Welcome to my list of favorite films from last year. I’ve been compiling these since back in the 1990s when I used to just email them to friends. Before that, I had actual face-to-face conversations about movies. Thank goodness those aren’t recorded. I remember once telling high school pals Danny Baron and Jeff Dorchen (director and co-writers, respectively, of the upcoming Brie Larson musical comedy Basmati Blues) that I really enjoyed Olivia Newton John’s terribly maligned Xanadu.
“But guys, ELO did the music!!”
Nope. It was so bad, Broadway did an actual play about how terrible it was.
Anyway, I had the toughest time this year deciding on just which film was my favorite. I set up a complicated algorithm on a spreadsheet which included such metrics as, “Hmmm, which film stayed in my brain longer,” and “It’s about time I wrote up my list.”
Using those sole data points, the calculus came up with my top two movies, separated by just a fraction of a percentage point. The other three of my top five were fantastic as well, but you just can’t argue with hard statistics.
So here they are. Let me know if you agree, disagree or if this is all just a Trainwreck.
The Big Short
The Big Short starring Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling was based on real people who bet against the housing market bubble (or “shorted” it) before anyone else knew it was doomed to burst. Telling the story — in a comical way, no less — about the epic housing market crash that plunged us into the Great Recession was not easy. But the storyline clearly and concisely explained what happened in a humorous, step-by-step way. When the director (Adam McKay of SNL and Anchorman fame) felt the movie was about to bog down in too much detail, well, I have never seen the fourth wall broken so creatively. At one point, actress Margot Robbie sipping champagne in a bubble bath explains sub prime loans directly to the camera. She wasn’t in the movie or part of the story, they just cut away to her to keep us all interested.
They did the same thing later on with other celebrities, like chef Anthony Bourdain explaining Collateralized Debt Obligations as if they were leftovers in a restaurant and pop star Selena Gomez in a casino also explaining complex financial terminology.
This was a perfect movie. It had good guys, bad guys, lots of humor, tension and even real life monsters threatening to destroy humanity, played in the movie by Wall Street.
Ex Machina could just have easily been my favorite movie of 2015. It was a very close second. It stars one of my favorite actors, Domhnall Gleeson (In videos of him pronouncing his name; he tells us to just say “tonal” but to use a D instead of a T). You’ve seen Tonal with a D everywhere. I mean everywhere. The Revenant? Sure, he was Leonardo’s captain. Brooklyn? He played Saoirse Ronan’s love interest back in Ireland. (By the way, she pronounces it “Ronan.”). Star Wars? Yup, he’s ruthless General Hux. He also starred opposite another of my favorite actors, Bill Nighy, in About Time, my favorite film from a few years ago.
I should probably give a quick plot summary, eh? Domhnall plays a young programmer in a near-future, near-Google-like empire. His reclusive boss asks him to his island (which seems a bit like Jurassic Park without all the CGI-nosaurs) to help him test the human qualities in a new robot he’s developing. That robot is played by Alicia Vikander, the very same Alicia Vikander who is nominated for Best Supporting Actress in The Danish Girl (spoiler, she’s really a robot in that one too).
The movie unfolds slowly, both in your brain and physically. I can’t say too much about it, yet I can’t say enough. Find this film somewhere and enjoy the underlying social implications, philosophical arguments and fantastic storyline.
I guarantee you’ve never watched anything like Predestination before. Ethan Hawke plays a time-traveling agent on assignment to catch the one criminal that he’s never quite been able to collar. If you think Minority Report meets Looper or The Terminator you would be kinda/sorta on the right track. But then again …
It’s an unconventional, intelligent take on science fiction and thrillers. The fun part is fitting the puzzle together as this Australian film slowly meanders its way through an adaptation of a Robert Heinlein short story.
Newcomer Sarah Snook was fantastic throughout all the unexpected turns as the movie came to its “logical” conclusion. Internal consistency and paradoxes are big tropes in the time travel genre. You won’t be disappointed with how the plot twists in upon itself.
This has been Amy Schumer’s year. She is everywhere, starring in commercials, an extraordinary TV sketch show and writing/starring in Trainwreck with Bill Hader and LeBron James among others.
Schumer is best at turning convention on its ear and revealing, through hysterical comedy, our ideological shortcomings as entrenched humans. Yeah, that sentence sounded even worse when I read it aloud. Everything she does is funny, especially when she pokes fun at things society’s uncomfortable with, but doesn’t always like to talk about. Amy’s comedy is simply brilliant.
In Trainwreck, we watch as her commitment-phobic character grapples with finding an awesome somebody who wants to commit. Right, we get it, normally it’s guys in movies who are afraid to settle down. But that’s not the sole source of humor here. Bill Hader is perfect as her love interest (or like interest), but for my money, LeBron James steals the ball as one of the best supporting actors of the year. And he plays a role he was born to play, himself!
Spotlight makes me unreasonably happy. Having freelanced for The Boston Globe (both photos and writing) I feel like I’m six degrees of Kevin Bacon from their incredible work investigating abuses by Catholic priests. Nah, not really! I’m closer to a BLT than to this great combo.
The movie version of their in-depth reporting rounds out my top-five favorite films this year. It is an inspiring and horrifying story to watch. Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber and John Slattery headline the cast of characters based on the real-life Globe team that took down the secrecy and exposed the abuses that priests perpetrated on children.
This movie makes any journalist proud and slightly ashamed too. Not lost in the narrative is the fact that they had the story years earlier and did nothing to follow up on it. We’ve all been in that position, not realizing how big a story was until much later. Heck, The Flint Journal had been reporting on the water crisis in that city for more than a year until others picked it up and made it colossal.
These next five movies are worthy contenders and easily make my top-ten list.
Tomorrowland with George Clooney and Britt Robertson is a fun, inspirational peek into parallel worlds. I wrote a lot about it last year and it’s stuck with me ever since. It’s hopeful and alarming at the same time. Before he retired, Tom Long of the Detroit News said it perfectly, “This is summer moviemaking at its best.”
The Martian was awarded Best Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy. No one on this planet agrees with such an odd categorization. Apart from that, it’s still worth seeing. Matt Damon is marooned on the red planet. A galaxy of stars, including Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig (who isn’t funny or supposed to be) and Jeff Daniels work to bring him back to earth.
The End of the Tour takes place back in the 1990s after late novelist David Foster Wallace becomes famous. It follows Wallace, played by Jason Segel, for several days before, during and after his book tour for Infinite Jest. Jesse Eisenberg plays the guy who interviewed him (David Lipsky, who wrote the book it’s based on). Jason Segel always makes my lists, it seems. He’s one of those guys you’d just love to hang out and sip a beer with.
Inside Out What? A cartoon makes my top ten? Absolutely. Do yourself a favor and track down this movie, starring the voices of Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling and many, many others. It portrays a young girl’s emotions as actual characters living in her brain and shows how they change as she does. Wow! I mean, I would watch this simply as a stage play with the actors just sitting on stools speaking their lines into microphones.
Spy stars Melissa McCarthy as a CIA analyst normally confined to desk work. When she is somehow picked to infiltrate an international arms-dealing cartel, all manner of mayhem breaks loose. Written and directed by Michigan’s own Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Office), Spy is just simple, silly fun.
“Rodney,” you may very well be saying …
“… what if we just want to plop on our couch, drop our faces into some popcorn on a weekend eve, and mindlessly watch something.”
To which I’d respond, “I’m glad you asked that question. Here are five more bonus movies you might want to check out.”
Bridge of Spies is obviously a good movie; it got nominated for Best Picture. When you get Tom Hanks in anything, you’re probably going to enjoy the ride (Well, maybe not The Money Pit or Dragnet). Mr. Wolf Hall, Mark Rylance, is a good understatement as usual.
The Intern with Robert DeNiro and Anne Hathaway is enjoyable and harmless fun. There are one or two plot contrivances that are just too cloying, though, to keep it out of my Top Ten.
Woman in Gold surprised me. The Ryan Reynolds, Helen Mirren movie about repatriating lost art stolen in WWII is a feel bad/then feel good movie.
What We Do in the Shadows with Jemaine Clement and Rhys Darby is a mockumentary that feels like 2/3 of The Flight Of The Conchords, except with werewolves and vampires.
I’ll See You In My Dreams stars Blythe Danner as a gracefully aging widow whose static life gets a little upended when Sam Elliott shows up. Her friends — June Squibb, Rhea Perlman and Mary Kay Place — almost steal the show. Martin Starr (Silicon Valley, Knocked Up, Freaks and Geeks) is waaaay understated and it works, even though you keep expecting him to burst out saying something incredibly inappropriate.
An addendum to my 2014 list.
I see miles of movies every year. But sometimes I miss something. If I were a professional movie reviewer, I’d scold myself with stern looks for missing 2014‘s The One I Love. It’s a trippy, cerebral Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss project where a couple goes off on a weekend retreat only to confront “themselves.” There’s not much more I can tell you, but if you’re like me — apart from feeling sorry for you — I think you may enjoy it.
Last and least …
… are the following five movies I kept notes on throughout the year, only to discard them at the end. In photo contests, these would be called “pauses.” The judges pause on a picture that they initially like, only to say “pass” in unison after a few seconds.
I really wanted to include Room with Brie Larson. I think it just felt too horrifying in the end. Yes, it’s well made, soulful, frightening, sad, then hopeful. But nothing resonated with me internally. Feel free to call me dirty names or curse my familial lineage. But like Birdman last year, even though I know I should have, I just didn’t love it.
love & mercy with Paul Dano as young Beach Boy Brian Wilson and John Cusack as the older version hit some nice, poignant notes. God Only Knows I kept trying to nudge it up the charts, but in the end I wasn’t feeling the Good … (sorry, can’t do it).
Yeah, Star Wars: The Force Awakens was cool to see, packed inside a theatre on its opening weekend. But every time I go back to it in my brain, all I think about is that awesome BB-8 bot. I wish I had one of those back when I was a young Jedi.
The previews for While We’re Young with Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts and Adam Driver looked so good and I couldn’t wait to see it. Sigh, unfortunately it just fell flat. And could’ve used about 20 minutes worth of slicing.
Infinitely Polar Bear was another film I had high hopes for. Movies about manic-depression or bipolar disorder are important and worthy of consideration. The fact that it was based on writer/director Maya Forbes’ life is important as well. Sure, Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana and the two young stars Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashly Aufderheide performed quite admirably. But the whole wasn’t as good as the sum of its parts. I hope more movies attempt to handle topics of this depth and magnitude very soon.