THE 10 BEST FILMS OF 2015
by Johnny Pomatto
I’m going to come right out and say it. 2015 was a bad year for movies. I dare say it was the worst year that I can remember in my lifetime. Does this mean that I couldn’t come up with a Top Ten List of films that I truly loved this year? Absolutely not. Every film on this list (as well as most those in my honorable mention section) hit me on a personal level and I give them my full stamp of approval. And yet, I feel like I’ve been having a hard time finding people who share my passion for most of them, as cinema this year in general has been met with a wave of indifference, outside of a few noteworthy phenomena, typically occasional movies set in space (such as THE MARTIAN and STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS). No, the masses aren’t passionately engaging in conversation and debate about cinema the way they might with the latest series premiering on Netflix, and the sad reality is that Hollywood is noticing that. Outside of their epic blockbusters, studios are becoming less and less concerned with how a movie may need to look on a large screen, for they know that people are going to consume their media at home probably months, if not years, after they premier theatrically. So many movies, even great ones that I enjoy, are beginning to feel more like intimate small screen fare, sometimes indistinguishable from one another and losing much of the celluloid magic from previous eras. For instance, SPOTLIGHT, one of the best films I saw this year, won me over with its outstanding screenplay and stellar performances, while Tom McCarthy’s capable and appropriate “fly on the wall” direction lacked the cinematic subtlety of “All the President’s Men,” a masterpiece of a film that it has been endlessly compared to. SPOTLIGHT to me felt more in the same camp as the exceptional HBO miniseries SHOW ME A HERO, which is hardly an insult, given the quality and substance of each. I feel a film like SPOTLIGHT, and many other perfectly adequate prestige studio films from this year such as ROOM, THE BIG SHORT, and TRUTH, don’t lose much on the small screen because they’re being made primarily for Academy voters who now watch these films from the convenience of their living rooms, and they are made to feel as comfortable and safe as possible to appeal to them. This is why almost all of my films on this list come from independent sources, and always from unique, freethinking, independent, and sometimes foreign minds. The studio indie is starting to lose its edge. It’s time that we had another indie boom, like the one that happened in 1994, when films like PULP FICTION and CLERKS inspired studios to spend their money buying finished films from festivals, rather than attempt to replicate their tone and success. It’s also worth taking notice below that most of the best films of the year feature strong female characters and attention-grabbing performances by some of the best and unsung actresses working today. Now, if only we could get Hollywood to take notice of that as well. When people complain that there aren’t enough great roles for women and minorities, they’re disregarding the noteworthy work being put out there by people outside of the studio system. I’d say that it’s time that Hollywood follow suit, but I’d rather any of the diverse films on my list below than a pandering, all female cast reboot of “Ghostbusters” or “Oceans 11.” There’s still hope for the future of cinema, as demonstrated below, but I think it’s time that we show Hollywood that we don’t need them the way we used to. These are the 10 BEST FILMS I SAW IN 2015.
10. WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS
All a successful comedy has to do is make me laugh. That sounds simple, but it’s far from an easy task. No other comedy this year made me laugh harder than the sublimely silly WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS. This New Zealand import breathes new life into the mockumentary format, after a decade of television sitcoms have diluted it. Unseen documentarians follow a clan of real vampires (led by co-writer/directors Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement) as they attempt to adapt to modern ideas, lifestyles, and technology after living for hundreds of years in a dark, gothic world. Many of the jokes are the kind of gags that would make you roll your eyes if they weren’t so perfectly executed in a gloriously stupid, yet brilliant way. Exposition will be snuck in with comedic set pieces, or sometimes omitted completely, in order to stay focused on the distinct characters, where all the comedy comes from. WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS knows exactly when to be subtle and when to be broad and it doesn’t hit a wrong note in its all too brief 85 minutes.
9. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
A friend of mine recently dismissed MAD MAX: FURY ROAD as being just another loud action movie with underdeveloped characters. While that’s not an entirely untrue statement, what makes George Miller’s new installment in the franchise so incredible is that he makes the film’s style and tone into a character all of its own. No other action movie has had the stunning visuals or kinetic energy of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, and it achieves this with almost entirely practical effects, in this age of green screen antics gone mad. Sure, the title character is a strong, silent type to say the least, but Tom Hardy’s portrayal of Max is no less talkative than legendary characters like Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name or even Mel Gibson’s own portrayal of Max in “The Road Warrior.” And who needs a man to save the day anyways when the film features such awesome and badass female characters, like Charlize Theron’s Furiosa? George Miller not only singlehandedly revitalized the action adventure genre this year (sorry, J.J. Abrams), but he also made one of the best “girl power” movies of this generation.
I’ve always been a passionate fan of director Spike Lee, and while he has made some decent films over the last decade, it had been a while since I had seen anything from him that could safely be called “A Joint.” But CHI-RAQ echoed in a triumphant return of the “Spike Lee Joint,” employing many of the themes and devices he used in some of his early classics, such as “School Daze,” “Jungle Fever,” and especially his masterpiece “Do The Right Thing.” Spike takes the serious subject of gun violence in Chicago, and makes it into a comedy, full of music, dance, and poetry, while never diminishing the tragedy of his topic. Teyonah Parris dominates the film as Lysistrata, (the film is modeled after the Aristophanes anti-war comedy of the same name) but she’s surrounded by a strong ensemble of actors, (including Nick Cannon, John Cusack, Wesley Snipes, Jennifer Hudson, David Patrick Kelly, Steve Harris, Dave Chappelle, and Angela Bassett), who all perfectly add to the carefully textured tone of the tale, with many of them doing the best work of their careers. I feel filmmakers today are terrified of tackling a serious subject with even a hint of humor. Even a brave one like Adam McKay seemed to exhaust himself with explaining and justifying the satirical angles of his (less successful) film “The Big Short.” But Spike Lee proves that when he’s on point and with something to say, he’s a true master of the balancing act of making one laugh, cry, and think.
7. WILD TALES
One of the reasons that movie watching is on the decline is that people today have very short attention spans. What better cure for this symptom than a film like Damián Szifrón’s WILD TALES, an anthology of short films from Argentina on the theme of revenge. With such a broad topic, there’s no limit to the directions one could go in, or the tone and style of how the stories are told. Some tales have sad, unsettling bents to them, while others are gleefully twisted and funny. The cold open involving some ironic surprises found on an airplane sets the mood for the unexpected, and while I prefer some of the stories to others, none of them disappoint. What’s more, these stories of ordinary people taking extreme measures over sometimes very minor infractions, are all too relatable at times, even when things take a turn for the whacky. A scene involving a momentary lapse in judgment results in quickly escalating road rage, and a series of parking tickets pushes a mild-mannered man to terroristic extremes. These may be far off our normal behavior, but perhaps not far removed from our fantasies. The final segment involving a bride’s breakdown on her wedding day might be my favorite 20-minute sequence I saw in any film this year. WILD TALES delivers something few films are able to promise, the notion that you’ll never know what to expect next.
6. THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL
There aren’t a lot of grey areas when it comes to the “teen sex movie” genre. Teenage sex on film is typically presented as a raunchy, comedic adventure (males), or as a sad, regretful cautionary tale (females). Adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s autobiographical graphic novel, Marielle Heller’s debut film explores female sexuality in the most mature and realistic portrayal that I’ve ever seen captured on screen, fully acknowledging the desires and hunger of its protagonist, Minnie. She is played by the extraordinary Bel Powley in a star-making role, and the film follows her first person account of coping with puberty and fascinations of a world that she doesn’t yet realize she’s not mature enough to understand. Even as Minnie begins a relationship with the 35 year old boyfriend of her mother, (Kristin Wiig and Alexander Skarsgârd, both never better), the film never judges the characters too much, or assign a sinister arch to perpetrators, treating the men in Minnie’s life less like villainous predators and more like adults incapable of realizing their own maturity, while desperately attempting to cling to their youth. Minnie’s character is both written with the authenticity of a teenage girl, as well as containing wisdom and hindsight she would grow later in life. Though this film is R rated and deals with sexuality in a very adult way, I would say that it is essential viewing for any bourgeoning teenager.
In an era where films are demanded to be as all-inclusive as possible, the stories of several types of groups and individuals remain largely untold. However, Sean Baker’s TANGERINE explored a world that I had never seen depicted in such an alive and honest way. It tells the story of two transgendered prostitutes, turning tricks on Christmas Eve in Hollywood, and it features two of my favorite performances of the year, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor as Sin-Dee and Alexandra. The story focuses on Sin-Dee, who has just gotten out of a two month stint in jail, only to be told that her pimp and lover, (Chester, played by a hilariously pathetic James Ransone), has been dating “a fish,” aka: a biological woman. Sin-Dee’s quest to find and question Chester is filled with laughs, but also plenty of drama, in every meaning of the word. These are characters living incredibly unpleasant lives, and so having a drama to be overwhelmed by almost begins to feel like a distracting relief for them. Even Chester’s “fish,” who is practically kidnapped and abused by Sin-Dee, begins to seem to enjoy the adventure that she’s been dragged on, because it is still different and preferable to what she would otherwise be doing with her workday. Baker’s film has a vibrant look and attitude, (impressive, being shot entirely on iPhones), and feels like its an offshoot of the Spike Lee family. Sean Baker is absolutely a director to keep one’s eye on, as I’m expecting quite a career from him.
4. THE HATEFUL EIGHT
With the arrival of every new film from Quentin Tarantino, there’s always the debates and discussion over the content of his screenplays and the colorful characters found in them. THE HATEFUL EIGHT has no shortage of snappy dialogue and scenery-chewing participants, but what struck me most in Mr. Tarantino’s bloody western turned detective story, was that this may be the finest crafted film of his directorial career. Shooting on 70mm film with vintage cameras used for genuine classic films, the film features stunning outdoor photography, but it’s the interiors that really impress. Tarantino chose the setting for his wide-lens location as a remote, claustrophobic, one-room cabin, and yet he and cinematographer Robert Richardson light and shoot the room with such detail that you get to know every inch of the environment. Though sharing traits and attitudes with classic westerns such as “Stagecoach” and “The Ox-Bow Incident,” the film is less of an open range western and more of a drawing room mystery, in the vein of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” Leading the cast in the detective role is Samuel L. Jackson, reminding us what a revelation he is as an actor when he’s not phoning it in for a paycheck role, and he’s matched by a terrific ensemble, highlighted by Tim Roth, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Walton “Why Is This Guy Not A Mega Star?” Goggins. Like most Tarantino films, THE HATEFUL EIGHT isn’t perfect, with a few rough edges and occasional short-cuts taken that I wish had been more subtly explored, but these films have also become events that are meant to be anticipated and then picked over for years until you get another one from the maestro. Even with a running time of nearly 3 hours, I can’t wait to return to it multiple times.
There’s been a lot of praise for the film “Room” this season, but it turns out it’s not even the best film about the domestic home imprisonment of teenage girls this year. Directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven and co-written by Alice Winocour, this Turkish film is a revolutionary feminist story and essential tool in the battle for equal rights. The story focuses on five sisters who are witnessed by neighbors playing an innocent game with boys, prompting their grandmother to force them to stay at home until they can find men who would marry girls who practice such shameful behavior. Watching the girls trying to fight the repression of their natural teenage instincts is harrowing and at times quite empowering. This is not a film that is entirely without joy and humor. There are unpleasant and tragic elements to the girls’ story, and the fate of each ranges from hopeful to dire, but giving the film a much needed uplifting optimism is the performance of Günes Sensoy, playing the youngest of the sisters, who learns about the world around her by observing the journey of her sisters, and becomes determined to avoid what is similarly planned for her. Like a device employed in “Room,” Sensoy’s character allows this devastating story to be seen through innocent eyes, but unlike the aforementioned film, MUSTANG doesn’t stifle the voices of their other characters to do it.
By all logic, John Crowley’s BROOKLYN should be my #1 film of the year. It has a virtually flawless screenplay by Nick Hornby and stars Saoirse Ronan, giving a performance that seems to let the world know that the child that we’ve been watching for the last ten years has matured into an actress that we may be cherishing for decades to come. The story feels classic enough to have come from the films of the 1940’s, and yet there’s not a speck of dust to be found among its themes. It’s gorgeously shot and painted with a palate that will make you think that the age of Technicolor has returned. It’s a perfect film. Ronan plays Eilis, a young Irish immigrant who comes to New York and cures her homesickness by finding love, only to be tempted to return to the life she left behind. There’s no false drama in this story, and not even a villain of any kind serving as antagonist. Eilis only has her own emotions to overcome and understand, and her journey is full of warmth and humor that never feels anything other than sincere. I can’t imagine a more perfect love story than BROOKLYN. Not even my #1 film of the year…
Charlie Kaufman’s ANOMALISA is an imperfect love story, or rather, a story of imperfect love. Michael Stone is a man who is going through life and seeing nothing unique or special in his world, until he discovers a singular person, (Lisa, extraordinarily voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), who seems to be his only hope of escape, providing that Michael can convince himself that he’s happy with her. That may sound like an abstract description of the story, but it doesn’t begin to describe my thoughts and analysis of this haunting dream of a film. There’s so much to explore within this portrait of love and loneliness that I haven’t heard any theories on the film’s meanings that are in sync with one another. I even go back and forth between deciding the film is a fantasy or a literal story happening in reality. This story could have easily been told with live actors and physical sets and locations, but Kaufman (and co-director Duke Johnson) create an entire world from scratch, casting their characters as dolls with the same face and voice. The film can be confounding and frustrating in a wonderful way, like a nightmare that you’re not quite sure you want to wake up from. If I have a complaint about ANOMALISA, is that it’s too short at only 85 minutes, and yet even though the lights came up and the credits rolled, the film has continued for me, and it hasn’t left my thoughts since seeing it. I don’t expect that experience to happen to me with every film, because I’d be constantly disappointed if I did, but when something touches you in this way, you cherish it and don’t let it go.
Honorable Mention: 45 YEARS, BEASTS OF NO NATION, BONE TOMAHAWK, CHEATIN’, CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA, COP CAR, THE END OF THE TOUR, EX-MACHINA, FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD, INFINITELY POLAR BEAR, I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS, INSIDE OUT, THE LOBSTER, THE MARTIAN, ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION, MISSISSIPPI GRIND, THE OVERNIGHT, QUEEN AND COUNTRY, QUEEN OF EARTH, PHOENIX, RESULTS, SICARIO, SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE, SON OF SAUL, SPOTLIGHT, TRUTH, WHITE GOD, WHILE WE’RE YOUNG, WILD CANARIES
10 Best Documentaries of the Year
10. MEET THE PATELS
9. SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION
8. AMY/KURT COBAIN: MONTAGE OF HECK
7. RED ARMY
6. DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD
5. ALL THINGS MUST PASS
4. BEST OF ENEMIES
3. WHERE TO INVADE NEXT?
2. CALL ME LUCKY
1. THE LOOK OF SILENCE
10 Worst Films of the Year
10. JUPITER ASCENDING
7. TERMINATOR GENISYS
5. THE LEISURE CLASS
3. FANTASTIC FOUR
2. ROCK THE KASBAH