For the fourth straight year, here’s my too-little-too-late year-end wrap up. Professionals have already published their lists several weeks ago, sites have moved on to Sundance coverage and new releases, and the Oscar nominations have been announced and instantly mocked. So it’s just another mid-January. But I finally caught up with several movies I wanted to see before consigning 2015, so here’s my typical summation. As usual, some caveats: 1) this isn’t a “best-of” because I tend to focus more on favorites; also 2) I only saw 80-85 of the, what, 400-some releases? So this is just the cream of what I got around to seeing.
2015 TOP TEN
1. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD — A blistering fever dream of a movie; all tactile and coarse, full of life and a singular vision of the human condition. Not an unpopular choice for the year’s finest work (perhaps the consensus, if there is such a thing), but that just speaks to how brash and uncompromising it is. Very few people saw this and dismissed or forgot it. It’s an atom bomb.
2. JAMES WHITE — The most moving experience I had in the theater all year. It understands the pain of confronting death with a guilelessness and un-self-consciousness that’s unparalleled. Abbott and Nixon give miraculous performances, and director Josh Mond strips away any glint of sentimentality. A beautifully made knife to the heart.
3. SICARIO — A thundering moviegoing experience with ear-splitting sound design, magnificent Roger Deakins photography, and a propulsive, heart-racing pace. A wonderful combination of smart and savvy content with top-notch technical prowess, Villeneuve’s drug war thriller also boasted one of the great performances of the year in Benicio del Toro’s terrifying anti-hero. Another visceral marvel in a year full of them.
4. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION — Speaking of visceral marvels, the fact that this was the best M:I movie since DePalma’s masterpiece original says something, since Bird’s 2011 entry GHOST PROTOCOL also made my top 10 list. It doesn’t seem wise to take for granted Christopher McQuarrie’s talents on the page or behind the camera: he’s efficient, intelligent, stylish, and smooth, much like his leading characters. Action blockbusters done this well are hard to come by.
5. THE HATEFUL EIGHT — It’s hard to deny how entertaining a craftsman Quentin Tarantino is, so very little of the criticism revolves around that. It’s usually about the content, and yet here the content is aggressively resonant, vital, and crackling. Images linger in the mind, lines coat the throat like a warm glass of cognac, and the experience of having the 70mm projection — overture, intermission, and all — wash over you is a testament to the power of cinema and history together.
6. INSIDE OUT — Like Rogue Nation, an example of Hollywood at its best: this is family entertainment done exquisitely, utilizing brilliant animation, hilarious writing, and a core of emotional integrity to give it just enough weight. This is a tear-jerker of the least cloying kind; it earns the sadness because it understands it.
7. THE BIG SHORT — Perhaps the directing and editing could have used a little more refinement (this was reportedly rushed through post-production; it was originally scheduled to come out in 2016 but McKay and the studio realized it had a winner on its hands), but there’s no question the writing and acting is top shelf stuff. You leave the theater feeling exhausted, but a lot of that is from how angry you get and how much there is to process. It’s a mean feat to be this entertaining and funny while peeling off a scab.
8. VICTORIA — I’ve noted a lot of pulse-pounding visceral experiences on this list so far, but Victoria is the #1 in terms of causing sweaty palms. Filmed in a real (not BIRDMAN-style hidden cuts, post-produced to look unbroken) single take, Sebastian Schipper’s exercise in you-are-there realism creates a dizzying cognitive dissonance because as much as you feel like you’re along with these lovers/bank-robbers, you’re also hyper-aware of the camera and actors pulling off a towering feat. What Schipper sacrifices in precision, he more than makes up for in nervous energy, emotional heft, and how-the-fuck-did-they-do-this wonder.
9. DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS — When most critics wrote about how Spike Lee made his best film in a decade this year, they meant CHI-RAQ. I disagree with them. This is a work of perplexing art: endlessly provocative, loaded with thoughts about race in American history, and smothered by a tone of languorous moods and angry silence. Destined to be one of the more forgotten works by one of America’s greatest filmmakers, though I think it’s among his best.
10. ’71 — After a clumsy opening, this in-the-trenches account of the conflict in Belfast by Yann Demange soars to life thanks to a ferocious turn by Jack O’Connell. Demange depicts a war of black and white, with the IRA against the Brits, the Catholics vs. the Protestants, the Nationalists vs. the Loyalists — but those lines are consistently blurred by the desires of the individual, proving that nothing is black and white: when the world is really just ashen grey, how can we justify any of this fighting at all? An early-year stunner that got unjustly forgotten.
Didn’t Quite Make the Cut: CAROL is a very strong piece of filmmaking that garnered praise from every corner of cinephilia, so it certainly didn’t need any help from me; but I did like it quite a bit. SON OF SAUL is the hardest movie to sit through, but a sensational piece of filmmaking with a great lead performance and a lot to consider on a fundamental level. UNFRIENDED is a wildly original horror movie with a lot to say about how we interact in the world today. ROOM is a bleak but powerful experience with a tremendous performance from Brie Larson. And RICKI AND THE FLASH is a surprisingly vibrant and touching work from the aging Jonathan Demme, saddled with terrible marketing but boasting great performances and a refreshingly optimistic vision.
And now for my personal Oscars. I never got any good suggestions for what to name these, so here are my unnamed awards:
Best Director — George Miller, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Best Actor — Géza Röhrig, SON OF SAUL
Best Actress — Juliette Binoche, CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA
Best Supporting Actor — Benicio del Toro, SICARIO
Best Supporting Actress — Cynthia Nixon, JAMES WHITE
Best Screenplay — Quentin Tarantino, THE HATEFUL EIGHT
And as usual, I have no Worst List. I don’t really see the point in listing the worst films of the year, or even the ones I liked the least. You could see in my reviews what I didn’t like, and there’s no need to pile on. I also don’t want to bring attention to movies I think should be ignored. If you liked EX MACHINA or PHOENIX or SPOTLIGHT, then great. We go to the movies to enjoy them; I won’t try to take that away. I hope everyone likes every movie they see. Even if they suck!
So that’s that; please add comments to the comment section with anything I forgot, overlooked, got wrong, or otherwise. Or you can always find me on Twitter (@TwinCinema). Thanks for reading Private Joker’s Head.