Top Twenty Films of 2015 (20-11)

by Abe Rose

Movies That Almost Made the Cut: Carol, Sicario, Crimson Peak, White God, Cinderella

20 45 years

20.) 45 Years

Dir. Andrew Haigh

Sometime in our history, the term romance became synonymous with love story, but that’s not what romance originally means. Romance is actually defined to mean “not found in the real world,” or “fantasy.” 45 Years is not a romance; it is a love story. The film takes a deep look at the love between a married couple who are about to celebrate their forty-fifth wedding anniversary. They love each other deeply, but after the husband is delivered a letter concerning his former girlfriend from fifty years before, he becomes increasingly withdrawn. What they are actually thinking or feeling takes serious observation to determine. The performances are incredibly nuanced, with the key term here being “subtle.” You have to look very carefully at small changes and small pauses to find the weather patterns warning of the raging storms brewing within. 45 Years is an incredibly perceptive film about aged relationships in which communication is not a key, functioning component.

19 bridge of spies

19.) Bridge of Spies

Dir. Steven Spielberg

Sometime in the 1950’s, it seems that no one listened to Sun Tzu’s advice about the treatment of spies. In essence, treat your enemy spies well. Once Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel, was captured, the paranoid consensus was to execute him, and be quick about it. Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is about that paranoia. The film argues an important Constitutional argument: no matter how much fear we may find ourselves in, we cannot throw out the rulebook when passing judgment on our enemies. There’s more to be gained by having a spy ready to trade, rather than a dead spy who has lost all bargaining power. The film reminds us that the way we treat our enemy spies largely can affect how enemies will treat captured American spies. At one point in the film, the lawyer James Donovan discusses what brings us together as Americans. The answer is not ethnicity; America is a melting pot of different cultures and races. What truly brings us together as Americans is agreeing on the rulebook, the principles. And those rules we cannot throw away in the face of fear.

18 the martian

18.) The Martian

Dir. Ridley Scott

The Martian is a successful adaptation of the Andrew Weir novel, in providing a smart, science-based blockbuster for the big screen. By using only current technology, and real science, The Martian is a survivalist drama that provides an ultimate “what-if” scenario; what if someone was left on Mars? Could they survive, and for how long? What would be needed to survive? The story is part-Hatchet, part-McGyver, and a whole lot of science. It’s not strength or willpower alone that can get Watney home. It’s science. He has to, in his words, “science the shit out of this,” in order to survive. This is an exciting story built entirely around ingenuity and intelligence. It’s funny too, but don’t go mistaking this for a movie worthy of Best Comedy. I’m looking at you, Golden Globes.

17 the big short

17.) The Big Short

Dir. Adam McKay

The Big Short at times feels like it’s speaking down to its audience. Synthetic CDOs? Short-selling? Credit default swap? Just when its about to lose most of its audience, it uses actress Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain what a sub-prime mortgage is. Cheeky, but also just funny enough to slip by smug detectors. Directed by Adam McKay, of Anchorman fame, the movie should just own up to being a dark comedy, because it manages to find really great laughs in the chaotic and shady practices of the 2008 financial crisis. The Big Short makes a very interesting choice in sympathizing with these particular traders who are warning of the housing market’s eventual collapse. Story has a tricky way of getting you to root for whoever is in the protagonist’s seat; the characters could be short-selling and betting against the American economy, and as long as they follow the path of the Hero’s Journey, we enjoy watching them rake in their oodles of cash. The movie is aware of this, and then has Brad Pitt’s character angrily lecture us on the larger context and what this doom will spell out for millions of Americans.

16 steve jobs

16.) Steve Jobs

Dir. Danny Boyle

What doomed Steve Jobs at the box office? Was it Steve Jobs biopic fatigue? After all, we just had another Steve Jobs movie from a few years ago. More likely, what doomed this movie’s box office potential was Aaron Sorkin’s portrayal of Steve Jobs, making him look like a mad tyrant. The film’s mantra could be taken from Lord Acton’s lesser known quote after “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” which is, “Great men are almost always bad men.” Sorkin has ignored adapting his movie from Apple press releases, in favor of adapting from a Google search of “Terrible things Steve Jobs has done.” It is a movie about his pettiness, as well as his greatness. It’s the kind of film that could scare people away from becoming too famous, lest they have Aaron Sorkin write a monstrous movie about them. I’m sure that orchestra conductors could act like tyrants half an hour before showtime, and Danny Boyle’s film figuratively sees Steve Jobs as the Mozart of the computer world. He might have been an unbearable jerk, but man, could he truly play the piano.

15 spotlight

15.) Spotlight

Dir. Tom McCarthy

In the spirit of All the President’s Men, Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight is a film focused on research, journalistic leads, phone interviews, and fact-checking. It is about serious journalism, from an era when that term held more weight. The film strips away the pretenses of romantic sup-plots, and Hollywood filler. Most of the journalism found in the film would find itself on the editing room floor in a typical movie about journalists. Spotlight follows a months-long process, documenting how the Boston Globe broke the Catholic sex abuse scandal which rocked the foundations of the church worldwide. Before this, there were stories that broke from time to time, but no one had put the pieces together to see the larger context. When the journalists look for victims to give testimony, most of them have the same reaction: “What took you so long?”

One of the great strengths of the film is that it takes faith absolutely seriously; it is not an anti-religious movie, but rather an anti-corruption movie. The journalists involved spend much time lamenting about how they always meant to one day return to the church and that they always meant to come back to their faith. But now they cannot, and it makes them truly sad. It wasn’t just a matter of a few bad apples, it was an institutional cover-up on a global scale. The story needed to be told, and Spotlight takes us through, step-by-step.

And a follow-up movie to be seen on this subject is Amy Berg’s documentary, Deliver Us From Evil (2006).

14 straight outta compton

14.) Straight Outta Compton

Dir. F. Gary Gray

The rap group N.W.A. was once viewed through the lens of mainstream American media as a group promoting hatred and violence against law enforcement. The N.W.A. members maintained that they were simply reflecting in their lyrics the reality of life in impoverished streets: the presence of gangs, the law enforcement’s frequent use of excessive force, and the racial profiling. All of this was before mainstream America became aware of who Rodney King was. While hip-hop was, at the time, mostly used as feel-good dance music, N.W.A. exploded onto stage with ruthless political criticism. It took the rest of America almost thirty years to finally catch up and start to understand the lyrical context of N.W.A. Straight Outta Compton is an incredibly well-made musical biopic that sets the story of the most influential rap group to the social and political climate of Southern California, preceding the 1992 L.A. Riots.

13 creed

13.) Creed

Dir. Ryan Coogler

Creed draws much comparison with the original Rocky, but it also draws deep from the book of Genesis. Specifically, it draws from the story of Jacob and his quest for his birthright. In the original Rocky, Rocky Balboa started off as a poor nobody from Philadelphia, and had an epic rags-to-riches story, leading up to the moment of squaring off against the champion, Apollo Creed. This film is about Creed’s son, Adonis. Adonis Creed can’t do the typical rags-to-riches story, because he is already rich. Where could you go from there? Rich-to-ridiculously-rich-Donald Trump-small-loan-of-a-million-dollars rich? Not quite, because it’s not riches that Adonis is reclaiming, but his name that he is retaking. He is always living in his father’s shadow. He gains no one’s sympathy for that. After all he’s a rich kid living in a mansion, and the last I checked, the 1-percenters don’t exactly score high on the sympathy meter. He has to give all of that up, and ultimately, rid himself of his father’s name. It’s a story about someone who has so little self-respect, and has to go through the Rocky montage to become somebody who can take it all the way to the 11th round. And isn’t that what the Rocky series is really all about?

12 macbeth

12.) Macbeth

Dir. Justin Kurzel

If Shakespeare adaptations were to be judged on the newness brought to the material, then Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth should be judged almost entirely on its cinematography. Full of scorpions is Macbeth’s chaotic mind, and so too is the landscape a chaotic horror. The land drips with blood, and the fires burn red hot around Macbeth as he teeters around with madness. It’s not just the actors who carry the film, it’s the landscape itself that almost becomes a character. Macbeth’s kingdom has transformed into a visual feast of rage and terror. It may not be the most accurate adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but it certainly is one of the most visually impressive.

11 ex machina

11.) Ex Machina

Dir. Alex Garland

Ex Machina at one point brings up Frank Jackson’s Knowledge Argument, which goes something like this: Mary lives in a black and white room, only able to interact through a black and white television monitor. She is a neurophysiologist of vision, and learns all there is to know about colors like red and blue, but never has actually seen real color. What will happen when Mary steps out of that black and white room? You can learn all you want about color, wavelength and photons in the strictest scientific sense, but try explaining what red looks like to someone that is completely colorblind. The movie uses this picture as a basis for exploring artificial intelligence. Is Ava, the artificial intelligence able to see the world as we do, or is she simply like that scientist in that black and white room?

Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is a fascinating science fiction film that explores the philosophical implications of a computer passing the Turing Test. Is Ava actually able to feel isolated in her laboratory? Or is the human programmer tasked with testing her merely mistaking his own emotional attachment to her as her own emotions? And would she seem to be able display emotions if her design didn’t surpass the Valley of the Uncanny? Meaning, if she looked more like a robot, than a human, would we even think she is capable of real conscious thought at all? As is with great science fiction, Ex Machina leaves more room for great speculation than it does for cheap answers.


Click here for Part II, counting down films ten through 1.

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