LITO’S TOP 10 FILMS OF 2015
So folks, it’s been a difficult year to make this list and oddly, not because there was a hunk of blasé nonsense that I had to struggle to compile into a Top 10, but because I thought there so many good films and only 10 slots to go around! I had to watch clips of films again and again until I had to make the painful decision to let some go, which will be mentioned in my Honorable Mentions section. 2015 boasted a great breadth of visually striking parade of films rich in character, narrative, writing, and exploration of thematic material in brutally honest or unique ways that I often long for as a moviegoer but don’t often get en masse in most given years. I hope 2015 marks the beginning of a rejuvenation era for the industry to keep this momentum rolling and keep the cinders alive in the passionate fire of creativity and ingenuity that the industry is clearly capable of providing. Here’s a look then, at what I found to my 10 favorite films of the year. Now, I realize some of the most acclaimed films of the year aren’t there. Yes, I have my reasons.
NOTE! FILMS ARE LISTED IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER AND ARE UNRANKED
1.) BEASTS OF NO NATION
Netflix decided to go the route of simultaneously releasing a film theatrically in addition to having it available for its streaming audience. The move cause a bit of controversy, especially when it came for the film to gather its audience as well as pick up the awards attention all the way to the Oscars. Despite a healthy bid for actor Idris Elba to receive an Oscar nomination, this film was completely shut out and such a shame. Its online distribution diminishes nothing of this riveting and disturbing film. The often brushed over topic of the brutal loss of innocence through war and genocide by child soldiers is now given a first rate treatment. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga, who directed the first season of True Detective, has created a brilliant masterwork anchored by a solid lead performance by young newcomer Abraham Attah and the chilling but affecting work by Elba as a paternal yet sadistic Commandant who runs the child militia of an unnamed country.
Not for the faint of the heart, the film has some of the most gripping depictions of the atrocities of war since Platoon and its careful psychological examination of the children goes to such subtle and rich depths that Blood Diamond only scratched a mere surface of. It’s one of the year’s most unforgettable experiences. (Currently on Netflix for streaming. Not yet on DVD)
2.) BRIDGE OF SPIES
Well, like most reviews suggest: Spielberg’s still got it. That, he does and more. 2012’s Lincoln was a strong indication that the director was still more than on his game. This entry about the poisonous relations and mass hysteria spawned from the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia is given a rich, humanitarian approach. Hearkening back to the cinematic atmosphere of a Frank Capra film, its modern-day comparison of Jimmy Stewart, Mr. Tom Hanks, gives his best performance in years (and better than Captain Phillips, in my opinion) as James Donovan, an insurance attorney was unwittingly thrust into negotiating a precarious and dangerous prisoner swap between a Russian and American spy.
It’s classic filmmaking, perhaps at its finest. The cinematic richness is enhanced by the film’s confident craftsmanship and solid performances. Mark Rylance is a standout as the Russian spy, Rudolf Abel. This is wonderful, respectful filmmaking that rings true without feeling cheap or sanitized. It provides just the right notes. No more, no less. (In theaters. On video Feb. 2)
Here comes one of those rare film treats where you get a “feel-good” experience without it being manufactured, forced or corny. Brooklyn, the simple story of a young Irish woman (a luminous Saoirse Ronan), who ventures to America in search of a better life. What we’re shown is a truthful portrait of homesickness and loneliness in a big, strange new place. Once Eilis (Ronan) meets a handsome young man who is enamored of her and Eilis grows more confident, a new life feels refreshingly possible. Upon having to return to Ireland due to a family emergency, a new choice is placed before her: return to the flourishing new life or return to the world she left behind, now with all new possibilities.
It’s a beautifully crafted film brimming with an authenticity and earnest spirit that so many films fail so miserable at achieving. Brooklyn’s tender simplicity richly illustrates that less can be more. Show vs. tell. It trusts its audience and never plays down to it. Such a rarity in movies today. (Now playing in cinemas)
4.) THE HATEFUL EIGHT
Perhaps my most divisive entry on this list, Quentin Tarantino’s latest romp is a wicked, mean-spirited, over-the-top and bloody Western that’s also equal parts mystery as it is a black comedy. Tarantino loves pulp and stylistically operatic cinema. It’s evident in all his work and his love of the art form is shows. I think despite admitting that this is not a universally loved film, I happen to feel that this film’s flaws (and they are there) oddly enough, add to its grim charm. With a top-notch ensemble with Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins and a balls to the wall turn by the great Jennifer Jason Leigh to name a few, adding Tarantino’s trademark dialogue in conjunction with the masterful craft of the film, more than compensate and (for my money) merit its lengthy run time and make it fun rather than a chore.
The 70mm photography and retro-elegant score by composer god Ennio Morricone make this film a treat for those who drink their cinematic coffee black. Destined to offend and turn-off certain moviegoers, the film’s bold confidence is unquestionably Tarantino and for my money is an improvement over the much more indulgent and unfocused if not entertaining Django Unchained. Just have fun with this one. What else can I say? (Now playing in cinemas)
5.) INSIDE OUT
Pixar has made their finest film in a few years and one of my favorite of theirs period. Inside Out, like the greatest family films, plays strongly to audiences of all ages… truly. A vividly original and complex concept of examining what goes on in our psyches when we are awake and asleep is brought to colorful, inventive life in a way that seems so intricately streamlined, that I can’t help but feel magic was involved. But alas, it is the construct of great writing, intelligence and understanding of the art form and storytelling that make this film one to love, remember, and embrace, Inside Out is a return to form for Pixar as well as a much needed shout out that original ideas for family films can be done, are financially successful and there’s more where they came from. Come on Hollywood, let’s take some more chances! (Now on home video)
6.) MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
As a big fan of director George Miller’s original trilogy of post-apocalyptic actioners with Mel Gibson as the title character kicking ass in films that were crafted with practical filmmaking, engaging characters and storytelling and cinematically unique, one could understandably bring a certain trepidation with this sequel/update/reboot 30 years since Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. But, with Miller giving it his all, this new film with Tom Hardy now in the lead role and with the great Charlize Theron as a fantastic and original heroine in the action universe, what is delivered is nothing short of breathtaking. For some reason, it took more than one viewing to fully appreciate the artistic majesty and brilliance of vision and execution that this films provides.
Sure, when broken down it is a high-octane chase film with vibrant and glorious set pieces. The story however is far above averages and its pro feminist angle is a refreshing and welcome addition to this franchise as Theron’s character slowly becomes the film’s driving force (no pun intended). With a thrilling insistence of maintaining practical effects vs. CGI, the film’s roughly 90% practical effect use merely makes the film easier to appreciate and revel in its gear crunching glory. While it pales slightly to say, The Road Warrior, the second and greatest installment in this series, it makes for one of 2015’s great films and sets the bar for action cinema in a way not seen since The Dark Knight. Again, Hollywood… we can do it! Yes… we… can! (Now on home video)
Room is more than film. It’s an event. Based on the novel of the same name by Emma Donoghue, this beautiful portrait of a mother and her young son held captive in a garden shed, who are then forced to adjust to the outside world upon their escape, is more than just a thrilling drama. It’s a richly layered and nuanced portrait of the powerful bond between a mother and child in which they each support and care for each other. Brie Larson, a fine actress soars here as “Ma” and young Jacob Tremblay is nothing short of a revelation as young “Jack”, who was born in “Room” and must now prepare for a brand new world he never thought to be possible.
With exceptionally talented and sensitive direction by Lenny Abrahamson, this film earns every one of its emotional moments with quiet grace and resonating gravitas that stays with your heart long after the credits roll. This astounding independent film is proof that you don’t need big stars and big budgets to create something meaningful and important. This film paves the road for great dramatic possibilities and it’s a crying shame that we don’t have more like it. (In cinemas. On home video soon)
Canadian director Denis Villeneuve of such great films as Incendies, Prisoners and Enemy has made another solid entry for his oeuvre. Sicario is an unconventional, but unrelenting story not only of the endless and seemingly futile war on drugs on the U.S.-Mexico border, but also a film that dares to question the prospects of idealism and integrity of working for a big, government organization designed to protect, yet seems to consistently fail while at the same time never resorting to cheap cynicism. This is anchored and fueled by a solid script with two richly layered characters, an F.B.I agent (Emily Blunt, in one of her finest performances) thrust unwittingly into an illicit operation to rebalance structure and power in the drug war orchestrated by the CIA and on the other side, the enigmatic and dangerous Colombian “advisor” played to subtle and tantalizing perfection by the great Benicio del Toro.
The tale unravels like yarn and each level deeper into the dangerous labyrinth of deceit and danger gives this film a gripping tension that hang on quite forcefully even well after it ends. Sicario feels like a movie we’ve seen many times, but the dressing on this dish is not artifice, it’s the powers of great cinema at work for a generation in which Hollywood has become cynical and is by consequence disrespecting its audiences. Sicario is an antidote that looks like poison, but never was a bitter film treat of this type been so fulfilling in so long. (Now on home video)
Hollywood is notorious for sensationalizing true-life dramas about journalists and their work. You have to go back to a great film such as All the President’s Men to really get a solid and comparable example (and yes, I did knowingly omit the only above average drama Absence of Malice from 1981). Here, the true account of a group of Boston Globe reporters who slowly stumble into and unravel the massive sex abuse scandal by Catholic priests on a global scale is treated in a borderline documentary way.
There is such emphasis placed on the hard work of investigate journalism without megaphoning its importance at every turn nor does the film resort to flashy scenes of emotion that demand and manipulate the audience into feeling a particular way about the subject. Instead, the film just allows the story to tell itself. It trusts its audience and never dumbs the film down for them. It does help that the brilliance of co-writer and director Tom McCarthy, who has directed such great films including (The Station Agent and The Visitor) bring us this minimalistic, but no less compelling form of directing that elevates this film frame by frame. Add to that, a stellar ensemble cast including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Live Schreiber, and Stanley Tucci to name a few, and you have unquestionably a solid entry in the year’s Top 10 list. The raw power and emotional impact this film provides comes from not trying to elicit it but rather let the power of the story come to life on its own with authenticity and confidence as its recipe for success. (Now in cinemas. On home video Feb 23)
Admittedly, this film has not been the biggest hit with audiences. Some have found the film too deliberately artsy or frigid. I, however, found this film alive and vivid around every corner. Italian director Paolo Sorrentino of The Great Beauty has made a film that examines various existential questions and themes in a brutally honest yet no less beautiful way. Not only does the luscious cinematography and backdrop of the Swiss Alps where the film is set provide that opportunity, but also the unmistakable perfection brought by its cast of Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano and an acerbic, but sizzling Jane Fonda bring to life. Caine, a retired and emotionally walled off composer vacations at a Swiss hotel while his longtime director friend whose best work is behind him (Keitel) prepares to make a new film reflecting his own testament of life.
This film touches upon a fundamentally important question as to what it means to truly mature and separates the necessary factors of physical, emotional and spiritual ages to be examined and assessed by the characters and audience. Its tone may not resonate to all ears, but Youth features its cast in their best performances in years, has an acridly funny rhythm and the idyllic setting brims with a kind of fertility not only of the character’s spirits, but also for the film itself. The film feels alive and yes, artsy in the sense that its compositions feels like paintings, but what this film masterfully achieves is the combination of fine art, cinema and the soul and weaves a dreamlike concoction that feels original and resonant. (Now in cinemas)
HONORABLE MENTIONS: These guys were close, but just didn’t make the cut! STEVE JOBS (On home video Feb. 16) STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (Now in cinemas) THE MARTIAN (Now on home video) and CAROL (Now in cinemas)