Between school, stuff in my personal life, and catching up with recent films, I’ve dropped the ball on completing my Blindspot 2015 and wanted to apologize. I will make every effort to watch the three movies from that list that I still haven’t seen—The Maltese Falcon, Rebel Without a Cause, It’s a Wonderful Life—this coming year. The good news is, my foray into the films of 2015 have revealed to me some true cinematic treasures.
Below is a list of my favorite 10; below that, a handful of runners-up that just missed inclusion in the 10 but are nonetheless worth watching; and at the bottom of the page, the films I wasn’t able to see before writing up this post. In an ideal world, I would have watched them all before setting out on my annual list-making endeavor, but I thought I’d try to create my Top 10 before New Years for once, and the release schedule for many American independent and foreign films don’t reach theaters near me until early January (if at all). Plus, I had all those life-related and school-related things that prevented me from seeing as many films as I’d have liked. Anyway, between now and the Oscars, this list may change as I watch some of those 2015 films I missed—the most updated list will appear near the top of the post, below this paragraph, but without the mini-reviews of each film that accompany the original 10.
Anyway, here’s the list. Hope you enjoy!
Sicario is an exercise in deep, nauseating dread. Not a pleasant experience by any stretch of the imagination, but then again, a story about the war on drugs seldom is. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, who evokes here the same cynicism that he brought to Prisoners, the film follows an idealistic FBI agent named Kate (a very serious but very good Emily Blunt) as she tumbles down the rabbit hole of the U.S. government’s shady, cryptic attempts at disrupting cartel activity around the U.S.-Mexico border.
In fact, we follow her so closely that we are as disoriented as she is for most of the film; the movie’s best sequence relies on an experience of shared perplexity between protagonist and viewer. Jammed into a jeep with a bunch of hyper-macho military toughs, Kate suddenly finds herself participant in a frenetic border crossing and a tense standoff with cartel members amid rush hour traffic. Because she has no idea what is going on or why, her horror at the ensuing bloodshed is magnified exponentially, and we too rapidly become uneasy—one of Sicario’s greatest strengths is its ability to make us feel in over our heads, like we are drowning within the film’s vile, violent world that also happens to be our own. And yet the film is also beautiful, both in Benicio del Toro’s fearsome, mysterious performance as a Mexican hitman and cinematographer Roger Deakin’s impeccably, improbably gorgeous images of war-torn lands and peoples.
9. Beasts of No Nation
When American filmmakers attempt to portray the hardships of third world countries, there is always the danger that these films will turn into horror movies. A seemingly sincere attempt at raising awareness of global injustice may actually end up exploiting the audience’s ethnocentrism in order to shock and invite a morbid fascination at lives not our own, to reinforce the divide between “us” and “them.” Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation does not entirely avoid this tendency—as pointed out in film critic Matt Zoller Seitz’s lukewarm review of the film, there are times where it seems the film’s narrative is being propelled simply by a desire to top a previously shown atrocity or act of violence—but the lengths to which the film identifies with its non-white, non-American protagonist mark a radical departure from the norm.
Focusing on Agu, a young West African boy who is drafted as a child soldier following the murder of his family, Beasts of No Nation adopts an aesthetic and narrative perspective that attempts to reproduce Agu’s psychological experience for viewers rather than treating his sufferings as a spectacle to be apprehended at a distance. Prolonged focus on scenes of camaraderie between the child soldiers and their charismatic commander (an amazing and terrifying Idris Elba) compel us to become like the boys in feeling seduced by the man’s charisma; we come to realize—here more than in, say, Blood Diamond—how these children can and are brainwashed into killing. Furthering our identification with Agu is the film’s smooth pop-electronic soundtrack and hyper-realistic visuals, which evoke Agu’s trance-like state as he drifts through the brutalities he is coerced into committing. This audiovisual decision places us in the boy’s headspace, and chillingly insinuates the possibility that, with sufficient manipulation, human beings can be led to perpetrate unimaginable violence without feeling much of anything.
8. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
Rogue Nation is neck-to-neck with Ghost Protocol in terms of the stunts performed—in that film, Tom Cruise scaled the Burj Khalifa with magnetic gloves; in this one, Cruise tries to shut down a high-tech security system while holding his breath for over six minutes straight—but this latest installment of the Mission Impossible franchise is more consistent in its pacing and more mindful of atmosphere, making it the best in the series.
Director Christopher McQuarrie proves himself a skillful action filmmaker by favoring simplicity over spasmodicity—he likes shooting chases and scuffles in widescreen and at a distance, allowing us to appreciate what is being done by whom and where. This clarity is much lacking in today’s post-Bourne action cinema, making Rogue Nation a pleasingly old-fashioned anomaly. The film is by and large about bodies in motion and practical effects, the greatest of which is the seemingly immortal athletic marvel that is Tom Cruise. But even when the film charges through one death-defying scene after another, it never relinquishes its grip on storytelling, humor, and grand style, the last of which is most clearly demonstrated in a tense standoff in a Vienna opera house. There, the film’s finest elements converge, and we end up with one of the finest action sequences in the series’ history.
Phoenix summons the spirit of Hitchcock’s Vertigo in its plot of mistaken mis-identity—after undergoing facial reconstruction surgery, a concentration camp survivor appears a stranger to her husband, who enlists her help to acquire the inheritance of his presumably dead wife—but the film’s power lies in the other ghosts it conjures. Set in the shelled-out ruins of post-WWII Berlin, the movie uses its borderline cockamamie plot as a haunting metaphor for how the Holocaust stripped its survivors of their former selves, alienating them from their past lives. The title of the film refers to a nightclub—hovering like an eerie, dreamy island in the debris-strewn wasteland of the city—but also to the mythological creature known for its ability to regenerate from the ashes of its predecessor, an association that befits the heroine Nelly.
Played with towering emotional sensitivity by Nina Hoss, she is a woman returned from among the dead but not quite alive, occupying a ghostly status of in-betweenness that the film repeatedly explicates through dialogue and voiceover. Her state of limbo is intensified by her longing for her husband, despite but not abolishing altogether the possibility that he might have been the one who betrayed her to the Nazis. As both a specific character dealing with densely complex emotions and an embodied allegory of Holocaust survivors in general, Nelly is the soul of Phoenix, a film that haunts from its opening shot through its beautiful, unutterably sad final scene.
6. It Follows
I haven’t watched as many horror movies as I should, but out of the ones I’ve seen, this one is the finest. The thrust of It Follows’ effectiveness is spelled out for us—cheekily, cleverly—in the title: the mysteriousness of the unidentified “it,” the terror of the approach. The “it” is never named in the film, and it exists variously as the embodied form of a supernatural demon; a metaphor for STDs; and an even wider metaphor for death in general, and the way mortality pursues all of us slowly but surely, and with unknown timing. These multiple levels of meaning generate a charged moviegoing experience that is both viscerally terrifying and philosophically sobering.
But mostly terrifying. The threat of the “it” relies on a conceit so pared down it’s ingenious: this thing can take on the form of any person, and then it simply follows with murderous intent the individual marked by its curse, which can only be passed on through sexual intercourse (think a racier version of the cursed videotape from Ringu). The anonymous and protean nature of the creature ensures that every extra in every frame of the film becomes a potential danger; as an A.V. Club review so aptly put it, we are transformed into “paranoid spectators” scanning every image for figures walking toward the vulnerable protagonists in the foreground. Adorned with a coolly ghoulish, synth-heavy soundtrack, It Follows matches suspense with style, making us savor every minute of the film’s gorgeous, tongue-in-cheek construction while also making us all but too petrified to keep watching it.
5. The Big Short
Adam McKay has made a name for himself in comedy, helmed as he has fan favorites like The Other Guys, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and most famously, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. But none of those three, funny as they were, could have prepared us for the brilliance that is The Big Short: a riotous, supremely confident crash course on the criminal causes behind the housing market collapse in 2008. The film dives head-first into the patois of investment bankers and macroeconomists, but it also calculates near-perfectly the audience’s learning curve. For the first two-thirds of the film, each time I began losing track of what was going on, the narrator paused the story to reiterate the tricky bits in layman’s terms—or, more precisely, layman’s terms as funnelled through McKay, which involve the audience being lectured by the likes of a blackjack-savvy Selena Gomez and Margot Robbie in a bubble bath.
By the film’s final stretch, I admittedly could no longer fully keep up with the story, but such is the movie’s mastery of storytelling that I am almost positive the fault was mine and not McKay’s. One can criticize a film for being needlessly complex. The same cannot be said about a film that knows more than you do about a subject and does not shy away from the complexities of that subject, never mind a film that can pull all this off in so entertaining a fashion.With a dynamite cast headed by a hilarious Ryan Gosling as the fourth wall-breaking narrator, and an underlying anger at how corporate fraud punishes the working people, The Big Short is a slamming success, and the very definition of necessary viewing.
As has been touted again and again by critics for good reason, Spotlight plays like cinematic journalism, and this is a tremendous virtue. Shot by Masanobu Takayanagi in the drab white and faded grays of the newsroom, and told with a rigorous attention to the process of investigative reporting, the film takes a level-headed, clear-eyed approach to recounting a true-life story that would have triggered vehement expressions of outrage in anyone else: in 2001, the Boston Globe uncovered recurring cases of the sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests in Massachusetts, as well as the cover-up attempted by the Boston archdiocese.
Mind you, this is not to say that the film is indifferent to the events on which its story is based. The fury is there in the performances—most notably a stunning Mark Ruffalo whose nervous energy evokes a Labrador, excitedly sniffing out a story, but also conveys a wealth of compassion for his subjects—and in the concluding title cards ominously listing out other cities in which there have been cases of child sex abuse by priests. What the film does differently than others is maintain an attitude of professionalism even as it transforms into a phenomenally gripping thriller. Rather than exploiting our anger by crafting reductive, larger-than-life caricatures of good and evil (see A.O. Scott’s review of the film for The New York Times), the film strives to maintain the same code of ethics and social responsibility that it ultimately ascribes to journalism as an institution. In a world so swiftly changing and so abruptly sinister, we need people who can see straight and stick to their principles, who can sort fact from fiction, who are committed to telling a story without bending the details. Spotlight believes this ideal to be attainable for the journalists of the world, and itself reaches it in the process.
3. The End of the Tour
The End of the Tour, based on the book by former Rolling Stones writer David Lipsky recounting his extended interviews with the late writer David Foster Wallace, is an experience of profound humanity, even if it ultimately doesn’t shed much light on Wallace as a person. This last part is not a criticism. Like Steve Jobs, which narrowly missed making it onto this list, The End of the Tour is not about being biographically astute but emotionally astute, about creating characters whose attributes hint at the complexities of the real individuals without trying to define them.
To that end, Jason Segel delivers one of the best performances of the year as Wallace. With seeming effortlessness, Segel fashions the screen version of Wallace with an internal life of startling depth and density, filled as it is with insecurity, depression, and constant flashes of brilliance, but also with much mystery. To be able to suggest the existence of a person beyond his character’s utility to the immediate plot of the film—that’s phenomenal acting, and the kind of portraiture we can use more of in biographical cinema. As for the contents of the interviews themselves, which play out in the film as one extended conversation between the two Davids, I found the candidness of Wallace’s responses to be relatable and deeply affecting, being that I myself am a highly introspective, emotionally turbulent writer. The End of the Tour clicked with some of my major struggles and sensibilities, and it moved me greatly.
2. Inside Out
Inside Out is a masterpiece that approaches Pixar’s high-water mark of Up and Wall-E. Set entirely inside the head of a tween girl named Riley, the film boasts one of the most imaginative fantasy-scapes in recent memory, and maybe of all time. As envisioned by Pete Docter and crew, the mind is an amusement park-like contraption commandeered by five, perfectly self-expressive Emotions tussling for ownership of the control panel that dictates what Riley feels and subsequently does. Memories are stored in globes color-coded based on the emotion associated with their remembrance, and these orbs travel through tubes that are then compartmentalized in shelves. There are also islands of “personality” that represent fundamental facets of Riley’s identity like Family and Hockey, plus there’s this delightful region of the brain that represents abstract though as abstract art, and Riley’s imaginary friend named Bing Bong, and, and….yeah. To describe in words the creative accomplishments of Inside Out would be a futile endeavor, so I will just leave it at that. The last thing I will say is that the conclusion of Inside Out enters the league of the virtuosic married-life montage from Up with its uncompromising yet profoundly simple take on real life and true emotion. Prepare your mind to be dazzled, your heart to be walloped.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
George Miller’s post-apocalyptic actioner tops this list for a multiplicity of reasons. One is the movie’s aesthetic of pure, undistilled energy; of gorgeous sandstorms and fiery visions; of heavy metal and steampunk jamming together to create a symphony of visual and aural stimulation. If you’re not sold there, you can turn to Furiosa, one of the most badass characters in recent memory; a rousing feminist emblem; and a figure who is both heavy with gravitas and light as air, having unburdened herself of unnecessary dialogue in favor of the terse grace of physical action. Put another way, she is the embodied form of the third and foremost reason why Mad Max is king. Fifteen years of troubled film production later, Miller has created the action movie par excellence, a miraculous feat of simultaneous virtuosity and clarity. Miller takes the genre status quo and drives both choreography and editing to their extremes of quality—Mad Max is somehow at once more complex in its stunts and more pellucid in its presentation than any action picture I’ve ever seen (including Rogue Nation. All the things I said about clarity and practical effects iwhen describing MI5 apply here as well, but exponentially more so.) By the time the film’s third act hits, we have entered uncharted cinematic territory. If there is a Valhalla for action cinema, Mad Max has brought us to its gates.
The Assassin – Though narratively lacking, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s anti-action movie contains some of the most beautiful images I’ve ever seen in a film.
Creed – This gritty, soulful Rocky spin-off and love-letter to Philadelphia contains only two significant boxing set pieces, but both are dramatically gripping and visually virtuosic.
Mistress America – As with Frances Ha, the film explores the socio-emotional maladies of the millennial generation, and like with that film, it is both hilarious and full of sting. Director Noah Baumbach proves himself a master of cringe comedy.
Steve Jobs – The disharmony between Aaron Sorkin’s script and Danny Boyle’s directing style—a disjunction several critics have noticed—generates a messy, fascinating experience full of both aesthetic and dramatic tension. Michael Fassbender gives a towering performance as the titular technological titan.
Some 2015 Films I Still Need to See
Chi-Raq, Carol, Son of Saul, Anomalisa, Ex-Machina, Arabian Nights, Amy, The Look of Silence, Bridge of Spies, Room, Tangerine, Victoria, Girlhood, 45 Years, Listen to Me Marlon, A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence, Timbuktu, Love & Mercy, Taxi, Jurassic World, Eden