Top 10 of 2015

All right, the Oscars are long over and done with, so it’s time to finally put a cap in the year in film that was 2015. I ran down the 9th Annual EMOs a while back, but after having the chance to spend a couple of months catching up with titles that I missed over the course of the year, I can put out my Top 10 of 2015 and be done with it.

And honestly that sort of feels like a relief. 2015 was a varied and intriguing year – a year where genre contenders (“Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Creed”) went toe-to-toe with the prestige stuff, not just in critics’ lists, but on the red carpets of the awards circuit. A year where some of my favorite international auteurs fell short but new ones arrived with a thunderclap. It was also a year where it felt like some dents were finally made in the Iron Curtain that keeps women’s stories out of Hollywood; hopefully that will be the start of a trend and not an anomaly looked back at in melancholy.

But overall it felt like a year of solid craftsmanship and earnest filmmaking with few offerings reaching for the stars – and even fewer actually making it there. Any regular readers out there will hopefully know that I’m a fierce advocate for positivity in criticism – and indeed, there were many films this year that I would like to applaud, for one reason or another. But outside a few top candidates, I can’t say that my passion really ignited for this top 10 list. Ah well. We’ll always have 2007.

Without further ado then, my personal top 10 films of 2015:

10. The End of the Tour

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James Ponsoldt’s indie flick about the long-form interview performed by Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) with David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) during Wallace’s book tour for Infinite Jest surprised with how unconcerned it was with the famed writer’s brilliance (or pretentiousness, depending on whom you’re asking). Ponsoldt’s film, adapted from Lipsky’s article by playwright Donald Marguiles, is almost wall-to-wall conversation, but the specifics of what Wallace and Lipsky are saying – ramblings about crap television, dogs, women, drug use, or supposedly “deeper” considerations of Wallace’s sudden fame and the nature of genius – are so much less important than what is not being said. Lipsky and Wallace have an instant congeniality, even chemistry (Segel and Eisenberg sell the heck out of the awkwardness of straight men who quickly take a liking to each other but don’t know what to do about it), yet deeper strains of envy and insecurity continually bubble to the surface and interrupt the friendship. The movie’s last moments hammer home the true sadness of not just Wallace’s premature death, but that of any suicide – not that the world lost a talent, but that these two people lost a chance at connection. A touching addition to Ponsoldt’s growing, melancholic collection of addicts and loners (see “Smashed,” “The Spectacular Now”).

9. Room

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What a curious movie. A potentially sensational subject matter handled with almost aggressively good taste. A blend of stark realism and stirring expression bordering on the manipulative. Two fine leads asked to walk a very fine line between subjectivity and authenticity. To be honest I am still not entirely sure what I think of Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room,” and very much desire to revisit it – but I’m certainly still mulling it over, and the ambition of Abrahamson and writer Emma Donoghue’s vision has an enviable panache.

8. Brooklyn

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A charming immigrant tale, steering clear of melodrama in favor of the engagement and empathy of a very real, grounded young woman simply trying to move forward in life. Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson are both wonderful as two equally intriguing romantic options for Eilis (Saoirse Ronan, in the best performance of her budding career), their divergent futures offered as possibilities, not inevitabilities. Rarely does a coming-of-age tale have the subtlety and agency that director John Crowley and writer Nick Hornby hand over to Ronan. The stunning, warm cinematography by Yves Bélanger and evocative, folksy score by Michael Brook play into the film’s strong sense of emotion without getting calculated about it.

7. Mad Max: Fury Road

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George Miller’s decades-in-the-making passion project was the cinephilic surprise of the year, a thunderous return to action filmmaking that signaled Miller’s innovation didn’t run out with “The Road Warrior.” A film-long set piece bursting with indelible design and imagery, “Fury Road” was an adrenaline-soaked reminder that most Hollywood blockbusters (even the entertaining ones) are sleepwalking their way through the motions. Simple but strong politics and Charlize Theron’s instantly iconic turn as one-armed badass Imperator Furiosa were also a gracious antidote to the prevailing action-hero trends of spandexed, tortured machismo. If there’s any problem with the movie, it’s that it may have validated the studios’ instinct to revive old properties over creating something new – if only all those reboots and revivals had a tenth of the energy behind “Fury Road.”

6. Spotlight

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“We’re going to tell this story. We’re going to tell it right.”

Tom McCarthy’s paean to investigative journalism is a reflective testament to the power of a well-told story: narratives don’t just entertain or inspire, they can tackle institutions, cause very real consequences. “Spotlight” lacks the paranoid, chilling atmosphere of “All the President’s Men,” its obvious cinematic reference point, but in some ways that makes the story ring all the more true. Corruption and crime doesn’t always happen in shadowy parking lots or shifty hotels; sometimes it plays out under harsh fluorescent lighting, in the false congeniality of men in drab khakis and ill-fitting suits. Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy’s crackling script is in total sync with a terrific ensemble of journeyman actors (McAdams and Ruffalo deservingly got the Oscar nods, but Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schrieber, Billy Crudup, John Slattery and others are all equally on-point). Everyone involved in the making of this film was on the same page – the story’s the thing.

5. Carol

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“Carol” opens with an enigmatic closeup, an interweaving pattern of…what? Wallpaper? A fence? A carpet? Carter Burwell’s wonderfully woozy score swells and we finally pull back to see a subway grate, trampled underfoot as a dozen people walk by obliviously, until Todd Haynes actually gets interested in a character and we follow him into one of the more romantic films of recent years. The deception and beauty of things right in front of our eyes has always been an undercurrent of Haynes’ work, and in “Carol” he brings it to the fore to tell a story of repressed love with restraint and delicacy. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara have a striking, otherworldly chemistry, relatable yet alien – but isn’t that always how it is when you look at a couple that you’re not a part of? Their attraction is a secret known only to them, and Haynes exploits that feeling to effective measure.

4. 45 Years

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Domestic drama with just the slightest touch of gothic horror, Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years” is more than a showcase for one of the more remarkable leading performances in recent memory (though that would be enough). Charlotte Rampling is superb as Kate Mercer, a retired schoolteacher who finds her marriage, and indeed her whole life, unexpectedly fractured – yet Haigh’s direction is equal to Rampling’s boundless expression. A gesture, a small piece of sound design, a careful framing – these are all it takes for “45 Years” to convey a whole history of a couple. As Kate and her husband Geoff learn when a decades-old choice snowballs into an unraveling of forty-five years of content, it’s the little things that’ll get you.

3. Hard to Be a God

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Aleksei German’s last film may very well also be his masterpiece, a blistering, bilious stew of a movie filled with feverish imagery that feels like a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life. Cross Tarkovsky’s philosophy with Pasolini’s obsession with the dirty, disgusting physicality of humanity, and you’re in the ballpark of German’s deep dive into sci-fi feudalism and fascism (the film comes from a novel by Arkady ad Boris Strugatsky, who also provided the source material for Tarkovsky’s “Stalker”). At 3 hours long, it must be said that “Hard to Be a God” veers close to overstaying its welcome – but German’s planet of medieval horrors is so stunningly and convincingly realized that it’s difficult to say what should be cut. As an Earthling scientist sent to study another planet’s cultural renaissance (which never arrives), Leonid Yarmolnik is fantastic as both tour guide and native, an intelligent man gradually losing himself in the baseness of a primal society. Not an easy sit, but an unforgettable one.

2. Taxi

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For Jafar Panahi, just turning on a camera is an act of protest. The Iranian director has been arrested and jailed for his filmmaking and its (gentle, humanist) criticism of religious repression and censorship, yet he keeps working, steeled by the absolute right of expression. His latest work, a mix of improvisation, casual conversation and quiet observation, is all the more bold for how unhurried and relaxed it is. Politics doesn’t have to be about righteous anger or fierce speeches – sometimes it’s just about watching, and listening.

1. Son of Saul

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My opinion of László Nemes’ debut feature probably came through pretty clearly in my review for The New Republic, but let’s put it on the record: “Son of Saul” is a landmark piece of film that I firmly believe we’ll be discussing for years to come.  It’s one of the most astonishingly confident first films I’ve ever seen, absolutely assured in its technique and fully prepared to debate with those who will (not unfairly) challenge its complex morality and obsession with depicting the unspeakable. For the record, I’m not even quite in step with Nemes on his interpretation of his own work – there is, I would agree with some commenters, a dangerous grotesquerie present in beatifying the character Saul, or presenting the film’s vivid experience as presenting any sort of “reality”, both of which are things Nemes has gone dangerously close to in his interviews. But this is the kind of film that takes on a life beyond its maker’s intentions: there are so many layers to pull back, particularly in Géza Röhrig’s astonishing lead performance. In so many of Röhrig’s tight closeups, as Saul wanders through Auschwitz on his desperate and foolhardy quest to properly bury a young boy, one wonders, what is he thinking? It’s something we (or at least I) will be pondering for a while, perhaps in nightmares.

Ten more, unranked: “Amour Fou”, “Creed”, “Ex Machina”, “Inside Out”, “Mistress America”, “Results”, “Shaun the Sheep Movie”, “Sicario”, “Tangerine”, “The Tribe”

For Your Consideration: Feb. 6, 2015

Yesterday, Amy Pascal announced that she will be stepping down as co-chair of Sony Pictures when her contract expires next month. It’s not a particularly surprising announcement – after the notorious November e-mail hack aired her private, often unflattering feelings towards David Fincher, Angelina Jolie and any number of other key collaborators (not to mention jokes about our President that were at best ill-advised and at worst ignorant), Pascal’s time as a studio head was doomed, and Sony’s subsequent back-and-forth bungling of the release of “The Interview” was just icing on the cake. Why neither co-chair Michael Lynton, nor producer Scott Rudin, (the recipient and main participant in Pascal’s most cringeworthy email exchanges) seem to be getting quite the same grilling from the industry, well, I suppose that’s something to investigate another day.

In any case, Pascal is moving on to run her own production company, which might not be a bad thing. Since she started working for Columbia Pictures (now a Sony subsidiary) in 1988, Pascal’s shown an interesting knack for shepherding both successful prestige flicks and blockbuster fare (give or take an Amazing Spider-Man). This week, here’s three films that Pascal helped develop.

– Ethan

“A League of Their Own” (1992)

Cast: Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Tom Hanks, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, Megan Cavanagh, Tracy Rainer, Bitty Schram, Ann Cusack, Anne Ramsay, David Strathairn, Bill Pullman, Jon Lovitz, Tea Leoni

Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant, Vudu, or iTunes, on disc from Netflix

That rare kind of film that manages to be just as charming and fun as it is enlightening. Penny Marshall’s “A League of Their Own” took a quickly-forgotten slice of American history, the All American-Girls Professional Softball League formed in the middle of WWII, and brought it to breezy, comical – and in the case of Tom Hanks’ Jimmy “There’s No Crying In Baseball” Dugan, iconic – life. Maybe now that she’s got some free time Amy Pascal can reunite with her former lead and get involved in Geena Davis’ female-filmmaker focused festival later this year.

– Ethan

“Casino Royale” (2006)

Cast: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench, Giancarlo Giannini, Jeffrey Wright, Caterina Murino, Isaach de Bankolé, Tobias Menzies, Jesper Christensen

Available to purchase on Amazon Instant, Vudu and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

James Bond might be the most durable franchise in film history, but 2002’s “Die Another Day” sure did its darnedest to test that theory. As the series has managed to do in years past (“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” on the heels of “You Only Live Twice,” “GoldenEye” following “License to Kill”), the Bond production team – an always-complicated mess of developers at Eon Productions, MGM, the Broccoli family, and lately Sony – turned a complete 180, reinvigorating the franchise with a new actor, a new tone, and a hearty helping of theft from the latest action-movie trends. In this case, the dodgy CGI and horrifically absurd plotting of “Die Another Day” were replaced with the grit and brutal action of Jason Bourne and “Batman Begins” – which, led by the smirking, petulant Daniel Craig, ended up getting closer to the suave-but-troubled killing machine of Ian Fleming’s imagination than any previous attempt. The extended Texas Hold ‘Em tournament reeks of excessive mid-2000s fad-chasing, but otherwise “Casino Royale” is as thoroughly entertaining an action film as you could ask for.

– Ethan

“The Social Network” (2010)

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Rooney Mara, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Max Minghella, Joseph Mazzello, Rashida Jones, Josh Pence

Available to rent or purchase on Amazon Instant, Vudu and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Perhaps Sony should’ve taken a hint about cyber-security from Mark Zuckerberg’s antics in the opening sequence of David Fincher’s still-brilliant, moody and incisive critique of the pursuit of power in the digital age. “Citizen Kane” it’s not, but it also kind of is – certainly not so formally ground-breaking (although Fincher’s regular cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth is on great form here), “The Social Network” is still just as concerned with the alienating and paradoxical sacrifice of personal relationships in the name of wealth and influence as Orson Welles once was. The tools have changed, but the self-corrupting urges at the heart of our society stay the same. Eisenberg is cast perfectly as Aaron Sorkin’s desperately needy and abrasive take on the Facebook founder, while Andrew Garfield broke out as the in-over-his-head, not-so-innocent Eduardo Saverin; but surprisingly it’s Timberlake who threatens to steal the show as Sean Parker, playboy entrepreneur and modern Mephistopheles.

– Ethan

For Your Consideration: Aug. 29, 2014

Is there something strange in your neighborhood? Is it something weird and don’t look good? Who you gonna call?

Probably your landlord. Maybe the police? But as you do so, there’s a certain song that will most certainly be running through your head. Yes, it’s been 30 years since the release of Ivan Reitman’s classic comedy “Ghostbusters,” and Ray Parker, Jr. still ain’t afraid of no ghost. To celebrate this auspicious anniversary (and, I would presume, as a bit of a tribute to co-star and co-writer Harold Ramis, who passed in February), “Ghostbusters” is being re-released this weekend into select theaters nationwide. So head out to the theater, but if you really want to make a day of it, here’s some suggestions for further paranormal hijinks – some even featuring guest appearances by the Ghostbusters themselves.

– Ethan

“Casper” (1995)

Cast: Christina Ricci, Bill Pullman, Malachi Pearson, Cathy Moriarty, Eric Idle, Joe Nipote, Joe Alaskey, Brad Garrett, Amy Brennemann

Available to purchase on iTunes, on disc from Netflix

There was a time, not so very long ago, when comic book heroes didn’t wear spandex or fight off invading aliens from outer space. Instead, they haunted old mansions, struck up friendships with other children, and sought the route to the afterlife. Not Spiderman or Thor, but Casper, the friendly ghost-child who lives in the deserted Whipstaff Manor with his three obnoxious uncles. In an attempt to save the manor from demolition, Casper tricks a paranormal therapist (Bill Pullman) and his daughter Kat (a young Christina Ricci) into moving to the manor. High jinks ensue. The relationship between Casper and Kat (a young Christina Ricci) is touching, the gags are wonderful even if the CGI is 20 years old, and the three uncles come straight out of vaudeville. Plus, it even features a cameo from Dan Aykroyd—as a ghostbuster!

– Elaine

“Bubba Ho-Tep” (2002)

Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Ella Joyce, Heidi Marnhout, Bob Ivy

Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant, on disc from Netflix

It’s hard to get past the log-line summary for “Bubba Ho-Tep,” this altogether bizarre indie black comedy from cult director Don Coscarelli: “Elvis and JFK, both alive and in nursing homes, fight for the souls of their fellow residents as they battle an ancient Egyptian Mummy.” That’s not even getting into the fact that Elvis is played, with superb faded-star glory, by Bruce Campbell, or that JFK apparently survived the assassination, only to be “dyed black” and abandoned. A bizarrely clever take on aging and the transience of fame, wrapped up inside an occasionally bloody supernatural shoot-out between the cursed mummy Bubba Ho-Tep and these possibly-resurrected, possibly-just-plain-crazy human heroes.

– Ethan

“Zombieland” (2009)

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson, Abigail Breslin

Available to purchase on Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

A surprisingly tight-knit character-based comedy – besides a prominent (and delightful) cameo from a “Ghostbusters” favorite, the four main actors have essentially the only speaking roles in the film – “Zombieland” gets by on some mediocre zombie action and predictable characterization thanks to the terrific, and hilarious, performances. Harrelson in particular stands out as the gruff good-old-boy Tallahassee, paired against his will with nebbishy apocalypse-survivor Columbus (Eisenberg). Emma Stone (just on the edge of being Emma Stone) also brings a lot of lovable sass to con artist Wichita – you would think she could do better than Columbus, although I suppose in zombie-ridden dregs of civilization you can’t be too choosy.

– Ethan