Wednesday, 13 January 2016

The Culture Fix's Top 10 Films of 2015!

My Picks for the Best (and the Worst!) of the Past Year in Cinema

by J. Albert Barr

Last year, I presented my year-end Top 10 Films for the first time here at The Culture Fix. I had asserted that 2014 was, in my opinion, the single greatest year in cinema since 1999. Well, I certainly didn't expect 2015 to be as good, but damned if it wasn't real close in terms of sheer quality and consistency! We got a slew of good-to-great blockbusters, like Mad Max: Fury Road, Mission Impossible: Rouge Nation, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, Inside Out, Spectre, and, of course, the Starkiller-sized juggarnaut known as Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And there were several outstanding dramas, and smaller, indie films, that hit the proverbial cinematic sweet-spot for me; many of which wound up in my Top 10, no less. There was even a flick that was technically released in 2014 that made my master list, because it wasn't officially released in my city until the second half of last January, so pardon the "lateness" of such an entry here.

Unlike last year, I will be including my Top 10 Worst Films I saw in 2015 as well, just for shits 'n' giggles. As good as 2015 was, there were also some outright stinkers I, ahem, actually paid to see. Thankfully, I didn't see all the bad films released this past year, so there will likely be a few you would expect to see in my "list of shame", like, say, 50 Shades of Grey, but I avoided it like the plague (and. evidently, for good reason - lol), so it didn't make my list. However, like last year, I will most definitely be including ten honorable mentions of great films that vied valiantly for my Top 10.

So, let's get started first with those shamelessly bad films I, with hindsight being 20-20, equally shamelessly, paid hard-earned dollars to sit through of my own volition:

1. The Gunman
2. Terminator Genisys
3. Fantastic Four
4. Run All Night
5. Victor Frankenstein
6. San Andreas
7. Pixels
8. Jurassic World
9. Blackhat
10. Irrational Man (admittedly, a tough choice here, because I'm a huge Woody Allen fan, but this one was a BIG disappointment!)

And, now, my ten honorable mentions, in no particular order, but all were truly great films in of themselves, and were tough cuts while compiling my master-list with considerable difficulty:

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The Big Short
It Follows
Mr. Turner
Love and Mercy
Mission Impossible: Rouge Nation

Finally, we are here at my Top 10 Films of 2015!:

10. Spotlight

This superb drama, which dealt with one of our society's most controversial, and disturbing, issues (Catholic priests molesting children!) was anything but melodramatic and over-the-top. Director, Tom McCarthy, who co-wrote the brilliant, Oscar nom-worthy, screenplay with Josh Singer, kept things under his complete control, giving the film a veritable poise of maturity and focus without pandering to the audience-pleasing, and typical, emotion-manipulating tropes, usually associated with these kinds of "hot topic films". The cast, which features Michael Keaton (who's really on a late-career role right now), Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber and the always solid, Stanley Tucci, are absolutely first-rate here!

9. Inside Out

Not only was this thoroughly wonderful film one of the year's most entertaining and funny and genuinely heartfelt films, but it was truly a brilliant exercise in child psychology; how a pre-teen named Riley was dealing with her emotional transition from young, innocent child to adolescent, as she becomes more conscious of herself, and the world around her, and how overwhelming and awkward it got for her, especially in social situations, both at home and her new school, after a difficult move from her Minnesota hometown to big-city San Francisco. Her five basic emotions controlling her internal world (Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger), are perfectly personified, and stupendously voiced by the likes of Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling and Phyllis Smith (who's a particular standout here). One of Pixar's best films, hands down!

8. Carol  

With absolutely exquisite direction by Todd Haynes, featuring a visual texture reminiscent of 70s cinema, this simply beautiful, and delicate, film was so immersive, it felt as if I was literally time-warping back to the early 50s! It's theme of "forbidden love" in an ultra-conservative world seemed awfully apt considering our contemporary saturation of political correctness and knee-jerk, reactionary behaviour towards anything deemed socially unacceptable and offensive at the drop of a hat. The two lead performances, by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, were note-perfect in their near opposite dispositions as the older woman seducing the younger, inexperienced one (though hesitantly willing, for sure). And, again, Haynes wholly deserves any accolades coming his way, including a likely impending Oscar nod, for his magnificent work in the director's chair.

7. Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller came back to his most famous creation in 2015 after exactly thirty years since the last entry in 1985. And who could have predicted that a fourth entry, without its iconic lead, Mel Gibson, reprising the titular role no less, would not only succeed in being, at least, comparable to the original trilogy's quality, but, in many respects, actually surpass it? Well, Mad Max: Fury Road did exactly that! It was, in my opinion, the best, and most refreshing (being dominated by practical, non-CGI effects and stunts) action film of the year. Interesting though, Max (and Tom Hardy's performance) wasn't the most compelling character in the film; that distinction goes to Charlize Theron's fantastic Furiosa. Also, the film's subtle social commentary ("Who killed the world?" wall-scrawling, and desperately fleeing for the "Green Place", for instance) hit pretty close to home with me, what with my blog's raison d'etre and all.

6. Inherent Vice

This exceptional, if narratively impermeable (yeah, I know that's a stretch for any Paul Thomas Anderson work), detective film pretty much officially established a new sub-genre in cinema: the "Stoner Noir". The other exponents being Robert Altman's 1973 The Long Goodbye, and, of course, the Coen Brother's 1998 cult classic, The Big Lebowski. That's over forty years from inception to realization, genre-wise; and what a long, strange trip it's been for this upstart genre - lol. Joaquin Phoenix gives yet another stellar, and exhilaratingly different, performance as P.I.-for-hire, "Doc" Sportello, who's operating in Southern California during the immediate aftermath of the 60s, just as the disillusionment and cynicism of the 70s was burgeoning. The implications of said disillusionment are existentially circulating all through the many, Escheresque and sense-challenging, story-lines and motley characters here to unforgettable, and indelible, effect. And the soundtrack is great too!: "Hey you!...You're losing, you're losing, you're losing, you're losing your Vitamin C"!

5. The Hateful Eight 

Admittedly, my admiration for Quentin Tarantino's film work had been gradually diminishing since the release of Kill Bill Vol.2. I felt the second part of his "Beatrix's Revenge" flick was, while certainly decent enough, much less tight and not as consistently entertaining as the marvelous Vol, 1; it dragged in spots and seemed a tad ponderous, here and there. And then when Death Proof came out, which understandably flopped, I was wholly underwhelmed, and thought perhaps that was it for Mr. Tarantino. But then he came back with Inglourious Basterds in 2009 and it was a huge success. Now, while Christoph Waltz gave an electrifying performance, and the "bar scene", with the phenomenal Michael Fassbender, was fantastic, I wasn't all that impressed by the rest of this "Jews revenge fantasy" firecracker, to be honest, despite all the acclaim it received. His next film, Django Unchained, was better, I felt, but still retained familiar elements from its predecessor that denied me a sense of full satisfaction, which I got in spades from Tarantino's first four films. Now, finally, we got The Hateful Eight in 2015, and damned if it didn't rock my socks off! Part of the reason for this, I believe, is the film's self-containment within the stagecoach, in the beginning, and "Minnie's Haberdashery" the rest of the way. It gladly recalled the spatial limitations of Reservoir Dogs. And the screenplay was absolutely dynamite, as well as Morricone's outstanding music, and, of course, the terrific ensemble of performers, especially Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins and Jennifer Jason Leigh. One thing, however, finally hit me shortly after I saw The Hateful Eight for the second time, and it's been something, I feel, that has been slowly bubbling to the surface since Inglourious Basterds: we know that Tarantino's been heavily influenced by 70s cinema, particularly the "grindhouse era", and that elements of said cinema can be easily detected in his films. But now that he's been setting his last few films in the relatively distant past, even in the 19th century with the last two (anachronisms be damned), why does it "feel" like it's always 1974 in his films, regardless of the setting? Still, The Hateful Eight is most definitely a great film. And one of Tarantino's best!

4. Ex Machina 

By now, most everyone, with a modicum of informativeness, knows about the Singularity; the idea of artificial intelligence equalling, and then surpassing, mental computational capabilities of human beings. In Alex Garland's superb, yet unsettling, Ex Machina, we got a taut and compellingly paced, part sci-fi cautionary tale, part futuristic suspense thriller that could be a neo-Luddite's worst nightmare. The sense of unrelenting dread, and social isolation, just below the surface of an apparent contest winner's dream assignment, is palpable and visceral, as we are totally fixated on poor, unsuspecting Caleb Smith (solidly played by Domhnall Gleeson), as he is increasingly put off by his eccentric-genius host's hot and cold behaviour, while asked to give a "femme-fatale" humanoid (with suspicious designs) the Turing test to prove whether or not she's (it's?) attained convincing enough human qualities (i.e. achieved Singularity levels). The small cast is excellent, particularly Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander as the humanoid. This is an important film, and one that will grow in stature over the coming years, no doubt.    

3. Steve Jobs 

At one point during the third act, or the launch of the iMac G3, Seth Rogen's character, an exasperated Steve Wozniak, confronts his former partner, and friend, Steve Jobs, with an ultimate question he asks several times: "What do you do?" I'll bet any and all Apple stock, I may or may not own, that the real Wozniak never actually asked Jobs that question; that moment in Danny Boyle's extraordinary film was meant for us, the audience, because that is a question many, many people have asked, and wondered about this computer products "genius". His answer, of course, was that "he conducts the orchestra". In the end, both in life and in this riveting film, Steve Jobs remained a mystery, but a thoroughly fascinating one. Michael Fassbender gives a knock-out performance, which will almost certainly garner him an Oscar nod, and Kate Winslet's equally fabulous work here should do the same for her. I'm utterly baffled as to why Jeff Daniels has been snubbed by the critics picks and award shows for his fantastic performance, because it's a definite career highlight for him. Will Oscar right this wrong perhaps? Danny Boyle's direction is one of the finest of his already stellar career, and Aaron Sorkin's outstanding screenplay is arguably the best of 2015.

2. Room

Without a doubt, Room hit me emotionally more than any other film in 2015. The seemingly simple plot takes away none of the film's heart-wrenchingly, yet beautiful, power, and it's emotional complexity, especially when Joy and her son are freed from their despicable captor after seven years (five for little Jack) of captivity in his soundproof backyard shed. Brie Larson, in my opinion, gives the single best performance by a lead actress in 2015, for her absolutely stunning display of outward strength and internal damage. Her scenes with eight year-old Jacob Tremblay (who played a five year-old here), and the effortless chemistry between them, were sheer magic to behold. Young Jacob's performance was a revelation to be sure, and deserves Oscar consideration. There's also great supporting work from the always wonderful Joan Allen and William H. Macy, as well as from veteran Canadian actor, Tom McCamus. This small indie film packed quite a huge emotional wallop, and is easily one of my favorite films of 2015, hence its high numerical placing here.

1. The Revenant

Alejandro G. Inarritu is on some kind of role to say the least! Not only is his The Revenant my choice for best film of 2015, he also had the coveted #1 spot on my Top 10 list from last year, with his magnificent Birdman. The Revenant is based on true events which took place in the snowy hills and mountains of Montana and South Dakota during 1823. Leonardo DiCaprio gives perhaps the performance of his career, up to this point, playing Hugh Glass, a frontiersman and fur trapper eking out a rather desolate existence with a band of fellow hired trappers, and his lone son, Hawk, who is half Pawnee from his now dead mother. When Glass is brutally mauled, and severely injured, by a grizzly bear, he becomes a burden for selfish and heartless Fitzgerald (solidly played by Tom Hardy), leading to the murder of Glass's son, by Fitzgerald's hand, and his premature burial. However, against all odds, Glass actually survives and begins a slow, physically-straining, impossible journey to find Fitzgerald and exact his revenge. The spiritual, existential and philosophical implications are suffusing all through this breath-taking film, this sheer work of art. Inarritu's direction is some of the finest ever committed to film, and is already collecting award after award, likely culminating in his second consecutive Oscar win.

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