With the Oscars looming this weekend, I figured it really was about time I put forward my top ten list for 2015. These are, of course, only the top ten in my (relatively) humble opinion, and of necessity are only the top ten movies that I actually saw—there are certainly some fine movies that I probably missed. You may notice that I do not include the two films that received the most Oscar nominations this year: the Revenant and Mad Max. But there is a simple reason for that: I didn’t really like them much. Oh, I admit they were both great technical achievements, and the Revenant in particular was beautiful to see, and I will even go so far as to say that Leonardo Dicaprio will deserve the Oscar that he is essentially a shoe-in to receive for Best Actor. But the movie as a whole just didn’t do it for me. Perhaps, as my wife is fond of saying, I was not the intended audience.
Still, it was difficult to pick out ten movies from this year’s crop. I weighed a lot of them, and before getting to the winners, I want to give honorable mention to some that I would have liked to include if I weren’t limited to ten: Sicario, The End of the Tour, Leviathan, Youth, Trumbo, Far from the Madding Crowd, Timbukto, and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation were all excellent movies and I recommend them highly. Just not quite as highly as the following ten:
10. Inside Out
My nominee for best animated film of the year is Pixar’s Inside Out. In my original review of this film I noted this: “Inside Out has four major positives going for it: First, its allegorical presentation of the workings of the mind—the subconscious, the memory, the intertwined emotions—is creative, imaginative, and entertaining, even if it is 1500 years old. Second, the story allows for moments of clever humor (the ‘train of thought’ is an actual train that puffs along the tracks of Riley’s mind; dreams are created in a ‘dream factory,’ complete with a production crew and soundstage. One of Riley’s more frightening memories is a clown from an early birthday party). Third, the voices of the television personalities who inhabit the major roles do a remarkable job bringing those characters to life. Finally and most importantly, the film undercuts the dangerous attitude that all our emotions must be sublimated to happiness in favor of a healthier acceptance of sadness, anger and fear. It is a message that may surprise audiences expecting Joy to win out in the end, as a good summer Hollywood blockbuster should.” I believe that says it all.
John Crowley’s charming film about Eilis Lacey (played with great appeal by Saoirse Ronan), a young Irish girl forced to leave her home and move to Brooklyn in the 1950s, is an uplifting romance, complicated by Eilis’s return to Ireland, where she meets a very marriageable Irish lad who threatens to steal her away from her nice Italian boy back in Brooklyn. Eilis’s choice is between the old life in the protected environment she grew up with or the new life she is forging as an adult in New York. In my original review I called it a “film without villains,” and noted that “it has the feel of a classic film that does what films have always done best: give us a sense of joy and satisfaction.”
8. Bridge of Spies
Sure, I feels a little old-fashioned and is a little heavy-handed at times, but this Cold War drama has the feel of a John le Carré thriller; it’s a period piece that really captures the milieu of the early 60s, and it’s created by the dynamic duo of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, so how can you beat that? My original review put it this way: “Although [Mark] Ryance as [Soviet spy] Abel is able to steal some scenes with his sympathetic underplayed irony, the movie really depends on Hanks’ ability to carry it from start to finish. And he does not disappoint. He never does. He manages to be the embodiment of American idealism without being priggish, overbearing or chauvinistic. He is simply an honest lawyer who understands the importance of the constitution as the cornerstone of American democracy. In terms of Spielberg-Hanks collaborations, this one is a cut above The Terminal or Catch Me if You Can, though it probably falls short of the transcendent brilliance of Saving Private Ryan. But it’s certainly one of the better movies of the year.” I still think that—the eighth best movie of the year, to be exact.
7. The Martian
Ridley Scott’s tribute to American ingenuity is the story of Mark Watney, marooned alone on Mars with virtually no chance for rescue, and played with positive energy and charm by Matt Damon. Though a number of other A-list stars people NASA headquarters on earth, as I wrote in my earlier review, “The movie succeeds only if Damon succeeds in putting his part over. Furthermore, unlike Apollo 13, which makes NASA the real star of the film and shows the ingenuity of the team at NASA in finding creative solutions to a nearly impossible situation, The Martian shows the infighting at NASA nearly scuttling the rescue effort, and it’s really Watney himself who is chiefly responsible for his own salvation. And it’s really Damon’s performance that makes this movie worth seeing. His Watney has enormous charm and a sense of humor that comes out in the video log he keeps, which is also, of course, the movie’s way of letting us into his thoughts and plans even though he is the only person on the planet—the log is for Watney what Wilson the soccer-ball is for Tom Hanks in Castaway. Watney solves one problem after another, ultimately finding a way to communicate with NASA and help in his own rescue effort. And though setbacks occur, he bounces back from despair each time and maintains his positive attitude.” Though there are plenty of technical marvels as well as lovely vistas of the Martian landscape, the Robinson Crusoe on Mars story as Damon portrays it makes this one of the best movies of the year.
My vote for best foreign film of the year goes to Christian Petzold’s Phoenix. Set in post-Holocaust Berlin, and filmed in the noir style characteristic of the late-40s era that it recreates, “Phoenix” follows Auschwitz survivor Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), a former cabaret singer, who is brought back to Berlin to have reconstructive surgery on her devastated face, which was ravaged by a gunshot just before the camp was liberated. But Nelly wants only to find her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), the love of whom, she feels, helped her survive the death camps. But it turns out that it was in fact Johnny who turned Nelly in to the Nazis. Undeterred, Nelly searches the nightclubs still scattered among the rubble of the city, and at one, named the Phoenix, she finds her pianist husband. But Johnny (now called Johannes) does not recognize her, the surgery having so changed her face. Still, he thinks she bears a resemblance to his wife, and hatches a plot to use the false Nelly to claim his dead wife’s inheritance. As I wrote in my original review, “the film has the quality of a finely wrought short story—self-contained, possessing a tight unity of action, with an ending that is suspenseful, surprising, yet inevitable.” It’s one that you may not have seen, but believe me, you should.
Lenny Abrahamson’s small film is disturbing but a must-see movie of 2015. Brie Larson as “Ma,” the mother of a 5-year old son with whom she lives in an 11 by 11 foot shed, is an odds on favorite to win the Best Actress Oscar. She is riveting in the role of a young woman who was kidnapped at the age of 17 by a psychopath who keeps her prisoner in a reinforced shed. She has had a child, Jack, who is now 5 years old, and whom she struggles and risks everything to try to save from the life she is forced to live. In my original review, I wrote that “The danger in Room is that the story might drag, especially in the early scenes where everything is about the mother-child relationship and there is no fast-moving plot to keep us in suspense. That does not happen, since we are at first engaged in figuring out the situation, and later we are intensely caught up in plans to escape. Another danger might be sensationalizing or sentimentalizing the material, as a hundred other treatments might have done. Abrahamson is guilty of neither. This is a film in which everything seems real—people do what they do because they have to, or because they can’t help themselves. Even the depraved rapist, despicable as he is, comes off as human.”
4. Steve Jobs
Danny Boyle’s film of Aaron Sorkin’s script presents the Apple icon Jobs in a biopic that some criticize for fictionalizing a large part of Jobs’ life. Presented in three acts at three turning points in Jobs’ career, it could be said that nothing in the film actually happened quite this way in real life, but that ultimately it gets at the truth of Jobs’ life. As I wrote in the original review, Michael Fassbinder “gives a compelling performance as the enigmatic Jobs, capturing his inflexibility, his ego, his disregard for others, but also, at times, the tiny inklings of humanity that creep through. But the supporting cast is excellent as well: [Kate] Winslet is practically perfect (as she always is) as the long suffering angel on Jobs’ shoulder [Joanna] Hoffman, and [Seth] Rogen’s performance is deceptively effortless as he captures the emotional [Steve] Wozniak. [Jeff] Daniels, a veteran of Sorkinesque rapid fire dialogue, is compelling as the rejected father figure [John] Sculley, as is the less recognizable [Michael] Stuhlbarg …as the abused and bullied but highly sympathetic engineer [Andy] Hertzfeld. All bring a variety of foils for Fassbender to play off of. In the end, though, it is his film, and rises or falls on the strength of his performance, which is remarkably impressive….These are performances that are worth seeing, delivering dialogue that is worth hearing, in a film that tells a remarkable story. Take it as a fable if you don’t like the ambiguity of the facts. If you don’t like “talky” movies but love the visuals, this may not be the movie for you. If you like films that seem like plays, you’ll love this one. I did.”
3. The Big Short
Adam McKay’s film, based on Michael Lewis’s bestselling book on the financial crisis of 2007-8, focuses, as my original review sums it up, “on four financial types who independently come to realize that the American economy is about to tank, and who decide to short the housing bubble, essentially betting on the collapse of the mortgage bond market, ultimately making millions. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), an eccentric fund manager with a glass eye who is clearly somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum, comes to the realization in 2005 that the market, based on subprime loans, would collapse sometime in 2007, once the adjustable rates began to kick in on the subprime loans that had become the basis of the housing market, forcing thousands to default on their mortgages. When Burry, investing over a billion dollars of his clients’ money, talks to Wall Street’s largest financial institutions about what he wants to do, they laugh at him and, of course, take as much as his money as he is willing to part with.” It sounds like it could be a dull lesson in finance, but with McKay’s twisted humor and the excellent performances of the main characters, it is a joy, if a painful one, to watch. In some ways a classical satire, the film ridicules the folly and vice of those whose hubris and stupidity brought about the crisis, and warns that, since there were no real consequences for the criminals who launch the disaster, it could always happen again.
The film that probably should win the Best Picture Oscar (since my #1 is not nominated), Spotlight is a classic film about investigative journalism in the tradition of All the President’s Men, that portrays the Boston Globe’s role in the unearthing of the scandal of pedophile priests in Boston that rocked the Catholic Church. As I said in my original review, “Director Thomas McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer create a script that avoids clichés and avoids romanticizing or idealizing the hard work of investigative journalism—at a time when the 24-hour news cycle has encouraged and created grandstanding mouthpieces for preconceived political points of view. It’s a paeon to the first amendment and the fourth estate and responsible journalism, may they rest in peace. The story is told intelligently, and we feel like part of the investigative team, surprised by new discoveries, or thwarted by the powers that be.” As head of the investigative team “Spotlight,” Michael Keaton “has never been better, even in his Oscar-nominated Birdman role. He has his own reasons for dreading, but needing this investigation to succeed. [Mark] Ruffalo plays a passionate and quirky, almost obsessed character as [crack reporter] Rezendes. [Stanley] Tucci is even quirkier as victims’ lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, but [Liv] Schreiber is brilliant as the low-key man behind the probe.” This film has an excellent script, great direction, and impressive performances from a stellar cast. If you haven’t seen this film yet, do it now!
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Okay, yes, it was the most popular movie of 2015 and it made the most money and was a worldwide sensation and if I’m going to pick a respectable top ten list I should ignore what’s popular and focus on highbrow films of significant social impact. But come on. What’s the one movie from 2015 that I will probably watch again and again over the years? The one that brings back the spirit and look and feel of that first trilogy that changed the world of moviemaking so that you can still divide films into pre-Star Wars and post-Star Wars special effects. In my original review I wrote, “Fortunately, [Director J.J.] Abrams has found three new heroes to whom the torch is passed in this film who seem to have the onscreen chemistry and acting ability of the original crew. Two of these are virtual unknowns: Daisy Ridley plays Rey, the lonely orphaned teenaged scavenger who proves to be more than she seems and is soon drawn to the Resistance. John Boyega …plays Finn, the renegade former Storm Trooper who only wants to get away to the outer galaxy but becomes a reluctant hero as he finds something that keeps him in the fight. To these add Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron, the skilled and enthusiastic X-wing pilot loyal to Princess Leia and gung-ho in the fight against the First Order. … It is as much a delight to watch their interactions as it was Ford, Hamill and Fisher’s thirty-five years ago. Ridley is engaging and sympathetic (like a young Luke Skywalker!), Boyega funny and charismatic (like a young Han Solo!). The film also introduces, as it must, a new dark lord named Kylo Ren—a black-masked figure, the archetypal Shadow, deliberately channeling Darth Vader, played with angst and subtlety by Adam Driver (Isaac’s co-star in Inside Llewyn Davis), who manages even at his worst moments—and they are some pretty bad worst moments—to retain some of our sympathy, and that is no mean feat. The actors click with an undeniable screen chemistry that suggests we are in good hands for the future of the franchise. …Satisfying in every way, this is the most fun you will have at the movies this year, so go on and get your tickets, if you can. These really are the droids you’ve been looking for. Four Shakespeares for this one.”