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The Top Ten Films of 2015

January 19, 2016

  topten2015  

This was one of the hardest years to compile a Top Ten list. I know, I wind up saying that every year, but I wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true – believe me, I’d love to tell you how easy making such a list was. At the end of each year, you may here some lament how it wasn’t a particularly good year for film. What I’ve learned is that it’s always a good year. You just have to dig a little deeper, find the ones you connect with and champion them. Some years, there are films that remain at the top of the list for months. The top five of my top ten, are not that different from our Top Five Films of 2015 (so far) that we posted in July of last year – that speaks volumes of their impact.  Most of the films on my list have either heartbreaking evoking multiple ugly cries or were quite gut-wrenching. A couple of them were straight-up crowd-pleasers and some were delightful surprises.

There were several films that I really liked that didn’t even make my list. Movies like “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” which I saw three times in theaters, just didn’t make the cut, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it.

Other films I really enjoyed like “The End of the Tour”, “Unexpected”, “Love and Mercy” and “Straight Outta Compton” – all of which would’ve definitely made up my 11 – 15, if I extended the list. But, I had to maintain my limit of 10, even if I did cheat for the first time ever – sorry, Steven.

These are the films that Steven Attanasie and I recommend and would watch repeatedly. I must take a moment to thank Steven, who joined the Keeping It Reel staff this year and has been an invaluable contributor to the site. I don’t choose writers lightly and I’ve come to appreciate Steven’s articulate and honest voice. I always appreciate and look forward to his contributions.

Each year, there are discoveries that I look forward to in my viewing endeavors and I am compelled to mention two of them here, before you peruse our list. They are two writer/directors, Josh Mond and Michael Glover Smith, who made two character-driven films – “Cool Apocalypse” and “James White“, respectively – that made an indelible impression on me and caused me to promote them as much as I could. I interviewed both of them (click their names) and found them to be two passionate filmmakers who are driven by telling stories about people we know and people like us. They are two filmmakers I will be following closely and I hope you do too.

Alright, then – without further ado, I give you what we consider to be the best films of 2015. Links to reviews are included throughout. Comment below with your thoughts, rebuttals and your own picks….    

 

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10.

Steven – PEANUTS THE MOVIE Animation had a banner year in 2015, with no fewer than a half-dozen animated offerings I considered for this list. While The Good DinosaurShaun the Sheep Movie, and even Minions were considered for this slot, I went with the film that gave me the warmest feeling inside, The Peanuts Movie. The animators at Blue Sky did the absolute best work in their studio’s history by lovingly recreating the characters we all know so well and giving them a tad more dimensionality, literally and figuratively. In an age where everything from our childhood is being repurposed, repackaged, and resold to the movie going public, it’s nice to see a film that doesn’t feel like a completely soulless attempt to cash in our familiarity with the property. (still in theaters; avail. on DVD/Blu-ray on March 8, 2016)

David – SPOTLIGHT After watching “Spotlight”, it’s easy to forget that writer/director Tom McCarthy dropped the Adam Sandler vehicle “The Cobbler” earlier this year. “Spotlight” is an excellent film that reminds us of McCarthy’s great previous work: “The Station Agent”, “The Visitor” and “Win Win”. Here we have some of the best performances of the year by the likes of Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber and Mark Ruffalo, supported by the likes of Rachel McAdams, John Slattery and Stanley Tucci, all bringing an enthralling true story to light involving the Boston Globe uncovering rampant, decades-long sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in 2001. Challenging and hard-nosed investigative journalism movies are very rare and that’s what I appreciate most about what McCarthy did here – remind us of the hard, stressful and important work done in the name of journalism. (still in theaters)  

 

9.

Steven –  MISSISSIPPI GRIND From its inception, Mississippi Grind sounded like a modern-day take on Robert Altman’s California Split. Even the title sounds cribbed from Altman’s film, and while familiarity with that criminally under-seen film is helpful, it’s not a requirement to enjoy Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s gambling dramedy. The always brilliant Ben Mendelsohn slides comfortably into a co-lead role with a never better Ryan Reynolds, and the pair’s exploits up and down the Mississippi River make for some of the most compelling cinema I saw this year. It was especially nice that the film had an ending that felt like a natural extension of the plot, rather than tacked on. In an age where so many films fall apart in the third act, it’s nice to see a film actually get better in the third act.

David – MISSISSIPPI GRIND Here’s a movie that still brings to mind both a smile and a sigh. A smile because of how fond I still am for this dramedy about a couple of aimless con artist/gamblers (absolutely great turns by Ben Mendohlson and Ryan Reynolds) that I saw back in September – and sigh for the fact that this is one of those movies that is in desperate need for word-of-mouth in order to be discovered and appreciated. Maybe folks saw Reynolds and dismissed it altogether, but they’d be missing out on a great screenplay by co-directors, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (a pair who’ve delivered one solid film after another with “Half Nelson”, “Sugar” and “It’s Kind of a Funny Story”) and a great journey down the Mississippi River, showing viewers distinctive locations and characters that you only find on a road trip. It also has a killer soundtrack (one for each character) and one of my favorite openings of last year. (now avail. on DVD/Bluray, iTunes and Amazon Prime)    

 

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8.

Steven – AMY When British chanteuse Amy Winehouse joined the notorious 27 Club in 2011, the media had painted a portrait of a woman who had done herself in thanks to hard partying and a love for drink and drugs. The truth behind Amy’s life and death is vastly more complex and beautifully told by filmmaker Asif Capadia in this moving documentary. Combining footage of Amy with audio interviews from her friends, family, collaborators, and admirers makes her story more real, more immediate, and infinitely more tragic. “Amy” is a film that will rattle you, but which will also make you think about the pain so many addicts keep hidden. (now avail. on DVD/Blu-ray, iTunes and Amazon)

David – CREED I was totally fine with the way Sylvester Stallone ended the “Rocky” saga with “Rocky Balboa” and felt the idea of a spinoff revolving around Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son was lazy and pathetic. I was wrong. Co-writer/director Ryan Coogler was right to persuade Stallone return to the character that launched his career and it took some great material to lure him back. “Creed” delivers some fantastic boxing scenes here, but what surprised me the most about this crowd-pleasing endeavor is how heartfelt its characterization was (and maybe it’s just me, since I’ve always loved Rocky as a character), especially how Michael B. Jordan’s portrays Adonis Creed as a young man still struggling with abandonment and identity issues. Coogler knows these characters connect with us and he’s fortunate to get two of the best performances of the year out of Jordan and Stallone. (still in theaters)    

 

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7.

Steven – SPOTLIGHT This intense examination of the Boston Globe Spolight team that exposed the institutional corruption within the Catholic Church not just in the city of Boston, but all over the world, played like a film straight out of the 70s. Tom McCarthy rebounded quickly from his Adam Sandler misfire “The Cobbler” to bring us this impeccably shot, written, and acted film that has an agenda, but takes the time to invest the audience’s attention in that agenda. There are no explosive scenes, no fiery confrontations, no “this whole court is out-of-order” extravagance that is usually used to rally an audience to its cause. It does it with slow burning intensity and gripping conversation. That’s nothing short of a miracle in this day and age.

David – SICARIO/THE REVENANT I’m cheating here. I can’t help myself. I couldn’t sweat over the placement of these two any longer, so I’m gonna drop them right here. They just happen to have a lot in common, especially among the vocal naysayers out there who say that both Denis Villeneuve’s drug cartel movie “Sicario” and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s frontiersman epic “The Revenant” had weak storylines and characters. I disagree. I had no problems with their screenplays or the characters and I believe both have some of the best cinematography of the year. Roger Deakin’s work on “Sicario” provided several bleak and haunting moments and Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki’s immersive camerawork (using only natural light) was at times, simply jaw-dropping. “Sicario” has some fine performances by the entire cast, specifically Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro, while it felt like Leonardo DiCaprio and his supporting actors went through a frozen hell to complete their work. I don’t really understand some of the backlash that these two brutal, beautiful and exhaustive films have received. I found them to be two of the most transportive films of the year. (“Sicario” is avail. on DVD/Blu-ray, iTunes and Amazon & “The Revenant” is in theaters)    

 

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6.

Steven – SLOW WEST n a year chock full of westerns, only one of them really played like a classic western. First time feature filmmaker John Maclean’s “Slow West” may have the word slow in the title, but it betrays the film’s brisk running time. Balancing brutality and humor like a seasoned professional, Maclean’s film is a pitch black look at survival in a time when the only rules were that there are no rules. Couple two brilliant lead performances from Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee with a brilliant supporting turn by the always spectacular Ben Mendelsohn, and you’ve got a film with no shortage of fantastic moments, all of which add up to make this the first western since “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” that’s actually better than the sum of its parts. (avail. on DVD/Blu-ray, iTunes & streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime)

David – BROOKLYN Director John Crowley’s tender 1950s immigrant tale lingers long after viewing. It feels like a classic love story, but it’s never manipulative and allows the audience to naturally connect with and feel for its characters, instead of providing heavy-handed moments that we’ve become accustomed to. Narration would’ve smothered the stellar work by the film’s star Saoirse Ronan and her terrific supporting men, Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleason, not to mention derail the exceptional and intuitive screenplay by Nick Hornby. His script also has just the right amount of sweetness and humor. “Brooklyn” has superb cinematography, production design and a wonderful score, but what stands out the most is its heart-wrenching story about love, family and defining what and where home is. (still in theaters)  

 

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5.

Steven – THE BIG SHORT Having seen this film well before it was released theatrically, I’m a little dismayed by the comparisons the film has been getting with “The Wolf of Wall Street”. For the record, I think this film is a note perfect satire that maintains enough aesthetic distance so as to not make the audience completely complicit the way Scorsese did with his film. Where “Wolf” was all fun and laughs, “The Big Short” is comedy built around outrage, and the way director Adam McKay plays it all for laughs only makes it that much more outrageous. There are obvious comparisons to be made between this film and “Wolf”, in particular Ryan Gosling’s spot-on performance that wildly lampoons DiCaprio’s performance, but I wish people would stop getting hung up on the obvious ones. Once you get below the surface, you quickly realize what a much better movie this one is by comparison. (still in theaters) 

David – WHITE GOD Kornél Mundruczó’s “White God” was easily the most disturbing and troubling film I saw in 2015, making it an uneasy viewing experience. I vividly recall viewers leaving the theater last summer within the first 20 minutes, during the screening I hosted. The Hungarian film, which tells the story about a stubborn tween girl whose insenstive father kicks her mixed-breed dog, Hagen (expressively played by twin dogs), onto the streets of Budapest, starts out heartbreaking and winds up becoming a rampaging uprising of stray dogs in which humans receive their comeuppance. It’s an allegory for how humans treat those they consider to be in a lower class (be they human or animal) and it’s unforgettable. (now avail. on DVD/Blu-ray and streaming on Netiflix)  

 

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4.

Steven – STEVE JOBS  Aaron Sorkin is a wizard of words and, almost inarguably, a genius. Who better than he to craft a film about another complex genius, Steve Jobs, in the year’s most compelling conversation piece next to the number three film on my list. Danny Boyle brings his kinetic energy to a script that, yes, does involve a lot of Sorkin’s trademark walking and talking, but there’s so much importance in those words. Distilling the life of Steve Jobs into three afternoons is a bold task, yet Sorkin pulls it off with aplomb, and Boyle gets some terrific performances out of his ensemble, notably Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, and the severely underrated Michael Stuhlbarg. If you’re a Sorkin fan, this might be his most Sorkin movie yet. (now avail. on DVD/Blu-ray, iTunes and Amazon)

David – EX MACHINA “Ex Machina” is a film I can watch again and again and glean something different from it each time, nor would I be bored. That’s due to its profound screenplay by director Alex Garland, which examines the ideas of gender roles as well as the definition and use of artificial intelligence. This existential sci-fi psychological thriller is refreshingly heavy on sci-fi with thought-provoking elements of psychology and philosophy. Its characters, excellently portrayed by Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson and the captivating Alicia Vikander, are curious egomaniacs, inquisitors and manipulators and they’ve given us hours of discussion. Visually stunning thanks to smooth and thoughtful cinematographer and art design, “Ex Machina” is the film I’ve recommended most from 2015. It helps that it also has the best dance sequence of the year as well.  (now avail. on DVD/Blu-ray, iTunes and Amazon)    

 

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3.

Steven – EX MACHINA  Alex Garland’s feature directorial debut is a fascinating meditation of the perils of artificial intelligence, but even more so on man’s insistence on playing god. Man has sat atop the food chain for so long, we think we’re invincible, and watching this theme play out in this pot-boiler of a film is one of the most satisfying viewing experiences you’re likely to have in this—or any—year. The major theme with my Top 3 is rewatchability and I think all three of these films have that quality in no short supply. I will watch all three of these films many times in my life, but Ex Machina is one to revisit for so many reasons, not least of all the trio of amazing central performances from Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and the brilliant Alicia Vikander.

David – ROOM “Room” gutted me repeatedly when I first saw it and has maintained a special place in my heart and mind. I was immediately sucked in by its imaginative and emotional story, as told by screenwriter Emma Donoghue (based on her novel) and director Lenny Abrahamson. But it’s the powerful performances from Brie Larson and (at the time of filming) seven year-0ld Jacob Tremblay that really had me so absorbed by this outrageous and tense tale of survival. The two manage to deliver simply the best performances of the year out of challenging and complex roles that demanded complete vulnerability and commitment. “Room” was definitely tough to watch, but the rewards are plenty and one can’t help but think of the countless fortunate/unfortunate similar scenarios that have played out in real life, while watching.  (still in theaters)  

 

2.

Steven – MAD MAX: FURY ROAD Blockbuster filmmaking got a much-needed boost this year from George Miller’s epic action opus. A crowd-pleasing film for which you didn’t have to shut off your brain? Sign me up! That Miller manages to keep things moving at a breakneck speed for two hours is but the first of many minor miracles occurring before your eyes as you go along on this ass-kicking ride. That “Fury Road” also manages to subtly weave in the message that women will be just fine in the post-apocalyptic world is but the icing on this delicious cake that plays as great the fifth time you see it as it did the first. Would that all big budget movies had this much firepower, this much chutzpah, and were this much fun.

David – MAD MAX: FURY ROAD  From the moment we hear the ear-splitting roar on Max Rockatansky’s iconic vehicle, followed by the foreboding score by Junkie XL, we know our expectations and anticipation is about melt together into immense satisfaction. At 70 years old, veteran filmmaker George Miller (creator of the three previous “Mad Max” films) has made not only the best action film of 2015, but simply the best in years. Miller has made his best film since “The Road Warrior” with this crazy, intense, breath-taking and exhilarating ride through an impeccably rendered apocalyptic wasteland. Naysayers balked that the story was too simple, that the main character barely had any lines (and when Tom Hardy did, he just mumbled) and was sidelined by Charlize Theron’s Furiosa. I say those are some of the film’s qualities, some of which surprised me and made me want to repeatedly watch “Fury Road” again and again. An action movie that has three generations of strong and courageous women at its forefront? Sign me up, over and over. (now avail. on DVD/Blu-ray, iTunes and Amazon)    

 

 

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1.

Steven – INSIDE OUT Putting “Inside Out” at the top of my list of the best movies of 2015 was, at first, somewhat disappointing to me. I thought surely that another film would swoop in and make me reconsider, but every film I held up to it was ultimately weaker by comparison. A film that can be enjoyed by audience members of all ages, “Inside Out” is both wildly universal and achingly personal. Dealing with emotions is a surefire way to make an audience connect with a film, and much like last year’s brilliant “Boyhood”, manages to keep the stakes just low enough to truly emphasize the characters and conflict more than the plot. Pixar is the king of the animation world because they take bigger risks than everyone else, and they almost never play it safe. Inside Out was a potent and powerful reminder of just how amazing that kind of freedom can be, and just how effectively it can be used to tell an incredible story.

David – INSIDE OUT  “Inside Out” is immensely creative, highly entertaining and funny and connects to all its viewers by presenting us with something we all have in common: our emotions. I told someone today what my number one movie of 2015 was and their response was disheartening. There are still people who see animation as some kind of lower level of art. I’m at a loss as to what this is based on. I suppose they see animation as cartoons, something they started watching as a child, something they shouldn’t like as an adult as much as live-action movies. That’s a sad and unfortunate viewpoint. For whatever reason, they feel they should’ve grown out of cartoons or animation – which is ironic since what the creators of “Inside Out” did is make a movie about the challenges of growing up and the complex and sudden emotions that come with it. “Inside Out” touched me profoundly. It tapped into how alone and confused kids can feel – how they try and put on a brave face for the ones they love, the parents who unintentionally lay out unfair expectations for their child. I thought of myself as a child and also thought of how my 9 year-old daughter must feel. I’m grateful for such a movie and find its message that Sadness is as important as any other emotion. Joy can’t function without it and neither can we.  (now avail. on DVD/Blu-ray, iTunes and Amazon)    

 

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