Although there are good movies every year, it seems that we have a banner year for cinema roughly once every two or three years. 2014 was one of those years, with “Birdman,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Edge of Tomorrow,” “Whiplash,” and “The Imitation Game” being just a few of the year’s stellar releases. 2012 was another; “Lincoln,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Amour,” “Skyfall,” “Django Unchained,” “The Avengers, “Wreck-It Ralph” and one of my personal all-time favorites, “Cloud Atlas,” were among that year’s better releases.
2015 cinema, as a whole, wasn’t nearly as memorable. We had another Bond movie, another Tarantino film, and the first true sequel to “The Avengers”…yet none of these films were quite on par with their predecessors. Sure, a small film called “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” continues to slay box office records like Kylo Ren’s lightsaber as it plunges through _____’s stomach, but I wasn’t as taken by its unoriginal story as some fans were.
Still, I’ve been on a major movie-watching kick of late. I have finally seen most of the 2015 releases that interest me, and I’m fairly certain that I’ve caught up on the majority of Oscar contenders. (I will find out for certain once the nominees are announced next week.) There certainly are enough good films to compile a top ten list, something I am wont to do. Here goes…without spoilers!
GringoPotpourri’s Top Ten Films of 2015:
- Chi-raq: Writer-director Spike Lee’s incendiary musical, made in response to rising rates of gang violence in Chicago, is an urgent call for peace…and the filmmaker’s best film in 15 years. Though loosely based on the millennia-old tragedy “Lysistrata,” by Aristophanes, Chi-raq is a wholly-original work. In it, rival South Side gang leaders Demetrius “Chi-raq” Dupree (Nick Cannon) and Cyclops (Wesley Snipes) are just two of the city’s thugs responsible for endless, 24/7 violence, so much that Chicago has had more American casualties since 2000 than the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars combined. Lysistrata (the revelatory Tenoyah Parris), Chi-raq’s girlfriend, tires of the violence after one death hits particularly close to home. She leads the city on a sex strike, promising no booty calls until the men lay down their arms. “No peace? No pussy.” The movement goes viral, and the proceedings are narrated by Lee regular Samuel L. Jackson, wearing an increasingly-garish series of pimp suits and stealing his every scene. The movie opens with lyrics to Cannon’s rap song “Pray 4 My City” unfolding over a black screen, followed by the all-caps warning “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY” and a blistering opening scene set in a nightclub where Chi-raq’s rhymes are cut short by violence. Later scenes include white church pastor John Cusack (playing the real-life Father Mike Corridan) condemning America’s policies that keep minorities living in poverty, and a funny throw-away in which stripjoint owner Dave Chapelle bemoans the lack of women on the poles as a result of their participation in the sex strike. To be fair, not every moment in “Chi-raq” works. But the movie swings for the fences and may be the only film on this list to rival any of the aforementioned films from 2012 and 2014.
- Mad Max: Fury Road: I hated the original “Mad Max.” “The Road Warrior,” too. There, I said it. And I couldn’t believe the insane trailer for “Mad Max: Fury Road.” My first thought was, who greenlit this?! But rave reviews had me second-guessing my instincts, so I caught a matinee screening of the film, and was flabbergasted. I have never seen anything like “Fury Road,” and my hat is off to septuagenarian director George Miller, who helmed what is surely one of the most impressive action-adventure films ever made. It is something of an assault on the senses, as we watch title hero “Mad” Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, fantastic) lead a tanker filled with slave women to freedom through the post-apocalyptic desert while hordes of oxygen mask-wearing Immortan Joe’s white-faced ghouls in souped-up über-dune buggies give chase. Stuff blows up and the action slows for only a moment roughly 75 minutes in before picking up again. That, really, is all you need to know. Just sit back and enjoy the ride – an astonishing assault on the senses that should bring home several technical Oscars (and that even garnered nods for Best Picture and Director!) next month.
- Brooklyn: This period piece, about an Irish immigrant who comes to America in the late 1950’s, is the feel-good gem of the year, and the film that 1992’s “Far and Away” yearned to be. “Atonement” child star Saiorse Ronan is all grown up, and in “Brooklyn” she plays Eilis, the underemployed, youngest daughter of a widow living in the small Irish town of Enniscorthy. A visiting Catholic priest from the States gets her passage to America, and a job working in a NYC department store. Eilis settles into a new life in the titular borough, battling loneliness until she finds love with Tony, an Italian plumber with a big family and a bigger heart. But when tragedy calls her back to Ireland, she falls back in love with the small Gaelic town that she once thought as a place without much to offer. Her renewed love with Ireland may also have something to do with Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), the town’s most eligible bachelor, who sees Eilis as more than just a pretty young thing. Lyrical, hopeful, and honest, “Brooklyn” is that type of old-fashioned movie that we rarely see anymore. Ronan, who earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination, brings the right mix of independence and vulnerability to the part. Emory Cohen, who plays Tony, is a real find. Side note: “Brooklyn” is surely the most romantic film I’ve seen in 2015.
- Spotlight: Oscar bait or quest for truth? Whichever way you look at it, “Spotlight” delivers the goods. The movie hearkens back to Alan J. Pakula’s terrific 1976 thriller “All the President’s Men,” in which Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman played Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they chased down the truth in what became known as Watergate. This time out, character actor and indie director Tom McCarthy is behind the lens, and it is Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy James who do the acting, each playing members of the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team of investigative reporters outing the Catholic church for decades of buggery among the diocese’s priests. “Spotlight” (the movie) overcomes a slow start and becomes an urgent call for action. The all-star cast also includes John Slattery as executive editor Ben Bradlee, Jr. (the son of the character played by Oscar winner Jason Robards in the aforementioned “Men”), Liev Schreiber as the lone Jew amongst a newspaper staff of otherwise lapsed Catholics, and Billy Crudup as a compromised lawyer for the church. Ruffalo and McAdams fare the best of the cast, with McAdams playing a character very similar to her spunky cub reporter from 2009’s “State of Play” – another worthwhile film at least partly about the dying world of print journalism.
- Anomalisa: Cartoon cunnilingus. Anything goes when you watch a movie written (and in this case directed) by Charlie Kaufman, the eccentric genius who gave us the award-winning screenplays for “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation,” and “Eternal Sunshine and the Spotless Mind.” The stop-motion puppet animation in “Anomalisa” would make “Malkovich’s” Craig Schwartz (the John Cusack character) delirious with delight, but the story is simpler this time around: Michael, a bored business traveler with a wife and son back home, is so depressed by the mundanity of his life that everyone he interacts with, from his hotel bellboy to his jilted ex-girlfriend, speak with the same voice (courtesy of a game Tom Noonan). He finds renewed meaning when he meets a hotel guest with a singular voice – that of Jennifer Jason Leigh. Her character, Lisa, isn’t much to look at, but he is immediately smitten. He calls her his “Anomalisa,” and immediately leads her down a path that can’t possibly end well – although it does include the aforementioned oral sex, rendered in convincing detail. There are just three voice actors – Noonan, Leigh, and David Thewlis as Michael. They are superb, and they bring an enormous amount of pathos to this original (and yet strangely predictable) tale. But even moreso, I loved the little touches that made this animated film seem more real than almost anything else this year – the mundane small talk by Michael’s cab driver and bellboy, the airport’s moving walkway, the bizarre room service icons on his hotel phone keypad, etc. See this movie…but leave the little ones at home.
- Steve Jobs: Is there is a more polarizing Hollywood script- and screenwriter than Aaron Sorkin? His frenetic, non-stop dialogue can be as infuriating as it is charming, especially when he goes for the emotional jugular. Only “The Social Network,” which won Sorkin an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, is immune to Sorkin’s tendency for pandering…and it is a better movie because of this resistance. “Steve Jobs,” one of the more notorious box office bombs of 2015, is no “Social Network,” and it does include some late-third-act pathos, but it earns its place on this list for feeling more experimental than most other movies this year. Rather than playing it safe as a cradle-to-grave biopic, “Steve Jobs” focuses on three tumultuous nights in the late CEO’s life: the California premieres of his Apple II, NeXt, and iMac computers. The same motley crew (crüe?) of characters accompany Jobs at each outing: wronged ex-partner Steve Wozniak (a better-than-usual Seth Rogen), loyal assistant Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), ex-boss John Scully (Jeff Daniels, enjoying a strong year), and his unwanted daughter Lisa (played by Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo, and Makenzie Moss, promising young actresses all). There is a rhythm in the dialogue as well as to the structure, and as the temperamental Jobs, Michael Fassbender seems born to read Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue. I almost forgot to mention that the movie was directed by Danny Boyle, but that’s only because “Steve Jobs” is a distinctly-Sorkin project. He did win the Golden Globe ten days ago for his screenplay, so maybe I’m not off-base in my respect for his work here.
- The Revenant: I recently re-watched “Birdman,” which won the Academy Award for Best Picture last year and which was directed by “The Revenant’s” Alejandro G. Iñarritu. As ensemble pieces go, “Birdman” is a hoot! Actors bounce lines off each other, one-liners come so fast and furious that many of the jokes don’t even register until a second viewing, and the whole thing appears to be shot in one continuous (but never dizzying) take. “The Revenant,” in comparison, is gruesome, downbeat, and ponderous. It is hard to believe that it was helmed by the same filmmaker…until you factor in such aspects as acting and cinematography. Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy headline this based-on-a-true-story “re-imagining” of the fate that befalls legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), who leads a group of fur-trapping ruffians through the Rocky Mountain wilderness until he is viciously attacked by a bear, in one of 2015 cinema’s signature FX sequences. Left for dead by his colleagues, including the opportunistic Fitzgerald (Hardy), Glass nurses himself back to health while hiding from Arikara Indians and using visions of his deceased Native American wife and child as drivers back to civilization. Remarkably, “The Revenant” was shot using only natural light sources, and lauded lenser “Chivo” Lubezki’s camerawork is almost mystical. Lubezki will probably win his fifth Academy Award for his work here, and director Iñarritu may win his second. Speaking of Academy Awards, DiCaprio is the front runner for Oscar gold, and never mind talk about how this is his consolation prize for not winning in the past. He and Hardy, both unrecognizable beneath filthy beards and prosthetic makeup, deliver career-best performances.
- Bridge of Spies: Less impactful than “Schindler’s List” and less poetic than “Lincoln,” “Bridge of Spies” is, nevertheless, another late-career, dramatic triumph for Steven Spielberg. This compelling piece of fact-based storytelling takes place, chronology, mid-way between the events of those two earlier films, and details the events that transpire after the U.S. captures a Russian spy and attempts to trade him for downed U2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers. A border-spanning East/West Berlin bridge is the crossing of the title, and Tom Hanks is our stoic leading man, battling a cold and the public will as he escorts his Soviet captive, well-played by Mark Rylance, to an uncertain future. Hanks, in the kind of role that he does so well, portrays NYC lawyer James Donovan, and he shares memorable chemistry with Oscar nominee Rylance, who plays taciturn spy Rudolf Abel. Of interesting note is that this is the first Spielberg film in at least three decades for which maestro John Williams did not compose the score…although Janusz Kamiński once again serves as the (Oscar-nominated) director of photography, while the Coen Bros. contribute to the lively script.
- Straight Outta Compton: The unlikely feel-good hit of the year, “Straight Outta Compton” is better than anyone expected it to be. I say that with no disrespect towards director F. Gary Gray, who has made at least three other movies that I really enjoyed: the chronic comedy “Friday,” the female-driven heist film “Set it Off,” and the SWAT thriller “The Negotiator.” But did anyone really ask for a big screen biography about the founding of gangsta rap group NWA? It is damn good, though, and its cast of newcomers is damn good, too. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, South Central Los Angeles youths Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, the real-life son of Cube and excellent portraying his old man), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.), and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) unite from various backgrounds (spinning records, writing lyrics, selling dope, etc.) to form NWA. The film documents the group’s formation and, predictably, its downfall, as egos and disagreements over money send them their separate ways. We meet other rap industry superstars as well, namely the short-tempered Suge Knight (a scary-good R. Marcos Taylor), as well as Jerry Heller (a bleach-blond Paul Giamatti), the producer and lone white man who believed in them…before contractually stealing the group blind. We have seen this all before, and yet we haven’t. “Straight Outta Compton,” which is also the name of NWA’s first album, is leagues more fun than most other music industry biopics, and surprising tender as well. Mitchell, so good as Eazy-E, leaves the most lasting impression as Eazy attempts a late-career comeback while being ravaged by AIDS. He is the heart of the picture, and makes its 2.5-hour running time breeze by.
- The Big Short: “The Big Short” is one of those films that is hard to categorize. It is a ripped-from-the-headlines cautionary tale of Wall Street greed…but a comedy. Its four leads certainly aren’t heroes…but they aren’t really boo-hiss villains, either. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the genre is, for director Adam McKay, more famous for helming such scattershot Will Ferrell comedies as “Step Brothers” and “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” reinvents himself with this riotous, riveting docu-dramedy detailing the insane, dehumanizing profits made by a group of Wall Street insiders (and wannabes) who discover, one-by-one, that they can reap a sick profit by betting against the housing market….never mind the selling of their souls in the process. Ryan Gosling narrates, breaks the fourth wall, and chews tasty ham as trader Jared Vennett. Brad Pitt plays former investment banker Ben Rickert, who mentors a pair of ambitious traders with small portfolios but big dreams. Christian Bale, who just earned his third Oscar nomination, plays California-based hedge fund manager Michael Burry, a brilliant, eccentric numbers cruncher with a glass eye and a penchant for blasting heavy metal. Best of them all is Steve Carell, as jaded fund manager Mark Baum, who joins the action out of anger but ends up growing a conscience.
So there you have it. I suppose I could give cursory mention to a few also-rans. Not quite “top ten” material but also good are (in no particular order):
- The Danish Girl: An important film about dignity for the transgendered, Tom “The King’s Speech” Hooper’s film tells the true story about Danish painter Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, who becomes the first person to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Eddie Redmayne is superb as Einar/Lili, and he is well-matched by Alicia Vikander as wife/partner Gerda.
- Creed: “Rocky VII” could be the alternate title for this triumphant, underdog sports drama, but that would be doing the movie a disservice for two reasons: 1) “Creed” is leagues better than most other “sixth sequels,” and 2) lead Michael B. Jordan, of “Fruitvale Station” renown, more than holds his own against Best Supporting Actor frontrunner Sylvester Stallone, doing his best work in decades.
- The Martian: Matt Damon + Ridley Scott + outer space = a fun romp and a box office smash. Ridley Scott’s best film since 2000’s “Gladiator,” and his best sci-fi film since 1979’s “Alien.”
- Room: A life-affirming story of how love knows no bounds. In “Room,” a mother and son trapped in a 12-by-12 room for five years. Leads Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay are superb.
- Mission: Impossible – Rouge Nation: Not as good as 2011’s “Ghost Protocol,” but better than 2000’s “M:I-2” and with a more complicated and believable story this time. Tom Cruise, now 53, continues to defy his age and the odds by performing his own stunts. Well done, sir.
- Ant-Man: “Iron Man” meets “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” in this fun origin film from Marvel Studios. Better than it could have been, with an appealing turn by Paul Rudd and nice supporting work by Michaels’ Douglas and Peña.
- It Follows: Slow-cooking horror film in which sex = death. Newcomer Maika Monroe has the makings of a Jamie Lee Curtis-caliber scream queen, and the cinematography (love those tracking shots!) deserves a shout out.
What about you, Loyal Reader? What are your favorites from 2015? Comment below and let us know!