5:00am PT by Scott Feinberg
Scott Feinberg's Top 10 Films of 2015
Even though we've already crossed over into 2016, I would like to document for myself — and share with you — a list of the 10 films that I enjoyed most in 2015. I saw hundreds of titles — at festivals and at multiplexes, on the big screen and on screeners — among them all of the top Oscar contenders, including every film on the documentary and foreign language film shortlists. In other words, I have done my best to be well-versed in what's out there — but, needless to say, no list of this sort is anything but subjective.
One other thing to note: for those who primarily follow me for my assessments of the awards race, please understand that the following list and remarks reflect my personal opinions and do/will not in any way impact my projections or analysis, through which I strive above all else to accurately report what has happened and to forecast what will happen. My demonstrated ability to do that over the years is what has led many of you to my coverage, and any failure on my part to do that undoubtedly would lead many of you away from it.
So, without further ado, my top 10 films of 2015...
* * *
10. Love & Mercy (Roadside Attractions/Lionsgate, 6/5, trailer)
I must confess that I went into this June release with a sense of dread, thinking to myself, "Do we really need another biopic about a famous musician who falls upon hard times?!" In retrospect, I failed to account for two things: (1) this film is not a biopic and (2) Brian Wilson is not like any other musician. Wilson, the co-founder and key creative force behind The Beach Boys, has lived many different lives, and it is a credit to writer Oren Moverman and director Bill Pohlad (best known as a producer, though he directed once before, decades ago) that they decided to construct a film focused on "just" two of them.
Interestingly, those two depictions are interwoven and involve different actors (not unlike 2007's I'm Not There, also penned by Moverman) The first, in which he's played by an absolutely extraordinary Paul Dano, looks at Wilson's life in his twenties, when he was working on the now-iconic Pet Sounds album; the second, in which he's played by John Cusack, looks at his life in his forties, by which point he had been overtaken by mental illness and was being being used and abused by his manager. The contrast is deeply affecting, since exposure to the first helps one to appreciate just how much is being robbed in the second — at least until his future wife Melinda Ledbetter (a never-better Elizabeth Banks) enters the picture.
Every aspect of this film is handled with, well, love and mercy, right down to the Atticus Ross soundscape that permeates the film, providing viewers with a sense of the sort of auditory hallucinations that both inspire and torment Wilson. Many moviegoers, including me, are deeply moved by Wilson's perseverance in the face of this sort of adversity, his wife's tenacity on his behalf and their love story, which continues to this day.
9. Straight Outta Compton (Universal, 8/14, trailer)
An explosive opening sequence makes it clear that this film about the rise and fall of the 1980s hip hop group N.W.A — which was guided to the big screen by two of its surviving members, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre — will be unlike any prior big screen depiction of the music world. Indeed, rather than just chronicling key songs, events and achievements, it gets to the root of the hurt, anger and defiance that inspired this group's music, which reflected and perpetuated a divided America.
A 150-minute epic directed by journeyman filmmaker F. Gary Gray (who has collaborated with Cube for decades) and starring three relative newcomers, O'Shea Jackson Jr. (as Cube, his real-life father), Corey Hawkins (as Dre) and the most gifted of the three, Jason Mitchell (as Eazy-E), it feels like a rollercoaster ride, artfully illustrating how music propelled a group of young men out of the roughest of neighborhoods and, in most cases, into a better life — but not without some very painful bumps along the way.
Sadly, 30 years after N.W.A first hit the scene, a film about them and their music feels as timely as ever. Long before #BlackLivesMatter or the births — much less the deaths — of Freddie Gray or Sandra Bland, N.W.A was venting the frustration of a community repeatedly subjected to unjust treatment by the police, of the sort depicted in one devastating scene in the film. Before long, they had people of all sorts singing along with them. Some argue they should not be celebrated; I'm not sure they are being celebrated, as much as they are serving as a reminder of where we've come from and how far we still have to go.
8. Far from the Madding Crowd (Fox Searchlight, 5/1, trailer)
Every year I seem to include on this list a "guilty pleasure," and this melodramatic period piece costume drama released in May — the second big screen adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 1874 novel of the same name, following a 1967 one starring Julie Christie — is surely 2015's. As a straight male, I'm not "supposed" to love this movie, but I'm fessing up: I did.
It's a story way ahead of its time, about a strong and stubborn young woman, Bathseba Everdene (a magnificent Carey Mulligan), who comes into money, affording her the luxury of defying social expectations. In other words, though she doesn't lack suitors (Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge and the always-great Matthias Schoenaerts), she doesn't need or want a husband to look after her. Instead, she sets out to make it on her own, and does — until the prospect of losing the man who may be her one true love tests her mettle. (It's not a coincidence that a 21st century literary-turned-film heroine you might have heard of shares her surname.)
The film is lusciously shot (Charlotte Bruus Christensen's look reminds me of 1979's The Black Stallion), gorgeously costumed (hat-tip to Janet Patterson) and sweepingly scored (here's looking at you, Craig Armstrong). But, above all, it's utterly remarkable to me that Thomas Vinterberg, the same man who directed 2013's The Hunt, a dark film set in the present about a man accused of sexually abusing a child — one of my top 10 two years ago — could follow that film with this one. Talk about range!
7. 99 Homes (Broad Green, 9/25, trailer)
Neorealism, the post-World War II cinematic movement in Italy (as part of which filmmakers depicted real people dealing with real problems), is alive and well in 21st century America thanks to Ramin Bahrani. The 40-year-old filmmaker, who made his name on micro-budget indies of that nature, co-wrote and directed this heartrending drama — which was made for only $5 million over just 30 days, and plays like a thriller — about a Florida man (Andrew Garfield) whose home is repossessed and who winds up working for the real estate broker who evicted him and his family (Michael Shannon).
The production puts a human face on the larger home foreclosure crisis that struck America last decade and continues to reverberate to this day. (Indeed, most of the people who appear in it are non-actors, endowing it with a sense of authenticity that cannot be achieved any other way.) And it shows how good and hard-working people wound up as debtors and collectors and, in this case, both.
A great film to watch after The Big Short, it provides no simple answers to the tough moral questions it raises. An evictee is a tremendously sympathetic figure, which makes it tempting to dismiss an evictor as unsympathetic. But, thanks to a towering performance by Shannon, moviegoers are forced to understand that everyone is just trying to keep their family from "drowning" — and to wonder just how far we would go, if pressed, to ensure that our family makes it onto the proverbial ark.
6. Room (A24, 10/16, trailer)
A kidnapped young woman and her son — the product of a rape by her kidnapper — are held for years in a small room, their whereabouts unknown to anyone but their captor. The child, oblivious to the world outside, approaches life with a sense of wonder and delight, while the mother, who misses her own parents and friends and the life she was robbed of, struggles but does her best to mask her sadness and remain strong for him.
How could a story so horrifying result in the most life-affirming film of the year? Through a perfect storm: an author, Emma Donoghue, adapting her own bestselling novel for the screen, and in so doing retaining its magic; a little-known filmmaker, Lenny Abrahamson, passionate to direct it; a young actress, Brie Larson, who performed masterfully with children once before, in 2013's Short Term 12, winning the female part; a one-in-a-million child actor, then-seven-year-old Jacob Tremblay, being cast in the male part (thanks to casting director Fiona Weir); and sets designed and shot in the most creative of ways.
The sum of these parts? A master class in acting, including perhaps the best film performance by a child actor ever, in one of the most gripping and deeply moving films in memory — really two films, demarcated by a heart-stopping sequence in the middle that is as unforgettable as any this year.
Listen: Brie Larson on 'Awards Chatter'
5. 45 Years (IFC Films, 12/23, trailer)
Few movies ever have haunted me as much as this understated British indie, which was adapted from a short story and directed by Andrew Haigh, and which makes one question just how solid the ground is beneath any of our relationships. In it, a happily married couple — played by the perfectly-paired vets Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling — receive news on the eve of their forty-fifth anniversary that jolts him and, in turn, her. Nobody has done anything "wrong" — there's no "good guy" or "bad guy" — but nothing ever can be the same.
A delicate story like this — one of the few ever made about the inner lives of older people, a group that includes Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) and Amour (2012) — would not have resonated nearly as much without such an empathetic director (who, incidentally, hasn't even been alive for 45 years) and competent, confident, vanity-free performers who can convey more with a look or a glance than most actors can with pages of exposition (and in whom many moviegoers feel particularly invested, having watched them since they were young up-and-comers).
Together, this trio has produced a film for the ages, filled with moments you won't soon forget — a carefree dance sequence, a bumbling attempt at sex, an unforgettable Courtenay speech and a Rampling expression — unless, that is, "smoke gets in your eyes."
4. Mustang (Cohen Media Group, 11/20, trailer)
It's hard to imagine anything further from my experience than being a young Muslim girl in present-day Turkey, a deeply conservative and sexually repressed country. But this Turkish-language French drama — Deniz Gamze Erguven's feature directorial debut, and the best foreign-language film of the year — offers a harrowing sense of what that must be like, and rocked me to my core.
It's a story that evokes memories of Pride & Prejudice and The Virgin Suicides: five orphaned sisters, ranging in age from 13 to 20, are being raised by their grandmother in a village that looks like heaven but comes to feel like hell. As they grow up, every pleasure they derive from life is robbed of them by a society that treats women as objects, not people — they are taken from school, restricted from associating with boys, kept from going outside and ultimately separated from one another through arranged marriages to men they don't love — and the joie de vivre that defined them begins to fade from their lives.
Written, directed by and starring young women — all but one of the five main actresses are rookies, including the youngest and most magnetic, Gunes Sensoy — it offers a frightening reminder that many women around the world live under these sorts of oppressive conditions (and worse), but also reason to hope that the future may be brighter for them (as some brave women refuse to accept the status quo and, at great risk, insist on roaming free, like the film's eponymous wild horse).
3. Spotlight (Open Road, 11/6, trailer)
It's not easy to render moviegoers breathless with a story to which they already know the ending, but that's precisely what All the President's Men did in 1976 and what Spotlight — the best movie about journalism since All the President's Men — did 39 years later. The similarities don't end there. Both films tell true stories about gross abuses of power; take place mostly in a newsroom; keep their "bad guys" mostly out of sight; and, oddly enough, involve a Bradlee as an editor.
The newer of the two films highlights the years-long investigation into Boston's Catholic Church sex scandal by the Boston Globe's "Spotlight" investigative unit, and packs into just two hours a remarkable amount of information — about the case, the people digging into it and the culture of the city — all while remaining painstakingly faithful to the real facts of the case, according to the people who actually lived it.
It's tremendously engaging not only because it's so well written (by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer) and directed (by McCarthy), but because it's so well cast and acted. Indeed, when you look up the word "ensemble" in the dictionary, you should see a picture of Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d'Arcy James, Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup, every one of whom pulls their weight and then some.
2. The Hateful Eight (The Weinstein Co., 12/25, trailer)
As you've probably heard by now, the eighth film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino was shot on film and widely is being projected in 70mm; includes an overture, intermission and chapter titles; and prolifically features the n-word, gun violence, misogyny and bloody gore. Those things all are true and worthy of discussion, but they should not bury the lede: The Hateful Eight was the most entertaining movie of 2015.
Set in the aftermath of the Civil War, this Western-in-winter-turned-Agatha Christie-style mystery revolves around a group of unsavory types who hole up in the same haberdashery during a brutal blizzard — each with their own agendas, which emerge over the course of its three hours — and displays the same sort of manic energy, biting wit and shock-factor that made Tarantino America's cinema laureate with Pulp Fiction.
It's brilliantly written, with an intricate plot and monologues that any actor would, well, kill to deliver. None are more delicious than those spoken by Tarantino's longtime muse Samuel L. Jackson; the rest of the roles are played by other QT regulars (including an outstanding Kurt Russell), plus one newcomer (his latest career-reclamation project, Jennifer Jason Leigh). Intricately costumed by Courtney Hoffman, gorgeously shot by Robert Richardson and beautifully scored by the legendary Ennio Morricone, it isn't just a movie; it's an experience.
1. Brooklyn (Fox Searchlight, 11/4, trailer)
There were bigger, flashier and splashier movies in 2015, but none were more perfect or charming than this drama about a young Irishwoman who, in 1952, leaves behind everything she ever has known, including her beloved mother and sister, in order to pursue a better life in America, only to find herself torn between two countries and two men.
All the pieces you could hope for are there. It's a magnificent adaptation of Colm Toibin's bestselling 2009 novel of the same title by Nick Hornby (An Education, Wild), who writes female characters as well as anyone; it features exemplary production values and pacing under the direction of John Crowley; and it boasts a perfectly cast ensemble (mostly comprised of Irish talent), led by 21-year-old Saoirse Ronan in the performance of a lifetime — like her character, she literally grows up before our eyes.
Through its depiction of good and decent people, with believable and relatable motivations, trying to navigate the treacherous terrain of the human heart, it provokes laughter and tears — and it should provoke some reconsideration, on the part of many Americans who are the descendants of immigrants, about the hot-button issue of immigration in the United States. We once welcomed "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," like Ronan's Eilis, but today too many of us turn our backs on them.