My favorite movies of 2015: There are a lot

My top 10 list is never a list of the “best” movies, but rather the ones I liked the most. This is because I think there are some movies that might be technically better made that I didn’t actually enjoy, for whatever reason. Like Room. Anyway, here are my favorite movies of 2015.

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road. The third sequel to the post-apocalyptic classic Mad Max is best action film since The Matrix: jaw-dropping, bold, ambitious and thrilling. Max (now played by Tom Hardy) is again a loner on the run in the barren wasteland left by a nuclear war. He’s teamed with another lone wolf named Imperator Furiosa, who Charlize Theron instantly made iconic with physical and emotional ferocity. The genius of Fury Road is in Miller’s visual storytelling, from the wrenching and dusty roller coaster chase scenes to the still moments of sometimes horrid desert beauty, that feels totally new. This is operatic action, bombastic and intense and engulfing and almost exhausting.
  2. Carol. Todd Haynes’s indelible, sublime, a perfectly observed film is based on Patricia Hightower’s 1952 classic lesbian romance The Price of Salt. Carol, played with aching beauty by Cate Blanchett, is a wealthy suburban wife in the midst of a divorce, and Rooney Mara plays Therese, a young shop girl making her way in New York. Blanchett’s sly, wise, and only just barely vulnerable performance is among her best, and Mara is also extraordinary, expressing Therese’s wonder, love, and grief with subtlety and sympathy.
  3. Brooklyn. An assured Saoirse Ronan is Eilis, who leaves stifling small town Ireland for expansive and exciting Brooklyn in the early 1950s. She falls in love with an Italian-American plumber (Emery Cohen) but then returns home after a death in the family, suddenly unsure where she belongs. An intimate but universal immigrant’s story, Brooklyn expresses the conflicts, joys, and promise of leaving home. Nick Hornby’s adaptation of Colm Toibin’s novel is seamless.
  4. Ex Machina. Alex Garland made his directorial debut with this gorgeous psychological thriller about artificial intelligence, arrogance, and misogyny. Slight and nerdy Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a contest to spend a week with reclusive, eccentric tech genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a hard-drinking boxing enthusiast dude-bro. Caleb is actually brought to determine whether Nathan’s latest android has believably human artificial intelligence. Ava, played by Alicia Vikander, is clearly not human, but she is stunningly humanlike, both in her affect and her intuition. Vikander’s performance is epic, but it is Garland’s surprising, creepy, and powerful script that is the real star.
  5. Tangerine. This masterpiece of LGBT cinema is about one day in the lives of two transgender prostitutes in Hollywood. On Christmas Eve, hilariously enraged Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is hunting down her boyfriend and the real fish he’s been cheating on her with. Meanwhile, weary, wise, and tough Alexandra (Mya Taylor) wanders the streets, looking for friends to tell about her cabaret show that night. Shot entirely on iPhones, the film is full of stunning compositions and saturated light. It is blisteringly funny and foul, and it is also moving: a paean to friendship and pride.
  6. The Revenant. Leonardo DiCaprio may finally win his Oscar for his harrowing and masochistic performance as the insanely determined Hugh Glass, a hunter and guide in the 18th century American frontier who is left for dead by the unscrupulous John Fitzgerald, played by a wicked and brilliant Tom Hardy. The movie is long, extremely violent, and at times unbelievable, but directed Alejandro González Iñárritu and shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenent is engulfing, gorgeous, terrifying, and by the end, transcendent.
  7. Grandma. Lily Tomlin plays Elle Reid, a recently widowed lesbian poet who is broke, unglued, directionless, and a bit spiteful. When her teenaged granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) knocks on her door and says she needs $500 for an abortion, Elle must put herself together, find the money, and earn redemption in time for Sage’s late afternoon appointment. The funny, subversive, and very gay script comes from director Paul Weitz, who provides Tomlin one of her best characters, who in turn provides Tomlin the opportunity to give one of her greatest performances (which is saying something).
  8. Spotlight. This taut and smart depiction of Boston Globe reporters’ investigation into the sex abuse scandal in the Boston Catholic Church is the best film about journalism since All the President’s Men. Tom McCarthy’s trickless direction and his and Josh Singer’s efficient screenplay impeccably merge a complicated mystery with an indictment of a culture of secrecy, silence, and deference to power. Most of the film’s major characters are occasional or lapsed Catholics, and their personal angst over what their faith has done shows the toll this kind of reporting can take. The film is as much about how these reporters got the story as it is about how the story got them.
  9. Creed. Ryan Coogler’s Rocky sequel-cum-reboot turns Rocky into the trainer and Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son Donny into the boxer with something to prove. The plot is by-the-numbers boxing movie, but Sylvester Stallone’s seventh turn as Rocky Balboa is arguably his best, and Michael P. Jordan is again sterling, this time as the young man with anger-management problems and chip on his shoulder. Coogler pulls out these phenomenal performances and re-purposes the Rocky tropes perfectly, using the Philadelphia landscape, fight choreography, and iconic music in surprising and thrilling ways.
  10. The Big Short. Adam McKay has random celebrities – Anthony Bourdain, Selena Gomez –break the fourth wall to explain the Byzantine financial procedures that were at the center of the financial collapse in 2008. It’s gimmicky but it works, and the rest of this intricate and smartly written film about the financial experts who figured out what was happening is enraging, fascinating, and funny. The latest indictment of capitalist excess and immorality features most excellent turns from Steve Carrell and Christian Bale.

Movies that I also liked a lot or thought were very well made: The Martian. 45 Years. Sicario. Straight out of Compton. Steve Jobs. Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Anomalisa. The Clouds of Sils Maria. Room. Antman. Inside Out. While We’re Young. Magic Mike XXL.

Destroyed by her own pretensions

Blue-Jasmine_cateI’m not sure why Woody Allen decided to set Blue Jasmine in San Francisco. He can turn a city into a main character of his films; from Manhattan to Vicki Cristina Barcelona to Midnight in Paris. But in Blue Jasmine, the city is neither lovingly shot nor does it really have a role to play other than as place for Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) to escape to after her life and her mind fall apart. It could have been Portland or San Diego or Skokie. And I always wonder how someone can set a story in San Francisco and not even make a casual reference to gay people. Or black people. The only Asian in Blue Jasmine plays a New York lawyer with one line who is passingly referred to as a “dragon lady.” But Woody Allen has never had a wide view of the world; in his more than 40 films, he has depicted an extremely small segment of American society, usually wealthy and upper middle class white people with profoundly neurotic interior lives. And he does this with unparalleled insight and humor and with some of the most interesting female characters in film history. In Blue Jasmine, he has provided Blanchett, arguably the greatest actress of her generation, her greatest role, a woman destroyed by her own pretensions.

Jasmine isn’t even her name; she was named Jeanette by the parents who adopted her and her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). In college, she renamed herself after the night-blooming flower to seem more interesting. She did something right, with her name and with the person she wanted to be seen as. She met Hal (Alex Baldwin) on Martha’s Vineyard when she was still in college, and she dropped out to marry him. He was New York financial mover and shaker, and when we meet Jasmine, it is after Hal has been arrested for massive fraud, after they lost their millions and their houses. Jasmine has moved to San Francisco to start anew, but also because her sister, a grocery store cashier, has agreed to take her in.

Ginger has two pudgy kids, a gruff ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay, no joke), a loud-mouthed mechanic boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale), and walk-up in the Mission (that no one working as a cashier could ever afford, but that’s neither here nor there). Jasmine is appalled that her life has come to this, and she has a hard time not expressing it, either in her affected Diane Sawyer accent or with her anxious frowns, or with a Stoli martini, or multiple doses of Xanax. She thinks she will be able to find her way back into the fold of the moneyed and powerful, and when she meets the perfect man (Peter Saarsgard), a diplomat with inexplicably large amounts of her money, she lies through her teeth to get him. Her denial is breathtaking, sometimes funny, but ultimately tragic.

Blue Jasmine is not the witty, literate romp of Midnight in Paris or the love-sex comedy of Vicki Christina Barcelona. Its comedy is in the nervous discomfort of class warfare, the clueless vapidity of the rich and capitalistic. It is Allen shredding New York’s myopic cruelty, both for our amusement and as guilt-free schadenfreude. We giggle, but Jasmine herself is not a comic character, and the lives both she and Ginger lead are not comic. Blanchett’s Jasmine is both reprehensible and sympathetic, while Hawkins’ Ginger is sweet, understanding, and as comfortable in her own skin and her lot in life as Jasmine is not with her own. Blanchett is so good and so flashy in her excellence that it’s easy to not notice how good Hawkins is, too. And it’s also easy not to notice how great, how sly and smart and scathing, Allen’s screenplay is. Despite Allen’s underuse of San Francisco, Blue Jasmine is yet another triumph for him. However, Blanchett is the one who will win the Oscar.

Blue Jasmine
Written and Directed by Woody Allen
Starring Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, and Alex Baldwin
Rated PG-13