I’m not sure how, but I managed to see 300 feature films in 2015. That’s probably nothing to brag about, but I love movies, and since I’ve got time to see a lot, that’s what I do. I thought it was an extremely good year for films. Following are thirty titles that represent the best of what I saw. More than half of these have been released since September, which is not surprising. The films are in alphabetical order, but Spotlight and Brooklyn are my top picks, the best of a really strong bunch. Note: I have not yet seen Beasts of No Nation, Room, or Tangerine, all of which sound very promising.
Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman, director & writer; Duke Johnson, co-director) I love this film. It’s so strange, affecting, emotional, and just plain weird that you look at it with a sort of curious wonder. Charlie Kaufman has previously written Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). In 2008 he directed, as well as wrote, Synechdoche, New York. These are all extremely original, wonderfully whacked-out visions, and Anomalisa is no less so, despite being set in a realistic, everyday world with realistic, everyday people — albeit puppets. Kaufman uses stop-motion animation to tell the story of a man, Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), who has flown to Cincinnati to give the keynote speech at a customer service convention. He’s extremely alienated and lonely. His encounter with Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), a shy customer service rep from Akron, is sad, awkward, painful, and lovely. Thewlis and Leigh bring a great deal of humanity to the film. Tom Noonan voices all the other characters, using the same voice for male and female alike, which takes a while to get used to, but works thematically. Most stop-motion films, and animation in general, deal with fantasy, science fiction, or otherwise extremely exaggerated, often cartoonish worlds. Anomalisa is unique and special.
The Big Short (Adam McKay, director & co-writer) Not as good as I’d expected, but the ensemble cast is great. Despite the pains taken by the filmmakers to make the financial gobbledygook understandable, I still have no idea what happened in 2008, except that a lot of people should have gone to jail and only one guy did. Based on Michael Lewis’ non-fiction bestseller, this film would make a great triple bill with with J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call (2011) and Charles Ferguson’s documentary Inside Job (2010), with the addition of a fourth film, 99 Homes (2015).
Brooklyn (John Crowley, director; Nick Hornby, writer) As stated above, this is one of my two favorite films of the year. Saoirse Ronan, whom I first saw in Atonement (2007), plays Eilis Lacey, a young Irish woman who, at her sister’s urging, reluctantly leaves home in Ireland in 1952 to live and work in the United States. Her sister Rose has made arrangements through a priest (played by the always authentic Jim Broadbent) for Eilis to live in a rooming house in Brooklyn and work in a Manhattan department store. Eilis begins a relationship with Tony, a young man from an Italian family whom she meets at a dance. As played by Emory Cohen, Tony is sweet, open, honest, and decent. Watching them fall in love is a pleasure. We want it to work. Then Eilis receives news of a death that takes her back to Ireland. She intends to stay only a short time, but then meets Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), who begins to tentatively court her. (Gleeson, son of actor Brendan Gleeson, had a strong year in 2015, playing vastly different roles in Ex Machina, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and The Revenant, as well as Brooklyn.) The big question is who will Eilis end up with, Tony or Jim? This is a film without villains, with the possible exception of the shopkeeper Eilis works for at the beginning of the film, who is just bitter and unhappy and tries to make sure everyone else is, too. The 50s period setting is impeccable, but doesn’t hit you over the head with details. This might sound pretty low key, but it plays out beautifully, and feels very real — or at least, I’d like to think so.
Carol (Todd Haynes, director; Phyllis Nagy, writer) Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, this is the story of a love affair between two women, in a time when such relationships were definitely not accepted. Therese Belivet (played by Rooney Mara) is working at counter in a Manhattan department store, when she meets Carol Aird (played by Cate Blanchett), who has come to buy a Christmas gift. Carol is an affluent, suburban housewife with children who has a polished and sophisticated air. Her sensuous, seductive voice and manner dazzles Therese from the start. Cate Blanchett is a great actress with a filmography that showcases stunning performances in such films as Truth (2015), Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine (2013), and Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There (2007), in which she plays a version of Bob Dylan. Carol was exquisitely shot by Ed Lachman, a cinematographer whose work includes Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), The Limey (1999), and the HBO mini-series Mildred Pierce (2011, also directed by Haynes). Carol draws us into an early 50s New York world seen in burnished, coppery tones. As with Brooklyn, the period setting feels completely detailed and authentic, with the most realistic use of period automobiles I’ve ever seen. Carol drives a Packard sedan. (When was the last time you saw one of those featured in a movie?) In most period films, the cars all look like they’ve just come off the showroom floor, with nary a dent or smudge. I didn’t see that here. A key element is the music by Carter Burwell, which contributes greatly to the mood and texture of the film. In addition to Carol, in 2015 Burwell also scored Anomalisa and Mr. Holmes. He’s works regularly with Joel and Ethan Coen, scoring 17 of their films so far. Like the title character, Carol is sensuous, seductive, and deeply romantic, with echos of Haynes’ earlier Far from Heaven (2002), and the 1950s Technicolor melodramas directed by Douglas Sirk.
Creed (Ryan Coogler, director & co-writer) Who would have thought a sixth Rocky sequel would be worth seeing? I initially resisted this one, didn’t think I needed another boxing movie. But what I was hearing about it got me interested. And it is, if you’ll pardon the expression, a knockout. This film has a lot of heart and emotion, and is only incidentally about boxing — though the two matches we see are quite brutal. Michael B. Jordon, previously seen in Ryan Coogler’s powerful Fruitvale Station (2013), stars as Adonis, the son of Apollo Creed (Rocky Balboa’s opponent from the first film in 1976). Sylvester Stallone returns as Rocky, who reluctantly agrees to train Adonis. Stallone’s performance is a low-key revelation, and he deserves all the attention he’s been getting.
45 Years (Andrew Haigh, director & writer) A week in the life of Kate and Geoff, leading up to the celebration of their 45th wedding anniversary. At the outset, unexpected news from the past threatens the stability of their marriage. Told from Kate’s point of view, the film is low-key and methodical, a slow burn of contained emotions and revelations. As Kate, Charlotte Rampling conveys a great deal by doing very little. Rampling, now 69, has been beautiful at every age, much like Catherine Deneuve. Rampling and Tom Courtenay, who plays her husband Geoff, bring the resonance of their long film careers to the screen; Rampling going back to Georgy Girl (1966), and Courtenay to The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and Billy Liar (1963).
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz & Shlomi Elkabetz, directors & writers) See my previous post that includes this film along with other films seen last February (Gett is approximately half-way through the post).
The Gift (Joel Edgerton, director & writer). A real sleeper. Based on the trailer and print ads, it looked fairly predictable; it’s anything but. Director and writer Joel Edgerton (who gave a terrific performance last year in Black Mass ) plays a character from the past who insinuates himself into the lives and home of Jason Bateman and wife Rebecca Hall. It’s all very tense and creepy, and then it flips on you.
Goodnight Mommy (Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz, directors & writers) See my previous post on this film.
Grandma (Paul Weitz, director & writer) This film is edgier and darker than the advertising would suggest. Lily Tomlin plays Elle, an irascible woman in Los Angeles recovering from the recent breakup with her girl friend, Olivia (Judy Greer). Elle’s eccentricities include cutting up her credit cards to make a wind chime. At the outset, her granddaughter Sage shows up at Elle’s home, announcing that she’s pregnant and needs $600 for an abortion. On one level the film is a comedy of errors, as Elle attempts to raise the money from people she’s alienated at one time or another. One of them is played by Sam Elliott, an ex who hasn’t seen Elle in 30 years. It’s great seeing Elliott turning up as much as he has lately. He was exceptional in another film from 2015, I’ll See You in My Dreams. Elliott was a standout in the final season of Justified (FX) last year, and will be appearing with Lily Tomlin in the next season of Grace and Frankie (Netflix). Besides writing and directing this film, Paul Weitz is currently a co-creator, executive producer, writer and director of the terrific Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle. With his brother Chris, he wrote and directed About a Boy in 2002. Grandma is not warm and fuzzy — at least not like you might expect. People’s emotions get bruised and hurt, but they survive. Lily Tomlin shines in this, as she does in Grace and Frankie.
Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad, director; Oren Moverman & Michael Lerner, writers) Paul Dano plays the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson as a younger man, with John Cusack playing him at an older age. I thought Dano’s was the more convincing portrayal. I couldn’t quite believe that Dano’s Wilson would age into Cusack (no fault of Cusack’s). They didn’t seem like the same person. But it was also more interesting seeing him during a more productive period in his life. What stands out in this film are the sequences with Wilson in the studio, working his way through the exacting recording sessions for “Good Vibrations.” The only other time I can recall seeing the creative process on screen in a comparable way was in Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah (1972), his film about French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. There’s an amazing sequence of Gaudier-Brzeska sculpting a figure out of a block of stone in his studio overnight; you’re seeing an artist at work, just chipping away. The act of artistic creation is almost never convincingly portrayed in movies, but Love & Mercy nails it. As creepy and hateful as Paul Giamatti is as Eugene Landy, the doctor who takes over Wilson’s life, an acquaintance of mine, who wrote for Rolling Stone in the 70s and interviewed Landy, told me the real Landy was even worse than he is in the film. Love & Mercy, is only the second feature directed by Bill Pohlad, but he has extensive credits as a producer, including Brokeback Mountain (2005), Into the Wild (2007), The Tree of Life (2011), and 12 Years a Slave (2013). Love & Mercy was co-written by Oren Moverman, who wrote and directed Time Out of Mind (2014).
Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, director) Coming out of this movie, I was as pumped as I’ve ever been . It’s visceral forward motion throughout. The action has a particularly bone-crunching impact, probably because much of it was done with little use of CGI effects. You can feel the difference. I’m a big fan of The Road Warrior (1981), the second film in the Mad Max series. When I subsequently saw the first, Mad Max (1979), it was a let-down by comparison. The third film in the series, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), seemed a mistake. (What was Tina Turner doing in it anyway?) So it was a real surprise that at age 70, George Miller, director of the original three, would return with a new Mad Max film that is easily the best of them all. Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the great action movies of all time. It should not be forgotten that Miller is the same director who gave us Babe (1995) and Babe: Pig in the City (1998). An interesting aspect of Mad Max: Fury Road is that Max is basically Charlize Theron’s sidekick; she’s clearly the top dog here. But sidekick or not, Tom Hardy makes a powerful impression as Max.. He’s a terrific actor, as evidenced by Locke (2013) and Legend (2015). I don’t think this movie can make any claims to socially-redeeming value, but it’s an amazing rush.
The following clip indicates how inventive and unhinged this film is. (I know this is not for everyone, which is probably a good thing.)
Mississippi Grind (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, directors & writers) See my previous post discussing this film along with several other films (it’s at the end of the post).
99 Homes (Ramin Bahrani, director & writer) While The Big Short dissects the housing market collapse of 2008, this film shows the human cost. When I first saw 99 Homes last fall, I liked it well enough, but could understand why people wouldn’t want to see it. It’s like Time Out of Mind, where audiences stayed away in droves. Nobody wanted to see homeless people close up; it’s hard enough ignoring them in real life. At least, that’s my theory. 99 Homes shows families getting evicted from their homes with all their possessions left on the lawn. Depressing, right? I saw it again at the Museum of Modern Art, with the director in attendence for a Q&A after. This time I thought it was great, really powerful. Still depressing, but well worth the ride. Michael Shannon, one of my favorite actors, plays a former real estate agent who’s making a profit out of evicting people from foreclosed homes. Andrew Garfield is a single father who is evicted with his son and mother (Laura Dern) by Shannon. He then goes to work Shannon evicting other families. This is a stunning irony, but Garfield justifies it with the intention of earning enough to buy back his family home. Shannon brings his usual level intensity to the film.
Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, director). See my previous post on this film.
Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, director & co-writer) This is it, the best film of the year, and that’s saying something. I’ve been a fan of Tom McCarthy’s films since seeing his first, The Station Agent in 2003 (see my previous post from 2012). As you probably know by now, Spotlight concerns an investigation by a team of Boston Globe reporters into pedophile priests and the subsequent cover-up by the Catholic Church . This is as close to a perfect movie as you can get. There’s not a false step. The cast is exceptional, with Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo as standouts in a group of actors that includes Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, and Rachel McAdams as the lone female on the team. It’s all portrayed so authentically it doesn’t feel like they’re acting. Like All the President’s Men (1976) and Zodiac (2007), this is a film is about process. Everything in Spotlight is tightly focused on the actual work of getting the story, and also the characters’ belief that they are absolutely doing the right thing. This is why I go to movies, in the hopes of seeing something this good.
In the interest of attention spans — yours and mine — my remaining picks are listed by title only.
Inside-Out (Pete Docter, director)
It Follows (Robert Mitchell, director & writer)
Learning to Drive (Isabel Coixet, director)
The Martian (Ridley Scott, director)
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, director)
The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu, director & co-writer)
Spy (Paul Feig, director & writer)
Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle, director; Aaron Sorkin, writer)
Trainwreck (Judd Apatow, director; Amy Schumer, writer)
Tu Dors Nicole (Stéphane Lafleur, director & writer) See my previous post discussing this film along with two others.
Wild Tales (Damián Szifron, director & writer)
Youth (Paolo Sorrentino, director & writer)
That’s all for now. See you at the movies. — Ted Hicks