Monday, December 21, 2015

My 10 best movies of 2015

Good, not necessarily great.
That seems to be the movie mantra for 2015. There have been plenty of films worth seeing, but no clear stand-outs, a situation that's likely to make for an interesting awards seasons as we move into the new year. But don't think I'm disheartened. Lots of good is a whole lot better than a ton of mediocrity -- and we've seen plenty of years in which the majority of movies felt as if they belonged on a cinematic slush pile.
Here's my 10-best list.
But first a word about a word, "best."
I pick movies for this list based on whether they were skillful at making me feel, think or laugh -- not always in that order. I also sometimes acknowledge movies that are "important," movies that advance the case for cinematic expression or that insist that we face difficult truths.
I certainly don't mean to suggest that movies that aren't on my list are somehow worthless, except, of course, for the ones that are.

1. Spotlight

A brilliant ensemble cast led by Micheal Keaton tells the story of a team of Boston Globe reporters who exposed pedophilia and its cover-up in the Catholic Church. Director Tom McCarthy's journalism drama wisely proceeds without canonizing its journalists. The movie also astutely points to the tension that sometimes roils relations between good newspaper journalists and the communities in which they live.

2. The Big Short

In adapting Michael Lewis' book about the subprime-mortgage fiasco that led to the 2008 financial mega-collapse, director Adam McKay exhibits great dexterity and bountiful wit. McKay shows us how a band of skeptical investors profited from catastrophe. That's a tricky business because at some point, we realize that the joke is on us. Fine performances from a wonderful ensemble cast -- Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt -- add to the movie's considerable pleasures. And you will understand what happened in 2008.

3. Jafar Panahi's Taxi

Panahi's guided tour of Tehran brims with understated courage. Banned from making movies by an authoritarian Iranian regime, Panahi films encounters with passengers who represent a cross section of Iranian society. Panahi himself drives the cab in a movie that maintains its humanity without succumbing to the bitterness and rue to which Panahi surely is entitled.

4. Timbuktu

It can't be said enough: The West isn't alone in being impacted by Islamic extremism. Director Abderrahmane Sissako introduces us to a family that encounters major trouble when jihadists take over the city of Timbuktu. This simple but elegant movie reminds us that most people are interested in living their lives without the interference of those driven by untempered ideology.

5. Room

One can find things to quibble with in director Lenny Abrahamsson's adaptation of Emma Donoghue's popular novel, but it's difficult to ignore a movie that featured two of the year's best performances, one from Brie Larson as a mother held hostage and another from young Jacob Tremblay, who plays the five-year-old child Larson's character had with her captor. The movie's conclusion may not match its brilliant opening, but Room remains a triumph for not surrendering to the lurid impulses that usually dominate such stories.

6. Love & Mercy

I've never been a Beach Boys fan, but this challenging look at the life of Brian Wilson, played by both Paul Dano and John Cusack at various stages in Wilson's life, gave me new appreciation for Wilson's musical innovations, and presented us with a compelling portrait of a celebrity gradually losing his grip. Dana's performance ranks as one of the year's best.

7. White God

The total antithesis of the cute-dog movie, White God represents Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo's allegorical and amazing attempt to build a story about the anger of outcasts around a rejected dog named Hagen. Mundruczo fills his story with details so grim they could make Dickens weep. Not easy to watch, but totally gripping. And, no, the movie's huge pack of dogs isn't composed of CGI phantoms; they're real.

8. End of the Tour

Director James Ponsoldt's adaptation of David Lipsky's book about a journalist's interviews with author David Foster Wallace featured fine performances by Jason Segal (as Wallace) and Jesse Eisenberg (as Lipsky). A careful look at fame and the torments of living up to a reputation, as well as an exploration of the tension between a slightly envious journalist and his subject.

9. The Assassin

I'm about to do something I normally hate, commend a movie for its cinematography. This martial arts epic tells a story that may not be entirely clear to western audiences, but the imagery in director Hou Hsiao-Hsien's look at a female assassin (Shu Qui) who's wrestling with her conscience qualifies as so gaspingly beautiful that it literally takes your breath away. Three cheers for the great cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing.

10. Ex-Machina

Alex Garland's brilliant look at a tech guru (Oscar Isaac) whose invention -- a sexy robot played by Alicia Vikander -- captivates one of Isaac's employees (Domhnall Gleeson). An insular beauty of a movie filmed in an isolated modern home that becomes one of this movie's most vivid characters.

Honorable mentions: Bridge of Spies, Look at Me Marlon, Inside Out, Sicario, The Tribe, and Beasts of No Nation.

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