Piers Marchant’s Best (& Worst) Films of 2015

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The year started with a very strong Sundance line-up (which screened three of my top-five films), continued with some exceptional docs unveiled at True/False, rose up again for a strong Cannes bill, and some particularly memorable turns at TIFF. This year was a rich phantasmagoria of features and strong performances, capped off by a slate of better-than-average prestige pictures into December. Some years we get lucky, I guess. Here’s one critic’s take on the best the year had to offer. Please note a couple of these films have not actually been released yet, their opening dates are listed below.

The 15 Best Films of 2015

15. Sicario
Politically twisty, Denis Villeneuve’s FBI thriller earned cheers and gripes from critics in about equal numbers. True, its main protagonist – played by the estimable Emily Blunt – is left hanging by the film, put into untenable situations that she just doesn’t understand, but as the audience touchstone – a group perceived as equally clueless about the way the FBI goes about its work against the Mexican cartels – she perfectly captures our own confusion. Making Benicio Del Toro’s character an unstoppable assassin from what feels like a different film altogether was difficult to stomach, but there’s no denying the power of its message, nor the dark, apprehensive atmosphere Villeneuve creates.
Full Review

14. Far From Men
Viggo Mortensen is exactly the kind of actor you could imagine starring in a film based on a Camus short story, and so it is that director David Oelhoffen is in full agreement. The resulting film, in which Mortensen plays a French schoolteacher in a remote outpost of Algeria during the revolution against France, is impressive not only for its studied visuals and fine performances, but also for its decidedly Camus-like pace, and moral ambiguity.
Review Capsule

13. Diary of a Teenage Girl
Each year, it seems as if some filmmaker and/or actor comes out of relative obscurity to produce something memorable, in this case, both come out of the same film. Writer/Director Marielle Heller, working from an excellent graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, has created a fascinating coming-of-age film set in mid-‘70s San Francisco, and star Bel Powley, who plays the young woman who steps into an affair with her single mother’s boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård, don’t hold “True Blood” against him), is absolutely ripping in the lead. One of the rare films about young female sexuality that doesn’t end up objectifying its heroine, Heller’s film is a whirlwind of twisted lust and bizarrely permissive ‘70s-era parenting.
Full Review

12. Meru
When a film is made about a group of adventurers set off to accomplish something thought impossible, the results are often as gripping as they are predictable. Not so for Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s riveting documentary about a trio of alpinists who dare to challenge Mount Meru, one of the most imposing and near impossible climbs on Earth. They try, they fail, they attempt again, but by the time the film rolls around to its climax, you are so immersed in their world, and so taken by their struggle, you lose the desire to predict the outcome.
Review Capsule

11. Phoenix
Christian Petzold’s post-WWII drama, about a Jewish concentration camp survivor and singer (Nina Hoss), who returns to her native Berlin in order to track down her beloved husband (Ronald Zehrfeld), the man who may or may not have sold her out to the Nazis, builds slowly but leads to one of the most shattering climaxes of the year, and easily the best mic-drop last scene of 2015. The result, to quote another famous torch singer, is absolutely unforgettable.

10. The Lobster
Here’s what I wrote right after I saw this film at TIFF: “If Kafka had been born later and became a filmmaker rather than a writer, this is the kind of thing he would have enjoyed making. Yorgos Lanthimos continues to explore his peculiarly captivating vision here with a wild-eyed conceit played as drolly deadpan as a staid chamber comedy. At a special hotel somewhere outside a large city, single people are given 45 days to find a partner to share their lives with, or be turned into the animal of their choice and set free in the nearby woods. Lanthimos film is ostensibly a comedy, but because of his visceral acuity, and penchant for disturbing violence, the whole enterprise has a gritty edginess to it. He doesn’t want you comfortable; he wants you transfixed.”
Review Capsule (Release Date: March 11, 2016)

9. Inside Out
One of the rarest of modern children’s films, as it involves the revolutionary notion that sadness is absolutely as important and essential as joy to a child’s healthy development. As much as we may want to coddle our kids and hope they never have a rotten day in their blessed lives, realistically, they will be subject to the same miseries and horrors that afflicted us. Pete Doctor and Ronnie Del Carmen’s film is many things – kids can learn about their emotional make-up, while their parents can openly sob for the death of imaginary friends – but perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is the way it can connect both generations simultaneously, while also hitting them on different levels.
Full Review

8. Anomalisa
Here’s my immediate reaction at TIFF: “Very adult stop-motion animation story from Charile Kaufman and Duke Johnson, and I designate it that not just because of a surprisingly graphic sex scene (the first time I have ever witnessed stop-motion cunnilingus), but because the emotionally sophisticated story – an older customer service expert spends a night in Cincinnati to speak at a convention, and tries to assuage his perpetual loneliness – would absolutely bore the pants out of anyone under 10. For the rest of us, it’s a hauntingly sharp observation on the suffering human condition. Kaufman can sometimes go too Ziggy Stardust for my taste, but here he’s completely on-point.”
Review Capsule (Release Date: January, 2016)

7. Spotlight
A powerful paean to the importance of watchdog journalism, Tom McCarthy’s masterful journo-procedural follows the very real story of the investigative Boston Globe team who broke open the Catholic Church sexual misconduct story, after decades of having it swept under the rug by sympathetic Church powerbrokers. The cast, featuring such luminaries as Michael Keaton, Marc Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Liev Schreiber, is impeccable, the filmmaking moves briskly and with considerable restraint, and the film’s ending, which includes a roll call of the news outlets all over the world who followed suit in their investigations, is absolutely haunting.
Full Review

6. 45 Years
TIFF reaction: “Andrew Haigh (Weekend) has made a luminescent and powerful film about marriage and the passing of time. Based loosely on a short story by David Constantine, the film finds an elderly couple (played by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, both absolutely brilliant) about to celebrate an important anniversary suddenly questioning their choices when one of them receives a startling letter in the mail. Quietly reverberating, the film shimmers with life, and the performances are nothing short of thrilling. It might sound staid, but as with the aging couple themselves, there is a lot of daring vitality in its ancient bones.”
Review Capsule

5. Mad Max: Fury Road
Easily the best action movie of the year, largely because its numerous insane set-pieces and wild stunts had the edge of verisimilitude. George Miller and his extraordinary stunt team worked for months perfecting the on-screen insanity that pervades nearly every scene, and the effect – especially after a loathsome, steady diet of CGI cheats and hosed-up green-screen drama that passes for entertainment during the summer season – was nothing less than scintillating.
Full Review

4. James White
My reaction at Sundance: “When Christopher Abbot left “Girls” in a seeming huff about the triviality of his character a couple of years ago, most of us shrugged and assumed he was just another kid who was too late to recognize what kind of a break he had just gotten, that is if we thought about him much at all. Turns out, he was absolutely right to leave the show and move on to more serious work. He stars in this devastating film from writer/director Josh Mond, the titular character, a well-meaning, but hugely irresponsible young man who has a knack for making the wrong calls and forcing everyone around him to live with his bad decisions. This is especially true of his long-suffering but loving mom, played by Cynthia Nixon, whose been sick with cancer. When the disease comes back with a vengeance, it forces James to face the world a little more head-on, but not without it exacting a pretty horrific toll on him. Quick tempered and hugely impulsive, he has no place to put his anguish except upon everything else around him. For those of us who have lost a parent, the film’s unrelenting intimacy is very nearly unendurable, but I have nothing but mad respect for a filmmaker who can look into that particular abyss so unflinchingly. This is a monster of a film, and the announcement of a phenomenal young actor, suddenly proving his earlier career choices were more than justified.”
Review Capsule

3. The Look of Silence
My reaction at True/False: “Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion film to his Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing returns us to the uneasy tension in Indonesia, a country still under martial rule in the wake of the brutal regime crackdown by a military coup in the ‘60s. Whereas Killing gave us the savage military purging from the perspective of the oppressors – a movement that ultimately resulted in the deaths of more than a million innocent citizens, Silence offers the view from some of the survivors, and their families, forced to live and work alongside the men who wiped out their friends and loved ones nearly five decades ago. The film takes its title quite seriously, there are many small, quiet spots, but rather than setting a mood of tranquility, they underscore the forced suppression the survivors have to endure, living amongst their oppressors. When one man, an optometrist whose brother was killed in the uprising, goes on a series of interviews of the perpetrators, he’s not seeking revenge, he just wants someone – anyone – to take some accountability for their actions and acknowledge their wrongdoing. Instead, he’s treated to an endless assortment of excuses and guilt-suppressing denial. Each film standing on its own is brilliant; together it’s a stunning achievement, one of the more important visual documents of the last couple of decades.”
Review Capsule

2. Brooklyn
My reaction at Sundance: “It’s a masterful, sweeping drama about a young Irish woman (Saoirse Ronan), who travels alone to America in the early ‘50s in order to make a better life for herself, even as she desperately misses her mother and older sister. Eventually, she meets a kindly young Italian man (Emory Cohen) and falls in love, but has to return to Ireland, where she ultimately has to make a fretful decision between staying in her beloved home, or returning to the life she only half-begun across the ocean. It’s the kind of emotionally driven story that you could imagine Hollywood snapping up – and thoroughly botching. Fortunately, the screenplay, based on the novel by Colm Tóibín and adapted flawlessly by Nick Hornby, never loses sight of the potency of the small, well-observed detail. It doesn’t demand that emotions well up in you, it just goes about the business of telling its story, and the wonderful acting and sharp screenwriting do the rest. The film quickly got picked up by Fox Searchlight, and you would have to immediately put it on the short list of next year’s major awards, as long as the studio doesn’t thoroughly screw up its distribution. (Hello, Selma.)”
Review Capsule

1. The Witch
My Sundance reaction: “Robert Eggers’ 16th century horror story takes place in the wilds of New England, with a pilgrim family lead by a proud, God-fearing patriarch (Ralph Ineson) getting banished from their small village to forage on their own. They settle down on a clearing right on the edge of a great and malevolent forest. After their small baby is suddenly whisked away from under gaze of their oldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), things turn worse and worse for the family: The crops grow fallow, the goats start milking blood, and the rest of the children are in constant peril, until the family begins to turn on itself and the accusations of witchcraft readily fly. Expertly constructed, with a startling use of both growing, incessant sound and eerie silence, Eggers terrifying folk-tale captures a lot of the angst we feel confronting a natural world that we can’t bend to our force of will. This is one ghoulish story you most definitely do not want to tell your kids around the campfire, unless you want them huddled around you shaking and sobbing all night.”
Review Capsule (Release Date: Feb. 26, 2016)

Other Worthy Mentions:
About Elly, Ant Man, Backcountry, Bang Gang, Best of Enemies, Bitter Lake, Black Sea, Carol, Cartel Land, Finders Keepers, It Follows, Love & Mercy, Room, Salt of the Earth, Slow West, Son of Saul, The Big Short, The End of the Tour, The Nightmare, The Other Side, The Revenant, While We’re Young,

The Worst Films of 2015

5. Blackhat
A weakly plotted, idiotic Internet action thriller, it asks us to find Chris Hemsworth credible as a visionary hacker (um, no), and able to knock out a group of trained assassins utilizing tips he learned from watching episodes of “The Wire.” Michael Mann: How the mighty have fallen.
Full Review

4. San Andreas
Yes, one always has to allow for a certain amount of disbelief when it comes to big action flicks, but this idiotic Rock vehicle didn’t just have plot holes amongst its various inconsistencies, it had veritable caverns. Full Review

3. Fantastic Four
Almost a wasted spot for this Josh Trank film, which was absolutely pilloried by critics and ignored by theater-goers in its August release. But a special shout-out for the film’s “climax” which involved one of the least likely and most fully fungible final battles ever, a moment where you could feel the studio just shrug its shoulders and toss the film in the write-off bin.
Full Review

2. Tomorrowland
Another hagiographic Disney flick about the wonder of Disney-nis was one of the most cynically creepy films of this or any year. What the producers hoped would be a new franchise to blow-out with merchandise, turned instead to be a pretty significant misstep for the mouse. We’d like to think this might teach them some humility, but whom are we kidding? Full Review

1. 50 Shades of Grey
Can’t say the books much called to me in the first place, but this turgid adaption, dutiful as it was pushing the cultural envelope with its intensely dull scenes from within a sex dungeon and CGI’d pubic hair, suffered greatly from the utter lack of what you might call chemistry between its two leads. Nothing against Dakota Johnson, who has shown promise elsewhere, and Jamie Dornan, who hasn’t yet, but it can’t be much of a treat for them to have to reunite for at least two more productions of this dull mess.
Full Review

Other Dishonorable Entries:
Crimson Peak, In the Heart of the Sea, Ricki & the Flash, Steve Jobs, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2

Inexplicably Overrated: Crimson Peak

Biggest Welcome Surprise(s): Backcountry, Ant Man, James White

Most Bitter Disappointment(s): Crimson Peak, Ex-Machina, The Avengers: Age of Ultron

Film(s) That Critics Got Wrong: Crimson Peak, Ricki & the Flash

Film(s) I Totally Whiffed On: Clouds of Sils Maria, The Martian

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piersPiers Marchant is a film critic and writer based in Philly.

Find more confounding amusements and diversions at his blog, Sweet Smell of Success, or read his further 142-character rants and ravings at @kafkaesque83.

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