Top Ten Films of 2015


Photo taken from Magnolia Pictures

10. The Revenant

There is an excellent Youtube video titled “The Revenant by Tarkovsky”. The piece is an excellent visual essay that reflects images from Alejandro Inarritu’s “The Revenant” against similar images from some of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films like “Nostalghia” and “Stalker”.

The essay has been used mostly as a talking point for those who feel the film is lacking in originality and quality. However, for me, I would say that it only proves that Inarritu has made an extremely dedicated Tarkovsky fan film.

In the same way that J.J. Abrams remade the first “Star Wars” film last year, Inarritu essentially has made his send off to the Russian genius himself. He has combined images, sounds and themes to create a film that Tarkovsky would be hopefully proud of.   

However, what separates the film from being a simple retread is the content. In that Tarkovsky films are much more complex than “The Revenant”. Not that this is a bad thing. In fact the simplicity is what makes the film stand out. It allows the film to focus on what’s important, the revenge story.

“The Revenant” is a simple revenge story. Hugh Glass (Leonardo Dicaprio)  is left for dead by his former comrades and treks through miles of frozen forest to murder the man who killed his son (Tom Hardy).

While there may be some backlash against Dicaprio’s Oscar win for his performance, he does his job fairly well. I can respect the physical lengths he went to and appreciate his visual acting skills.

However, Tom Hardy has once again clenched a film in his iron grip. Hardy, Fitzgerald, is probably the most interesting creation that comes out of the film. He is a miserable human being whose only solace is his money and animal pelts. Fitzgerald’s character draws a clear parallel to Glass. Fitzgerald’s cold blooded nature could very easily be transferred to Glass. This clearly is intentional due to the nature of the message of the film. Which, although originally seems cookie cutter, is delivered in a beautiful way which makes it hard to not see the value in a great revenge film.  

9. The Stanford Prison Experiment

There are few movies that deal with human nature quite like “The Stanford Prison Experiment”. The case when, in 1971, 24 students were held in an abandoned wing of Stanford University for $15 a day to either play a guard or a prisoner.

One of the most interesting segments of the film comes near the beginning of the film when the scientists ask the students whether they would like to be a guard or a prisoner. Where the film shows the students as students first and not actual prisoners or guards.

This slowly degrades as the film progresses. As the guards become even more power hungry and abusive the prisoners soon don’t see themselves as students in an experiment but as prisoners. Further proving the film and the experiment’s point.

If one was to single out one specific thing that the film does to stand out it would be the ability that Kyle Patrick Alvarez has to capture extremely realistic performances. Michael Angarano plays a guard in the film who is frequently referred to as “John Wayne” because of his bravado tough guy nature. This gets to the heart of what the film tries to say about human nature: that everyone has a little of John Wayne and the submissive prisoner inside of them.

Overall it’s pretty clear that “Stanford Prison Experiment” will likely become a cult classic. However, there will be much more going for it in the way of substance than most cult classic films.

8. Creed

The “Rocky” films have a special place in the hearts of millions of Americans. This is because, at least the first film, truly reflects the American dream. That any bum from anywhere can knock the heavyweight champion of the world to his knees if only given the opportunity. However, that was the message of the first film. Since 1976 there have been five sequels to “Rocky”, only one of which has been great. Unfortunately, because the series was so easily marketable, it made it easy for Sylvester Stallone to misunderstand the heart of the series. There was no real need for Rocky to defeat Apollo Creed in “Rocky II”. Because the point of the first film was that Rocky could stand up to the best, he didn’t have to beat them.

Thankfully, after years of reflection, MGM put the series in the hands of an up-and-coming filmmaker who is right for the series. As much as I do adore Stallone’s no nonsense directing style, Ryan Coogler is the perfect choice for this series.

The film takes place in a post- “Rocky Balboa” world. Where Rocky has officially retired from boxing and has decided to live a quiet life as a restaurant owner. Until the estranged son of his former rival Apollo Creed arrives with a proposition. Adonis wants to train with the aging boxer. Not just to become a better boxer, but to also get more in touch with what made his father great.

The film does a lot to build with the lore of the “Rocky” franchise. Which, admittedly, is extremely strong. The mention of former main characters is met with fond remembrances. However, the film does not indulge in fan service as much as one might think.

The film ultimately got a lot of press in the beginning for being a “black Rocky”. The film itself has very little interest in Creed’s skin color and more has an interest in legacy. Probably the most remarkable scenes in “Creed” are the fight scenes. Coogler decides to use the camera as a full instrument. This is best shown in the first fight scene. In this scene the difference between the camera work in this film and the previous ones is shown. The camera bobs and weaves like a boxer. This puts the audience in the shoes of the boxer instead of the real audience members.

Coogler also understands that Philadelphia is a key to the “Rocky” franchise. In this film, Philadelphia is given real character and feels much more like a real setting than in previous films. More than anything, this is what has been missing from the series ever since 1976.

7. The Hateful Eight

Director Quentin Tarantino has truly been one of the most interesting filmmakers to watch over the past 15 years. He has slowly fallen deeper and deeper into his own ironic style to the point of even self parody. For example, he has the gall to actually release a three hour western film shot on 70mm film in 2015. One could group a film like the “Hateful Eight” with other films like “The Artist”. However, unlike “The Artist”, Tarantino was able to create a full fledged genre film with absolutely no restrictions.

Much like his debut film “Reservoir Dogs”, “The Hateful Eight” plays out like a stage production, in that it takes place mostly in one room with characters dueling with their silver tongues. Although some could claim that this could make the film extremely dull, Tarantino has become a master at writing gripping dialogue. Even though the characters are snowed-in within a cabin, their own complexities and charisma pull through.
The biggest draw to the film are the performances. The usual suspects like Sam Jackson and Tim Roth turn in expectedly great performances, but it’s the newcomers who turn in the best performances. Bruce Dern’s excellent performance as the hardened Civil War general adds depth to the film’s themes.

There will be no “spoilers” given in this review; however, there is a small piece of the story that some viewers will ignore that brings the message of the film the the forefront near the bloody climax.

6. Macbeth

Shakespeare film adaptations are always tricky, because there are several adaptations of the playwright’s work that has benefitted cinema in many ways. Laurence Olivier’s adaptation of “Hamlet” pushed the envelope for what would come to be expected of a Shakespeare adaptation. On the other hand, the fact that Shakespeare’s works are plays with hundreds of different available adaptations gives way to laziness. Although many critics praise the acting ability of Kenneth Branagh and his cohorts, his films don’t exactly innovate the film form. Many Shakespeare films choose to ignore the visual nature of film and almost never deviate from the template laid out by the man himself.

This is why Justin Kurzel’s film “Macbeth” is not only great, but important. The opening battle scene alone should be held as an example for all Shakespeare adaptations in the future. The film uses all forms of visual storytelling. Using color to show mood and tone is just one of the examples of how Kurzel and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw utilize the full extent of the art. The film does not change anything from the basic story but, much like all adaptations of the famous play, the excellent performances from Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard push the film into excellence.

The best Shakespeare adaptations are the ones that not only improve upon the genre but also change aspects that make it memorable. While some may not enjoy the 1990 adaptation of “Hamlet”, one cannot deny that changing the setting and language can make a film interesting and lasting for years. The same can be said for loose adaptations like “My Own Private Idaho”. Using “Henry V” simply as a jumping off point for the story, Gus Van Sant allows again for larger interpretations surrounding the story.

All of these things and more are performed with flying colors in “Macbeth”. While the story might not have been changed all that much, the visual storytelling will definitely carve a place for “Macbeth”  into the pantheon of Shakespeare adaptations.

5. Sicario

A friend of mine has deemed Denis Villeneuve’s new film “Sicario” the scariest film of the year. So much so that every time that we try to watch a horror film he interjects that we should watch “Sicario”.

While “Sicario” may not necessarily be a horror film in the eyes of many, it is one of those rare films that can make audience’s pulses race with terror. For this reason and many others, “Sicario” is one of the most thoroughly enjoyable films of the year.

While on the surface the film is about the conflicts that the DEA has with Mexican drug cartels on the border towns, “Sicario” is not a documentary. In that it does not get bogged down with the overabundance of information that Kathryn Bigelow’s film “Zero Dark Thirty” did. In fact one would find it very easy to draw parallels between the two films, especially in their presentations.

The presentation of the cartel in “Sicario” astoundingly refreshing. The cartel is presented much less like a small group of people who are dangerous, and more like an ever present force of nature. Although the cartel is only a large group of people who want nothing more than to have power and money, the film focuses on how the DEA agents perceive the gang members.

Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins do an excellent job at isolating us within the mind of the main character. Emily Blunt plays the uninformed DEA agent Kate Macer with a lot of realism. Her reactions to situations seem genuine and the conflicts that she goes through in the film feel very realistic. Although it is Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro who really pushes the film into being an instant suspense classic. The silent drug informant adds extra depth to the film that make it instantly re-watchable.

“Sicario” is a film about human terror, it’s a film about morals and how to deal with them. The conclusions that the film comes to on several of these topics definitely legitimize the claims that it is a horrifying film.

4. The Gift

The master of the modern thriller, Brian De Palma, has unfortunately dropped off the face of relevance when it comes to modern 21st century cinema. De Palma has made some of the most important horror and suspense films in the last great decades in American film history, such as “Blow Out” and “Body Double”. Yet, he has not made an objectively great film since the 1990s. However there have not been a shortage of copycats. Although they do take a lot of already existing style, films like “The Gift” have an extremely alluring presence.

“The Gift” is Joel Edgerton’s feature debut and it is a stunning one. The film really preys on many common fears that are sorely left out of many thrillers and horror films today. Choosing to focus on the creepy neighbor who may be getting too close opposed to the murderous psychopath allows for a fresh perspective. Although the cinematography may not be beautiful in the traditional sense, Eduard Grau really does know how to photograph an awkward scene and give it a touch of terror.

The film’s biggest strength is in its writing and acting. Edgerton has proven that he can write a thrilling story with the setup. But it’s the stock that Edgerton has in his audience is what truly puts this film at the top of this list. Much like last year’s best film “Whiplash”, “The Gift” does not ask you to sympathize with the main characters. The film simply presents the facts and lets the audience decide for themselves. In fact, Edgerton’s writing with regards to the main characters is probably what makes the film so extraordinary. The film develops relationships so well that I’m sure many of people will relate to some of the characters traits towards the end of the film.

The film’s last moments are so haunting that the theater was left in terrified silence. Much like the best horror films, the ending works because it leaves something with you.

3. Anomalisa

If the Academy Awards are any indication, it seems that worldwide audiences don’t really take animated films that seriously. So much so that they have an entirely different category for best animated picture. However, as the medium develops, animated films have become more and more “adult”. Not the least of which is Charlie Kaufman’s new film “Anomalisa”.

Kaufman has chosen, in his second directed film, to make a stop-motion animated film about what else, humans. Beautifully wrapped within Kaufman’s signature strangeness, “Anomalisa” is set in modern day Cincinnati in a fancy hotel. The film follows an author who has written several best selling books about customer service. The author, Michael Stone, is trapped within the mundane nature of his life. So much so that everyone in his life, including his wife and child, all sound exactly the same. This is literal, of course, knowing Kaufman. In fact, the film only has three listed actors. One for Michael, everyone else, and Lisa.

Lisa is the “lisa” in “Anomalisa”. She becomes an anomaly in Michael’s life. He becomes infatuated with her the minute he hears her voice. Lisa is initially very suspicious by Michael’s interest in her. Kaufman shows that he is the master of human relationships; even though the film runs a meager 90 minutes, the relationship feels as though it has lasted forever.

For fans of Kaufman’s previous films, “Anomalisa” may not have as many flagship moments, in that there are no “Malkovich Malkovich” or “Baby Joel” scenes in the film. To some, this might signal that Kaufman may have lost his touch. However, I would claim that it only means that Kaufman is one of the most versatile writer/directors of the 21st century.  

2. Steve Jobs

In 1998 Apple co-founder Steve Jobs once said that “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” This was the conflict between the 2013 film “Jobs” and the 2015 film “Steve Jobs”, one of which is a terribly acted, directed and produced film that fails to tell an interesting story about one of the 20th century’s most interesting figures. Meanwhile, “Steve Jobs” is a masterful character study directed in a unique way with some of the best acting that of that year. Unfortunately, people weren’t able to determine the difference. Because the former film received a six million dollar opening weekend while the latter only produced a meager $500,000.

These numbers bring truth to Jobs’ original idea. I would like to think that people would have loved “Steve Jobs” had they seen it. Because, those who have seen it think that it is one of the better biographical films that has been released in the last few years. I’m including myself in that statement. Although the story of Job’s life has been told several times in documentaries and other films, director Danny Boyle and writer Aaron Sorkin have found the most unique way to tell the man’s story.

Taking place over at least 30 years, the film is driven in episodic format during three landmark announcements in Jobs’ career as a business man, ending in 1998 with the announcement of the iMac. Essentially, the film plays as three 40-minute short films about the man. Not only is this approach extremely nuanced, but it also makes the two hour run time feel brisk.

I would be remiss if I didn’t sing the praises of the actors in the film. Three years ago Ashton Kutcher made the mistake of playing Jobs as a cartoon character in a film already filled with caricatures. I couldn’t say for sure if Fassbender studied Kutcher’s performance, but I can say that he has turned in the best performance of his career. Not only is Fassbender’s performance convincing but it is also charismatic and calculating. The subtleties in Fassbender’s voice and facial expressions make him the obvious choice to portray the controversial “genius”. The other standouts are too many to count. Kate Winslet delivers her best performance since “Little Children” as Sarah . Seth Rogen, asSteve Wozniak, and Jeff Daniels, as John Sculley, both show that comedic actors can deliver excellent dramatic performances if only given the right direction. As always Michael Stuhlbarg gives his memorable character performance and has real chemistry with Fassbender as Andy Hertzfeld.

When Danny Boyle puts his all into a film he really does get things done. Much like Steve Boyle does not play an instrument, he plays the orchestra.

1. Entertainment

Director Rick Alverson has made two films surrounding anti-comedy stars. Both of which have been extremely critical of the comedic landscape. While Alverson’s last film “The Comedy” did have big dreams, even the biggest Tim Heidecker fans could tell that the film was unfocused and poorly paced. Thankfully, Alverson is obviously evolving as a filmmaker in the film “Entertainment” and is learning how to use his anti-comedy trio to the best of his ability.

I’m not sure if anti-comedy will be remembered as an underrated genre in the future, but I can say with absolute certainty that the people who have worked on the “Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job” have done some more impressive work than the cast members of “Saturday Night Live”. This is shown not only through Heidecker’s performance in the excellent yet underappreciated “Decker”, but also in cinematic genius Gregg Turkington.

On the surface “Entertainment” has an extremely simple premise. It’s the story of a struggling comedian driving across the California desert to meet his daughter. However, much like the films of Wim Wenders, the presentation is what makes it stand out. Some would call this an experimental film along the lines of Terrence Malick’s “Thin Red Line”, where there is very little dialogue and the story is mostly told through character actions and visuals.

Much like Turkington’s persona on his web series “On Cinema at the Cinema”, he gives off an air of elitism. The Comedian, an obvious play on Turkington’s stage persona Neil Hamburger, feels as though he is the best in the business. The Comedian can’t really understand why he isn’t getting laughs night after night. This is punctuated by many of his jokes that involve him screaming ‘why?’,  as if he is screaming not only at himself but the audience to answer his plea for laughter.

The connections with filmmakers like Wenders are made even more present with the cameo from acclaimed actor Dean Stockwell. While Stockwell does not have an extremely prevalent role, his presence toward the end of the film brings the ending full circle.

Alverson has proved that he is a real contender in the independent film scene. Alverson truly understands poetic filmmaking beyond much of what has been released in the independent scene this year. I said in my review for the film earlier this year that “‘Entertainment’ was terrifying in its imagery and beautiful in its poetry” and I believe this sentiment has held strong.

By Vaughn Cockayne

One Response to “Top Ten Films of 2015”
  1. Stewart says:

    DiCaprio carries The Revenant. While Hardy is good his character is not at all original and has far more exposition. DiCaprio is the one who has his iron grip on this film. He entirely vanishes into the role of Glass and becomes the spitting image of him. It’s a truly transformative role. Also, he has to carry the movie by himself for huge stretches and convince us of the characters reality. Remember he is on playing a character who is reacting to the weither. He is playing a character who is reacting to being attacked by a huge cgi bear, who is seemingly dieing of his wounds, who witnesses his beloved son being murdered in front of him and being unable to help, who is left for dead by his colleagues, is in fear of being murdered by hostile tribes, and who thirty for revenge against Hardy. He has to juggle the emotional balls of love grief, fear, anger, revenge and the doubts and insecurities that accoompany these feelings. The only way he can tell this story is through his body language, his facial expressions, his eyes. And the only way he can do that is by being in the zone or following a thought as the acting teachers call it. This is one of the hardest things for an actor to do. It requires concentration and focus or else it won’t work. Other actors can lose this concentration by having a dip walk pass there eyeline, as Bale did on the set of Terminater Salvation. It’s distracting. How much harder then was it for DiCaprio who had to contend not only with the distractions of weither so cold his fingers went knumb but also the technical distractions of a director more interested, like george lucas in star wars, with the look of the picture and the photography. All this and DiCaprio had to do it without the two tools that every actor depends on. His voice (exposition of character, which Tom Hardy put to such good use) and other actors to react off. (50 PERCENT OF ACTING IS REACTING) All in all DiCaprios performance was the stand out performance of the year and he fully deserved the Oscar win..

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