Although in many respects great TV is crippling independent film (https://pando.com/2015/10/02/has-tv-stolen-independent-film/), it is hard for me to remember a better year for films of all shapes and sizes. Sure, I saw many of them on the small screen, but the breadth and quality of this year’s films was remarkable. Many of my favorites were documentaries, more than I can remember in the past, which also happen to be well suited for television viewing. Any way you slice it, actors still love feature films, despite the fact that serialized television is actually reaching a larger audience in many cases, pays better, creates realistic consistency of work, and now comes without a negative stigma. More than anything though, I urge you to continue to see films in the theater where you can check your phone at the door, lose yourself in the story, and have a real life shared experience with other human beings. It’s worth it.
- Ex Machina – Dir. Alex Garland (Oscar Issac, Domhall Gleeson)
Although “Ex Machina” is clearly a sci-fi film, it is more appropriately a psychological meditation on the moral and ethical implications of a world teetering on the brink of a very practical and ubiquitous artificial intelligence. Set in a gorgeous isolated compound in Alaska (but actually filmed in Norway) the reclusive and brilliant CEO of a Google-like technology (Oscar Issac) has created a beautiful “robot” (Alicia Vikander) to test whether or not an AI being can experience or at least simulate real emotions.
For this experiment the wonderful Domhnall Gleeson, a programming genius, is recruited to spend a month with this creature to evaluate how successful Issac was at playing God. This is the kind of film a young Stanley Kubrick would have made, but with all the advantages of modern technology. There is a kind of deep, slow burning urgency that pulses through every frame, but in the end director Alex Garland’s accomplished debut is as slick and cerebral as almost anything you are likely to see for a long while.
- Dope – Dir. Rick Famuyiwa (Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons)
If Spike Lee were just starting out today, living in LA, and passionate but not yet truly angry, he might have made a film like “Dope.” This is a modern high school comedy focused on three social outcasts who manage to get into the kind of trouble that might seem like an updated version of “Risky Business.”
The film bounces around themes that include the main character’s love of classic 90’s Hip-Hop and setting up of a Silk Road – like website to sell drugs for Bitcoin. I didn’t see anything as fast moving, topical and just down right funny as “Dope” this year. In an age where young people are increasingly less interested in films, and preoccupied with shorter content, “Dope” reaffirms my hope that the kids will come back around and start watching movies that aren’t sequels again.
- The Revenant– Dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Leanardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy)
There is almost no director working today that would have dared make a film as bleak, brutal and beautiful as Inarritu’s “The Revenant.” Shot in the pristine expanses of Canada and Argentina in the devastatingly harsh winter months, the story is set nearly 200 years ago in an age of almost unimaginable hardship. DiCaprio, in a wonderful and virtually wordless role, plays a frontier guide named Hugh Glass who is hired to guide a crew of trappers through the a nearly impenetrable wilderness inhabited by Native Americans and bears.
In one of the most violent and realistic scenes ever captured on film, Glass is mauled and battered by a bear and left for dead in the ominous wilderness. Although the film is mostly about his epic struggle to survive, it also seriously explores themes revolving around revenge, loyalty and the shameful mistreatment of the Native tribes who were lived on the land before we did. With cinematography as starkly gorgeous as anything this year, and a kind of relentless violence that is both impossible to turn away from but devastatingly realistic, this has to be seen, and on a big screen.
- Room – Dir. Lenny Abrahamson (Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay)
The premise of this film, a mother and child held in a shed for 7 years by a sexual predator, is so sadly realistic and disturbingly commonplace, that it is almost impossible to imagine it being a remarkably hopeful and optimistic film. While the story could have been mired in a shallow kind of “love conquers all” message, it exists in a much more fluid and almost surreally believable space.
But Brie Larson, who is mesmerizing, as the doggedly optimistic mother of young Jack, has created a wonderful world that deflects the reality that exists outside of their tiny shack, and almost extends beyond it. Young Jacob Tremblay has also turned in what will likely go down as one of the best performances by a child his age in long time. This film is pure gold.
- Love & Mercy – Dir. Bill Pohlad (Paul Dano, John Cusack)
Film biopics about musicians are rarely as good as their promise. Either their characters are already too rich and well known publically to be played effectively by someone else, or their stories lack any kind of truth worth unpacking. But both the Brian Wilson who really was the genius behind the Beach Boys, and the mid-life Wilson who disappeared from public view in the 80’s, are actually elusive curiosities whose stories have never been very well explored given the impact of his creativity.
“Love & Mercy” is a masterpiece in both casting and acting. Paul Dano’s “Pet Sounds” era Wilson is a perfectly cherubic doppelganger for the real life Wilson, whose idiosyncrasies and mannerisms seem lifted straight out of the limited archival footage from that period. Mid-life, mid-meltdown Wilson played by John Cusask is also a perfectly realized version of the Wilson who disappeared along the way. This film is both inextricably sad and masterfully redemptive, but the ride is so well crafted you are bound to lose yourself along the way, saved in many ways by that exquisite music.
- Me Earl and the Dying Girl –Dir. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke)
I loved every minute of this film. Despite a plot line that reads like a cliché wrapped in an after school special, there is something irresistibly nuanced and fresh about this story about two outcast buddies Greg (Thomas Mann) and Ronald Cyler (Earl), and their friendship with a dying girl. It is relentlessly funny, cynically clever , and feels at times like a Wes Anderson film with its attention to tiny details and thin layer of surrealism.
Greg and Earl have been making low budget re-interpretations of classic movies like “A Sockwork Orange” since childhood, all the while managing to slip almost unnoticed in the sea of high school cliques , living in a kind of perpetual invisibility. But it is Olivia Cooke’s ” dying girl” who grounds the film with a kind of emotional honesty and realism that elevates it into something truly remarkable.
- Spotlight– Dir. Tom McCarthy (Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton)
This is a film that reminds you how great movies can be. It features one of the biggest and best ensemble casts in a very long time. It is topical and modern, but feels more like the kind of handcrafted film a director like Sidney Lumet would have made decades ago. It emanates from a newsroom, but one that sits on the precipice of reinvention, increasingly dominated by the internet- link-bait, and superficial reporting and a race against time to make what’s physical , digital.
The crimes buried by and within the Catholic Church have dominated the headlines for years now, but untangling the threads, politics and bureaucracy has forced a kind of global complacency. Director Thomas McCarthy whose prior films include the nearly perfect “The Visitor” and “The Station Agent,” has such a careful eye and sets such an even but urgent pace, that you get to savor each of many varied wonderful performances. This film is an absolute joy.
- What Happened, Miss Simone – Dir. Liz Garbus (Nina Simone)
It’s hard to know how much of my love for this film is biased by my long time love for the music of Nina Simone. She always transcended race, gender and genre with her otherworldly voice but her career and legacy eventually became tangled up with erratic perhaps bi-polar and self-initiated exile to Liberia and her outspoken defense of civil rights. But this film manages, through a comprehensive montage of photos, interviews and most importantly captivating live performances, to paint a portrait of a complicated and brilliant musician and activist.
Unlike many of the best rock documentaries of the past few years (Amy, Montage of Heck, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me) “What Happened” isn’t the story of an artist overwhelmed by early success, then succumbing to an early death. It is instead one where we watch the pressures of an artist and socio-political celebrity more slowly shape the course of her life. Whether you knew her as a musician or as a political agitator, this is a profoundly poignant tribute to the magic of her genius and depth of her passion.
- Amy – Dir. Asif Kapadia (Amy Winehouse, Blake Fielder-Civil, Mark Ronson)
Even if you didn’t know all of the music of Amy Winehouse, most people probably knew enough to recognize that she was driving on that familiar road to nowhere, the same road that has taken so many rock stars before her right around the same age (Hendrix, Cobain, Joplin, Buckley). What most people didn’t know is that she really was one of the most talented singers to have emerged in a very long time. She was an old soul in a young body, who seemed to understand jazz the way Tony Bennett understood jazz.
But unlike many of her peers whom we lost too early, “Amy” seems to make the point that although the velocity and pressure of today ‘ s hype can be overwhelming and incapacitating, it didn’t have to end this way. Her boyfriend, father and others merely fed the fire, instead of helping to put it out. Music is a business. Amy Winehouse was a business. Perhaps if she w ere merely a singer she’d still be making music today.
10. The Big Short– Dir. Adam McKay (Steve Carrell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt)
If you read Michael Lewis’ fantastic book, it would have been unimaginable to consider this book becoming a mainstream dramedy. Against all odds, this fantastic film, aided by an impeccable cast, manages to tell one of the most complicated financial conspiracies in modern capitalism in a totally accessible way. Whether it be CDO’s, the rigged co-dependence of the banks, ratings agencies, mortgage sellers, and other ancillary players, this is a rich multi-layered ponzi scheme whose intricacies could have easily overwhelmed the story, but didn’t.
What makes each of the five main characters, our anti-heroes, so intriguing is that each of them individually is so quirky and occasionally offensive, but under McKay’s deft direction they are all almost lovable underdogs. Carrell, Bale, Gosling, and Pitt are perfect caricatures of themselves. The film plays almost like a series of perfectly realized skits that ultimately hang together as one of the most complete films of the year.
11. Mississippi Grind– Dir. Anna Boden / Ryan Fleck (Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds)
I love movies about gambling. I love road movies. As such, this road movie about gambling had an easy path to my heart. The great Ben Mendelsohn, and a surprisingly compelling Ryan Reynolds, play two outsiders who meet at a poker table in the drab gloom of an Iowa winter. From these very first scenes and the subsequent voyage down the Mississippi to New Orleans, the film has a kind of worn and ragged texture that is captured both in the landscape and the weariness of the actors.
As the two travel down south in search of a mythical big poker game, they reveal their tortured disappointed selves to one another while inflecting the kind of inevitable self-destructive abuse that seems to plague those trapped in a classic gamblers dilemma. Even the best of these films always seem to have a kind of inevitability about them. “Mississippi Grind” is filled with surprises right up until the final shots.
12. Mad Max: Fury Road – Dir. George Miller (Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron)
“Mad Max” is one of two sequels in 2015 that not only do justice to the originals but in many respects far surpass them. It is also another reason why there will always be movie theaters. George Miller’s post-apocalyptic reboot was easily the most consistently entertaining and enjoyable two hours of filmmaking this year, and when seen on a big screen with massive images and explosive sounds assaulting your eyes and ears , it makes you remember how great the “movies” are and how not great the “TVs” are.
From the sumptuous barren landscapes to the bleakly optimistic plight of the survivors, led by the stoic but determined Tom Hardy and the furiously committed Charlize Theron, to the battle worn War Rig that they steer off course in a non-stop race for survival, this voyage is a marvel. As they are pursued through hell on earth by a colorful rag tag band of outlaws in Burning Man-like vehicles, we are forced to think about the world we are living in today, perhaps not so far away from this not so distant future.
13. 99 Homes – Dir. Ramin Bahrani (Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern)
Michael Shannon always seems to be boiling under the surface, about to explode, leveling anything in his wake. In “99 Homes” his predatory foreclosure agent character seems to be that perfect combination of anger mixed with occasional humanity. He is matched by a wonderful Andrew Garfield, who plays both the victim and eventually the victimizer, in what has become the reality of this latest American saga.
Apparently enough time has passed that it is now safe to reflect on what happened and why. As such, this year’s two films focused on the collateral damage inflicted by the sub-prime crisis (“The Big Short” being the other). This film is surprisingly and relentlessly intense, playing almost like an action film minus the explosions and CGI. Director Bahrani has crafted a minor masterpiece, a thick chapter in the history of American capitalism and the psychological ambiguity of the modern age.
14. Creed– Dir. Ryan Coogler (Michael B. Jordan, Sylvestor Stallone, Tessa Thompson)
It is easy to forget how great those early Rocky films were. Not that many movies can get you both choked up and pumped at the same time, but Sly made it work. “Creed” the hugely entertaining second film by “Fruitvale Station” maestro Ryan Coogler, is cut perfectly from that old Rocky cloth, but newly polished to feel modern without seeming “slick.”
Michael B. Jordan continues to establish himself as one of the most versatile and likable actors out there. This time he plays the orphaned son of the great Apollo Creed, determined to make it on his own. Sure the story pulls hard at the corners of predictability, but manages to stay far enough away from the edges. In the end, this is the kind of film that demands to be seen on a big screen, in a packed house, where you can feel the energy and joy bouncing around the room.
15. The Wolfpack –Dir. Crystal Moselle (The Angulo Family)
Imagine being locked in a small Lower East Side Manhattan housing project with your six siblings and two crazy parents for the first 15 years of your life. Some years you never get outside at all, other years you were allowed out once a month. The one thing you did have was movies. And so you began to devour them – – they were your outside world. You started acting them out with your siblings and strangely you managed to keep yourself sane.
Well, this is the real life story of the Angulo family. Thanks to loads of home footage captured over the years, and interviews with the most of the Angulo clan, we can be a voyeur into one of the most bizarre social experiments that I have ever seen. There are more than a few questions that are never really satisfactorily answered, but you can’t help getting drawn into this tangled web, and rooting for this weird Wolfpack to get a chance to live in the real world.
A few more that are very worthy …
16. Meru– Dir. Jimmy Chin (Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, Renan Ozturk) This amazing documentary tells the story of three talented and committed climbers who embark on climbing a Himalayan peak that has never been summited before. Beyond the harrowing ascent, the footage is filmed by the climbers themselves and has a handful of amazing backstories too incredible to believe.
17. Youth– Dir. Paolo Sorrentino (Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel)“Youth” is that rare beauty of a film that not only reminds us how lucky we are to still have two of our greatest living actors still making great films, but also that growing old can be beautiful and filled with the smallest and loveliest details that we tend to take for granted while we are young.
18. Anomalisa– Dir. Charlie Kaufman(David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh) Only Charlie could imagine a world as detached but honest as this one. Somehow the wizardry of this truly groundbreaking animation makes the story seem even more real than it would if it was merely the real actors. Astounding.
19. 71’– Dir. Yann Demange(Jack O’Connell, Charlie Murphy) This might be the best film that virtually no one saw last year. It tells the story of a soldier inadvertently abandoned in a sharply divided Belfast war zone in 1971. As he tries to get back to safety, I couldn’t help remembering how I felt watching “The Warriors” as a kid.
20. Sicario– Dir. Denis Villeneuve (Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin) Director Villeneuve is a bare-knuckled realist who is not afraid to make an unsqueamishly gritty, film about the war on drug cartels and the impossibly gray area that exists in our ongoing fight. Like his last film “Prisoners,” this one will have you wondering where we draw the line, and how to judge the people caught in the crossfire.
21. The Martian – Dir. Ridley Scott (Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain)A few years back David Bowie’s son made an excellent film called “Moon.” It was eerie and isolating in the same way that Matt Damon’s kinetic energy and higher tech environs is in “The Martian.” But like “Gravity” this story about people stranded in space, alive and in contact but impossible to bring home, will no doubt become more and more realistic.
22. Carol – Dir. Todd Haynes (Cate Blanchette, Mara Rooney) Todd Haynes has always made patient and slow burning old-fashioned films focused on complicated characters trapped in confining times and places. “Carol” is a visual feast, and Rooney and Blanchette are spellbinding.
23. Joy – Dir. David O. Russell (Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro) Under the direction of anyone except David O. Russell and starring anyone other than Lawrence, this story could have easily been mired in feel good clichés and a hugely predictable outcome. Instead it is a true joy!
24. The Diary of Teenage Girl– Dir. Marielle Heller (Bel Powley, Kristin Wiig, Alex Skarsgard)There is almost nothing more compelling than a coming of age tale set in San Francisco in 1976, a much different city in a much different time, but in the end teenagers haven’t changed much. Every year I get a little bit older and they stay the same age.
25. Brooklyn – Dir. John Crowley (Jim Broadbent, Saoirse Ronan) Like a kind of wonderfully innocent guilty pleasure that harkens back to an America that barely resembles the one we live in today. More than anything it makes you consider how we became so much less welcoming to the plight of immigrants, than we were not so long ago.
26. The End of the Tour – Dir. James Ponsoldt(Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segel) David Foster Wallace was that rare genius who wrote impenetrable books of honest but hard to grasp fiction, but despite his rock star status, was never able to find peace. This film deftly explores the man behind the myth.
27. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck – Dir. Brett Morgen(Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love) For anyone who doubted the raw genius of Cobain, this amazing film reconstructs his life through his unbelievably prolific collection of drawings, lyrics and diary entries. Remarkable.
28. Son of Saul – Dir. Lazlo Nemes (Geza Rohrig, Todd Charmont) Another bleakly beautiful Holocaust film where mere survival sheds an impenetrable light on the moral ambiguity of life itself.
29. Phoenix – Dir. Christian Petzold (Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld) As Holocaust films go, this one is neither sentimental nor merely a recounting of the horrors. Instead Zerhfeld has created a Hitchcockian mystery where nothing and no one is what it seems.
30. Cop Car –Dir. Jon Watts (Kevin Bacon, Hays Wellford, James Freedson-Jackson) This small but harrowing thriller about two kids that accidentally steal the wrong cop car from a terrifyingly good Kevin Bacon, is a wonderful reminder about how fun and creative low budget films can be.
- The Affair
- Sonic Highways
- Ray Donovan
- Making a Murderer
- Red Oaks
- Halt and Catch Fire