‘Brooklyn’, ‘The Martian’, ‘It Follows’, ‘Son of Saul’, ‘Amy’. 2015 was such a strong year for cinema that none of those terrific films even cracked my Top 20 list! Here are the very best movies of 2015:
1) ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’
When I reviewed ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ back in May, I said I was certain that I had already seen the best movie of 2015, and I was right. What an exhilarating piece of cinema this was: full of energy and ambition, technical definitude, and devastating beauty. Leave it to George Miller, an Aussie genre veteran in his 70s, to teach a master class in old school, super linear action filmmaking. And, oh, what wonderfully crazed art it is: bad guys on motorcycles fly through the air, combatants tossed back and forth on flexi-rods annexed to armored vehicles, and drummers and a fire-spitting heavy metal guitarist supply the appropriate soundtrack to the film’s endless series of eye-popping chase sequences. Tom Hardy gets top billing as the titular character, but he is just a passenger; Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa drives the story in every sense and is one of the most kick-ass ladies the movies have ever known. Even after two viewings, I feel as though I have only scratched the surface. There is so much richness in its imagery and ideas – I can’t wait to unlock more of it in future viewings. This isn’t just the best film of 2015; it’s one of the best action movies in motion picture history. ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ demonstrated that a film can be both an epic-sized blockbuster and an original work of art. Currently available on Blu-Ray/DVD.
There was a moment in Christian Petzold’s pulp psychological thriller ‘Phoenix’ where I thought I literally felt my heart break. The formidable Nina Hoss (Petzold’s regular collaborator) is a disfigured concentration-camp survivor who undergoes significant reconstructive surgery to repair a serious facial injury caused by a bullet wound. She returns to post-war Berlin in the hopes of reclaiming her life. Hoss turns in the finest performance of 2015 and perfectly embodies a woman trying to recover fragments of the person she previously was, but in the service of a deceitful scheme that bereaves her of the identity she is trying to repossess. Petzold avoids theatrics by underplaying the pulpiness of his premise and makes every cut, eye movement, and change of posture matter. The result is a modern masterpiece of suspense. ‘Phoenix’ has the look and feel of a classic noir, but goes well beyond paying homage to Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ by choosing to confront unspeakable acts of history. Its finale is one of the most piercing, jaw-dropping movie endings ever. Currently available on iTunes.
3) ‘Love & Mercy’
Bill Pohlad’s directorial debut ‘Love & Mercy’ is as good a musical biopic as I have ever seen. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, played by Paul Dano and John Cusack in respective career bests, struggles with addiction and mental illness while creating some of the most joyously sounding sad music ever. This is a movie that hits all the right notes, foregoing biopic conventions for something more introspective and interesting. Pohlad takes us through the turmoil in Wilson’s head and we hear the world passing through his ears. It is exhilarating to see his creative process at work as he experiments in the studio to get those distinctive sounds for ‘Pet Sounds’. As the picture seamlessly shifts back and forth between the 1960s and the 1980s, we get a clear understanding of how Dano’s Wilson eventually becomes the Wilson embodied by Cusack, and how their search for inner peace paved the way for the third Wilson, the 72-year-old who toured the US and the UK this past summer. Currently available on Blu-Ray/DVD.
Co-directed by the brilliant Charlie Kaufman and animation whiz Duke Johnson, ‘Anomalisa’ is a stop-motion adaptation of a theater piece Kaufman had written. A customer-service expert struggles with his inability to connect to people. One night, on a business trip to Cincinnati, he meets a woman who stands out from the crowd and forges a real connection with her. You may think there isn’t anything new to be said about human alienation but in the hands of Kaufman you see desolation in a perfectly unconventional way. Kaufman and Johnson forego digital technology to keep the animation within a meticulously handcrafted domain. This is a hilarious comedy about the mundaneness of business travel, a wildly romantic love story about the connection between two people, and a serious contemplation of depression, loneliness, insecurity, and identity. For a picture enacted by puppets, it has more to say about the human condition than any movie I’ve seen in a very long time. ‘Anomalisa’ is a beautiful, one-of-a-kind romance and the year’s most indelible animation. Opens in theaters January 8th.
‘Spotlight’ is one of the best movies ever made about investigative newspaper journalism. Todd McCarthy’s fact-based thriller about the Boston Globe’s exposé of the Catholic Church’s cover-ups involving widespread child molestation has a sense of propulsive energy to it – no easy feat given that most of the time, these reporters were making phone calls, writing in notepads, going through legal documents, and populating spreadsheets. Keenly observant in newsroom politics and the way news stories are initiated, researched, developed, and finally published, ‘Spotlight’ is a tribute to this type of journalism that is nearing its extinction. No one person could have uncovered this story on his or her own. It took a team of dedicated reporters who put their jobs first. It took a system of good to obliterate a system of evil. The year’s best ensemble cast includes Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci, Liev Schreiber, Billy Cruddup, and John Slattery. ‘Spotlight’ captures the glory ingrained in doing any job at the highest level – particularly for the right reasons. Currently in theaters.
Based on Emma Donoghue’s novel of the same name, Lenny Abraham’s ‘Room’ is a small wonder of a film with an enormous emotional impact. The story is told through the eyes of a five-year-old boy (Jacob Tremblay) who was born in captivity and whose young mind can’t conceive of a world outside ‘Room’, the soundproof garden shed to which he and his mother (Brie Larson) are confined. Telling the story from the young boy’s point of view allows us to share his sense of wonder at discovering the world, turning a horrific scenario into a story with the possibility of hope. Larson and Tremblay share a genuinely believable bond and their performances will blow you away. ‘Room’ is a disturbing, heartbreaking, and uplifting celebration of the resilience of the human spirit. If you haven’t seen it already, you’ll want to bring some tissues to this one. Blame the dusty floors of the theater all you like; I’ll admit this movie reduced me to a puddle. Currently in theaters. Blu-Ray/DVD Release Date: March 1st, 2016.
7) ‘The End of the Tour’
‘The End of the Tour’, James Ponsoldt’s dramatization of the five days that Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) spent interviewing ‘Infinite Jest’ author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) wasn’t the cradle-to-the-grave biopic of Wallace that some viewers were probably hoping for. Ponsoldt instead focuses on a crucial period in Wallace’s career and the result is a scintillating commentary on the moral quagmire our celebrity-obsessed society anchors on the gifted and the undistinguished alike. Eisenberg and Siegel use the form of the buddy movie to concoct an altogether new genre: the frenemy movie. The film’s pleasures are largely vernacular: the conversations engage the mind, but there is also an emotional honesty within it. Segel who has never been better gives a touching and sensitive performance, and Eisenberg nearly equals him. They make the movie’s limited canvas feel substantial. Wallace seemed to be concerned with the way people would respond to his presentation of himself and the movie acutely presents that torment within. Currently available on Blu-Ray/DVD.
8) ‘Ex Machina’
This trippy near-future tale follows a bright young programmer (Dohmnall Gleeson) who is selected by the reclusive CEO (Oscar Isaac) to journey to his remote, underground home/research facility to administer a Turing Test on what may be the first true example of artificial intelligence – one in the form of a beautiful female robot (Alicia Vikander). It is very satisfying to see how Garland (a novelist-turned-screenwriter making his assured directorial debut) uses state-of-the-art special effects in service of story, character, and dialogue. The story moves in fascinating directions and is a rare example of “true” science fiction – the sort of picture that has ideas (about technology, humanity, megalomania, gender, identity, intelligence, consciousness, and morality) and explores them scrupulously. Exquisite and mysterious, disquieting and enthralling, ‘Ex Machina’ constantly pulls the rug from underneath us in a way that doesn’t betray its setup. This is a sleek and spare chamber piece hinging on the performances of its actors, all of whom knock it out of the park. Currently streaming on Netflix Canada and available on Blu-Ray/DVD.
9) ‘Wild Tales’
‘Wild Tales’ is a laugh riot – the most scathingly funny movie of 2015. As far as multi-story feature films go, this is the ultimate. Delivering on the promise suggested by its title, these six outrageously bizarre stories are held in perfect check by filmmaker Damián Szifron – he knows how to shoot physical comedy and has created one of the best looking films of its genre, period. Each segment is a mini-masterpiece punctuated with mordacious black humor. The common themes running through these chapters, each built around an SOB, are vengeance and anarchism. It takes a brilliant and crazy mind to come up with these premises, and Szifron has constructed a satirical farce so deliciously merciless that it makes you wonder just how he was able to get away with it in Argentina. At its core, this is a movie angry at its corrupt society, and its bureaucracy. But there is a playfulness to it in its synthesizing of black comedy with tragedy. Currently streaming on Netflix Canada and available on Blu-Ray/DVD.
10) ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’
With a title as Sundancy as ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’, it is no surprise that the film was the winner of both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. This movie about a creative but otherwise self-deprecating high school senior who befriends a girl stricken with leukemia is unlike any other cancer movie I have ever seen. The terrifically funny and moving screenplay by Jesse Andrews (adapting his own novel), confident direction by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, marvelously imaginative cinematography by Chung-hoon Chug, beautiful musical score by Brian Eno and Nico Muhly, and uniformly excellent performances make this a wonderfully energetic dramedy. As immensely likeable as these characters are, they all register as real, flawed human beings. ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ is no disease-of-the-week flick pick. It is clever, honest, and artfully assembled – the sort of movie that ends up becoming a favorite of many, film lovers and casual viewers alike. Currently available on Blu-Ray/DVD.
Honorable Mentions: ’45 Years’, ‘Carol’, ‘Creed’, ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’, ‘Heaven Knows What’, ‘Inside Out’, ‘Mustang’, ‘Sicario’, ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’, ‘Timbuktu’