2015 was yet another fascinating year for film, which made composing this year-end list that much harder. It hurts to select ten movies; it’s even more agonizing to go about ranking them. For me, it’s a factor of two things: emotion and staying power. Any film can impact you in the moment. But the truly great ones stay with you long after you’ve left the theater. That is how I define great cinema. Here are the most memorable cinematic experiences I had in 2015.
Adam McKay’s first foray into drama is as irreverent and wonderfully madcap as any of his feature comedies, but with a much sharper focus. The Big Short isn’t just a scathing indictment of the system, it’s a critique on our own indifference. We got so comfortable in our collective disgust towards Wall Street that we failed to see the doomsday clock ticking right in front of us. We disarmed ourselves by obsessing over YouTube, smartphones, and the next reality TV star. With a bit of irony, McKay pokes fun at our fixation on celebrities by bringing in surprise cameos like Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez to break the fourth wall and deliver the blood-boiling truth behind the collapse. You can almost feel McKay’s serrated comedy edge cutting into your skin as you’re bellying over with laughter. Christian Bale disappears into yet another dynamic role; Ryan Gosling matches McKay’s satiric bite; and Steve Carrell gives a soulful performance. The Big Short is as entertaining as it is infuriating. You almost forget that these characters profited from the nation’s financial meltdown. Almost.
Much like the spirit of Mark Watney, The Martian is determined to keep moving forward. Director Ridley Scott limits himself as a storyteller by doing away with flashbacks and backstory. In fact, we don’t know anything about Watney or what is driving him internally. Scott, instead, is more interested in Mark as a character and the way he picks himself up after each setback. But the film isn’t weighed down by any dramatic heft. This is a surprisingly breezy and upbeat film thanks to an insanely witty screenplay. It tells the science without having to provide footnotes for the audience, and it pits us deep in the red terrain of Mars while also making room for a kick-ass soundtrack to moon-walk to. Ridley Scott may have stumbled in his recent fare, but The Martian is a fine return to form.
Just as I was getting over my obsession with Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise delivers yet another breakneck action film. Not only is Rogue Nation a better movie, it is also the finest in the series, benefitting immensely from a graceful performance by Rebecca Ferguson. 2015 was an unforgettable year for action heroines and Ilsa Faust is in the top three. Credit, of course, goes to the very capable hands of writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, who made all of this look so effortless. The opening plane sequence may have been another breathtaking stunt, but the Vienna Opera House is the crème de la crème, a welcome throwback to the espionage roots of the series in a suitably operatic fashion. McQuarrie did the impossible by clearing the enormously high bar set by Ghost Protocol, and I can’t wait to see what he’s got in store for the next mission.
This could’ve been a very different film, one that exploited its subject and the victims involved. The fact that it doesn’t is a triumph in of itself. This may be the best ensemble of the year. We aren’t distracted by any physical transformations and instead watch as these actors lay out the complicated narrative of the truth, that of the Catholic Church’s deliberate cover-up of pedophile priests. To dramatize these acts would be as heedless as the crimes themselves. But the facts alone paint an even crueler portrait of what happened. Because the crimes have long been committed. The victims are simply left to relive the nightmare, while the Boston Globe can’t do anything to change that except report it. There is something painfully tragic about that, and the film’s melancholy score captures that feeling of hopelessness while simultaneously mourning the innocence lost.
Who knew that Ryan Coogler, director of Fruitvale Station, was an unabashed Rocky fan? I wasn’t aware of his respect for the material until I saw the first 5 minutes of Creed, which skillfully captures Adonis’ vulnerability and ferocity within the immediacy of a boxing match. Did I mention that it’s done in one take? But the most impressive sequence in the movie comes halfway in, where Coogler pits Adonis against a formidable opponent, and does it again in one take. Creed is Coogler’s sophomore effort, yet he moves the camera with such confidence that it hardly feels like a filmmaker finding his voice. Coogler is as assured a filmmaker as any one of the greats working today. He also managed to breathe new life into an aging franchise. Rocky still has life left in him, and Stallone turns in a wholly endearing performance that will remind audiences that he used to be an actor long before he became an action star. Michael B. Jordan proves himself worthy to go the distance with this reinvented franchise. Here’s hoping that the duo of Jordan and Stallone will be back for another round.
“What are we doing here?” is a common refrain and the lingering question in Sicario. The war on drugs is over and there is no way to reverse the tide. So what is there left to do but eliminate targets? And if that truly is all we can do, what good are we actually accomplishing at the border? Emily Blunt’s character, Kate Mercer, struggles to hold onto a moral ground as the boundaries all around her keep shifting. She is woefully out of her depth in the same way that America is when we insert ourselves in international conflicts. There is nothing action-packed about Sicario. There is action, but it’s shot in as cold and as calculated a manner as a prisoner execution – a conscious decision on director Denis Villenueve’s part. He’s saying something deeply disturbing about how we choose not to remove chaos out of the world’s equation, but instead opt to fan the flames. This is the most nail-biting thriller of the year and everyone in the film is operating at their lurid best. Cinematographer Roger Deakins’ compositions are as haunting as ever, and Benicio Del Toro delivers his best work in years as a questionable figure with equally questionable morals. Never before have I been in awe of something so inherently bleak.
If you were one of the ten people who subscribed to #NotMyMax, you seriously missed out on one hell of a film. It’s the most subversive action film, ever. In an era where it’s so easy to settle for CGI, Fury Road stands as tall and defiant as its title character by delivering a film full of jaw-dropping stunts. I thought The Road Warrior was a fully-realized apocalyptic fantasy. I was wrong. Director George Miller simultaneously reinvigorates the action genre and takes filmmakers half his age to school. But he doesn’t stop there. Miller crafts one of the greatest heroines in cinema, Imperator Furiosa. Furiosa and the Immortan’s Wives stand as a testament to the ways in which women have been portrayed unfairly in film, as damsels, as objects. “We are not things,” the wives proudly proclaim, perhaps the boldest statement in the film written in pure cinematic guts and glory. Based on all the accolades Fury Road has been racking up, I think it’s safe to say we have a Best Picture frontrunner on our hands. Yes, it’s that good.
Pixar’s brand appeals to kids everywhere and especially to those of us who grew up with Toy Story. Therein lies the question: can Pixar continue to innovate and transcend from generation to generation? Every now and then they make a pretty good argument, and their latest effort is their strongest case since Up and perhaps their most emotional film by far (pun not intended). What’s truly impressive with Inside Out is the emotional terrain that it dares to venture, that of a kid discovering what it’s like to feel. The film acknowledges its sensitive subject and keeps things light with a delicate storytelling agenda and a heartfelt score to boot (I get choked up just hearing the opening piano line). And the message, that it’s okay to feel, is so simple yet so profound that it ranks among Pixar’s best precisely because of its simplicity. Bonus points for inventiveness, charm, and for making me cry in buckets.
Simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking, this tale of a mother’s fierce love for her child is the best dramatic feature of the year, led by a pair of tour de force performances. Held captive for seven years, Ma and Jack’s only definable world is the room itself. Ma has done her best to protect Jack from the reality of their situation. But Ma, played by the luminous Brie Larson, is desperate for an escape. So what she then asks of her son is just as upsetting and as unspeakable as the crime that confined them. Is there any coming back from it? The most harrowing thing about Room is that even after they are freed, both Ma and Jack are still trapped in their circumstances. The entire world wants in on their story, all but forcing Ma to relive the trauma, and the interview towards the end happens to be equally as traumatic as Ma being held prisoner. This film broke me, gutted me, yet it had me smiling in the end. Room serves as a life-affirming metaphor that a mother’s unwavering love for her child cannot be confined. Look at that, I’m getting all teary-eyed again.
I say this not as a fan of Star Wars, but as a moviegoer who was genuinely surprised by what J.J. Abrams accomplished. To reiterate, I am not a diehard fan. Rather, I have been more interested in Star Wars as a cinematic influence because you can trace its DNA in virtually every major blockbuster out there. So could it reach the herculean heights of modern blockbusters that the original trilogy inspired? “This will begin to make things right,” – the first words spoken in the film. The Force Awakens does just that. Sure, the film has its holes but what film doesn’t? Even the widely-revered originals aren’t perfect by any means. Abrams reminds us that we have simply forgotten the sheer magic of this galaxy far, far away. I’ve never felt like a bigger kid when I saw this on opening day. Every joke, every one-liner sent waves of uproarious laughter surging through the theater. The appropriately theatrical re-introductions of Chewie, Han Solo, and Leia were met with nostalgic cheers from the crowd. And the startling revelation made by Rey during the film’s climactic lightsaber battle had me pouring tears of joy. Rey is the defining quality that makes this film work. Princess Leia was a progressive female character in the original trilogy and Rey valiantly picks up the baton and continues that tradition in extraordinary fashion. She is quite literally everything we hoped for. Fans and Ewoks everywhere can rejoice. The Force Awakens was the most unforgettable cinematic experience I had in 2015. I’ve seen it three times now and I cannot wait to see it again.