Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The 10 Best Movies of 2015

Maika Monroe in David Robert Mitchell's "It Follows"
We all know top 10 lists are meaningless—arbitrary attempts to objectively quantify highly subjective works of art. But top 10 lists can also be meaningful, not just as encapsulations of the year that was, but as snapshots in time. Were I to pick the 10 best films from 2015 a month from now, or a month ago, this list would assuredly look different. Those who prefer their year-end collectives to be cemented in stone may deem that sentiment overly tentative, but I've always accepted that my opinions of movies are like my memories: fluid, changing with time, and susceptible to multiple feelings and interpretations.

But here we are today, and here I must enumerate my thoroughly impeachable rankings of the year that was. In reviewing 2015 at the movies, I am struck by how many big-budget pictures I enjoyed. From the thrilling action scenes of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation to the equally thrilling dance sequences of Magic Mike XXL, from the interplanetary collaboration of The Martian to the intergalactic warfare of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, studios routinely served up rousing entertainment at the multiplex, and they should be commended for it. (Yes, they also served up the usual dreck.)

None of those high-profile movies, however, is on my year-end list. Instead, my top 10 is populated largely by more intimate stories focusing on relationships—mothers and sons, bosses and employees, men and women (and women and women). This should not, of course, reflect a value judgment on my part in favor of "smaller" films. I like all good movies, regardless of the scale of their production or the size of their target demographic. This year, I happened to gravitate toward more independent fare, but that is a coincidence rather than a signifier of taste.

But while the following 10 movies may not have been commercially successful—only two made more than $50 million at the box office, and just one topped $100 million—there is nothing small about their artistic achievements. They told beautiful stories, and they did so with clarity, vigor, and passion, lingering in my mind's eye for some time after I watched them. They may span countries and eras and genres, but they are all powerful, provocative pictures, with their own singular style and vision. Here are the Manifesto's 10 best movies of 2015:

10. Steve Jobs. Less a conventional biopic than a bracing character study, Danny Boyle's portrait of Apple's notorious CEO is a triumph of observation over plot. Aaron Sorkin's screenplay delivers the expected zingers and walk-and-talk banter, but it's the macro structure—the film boldly drops in on its protagonist at three different product launches over the course of his career—that really sizzles. Michael Fassbender is electric as the title character, while Kate Winslet is invaluable as his right-hand woman. Few films have made icy genius feel so vibrantly alive. (Read the Manifesto's full review here.)

9. Ex Machina. Part sci-fi mind-bender, part haunted-house story, Ex Machina is an extraordinarily ambitious movie. It is also marvelously simple, taking place in a single location and featuring just four cast members. OK, maybe five—Oscar Isaac should really count twice. But if Isaac's mesmeric performance is the best thing about this chilly, stylish film, it is far from its only virtue. The screenplay twists and darts, the production design beckons you with its elegance, and the sleek visual effects are deceptively stunning. Most science-fiction movies attempt to overpower you with premise and plot, attacking your senses but making no real impact. Ex Machina slyly cozies up to you, then bashes in your brain. (Full review here.)

8. Mommy. Mommy is the straightforward story of a single mother attempting to care for her hyperactive, possibly deranged teenage son. And within this clear-cut framework, Xavier Dolan delivers a kinetic, heady rush of cinema, a breathless tour de force of filmmaking panache. Dolan pulls out all the stops: multiple aspect ratios, musical montage, fantasy sequences, and an unabashedly corny pop soundtrack. But while Mommy is stylistically playful, it is at its core a poignant and powerful tale of flawed maternal love, anchored by a magnificent performance from Anne Dorval. It's a movie redolent with hope and pain but one that will, above all, leave you gasping for breath.

7. It Follows. The best horror movie in many years, It Follows is unapologetically terrifying, but its genius is that it doesn't pummel viewers with classical scare moments. Instead, David Robert Mitchell briskly lays out the film's premise—anybody on screen could secretly be a malevolent force of implacable evil—then goes about wringing every possible ounce of dread from it, largely by simply observing his characters within immaculately composed frames. The result is a deeply unnerving viewing experience, one heightened not by cheap thrills but by rigorous formal technique. Disasterpeace provides one of the best scores of the year, while Maika Monroe is profoundly sympathetic as the stricken lead. It Follows toys with some fascinating ideas about sex, but it's most memorable for Mitchell's absolute command of cinematic grammar. The camera never once shudders, but you'll be shaken all the same. (Full review here.)

6. Bridge of Spies. Prospective voters weary of our nation's ongoing political discord are advised to bask in the warm patriotism of Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg's touching ode to American perseverance and compassion. Of course, it's still a Spielberg movie, which means it's as effortlessly entertaining and beautifully crafted as anything to grace screens all year. Tom Hanks disarms as an insurance lawyer in way over his head, while Mark Rylance is masterful as a suspected Soviet mole. Funny, heartfelt, and grippingly suspenseful, Bridge of Spies endlessly delights even as it stealthily delivers the moral goods. It's enough to make you proud to be an American. (Full review here.)

5. Room. Haunting, searing, and ultimately life-affirming, Room is best experienced cold. Even a cursory plot summary compromises the painstaking care with which Lenny Abrahamson and screenwriter Emma Donoghue have constructed the film's delicate, enveloping universe. Suffice it to say that Room is a bruising, forceful film, elevated by two wonderful performances. Brie Larson astonishes as a fiercely protective mother, and Jacob Tremblay is just as good as a wide-eyed boy learning to make his way in the world. Room is utterly ruthless in execution, but it is also strangely beautiful, locating tendrils of tenderness amid human ugliness. (Full review here.)

4. Sicario. Denis Villeneuve doesn't mess around. As with his previous movie, Prisoners, Sicario is a chilling, unflinchingly dark look into the abyss of American culture and power. Trading in the wintry landscape of Northern Appalachia for the harsh sunlight of the Southwest, Villeneuve remains a master in concocting nail-biting set pieces, and here he delivers several sequences of agonizing tension. (Roger Deakins's expert cinematography hardly hurts.) But Sicario's nightmares are more than surface-level—they're bone-deep, attacking the fabric of our justice system with lacerating anger. Emily Blunt is excellent as a sinewy, naïve operative, while Benicio del Toro is pure wrath. And for all its rich subtext, Sicario is furiously watchable. Even as your conscience courses with rage, your eyes will remain glued to the screen. (Full review here.)

3. Carol;
2. Brooklyn.
I wanted to rank these as a tie, but my fanatical list-making principles wouldn't allow it. Still, these are the two most beautiful love stories of the year, though while they share obvious similarities—the 1950s New York setting, the strong female characters, the splendorous craft—they are substantively quite different. Carol is a rapturous romance, an intoxicating look at the process of falling in love, highlighted by two perfect—and perfectly complementary—performances from Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett. Brooklyn also features a winning romance, but it's primarily a gentle coming-of-age story, as well as a touching tale of immigrant experience, with a transcendent lead turn from Saoirse Ronan. Both films are virtually overflowing with feeling, even if they are also meticulously well-made, with exquisite scores and lustrous costumes and production design. The technique is immaculate, but it's the emotion that really lingers. Here are two achingly simple movies that remind me why I love movies. (Full review of Carol here; full review of Brooklyn here.)

1. Inside Out. Speaking of emotion. Or should I say emotions—there are, after all, five main ones that comprise the characters of Inside Out. But there are actually many more. Pixar's latest marvel is many things—a rousing adventure story, a hysterical workplace sitcom, a quiet family drama, a loud and imaginative fantasy—but above all it is a kaleidoscopic bundle of human feeling. To watch it is not just to yield to its audacity and vibrancy, to be dazzled by its bright colors and clever insights. It is also to survey your own life, to consider your relationships, to ponder being young and growing old. This is not to diminish the movie's more immediate pleasures; Inside Out is a blast of undiluted entertainment, a brilliantly conceived tale of adversity and triumph. It just also happens to be much more than that. Inside Out's main characters are named Sadness and Joy, and watching it, you will experience plenty of both. You'll also feel everything in between. (Full review here.)

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