The Top 15 of 2015

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by Patrick Allocca

Well, it’s that time of year again: a time where Pan and Slam’s Jason Koenigsberg and I mostly disagree on our favorite movies of the year. Living in Los Angeles definitely gives me the luxury of checking out films that aren’t really playing anywhere else, so I don’t blame you if you missed a bunch of these. However, let me try to convince you to check them out on DVD/Blu-Ray/Streaming/Whatever services. This year had a bit more variety than 2014, though it seems like the Oscars decided to ignore quite a lot of that diversity, as usual. Anyway, here we go:

 

  1. 45 YEARS

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One of the most depressingly honest depictions of marriage I’ve ever seen, “45 Years” stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay (both excellent) as a married couple. A week before the couple are preparing to celebrate their 45th anniversary with a party, Geoff (Courtenay) learns that the frozen, perfectly-preserved body of his ex-girlfriend Katya has recently been discovered (50 years after she slipped into an Alpine crevasse). Kate (Rampling) soon realizes that Katya’s presence has always been with them—she just now can sense it, and her perspective on their marriage will never be the same.

“45 Years” isn’t the easiest film to watch and its deliberate pacing might make some viewers feel like the movie lasts as long as its title—yet it rewards those who are patient with it.

 

  1. THE HATEFUL EIGHT

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Tarantino’s 8th film has polarized even his devoted fans. Claims of misogyny and racism have been leveled against a director whose past work has been praised for its feminist leanings (“Kill Bill”, “Death Proof”, “Inglorious Basterds”, etc.) and racial diversity (literally almost everything he’s done).

But the troubling aspects of “The Hateful Eight” are also what make it compelling. For the first time in his career, Tarantino isn’t winking at his audience, nor is he telling us how to feel about any of the events that unfold. There’s no hero to this story; hell, even the title is ambiguous, as there are more than eight characters in the film. You’re forced to make up your own mind, and how many mainstream movies can say that?

 

  1. TANGERINE

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When “Tangerine” premiered at Sundance, how it was shot was discussed as much (if not more) than its actual content, which is a shame since this is such a special little film. But let’s get that little nugget of trivia out of the way first: the movie was shot entirely on iPhone 5s smartphones (which, in all honesty, is pretty darn cool).

The story revolves around a transgender sex worker—no wide release for this one, clearly—who finds out her boyfriend/pimp is cheating on her. What follows is a funny and empathetic tale that simultaneously manages to be brashly over-the-top and surprisingly nuanced. It also features some of the realest performances I’ve ever witnessed, recorded on smartphone or otherwise.

 

  1. THE END OF THE TOUR

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“The End of the Tour” chronicles reporter David Lipsky’s five-day road trip with famed novelist David Foster Wallace (effortlessly played by Jason Segel) in 1996. Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) attempts to interview Wallace for Rolling Stone while on the final leg the book tour for “Infinite Jest”, the novel that made the author an overnight sensation. I use the word “attempts” because Wallace proves to be a difficult interview subject, at least partially due to Lipsky’s own biases and jealousy.

“The End of the Tour” succeeds not only because of Segel and Eisenberg, but also by virtue of its focus. The film (equal parts heartbreaking and hilarious) never tries to paint David Foster Wallace as anything other than a flawed, deeply talented man, troubled by his own celebrity status.

 

  1. CREED

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Another “Rocky” movie; how did it end up being this good?! This miraculous achievement is less shocking when we line up the pieces. We’ve got the one-two punch* of director Ryan Coogler and actor Michael B. Jordan (playing the title character). The duo already achieved greatness together with Coogler’s first film, “Fruitvale Station”, but they made that when no one was looking. With “Creed”, the two had to take on the burden of enlivening a franchise that spans 4 decades, and they succeed in spades**, perfectly balancing the psychological and the visceral (only the first “Rocky” did that so well).

It would be remiss of me not to mention Sylvester Stallone, who clearly loves playing this character. Rocky is one of those rare movie characters we’ve watched age over the course of 40 years; with each film, Stallone adds a new layer of weariness to the role while maintaining the gruff sweetness that makes him so endearing. Seeing him and Jordan (who, without a doubt, should have been nominated for an Oscar) interact with each other is one of the biggest joys “Creed” offers.

I never thought I’d be looking forward to “Creed 2”, but I’ll admit it: I’m looking forward to “Creed 2”.

*My bad puns are always intended and never regretted.

**I wish I could’ve ended this sentence with another boxing pun instead of an expression that derives from playing cards.

 

  1. MISTRESS AMERICA

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Noah Baumbach is one of the most underrated writer-directors working today. He consistently churns out funny, achingly-honest stories that satirize white America, poking fun at his self-aware-yet-completely-clueless characters while simultaneously empathizing with them (i.e. “Kicking and Screaming”, “The Squid and the Whale”, “Greenberg”, “Frances Ha”, etc.). He’s like a less-Jewish Woody Allen.  

This year, he gave us two excellent additions to his body of work, “While We’re Young” and “Mistress America”. While I did enjoy the latter more, you should really check out the former as well (especially for a lightsaberless Adam Driver), since they’re definitely companion pieces.

But let’s discuss “Mistress America” a bit, now that I’m done gushing. The film follows Tracy, a lonely college freshman (the charming Lola Kirke) whose life flip-turns upside down when she meets her soon-to-be sister-in-law Brooke (the always-effervescent and hilarious Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrote the film). Brooke is pretty much the opposite of Tracy: brazen and spontaneous to Lola’s shy, quiet nature. That’s pretty much the set-up. What follows is a comedy that had me laughing more than any other movie this year. If you’ve ever lived in or around NYC (or LA, for that matter), Baumbach’s takedown of hipster culture might tickle your ol’ funny bone too.

 

  1. ANOMALISA

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Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has made a career out of the unexpected (“Being John Malkovich”, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) and “Anomalisa” (which he also co-directed with Duke Johnson) continues that trend. It’s almost impossible to talk about the details of “Anomalisa” (his first foray into the tedium of stop motion animation) without spoiling the beautiful ugliness and panic-inducing weirdness that await if you check it out. I’ll just say that it left me with so much dread that I welcomed the winter chill* outside the theater. And it’s not even a horror film.

*Around 55 degrees, since I’m in LA.

 

  1. SICARIO

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Another deserving film that was completely shut out of the major Oscar awards, “Sicario” follows Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an idealistic FBI agent who’s enlisted by a government task force to aid in the war on drugs at the border between the U.S. and Mexico. There, Kate meets Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro), a Delta Force operator ruthlessly determined to stop the Mexican cartels in power.

What follows is a taut film with brutal action, some of the best acting of Blunt’s and del Toro’s careers, and an ending that leaves the viewer in an ambivalent state, asking whether it’s worth engaging in a futile, never-ending war that creates more monsters than it stops.

 

  1. VICTORIA

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As much as I loved “Birdman” (it was my second favorite movie of 2014), the German film “Victoria” one-ups the one-shot concept: while “Birdman” was designed to feel like it was a single, continuous take (through visual trickery), “Victoria” actually is one shot. Filmed on April 27, 2014 from about 4:30 AM to 7:30 AM, director Sebastian Schipper completed the movie on his third attempt. The script consisted of twelve pages, with most of the 138-minute long film completely improvised.

This could easily slide into gimmick, but it simply doesn’t; because the cameraman (Sturla Brandth Grøvlen) is always in the thick of things with our main characters, it feels like his lens is the viewer’s eyes. It’s truly an immersive experience, to feel stuck in the same terrible situations the characters find themselves in. I won’t go into details, as it’d spoil the fun. It was disqualified from completing in the Best Foreign Language Film category due to the high percentage of English dialogue, which is unfortunate, since this is one of the best films of the year.

 

  1. CAROL

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Probably the most beautifully-shot film of 2015, “Carol” continues Todd Haynes’s streak of great films. The plot is simple: Therese (Rooney Mara), an aspiring photographer, develops an intimate relationship with Carol (Cate Blanchett), an older married woman. Shot on Super 16mm film, “Carol” is Haynes’s second foray into 1950s Americana—his first being the Douglas Sirk-inspired movie “Far From Heaven”, which dealt with racial intolerance. But although “Heaven” is its companion piece, “Carol” feels like a different beast entirely.

2002’s “Far From Heaven” completely adopted the style of a ’50s melodrama, from the music to the cinematography to the over-the-top acting. Although “Carol” also focuses on intolerance and draws from 1950s American cinema (especially in its color choices), it’s also a lot more grounded in reality, drawing on documentary and even French cinema for a unique experience. The opposing performances bring Haynes’s dueling stylistic choices into even sharper relief: Blanchett’s Carol is commanding and bold while Rooney’s Therese is introverted, with complexity bubbling below the surface. The film succeeds because of the juxtapositions of style and acting modes, not despite of it, and deserves all its recognition and more.  

 

  1. MUSTANG

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Deservedly nominated for Best Foreign Language Film this year, “Mustang” is a powerful Turkish film that follows five orphaned sisters who struggle against a conservative society that views women as property. When the girls (all either on the threshold or in the midst of puberty) are caught playing with boys, their panicked grandmother and uncle decide it’s time to marry them all off (before they’re no longer virgins). Their house soon becomes akin to a prison: the girls are no longer allowed to attend school and cannot leave unless properly chaperoned.

Yes, it’s dark, but the resilient girls’ vibrant personalities relieve some of the pressure and make this a well-balanced film punctuated with bursts of humor and tragedy. The power lies in the sisters’ bonds with each other; their connection feel natural and real—due to all five young actresses being fantastic. “Mustang” is both moving and incredibly timely. Make a point to see it.

 

  1. ROOM

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When “Room” scooped up four major Oscar nominations, a lot of people were confused. Not because they didn’t think the film deserved any recognition; rather, they had never even heard of the film (due to its limited release). Well, with said nominations, hopefully more people check it out.

I’d be remiss to reveal much about “Room”, because it’s one of those movies where the less you know, the better. I’ll just say (or rather, write) that the film begins with our two main characters, Joy (Brie Larson) and her five-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) living in a squalid place they call “Room”.

What unfolds out of this simple set-up is an engaging, gripping story of perseverance in the face of unspeakable evil, anchored by Larson’s heartbreaking performance. But Tremblay might be even more remarkable: he delivers one of the best child performances I’ve ever seen. Scene-for-scene, the movie just works, but even if you take everything except them out of the equation, it’s still worth seeing.

 

  1. SPOTLIGHT

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Based on true events (sadly), the movie follows The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team, an investigative branch of the newspaper, that uncovered widespread child sex abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests in the Boston area.

For such a controversial subject, “Spotlight” sneaks up on you, simply presenting the facts in a non-flashy, documentary style. Few tears are shed on screen and there aren’t orchestral swells to tell you what to feel. Because of this, the film is even more powerful, a quietly devastating experience.

 

  1. EX MACHINA

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Hands-down, one of the best sci-fi films of the past ten years or even (dare I say it?) of all time. “Ex Machina” is one of those rare movies that will only get better with age. Either the premise intrigues you or it doesn’t: programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is invited by billionaire Nathan Bateman (a BB-8-less Oscar Isaac) to test out Ava (Alicia Vikander), an android with artificial intelligence. Intrigued? Then I all but guarantee you’ll love it.

A perfect script, flawless performances, beautiful sets, and dark, heady themes. Any other year this would be my number one, but this year…

 

  1. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

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Um, you haven’t watched this yet? Stop everything and watch it.

 

Other Notable Films: “It Follows”, “While We’re Young”, “Montage of Heck”, “When Marnie Was There”, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”, “Dope”, “Amy”, “Trainwreck”, “Love & Mercy”, “Straight Outta Compton”, “Diary of a Teenage Girl”, “Black Mass”, “Goodnight Mommy”, “Brooklyn”, “The Big Short”, “Phoenix”, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” 

Surprisingly Good: “Ricki and the Flash”, “Man From U.N.C.L.E.”, “The Visit”, “Kingsman”, “Tomorrowland”, “Spy”, “San Andreas”, “Ted 2”, “The DUFF”, “Terminator Genisys”, “The Green Inferno”, “Goosebumps”, “SPECTRE”

Biggest Disappointments: “Inside Out”, “Jupiter Ascending”, “Chappie”, “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, “Jurassic World”, “Ant-Man”, “Dark Places”, “The Gift”, “American Ultra”, “Steve Jobs”, “Crimson Peak”, “Krampus”, “The Good Dinosaur”, “Joy”, “The Revenant”

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