Combustible Celluloid

2015: The Year in Review

What Happened to Me in the Dark

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It was a strange year, with not much critical consensus on the year's best films, except, astoundingly, for a specific summer blockbuster sequel. That, plus two other series reboots from the 1970s seemed to rule the critics' hearts. (We continue to look to the 1970s for inspiration; perhaps we finally found it?) There were fewer blatant Oscar-mongering works, and two of those were given a fresh coat of paint by comedy directors like Jay Roach and Adam McKay. Some of the most acclaimed films featured strong ensemble acting, and there were subsequently few standout, showboat performances in any particular movie. There were more interesting foreign films and documentaries available, animated movies continued to push the boundaries, and streaming made more things available (both good and bad). Overall, I think my favorite films this year were about acts of courage in the face of doubt. Best of all were the films about kindness and compassion, films that acknowledged both joy and sadness, both intangible and personified.

Following my top ten films, please find my ten runners-up and my ten honorable mentions, followed by great performances, my favorite DVD and Blu-ray releases, and, lastly, my list of the year's worst.

- The Top Ten -

10. Creed
If Rocky was one of the best movies of 1976, and Creed is every bit as good, then doesn't it deserve a slot here? It sure does. Director Ryan Coogler starts out his quasi-sequel with a series of strong juxtapositions, and then it becomes clear that the entire movie is roiling with conflict, from Michael B. Jordan's fights inside and outside the ring to girlfriend's Tessa Thompson's impending hearing loss. On top of it all is Sylvester Stallone, moving beyond mere movie star and giving an outright great performance.

9. Sicario
French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve continues to surprise, turning in a drug-war thriller that feeds on uncertainty and cynicism. Yet Sicario is still hugely entertaining, and amazingly good-looking with cinematography by Roger Deakins that quietly observes — and subtly questions. Emily Blunt is one of the year's much-needed strong heroines, maneuvering through the complex plot not quite sure of what's going on, and Benicio Del Toro delivers some of his finest work.

8. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson doesn't seem to get as much credit as he deserves, perhaps because his movies are essentially comedies. It doesn't matter that they are tragically absurd comedies, with piercing portraits of human existence. The third in a trilogy, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence uses its Gilliamesque, Wellesian compositions to illustrate the silly, sad ways in which we try to fill our time, and how misguided we can become in those quests.

7. The Royal Road
San Francisco's Jenni Olson ought to be considered among the best "experimental" filmmakers in the country, or at least among the makers of non-traditional films. Her The Royal Road is part essay film, using gloriously contemplative static shots to discuss the history of California, part LGBT film, and part romance, with the heartbroken narrator telling the story of an unrequited love. Even with nary a human soul portrayed visually (except the stern visage of Father Junipero Serra), this is a moving, thoughtful experience.

6. Mad Max: Fury Road
Back in 1985, Roger Ebert included Miller's Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome on his ten best list, beginning his review with "it's not supposed to happen this way." How could Miller, a maker of sequels and light entertainments, be one of the best directors working today? How could he revisit this ancient franchise after three decades and deliver one of the most expert, beautiful, thoughtful, and — should I say it? — profound summer action blockbusters of all time? Fluid in technique as well as in idea, Mad Max: Fury Road puts us in the driver's seat with the simple reminder that all of us are made up of the same stuff.

5. Maps to the Stars
Could it be that David Cronenberg, one of the finest filmmakers alive today, has passed through his critical day in the sun? In the last decade, critics began to embrace his post-horror films, but his latest, Maps to the Stars, seems to have been either scorned or ignored. It takes a look at the seamy underbelly of Hollywood, which, of course, has been done many times, but no one locates and identifies the squirmy things quite like Cronenberg. As a nervy, wrong-side-of-forty actress, Julianne Moore should have won her Oscar for this.

4. The End of the Tour
I'm still not sure if The End of the Tour is a movie for journalists, but I've seen it twice now and I'm drawn deeper into this peculiar relationship: two men becoming friends, but also conducting business, and the two sides constantly wrestling with each other throughout their intelligent, nuanced conversations. As David Foster Wallace, Jason Segel deserves accolades, but so does Jesse Eisenberg as the Salieri of the duo. Writer/director James Ponsoldt shows that he's getting better and better, a go-to guy for character studies in the new century.

3. Taxi
An act of cinematic courage, Jafar Panahi's Taxi — also known as Taxi Tehran — comes from a filmmaker who has been banned from making films for 20 years, accused of making anti-government propaganda. Using dashboard-mounted cameras, he creates an incredibly layered story about the art of making movies and the business of selling movies, in addition to themes of family, city, duty, freedom, and anything else you can care to read into it. Panahi is in a more upbeat mood here, often smiling and reveling in being outdoors, rather than cooped up inside (it was rumored that he had been under house arrest). You may think it's going to be tough going, but it's a breeze.

2. The Assassin
One of the world's undisputed masters, Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-hsien, returns after an interminable 7-year absence with what could be his best, and certainly his most beautiful, film. The Assassin is also a jaw-dropping martial arts film unlike any other you've ever seen (it makes the others look sloppy). The intricacies of the plot may be hard for Westerners to grasp, but at the center is the tormented relationship between assassin Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) and governor Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen), once betrothed, and now the latter the target of the former. The spiritual heir of Ozu and Bresson, Hou's film is less about diversion than immersion.

1. Inside Out
Pixar's finest film achieved their high standard of incredible design and superb voice acting, as well as a structurally tight screenplay, and that alone might make it worthy of my list. But Pete Docter's Inside Out winds up here because of its immense heart and compassion. Most mainstream entertainments — and, indeed, society in general — try to cheer viewers up, forget their troubles. This one, amazingly, acknowledges that sadness is OK, and is, indeed, an essential part of things. The scene in which Sadness, not Joy, manages to cheer up Bing-Bong merely by listening to him, breaks me every time.

Top Ten Runners up (in alphabetical order):

Honorable Mentions:

Great Performances

  • Sylvester Stallone (Creed)
  • Michael B. Jordan (Creed)
  • Sarah Snook (Predestination)
  • Michael Shannon (99 Homes)
  • Kristen Wiig (The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Welcome to Me)
  • Michael Keaton (Spotlight)
  • Ian McKellen (Mr. Holmes)
  • Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg (The End of the Tour)
  • Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks (Love & Mercy)
  • John Cusack (Love & Mercy, Maps to the Stars, Chi-Raq)
  • Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith (Inside Out)
  • Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road)
  • Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro (Sicario)
  • Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight)
  • Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn)
  • Mya Taylor (Tangerine)
  • Bryan Cranston (Trumbo)

  • Great DVD and Blu-ray Releases

    I no longer review DVDs and Blu-rays with the same regularity that I once did, and there were several worthy releases this year that I did not get a chance to see. This list, while not comprehensive, comprises my favorites of the ones I did see.

    1. Chaplin's Essanay Comedies (Flicker Alley)
    2. Mad Max: Fury Road (Warner)
    3. Dressed to Kill (Criterion)
    4. A Day in the Country (Criterion)
    5. Faust (Kino Lorber)
    6. The Zero Theorem (Well Go USA)
    7. The Palm Beach Story (Criterion)
    8. Innerspace (Warner)
    9. The Fisher King (Criterion)
    10. Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (Warner)

    Guilty Pleasures & Little Treasures

    The Year's Worst Films

    Thanks, and best wishes for a happy 2016! -- JMA

    Movies Unlimtied