Top Films of 2015
1. Brooklyn—I have here chosen a problematic film for this year as my top choice. Yes, this is the whitest movie of a very white year of Academy nominations. Here we have an old-fashioned, safe, innocuous story of love found and questioned by an Irish immigrant in post-war America. This charming narrative, however, is riven by our very present concerns of inclusion and diversity. Here we have a story of a New York borough where the only diversity comes from Italians and Irish girls trying to deal with their own xenophobia. How have we created a vision of Brooklyn in the 1950’s that erases the presence of blacks, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and Jews? This film in its technicolor glory and its superb, tight script by Nick Hornby (based on a novel by Colm Toibin) exposes the blindness of all aspects of the Hollywood studio system; it serves as an indictment of a system that refuses to change. As Viola Davis stated in her Emmy acceptance speech in September, “the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” With a slate of films that investigate, probe, or sometimes simply celebrate whiteness, we have not overlooked black actors (except in the case of Idris Elba), we have simply ignored them in casting them in anything other than a funny sidekick, a nefarious criminal, or faces to bring in local color. Although Brooklyn is the most charming film of the year, it is a film that demonstrates how far we have yet to go to create an American culture of inclusivity that respects and honors the voices of those that live outside the confines of whiteness, however broadly defined.
2. The Revenant—In a masterful revisionist western, Alejandro G. Iñárritu has constructed a view of the harsh, violent reality of the nineteenth-century frontier. Following the trials and tribulations of Hugh Glass, who experiences some of the most brutal details of survivor narratives, the film exposes the racism, aggression, and fear that undergirded the experience of these explorers and furriers. The “whoosh” of arrows, the dark unknown beyond the trees, and the constant terror of dangers both manmade and natural around every corner create the tense atmosphere of a slasher film; however, what Iñárritu achieves is a radical re-assessment of the Western. These are not the Indians of Hopalong Cassidy; this is not the honor system of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven; this is a brutal world of male exhibitionism that simply masks a culture of death and dread.
3. Mad Max: Fury Road—In another revisionist Western, George Miller has outfitted the legendary Australian outback post-apocalyptic with a refreshing feminist lens. Eve Ensler famously served as a consultant on the film to provide the female characters with such shocking things as motivation, delineation, and desire. Charlize Theron has become one of the most complex frontier women since Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge dueled in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954). She rages; she cowers; she storms. The plot may have a few problems: they travel a very long way, only to decide to turn around and go back the way they came. The interplay between a set of well-defined characters brings this franchise into the 21st century.
4. Carol—Todd Haynes’ quiet adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel traces the lines of desire between two women divided by class and upbringing in 1950’s Manhattan. Cate the Great Blanchett constructs a woman of fragility and passion masked by a façade of icy superiority. Rooney Mara shines as an upstart store clerk, unsure of her own feelings. In this film, the men are brutes unaware of their selfish demands that see women as merely the accessories of their successful lives. The drama emerges from this conflict of women wishing a fulfilled existence that negates the presence of men. These men fight these tendencies but with absolutely no understanding of the pleas of these women with whom they wish to outfit their homes of domestic bliss. Cate’s final monologue is a master class in poise and control.
5. Spotlight—A superb ensemble cast led by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian D’Arcy James relates the story of the Boston Globe’s attempts to expose how the pedophilia scandal of the Catholic Church reached into the highest echelons of the structure of the institution in the fall of 2001. The desires of this journalistic team to expose a story and to give voice of the victims of sexual abuse comes into a direct conflict with their editor (Live Schrieber) who is certain that the story is deeper and bigger. The uncovering of how the Church moved priests time and time again to different parishes leads to an explosive set of stories that no good Catholic in Boston could ignore. The scandal was at every level of the Church and it was not a mere example of a bad apple or two.
6. Room—A harrowing film based on Emma Donoghue’s novel about a woman kept imprisoned for years in an environment of rape with her son bred of this assault is a fine example of cinematic relation of trauma and resilience. How do we imagine a child who has known only two individuals for his six years of life would be reintegrated into a society he has never known? Brie Larson’s finely crafted and raw performance takes an interesting character in a novel into a fully-fledged example of pain, persecution and survival. She does deserve the Oscar. The film has not performed terribly well at the box office (currently grossing only $7 million in the North American market), but it is a film whose power is undeniable, even if it proves for difficult viewing material.
7. Beasts of No Nation—Cary Fukunaga is a master of crafting narratives that take characters whose motivations may seem morally repugnant and investigating exactly how such individuals can rationally come to make such decisions. Here we find Idris Elba (in a role for which he should have been nominated) playing a commandant of a small army of child soldiers in Ghana during a brutal civil war. Although the film does not do enough to trouble the narrative of the exceptionalism of African violence, we do witness the story of a brutal commander who sees his role as a protector and savior for the nation and his children, even if that paternal role results in the sacrificing of children to the horrors of war or to his own sexual desires. It is a complex and complicated piece.
8. Ex Machina—The film industry managed to create a set of films that questioned the received structures of genres, such as the western, the boxing film, and here a scifi piece. We see a cyborg created with emotional human tendencies, including deception and self-aggrandizement. Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander perform off one another’s strengths in a tug-of-war of power. Isaac, who has become one of our most prominent actors (without being labeled and pigeon-holed as a Hispanic actor), delights in a performance that hovers around a morally ambiguous center but never fully disposes of humor. His vacillations keep both the other characters and the audience uncertain of what may happen next.
9. Inside Out—Pixar created a bold vision of how the emotions in our head battle each other for prominence, only to learn that they all must work together in order to create the individual whom they drive. If you fail to feel anything at Bing Bong’s last scene, you are dead inside.
10. Straight Outta Compton and Dope—Two fine hip-hop films demonstrated the pressures of the film industry to craft films that relate the black experience without pandering to the audience. Straight Outta Compton’s brash, big Hollywood-style portrayal of the rise and fall of NWA harkens back to musical biopics from the 1950s about Lorenz and Hart, Lillian Roth, Jane Froman or Cole Porter. These stars witness a meteoric rise, only to encounter obstacles created by the industry, their relationships with one another, and the demands of fame. Some fail to rise again, while others adapt. Dope, on the other hand, took a quiet approach to following a group of youths who revel in nostalgia for early 90’s hip-hop, unsure of where they fit in their neighborhood and culture. This small indie, which was a huge hit at Sundance, made only a fraction of Compton’s box-office intake, but, in fact, broke through more stereotypes in its crafting of characters forging their own identities that appear to be in conflict with those around them.
11. The Martian—I have become a huge fan of having a big space movie every fall. First, it was Gravity’s technical prowess that stunned us, then Interstellar demonstrated a perhaps pretentious but fascinating narrative of spiritual angst in the universe. Ridley Scott’s film doesn’t quite achieve either of those two films’ high aspirations, but it does tell a rollicking good story guided by a tongue-in-cheek performance from Matt Damon. It is fun, and it is relevant with our latest discoveries from Mars that demonstrate that perhaps in Interstellar McConaughey should have just taken his group to Mars rather than going through wormholes.
12. Creed—Rocky Balboa punched his way into the American consciousness in 1976. Nearly forty years later, Stallone comes back to train the son of his former rival, Apollo Creed. This is a fine example of a genre film that makes us question the usual structures of that genre. Ryan Coogler, who became an indie darling with Fruitvale Station, has now demonstrated soundly to Hollywood that he can direct a big-budget film as well.
13. Clouds of Sils Maria—Kristen Stewart received heaps of praise for this film, including becoming the first (?!) American actress ever to receive a competitive César Award (the French equivalent of the Oscar). However, it is not Stewart that dominates this complicated tale of an actress revisiting one of her earlier successes in a new film. Juliette Binoche commands her presence, and her generosity as an actor allows Stewart to appear more human than she ever has on screen. Binoche occupies a storied place among French actresses, along with Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, only Marion Cotillard rivals her for force and variability.
Noah Baumbach has softened his navel-gazing ways in a recent stream of movies. Although his characters are still troubling narcissists, his films have become more highly attuned to competing desires and narratives with a keener eye for visual ingenuity and more satisfying structures. This year, he told the stories of a set of rather bumbling misfits in Mistress America and While We’re Young that form an interesting trilogy with Frances Ha.
The Big Short narrates a complicated set of events that underpinned the collapse of financial markets in 2008. Adam McKay, who previously directed Will Ferrell gross-out comedies, has not traded in comedy for serious Oscar fare, but rather has directed his eye towards more sophisticated stories while still maintaining that comedic flare.
Far from the Madding Crowd is typical Thomas Hardy fare. Love triangles, missed connections, returns of ghosts, and a woman who is faced with obstacles that verge on the sadistic. Carey Mulligan’s intensity is on display yet again, and its timid portrayal marks her as someone who should be more highly sought after than she is.