Sam’s Top Ten Movies of 2015

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For many, 2015 will be the year Hollywood properly learned how to harness nostalgia. For most, it will more specifically go down as the year Star Wars returned, but for real this time. While others may cite the similar approaches of Creed and Jurassic World for staging meaningful and exciting torch-passing ceremonies, it’s undoubtedly J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens that will serve as the most important turning point in a trend of rabid remaking/rebooting that has been prevalent in Hollywood for years. The question is, what will such a turning point lead to: an even greater flood of reboots, or a reignited love of unique ideas? This question may sound obvious at first. Of course the success of Star Wars will just make the Hollywood machine more eager to turn out one soulless, pandering franchise re-appropriation after another for all eternity. So you’d think.

But look at what Creed, Jurassic World and Star Wars are really doing under the surface. Sure, director Ryan Coogler did a fantastic job of giving Rocky Balboa one final cause to fight for, and yes, director Colin Trevorrow successfully recaptured the effective balance between rampaging dinosaurs and down-to-earth character drama. But the main goal wasn’t to feed you more of the same, but rather to remind you just how incredible and long-lasting the once-fresh ideas behind 1976’s Rocky or 1994’s Jurassic Park were. Same could be said with Star Wars. ‘You may not get it from me,’ J.J. Abrams subliminally tells his audience, ‘but there’s nothing better than the feeling of the original Star Wars – the experience of something brand new.’ As such, in a strange and somewhat paradoxical way, there was no movie this year more gung-ho in its love for originality than The Force Awakens.

But that’s precisely why, looking back at this moviegoing year in its entirety, the bombardment of blockbusters so adept at capturing child-like wonder and emotion could not steal the spotlight away from a handful of bold, visionary, and massively touching original ideas that populate a good majority of my list. Every major movie this year came together to form a narrative that says: behind every reboot and adaptation is an original idea worth celebrating. And behind every original idea, there’s an untold world of possibility left to explore. Let’s explore the best 2015 had to offer.

10.  Mad Max: Fury Road

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A length of steel chain, rusting in spots but tough overall, hangs merged with a spiraling translucent tube of deep red liquid. At once disgusting and strangely beautiful, this chain of blood (a creative plot device to keep two characters connected to each other) represents the true conceptual and visual mastery of Mad Max: Fury Road, an action movie which, given the long gap between films and the recasting of its protagonist Max Rockatansky, is more the fulfillment of a thirty-six year old vision than a reboot. While the marketing prepared us for an immersive, metal-and-blood-soaked road trip across the sandy, dystopian hellscapes of the Wasteland, much less expected were a couple of resonant supporting performances that humanized an otherwise unnatural, inhuman world.

As Imperator Furiosa, Charlize Theron embodies an empowering, righteously (and rightfully) angry slave to society, unwilling to allow institutional and physical disadvantages to sideswipe her off the road to redemption. The amiably earnest psychopath Nux, as portrayed by Nicholas Hoult, is ironically the most achingly human of any Wasteland citizen. He brings with him well-realized, timely insight into the type of vulnerable, lost individuals who form dangerous collectives operating under ideologies forged from hopelessness (certainly, 2015 shined a light on our real world equivalents). Most importantly, seventy year old director George Miller never adheres to any stylistic forerunners, even his own previous films, when he doesn’t want to. He operates on his own terms, and the results are reinvigorating to say the least. It’s as if, like that cold steel chain interwoven with warm human blood, the camera is connected straight to his brain as it careens over a sumptuous circus of chaos and (largely non-CGI) vehicular carnage.

9.  The Hateful Eight

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Becoming one of Tarantino’s most polarizing films almost overnight, The Hateful Eight sees the man working at the peak of his abilities as both writer and director. I loved just about every element of this movie, from the slow but engaging dialogue which plays out like a three-hour variation on the opening scene of Inglorious Basterds, to the diverse, crackling performances of Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Tim Roth and especially Jennifer Jason Leigh, to the downright masterpiece of a score from Italian legend Ennio Morricone. Sure, the massive length and unbelievable talkiness (even for Tarantino) will be a turn off for those who prefer the breathless action of Kill Bill, but I found the blend of classic Western sensibilities and mystery plotting to be irresistible and arresting from first frame to last. It’s also his funniest and most surprising story if you have the patience for it.

Of special note is Tarantino’s decision to exhibit the movie on virtually-extinct 70mm film, once used specifically to showcase wide-open vistas of the wild West, a gimmick akin to 3D today. However, Tarantino swiftly flips the format on its head by enclosing the vast majority of the movie within one tight, cold haberdashery. Though the choice to shoot 70mm may have simply come from Tarantino’s obvious love for film history, here the effect is twofold. In the absence of scenery to focus on, we get startlingly obtrusive close-ups on his already larger-than-life characters. In addition, the abnormally wide view is used to physically illustrate the vast ideological distance between each of them. They all really do hate each other in different ways, but by the film’s conclusion we suddenly find a far more soft, hopeful Tarantino than we’ve ever seen before. He pushes through all his normal sadistic gore and offensive language to end on a note of true brotherhood and coexistence. As was the case with Fury Road (and a few others), finding uplift in the darkest of places seems to be a theme on this list, but seeing it come from Tarantino is one of the most unexpected twists he’s ever pulled.

8.  Brooklyn

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Saoirse Ronan gives the year’s best performance as Eilis, who leaves Ireland for New York City to find work but instead discovers she’s inside the best Nicholas Sparks story Nicholas Sparks never wrote. The script would almost certainly have come off as overly sentimental were it not for the superb subtlety Ronan brings to the role. She gives us all the temporary ability to read minds, as her vast emotive abilities allow us to understand exactly what she’s thinking at any given moment, without having to say a word. She’s always looking for something new to attach herself to in the absence of her family and childhood home, and she finds that new attachment in Italian-American Tony. Tony, played by Emory Cohen in an out-of-nowhere star-making turn, brings a completely different energy to what begins as a morose, even depressing tale. With Cohen’s entrance comes humor and warmth, so it’s immediately easy to understan what Eilis sees in him. And that makes it all the more heartbreaking when complications inevitably arise.

Buttressed by detailed costumes and production design, as well as a panoply of excellent supporting characters, Brooklyn does not romanticize the immigrant experience and instead portrays it as it was and is; a series of cutthroat survival narratives. Survival in this case is not about staying alive but about maintaining a sense of self and integrity. Though she doesn’t ever fight for her life, Eilis story nonetheless is intensely harrowing on an emotional level. Ronan easily sells this in her transformation from shy, homesick girl to confident, strong woman, and then suddenly back again, a reminder of the ever-present vulnerability and doubt we can never completely discard. She makes for one the most startlingly real screen presences in many years, and easily elevates this movie to must-see status.

7.  Steve Jobs

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What a wacky display of cinematic showboating, in which master filmmakers prove they have every right to showboat. The unsuppressed, manic might of director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin collide in a fireworks display that went hugely misunderstood by the public, whose general antipathy rendered Steve Jobs a box office bomb. This is the least straightforward but most original biopic in years, more a Shakespearean filtration of supposedly true events than an accurate account of the whos, whats, wheres, whens and whys. Michael Fassbender, as too many have noted, looks nothing like Jobs, but there’s an earned arrogance and a palpable misanthropy in his Oscar-worthy performance that is maddeningly true to life. We all know people like the Jobs rendered in this movie, even if Jobs himself wasn’t quite that.

The main attraction isn’t that performance however, nor is it the bravura energy Boyle brings to the story. Nor is it the great supporting turns from Winslet, Rogen and Stuhlbarg. It’s Sorkn’s strange, vaguely surreal story structure in which he doesn’t even try to get it right. He condenses time but elongates feuds so that the accumulation of years of wronging people appears as one really exhausting evening full of loud arguments and unrequited affections. We see Jobs launch one computerized invention after another over the course of fourteen years, but at every event he runs into the same group of people, their bickering picking up as though it were yesterday. At first the cyclical narrative felt repetitive and unnecessary, but in hindsight it’s absolute genius. With this structuring, Sorkin is finally able to convey with clarity and wit the main thesis he’s had since The Social Network: technology may evolve at breakneck speeds, but human nature remains stubbornly unchanged.

6.  The End of the Tour

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The End of the Tour is by far the least visually interesting movie on this list. It’s a talkative, soul-searching series of conversations between two writers, discussing such wide-reaching and abstract topics as genius, fame and the search for an authentic self. Nothing about this screams dynamic moviegoing experience, so I had to think for a while as to why I was more engaged by the blandly-shot streams of dialogue between these two cripplingly insecure men than I was by the action sequences in Mad Max. Aside from how uncomfortably real their self-doubt felt to me, I believe it’s exactly the movie’s unadorned, bare-bones nature that gives it it’s unsuspecting power.

While the director could have easily employed any number of classic indie methods to punch up the look and pace of the movie, such as saccharine voiceover or unnecessary visual flourishes like low-fi animation, he chooses to let his characters speak for themselves. In choosing that route, Ponsoldt demonstrates complete confidence in his astutely adapted screenplay from Donald Margulies and in his two leads Jessie Eisenberg and Jason Segel. In fact, it’s the exact confidence that the director is able to find in this movie which his main characters struggle so earnestly to locate in themselves. In the end, this is a beautiful example of a movie serving as an example of its own hypothesis. Failed attempts to find truth can be just as rewarding as successful ones.

5.  Mistress America

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In a year where the best and most popular movies were full of dark subject matter and cynical themes, it’s a relief to find something as hilarious, joyous and old-fashioned as Mistress America, Noah Baumbach’s screwball comedy about women trying to prove their worth in New York. Continuing his streak of movies that are respectful towards women without ignoring individual flaws (because writing female characters as ‘perfect’ can be just as toxic as more negative stereotypes), Baumbach and writing partner/star Greta Gerwig pass the Bechdel test with flying colors and have fun doing so. Soon-to-be-sisters Tracy and Brooke are two sides of the same equally pretentious, specifically American coin, and the film enjoys taking both of them down as much as it does restoring their dignity as they take their first baby steps to finding out who they are under all that cultural baggage.

It’s simple filmmaking to be sure, but I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie that was so consistently, breathlessly and densely funny, piling on layers of emotional depth while we’re too busy laughing to notice. Every joke hits, from it’s humble start as a classic new kid in college story into a full-blown satire of the American dream as seen through the eyes of millennials and a-little-too-old-to-be-millennials. The talent of actress Lola Kirke is the greatest discovery of the movie, her character using an almost sniveling sarcasm as a shield against the scary uncertainty of the world around her. Her role bounces perfectly off of the older Gerwig, who here embodies the ‘look at all these hipsters, of which I am definitely not a part of’ hipsterism and an embrace of start-up culture without necessarily having a start-up plan. Together, they make for the most spot-on comedy duo of the year, and an energizing force on the genre as a whole.

4.  It Follows

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Many people, including this guy, have stated their dissatisfaction with the murkiness of the rules at play in It Follows, and I’m inclined to agree. There are some noticeable plot holes and poorly explained mechanics in this sexually-transmitted horror movie.  There’s also something to be said about the fact that the movie isn’t all that scary, another factor which turned a lot of people off. And again, I’d have to agree. But the reason none of that prevents me of thinking of It Follows as anything other than a masterpiece is I that I don’t consider it a horror movie at all. When I watch It Follows, I see one of most astute teen movies I’ve seen, far more John Hughes than John Carpenter. Horror tropes are employed not to frighten the audience but to accentuate the horrifying experience of growing up and coming to terms with all that involves.

If anything, that the rules of how the monster operates are not clear enough seems like a calculated move by the filmmaker, as it mirrors just how confusing intimacy, both physical and otherwise, can be to kids just beginning to explore it. This uncertainty and fear, not of monsters but of intimacy, is skillfully conveyed by actress Maika Monroe’s anxious glances and also by the movie’s most underrated asset, Keir Gilchrist, who struggles silently and internally with the same core worries Monroe faces externally and magnified tenfold. This isn’t to say there isn’t a palpable sense of uneasiness in line with horror classics, especially in its hazy sets and droning, disorienting score. I also have an oddly personal connection with the movie, since it was shot in the same metro-Detroit suburbs where I lived at that age. Talk about scary.

3.  Inside Out

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One of the absolute best film’s Pixar has ever released, Inside Out also might be the most vital kids’ movie ever made. That’s not to say it’s only for children; in fact, a good majority of the psyche-themed jokes and more complex plot elements would probably go over most young heads. But the main theme that the movie so expertly explores, culminating in an ending that could not be more perfect, will resonate with any viewer, regardless of age. The importance of allowing ones’ self to experience a full range of emotions is something that many kids probably don’t think about and it’s also something that most child-friendly entertainment openly discourages. Your average Dreamworks movie or Nickelodeon cartoon has one thing in mind — keep the little ones distracted and happy. But pushing happiness at all costs is not just unfair to kids, Inside Out argues, it can be dangerous. Inside Out is more elegant and organic in its articulation of that message than I could have possibly imagined.

Maybe more incredible is that it’s also one of the studio’s funniest and most colorful experiences. This is partially due to the striking visual style and Michael Giacchino’s catchy, emotionally varied score, but also because of flat-out good joke writing. Unlike Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, a comparatively phony experience in every way, Inside Out‘s humor comes mostly from our own understanding of ourselves rather than from goofy characters with funny voices. Also unlike The Good Dinosaur, this movie has an excellent voice cast, especially the contrasting performances of Amy Poehler as Joy and Phyllis Smith as Sadness. But the most impressive feat comes from director Pete Docter, who manages to introduce us to a brand-new world and visual vocabulary made up of abstract ideas, all without it feeling the least bit complicated or forced. There’s something so clean and graceful about the world-building that is as beautiful as any specific moment in the film.

2.  Room

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The first and most prominent miracle of Room is Jacob Tremblay, who is sure to appear near or at the top of ‘best child performance’ lists until the end of time. How anyone gets a kid to give a performance like this is unthinkable, but more unbelievable is how he’s just one element in a well-rounded masterwork of dramatic material. The second miracle is that the book by Emma Donoghue would even be adapted, not least into something so dynamic and alive. Lenny Abrahamson finds so many different angles from which to shoot that one cramped room the two main characters find themselves trapped in, that it makes complete sense how a little boy would believe there’s nothing else in the universe.

Less of a miracle is Brie Larson, not because she doesn’t put in incredible work but because we’ve seen her do it before. More miraculous is the natural chemistry between her and Tremblay, allowing this to become the ultimate mother/son relationship movie. Their bond as shown onscreen is simply unbreakable, and you wouldn’t even think about the possibility they could be apart until one shattering moment where it’s suggested by an outside character. It’s at that moment where the whole movie reveals itself to be one big miracle, compassionate and resilient and somehow the most inspirational and heartwarming film of the year despite the intense sadness and cruelty it contains. This movie will break you, but nothing can break them.

1.  Ex Machina

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If you were hoping to see a different science fiction movie starring both Oscar Isaac and Domnhall Gleeson on this list, I wouldn’t blame you. This year, however, there was absolutely nothing more brilliant or accomplished than Ex Machina, a calculated, probing look at the changing definition of humanity. At first staged as a simplistic sci-fi drama between three very different characters in one confined setting, the film gradually blooms into many surprising things (as stated in my original review): a romance, a slow-burn thriller, a psychosexual drama and a masterful example of social commentary. Alex Garland writes and directs with equal precision, so that none of its shifting influences and tones feel out of place, and not a single line of dialogue appears extraneous.

All three actors on display have had insanely good years and this movie demonstrates how deserving they are of success. They are each truly some of the best of their generation, especially Alicia Vikander in her immortal role (both literally and figuratively) as Ava. Few actresses could stand up to a performance that challenges audiences to hang off of every word and movement for a single hint of artifice, but she never for a single millisecond breaks the illusion. The trick Garland and Vikander pull off with Ava, in creating a character so real and so fake at the same time, viscerally breaks down our understanding of what it means to be human in the face of hypothetical technological advancements that likely won’t be hypothetical forever. In its bold and visionary ambitions and even more daring execution, Ex Machina cements itself as one of the greatest cinematic achievements of this young millennium and a science fiction classic to stand alongside Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Metropolis. 

In addition, I’d like to list some honorable mentions. After all, I watched a total of 117 movies that came out this year, so to leave it at ten seems a little bit of a missed opportunity. Also highly, highly recommended are: Amy by Asif Kapadia, Star Wars: The Force Awakens by J.J. Abrams, The Stanford Prison Experiment by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, The Look of Silence by Joshua Oppenheimer, Digging for Fire by Joe Swanberg, Anomalisa by Duke Johnson & Charlie Kaufman, 99 Homes by Ramin Bahrani, The Gift by Joel Edgerton, The Martian by Ridley Scott and The Revenant by Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu.

Additionally, if you want to see what the Oscars would look like if I was in charge of making the categories and choosing the winner, here you go:

Best Picture – Ex Machina
Best Director – Pete Docter (Inside Out)
Best Scene – “Nightcap” (Anomalisa)

Best Supporting Actor – Sylvester Stallone (Creed)
Best Supporting Actress – Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina)
Best Actor – Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs)
Best Actress – Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn)

Best Adapted Screenplay – Emma Donoghue (Room)
Best Original Screenplay – Alex Garland (Ex Machina)
Best Cinematography – Emanuel Lubezki (The Revenant)
Best Original Score – Michael Giacchino (Inside Out)
Best Song – “Fine on the Outside” by Priscilla Ahn (When Marnie Was There)
Best Sound Design – Love & Mercy
Best Editing – Steve Jobs
Best Production Design – Mad Max: Fury Road
Best Visual Effects – The Walk

Best Animated Film – Inside Out
Best Documentary – Amy
Best Short Film – World of Tomorrow

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