It’s the end of the year, and that means another installment of the Best of the Wurst–what I thought were the best films of 2015. Enjoy!
Love & Mercy
I fell hard for this Brian Wilson rock and roll bio the first time I saw it, at the opening night of last summer’s Maui Film Festival. Whether you’re a fan of The Beach Boys, this wondrous, emotionally devastating true story will hit you hard. Director Bill Pohlad’s film is a dual depiction of how Brian Wilson (played by Paul Dano as a young man) had to overcome his cruel father and skeptical band mates and, later (as played by John Cusack as older, lost and bewildered), barely survived his sadistic, controlling doctor (Paul Giamatti). The glorious sequences of Wilson creating brilliant, ahead-of-its-time music are contrasted with harrowing passages of his verbal and mental abuse. The compassion and hope in Pohlad’s celebratory film resonates deeply, because Wilson’s personal and artistic triumphs are real. In life, we’re either victims or survivors. Love & Mercy portrays Wilson’s grueling struggle for personal identity and creative freedom.The movie works as a companion piece to his extraordinary Smile album, reminding us of the great rewards of overcoming those who seek to imprison and silence our inner voice.
Todd Haynes recreates the atmosphere and language of the 1950s with such detailed intricacy, his spellbinding film is like a two-hour time machine. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara find nuance in their portrayals of very different women who discover a shared attraction. Bookended by two opposing, telling and haunting shots of a hand resting on someone’s shoulder, Hayne’s beautiful, erotic and engrossing love story feels like a classic from start to finish.
Mad Max: Fury Road
This one had everything working against it. Though it’s a stand-alone story, Fury Road is a fourth installment, had a lavish, massive and famously difficult production, lost its original star and was helmed by a 70-year old Aussie mad man. It could have been a giant disaster. Instead, director George Miller delivered, offering visions so thrilling that I sat awestruck and utterly giddy. Charlize Theron’s unlikely performance is among her best and, taken as a straight-forward action spectacle or a timely allegory of empowerment, this miracle of a summer movie is unforgettable and essential cinema.
Woody Allen’s unsettling, hypnotic thriller stars Joaquin Phoenix and a never better Emma Stone and features some of Allen’s best filmmaking. The dark question of whether Phoenix’s off-kilter college professor is up to something sinister is contrasted with gorgeous scenery and upbeat jazz. Allen is most famous for making comedies but, once again, his whodunits offer the richest rewards.
The sleeper of the year, a festival darling that never found an audience or knew how to promote itself. This horror/drama about a farmer trying to comfort his daughter and protect her humanity after being bitten by a zombie stars Arnold Schwarzenegger. Debut director Henry Hobson’s movie isn’t a joke or a gore fest but a heartbreaking allegory of how a parent comforts a dying child. Abigail Breslin is terrific in the title role, while Ah-nuld, like the movie itself, is restrained and surprisingly great.
The Big Short
Movies about Wall Street, the stock market, finances, the housing crisis and eventual bailout of 2008 tend to be either informative and talky or entertaining Faustian tales of moral compromise. Adam McKay’s savage and hilarious serio-comedy manages to be both, a cautionary tale on the limits of greed and a farce on how no one listened to a cluster of odd but brilliant analysts who saw it all coming. Christian Bale’s layered, admirably wacky turn is yet another of his acting milestones.
This powerhouse pulled me in from the first scene. Shades of Cormac McCarthy and Sam Peckinpah are all over this edgy neo-western, in which a skilled FBI agent (Emily Blunt) is thrown into a world of moral ambiguity and corruption. Benicio Del Toro ably conveys the madness and hypocrisy of the world he inhabits. Director Denis Villeneuve gets better, grander and more daring with each film.
The title stinks and so does the poster. Thankfully, I gave into my curiosity and discovered Josh Mond’s excellent drama, about a spoiled loser (vividly portrayed by Christopher Abbott) whose aimless life is given meaning when he must care for his mother (a never better Cynthia Nixon).
The combination of Daniel Craig and Oscar winning director Sam Mendes taking on James Bond 007 reaches a franchise milestone. Terrific, stylish fun from start to finish, with Christoph Waltz emerging as one of the great Bond villains (to no one’s surprise).
Writer/director Ryan Coogler surprised everyone by giving us Rocky 7 and making it essential. The fight scenes have the you-are-there immediacy of Raging Bull, while star Sylvester Stallone manages, astonishingly, to make Rocky Balboa even more endearing and vulnerable. No eighth entry is necessary: this final victory lap to the top of the Philadelphia Art Museum flies high enough.
Image of Love & Mercy poster: Movieweb.com