It’s finally on, MoviefiedNYC‘s Ten Best Movies of 2015. The year proved to be a pretty good year for movies, a good year for women in film, a good year for LGBT movies, and a very good year for testosterone-induced action films with depth, craft, and fun! It was, indeed, a fun year at the movies! Here are the Ten Best of 2015 as seen by Myrna Duarte and John David West.
John David’s Best
Spotlight is one of those rare films that seems to have the right balance of everything excellent: direction (Tom McCarthy), dialogue, and a believable ensemble cast —I could be convinced that Keaton, Ruffalo, McAdams are still all working on their next piece at the Boston Globe. Spotlight is not an epic cinematic feature that begs to be seen on the biggest screen in town, but it’s simply great storytelling—and captivating cinema, a complete film. More than anything it’s downright riveting. You know what’s going to happen, yet you are sucked in and moved, disturbed, angered, scared, and above all amused.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road
What is it about Mad Max: Fury Road that hit all the right notes? It’s a dystopian, blow-things-up, action flick, adrenaline rush, jaw dropping with a capital J film—my best friend, recently reminded me of how I looked (jaw dropped happy) as she sat next to me as we experienced Mad Max in the theater. Beyond the breathtaking live stunts, richly textured score, awe-inspiring cinematography, and solid performances (Charlize Theron proves again that she’s one of the best—and baddest—out there), it’s a emotionally stirring film, an odyssey that has more going on than just a wild car chase—it has authenticity that is palpable: real cars, real people doing real stunts, sparse talking and more showing. Director George Miller lets the visual medium of film be almost exclusively that.
3. The Big Short
Who would’ve thought that Synthetic Collateralized Debt Obligation could be so funny, sexy, and maddening? Director, Adam McKay (Anchor Man) manages to take the nearly impossible job of turning Michael Lewis’ (Money Ball) non-fiction book on the rise and fall of the 2008 U.S. Housing market and a group of guys who saw it coming and made millions. The Big Short is a stylized, caffeine-with-a-Red-Bull-chaser induced trip. It’s a lesson in economics with the help of such unlikely celebs as Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez along with economist Richard Thaler; it’s also a laugh-out-loud, knee-slapper (if you like economics, wit, and irony) comedy; it’s a director’s showcase and it’s a well acted ensemble piece thanks to some great material, and superb performances by Steve Carell and Christian Bale; it’s a disturbing exposé on the excessive predatory greed, corruption and unfairness (only one person served time for fraud) that leaves you sad to know that such injustice is accepted, but it also leaves you with a bit of hope. This is the type of film that in thirty years and beyond could serve as a time capsule and a symbol of the greedy corrupt Turn of the Millennium. But beyond the moral commentary of capitalistic greed, The Big Short is an entertaining movie with much to enjoy.
In typical 1950s tradition Carol, brilliantly played by Cate Blanchett, lives in a world where everything is seemingly perfect, ordered, and definitely stylish. All is as it should be or at least it appears so on the surface, as Carol conceals the secret of her sexuality. She is accommodated more than one might expect, as her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler) is aware of her past relationships with women. Todd Haynes has explored this world before, in the luscious Douglas Sirk homage, Far From Heaven (2002), a film filled with colorful autumn-rich wide-angle shots. Carol is a bit more subdued, honest, and quite cold. Rather than wide vibrant shots, Carol is filled with isolating close-ups, notably of faces, toys, and shiny vintage 1950s cars; and it’s a cold lonely winter that fills the screen. Perhaps this is not the most inviting world for the viewer, but Blanchett’s brilliance for conveying great depth without saying a word is evident in the film’s final shot, a simple yet impactful, delicate moment that lives far beyond the playtime of this movie.
5. The Revenant
Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is back, proving that he is one of today’s top directors. Inarritu changes the pace from last year’s constantly moving, one-long-continuous shot Birdman with its manic modern Midtown Broadway theater setting to a slower, harsh, cold Rocky Mountains setting of 1820’s Wyoming. This time the central character isn’t fighting for his career against egotistical actors and cruel theater critic but against the forces of nature—mainly a bear. While the bear attack in The Revenant is significant in this film; Inarritu’s direction is exceptional and Leonardo DiCaprio is, as always, compelling. The cinematography by Birdman’s Emmanuel Lubezki is spot on (despite one distracting moment of “look! I’m being artistic with my cross cuts!”). The sense of location, time, and temperature are consistently effective. One could sit in a 90-degree theater and feel the sting of frostbite while watching this movie.
6. Son of Saul
Directed by László Nemes and featuring Géza Röhrig as Saul. Nemes’ first feature film is a powerful and unique look at the horrors of Auschwitz. Shot in 35mm, in academy ratio, with shallow focus, and long tracking shots; Son of Saul provides an immersive human experience that sticks with you long after the film is over.
Director Alonso Ruizpalacios’ first feature-length film, Güeros, is part road movie, part social-historical inquiry, and part quest film that explores youth in the early days of the 1999 National University strike in Mexico City—a city shown as both a complicated character (friend and foe), and a place to drive around without purpose. A partial shout-out to French New Wave and photographer and documentarian Robert Frank, Güeros is beautifully filmed in black and white, using 4:3 aspect ratio, which embellishes it with the look and feel of a photograph that’s brought to life and infused with poetry, humor, and idleness.
It’s safe to say that Ruizpalacio is a daring new voice in Mexican cinema; he dares to shoot in “artsy” black and white, break the fourth wall, and frequently submerge the narrative to allow the cinematic moments to breathe. This is the stuff that repels financiers, but it’s also the stuff that elevates the art of cinema and satisfies those of us who like a bit of meta, silence and poetry in our films.
8. Inside Out
Pixar, once again, takes viewers—young and old—into a surprising world of unexpected imagination. Inside the head of a young girl, we come to know her various feelings through anthropomorphized emotions that are not only brilliantly realized and entertaining, but also comforting—in the sense of, “hey, I have those same struggles as well.” While there’s a lot for kids to enjoy in Inside Out, it often felt like a movie for adults, and how satisfying it is for we flawed humans.
Brooklyn is kind of a perfect little movie. There’s nothing new or groundbreaking happening in Nick Hornby’s script. It’s a common story, Irish immigrant girl who enters New York City through Ellis Island, falls in love with an Italian-American boy, and then returns to her home in Ireland where things—once not so promising—have improved for her. It felt like the making of America, a tale from any random immigrant who passed through Ellis Island. With the pitch perfect performances by Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen, and carefully paced direction by John Crowley, Brooklyn is across the board fine filmmaking.
10. The Martian
Directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon, The Martian is based on Andy Weir’s best selling book of the same name, Matt Damon plays astronaut and botanist Mark Watney who is left behind on Mars and thought as dead when the crew encounter a violent sandstorm and are forced to abandon their mission and make an emergency lift off from the red planet.
The Martian is both a crowd-pleasing movie and a smart science fiction film. It’s action packed fun and gorgeous to watch, and arouse thoughts like “come on NASA, let’s get back into space travel” —perhaps The Martian will inspire future missions to Mars astronauts and scientists. Unlike Gravity, Drew Goddard’s script succeeds in making the events plausible. The movie is packed with interesting science facts that don’t feel jarringly expositional, perhaps due to the comedic script and Damon’s charismatic performance. Ridley Scott succeeds in weaving a complicated story that is, at times visually poetic, at other times hilarious, but always consistently engaging. His use of 3D is subtle and thankfully not distracting by being annoyingly self-aware. It sometimes comes dangerously close to having moments of schmaltzy Hollywood-feel-goodness (a few too many shots of cheering crowds in the control room and on the streets), and many characters are rather one-dimensional, but once you get past that The Martian is just elegant, fun, filmmaking.
It was a good year, here are a few more honorable mentions:
Love and Mercy
1. Mad Max Fury Road
Mad Max Fury Road is undeniably one of the great cinematic triumphs of the year and more visceral than any other picture in 2015, veteran director George Miller’s old-school post-apocalyptic spectacle dazzles the eye, this visual treasure represents a director at the top of his game unleashing a feverish and voracious film. Tom Hardy certainly delivers as the new Mad Max, Charlize Theron (Imperator Furiosa), with few words delivers a dazzling performance but it is Nicholas Holt (Nux) as a War Boy that is the heart and tortured soul of the story.
Spotlight is an elegant and smart portrayal of the journalistic craft addressing one of the most unspeakable criminal conspiracies in modern history, with a remarkable cast, whom are worthy of award consideration. It wasn’t a few people, not even a large group of people — it was a global hierarchical organization bearing down with the full force of its power and influence, to cover up violent attacks on children for decades, perpetuating the horror story. Spotlight never turns away from ugly truths, demanding accountability, calling for immediacy and emotional turmoil at every step.
3. The Revenant
Leonardo DiCaprio could finally take home an Oscar for his lead performance, in this survival and revenge western. What appears to be man against nature truly becomes man against man (Tom Hardy), with nature as man’s ally in his quest for survival. The cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki – Gravity, Birdman and Children of Men) is exquisite, hands-down the year’s best. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu has created such an immersive experience out of The Revenant that you can almost feel the sense of chill on your skin and the danger that lurks around every corner of in the woods.
4. Ex Machina
Ex Machina is evocative, almost mesmerizing. In this, director Alex Garland’s debut film, he never underestimates the viewer delivering an intelligent, entertaining and disturbing film. Previously Garland had been better known for his a screenplays (28 Days Later, Sunshine, The Beach and Ex Machina). Handsomely filmed with striking art direction, sharp cinematography, Ex Machina is a simple yet disturbing story that leaves you perplexed and fascinated.
5. Chi Raq
Spike Lee, one of the most important film makers working today, delivers the only film this year addressing one of the most important social issues facing our nation. Gun violence, and the link between policing and racism that still pollutes our culture and justice system, are challenged head-on with honesty and satire. Radically artistic, featuring one of the best soundtracks of the year it looks and sounds unlike anything else you’ll see all year. A marvelous picture filled with fantastic performances, the indie film everyone to want and love, about issues everyone insists they care about and want to solve. Yet here it is, and how many award voters or viewers are giving it the attention it deserves? That’s a question we might ask about the real issues it addresses, also.
The fact that Tangerine was shot entirely on a beefed up iPhone is forgotten before we reach the end of the first scene. The film takes us on a hectic journey through a gritty Los Angeles as we follow phenomenal and flawed characters on an insane day that you feel they will just wake up and do all over again. Fueled by spicy performances that overflow with energy, Tangerine is a bittersweet tale built on a powerful sense of empathy and affection.
Sicario, the film by the French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve is a sizzling thriller about the drug trade that combines skilled action and suspense with the other emotional and moral ramifications of violence. Cinematographer Roger Deakins and Villeneuve’s collaboration here is great with a story and setting defined by dry desert tones, cheap buildings, and vast dusty blue skies. Sicario’s web of compelling characters, its muscular style and top of the line cast, truly delivers a surprising cartel thriller.
8. Diary of a Teenage Girl
Director Marielle Heller’s debut film is one of the most astute films yet about that harrowing journey we all make through those awkward years. Adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s 2002 novel about a 15-year-old’s coming of age in the swinging San Francisco of the 1970s. The film is gently radical not because it dares to threaten us so much but because it doesn’t. This is a story of small power plays, big feelings and huge moments, told via intimate gestures. Bel Powley (Minnie) offers a breakout performance, Alexander Skarsgård, the boyfriend (Monroe), and Kristen Wiig, the mom (Charlotte) deliver subtle engaging performances. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is honest, bold and pulls no punches, it’s wonderful.
The sparkling and tragic life of the London-born singer, Amy Winehouse unfolds before you in every song she wrote and now it plays out in the documentary by filmmaker Asif Kapadia. The film is edited together from footage both private and public of the indomitable Winehouse, with the recollections of family, friends and colleagues playing over the images. The way the film tells it, first this seemingly harmless man stole Amy’s heart, ironically inspiring her best music, then he stole her soul by introducing her to hard drugs. Relentless media scrutiny is also shown to have played its part in her downfall and in many ways makes us all complicit in her death. Amy pays tribute to a great performer, leaving little doubt that she possessed one of the great jazz voices of our time.
10. Inside Out
Inside Out (I’m pretty close to calling it a Pixar masterpiece) hits home the most with those in possession of their own emotionally conflicted preteen and those us of who are still very in touch with that inner preteen of our own. Young Riley and her family are moving, and inside her head we meet the five primary emotions of Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger that show us how Riley is dealing with it. The film is a hilarious and creative take on the human being thought process. Joy and Sadness go on an adventure deep inside the mind; but we get a nice sampling of all five throughout the story. Amy Poehler and Lewis Black stand out as Joy and Anger respectively; but the crew working together really make the story tick. It’s more than just a return to form for Pixar; Inside Out might be one the best films they’ve ever made.
World of Tomorrow – the BEST 17 minutes you will spend.
White God – I’m still disturbed by this film.
What We Do in the Shadows – “Werewolves NOT Swear-wolves!”