Could it be that the movies we consider “the best” are those that resonate most personally with us? Many of last year’s films currently being hailed by critics and Hollywood guilds are drawn from true stories, with LGBT lives being recognized more than ever before. Here are my personal picks of the best and less-honorable cinematic achievements of 2015 including who I consider this awards season’s front runners in various categories:
1) Spotlight and The Big Short. The two finest films of the year were both drawn from horrific events that occurred in the last decade. Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight shows with near-documentary precision how an intrepid team of Boston Globe reporters uncovered the Catholic Church’s long history of sexually abusing children. (A gay victim is featured during one heartbreaking scene.) It rightfully infuriates but also inspires and is completely engrossing. And, as a former Roman Catholic priest myself who served during the church’s resultant global sex abuse crisis, I can attest to the film’s authenticity.
The Big Short, meanwhile, is an eye-opening but unexpectedly entertaining exposé of how big banks manipulated the mortgage loan industry, ultimately crippling the US economy in 2008 and costing millions of Americans their homes and jobs. Both films’ terrific all-star casts are award-worthy as a whole but I would single out Spotlight’s Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo as well as Short’s Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and a perpetually pissed-off Steve Carell.
2) Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. I could identify with the young wannabe filmmakers, since I was a film student my first few years of college, who lead this comedy infused with some very serious moments. Their friendship with a leukemia-stricken classmate ultimately serves as a wake up call regarding what is truly important in life. TV director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon makes an impressive leap to the big screen with this offbeat, visually engaging tearjerker. I would love to see him and/or this film’s adapted screenplay further honored after it deservedly won both the Audience and Grand Jury Awards for Best Dramatic Feature at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
3) Phoenix. The title of this psychological thriller has nothing to do with my hometown in Arizona. Rather, it is a Hitchcockian tale from Germany of a young woman (disfigured by her time in a Nazi concentration camp but having undergone plastic surgery) who returns home after the war to learn terrible truths about her husband. Since he doesn’t recognize her as his wife, she is that much more able to exact a slow-burning revenge. Nina Hoss is excellent as the wronged woman. While Phoenix isn’t eligible for this year’s Academy Awards, it was recently named one of the top foreign films of 2015 by the National Board of Review.
4) Carol. This acclaimed lesbian romance set in the 1950’s has already racked up a ton of trophies from various critics groups and is sure to be nominated by the Academy for Best Picture. It was helmed by gay director Todd Haynes, who previously made the queer classics Velvet Goldmine and Far from Heaven, and adapted from a novel by lesbian author Patricia Highsmith. Cate Blanchett (who was also splendid in 2015 as Cinderella’s wicked stepmother) and Rooney Mara provide fully committed turns as the film’s ahead-of-their-time lovers, with out actress Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story) along for moral support. Carol turns all those self-loathing Children’s Hour conventions of the period on their heads, and it’s about time.
5) Brooklyn. Also set in the 1950’s, this is an unapologetically nostalgic and charmingly romantic story of a young woman’s journey from Ireland to America (not unlike my great grandmother), where she falls in love with a young Italian man played by the adorable Emory Cohen. An unexpected trip back to her home country challenges her loyalties while offering evidence that sometimes the grass truly is greener on the other side. Saoirse Ronan (Atonement) gives a beautifully unaffected, touching performance as the film’s pioneering Eilis that may be the one to beat at the Oscars. Nick Hornby’s script, based on Colm Toibin’s novel, will likely duke it out with The Big Short for Best Adapted Screenplay honors.
6) Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. Yet another strong woman’s tale, even as it raises questions about its title character’s sanity. Dissatisfied Kumiko feels trapped in a dead-end job in Japan. The two loves of her life are her pet rabbit Bunzo and the Coen Brothers’ movie Fargo. She gradually becomes obsessed with the notion that a suitcase full of loot buried in the film actually exists for the taking, so Kumiko hightails it to the US to find it. From this somewhat absurdist premise grows a poignant if bittersweet fable about wish fulfillment. It is American-made but stars an unforgettable Rinko Kikuchi (Babel).
7) Inside Out and Shaun the Sheep Movie. I don’t recall ever having two animated films at once in my annual top 10 list but it would be a crime not to include these. They are totally different from each other in tone and style, the first a frequently touching CG-rendered depiction of a teenage girl’s coming of age and the other a slapstick-leaning tale of a flock of Claymation sheep who hop a bus for a day of adventure in the Big City. Each serves as the new pinnacle in their respective mediums, both in terms of technique and storytelling. Inside Out is already the presumptive winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Animated Film.
8) Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine and Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. I watched a ton of fine documentaries this year on a variety of interesting subjects, but these are the three that stuck with me the most. While the murder of young gay man Matthew Shepard has received plenty of coverage during the last 17 years, Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine is the first doc made by one of his best friends, Michele Josue, and provides a much more intimate perspective. The Man in the Machine is a more in-depth portrait of the late tech wizard and helps to fill in the many blanks left by last year’s more fictionalized, frustrating Steve Jobs biopic (although Michael Fassbender is excellent in it). Finally, Electric Boogaloo is an endlessly entertaining piece of nostalgia about the low-budget studio that turned out tons of cheesy movies during the 1980’s, including the homoerotic classic Masters of the Universe.
9) The Last Five Years. It’s great that Hollywood has produced more movie musicals in recent years and that audiences have embraced them. This one, adapted from Jason Robert Brown’s off-Broadway hit, wasn’t as well promoted or as successful as some of its predecessors but it is nevertheless one of the best. It succeeds beautifully with a storytelling conceit that is risky both on stage and screen: the rise and fall of a romance, with the woman’s perspective being told from the end of the relationship and the man’s perspective told/sung from its beginning. Plus it boasts terrific performances by the reigning queen of musicals, Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect, Into the Woods), and dreamy Jeremy Jordan (Newsies on Broadway, TV’s Supergirl).
10) 52 Tuesdays, Tangerine and The Danish Girl. 2015 has already been proclaimed as the year that trans stories broke through to the big screen, and these three films are the main reason why. Each is distinct in budget and technique (Tangerine was shot exclusively on cell phones with a non-professional cast) but each is a gem that provides unique, long-overdue insight into trans lives, both historic and contemporary. If I were a member of the Academy, Eddie Redmayne would get my vote for Best Actor for his subtle, immensely moving turn as the true-life Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo gender-reassignment surgery, in The Danish Girl.
When it comes to the worst movies of 2015, here in no particular order of lack of distinction, the less said is probably the better: Jupiter Ascending (which Eddie Redmayne also starred in, probably to his current regret), Maps to the Stars, Minions (when the banana-hued critters went from amusing to irritating), Chocolate City, The Harvest, San Andreas (which could also potentially be the campiest disaster movie ever (sorry Earthquake), complete with an inexplicable supporting turn by Kylie Minogue?!), The Hallow, Poltergeist (probably the most unnecessary remake ever) and Fifty Shades of Grey (‘nuff said).
By Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.