Best Films of 2015

 

I still have a lot left to watch this year, like every year the prestige films get flooded upon us throughout December and mid-January leaving the unprofessional cinephile without extra cash or Friday evenings. There was a lot of stuff that was highly acclaimed that I was pretty meh on (It FollowsThe Duke of BurgundyLove & MercySpotlightTangerine) and quite a few movies that I recognize as flawed but excited me enough to ignore those flaws (DopeSicarioSlow WestStraight Outta Compton). I think I’ve become less willing to accept the merits of the “average” film, meaning that a movie better do something to excite me or I’m not having it. This probably happens after so many years and is probably why I haven’t made time to watch Oscar bait like The Danish Girl or Steve Jobs or super hero movies like Ant Man; they just don’t cut it for me anymore.

Another trend you may notice is that in nine out of the top ten, a woman is the most important character in the film. This wasn’t intentional by any means, but shows what could be an exciting new trend in cinema.

This is a list of films that did excite me this year, one that I will continue to update as I see more and more (so check back!).

Before we start, a list of things I haven’t seen (embarrassing, I know): Son of SaulThe TribeBridge of SpiesThe Big ShortThe MartianChi-Raq99 Homes45 YearsThe AssassinMustangHeaven Knows What

20. The Stanford Prison Experiment

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A thrilling movie that captures the debated prison guard/prisoner experiment that took place in the 70s on Stanford’s campus. There is a lot out there about the validity of the experiment and its results, but I think that’s inessential when talking about the quality of this film. Sure it get’s a lot out of its wow, this actually happened premise, but it’s a compelling piece of movie making, with great performances from its young cast, and reflects on the nature of power and violence really well.

19. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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This might be a low placement for some, a high placement for others, but I think it perfectly encapsulates Star Wars in 2016. It deserves credit for being as good as it is, but its flaws should also be recognized. Daisy Ridley deserves 95% of the credit here, even if the rest of the film was awfully cast and there were terrible plot choices throughout, but Ridley was still the film’s star, I would have enjoyed it. Plus I’m really into what they did with Kylo Ren, where even if every moment didn’t work, they’ve created something more unique than anyone’s talking about: a villains whose conscience is haunted by the good in him.

18. Creed

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Like Star WarsCreed shows just how important casting is to a reboot. Sure Stallone is pretty good in what will likely be an Oscar winning performance, but this film goes nowhere without Michael B. Jordan. Jordan’s charm drives this film, whether it be his desire to follow in the footsteps of his father, his interactions with Rocky, or (especially) his blooming love story with Tessa Thompson’s Bianca. Add to this Ryan Coogler’s great direction (that first fight scene!) and you’ve got something great. I can only see this growing in my estimation for years to come.

17. Timbuktu

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Timbuktu tells the tale of a fictionalized terrorist group has taking over a small town in West Africa. It’s timely in portraying how an all-encompassing and corrupt religion can destroy a culture. There are moments of deep distress at the injustice that occurs when certain powers take over. Perhaps more importantly there are scenes of heartbreaking beauty showing slight rebellion in the form of playing music or pretending to play soccer. No other film shows just how essential mercy is to the systems we create.

16. Sicario

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Sicario features the most thrilling experiences I had in a theater this year. Emily Blunt takes the lead and is our entry into the dark and politically muddled world of the drug war where she quickly learns the rules don’t matter. I actually don’t think the film really has any interesting insight on the drug war, but those big action scenes left me white-knuckled.

15. Dope

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The last third or so of this film completely undermines the tone by throwing in a strange plot twist, but for most of it Dope feels so fresh. It’s about a group of kids out of place in Inglewood, not only trying to tackle poverty’s obstacles, but also what it means to be an outsider in that situation. It’s got a great aesthetic, a great soundtrack, and tackles identity.

14. Room

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No other movie left me as wrecked as this one did and while usually this is a good sign, the happenings of Room were mostly presented in a way that I wouldn’t want to really watch them again. It’s a movie that brutally captures your imagination as it tells the tale of a mom (played by Brie Larson) and her young son being held captive in a room together. Luckily the movie isn’t all explicit heartbreak, the boy’s angelic voiceovers about  all he knows of the world offer a poetic beauty. I’m just not sure I’d want to experience it all again.

13. Slow West

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A movie I was mixed on while watching it that has grown on me ever since. It stars Kodi Smit-McPhee as a Scottish immigrant who is trying to find his love who has recently fled to the Wild West. He’s in way over his head and is soon joined by a bounty hunter (played by Michael Fassbender) who begins to guide him with mixed motives. It’s a Western that allows itself to be weird, showcasing little quirks and a dry sense of humor. McPhee’s naivety drives the film, especially when placed in the midst of the self-serving evil the chaos of the West inspired. It’s a gorgeously shot film and features one of the best endings of the year.

12. The Hateful Eight

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I think this is Tarantino’s most nihilistic film, each of its characters don’t really seem to have any bit of good within them as they express their violent, misogynist, and racist tendencies. But throw eight of these people in a room together with Tarantino at the helm and you’re bound to get something worthwhile. Unlike most, and perhaps in spite of what I just wrote, I do think Tarantino has a conscience of justice that he expresses throughout (there are literally speeches about justice in this movie!). I do think it’s a little long and not quite as fun as his last couple of films were (as strange as that is to say about movies about slavery and the Holocaust).

11. Straight Outta Compton

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While not the most cinematic film of the year, Straight Outta Compton was both a banging music biopic and a treatise on the racial tensions present all throughout 2015. To see the events that inspired “F*ck Tha Police” presented in dramatic fashion at the same time as those sentiments were being expressed in various forms throughout the country due to violent interactions with the police was disheartening, but thrilling. In the midst of capturing this tension, and the effect of the group on culture, is a really fun movie that hits every note you’d want from a biopic.

10. Carol

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Todd Haynes’ latest is a gorgeously shot drama set in the 1960’s about two women’s love affair. While most of the dramatic tension lies in the forbidden romance, I think the film’s true thematic tone has to do with those who push against the traditional power structures. Carol’s husband (played by Kyle Chandler) is wrecked by his wife’s true sexual orientation, but he seems more distraught that he cannot control her. Therese is meek and mild-mannered and is inspired by Carol’s dominance as she wrestles with her relationships and career path. It is the system that holds them back more than any explicitly presented social mores. It’s a love story about a girl coming into her own and the love that inspired her to do it.

9. The Diary of a Teenage Girl

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This is a difficult film to recommend or praise because it is about an illicit affair between Minnie, a 15 year old girl played by Bel Powley, and her mother’s boyfriend, played by Alexander Skarsgard, an affair that is never presented as an immoral act. However, I would probably credit the film for this, because instead of moralizing, it shows the whole thing from Minnie’s perspective. She’s mostly thrilled about her newfound relationship and we hear her innermost thoughts through a voice recorded diary and her comics which often come to life throughout. It’s obviously not all daisies and writer/director Marielle Heller portrays her growth in flashes of excitement, confusion, and regret. It’s really well done.

8. Brooklyn

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The best pure romance film I’ve seen in a long while, I can only hope this takes the place of The Notebook as a go-to for romantic dramas. Brooklyn follows Ellis, a discontent Irish girl who seizes on the opportunity to come to America. While in America she struggles with the immigration experience which leaves her timid and uninspired. At an Irish dance she runs into Tony, a plumber from an Italian family who quickly expresses interest in her. The chemistry explodes even with her timidity and the two become a couple. Brooklyn is amazing at how well it pulls off the sincerity of each moment. It could have devolved into dramatic tropes, but instead lets its characters bask in joy; it gives them drama but grounds it in reality. Ellis is forced into a series of decisions that throw everything into question (and bring 2015 all star Domhnall Gleason into the mix) and the film pulls it off, giving us a fitfully beautiful ending.

7. About Elly

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Technically released internationally in 2009, Asghar Farhadi’s drama didn’t get an American release until this year. Like A Separation and The PastAbout Elly centers around a mystery and the gray areas that encapsulate the decisions of each of its characters. A group of friends go away for a vacation, bringing along Elly–a quiet girl with some sort of mysterious past. A serious events occurs that leaves the group traumatized and the leaves the viewer in a clouded knot. Farhadi is the master at showing how each of our decisions is based in a slew of cultural and religious biases that are so complex is becomes near impossible to declare rights and wrongs.

6. Tu Dors Nicole

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Tu Dors Nicole follows Nicole as she navigates her unsatisfying life during the summer in a small Canadian town. It’s about the restlessness of being post-high school, the overwhelming purposelessness that occurs, and the disillusionment that comes as a result. Director Stephane Lafleur guides us by giving the film an airy feel, lead by its black and white cinematography and the dreamlike quirks presented throughout whether overtly or slyly. Ultimately though, the film gets by on the charm of its characters who make every moment engaging.

5. Anamolisa 

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Charlie Kaufman’s latest film presents itself as being fairly straightforward at first, but throughout the opening, which features Michael Stone riding on an airplane, landing, and taking a cab to the airport, everything feels a little bit off. As we learn more about Michael, his experience of the world soon becomes clear, and Kaufman’s latest vision about a man in a midlife crisis all fits together beautifully. Life can be difficult to navigate, especially when it becomes mundane and all the joy gets sucked out of it–Kaufman illustrates this like Kaufman would. He also represents what it’s like to find joy in the midst of this and beautifully brings it to life in shocking and unexpected ways. Ultimately though, Michael is not allowed to be entirely cynical, he’s not allowed to seek joy however he pleases to, because neither of these are fulfilling life choices; Kaufman doesn’t tell us what will satisfy the man lost in his own life, but he does paint a great portrait of what will not.

4. Mistress America

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Noah Bambauch’s latest collaboration with Greta Gerwig is the funniest film of the year. It’s a His Girl Friday style screwball comedy where its throwaway lines are up there with the best written comedy of the year. It’s quick witted and manically paced, following its two female protagonists, Tracy (Lola Kirke) and Brooke (Greta Gerwig), through their lives in New York City. They are very different people and in different places in their lives–Tracy is a timid college freshman trying to figure it all out, while Brooke is a New York socialite with a new plan every minute–they hit it off and their relationship is a catalyst for the film which explores loneliness and personal growth.

3. Mad Max: Fury Road

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This was everyone’s surprise film of the year and I must note it lives up to every bit of hype placed upon it. It’s a progressive post-apocolypitc car chase that nails every action sequence, storytelling device, and emotional beat it throws into the ether. I held my breath for large sections of the movie without noticing that I was doing it. I teared up as Max and Furiosa, two people unable to be vulnerable because of their experiences, slowly open up to one another. I laughed and cringed at the comic and ugly weirdness director George Miller places in the movie, showing at once how disturbing and lived in this world was. It hits on every level.

2. Ex Machina

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Alex Garland deserves so much credit for how he was able to set the mood of this film. It’s  set in a futuristic house where most of what’s happening is happening in conversation between it’s three central characters, but the tension is unbelievably high–evoking dread of whatever the outcome is to be. Domnhall Gleason plays Caleb, a young programmer, who gets sent to his CEO’s house (Nathan played by Oscar Isaac) for a mystery test. He soon learns he will be performing a Turing test on Nathan’s recently created robot Ava (Alicia Vikander). Even as the tension builds, Garland allows for his characters to be themselves, undermining the typical portraits of a mad scientist for one much more bro-ish and allows spontaneous dance scenes. It’s tense, surprising, well-written, and the kind of movie that actively engaged my mind more than anything else this year.

1. Inside Out

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I am an unabashed Pixar fanboy, it’s become my tradition to see each new film the studio makes on its opening day and update my rankings soon after. When I heard about the idea and casting of Inside Out, I could not have been more excited, this was a film that was made purely for me and let me tell you, it did not disappoint. I think this is a masterpiece for the way it portrays our mind so cleverly. I think it’s a masterpiece for being able to capture the complex emotions behind moving to a new place and growing up. I think it’s a masterpiece visually (the abstract thought bit nails it). I think it’s a masterpiece in how it created new classic characters and that all of our children will grow up playing with a toy called Sadness. I think it’s a masterpiece comedically, creating great bits about annoying tunes that come in our head and how we dream. And finally, I think it’s a masterpiece because of the way it embraces sadness, advocating for an emotional complexity, and being able to portray this all on screen.

Honorable mentions: Shaun the SheepWild TalesPhoenixPitch Perfect 2Spy

 

Things I cannot wait to show my kids

As a pop culture fiend who engulfed everything to the fullest of my imagination from an early age (my imaginary friends were the kid characters from Barney), I have fond memories of the things I watched, listened to, and read when I was young. There are things that make my heart swoon in nostalgia as I remember back on them.

Luckily, I know that one day I will likely have children (years from now). I will have the ability to relive these memories by introducing them to my own children, allowing them to experience and live through the same stories, feelings, and songs that I did. Below is a list of things that I cannot wait to show them as they grow up; to look at their face as they watch my favorite plot twists or hear my favorite lyrics for the first time. I want to instill values into my kids like the importance of watching things in the correct order (the way the creator intended), how to navigate movie adaptations (the correct order is usually movie-book-movie), and how to separate the brilliant from the trash (Pixar>Disney>Dreamworks).

Some of these are material that is explicitly made for children, some for children and adults, and some is more adult leaning as they grow older and I force them to be with me. The categories are: movies, books, music, and television.

Movies:

Pixar Films – The biggest cheat ever as the canon consists of 14 feature films and this is something that will continue grow as the years go by, but how can I pick one over the others? (NOTE: I retain the right to refuse to show my kids the films Cars and Cars 2 before they reach an age where they can view the film with the discretion of a seasoned movie watcher not being susceptible to the addictive substances that Disney seems to have placed for small children in the movie).

Star Wars – What else is there? It is the ultimate story created in the movie format. I was drawn in as a child by the aesthetic, the music, the characters, the battles, etc… Who will be their favorite? Which film will they like the best? The true question is, do I show my children Episodes 1-3…

The Sandlot – This movie lives and breathes nostalgia. It is a longing for another age, for long summer days, for friends, adventure, and ultimately baseball. Most of my deep affections for baseball were likely founded while watching this movie.

Ocean’s 11 – A bit of an odd pick, but as soon as I had even heard about this movie it became my favorite. And after I had actually watched it, I watched it again and could not stop telling everyone about it. It is the most stylish thing to ever come off of the big screen and I cannot wait to see my kid’s face when the crew is revealed to be the SWAT team in the film’s final twist.

Robin Hood/The Adventures of Robin Hood – I pick this over all the potential Disney cartoons because I can again cheat with this one. As a child Robin Hood fascinated me and I devoured every version of the story I could find.

Books:

It is really hard to narrow it down to just five, because I was a bit of a book worm as a child, you know, before the internet was invented. (It breaks my heart to leave Matt Christopher books off the list)

The Giving Tree – If this doesn’t cause your kid to have an existential crisis, I don’t know what will! A beautiful story about loneliness, life, and sacrifice with each word and illustration oozing with depth, it may be too deep for a youngin to fully understand, then again, it may be too deep for me to understand.

Charlotte’s Web – Another story about friendship and sacrifice, Charlotte’s Web is iconic. I still find myself making references about “Some Pig” and Templeton. 

The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe – The Great Illustrated Classics were a heavenly gift for me as a kid, giving me the opportunity to read the great stories along with the ability to understand them. I still see kids reading these in my work as a reading tutor. I pick Robinson Crusoe in the face of many others  (just beating out Treasure Island), because of its survival aspects, which I fell in love with as a child, plus, this allows me to leave out Hatchet, another book I adored, without feeling too guilty.

Maniac Magee – A sort of magical realism tale about a boy who crosses the boundaries that society has set. Magee is a Christlike figure who shines light on our modern society in a way that children can understand. Plus he is really good at baseball!

The Chronicles of Narnia – A classic series that I remember my mom reading to me. I could not wait to see what would happen next in the world of Narnia. And of course I will make them read them in the correct order, the one in which they were written (Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, Voyage, Silver Chair, Horse and His Boy, Magician, Last Battle). 

Music:

Music is a bit of a tough one, because most “kids” music tends to lean towards being unlistenable as one ages. Likewise, it is hard to know just what exactly your kids will be able to enjoy at a young age. I suppose I will approach this as albums, bands, or songs that I want to show my children as they reach their pre-teens and gradually grow older. This is hard because my musical tastes as a pre-teen and beyond were in the pop-punk, ska, hardcore, metalcore range before moving on to more old school punk, indie rock, and folksy type stuff. As a future parent do I want to be complicit in my own child’s rebellion by showing them music of rebellion? I suppose most of the groundbreaking records are rebellious in nature, but it’s a parent job to prevent rebellion right?

MxPx “Life In General” – The perfect JR High album, filled with pop-punk songs about growing up and girls, it’s also a much safer album than the early Blink-182 albums, which I’m not going to show my kids, they can discover that on their own.

Five Iron Frenzy – The first album I ever bought was by a Christian Ska band (not this one, The OC Supertones) and Five Iron is the perfect band for this. With equal songs about God and wedgies, not to mention the fun horns,   this is a great choice.
Continue reading “Things I cannot wait to show my kids”

Top Animated Films of 2010

This year in animated cinema was no different than any other year. You had Pixar release a film that everyone loved. Dreamworks came out with a couple that people mostly liked. Disney released one that returned it to  its “classic Disney” storytelling days. And there were a couple more artsy flicks that the population didn’t see, but critics adored. Despite the similarities with other years, it was an enjoyable year (hopefully next year will follow suit as Pixar is releasing Cars 2 a film I am not looking forward to).

I saw eight animated films this year. I will list them in order of which I liked them and will write about the top 3.

8. Despicable Me

7. Shrek Forever After

6. Tangled

5. The Illusionist

4. The Secret of Kells

And now time for the top three animated films of 2010:

3. How To Train Your Dragon-HTTYD gave us an excellent underdog hero in its main character Hiccup. The way that Hiccup forms a bond with his lifelong enemy and figures out a way to subdue his enemy other than the sword is truly inspiring. It is a fantasy tale that is definitely worth checking out.

2. Toy Story 3-The year’s most popular animated film (and the most critically acclaimed of all time?) was certainly great. The toys were faced with questions of what to do when their purpose in life has been served. Do they stay true to their master whom they’ve served all their lives even if that means spending the rest of their lives in an attic? Or should they look out for themselves and spend their days in a place that seems like a toy paradise? Only this series could get me questioning the ethics surrounding toys as the whole thing seemed like a lesson in theology (which I loved). But, there were a couple of things that I didn’t like and I couldn’t really let go of (I thought the whole spanish Buzz Lightyear gag was dumb and slightly racist) and that keeps it out of the number one spot.

1. Megamind-Yes, this was a movie that received just okay reviews, and is probably my most controversial pick of the awards season. I think that the problem is that nobody really took this film seriously. When I saw it however, I was blown away at the risks that it took and I felt as if the film really had stakes behind it. Whereas in most animated films characters may face the risk of danger or death, but we secretly know that nothing will happen to them because after all most animated films are geared towards children. Megamind was not like this. The development of the villain was one of the most interesting story lines of the year. There were many twists and turns and each one was truly surprising and unique. Even the love story that is twisted in it was something I could cheer for. There were many problems with it, but overall Megamind brings a freshness to it and that propels it to the number one animated film of the year.