I’m back! For now, that is. I’m still attempting to figure out how much blogging I will be doing in the year to come, but for the most part I consider my official “hiatus” to be over. I will try to start blogging again in the coming months, but I’m not sure what kind of volume we’re talking about yet. In the meantime, I’ve elected to spend this week revealing my picks for the top 30 movies of 2015. This feels like a good way to kick off what I’m hoping to be a productive year of writing, both here and on other, personal projects.
But enough about that, let’s talk movies! Today, I will reveal the first 10 films on my list (numbers 30 through 21). Then, the rest of this week, each day will get five films apiece until we reach the top five on Friday. Before we start the countdown, however, I want to start with a brief list of notable films I was not able to watch prior to putting this list together. These are movies—typically smaller releases—that I have seen on other best-of lists and collections of essential releases. I may still get to them one day, but not today.
Notable unseen films:
Heaven Knows What
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Queen of Earth
The Forbidden Room
Son of Saul
Now, let’s get started…
Bone Tomahawk is notable for being the first film by S. Craig Zahler, and one of two movies to come out last year featuring Kurt Russell’s glorious westernstache. It begins as a muted, dialogue-heavy film about a group of men going out on a rescue mission and ends with some of the most horrifying and effective gore I saw in any movie last year. (One death in particular is going to give me nightmares for a long time.) This is a gloriously weird thing that has a real future among western and horror film fans alike.
Comedies don’t get much simpler than the 79-minute Grandma, which was written and directed by veteran Paul Weitz. However, in that short running time, it accomplishes what most independent movies fail to achieve in two hours. It tells the story of a teenage girl (Julia Garner) who asks her grandmother (Lily Tomlin) for help paying for an abortion. This sends the two on a trip around Los Angeles, and Weitz creates a universe full of fully developed, believable human characters. It’s funny, sad, touching, and barely a moment feels false.
One the funniest movies of the year came from Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, who co-wrote and directed the vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows. It isn’t terribly substantive when it comes to content or style, but it’s hard to gripe when you come across a string of gags this well-executed. The whole might not stick with you, but its joy comes in its smaller moments. In particular, one quick joke about a turkey sandwich quickly became one of my favorite lines of dialogue of the year.
Spike Lee’s best narrative feature since Inside Man is still a dang mess, but it’s a mess fueled by righteous fury and a wild creative energy. Chi-Raq is truly a strange, admirable creation; it’s an adaptation of the 2,426-year-old Greek play Lysistrata, in which women of Greece refused sex to their husbands until peace was negotiated. Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott took this premise and placed it in Chicago, and they even went the extra step of writing most the dialogue in rhyming couplets, because why not? Lee is not afraid of following any train of thought, and that results in a movie that’s both ridiculous and yet utterly sincere. It ain’t subtle, but it’s vital.
Anchorman director Adam McKay makes his jump to so-called “grown-up” filmmaking with The Big Short, and like Chi-Raq, it is a sloppy film driven by infectious anger. The story of a few characters who saw the housing collapse of 2008 coming beforehand, it takes audience members on a tour of the inner workings of Wall Street and American banks, and the lengths they go to in order to screw over the American public. A steadier hand might have made this a masterpiece—the camera work and editing are a bit all over the place—but it’s wildly entertaining and enraging, and McKay uses some truly clever methods to educate audiences on what exactly these characters are talking about.
Even a “modest” Charlie Kaufman script is sure to go to some profound places, and that’s the case with Anomalisa, a stop-motion comedy-drama that follows a night in the life of a man (David Thewlis) in Cincinnati on a business trip. What transpires may seem oppressively mundane at first, but it eventually becomes beautifully sad and profound. Unlike other Kaufman films, he doesn’t have many surprises in store down the stretch, but he and co-director Duke Johnson are able to find beauty in even the most awkward of moments. If nothing else, it’s good to have Kaufman back in theaters. It’s been too long.
After the success of Lincoln, Steven Spielberg once again chronicles the backroom dealings behind major world events with Bridge of Spies. Tom Hanks is at his best here as James Donovan, the lawyer picked to represent Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in U.S. court, and then asked to negotiate the release of American pilot Francis Gary Powers in East Berlin. Exquisitely shot by Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg impressively captures a time of paranoia, and finds ways to tie it in with the modern world.
Ridley Scott’s ridiculously fun The Martian turns what could be a familiar survival thriller into an engaging, smart and good-natured adventure that feels substantial while still being light on its feet. A refreshing blockbuster in the age of words like “dark” and “gritty,” it feels somewhat revolutionary in the simple, engaging way it sets up its problem, and then has its characters work together to convincingly solve that problem. It’s the very definition of an audience pleaser, and all the more notable because it made it to the screen with its brain still intact.
Directed by Danny Boyle and written by Aaron Sorkin, Steve Jobs is an unusual biopic that feels like an adaptation of a stage play that never existed. Despite the somewhat contrived tripartite structure, this is a subject that plays precisely to Sorkin’s strengths, and it allows him to recycle some of the themes from his Social Network script and apply them to a different major tech figure. The first act is easily the best of the three, allowing us to watch our subject at the top of his game, and doing what he does best. That’s where Sorkin is allowed to truly flex his muscles, and at the end we’re left with a fun, engaging portrait of a man who, admittedly, has little to do with the real Steve Jobs. But he is definitely a compelling version of Steve Jobs.
The duo of writer/director Paul Feig and actor Melissa McCarthy has produced much success in recent years, but Spy just might be the best thing they’ve done together. Both a spy spoof and a clever play on McCarthy’s own image, it is able to produce significant laughs at almost every opportunity. As always, Feig’s greatest skill is what he gets out of his cast, and Spy features career highlight performances from McCarthy, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Jude Law and more. It is thoroughly, and effortlessly, delightful.
Coming tomorrow: Films #20-16 on our countdown. Glad to be back!