At the end of Pt. 2, I discussed how Steve Jobs felt like a three act play. For everyone who’s been reading parts one and two of my “best and favorite” films list, perhaps waiting for this final round of films has felt the same. First off, thank you! It amazes me how so many readers care to take the time to read what this wannabe-critic has to say about the year’s most notable films. I’m particularly excited about the selections for my top 5 films, and I’ve included some bonus treats, such as my three most hated films of the year.
Secondly, it would mean the world to me if, once you’ve read to the end of this post, you would subscribe to this site at the page’s footer. You can subscribe via WordPress, via email, or by placing the URL “alexandermachine.wordpress.com” into your WordPress Reader. I’ve got exciting plans for the near future, including: more personal 2015 retrospectives; updates about my adventures once I relocate from DFW, Texas to Nashville, Tennessee; potentially premiering a podcast that I’ve been planning since this past March; and (as always) continuing to write about art and the entertainment industry as it enfolds in 2016.
As a final update for the year, I saw 110 movies in 2015, including 47 at movie theaters. If you so desire, you can read that list of movies here.
And the nominees are…
Although there’s much more than meets the eye to Brooklyn, it’s also an alarmingly simple girl-meets-boy love story. Going back and forth in setting between 1950’s New York and Enniscorthy, Ireland, the film follows the young Eilis, played by Saoirse Ronan, after her older sister sets up a surprise gift: an all-expenses paid move to Brooklyn, where Eilis will have a job and a Catholic boarding house waiting for her. Ronan has been showing off her enormous talent since 2007’s Atonement, and if last year’s Grand Budapest Hotel did not send her career flying into the stratosphere, Brooklyn certainly will. She balances so many emotions effortlessly, turning huge moments in her character’s life into subtle displays of bittersweetness. From fighting off homesickness to falling in love to a family member dying to being told “I love you” and not knowing how to respond, Ronan never misses a beat, presenting a character who truly grows, makes mistakes, and learns things by the film’s end. The script also presents Eilis with discomforting amounts of societal pressures that complicate viewer’s expectations for how this beautiful little tale might end; when Eilis comes home to mourn a family member’s passing, it’s downright frightening to see the efforts made by citizens of her hometown to ensure she never returns to America. Whether or not viewers get the ending they want, Brooklyn is inarguably well-written, beautifully filmed, flawlessly costumed, powerfully directed, and perfectly acted, especially the naturalistic work of co-star Emory Cohen as Eilis’ stateside Italian boyfriend. For anyone who normally prefers romances and comedies over critically acclaimed dramas, Brooklyn offers all of the above in spades.
Honorable Mention: Cinderella
While Brooklyn was the year’s shining example of traditional romantic filmmaking, it was certainly not the year’s lone triumph. The live-action remake of Cinderella ushered in the return of two nostalgic pieces of film history: traditional love stories and Disney magic. This reimagining of the classic fairy tale outmatches most of Disney’s recent output, even including Pixar. The beautiful art design and costumes transport viewers into this slightly new yet comfortable land, and it’s hard to describe the results as anything less than magical. One of the movie’s best decisions was to create a world that isn’t just beautiful, but believable. If anyone ever grew up on the old cartoon and eventually started asking questions like, “Why couldn’t the stepfamily recognize Cinderella at the ball?” or “Why was the Prince in such a hurry to get married?” or even “Why was the Prince so shallow?,” all these questions and more get answered in expert form. This Cinderella has a geopolitical backstory and palpable stakes, giving each character motivation and depth. This is Disney filmmaking of a caliber some of us feared we’d never see again.
4. The Last Five Years
When my favorite film critic, Perry Seibert, announced his Best Films of 2014 list, I was shocked to see some of his highest marks given to the musical Into the Woods, which in the rest of the critical world was received rather lukewarmly. I saw it and found the musical to be brilliant; catchy songs with A-class lyrics were capably sung by A-class stars and fresh faces alike to hide the darker undertones and complex moral lessons within. I was in the small minority of people who “got” the film. All the same can be said of Richard LaGravanese’s ambitious The Last Five Years, which received a similarly lukewarm response from the few critics who saw it. Jason Robert Brown’s famously well-written and genre-jumping show tunes, which are common favorites for actors to sing during auditions nationwide, carry the film magnificently, while the two stars Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick handle the tunes as well as any of their off-Broadway counterparts. The latter, in particular, shows no signs of stopping her cinematic musical dominance, with nearly each year providing more evidence that Kendrick is the greatest musical star of her generation. What’s even more impressive about the production is how it tells dual storylines, showing the relationship from the man’s perspective start to finish while simultaneously showing the woman’s perspective starting at the couple’s demise and moving backwards. Viewers might have trouble keeping up if they go into this film not expecting such a high-concept design, but the songs and performances are great enough to merit repeat viewings. And perhaps on these second and third sittings, the emotional depravity of the characters and the scathing wit of the lyrics will all sink in. The Last Five Years is, in spite of what many critics perceived, the best musical film in years. It presents exactly what is possible when a play gets in front of a camera with the right actors and the right director.
Honorable Mention: What We Do in the Shadows
What We Do in the Shadows used to be in my top 5 for the year. I hardly stopped laughing the whole movie, at one point coming close to tears. I watched the film a second time within a few days and laughed nearly just as much. So why is this movie no longer on my list? In a decision I could have also made concerning The Last Five Years, I took the film off because it didn’t technically belong on a 2015 list. Both The Last Five Years and What We Do in the Shadows were released in 2014–but of the two, Shadows is the worse offender. Years debuted in September ’14 at the Toronto International Film Festival before its worldwide release in February ’15, but Shadows had its full theatrical run in its native New Zealand in 2014 (and was even released on DVD in ’14) before hitting stateside theaters this past spring. And if 2015 sounds too late for a mockumentary covering such a formerly trendy topic as vampires, directors/writers/stars Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) do not care. This film is not an exercise in trendiness but in historical thoroughness. Waititi and Clement take every single aspect of vampire lore, from its Transylvanian origins to Nosferatu to, yes, even Twilight, and turn each thing into a punchline. Even the lo-fi handycam approach just works. Every detail, every joke in this film was made with enough love and care to make it worthy of its freshly-earned cult classic status.
3. Inside Out
The world rejoiced when the creative team at Pixar released its first “modern classic” or “masterpiece” (or whatever you’d like to call it) in at least five years. That was a long wait, especially following 2014, the first year since 2005 devoid of a release from the hailed animation studio. Luckily, Inside Out isn’t just everything viewers love about Pixar (polar opposite main characters who learn to work together, state-of-the-art graphics, hilarious family-friendly jokes, emotional depth that will likely lead to crying, etc.). Inside Out also brings something new: a well-studied, scientific setting where the repercussions within an 11-year-old’s mind could have consequences as severe as the child becoming a runaway sociopath. This is heady stuff for a “kids movie,” one where adults are far more likely to burst out into tears during multiple scenes than kids are likely to cry even once. But at this point it’s needless to say there’s no reason Pixar can’t make movies for adults, too. Inside Out is art that rewards multiple visits, and even those most cynical to Pixar’s buddy-film formula or who are prone to point out the film’s imperfections and plot holes shouldn’t be apprehensive to conclude that this is, in fact, another Pixar classic.
Honorable Mention: The Good Dinosaur
For the first time in film history, Pixar released two movies in one year. Originally, these two films were from the co-directors of Up. However, The Good Dinosaur had to go through production hell to finally get to theaters, where it saw a change of director, voice cast, composer, and more. The final version combines a sloppy narrative with the most photorealistic images ever created by an animation studio. It’s hard to believe some of these scenes weren’t actually photographed, but ultimately this technical accomplishment is only used to hoist a plot that retreads of The Lion King. Removing The Lion King‘s glaring Hamlet parallels, The Good Dinosaur is at times ludicrously similar to the 1994 Disney classic. Yet it’s still a sweet, emotionally poignant movie that manages to stir the feelings within children and adults, all without the use of those darned Elton John songs. If/when I have children and have the choice to raise them watching The Lion King or The Good Dinosaur, I think I’ll choose The Good Dinosaur.
2. While We’re Young
I first saw Noah Baumbach’s seventh film While We’re Young in May of 2015, where it remained my hands-down favorite of the year until mid-November. While a comedy-drama set in New York may sound like the norm from the director of The Squid & the Whale and Margot at the Wedding, While We’re Young is something special. Ben Stiller stars with his best acting work in years, playing a comfortably discontent married man who wishes his documentary-making career was more fruitful. His life suddenly bursts with excitement and vigor when he meets a young fan played by Adam Driver, here portraying as deceptively charismatic and complex a character as he would later in The Force Awakens. As these two generationally-separated men and their wives begin spending all their time together, almost obsessively, their lives become blurred as Stiller’s older man wishes more and more that he was living the exact life Driver’s young buck is apparently flourishing in. Though filled to the brim with poignant observations on today’s culture, While We’re Young is never preachy, always deftly focused on its four main characters as viewers get to enjoy the unfortunate repercussions of the characters’ choices. The film is also filled with jokes, each actor and actress performing Baumbach’s watertight script with spot-on comedic timing. At a lean 97 minutes, the movie feels over two hours long (in a good way). So much is packed into this movie that these characters feel strangely real and you’ll probably feel sad when you leave the film, as if you’re walking away from new friends.
Honorable Mention: Mistress America
Director Noah Baumbach has had quite the year, having released not just one of his best films ever but two. Here, he partners again with his girlfriend, Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote and stars in Mistress America. Following their first collaboration, Frances Ha, the two make a serendipitous team. The primary difference this second time around is that Gerwig did not write herself as the primary character. Instead, we follow around the lovely Lola Kirke, who has moved to the Big Apple for college and tries to befriend her soon-to-be stepsister, played veraciously by Gerwig as a know-it-all who’s seen every nook and cranny of New York and has never been given a challenge she couldn’t conquer. Kirke, playing a hopeful writer, is so entranced by this larger-than-life personality that she decides to write a short story about a fictionalized version of her almost-stepsister, titling it “Mistress America.” A healthy mix of drama and comedy ensues, climaxing at an utterly ridiculous scene where a group of adults take turns bashing on the titular short story. Yet Lola Kirke holds her own through all of it, proving once again that Baumbach has an uncanny knack for providing breakout roles for young, new talent. The lingering cynicism that pervades the production, though, keeps Mistress America from being as acutely aware as While We’re Young or as likably simple as Frances Ha.
My Bottom 3 Movies:
Skyfall isn’t just a great Bond movie. It’s a great movie, period, and has become one of my favorite action films of all time. With almost everyone from the production of Skyfall sticking around for Sam Mendes Does Bond Again, expectations were high. Sure, I knew there would be some drop in quality with the exit of ace cinematographer Roger Deakins, but I refused to believe the drop in quality could be this extreme. Spectre is Skyfall‘s lesser in every department, an unfunny and unexciting exercise in tropes with an embarrassingly underwritten villain and nothing we haven’t seen in Bond films before. What a shame.
I’ll admit it. Minions gave me a few hearty chuckles. Despicable Me gave diminishing returns after enjoying it the first time through, so I skipped its sequel entirely. The only reason I saw Minions was because the trailer was absolutely hilarious. Too bad the trailer used the film’s funniest scenes, most of which are at the very beginning. Even though I was slightly amused at scattered moments throughout the film, the entire production was grating to the point where an anger started forming in me that increased until this terrifyingly pedestrian exercise in brainless comedy had finally come to an end. A $1 billion worldwide gross for Minions does not bode well for the future of humanity.
Neill Blomkamp, where have you gone? After making the modern sci-fi classic District 9 and the enjoyable blockbuster Elysium, he excreted the two-hour long torture chamber that is Chappie. Words cannot express how displeased I was with this movie. After seeing it, I made the superlative statement that Chappie may have been my worst theater-going experience of all time. Nine months later, that superlative still stands. Not even laughably bad, this disaster was ill-conceived in every department and manages to get worse as it goes along, all the way up to its *smh* *facepalm* ending. This is the type of movie where leaving early to get one’s money back is entirely justified, and that’s exactly what wish I could have done before enduring Chappie.
Notable Movies I Missed (or have yet to see):
45 Years, 99 Homes, Anomalisa, The Assassin, Bridge of Spies, Diary of a Teenage Girl, The Hateful Eight, It Follows, James White, Paddington, Phoenix, The Revenant, Sicario, Slow West, and Son of Saul
And the award of best film of 2015 goes to…
The film currently buzzing with award season rave and taking in critics circles’ and associations’ awards for Best Picture and Screenplay deserves every ounce of rave it gets and every bit of buzz you hear. That movie is Spotlight, director Tom McCarthy’s fourth fantastic film in 12 years. A taut journalism drama receiving well-deserved comparisons to All the President’s Men, Spotlight focuses on the brave journalists working for the Boston Globe, (called the “Spotlight” team, the writers who expertise in longterm investigations), who looked into the patterns of pedophilic priests in Boston, not realizing that they would, over the course of a year, uncover a worldwide epidemic and church-wide cover-up.
Take the societal pressures present in Brooklyn and multiply it by a few thousand; that’s how many men in Boston were committed to the cover-up of the Catholic scandals in order to maintain the culture’s status quo. And while anyone who knows their history will see the film’s ending coming from a mile away, few viewers will likely have understood the deep seated corruption that consumed Boston society at nearly every conceivable level. What’s also surprising is how the journalists at the movie’s core (played by Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James and Liev Schrieber) slowly transform from narrative tools used to explain facts into realistic humans whose lives are irreversibly affected by the work they’re doing. Mark Ruffalo gives a career-defining monologue about how angry writing this story is making him, while Rachel McAdams gives her own career highlight in a quieter moment, lamenting over how religion ended up playing a much different role in her life than she’d ever predicted it would. Every player is at his or her prime, with Keaton continuing a splendid rebirth following last year’s Birdman, meanwhile co-star John Slattery makes a notable jump from the small screen to the silver screen, having put a wrap on the final season of Mad Men. The cameras never move away from these actors, whether we see them at home or out interviewing priests and victims. The movie wisely sidesteps the temptation to ever show a priest committing his crimes or to show a victim’s interview in flashback form. Everything stays in the present, treating the heartbreaking true story with delicate care and understated importance.
By the film’s harrowing yet triumphant conclusion, Spotlight accomplishes an incredible double feat: in an age where most people binge-stream television series and read the news online (sometimes only after seeing it shared on Facebook), Spotlight argues for the importance and cultural vitality of both the medium of film and the work of newspaper journalists. Although the future looks dreary for both, we should all hope that both non-franchise films and print newspapers will find ways to thrive.
If they don’t, then what do I have to be writing about?
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