I can’t honestly put up a 10 best list because there are quite a few films I’ve not seen as I write this (The Revenant, The Hateful Eight, Anomalisa, Chi-raq, Brooklyn, 45 Years, Son of Saul); plus films that came and went before I could get to them (Sicario, Diary of a Teenage Girl, Assassin); or films that I just can’t bring myself to give a chance (most superhero movies). And even one I appreciated but couldn’t get through on Netflix (Beasts of No Nation).
But here’s my list anyway. The choices are in no particular order, so not numbered.
Tangerine. Like many compelling movies, this film seems a hybrid of genres. It is a road pic (if you count roaming around LA in buses, taxis and on foot a road pic); a buddy pic (featuring 2 trans women, Alexandra and Sin-Dee, who search for a two-timing pimp); and a screwball comedy (the trash-talking duo turning everyone’s lives upside-down, including one another’s). A love story too. It also has a cool backstory: the director couldn’t get financing for the film, and so he shot it on an iPhone 5. Best Xmas movie since Die Hard. Mainly it is sweet and funny, with saturated tangerine sunsets.
Mad Max: Fury Road. The film shows off “pure cinema” in breathtaking ways. (Pure cinema is a Hitchcock term that refers to films or film moments that focus on the purest elements of the artistic form — visual information, editing, music, camera movement, etc. as opposed to lots of dialogue or exposition.) The post-apocalyptic, berserk patriarchal world of the film is visceral, breathtaking and even witty in its imaginative, satiric detail. It is virtually non-stop in action, even as it creates its dynamic duo in Furiosa and Max. A gorgeous, brilliant film, too easily dismissed as fanboy action fare. And both Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy deserve more recognition.
Creed. Both Creed & the latest Star Wars tried to recapture the zeitgeist of the times that made the 1970s originals so beloved and unique. Creed manages this far better. Star Wars often comes across as a too safe map of the stars (another intergalactic Muppet bar scene; a Vader-like villain with daddy issues; a Yoda knock-off). Creed is as rousing and endearing as the first Rocky without being so re-paint by number.
The Big Short. Like Spotlight below, this is ensemble acting at its best. I confess that ½ way through I found the ins and outs of the 2008 mortgage scandal hard to follow, despite the many clever ways the movie tries to clarify the morass of mystifying and obfuscating mortgage bundlings. The film is funny but grows increasingly angering as the characters get rich off the backs of too many Americans and the blatant greed of the banking world.
Slow West. A coming-of-age cowboy film about a young, naive Scot trying to locate his true and lost love in the wicked, amoral American West. Its violence straddles lines among the grotesque, the absurd and the tragic. It is slow in ways but more like a slow burn. Michael Fassbender is a rival to Oscar Isaac as the best actor around. His turn as Steve Jobs is worth checking out.
Force Majeure. A painful comedy that features a picture-perfect, upper middle-class Swedish family vacationing at a chic ski resort. While lunching at an outdoor restaurant, the family is panicked when an avalanche seems to be hurling down upon them. And the father… well, he cuts and runs, abandoning his family. The tensions that follow as the husband and wife try to revive themselves from the false alarm are excruciating and offer up much to say about masculinity, tragic mistakes and forgiveness .
Carol. Lush and exquisitely crafted, the Todd Haynes film uses mirrors, glass and contained spaces to show how alienated these female lovers were in ‘50s America. Best line: Just when you think things couldn’t get worse, you run out of cigarettes. The final shot is gorgeous and triumphant, which — like E M Forster’s forward-thinking gay novel Maurice — makes it a fine romance. The director’s earlier film Far From Heaven is worth a look too.
Phoenix. A German homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the film has a stunning final scene. A concentration camp survivor undergoes major facial reconstruction and soon finds herself pretending to be herself at the insistence of her greedy ex-husband — who, somewhat incredulously, seems not to recognize his ex-wife. Phoenix is also a perfect neo-noir — from the country that inspired the original genre in the 1920s.
Spotlight. A riveting procedural film about the Boston Globe’s late-in-coming exposure of the Catholic Church’s worldwide nest of pederast priests and the way they were moved around, covered up and protected. The film avoids moments of righteous speech-making, features some very powerful performances, and reminds us how easily we can forget and how powerful institutions can proceed with impunity.
Ex Machina. Maybe it’s because I found it to be a perfect match for the senior year required novel, Frankenstein, but this film is riveting, smart, feminist … and even scarey. Clever uses (like in Carol above) ) of glass, space, and reflected images. The mod and antiseptic “laboratory” — at once both in Nature and alienated from it –becomes a house of horrors. And robot/humanoid Ava is another female character, as in Carol or Mad Max or Star Wars above, who finds agency on her own terms. Oscar Isaac should be nominated, but it came out so early he probably won’t.