Joe’s Top 15 of 2015
Good movie years are hard to come by, and while 2015 isn’t going to be one of those years like 1982 where there are a dozen major blockbusters, it is one of the better movie years in recent memory.
In a year where “Star Wars” reigned supreme, the year’s incumbent box office champ was “Jurassic World,” which made a ton of cash but most would concede isn’t destined to be a timeless classic. Superhero movies like “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Ant-Man” were also well received if not raved over.
So if you found yourself underwhelmed by the year’s films, take a look at this list, packed full of great cinema and making me glad the Academy expanded the Best Picture field a few years back.
- Love & Mercy
A harrowing portrait of mental illness and the people who will swoop in to cash in on that illness. John Cusack and Paul Dano play Beach Boy Brian Wilson at different times of his life. Elizabeth Banks plays the woman who loves the elder Wilson, and Paul Giamatti is the glue man who bridges the eras as the doctor taking advantage of him. You’ll come for the music, but you’ll stay for the heartbreaking portrait of genius stifled and, maybe, redeemed.
- 3 ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets
We all love to form knee-jerk opinions about the latest racially charged incident in the news, but we seldom are able to get this far behind the curtain of sensationalism to get to the problem at hand. “3 ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets” gets inside one of those cases that we love to argue vehemently about for a day, then completely forget. This one is the death of a young black teen, who was shot after a middle-aged white man asked him to turn down his music, and the film’s coverage of the event goes beyond journalism or filmmaking and takes us inside of two families whose lives were changed by a chance stop at a gas station. Completely engaging and impossible to quit watching, this is a real-life American tragedy up close.
- Inside Out
Pixar’s return to form takes us inside the growing mind of a preteen stuck in one of the more emotional situations they go through—the family move to a new city. Amy Poehler and Lewis Black bring recognizable voices to the anthropomorphic emotions of Joy and Anger, but it’s Phyllis Smith (of “The Office”) who brings the movie’s heart as Sadness. Stands with the top of the Pixar lineage.
More than a documentary about mountain climbers recounting their glory days, “Meru” drags you up the Shark’s Fin with them. Mountain climbers determined to conquer what they call the biggest challenge for a climber take their cameras up with them as they scale the rock face, telling and showing us their challenges and failures along the way. Brilliant, gorgeous cinematography only underscores that these guys attempted this climb while they were filming. Oh yes, and it’s a taut, gripping survival thriller too, that shows just what mountain climbers go through for their passion.
- Mad Max: Fury Road
Batshit insanity wrapped up inside a barrel of flaming, exploding monkeys, George Miller breaks the mold with “Mad Max: Fury Road,” the film that can be the exception to the rule that sequels made years after a franchise’s heyday are destined to be terrible. Miller takes chances (like, you know, making Max a secondary character in his own movie) on top of some of the craziest stunts you’ll ever see (how often do you see a high-speed chase involving a guy standing on a platform playing an electric guitar with flames shooting out of it?). By giving his movie a surprisingly emotional center, he finds the most unconventional theme in a crazy post-apocalyptic action flick you can probably think of from any movie. “Mad Max” haters are right: It is a feminist movie, and a terrific one at that.
A slow-burn treatise on teen sex, “It Follows” is the movie high school students should be shown in place of those cheesy black-and-white STD films. When Jay (Maika Monroe) has sex, she couldn’t know the consequences — no, not teen pregnancy, but a relentless, unstoppable, monstrous force pursuing her with intentions to kill her. Run, and it finds you. Kill it, and it comes back. The only way to rid yourself of the curse is to sexually pass it to someone else. “It Follows” is terrifying without “jump” scares, instead relying on Hitcockian it’s-right-behind-you panic that works so well.
- The Big Short
A star-studded treatise on the housing bubble and how a few Wall Street insiders conspired to fleece us all …and got away with it. “Short” is Adam McKay’s first foray into drama, and for such a serious movie he does a great job making a comedy. Luminaries like Steve Carell, Christian Bale and Ryan Gosling speak calmly and authoritatively, and somehow not only is it not dull, it’s actually wildly entertaining. Shouldn’t be surprising: Margot Robbie in a bubble bath can say anything, and we’ll all listen.
- The Walk
A breezy, joyous movie recounting the true story of Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who conspired to surreptitiously string a high wire between the World Trade Center towers …a nd walk on it. It’s part heist film, part loving tribute to the Twin Towers, but almost 100% true. A more entertaining companion to the documentary “Man on Wire,” which recounts the same story, and the marvelous children’s book “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers,” “The Walk” features dizzying visuals, and every moment Petit is on the wire is absolutely breathtaking whether you know the outcome of his walk or not.
- The End of the Tour
Journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) scores a big-time interview in novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel). The two talk. Yep, that’s about it, although what they talk about, and the feelings, bitterness, and friendship (?) that comes from it creates a magical movie experience.
- Straight Outta Compton
Is “Straight Outta Compton” skewed to glorify its subjects? Probably. But it’s also a hard look at a seminal band and the cultural impact they had, and a scathing indictment of an early ’90s movement to censor them. It’s a scary thing to consider that within the past 20 years people were arrested for exercising their right to free speech. The music is great and the struggle is real, and while you’ll get no stranger thematic companion films than this and “Love and Mercy,” you might not find a better double bill either.
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The soon-to-be highest-grossing picture of all time finally goes to a deserving film. J.J. Abrams brings the breathless back to “Star Wars,” achieving its most thrilling space battles inside a planetary atmosphere and its warmest emotions through the cold of space. All of the fun George Lucas’ prequels drained from the franchise, Abrams returned and then some with this first part of a much larger, more ambitious story, thrilling lightsaber battles and a terrific new core of heroes, The Force is awake, and stronger than ever.
- The Martian
“Cast Away” in space? Okay, a fair comparison, maybe, but Ridley Scott and Matt Damon upped the ante with this interstellar beauty about an astronaut stranded on Mars, and the crazy plan he and NASA hatch to get him home. A fun underdog story with a lot of heart and plenty of joy to go along with the suspense, “The Martian” is a wry winner.
Bone-dry, but beautiful on many levels, “Carol” is a story of forbidden love between two women (Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara), and the consequences of that love from one of their husbands. With a gorgeous aesthetic, a wholly believable story, and a level of emotion that punches it all home, “Carol” could have been made in the ’50s, but with a subject matter that tethers it to today.
I’m tempted to call “Anomalisa” quirky, but you’ve heard that one before from Charlie Kaufman, and frankly the tag doesn’t exactly fit. This is another category entirely. A heartfelt stop-motion puppet drama about a married writer who is determined to cheat on his wife during a convention trip to Cincinnati. Let that sink in for a moment. It features a rather graphic sex scene that isn’t quite as raucously hilarious as the one in “Team America: World Police,” but makes up for it in awkwardness even a touch of tenderness. “Anomalisa” is a movie you have to experience to really truly get, an exercise in oddity and emotion and a rich, engaging story.
The year’s best film recounts the real-life taking down of the Catholic Church by Boston Globe reporters in the wake of a horrific sex abuse scandal that traced back decades. A true ensemble piece that yields a half-dozen potential Oscar nominations in one film is led by an amazingly understated Mark Ruffalo, whose hunch is as much a character in the movie as the paper is, and Michael Keaton, whose put upon editor of Spotlight, the Globe’s investigative journalism wing, has a worn-down passion for his job that still burns hot when the chips are down. A film that is both small in practice and big in ideal, “Spotlight” makes you feel a personal connection to characters and actors you see only for a scene or two, or perhaps not at all. The film’s centerpiece: A reporter played by Rachel McAdams corners an ex-priest accused of abuse; he casually and freely admits what he did, and can’t even comprehend that he has done something wrong because he “wasn’t gratified by it.” The film’s most powerful moment is a postscript that shows the scope of the abuse and how serial abusers set up and took advantage of a system for their own pleasure on the largest scale imaginable.