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”

Trailers of the Week: Lighthearted Until It’s Not

Begin Again

It’s been seven years since John Carney’s “Once” started its improbable run as one of the most beloved art-house hits of the decade – it collected the audience award at Sundance, made over $20 million at the box office on a pittance of a budget, won the Best Original Song award at the Oscars, and was recently turned into a highly successful Broadway musical. And during that whole run, Carney just went back to making quiet Irish indie films that never really made it out of the small-tier festival circuit. But now he’s returned to the subject of making music that he captured so well in “Once,” and it’s certainly attracted a much starrier ensemble this time around. “Begin Again” earned positive reviews at last year’s Toronto festival, where it played under the much-dripper title of “Can A Song Save Your Life?” (good call changing that, marketing folks). I wouldn’t have guessed that Keira Knightley would have any particular musical talent, but I can’t even think of the last time she played, say, a normal, contemporary person in a non-blockbuster/genre film (“Bend It Like Beckham,” maybe?). I’ll support that. Ruffalo’s obviously in his wheelhouse playing the incorrigibly charming ruffian, and there are some quality supporting players hanging around in Hailee Steinfeld, Catherine Keener, James Corden and Mos Def (OK, not so sure about Adam Levine).

Boyhood

I’m all in on Richard Linklater at the moment. I love what he did (is doing?) with the “Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight” trilogy. He’s bouncing between interesting indies and passion projects in between. And little did we know that for the past twelve years he was working on this ambitious project. Just about the only fiction-film equivalent to “Boyhood” would be François Truffaut’s Antoine Donel films, and those weren’t nearly as methodical, nor as condensed, as Linklater’s attempt to capture the development of a boy from 6 to 18 in the course of a single film. The film won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin festival and got nothing but raves out of Sundance – the utter singularity of this film ensures that we’re going to be talking about it all year, and, I have a sneaking suspicion, on the awards circuit.

Jersey Boys

Here we have a more obvious prestige contender. While “Once” went from screen to stage, this jukebox musical is going the other way, guided by the somewhat unexpected hands of none other than Clint Eastwood; though I suppose you might have guessed that, as Eastwood has brought his trademark washed-out color scheme to yet another period piece. I’m not really sure why he continues to insist the past has to look like the past, but oh well. Eastwood seems to have kept the stage version’s fourth-wall-breaking/Rashomon structure, and lead John Lloyd Young is reprising the role of Frankie Valli that he played on Broadway. Seems pretty much guaranteed to win over those who are already fans of the musical (or The Four Seasons in general), but can it draw in a wider audience?

Obvious Child

Jenny Slate didn’t have the most successful run on Saturday Night Live, but she’s been proving herself as a hilarious and talented comedienne in supporting TV roles in Parks & Recreation, House of Lies, Kroll Show, Bob’s Burgers and Hello Ladies. “Obvious Child” could be a breakout for her, as it seems like the whole thing is tailored to her particular abilities – so much so I was surprised to find she didn’t write it herself. Should make for some nice summer counter-programming.

The Immigrant

The latest from modern melodramatist James Gray (“Two Lovers,” “We Own the Night”), “The Immigrant” got good reviews last year at Cannes but didn’t really burn the house down; but perhaps that’s to be expected from a film that sure looks to be all about craft and restraint. The film’s shimmering, glowing aesthetic is certainly striking, and the central trio is intriguing: Phoenix’s career has been revitalized on the back of “The Master” and “Her,” Jeremy Renner is proving himself again in prestige/auteur pieces after being ill-served by mainstream Hollywood in the “Mission: Impossible” and Marvel franchises, and Marion Cotillard is always ravishing in a period piece. Gray has a small but loyal band of defenders, and this could be the kind of baity piece that earns him some more appreciation.

Foxcatcher

Just to make sure that you don’t leave here too happy, here’s a moody and disquieting teaser for Bennett Miller’s delayed psychological thriller/drama, based on the true story of athletic sponsor John du Pont and his relationship with Olympic wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz. Sony Pictures Classics pushed “Foxcatcher,” originally set to debut last fall, to 2014, not because of any issue with the film itself, but because the 2013 slate was just getting too crowded. Considering the dogfight of an awards race we went through, that was probably a smart move. Miller’s another intriguing filmmaker – “Capote” and “Moneyball” were very different, equally quality works, and “Foxcatcher” sure looks to continue his amorphous, flexible mastery of tone and style. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about Steve Carell’s clearly attention-grabbing transformation into the schizophrenic du Pont, but his off-putting, mannered delivery could very well be the crux of the role – I’ll certainly reserve judgment until we get a better look.