Up until a few days ago I was feeling somewhat bemused regarding 2015’s cinematic output. So many of the films my friends and colleagues were swooning over last year (The Revenant, Anomalisa, Creed, Spotlight, Carol, Mad Max: Fury Road, et. al.) had failed to resonate with me. It’s isn’t that I’m a non-conformist. I just can’t force myself to champion a film that pivots on two hours of driving in one direction before a decision is made to U-turn and backtrack into the mouth of the monster we were trying so hard to evade. I enjoy a futuristic jalopy drive through a sandstorm as much as the next guy but I had a hard time getting emotionally involved with such a curiously redundant narrative. Critical consensus or not; no one will ever be able to convince me that Fury Road is a superior Mad Max film to The Road Warrior and I’m confident that history will be kind to my assessment.
So, as I began to work my way through the backlog of 2015 critical darlings I was pleasantly surprised with what I found. My opinion toward 2015 grew over the first week of January 2016 as I reexamined the ninety or so new films I consumed in the last twelve months. While I don’t necessarily share the popular opinion that 2015 was “one for the books”, I certainly found it hard condensing my list down to just ten selections that defined the year for me. Great movies, like daffodils, sprout up in the most unlikely of places and remind us all how important it is to examine the cracks in the sidewalk.
10. IT FOLLOWS
For whatever reason, films belonging to the horror genre have rarely made a lasting impression on me. I can probably count on one hand the horror standards that I consider among the greatest films of all time (you can probably guess them all). But every now and then certain films come along that transcend genre and make a lasting impression. In the past few years we’ve witnessed films like The Babadook, The Cabin in The Woods, or Let the Right One In top critics lists and nudge the medium out of the exploitation ghetto. It Follows, from director David Robert Mitchell, is not only a worthy addition to that illustrious company but perhaps the single greatest horror film of the last decade. Between the brilliant conceit, evocative title, bone-chilling score (I’d read so much about the masterpiece by “Disasterpeace” that I bought it on iTunes before listening to a single note and it was one of the smartest decisions I made all year), clever ad campaign, and deafening positive reaction coming off the festival circuit, I knew this was going to be genre-defining entry. But the film still somehow managed to surpass my unrealistically high expectations. Horror films are at their best when there’s a clever, relatable, often tragic reflection of society or humanity at their center. It Follows’ secret weapon and the reason it might be the scariest psychosexual cautionary tale since Fatal Attraction, is the observation that there is virtually nothing- not STDs, not the risk of pregnancy, not emotional fallout, and not, in the case of this film, the promise of almost certain death (!) that will deter the male (particularly the teenage male) from taking advantage of sexual opportunity if it presents itself to him. This film really ought to be required viewing in junior high sex ed class. Seriously.
9. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - ROGUE NATION
I don’t think that most viewers, even professed “fans” of action filmmaking, have the proper amount of respect for the degree of difficulty inherent in crafting a Mission: Impossible film. Sure, each subsequent entry in the series shoulders the burden of topping the set pieces that have come before. No one knows this better than Tom Cruise, who continues taking it upon himself to risk life and limb in an ever-escalating series of mind-boggling stunts he insists on performing himself. But a solid film cannot subsist on stunt work or set pieces alone and ever since J.J. “The Franchise Savior” Abrams took over as creative sire of the ailing franchise nearly a decade ago, the Mission: Impossible series has become a self-aware, self-governing fun-factory. What J.J. understood and what subsequent installment directors Brad Bird and Christopher McQuarrie seem to champion, is that these films need to be clever without being smug, joyous without being disposable, and above all, must be constantly innovative. So, quietly, modestly, and without pretense, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is probably the cleanest, wittiest, and most inventive film in a twenty-year-old franchise that just seems to get better with age. By following much of the same formula first pioneered by the 007 series, the Mission: Impossible films and Rogue Nation in particular have proven to be more consistently reliable and inventive espionage thrillers than anything in the recent Bond canon. Rogue Nation and this year’s most recent Bond installment Spectre share dozens of narrative similarities and creative goals. But Rogue Nation is not only superior to that film in virtually every way, it also represents the most fun I had in a movie theater all year long.
8. THE MARTIAN
In my humblest of opinions, the problem with Ridley Scott (let’s all agree there is one) has never been work ethic, output, or versatility. The problem is his critical record. If you remove Alien, Blade Runner, and Thelma & Louise from his filmography things start to get dicey. One could argue the merits of Gladiator or Black Hawk Down all day long but I’m of the opinion neither has aged gracefully. Luckily, Scott had a breakthrough in 2015 with a film that may one day be considered amongst his best. The Martian sees the director returning to a genre he helped to change forever but, refreshingly, it doesn’t resemble anything he’s ever done before. In fact, the smartest decision he makes in his approach to the film is restraint. That is to say he allows performance and text to shoulder the heavy lifting required by the piece. The direction is slick and polished, as one expects from the man but the film doesn’t “belong” to him. Instead, it belongs to two men who Scott is clearly invested in championing: Matt Damon and Drew Goddard. Damon’s undeniable charisma, his effortless skill at making even the most hackneyed humor seem charming, and the way in which he manages to keep protagonist Mark Watney’s unbreakable optimism from ever resembling delusion is a testament to the actor’s professionalism. But neither Damon’s performance nor Scott’s steady hand would stand a chance of producing a stellar product if not for Drew Goddard’s deceptively simple adaptation of Andy Weir’s beloved novel. Goddard manages to take what could very easily have just coasted by on the charming laurels of “The Damon Show” and somehow manages to sculpt the story into a strong ensemble piece that’s streamlined, witty, and eventually, surprisingly, crucially- actually quite moving.
7. STEVE JOBS
Aaron Sorkin is an exposed nerve. He’s a vanguard. A lightning rod. The leftwing Alan-a-Dale. But, like his hero Paddy Chayefsky or his true spiritual predecessor David Mamet, his words are only as good as the actors speaking them and his plot machinations are only as effective as the directors tasked with unpacking them on the screen. As such, Sorkin is at his best when paired with filmmakers who can rein in his anarchic style. David Fincher, never one to be mistaken for a pushover, tackled Sorkin’s monster masterwork The Social Network with the vigor of a whip-toting lion tamer. But director Danny Boyle is a much different animal than Fincher or Sorkin. He’s warm, playful, even jocular. His films are defined by optimism, flights of fancy, and wonder. A far cry from the topical, cynical, misanthropy-as-romanticism that permeates Sorkin’s work. So, what a pleasure it is to watch the tidal wave of Boyle’s hyper-kinetic lust for life crash against the rigid, rocky shores of Sorkin’s “three act play” structure. He chooses to chronicle two “real time” hours in the life of Steve Jobs, spread out over three significant public appearances, occurring over fourteen years in the man’s life. Sorkin outdoes himself in designing a tightly wound, elegantly conceived, narrative nesting doll that resembles the world’s most epic, prime time drama bottle episode. But Boyle; the mad scientist who once created a hilarious, terrifying, nausea-inducing, spirit-lifting epic about a man trapped in a hole, is equal to the task of cracking Sorkin’s code. Boyle turns a potentially dense and angry chamber drama into a fleet, giddy, paean to ingenuity and, most impressively, a showcase for and love letter to Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, Steve Jobs, and of course, Aaron Sorkin.
I’ve never been an immigrant gal from Ireland. I’ve never been a homesick shop girl. I’ve never been a headstrong young woman torn between two dashing, eligible bachelors who offer me love and financial security from opposite sides of the pond. I’ve never been a female at all. But if cinema truly is the great empathy machine and real filmmakers can make us feel in spite of ourselves, then director John Crowley and screenwriter Nicky Hornby are unqualified successes as we are all invited to be Ms. Eilis Lacey for the duration of the film Brooklyn. Saoirse Ronan has been dancing around super stardom for years now (she was first Oscar nominated at age thirteen) but the twenty-one-year-old New York-born/Ireland-raised actress has finally found her defining role in Eilis. Between the enormous pools of soulful melancholy Ronan calls eyes and that lyrical lilt of an accent forged from spending most of her formative years growing up about forty minutes north of where her character was raised, there is almost no “performance” in Ronan’s performance here. But her look and easy authenticity shouldn’t suggest that Ronan coasts through the role of Eilis. She carries with her a refreshing earnestness and classical Hollywood charm that matches Brooklyn’s tone implicitly. This crucial artistic pairing is instrumental in cementing the film as not only one of the biggest crowd-pleasers of the year but a life-affirming tearjerker of the highest order as well.
While a kneejerk label such as “The French/Turkish Virgin Suicides” seems somewhat reductive toward a film as sublime and original as Mustang there are many similarities between the two films that are important to examine. Both are the directorial debuts of former actresses, both feature casts of predominantly adolescent girls, both depict female protagonists struggling against the nightmarish confines imposed upon them by conservative relatives, and both feature scenes of aching sadness juxtaposed with cathartic moments of pubescent bliss. But while writer/director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s film owes much to Sofia Coppola’s first (and still finest) directorial effort it also introduces a bold and confident new artistic voice to the world of independent cinema. But Ergüven’s spry screenplay would be merely an academic exercise if not for the roster of fresh-faced, first timers she has discovered. The ensemble is anchored by the star-making performance of Günes Sensoy- our pint-sized protagonist whose brash, uninhibited turn as youngest sister “Tulip” invites comparison to Anna Paquin in The Piano or Natalie Portman in Lèon. All three were virtually the same age when they appeared in their first films and share the same staggering naturalism. In a year replete with strong performances by minors, Sensoy is a standout. She anchors the narrative and makes for a vital protagonist. When Mustang makes a third act shift from familial melodrama to full on jailbreak nail-biter, Sensoy and Ergüven rise to the occasion as the film not only bests The Virgin Suicides in emotional impact, it carves an impressive niche for itself in the annuls of coming-of-age storytelling.
Denis Villeneuve- he of Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy, and the upcoming Blade Runner sequel fame is no stranger to dark, complex subject matter. In fact, it often seems as if the man feeds on the challenges inherent in tackling films defined by bleak, no-win scenarios. His most recent artistic triumph is no exception. Sicario starts off as a policy procedural set in the moral grey area along the cartel corridor separating Mexico from the southwestern United States. But before long the film morphs into a surrealist meditation on man-made borders, a muscular revenge thriller by way of morality struggle, and finally a feminist meta-commentary on the state of female characters in the modern American action film. If these somewhat disparate narrative elements sound like strange cinematic bedfellows to you, you’re not wrong. The first hour of this film launches so many ambitious threads that I was skeptical it could pay them all off in a satisfying manner and keep its tone consistent. But through the grace of Taylor Sheridan’s drum tight, razor sharp screenplay and the triple threat of Villeneuve, cinematographer Roger Deakins (best eye in the business), and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (best name in the business), Sicario goes over like the moaning demon spawn of Traffic and No Country For Old Men. The already infamous “Juarez Extraction” scene is an instant classic of nerve-shredding intensity. It’s one of many sequences in the film that appear professionally designed to haunt your dreams.
3. SON OF SAUL
There’s a myopic conceit at the heart of László Nemes debut feature, Son Of Saul that sets it apart from all other Holocaust dramas or really all other dramas in recent memory. By constantly keeping the camera and, more importantly, the focal plane within a few feet of protagonist Saul Ausländer (played with breathtaking clarity by fellow first-timer Géza Röhrig) we are given a unique, subjective, intimate experience that somehow feels even more personal and visceral than a traditional “POV” perspective. The world around Saul seems to fall away into abstraction and blurred motion which is exactly how one would assume a “sonderkommando” (Jewish prisoners forced to aid with the disposal of gas chamber victims) would need to go about their business if they hoped to avoid daily hysteria and despair. Saul keeps his head down and the horror that surrounds him at an emotional arm’s length until the day that he encounters the body of a boy he believes to be his illegitimate son. From here the film shifts from a matter-of-fact historical document to white knuckle survival cum heist thriller as Saul risks his own life and sanity to protect the child’s body from cremation in an Auschwitz oven. Emotionally draining depictions of one of humanity’s most dramatic chapters are such a staple of the art form that the idea of enduring another one can often be a punishing proposition. But Nemes has clearly cracked a code here and unearthed a methodology for exploring the subject more deeply. By focusing so completely on a single individual’s struggle and his capacity for selflessness, Nemes and Röhrig make a statement about the idea of “humanity” as a concept.
2. EX MACHINA
It seems as if Alex Garland has been struggling for years to craft the one story that truly defines his unique style. His debut novel The Beach suffered from the same handicap as its eventual film adaptation- a dynamite hook with virtually no payoff. His subsequent collaborations with Danny Boyle- 28 Days Later and Sunshine, likewise couldn’t capitalize on their promise as provocative genre exercises. Never Let Me Go drowned in its own sour bleakness and Dredd, for all of its viscera and incorrigible badassery, couldn’t transcend its trash comic roots. But all of those films, for better or for worse, made Garland the artist he is today and they helped to secure him a long overdue crack at directing one of his own scripts. So, leave it to the vanguard who followed up highfalutin Never Let Me Go with lowfalutin Dredd to hit his directorial debut out of the park and craft a modern sci-fi classic with the ease and skill of a seasoned veteran. Garland’s three-hander chamber piece features the bona fide breakouts of 2015 (Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander) in their best roles of the year. The boys acquit themselves nicely- sparring, posturing, sizing each other up, breaking each other down… Their intellectual dance is reminiscent of Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine’s shifting dynamics in Sleuth. Gleeson, as our giddy, curious surrogate, melts convincingly from squeaky clean company man to a lovesick, emotional shell before our very eyes. While Isaac’s devil-may-care, alcoholic wunderkind- cocooned in his man cave of glass and fiber optics, represents yet another intricately textured performance that seem to come so easily for the actor. But ultimately the film belongs to Vikander as Ava the A.I. Beneath her soft features and intellectual purr lies a calculated instinct. Vikander and Ava both represent myriad complexity and possibility beneath a truly striking and beautiful visage. As such, Ava emerges as the unexpected “hero” of a wicked, warped, intoxicating journey.
The “single take” film has gone from an anomaly to a gimmick over the last twenty years. An early curiosity like Timecode or a game-changer like Russian Ark both still impress with their innovations but they prioritize narrative simplicity and geographic minimalism so as to not exceed their technical limitations. Even the wildly-lauded Birdman makes up for porous storytelling by heaping weight on its gimmick and even borrowing hokey “editing” techniques from its sixty-year-old, spiritual ancestor Rope. But if Rope is the Model T Ford of single take films, Russian Ark is the austere BMW, and Birdman is the souped-up Ferrari, then Victoria is most certainly a Tesla- fresh off the assembly line. It’s sleek and beautiful and wholly brand new. But there’s something sophisticated going on beneath the hood and practical economy is a high priority. For nearly one hundred and forty harrowing minutes, director Sebastian Schipper and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (given top billing in the end credits for good reason) plunge us down a rabbit hole of subverted expectation. As we traverse miles of nocturnal Berlin by car, by bike, and [often sprinting] by foot, Grøvlen’s camera stays at the center of the action at all times. Tears are shed, blood is spilled, bullets are exchanged, love is forged, and one of the most cathartic dance sequences ever filmed even punctuates the film’s second act. And it was during this scene that I realized I had become so enraptured by the narrative ambitions of the film that I had completely forgotten about the technical “gimmick” I had feared would take center stage. Victoria transcends because, above all, it’s a beautiful, terrifying, rapturous human story, first and foremost, and a breathtaking photographic achievement second. This film is long, vast, and deliberate, not because it’s trying to impress you with its size but rather because the running time is exactly how long it took for this story to play itself out, organically. That’s what makes it not only the greatest single take film of all time but also the best film of 2015 by a wide margin.
THE END OF THE TOUR
THE HATEFUL EIGHT
STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
Oscar Dahl's Top 10 Of 2015
10. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
9. THE END OF THE TOUR
8. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - ROGUE NATION
7. THE MARTIAN
5. EX MACHINA
2. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
1. THE BIG SHORT