by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
Every December I hear from both fellow critics and general moviegoers that such-and-such year has been a bad one for cinema, that there have been very few great movies released to theatres over the past 12 months. Rarely do I agree. Why? Mainly because, and I'm not just tooting my own horn, I typically watch a lot more films than the average person. As of this writing, I've viewed 237 motion pictures that were released to theatres in 2015 with at least one more (Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight) to go before the calendar ticks over into 2016.
So, when I say I think this hasn't just been a strong year for cinema, but a borderline fantastic one, I like to think I've got some perspective. When people disagree, part of me just doesn't think they took the time to seek out the numerous foreign and independent gems worthy of reveling in. Films like Christian Petzold's Phoenix, Sebastian Schipper's Victoria, James Kent's Testament of Youth, Marielle Heller's The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Joel Edgerton's The Gift, Ken Loach's Jimmy's Hall, Ted Geoghegan's We Are Still Here, Alex Ross Perry's Queen of Earth and Anne Fontaine's Gemma Bovery sadly played to a lot of empty houses, all deserving of far more in the way of ticket sales than they received. Even high profile efforts like Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs and Guy Ritchie's The Man from U.N.C.L.E. had trouble generating box office numbers like they warranted, both hopefully finding passionate audiences excited to crow about their virtues once they hit Blu-ray and DVD.
For my part, these were all films I considered for my own personal 2015 top ten list, and as substitutes go I'd happily swap every single aforementioned title for almost - not quite, of course - any of the ones that actually made the final cut. By my count, there were roughly 35 motion pictures I'd consider top tier or better, with another 20 or so I'd rate just behind them. All of which leads me to say, yes, I do believe 2015 was a great year for cinema, and I can't help but think history will bare me out on that proclamation as the years mercilessly go by.
As for themes that encapsulate the past 12 months, I think it's safe to say this year was beholden to the past more than just about any other in recent memory. Jurassic World broke all sorts of box office records over the summer, Mad Max: Fury Road reinvigorated a franchise after three decades of dormancy and Creed spun the legend of Rocky Balboa into a new, refreshingly timely direction that had a whole new generation rising to their feet in happy exultation. Then there is Star Wars: The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams' take on George Lucas' interstellar world set a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Safe to say, audiences have embraced the return of Han Solo, Leia Organa and Luke Skywalker with open arms, thrilling to the adventures of newcomers Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron at the exact same time.
It was also a year where a string of high profile LGBT-themed films burst onto the scene, most of them coming directly out of Hollywood and featuring established or rising stars in many of the central roles. Todd Haynes' Carol with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara is one of these, as is Tom Hooper's Transgender drama The Danish Girl with Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander. There was also Paul Weitz's intergenerational abortion comedy-drama Grandma featuring a brilliant Lily Tomlin, while other titles worthy of being talked about include Stephen Belber's Match, Rick Famuyiwa's Dope, Eli Hershko's Carl(a), Jonathan Demme's Ricki and the Flash and Lawrence Michael Levine's Wild Canaries. Best of all just might have been Sean Baker's shot-on-an-iPhone Christmas Eve Transgender prostitute comedy Tangerine, the movie a thought-provoking, yet still riotous, look at making lemonade out of lemons, featuring breakout performances from newcomers Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor.
It wasn't all good news. On the retro front, remakes/reboots/reimaginings of Vacation, Poltergeist, Fantastic Four and Point Break all crashed and burned, while the less said the better in regards to new chapters in ongoing series like Terminator Genisys, The Transporter Refueled and Hitman: Agent 47. As for motion pictures with LGBT-friendly themes, Peter Sollett's Freeheld with Julianne Moore and Ellen Page might have been well-intentioned, but that didn't make it any more enjoyable, while the Will Ferrell/Kevin Hart comedy Get Hard proved to be one of the more rancid, racist and homophobic attempts to satirically tackle race, gender, sexuality and economic disparity that I've ever seen. As for Roland Emmerich's fantastically wrong-headed Stonewall, I still can't figure out why either he or his screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz thought this was a good idea, their blatant whitewashing of a major historical event so offensive there just aren't words to fully describe my continued, flabbergasted disgust.
Thankfully, there's so much about 2015 that makes me smile I can get over my revulsion in regards to the numerous misfires, disappointments and frustrations fairly easily. Not only was it a banner year for female characters in typically male-dominated genres (Mad Max: Fury Road, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part II, Trainwreck, It Follows, Creed, Sisters, Crimson Peak and Spy were all aces on that front), it was also a superb one for animated titles, Inside Out, Anomalisa, Shaun the Sheep Movie, When Marnie Was There and The Peanuts Movie each worthy of celebration. There were a number of winning Comedies, Westerns, Thrillers and Horror titles, while tiny gems like the tragically little seen Wildlike, Meadowland, Bone Tomahawk and A Girl Like Her litter the past 12 months' release schedule and will hopefully get their day in the sun once they become available for home consumption.
As for my part, the following are my personal ten picks as 2015's best and worst along with a handful of additional titles I feel are both worthy of a look as well as a must to avoid. Now, before 2016 begins, I'm heading back to the theatre to watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens one more time, the pull of the Force just too strong for me to ignore.
1. Clouds of Sils Maria
Writer/director Olivier Assayas's latest drama is perfect, the movie a stunning portrait of a middle-aged actress (a dazzling Juliette Binoche) who comes face-to-face with her own career mortality when she's asked to play the older role in the play that made her a star two decades prior. Funny, thought-provoking, intimate and authentic, the film is a nimble surprise that builds to an emotional firecracker of a climax. Co-starring Chloë Grace Moretz as the ingénue taking Binoche's place and an Oscar-worthy Kristin Stewart as the longtime assistant tasked with helping her maintain a semblance of sanity, the movie is an absolute joy, and as such is one of two motion pictures in all of 2015 I've already watched a half-dozen times happily of my own volition.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road
George Miller's return to the Aussie dystopian wasteland he first created alongside star Mel Gibson back in 1979 arguably shouldn't have gone this well. Plagued by years of restarts and production delays, with Tom Hardy brought in to replace Gibson after the latter's antics made him persona non grata as far as financiers were concerned, the first Max Rockatansky adventure in 30 years is an instant classic, a genre-mashing smorgasbord of vehicular mayhem, gender politics and imaginative vision unlike anything else to grace movie screens in eons. An instant classic, if only for the fact it gifted audiences with Charlize Theron's complex warrior Imperator Furiosa, this is the Hollywood action flick all others will be judged against for many years to come.
Denis Villeneuve's Sicario is hardly the first thriller to tackle the United States' seemingly endless and unwinnable war on the drug cartels, Steven Soderbergh's 2000 Oscar-winner Traffic the most obvious example, but that doesn't make it any less magnificent. An unwaveringly tense descent down a disturbing rabbit hole, the movie fearlessly moves around in grey areas similarly themed features run in the opposite direction screaming from. Magnificently scored, shot, edited and acted, Villeneuve stages a number of hypnotic set pieces, not the least of which is an opening look inside the walls of an Arizona/Mexico border drug house where death comes easy and horror lasts forever.
4. It Follows
Few films get under the skin like writer/director David Robert Mitchell's sophomore effort, the supernatural horror tale It Follows a gloriously unsettling look at sex, sexuality, growing up and friendship that's as unnerving as it is impressive. Not so much scary as it is emotionally crippling, the movie is anchored by a performance by up-and-comer Maika Monroe that should be a part of the Best Actress Oscar conversation (but sadly is not), the star so sensational it's impossible not to expect gigantic things from her in the very near future. More than that, though, the movie is a devastating mood piece that gets better and better as it moves along, culminating with an eerie scene of insidious suburban malaise and camaraderie I found positively breathtaking.
An adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's groundbreaking 1952 novel The Price of Salt, director Todd Haynes' latest melodramatic opus is a quietly fiery look at romance, class status, infidelity and parenthood that digs itself under the skin in ways that are both universal and profound. Not so much a story about a Lesbian affair as it is a saga of romance in general, the film is a beautifully realized stunner overflowing in power and passion, richly mining multifaceted emotional interiors that transcend celluloid. While Cate Blanchett is stunning as the titular character, it is Rooney Mara as the object of her affections who stole my heart, her quietly complex performance one of the absolute best I'll see this, or in any other, year.
6. Inside Out
Pixar's latest masterpiece is one of the studio's most gloriously imaginative, looking at growing up and emotional maturation in ways it can likely be said no other film before it ever has. Stunningly animated, sure, it is the human element that makes the film so inspired, the journey emotions Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger go on one every person everywhere can wholeheartedly relate to from magnificent start to glorious finish.
7. Son of Saul
László Nemes' Son of Saul is not for the faint of heart. The story of an Auschwitz prisoner tasked with burning the bodies of those murdered by the Nazis who believes one of the children on his slab is actually his own son, the film is an unflinching look into the face of unimaginable evil that overwhelms the soul. Spectacularly shot, ingeniously scripted, the movie builds to the exact place it must, yet does so with a precise, mesmeric quality bordering on hypnotic, gifting viewers with a look at WWII and its most egregious atrocities the likes of which we have seldom seen before.
Disney and Kenneth Branagh join forces to prove that, just because a story is familiar, just because you don't do anything particularly groundbreaking with it, that doesn't mean you can't craft a masterpiece. There isn't a lot of reinvention as it pertains to Cinderella, the filmmaker and the studio more than content to let the classic fairy tale speak loudly for itself. At the same time, Branagh manages to construct his most indelible and impressive motion picture since his ambitious 1996 version of Shakespeare's Hamlet, the film so confident, so gorgeous, so pitch-perfect in tone, style, visuals, performances and emotion, the whole thing ends up being a bibbity-bobbity-beauty certain to stand the test of time.
9. 45 Years
Based on a short story by David Constantine, writer/director Andrew Haigh's 45 Years is a multilayered, memorably evocative two-person drama revolving around a longtime married couple dealing with unexpected, life-changing news on the eve of their 45th wedding anniversary. While not a ton happens, the full extent of the journey the two end up going on is massive nonetheless, what the movie has to say about love, loss and companionship a deeply personal tone poem ranking as one of the finest the silver screen has seen in ages. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay are superb.
10. Bone Tomahawk
If Howard Hawks, John Ford, Douglas Sirk and Stephen King ever joined forces on a Western, it's likely it would look an awful lot like writer/director S. Craig Zahler's stupendous Bone Tomahawk. What starts off as a quiet character study slowly morphs into a four-person sojourn into the unknown to recover kidnapped townspeople, ultimately shifting one more time to become a terrifying morality tale of colonialism versus cannibalism as natives fight against the encroaching force of progress to maintain their disturbingly terrifying way of life. A genre-bending sensation, this movie packs the type of wallop that hits you from all sides, building to a form of selfless heroism that held me spellbound in awe.
(in alphabetic order)
Brooklyn, Creed, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, The Gift, Grandma, Jimmy's Hall, Love & Mercy, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Phoenix, Queen of Earth, Room, Spotlight, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Steve Jobs, Straight Outta Compton, Tangerine, Testament of Youth, Victoria, We Are Still Here, When Marnie Was There.
(because I can)
Bridge of Spies, Crimson Peak, Ex Machina, Far from the Madding Crowd, Gemma Bovery, Goodnight Mommy, McFarland, U.S.A., Mr. Holmes, Ricki and the Flash, Shaun the Sheep Movie, The Walk, Wildlike.
WORST OF THE YEAR
1. Point Break
2. The Boy Next Door
3. The Transporter Refueled
5. The Lazarus Effect
6. Victor Frankenstein
8. Hitman: Agent 47
9. The Last Witch Hunter
10. Fifty Shades of Grey
(in alphabetic order)
Entourage, Fantastic Four, The Gallows, Get Hard, Kill Me Three Times, The Little Death, Minions, The Pact 2, Return to Sender, Run All Night, Self/Less, Serena, Seventh Son, Stonewall, Taken 3, Ted 2, Tracers, Vacation, The Vatican Tapes, Wild Card.
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