Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Ten Best Movies I Saw in 2015

As before, these are the ten best movies I managed to watch this year, whether they are old or new. In alphabetical order:

American Hustle: a movie with wonderful performances that were perfectly calibrated to the film's seedy, knock-off, deeply fake style, as communicated through the costuming, set design, and staging. The story--the Abscam affair as reflection of the hollowness of the American Dream--was merely okay, but we can overlook that.





Birdman: probably the best film I saw this year, at least when we're talking about what movies can do. Compelling story, presented to the audience through bizarre yet brilliant directorial conceits, and a performance by Michael Keaton at the center that was simply magnetic. It didn't stick the landing, I thought--the final scene actually pulled me out of the movie's spell, rather than sealing it for me. But other than that, fantastic.



Cinderella: a warm and non-cynical and completely unapologetic embrace of the story, told with a few original twists and touches, but mostly trusting that there is a reason why people love magical tales like these, and letting it do it's work. And work it most certainly did.






A Dangerous Method: a thoughtful recreation of a few particular people, ideas, and conflicts which characterized the fin de siècle world of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud--but the movie, at least to my mind, found clever ways to suggest the civic shakiness and the emotional danger inherent in their whole intellectual framework. Keira Knightly's performance creepily grows on you through the movie, as I think it was supposed to.



Get the Gringo: a sleazy and smart prison-break flick, with Mel Gibson as the one white American stuck in a Mexican jail. It traffics throughout in all sorts of crude stereotypes, but it can't be faulted for leaning on such stereotypes too much because it respects them, and allows those being caricatured to own their own identities. I kept thinking throughout of Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, another crude but wise tough guy movie; Gringo might actually be better than that (I think overpraised) film, because it didn't aspire to anything beyond it's own genre.


Mad Max: Fury Road: the first of the two movies I saw this year whose visual story-telling was so powerful it elicited a real physical reaction from me as I sat in my seat in the theater and watched it; the protagonists' initial race for freedom, with the massive dust storm approaching, was so thrilling and awesome I was bouncing up and down in my seat, completely captivated. A gorgeously powerful, righteously feminist action film.



The Peanuts Movie: the second movie I saw this year that actually, physically moved me with its beauty. The style of its visuals could not possibly be more different than Fury Road's, but the animation conveyed a fantasy of the warmth and familiarity which folks like me have for these characters and the comic strip as a whole so well that, at one point during Snoopy's flight in his doghouse Sopwith Camel to save Fifi, I found myself smiling and weeping and shaking my head in admiration, all at the same time.



The Pledge: a hard, surprising police thriller. I never thought of Jack Nicholson as a subtle actor before, instead always expecting him to find the inner crazy within every character he plays, and use it to power his performance. But here, he sublimates the crazy so well that I didn't even realize I was looking at the psychological breakdown of the main character until the very end. A great, tense film.




Selma: an inspiring historical drama, with solid performances, and really very smart, subtle choices that, through a line of dialogue here or bit of pacing there, reminded the observant audience (like myself and a friend who teaches high school history; we talked about the concise smartness of this film for weeks) of the huge and complicated political and social conflict which surrounded Martin Luther King's powerful leadership and oratory.



The Zero Theorem: Terry Gilliam will never be able to recapture his glory years, I suppose, but unlike several of his recent movies, this film genuinely works. As a study of the manipulation, decline, and obsessive self-destruction of a brilliant mathematical and computational genius, Gilliam managed to invoke his own greatest movie, Brazil, with its familiar despairing, existential themes, but also bring his satire up to date in regards to both technology as well as corporate power. A worthy addition to his filmography.



Worthy runners-up: The Force Awakens (a solid B; a fun space adventure movie, nothing more or less) and The Martian (often, but not nearly often enough, up to the level of the book).

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