If you’re just walking in now, you missed more than the trailers: read #11-15 here. As a reminder, each spot on this list contains a related “Honorable Mention” that didn’t make the top 15.
Now that I’ve finished whispering in your ear to catch you up on the plot…
As Metacritic’s #1 film of 2015, with a ludicrously high score of 96, Carol has been lauded, more than anything else, as an important love story, commenting on our own age as well as it does on its 1950’s setting. Yet there’s more to this film than a lesbian love story. It dares to ask the question, in a modern society filled with divorced parents who spend their lives at their jobs: To what lengths should a person go for the sake of a child? Should we reconcile with estranged lovers, redeem broken marriages, or deny ourselves our fanciful flights of desire? Something notable was done in the marketing of this film. In the trailer, we hear the statement, “We gave each other the most breathtaking of gifts.” Contextually, it sounds like a statement about the film’s romantic relationship. However, when this statement actually appears in the film, it’s when Carol is talking to her soon-to-be ex-husband about their daughter. The titular character spends the movie figuring out that she can’t have both her daughter and the love of Therese, the younger woman she is seductively pursuing (if not preying upon). The film’s final shot brilliantly leaves the viewer unsure whether Carol ends up with either.
On most technical accounts, Carol is masterful. I’ve seen other films effectively focus on character’s hands, such as Joe Wright’s adaptations of Atonement and Pride & Prejudice; here, director Todd Haynes and cinematographer Ed Lachman take this concept to the next level, where viewers can literally feel the difference between Carol’s hand on Therese’s shoulder versus a man’s. These small details also work because of how great the lead performances are, particularly Rooney Mara’s as Therese, but the film’s true champion is Lachman, who imbues the film with an old-fashioned haze that highlights the fashions of the 50’s as much as it does each character’s loneliness and isolation. Carter Burwell’s score is also excellent, so much so that many of Carol‘s scenes could have worked beautifully as a silent film. At times, a silent film might be preferred over Phyllis Nagy’s clunky script–realistic, perhaps, but clunky nonetheless. The film has other flaws: the entire arc of Carol and Therese’s love affair seems to peak and fall off too quickly, with an excess of awkward conversations and questionable levels of chemistry between the actresses. Still, critics I admire have written more elegant and informed reviews for Carol than I could write, and reading those makes me look more fondly on the film in hindsight. And what’s the point of any of us writing about films anyway if a good review can’t have the power to change someone’s opinion?
Honorable Mention: Tangerine
I hated this movie from the first scene. I hated the shoddy quality and the entry level camerawork. I hated how scenes were sloppily edited together with no care for proper camera angles or the 180 degree rule. I hated the profanity-fueled and unrealistic dialogue that sounded like it was written by a high schooler. I hated that the entire town seemed to be populated more by transgender prostitutes than anyone else. I hated the stock instrumental scores. I hated the fact a donut store was inexplicably open late at night on Christmas Eve. I hated that I had a hard time believing in these characters. I hated that I nearly gave up on this film within ten minutes. I hated that I nearly didn’t have the patience for a truly indie film. I hated that the second half of the film went by so quickly. I hated that I almost cried. I hated how every single character is left in a desperately sad yet realistic conclusion. I hated that Tangerine might actually be what life is like for a disregarded sect of struggling people, those who don’t know a way to make money besides prostitution and those who secretly indulge in the services of prostitution in order to maintain what they believe to be sanity.
9. Kingsman: The Secret Service
If you are already scoffing at my placement of a glamorized spy flick ahead of the year’s most acclaimed film, at least wait to read my reasoning. Tone is a tricky thing in filmmaking. Relatively speaking, making a film that is dramatic throughout is easy. Making a comedy is simpler without attempts to also be “deep” or “dark” or “thoughtful.” For example, a few years ago, there was a trend of making action rom-com’s, practically all of which were disasters. Kingsman: The Secret Service, director Matthew Vaughn’s follow-up to X-Men: First Class, is a masterclass in tone, striking one of the most difficult balances I have seen in recent years. This is particularly true of the film’s climax, which goes back and forth between a very bright tone, where the hero beats up baddies in hilarious manner while surrounded by technicolor and disco music, and a very dark tone: namely, hundreds of people massacring one another, including a woman trying to tear through a locked door to slaughter a helpless baby. The latter element is stripped of the gloss of the former, yet somehow the stark difference in tone symbiotically elevates both sides instead of canceling each other out. How this is accomplished can only be due to the careful hand of Vaughn, who expertly filled Kingsman with authentic humor, interesting character developments, ridiculous violence, real stakes, and an engaging plot in a way that only he could. At the end of the day, this unlikely mix makes for an irresistibly watchable (and re-watchable) film, and what’s even more unlikely was how successful this film became worldwide. The success couldn’t have been more deserved.
Honorable Mention: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
In 2011, Tom Cruise and Pixar braintrust elite Brad Bird teamed up to make the best of the Mission: Impossible films, Ghost Protocol. But as far as action and spy films go, Ghost Protocol was overshadowed in less than a year by the release of Skyfall; Ethan Hunt was doomed to forever be stuck in James Bond’s shadow…until 2015. Director Christopher McQuarrie steps up to the plate and bats a near-perfect game, repeating the elements of Ghost Protocol that worked the best and making a film nearly its equal. Better yet, Skyfall‘s successor Spectre was largely a critical letdown, meaning the time had finally come for Hunt to reign over Bond. And while Daniel Craig’s future as Bond is in question, Tom Cruise continues to excel as the world’s greatest action star, leaving no reason for us to doubt that more M:I films can’t be as great as this one.
8. Love & Mercy
Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy follows the life of Beach Boy’s Brian Wilson, particularly during the writing and recording of the band’s seminal album Pet Sounds. Just your typical biopic, right? Wrong. Less biopic and more psychological drama, Love & Mercy affectingly digs into the heartbreaking artistry and mental illness of Wilson by simultaneously presenting two different periods of his life. Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) portrays a younger Wilson, who allows psychedelic drugs to take over his life, and John Cusack plays Wilson approximately 20 years later, when he is simply trying to survive with as much freedom as he’s allotted. The decisions of Dano’s Wilson have obvious effects on Cusack’s Wilson, and the effortless jumps between timelines work to the benefit of both actors. Even though Cusack’s storyline follows a simpler, more romantic plot, the overall effect is a tangible understanding of a real person’s struggles, of a sadness that cannot be silenced, even when it’s honed to make some of the best songs in rock music history. Seeing how Wilson’s life unravels is never played for tears or melodrama, but the film earns viewers’ feelings in a way that resonates rather than erupts. This allows a surprisingly joyful ending to creep up, ending with a bittersweetness identical to how real life is often bittersweet: each day has its reasons for us to be happy and to be sad, a balance that can be found when people mutually seek the best for one another.
Honorable Mention: Straight Outta Compton
Between Love & Mercy, Straight Outta Compton, and the documentaries Amy and Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, 2015 might have been the best year ever for musical films. Of all those mentioned, Compton is the most conventional, ironic for a film about a group of men who did everything unconventionally. Permanently solidifying N.W.A.’s importance in music history, this movie is an exhilarating crowd-pleaser that perfectly shows the plight of four friends who wanted the world to know how bad life was in their hometown. Whether or not they planned on becoming the grandfathers of gangster rap, the impact of what these men did is still obvious today. Director F. Gary Gray skips over some of these characters’ more questionable decisions to ensure they always look like heroes of civil disobedience, but it’s hard to complain when the results are this enjoyable. (It’s also worth noting that the always-great Paul Giamatti plays effectively the same exact character in both this film and Love & Mercy.)
Brie Larson nailed one of her first notable film roles playing Envy Adams in 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but from such a cartoony role, it was hard to predict the young actress could be capable of heading such powerfully dramatic films as 2013’s Short Term 12 or this year’s Room. Similarly, director Lenny Abrahamson’s previous film was the oddball comedy Frank, basically meaning no one should have foreseen Room to be as incredible as it is. Brie Larson plays Joy, who’s been trapped for 8 years in the outhouse of a kidnapper who rapes her on a nightly basis. A few years into captivity, the captor gave Joy a son, who turns 5 as the film starts. The story plays out through the eyes of the son Jack, as portrayed by Jacob Tremblay, which means audiences don’t know things that Jack doesn’t know and they don’t hear conversations Jack doesn’t overhear. But the film was placed on capable shoulders, as Tremblay’s performance is marvelous. His actions and occasional voiceovers perfectly encapsulate the idea of a boy thinking that a 10 x 10 ft Room was the entire world. Once Jack and Joy escape, Jack’s slow adjustment to life outside of Room, particularly in how he learns to engage for the first time with people other than his mother, is utterly believable. This is not feel-good filmmaking, but it’s feel-something filmmaking, whether that be excitement at Jack making his first friend or empathy for a mother who somehow can still smile and show patience while raising her child in the most terrifying, claustrophobic, and hopeless of circumstances. Thankfully hope was not lost after all.
Honorable Mention: The Gift
If I’ve watched a darker film this year than Room, it was The Gift. Jason Bateman might be my favorite comedic actor working today (see: Bad Words), but he made a powerful dramatic turn by co-starring in this film with Joel Edgerton, the latter actor also working triple-duty as writer and director. Sharing a past that neither character wanted to come to terms with, this movie transforms into a story of stalking, bullying and lying where neither Bateman nor Edgerton is ever squarely playing the good guy or the bad guy. With a conclusion as haunting as anything I’ve ever seen, this movie is not for the faint of heart, but it’s a good reminder that turning around and repenting of our mistakes is always better than thinking our mistakes won’t catch up with us. And sometimes, when “bad” things happen to “good” people, it’s really just past decisions coming full circle and everyone getting their just desserts.
6. The End of the Tour
It’s fitting: a film about this generation’s greatest fiction writer has the year’s most enjoyably fascinating and instantly quotable script. Based on David Lipsky’s book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself about the weekend he went on a road trip interviewing author David Foster Wallace, The End of the Tour is the career highpoint for both director James Ponsoldt and actor Jason Segel, who passionately and accurately portrays Foster Wallace. Jesse Eisenberg plays Lipsky in his best performance since The Social Network. The film pulls no punches: in case someone doesn’t know what this movie’s about, the first scene shows Lipsky–who maintained a friendship with Wallace over the years–discovering that the famous author committed suicide. Now that we know the ending, we can jump back in time and enjoy what comes next for exactly what it is: a wise and funny buddy film. It’s not bad advice to bring a notepad to this movie to write down all the best one-liners. It’s also a normal reaction to leave this film wanting to immediately read Lipsky’s memoir, if not Wallace’s books themselves. Both characters are smarter than they want to admit, and the journey they go on together is filled with mixed emotions and hidden intentions, such as Lipsky’s struggle between being a good journalist or becoming a good friend. By the film’s end, the filmmakers have managed to take a saddening subject–a man so brilliant that he doesn’t know how to carry on in life–and turn it into something joyous. The audience becomes convinced that Wallace lived exactly the life he chose to live: writing a few books, never ever watching television, and occasionally going to dances held in an old Baptist Church.
Honorable Mention: Steve Jobs
The year’s most notable biopic about a recently-deceased man was, naturally, Steve Jobs. Like The End of the Tour, Jobs doesn’t make the mistake of trying to cover the entire life of its subject. Aaron Sorkin’s script has the laser precision of focusing on three half-hour-long moments in Jobs’ life: the lead-ups to three keynote speeches. In this sense, Steve Jobs feels less like a movie and more like a three-act play, matching the obvious expectation that a Sorkin film is more about the dialogue than anything else. Having written perfect scripts like The Social Network and Moneyball, Sorkin has proven time and time again that he doesn’t need a high-concept template through which to show off his bitingly fast-paced writing style. Here, the same people come into contact with Michael Fassbender’s Jobs before each speech, albeit with slightly different outfits and hairstyles, but otherwise the three acts aren’t particularly different from one another. Fassbender is fantastic throughout, but his interactions with the other characters grow monotonous. The only character who really changes is Jeff Daniels’ John Sculley, who goes from father-figure and benefactor in Act 1, to boss and antagonist in Act 2, to sad old friend who’s trying to set aside the past in Act 3. Other than Daniels, an annoying sense of déjà vu sets in, assuming that no audience member wants to watch the same short film three times in a row. It would have been interesting to see what director David Fincher would have done with this script before leaving in pre-production; Danny Boyle replaced him, who does an adequate job in spite of adding a few distracting directorial flourishes. Ultimately, though, the film’s greatest weakness is also its greatest strength: Sorkin. It’s too bad, seeing as this film looked like the real Steve Jobs’ only chance to have a truly great film made about him.
Part 3 can be read here.
Read about my essential albums of the year here.