The usual caveat about living in Japan applies especially to The Revenant, one of the few award contenders I haven’t seen, and to a number of well-received documentaries and foreign films. Brooklyn, The Martian, and Spotlight were the final cuts.
1. Two Days, One Night
Off-screen and almost as a prologue, the straightforward premise of Two Days, One Night is established: following a personal leave, Sandra (Marion Cotillard) has been made redundant at her factory job. As the weekend starts, she’s informed that management would reconsider if the other employees decide to forgo their bonuses in favor of reinstating her position. Thus, she goes around for individual visits, attempting to convince enough of her now ex-colleagues not to act in their own self-interest.
The screenplay is terrific, but it is Cotillard’s transcendent performance that allows the audience to alternately feel her anguish and determination, her doubt and defiance. This is a psychological study, of a woman forced to deal with her circumstances, but also – importantly – of the people around her who have to decide what “doing the right thing” even means. It’s one brutal conversation after another, one gut-wrenching encounter after another. The experience is exhausting. Two Days, One Night is my favorite movie of the year.
The Rocky movies got progressively more cartoonish with each installment. Even the pleasant, if unremarkable, send-off Rocky Balboa featured an opponent named Mason “The Line” Dixon – marking a TKO over subtlety, at least. Creed immediately changes that. Its opening scene is gripping, harkening a return to the grounded underdog story that gave the original Rocky its identity and heart. Those first five minutes serve as a fast reminder of how good the underlying material was and remains; I got chills when the title card came up.
Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan make the Rocky story their own. But their reimagining works also because it willingly tackles the mythos head-on. Rocky’s shadow looms over the movie, but in a realistic way, as faded heroes might in the cities that once revered their achievements (Stallone is sensational as a vulnerable Balboa). Against this backdrop, Adonis’ struggles – his identity crisis, his fraught relationships, his training – gain greater depth. And as a result, the fights, already visceral and beautifully shot, mean more. I had high hopes for Creed. I never expected to clap and cheer spontaneously in the theater like a lunatic.
3. Ex Machina
Ex Machina is a strikingly smart movie. It has the feel of a constant chess match – both between Caleb the programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) and Ava the android (Alicia Vikander) as the former administers the Turing Test on the latter, and between Caleb and his host and employer (Oscar Isaac, who can do no wrong) as the former seeks to divine the latter’s true intentions. The majority of the screenplay is comprised of thought-provoking one-on-one conversations that explore the nature of consciousness, morality, life and love.
That the philosophical and intellectual aspects of Ex Machina are seamlessly interwoven into an engaging mystery is a total credit to the movie. The unsettling backdrop infuses an eeriness throughout the proceedings, with tension and momentum building towards an explosive third act that finds Caleb forced to confront his humanity and his relationship with Ava. There are a couple of remarkable scenes in that vein. That those scenes feel like they can go either way is a credit to the intrigue of Ex Machina.
4. Mad Max: Fury Road
Fury Road is essentially the last ten minutes of Road Warrior, except on steroids. It’s a feature-length chase scene that manages to be consistently enthralling and inventive, upping the stakes as the action progresses. What begins as a simple tale of survival for the titular captive (Tom Hardy) transitions into something more as Max finds himself in the middle of a feminist revolt; it is in fact through the Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) storyline that his character develops, oftentimes taking a secondary role in the process. It’s a neat narrative trick.
George Miller and editor Margaret Sixel accomplish the near-impossible in piecing together visually stunning, awe-inspiring, and plain fun sequences from chaos and mayhem. So much happens onscreen, yet the action is not only striking but coherent and digestible. The short breaks in between contain more meaning simply because they are so rare, and because they allow us to see these characters in vulnerable spots. For brief moments at least. Then they snap back to it, because they have to: the chase continues.
The “soldier behind enemy lines” conceit is well-trodden cinematic ground, but rarely is it as brutal and uncompromising as in ’71. The movie seamlessly fits the individual fictional account of British soldier Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) into the historical narrative of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. The open warfare involving multiple paramilitary groups, the resentment between plainclothes soldiers and undercover counter-insurgency agents, the citizenry caught up both amidst and into the conflict – all represented faithfully through Hook’s story, effectively as part of the chaotic environment that threatens his life.
The structure of ’71 is simple: a brief prologue, a brief epilogue, and nonstop intensity in between. It’s reminiscent of one of my all-time favorites, Black Hawk Down, and if the message of that movie was expressly simple (“It’s about the man next to you… and that’s it. That’s all there is.”), so is the one here: the old adage that war is hell. There’s a subplot involving a local youth (Barry Keoghan) that the movie could be more subtle about, but that does build towards a gripping climax that is perfectly executed – and one I watched largely between my fingers.
6. Still Alice
Still Alice might be Oscar bait, but it’s good Oscar bait. This is a movie whose every frame rests upon Julianne Moore’s capable shoulders. Her every word, every expression, every movement conveys so much, reflecting the entirety of her struggle, physical and psychological, as her Alzheimer’s takes hold. It is remarkable the transformation that is depicted through the course of the movie, which doesn’t shy away from the total impact of the disease across all aspects of her life. The dynamics with Alice’s husband (Alec Baldwin) and kids (Kate Bosworth and a standout Kristen Stewart, shockingly enough) in particular deepen the film’s already considerable impact.
7. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
The Mission: Impossible series has become a well-oiled machine, arguably getting better with each successive installment, Part II excepted. The stunts in M:I5 are characteristically fantastic, if perhaps not as flashy as those of its predecessors. The script however is remarkably strong*, with the conflicts sharper and more grounded, thanks in part to several noteworthy additions to the cast – an intimidating villain (Sean Harris), a capable partner (Rebecca Ferguson), and a bureaucratic foil (Alec Baldwin). There’s a climactic showdown that actually feels like Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is walking into an impossible situation, and the manner in which that scene plays out helps to solidify Rogue Nation’s status as the best of the series.
*for a lazy, disappointing Cliff’s Notes version, see Spectre.
On the surface, Dope is a movie that’s been done to death. It’s a coming-of-age high school dramedy, for starters. Even the plot twist of a teen forced into a ridiculous, law-breaking scheme after getting involved with the wrong crowd is reminiscent of Risky Business or The Girl Next Door. Despite this, Dope comes off as stunningly original, largely because of the unique mixture of its protagonist (Shameik Moore), an African-American nerd, and its setting, the hood (Inglewood, CA). Sharply written, insightful, but also consistently funny, the movie is unafraid to be an amalgam of things that have come before. In doing so, it presents a perspective unlike any captured in recent memory.
As with Incendies, Enemy, and Prisoners, Sicario is gripping start to finish. Even without the prominent mystery that his remarkable past efforts contained, Denis Villenueve essentially maintains their spirit – and plays to his strengths – by utilizing perspective and structure. Sicario traces a mission by a task force to hunt down the leader of a Mexican drug cartel, through the eyes of an agent (Emily Blunt) who has no idea what she’s gotten herself into. It is Kate Macer who thus acts as an unwitting detective of sorts, untangling story threads, confronting moral quandaries. Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio Del Toro are all sensational, the set pieces are unbearably tense, but it is how the mission – and that world – impacts Kate that the movie finds its brute force.
10. Jurassic World
Jurassic World is a silly, silly movie. But if you can overlook some egregiously spotty CGI (at times), and acknowledge that Vincent D’Onofrio’s character basically has the word “villain” stamped on his forehead, it is a surprisingly and massively exhilarating, fun, even inventive ride. The characters aren’t too one-dimensional, the kids aren’t too annoying, and the twists aren’t too obvious… not to say those things aren’t any of that. But because of the script’s self-awareness, the chemistry between the leads (Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard) and some breath-taking action sequences, its flaws are forgiven. Jurassic World was one of the most fun experiences I had in a theater in 2015.
My most disliked movie of the year.
There is so much off about Tomorrowland. Its core relationship centers on the middle-aged Frank (George Clooney) and two teenage girls, one an android he has quasi-romantic feelings about. It comes off as strange (or worse) that he remains obsessed 40 years after their pre-pubescent relationship, especially when she still looks like a child. Even putting that side, a good 80-90 minutes elapses before the movie develops any sense of purpose. Everything is vague prologue, as though to create an aura of intrigue, but it comes off as disingenuous sleight of hand at best, vacuous at worst.
Indeed, when the reveal finally does come, when the characters reach Tomorrowland, it feels like an “emperor’s new clothes” situation. The mythology never crystallizes, the vision somehow remaining half-baked as the movie devolves into a generic conflict between two men. The relationship between the land, its people, and our world is never made abundantly clear. The ending comes off as supremely cynical as a result, with “dreamers” stolen while the rest of us are left to rot because we were deemed not worthy. Tonally, structurally, narratively, Tomorrowland is an utter mess.