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Friday, January 15, 2016

Joshua Handler's Best Films of 2015

The Best Films of 2015
By Joshua Handler

2015 has been a superb year for film, and to pick 10 films that were "the best" is a joke since it's nearly impossible to compare such different films as Inside Out and Spotlight, even though both were great pieces of cinema.

That's all I'm saying about this year because I'll speak more about the films that made this year the memorable one that it was. The following were selected from over 200 films.

1. INSIDE OUT (Dir. Pete Docter) - Each year, there are always one or two movies that stand out enough to land the number one spot on my "best of the year" list, though the number one film usually is not that much greater than the one or two films that follow it. This year, however, Inside Out is so far above everything else that from the second I saw it first in June, I knew that if anything were to overtake it for my number one spot of the year, it would have to be on a level of greatness not seen yet in cinema.

This sounds like hyperbolic praise, but those who have seen Inside Out know that it is almost an understatement. Peter Docter crafted a courageous masterpiece of cinema about accepting your emotions, particularly sadness. Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith give particularly impressive performances that color their respective emotion characters with nuance. You're doing yourself a disservice by not seeing this one. It made me think about my own adolescence and emotions in a whole new way. 

2. SON OF SAUL (Dir. László Nemes) 
Horrifying, claustrophobic, immersive, and humane, László Nemes' Cannes Grand Prix-winning debut feature, Son of Saul is another 2015 masterpiece. An essential piece of cinema for every human being, this is inventive filmmaking that takes a clinical approach to highly emotional subject matter to create a film so realistic and hellish that you'll never look at the Holocaust in the same way again. Everyone knows that the Holocaust was one of the greatest tragedies in human history, but most people don't see it through a first-person perspective in Auschwitz. As a guide through hell, Géza Röhrig is emotionally distant, yet thoroughly compelling. The entire film rests on his shoulders, and he pulls his weight magnificently. Major commendations also must go to Tamás Zányi's sound design and Mátyás Erdély's cinematography. 

3. THE BIG SHORT (Dir. Adam McKay) 
Adam McKay ingeniously boils the housing market crash down into something digestible, yet ruthlessly intelligent through the story of a group of men who saw the crash coming and bet against the economy. Steve Carrell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt's idiosyncratic performances are entertaining and humane, with Carrell's standing out as a human time bomb. The Big Short is funny, until it becomes terrifying. Only a director with McKay's irreverent sense of humor would have been able to pull off a film like this with this much nuance, humor, and grace. And Hank Corwin's unconventional editing deserves an Oscar. 

4. BROOKLYN (Dir. John Crowley) 
This year's biggest heartmelter, Brooklyn is a moving piece about leaving home and finding a new one that I found unexpectedly relatable. Saoirse Ronan's soulful performance is the perfect match to Emory Cohen's energetic, charming performance - their electrifying chemistry elevates the film and makes their romance the year's most involving. Nick Hornby's screenplay is one of the most satisfying of the year (the ending gives me chills and makes me tear up every time I see it). With 2014's Wild and now Brooklyn, he created two of the most surprising, affecting endings in recent memory.

5. ROOM (Dir. Lenny Abrahamson) 
Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay create a bond between a mother and son so realistic that it feels as if it goes beyond acting. They smashed my heart with a sledgehammer with their warmth, honesty, and raw emotion. Combine that with Lenny Abrahamson's nuanced direction, Danny Cohen's versatile cinematography, and Emma Donoghue's screenplay (adapted from her own novel), and you have an unforgettable filmgoing experience that will make the world that you live in and take for granted seem a bit more extraordinary. 

6. THE MARTIAN (Dir. Ridley Scott) 
The Martian exemplifies the best of big-budget filmmaking. It's smart, well-written (Drew Goddard's screenplay is astoundingly detailed and engaging), well-acted (Matt Damon leads the film with charm and charisma), well-edited, and entertaining. Ridley Scott showed that he still has the ability to make us ride the edge of our seat with excitement and make dents in our armrests from gripping them tightly. 

7. MISTRESS AMERICA (Dir. Noah Baumbach) 
Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig revive the screwball comedy in Mistress America, an energetic, insightful film about a college freshman in New York City who learns to be her own person through her enterprising, yet scattered soon-to-be stepsister. Lola Kirke and Greta Gerwig are a winning team, and Baumbach's direction has never been clearer or funnier. The climactic set piece shows impressive vision from Baumbach, as it's complex, well-staged, and is perfectly timed comedically. The final voiceover is also immensely satisfying. There are few films this year that consistently filled me with as much joy as Mistress America.

8. MUSTANG (Dir. Deniz Gamze Ergüven) 
Another debut feature on this list, Mustang is maddening, timely, and features five phenomenal performances by it's young actresses. Mustang is the work of a director in complete control of her medium with a burning desire to tell a story, and I was glued to the screen from the second it started. 

9. 45 YEARS (Dir. Andrew Haigh) 
Andrew Haigh's sensitive 45 Years features Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay at their best, giving two searing performances of quiet power. But, the reason why this already-transfixing film made this list is because of its ending, which is devastating and has haunted me since I saw it well over a month ago. It's a devastating capper to a well-measured, mature film that left my jaw on the ground.

10 (tie). SPOTLIGHT (Dir. Tom McCarthy) 
Understated and fascinating, Tom McCarthy's Spotlight is a powerful testament to journalism, as it tells the true story of the Boston Globe Spotlight team who uncovered the Catholic sexual abuse scandal in the early 2000s. McCarthy and Josh Singer's screenplay never points fingers, never judges, and smartly shows how institutions and communities allow crimes to be committed. Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian D'Arcy James, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, and Billy Crudup create the ensemble of the year, all giving equally subtle, complex performances into which they disappear. Tom McCarthy's subdued direction is typically effective, as he never lets his camera get in the way of his actors.

10 (tie). PHOENIX (Dir. Christian Petzold) 
Christian Petzold's drama about a concentration camp survivor who gets a new face post-war and attempts to figure out whether her husband sold her out to the Nazis is pure cinema, largely thanks to its gut-punch of an ending and Nina Hoss' performance, which is so extraordinary that words cannot do it justice. Hoss' most impressive scene is one in which she recalls the horrors of the concentration camps. Petzold focuses the camera directly on her face and never cuts away, allowing it to tell the story instead of cutting to a flashback. Couple that with the final scene (there's a reason it has been cited by many as one of the most memorable of the year) and with those two scenes alone it will be clear why Hoss gave the performance of the year.

10 (tie). CAROL (Dir. Todd Haynes) 
Todd Haynes' Carol is the work of a director, cast, and crew at the top of their game. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara's chemistry lights up the screen, Ed Lachman's Super 16 cinematography is cold, textured, and revealing, and Haynes' direction guides this film just to the right of melodrama to strike a perfect tone. And the final scene will make your heart swell. This is a work of incredible feeling by one of America's great directors.

The next three:  

EX MACHINA (Dir. Alex Garland)
MOMMY (Dir. Xavier Dolan)
THE HATEFUL EIGHT (Dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Honorable Mentions in no order:

SLOW WEST (Dir. John Maclean)
MERU (Dirs. Jimmy Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi)
IT FOLLOWS (Dir. David Robert Mitchell)
SPY (Dir. Paul Feig)
TRAINWRECK (Dir. Judd Apatow)
WHITE GOD (Dir. Kornél Mundruczó)
(T)ERROR (Dirs. Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe )
DOPE (Dir. Rick Famuyiwa)
TANGERINE (Dir. Sean Baker)
10,000 KM (Dir. Carlos Marques-Marcet)
99 HOMES (Dir. Ramin Bahrani)
BEASTS OF NO NATION (Dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga)
WILD TALES (Dir. Damián Szifron)