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Monday, January 4, 2016

Harper's Top 10 Films of 2015

It's that time of year again! While 2015 was nowhere near the cinematic feast that was 2014, there were many great films to be seen. Here are my picks for the ten best movies of 2015:


Steve Jobs
dir. by Danny Boyle

Yeah, I know, another rich white guy biopic, but damn if it wasn't great. What could have been yet another attempt to capture the life story of the ubiquitous Apple mogul is crafted by Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle into an exciting film with a unique narrative structure. While the repeated interactions sometimes felt forced, the choice to show Jobs only through the lens of three key presentations in his career was an inspired one. Couple that with a powerhouse performance by Michael Fassbender and a great supporting cast and you've got a surprisingly entertaining flick.


The Martian
dir. by Ridley Scott

I was very hesitantly hopeful for this movie, given the cast and the positive things I had heard about the book, and for once with a Ridley Scott movie I was pleasantly surprised. Despite its lengthy running time, I was engaged and invested for every minute of it, partly due to Matt Damon's fantastic solo performance and partly due to the way the film manages to make the minute technical details of Watney's survival like the steps in a thrilling procedural. Wonderfully shot and full of optimism, The Martian stands as a fascinating counterpoint to last year's Interstellar.


dir. by Lenny Abrahamson

On its surface, Room sounds suspiciously like a Lifetime movie: a young woman who was kidnapped years ago now lives in captivity with her son Jack, who has never seen the outside world, as they struggle to escape and then adjust to life on the outside. The key here is the way the film totally eschews sensationalism in favor of sheer wonder. The two central performances by Brie Larson and the surprisingly talented young Jacob Tremblay are powerful, and are the emotional core of a movie that will leave you with a swell of hope that is devoid of melodrama.


Star Wars: The Force Awakens
dir. by J.J. Abrams

For a movie that was about as hyped as humanly possible, it was a bit of a shock to not walk out complaining of everything Disney and Abrams got wrong. TFA not only avoids most of the major pitfalls that were expected, but succeeds in adding some phenomenal new characters to the Star Wars mythos and walking a fine line between nostalgic familiarity and new, modern story. It sets up a new age to the beloved franchise and has me more excited for the future of the Force than when I was a just a geeky kid seeing Empire the first time.


The Revenant
dir. by Alejandro González Iñárritu

I was a pretty big fan of Birdman last year, and it’s no surprise that Iñárritu’s new film would really hit me in the right spots as well despite how different it is. It is a gorgeous movie that seems to be equal parts Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick, exploring ideas about the morality of survival and revenge through both quiet observation and intensely brutal violence. While the one-shot style of Birdman was an achievement, the long take is used to much better effect here, used as a sense of perspective that mimics the mood of the scene and changing with it to a masterful degree.


Ex Machina
dir. by Alex Garland

Alex Garland has been a talented science fiction screenwriter for well over a decade, but now he's shown immense promise as a director in his own right with the brilliantly unique Ex Machina. Possibly the only film to successfully adapt a set of philosophical thought experiments, it manages to explore the idea of artificial intelligence in a way that is smart, entertaining, and thrillingly twisty. Its trio of carefully subtle performances are matched by the gorgeous visual style, and I'm pretty sure it would still make my list if it was only this scene repeated on a loop.


Inside Out
dir. by Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen

With the last three Pixar films being mostly sequels and quickly forgotten, it was with great pleasure that their newest is exceptionally clever, emotionally mature, and eminently rewatchable. It captures with colorful clarity what it is like to grow up and how our perspective on memories can change with time while poking fun at some of the ridiculous things that we're too embarrassed to admit go on in our heads. Its excellent casting choices glue the whole thing together into a startlingly complex movie that might be the best that Pixar has ever done.


The Hateful Eight
dir. by Quentin Tarantino

This was the least excited I had ever been for a Tarantino movie; it seemed like he was repeating himself by digging into the Western once more, and setting the film in essentially one location like a stage play felt like it might negate the things that make his films great. Luckily, I was 100% wrong, and it now appears that The Hateful Eight may be Tarantino's smartest movie, certainly with the most to say. It subtly tackles themes of race and gender while staying true to his twisty, violent, genre-themed roots.


It Follows
dir. by David Robert Mitchell

David Robert Mitchell's horror movie topped our Best Horror Films Since 2000 list, and for good reason: it is terrifying, stylish, and totally unique. The idea is a simple one that doesn't rely on gory effects or screaming co-eds, but in its execution allows for incredible depth. It is scary in a way that is universal, the fear of being followed by something that is unstoppable and is always coming for you. The movie's setting and feel, timeless but with a touch of the 1980s, is eerie and cool, and matched only by its talented young cast. Read my review here.


Mad Max: Fury Road
dir. by George Miller

Could it have really been anything else? 70 year old director George Miller showed us that every action movie we've marveled over for the past decade was just child's play compared to the newest film in the long dead Mad Max franchise. Essentially one long, insane action sequence, Fury Road is a feast for the eyes and ears, an intense experience of colorful, drum-pounding mayhem. For its editing, cinematography, practical effects, the fake out billing that made the realization that Charlize Theron's Furiosa was the real main character–all of this and so much more make Mad Max: Fury Road a masterclass in how to make a smart and killer action movie of a higher caliber.

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