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”

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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: “Sicario”

I’ve got it. The next big trend in physical fitness. All you need to do is watch Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario,” once a day, every day, and the pounds will melt off in no time.  From its opening moments, depicting a raid on a drug house, the film is sweaty-palms suspenseful.

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FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is part of that raid.  Soon after, she’s recruited into a task force, which includes Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver and Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro Gillick.  They’re to take down a major drug kingpin in Mexico.  Kate, unsure of whom to trust even on her own team, realizes she’s swimming in dark and dangerous waters.

The main cast — Blunt, del Toro and Brolin — are really strong.  Brolin, with his wry smile and reluctance to give up information, generates a lot of nervous laughs.  But del Toro is the MVP.  In one of my favorite moments, shortly after we (and Kate) have met him, he’s sleeping on an airplane and his hand starts to twitch and then he wakes with a start.  The smallest suggestion that under the enigmatic and menacing exterior, there’s a lot of pain and sadness.

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Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay doesn’t provide Blunt’s Kate with a whole lot of background or even agency, but that’s why you cast one of the best actresses of her generation.  In an early exchange, we learn that she’s divorced and doesn’t have kids.  No family attachments.  (How’s that for foreboding?)  Throughout the film, she often finds herself on the losing end of conflicts, which is a little unusual for mainstream audiences.  I didn’t mind it so much, as it felt emblematic of the drug war itself.  It’s a losing battle.

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The action setpieces have a real sense of presence.  Explosions aren’t accompanied with the standard fireball.  They’re concussive forces, throwing our heroes to the ground.  Kevlar vests don’t keep characters free from harm.  Bullets still knock the wind out of them, leaving them gasping for air.  Interrogations aren’t performed with a lot of flapping and yelling but cold and quiet intimidation.  I’ve never witnessed a real explosion, been shot at or interrogated — knock on wood — but these moments felt refreshingly absent any trumped up Hollywood conventions.

Indeed, the film achieves all this without resorting to cinema verite techniques (handheld camera, extensive film grain, etc.).  I’ve talked about Cinematographer Roger Deakins on the blog before, and I can’t overstate his skill and artistry behind the camera.  In what’s sure to be one of the shots of the year, a group of gunmen are preparing for a dangerous trek underground at sunset.  As they move across the barren desert landscape, their silhouettes appear against the nearly-night sky and slowly sink into the dark horizon.

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Deakins and Villeneuve employ a lot of helicopter shots, particularly as the task force is driving across the border into Mexico for a mission.  Being a fan of “The Shining,” I couldn’t help but think of the opening moments of Stanley Kubrick’s film as Jack Torrance drives to the film’s haunted hotel.  The effect here is similar, as we watch from on high as our characters navigate into trouble.

Due to its blistering intensity and pessimistic worldview, “Sicario” isn’t going to be a film for everyone.  But if you’re willing to take the ride, I think the craftsmanship and strong performances are definitely worth your time.

Have you seen “Sicario?”  What did you think?  Comment below and thanks for reading!

Fall Movie Preview

Well, it’s that time…my favorite season for movie watching.  Fall is when studios tend to release their better films (i.e. the ones they think’ll make a splash during the end-of-year awards).  Prestige season begins in earnest for me on September 18 — seven days and counting — so I’ve compiled a list of the films I’m most looking forward to.

September 18 sees the release of “Black Mass” — the story of real-life mobster, Whitey Bulger.  Johnny Depp plays Bulger, and judging by the trailer, this looks like a welcome return to his more menacing and nuanced work (think “Donnie Brasco,” which happens to be another crime film).  On top of that, I was a fan of director Scott Cooper’s first feature, “Crazy Heart.”

Also out on September 18 is “Sicario.”  (It’s in limited release that weekend and goes wide on September 25.)  The trailer for this drug war drama makes it look like a real nerve shredder.  It’s from another promising young filmmaker, Denis Villeneuve.  After “Prisoners,” itself a lesson in suspense, this seems like another fruitful collaboration with could-make-a-dumpster-look-great cinematographer, Roger Deakins.  The cast is spectacular as well, headlined by Emily Blunt (in full bad ass mode), Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin.

I haven’t liked a Ridley Scott film in several years — really since the Director’s Cut of “Kingdom of Heaven” — but I’m hoping that will change on October 2.  “The Martian” is about an astronaut left for dead and his struggle to survive on…you guessed it…Mars.  Scott’s susceptible to selecting scripts that are beneath his talent, but Drew Goddard (of “Cabin in the Woods” and “Daredevil” Season 1) is the screenwriter here.  And again, we have a phenomenal cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, and Michael Peña.

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And then there’s the pairing of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle, whose film “Steve Jobs” hits screens on October 9.  The former is a self-described writer of “People talking in rooms” and the latter’s known for his bold and vibrant filmmaking.  Michael Fassbender plays the titular tech genius.  He’s one of my favorite actors working, but I’m mostly excited to see what Sorkin and Boyle bring out in one another.

The weekend of October 16 is stacked.

First up is “Beasts of No Nation.”  It’s directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, the man behind the first season of “True Detective.”  It stars Idris Elba as an African warlord recruiting children into a civil war.  The film is getting a very limited theatrical release, but it’s also going to be available on Netflix streaming the same day it hits screens.  I love “True Detective,” so I’ll see anything Fukunaga touches.  The positive buzz for the film has only gotten me more excited.

Bridge of Spies” comes out the same day.  This one’s from a young, upstart filmmaker named Steven Spielberg.  (I see big things for this guy.  Very talented.)  The director’s track record has been spotty lately, but even mid-tier Spielberg is better than most.  I’m excited to see him reunite with Tom Hanks, who plays a lawyer focused on rescuing a US pilot who went down over the Soviet Union.  Oh, and the Coen Brothers have a screenwriting credit!

But the movie I’ll see first that weekend is “Crimson Peak.”  Guillermo del Toro is one of my favorite directors working, and this marks his return to the haunted house genre.  If you haven’t seen “The Devil’s Backbone,” you should remedy that right away.  Based on the trailer, the visuals looks as lush and vibrant as you’ve come to expect from del Toro.  Yet another great cast here with Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain.

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And finally, “Room” comes out in limited release the same day.  I’ve heard good things about the novel on which the film is based, but there’s one reason I’m really excited for this one…and her name is Brie Larson.  She gave a stunning performance in “Short Term 12” (actually my favorite performance of 2013).  I was disappointed to see her relegated to Love Interest in “The Gambler,” but it looks as though “Room” will be another opportunity for her to flex her acting muscles.

November 6 brings the latest entry in the James Bond franchise, “Spectre.”  “Skyfall” director Sam Mendes returns here.  Aficionados will recognize Spectre as the nefarious organization that reared its head in early Bond films.  The inclusion of talent like Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux and Andrew Scott is very exciting.  The only thing that gives me pause is that, after the release of “Skyfall,” Mendes stated he’d said everything he had to say about Bond.  Presumably, the studio offered him enough money to keep talking.  That’s usually not the best reason for a director to sign on, but based on the strength of the previous film, I’ll be there opening weekend.

On November 20, “Carol” gets a limited release.  Director Todd Haynes tackles a similarly taboo subject matter as his own “Far From Heaven.”  This one’s about a younger woman falling in love with an older woman in 1950s New York.  Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara star, and they’re two of the best actresses working today.  The film’s screened at festivals to rave reviews.

This year brings not one but two Pixar films.  After the summer’s “Inside Out,” I’m really looking forward to “The Good Dinosaur” (November 25).  The premise is pretty basic — What if the dinosaurs didn’t go extinct?  (The trailer plays this out in a hilarious visual gag.)  When the animation studio is on its game, there’s nobody better.  The film’s had a troubled production, with Disney announcing in June that nearly the entire voice cast had been scrapped.  Still, “Inside Out” felt like a real return to form for Pixar, so I’m hoping their latest picks up where it left off.

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The performer pairing I’m most excited for is Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in “Macbeth,” which is getting a limited released on December 4The trailer is gorgeous.  I’ve already talked about how much I like Fassbender, but Cotillard is every bit his equal (if not superior).  The prospect of these two playing off each other in a Shakespeare adaptation sounds fantastic.

Finally, we come to it — the main course!  “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is unleashed on December 18.  When the first teaser was released last November, I wrote about my reluctance to get excited for this new trilogy.  But as we’ve gotten closer to release and with the second teaser, my hesitance has almost completely faded…except for a minor concern that the film may delve into fan service (see: director JJ Abrams’s own “Star Trek Into Darkness”).  But I’m so ready for this!

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(The next two are technically Winter titles, but what’s dinner without a little dessert?)

On December 25, Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” will go into limited release (with a wide release soon to follow).  It’s about a group of bounty hunters — and a valuable quarry — holed up in a cabin during a blizzard.  Tarantino is one of the most consistently excellent filmmakers working.  I’m excited by the prospect of him tackling something with a limited setting.  If “Inglorious Basterds” was any indication, with its farmhouse and tavern sequences, he knows how to wring suspense out of a confined space.  And there’s a great cast: Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michael Madsen, and Bruce Dern.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s follow up to “Birdman” also comes out on Christmas Day — “The Revenant.”  The trailer is tense as hell, and the images (composed by two-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki) are breathtaking.  There looks to be an extraordinary amount of movement and coordination within the frame, as you’d expect from the DP of “Children of Men.”  Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy star.

So those are the movies I’m most looking forward to!  What about you?  What are you excited to see this Fall?