TOP 10 OF 2015

For the second year in a row I've found it simpler to craft a top ten list than I have since starting this site. In the beginning I felt the pressure to somewhat succumb to the decision to compile my favorite films of the year from those that the majority of critics were choosing-I was making a consensus list if nothing else, but over the last few years the ability to feel confident in my own choices has only grown and thus made making my yearly top tens a much simpler task. There are always a lot of good films throughout the year and many more that I'd still like to see that came to us this year (Sleeping with Other People, Diary of a Teenage Girl, Chi-Raq, and Goodnight Mommy to name a few). I'm also keen to see as many of the foreign language contenders as I can before the Academy Awards in February as I have Son of Saul on deck and will likely have watched both it and Phoenix (now streaming on Netflix) before this article is posted. Still, I feel good about my choices this year and find it to be a solid list of ten films (plus five honorable mentions) that I would never mind going back to watch again and again (a major factor in my decision). While the re-watchability factor counts for a lot I certainly put a fair amount of weight into my initial reaction as well as I go back and look through the barrage of films I've seen and reviewed this year.

Over the course of 2015 I gave out thirty-seven four-star (on a scale of five) ratings to new release films out of the nearly two hundred I saw. With only ten ranking above that, eight getting four and a half stars and two getting full fives, it would seem that the making of a top ten would be pretty cut and dry, right? Well, after going back and re-watching many of these films (there are still a few I've only seen once), it is always necessary to do some re-arranging. The film that got the brunt of this shuffle was Avengers: Age of Ultron. I initially gave it four and a half stars and I stand by that decision. It's a better film than the first, it is full-on popcorn entertainment and after watching it a second time as well as with the commentary track from Joss Whedon I certainly appreciate the film, but it simply didn't seem to stack up when I would consider these fifteen films I've placed in front of it. Each of these films elicited an emotional connection, a feeling of awe or simply one of a lasting impression that while my initial reaction wasn't as impressed there was something I couldn't shake about them. This is true with each of my honorable mentions, but the one that removed Ultron from the top ten was Brooklyn-a film I've now seen twice and can't wait to watch again and again. In retrospect, it is something of a perfect film and I wish I'd realized that upon my initial viewing. Before we get to Brooklyn though, let us begin on the west coast as my number ten film of the year centers around a group that revolutionized hip hop culture in the 1980's.

I was born in 1987. By this time the likes of Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren, and DJ Yella were already beginning to make waves in their home town of Compton, CA. In just a little over a years time these five individuals, collectively known as N.W.A, would release their seminal record that shares it's title with the groups new biopic, Straight Outta Compton. Straight Outta Compton is full of energy, at least for the majority of it's two and a half hour runtime. It is a film that grabs you right from the beginning. It throws the audience into the midst of what this generation was facing and experiencing as far as prejudice and pop culture was concerned. Because of it's decade spanning timeline and the depths in which it covers the people involved in creating this music and the events that inspired them to do so it feels like something of an epic. Epic in the vein of narrating the deeds of these now historical figures and rap heroes that explains the caveats of the history of south Los Angeles county. Sure, it has it's issues in trying to contain it's sprawling epicness (apparently the first cut of the film was nearly four hours), but I can't help but know that on repeat viewings I will only come to love and enjoy this movie more and more.

The End of the Tour is, on the surface, a road movie about one writer doing a profile on another writer, but more than that it is a film of conversation and constant introspection. It's almost exhausting to constantly think in the way our two main characters presented here do, throwing out ideas and immediately reassessing those ideas or deep-diving further to find the root of where such ideas come from. The talking. It can be a bit much, it can feel overbearing even, but it ultimately captures so much of the soul that it can't help but feel soothing at the same time. It's strange, to be sure, but it makes perfect sense, especially when it's so elegantly and perfectly phrased by writer David Foster Wallace. As portrayed by Jason Segel, Wallace doesn't so much convey the narcissistic pretension that we might expect from someone of his stature, but rather he is constantly wrestling with this idea of self-reflection and the awareness of one's self. Through this journey Segel's Wallace doesn't discount much of what we see as good, seductive commercial entertainment for the sake of feeling better than everyone else, but more he loves it as much as we do despite knowing it's akin to junk food. In this regard, the film is an insightful portrait of the male psyche and the messiness of life and all the bullshit one has to sift through in order to even catch a glimpse of something real.

Moving backward to move forward. In this first installment of a new Star Wars trilogy that seems to be the sentiment everyone was after. In essence, that is what the fans have wanted for so long-for everything to change, but nothing at the same time. By evolving the characters yet keeping them within the same world director J.J. Abrams has appeased the masses that remain angry at George Lucas to this day over the prequels while at the same time enlisting a whole new generation of Star Wars fans who have likely only heard whisperings of why this franchise is so great and means so much to so many people. With The Force Awakens Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan hammer home the idea that this universe has always centered around: legacy. With this in mind it makes sense that we see where Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Leia Organa have been all these years and that despite them seeming to have everything under control when we last left them, that things don't always go the way we hope or expect. To see the fruition of these full lives come to life on the big screen makes it easy to want to relive this experience time and time again, but to also be able to discover compelling new characters and story arcs that make fans anxious for the next installment is truly gratifying, most of the time even pretty stimulating.

As I walked out the latest from writer/director Quentin Tarantino I knew I was entertained and somewhat blown away by the man's ability to remain consistent in crafting such engaging dialogue and memorable characters while placing them in a wholly unforgettable set of circumstances. What I wasn't sure of was what exactly the point of this latest venture was. It had become so clear over the course of Tarantino's last few films that he was interested in exposing the underbelly of some of history's less than flattering periods, but with The Hateful Eight  he would be returning to the Western genre without revising it and without telling some sort of revenge tale. Some have said Hateful Eight is more or less a bloated version of Reservoir Dogs set in the ole west and while the comparison is certainly apt in some regard the more I thought about it (and it's impossible not to continue thinking about it after seeing it) the more I cam to the realization Tarantino was putting forth the idea that the state this country was founded on and how it came out of the conflicts of the Civil War was an unstable one with qualities still echoing into today's society. After all, if you're an artist of merit your work tends to always reflect the times in which one finds themselves and Tarantino has done so here by simply masking the issues he desires to address in the guise of America's oldest genre.

Over the last few years, filmmakers and writers have become more and more fascinated with the idea of artificial intelligence. It is an idea that has always been present of course, but as we get closer to the actual realization of such a thing the consequences of it become all the more real and thus all the more frightening. You can look to Her, which is likely the closest in terms of what these films are saying about developing convincing relationships with artificial beings and their inability to stay with us for too long before moving on due to their superiority, but there are also films like Transcendence and Chappie that have come out within the last couple of years and have attempted to tackle the consequences of creating a God-like being. While Transcendence spun too many ideas that it couldn't keep track of, Chappie gave us the cliff notes for what make up the most interesting discussions in Ex Machina. It is the conversations here that propels the movie forward. Writer Alex Garland makes his directorial debut with this film and it couldn't be more impressive. It's clear the relationship and understanding he developed while crafting the script informed the making of the film as we can feel the themes and big idea jumping off the screen as if we were deep in the heart of a rapturous novel. Ex Machina, despite being heavy-handed and wordy, makes itself so inviting and fascinating time and time again if not for the conversation, but one unforgettable dance scene.

Adam McKay has been making movies like The Big Short for years now, he just hid them under the guise of broad comedy. That McKay has moved on to what is now simply classified more as a "drama" rather than a "comedy" doesn't seem to have changed his approach as The Big Short is still a frequently funny movie with McKay's hallmark sensibilities very much intact. The real difference between The Big Short and anything McKay has made in the past is that this time around he's been granted the ability to react to the material he's examining and get angry with the fact that what's been done is outrageous and wrong McKay takes author Michael Lewis' (Moneyball, The Blind Side) book and crafts a multiple arc story that focuses in on characters who have well-defined moral compasses and who come to their decisions to take on the big banks for the banks greed and lack of foresight rather than for the explicit reason of becoming rich. That McKay is able to bottle all of these emotions into a single film: the anger, the disgust, the outrageous quality of the situation and make us feel all of them while keeping us consistently entertained is a marvel in and of itself, but that it also teaches us more than we probably ever cared to learn is invaluable.

Brooklyn is gorgeous and moving and all things warm and fuzzy without ever devolving into a Hallmark channel original. From the moment the film opens on a doe-eyed and innocent Saoirse Ronan working feverishly in a convenience shop in the early 1950's I was hooked by the effortless quality of the inviting atmosphere director John Crowley (Boy A, Closed Circuit) establishes. This immediate sense of safe familiarity allows for the rather objective-less story adapted from Colm Toibin's novel by Nick Hornby (About A Boy) to feel all the more profound and affecting as it unravels. Thus is the power of simplicity and pure old-school filmmaking and storytelling. There is really no reason as to why Brooklyn should work as well as it does and upon my initial viewing I think I was simply surprised it ended up working as well as it did. I couldn't stop thinking about how happy the film made me though. It was, unlike say something meant to elicit awards chatter like The Danish Girl, a film that left a lasting impression. One that I couldn't shake and couldn't wait to share with others. Ronan's performance is absolutely brilliant as it combines pure devastation with real hope and optimism, but the MVP here is Emory Cohen as Ronan's love interest Tony. Brooklyn is solid from the start, but once Cohen shows up it becomes exceptional.

I've probably watched Love & Mercy more than any other film on this list. I saw it on the big screen, I watched it as soon as it was available on Blu-Ray, I watched it with the commentary from director Bill Pohland and writer Oren Moverman as well as making my wife watch it simply because I love it so much. Any time since it's release in June when I've been asked to recommend a movie to friends or family I've used this one as a default. Any time anyone has followed up with me after checking out Love & Mercy I've heard nothing but appreciation and I can't help but to think that's due to the fact the film is about a popular figure who produced incredibly familiar songs, but is done in a unique fashion that features two equally impressive performances. Many music biopics take the route of exposing famous people and their personal demons rather than exploring why they came to be in the music business in the first place. In short, the love of music and the passion for the craft is largely left out of the mix, but as with last years Get On Up, Love & Mercy uses the music and how it influences the life of Brian Wilson to lead us to get to know this man better making John Cusack's performance all the more meaningful and Paul Dano's beyond fascinating.

Like with Love & Mercy, Steve Jobs is a biopic with a twist and thus the reason I probably find it so fascinating as well. I care to make no qualms about it: Aaron Sorkin is the best screenwriter working at the moment. The guy delivers precise, other-worldly dialogue that would never actually come from a human's mouth, but is somehow able to render itself immensely soulful. With the premise of yet another Steve Jobs movie the question would be in approach-how would they do it differently that might justify the reasoning for another movie about the same man? After all, we already have the Ashton Kutcher film and he looks way more convincing as the Apple founder than Michael Fassbender. Wait...Fassbender? Despite looking nothing like Jobs, Fassbender takes the role and turns Sorkin's rapid fire dialogue into a deadly combination of punches. If Fassbender were a boxer his opponents would have been knocked out in the first round. He's relentless. Stacked with credentials and structured as three acts backstage before the launch of a new product, Steve Jobs is an incomparable film that will undoubtedly stand the test of time and serve as a stirring portrait of one of the great minds of the twenty-first century.

Being a Catholic myself this could be seen as overcompensating, but there really were no issues with picking the best and most enthralling movie experience I had this year and that was with Spotlight. I don't like that these things happened, I don't like that they happened within an organization I affiliate myself with, but they did happen and we can't act like they didn't. The church has recently taken steps to be more transparent with their parishioners and I can appreciate that. What I appreciate about the film though, is that it never attacks the Catholic faith and it never criticizes those who choose to follow the church, but instead it simply tasks itself with exposing the repercussions of the victims while getting to the bottom of an investigation that was being covered up by some bad folks: clergy and lawyers alike. Director and co-writer Tom McCarthy has delivered a perfectly executed film with no hiccups, no time for second guesses and nothing narratively to take away from the main objective. Spotlight is a prime piece of meat with all of the fat trimmed and only the juiciest parts left so as to make the whole experience one of pure, concentrated excellence.

While there are a number of films I would have loved to include within my top 10-the likes of The Martian, Mad Max: Fury Road, 45 Years, Kingsman: The Secret Service, and even broad blockbusters like Furious 7, Trainwreck, and the aforementioned Avengers sequel-the next five are the ones I labored over including in my ten best of the year, but simply didn't stack up to the competition of those that made the final list. I loved each of the next five films and even sought out most of them multiple times while for the two I haven't seen more than once (Sicario & Creed) they are ones that I can't wait to experience again as well as share in that experience with others. These would naturally make up numbers 11-15 in my top films of the year and have been listed below in that ascending order.

Room operates as a tense and unnerving thriller for it's first half before becoming an intense psychological trip in it's second. Both are equally engaging with the whole benefiting as it ends up being doubly compelling. I was unaware of the story going into the film and believe I was all the better for it. I was blown away by both lead performances from Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, but more than that I was curious as to if it would hold up on a second viewing. Upon having the opportunity to see the film a second time it was just as nerve-wracking and arguably even more moving as I was able to notice all of the nuances director Lenny Abrahamson and writer Emma Donoghue (who adapted the screenplay from her own novel) included.

 The Revenant feels like a movie that will be around for a long time. It is a movie that will be discussed not for its large themes or the depth with which it conveys this rather simple and straight-forward story, but more for what it was able to accomplish in bringing beauty out through such brutality. That, in its own way, it was able to deliver as visceral an experience as one could have with a motion picture. This is a movie not meant to elicit a lot of intellectual pondering, but more an experience of the emotions that you drink in, let settle, and then decide if it's for you or not.

With Sicario, director Denis Villeneuve is once again examining the human condition under the most stringent of circumstances and once again he puts our nerves through the ringer. I walked away from Sicario with a stunned respect for how what was being said was in fact stated. Brutal beyond measure, unflinching to a fault and featuring an extremely serious tone balanced by a slight comedic performance from Josh Brolin, Vileneuve has crafted a film that is not wholly concerned with plot as much as it is the examination of the complexities of these people who are trapped in a world convoluted beyond their comprehension that only continues to go around in circles.

The Final Girls uses the self-aware technique not to make fun of the actions in their movie, but more to examine the staples of nostalgia and how what eventually become these staples begin as innocent, unintentional marks of the decade from which a movie is born. We're unaware of the tropes being created by the countless super hero blockbusters of our current cinematic landscape, but in twenty years there is no doubt the twenty-somethings will find a strange comfort in movies that attempt to recreate the tone and energy of what we can't see in front of us right now. It's a movie that people who loves movies will love with the fact that it balances its comedy and its emotional heft making it all the more effective and, surprisingly, affecting.

Creed is set in the same tone and style of the original Rocky film and takes many of its cues from Sylvester Stallone's 1976 original. Director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) and cinematographer Maryse Alberti (The Wrestler) give the film a cold, gray palette that captures the chilling Philly winters and the toughness Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) will need to make it through Balboa's training and into the ring where the colors can explode. This method compliments the climax and the film as a whole making the audience feel as if we've truly been on a journey. Coogler keeps things at street level, paying homage to the first film, but never allows his film to become little more than a mimic of what we've seen before. The real question moving forward was always going to be if Adonis Johnson could resonate in a way that we'd feel the need to stand up and cheer. Round one goes to Creed.

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