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”

Reviews: “A Most Wanted Man” and “Frank”

A Most Wanted Man

There were few actors who knew how to work an obscenity quite like Philip Seymour Hoffman. Whether he was going for pathos or fury, there was always something so desperately genuine about it when he swore. There was a line being crossed.

There’s a moment at the end of “A Most Wanted Man,” the last leading performance we’ll get from one of the greatest screen actors ever, where Hoffman gets to loose one more of his earth-shattering oaths. The scene is one of the neatest summaries of the work of John Le Carré yet put forward: a single, principled man, outflanked by an intangible, unfeeling system, exploding into a vacuum. Those with power can’t hear him, and those that can hear him are powerless. In Le Carré’s grimy world of spycraft and deception, it doesn’t do to invest in idealism.

Currency in this world is measured by information, and Hoffman’s Günther Bachmann seems a relatively rich man. As the head of an off-the-books German intelligence unit, tasked with combating terrorist operations in Hamburg (the unassuming urban locale where the 9/11 attacks were planned), Bachmann appears to have reached a level of relative success through a complex web of bait-and-switch contacts, allowing some low-level targets to roam free in order to get closer to the big fish. His tactics, however, draw the attention and ire of more blunt, results-oriented colleagues, including, perhaps, the CIA (represented here by a slippery Robin Wright, in fine “House of Cards” form).

So, when a young Chechen (Grigoriy Dobrygin) with potential ties to a radical Muslim cell arrives in Hamburg, Bachmann is given only a limited amount of time to execute his plan: first to find the man (spirited into hiding by a sympathetic pro bono immigration lawyer, played with Teutonic strain by Canadian Rachel McAdams), and then unwittingly turn him into a pawn against a charitable doctor fronting for funders of terrorism. As with many of Le Carré’s stories (“A Most Wanted Man” is adapted by Andrew Bovell from Le Carré’s 2008 novel of the same name), much of the fascination of this film lies in seeing how the sausage gets made: the intricacies of modern intelligence work, with hidden cameras, drop-offs and meetings in abandoned parking lots are carefully laid out, even as the dreadful sense of fatalism hanging over everyone’s heads suggests more than a little futility to the whole enterprise.

Much of that feeling comes from the queasy lighting and dank shadows of director Anton Corbijn’s visuals. The photographer-turned-filmmaker showed a precise command of style and tone in his first two features, the Ian Curtis biopic “Control” and the very Le-Carré-ish “The American,” and his penchant for unsettlingly perfect composition is a good match for the machinations of counter-terrorism. The hyper-competent cast (Willem Dafoe, Nina Hoss, Daniel Brühl and Homayoun Ershadi also drop by) play their parts as glorified automatons in this clockwork affair, but only Hoffman really breaks through expected narrative beats, signifying a great nothing with sound and fury.

Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars

Frank

Charisma, quite like musical talent, can’t quite be explained. Logically, it makes no sense that Michael Fassbender should be spellbinding even with his entire face covered by a giant papier-mâché head, just as his character’s creative abilities defy much of the traditional motivations that lie behind most examinations of “great artists.” But, “Frank” suggests with black wit and unexpected tenderness, it’s not really for us to explain; inspiration strikes where and when it will, and chasing can be both the source and solace of madness.

Jon Burroughs (Domnhall Gleeson, son of Brendan, previously seen in a brief role opposite his father in “Calvary” and as an endearing Levin in Joe Wright’s up-and-down “Anna Karenina”) plays the Salieri to Frank’s Mozart in Lenny Abrahamson’s caustic comedy, an aspiring musician thrown by chance into the chaos of the off-kilter, experimental, unpronounceable rock band The Soronprfbs. Jon’s utter lack of talent is made clear in a hysterically funny opening sequence, and much of the film’s tension comes from his character’s gradual, grudging arrival at the same self-evaluation. Piggybacking off the obscure but undeniable ability of The Soronprfbs’ enigmatic leading man, Jon slowly morphs from remora to leech, pushing the band to take a big gig at Texas’ SXSW music festival.

What could be a traditional “band hits the big time” narrative is complicated by the emerging truth that Frank is not merely a charming, zany eccentric, but genuinely mentally ill. For much of the film, Jon seems unable to process this, folding Frank’s sickness into his mythology, just a piece of the boilerplate “trauma” from which all true creativity surely flows. That pits Jon against Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Frank’s aloof, stone-faced bandmate, who tries to protect Frank from the public scrutiny she knows will ultimately hurt him. It’s wonderful for art to be shared and embraced, but for the person with the talent, embracing themselves should be the first and foremost priority.

Abrahamson skirts some heavy topics, but with a fresh, funny touch and vigorous pace that keeps “Frank” from ever seeming to revel in its’ characters pain or selfishness. They just sit there, alongside the laughs and lunacy, part of the total package. The unique physical challenge of Frank makes Fassbender’s performance stand out, but Gyllenhaal and Gleeson are also excellent, sparking off each other in Frank’s shadow. It’s also worth mentioning Scoot McNairy as the band’s cagey manager, Don; it’s a curious little role that could have been a throwaway, but McNairy lends him a tragic weight as an eerie, resonant foil to Frank.

The music itself, meanwhile, is as it should be: alternately odd, transcendent, or some combination of the two. The film’s final track hits a sad but optimistic conclusion, leaving the impression that the best art isn’t trying to be intentionally likable, or deep, or unique; it’s just allowed to be what it is.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars