Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Best Movies of 2015

I of course could not see every film released in 2015.  I saw as many ones that I thought would be good as I can, and I have no problem updating this list if I see another one released in 2015 that I feel should belong.  But as of this date here are my thoughts on the year that was...

Overlooked Great Performance

Ian McKellan:    Mr. Holmes

A lot has been made of people not nominated for an Academy Award this year.  For me, this was maybe the most egregious.  A forgotten performance, when if Mr. Holmes had been released during awards season, he would have almost surely been nominated for an Oscar and other big awards.

Honorable Mentions:

The Big Short

Great performances (especially Christian Bale and Steve Carell ).  It drags just a bit, but Mckay does a commendable and comedic job of explaining and making the housing crisis far from a complete snore.

Crimson Peak

It's probably fair to say it is style over substance.  But it is at times a captivating to look at style.

It Follows

Suddenly I am seeing films some would put in the "horror" category and finding them darn captivating.   Last year it was The Babadook as well as A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.  Two of the best films of that year.  Feel as if  It Follows is a notch below those two.  But I am willing to re-watch it and decide.

The Visit

It is not quite to the level of Shyamalan's best work.  But it is a strong comeback, and the low budget feel might actually be the perfect direction for the hit or miss filmmaker.

Biggest Disappointments

Black Mass

I actually mentioned how much I liked seeing Depp in something good finally.  So yes, it is a good film and he does a fine job.  And yet....I just could never shake the thought it should have somehow been more.  To paraphrase a filmmaker, "It is so good you are angry it's not great."  Even Depp's strong performance seemed slightly overshadowed by his makeup.


Really like Emily Blunt.  I think she is supposed to be a strong female protagonist and yet she comes across as someone who never changes.  I suppose this is because she is the moral center, and yet

the director makes her appear victimized and even weak.  Her final moment is ridiculous.  Blunt deserved more.


This director should get hit upside the head.  Yes Will Smith is good, but blame his lack of a nomination on a film few cared about or saw.  I wanted to scream at one point, when Smith and a complete stranger speak on the phone and hang up with "I'll meet you."  Meet where?  Who are you? What time?  Aren't we past these bad film-making cliches?  The film is full of similar decisions.

Mad Max:  Fury Road

I realize I just lost all credibility with many of you.  And I will admit the 3rd act is great.  Well the last 20 minutes or so.  Just fantastic action.  The rest of it, I found too odd for the sake of being odd. Yes, just about all of the action is impressive.  But I would much prefer to see a making of documentary about this film over the actual film.  Did not resonate emotionally to me like I know it was supposed to.

My Top 10

10.   Amy

The most depressing film I saw in 2015.  Not because, "Oh what a waste!  A talented person throws it all away!"  That is to an extent the truth.   I believe people should be held accountable for their actions.  But also, parents should be held accountable for their parenting skills.  Listening to the words of Winehouse's own parents, you can not help but think, "she never had a chance."

At 14, when your daughter tells you she came up with an effective diet for herself:  "I eat as much as I want and then throw it up."  Shouldn't the mother's reaction be something more than, "I did not take her seriously." 

Winehouse was surrounded by takers.  Of course the takers were the people she loved the most.  Especially her father and her husband.  Knowing your wife is an addict, maybe do not introduce her to crack on your honeymoon; as her former husband has no problem admitting here.  As someone points out, "he could not have her get sober.  Then he might lose the gravy train."

Winehouse goes to the Caribbean for 6 months to escape people, and is semi successful in getting herself together.  Except her father shows up with video cameras to shoot her every moment, for a tv show about himself (cough).  The scene where she is pleading for him to stop, but can not make him, is one of the most upsetting of all.

It is appropriate and telling that Winehouse died alone; her bodyguard being the one that finds her.  A bodyguard that seemed to love her better than her family members.

This story is not tragic because she was a known singer.  Fan or not, her talent was without question. It is tragic because she was a human being.  And the people in her life, without the talent, crave the fame she does not care about.  They take advantage and destroy the person they no longer look at as a person, just a commodity.

Yes, this is not a new.  I remember the story of Janis Joplin quitting the music business because she did not think she could be in it and stay sober.  It was her parents that convinced her to go back into the industry.  History repeats itself and will keep doing so.

The story here is that Amy Winehouse was not just another junkie who pissed away a life of opportunity.  Most junkies are probably not just that at all.  She was not undeserving.  The undeserving people were those she loved unconditionally, when their love back to her had nothing but conditions.

"Love is in some ways killing me."    -Amy Winehouse

9.   The Hateful Eight

This seems to be Tarantino's first legit flop.  Least commercially.  There could be a host of reasons.  A three hour western, with no huge box office draw as a star, might be a tough sell for most people.  Then there was that police union led boycott against Tarantino, for the anti-police rally he showed up to.  While he never said anything as bad as was first reported, cops boycotted the film and encouraged others to do the same.  Did people do as told?  Might be hard to really know.

But ok, is it a good film?  The answer is yes, though once again Tarantino the filmmaker makes the moviegoer work for it.

Though much is made of Tarantino's use of 70mm, most of the film takes place in one room.  We get an Agatha Christie type story unfolding.  As a friend pointed out, it resembled The Thing, in how we get multiple characters together in a small space and wait for multiple shoes to drop.

While most people are armed, people win or lose often with their wits and words here.

While I was slightly annoyed by the obvious portrayal of the former Confederate soldiers at first; I felt Tarantino redeemed himself through one character in particular by the end of the movie.  I won't say more, other than one actor should have gotten more notice for his performance.  All 8 main characters are truly hateful.  Even though this is a Tarantino film, that is rarely the case in his work. Who is really the hero of this film?  What makes that decision more interesting is the idea that the 8 characters make up a representation of America taking form.

The ending is so well written and executed, I had to applaud Tarantino once again.

This is not Tarantino's best film and it will not sway people that dislike him.  It might well be his most divisive.  But it also is another top notch script with some of Tarantino's best directing.  It will increase in reputation over time.

For all the bluster, the film is elevated by his use of a simple letter.

Look real closely at the soldier
Coming at you through the haze
He might be the younger brother who ran away
And before you kill another
Listen to what I say
Oh, there will not be many coming home

      -Roy Orbison

8.  Far From The Madding Crowd

Critics have short memories.  This film came out in the Spring to strong reviews.  Carey Mulligan's strong performance is just one of many.  And do you remember anyone mentioning it during awards season? I barely remember it being mentioned at all, all year.

I don't know if it would have won a bunch of awards, but I'm not so sure it would not have gotten a few nominations if it had been released in late December.

A good story.  Beautiful cinematography.  Great acting.  If you are the type that likes Jane Austen type stories, this should be right up your alley.  Deserves to be discovered.

7.  Creed

In 1976, Sylvester Stallone created an iconic movie character.  What made that underdog story so strong, is that Rocky Balboa is a man over his head that knows he can not win.  The victory is in simply finishing the fight.

That beautiful sentiment evolved into Rocky becoming some amazing all time great fighter, who can take down roided up Communists, and end the Cold War.

While no longer a critical darling, the Rocky films were loved by many, made a ton of money, and helped make Stallone one of the world's biggest movie stars.

Nuance was a thing of the past.  And any notion of Stallone as a strong actor was long gone.

But that might not have been completely fair. Stallone would show flashes.  And in 1997 he gave a performance in Cop Land that is effective and moving.

He to some extent reminded us why we liked Rocky in the first place, with Rocky Balboa.  That film seemed like a proper and worthy end to the series.

Then director Ryan Coogler decided he wanted to make another Rocky film; sort of.  Except it is really the story of Apollo Creed's son and living in a father's shadow.  The Balboa character would now be a supporting one.  And under Coogler's direction and writing, Stallone has given at least the second best performance of the character.  If not the best.  It is not "good for Rocky."  It is flat out good.  Excellent even.  Yes, even Oscar worthy.

As is the whole cast.  Michael B. Jordan has been poised to be the next best thing ever since the last episode of "Friday Night Lights."  It has seemed to get off to a slower start than expected.  But with Creed, we have not only his usual strong acting, but a movie people wanted to see.

The potential Coogler showed with the oh so nearly great, (infuriatingly so) Fruitvale Station, is now fulfilled.  Similar to Star Wars:  The Force Awakens, a story continues in a way we care about again, as it feels for now to be in very capable hands.

This is not a career highlight for Stallone alone.  It is for everyone involved.  And while people might be upset his performance is the only thing acknowledged by the Academy, he did after all, create the character himself.  That's one thing no other actor in the Best Supporting Actor category can claim.

6.     Spotlight

In his previous film, director Thomas McCarthy helmed The Cobbler. Starring Adam Sandler, people were hopeful this would be Sandler doing something different and succeeding.  Like Paul Thomas Anderson accomplished with Punch Drunk Love.  Instead we got a film that made most people's 10 worst list of the year.  Critic's were baffled how nearly every single choice McCarthy made, seemed to be the wrong one.

So it is quite a quick turnaround when his very next film, Spotlight, has him almost pitching a perfect game.  A great ensemble cast gives us multiple great performances.  My favorites being Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci.  Who did not even get Oscar nominations: those went to Rachel McAdams and the more showy (but excellent as always) Mark Ruffalo.

How the Boston Globe uncovers the Catholic Church protecting and covering up for child molesting priests, is not the pitch one makes for the feel good movie of the year.  But instead of making it too depressing to view or overly self congratulatory to our heroes, McCarthy finds just the right balance.

The reporters (who would win the Pulitzer Prize) do their jobs well, and how they do it is shown in a brisk and captivating way.  But Spotlight is not as self congratulatory to the newspaper as it could be. They admit fault in not moving on the story earlier.  And that helps elevate the film.  We also see the drive of these reporters, destroying their personal relationships, because we see almost no evidence of any.

5.  Brooklyn

My vote for the best lead actress Oscar,  (if I had a vote) would be for Saoirse Ronan.  While I love every performance, I keep going back and forth in my mind between Larson and Ronan.  "Larson's role was more difficult, right?" I kept telling myself.  And maybe it was.  But Ronan's performance had that quality of making it look easy.  She does not appear to be acting, and I think that is what makes her so special.  The entire movie is on her shoulders.  And she carries it, like falling off a log.

4.  Room

So yes, I obviously liked Brie Larson as well.  She is fantastic as is her co-star Jacob Tremblay, who was about as deserving of an Oscar nomination as anyone.  Room is the clear winner as far as number of tears shed from me while watching a movie last year.

The first act ends so beautifully and emotionally, that the rest of the film lags just a bit.  It is difficult to maintain the ramped up emotions of all that came before.  That does not make the rest of the film weak, actually I respect what is done here.  The happy ending of many stories would not be the happy ending in real life.  The makers of Room acknowledge this and go for something more.

"And they lived happily ever after," can be a cop out.

3.  The Revenant

Alejandro González Iñárritu would like you to know you just watched a movie.  In case there could be any doubt.  

While not as close to flawless as last year's Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance), once again we get a movie that feels a bit like no other.

If Mel Gibson and Terrence Malick ever got together and decided to co-direct a film together, I think the result would be very close to The Revanant.

The Malick influence was a bit surprising, but he does once again use The Tree of Life, cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki.  A couple shots look like they came straight out of Malick's storyboards.

Some of the more artsy ideas work and some don't.  But most things do.

Before its release, the movie was already making headlines for its difficult shooting conditions.  Shot chronologically over 80 days, and only able to shoot for a few hours at a time so they could always use natural light.

Tom Hardy butted heads often with Iñárritu, as he felt the stunt work he was asked to do was too risky.  Multiple crew members would leave the production.  Hardy would make t-shirts of himself choking Iñárritu.  This was his gift to the entire production after shooting.

Interviewed for Birdman, Michael Keaton stated it was easily the hardest shoot he had ever done. Leonardo Dicaprio is now saying the very same thing for this film.  I suppose when you are a vegetarian, being made to eat raw bison liver is not preferred.

Could Iñárritu win the Best Picture Oscar two years in a row?  It is possible.  And before he kills an actor or crew member, we should appreciate his craziness for how it translates on screen.

This is a filmmaker in the zone.

2.  Inside Out

One of the best Pixar movies.  It might actually be the very best. Which at this point is saying something.  So much critical love for this film when it came out, but again, critics seem to forget if anything was not released by late November.

Evidence of a great movie, is in what kind of smart ways people are talking about it.  Inside Out instigated some of the very best film analysis of the year.

"There's something very lonely about Inside Out if you compare its external structure and Riley's journey through her physcial world to traditional kids' movies.  There's no Donkey from Shrek or Abu from Aladdin or Timon and Pumbaa from The Lion King cheering her up with "Hakuna Matata."

"The structural decision to do without a villain, and ultimately to do without one of the easiest elements to make entertaining and marketable, means that the process Riley is undergoing-adolescence-is visualized as...normal.  Her mind is not a space that's been invaded by something that must be driven out, but a new environment to be mastered.  And if other kids' stories are there to teach kids how to be brave when they see witches and giants, Inside Out is there, maybe, to teach them how to be brave when there's no witch and no giant, but things can feel broken anyway."

-Linda Holmes        June 19, 2015  

Such a clever and unique script.  Sadness is a positive thing?  In a kid's movie?  That makes me very happy.

1.  Ex Machina

More than any film I saw in 2015, after finishing Ex Machina, I was tempted to watch it all again right away.

Not only am I choosing Inside Out and Ex Machina as the best films of 2015, I believe they are the best scripts.  Both are nominated for the Academy Award, in a move they got correct.

I am often reminded how there are only a limited number of stories. All are retold in an endless loop, in different ways.

Ex Machina's story is familiar, (few parts Frankenstein, maybe a dash of Under The Skin) and yet it feels completely new and original.

Writer and first time director Alex Garland's script is smart and makes you hang on dialogue.  Oscar Issac is fantastic as usual.  Domhnall Gleeson is convincing as an awed programmer that might well be getting manipulated; if not also underestimated.

And Alicia Vikander as Ava is a gem.  If her representatives had attempted to get her a best leading performance Oscar nomination for The Danish Girl, instead of a supporting one, she might have very well scored a dual nomination.

But doesn't she just play a robot?  Yes, essentially.  But the trick is Garland must convince us, through his direction and elements he adds to the script, that Domnhall's Caleb could develop feelings for Ava. None of that matters without a convincing portrayal by a skilled actress.

This is the movie everyone tells me Blade Runner is, but I never found it to be.

Performer of the Year:

Domhnall Gleeson

His 2015

Ex Machina
Star Wars:  The Force Awakens
The Revanant
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