By: Daniel Reynolds
You’d be hard pressed to find a more unnecessary way to mark time than maintaining a daily media log. I have the proof. For 2015, I kept track of all the media I consumed — every TV show, book, movie, comic, etc. It’s not as tedious or hard to do as it sounds, I swear, but the necessity of it remains dubious at best.
Nevertheless, according to my log, I managed to watch 136 films in 2015, not all from this year; a healthy chunk of these were viewed in a theatre, but most were seen at home. The number’s value remains a matter of perception. Say it to one crowd of people (a.k.a. normals) and you’ll get stunned silence, or maybe a murmured “is this guy OK?” or two. Broadcast it to, say, the nebulous network known as “Film Twitter” and it will sound laughably low. We’re talking a mere 2.6 films per week, after all.
Still, at the end of all that watching (and logging), you’ve got to make a list. And after whittling it down, and trying to weigh one film against another, here’s what I’ve arrived at: my top 10 films of 2015.
10) The Lobster / Show Me A Hero
A tie involving a TV show miniseries and a film that’ll see wide release in 2016 probably isn’t the best way to start this list, but it’s my list so I’ll do what I want. Because, rest assured, you can be damn certain both Yorgos Lanthimos and David Simon will continue to do what they want. With The Lobster, Lanthimos has crafted yet another absurd rung on the bizarro ladder he’s climbing towards some kind of ecstatic and brutal truth. When he reaches the top, he’ll just as surely stand alone. Here he uses Colin Farrell (perfectly) to assail the ridiculous rituals of human courtship. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry (well, you’ll wince), and finally, you’ll gasp in painful recognition. The Lobster is ridiculous in every way, and that’s what makes it essential.
Meanwhile, Show Me A Hero, Simon’s HBO miniseries, is just too good to not mention. It’s three times longer than an average film, but the contours of its story, the elements in play and its tragic ending are big screen cinematic. Yes, Paul Haggis (of all people) directs this thing, but the story — which connects Yonkers mayor Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac, movie star of the year), the policies of affordable housing, immigrant stories and all of the attendant friction therein — is both true and something only Simon could animate. I had to include it because, much like Simon’s other famous work, it deserves to be appreciated in its time. For very different reasons, it’s essential too.
9) 45 Years
There’s something about Charlotte Rampling and her cat eye stare that is hard not to notice. Even if you’re Tom Courtenay, aged co-star, doing your damnedest to do just that. Throughout Andrew Haigh‘s 45 Years you will be confronted with those eyes again and again, and you will feel something. For me, it was the voice of Robert Shaw recalling the mystery of a shark’s “lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes.” But then again, Rampling’s stare is far from glassy. Haigh powers his subtle movie, an old aged dance between Rampling and Courtney on the week of their characters’ 45th wedding anniversary, entirely with this stare. It’s a film suffused mostly with silence and small gesture; a touch of dew on the windows, a shadow on a screen. It appears almost dead, while also boring deeper and deeper into something unseen, mysterious, and yes, in its own way, terrifying.
8) The Martian
When I got to the last page of “The Martian”, the novel by Andy Weir, I felt a hitch in my throat — I admit, it got me choked up. The book was at times stiff with its characterization (everyone sounded the same except hero Mark Watney) but grand in its scope, narrative inventiveness and suspense. It took you on a grand survivalist adventure that was both unreal and yet totally relatable. Ridley Scott (not known for his humanist instincts) and his movie intuit that feeling on its most basic level and build an entire cathedral around it, something to marvel at and aspire towards. Big films these days have to appeal to as wide an audience as possible so as to get transported around the world. To watch a film like The Martian, to go on that journey with ultimate movie star everyman Matt Damon, is to not take that concept in the pejorative sense. There are movies that can be made for everyone, that revel in the joys of being part of humanity. The Martian, a film that is mostly set apart from our planet, is one of them.
7) The End of the Tour
It was truly a delight to read the reviews for James Ponsoldt‘s The End of the Tour that dogged it for making David Foster Wallace into a saint. Jason Segel’s impression of him was all wrong, they said, and the film tries too hard to mimic his being. What these criticisms fail to grasp is that the film doesn’t really have to be about Wallace at all. Much like some of Wallace’s own work, the stand-in man in this case is “Dave Wallace”, similar in part but not the same, known in part but also totally unknowable. That last bit in particular is something to keep in mind. It takes a lot to get a film set largely in non-descript hotel rooms and dumpy living rooms to sing, but watching Segel (doing, yes, a hazy approximation of Wallace) and Jesse Eisenberg (as the needy author David Lipsky) subtly duel with each other is something special. It’s said that the best films and novels end up being smarter than the people who make them, which, unfortunately, has also implied that any attempt to adapt Wallace’s monumental work is doomed to fail — we’re just not smart enough. The End of the Tour acknowledges this as true and ultimately, satisfyingly, makes some kind of peace with it.
I’ll still contend that the final fight of Creed could have used a little more grandiosity and less of that by-the-book HBO-ified quality. That’s arguably Ryan Coogler‘s sole misstep though, as he guides the seventh (!) entry into the well-worn Rocky franchise towards its conclusion. Everything else — the performances, the setting, the other fight scenes — he gets so very, very right. Rocky, both the franchise and the man who plays him, have become a cultural touchstone and, also, something of a joke. To watch Sylvester Stallone put on the familiar hat and accent, to rumble his way through scenes against superstar-in-the-making Michael B. Jordan, as Adonis, son of Apollo, is to see a unique form of time travel. Here is a character we’ve come to love over 40 years in real time; the joy and pathos feel earned. When you balance this effect against the new story, one involving race and class and growing up in the shadow of a legacy, the result is powerful. Or alternatively just recall those seconds Adonis spends on the mat in that final fight, the quick cut montage of scenes from his life, the brief two seconds of old, grainy Apollo footage beckoning to him, the rise and recovery, the familiar notes of Bill Conti, and the chills. Gonna fly now.
5) Mississippi Grind
The official line on Mississippi Grind is to watch for the superlative performance by Ben Mendelsohn as Gerry, born to lose gambling man. To be sure, it’s a great lead turn by a career side act; it’s Mendelsohn’s unique combination of nervy, pathetic and hopeful energy that powers this casual road trip of a movie. But this relegates Ryan Reynolds — yes, Green Lantern and Deadpool and the guy from the pizza place — to an afterthought, and that simply won’t do. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, co-directors and writers, are back in full force with Mississippi Grind and once again they’ve found a story and actors that appear to be self-generating. They wisely decide to set Reynolds free here as Curtis, rambling man, to let him jib and jab and grapple with the fact that a guy as good looking as he is should be more successful than he is. For both his and Mendelsohn’s roles to work, these two men need each other, and for the entire movie to fly — which it very easily couldn’t, given the over-familiarity of the material — Boden and Fleck have to re-assert themselves as two of the best American filmmakers working today. People, I’m here to tell you they do this in spades.
4) Inside Out
Let’s reflect for a moment on the character of Bing Bong. He’s the forgotten imaginary friend of Inside Out‘s young protagonist Riley, who also happens to be wandering the warrens of her mind. As voiced by Richard Kind, Bing Bong is akin to a wise sage — if that wise sage were crossed with a Catskills comedian and Mr. Snuffleupagus. This is the weird alchemy that only Pixar can truly provide, the type of magic that feels somehow wholly new and yet oddly familiar. Fortunately for us, Inside Out also represents a return to form for the venerable animation company. It takes a lot of imagination to create a character like Bing Bong — to say nothing of the physical manifestations of Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust (and more) — which only continues to highlight Pixar’s importance. That they also find a way to weave a tale of learned sadness into a brightly coloured children’s movie is nothing short of astounding. Sing it with me now: Bing Bong! Bing Bong!
3) Mad Max: Fury Road
There are people, bless them, who don’t like Mad Max: Fury Road. Can you believe that? I admit I assumed a minimal level of expectations. This was George Miller, fresh off of three decades of not making Mad Max movies, making, in point of fact, a new Mad Max movie. But then the reviews started coming in, and it was as if a new cult was forming. I knew I’d have to see it. For a film generation like ours that’s drowning in action movies and special effects, but starving for images that last, Mad Max: Fury Road is a godsend. That it can also come chock full of ideas and meaning is almost like a cheat — akin to having a movie desert that acts like a meal. We can sit around and watch Charlize Theron as Furiosa blow shit to hell, or Tom Hardy delightfully grumble through his human pinball performance, and tell others that there is actually a really significant thematic message at work here. You don’t have to love the idea of the Doof Warrior, but it helps. You know what I mean?
It’s been difficult to explain Room to people as the feel-good film of the year. I get about half way through the first sentence of my description and am usually stopped. “So a girl gets kidnapped and is living in captivity for seven years with the son she gives birth to while–” It’s not the prettiest of pictures. I understand where people are coming from: to watch Room is to put yourself in a sensitive position along with Brie Larson (girl, mother) and Jack Tremblay (son). Then again, there was no film in 2015 that pumped my blood, punched my heart, and stole my breath as much as Room. We go to movies to see images, to be swept away by performances, to marvel at ideas we’ve never thought before and, to my mind, most of all: to feel. Room is a film that splits so evenly between two extremes, one of horror and the other of love, that it encapsulates so much of why we even exist with one another in the first place. I never get a chance to finish that sentence description, and I don’t want to spoil the film for you, but I will repeat: go see Room.
1) Star Wars: The Force Awakens
I keep telling myself that at almost 32, with a reputation at stake (such as it is), I can’t go picking The Force Awakens as my number one movie of the year. The reasons against its selection are Disney-sized: it’s not a serious film, it’s mostly a retread of old ideas, the emotion it manipulates most prominently is nostalgia.
I have to wilfully shut down that inner (mature) voice that tells me this is all a corporate exercise to get me to shell out money to buy back my childhood. Then, I have to forget the idea that a new film in this particular canon means the absence of some other potential big picture idea that could be grander and bolder than all those that came before, just as the old 1977 classic was. I know deep down, if I search my feelings, this is true.
But I also know it’s Star Wars so I don’t have to justify it. The Millennium Falcon takes off from a desert planet, space ships explode, lightsabers ignite and I remember why I watch films in the first place. Don’t let the haters get you down: this is pure unfiltered joy.