Sunday, March 13, 2016

Sound and Fury: My Favorite Films of 2015

Here we are in March, and I haven't written about my favorite films of the previous year yet (again). It always takes me so long because I want to see most of the Oscar nominees and smaller movies I glean from other year-end lists. And those movies aren't always easy to see in Arizona. Although it's becoming easier thanks to websites of a certain repute, it's still a time-consuming process—and I still haven't seen everything I'd like to (including Beasts of No NationChi-Raq, The Assassin, and Phoenix). That said, I *have* seen all the major Oscar nominees, and as the awards were handed out a couple weeks ago, it got me thinking about how they jibed with my personal preference. Some categories had quite a few choices I agreed with (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress), while some had zero choices I agreed with (Best Supporting Actor). That got me thinking—why not have my own Oscars, rather than just writing about my top-10 or -20 favorite movies? So... here we are. I've got seven major categories, almost the same as the real Oscars (just combining both screenplay categories into one). Oh, and there will be no #FakeOscarsSoWhite controversy here, I promise. Preamble out of the way, here are my favorite performances, scripts, and films of 2015.

Gold = Winner

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Jason Leigh – Anomalisa and The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara – Carol
Rachel McAdams – Aloha and Spotlight
Daisy Ridley – Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Alicia Vikander – Ex Machina

I think the Academy did a pretty good job in this category—I had four of five of the same nominees, if not for the same performances. For example, Vikander was pretty clearly a lead in The Danish Girl, so I swapped that performance for Ex Machina instead. Watching her learn what it meant to be a woman in a male-dominated world was incredible—at first you were fearful for her, then you hoped for her, then you cheered for her. Her performance was CGI-aided, yes, but you can't digitally enhance emotions ... McAdams was deservingly nominated for Spotlight—her interviews with a gay man who was abused as a child give the film much of its emotional grounding—but I also found much to appreciate in her work in Aloha, a teetering Jenga tower of a movie that threatens to collapse at any time due to an egregiously miscast Emma Stone, hammy performances from Bill Murray and Alec Baldwin, and nonsensical plot lines (both sub- and main). But it never quite topples due largely to McAdams's stabilizing presence—she effortlessly transcends the oft-cutesy material. Both performances are unshowy and equal in merit ... I double-dipped again for Leigh, who got a nod from the Academy for The Hateful Eight for a performance that was at times an effort in endurance, similar to Leo's statue-winning turn in The Revenant. That performance was good, but her voice work in Anomalisa was even better. Although it pains me to say it as a Charlie Kaufman devotee, she also transcends the material here—the script is banal and myopic. (The psychological underpinnings of the story are far more interesting than what actually happens, which is rare for a Kaufman film.) But Leigh's voice work is the lone bright spot in the film, sweet and sad and achingly real ... The one performance here that didn't overlap with AMPAS is Ridley's—her Rey was easily the most interesting of the new Star Wars protagonists, and Ridley's tough-yet-vulnerable portrayal kept me riveted far more than watching Harrison Fold scowl his way through space or Kylo Ren throw yet another hissy fit. I can't wait to see how she evolves in the next installments (both as a character and actress) ... That leaves us with Rooney Mara, my pick for the best supporting actress. While it's close to a lead performance, it's not as close as Vikander, and the other lead (Blanchett) is the title character, so I feel comfortable slotting her here. While Blanchett has the Oscar-reel scenes ("I just want my kids back!"), Mara has the more interesting character and the bigger challenge—she not only has to confront her sexuality, but she also has to find her place in the world. Her vulnerability over the first 90 minutes is striking, but watching her come into her own as a woman over the last 30 minutes is one of the acting triumphs of the year. I have no problem with Vikander taking home the Oscar, but I personally would've gone with Mara. (That said, I'm sure she'll have plenty of chances in the future.)

Best Supporting Actor
Benicio Del Toro – Sicario
Walton Goggins – The Hateful Eight
Kurt Russell – The Hateful Eight and Bone Tomahawk
Michael Shannon – 99 Homes and The Night Before
Jeremy Strong – The Big Short

This is the one category where *none* of my picks were the same as AMPAS's. They were all deserving nominees to varying degrees, but I felt there were at least five better supporting actor performances out there. Shannon was probably the closest to a nomination in real life (with both a Globe and SAG nod), and he easily makes the cut here. His corrupt realtor in 99 Homes is equal parts '90s Pacino and Charlie Daniels—the devil went down to central Florida looking for a home to steal. His Satan in a sports jacket, complete with e-cig and Bluetooth, is utterly of-the-times, yet somehow indelible. But his work in The Night Before—I kid you not—put his 2015 over the top. He takes what could've been a bit part—a Dickensian drug dealer—and goes ALL IN, imbuing the role with the kind of sad fanaticism that is his trademark. He's got another Oscar nom (if not a win) in him someday ... I was glad to see AMPAS nominate someone from The Big Short's ensemble cast, but they picked the wrong actor. Christian Bale had the more noticeable performance (in a plot line largely isolated from the others, Bale spent the majority of his screen time by himself in an office), but Jeremy Strong had the much better one, as Vinny; a raging bundle of nerves and indignation, his fury at the regulatory malfeasance much more effective than Steve Carell (who he often shared the screen with) and his Donald Trump wig. A special Supporting Supporting nomination to his chewing gum as well ... I see Russell's and Goggins's characters in The Hateful Eight as being almost the inverse of each other—they represent two generations, two sides of the Civil War, and the dominate the first half and second halves of the film, respectively. Much has been made of Tarantino's revitalization of the careers of '70s-era stars (Travolta, Carradine, etc.), but his work with Russell might be the best. Death Proof's Stuntman Mike is one of the most chilling villains in recent memory, and John Ruth is tailor-made for his rough-edged charms (and Russell has the best ear for Q's dialogue of anyone not named Waltz or Jackson). Goggins's Chris Mannix has one of the more fascinating character arcs of the year—he goes from a loathsome racist to something approaching heroic over the course of three hours. There is much to fault with The Hateful Eight (which I'll get to in a bit), but the acting is uniformly excellent throughout ... But for my money, Benicio Del Toro gave the best supporting performance of the year in Sicario—it wasn't as theatrical as Russell's or as flashy as Shannon's, but it crackled with an intensity unmatched by any male actor in 2015. His Alejandro is a cypher—inscrutable in sunglasses and tactical gear. dangerous but you're not sure how, or to whom. By the time you crack the code, you're watching one of the most harrowing, morally complex scenes of the year, as viscerally disturbing as anything in The Hateful Eight and entirely more earned, a John Creasey–esque masterpiece. His character stuck with me more than almost any other last year, so he takes the hypothetical statue here.

Best Actress
Emily Blunt – Sicario
Brie Larson – Room
Charlotte Rampling – 45 Years
Charlize Theron – Mad Max: Fury Road
Alicia Vikander – The Danish Girl

Two of my nominees also received Oscar noms, while a third won in a different category—overall the Academy did a pretty good job with the female acting categories (the male ones, not so much). Community alum Brie Larson was a deserving winner—she carried the first hour of the film opposite a child actor and a largely unseen antagonist as a woman stretched to and past her breaking point but trying to hold it all together for her son. But just when you think everything will be okay, the real acting fireworks come in the second half of the film when she no longer has a reason to keep sane. I don't think I saw a better acted scene than the TV interview all year. There was just a scene or two that, while genuine, seemed forced (probably more the script's fault than hers). This was one of my toughest categories to pick, and she came up just short in this fake awards game ... I actually lied a a few sentences ago—the final scene of 45 Years is just as remarkable as the interview scene in Room. I was absolutely captivated by Rampling—her performance was vivid, lived in, and 100% free of pretense. If Larson's performance was capital-A "Acting," Rampling's was more like inhabiting; Larson created a character, while Rampling created a person, much like Marion Cotillard last year or Emmanuel Riva two years ago. These types of performances rarely win awards because it's harder to see the technique, the moving strings, the turning gears. Truth be told, it's probably a better pure performance than the one I chose, but just as with the real Oscars, there's more to award-giving than just singling out the "best" in a particular category—you also have to consider meaning, context, the bigger picture, and 45 Years just doesn't register on any of those levels. Not it's fault, nor Rampling's, but it has to be said ... Alicia Vikander's biggest achievement in 2015 wasn't being in seemingly every movie, nor was it her Best Supporting Actress Oscar. No, it was single-handedly dragging the plasticine, Gumby-faced Eddie Redmayne to a second Best Actor nomination. So impressive were her emotive capabilities that the secondhand refraction of them on the vacuous surface that is Redmayne was considered Oscar-worthy by the Academy. It's almost like she got the two Oscar nominations she deserved. Brava! (But seriously, she's great in The Danish Girl, conflicted yet resolute.) ... This fake award really came down to two women: Blunt (probably my favorite actress) and Theron. They're similar characters—strong, fierce women operating in a world ruled by dangerous men and both somewhat defined by their femininity, albeit in different ways. Blunt's ability to handle the trauma of the drug war is repeatedly questioned, while Theron's martial prowess makes her an anomaly among the War Boys. They both go through hell, driven onward by by a searing need (justice for Blunt, survival for Theron). However, their portrayals couldn't be more different—Blunt's Kate Macer is a twitchy, chain-smoking FBI agent equally out of place on a date as in a gun fight. She's competent but in over her head; the cracks that start to show in the first few minutes of the film eventually cause her to break. Not so Imperator Furiosa (easily the best character name of the year). She wavers a few times, but never breaks—she can't, she has too much to lose. She's the beating heart, the unyielding conscience, and the uber-badass hero of the most essential, culturally resonant action movie... maybe ever. She carries her movie as well as Larson, steals the show from her eponymous male costar like Vikander, says as much with a facial expression as Rampling, and giver her character as much depth and moral shading as Blunt. It's for those reasons that Charlize Theron is my pick for fake best actress.

Best Actor
Tom Courtenay – 45 Years
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant
Tom Hanks – Bridge of Spies
Samuel L. Jackson – The Hateful Eight
Michael B. Jordan – Creed

Of ten total male acting nominations, I only have one in common with the real-life Oscar nominees, and of course it's Leo. It's more a testament to the overall weakness of the male lead performances in 2015 than to his work in The Revenant though. It's a gritty, gutty performance, yes, but Leo has never been less brash or charismatic—two of his greatest attributes. I just wish he had won for a more classic Movie Star performance... but it's 2016, not 1936, and the Academy values external transformation more than technical nuance. I'm glad Leo finally has his Oscar, but it's at least ten years too late and for the wrong film ... But Leo having to wait until 2016 to win his first Oscar is a misdemeanor—Hanks not having won in 20+ years nor having been nominated in 15+ years is positively felonious. At the very least, 2002's Catch Me If You Can and 2013's Captain Phillips were Oscar-worthy. Ditto last year's Bridge of Spies, which is the kind of prestige popcorn picture for adults that seemingly only Spielberg can pull off. A slow-burning courtroom drama/spy thriller combo, it's as well made a picture as was produced last year, highlighted by Mark Rylance's Oscar-winning supporting turn and Janusz Kamiński's stellar cinematography. Somewhat unnoticed was Hank's performance, a star turn of effortless gravitas and considerable charm. Not much different than his work in Catch Me If You Can, really. Interesting to note ... Courtenay's work in 45 Years is another wonderfully subtle performance ignored by the Academy this year. (Michael Fassbender's interpretation of Steve Jobs is about the closest thing to subtle of the nominees this year, and he was working off a freaking Sorkin script.) Much of what I said about Rampling above applies to her costar: expressive, realistic, free of affectation. He gets the showier scenes compared to Rampling, but he crushes them just as she does the quieter ones. I just wish the film were as great as the sum of its parts. It's got novel ambitions but only reaches the level of novella, if that makes sense ... Michael B. Jordan can now count two Oscar snubs to his name: 2013's Fruitvale Station, one of the most devastating films I've seen in years, and last year's Creed. Both performances are earnest and unadorned, yet inundated with an undeniable vitality—in Fruitvale, it's in his eyes, his swagger; in Creed, it's in his jabs, his scowls. The script smartly distances him from his namesake and subverts expectation at every turn—Adonis Creed grows up in a mansion, drives a Mustang, works in an office. He's not the streetwise delinquent a lazier script would have allowed him to be, which allows Jordan to create a character all his own. He's more than up to the task, both in the ring and out, laying the groundwork for a new generation of one of cinema's great franchises. I'm all in for Creed 2: Take Me Higher ... I was as surprised as you to find that Samuel L. Jackson was the last man standing, so to speak, in this category. I suppose it's easier to associate one of our most ubiquitous, unique actors with being shark bait or hopping from blockbuster to blockbuster than with capital-A "Acting." He's one of the biggest box office earners of all time, awards be damned. But he's only been nominated once, in 1994 for, duh, Pulp Fiction. But Jules Winfield and Major Marquis Warren aren't so different—one's a hitman with a conscience, one's a bounty hunter with as much conscience as post–Civil War America will allow him to have. They both have their iconic scenes—the fake Bible verse for Jules, the interracial death fellatio story for Major Marquis. But Jules was a bit player; Major Marquis carries the second half of Tarantino's boldest film yet. Yes, it's stylized (because it's Tarantino), and yes, it's cranked up to eleven (because it's Jackson), but it's also the best lead acting performance I saw all year. Come for the fatal BJ (um, are we not doing phrasing anymore?), stay for the uncanny, unfiltered peek into what life is like for a black man in America, then OR now.

Best Screenplay
Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig – Mistress America
Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley – Inside Out
Rick Famuyiwa – Dope
Adam McKay and Charles Randolph – The Big Short
Taylor Sheridan – Sicario

Mistress America is the only film in this category that doesn't show up elsewhere in my fake Oscars. I considered co-stars Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke in the actress categories, but they fell just short, and Baumbach has always been a stronger writer than director. But he and Gerwig are more than deserving of a nomination here for quirky (thanks to Gerwig), acerbic (thanks to Baumbach) script. It prominently features an undergraduate short fiction writer, and it has the same rhythms and tones as an overwritten intermediate short fiction workshop story. If that sounds like an insult, it isn't—it's charming in its roughness, endearing in its naiveté. It's not nearly as successful as 2013's Frances Ha, but then, few scripts are ... This is the first appearance of Dope (but not the last). There were a few other of my favorite films of the year that I was disappointed didn't get much year-end recognition, but none more so than Dope. It can be a little simplistic at times, and it's tonally inconsistent, but there wasn't a more heartfelt, genuinely enjoyable film released last year. Although it uses a well-trod milieu (smart kid growing up in a tough neighborhood) and has plenty of familiar tropes (drug dealers, super-hot love interest, corrupt power figures), it does so without falling into cliché. But my favorite part of the script are all the contemporary flourishes (GPS, drone footage, bitcoins) that make the classic story feel contemporary. Check out Dope for a better, more thought provoking Straight Outta Compton ... Two Oscar nominees (including one winner) also show up here in The Big Short and Inside Out. I said plenty about both these scripts in my Oscar predictions post, so I'll keep it brief here. The Big Short might not be the best written scripts of the year (in terms of dialogue and structure, although it's fine in those regards), but it's one of the most impressive feats of screenwriting nonetheless, taking a nigh-impenetrable topic like the housing bubble collapse and not only making it accessible, but entertaining as hell to boot. Like most Pixar movies, how a person reacts to a certain scene is like a Turing test to see if they have a soul. You've got the Anton Ego reveal in Ratatouille, the beginning of Up, and the end of Toy Story 3... and, now, (SPOILERS) the death of Bing Bong. *tear* ... But better than those four is our winner, Taylor Sheridan's script for Sicario. Not only is Sheridan responsible for creating two of the best characters of the year (Kate Macer and Alejandro), but he also wrote the most taut, tense script as well. From the opening sequence (shout out to Chandler, AZ, yo!) to the border crossing shootout to the white-knuckled final standoff, the tension doesn't let up, nor do you want it to. While some critics faulted the film for lacking a political agenda, I don't believe in ascribing your own desires onto a film. Take the film for what it is, not what you want it to be. And what Sicario is is the best, most intense action-thriller in years.

Best Director
Adam McKay – The Big Short
George Miller – Mad Max: Fury Road
Denis Villeneuve – Sicario
David Robert Mitchell – It Follows
S. Craig Zahler – Bone Tomahawk

Two Oscar nominees, one guy who was at least one the radar (Villeneuve), and two guys who most members of AMPAS probably haven't even heard of. David Robert... what? S. Craig... who? I'll start with Zahler, whose film is easily the smallest of any on this list—Box Office Mojo doesn't even have a listing for it. It's too bad, because Bone T (what those in the know call it) is one of the most unique films of the year. Part Western, part horror film, part existential drama, it combines disparate parts to form a wholly singular experience. It's bookended by sequences of stunning violence, but the middle two hours are a man vs. nature travelogue not unlike Meek's Cutoff (an alternate title could be Taint's Cutoff—see the film and you'll know what I mean). Terrific performances by Kurt Russell (duh), Richard Jenkins (double duh), and Matthew Fox (Jack Shephard, yo!) make the journey to the end worth the while, and once you're there, hoo boy! Zahler is equally adept at character development and gore—a rare feat. Just check out the film if you haven't heard of it (warning: strong stomach required) ... The other "smaller" film here is It Follows, easily the best and most original horror movie in years. While some deficiencies in the script kept Mitchell from a writing nomination here (why is it always so hard to have characters in horror movies act believably or logically?), his direction more than makes up for it. He cultivates a sense of foreboding and dread from FADE IN, and keeps the audience guessing as much as the characters. Especially impressive is the camerawork—a motif of 360° shots is particularly memorable, as is his reliance on long takes and avoidance of jump scares (although the few there are are very effective). Mitchell is the closest thing I've seen to John Carpenter I've seen in years (right down to the score), and I'm excited to see what he does next ... Like in the screenwriting category, I've extolled the virtues of McKay in other places, but I'll give him a brief shoutout here. His comedies have always had the slightest hint of social commentary (sexism in Anchorman and, yup, financial misdeeds in The Other Guys), so his transition to Oscar fare isn't entirely out of the blue. But just how *good* The Big Short is was a bit unexpected—it's complex, fiery, and a stylistic buffet. While I'd love nothing more than to see him continue in this vein, I also don't want him to abandon his comedic roots (more Will Ferrell collabs, please). Can he do "important" movies and stupid comedies both? ... I remember being intrigued by Prisoners and Enemy, but Sicario is the first Denis Villeneuve film I have seen. Those two films are now on my "must-watch" list—even if they're half as good as Sicario, they'd be well worth watching. Sicario is one of only two films I rated five stars in 2015 (guess what the other is), and it is in many ways a flawless film—there's not a moment wasted, nor an errant camera angle, nor a narrative misstep. Villeneuve is the steady hand weaving together some of the best acting of the year (Blunt and Del Toro), stunning cinematography from the man himself (all hail DEAKINS), and my favorite score of the year (courtesy of Jóhann Jóhannsson). The result is an action-thriller masterwork, in the same vein as Man on Fire and Drive, both among my favorite movies of all time. His next film sounds intriguing, but I can wait—I can just watch Sicario again and again and again ... Finally, we have the man who should have won Best Director, George Miller. When I first heard there was going to be a Mad Max sequel with Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron, I was mildly intrigued. I enjoyed the original movies, but I wouldn't say I was a major fan. Then I saw the teaser, and my expectations went through the roof. The easy comparison here is 300, one of the best teasers of all time with its promise of two hours melodic violence and stylistic virtuosity. Instead, we got about 30 minutes of ultraviolence and a bunch of interminable exposition, cringe-worthy subplots, and Dennis Rodman. But Mad Max: Fury Road delivered what the teaser promised: a two hour opera of gonzo car chases, balletic action choreography, and special effects wizardry, all immaculately shot and scored. The wide shots are painterly, the action scenes are rhapsodic, and Tom Holkenborg's score (much of it diegetic) keeps the tension ratcheted. But the most amazing thing is how *coherent* it all is, how cohesive—not an easy feat to pull off in a film that comes at you faster and more furious than most tentpole action movies. Forgive me for thinking the director of Babe: Pig in the City didn't have this in him, but I've never been happier to be wrong.

Best Picture
The Big Short
Bone Tomahawk
The Hateful Eight
It Follows
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant

The Academy had eight nominees this year, so I decided to follow suit—plus, after these eight, there weren't really any other films I was comfortable slapping with "top-10" status. Of the eight films here, they can be pretty easily clumped into four categories. First, you've got the epic revisionist Westerns (Tomahawk, Revenant, Hateful). Hateful is Tarantino's weakest effort since the second Kill Bill, and both films share similar flaws—a palpable sense of bloat, sluggish pacing, self-indulgent dialogue—but where Kill Bill: Volume 2 was saved by its final confrontation, Hateful's last 10 minutes left a bad taste in my mouth, like Q wrote himself into a corner and figured cheap brutality was the only way out. The violence wasn't as attached to plot and purpose as in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. But still, it's his most technically accomplished film and could have easily taken home a few Oscars in the tech categories if it weren't for Mad Max. When I first started putting this list together, I didn't think it would rank this highly, but I found myself unable to leave it off ... The same goes for The Revenant, another grand-scale exercise in audience endurance. But whereas The Hateful Eight felt claustrophobic at times, The Revenant often felt laborious, with its simple revenge story not always enough to support the colossal vision Iñárritu had for the film. I kept waiting for hints at some greater philosophical theme like the superior Babel and Birdman, but there just... wasn't. But, like with Tarantino's film, there's a lot to recommend—an absolutely exquisite first 30 minutes, lush, rustic cinematography, strong performances (especially Domhnall Gleeson), and a sense of awe that's impossible to ignore. (This is getting looong... lightning round for the rest.) ... Bone Tomahawk isn't quite on the same level as the other two films, neither artistically nor technically, but it was the most unexpected, unforgettable theater-going experience I had last year, so I had to include it here ... Dope and The Big Short are the contemporary comedy-dramas, as smart as they are funny, as vital as they are well made. They might say the most about 2015 as any films on this list ... It Follows and Sicario are the dark, gripping thrillers, with It Follows featuring a metaphorical terror and Sicario's all-too-real one. They both grab you from the opening moments and never let go. They'd be worthy #1s in most years ... If you've managed to read this whole thing (it's almost over, I promise!), then you'd know that Mad Max: Fury Road is the obvious winner here. It works on every level of filmmaking: visual, emotional, cultural, technical. In a year when most franchise blockbusters (the Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, Avengers, Fast and Furious, and James Bond sequels) were full of sound and fury, but ultimately signified nothing, it was the loudest one that was the most resonant—like the Doof Warrior, it struck a chord like few films did this year. It's heartening to know that a movie can be *this* good even under the pressure to compete in the summer marketplace and make gobs and gobs of cash. We need "smaller" movies like Spotlight and Room, but without the blockbusters to keep the studios afloat, they wouldn't exist. So, thanks George Miller for proving that bigger *can* be better, that the loudest voice in the room *isn't* always the dumbest, that you *don't* have to pander to the lowest common denominator to make money. And thank you for making a movie that's both smart *and* damn entertaining. There are too few of those these days. Last year, this list was all about head vs. heart; this year, we got both. Here's to more like it in 2016.

These are just a few of the films I enjoyed in 2015. For a full, ranked list (that I'm still not quite happy with), check out my Letterboxd. Thanks for reading!

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