Feature film

So Long, 2015: Rob's Top 10 Movies of the Year

Friday, January 01, 2016 Rob Samuelson

I've been on record for quite some time thinking that the first half of this decade will one day be considered among the finest in American filmmaking history, up there with the New Hollywood years of the 1970s. 2015 might be the capstone. Of the 106 2015 releases I saw, at least 40 were good. At least 20 were great. That made writing this top 10 agonizingly difficult. That is why I did a completely separate list of 10 at the Sun Times Network, where I also work (you should read us). But the following are the ones that most represent where my passions were for the previous year. They are filled with myths and expressionistic techniques, tonal blending and offbeat humor, triumph and failure. These films represent what the medium can do, how cinema can take you to new places, learn new things, meet new people, love new experiences. Before we get all excited about what's coming down the road for 2016, let's take one last look back at what a transcendent year 2015 was at the movies.

[Before we get to the big ones, here are the honorable mentions that will almost certainly leave me with the dull ache of regret for leaving them off the list proper: The Duke of BurgundySpotlightKingsman: The Secret ServiceLove & MercyThe MartianPaddingtonThe WolfpackCop CarFaultsJunun.]

10. Magic Mike XXL
Director: Gregory Jacobs
Writer: Reid Carolin
Starring: Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello, Kevin Nash, Matt Bomer, Adam Rodriguez, Amber Heard, Jada Pinkett Smith

Despite Richard Linklater's promises about his upcoming Everybody Wants Some, Magic Mike XXL might be the real “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused. It is about a group of friends hanging out, getting sick of each other's crap, trying to enjoy the moment while reminiscing about a past they cannot get back. It is a road movie with no other goal than to have fun, to get away, to dare friends into doing dumb things that make the group laugh so hard they cry – hello, convenience store strip. And it's all shot in a way that would make the German Expressionists and Orson Welles proud – the dollar bills falling like snowflakes throughout the mansion sequence is some of the most evocative filmmaking of the year. Each of the old stripping buddies has classical Hollywood musical dancing talent and it's a joy to see them bend gravity to their will. And it's probably the single funniest movie of the year, with all these charismatic personalities bouncing off each other in the way that familiarity can bring out the sharpest, harshest, most hilarious critiques of those you care about.

9. Sicario
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin

People like to feel in control of their situation, their surroundings, and certainly the people they interact with. Power is a neat feeling, and when you have it, you are in a place of comfort. It is largely an illusion. Sicario is about the way the powerful bend over backwards to keep their place, by lying, or omission, or outright violent force. The drug war at the Arizona-Mexico border serves as the perfect backdrop to this nearly cosmic conflict. Emily Blunt (the rule of law and “doing the right thing”), Benicio Del Toro (concluding personal vendettas via alliances with the powerful), and Josh Brolin (control through division and chaos) each represent differing points of view among those who ostensibly have the upper hand. But, of course, that power is fleeting and/or nonexistent in the face of cartels who seem to have more overt, tangible control over their areas. Director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins shoot the landscape in a way that makes rock formations look like Rorschach tests, and the use of sunlight (or lack thereof) in the images dovetails with the themes and characters. It is beautiful, heart-pounding, and visceral.

8. Inside Out
Director: Pete Docter
Writers: Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen, Meg LaFauve, Josh Cooley
Starring: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias

Inside Out is a Pixar film that does more than tell a story with a lesson about kindness, or friendship, or hope. It offers a roadmap on how to achieve those things. Using humanized versions of the emotions in a pre-teen girl's mind, it takes abstract concepts like feelings and realizes them in literal ways. The theme about growing emotional complexity as a person ages is illustrated with the mixing of colors and sound design that can sometimes edge close to being discordant. The brain is a mixed up thing, and the sooner we realize that every memory we have comes from a place of different, perhaps even opposing, emotions, the more ready we are to take on life.

7. Creep
Director: Patrick Brice
Writers: Patrick Brice, Mark Duplass
Starring: Patrick Brice, Mark Duplass

Along with the iPhone-shot Tangerine, this movie showed in 2015 how transportive minimalist cinema can be. As you can see from the credits above, Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass are the two driving creative forces of this eternally disturbing found-footage horror film. Brice plays an out-of-work videographer who answers Duplass's newspaper ad to film a day-in-the-life in the woods. Unfortunately for Brice's character, this is not anyone else's idea of a day-in-the-life. What Brice does here is probably the most potent use of the found-footage genre. There are character and plot reasons for the camera to be on, which is itself nearly revolutionary. What follows is a story of desperation, confusion, inability to connect, borderline sweetness, mental illness, and even some silly humor that derives from this bizarre, unnerving situation. That combination is inherent in Peach Fuzz, possibly my favorite character of 2015. Just see it. Be freaked out. Laugh a little. Think about helping those with mental and emotional problems rather than pushing them to a place of repression and luring unsuspecting videographers to the woods for a really bad night.

6. Ex Machina
Director: Alex Garland
Writer: Alex Garland
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander

2015 was the year of Alicia Vikander, who would top any “breakout performers of 2015” list I would do. She appeared in six movies, four of which I saw, two of which I loved, one of which is located on this here list. It is this one, in case you didn't catch my drift. Here Vikander plays Ava, an artificially intelligent android developed by Oscar Isaac's tech genius Nathan. Domhnall Gleeson's Caleb, an employee of Nathan's company, is invited to do a Turing Test on Ava to determine whether or not she is truly capable of consciousness. What follows is a dread-soaked, lo-fi science fiction marvel. Vikander displays a cunning intellect. Her quiet defiance in the face of unfairness, and the way she goes about solving that unfairness makes for an excellent thriller in one sense. But far more than that, it's a tale about women and men, how men get shocked and defensive when women do not follow their every whim. The fears of the two men in the cast always center on a lack of control over this new technology, and it is no accident on writer-director Alex Garland's part – in his directorial debut – that Ava was designed as a woman.

5. Bone Tomahawk
Director: S. Craig Zahler
Writer: S. Craig Zahler
Starring: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins, Lili Simmons

Bone Tomahawk is at turns nasty, heartening, embarrassing (for the characters), thrilling, inspirational, pants-wettingly frightening, and uproariously witty. In some moments it is many or all of those things at once. At its heart, it's a “men on a mission” movie, with a group of four woefully under-equipped men going in search of one's kidnapped wife and their town's deputy sheriff, who were whisked away in the night by a band of possibly supernatural cannibals who live in the deepest parts of the American frontier. Each character is drawn, not sketched, with fully formed and deeply relatable reasons for every action they take. Every character has a different sense of humor, each deployed with deft precision by first time writer-director S. Craig Zahler, who rocketed to a position somewhere near the top of the “I must see whatever this filmmaker does next” list with this effort.

4. Carol
Director: Todd Haynes
Writer: Phyllis Nagy
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler

Carol is astonishing for its gentleness. It is a movie that sells its story via stolen glances, soft but meaningful eye contact, light brushes of the shoulder, and a longing for a freer, more just life for its characters, even if none of them truly know what they would do with such a life. Todd Haynes crafts storybook images that feel both true to the time period per our collective nostalgia for it, and totally removed from objective reality. There is a combination of the grainy 16mm home movie appearance and a gauzy haze that warms every shot. This is in seemingly illogical juxtaposition with the harsh winter endured by the characters in both their physical and interior lives, but it works in every second. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara acknowledge the power, the elation, and the pain of this culturally frowned-upon romance with every darting eye, every tiny twitch of the mouth, every foot-in-mouth embarrassing utterance. They melt the soft snowflakes of 1950s Christmastime and societal repression with their connection.

3. Creed
Director: Ryan Coogler
Writers: Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad

Want to feel uplifted? Creed will do the trick, and how. Michael B. Jordan enters as a man, playing the illegitimate son of Rocky Balboa's former opponent and friend, Apollo Creed. He leaves as Adonis Creed, demigod. Structurally, Creed takes after the original Rocky on a nearly remake level. Donnie Johnson, using his mother's last name, is a plucky prize fighter, mostly slaying bums in low-rent Mexican rings. He's loose and undisciplined, undoubtedly with some talent, but probably not the type to be going pro. Of course, that's not how it works out, and we got a soaring, vibrant piece of cinema because of Donnie growing to accept his heritage – and his father's last name. Director Ryan Coogler doesn't bother with the visual template put in place by the preceding Rocky installments, but he creates the same beautiful, winning feeling nonetheless. He swings the fights from grim realism, with all the painful blows landing in viscerally painful ways, to the realm of myth, and in the end lands somewhere in between. Everything is varied visually. The performances by every member of the cast, but particularly Jordan and Stallone as his “uncle” and trainer, are heartwarming and truthful.

2. The Hateful Eight
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins

Quentin Tarantino does not mess around with The Hateful Eight. It is one of the most nihilistic films I have ever seen, and maybe the only one that has ever had me in stitches the whole way down to Hell. Tarantino's mastery of tone reaches a new level with this snowy western. It has some of the meanest, ugliest bits of humanity ever put to celluloid – the 70mm presentation is something else, especially when depicting such depravity – while filling the frame with sight gags and dialogue that rat-a-tat-tats its way to a blissful stupor. If it were not for this playfulness, it would be a marathon of horridness at a three-hour runtime. Instead, it floats along, showcasing the prejudicial vileness that has always existed – and continues to exist to this day – in America. On one hand, the climax suggests some prejudices can be set aside, but on the other, it appears they can only be ignored for a time and in pursuit of something just as terrible. But my, oh my, is it ever a blast to see such hideous behavior.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road
Director: George Miller
Writers: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nick Lathouris
Starring: Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne

There was no dithering on my part while making this choice. My favorite film of 2015 was determined in May. Mad Max: Fury Road is a spectacle of the highest order. It's a marvel of acrobatics meeting machinery – that polecats sequence during the climax is perfection. It's a movie that makes profound social statements in its conception and purpose without calling overt attention to those statements – “Who killed the world?” sprayed as graffiti on a background wall is not particularly in-your-face. It allows its characters' actions to speak about the world in ways more affecting than any monologue could. It is a world where every detail has been determined whether those details drive the story or not, and everything has a name, a utility, a place in the world. It is a place of primary colors and heat. It draws on the history of cinema, from the stunts of Buster Keaton to the balanced compositions of Stanley Kubrick to the world-building of Star Wars, but twists, subverts, and synthesizes those things and more. It is something wholly its own. It is great.

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