2015 Volume 2: Dennis’ Top 10

In Volume 1, I looked back at the 2015 movies that came very close but ultimately did not make my Top 10. There were clearly some future classics in the bunch, but something kept them off this list. What made these movies so special? Well, they were the movies that really floated my boat this past year.

Art and criticism are completely subjective. Some people just like to put their feet up and watch Law and Order reruns. Others love cinematic comfort food like romantic comedies and shoot ‘em ups.

My moods differ on a daily basis but I generally like to be challenged: take me to a different place, time or planet, make me question my world or my politics, make me feel uncomfortable by showing me something genuine. I love it! I also have a big sloppy heart when it comes to nostalgia done well.

Without any further ado, intermission is over!

Time to head into the final stretch!

 

10-CREED

creedLet’s face it. Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa (2006) was a wonderful bookend to the 1976 original. And yet … Creed is the Rocky sequel we never knew we wanted. After Fruitvale Station, director Ryan Coogler could have made any film he wanted. And what he wanted was to revisit the world of the fictional boxer – and somehow he managed to make us reconsider the events of the execrable Rocky IV (1985), a 90-minute music video masquerading as a film, by following up on the death of Rocky’s opponent-turned-friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).

Creed introduces us to Apollo’s illegitimate son Adonis (played with gusto by Michael B. Jordan), and before long, he’s following Balboa around outside the Philadelphia restaurant named after his beloved deceased wife Adrian begging to be trained. Yes, there is a championship fight and all the story beats you would expect. But what makes Creed transcend its own history is Rocky himself, now broken, lonely and sicker than he realizes.

Stallone is a good director but Coogler may just be a great one – and by allowing himself to embrace his iconic character from a far more mortal position brings out the absolute best in the actor. Stallone was the very embodiment of action-mana vitriol in the 80s and 90s. By making Rocky face his mortality, Coogler not only tells us that time has passed, but that the virulent action archetype is on the ropes, too. It’s a new world.

Creed is rousing, beautifully shot and edited, and not only walks a very familiar road, but manages to become something fresh and exciting. I’m not sure I want to see Creed 2, because I’m fairly certain it won’t be as magical.

 

09-ROOM

roomOn paper, Room (adapted by Emma Donoghue from her novel) sounds like a pretty dire experience. After all, we meet young mother Joy (Brie Larson) seven years after being kidnapped and forced to live in a tiny shed. She doesn’t know where she is, and save for a skylight, cannot see outside. She and 5-year-old Jack (you do the math) have a TV and get supplies from her captor, but little else. To protect her son from the horrors of the world they live in (literally), she has treated “Room” as it was the entire planet. But if they ever hope to escape, he needs to grow up pretty quickly.

It’s no spoiler to say that they manage to get out. But the wonders of Room begin when boy meets world. I can’t remember the last time that a movie put me inside the experience of another person so completely as how it feels to experience wind for the first time, or to step on concrete, or to meet a dog. Most movies roll credits once the family is reunited in a big group hug.

Joy’s friends have moved on, her parents have suffered the effects of trauma, and the media swarms around her like vultures over a fresh body. She retards emotionally and lashes out – and who can blame her? But the movie remembers something so elegant and simple that grown-ups tend to forget: In the end, none of this – not a crappy day at the office or even being kidnapped – is about us. It’s about what we pass on. Our kids will learn how to be by watching us.

And yes, sometimes the difference between the entire world and a tiny shed is a matter of perspective.

 

08-REVENANT

revenant_ver2The Revenant is an ugly film. A boldly-stylized, stunningly beautiful ugly film. It’s the true story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a frontiersman left for dead in the wilderness following an ambush from the Native American Arikara Indians and a swift and violent bear attack. It’s only a small spoiler to reveal that following the attack, Glass loses the ability to speak above a growl or whisper.

And seriously, what does Leo have to do to win an Oscar? He probably does all that here, and more. Once on his own, Glass becomes the snotting, shambling, grunting personification of the very instinct to survive. I don’t ever think I’ve seen a marquee actor ever contort themselves so much for a role.

The director is Birdman’s Alejandro G. Iñárritu and to say The Revenant takes one to a different time and place is an understatement. This was a famously difficult shoot and it’s all there on the screen. Blizzards, freezing water, incredibly intricate choreography during up-close bloody battles. Digital effects contribute to the illusion, but only to enhance exactly how shitty a time our hero is having. He will have his icy revenge, but will it matter?

 

07-ANOMALISA

anomalisa_ver2I’ll be honest. Anomalisa bounced all over my Top 10. It’s a stunning work of stop-motion animation from Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich) so I knew I was predisposed to like it. The animation style can be rough at times – there is very little attempt to hide the seams on the various plastic body parts, for example. But a deeper truth emerges. This film has an acute understanding of body language and as most animated works are somewhat stylized, Anomalisa is very, very human.

David Thewlis voices Michael Stone, an unhappily married father on a business trip to Cincinnati, where he’s scheduled to speak at a convention of customer service professionals. He meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a baked goods sales rep from Akron and something sparks. There is nothing remarkable about Lisa except her voice. Up until now, every other voice in the film – male, female, young and old – was voiced by Tom Noonan to accentuate the mundanity of his life. When we hear Leigh’s beautiful voice, it’s like angels singing.

Anomalisa is such a fantastic script, it would work in any format. But there’s something about this high-wire directorial act that makes the averageness of these invisible people seem epic. Michael and Lisa are a couple of downtrodden losers whose insecurities and stations in life have reduced them to this moment of desperation. Who doesn’t feel like they haven’t made enough of their lives? Anomalisa appears very strange and off-putting, but it’s more relatable and human than most folks would ever want to admit.

Plus, puppet sex.

 

06-THE MARTIAN

martianOn its surface, there’s nothing about The Martian that seems difficult. Even director Ridley Scott recently scoffed at the very notion, claiming the shoot was very “straightforward.” The story of an astronaut (Matt Damon) left behind on the Red Planet following a scientifically-impossible storm is an unabashed crowd-pleaser based on a very entertaining book. Easy, right? Not so fast…

Mars has always been the box office kiss of death. There was this. And this. Let’s not forget it was just a few years ago is that Disney got so freaked out by the failure of the animated film Mars Needs Moms that they removed the words “of Mars” from the movie John Carter of Mars. And we all know how that ended up.

So when a craftsman like Ridley Scott assembles a cast with the likes of Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels and Kristin Wiig and the movie ends up being an absolute thrill ride that never sacrifices IQ points for the thrill … well, that’s a minor miracle right there. The Martian is as much about science and math as it is not about explosions. It’s brainy … and exciting. You can have it both ways.

I cannot imagine an entire generation of explorers, scientists and future astronauts not citing this as the film that inspired them to reach for the stars.


05-45 years

fourfive_yearsAn elderly childless couple, Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) prepare for their 45th wedding anniversary. Upon returning from a walk, Geoff casually tells Kate that they found her. He’s referring to the body of his former love who died just a couple of years before they were married. In any other movie, this would be this setup to a really predictable murder mystery. But the tragedy that unfolds is more unsettling than that.

We’ve seen countless films about marital infidelity in the physical form but I can’t remember the last time a movie dealt with the topic of emotional infidelity. As the celebration date approaches, Kate begins to question everything held true for almost five decades. It’s not just some Tyler Perry histrionics going on here: it’s the quietly unsettling idea that she never really saw her husband.

She presses him on intimate details but he’s casually skirted those for years. And what is it with all those photos up in the loft?

Director Andrew Haigh, adapting David Constantine’s short story In Another Country, sets up this slow motion collapse brilliantly. The first time we see their house, it’s slightly off kilter. When conversations escalate, we stay focused on Rampling. As in the folds of the narrative, it’s what we don’t see that’s most important. By the time we reach the inevitable conclusion in which husband and wife dance to their anniversary song, the lyrics cut like a blade.

“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” indeed.

 

04 CAROL

carolThis lesbian love story might seem very contemporary in 2016, but it’s roots lie in a Patricia Highsmith novel called The Price of Salt, which was published in 1952. It’s a May-December affair with young, impressionable shopgirl Therese (Rooney Mara) swept up in the allure of older, wiser, married Carol (Cate Blanchett).

This isn’t Carol’s first Sapphic rodeo and it’s really starting to bother her square-jawed husband Harge (Kyle Chandler). Remember, it’s 1952. All it would take is proving she broke a “morality clause” and she never sees her daughter again.

This undercurrent of melodrama lies at the feet of director Todd Haynes’ very old-fashioned telling. It’s the normalness of Therese and Carol’s slow-burning relationship that unmasks the absurdity of the time period. Carol has a line that say the heart wants what it wants. It’s a more universal truth than anything in the highly-acclaimed Brooklyn, which takes place at the exact same time just one borough to the north.

But what really elevates Carol above the sumptuous art direction, crisp direction and strong performances is Rooney Mara. She not only has the tougher role, but every choice she makes – right or wrong – is about Therese clawing her way through a delayed adolescence. The final shot of Carol has Mara front and center, with her eyes and heart fully open for the first time. It’s a luminous moment that transcends gender, time and space.

 

03 STAR WARS

star_wars_episode_vii__the_force_awakens_ver3How does the biggest popcorn movie ever released manage to crack the Top 5 while surrounded by so many genre-defying, boundary-pushing movies? Simple. Picking the “best movies” of the year also means factoring in a little thing the academics fail to consider: pure, unabashed enjoyment. And I enjoyed the living hell out of this film.

Sure, the pent-up anticipation was going to guarantee some top-loaded box office for Episode VII. And to be fair, not everyone was happy that it retraced the steps of Episode IV. But J.J. Abrams’ sequel that made stellar use of the story strands from Lawrence Kasdan’s writers room, and did something altogether rare in 2015. It changed how we looked at movies.

Think I’m off base? The Force Awakens made people talk. It made us protective about not spoiling the movie for others. It captured our imagination. When was the last time children and adults huddled together to debate what it all meant? Seriously, when? You’d probably have to go back to The Empire Strikes Back and the agonizing three-year wait after Darth Vader dropped the bombshell reveal of all time that he was Luke’s father.

Was it the best film of the year? Not by a long shot. But it was an immensely satisfying sequel that actually brought magic back to the movies.

 

02 INSIDE OUT

inside_out_ver2After so many years of sequels guaranteed to sell toys, I had actually forgotten that there was a time that the Emeryville visionaries at Pixar were at the forefront of daring, prescient motion pictures that not only nudged ahead what was possible with animation, but storytelling as well. In my humble opinion, there is no finer and more impressive run of films from one studio than The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3. Perfect movies, all.

Inside Out dared to unfold almost entirely inside the mind of a prepubescent girl, a guaranteed minefield of emotions and realizations if there ever was one. So imagine if there was a way to visualize this delicate and tumultuous moment? There wasn’t … so Pixar came up with one. The jumping off point is 11-year-old Riley’s relocation to San Francisco and adjustment period, but the movie surmises that all of us are guided by a central operation – not unlike the bridge of the Enterprise – that controls our emotions.

It’s a fantastic conceit that director Pete Docter (Up) uses to its fullest, envisioning the vital relationship between Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). And if you’ve seen the film, you know that there is a grand adventure that also fantastically involves lost memories and how our brain keeps all that stuff organized. Bring tissues.

Inside Out is an amazing achievement: at once heady and improbable – and yet as accessible as a Cars sequel. And after the next few Cars sequels, maybe we can get something this good again.

 

01 MAD MAX

mad_max_fury_road_ver7It’s really rather stunning what George Miller pulled off with this fourth installment in his post-apocalyptic action series. It’s not a prequel, sequel or reboot and yet it’s all of those things. Tom Hardy steps in for Mel Gibson, but it might as well have been Mel. Charlize Theron does all the heavy lifting anyway.

As the fierce one-armed Imperator Furiosa, she carries the entire future of the femininity on her muscular shoulders. Yes, Mad Max is the ultimate celebration of feminism since Helen Reddy sang “I Am Woman.” Deal with it.

Fury Road might seem like one long chase, but it’s a textbook example of ring composition. Two equal halves: one going forth, one coming home, even if the first half of the film was driving hell-bound toward a paradise that only exists in Furiosa’s memory. Max isn’t the hero, he’s the balance between past and future, between man and woman. Max and Furiosa are a study in duality, him moving forward, her chasing the past.

Fury Road has a lot on its mind. It also takes on religious cults, the abuse of power, the lies told to control the direction of future history. Anybody who accuses this film of being one big long chase just ain’t paying attention.

Oh, and it kicks major action ass. It’s a cinematic marvel with kinetic editing, balletic action, the heat and roar of phallic monstrosities pummeling the desert terrain in pursue of feminine flesh. But there’s also a guy strapped to a bank of speakers playing a flaming guitar.

Much like Creed, I’m not sure I want to see a sequel, although Miller has acknowledged he’s already thinking of one. I doubt he could come close to the thematic heft and gonzo spirit of Fury Road. But then again, the last thing I ever expected was for Mad Max 4 to be the film that resonated longer and louder than anything else this year.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

There is no way in hell this list or Volume 1 sticks. It’s the nature of the beast – you stumble upon something later on that is flat-out amazing and wonder why you didn’t discover it sooner. But 2015 was a pretty amazing year in many regards:

We saw the return of the quality blockbuster in Star Wars, The Martian, Mission Impossible, Mad Max, and Creed. These were good movies because the filmmakers who made them had a deep understanding and love for the material. Studios want shared universes now. But if the box office and end-of-year buzz is any indication, we just want good movies.

Who wins the Oscars? Who knows. Right now, Spotlight is in the lead but wouldn’t it be a hoot if Mad Max won Best Picture?

George Miller could certainly win for Best Director, which has rewarded the more visionary films (Life of Pi, Gravity, Birdman, etc.) of late. In fact, really cannot see Miller losing to Spotlight‘s Tom McCarthy even if the picture wins. Let’s not forget, McCarthy’s most recent film prior to Spotlight was an Adam Sandler superhero movie. #NeverForget.

Brie Larson, Tom Hardy, Domnhall Gleason, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander all appeared in a number of films in a variety of roles. Good taste or good timing? Let’s say both.

And it was the year Harrison Ford became lovable again. From his whirlwind press tour for Star Wars to his charity video for Force for Change, to his return as Han Solo (sniff), everybody was wild about Harry. It was one hell of a victory lap. Let’s hope those casting rumors about Episode VIII pan out.

Thanks for listening! And feel free to share your own lists!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author: Dennis Willis

Dennis Willis is an award-winning producer, TV host, producer, director, editor (he preferred Avid until a torrid affair with Adobe Premiere, and the rest is history), author and film critic (print and radio). Dennis produced and hosted the TV programs Reel Life, FilmTrip, Soundwaves (1983-2008) and produces the annual Soundwaves Xmas program. He is currently the film critic on KGO Radio in San Francisco, and a member of both the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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