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Column Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015


Best Films of 2015

I'm the idiot who waits until the year actually ends before rolling out my Best Of... list every year, and that's because I'm often able to squeeze in a dozen or more films in the last couple weeks of December, mostly stuff that others have told me is worth checking out that I either missed when it came out in Chicago or titles that simply never came out locally.

By my count, I saw 455 films in 2015 (10 less than last year — I'm slipping!), either in a theater or via screener — from Paddington to Point Break. This number does include a few vintage titles, but only if I saw them in a theater (often as a restored print, but not always). If I simply watched an older film at home, that doesn't make the list. As I do every year, I've separated out the documentaries because I want an excuse to call extra attention to a whole other batch of worthy films (20 this year) that might go unnoticed on my main list. Plus, it's always seemed strange to me to mix docs and features; the same way you don't usually see fiction and nonfiction books shelved together in a bookstore.

I was genuinely shocked at how many great movies didn't make my Top 10, or even my Top 20, as I was assembling this list. I often feel that after the first 10, the numbers don't mean much, and that's never been more true. Of my top 15, I saw 12 of them more than once, many of them three times just to help me finalize this list.

I say this every year, but I'll say it again anyway: If you think a list of 50 films is an annoyingly huge, feel free to stop reading at 30, or 20, or 10. Of course 50 is indulgent; you'll find ways of dealing with it, I have faith. I've included sections of my original reviews for my Top 10 films, with the exception of Anomalisa, the review for which will run next week. Hope you dig the list and that it gives you some ideas for purchases, streaming, rentals, going to the theater and actually checking them out the old-school way. A few of these are still in theaters, and if they are, that's where you should view them. A couple of them will make their way to you in January. Alright, enough preamble. Here is my humbly submitted Top 50 best features and Top 20 best documentaries of 2015. Please enjoy and discuss.

1. Ex Machina
The film is not a film about whether the AI known as Ava (Alicia Vikander) is good or evil; it's about whether she could ever become aware. It's less about whether she likes or loves someone; it's about whether she fully grasps what those concepts are. Writer-director Alex Garland is far more interested in capturing subtle acts of manipulation and the consequences of such actions rather than seeing what Ava's reaction times are. There's a metaphor brought up more than once in the film about the magician's assistant being a distraction so that the magician can perform an illusion. There's a lot of that at play here, and having seen the film several times now, I can see that Ex Machina is a very different, though no less fascinating, work with each viewing.

Watching Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac converse and move around each other is endlessly entertaining. But Vikander is the real discovery here. Every move, intonation, and expression is carefully calculated. She moves fluidly but also as you'd expect an advanced robot might. And don't fool yourself for a second, she's working us as an audience just as much as she is Gleeson's Caleb in the film. She wants us to fall under her subtle spell, and we do. Ex Machina is a masterfully constructed work — an exercise in complex thought and visual simplicity. And we come to realize that the real danger of AI is how its existence reflects upon us. When we start treating machines like feeling creatures, what does that say about humanity? Yes, you should see this film, but then you should see it again and again.

2. Anomalisa
I'll have a full review (as well as an interview with co-directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson) next week, but I can say that this film is, all at once, heartfelt, disturbing, funny, romantic, and emotionally complex. It's ripe for interpretation and conversation, and the lead character is both a tragic character looking for connection and a selfish being that fears commitment. The fact that Anomalisa also happens to be a stunning technical achievement in stop-motion animation is almost secondary, except it isn't because it never wants us to forget that so much about the film feels quite real but isn't. Another true master stroke from Kaufman that, once again, gives us a story about characters in search of their unique version of reality.

I should mention that, to celebrate the upcoming release of Anomalisa, Landmark's Century Centre Cinema is proud to present an exclusive Charlie Kaufman Retrospective, featuring the work of the Academy Award-winning filmmaker. The four-day retrospective will run January 4-7, 2016 at 1pm with special screenings of four of Kaufman's most critically acclaimed films: Being John Malkovich, Jan. 4; Adaptation, Jan. 5; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jan. 6; and Synecdoche, New York, Jan. 7. Tickets for all of these shows are now on sale at the Landmark Theatres website.

3. Mad Max: Fury Road
This film is not a two-hour chase scene — not even close. There are plenty of breaks in the action — and you'll probably need them just to catch your breath and figure out what the hell is going on. But it's more than just about taking a moment to decompress. Writer-director Geroge Miller's pacing is remarkable, and what happens during these pauses in the action are important to the bigger picture and messages of the film. When Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and her crew get where they're going, it opens up the truer meanings of Fury Road in remarkable ways. The practical stunts are like nothing you've ever seen, both as pure cinematic violence eruptions and from a purely technical standpoint. Miller has turned car crashes, people getting sucked under the wheels of a semi, and fiery explosions into works of art that will stand up against anything hanging in The Louvre. Yeah, I said it. Now go have yourself a destructive good time.

4. Inside Out
A friend of mine said something interesting after watching the latest understated Pixar masterpiece, Inside Out: "This film could actually help people." And I don't think he meant that the emotion-based story might brighten people's day. I didn't give his prediction much thought until many hours later, after hearing the many children in the audience talk to their parents about who their favorite emotion character was and why. But when I considered it, I realized that with just one screening, I could imagine kids opening up about and understanding their feelings, giving them a visual representation of what goes on in their heads when they get mad at a situation or person. I envision a 9-year-old noticing that Lewis Black's Anger character or Bill Hader's Fear is getting the best of them, and maybe allowing it to happen or making sure that Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) wins the day.

But the more I thought about it, I realized that the film might also inspire adults — particularly parents — to reconsider they way children's minds operate. As simple as the Pixar team (led by director and co-writer Peter Docter, who also helmed Up and Monsters Inc.) make the processes of the brain appear, there's also a great complexity and occasional darkness at play. Examine the brilliant trip that Joy and Sadness (Phyllis Smith of "The Office") take into 11-year-old Riley's mental room containing Abstract Thought. I can't think of a single moment in any Pixar movie that has approached getting that obtuse. Or take a look at Riley's closely guarded prison of the Subconscious, where all of her deepest fears are housed. Docter and his team fill every corner of the frame with gags and bits of brilliance that demand you check out the film two or three times at least. It's that joyous and worthy of celebration.

5. The Martian
No one involved in the story of The Martian or the audience watching it is more aware of how ridiculous the situation is that astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) finds himself than Watney. And we know this because Watney jokes about it constantly, turning what is a certain-death scenario into a story that celebrates and encourages unparalleled hope, bravery, creativity, intelligence and camaraderie. It's science fiction that puts nearly all of its emphasis on science, that isn't afraid to bombard us with formulas, geometry and physics as well as those who excel at figuring stuff out. Hell, Watney is a botanist, so we get a few lessons about growing things on a planet where nothing grows, mainly because there's no water (oops!). We seem to live in an age where certain groups see science and using one's brain as untrustworthy notions, and it would break my heart if audiences stayed away from this film for that reason. But The Martian has filled me with hope, so I'm going to just assume all of you have already purchased your tickets and are lining up as you read this. Enjoy this one immensely.

6. Sicario
Easily one of the finest films you'll see all year, director Denis Villeneuve's (Prisoners, Incendies) Sicario is so good for so many reasons that to break it down into its elements seems sacrilegious, since the complex ways the pieces interconnect is the largest part of its perfection. On the surface, the film is a cynical yet authentic look at the state of the ongoing, bloody drug war happening on a daily basis along the border between the U.S. and Mexico. But what's going on under the surface of Sicario is what makes it so damn sinister and brilliant and soul crushing. The film will absolutely be part of the end-of-year conversation and rightfully so. If you are a sucker for a happy, neatly tied up end, look elsewhere. Go back the kids' table and finish your juice box. This film is for grown folks who enjoy using their brains while watching movies and have a clear sense of the dirty world around them. If that sounds like you, you're in for a hell of a time at the movies.

7. Spotlight
My greatest fear when it comes to easily one of the finest-made films of the year, director Tom McCarthy's Spotlight, is that the unsavory nature of the story may keep people from checking it out. If that's currently your line of thinking, congratulations, you don't give a shit about quality movies. The film is not about the uncovering of pedophile priests per se, since vague allegations and accusations had been rumbling throughout Boston for years. What made the Spotlight team's year-long digging and resulting stories so important was the depth of the cover-up, which extended far into the legal community and the local government, in addition to ranking members of the Vatican, including Boston's Cardinal Law. What McCarthy as director and co-writer (along with Josh Singer) does with his film is painstakingly reveal the journalistic process that went into this Pulitzer Prize-winning series, resulting in one of the most breathtaking thrillers in recent memory. Spotlight a magnificent achievement in storytelling and pure filmmaking.

8. Brooklyn
Working from an elegant Nick Hornby adaptation of the novel by Colm Tóibín, director John Crowley takes his time building up a sense of time and place, without rushing us through the story or getting us buried in the politics or events of the time, which have little bearing on this very personal story. Brooklyn allows us to share in Eilis' longing for both country and love, but she also makes it clear that she doesn't need either to feel fulfilled. This is a film about the tribulations of the heart that manages to stay unsentimental by simply laying out the dilemma and allowing our heroine a few extra moments to contemplate her options as well as her desires. This is a nice little cheek pinch of a movie that has a full appreciation for what a love story should be.

9. Phoenix
One of the most talked about films on the festival circuit since last year's Toronto Film Festival is the latest collaboration between writer-director Christian Petzold and actress Nina Hoss. Phoenix is an entirely different piece of magic and represents a truly brilliant bit of cinematic unfolding that will have your mind racing and expectations shattered by its jaw-dropping conclusion. The piecing together of a life and of a country after traumatic events are two very different journeys, but somehow Petzold makes them feel similarly painful as they desperately want to emerge for the better. The film is easily in the running for one of the best films you'll see all year.

10. It Follows
In 2010, writer-director David Robert Mitchell gave audiences a peek inside the lives and minds of teenagers in a quaint Michigan suburb with The Myth of the American Sleepover, for which he was rightfully applauded for presenting these pre-adults with a certain amount of accuracy, dignity and maturity, while still making it clear that these kids were still kids. Shifting genres, but without abandoning his gift for painting young people as fully realized people, Mitchell has developed one of the truly creepiest films in years. The plot and execution of It Follows are so deceptively simple that one almost wonders why other horror filmmakers rely so much on computer-generated special effects, often with meager results. Many of the creeping evil's nuances, weaknesses and limitations ("the rules," if you will) are left for us to discover as we go, making the entire experience that much more terrifying. Mitchell's sidestep into horror feels more like the continuation of a natural, confident evolution in his filmmaking. Let's hope we don't have to wait another four years for the next step in his journey.

11. Carol
12. Son of Saul
13. The Hateful Eight
14. The Revenant
15. Mississippi Grind
16. Tangerine
17. Room
18. The Big Short
19. The Diary of a Teenage Girl
20. What We Do in the Shadows

21. Bridge of Spies
22. Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation
23. Creed
24. Kingman: The Secret Service
25. Ant-Man
26. Straight Outta Compton
27. Grandma
28. Trainwreck
29. 45 Years
30. Chi-Raq

31. The End of the Tour
32. 99 Homes
33. Queen of Earth
34. The Assassin
35. Goodnight Mommy
36. Turbo Kid
37. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
38. Crimson Peak
39. Avengers: Age of Ultron
40. James White

41. '71
42. Love and Mercy
43. The Last Five Years
44. The Tribe
45. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
46. While We're Young
47. The Overnight
48. Girlhood
49. White God
50. The Keeping Room

Best Documentaries of 2015

Every year, I separate out documentaries, not because I feel they should be judged differently than feature films, but because I want to put as many great doc titles in front of you as I possibly can, and trying to do that and still limit my main list to 50 films is an impossibility. I get such a wonderful charge from a great documentary, whether it's on a subject I know something about or it covers ground I'd never even considered in terms of perspective, information, or sources of outrage. Sometimes, it's just the sheer beauty of a subject that movies me; often times, it's something quite ugly and worth despising. It's tough catching docs in theaters these days (for example, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief didn't make my list because I saw it, like many of you, on HBO and not in a theater), and someday soon, I may have to rethink how I compile this specific list — considering films that originated on the festival circuit but never got even an art-house release, instead landing on cable, PBS, etc. While I figure that out, this list of 20 should keep you busy for time.

1. Call Me Lucky To label director Bobcat Goldthwait's Call Me Lucky as simply "inspiring" doesn't begin to explain how good it is or how stirring comedian Barry Crimmins' journey has been (and still is). The film received a double standing ovation (rightfully so) at Sundance, and I have continued to mull over and contemplate certain aspects of it in my mind on an almost daily basis. In a just, sensible world, Crimmins would have statues erected to him as well as his own national holiday; he would hate that, of course, but at the very least, do what you can to see this remarkable film. The film is far more than the sum total of its shocking moments, to be sure, but when it takes the unexpected turn into Crimmins' dark, pre-comedy history, it elevates the movie to such a degree that you feel like you're watching the most vivid confessional ever committed to film. 2. Amy
3. 3 1/2 Minutes Ten Bullets
4. A Murder in the Park
5. The Look of Silence
6. Hitchcock/Truffaut
7. Listen to Me Marlon
8. The Hunting Ground
9. Meru
10. The Salt of the Earth

11. The Creeping Garden
12. Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
13. In Jackson Heights
14. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
15. Cartel Land
16. Prophet's Prey
17. Batkid Begins
18. Best of Enemies
19. The Wrecking Crew
20. Janis: Little Girl Blue

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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