Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Honorable Mention: The Best Films of 2015, 25-11

I found myself wanting, cinematically at least, for most of 2015. The first half of the year presented very little of interest, and the few films that I did see with some expectation (Trainwreck or Mistress America) felt flat to me, without much of anything real to say. But the second half of the year has brought some real heat, giving us a wonderful, varied selection of terrific films by equally terrific filmmakers. It was a seemingly loaded year for female performances, with obvious standouts like Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Carol or Brie Larson in Room; but not to be forgotten are the incredible comedic performances we got from Melissa McCarthy in Spy or Kristen Wiig in Welcome To Me. Films like Mad Max: Fury Road and Mustang presented audiences with tales of women fighting tooth and nail against an oppressive patriarchy, while Tangerine gave us the most mannered, entertaining tale of trans women that has come our way for some time. Even the new Star Wars film chose a woman (Daisy Ridley's Rey) as its protagonist! Let's hope this isn't a anomaly. 2015 finished up strong, and here's a sample of some of the best films I've seen this year. The Top 10 goes up tomorrow!

25. While We're Young. Noah Baumbach's tale of childless fortysomethings (played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) getting a much needed boost by becoming friends with a couple of seemingly aimless twentysomethings (played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) is the great millennial satire that we've been waiting for. Baumbach is no longer as angry as he once was, but While We're Young has a healthy amount of bitterness about getting older, but not so much that the fresh humor is muted. The performances add to this Woody Allen-lite comedy and propel this up amongst the best of Baumbach's canon.

24. Son of Saul. László Nemes' debut feature is a fierce Holocaust drama about a Jewish Sonderkommando worker in 1944 Auschwitz. Géza Röhrig stars as the titular Saul, a regretful cog in the Auschwitz machine, who spots the body of a young boy and believes its his son. His search to find a rabbi to give the boy a proper burial amidst the chaos of the concentration camp encompasses the main conflict throughout this biting film. A stunning performance from Röhrig and some startling cinematography separates Son of Saul from the usual Holocaust film and gives us one of our most stirring tragedies of the year.

23. The Martian. Ridley Scott takes Andy Weir's wonderful wise-cracking, fact-heavy science-fiction novel and takes it to the big screen. One of our best movie stars, Matt Damon, gives one of his very best performances as a man stranded on Mars who must find ways to stay alive while a handful of people on Earth (and in space) conspire to come up with a rescue plan. Despite the dire plot, The Martian is one of the year's best comedies, a snarky action film that boasts a killer supporting cast including (but not limited to) Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Jeff Daniels and Sean Bean. One of the best studio films of the year.

22. Spy. Melissa McCarthy finally got a starring vehicle that deserves her, with Paul Feig's hilarious action comedy which lets McCarthy's freak flag fly with wonderful gross-out humor and a surprisingly sophisticated espionage plot. With Jude Law, Rose Byrne and Miranda Hart co-starring, Spy boasts one of the best comedy ensembles of the year.

21. Wild Tales. This Argentinian film got itself an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in January, but didn't arrive in American theaters until the Spring. Director Damián Szifrón gives us six hysterical, baroque vignettes, each showcasing the distressing, sometimes violent circumstances of the human condition. Giving us glimpses into humanity that are both unique and bloody (in equal measure), Wild Tales was the year's best anthology film.

20. Creed. Director Ryan Coogler followed his breakout indie, Fruitvale Station, with a new addition to the Rocky films. Fruitvale star Michael B. Jordan joins Coogler here, as Adonis Johnson, the son of Rocky rival Apollo Creed. Movie legend Sylvester Stallone returns as his most beloved character, Rocky Balboa, uprooting what has become a stale life of mourning and restaurant management to be Adonis' trainer. Jordan and Stallone show incredible chemistry in a film that does a striking job of measuring franchise homage and individuality.

19. Labyrinth of Lies. Fictionalized versions of true stories can often spell trouble for movies, but Giulio Ricciarelli's film is a masterly told tale of a young German lawyer trying to expose the Nazis hiding in plain sight after the end of World War II. In showing the internal struggle of a nation trying to outrun its very recent misdeeds, Labyrinth's air-tight script crafts a spellbinding thriller ripe with tension throughout, and the film contains a collection of performances that rivals most of the year's best ensembles.

18-17. The End of the Tour & Mississippi Grind. Two buddy road films, both equipped with terrific dual performances, both with wonderfully spellbinding views into the nature of male companionship. In The End of the Tour, reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) must follow around famed writer David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) at the tail end of his book tour for Infinite Jest. In Mississippi Grind, a compulsive gambler  (Ben Mendelsohn) convinces a handsome drifter (Ryan Reynolds) to accompany him on a gambling trip down the Mississippi. Both films go beyond the common bromance of Hollywood comedies and delves into the nature of what makes men attracted to one another. Tour's script (by playwright Donald Margulies) is a smart, dialogue-driven dramedy, while Grind is a somber meditation. But both films have a tender understanding of platonic male infatuation.

16. Brooklyn. Nick Hornby penned the script to this sweet, nostalgic tale of a young Irish girl (an incredible Saoirse Ronan) who moves to Brooklyn and builds a life, only to return to her home country to face some dire questions. She falls for two men, one a Brooklyn plumber (Emory Cohen) and the other an Irish aristocrat (Domhnall Gleeson), which complicates her choices. Ronan gives one of the year's best performances as a girl who learns that part of growing up is learning to define what your home is. The great ensemble also includes Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters and Jane Brennan.

15. Legend. Tom Hardy is one of our most brilliant actors, and he showed that early in 2015 while spear-heading Mad Max: Fury Road. While Legend may not have been anywhere near as close of a hit, it's no less of an example of just how talented and exciting the British actor is. He plays both of the infamous Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie, notorious killers and criminals who ruled England's East End in the 50's and 60's. Brian Helgeland's script and direction recalls Goodfellas in the best way, and he proves adept at using Hardy in one of the best roles the actor has ever gotten. It's perhaps the performance of the year.

14-13. Dope & Chi-Raq. The two best racial satires of the year. Dope is a high school comedy about a young nerd (Shameik Moore) who ends up in possession of a large package of MDMA and must find a way to sell it all while still managing college applications and getting the attention of the local girl he likes. Chi-Raq is Spike Lee's cheeky adaptation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata, moving the locale to gangland Chicago. Both films rank amongst the year's best comedies, but also have a great time skewering the troubled dynamics of American racial politics. Dope boasts a wonderful young cast including Moore, Kiersey Clemons and Grand Budapest Hotel's Tony Revolori; Chi-Raq has one of the year's best scripts (written by Lee and Kevin Willmott) and the characters even speak in verse! But both films manage to be funny and entertaining without undermining the very important discussion they hope to spark. They're both important films that everyone should see.

12. Inside Out. Pixar's first truly great film since 2009's Up, Inside Out is a beautifully emotional film about emotions. As the young Riley grows into adolescence, a major move and burgeoning hormones send her into an unforeseen melancholia. Inside her, five emotions battle, led by Joy (Amy Poehler) and including Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and the turtle-necked Sadness (Phyllis Smith). As the emotions struggle to keep up with an ever-changing Riley, the emotions themselves begin to learn about what growing up is about. The script (by director Pete Doctor, as well as Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley) is one of the best of the year, and includes a supporting character named Bing Bong (voice by Richard Kind), that is the base of one of the most heartbreaking moments in any film this year.

11. Steve Jobs. Aaron Sorkin's second trip to Silicon Valley sees him adapting Walter Isaacson's epic tome of a biography, and shaving it down into a spry, three-act sprint into the mind of one of the Twentieth's Century's most mercurial icons. Michael Fassbender plays Jobs as an all-ego, all-adrenaline line-o-rama, and the actor is boosted by an incredible ensemble including Michael Stuhlbarg, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels and Kate Winslet. Directed by Danny Boyle, who's probably one of the few directors as skilled at timing as Sorkin is, Steve Jobs is a fun twist on biopics, refusing to be dragged into a another Great American Man tale. It instead morphs into a funny, tense narrative that both loathes its protagonist while also standing in awe of him.

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