CHICAGO – One of the most daunting and pleasurable pursuits of the film critic’s end of the year is the ubiquitous Top Ten list. Daunting because if there are enough great films, parsing it to ten is a fool’s errand. Pleasurable because it’s a reminder of the life benefits that the analytic pursuit of the cinema can bring. It’s kind of like a puzzle, that comes together with internal debate and argumentative gymnastics – and all comes down to one critic’s opinion, no greater or lesser than other film buff out there.
Piggybacking on Film Autonomy colleague Mike Muniz’s awesome list, I offer my own attempt at bringing 2015 to a best-of conclusion. My honorable mentions are below, categorized by genre type…
The Farewell Party
Testament of Youth
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
10. Max Max: Fury Road (d: George Miller)
What was most impressive about this re-imaging of the first films – which began in 1979 – was that the original director (George Miller) took it on again, and created a whole new art and adventure for his latest Mad Max (Tom Hardy). It was a high octane journey through hell, as a post-apocalyptic world is reduced to endless roads to nowhere. But along the way there is an homage to fertility, rock-n-roll, intense machines, brilliant action and a feminist theme that evolves into humanism. The stand out production and cast, which includes Hardy, Charlize Theron and the underrated Nicholas Hoult, are up to making an overall impression, in a lasting and significant way. Roll up for the mystery trip. Stephanie Huettner’s review: https://filmautonomy.com/mad-max-fury-road-2015/
HIGHLIGHT: The atmosphere of the production design, headed by Colin Gibson.
9. Chi-Raq (d: Spike Lee)
Part of the beauty of this film was its marketing – the way the old scalawag, writer/director Spike Lee, generated buzz just from the title, and then pulled the rug out regarding what the film was actually about. There was one train of thought about what it would be when it was being filmed in Chicago, another train once the trailer came out, and then yet another experience with the actual film. In stitching together Chi-Raq, the mother Spiker produced a greatest hits package from his previous films – including She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing and even School Daze. – to create a combination of “Dr. Strangelove” satire and a necessary plea for sanity. It really didn’t even need Samuel L. Jackson, but he’s always welcome. No peace? No piece. Austin Sanders review: https://filmautonomy.com/chi-raq-2015/
HIGHLIGHT: Teyonah Parris as Lysistrata, who projected a perfect nature as the leader of the film’s sex strike for peace.
8. Entertainment (d. Rick Alverson)
The cinematic equivalent of a fun house mirror, Entertainment creates its energy through a certain truth about human nature and comedy. Gregg Turkington, also known as his comic persona Neil Hamburger, portrays “The Comedian,” a sad sack victim of his own war against normalcy in doing stand up. He spends the film traveling from dusty town to dusty town in the American southwest, hoping eventually to get “home” to his daughter. Along the way he meets his friends and enemies, including a wicked turn by John C. Reilly. I found the film to be actually poignant regarding our current culture, and the collaboration of director Rick Alverson, Gregg Turkington and producer Tim Heidecker is pitch perfect.
HIGHLIGHT: The jokes and routines of The Comedian.
7. The Big Short (d. Adam McKay)
There are decent creators in Hollywood, and often they are hidden behind the type of films they start out with, and their successes with them. But in this case, co-writer/director Adam McKay (Anchorman) has used his cachet to produce The Big Short, which is a spot-on breakdown of the events that led to the housing crash of 2007-08, and the people who knew it was coming. The film is crackling with wit, sorrow, inventive use of filmmaking and telling performances from the all-star cast of Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell – and it used scenes with Margot Robbie in a bathtub to explain how the robber barons rob us. Ultimately, it might make you angry, but hell, we know it’s going to happen again, and at least Adam McKay has made us laugh at the devil.
HIGHLIGHT: Steve Carell never flagged in his weird and tic-filled performance as Mark Baum.
6. Youth (d. Paolo Sorrentino)
I loved, loved, loved the consequence of the message in this film, probably because I’m at a certain status in my own youth. Old pros Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel and Jane Fonda teamed up with Paul Dano, Rachel Weisz and Madalina Ghenea (as the true Miss Universe) to escalate the vision and truth of Paolo Sorrentino (This Must Be the Place). The film is both meditative and philosophical, but doesn’t pander to any easy solutions. Its setting of a luxury hotel had a metaphor-of-purgatory sense, and when it finally moves from that setting, the outside world becomes almost a fantasy. The ending is so luxurious it spins on multiple levels, and Michael Caine intently conducts the whole enchilada.
HIGHLIGHT: I shall never gaze upon another Miss Universe past the representation of Ms. Ghenea in this film.
5. 45 Years (d. Andrew Haigh)
Each of the lead actors in 45 Years have been performing for that long, and longer. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay portray a couple on the cusp of their 45th anniversary, when a revealed secret – previously buried – unravels their careful celebration. These are two ultra-actor players who make precisely the right decisions in bringing the delicate situation to life. The film was adapted from a short story and directed by Andrew Haigh, who paces the narrative with an eye toward maximum emotion and empathy. It is also a lesson in honesty within coupling, that the cover-up of a secret can be more damaging than the secret itself. This is a classic character-based film.
HIGHLIGHT: Charlotte Rampling makes a gesture towards the end that is achingly heart breaking.
4. Carol (d. Todd Haynes)
This is less melodramatic than the previous 1950s incarnation from director Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven), but it was no less sumptuous. The film is an adaptation of a notorious 1950s novel (Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt), and involves two women, the titular Carol (Cate Blanchett) and shopgirl Therese (Rooney Mara). They become intertwined in a lesbian affair, but the story is much more than that, because the deep emotional well of Carol influences the actions and reactions of all her other fellow travelers, including her estranged husband Harge (portrayed with in-depth feeling by Kyle Chandler). The centerpiece of this wondrous human study is the radiant Cate Blanchett, who is definitely at the peak of her marvelous powers as an actor. I couldn’t take my eyes off this film or her, and I never wanted to. My humble review: https://filmautonomy.com/carol-2015/
HIGHLIGHT: The final tracking shot as Carol looks up.
3. Ex Machina (d. Alex Garland)
What will happen when our soulless technology somehow gains a soul? This has been explored many times in science fiction, both literarily and cinematically, but rarely has it been given the type of food-for-thought as in Ex Machina. The story pits a coder nerd ( Domhnall Gleeson) with a megalomaniacal Steve Jobs-like inventor (Oscar Isaac) in a game of seduction, using sentient female robots. It may be set in the future on the edge of an evolution, when machines will gain the knowledge of their own being. Writer/director Alex Garland thoughtfully and profoundly tackles the weight of the issue, and makes a case for human blundering when it comes to the potential Frankenstein monsters they create. Alicia Vikander, who has shaped characters in The Danish Girl and Testament of Youth in this film year, scores huge as the robot Ava, who seeks the understanding. Austin Sanders’ review: https://filmautonomy.com/ex-machina-2015/
HIGHLIGHT: Ava’s wonder of the outside world, and her place in it.
2. Love & Mercy (d. Bill Pohlad)
Trying to isolate what makes an artist tick can be as elusive as grabbing sunshine. Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys was as elusive as they come, and suffered from a mental condition that both fueled and destroyed his creativity. This circumstance is intensely brought to light in the momentous biography film Love & Mercy. Wilson is portrayed in two phases of his life – during the creation of The Beach Boy masterpiece album Pet Sounds (portrayed by Paul Dano) and later in life, while struggling with a psychologist caregiver and his misdiagnosis (crucially brought to bear by John Cusack). Both performances of Brian are far-reaching and brilliant, and created a merciful perception of the pop star’s trials. Done with the cooperation of Wilson, it explored vistas that other music biographies refuse to contemplate, and it may actually help others deal with their struggles as well. My conversation with Brian Wilson: https://filmautonomy.com/love-and-mercy-2015/
HIGHLIGHT: “Wouldn’t it Be Nice”
1. Room (d. Lenny Abrahamson)
The subtlety of Room lies not in its sensational aspects – a woman is captured and kept inside a closet-like shed for seven years, while raising a son fathered by her captor – but in the mechanics of life in and out of the confinement. Brie Larson has a breakthrough performance as the woman, and Jacob Tremblay is virtually truthful as the child – the guidance from director Lenny Abrahamson must have struck a target in Tremblay’s young psyche. But the true strength of the film lies within its symbolism about life in general, how we’re all confined to a series of “rooms” in our own circumstance. The real world is unreal, and truth of life is all relative to its experience. There is never anything expected in this film, especially in the post-room world. We think we will be free if we can just get to the next room, and then the next, and the next… Mike Muniz’s review: https://filmautonomy.com/room-2015/
HIGHLIGHT: The TV interview on a perky, “Dateline NBC”-type show, and how phony it all is.
A variation on this article appeared on HollywoodChicago.com