In a world of superheros and sequels, sometimes it is hard to find greatness at the movies (especially when television is so good these days). Also, it was hard to match the stellar quality of films in 2014, in my opinion, but there were still a lot of good films to see in 2015.
Here are my favorite films of the year:
Far from the Madding Crowd – That Nice Carey Mulligan received more press (good and bad) for the uneven Suffragette, but it was this adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s romantic novel that stuck in my craw after it came and went unnoticed in the spring. A humble young woman inherits a successful farm, and suddenly finds herself with three suitors: a wealthy bachelor, a cocky soldier, and a strong, quiet shepherd. Who will she choose? She straightens her shoulders proclaims she doesn’t need a man! (But, oh, try to deny the chemistry between Carey and the hunky shepherd played by Matthias Schoenaerts.)
Amy – I was not a fan of Amy Winehouse when she passed away from drugs and alcohol, joining rock n’ roll’s infamous 27 Club. But this film… wow. Home footage of teenage Amy morphs and melds into her more destructive years, illustrated all the while by the lyrics of her songs, unfurling in script on screen as on the soundtrack. The juxtaposition of the stories in her songs with the unfolding images actually made me gasp with it’s inventive, and despairingly personal storytelling.
LAVA – Critics loved Pixar’s Inside Out, but honestly, I never recovered from its charming opening short film LAVA. Yes, it is a short animated film about a lonely volcano who sings about just wanting someone to lav(a), but no other movie made me laugh, clutch my heart in delight, and make my eyes kind of shiny… all in 5 minutes.
Carol – Maybe it didn’t quite reach the full-pie gloriousness of Far From Heaven, but Todd Haynes’ return to 1950s repressed love was pretty darn close. An older woman seduces a lonely, curious shopgirl in a film that looks like an Edward Hopper painting. The seduction takes its time, but in doing so, you can practcially feel the heat from Cate Blanchett’s hand as she suggestively lets it linger on Rooney Mara’s shoulder.
Spotlight – Dismissing Spotlight as old-school filmmaking is ridiculous. Like the investigative journalists it portrays, the film rolls up its sleeves and does its job. The topic of the investigation is so horrible (Boston’s Catholic diocese covering up the abusive priest scandal), it makes it all the more shocking and heartbreaking to see the veneer of the impartial journalists crack at what they find.
Phoenix – I’d love to have you see this movie completely cold, like I did. Let’s just say it is a post-World War II mystery involving a woman returning to find a husband that doesn’t recognize her, but still finds her familiar enough to have her pass as his wife for his own gain. Hitchcock would have been impressed.
Plus four more I really liked:
The Overnight – A new-in-town couple with a kid are invited over for a pizza night and play date with an overly friendly couple they meet at the playground. It quickly becomes clear that Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godrèche aren’t just friendly, but they are FRIENDLY toward clueless Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling. Cackling ensues.
San Andreas – Don’t judge me. This is the disaster movie I’ve been waiting for since The Day After Tomorrow. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s huge biceps are actually oiled up when he flies a tiny Cessna to save the world. The movie was everything it was supposed to be.
Clouds of Sils Maria – Juliette Binoche plays an aging (at least in Hollywood terms) actress who has been asked to revisit a script that made her famous as a young woman, except now she will play the older character to a new starlet. Kristen Stewart, as her personal assistant, runs the lines with her, but things start to blur when the script mirrors their own complex relationship. This talk-fest totally passes the Bechdel test, with stellar acting from Binoche and Stewart.
Room – A horrifying, ripped from the headlines story is made small and almost comprehensible. A tiny room. A boy who has known no other world. And his young mother (who has been held captive), who is his fierce protector. The desperate young mother hatches a dangerous escape plan that depends on the bravery of a 5-year-old that has never seen the sky. The gut-wrenching, fantastically grounded perfomances of Brie Larson and young Jacob Tremblay make this terrible premise bearable.
Best trailer, and best reaction to a trailer
Admit it… You kind of cried a little bit when the Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer came out in the spring. Maybe you burst into tears when Han Solo and Chewbacca showed up at the end… “Chewie… We’re home.” (Sob!) Maybe you acted exactly like Matthew McConaughey in this hilarious spoof. Maybe I did.
Despite a well-intentioned and important true story (lesbian partners fight for survival benefits when one is dying of cancer), Freeheld‘s Julianne Moore looked like the friendly neighbor lady that came by to pick up Ellen Page after school. No wonder Michael Shannon just thought they were oddly-matched roommates.
In the American remake of Secret In Their Eyes (a film that apparently only I liked out of all the critics in the world), acting powerhouses Nicole Kidman, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Julia Roberts had me convinced within minutes that they were long time colleagues, who had an easy professional and personal shorthand that can only be achieved by spending hours and hours with your co-workers.
MVPs… aka, These people have the best agents in the world
Domhnall Gleeson, who starred in The Revenant, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Brooklyn, and Ex Machina
Speaking of my new cinematic crushes…
Alicia Vikander, where did you come from? Especially because you were sooooo good in everything (except, well, the stinky The Man from U.N.C.L.E., but that was the movie’s fault). She reminds me of when we first saw Marion Cotillard, in that we knew instantly that she will be around for awhile, and I’m sure will have an award in her hands very soon.
My other new cinematic crush is Scott Eastwood, who played a bull rider… a BULL RIDER (I clutch my chest) in The Longest Ride. Why? Because I’m completely, utterly and totally shallow. Can he act? Shhhhh… don’t speak… shhhh… Just look pretty like you are, Scott.
Best Moviepie cameo
The freeway on-ramp behind Moviepie Tim‘s condo appears in the opening scenes of Fifty Shades of Grey. Of course, the scene has Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) inexplicably driving south on I-5 to get from Portland to Seattle. But then that’s the kind of movie it is.
Breast performance, and most hilarious lip-sync
Three very different looking films left me agog with their gorgeous visual style. Todd Haynes’ 1950s period love story Carol (Edward Lachman, cinematographer) was warm, retro, and shadowy; the artificial intelligence sci-fi film Ex Machina (Rob Hardy, cinematographer) was stark and ordered; and the brutal wilderness survival tale The Revenant (Emmanuel Lubezki, cinematographer) framed the snowy wilderness as a beautiful, deadly foe.
Speaking of The Revenant… THE BEAR ATTACK!!! OMG!!!!
If you ever wondered what Werner Herzog didn’t share with us at the end of the documentary Grizzly Man (that is, two people being mauled to death by a grizzly), well, Alejandro González Iñárritu must have shrugged, smiled, and said, “Hey! Why not go there?” If you want to see Leonardo DiCaprio shredded, absolutely shredded by a pissed mama bear, who then proceeds to bite his skull like a crisp apple, well, this is the scene for you!
Most fun to be had at the movies
SIFF’s archival film presentation titled “Saved From the Flames – A Trip to the Moon and Other Trips Through Space and Time”, was a wildly entertaining presentation by film archivist Serge Bromberg. He showed rare, restored silent films including one that was made days before the 1906 San Franciso earthquake, and a wonderful copy of George Melies’ A Trip to the Moon, and proceeded to make some nitrate film stock burst into flame right in front of us in the theater (as the audience gasped in delight and surprise).
Finally, anyone know where I can get one of these for the hood of my car?