Ten Best Films of 2015 by Dan Cava

By Dan Cava

December 31, 2015

This year’s list is numbered, but I wouldn’t take that too seriously. In general, my esteem for the movies crescendos as the list progresses; but I think all these movies are fantastic. Picking ten movies is hard enough, so I don’t agonize too much over whether I like movie #9 slightly more or less than movie #8. But as always, the last movie listed is always my favorite.

Honorable Mention: Straight Outta Compton (R) – As a general movie Straight Outta Compton is a nicely made film with a killer first half and an interesting but not compelling finish. As a hip-hop epic, a dramatized chronicle of a vital chapter of American music and culture, it’s a total triumph.

Honorable Mention: Paddington (PG) – The charming, clever, heartwarming, and beautifully shot Paddington is, I think, the year’s biggest mainstream secret. It’s not just a great kids movie. It’s a great movie, kids.

Honorable Mention: Steve Jobs (R) – I’ve always been a lover of drama, of big words, and of big ideas. Aaron Sorkin’s ambitiously structured script for Steve Jobs pushes hard on all fronts. When it’s good, it’s better than most movies; and when it’s great, which is most of the time, it’s nirvana.

Very Honorable Mention: The Big Short (R) – Adam McKay’s brilliantly caustic adaptation of Michael Lewis’ nonfiction instant classic really belongs on the top ten list, but as this agitated retelling of the 2008 financial crisis is the slightly lesser of the two outstanding journalistic movies this year, sacrifices had to be made. But it’s great.

Very Honorable Mention: A Most Violent Year (R) – Same idea here. This one came out in 2014 but had a late Charlotte release in 2015. But since I used that cheat again below, this is how I’m getting around it. A Most Violent Year is an inverted gangster movie, with two implosive performances from Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. I’d explain more, but let’s get to the list.

Special “divide by zero” listing: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (PG-13) – I have no objective idea if Episode 7 is a good movie. All I know, and all I’ll ever know, is that it is a good Star Wars movie. At this point, it doesn’t really matter that JJ Abrams’ addition to the world’s most inescapable franchise can’t be separated from the nostalgia, the anticipation, the packed theater, the pre-approval that came from it not being directed by George Lucas. What matters is that on December 18th, 2015, the saga that started thirty-eight years ago continued as we all hoped it would.

10.) The Martian (PG-13) – I’m an avid reader, but The Martian is the rare instance where I’m glad I saw the movie first. Everyone I know who read the book complained that “they left so much out,” but in my self-inflicted ignorance, I noticed no such loss. Director Ridley Scott’s adaptation of the Andrew Weir’s grassroots nerd classic never sacrifices its crowd-pleasing elements on the altar of accuracy, nor its scientific sophistication on the altar of mass appeal. Scott’s vast visuals, Drew Goddard’s agile script, and Matt Damon’s infinite approachability make The Martian the big-idea blockbuster of the year.

9.) The End of the Tour (R) – We need movies like The End of the Tour because they are the antidote to the epidemic of mindlessly eventful “event” movies that are being thrown at us this and every other year. Smart but approachable, probing but private, remarkable for finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, The End of the Tour in many ways mirrors its subject, the late author David Foster Wallace, played by Jason Segel in a revelatory dramatic turn. Jesse Eisenberg’s trademark jitteriness is put to perfect use as Rolling Stones reporter David Lipsky, who joins Wallace on a book tour for Infinite Jest, Wallace’s critically-adored post-modern novel. And that’s kind of it. Because Wallace and Lipsky are such fully realized characters, the simple story gives us the uncommon privilege of simply hanging out with two fascinating guys. This is a movie about people talking to each other and about people trying to talk to each other. It’s about how normalcy can be just as hard as genius. It’s about flaws and friendship. It’s an uncomplicated movie about complicated people. During The End of the Tour you can hear yourself think, which reminds you that it’s okay to think during movies, which reminds you that we need more movies like The End of the Tour.

8.) Ex Machina (R) – After Jonathan Glazer gave us last year’s brilliant Under the Skin, I thought we had all of the hard sci-fi auteur-driven identity-based proto-feminist parables that we would have for a while. But we got lucky. Writer/director Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is a scintillatingly streamlined piece of sophistication and seduction. Like all grown-up science fiction, it takes a relatively small slice of speculation, a well-crafted “what if a tech billionaire asks a sensitive man to test a feminine robot for artificial intelligence?”, and uses that surmise as a lens through which to investigate larger issues: the nature of existence, the possibility of free will, the mysteries and ramifications of gender, the ethics of creation, and the bonds between attraction and control. Like all great grown-up science fiction, Ex Machina does all of the above while pinning you to your seat with vacuum-sealed suspense, surgical direction, and shocking inevitability.

7.) Bridge of Spies (PG-13) – Bridge of Spies is wonderful because it is wonderfully old fashioned. It’s not an intense movie, but rather, a drama about people engaged in tense situations. The movie is not so much gripping as, perhaps, coaxing and relentlessly so. Steven Spielberg has given us some of the finest pieces of overwhelming entertainment in movie history; but here as in his Lincoln, he is content to the methodically lay out this Cold War story one piece at a time, from start to finish, and that’s it. Tom Hanks plays our hero (and there’s no postmodern doubt about it, he’s our hero) with the settled gravitas of a Hollywood leading man, and his co-star Mark Rylance gives a master class in meaningful minimalism. Spielberg’s camera is perfectly placed as always, and only seems to move when it has to. The script, written by British playwright Matt Charman and polished by cinema savants Joel and Ethan Coen, is fascinatingly un-showy with dialogue that is rhythmic and direct. Bridge of Spies hits every old-school goal it aims for, and is as solid a piece of vintage Hollywood moviemaking as we’re likely to see anytime soon.

6.) Inherent Vice (R) – I might be cheating a little here because Paul Thomas Anderson’s loopy stoner noir was released in 2014 but didn’t show up in Charlotte until January 9th, 2015. But a little rule breaking seems appropriate to discussing Inherent Vice, a Thomas Pynchon adaptation that completely honors the calm/crazy spirit of the source material by cooly presenting the most convoluted plot of the year in a warm haze of San Francisco sun and pot smoking smiles. Joaquin Phoenix gives yet another masterful, underappreciated performance as a low-level PI taking it easy and burning a few until his next case shows up. (Here comes a run-on sentence.) What starts off as a classic “girl walks into a detective’s office” setup sprouts into a tangled tale that might involve shady land developers, insane asylums, the Black Guerilla Family, the Aryan Brotherhood, the LAPD, a heroin operation, a blackmail ring, a dental scam, an Asian “massage parlor”, a shipping company called the Golden Fang, and maybe a few other things and maybe not and wow, is that that guy who played Omar in The Wire and cool, I didn’t know Reese Witherspoon and Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin were this movie. Inherent Vice’s story is so bewildering and the pacing so leisurely that, just like that run-on sentence, the movies forces you to either go nuts trying to make sense of it all or to just lay back and enjoy how nice things are if you’ll just relax. And just like my parenthetical warning beforehand, P.T. Anderson’s locked-down, levelheaded style (complete with a explanatory voiceover from a character who only probably exists) tells you everything and explains nothing. Inherent Vice is the only movie like Inherent Vice.

5.) Wild Tales (R) – Wild Tales is a total blast of storytelling joy. A feature-length anthology of thematically related short films, it delivers exactly what the title describes. Argentinian writer/director Damián Szifron has constructed five immaculate pieces of darkly funny poignancy (a more literal translation of the original Spanish title would be “Savage Tales”), and has stitched them together in order of increasing awesomeness. Each successive story’s ingenuity and audacity somehow manages to top the one before, until the final film finishes in a flight of pure laugh/cry ecstasy. But the less you know about Wild Tales, the better. Just see this movie. Get over your aversion to subtitles, and see Wild Tales. You’ll thank me, and then you’ll tell all your friends, and they’ll thank you, and you’ll feel smart for recommending a movie no one knows about, and then you’ll thank me again.

4.) The Revenant (R) – The Revenant is a grueling and gorgeous film. Fresh off of his directing Oscar for Birdman, Alejandro Inarritu decided to spend his once in a lifetime “next movie” award cred on a big-budget movie art experiment in mixing the beautiful with the battering. The movie is relentlessly cold, unnervingly physical, and openly spiritual. It’s long and serious and, in case I haven’t mentioned it, cold. All of this hypnotic harshness is presented to us with immersive sound design and absolutely jaw-dropping large-format digital cinematography. Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy gives a pair of incredible and uncompromising performances, mesmerizing as much for their endurance as for their artistry. The Revenant’s single-mindedness is sure to divide audiences, as it is anything but casual. Some will certainly find it punishing. I found it breathtaking.

3.) The Assassin (R) – If the box office numbers are any indication, you probably missed the quietest, richest, most purely cinematic experience of the year. This Taiwanese award-winner is part martial arts movie, part historical drama, and all dreamy poetic delight. Shot on 35mm film in the old-school 4:3 aspect ratio of classic films, The Assassin is a study in imagery and sound, motion and stillness, patience and payoff. Not for the faint of attention span, the deceptively simple story — a female assassin put to the test when she is ordered to killer her former lover — plays out in languorous long shots that drift over gorgeous tableaus of Asian landscape and impeccable production design. The quietness is surprising at first, an affront to the contemporary viewer’s cinematic ADD. But the effect quickly becomes entirely transfixing as the gentle sound design and observational camerawork transport us back to a time thoroughly unsoiled by modern rhythms. This might infuriate or, more likely, sedate Generation Marvel; but for those looking for a cure for the common cacophony, The Assassin is a beautiful and elusive masterpiece.

2.) Spotlight (R) – I’m a big of fan of “long read” articles, because I firmly believe that complex systems require complex understanding. Spotlight isn’t the fast and furious Facebook feed version of the Boston Globe’s reporting on the Catholic Church abuse scandal; it’s patient and prestigious, with a perfect cast steadily weaving together a labyrinthe of journalistic discovery into a tight web of process and detail. It’s not just about the information, it’s about the breadth and width and depth of the information. Spotlight is an extraordinary testament to the messy but lasting value of the Fourth Estate, of professionals who will take a long, hard, dispassionate look at things until they’ve found everything there is to find. As Boston’s urban onion is peeled back and layer upon layer of neglect and cover-up are revealed, we realize that underneath the weight of all those handshakes and court documents and hushed agreements are hundreds of wounded people. I take back what I said earlier — Spotlight isn’t fast but it is furious. And heartbroken. Because it is informed. St. Paul said we should “be angry and sin not.” Spotlight reminds us when our man-made institutions prevent us from following the apostle’s advice, the truth will set us free.

1.) Inside Out (PG) – This list contains many words, but beneath all of the explaining, defending, and praise is a simple question whose becomes increasingly “yes” as the list goes on. Namely, did I love it? Oh, I can defend Pixar’s Inside Out as a perfect movie. It’s an intricate and tender work of extraordinary insight, boundless invention, and perfectly calibrated creative choices. The rainbow of visual splendor that director Pete Docter has created yields one delight and thrill after another. Eleven-year-old Riley’s internal mental landscape is both warmly familiar and dazzlingly new. All of the complex psychological notions that underpin the idea of personifying our five basic emotions are masterfully realized and clarified by a thousand interlocking ideas, ideas whose connections are so seamless they seem to have been discovered rather than imagined. There are the perfect number and variety of characters. Everything makes sense. Every joke lands. Every tear sheds. But the real truth is that I fell for this movie, from first swell of Michael Giacchino’s delicate score to the parting sight gag of cats having cats for emotions. Inside Out is at the top of this list because I’m me and I couldn’t help it. I saw it and I loved it. I went and saw it again with my family, and I loved it. I saw a whole bunch of other movies, and I saw/heard it dozens of times as my kids watched it, and I loved it. I still do. Inside Out is my favorite movie of 2015.

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