The 2015 movie year was a rich and somewhat strange one. It was rich in that there were a lot of good — even great or near-great — films, but it was strange in that its peaks didn’t soar. Apart from Clouds of Sils Maria (and even it haunted me more than it did anything else) and the late-in-the-day U.S. (barely) release of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s magnificent The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet (which I’d actually seen in 2014), I was left wishing for that transcendent feeling of true excitement. Thank Clapton, the end of the year provided that. Twice.
By my reckoning — and not counting reviews for special showings and other one-offs (that would about double the figure) — I reviewed 157 movies in 2015. And at a rough guess, I saw another 50 or maybe 100 or so. (This does not factor in TCM playing off to the side while I work — unless I end up really watching, which happens way too often.) I suppose it’s a good thing that I really have no life. This also marks my 15th Best of list. (I started too late in 2000 to do one, but my number one for that year would almost certainly have been O Brother, Where Art Thou?.)
Also interesting is looking back at last year’s list and seeing this comment: “And there’s an inherent problem with such a great year for art titles. What about 2015? Of course, there’ll be a new Woody Allen film (it’s already in post-production) and Pedro Almodovar has something in the works, but a great many — maybe most — of the filmmakers who made these 2014 films won’t release anything in 2015. That means that 19 of the 20 filmmakers responsible for my 2014 top 20 year won’t be contributing to the new year. That’s kind of sobering.” Well, Alomodovar didn’t come through (we get that in 2016), but Alejandro G. Iñárritu did — and…well, it’s no Birdman.
Ken Hanke’s Lists.
Special Award of Merit
The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet. In many respects, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet actually qualifies as my favorite film of the year. It at least ties with Youth, but it’s also a film I got fed up waiting for and bought on DVD from the UK last year — and wrote about it in last year’s best of. That it was dumped by the Weinsteins for a single week in about 100 theaters in the U.S. this year (obviously to “honor” a contractual commitment) barely counts as a release. As I wrote back in August, “As filmmaking, it’s as amazing and inventive as anything Jeunet has done, which is saying a great deal if you think back over his filmography. It’s not just that the film is wildly inventive — which it is — it’s also that it’s stunningly beautiful. Jeunet — making his second English language film and his first film set in America (often shot in Canada) — has turned the U.S. into a fabulous, almost luminous picture-book fantasy meant to resemble things seen on a stereoscopic Viewmaster — only better.” If I could be assured of enough support for a showing of the film in 3D (which would involve the usual upcharge) as Jeunet intended, I’d book this in the spring for an Asheville Film Society special.
1. Youth. This was it. Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth was the film that transported me as no other did this year, though a few came close. It’s a richly layered, densely textured work in which much is touched on and nothing is wasted. Nothing happens that is arbitrary. When all is said and done everything is beautifully accounted for, and yet an air of mystery remains.
2. Clouds of Sils Maria. Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria came out pretty early in the year (last April) and so has been displaced in a lot of minds, I fear. That’s too bad because while it didn’t get me as high as Youth, this wonderfully hypnotic film about aging and our preconceived notions of it, the nature of identity, and the relation of art and reality is a truly special creation. And, yes, Kristen Stewart is terrific in it.
3. The Hateful Eight. Going into The Hateful Eight I told my wife, “It’s going to be long, it may be slow getting started, it will be very talky and violent and bloody and filled with swearing and a racial epithet. In other words, it’s a Quentin Tarantino picture.” I was not wrong. But it was much more and just maybe Tarantino’s best film. The precise nature of the carefully framed compositions (you’ll never catch everything in one viewing), the deliberately provocative — even confrontational — screenplay, the performances all blend to make this a grand movie experience.
4. Mistress America. Noah Baumbach almost made this list twice with this and While We’re Young, but for me this is the clear winner. It’s funny and poignant and easily the most accomplished film Baumbach has made. The lengthy segment in Connecticut is probably the best sustained comedy I saw all year. And Greta Gerwig (who co-wrote the film with Baumbach) is at her best.
5. Trumbo. Yes, Jay Roach’s Trumbo takes some liberties with the truth and fills in some gaps with speculation, but it’s both effective as drama and as a statement on one of the darkest chapters of recent American history — the communist witch hunt of the McCarthy era. It’s that rare thing — a film that’s actually on even footing with the importance of its historical subject. That it’s also entertaining, funny and maddening doesn’t hurt in the least.
6. Mr. Holmes. Bill Condon returns to form with Mr. Holmes, which was also the art house hit (relatively speaking) of the summer. It manages to be many things at one time — a mystery, a rumination on age, an exploration into the mind of Sherlock Holmes. It’s a beautiful, special, deeply touching film anchored to an amazing Ian McKellen performance. I do not believe there is a false note in the film.
7. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. I expect to raise an eyebrow or two over including Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, but if any thing I think I’m placing it too low on the list. I’ve heard all the objections to it and buy none of them. The very fact that “Me” is the main character and this is from his point of view ought to be clear enough from the title alone. I was entertained, moved and delighted by the film and its surprisingly stylish direction. I was so impressed that I checked out his previous feature, his sequel/remake/rethinking/meta version of The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014) and it was worth the look, too.
8. Far from the Madding Crowd. Not only is Thomas Vintnerberg’s film of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd easily the most gloriously romantic film of the year, it’s also the most beautifully photographed (challenged only by Youth). If you missed this in theaters, you’ll be kicking yourself over what you missed when you see it on DVD.
9. What We Do in the Shadows. Generally I hate the mockumentary format. I think it’s lazy and an excuse for not bothering with basic filmmaking skills. But Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows is easily the funniest movie of the year, as well as one of the best horror films (it actually has a few scares and is exceedingly gory). It’s almost not a mockumentary, too.
10. Spotlight. This film from Tom McCarthy is my “safe” choice. It’s solid. It’s entertaining. It’s beautifully crafted and acted. And there’s a pretty good chance it’ll nab the Best Picture Oscar (worse choices could and frequently have been made). It’s superbly done from start to finish. Will I ever feel the need to see it again? Well…
11. Love & Mercy. Here’s the thing, I am not much of a Beach Boys fan and never have been, but I loved this film — and I came away from it with a heightened appreciation for Brian Wilson and the group. (And, yeah, I went out and bought the Pet Sounds album.) At one point the film was higher on my list, but subsequent viewings made clear something I always suspected — I’m more responding to the sections involving Paul Dano as the young Brian Wilson than I am to the ones involving John Cusack as the older Wilson. Yet I realize that the film — which is an interwoven tapestry rather than a sequential story — only works because of both parts.
12. Brooklyn. John Crowley’s Brooklyn — from a screenplay by Nick Hornby based on the novel by Colm Toibin — is a minor miracle of a movie. It’s a simple story about an Irish immigrant in 1950s Brooklyn. She suffers homesickness, gets her footing, falls in love, marries secretly just before an emergency trip back to Ireland, and almost loses her gains by falling in love there. As a story, it’s nothing special, but as a penetrating character study and an immaculate look at a time 60-plus years ago, it’s pretty darn remarkable.
13. Dope. Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope was one of the year’s bigger surprises — a truly funny, yet perceptive and penetrating comedy made with a good deal of style and acted by a first-rate cast. (Pretty sure Famuyiwa’s last film — Our Family Wedding — made my Worst of list in 2010, but, in fairness, he didn’t write that abomination.) I admit that the film isn’t quite as good — mostly because the surprise is gone — on subsequent viewings, but it still is a swell movie and the three leads — Shameik Moore, Kiersey Clemons, Tony Revolori — are endlessly appealing.
14. Joy. I fully expect to get some flak over David O. Russell’s latest. I already had people (and their friends) come out of the woodwork telling me how much they thought it sucked when I posted the link to the review on Facebook. (I am convinced few of these folks actually saw the movie.) I understand not liking it. The premise is apt to make your eyes roll back worse than the look Mr. DiCaprio gave Lady Gaga at the Golden Globes. It’s haphazard. It’s messy. It kind of shambles along. And it refuses to conform to the rom-com it looks like it will. This, for me, is part of its charm — as is the fact that it’s the first fresh look at the American Dream in ages.
15. Slow West. Writer-director John Maclean’s Slow West didn’t make it to the provinces. For that matter, the screener never made it to me (I had to borrow someone’s). That’s really too bad, because it’s a very good film. As westerns go, it’s the best I saw this year — almost up to last year’s The Homesman, but not quite. It’s a very different western from every angle. (There aren’t many westerns — or even many films — that include a trippy segment involving the main characters being stoned out of their minds on absinthe.) This — this is the Michael Fassbender performance people should be lauding. But almost no one saw it.
16. Crimson Peak. My writer friends (you know, the ones who write fiction) largely hated Guillermo del Toro’s somewhat old-fashioned spook show. And generally speaking, if you’re someone who looks at film more as literature with pictures than as a distinct and separate art form, you probably didn’t think much of it either. I will admit that it isn’t quite the masterpiece of a horror movie I was hoping for, but as quite possibly the lushest gothic horror ever it’s hard to beat.
17. Grandma. Now, the inclusion of Paul Weitz’s Grandma is apt to bring a certain homophobic nuisance (the only person I ever had banned on the Xpress site) back. (He figured out a way around it by posting from a university library.) Oh, well. Them’s the breaks. This is one of a couple of mis-marketed movies (though it didn’t hurt this one so much) that came out this year. Though it has a lot of funny things in it, Grandma is really not a comedy. If it is, it’s a very sad comedy. Lily Tomlin plays less a comedic character than she plays a tragic one who tries to shut out the world as she grieves for her dead life partner. She’s through with the world, but the world isn’t through with her. It’s sad. It’s funny. It’s hopeful. And it gives Lily Tomlin the role of her career.
18. Phoenix. Christian Petzfold’s Phoenix is one of the few really good foreign language films to come our way this year. It’s not what you probably expect, since it seems to be a Holocaust movie, and while it is one, it’s really as much or more post-war neo-noir with echoes of Carol Reed’s The Third Man and Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair. But the film it most resembles thematically is Hitchcock’s Vertigo — but with a twist and one of the year’s best endings.
19. The End of the Tour. This was once much higher on my list, but it has not stayed with me like I thought it would. But it remains a fascinating excursion into a fact-based film that never becomes a biopic and never tries to. What it gives us instead is an interviewer’s (Jesse Eisenberg as David Lipsky) take on his subject (Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace) and the film’s take on the interviewer and his relationship with his subject. Then again, what it has to say about the cult of celebrity and the dubious veracity — except perhaps unintentionally — of celebrities makes it even more compelling.
20. The 100-Year-Old-Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. Here we have the only other (mostly) foreign language film (Phoenix being the other) on my list, and it’s a pure joy — and locally it became a small hit, which took The Carolina’s bookers completely by surprise. (It’s not invariable, but never underestimate the power of strongly positive reviews on art and foreign language films.) This somewhat rambling, decades-spanning comedy is just as improbable as its title (which, by the way, is reasonably accurate). In essence, it’s the story of, yeah, a 100-year-old-man who climbs out of a nursing home window and goes on a long, complicate adventure involving a suitcase full of money, gangsters, assorted odd characters, and elephant — and the atomic bomb. If you missed it in the theater, you should seek it out.
Honorable Mentions: (In no order)
Irrational Man. Woody Allen’s modern riff on Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt may not be top tier Allen, but it’s certainly a film worth having.
Infinitely Polar Bear. Sweet, but not cloying — and carefully dodging the bullet of romanticizing mental illness — this is a remarkably assured debut film from Maya Forbes, with terrific performances helping out. Also has the best use of a George Harrison song I can recall.
Insidious: Chapter 3. James Wan handed over the reins of the Insidious series to his longtime writing partner Leigh Whannell (who also plays Specs in the films) for Chapter 3 and damned if it didn’t work — and in spite of being a prequel, too. Now, where is Chapter 4?
I’ll See You in My Dreams. Adult, sweet-tempered and rather special little romantic comedy-drama focusing on a generally underserved age group — and presenting that group in a new light. And you needn’t be a part of that group to enjoy it. Yeah, there’s an “Old Folks Get Stoned” sequence that’s a little — well, a lot — much, but on balance it’s very pleasant.
5 to 7. Victor Levin’s beguiling romantic comedy about struggling young Jewish writer Brian (Anton Yelchin) and older married French woman Arielle (Bérénice Marlohe, Skyfall) is a charmer from beginning to end. It’s also the movie that in a fair world would make Yelchin a star. Unfortunately, this is not a fair world. That is no excuse for not seeing this.
Ex Machina. When it came out I wrote, “A coolly brilliant film from writer-turned-director Alex Garland that explores the nature of what it means to be human. Effective as both a sci-fi thriller and a cerebral chamber drama.” I’m still onboard with that, but not as strongly as I was. I need to see it again.
While We’re Young. Noah Baumbach’s film about Generation X-ers (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) falling under the spell of a pair of millennial hipsters (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) is so good that I wish I loved it a little more than I do. Still, any film that can tackle generational foibles without being cruel deserves a look.
Woman in Gold. Yeah, it’s middlebrow (with highbrow trimmings) Oscar-bait — or would have been if the Weinsteins hadn’t released it in April and didn’t apparently lose interest in it. Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, and Daniel Brühl are excellent in it and Simon Curtis’ direction keeps it on course.
It Follows. This effective little horror picture took critics by surprise back in March and it did OK at the box office, too. This was back when we briefly seemed to be in a horror renaissance — something that has since kind of evaporated. To a degree, so has It Follows, but it’s still an unusually unsettling work.
Maps to the Stars. When this appeared, I wrote, “Part Hollywood satire, part dark melodrama, all fascinating David Cronenberg film. Some will love it, others will absolutely hate it.” I think that’s still true and I kind of loved this psychodrama satire that turns psychodrama thriller. But I don’t think enough people ever saw it for many to hate it.
Kingsman: The Secret Service. It’s cheeky, rude, stylized, stylish, wildy politically incorrect, bursting at the seams with bad taste and something to offend everyone. Needless to say, I thought it was great.
Tangerine. At first I hated Sean Baker’s Tangerine. In fact, I turned it off with a sense of “That’s more than enough of that.” But I went back. Maybe it was the comparisons to Almodovar (I guess it’s the transgendered characters) or maybe I just was somehow drawn to it — or it might be that they were so determined I see this that they sent the damned thing to me three times. Well, I never quite loved it, but I liked it overall and there were parts of it that I truly did love. This hasn’t played here yet. I hope it will.
She’s Funny That Way. Peter Bogdanovich’s supposed comeback film went nowhere and it’s a shame. It’s got a terrific cast — Owen Wilson, Imogen Poots, Illeana Douglas, Rhys Ifans, Cybill Shepherd. Austin Pendleton, Jennifer Aniston (very funny as the world’s worst therapist), Kathryn Hahn — and endless drive and energy. It’s played like a bedroom farce (and it kind of is) with a veneer of Ernst Lubitsch sophistication (well, it also borrows some lines from his Clunu Brown). It’s fast, it’s funny, it’s charming — and it barely got released. See it.
Carol. I do wish I loved Todd Haynes’ impeccable lesbian soap opera as much as I’m supposed, but I’ll have to settle for admiring it. And I do admire it a lot. Problem is, I need to be more emotionally involved than I am by all its glorious period detail and strong central performances. Something keeps me at a slightly cool distance.
Damndest Thing I Saw All Year: Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room is the easy winner. Even for a Guy Maddin movie, this thing is…out there. If you’ve never seen one of the Canadian surrealist’s films, this is probably not the place to start. But is there a right place to start? Oh, what the hell — just dive in and go with it. The most disturbing thing is that after a while it starts to make a kind of sense. Do not indulge too much or too often.
1. Unfriended. Gimmicky, annoying, boring, headache-inducing (at least for me) low-budget horror about a bunch of thoroughly unlikable characters being offed by a vengeful internet ectoplasmic something or other. To make it even more unbearable, it all takes place on computer screens.
2. Love the Coopers. Imbecilic, obnoxious Christmas goo that’s never even briefly believable or funny or much of anything but tedious. Just to make it That Much Worse, the whole thing turns out to be narrated by an apparently omniscient dog (voiced by Steve Martin for no very good reason).
3. Welcome to Me. I was warned not to watch this, but I just had to see for myself if this witless, tasteless, charmless, laugh-free fiasco about a woman (Kristen Wiig) with a borderline personality who wins an $86 million lottery and buys herself a TV show starring her could possibly be as bad as I’d heard. And it’s worse. To compound the injury I can’t get that damned “Happy Talk” (it’s over the credits) song from South Pacific out of my head.
4. Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension. It’s the fifth installment in the Paranormal Stupidity series. What more needs be said? Well, I’ll note that it has a 3D puke shot.
5. Goodnight Mommy. Preposterous codswallop from Austria — cheesy, extremely unpleasant (but never scary) horror with a surprise twist I spotted around the seven minute mark. And so did every other horror movie fan I know. It’s the sort of movie where when the moment you see a cat, you know it won’t be breathing by the end of the movie. In this, it does not disappoint. A surprising number of people thought it was good. I have yet to figure out why.
6. The Green Inferno. A pointless exercise in cannibal porn from Eli Roth. Fortunately, it died so fast that his next film never got here.
7. Entertainment. Perhaps the most ill-named movie ever made. Whatever else this ugly, unfunny mess about the world’s least appealing stand-up comic (played by the monumentally unappealing Greg Turkington) is, it is not entertainment. Even though I knew it was associated with the amazingly unfunny Tim and Eric duo (that’s their shtick — comedy that’s not funny), I kept watching to see if it ever got better. It only got worse. Then it turned into really bad imitation Davd Lynch. Then it crawled back under its rock and I hope it stays there.
8. The Duke of Burgundy. I was recently told that it is no longer critically acceptable to call a movie “pretentious.” I have no idea why, but fine. I’ll just call this artsy twaddle artsy twaddle and be done with it. It plays like bad art house porn from 40-odd years ago — with a little kink and some bargain basement Bergman.
9. Do You Believe? No year would be complete without at least one of these hot gospel tracts. This is from the same writers as the appalling God’s Not Dead, and it’s at least a notch above that, but only just. By the end, it was actually pretty funny, but that wasn’t the intent. One of the writers sent me a book about why I need to believe in God in spite of any evidence to the contrary. And one of the actors came to the Xpress website to defend the film (sock puppet style, of course, since he praised his own performance) and attacked everyone who disagreed with him. A good time was had by someone, I guess,
10. Fifty Shades of Grey. If you want to know how to make kinky sex appallingly boring just watch this movie. Notable only for its tedium, its wooden performances, and our insufferable leading man announcing, “I’m fifty shades of fucked up!” Who am I to argue with him?
11. Seventh Son. This amazingly stupid bout of the supernatural hooey ought to be funnier than it is. Why Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore are in this, I have no idea. Gambling debts? Bad investments? Agents that need to be replaced? It’s almost so dumb that it’s lovable. Almost.
12. The Loft. Erik Van Looy made Loftin Belgium in 2008 from a script by someone named Bart De Pauw. For some reason, Mr. De Pauw’s screenplay was then remade by someone else — again as Loft— in the Netherlands in 2010 (where Van Looy seems to have stepped in to shoot part of that version). Now we have The Loft with Van Looy again at the helm. This appears to be a virtual shot-for-shot copy of the original. It also seems to have been sitting on a shelf since 2011 before skulking into theaters in the dead of winter last year. At least it’s funny, though that clearly wasn’t the idea.
13. Ricki and the Flash. Here’s the thing — when you have a movie starring Meryl Streep (improbably cast as a Tea Party-loving barroom rock singer) and the best performance in your movie comes from Rick Springfield, you’ve lost. What the hell was Jonathan Demme thinking?
14. By the Sea. This is what happens when movie stars have too much power and too much money. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie Pitt made an “art” film like Antonioni filled with pretty pictures of them suffering from ennui in beautiful surroundings. They suffered from ennui, but audiences had full-blown malaise, and this thing died a merciful death largely unseen.
15. Tomorrowland. I guess Brad Bird’s creepy sunshine-and-light plea Tomorrowland is less bad than it’s just ill-advised. Oh, it’s got some cool effects, but…good Lord, is it simple-minded. It’s an idiotic mash-up of Norman Vinent Peale and Ayn Rand. The best I can say is it’s alarmingly misguided.
Overlooked and Underrated. (In no order)
Burnt. I simply do not understand why this movie was considered so awful. (Then again, I never understood why Chef was considered anything other than mediocre.) I did have one reader tell me why Burnt was so bad, but then it turned out he hadn’t actually seen the movie.
Mississippi Grind. OK, this one really baffles me. It has a good pedigree. It has terrific performances. It has a marvelous throwback-to-the-1970s tone. It got great reviews. Nobody went to see it. Why? I have no clue. Do people just hate Ryan Reynolds that much?
Pawn Sacrifice. The lackluster response to Pawn Sacrifice I do understand. The idea of a drama built around a chess match — even a very famous one — has a limited appeal. The fact that it was directed (capably, but no more) by the most midcult of movie makers, Ed Zwick, was likely a factor, too. But it deserved more attention than it got.
Learning to Drive. This was simply a case of bad marketing and a dreadful poster. Learning to Drive is not a comedy, but it was promoted as one — and to make matters worse, it had this “cute” poster of smiling Ben Kingsley in a pink turban next to Patricia Clarkson suggesting it was some kind of rom-com. It looked like another old-sploitation comedy (see the dismal A Walk in the Woods). The truth is it was an unassuming small-scale drama with a hint of romance.
The D Train. This never had a chance. The title is awful. The distributor decided that because Jack Black was in it, they’d go wide with it. It died. Had it been handled as the art/indie movie it really was and given a small release, The D Train might have been a modest success on the art house circuit. Even then, the fact that it dared to look at the fluid nature of male sexuality (yes, Jack Black and James Marsden have sex in the film), it was probably always doomed because it made too many people too uncomfortable. That it followed through on what this encounter did and didn’t mean or might have meant made it that much worse, I guess. It’s actually a very warm, generous movie that ought to be seen.
The Man from UNCLE. Yeah, it did OK. It should have done better. If people insist (and they seem to) on taking old, barely remembered TV shows and turning them into big screen fare, this is how to do it. But for whatever reason, it never took off like it should have with audiences.
Jupiter Ascending. I don’t care what anyone says, I think the Wachowskis’ sci-fi fantasy is a lot of fun and was great to look at and had more visual creativity than any other film of its type this year. (Yes, I am including Star Wars in that.)
Victor Frankenstein. Here we have a case of “no good deed goes unpunished.” You see, a mutual friend told Max Landis (who wrote this film) that I had championed it and Landis told him that I was “nuts.” Sometimes you just can’t win. I still think it’s a solid horror movie and the most interesting take on the story in ages.
Mortdecai. The film that everyone — well, nearly everyone — loved to hate is something I found to be an agreeably silly comedy with a lot of style and some deft comedy performances. Frankly, I think it had more to do with the “Let’s trash Johnny Depp” bandwagon than anything else. Am I saying this is great? No, but I thought it was fun, and that’s all it intended.
The Cobbler. There’s going to be an irony this year if Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight wins the Oscar, since his barely released fantasy The Cobbler was one of the worst reviewed movies of the year. Why? I’m guessing it’s the Adam Sandler factor. Pure and simple. Now, I hate Adam Sandler movies as much as anyone, but this isn’t an Adam Sandler movie — it’s a movie with Adam Sandler in it. There is a difference. It is great? No, but it didn’t deserve the abuse it received.
Overrated. Perilous territory here…and in no order.
Sicario. A lot of critics went lollipops over this. I have yet to understand why. All I saw was a well-acted, well-made, but largely standard violent crime drama. It is supposed to make some great statement. I have no idea what that statement is.
Black Mass. Yeah, it’s the movie that “proved” Johnny Depp could play something other than a quirky character. Fine. It’s also a dull performance in a pretty dull crime movie of the fact-based variety.
Inside Out. I’m sure to hear about this one. I’m sorry. I didn’t hate it or anything, but I also didn’t love it. And I certainly didn’t find it profound.
Steve Jobs. This has some terrific things in it — mostly in the performances of Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, and Michael Stuhlbarg — but it left me cold. Maybe if I was actually interested in Steve Jobs, it would help, but I doubt it. I think you really have to be in love with Aaron Sorkin’s style of writing to find this in any way exceptional. I’m not and I didn’t.
The Revenant. See Leonardo DiCaprio wrestle the bear. See him lose. See him mauled. See him left for dead by duplicitous, mumbling Tom Hardy. See him stagger around the frozen woods, grunting as abuse after abuse is heaped upon him for a very long time. Technically, yes, this movie is a marvel, but on an emotional level there’s not much there. Others will disagree.
Room. I understand the love for every other film on this list, but not Room. It’s got an intriguing premise, but…well, I don’t get it. I was supposed to be moved. I was supposed to be shattered. I was mostly indifferent to it. Sometimes I was bored. It had one terrific sequence — unfortunately in the middle of the film. And it certainly tested my tolerance for the high-pitched screaming of a five-year-old. I did not care about the characters and I found the direction uninteresting and flat. Others think it’s a masterpiece. They are welcome to do that.
Justin Souther’s Lists.
1. Mistress America. This is, if my math is correct, the ninth top ten list I’ve published in the Xpress. About all I’ve learned in making them is to be self-indulgent in their creation. So what I mean is that in putting Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America in the top slot, I’m saying it’s the most purely enjoyable film I watched this year. It was the first time I really enjoyed myself at the movies in 2015 helps, and the fact that the film contains some expert, nearly perfect comedic filmmaking and doubles as social satire helps even more. That the cast is flawless–especially Greta Gerwig, who brings the best out of Baumbach and vice versa–pushes it to the top.
2. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Part of me is embarrassed to put Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl this high up. I was reluctant to watch it, being burned by so many adaptations of Young Adult novels and still having a bad taste in my mouth from that other YA cancer drama, Josh Boone’s schmaltzy, phoney The Fault in Our Stars (2014). But as soon as the film started, I instead found a heartbreaking, honest and human story, tied together with Gomez-Rejon’s effortless style. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for all that Brian Eno music. Regardless, the film takes something that should be stale and treacly and instead finds the emotion and verve that lies within it.
3. The Hateful Eight. So every time a new Tarantino film comes out, I see the trailer and decide I’m over it. Then, of course, I end up watching the movie and keep enjoying the damn things. The Hateful Eight is no different. It does exactly everything every other Taratino movie does. It’s too long, everyone shoots everyone else, they all talk too much. But, even then, being aware of what I was getting into, I was still left fascinated watching the whole thing unspool. Playful without being (too) smug, this is also a film that’s not quite like anything else in Tarantino’s filmography. But when it really comes down to it, the film is fun, and that’s really all that matters.
4. Slow West. I almost didn’t watch this. It never played in town and my awards screener almost didn’t show up, while the idea–for whatever reason–of another Western didn’t sound all that exciting. I’m glad I didn’t pass on director John Maclean’s debut, a stylish, good-natured and intelligent story of friendship and love that still works within the expectations of the Western genre. It may rely a bit too much on its visual style, but it’s the work of a director feeling out what he can get away with, meaning it feels like an actual human being with a passion for film is behind the camera, not a focus group. A movie that trades in small touches, there’s an indisputable amount of thought and care in every scene, something that sets Slow West apart.
5. Magic Mike XXL. Nothing bad happens to anyone. There’s never any dramatic tension. There are just five friends looking out for one another. Their entire purpose in life is to give women pleasure, even if it’s fleeting. We often get hung up on the emotional heaviness or the profundity of films, especially when we talk about end of the year lists. But what happened to just enjoying ourselves? I’ll take watching five male strippers venture to Myrtle Beach as a kind of Americanized version of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) over two-and-a-half hours of Leonardo DiCaprio rolling around in the mud any day. Plus, it’s been a few years now, I know, but I can’t get over the fact that I’ll watch Channing Tatum in anything these days. How’d that happen?
6. Youth. I’ll probably regret placing Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth this low (I know I’ll at least get a talking to from Ken). And I think, perhaps, I need more time with the film. It’s the year’s richest, both in terms of ideas and visual style and, barely a week after seeing it in the theater, I haven’t had time to really live with the film. So for now, it sits here and even then, I can’t deny its grand scale. Maybe I just haven’t caught up with its own ambition.
7. Joy. If you asked me why I like David O. Russell’s Joy so much, I’m not sure I could explain why. Which is a terrible answer to give, especially since this space is meant for making an argument as to why a film should be on this list. But on the surface, I’m not sure this is a movie that should’ve even been made. It is, after all, the story of a mop inventor and the secret history of cable TV shopping channels. But there’s something charming in the messy little movie and affirming and pleasing in our titular Joy’s (Jennifer Lawrence) search for the American Dream. It’s just the right side of self-indulgent in a time where everyone else wants to view that as a dirty word. There’s a sense of freedom and attitude in Russell’s direction, something which hasn’t been around in his work in great amounts since I Heart Huckabees (2004), and it’s nice to see it return.
8. Anomalisa. A quiet, simple film, about as far removed from director Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008) as one can imagine. But with co-director Duke Johnson, Kaufman has made a quiet stop-motion animated film about loneliness and the struggles it creates–with enough weirdness to keep things interesting. There’s a universal quality to Anomalisa’s humanity, even if — as almost every review will certainly mention — it’s a movie populated by stop-motion puppets.
9. Kingsman: The Secret Service. Again, another movie I had reservations about going in. Another comic book movie from a director (Matthew Vaughn) I occasionally like but has an uneven filmography. Plus, the winter release date always raises alarms. But luckily, this is more a case of a studio not knowing what to do with an idiosyncratic title than a commentary on its quality. What I found was a fun, often tasteless and often surprising (at least in the film’s ability to cross boundaries and offend) with a nasty subversive streak. A smarter affair with more to say than one may think at first glance.
10. Heart of a Dog. I still don’t know if I have a total handle on Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog. Or if it’s possible to have a complete idea of what Anderson’s getting at. But it’s the movie in 2015 that I’ve thought about the most about. And as strange and impenetrable as it might be, it’s the kind of personal filmmaking I wish we got more of but so rarely do. So for that reason alone, it rounds off this list.
1. Goodnight Mommy. While there are certainly “worse” films that came out in 2015 (oh, so many worse films), I generally like to reserve the top spot for the movie that annoys me the most. So this year, it’s Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s Goodnight Mommy, a excruciatingly predictable (if you’ve ever seen a horror movie, you can spot the twist within the first ten minutes), glacially paced return to torture porn. People still make torture porn flicks? Apparently, yes — and if it’s subtitled, people will consider it art.
2. Trainwreck. What kind of worst of list doesn’t include a new Judd Apatow movie? What starts off as a supposedly subversive take on the romcom (which really just boils down to a female protagonist who’s also promiscuous) devolves into a reaffirmation of those drawn out cliches of the genre. Plus, it’s Apatow, so of course it’s too damn long.
3. Ted 2. Remember when Brett Ratner couldn’t direct the Oscars because he said a gay slur during a press conference and Ratner’s chosen host, Eddie Murphy, quit in solidarity, so as his replacement, they got a guy that made an entire movie that was not only casually homophobic, but racist and misogynistic, too? Well, we got a sequel to that movie, the one with the anthropomorphic teddy bear who hates immigrants. This time, he gets covered in semen. Movies are the worst.
4. Entourage. What is this goofy nonsense? Not everything that ever existed or was moderately popular five years ago needs to be made into a movie. Especially not some cornball TV show about a group of chuckleheads falling back asswards into money and women. If someone nuked us over this movie I couldn’t blame them.
5. Point Break. I’ll be honest, this movie’s only on here because I saw it last week and it’s still fresh in my mind. It’s the de facto placeholder for all the dumb action movies and remakes and reboots I forgot I watched this year, all the Taken 3’s and Black Hats that came out this year. In its defense as a piece of garbage, it does manage to be one of the most boring movies I’ve watched all year. Congrats.
6. Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2. Imagine a game show where someone offered you the choice of doing something sketchy or watching Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 and seeing where your boundaries lie. How far can you push a person with the threat of Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2? If someone gave you the choice of watching Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 or losing a finger, you’d at least ask which finger first, right?
7. Fantastic Four. I almost feel bad for including this cursed, dumb little movie on this list. It’s production problems and reshoots are all well documented, and it’s more a testament to bad ideas, studio meddling and the comic book movie bubble slowly bursting. But then I remember that the ending is one of the chintziest things I’ve ever seen on a movie screen and I have to put it on here. Actually, the climax is so flimsy I kind of respect how bad it is. God bless you, you stupid movie.
8. Southpaw. My favorite Oscar bait performances are the ones you can tell had a lot of work put into, but then no one ends up seeing it or caring about it in the end. And here we have Jake Gyllenhaal all extra ripped and covered in fake tattoos and trying to mumble his way to glory. Plus, it’s all wrapped up in a dreary, unlikable movie.
9. Pitch Perfect 2. I hated Pitch Perfect (2012) and hated Pitch Perfect 2. Actually, I forget why I don’t like Pitch Perfect 2. The whole movie’s evaporated from my mind. All I know is that the songs suck, I can’t stand Rebel Wilson and the thing was too long. The rest is just some blackhole buried in my gray matter. But the visceral reaction I get just trying to remember why I don’t like this movie is strong enough, primeval enough, that it makes the cut.
10. Insurgent. Sad teens are sad about their dystopian society. But they know kung fu and how to look puckered, so no worries everybody. A film too preoccupied with its half assed ideas to bother being fun or entertaining. Such solemn nonsense for such a pulpy concept.