So, here it is! Zac’s picks for his best films of 2015. If you haven’t already had a chance to read his Honorable Mentions, make sure you read it before you read his top picks. Enjoy! – Jeremy
The Best of 2015
10. Digging for Fire
Sam Elliott is wise, Sam Rockwell is funny.
As a cinematic subject, relationships have probably been studied more than any other. So offering up Digging for Fire as my 10th favorite movie of the year, as if it has something new to say about happiness and comfort in relationships, might seem like a stretch…that is until one concludes the movie is not much more than a glorified romantic comedy. Such a determination may take the discussion to a more severe place, because I have long heard rumors which go something like this: reviewers who pick romantic comedies on their year-end list are driven to some mysterious, Deliverance-ish location where said reviewer has their arms removed (by a Wookie, no doubt) so they can never again write up such a hideous suggestion to a mass audience. Or something like that.
Well, Digging for Fire may just be a romantic comedy. However, helmed by well-known indie director Joe Swanberg, what is important is not which genre it is in, but rather how the film approaches said genre. For those that don’t know, Swanberg is a leader in the mumblecore movement (terrible name, interesting movement). Without getting too far into the weeds, I’ll just summarize: like any artistic movement, mumblecore’s attributes are not easy to pin down. Generally, the focus is on realism and naturalistic dialogue. Further, Swanberg frequently plots his films in a loose, spacious way, somewhere on the opposite end of the spectrum as say, George Miller‘s Mad Max series. So take these characteristics, add them to a thoughtful script with a dynamic cast, and I honestly do not care if it is a rom-com or not. The subtleties drive Digging for Fire and allow it to stand apart.
The performances by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay are worth all the praise they have received from the film critic syndicate. There are flaws in Room, but they are fully overshadowed by several moments of ethereal grace.
8. Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens
One of the things of which I am most certain about this 2015 list is that I will NOT be able to change a single person’s feelings on the subject of the newest Star Wars film. An event such as this does usually force me to carefully consider and reflect about how good I think Abrams’ movie really is. And I think it is really good. The casting decisions maybe the highlight: Driver’s talent pays dividends in the few scenes without Kylo Ren’s mask, Boyega adds some believability to a character arc uncommon in the Star Wars Universe, and then there is Daisy Ridley. Credit must be given to Abrams for casting her and for giving her a bold role which effectively brings Star Wars out of the shadows of the original trilogy. In that sense alone, it is an amazing feat and deserving of considerable praise.
7. Mad Max: Fury Road
Behold the grandeur!
The visual effects in Fury Road are stunningly gorgeous and the kinetic plot adds a claustrophobic feel to the unending road rally. All this, despite the main setting being the open desert. The real achievement here is Miller’s creation of what really does feel like an alien universe all the while supplying the proceedings with just enough humanness to keep it grounded. Hardy and Theron are good even if their characters are slightly underdeveloped.
Obviously, Spotlight is not a story for everyone. It tackles a subject matter (sexual abuse by Catholic Priests) which makes people angry, sad, or uncomfortable – or likely some combination of the three. The discomfort is kind of the point, though, because even though the Catholic Church is the target of the The Boston Globe’s investigation, the larger implication is the way society at large often looks at the suffering of victims…or rather does not really look at them at all. Spotlight is unequivocally worthy of the universal praise it has received.
5. Inside Out
I am not quite sure how Pixar became Hollywood’s best major studio and I dare anyone to argue that it isn’t. <<– Gauntlet Thrown!! Even more surprisingly, it manages to make films which speak to adults in ways that most Michael Bay movies can only dream. Apologies to fans of the Transformers series for the unprovoked cheap shot. By the way, if Bay directed that cheap SHOT, the shot would be blurry and poorly edited, but I digress…
…looking at a movie like Up may lead one to believe that Pixar has little interest in making movies which appeal to kids. Sure, there is the occasional SQUIRREL!! Such scenes, moments, and lines are done in a way to make someone laugh, regardless of the age. However, I do wonder how many times families have watched Up and the kids get bored in the first 5 minutes while anyone in the room over the approximate age of 23 is overcome with tears.
The newspaper headlines from Inside Out are true bits of genius. Obviously, someone at Pixar appreciates that knowing what is going on in the world can easily lead to anger. No dessert!
Part of the splendor of Inside Out is related to this “for kids vs for adults” concept as it expertly balances between both realms. Honestly, there is a lot to cover on the psychological side of the film, especially in relation to how doctors now believe we humans should handle those thoughts and emotions which regularly trip us up. Put succinctly, the last half hour of the show astutely demonstrates how our acceptance of negative feelings can actually help us.
All the same, a serious discussion emphasizes the wrong parts of Inside Out since first and foremost the movie is tremendously entertaining. There is a scene towards the end that might be the funniest one minute summary of the differences between dogs and cats ever produced. And finally, the voice work here is excellent. Richard Kind is the perfect choice for the imaginary friend Bing-Bong. And as I mentioned previously, the voice pairing of Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith lays the groundwork for many moments of comic brilliance.
4. The Revenant
One of my favorite scenes of the The Revenant is when Mad Max squares off with General Hux. Come on, think about it. Ok, truly awful geekdom jokes aside, I do wonder how much credit can you give a survival story when so many great films with similar themes and plots have preceded it? I have challenged myself to answer this only to be completely lacking in any meaningful response. Yet, the facts are these: not many movies are The Revenant’s equal in exhibiting the will to live versus the ferocity of nature and the cruelty of human nature. Similarly, the visual grandeur on display is every bit as unique, likely reminding any cinephile of the work of Terrence Malick. All of this explains why I would name Alejandro González Iñárritu to be the best director working today. Nor would I really have a single complaint if The Revenant wins every Oscar for which it is nominated. This movie and my next choice are so close I might as well have claimed it a tie. But there are already enough politicians in 2016 taking the easy way out, so my third best film of 2015 is…
3. The Hateful Eight
From now until the end of time, I suspect any movie carrying a Quentin Tarantino directing credit will come with preconceived biases. As a qualifier, it is best to put forth that I would place Kill Bill Vols 1 & 2 on a shortlist of my favorite films in the past few decades. I will also tell you I find his work since then to be solid though not especially outstanding. In The Hateful Eight, Tarantino covers the topics of justice, racism, and how long term progress often comes through the passing of responsibility, from person to person and generation to generation.
Now, do not misunderstand: this movie is NOT an in-depth treatise on hatred in society. But unlike many previous QT movies where potential themes are eventually overdriven by plot mechanisms and violence (ok, usually lots and lots of violence), The Hateful Eight shows the director capable of something which honestly caught me a bit off guard. Tarantino actually proves he has the dedication, the discipline, and the interest to make a movie where the grand ideas are seen through to completion. That is not the only surprise, though. Tarantino also plays a very patient game here, one that has even been called boring in some circles. Personally, I found it anything but, as the tension builds up to almost excruciating levels helped in part by Morricone’s outstanding score. The main theme is absolutely fearsome – by the moment you hear it for the second time, almost 2 hours into the movie, you know the menace is coming because, after all, you are aware it IS a Tarantino movie.
The Hateful Eight Overture: Morricone conducting.
A special note must be made of the cast, one of best the director has assembled, which is truly saying something. It is great to see Samuel L. Jackson in this worthy role, Walton Goggins is always superb, and the underrated Tim Roth does provide some quintessentially Quentin dialogue, most memorably with his telling explanation of the difference between justice and frontier justice.
2. Love and Mercy
Yeah, I know the only Hollywood script film goers have grown more tired of than the music biopic is the cliched Cinderella sports story (likely starring Kevin Costner*). Due to this, surely some may believe the rank for Love & Mercy is too high even after they have seen it. So let me simply discuss why I both adore it and am moved by it:
- The dual actors playing the same role, while not totally new, still adds a refreshing twist to the genre.
- The performances are all top rate, including special recognition of Elizabeth Banks, who brilliantly orbits the emotional center of the film.
- In a day and age when we know far too much about our pop culture stars, I find it rather stunning how little of Brian Wilson’s story is common knowledge.
- With that in mind, kudos to Director Bill Pohlad for not attempting to sell the lessons of Brian Wilson’s life to the audience as grand lessons they might find useful in their own lives; instead it recognizes his story as singularly unique. Generally speaking, biopics do not take this approach very often and more than any other single cause, I am convinced it is why biopics often feel so generic.
- Many other well-regarded movies this year (Carol, Spotlight, and The Revenant) show characters various states of emotional turmoil due to the ignorance, the hatred, and the evilness of others. But a moment must be taken to consider that two of the people who essentially betrayed Wilson are his dad and his psychologist; do not misunderstand, I am not trying to get into a “comparison” of which characters suffered more. I am just merely pointing out that Brian Wilson endured a lot at the hands of his father and his psychologist. Consider these facts for a moment. I can only wonder how such personal treasons impacted Wilson and marvel at his motivation to eventually move on with his life…with the caring help of others, of course.
- Last but definitely not least, Love & Mercy actually captures some fantastic moments of creative genius at work, an aspect many other accomplished biopics (music and otherwise) have not achieved. The brief scenes with Wilson and The Wrecking Crew may be the best of their type ever put to film and yes, it absolutely helps when the music they are writing is some of the greatest the 20th Century has to offer.
Pohlad talking about the studio scenes of Wilson’s work on Pet Sounds.
* For the record, I love Kevin Costner. Jeremy will attest to this! McFarland, USA was almost worthy of an honorable mention and is worth seeing even if it features that standard sports script.
“I no longer exist.” A sentiment such as this could be the basis for some grand themes and dark elements, no matter the speaker or situation. Now consider the woman speaking this line has been forced to have facial reconstruction surgery due to a bullet wound and is devastated when she sees the result. “Would you recognize me?” she asks a friend just a moment later. The despair in her voice is tangible. And what if the woman speaking these lines is Jewish and she has survived the Nazi concentration camps?
This is the basis for the plot of Phoenix, directed by Christian Petzold. The woman facing the existential abyss described above is Nelly Lenz, played by actress Nina Hoss. Hoss has starred in several of Petzold’s films; both are German, so it is unsurprising neither are well-known. If Phoenix is any indication, I suspect the lack of audience recognition will soon change dramatically and I’m not the only one (link includes high praise and spoilers).
The situation described above barely tells the half of it, as the narrative mostly revolves around Nelly’s husband (actor Ronald Zehrfeld), with whom she is desperate to reconnect even though he may very well have been the one who betrayed her to the Nazis. Ties to Hitchcock’s Vertigo are rich, though the critical concern here is the husband’s inability to recognize Nelly’s remade face. Some critics have been thrown off by suggesting this specific plot point to be improbable. First, Petzold does the intelligent thing by never showing her face before the surgery, so it gives the audience a way to assume the most drastic of changes. Second, and far more importantly, the “too improbable” approach misses the somewhat obvious construct of how society often fails to recognize the victims as victims (discussed above, Spotlight shares a similar theme).
Surely there have been a few defining films about the Holocaust just as there has been a treasure trove of movies made about the loss of personal identity. But Phoenix combines these fairly disparate parts to tell a moving story that has works both on the individual level as well as society at large. Petzold’s work is astonishing in this regard, one that clearly deserves more eyes to see it. It is currently on Netflix and the Criterion Collection release in late April of this year should broaden its audience considerably. And I have not yet mentioned the ending which assuredly holds up against best finales ever on the silver screen. The use of the Kurt Weill song at just the right moment???…goodness, the hair on the back of my neck raises every time I just think of that scene. The moment epitomizes the fury and force of great cinema.
That is a wrap. For those nitpickers who may have noticed, Phoenix is listed as a 2014 movie on most sites. Scandal!!! However, its 2014 film festival circuit run was fairly limited. It had no wide release nor did it hit the States until 2015. I am also obligated to add this: while I avoided individual ratings in the above commentary, Phoenix is the only 2015 film to which I would give a perfect 10 rating. When my film review site goes live later this year, I will cover this in more detail. Generally speaking I like to think of the “10s” as the very elite, the “best of the best” Top Gun line, if you will. There have been several recent years in which I would give no movie a rating of 10, though last year actually had two (Leviathan and Interstellar). So again, I urge you, dear reader, to check out Phoenix.
My Personal Oscar Speech: As I suspect many of you know, the work here on Beard + Bloom is terrific, even if it only provides glimpses of how wonderful Jeremy and Aly are as people. <Insert their blushing faces here.> Well, you can’t see Jeremy blush as much because of…well, you know…the beard. So, I sincerely thank them for the offer to write this guest blog. And if any of you are reading this and wondering just how long this film discussion can go on, you might be thinking “cut out this foreign art-house crap and just tell me when the next Brew Review is posted.” Well, I assure you, to some extent, I’m right there with you. So grab your preferred beverage and enjoy the Oscars!
We’d love to hear your top movie selections! Share them with us in the comments section below.