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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Alexander's Top 10 Films of 2015

Forget what Harper and Kyle said, 2015 was awesome. No, no, not quite on the same level as 2014, but... I mean, 2014 was a truly astonishing year. It was great, and it was great in a lot of different ways. But years like 2014 are a once-in-a-decade kind of thing, like 2007, or 1985, or 1957, or 1939, or... well, you get the picture. 2015 is just really good. Don't believe me? Check out these 10 amazing films!

#10 (tie) - Sleeping With Other People

Dir. Leslye Headland

The romantic comedy gets a bad rap. Despite giving us some of the all-time great films ever made, recent years have found its reputation declining as it wallows in some pretty abysmal trends. Thankfully, almost every year has at least one stand-out example of the genre, and this year it was Leslye Headland's Alison Brie/Jason Sudeikis starring romcom. In it, the two play a pair of narcissists with problems staying faithful who strike up a friendship under the condition that the two of them never, ever hook up with one another (they've presumably never heard of polyamory, I guess) but who, of course, end up falling for one another. While the ending is a bit weak thanks to a crowd-pleasing compromise, sharp jokes and excellent performances carry a sweet, funny, dirty movie to a satisfying conclusion. It's less eye-catching than Trainwreck, but it's also sharper and meaner.

#10 (tie) - I Believe In Unicorns

Dir. Leah Meyerhoff

Young love hits fast and hard, and the passion that accompanies it can cover up a lot of sins. In I Believe in Unicorns, the debut feature film from Leah Meyerhoff, those sins - and that passion - is explored in loving, personal detail. Essentially a road trip movie, I Belive In Unicorns finds Davina (Natalia Dyer) attempting to escape a fraught personal life caring for her sick mother. When she meets and falls for an older punk guy, the two abandon everything and everyone to go on a road trip. It's a pitch-perfect portrayal of adolescence, smartly structured and painfully true to life.

#10 (tie) - The Big Short

Dir. Adam McKay

The 2008 financial crisis is one of the definitive moments in modern American history -- and it's one most people don't understand, because part of the reason it happened in the first place is because bankers had cloaked what they were doing in so many layers of technobabble they were getting away with murder and no one realized it. So of course director Adam McKay (Anchorman, The Other Guys) made an energetic ensemble comedy about it, explaining the core ideas behind the Wall Street meltdown with a quick wit and sharp style. The Big Short is funny and features a handful of really charismatic performances, but it is also smartly made and more than happy to try and dig into some really complex ideas. Issues Cinema at its finest.

#10 (tie) - Sicario

Dir. Dennis Villeneuve

The American Drug War gets a tense new thriller with Sicario, Dennis Villeneuve's Emily Blunt-starring tale of an FBI agent who gets in way over her head. As thrillers go, Sicario is more quietly intimidating than most, its criticisms subtle and slow to reveal themselves. But the immediate pleasures of watching Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio del Toro work together in such a bleak, morally twisty film cannot be discounted, nor can the presence of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, which helps make this the year's most stunning-looking film. The definitive Drug War thriller of 2015.

#10 (tie) - Creed

Dir. Ryan Coogler

An amazing sequel to one of the all-time great American films, Creed finds Sylvester Stallone passing the torch, finally, after 2006's Rocky Balboa. Director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) teams up with perhaps the single most promising young American actor, Michael B. Jordan, to continue the venerable boxing franchise. Jordan plays Adonis Creed, son of the late Apollo Creed, seeking to make a name for himself separate from that of the father he never knew. The film features some of the most inventive, well-filmed boxing sequences in the medium's history, and takes the time to establish a protagonist we can fall in love with the same way we once did Rocky. Unlike another long-overdue sequel that heavily mirrors plot elements from the original, Creed understands the importance of patience, of character, allowing Coogler to craft one of the year's finest crowdpleasers.

#10 (tie) - Chi-Raq

Dir. Spike Lee

How does this exist? It's a question I asked myself over and over as I watched Chi-Raq, Spike-Lee's furious modern adaptation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata that reimagines the action of the play from the Peloponnesian War to the streets of modern day Chicago. Lee's newest film is as angry as I've ever seen, but it's not just a liberal screed - it's pervasive in its criticism, and its primary weapon is satire. The film manages wild tonal shifts better than almost any I've seen; not many films can contain both a heartfelt sermon on gun violence AND a competitive sex competition meant to end the gender war, but Chi-Raq sure as hell tries. This is a movie that has to be seen to be believed.

#9 - Tangerine

Dir. Sean Baker

Tangerine is the year's most rambunctious, unpredictable comedy. The movie follows Sin-Dee Rella and Alexandra, a pair of transgender prostitutes on a farcical rampage through downtown Los Angeles looking for Sin-Dee's former pimp-turned-fiance, Chester. Led with madcap glee by newcomer Kitana 'Kiki' Rodriguez and grounded by an emotional turn from Mya Taylor, Tangerine is earthy, raw, and hysterical. It got a lot of press for its technical aspects - it was shot on an iPhone and still manages to look better than half the year's major releases - and for casting actual trans actresses, the film is actually on this list for one reason and one reason alone: It's just a great film.

#8 - Girlhood

Dir. Celine Sciamma

Celine Sciamma has proven to be France's foremost purveyor of sensitively wrought coming-of-age films about young women who don't necessarily present themselves in traditionally gendered ways. Her 2015 film, Girlhood, initially seems like it will be a more straightforward film about a high school girl who falls in with an all-girl gang. Marieme and her new friends fight, lie, steal, and party, creating a bond that culminates in one of my favorite scenes of 2015. But as the gang grows and adolescence passes, Marieme's journey is complicated, both by love and by her gender presentation as she becomes more involved in a criminal lifestyle. It has all the emotional nuance of Sciamma's previous films, but with added scope and ambition. 

#7 - Mad Max: Fury Road

Dir. George Miller

What is there to say about the year's most critically beloved action film that hasn't been said by the dozens of awards, best-ofs, and rapturous write-ups? Probably not much, but my editor will certainly make me try! A long-in-the-making sequel to the dormant Ozsploitation Mad Max trilogy, George Miller returned with a vengeance to the series that made his name. Mad Max: Fury Road was a lean, mean fighting machine, impeccably edited for maximum adrenaline and with gorgeous, lush colors and visceral practical effects. In a summer dominated by ballooning CGI budgets and lackluster worldbuilding, Fury Road was far and away the most thrilling and innovative of them all. 

#6 - Appropriate Behavior

Dir. Desiree Akhavan

In Appropriate Behavior, writer/director/star Desiree Akhavan's debut feature, she plays Shirin, a bisexual Persian woman bouncing back after a rough breakup with the more radical Maxine. The basic formula is simple - one part Woody Allen's Annie Hall, one part Lena Dunham's Girls, one part queer 'coming out' drama - but Akhavan finds an incredible amount of depth and style in the story and makes it wholly her own. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the film are its sex scenes, none of which are gratuitous; instead, each is like a little short story, impeccably edited and wonderfully performed. Appropriate Behavior is exactly what I want out of my indie films, and it welcomes a wonderful new talent to the scene in Akhavan.

#5 - Crimson Peak

Dir. Guillermo del Toro

Guillermo del Toro operates on a different wavelength from most filmmakers, so it shouldn't be too much of a surprise that, in a horror environment dominated by jump-scare laden potboilers, del Toro gives us an emotionally nuanced ode to the gothics of old. But Crimson Peak is more than a successful spookshow - it's also the year's most beautiful movie, a sumptuously-designed feast for the eyes with impeccable costuming and wonderfully designed creaky old house. More than that, though, it has a core cast of three exceedingly fine young actors in Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and particularly Jessica Chastain in a smart, thoughtful haunted house story unlike anything else on screens today. Crimson Peak is an absolute must-see for anyone with a longstanding love of gothic storytelling.

#4 - The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Dir. Marielle Heller

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is the most energetic, entertaining coming-of-age film of 2015. Adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner's semi-autobiographical graphic novel of the same name, Marielle Heller's film concerns the sexual awakening and first relationship of 15-year old Minnie (Bel Powley) with her mother's much older boyfriend in 1970's San Francisco. Gorgeous period detail, excellent performances, and nuanced direction helps the film walk a dramatic tightrope through the runtime, but the thing that really sticks with you is the lead. Bel Powley's Minnie is a wonderfully lively character, a complicated, unpredictable young woman on the verge of adulthood.

#3 - The Look of Silence

Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer

A harrowing, heartbreaking look at the human cost of attempted genocide, The Look of Silence is THE documentary of 2015. If partner-documentary The Act of Killing gave voice to the killers, Oppenheimer's follow-up gives a voice to the victims, and to the normal people in a nation with blood on its hands. Intensely humane and featuring some of the most harrowing interviews I've ever seen put to film, The Look of Silence finds the younger brother of a noted victim of the death squads in Indonesia interviewing the perpetrators, both of the mass crimes and of his brother's death specifically. You won't find a more heartbreaking movie from 2015.

#2 - The Duke of Burgundy

Dir. Peter Strickland

The Duke of Burgundy is a profoundly odd movie, an nudity-free art film about a lesbian BDSM relationship in which money has seemingly been replaced by rare insects, men don't exist, and lesbian BDSM relationships are the default relationship status. It's also the year's more gorgeous, sensual film, a thoughtful, mature relationship drama about a passive domme and her demanding submissive. I could write extensively about the film's gorgeous, lush score, or the set design that's to die for, but instead I'll point out how funny the movie is. I've seen plenty of 70's-style relationship dramas, and many of them are wallows, particularly as they delve into art film territory. Strickland's film, on the other hand, knows how to make you crack a smile.

#1 - Magic Mike XXL 

Dir. Gregory Jacobs

In no sane world does Magic Mike XXL work. The film, a conflict-free road trip flick from longtime Steven Soderbergh assistant director Gregory Jacobs, is largely plotless, a hangout movie about a bunch of beefy male strippers on the road to a national male stripper convention. This is not typically where great cinema happens. But greatness can come from any direction, and Jacobs, with help from Tatum and Soderbergh, brings the goods here. Electric dance sequences, gorgeous design, endearing performances and more come together to form a beautiful ode to female pleasure. More than that: It's fucking fun.


So, there: My Top 10 Films of 2015. Of course, as ever, there were a number of major films that I couldn't catch - Mustang, Carol, and Anomalisa, for example - and a lot of movies I'm very fond of that simply couldn't meet this list. To see a complete ranking of ALL the new movies I saw in 2015, click here. But be warned: I'm obsessive.

Thank you all for a phenomenal 2015 in the movie theaters. Here's to hoping for an even better 2016.
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