Sunday, January 10, 2016

Top 10 of 2015

As an avid movie watcher it is important to reflect on the year. What I've seen. What I liked and disliked. Keeping a running tally of what I'm watching as the year moves on week by week and month by month brings me pleasure. Logging not only what I've seen, but what stood out to me. By the end of the year I generally have a substantial list of standout films that will be narrowed down into a Top 20. This is a process I've done annually since before starting my site in 2008. It is a practice that I intend to continue until the day I die. Not because ranking movies is important, but more so because it allows me a chance to reflect on what called to me over a year. Trends that were noticed. A chance to think about why a particular film spoke to me. What's the value I found in it? These lists are an easy conversation starter along with being a gauge on my taste(s) as an omnivorous movie watcher.

We all have our own rules or qualifications for a year-end list and mine are pretty simple; a film must have had a limited release in New York and Los Angeles for consideration. Yes, this qualification leaves out films ONLY having runs at film festivals or foreign titles that have yet to find U.S. distribution within the calendar year. In 2015 I watched 320 movies, 106 of which are eligible to be included in this list by the qualifications listed above.

Honorable Mentions: ‘71, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, A Hard Day, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, and Sicario

10. Tangerine
On paper this flick is a gimmick. Why? Because it is shot entirely on a Apple iPhone 5S. Watching it however, you realize it is so much more than just a gimmick. First, it is portrait of friendship. A buddy comedy between two girlfriends living within a subculture of transgender sextrade in Los Angeles. That sentence will turn off a few cinema goers, however this film is no different than any other buddy comedy. Well, that’s not entirely true, the acts on display within the film may go past your individual boundaries, yet the human emotions on display are 100% the same. Speaking to the comedy, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez is a riot as the co-lead Sin-Dee; a hooker who finds out that her pimp/boyfriend has been cheating on her while she was in jail. Rodriguez brings an energy to Tangerine that can only be described as raw. She pushes the story along with flare that you just can’t take your eyes off of. Her co-star Mya Taylor playing Alexandra is no slouch either. Taylor plays off Rodriguez’s energy in a way that makes the two friends immediately feel familiar to the audience. You can inference their storied history together and that bond gives the feature a level of authenticity not easily created. Second, Tangerine is a portrait of sexuality. The film is unafraid. It is shocking and sincere. One thing I really liked about the direction of the film is it’s breakneck pace, however director Sean Baker knows when to slow things down and take a beat or two. Walking away those moments are the most meaningful to fleshing out the story. Making the movie into to more than just hooker buddy comedy filmed on Santa Monica Boulevard.

09. Bone Tomahawk
Two genres of movies I adore are Horror and Western, put them together and you have a recipe for my interest. Add Kurt Russell and now we are really talking. Bone Tomahawk is perfect blend of authenticity and myth. On the authentic side, the easiest thing to point out is the dialogue. Writer and director S. Craig Zahler went above and beyond penning a script that sounds right out of the 19th century. Dialogue so good that I had to write down numerous lines. Stuff like, “Quiet, mention horses again and I’ll slap you red!” and “It would be mighty nice if the family of the people he killed could watch him go purple on the rope.” Dialogue isn’t the only thing that feels authentic in Bone Tomahawk, briefly, the film follows four men as they ride to rescue a group of captives from cannibals. Their adventure is patient, wise, and steadfast. As these four men push forward tracking the cannibals back to their dwellings the audience feels their plight. Their journey is treacherous and nerve racking at every step. It helps that Zahler filled his cast with actors like Matthew Fox, Patrick Wilson, and Richard Jenkins who can really chew on the excellent dialogue and round out the characters. Russell and Jenkins in particular are highlights of the movie. Russell brings heroism while Jenkins peppers in wisdom and comic relief. Onto the myth of Bone Tomahawk, the cannibals within the film are handled with the utmost precision. They are absolutely terrifying. Zahler builds the tension very effectively between the fear inducing cannibals and the four men tracking them. There are moments where I started holding my breath and felt like I couldn’t let go. Though the western-horror doesn’t shy away from gore, I appreciate the effort on display. It never takes the gore too far. Bone Tomahawk should be a trend setter. It reminds us there's still plenty to mine from the Western genre in film.

08. The Martian
The first science fiction movie in a really long time to make me think science is cool. That may sound stupid, but so much of the sci-fi we see in movies just seems like all-out make believe, where this movie makes the science fiction feel all so real. As the main character says in the movie, “I’m going to science the shit out of this.” Credit a big part of that to the fact this is a survival story more than a sci-fi movie, this is “Cast Away,” it just so happens to take place on Mars versus on an island. Watching as astronaut Mark Watney “science’s the shit out of this” is endlessly engaging. He figures out how to grow potatoes out of his own shit. Not only that, he figures out how to make it rain in order to grow those potatoes fertilized from his own feces. Needless to say, I was absolutely wrapped up in our castaway on Mars as he uses science to survive. Matt Damon is tremendous as Watney. Damon is someone who feels like your friend. He’s, pardon the pun, down to Earth. He’s a guy you’d want to have a beer and go to a baseball game with. More importantly you care about him and you desperately want him to get home safely. The NASA side of things in The Martian is an effective counterbalance to Watney’s white knuckle struggle for survival on Mars, specifically the emotion carried out in the effort for communication between the two of them. Again, it is nice to see real science versus imaginary being used in a science fiction tale for dramatic weight.

07. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The Force is back and it is in the hands of a character I adore, Rey. Finally we have a female equivalent to Superman on movie screens for boys and girls, men and women alike to enjoy. It’s refreshing that the galaxy far, far away is not only representing equality, but putting equality in the front on full display. Dark were the times following the Prequels but J.J. Abrams and company have restored faith to the galaxy with The Force Awakens. He had a thankless job and did a mighty good one. Ultimately, the film is safe, which felt like a necessity after the last three Star Wars movies. At its best, the sci-fi action adventure does an able job teetering between familiar and brand new. It is a rebooted 2.0 version of the original Star Wars trilogy while also introducing new characters that have the ability to carry the franchise into the future. Abrams has time and time again shown his skill set is high with fostering characters for others to develop and The Force Awakens is just further proof. One more bit of credit I’d like to give Abrams is the cast. Everybody is spot on and I really can’t wait to see these new stars continue to shine in these enticing roles. The Force Awakens is an impressive embodiment of what blockbuster franchises have become. We don’t like that movies bleed into the next movie, even with franchise sequels we’d like the movies stand on their own, yet they don’t. Movies have morphed into simultaneously advertising for the next feature along with being its own movie and here I believe we have an impressive balance of a feature that stands on its own while also advertising for much more. Kudos to Disney for bringing a beloved franchise back into the good graces of the masses.

06. It Follows
My entry point into horror movies was the slasher era. Michael, Jason, Leatherface, Pinhead, and Freddy haunted and stimulated my youth, so I have a soft spot for slashers. Something I’ve been hoping to see revitalized in horror as of late is the slasher subgenre and thankfully writer and director David Robert Mitchell has done so with It Follows. The horror film is a near masterpiece. Mitchell sets STDs as the unstoppable killer. It is ingenious actually, a sexually transmitted disease has no bias or preference. It does not have a grudge, it is not seeking revenge, it merely wants to spread and spread and spread. David Robert Mitchell uses that idea to create an escalator of terror that elegantly creeps towards an outcome that is just as frightening as contracting a STD yourself. Bravo!

05. Creed
I grew up on Rocky. Before ever watching a real boxing match in my teens, I’d seen four Rocky movies as a kid. He’s an icon to me so when I heard they were conceiving a generational story from the world of Rocky Balboa I grew very intrigued. To be painfully honest, I never expected this feature to be very good. It is not only good, it is excellent. Creed stands toe-to-toe alongside the original 1976 “Rocky.” What is so poignant about Creed is that it fully respects there is no Creed without Rocky coming first. It comes from a perspective that not only appreciates, but admires how the generation before modeled for the next generations. Moreover Creed earns high praise for reusing the same formula Rocky did in 1976 while still feeling upgraded for a new generation. You know the material coming at you yet, writer/director Ryan Coogler handedly shows his ability to draw out the right emotions at all the right moments. One wonderful example of the upgrade is a single-take boxing match that tracks Creed into and through the fight. It is a brilliant piece of cinema that I can see influencing future filmmakers watching. Sylvester Stallone deserves a supporting nomination for his return performance as Rocky Balboa. Stallone reminds us he’s always been an actor over an action star. If Michael B. Jordan wasn’t already on your radar, he will be after seeing this movie. Jordan is beyond reproach as Adonis Creed the son of Apollo Creed. Lastly, I like to give credit to the filmmaker’s ability to simultaneously market a sequel to Creed while establishing the future in the Rocky franchise.

04. Cop Car
Biggest surprise of 2015 for me was Cop Car. A film that came out of nowhere, a flick I watched on a whim knowing nothing about it. It is a small story with huge stakes following two kids that find an abandoned cop car and decide to go for a joyride. It is a movie that I want kids and teens to see, mostly because it deals with real complexities they need to think about. Material that under the wrong eye could have quickly turned into an eye-rolling Lifetime special. Most kids wouldn’t come across these situations in real life, however that doesn’t change the fact they should still wrestle with them on their own. Cop Car see-saws between characters who are spontaneous and desperate. There’s an interesting relationship explored under the constraints of this tale and director Jon Watts keeps the audience riding a pulse of tension straight through to the credits. Actors Hays Wellford and newcomer James Freedson-Jackson bring the right energy to roles of the naive kids taking a joyride in a Sheriff’s cruiser. Their dialogue and interactions come across natural and make the film easily connectable to audiences of all ages. Kevin Bacon reminded me what a great character actor he can be. He brings an authenticity to the suspense thriller that makes the tightrope act between spontaneity and desperation unforgettable.

03. The Hateful Eight
Like the other seven, Quentin Tarantino’s eighth feature is another exceptional film to get excited about. Watching it made me think someone dared him to make a three-hour movie in vein of the bar sequence in “Inglourious Basterds,” to which Tarantino one upped them saying he’ll add the long-running joke; a White man, a Black man, and a Mexican walk into a bar. Most notable in is the tension that is created solely through dialogue. Tarantino shows off once again he is a master wordsmith. Second but not any less important to Tarantino’s sensational dialogue, is the collection of characters at play within the mystery, and we probably shouldn’t forget the actors bringing them to life. Tarantino’s dialogue isn’t easy to deliver either and the cast does more than execute. Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, and Walton Goggins specifically do tremendous jobs rounding out a few of the nefarious characters. Demián Bichir is also a standout as Bob. Most of all I'd like to highlight Jennifer Jason Leigh playing the firecracker Daisy Domergue. Leigh is the pulse of Tarantino's story and she sure has a grand time beating along while the men spin their wheels round and round. Having seen the 70mm Roadshow presentation of the feature I think it’s important to point out how special it was to have an overture and intermission watching the film. It made the experience feel all the more grand. Going to the movies should be an experience and it’s special to see a director working so hard to ensure his audiences get that.

02. Mad Max: Fury Road
Still hard to believe after all these years we have a brand new Mad Max adventure, but it’s here and is it ever glorious. Mastermind George Miller returns after thirty years to his post apocalypse universe in colossal fashion. Miller has made his best installment in the franchise to date. What makes the film stand above the rest is a combination of factors, but sitting at the top like a cherry on a sundae is the woman named Furiosa, the female counterpart to Max. Furiosa is another stellar example in 2015 of real equality reaching movies. Fury Road is a healthy dose of action that we haven’t seen much of recently. It is unrelenting and full throttle for nearly the entire run of the film with a pace that hardly allows for you to catch your breath. The practical effects blended with CGI in this action adventure are remarkable. Great to see directors like George Miller, Ridley Scott, and J.J. Abrams making use of more practical effects versus more CGI. The amount of cars constructed in Fury Road is historic, what those vehicles together create on screen is unprecedented and phenomenal. Charlize Theron is the embodiment of a hero as Furiosa. Miller deserves heaps of acclaim for his ability to balance not one but two heroes without the use of much of any dialogue, instead their heroism is all done through cooperation. Tom Hardy aptly fills out the role made famous by Mel Gibson. Like a few other features within my Top 10 list, there’s a generational link that’s respectful of what came before it. Miller in Fury Road has created a hybrid of two of his previous Mad Max installments. He’s morphed “The Road Warrior” and “Beyond Thunderdome” into one perfect piece of cinema.

01. The Revenant
Where to start with Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s latest feature? I adore this western thriller on a number of levels. First of which is time period, as a New West Historian and fanatic, I was ecstatic about the prospect of this tale based on true events. Tales of what pushed and pulled American immigrants out West captivate me, and The Revenant set during the 1820s fur trade in the middle of the American wilderness would be right up my alley. Coinciding with time period is authenticity, writer/director Iñárritu worked extremely hard to ensure genuineness throughout the feature. One example is filming only with natural light, leaving the crew to have days where they were only able to film for maybe forty-five minutes to an hour. While that may sound like a tedious process, the result is stunning cinematography that has the audience nearly feeling the elements like the actors experienced. I’ve read a few dismissive pieces over the lengths the production went to maintain accuracy while filming, calling the film and actors “silly” for their approach but I wholeheartedly disagree, actors are constantly searching for authenticity in their performances. Actors ritually do character studies. They want to become the roles they take on. Now we are going to put them down for the lengths they are willing to undertake for a role? That makes no sense to me. You may scoff and say that Leonardo DiCaprio is chasing another Academy Award but remind yourself how long he’s been at this profession. One can easily infer that DiCaprio wants to challenge himself. Humans challenge themselves regularly, that’s as natural as it comes. If DiCaprio wasn’t challenging himself as an actor, that’s when we should start dismissing his craft. It only seems natural to talk about performances next. If you hadn’t guessed, Leonardo DiCaprio is outstanding. He gives the performance of his adult life. The man certainly puts every ounce of himself into the performance and I for one appreciate the work he did. Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter also deliver noteworthy portrayals. Tom Hardy does an able job playing despicable, there’s not a moment in the progression of the story where he waivers from only looking out for himself. That brings me to my next level of admiration, morality. The Revenant excels at morality so well it feels like a fable. The film’s marketing plays up revenge themes, however the lesson taught over the course of the survival story is a testament to redemption over carrying out an act of revenge. The film parades the importance of the human spirit and shadows the unimaginable grief in betrayal. For as grim and fierce as the thriller feels it is refreshing to realize it is actually a poignant and positive lesson. Beautiful.

That's it, the 10 flicks that in the calendar year of 2015 made the biggest impact on me as a movie watcher. What stood out to you in 2015? Strike back in the comments.