Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Greg's Top 10 Films of 2015

Guest writer Greg Rouleau (Reel True) is an avid film lover whose opinion I respect. Every year he's able to see a wide array of movies and here are his top ten selections for 2015:

Honorable Mention: Bridge of Spies, Carol, Creed, Spotlight and Star Wars: The Force Awakens

10 – Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

The fifth installment in the Mission: Impossible series proves the franchise has plenty left in the tank.  Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt continues to astound with his death-defying stunts, which includes hanging off the side of a cargo plane during takeoff– and that’s just how we start the movie.  The “M:I” films have evolved from the darkly tense thriller of the original, to action packed adventures with incredibly innovative set pieces.  There’s more than just eye candy here – and there certainly is with newcomer, Rebecca Ferguson, who turns in a nice performance as a double (or triple?) agent – there’s a decided focus on story.  Written and directed by The Usual Suspects scribe, Christopher McQuarrie, Rogue Nation is elevated beyond the popcorn flick and cements itself as the best entry in the “M:I” series since the original.

9 – The Big Short

The Big Short is difficult to define in terms of genre.  Directed by Adam McKay – who typically finds himself helming “Frat Pack’ comedies – The Big Short shows the director taking a turn to the more serious side, but managing to stay well within his comfort zone.  Despite the label of a drama, the film never takes itself too seriously, and is able to tell the story of a complex subject matter – to anyone not familiar with the economics of the real estate industry – in an entertaining and digestible manner.  The four leads of Bale, Pitt, Gosling, and Carell are exceptional and while you may find yourself laughing at the quirky characters, and the several moments of fourth-wall breaking, there’s a harrowing truth uncovered here that stays with you long after.

8 – Steve Jobs

Danny Boyle never makes the same film twice, and he continually finds fresh, innovative ways to tell a story.  Here, working with Aaron Sorkin’s biting screenplay – which literally takes the classic three act structure and sets each in a separate period, prior to the launch of a Jobs product – Boyle employed 16mm, 35mm and digital to film each respective act.  This technique allows for a synergistic visual progression that mirrors that of the tech giant, himself.  Sorkin admirably avoids the “greatest hits” biopic route and is able to effectively display character development through this unique approach.  Michael Fassbender is outstanding in the title role and Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels and Michael Stuhlbarg also shine in support.

7 – The Martian

Compared to recent sci-fi blockbusters, it lacks the intensity of Gravity, as well as the scope and vision of Interstellar, but there’s still plenty to enjoy.  Matt Damon is outstanding and charming as the deserted Watney, forced to improvise survival methods as we hope to witness his rescue.   A surprising element of The Martian is its levity.  While there’s surely a decent amount of drama and spectacle on display, many characters in the large ensemble are given a chance to show off some comedic chops, too.  The somewhat lighthearted tone and conventional story here are surprising, but also likely key in what should be a major success commercially.   While it’s not on the level of his greatest hits, it’s welcome to see Sir Ridley on the right path again and The Martian is decidedly enjoyable from start to finish.

6 – Anomalisa

It’s not often that you can label a Charlie Kaufman film simple in terms of storytelling, but Anomalisa is the most straightforward story from Kaufman yet.  It’s also the most moving.  Here, the complexity lies in the characters – the stop-motion puppets, to be exact – which are rendered beautifully by co-director, Duke Johnson, as the emotion they’re able to convey is wonderfully heart-rending.  The story itself is so simple that going into too may details would possibly spoil the experience, and going into this as fresh as possible is the key here.  When it comes to the monotony of life and yearning for new love, no one is able to fully convey these emotions quite like Charlie Kaufman.

5 – The Revenant

The Revenant is another simple affair in terms of storytelling, as it portrays a classic revenge story set in the early 1800s Pacific Northwest.  Leonardo DiCaprio gives a gripping, wild and brilliant performance that should make him a lock for his first Oscar.  Tom Hardy also turns in a stellar showing as Fitzgerald, the man who leaves DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass for dead.  Another aspect that makes this drama stand out is the exceptional craft on display.  From the beautiful landscapes and imagery captured by the uber-talented, current back-to-back Oscar winner for Cinematography, Emmanuel Lubezki, to the adept direction of last year’s Best Director Oscar winner, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, The Revenant is a visual and technical masterpiece that deserves to be experienced on the big screen.

4 – Room

What better way to adapt a novel to film than have the author pen the screenplay herself?  Emma Donoghue successfully turned her award winning work into one of the most compelling dramas of the year, thanks to the brilliant work of the two leads, Brie Larson and the young Jacob Tremblay.  The two tell the story of a mother and son kept in captivity for nearly a decade that hatch a plan to escape from their captor.  Some of the best moments are in the aftermath, as Brie Larson’s Joy watches her son experience the “real world” for the first time and struggle to reconnect with an estranged family.  Room is enthralling, emotional, and uplifting, and easily one of the best of 2015.

3 – The Hateful Eight

One of the great theater experiences of the year came from The Hateful Eight 70mm Roadshow screening.  Quentin Tarantino dusted off the ultra Panavision lenses – not used since the 1960s – to film his Mystery-Western and have it projected on film across nearly 100 theaters in the US.  This showing would be complete with a program, an overture of the great Ennio Morricone’s score and a perfectly timed intermission for the 187-minute epic.  This isn’t to say the film itself wasn’t truly outstanding.  Samuel L. Jackson continues to prove the theory he was born to be in Tarantino films, as he turns in another gem as Major Warren.  Jennifer Jason Leigh is also excellent as the convicted felon, Daisy Domergue, on her way to execution at the hands of Kurt Russell’s John Ruth.  With most of Tarantino films you can expect long monologues, gratuitous violence and liberal use of explicit language, but would you really have it any other way? There’s also a mystery element to the story here that isn’t quite hinted at in the trailers.  With the excellent story and performances, as well as an absorbing Roadshow experience, The Hateful Eight ranks in the upper echelon of Tarantino films.

2 – Brooklyn

It almost feels strange to sandwich a movie like Brooklyn in between Tarantino’s bloody Hateful Eight and the ultra violent Sicario, but this story of a young Irish immigrant finding love in a new home plucked at my heartstrings more than any other film this year.  I’ve been an admirer of Saoirse Ronan’s work since her Oscar nominated performance in Atonement where she was a scene-stealer amongst her elder counterparts.  Here, she once again delivers as Eilis, the young Irish girl torn between suitors across the Atlantic, while she attempts to find her place in the vast city as a young adult.  With plenty of drama and emotion – enough to find you fighting back the tears – there’s also an abundance of laughs that make this coming of age story one of the best of the year.

1 – Sicario

At last, fall movie season has arrived and with it, brings one of the best movies of the year, Sicario.  Denis Villeneuve’s tightly paced thriller is a masterwork of crafting tension and a brutal, violent, bloody look at the war on drugs around the Mexican border.  Benicio Del Toro, giving his best performance since the actor’s Oscar winning turn in Traffic, oozes machismo as Alejandro, the government agent with an ambiguous past.  Emily Blunt shines in her role as the FBI representative who aids the special task force assigned to locate a Mexican drug lord.

Throughout much of the film, Blunt’s character is kept in the dark when it comes to specifics of the mission and even certain team member’s allegiances.  Villeneuve does a fantastic job of putting us in her shoes, particularly in one of the film’s best scenes, when the task force heads to Juarez to extradite a prisoner.   With such a powerful subject matter, Sicario does leave a little to be desired when it comes to examining the intricacies of the actual task at hand; it’s pretty much here’s the bad guy – let’s get him.  But with the stellar performances, I’d be remiss to not also mention Josh Brolin, and a plot that unfolds in such a gripping manner, it’s easy to overlook a few shortcomings.   It’s also worth pointing out the wonderful technical craft on display, in particular, Roger Deakins’ always beautiful cinematography and Oscar winner Johann Johannsson’s intense score.   Sicario is 2015's finest film.

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