicism with optimism, but that’s not the review I’m trying to make. 2015, this already great year for movies, brought back my cherished childhood thing, my silver chalice of cinema, Star Wars, and it managed to do what I thought was impossible. It did Star Wars justice. It brought back beloved characters like Han Solo, Chewbacca, Princess Leia, and those little mouse droids that wandered around the Death Star. It introduced us to great new characters like Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, and my new obsession, BB-8. It felt right, it felt real, while I sat in the theater (3 times… and I’d probably go again), I was taken away to a galaxy far, far away. That’s important. We all need our occasional escapism, and it’s not at all silly to ask that that escapism not only be entertaining, but emotionally fulfilling. The Force Awakens did that for me. I don’t even really care if it was a retread of old ideas. Sometimes, you need to bring things back to the basics. There just better not be  Starkiller Base II in Episode IX.

2. Mad Max: Fury Road

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Alright, what the hell am I going to say about Mad Max: Fury Road that hasn’t been said by everyone else (except for Armond White). This film is a pure cinematic spectacle. It is visual storytelling without the need for an over-abundance of exposition. It is thrilling action with consequences. It has characters we care about fighting for something good, their freedom. It’s a film loved by almost everyone, except men’s right activists, and I’d say their seal of disapproval shows just how good this movie really is. Now, I went into this film with no real experience with the Mad Max franchise. I knew of it, of course, I knew the major beats. I knew about the gas crisis, I knew about the crazy cars, and I knew about Master Blaster. No amount of zeitgeist exposure could prepare me for just how great this fourth entry into the series could be.

I remember, somewhere around the halfway mark of the film, it is nighttime, and Max, Furiosa, and the Brides are trying to get the War Rig unstuck from a mud pit. Everything is blue. It’s the first chance we’ve had to slowdown in the whole film, and there is the growing threat and dread of Immortan Joe and his gangs approaching, still within earshot. It was then that realized that I loved this film. It was beautiful, it was crazy, it was entertaining, and it was awesome. It’s a film where a man can play an electric guitar that shoots flames into the air while suspended by bungee cords, and it not only doesn’t seem weird, I would be disappointed by anything less. George Miller proves with Fury Road that he is a true craftsman. At 70 years old, he is somehow at the top of his game and one of the best in his class. I cannot be happier that this film is getting the critical praise it deserves, and I have to say, after writing this, I wish I could be watching it right now.

1. Carol

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What could top a high octane thrill ride like Mad Max: Fury Road for my number one spot of the year? If you guessed Furious 7, you… clearly didn’t read what’s written just above this. It’s Carol (though I admittedly do quite enjoy the Fast and Furious movies). Carol is one of those movies that just is. Every aspect of the film is on point. From the cinematography, to the costumes, to the set design, to the performances, to the wonderful adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel by Phyllis Nagy, to the impeccable direction of Todd Haynes. It just seems perfect, like something that always was, that was not crafted by humankind.While I’m talking about the specifics of the film, I should also mention that Rooney Mara gives, that I think is, the best female performance (if not the best performance overall) of the whole year. From a simple look to a hand on her shoulder at the beginning of the film, I knew so much about her character, so much about her situation, so much about how she felt. To convey all of that in just a simple movement shows just how well crafted, well executed, and well acted the rest of the film is going to be.

I will admit, when I first saw Carol, I wasn’t completely blown away. I had heard so much about the film, how so many people I like and respect love it, I was braced for a truly transcendent cinematic experience. While I thought it was good, and did like it quite a bit, it took some time to fully embrace how great it is. Once the seed had been planted, it grew and grew, and I’m on the bandwagon. Carol is #1. I know, I’m super original. There are just so many things that stick with me from this film. The surprisingly untragic, but unanswered ending, the tension between Carol and Therese that builds for the whole film, and then released when they finally kiss and subsequently make love. The grace and class through which the subject matter is handled, never lowering itself to being about a society that can’t accept their love, despite being set in a time where being a lesbian was not considered appropriate. It is a film of people versus people. Characters versus characters. Wants and needs and desires in conflict as well as in harmony. I really could go on about this film for pages (I honestly had to delete a bunch of stuff because it was getting REALLY length… could make for a good post one day). But, I’ll end with the moment that really stuck with me, and I still think about often. A single phone call, and a single line that so wonderfully portrays a person in a state of confusion, who may have found something in herself that is real and earnest for once.  “I wanna ask you things.”

Honorable Mentions:

Since I can, I’m going to rattle off some of the films that I wish I could have included on this list. I still quite enjoy all of these films, even if they didn’t make the cut, Especially Krampus. That movie is fantastic.

  • Son of Saul
  • Spotlight
  • Krampus
  • Victoria
  • The Hateful Eight

If you feel as though I’ve made any horrible miscalculations with my top 10, or feel that I’m totally missing out on your favorite films of 2015, let me know in the comments.

Until next time.

~Dave

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One thought on “Cinema Versus 2015: Dave’s Top Ten

  1. Nice list with a few I haven’t seen. You definitely made me want to see them. I agree that Room was phenomenol and it was a crime that Jacob Tremblay wasn’t nominated. I was also devastated by Inside Out; as a parent I found the struggles of the ‘daughter’ and her loss of innocence so heartbreaking. I certainly thought Revenant would win and was surprised that Spotlight got it, although that was a great movie too. But my personal favorite of the year, a movie I saw three times, was Brooklyn. I know, it’s ‘just’ a love story but ahhh – it’s so much more. Each time I saw it I appreciated it’s perfection even more.
    Enjoyed your overview.

    Liked by 1 person

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