Saturday, January 2, 2016

Top 10 Films of 2015

It has become something of a tradition for me to release an annual year-end recap to my favorite films. As my cinematic eye and knowledge grow, I sense my taste in films being refined. A few flicks will inevitably show up that are blockbuster hits, but each one of my selections are artistic expressions, and were somehow able to delight and move me. Each of the following films listed did exactly that for me in 2015. I believe these films to be the highest examples of art in their respective fields. Artistically these films are stellar, and emotionally they grabbed me at the core. They appeal to nostalgia in some cases, but stand on their own as fantastic films.

After reading my list I would love to hear your thoughts! What films delighted and moved you this year?

10. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation/ Kingsman: The Secret Service
Tied for 10th place are two remarkable action flicks. While both are spy movies, they could not be more different.

MI5 is the best film in the Tom Cruise anchored franchise. Directed by his Jack Reacher collaborator Christopher McQuarrie, MI5 is sleek and stylish, accomplishing what Spectre failed to do for the 007 franchise. Mission Impossible has always seemed larger than life, but McQuarrie brings a real-world grittiness to the franchise. While Cruise is still impressive with his over-the-top stunt acting, it was Rebecca Ferguson who stole the show. Her leading lady stunts and acting were enough to get her an invite to return for the next installment of the Mission Impossible franchise.

Kingman: The Secret Service was one of the year's best surprises. Directed by British director Guy Ritchie, Kingsman does not hold back on the blood and gore. Starring some of Britain's finest actors, as well as a fantastic breakout performance from Taron Egerton, Kingsman is edgy, shocking, and refreshing in a market packed with cliche, unremarkable action movies. The camera seemingly revels in the carnage, and at times Ritchie allows the scenes to play out in changing frame rates and camera angles a'la 300. Although I loved it, this film is NOT for children.

9. While We're Young
Noah Baumbach is perhaps the one filmmaker who has his finger on the pulse of the millennial generation. Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts are brilliant as an aging couple struggling with their identity in a rapidly changing world, but it's Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried who had the biggest impact on me as a young hipster couple. Comically serious about their anti-technological views, this young couple challenges not only Stiller and Watts, but the viewer, to evaluate the roles that communication and relationships play in their lives in a predominately digital world.

8. The Martian
The ad campaign for director Ridley Scott's NASA rescue film was surprisingly deceptive. What was presented as a Matt Damon anchored drama ended up being a smart, witty film full of strong performances from the supporting cast, featuring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, and Donald Glover, just to name a few. I responded even more strongly to the optimistic nature of the film, adapted from Andy Weir's book by Drew Goddard. The dialogue was hopeful, lighthearted, and was devoid of cynicism - which is a rare treat for filmgoers these days. After a handful of misfires, it is good to see an iconic filmmaker like Scott back in business.

7. Bridge of Spies
Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks are always a winning combination in cinema. At this point Spielberg's filmmaking is fluid and understated. Even a lesser Spielberg flick is still better than 95% of what is showing at your local cinema. In this case, Spielberg has crafted another historical masterpiece. Bridge of Spies features fantastic dialogue, wonderfully set up shots, and beautiful period production design. Hanks is brilliant as always, but Mark Rylance is the surprise in this film, an acting revelation as the Russian spy captured by U.S. authorities. Not only one of the best films of the year, this is one of Spielberg's best films, period.

6. Ex Machina
Alex Garland is a relatively unknown filmmaker, but he is a writer and director to watch. Ex Machina doesn't ask new questions about humanity, but manages to repackage them into a sleek, sexy, modern film. Before they shared the screen in Star Wars, Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson appeared in this quiet, unsettling film about what makes us human. Alicia Vikander is the real standout though, playing an advanced robot seeking humanity. The audience begins to feel for her, along with Gleeson's character, making us suddenly realize that perhaps WE are the test subjects. (Note, there is a fair amount of nudity in the film, so viewer discretion is advised).

5. Sicario
Dennis Villaneuve has established himself as a modern film auteur. Similarly to his previous films, "Prisoners" and "Enemy," Villaneuve manages to create tense, taut scenes without resorting to cheap gimmicks. Roger Deakins provides breathtaking cinemtography, with a dusk raid sequence that just might land him an Oscar nomination. Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro deliver awards-worthy performances themselves in this tale of corruption on the U.S./Mexico border.

4. Brooklyn
Brooklyn is probably the smallest and quietist film on my list, yet it is one of the best dramas I have seen in years. Saoirse Ronan is beautiful and wonderful as an Irish immigrant who makes her way to Brooklyn, NY in the mid- 20th century. The story is nothing new, but executed so beautifully and so wonderfully, that it makes Brooklyn a must-see film. The period clothing and sets are immaculate, and the score is hauntingly beautiful. You find yourself aching and laughing with real emotion, which is in part due to Nick Hornby's screenplay, and partially due to the tasteful and tender direction of John Crowley.

3. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
If I only factored in sheer enjoyment and nostalgia, this film might have ended up as my top pick of the year. With a hype level greater than any film in history, the newly reformed and Kathleen Kennedy led Lucasfilm had to deliver a film that appealed to both the generation that grew up with George Lucas' original trilogy, as well as a new generation of kids that knew nothing of the adventures of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia.  And boy, did they deliver! Bringing in self-avowed Star Wars fan J.J. Abrams to co-write and direct The Force Awakens was perhaps the best decision Disney could have possibly made. Abrams manages to find a balance between nostalgia and discovery, allowing our old fan favorites to mentor new characters that will carry the franchise into the next decade. The film feels real, magical, and creates a sense of wonder in me that no movie has been able to do in years. You care for Rey (Daisy Ridley's incredible acting debut), Finn (John Boyega from Attack the Block), and Poe (my favorite actor, Oscar Isaac), and find yourself physically affected by the joy and pain they feel in the heart-wrenching script from Lawrence Kasdan. While it is not a PERFECT film, The Force Awakens hits all of the main points that a Star Wars film needs to, and is a very welcome return to a galaxy far, far away.

2. Inside Out
Pixar has long set the standard for animated features, but with a series of subpar entries in their film canon, many wondered if perhaps they had lost their magic. With Inside Out, however, Pixar was able to return to the height of storytelling that we've come to love and cherish. Few animated films have moved me in such profound ways as the Toy Story trilogy, UP, Ratatouille, Wall-E, Finding Nemo, and now Inside Out. Director Pete Doctor navigates a very difficult world of emotions, introducing complex concepts in understandable and relatable ways. This is one of the rare films that will appeal to children and adults alike. You will find yourself deeply moved, and able to understand others just a little bit better.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road
If you are reading this and you have not yet seen Mad Max: Fury Road, stop what you are doing and go watch it right now. Fury Road set a new standard for what action movie can and should be. The cinematography is gorgeous, capturing the post-apocalyptic wasteland and warfare in creative and absolutely impressive ways. The shots in this film are perfectly executed, and must have been unbelievably difficult to capture. In addition to intense and thrilling chases and action sequences, Tom Hardy as Max and Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa are wonderful, proving that you don't have to have much dialogue to make a strong impression. Mad Max was a welcome return for the original franchise director George Miller, and I cannot wait to see what he has for us next.