Judging 2015: The Lists, Volume 4, “The Cinema Edition”

Last but not least, I end with my reflection on the narrative films of ’15. I left this one to the end because I was trying to see as many of the 2015 films as possible, but alas, time is not on my side. So I will preface this post by noting several key films that I have not seen and, therefore, were not in the running for my top five list: The Revenant (calm down, I’m going to see it – the buzz need not determine my viewing schedule), The End of the Tour, Beasts of No Nation, and Creed. I suspect from reviews that I will enjoy and/or appreciate all of these films, and if any of them end up changing my top five, I promise to post an update. If you think I may have missed a phenomenal film from 2015, as always, let me know in the comments.

  1. Spotlight
    I wrote a review recently on this film, so please check that out. Historical dramas seldom top my list; they tend to be overly sentimental or emotionally manipulative. While I don’t dislike the genre, I tend to prefer films that veer experimental in their narrative techniques, rather than classical. Spotlight, and the second film on my list, proved to be masterful exceptions. While the film Spotlight presents the overwhelming number of child molestation cases within the U.S. Catholic Church during 2001, the movie really uses that string of events as a vehicle to explore the nature of long-form journalism through the work that the Spotlight investigation team did. The result is a thoughtful, complex film that reminds us what good journalism looks like instead of settling for a series of essentialistic, judgmental statements about the Catholic Church as another film might have done.

  2. Brooklyn
    I saw this film expecting to walk out feeling fuzzy and warm inside, declaring the film “good.” Well, I did walk out feeling fuzzy and warm inside, but the film was, in fact, fantastic. Somebody told me recently (I apologize for not remembering who) that the film reminded them of Forest Gump.  Of course the stories themselves are very different, but both stories could be considered fundamentally sentimental or heartwarming, the type of film that often earns the fate of a simplistic emotionally manipulative telling. For example, though I haven’t seen it myself, I know many people described last year’s film Unbroken in that way. But for both Forest Gump and Brooklyn, the filmmakers recognized that the emotional beats in the film tapped into deeper human fears and desires, and they explored those universal concepts in rich and aesthetically robust ways. As a result, the films resonate with wide audiences on so many different levels and, ultimately, stand the test of time.
    So what is Brooklyn about? The film follows a young Irish woman who emigrates to America in the 1950s and must navigate her emerging identity, caught between several cultures. As an immigrant myself, I very quickly identified with Saoirse Ronan’s character Eilis, but Ronan’s performance is incredibly powerful and connects viscerally with the viewer, immigrant or not. Beyond that, I will say no more because this is the sort of film that is best to simply “fall into” and experience afresh.

  3. Ex Machina
    I loved how simple this story was–the very reason others don’t like Ex Machina. The film is composed of just three characters (or two if you don’t count the android), and their interactions and negotiations with each other. The simplicity is beautiful at times and horrifying at others. And of course, Domhnall Gleeson is amazing as he has been in everything last year. According to Letterboxd, he was my most watched actor of 2015. (He’s in Brooklyn as well.)
    I wrote a lengthier review on Ex Machina last year, so I will keep this blurb short and direct you over there.

  4. Mad Max: Fury Road
    There is so much I could say about this film, and I wish that I had written a full review on it. I really did not want to see this movie; it looked like a dumb action flick with explosives and car chases. But Josh made me go, and at the back of my mind, I was curious about Charlize Theron’s involvement because she’s very intentional about the movies she takes on. Also she’s South African and a brilliant actress, so I always feel a tweak of patriotic duty to support her career. 😉
    Little did I know that the film would be a feminist masterpiece in which Tom Hardy barely says a few words, abdicating the male central role while Theron’s character, Imperator Furiosa, takes the lead to save the day–all with just one arm.  Oh and there are a bunch of kick-ass old ladies too. This is one extremely smart, subversive action thriller that re-invents every social assumption about dominance. And it’s a whole lot of fun. You won’t get much story or background; rather director George Miller throws the audience into the center of the action and leaves us working hard to imagine the narrative that surrounds the unfolding events. In a sense, Fury Road is a non-figurative cinematic rollercoaster: turn it on for the ride of your life, but don’t expect the traditional notion of a film.

  5. Youth
    I end with Youth, by one of my new favorite directors, Paolo Sorrentino. Sorrentino, who hearkens from Italy, also made The Great Beautywhich won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film a few years ago. The Great Beauty has quickly made it to my top five favorite films list, so if you haven’t seen it and if you like European cinema with a touch of magic realism, I highly recommend it. You can actually stream it on Hulu because it belongs to the Criterion Classics Collection.
    Youth is his latest venture, starring a mostly English-speaking cast including Michael Caine and Rachel Weisz. The film takes place in a spa resort in the Swiss Alps, where an eclectic group of characters have gathered to restore their health, youth, or inspiration. What follows is a diverse collection of conversations, both deep and absurd, that grapple with what it means to grow old or simply what it means to move forward–or backward–in life. As with The Great Beauty, the cinematography is breathtaking, innovative, and profound, coupled with another phenomenal soundtrack that mixes contemporary and classical sounds for a dialogic effect. Unlike The Great Beauty, however, I found Youth harder to comprehend and connect with emotionally. Yet I simultaneously did not feel disappointed. Instead, the movie has haunted me since I left the theater. There is a lot going on in each frame, and I have realized that this is a film that I will need to revisit again and again before I begin to grasp what Sorrentino is doing. If you live near me and are curious about the film, let me know–you should join me for one of my revisitations. 

Honorable Mention: Inside Out
Everybody saw this. We all laughed and cried. You should know why it’s on my list. If you don’t . . . well then let’s have a conversation.


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