Lists: Top 10 Films of 2015

Hope everyone’s 2016 is off to a great start.  Of all the films I wanted to see before compiling my top 10, there are two I just haven’t caught up with — sorry “45 Years” and “The Look of Silence.” But January’s nearing its end, so here we go!

Note: I haven’t labeled this my favorite or best films of the year.  That’s a deliberate choice, because I don’t really distinguish between the two.  I like the Filmspotting podcast approach – Imagine all but 10 movies from 2015 are going to be wiped from the face of the Earth.  Which 10 would you save?

Now without further ado…

10.) “What We Do In the Shadows”

There aren’t typically comedies in my top 10s, because, frankly, they don’t often tickle my fancy.  But “What We Do In the Shadows” is the funniest film of the year and probably in years.  It’s a mockumentary (think: “This is Spinal Tap”) from Jemaine Clement of “Flight of the Conchords” fame.  He’s joined by co-writer and co-director Taika Waititi.  Here a documentary crew follows a group of flatmates that happen to be vampires.  Sure they might be bloodsuckers, but they’re just like you and me.  Trouble getting up in the morning…erh at night.  Roomies not pulling their weight.  Baggage with the ex.  You know, the usual.

9.) “Steve Jobs”

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“Crackling” is a cliché when it comes to describing good writing, but damn it, that’s the best word for Aaron Sorkin’s work on “Steve Jobs.”  His knack for verbal ping pong is as strong as ever.  Sorkin and director Danny Boyle retool conventions of the biopic, and we’re all the better for it.  No standard cradle to the grave narrative here.  The film is structured around the launch of three Apple products.  Similar to Sorkin’s “The Social Network,” he depicts this tech giant as an asshole, but a passionate and creative asshole.  It’s a refreshing warts-and-all approach.  Michael Fassbender is great as Steve, but Kate Winslet steals the movie as his assistant.

8.) “Carol”

From “crackling” to “classy,” “Carol” is another sorta-throwback for director Todd Haynes.  (I’m thinking of you, “Far From Heave.”)  Adapted by Phyllis Nagy, it’s a romantic melodrama set in the 1950s between two women.  The lovers are played by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.  Blanchett is great, selling reservoirs of repressed emotion.  But Mara in particular is so strong in a quietly heartbreaking performance as a young woman navigating adulthood.  The film is lovingly put together — from Edward Lachman’s rich cinematography to Carter Burwell’s tender score.

7.) “Sicario”

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This and my next entry are the most likely to induce a panic attack.  First up, “Sicario.”  Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan presents a bleak worldview centered around an FBI agent (Emily Blunt) assigned to a task force to combat the escalating war on drugs.  Victories are few and far between.  Director Denis Villeneuve sculpts an atmosphere as oppressive as the arid desert sun.  Benicio del Toro is excellent as the titular sicario (hitman) — he’s a movie tough guy who intimidates with a whisper instead of a shout.  There are a number of great setpieces, but a Mexico-USA border crossing and a nighttime mission through an underground tunnel stand out.

6.) “It Follows”

Here’s the second in my panic attack twofer.  “It Follows” is about an evil specter that’s passed from one person to the next through sex.  Writer-director David Robert Mitchell delivers a model for tension-filled exposition when young Jay (Maika Monroe), tied to a wheelchair, learns that the evil specter is pursuing her.  It’s only visible to those who’ve been afflicted.  It can look like anyone — a stranger or a friend.  It’s always coming, and it’s coming to kill.  There are so many great sequences, such as the opening, which depicts a panic-stricken girl running through a quiet neighborhood.  Or Jay’s encounter with the entity during class.  (Disasterpiece’s nerve-jangling score contributes so much.)

Yes, the third act is a letdown but not enough to keep it off the list.

5.) “The Big Short”

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I’m not a huge fan of director and co-writer Adam McKay’s work, particularly for movies like “Anchorman,” so color me surprised that I responded as strongly as I did to “The Big Short.”  What a wild and wooly tapestry he weaves about the financial meltdown in 2008.  It’s a kitchen sink movie — sad, funny and infuriating with many techniques on display such as breaking the fourth wall and docudrama.  Though the aesthetic schizophrenia might give you whiplash, I found it exhilarating.  It boasts an all-star cast with the likes of Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt and Steve Carell.  Each is as good as you expect.  (Carell might be even better.)

4.) “Ex Machina”

Where most science fiction films are content to be dressed up action flicks, writer-director Alex Garland brings ideas back to the genre.  A young programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) is tasked with determining whether a robot named Ava has the ability to appear human.  (Also known as the Turing test.)  In addition to Gleeson, there are two key performances here — Oscar Isaac as the eccentric billionaire that develops the AI and Alicia Vikander as Ava.  Cool and calm yet wide-eyed, Vikander will keep you guessing.  I love the design of the film.  An illustrious estate built around and into a mountain, ceiling-high windows looking out over expanses of wilderness, concrete and windowless rooms covered with post-its, and the glass enclosures housing Ava.

3.) “Spotlight”

Spotlight

It’s always a pleasure to watch professionals do their thing on the big screen.  Director and co-writer Tom McCarthy crafts an ensemble drama in the procedural vein of “All the President’s Men.”  A group of Boston Globe journalists (played by Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo, among others) seek to uncover a child molestation scandal in the Catholic Church.  Like the 70s Watergate drama, this film doesn’t spoon-feed you information.  There are a lot of names, a lot of places, and you’re going to have to keep up.  Though the film is pretty packed, it does make time for characterization and mini side dramas, such as a new editor, who happens to be Jewish, under pressure to drop the story on the Catholic Church.

2.) “Mad Max: Fury Road”

I can’t believe George Miller got away with making a $150 million summer blockbuster this uninhibited and distinctly his.  But here we have “Mad Max: Fury Road!”  A nefarious ruler keeps a collection of young woman captive as breeders until they’re freed by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron).  And the ruler gives chase.  Enter: Max (Tom Hardy)…a sidelined character thrust into the action.  The worldbuilding is economical.  The film isn’t big on plot, but there are clear character arcs and some clever bits of setup and payoff. The visuals are lush and vibrant — a nice change of pace from the desaturated look of many summer blockbusters (and certainly films that are post-apocalyptic).  The action is kinetic yet fluid.  Though the film has a reputation for being unrelenting, it finds those little nuggets of quiet.  What a lovely day, indeed!

1.) “Inside Out”

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And finally, my #1 movie of the year…”Inside Out.”  About the anthropomorphized emotions that govern a young girl’s mind, the film has an ingenious premise.  Co-directors Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen introduce us to wacky rules and concepts (i.e. the personality islands, core memories), and then play with them.  The voice cast is superb.  A lot of studios market their animated movies with big celebrity names.  How many people go see an animated film because John Q. Actor voices a role?  At Pixar the character and performance come first.  “Inside Out” takes some dark turns.  I love how Joy’s (Amy Poehler) catharsis is learning about catharsis.  Like light and darkness, joy can really only be measured against sadness.  The moment of this film that really gets me is when she’s in the memory dump, clutching the girl’s memories.  She starts to cry, she wants so badly for her kid to be happy.  Don’t we all want that for ourselves and others!  There isn’t a bad guy here, but Joy’s really the one making things difficult.  And that’s okay, because her desires are so relatable.

Also there’s some REALLY great cat and boyfriend humor.

So there we have it!  My honorable mentions include:  “Bridge of Spies,” “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” “The End of the Tour,” “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” “Room” and “Tangerine.”

What films resonated with you most last year?  Let me know in the comments!

Review: “Fight Club”

In honor of the 15th anniversary of “Fight Club” and to coincide with the release of director David Fincher’s latest, “Gone Girl,” I thought I would review this 1999 cult classic. I’m afraid, by talking about it, I’ll be breaking the first two rules of Fight Club. So you’ve been warned…spoilers ahead!

Truth be told, I wasn’t big on “Fight Club” after first seeing it.  A lot of the humor escaped me, but in the 15 years since its release, it’s gotten better with each viewing.  There’s exuberance in Fincher’s filmmaking, from tricks from the silent era to his use of state-of-the art toys.  It’s some of Edward Norton and Brad Pitt’s best work, and Jim Uhls’ script streamlines the novel by Chuck Palahniuk while maintaining his scalding sense of humor.

The film opens with one hell of a credit sequence, which doubles as a tour of the Narrator’s mind.  Norton is great in the role, depicting a man so consumed by his possessions that he’s anesthetized himself to everything and everyone else.  He has a fridge full of condiments and no food — all decoration but nothing to hang it on.  Following super-serious roles in “Primal Fear” and “American History X,” Norton proves he can do comedy.  With a gun in his mouth, he wryly observes in voice over “I wonder how clean the gun is.”

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Foreshadowed by the credits, we spend the whole movie knocking around the Narrator’s head. One thing that struck me on my recent viewing was the sound design.  The movie’s packed with aural touches to cue us into the character’s psychology.  In an effort to feel something – anything – the Narrator joins a slew of support groups where he doesn’t belong.  At a meeting for testicular cancer, he’s embraced by Meat Loaf’s Bob and begins to cry as a church choir creeps into the soundtrack.  In another great moment, Fincher’s (virtual) camera drifts through a wastebasket filled with cups from Starbucks – at which point the Narrator warns that with the advance of deep space exploration, corporations will name everything.  What sounds like a sonar ping evokes the vast emptiness of space.  [“But Garrett, there’s no sound in space!”  I know!  I read the “Alien” tagline.]

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Particularly in the first half of his career, Fincher occasionally indulged in technical wizardry that could derail scenes.  I’m looking at you, “Panic Room.”

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Sure, in “Fight Club,” there’s some superfluous digital camera, but I thought Fincher’s choices were really inspired.  I’ve already mentioned the “camera” in the wastebasket, but another great moment comes when the Narrator walks through his apartment.  Names and descriptions appear over his Ikea-bought items. They consume him.  Here’s a man drowning in his possessions.

When his support group scheme is foiled by another faker, Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), the Narrator inadvertently creates imaginary friend Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt).  Tyler looks like the Narrator wants to look, acts like he wants to act, and says what he wants to say.  Together, the two start Fight Club.  It’s an organization where men assemble to re-assert their dominance and truly feel something.  Ya know, knuckles to the face or a knee to the ribs.  Tyler tells his followers, “We’re the middle children of history…Our Great War’s a spiritual war.  Our Great Depression is our lives.”  But some roughhousing and a few minor acts of rebellion quickly escalate.

When Bob returns to Fight Club HQ with an exit wound at the back of his head, the Narrator realizes how wildly out of control his organization has spiraled.  Only then does he realize that Tyler is a figment of his imagination.

Although the filmmakers have laid out a number of clues, I’ve never gone over the twist with a fine-tooth comb. Frankly, I don’t think it matters that much.  This is a film where the Narrator breaks the fourth wall and characters comment on flashback humor.  More importantly, “Fight Club” doesn’t leave you with the twist.  It’s the jumping-off point for the third act.

The end of this film is ultimately about whether or not the Narrator can suppress the worst aspects of himself, and it’s a joy to behold.  There’s a great skewering of the traditional bomb-defusing scene.  While the Narrator tries to stop a device designed to level a building, his alter ego goads, “Maybe, since I knew you’d know, I spent all day thinking about the wrong wires.”  A confrontation between the Narrator and Tyler ranks among my favorite movie fights.  Fincher uses old school tricks like cutting on action and body doubles to give the sense that our Narrator is fighting someone that can do anything and be anywhere.  He offers amusing glimpses of security footage that reveal our Narrator is, in fact, just fighting himself.

In one of the movie’s more darkly comedic passages, member of Fight Club surround poor Bob, who’s lying dead on a table. Like lemmings, they repeat after the Narrator, practically chanting “His name is Robert Paulson! His name is Robert Paulson!”

Some criticized the movie for glamorizing this lifestyle, but how anyone could watch these clowns and think the filmmakers are condoning them is beyond me. The film certainly appreciates a certain level of rebellion, but it also demonstrates how easily rebels can fall down the rabbit hole. The block-busting final images (heh heh) represent one man’s struggle with those impulses writ large.

What are your thoughts on “Fight Club?”  It’s okay to break the first two rules here, this is a safe place!