Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Top 20 of 2015, Part 1 (#20-11)

Even when you see well under a hundred movies a year, listing a mere top ten can still be awfully limiting. So this year I'm making time to lavish praise on twenty, which I should have started doing a long time ago. And even with twice as much love going around, there still isn't room to fit in every noteworthy achievement of 2015, so first a few shout-outs:
To Matthew Heineman's gripping expose on vigilantes fighting a hopeless war in Cartel Land; To Deniz Gamze Ergüven for evoking the sisterly bonds of Mustang with such purity and sensitivity; To Steven Spielberg's sturdy, classical construction of the Cold War pseudo-thriller Bridge of Spies; And to J.J. Abrams for reawakening our love of the galaxy far, far away in his exciting and affectionate Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

And now, the first half of my Top 20 Movies of 2015:

#20: A WAR (dir. Tobias Lindholm)
Making good on the promise of A Hijacking, Lindholm's survey of the sticky morality of modern warfare sets up a first half that mirrors every trope of the genre (with rigorous depictions of both on-the-ground combat and the war at home), only to subvert those formulae by dovetailing them into an intelligent courtroom drama. It wracks more nerves with legal missiles than ballistic ones.

#19: EX MACHINA (dir. Alex Garland)
A thoughtful, lingering chamber piece – and what perfectly designed, minimalist chambers they are too – that takes an intimate approach to subject matter that would tempt most filmmakers to go big. Its dulcet ruminations on consciousness and A.I. are fascinating enough on their own, but it's Alicia Vikander's enigmatic performance that truly brings the themes to life in complex, beguiling ways.

#18: RICKI AND THE FLASH (dir. Jonathan Demme)
You can call it ragged and unpolished all you want (not wrongfully so), so long as you don't overlook how warm and generous it is too, strumming a power chord of straight-up schmaltz with easygoing confidence. How refreshing it is to see a story in which the conflict mellows as it progresses, and what a treat to see Streep rock her way through what is her earthiest, least affected performance in ages.

#17: LOVE & MERCY (dir. Bill Pohlad)
Equally frustrating and brilliant, vexing and inspired, but at the very least far from ordinary – Its dual exploration of the troubled genius of Brian Wilson (played by John Cusack and a positively possessed Paul Dano) is unusually daring in its form and flow; Not always successfully so, but the notes that ring truest are hard to shake. Boasts the most unique sound design of the year.

#16: BROOKLYN (dir. John Crowley)
Working from Nick Hornby's gracefully succinct adaptation of the Colm Toíbín novel, Crowley reminds us of the simple elegance and emotive power of good ole' fashioned, classical filmmaking. Beautifully mounted and filled with sincere, expressive performances (beyond Saoirse Ronan's luminous star turn), there's nothing not to like about this heartfelt romance. In a word: Lovely.

#15: BOY AND THE WORLD (Alê Abreu)
You might not think a message movie with such themes on its mind as the evils of deforestation, industrialization and urbanization would take the form of an abstract, wordless, Crayola-coloured odyssey, but that's what makes this Brazilian toon such a marvel; Politically charged without stewing in overt anger, conveyed through astonishing kaleidoscopic visuals and charmingly simple pantomime.

#14: MR. HOLMES (dir. Bill Condon)
The year's most pleasant surprise comes in the form of this quaint deconstruction of the myth of Sherlock Holmes, elevated high above the ilk of BBC telefilms it resembles by Condon's sharp cinematic eye and Jeffrey Hatcher's cunningly wrought script. The genteel mystery piques our intrigue, but the emotional arc (wonderfully interpreted by Sir Ian McKellan) makes us care. A quiet triumph.

#13: THE MARTIAN (dir. Ridley Scott)
In space, no one can hear you scream, but apparently cheers of triumph are heard loud and clear. Lighter but no less captivating than his more noted sci-fi detours, Scott's thoroughly entertaining celebration of ingenuity and the human spirit excels on a seamless mix of well judged humour, high-stakes drama, visual spectacle and a charismatic movie star performance from Matt Damon.

#12: 45 YEARS (dir. Andrew Haigh)
Charlotte Rampling delivers a masterclass of jealous frailty and brittle fortitude in this crushing marital study. Haigh's low-key tableaux sensibilities belie the storm of resentment slowly brewing in each scene, cleverly mirrored by the increasingly chilly weather. He masterfully holds us to the final shot before landing his devastating parting blow. It's a downer, but an excellent downer.

#11: AMY (dir. Asif Kapadia)
High-end biography or tabloid exploitation? Wherever you stand on the debatable ethics of Kapadia's archival chronicle of the meteoric rise and then tragic fall of Amy Winehouse, the collage it presents of the late songstress is fascinating in its construction, enthralling in its melancholy, and biting in its indictment of the rabid celebrity culture that drove her to self-destruction.

The top ten will be announced tomorrow...

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