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!

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Review: “It Follows”

“It Follows” opens wide this weekend, and what follows is my review.  No real spoilers, especially if you’ve seen the trailer, but if you wanna remain completely in the dark — so creepy! — see the film first.

I’m a little reluctant to compare new films to seminal pieces of work.  “‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ is the new ‘Star Wars!’”  Who wants that kinda baggage?  These things need time.  Well how about this: “It Follows” ain’t “Jaws” or “Psycho,” but it might just do for strangers what those films did for beaches and hotels.  You may find yourself keeping a safe distance from everyone as you leave the theater.

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The second feature from writer-director David Robert Mitchell, “It Follows” is about Jay (Maika Monroe), a young woman who finds herself pursued by an evil specter.  After having sex with Hugh (Jake Weary), he takes her to an abandoned building and ties her to a wheelchair.  In one of the film’s more harrowing passages, Hugh explains that he’s passed this entity on to her.  She’ll start to see someone following her, and this thing is only visible to those who’ve been afflicted.  It can look like anyone — a complete stranger or even a friend.  (Strangely, the film doesn’t mine the latter as much as it could.)  It moves at a walking pace, but if it catches her, it will kill her.  Jay’s best bet is to pass the curse on to someone else.

Mitchell wears his influences on his sleeve, and there’s a lot to appreciate for horror aficionados.  The basic premise, a quiet neighborhood under threat, brings to mind…well, any number of slashers from the 70s and 80s.  Disasterpeace’s nerve-jangling synth score recalls John Carpenter.  Like so many horror films from generations past, this one could be read as a cautionary tale about adolescent sex.  (“Cautionary” is a strong word — I don’t think it’s the first or even twenty-first concern for Mitchell.  But it’s certainly a clever nod.)  Even the persistence of the threat reminded me of Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, slowly stalking their prey and eventually catching up with them despite their best — okay, sometimes not-so-best — efforts.

Above all, Mitchell brings an understanding of how to use the frame.  What’s in it and what’s out — that’s really a bedrock of cinema and especially horror.  An oft-cited shot from this film is one where the camera turns 720 degrees.  Jay and a friend are at Hugh’s former high school trying to track him down.  The camera remains outside the office as they consult a secretary.  It turns to reveal a series of windows looking onto the lawn.  Students walk back and forth, but one off in the distance seems to be headed straight for us.  Then the camera passes over an empty hallway and back to the office — they’re still talking to the secretary — and then we’re looking out the windows again.

That student is closer.

When we get back to the office, the bell rings.  We hear doors open, and I started to worry that it would sneak up on Jay in the crowd.  The threat in this film could come from anywhere.  It’s one that the director puzzlingly undercuts a few times by depicting the entity with cheap ghoulish makeup.  More often than not, creepy makeup isn’t creepy.  And I’m sure going to avoid someone who looks half-dead.  But a student in a crowd of students?  Anyone would be a goner.

So much of what’s done with the camera involves smooth and elegant movement, but one of my favorite flourishes involves Mitchell and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis strapping it to the wheelchair that Jay is tied to such that the lens is pointing back at the actress.  She struggles against her restraints, and the whole frame rattles.  It’s used to great effect when she and Hugh are being pursued by the specter in an abandoned building.  As he hurriedly pushes her toward the exit, the camera bounces around her terror stricken face and the dark figure in the background.  It’s as though the whole frame might collapse.

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Maika Monroe is really strong in the main role.  There’s a wistful quality to her performance, particularly during the first act.  Once the shit hits the fan, she plays horror with the best of them.  You’re really in her corner, which is why it’s disappointing when the film takes a turn in the second half.  By then, many of the characters have come down with stupid decision-itis, which is a disease prevalent in the horror genre wherein people on screen lose the ability to make rational decisions.  Their actions don’t come from a place of logic, they come from a need to set up more scares.  And this is never more prevalent than in the film’s climax.  I’m going to try and remain spoiler-free, but I really don’t know what the characters intended or what they thought would happen in that scene.

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Even if David Robert Mitchell leaves some scares on the table, “It Follows” is an enviable horror film.  Enviable in the way that it constructs, for the most part, empathetic characters.  Enviable in the way it eschews gore and cheap tricks to make us shiver.  And, most of all, enviable in the way that it uses the camera to instill fear.

But don’t worry, you’ll be fine.

Just don’t go anywhere with only one exit.

What did you think of “It Follows?”  Comment below!