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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

My Top 10 Films of 2015

            Aaaaaand we’re back!  It’s once again time for that great annual tradition of looking back and ranking the best of the best in cinema for 2015.  There were a lot of good ones that came out, so let’s get right down to it! 

            As in past years, my criteria for counting a film are as follows: any film that received either a festival screening or a limited and/or general theatrical release in either the USA (where I’m from) or Germany (where I currently live) can be counted, even if it got an earlier release in another country.  While this stretches the bounds a bit of what makes something a “2015” film, it also lets me make a list that’s a touch more unique. 

            Also bear in mind (if you are a new reader), for my Top 10s I don’t try to rank what I thought were the objectively best films of the year (since that will never not be a nebulous concept), but rather which films were my personal favorites.  There were a lot of excellent films I saw that are deservedly getting Top 10 mentions and/or awards nominations elsewhere (like Bridge of Spies, Carol, 45 Years, and Straight Outta Compton, among many others) but that, for various reasons, aren’t the sort of film I personally am inclined to sit down and watch again, which is my main way of determining whether or not I really love a film.  Some films just hit me harder on a personal level than others do, even if I can admit that those movies that do aren’t always the best.  So if you have a favorite you don’t see here, it in no way means I didn’t see it or didn’t like it, and if that is the case I would love to hear about it in the comments! 

            We will start things with a new category called Dishonorable Mentions.  I do everything possible to avoid seeing bad movies, so I never see enough disappointing or downright “bad” movies in a year to justify a full Top 10 Worst list.  However, there were a few that got by my best sensors and disappointed enough to merit one final smack before we wash our hands of 2015.  These are not necessarily terrible movies, but they were the main ones I saw that annoyed or frustrated me in some way, or just plain failed to impress. 

Dishonorable Mentions:  Joy, Jupiter Ascending, Queen of the Desert, Appleseed: Alpha, My Man

            And now, on to the honorables, the really fun and/or great movies that I just couldn’t quite justify squeezing onto my Top 10 list (and it was a great year, so there are a lot of them). 

Honorable Mentions: Kingsman: The Secret Service, StarWars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, The Salt of the Earth (documentary), The Revenant, Amy (documentary), Kumiko The Treasure Hunter, Spy, Mistress America, Room, Crimson Peak, Predestination, The Martian

            And now, the main event! 

10. Hello,Supernova (Yuichiro Konno)

            I have never seen a film like Hello Supernova before, and I honestly doubt I will ever see one like it again.  It’s a great example of how cinema, which we usually see as simply being a vehicle for explaining a story, can also an act of meditation.  There are no story arcs followed by the people we are introduced to in a small, strange city in Japan.  We are just offered moments and experiences.  And yet, we remember them.  They stick out in the mind.  It’s nothing like anyone would expect, so I anticipate some would be bored to tears by the seeming aimlessness of its wanderings, but for me, I was moved by this one in a way I can’t begin to describe.  There’s a beauty to that. 

9. WhenMarnie Was There (Hiromasa Yonebayashi)

            While The Wind Rises sparked a fair bit of controversy about its subject matter, and Princess Kaguya was rightfully praised up and down within the ranks of film critics, I am sorry to see that When Marnie Was There has garnered a much quieter and more downplayed reception since its release (it did manage to snag a nomination for Best Animated Feature, but we all know it won’t win).  Which I think is a right shame, because while it might not necessarily be on the same level as the best that Studio Ghibli has produced, it has a lot of deep subject material tucked in around the edges.  On the surface it’s a typical coming-of-age tale, but there is some heavy emotional stuff that gets unpacked in its best moments.  It also functioned better at being a strange mystery yarn/ghost story than any other film I saw this year.  While the conclusion might not live up to the build-up for some, I was entranced while I watched it, and I won’t forget the experience anytime soon. 

8. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (Ana Lily Amirpour)

            This should be the flick that brings back proper vampire stories.  Filmed entirely in black-and-white, with some of the best and smoothest cinematography in a year full of great camerawork, it slowly envelopes us in a seedy underworld of sex and drugs in a small, nowhere city, where a lone female vampire preys on criminals and abusers of women.  Taking its time to build up the tension bit by bit (the “full reveal” of the vampire is a good half-hour or so into the film), the movie only goes for a few big moments of fright, but when they hit, they hit hard, and are well-earned.  And yet, it also finds room to be strangely sweet in a few key scenes.  Take an evening to watch this one, and turn out the lights when you do. 

7. Pale Moon (Daihachi Yoshida) 

            Combining slick camerawork, one of the coolest-sounding scores of the year, and one of the best performances by a female lead, Pale Moon is a tale equal parts tragedy and comedy, as the main character bounces from one extreme to another in an effort to break out of the professional, cultural, and even ethical strictures placed on her by society by laundering her clients’ money for personal gain.  Is she a good person?  An awful person?  Neither, because existence is inherently meaningless and morality is dead?  The film is remarkably balanced, offering no judgment on her actions, letting us try to decide what we would have done in her stead.  This was one of the last films I saw at Nippon way back in June, and it’s stuck with me all the way through the year.  Absolutely worth a look. 

6. Ex Machina (Alex Garland)

            Ex Machina was easily the most creative, thrilling, and deeply thoughtful sci-fi film that I saw this year, as well as one of the most philosophical.  If AI is indeed possible, is it inevitable that we will project onto (or into?) it our own sexual, gender, and racial biases and archetypes?  Few films I’ve seen carry such challenging ideas about the nature of gender and how it is viewed and perpetuated in our world, and how that could easily affect the future to come (if you want a great think piece on the film, I highly recommend this gem from Feministing).  With all due respect to a certain other movie both Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson appeared in last month, here the two of them plus an astounding Alicia Vikander (whom the Academy nominated for the WRONG film) form the most compelling and fascinating trio of main characters in any feature I saw in 2015.   

5. The Big Short (Adam McKay)

            The Big Short is, in many ways, a spiritual successor to Wolf of Wall Street, carried along by the same frenetic energy and hectic pacing, but stripping out the drug- and sex-orgies so that its righteous anger can be more viscerally focused on the amoral f***ery that allowed the creation of the US housing bubble that, eventually, caused the global recession of 2007.  Anyone watching this with their eyes and ears open will come away angry at themselves for still not really understanding why the whole crisis happened, and how it is that those primarily responsible for a huge amount suffering in so many countries were allowed to walk away scot-free.  Like Wolf, it is a blast of an experience, but if your moral compass still works in any way by the time it’s done, your laughs will become hollow, and you will wonder if it’s ever possible that people will wake up enough to keep something like this from happening again. 

4. Chi-Raq (Spike Lee)

            Taking a lewd Greek comedy about sexism and gender roles that most people have never heard of (and fewer have actually read and understand) and using it as a springboard to rant about gang violence, inner-city degradation, broad societal racism, and the general failure of a country that claims to be based on ideals of freedom and equality to live up to those ideals in any meaningful way is the kind of bizarro, deliberately-provocative combination that could easily result in an utter disaster of a film.  But Spike Lee pulls it off.  He drives up to the edge of the precipice and wheels right over it with a brash and bawdy bravado that is remarkable to see play out.  It might not be as focused in its rage as The Big Short, but that in no way diminishes how powerful its best moments are.  Its resounding call at the end for everyone in this country to WAKE UP is one of the best endings to a film I saw all year.  While I can understand many of the criticisms of how Spike Lee approached the subject matter and whether or not choosing real-world Chicago as its setting was the most appropriate choice, I still argue that this is one of the genuine must-see films of the year, and I urge people to reserve judgment on it until they’ve seen it and thought about what it’s really saying. 

3. Inside Out (Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen)

            A blessed reminder that, despite the slew of less-than-stellar sequels coming out of the once unassailable giant, Pixar is in no way going to fall off the charts anytime soon.  Not only is this their best work since Up, it’s easily one of their best films ever.  It’s also (and please pardon the pun) one of their brainiest, creating a story that’s colorful and funny enough for kids to enjoy, but is also able to use remarkable subtlety and depth to convey complex ideas about psychology and personal growth, about how internal instincts and external events both effect and are affected by each other in complicated ways, and about the need to experience the full range of human emotions in order to truly mature as a person.  It was one of the funniest movies of the year, one of the most moving, and one of the most inspiring. 

2. Brooklyn (John Crowley)

            All due respect to Inside Out, which in true Pixar fashion tugs at the heartstrings relentlessly, but no other movie got me as emotional or made me cry as hard as Brooklyn did.  And I will fully admit (remember, I have no pretensions of being objective with this list) that this has a lot to do with the fact that I have recently been going through something very similar to what Eilis endures as she struggles to reconcile dual parts of her identity, having left her homeland behind to start a new life elsewhere, yet still feeling the tug of the other world and life that could be hers if she wanted. 

            I think there are two main aspects to this film and story that make it so affecting.  One is how matter-of-factly it presents the people, beliefs, and norms of the time period its set in, never making Eilis out to be a perfect model of a heroine, nor making any of her stumbles in life out to be the work of a nefarious villain.  She is a person, flawed and whole, same as the people she bumps into (and falls in love with) over the course of the film.  The second is its understanding of how frankly uncompromising some decisions in life must be- while everyone starts out with universes of possibility open to them, there are times when one path must be chosen over another, and it’s up to us to decide why we choose what we do, and to stick to it if we want to make something of ourselves.  The film’s understated embrace of this fundamental principle of life itself makes the ending vibrate with an emotional power and resonance that broke me.  Only the rarest of films achieve that. 

1. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)

            You’re shocked, I know.  What can I say?  Put simply, Fury Road was hands-down my favorite movie of the year.  It crushed all competition in the category of best action movie of the year, with expertly-crafted set pieces that were stunningly beautiful to watch (and a big “f*** you” to all the Michael Bays of the world), yet still bone-crunchingly intense to experience.  It was one of 2015’s most daring films, with all the balls-to-the-wall nuttiness of its world on full display, no shame need apply.  Finally (and this counts for a lot in my book), the clever and detail-packed writing made for one of the most quotable scripts of the year.

            All of that taken on its own would have merited this film a spot on my Top 10 list.  However, it gets my number one spot because it doesn’t stand pat, content with simply being a two-hour, adrenaline-fueled joyride.  It goes the extra mile.  It might not have been the most “serious” film of the year, or directly tackled real-world issues (ala Chi-Raq, The Big Short, Spotlight, etc.), but beneath its crazy exterior lies a wealth of visual and thematic commentary on patriarchy and gender roles that made it, in my book at least, the best movie of the year to combine being both serious thought-piece inspiration AND a true cinematic experience.  It is the best kind of glorious spectacle to bear witness to.  

            And there you have it!  Another year gone, another Top 10 list.  Up soon will be my personal awards for 2015, as well as a brief run-down of my favorite soundtracks from the year, as well as my picks for the upcoming Oscars.  And after that, another year of film will open up to us.  I can’t wait to see what we get this time around. 

-Noah Franc 


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