My Top Ten Movies of 2015
#10 -- Spy
Melissa McCarthy makes me laugh, and laugh a lot more than I feel I should given her subject matter. In this particular movie, I haven't laughed as much nor as consistently at a full-length comedy in a long time. She's not just funny but also endearing in a way that gets me to sympathize with her just enough to make some of the ridiculous plot twists or storylines tolerable. It does not hurt that she has Paul Feig directing her in a Paul Feig script. In the case of Spy, she also has a solid cast supporting her. Miranda Hart is a talented sidekick, no matter her incongruous unexplained British presence deep in a U.S. intelligence agency. Allison Janney is all the funnier for her lack of humor as her superior. Jason Statham has the most fun as another unexplained Brit playing against type as a buffoon who thinks he's a super agent. Jude Law and Rose Byrne stick to the script as her sometimes unintentional foils. Peter Serafinowicz has the most fun as a totally silly or totally psychotic undercover contact who can't decide if he's supposed to helping McCarthy's character or molesting her. I've heard that the language is perceived by some as over-the-top offensive. I didn't notice. Perhaps, I was laughing too hard and too often.
#9 -- Survivor
This one got very little press or time in theaters, and I can't figure out why. It doesn't have a big tent cast, but Milla Jovovich and Pierce Brosnan aren't exactly lightweights. Robert Forster, Dylan McDermott, and James D'Arcy are excellent support. The late Roger Rees is more than fine as an exploited scientist bent on revenge in his final big screen appearance. The movie is an intelligent, inventive, taut thriller with Jovovich being just athletic enough to make the action believable. Brosnan has aged into the perfect, cold-blooded, professional assassin. The ultimate nefarious plan is original and, on the surface, ingenious. It helps that I have always liked Jovovich and Forster is one of truly unsung character actors, but I believe this is a very good movie which sadly was overlooked.
#8 -- Suffragette
The movie takes place before 1913. Women in the United States obtained the right to vote in 1920. Britain gradually allowed all women the vote from 1925 to 1928. It hit me hard that my mother's generation was the first to grow up with the knowledge that they had the right to vote. It is an odd feeling to suddenly realize that I'm not certain whether my grandmother ever voted. I do know that my grandmother's generation had a difficult time economically, socially, and professionally with the depression and two world wars, but the generation before had to deal with being essentially property of their husbands or of their employers. This is history that should be taught in K-12 schools and not just in the sidebar of a history textbook.
On top of the historical significance of the subject matter, the movie was emotionally engaging from Carey Mulligan's struggles with her unsympathic husband played by the always impressive Ben Wishaw to Helena Bonham Carter's tough druggist/martial arts expert Edith Ellyn and even to Brendan Gleason's pragmatic Inspector Arthur Steed who tracks them but can't help acknowledging a grudging respect for the resolve and ingenuity they show.. Natalie Press is particularly impressive as the brave and tragic heroine Emily Wilding Davison who strode out to put the colors on the King's horse.
#7 -- The Water Diviner
Before seeing this movie, I knew very little about Australia's involvement in World War I. I'm not sure I know a whole lot more after seeing it, but I consider it indicative of how far we have come as people that my first reaction to Russell Crowe's sons trying so hard to get into the war was to ask, "Why?" Seeing them end up on a doomed beachhead in Turkey, a place for dying and not for glory is all the more disheartening
As it happens other families have been inquiring about the fate of their sons, but it is only Joshua Connor played by Russell Crowe who travels to Turkey and refuses to leave until he finds the remains of his three sons. He finds out from a Turkish officer, Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan), who fought against Connor's sons that one of his sons may yet be alive. While in Istanbul, he gains the underground aid and the unexpected chance to love again from a hotelier Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko in another wonderful performance from this talented newcomer). Jai Courtney is good as always as the British officer in charge of gathering the gathering and documenting the remains. Ryan Corr is also quite good as Crowe's surviving son.
This movie won a bunch of awards in Australia, but barely played in the U.S. at all.
#6 -- Joy
Joy is not exactly a biopic of Joy Mangano or a movie about a mop. It is more, as the graphic at the opening of the movie reveals: "Inspired by the true stories of daring women." Up front, I am not a big fan of David O. Russell's previous work nor his "balance on the edge of flameout" directing style. However, it is definitely the way this movie is told which is more impressive than the actual events depicted. From the opening on a filming of and Joy's mother's (Virginia Madsen) contstant watching of the fake soap opera, The Joyful Storm (featuring soap opera legends Susan Lucci, Donna Mills, Laura Wright, and Maurice Benard) to the narration by a character who dies halfway through to the denouement of magical snow falling on Joy in Texas, the movie is a tour de force of style and tone which thoroughly informs the film's core and message. That down does not mean out and striving for a dream is a never-ending process. Jennifer Lawrence gives a tentative, but nuanced performance gaining traction along with her character. As in many Russell movies the cast is uniformly top notch, Robert DeNiro, Bradley Cooper, Edgar Ramirez, and Elisabeth Rohm with special mention to Diane Ladd as the grandmother and Isabella Rossellini as DeNiro's new wife. Appropriately, during and looking back, it was a joy to watch.
#5 -- Mad Max: Fury Road
Having seen the ubiquitous trailers with all the pyrotechnics, high-speed camera movement, grisly visuals, and cacophony of noise, I was expecting to be equally repulsed and bored. Although that described small portions of the movie, I was surprised how enthralled I was by the storylines. These were assisted in large measure by the unlikely performances, under the conditions, of Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Riley Keough, Zoe Kravitz, Abbey Lee, and Melissa Jaffer. I don't list Tom Hardy here, although he was fine. As I have always argued Max is little more than a catalyst for the other stories and characters in every Mad Max movie after the first one. Another reason I enjoy the Mad Max movies more than I should is that the female characters who survive in Max's post-apocalyptic future are always more compelling and comparatively stronger than the men: Furiosa and the five wives here, Tina Turner and the girl who does the tell in Thunderdome, Warrior Woman in Road Warrior. When I tell my friends I like the movie because of the story, they look at me like they used to when I said I read Playboy Magazine for the articles.
#4 -- Mr. Holmes
This is Ian McKellen at the top of his game even if the Holmes he portrays appears not to be. It's 1943 London and Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) is 93 years old and retired, but trying to hang onto his sharp memory and deductive skills by writing a book of his own about a previous case which has haunted him for over thirty years. He has just returned from Japan where he collected herbs and mind techniques to help him. He lives in Sussex with a housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker). He continues with his long time hobby of keeping bees. The housekeeper's son takes an interest in both the bees and the troubling case, but mostly in Holmes himself. In the case, Holmes learned that the woman who bought the poison did so for herself and not to kill her husband. Holmes' intellect helps him come to grips with the case and help the boy at the same time. The connection between McKellen and the young actor, Parker is extraordinary. Holmes tells Mrs. Munro that she and Roger can have his house after he passes, instead of taking on another dead end job. Holmes feels a sense of growth in his connections with others and comes to grips with the deaths of those connected with him in his life who have died (Watson, his brother Mycroft, Mrs. Hudson, and Anne, among others). I found it impossible to be objective and unmoved by this portrayal of Mr. Holmes.
#3 -- Bridge of Spies
Again, as with the suffragettes, why don't I know about this guy James Donovan who Tom Hanks plays in this movie? Gary Powers. U2 spy plane shot down by those nogoodnik Russians, A vague reference to Rudolf Abel. Okay, but James Donovan? Not a blip in many, many history classes. I'm embarrassed to say one of my majors in college was history. All the more mystifying to me when I find out what he did later in Cuba after the Bay of Pigs. On top of that, this is a singular concoction of a movie, written by the Coen Brothers, but directed by Steven Spielberg. So, it's highly uneven. It leans toward a Coen Brothers sensibility but without their signature atmospheric and visual tone. Spielberg's slick almost lack of tone lends a feeling of veracity to a tale, like many other Coen projects, which is more inspired than based on a true story. Hanks' competent portrayal is more than matched by that of Mark Rylance whose Rudolf Abel is unassuming but with a quiet resolve, punctuated by his response to why he never showed any unease or concern for his situation, "Would it help?" And in his respect for Donovan with his Stoikey Muzhik story about the standing man. Near the end, he will be Donovan's Stoikey Muzhik on the bridge as they wait for Pryor, the American student, to be released at a different checkpoint.
#2 -- Forsaken
Anyone looking to explore the western movie genre should NOT start with this one. Erroneously described by many critics as a throwback to the traditional western, it is actually more of a deft combining of a traditional western framework with enough revisionist western sensibility to make it something special, something westerns could have been since Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. By itself that wouldn't necessarily be enough, but throw in a tight little script by Brad Mirman, some solid direction from veteran TV helmer Jon Cassar, and the father-son duo of Donald and Kiefer Sutherland and you have the makings of one of the best westerns in the past few decades. If you don't believe an actor with the chops of the elder Sutherland can make that much of a difference to a movie watch his first scene closely. A lonely old man in black, a small town western preacher, looks out from his porch at an approaching horse and rider. In a span of seconds, Sutherland's face goes from recognition and elation at the return of his son to the acknowledgement of the pain which has passed between them, melting into sadness at the impending prospect, and finally into a resolve to meet his son with steely indifference. The movie is filled with just such moments each as quiet or as loud as they need to be. It is a movie filled with western tropes that the moviemakers here massage and reverse from the gentleman gunslinger played with aplomb by Michael Wincott to Demi Moore's former love interest who remains a true friend despite having married someone else to Brian Cox's ruthless, but not aggressively stupid antagonist. This movie got the most out of a simple story well told and that's all it could be without trying to be more than that.
#1 -- The Big Short
I have seen this movie at least four times now, and I still can't figure out exactly how Adam McKay makes this work. First, Adam McKay? Ricky Bobby, The Step Brothers, Anchorman? He is clearly the wrong guy for this impossible job. His short films starring his daughter Pearl were the best things he'd ever done. How do you make a cohesive movie from a book about housing mortgages which is really four or five books about the housing crash? Somehow, he figured out two important things. The first is similar to what Peter Jackson figured out about that monstrous Tolkien saga. Buried in there was a story about the characters, their connections to each other and to their beliefs and desires. McKay creates them from the material in Michael Lewis's episodic, well-researched book. Mark Baum, Steve Carell's character is an unlikeable guy. He goes to unlikeable guy therapy sessions. Dr. Michael Burry, Christian Bale's character cares even less about being a likeable guy. He doesn't even go to therapy, instead pounding the hell out of a drum kit. Brad Pitt's Ben Rickert removes himself totally Wall Street and plays the market like it was fantasy football while he waits for seeds to become the currency of the future. Ryan Gosling's Jared Vennett is the most likeable, but perhaps the least commendable because he bets against his own bank.
The second thing I think McKay does is direct the film like a medical thriller where curing the patient in constantly in doubt. He makes the housing bubble into a mutating disease which evolves, infects, and distorts everything it touches until it becomes unsustainable and kills or severely damages many of its host organisms. The heroes are the few who hunt the monster down. They track it. They try to find its Achilles' heel. They set traps for it. They try futilely to get the infected to take the cure. And in the end, they salvage what they can from the remains.
For me, the movie is encapsulated in three key sections of dialogue. Mark asks his employees: "I don't get it. Why are they confessing?" "They're not confessing." his underlings tell him. "They're bragging."
Ben Rickert stops his protégés from dancing around in celebration: "If we're right, people lose homes! People lose jobs! People lose retirement savings, people lose pensions! Just don't effing dance."
And Mr. Chau (played impeccably in a small role by Byron Mann) explains how successful he has been selling the synthetic CDOs but admits he takes no responsibility for their risk or their failure: " You think I'm a parasite, don't you, Mr. Baum? But apparently society values me, very much. Let's do this! I'll tell you how much I'm worth; you tell me how much you're worth!"
This was a tough year to come up with enough really good movies to fill out a Top Ten. Among the good movies which I considered but just didn't feel they were Top Ten worthy include:
The Salvation, an interesting revisionist western starring Mads Mikkelson, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Eva Green who is marvelous and one to keep an eye on in the future.
Trumbo, for Cranston's performance and for Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson and John Goodman as Frank King. And, of course, Elle Fanning as Trumbo's eldest daughter.
Ex Machina has a marvelous performance by Alicia Vikander and one of the best appropriately twisted endings to a movie that I've ever seen.