FJI names its top twelve films of 2015

ScreenerBlog

By late summer of this year, I only had three firm candidates for my annual ten-best movie list, which seemed reason to despair about 2015 in general. But the year ended strong—so strong that I was unable to limit my list to ten and have expanded it to a distinguished dozen. But lo and behold, two of those early favorites remained at the very top of my honor roll. All twelve of the films below were satisfying in diverse ways and could easily switch positions depending on my mood on a particular day. An alphabetical list was tempting, but I’m foolishly forging ahead with a top twelve in order of preference.

Mad Max: Fury Road. There’s a reason this post-apocalyptic action genre film is scoring high in so many critics’ polls: It’s just so wildly imaginative and breathlessly entertaining, with a bracing feminist spirit to boot. The title may belong to Tom Hardy’s Max, reviving the fierce road warrior embodied by Mel Gibson in the original classics, but it’s a kick-ass Charlize Theron as the aptly named Imperator Furiosa who drives away with the movie. With his crisp, robust, jaw-dropping staging of every chase and battle, seventy-year-old director George Miller shows all those young pretenders how an action movie is done.

Inside Out. One of Pixar’s greatest achievements, which is high praise indeed. Up director Pete Docter takes us inside the brain of an eleven-year-old girl adjusting to a new life in San Francisco, where her emotions Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust jostle for pre-eminence. Docter and company create a vast, surreal interior world that’s a riot of free-form imagination, as the uprooted Joy and Sadness struggle to find their way back to the brain’s control center. And Amy Poehler is a vocal delight as the effervescent but never irritating Joy.

Room. The Audience Award winner at this fall’s Toronto International Film Festival has a premise which could have been a complete turnoff: A young woman who’s been held prisoner for years in a garden shed tries to be a good mother to the five-year-old boy whose father is her captor/rapist. That boy has never seen the outside world, and when his mom engineers his escape, Lenny Abrahamson’s film (adapted by Emma Donoghue from her acclaimed novel) turns into something wondrous, even as the drama continues to address the dark implications of everything that has transpired. Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, as mother and son, give two of the year’s most riveting performances.

Spotlight. A vital reminder that journalism at its best is a honorable and invaluable pursuit, Tom McCarthy’s ensemble drama recounts the Boston Globe’s extremely challenging investigation of a story that rocked the foundation of that city: the Catholic Church’s inexcusable cover-up of rampant pedophilia within its ranks. The dogged meticulousness of the “Spotlight” reporting team evokes memories of that 1976 classic All the President’s Men, and the huge cast, led by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Liev Schreiber, is flawless.

Anomalisa. You’ve never seen a movie like Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s stop-motion-animated, very adult tale of alienation and longing. It’s ostensibly the simple tale of a lonely motivational speaker’s impromptu romantic encounter in a Cincinnati hotel, but it’s layered with jarringly surreal surprises like the fact that all but two characters have the same speaking voice. David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh are haunting as the tentative central couple, and the combination of dead-eyed “human” background players and highly realistic miniature environments casts an eerie spell.

Carol. Director Todd Haynes brings his artful feel for the stifling emotional terrain of the 1950s to this adaptation of suspense author Patricia Highsmith’s lesbian romance, first published under a pseudonym. The repression of the period and the daring of its two lead characters (the dynamic combo of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara) make a combustible combination in this groundbreaking romantic drama.

Brooklyn. Another exquisite 1950s romance, this time involving a young Irish immigrant in New York and her unexpected dilemma of having two desirable suitors, the Italian-American who courts her in Brooklyn and the Irish friend who suddenly re-enters her life. Onetime Atonement child star Saoirse Ronan has blossomed into a marvelous adult actress with her delicately nuanced and affecting performance in director John Crowley’s lovely film of the Colm Toíbín novel.

Wild Tales. It hasn’t happened yet, but surely Argentinian director Damián Szifrón can have a Hollywood career if he wants one, based on this sensational and stylish calling card, a collection of six darkly comic tales of people losing their self-control and behaving very badly. The short opening sequence aboard an airplane had the 2014 Toronto Fest audience whooping and hollering even before the first credits rolled. Among the standouts in this irresistible anthology: a cutthroat battle between a sports-car owner and a pickup truck driver, and a wedding disaster to end all wedding disasters.

Listen to Me, Marlon. There were several terrific celebrity-oriented documentaries this year, including Amy (about the late Amy Winehouse) and What Happened, Miss Simone? (about Nina Simone). But for sheer originality and artfulness, my favorite was this free-flowing biography of Marlon Brando utilizing hours of his own audio recordings combined with impressionistic montages of rare footage and recurring imagery. The legendary star was undeniably eccentric, but Stevan Riley’s film makes a strong case for the actor’s passion, artistry and political commitment.

The Martian. Director Ridley Scott deservedly had his biggest hit in years with this highly entertaining suspense drama (yes, Hollywood Foreign Press, I said drama) about an astronaut abandoned on Mars by his crew (who wrongly assume he has died in a terrible storm) and how he manages to survive until a rescue mission can be mounted. Matt Damon has never been more engaging than in this superbly crafted tale of smart people solving huge problems.

The Big Short. Anchorman and Talladega Nights director Adam McKay moves up several notches on the prestige scale with this adaptation of Michael Lewis’ nonfiction bestseller about how the puncturing of the housing bubble in 2008 nearly brought down the American economy—and the shrewd men who saw disaster looming and profited by betting against the banking system. The movie digs deep into the economic weeds and finds ingenious ways to make complex financial matters (somewhat) comprehensible to the layman. And against your better judgment, you find yourself rooting for the prescient antiheroes at the center of the story.

45 Years. British director Andrew Haigh, creator of the absorbing gay slice-of-life drama Weekend, brings his keen sensibility to the tale of a 45-year marriage suddenly jeopardized by a startling revelation: that the husband’s onetime lover has been discovered miraculously preserved in the glacier where she perished decades ago. All the complexities of that marriage are brought to life by two icons of British cinema, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, in career-capping performances.

So many other films nearly made the cut: Love & Mercy, Amy, Son of Saul, Shaun the Sheep Movie, Boy and the World, ’71, The Danish Girl and Clouds of Sils Maria among them. As the 100-year-old Frank Sinatra might have said, it was a very good year.