Sequels and Westerns and Robots, Oh My! Drew McWeeny's Ten Favorite Films of 2015
Why do we make lists at all?
It's a fair question, and one you probably think often when you're bombarded with list after list after list at this time of year. And it's one I ask myself when I spend hour after hour fine tuning my list every year.
After all, within moments of me putting this up, I will have people telling me why one thing should be higher than another thing or telling me why I missed another movie entirely or just how wrong/dumb/weird I am in general. It's a pretty familiar pattern for me, and for anyone who writes about movies professionally.
But every year, here we are again, and we've got lists to spare. Today, you'll get my top ten list, and tomorrow, I'll post about the fifteen films that I'm calling my "Runners-Up," even though I think each and every one of them were also an essential part of my cinematic 2015. That's the way it works when you see 150 or 200 or, in some years, 250 new movies. If I really, really like 10 percent of what I see, that's not bad. The truth, of course, is that I like way more of what I watch than 10 percent, and if I didn't, I'd probably quit doing this. Sure, there's a lot of junk out there, but even some of the junk is fun. I know peep who seem to hate most of what they see, and I honestly can't imagine what a grind it must be to have to sit through hour after hour of what you see as punishment or just meat to be fed into the endlessly hungry snark machine.
So disagree with me. Get angry about the films that are or aren't here. Yell at me about contradictions in the order they're in. The only thing I can tell you is that when it came down to it, after moving titles up and down the list, this is how I feel about this year's movies today. There is no permanence in feeling, and if you were to ask me tomorrow, I might turn the entire list upside down. But I know when it feels right, and when I look at this list, these are movies that excite and amaze me, and movies that really affected me.
It is strange that this year's biggest trend was what Matt Singer dubbed the "Legacy Sequel," films that look back to earlier films in very overt and direct ways while also updating and inverting them to interesting thematic payoff. There are three of them in my top ten, or four if you consider "The Hateful Eight" a sly remake of "Reservoir Dogs," and I'm perfectly fine with that. That's the year we had, that's the year I enjoyed, and considering how much of my life is devoted to devouring pop culture of all stripes, it's little wonder movies that fully embrace and examine our relationship to the pop culture we love would play well for me.
On a side note, my favorite piece of pop culture of 2015 wasn't a movie, and this might be the first time in a while that's happened. I'm going to write about what it was as a separate piece, because it's got such a hold on me that I feel like it will be as much an exorcism as a review or a spotlight. But it's fun to be reminded that all of it matters to me, not just the thing that is my job. This is the best gig I could have ever asked for, and the only reason it's possible is because you guys all participate in the conversation and you've made room for my part in that conversation for almost 18 years now. Thank you for that.
Now, here's the video that Matt Perez-Mora (and follow Captain Adorable, as we call him in the office, on Twitter) cut for me, and with it, I feel like we've kicked off the home stretch for what I'll be writing and publishing this year. Enjoy!
10. “Beasts Of No Nation”Photo Credit: Netflix
Cary Fukunaga is a filmmaker of enormous technical skill, but what makes him special is the way he uses that skill to illuminate some of the darkest corners of the human heart without fear and without looking away. His work on the first season of "True Detective" bought him the clout to finally make this long-in-development story of Agu, a child soldier who is pressed into service by a charismatic Commandant played by Idris Elba. The work by young Abraham Attah as Agu is one of the two great child performances this year, and it's a harrowing, unflinching journey into darkness. The film clearly illustrates just how durable the spirit of a child can be, even when driven to do unthinkable things to survive, and while it is a film full of ugly things, it is thrilling to see just how great a storyteller Fukunaga has become.
9. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”Photo Credit: Disney
Your mileage may vary, but if I could go back in time to tell seven-year-old me on the Monday after he saw “Star Wars” in 1977 that there would be another film in the series almost 40 years later that I'd be able to watch with my own kids… well, I'd have a lot of non-“Star Wars” related questions, definitely, but I’d also be filled with joy at the prospect of spending a lifetime with these characters and this world. That joy has been tested mightily along the way, but JJ Abrams and his entire remarkable gang of collaborators have made a movie that is filled with the love and excitement that an entire generation grew up feeling for these movies. A clever inversion of the original film, the big news here is the new generation of characters played by Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, and Adam Driver all step seamlessly into this saga, ready to play, and absolutely deserving of the baton that has been so clearly passed.
8. “The Hateful Eight”Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company
All is not as it seems at Minnie's Haberdashery, and that’s exactly how Quentin Tarantino likes it in his eighth film, a truly strange genre collision. It's a little bit “Stagecoach,” and it’s a little bit Agatha Christie, and it's a whole lot of jet black fun. Kurt Russell just wants to get his bounty to a local town for a hanging, but thanks to a massive blizzard, he's stuck in a roadhouse with a whole collection of characters who may nor may not be who they say they are, and who may or may not be interested in rescuing his prisoner. We are trapped in that roadhouse with these desperate types, and little by little, the thin veneer of civilization drops away revealing the wellspring of hate that drives each of these people. Beautifully photographed in Ultra Panavision 70MM, this feels like Tarantino returning to modest scale of “Reservoir Dogs,” but with a world of experience as a filmmaker under his belt, revealing just how far he’s come.
7. “Brooklyn”Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Here’s how conditioned I am by the movies released during awards season: I spent most of my first viewing of “Brooklyn” waiting for something terrible to happen to Eilis, played by Saoirse Ronan in the performance that finally, absolutely, without question confirms her as a major screen talent. It’s hard to believe “Atonement” was less than a decade ago, because she’s become this luminous young woman now with a warmth and a maturity onscreen that performers twice her age sometimes struggle to maintain. This is a generous-hearted look at the life of American immigrants in the middle of the last century, but it tells truths that are absolutely still applicable. Nick Horby’s adaptation of the Colm Toibin novel is elegant and sweet and moves forward with a sense of graceful inevitability. It's rare that you see a love story as gentle as this one, but director John Crowley brings the script to life wrapped in the gorgeous haze of memory.
6. “Ex Machina”Photo Credit: A24 Films
This post-human era Willy Wonka riff is one of the year’s most efficient movie. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) gets called to the home of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who believes he has perfected an actual artificial intelligence named Ava. Alicia Vikander, who has had a stupendous year, plays the eerily human robot, and it is Caleb's job to administer a Turing Test to her to see if she is a true AI or a clever trick. What unfolds is a riff on sources from Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” and a very smart look at the inevitable moment that is coming where we build something that no longer belongs to us. Alex Garland, a writer who has mixed luck with other people directing his work, absolutely crushes it as a first-time director, and he emerges as one of the year's most interesting talents. As oddly erotic as it is deeply scary, “Ex Machina” is science-fiction at its very best.
5. “Call Me Lucky”Photo Credit: Type 55 Films
Critics have been falling over themselves to reward the film “Spotlight” this season, but in doing so, they’ve missed the documentary that deals with the same subject in a far more emotionally complex manner. Bobcat Goldthwait's best film is not just an introduction to the comedy and social conscience of Barry Crimmins, one of comedy’s best-kept secrets, but it’s also a close-up personal look at how a victim of one of the most unthinkable crimes can take that damage and that pain and turn it into something powerful. Crimmins is the most unexpected movie hero of 2015, and an example of the way art can heal both the artist and the audience.
4. “Creed”Photo Credit: Warner Bros.
There is enormous power in the way Ryan Coogler has turned the original “Rocky” inside out to tell the story of how young black men in America deal with the legacy of absent fathers, and what sounded at first blush like a cynical cash-in on a franchise that already wrapped things up a decade ago is instead a beautiful, emotionally mature film that gives Sylvester Stallone a fantastic supporting role to play while showcasing just how great a lead Michael B. Jordan is. In a year where race is a major conversation and #BlackLivesMatter has become an important movement, it is clear that “Creed” is no mistake.
3. “Room”Photo Credit: A24 Films
There are many things to love in Lenny Abrahamson’s film version of Emma Donoghue’s novel, but what I find most remarkable about it is the way it explores the responsibility between parent and child to define the world, and how fragile reality really is. Ma, played by Brie Larson, lives in a room that is ten feet by ten feet, and for his entire life, her son Jack has known nothing outside of that room. She is a prisoner, held and used and abused by Old Nick, the very definition of mundane evil as played by Sean Bridgers, and in a year of strong women on film, there is no one stronger than this bruised mother lion who may stumble but who never falls. The remarkable rapport between Larson and Jacob Tremblay, the little boy who plays her son, is the single most beautiful thing in any film this year, and between this and 2014’’ “Short Term 12,” it’s clear Larson is pound for pound one of the best actors working today.
2. “Mad Max: Fury Road”Photo Credit: Warner Bros.
George Miller’s return to the Wasteland is an education on every level, and the most aggressive and visually ravishing slice of mainstream entertainment offered up this year. I saw this more times in a theater than I did for anything else this year, and I've snuck in a few screenings at home at a volume my neighbors do not appreciate, and it just amazes me how ferocious and sincere and dedicated the entire thing is. I love the entire cast. I could write an entire review of just the relationship between Slit, played by Josh Helman, and Nux, played by Nicolas Hoult. I could write a piece about the wild imagination of a man who created the Vulvalini and the Mothers and Imperator Furiosa. I could write ten different pieces about the film without writing a piece focused on Max himself, and I see that as a reason to celebrate. It is more than a blockbuster, more than an action film. It is a fever dream and proof positive that we should treat our great filmmakers better for their whole career, not just when they’re young and box-office hot.
1. “Anomalisa”Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures
Charlie Kaufman’s movies chart corners of the human heart where no explorer has gone before, and they leave scars in the process. It is startling to see a movie in which there are only three actors playing a cast of dozens in puppet form and recognize something so deeply human that it's uncomfortable. Using a very risky metaphor that involves both character design and performance, this movie paints a picture of the fragility of human connection with a main character who is deeply, truly broken. I’ve had some profound conversations with people who loved this film and with people who hated the film, and I completely understand both positions. This is not an easy film, and it's not a movie that is meant to represent how everyone feels. I’ll be honest… I don’’t like the main character. But thanks to the beautiful work by Kaufman and his co-director Duke Johnson, I understand him, and there's nothing I look for more in films. The older I get, the more I crave honesty, and the more I appreciate just how terrifying and, in rare and wonderful moment, rewarding it can be to open yourself completely to someone else, something Kaufman does for us every time he sits down at his keyboard.