FTA: The Top Ten Films of 2015

A look at the best films of the year. At least, I think they’re the best films of the year. Are they the best films of the year?

This column is From The Archive. It was originally published on hallbrothersfilm.com on January 11, 2016.

Are we here already? Has the time already come? Is the world ready for this? Are you ready for this? Am I ready for this? Are the impending plaudits that I am about to hand out, which are always unwavering and above reproach, going to go on to become the ultimate summation of this year’s cinematic offerings? For the final question the answer is obvious, but for the others I find myself not so sure.

Indeed, in the illustrious history of this annual column, this was the first year where I was struck by how quickly it all was over. Maybe I am getting older and time is now moving faster, but for some reason I was stunned to realize that, when all was said and done, there was nothing left for this year of movies to give me. Which is saying a lot for a year that gave us the rebirth of Star Wars and featured three in-their-prime auteurs dropping all their latest works on Christmas day. I thought surely one of those would serve as a grand finale for 2015, a final bang that would leave an exclamation point on a more demure and subtle year of cinema. The fact that one was not can be viewed as both a damning critique as well as nothing to get that worked about. To be quiet and pondering is never a bad thing, especially when it comes to film, but you would think that there would be one film that, after you saw it, would make you say, “Now that was the best thing I saw all year!” Perhaps I am the only one who never had that euphoric moment.

This is not to say that 2015 was a bad year for movies. I do not believe there really can be such a thing as a “bad” year for something as diverse and far-reaching as film. However, I was struck more often than not this year with a common question I ask myself when I finish a film and that is, when all things are considered, why would I ever watch this film again? Hopefully that does not sound too grandiose to you, for I mean it in a very plain way. If we are to believe that the lasting value of a film is in its long-term cultural impact, its replay potential is a huge part of that evaluation. None of the greatest films of all time are films that someone watched once, thought was pretty good, and then never picked up and watched again. For me, 2015 featured a lot of movies that did have this problem. A film would feature fine performances, have a solid script, have a director executing a vision, yet it all added up to a movie that on paper was a triumph yet in person left my heart ultimately unaltered.

So yes, when I looked at the calendar, saw that it was January, and I realized that my vast and adoring readership (read: my mom) would be demanding my unquestionable picks for the Top Ten films of the year, I was taken aback. But rest assured, I have plowed through my own self-created fog of doubt and philosophical musing and come to you today with a list that that will truly stand as the final testament of these cinematic times. But first, as always, let us begin with a startling disclaimer…

Notable Misses

Some things never change and, as it pertains to this column, what this means is that I am still an unpaid film critic who does not have the time or the money to see every single film that was released during the calendar year. My heart openly weeps when great films fall through the cracks and, this year especially, I truly feel like I have missed some good ones:

Black Mass, Room, Youth, Creed, anything foreign

For some of you, my list is already damned and irredeemable. If the Notable Misses did not get you, then perhaps this will…

Honorable Mentions

I am a true believer that a Top Ten list should strictly be ten films. It is in the title after all. If I were to vary my list from year to year to match the number of films that I felt were worth mentioning, then how could a person ever hope to compare a list from one year to that of another. I am here to save you from that mathematical and critical quandary. That being said, I always like to highlight the JV squad to help put the varsity team in a better context:

The Big Short, Joy, The Martian, Sicario, Trainwreck

Alright, now that we have that all taken care of, let us now, for better or worse, move on to…

THE TOP TEN FILMS OF 2015

10. Brooklyn

Emory Cohen and Saoirse Ronan

John Crowley’s cinematic adaptation of the Colm Tóibín novel rests on the shoulders of its leading lady. Saoirse Ronan, in a year that (thankfully) featured a few strong leading roles for women, stands out as an Irish immigrant fresh of the boat in 1950s Brooklyn. The film struggles sometimes with trying to decide whether it is a singular character piece or a love story, but Ronan’s work helps to mostly steady this wobbliness. The supporting cast of Emory Cohen, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, and Domhnall Gleeson is solid in their efforts to give Ronan quality characters to interact with.

9. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Daisy Ridley

How could the biggest film of all time not make this list? As Hugh Jackman sang at the 2009 Oscars, how can a billion dollars be unsophisticated? J.J. Abrams and his team earned their spot here purely because they did not make a travesty of a film. When considering the countless ways this film could have been botched, the fact that most everybody walked out of the theater saying, “It was pretty good” is an achievement. The Force Awakens is far from perfect and it did not innovate as much as it retreaded, but Abrams found a way to tap into the nostalgia and wonder of the original trilogy and produce a film that, despite its flaws, is just pure fun to watch. You are able to escape your head for a moment and just smile when Rey and Finn take off in the Millennium Falcon for the first time. Speaking of those two, Abrams deserves this spot alone for casting two quality performers in Daisey Ridley and John Boyega. If Disney is going to shove Star Wars films down our throats for the foreseeable future, then I am happy it will at least be with these two.

8. Steve Jobs

Michael Fassbender

There may always be a “What Could Have Been…” designation that hangs above this film, seeing as David Fincher was set to direct it but ultimately dropped out and was replaced by Danny Boyle. Yes, one may always wonder if Fincher could have done with Jobs what he had done with Mark Zuckerberg, but what we do know is that Boyle has made a film that is, on its own, quite an achievement. Why? Michael Fassbender. For a third choice (after Leo DiCaprio and Christian Bale), Fassbender makes us all thankful that this role finally fell to him. He eagerly runs with the character and he chews through Sorkin dialogue as if he was a series regular on Sports Night, The West Wing, Studio 60, and The Newsroom. His performance makes the rest of the film possible, providing the energy for the cast to excel in their own respective roles. Speaking of Sorkin, his script proves that films about real figures can be creatively structured while still conveying the essence of that person. No one, most of all Sorkin, is claiming this film as fact. Instead Sorkin, in the short, short span of a couple hours, is attempting to give us a sense of a man. This film is not about what Jobs did but more so about how he did it and the film, using a unique (if not quite real) structure, achieves that.

7. Carol

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara

This film could have been melodrama with an over-the-top socio-political bend. The fact that it is instead a carefully drawn character study featuring two of the best performances of the year makes it as refreshing as it is critically stimulating. Todd Haynes adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel about a woman who develops a relationship with an older woman is measured and quiet. Haynes uses the actions of his performers, not their words, to communicate this story. Never has a film featured more subtle glances and discrete, thoughtful touches between characters. Rooney Mara, the true lead of the film, excels as a woman discovering who she is and Cate Blanchett is excellent as the older, more experienced companion. Edward Lachman’s superb 16MM cinematography captures a New York winter so well that you almost find yourself shivering while you watch.

6. Inside Out

Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith)

Finally, Pixar reminds us why they make some of the absolute smartest and brightest films. After a series of forgettable sequels and non-starters, Pete Docter’s wonderfully creative film about the emotional maturation of a young girl is a true return to form for the studio that brought us some of the best films of the last two decades. Docter and his team have made a film that, while surely for kids in many capacities, seems precisely targeted to adults. As children, we cannot grasp the necessity and value of sadness in our lives. We have to grow up and lose our innocence a little bit to understand that the world does not rest on a happy/sad seesaw. To make a film that so clearly communicates this abstract idea is a daring undertaking and Docter and his team marvelously succeed at it.

5. Spotlight

Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, and Mark Ruffalo

I normally have a testy love/hate relationship when it comes to biopics and “based on true events” films. Sometimes they are made too soon after the subject they are depicting and thereby they cut themselves off from providing any sort of historical context (looking at you, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi). Other times, in an effort to make a subject entertaining, the writers fudge the facts so much that the film does not work even as a pseudo educational tool. For multiple reasons, Tom McCarthy’s film does not fall into these traps. Telling the story of the journalists who uncovered the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church in Boston, McCarthy’s film comes off well researched and focused. It does not fall into soapbox theatrics while at the same time not becoming a stale recitation of facts. Solid performances from the entire ensemble cast help in this effort. Ultimately, the best thing that can be said of McCarthy’s film is that you walk out understanding and feeling, in some small way, the gravity of a subject you may not have known much about before you sat down in the theater.

4. The Hateful Eight

Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson

What this film has going for it is that it is a film that could only have been made by one man. This is so clearly a Quentin Tarantino film that to remove him from the film would be to remove the film itself. This is something that cannot be said for every movie. Just look at how many superhero films have plugged and unplugged directors throughout the course of their productions. Tarantino’s eighth film earns this slot purely because, in this day and age, auteur films are becoming more and more or a rarity. Is this film made, in the way that is was and with the subject matter it tackles, if Tarantino’s name is not above the title? For the film itself, it does not commit to its Agatha Christie inspirations near as much as it should, but the energetic cast and the to-be-expected excellent Tarantino dialogue still make this a fun ride. Plus, Robert Richardson’s work with 70MM film is worth the ticket price alone.

3. The Revenant

Leonardo DiCaprio

Back for more, Alejandro? A year after his Birdman won Best Picture and, more importantly, took #2 on my 2014 Top Ten list, Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu follows up that triumphant film with an almost equally impressive effort. Shot in the bitter winter, the film follows frontiersman Hugh Glass as he struggles to survive a vicious bear attack and seek vengeance against a man who wronged him. This could finally be the role that wins Leo an Oscar and rightfully so. His performance, frequently limited to only grunts, wheezes, and cries of pain, is brutally captivating. He is this movie and he eagerly carries this burden the way only a few A-List movie stars can do these days. It would be a sin to not mention Tom Hardy’s mesmerizing performance as Fitzgerald, the villain Glass is after. Hardy, speaking with a muffled country accent, gives three dimensions to a character that could easily have been a lot less. And, of course, Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is on point. Supposedly using only natural and practical light, the renowned DP could be accused of just showing off by this point. The film is gorgeous to behold as it takes full advantage of its beautiful wilderness setting.

2. Ex Machina

Alicia Vikander

Last year two of the best films of the year were the first feature-length works by their directors. Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash and Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler were excellent debuts from filmmakers performing at a level well beyond their years. In 2015, we were introduced to another filmmaker with an equally impressive rookie effort. Alex Garland’s mind-bending thriller about a man brought in to test the world’s first artificially intelligent robot is hypnotizing and engaging, all at the same time. Alicia Vikander had a breakout year and this is by far her best performance. As Ava, Vikander slowly and precisely peels back the layers of a character whose intentions are never always clear. Oscar Isaac, also having a great year, is magnetic as the forcefully driven and equally mysterious inventor. And Domhnall Gleeson is wonderful as the clueless man caught in the middle. As the other half of a double feature, Garland’s film would make an interesting pairing with Spike Jonze’s Her. The only thing that really connects the two films is the fact that they feature two female characters who just so happen to be artificial, but I left the theater for Garland’s film and I could not speak about it without referencing Jonze’s. Ava and Samantha might be two of the best-written characters since the new millennium and sitting down to debate the differences and similarities between the two proved to be some of the most rewarding conversations I had in 2015.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

Charlize Theron

I wrote that George Miller’s film was the best film of the summer, but even I was surprised at how it ultimately proved to be the best film of the entire year. The same auteur principle that I applied to The Hateful Eight is applied here. Miller, at 70 years old, returned to the franchise that launched his career and made an action movie in a way that only the man who gave us The Road Warrior could. This film is pure vision. You could not simply show up on set, direct some cool car crashes, blow up some stuff and hope to walk away with anything resembling a fraction of the creativity that shows up in this film. Miller, in conjunction with DP John Seale and Production Designer Colin Gibson, has created a world that feels like it has no borders. It has a history and a culture. The performances reflect this deep attention to detail. These are characters that have lived long lives well before our story kicks off. These are characters that seem totally unaware that they are in an action movie. Charlize Theron leads this cast and she nails it as the unstoppable badass looking to return to her home and save some women from a life of abuse. She is driven but that cold drive turns to a deeper emotional desperation as the film rolls on. She needs this and Theron, in the midst of a thousand car crashes and shootouts, constantly conveys this. All Tom Hardy needs to do is sit back and stay out of her way, which he does. The story is beautifully simplistic, which falls in line with the structures of the other films in this franchise. The literal plots can be summed up in two or three sentences, but it is the little details that, when stacked up, gives these films life. Miller’s latest can be described as a sensory experience but it is also an example in how the best stories do not have to be the biggest stories. Sometimes a simple tale of survival, of someone helping out a person in need can ring truer than the grandest of dramas. Out there, on the Fury Road, we re-learned these grade-school virtues. We also saw a lot of car crashes. Like, a lot. It was kind of awesome.