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

 

Ice Cube: A Career View

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“You are about to witness the strength of street knowledge” — so begins NWA’s debut album Straight Outta Compton the seminal record–so influential it would be the name of a new mainstream film that surely you’ve heard about by now.

“Straight outta Compton, crazy motherf***er named Ice Cube…” the song continues, introducing the world to Ice Cube, certainly not the most entertaining or talented person to come out of hip-hop, but one that remains an enigmatic and very public figure. While group-mate Dr. Dre has gone on to make millions, Cube’s output has remained consistent and is (perhaps notoriously) one who has transcended the 19 year old who rapped “boy you can’t f**ck with me/so when I’m in your neighborhood, you better duck/cause Ice Cube is crazy as f**ck”. I mean here’s a man who not only starred in the children’s film Are We There Yet? but believed in this idea so much he would go on to make a sequel (Are We Done Yet?) and a television show named the same thing.

This was the vision I always had of Ice Cube, not the 20 year old who would go on to soundtrack angry protests inspired by racial inequality with lyrics used to echo dissent even 30 years later. But even in those two films we can see things Ice Cube cares about across the entirety of his career. And this piece will attempt to scratch the service of Cube, looking at important films and the music of NWA, giving a career view across several themes.


Mr. Jones: This is what makes you a man. When I was growing up, this was all the protection we needed. You win some, you lose some, but you live. You live to fight another day. Now you think you’re a man with that gun in your hand, don’t you?

Craig Jones: I’m a man without it!

Mr. Jones: Put the gun down.

[Craig complies]

Mr. Jones: C’mon, put up your dukes.

[Craig raises his fists]

Mr. Jones: NOW you’re a man. Your uncle picked up a gun, too. He found out the hard way. 22 years old. You’ve got a choice. This is all you need, alright?

(From Friday)

It’s easy to forget that the boys of NWA were just out of high school, clearly products of their time and place, yelling at their loudest, most hyperbolic statements just to be heard. Despite this obscenity-laden youthful vigor, a strong concept in Ice Cube’s work is what it means to be a man. NWA often resorts to violence and very misogynistic attitudes toward women, but by the time Cube’s debut AmeriKKKas Most Wanted comes out in 1990, he’s self-reflective enough to create something like “A Man’s World” which is a near-critique of his own attitudes toward woman.

“A Man’s World” features female rapper Yo-Yo fighting back at Ice Cube for his views on women (see “I Ain’t tha 1”) in a full on rap battle. Cube’s attitude toward women has always been questionable from those early NWA days to his quick conversation with Shalika in Boyz ‘n the Hood. But something like “A Man’s World” hints at a thread of compassion that negates some of his hatred.

Ice Cube’s work grapples with what it means to be a man and this includes his treatment of women, along with what it means to be a father. It is a commonly spoken (and mostly true) idea that within African-American families the father is absent. Yet one of the emphases of manhood in Ice Cube’s films is fatherhood–being a father is essential and throughout his career Cube has been fathered and had to father others.

Boyz n the Hood features one of the most iconic dad’s in movie history in Laurence Fishburne’s Furious Styles. Styles is wise, he’s a hard worker, and he’s a loving father–but he never changes who he is–a tough guy from the ‘hood looking out for his people. He’s an authentic portrait of a man, one who decries the violence between black men while pointing out the systematic injustice put upon them. He doesn’t give his son much ground, but still answers the phone saying “who dis?” and early on offers advice like: “Any fool with a dick can make a baby, but only a real man can raise his children.” Though he doesn’t play Cube’s father in the film, he is important to remember as Cube’s film career evolves.

Friday centers around Ice Cube’s Craig who has just lost his job, leaving him home on a Friday. Craig’s father is sort of a ranting maniac, throughout the film he is given long speeches about pig’s feet, dog bites, and feces. Despite this, he has high expectations for his son whether it be about manhood (as quoted above) or telling him he needs to go back out and get a job. For all intents and purposes the wacky Jones family is actually quite stable.

In Barbershop (released in 2002, 7 years after Friday) Ice Cube is now about to become a father himself. Early on we see him trying to put together sound equipment in the garage, looking to do something bigger–to do something great for his kid to come. And while the film could have easily been about Cube’s nervousness about his upcoming fatherhood, it instead focused on Cube’s desire to build a legacy for himself.

In Ice Cube’s world fatherhood is a given and now with his son O’shea Jackson Jr. taking on the role of his father in Compton it seems as if it’s all come full circle.


This ain’t no Goddamn school of the blind, Calvin! This is the barbershop! The place where a black man means something! Cornerstone of the neighborhood! Our own country club! I mean, can’t you see that? Hell, that’s the problem with your whole generation. You know, y’all… you don’t believe in nothin’. But your father, he believed in something, Calvin. He believed and understood that something as simple as a little haircut could change the way a man felt on the inside.

From Barbershop

Cube’s a storyteller. In a world with few black leading men (as an exercise try to name ten leading black actors; its tough) Cube tells stories about people in his life. His work, especially the movies he’s starred in, feature a wide range of black characters very focused on community (or perhaps ‘hood) life. It’s almost as if Cube is trying to introduce his world to those outside of it, while telling stories of people he knows.

The front porch seen both in Boyz and Friday are perfect portraits of the comical, but often dangerous life that is always passing by South Central LA. The titular barbershop serves as the core tenet of community for those in Chicago.

The three films we’ve been discussing all feature a wide scope of intriguing characters, all shapes and sizes, with all sorts of motivations and intentions. Boyz has got the aforementioned Furious Styles, Cube’s Doughboy, and Cuba Gooding Jr.’s slightly geeky Tre. Friday’s has Craig, Christ Tucker’s Smokey, the strange and now cultural icon Felicia, Pastor Clever, Mrs. Parker, the old and crude proselytizing Jehovah’s Witness’, and Deebo as the town bully. Barbershop’s whole point is to give a taste of what goes on in an urban barbershop with the black role model hating Eddie, the troubled Ricky, intelligent Jimmy, the African immigrant Dinka, the wannabe Isaac, etc… The range of these characters shows a broad culture, one that refuses to be held into one or two categories or stereotypes and one that Ice Cube has worked hard to present to the public at large.


If you can be seen, you can be hit
If you can be hit, you can be killed

From “Approach to Danger”

Despite these often comical characters, violence pervades the world of Cube. Sometimes it’s more up front like in Compton‘s braggadacio or John Singleton’s portrayal of LA in Boyz, but other times it’s like background noise. Violence plays like a radio in the background, when it’s always there, you hardly notice it.

I think Friday works so well because of its comical stoner and slacker bits, but also because Craig and Smokey legitimately face danger in a moment’s notice. The day features a growing fear that Smokey will not have paid back his debts by the end of the day, but it’s a fear not nearly as acknowledged as it might be in another film. Suddenly the time comes and the boys are in a shoot out, running for their lives from people with automatic weapons.

It’s notable that both Boyz and Friday have scenes where the protagonists are faced with decisions about what to do with the guns being held in their hands. It’s also notable that each character’s father pleads to them to give up their violent intentions–again negating the idea of the absent father. Manhood and violence are often intertwined and Cube’s career has walked this tension.

The films often deplore violence, while NWA is covered in it, but even their calls for violence come as a response to their own fears. “Real Nigg** Don’t Die” showcases this fear with MC Ren rapping “All I see is nig**s getting harassed/And can’t do nothin about it but get a foot in they ass, yo/But if every nig** grabbed a nine/And started shootin motherfu**ers it would put ’em in line”. When tensions rise, people are provoked, violence often becomes the only way to express that frustration.


There are plenty of other themes throughout the work of Ice Cube and it could easily be argued that Cube himself is not actually responsible for some of this work (he wrote Friday but the other films talked about were written and directed by others), but the repetition of themes was profound enough to inspire this piece. He may not be examining manhood, expanding culture, or telling tales of violence like he once was, but as the upcoming biopic shows his presence is still felt.