As part of an annual tradition in anticipation of the upcoming Oscars, here’s a countdown of what I consider the ten best films of 2015. The year was filled with great films, so narrowing it down was difficult. Here’s the list.
10. THE DANISH GIRL No matter your political stance on the divisive debate regarding transgender issues, there is no denying that gender identity is a deeply personal, confusing, and challenging situation that is present, no matter how quiet or invisible, in nearly every interaction and choice that we make. Director Tom Hooper, best known for his lush prestige period pieces, such as Les Miserables and The King’s Speech, paints a vivid portrait of 1920’s Copenhagen artist, Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), and his wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), as they deal with Einar’s gradual recognition of his genuine self in Lili Elbe. Vikander is the true revelation here; the role may seem like yet another supportive but distressed wife of a troubled husband, but Vikandar demonstrates gleaming star power as she attempts to come to terms with her undying love for her evanescent husband and the birth of a stranger in a painfully familiar body.
9. THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL Everyone knows that being a teenager is tough. But rarely do films capture the yearnings, sorrows, insecurities, narcissism, and emotional fragility of adolescence in an accurate and satisfying manner. But Marielle Heller’s debut feature, set in 1970’s San Francisco, finds a way to capture the essence of being a teenager with non-judgmental, whimsical, and heartbreaking aplomb. Minnie (the incredible Bel Powley) struggles with her sibling, her best friend, and her inattentive but loving bohemian mother, but her central and overwhelming concern, like nearly all teenagers, is sex. And body image. And being loved and desired. Minnie finds what she believes to be her fulfillment in a hazardous affair with her mother’s boyfriend. As her blooming sexuality and illicit encounters affect every corner of her life, Minnie must determine for herself who she actually is and who she wants to be. Diary is acerbic, brutally honest, and a feature-length punch to the gut, not unlike what it’s like for all of us during that unforgettable pubescent era.
8. SPOTLIGHT This generation’s All the President’s Men, Spotlight is an incisive examination of two of our nation’s oldest and most influential institutions. On the one hand, it’s a celebration of the indispensable role of independent investigative reporting, that our society cannot function healthily without journalists who hold truth to its highest regard, that the powers-that-be must be held accountable for their actions. On the other hand, institutions like the Catholic Church, which wield extraordinary power over every level of existence for legions around the world, consist of exceptionally flawed mortals who, despite all the faith we place in them, can be the basis for extensive devastation. This film, which can be considered a piece of dramatic journalism itself, is a stark reminder that our world cannot be properly run when those in power are permitted to hide in the shadows. Director Tom McCarthy, in his return to form and surrounded by an impeccable ensemble cast led by the brilliant Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams, concocts a tightly constructed and intellectually stimulating journey into the most fundamental aspects of civilization.
7. THE END OF THE TOUR Ambition and achievement take center stage to be analyzed and debated in this sure-handed, two-handed conversation between Rolling Stone reporter and middling novelist, David Lipsky, and his interview subject, David Foster Wallace, widely considered one of the greatest and most influential American writers, after the release of his enigmatic and complex instant classic, Infinite Jest. Wallace is everything Lipsky wants to be: fiercely intelligent, thoroughly thought-provoking, confident but deferential, difficult but reasonable, and, above all, designated as one of the greatest minds of his generation. But as they spend a week together, with each of them picking the mind of the other, Wallace unwittingly reveals his deep-seated brokenness and insecurities, and we explore, alongside a man who seemingly has achieved it all, whether “greatness” and “achievement” are anything close to resembling what we all long for them to be.
6. TANGERINE Every mention of this micro-budget indie begins with the fact that it was shot entirely on iPhone 5S and follows a day in the life of two transgender prostitutes in East Los Angeles, one of whom is recently released from prison and in search of her pimp boyfriend who may have been cheating on her. While a significant aspect of the story’s impact rests on providing a seemingly unfiltered glimpse into a world most of us will never experience, Tangerine, crackling with kinetic energy from its charismatic leads and its MTV-like cutting and score, attempts to demonstrate that no matter our backgrounds or choices we have made, deep down we all share the same dreams, needs, sorrows, and aspirations. The story’s essence is found in the value of friendship and family, whether you’re a cab driver, a prostitute, or anyone living under our tangerine-tinged skies.
5. A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE Visual storytelling has been around for so long that true stylistic and tonal innovations in today’s cinematic environment are so rare as to be non-existent. But in Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson’s final installment in his “Living” Trilogy, he continues his presentation of a wholly unique comedy experience, whereby creating a sub-genre all his own. Pigeon is a series of loosely related vignettes ruminating on the absurdities of what it means to be human. Sans any camera moves or in-scene cuts, Andersson creates a world that is so deadpan, so dry, and so odd that it almost feels inappropriate or even unlawful to laugh at the on-screen lunacy. Excruciating in almost every sense of the word, this bizarre feat of surrealism explores, with dreamlike precision, every dark and ignored corner of who we are and how we relate to those around us.
4. BROOKLYN This 1950’s immigration tale demonstrates the power of simplicity, a gorgeous, subdued throwback to traditional cinematic storytelling, as it captures the pains and predicaments of finding oneself in an unfamiliar land. Though one could lament that everyone is a bit too nice and a bit too white, with the raw roughness of life carefully sanded away, the true heart of the matter still resonates within every frame. The power of simplicity rests on director John Crowley recognizing an invaluable gift: Saoirse Ronan in one of the greatest performances in recent memory. Some of the most quietly compelling moments were when the camera lingers on its lead actress, well after the scene has reached its conclusion, giving viewers the opportunity to revel in the delicate humanity etched in her soul. Born in New York City and raised in Ireland, Ronan dives headfirst into this deeply personal story, and creates a character with an indelible combination of strength and fragility.
3. ROOM With a premise that feels more at home in the horror genre, Lenny Abrahamson’s Room is a moving, riveting human drama that explores the most powerful force in the universe: the love of a mother for her child. While the seven years of rape and imprisonment certainly cast its horrific shadow over every aspect of the story, the film chooses to focus on a mother doing everything in her power to provide as normal a life as possible for her son, even if it means convincing the five-year-old that their room/prison is the entire world. The film’s true impact results from its two formidable leads: Brie Larsen (Short Term 12), whose fierce vulnerability has slowly but surely helped her become an American treasure, and Jacob Tremblay, who gives quite possibly the greatest child performance in history. The story is essentially told from his perspective, as we experience the wonders, horrors, and frustrations of dealing with his surroundings, whether its the small shed he believes to be all of creation or when he experiences the outside world for the very first time.
2. THE BIG SHORT Based on a book brimming with technical financial complexities that would make even a finance professional’s head spin, The Big Short is a masterpiece that somehow pulls off the impossible in a multitude of ways. Adam McKay, whose previous directorial experience consists solely of Will Ferrell comedies, juggles countless different and opposing tones and objectives with miraculous perfection. It’s a retelling of the global disaster with individual human tragedy sprinkled throughout but delivered as both a ribald comedy as well as a keenly intellectual satire. Somehow a film with a primary objective of conveying the painful and emotional understanding of the brokenness of our financial system while nimbly educating even the most ignorant of complex financial issues can be one of the funniest and smartest comedies ever made; tears of laughter and tears of tragedy become one and the same. And of course, Margot Robbie drinking champagne in a bubble bath is undoubtedly one of the best movie moments of the year.
1. INSIDE OUT is a universal story with a timeless yet completely unique lesson wrapped up in one of the most ambitious, creative, and satisfying artistic achievements of our time. Sadness is something that the movies, and the entertainment industrial complex in general, are usually trying to eliminate, or at least sweep under the rug; pain and suffering are the chief obstacles to be overcome in nearly every story ever told. Yet somehow, the brains at Pixar have gifted us with a story, told in two parallel dimensions and targeted at children, that has the power to fundamentally affect our worldview, the way we treat each other, and the way we treat ourselves, regardless of age. Sadness is that extra wrinkle that provides texture to our lives, an essential ingredient for what makes all of us truly human. Inside Out has instantly become one of the most pivotal achievements in entertainment, a laugh-out-loud, candy-colored, heartwarming story that has the ability to save lives and make the world a better place. How many films can say that?
What do you think is the best movie of the year? Comment below. Also, you can check out previous years’ lists.