First, I’ll comment that I was going to copy Vic’s 2014 innovation of choosing a top fifteen on the excuse that the year was 2015. I was convincingly told that this was "lame." I’ll choose ten.
But I will begin with my honourable mentions. The Martian, Far from Men, Wild Tales and Tu Dors Nicole didn’t quite make the cut. Wild Tales is a collection of short films and they certainly take you for a ride, but taken as a whole (combined with the darkness of the stories), I couldn’t quite add it to my top ten. Tu Dors Nicole is particularly worthy of mention as a Quebecois film that is a lighter Canadian take at an arty Euro-style film. Definitely worth watching.
Before naming my top ten, I’ll also point out that I haven’t yet seen Spotlight or Experimenter, both of which had good chances of making it if I had the chance to see them.
10. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. High school movies about dealing with illness are not the kind of movies that easily make my list. But this film struck a combination of wit and freshness (with an occasional stale lapse), sprinkled with appropriate seriousness that worked. A few thought-provoking ideas combined with the humour made it very worth watching.
8. Good Kill. I’ll grant this film probably makes my list as much because I think the issue it explores is serious and urgent as because of the film’s quality itself. Ethan Hawke was perfect. The drone shots of North America interspersed through the film gave just the right sense of justified paranoia as a backdrop to the wake-up call of ongoing war crimes committed by the US.
7. Mistress America. Anyone who remembers my previous response to Baumbach’s films (I shut off Squid and the Whale and Greenberg – which I almost never do) will appreciate that this inclusion in my list marks a significant turning point. Baumbach (and Gerwig) opened the door with Frances Ha (which I enjoyed though I still felt like it had too much of Baumbach’s pointlessness in it). Mistress America, however, felt like it finally combined some of Baumbach’s skills (which Vic and my son, Daniel, kept insisting existed) with a story worth telling and intelligent humour that made it enjoyable. Finally there were Baumbach characters that I could actually engage with. As I wrote in my comment to Vic’s review, I appreciated the climax slipping into obvious farce as a presumably artistic point.
6. Citizenfour. I like to include at least one documentary, and I haven’t seen as many lately as I would like. But this was an eye-opening perspective that enabled a re-living of Snowden’s whistle-blowing disclosure. Feeling Snowden’s perfectly logical paranoia while it was unfolding was more powerful than most fictional dramas. Thoughtfully responding to this disclosure is still a conversation that most of North America has avoided.
5. Que Horas Ela Volta (The Second Mother). This Brazilian film is a strongly balanced exploration of the real challenges involved in responding to class inequalities where it strikes home most directly. The film perfectly draws you into the tension of empathizing with the mother and the daughter with their strengths and weaknesses – and their struggles to connect with each other. I found it gave me new insights for where its themes touched my own life, and I hope soon to watch this with others to see what discussions it can open up.
4. Timbuktu. For some reason, I’ve long had a fascination for the mysteries of Mali. Coincidentally, watching this film intersected with several other musical and visual representations of Mali. The film is very beautifully made (in spite of its realistic and disturbing context) and avoids providing any simplistic answers. The story is not quite as rich as the quality of the overall presentation, but it’s enough to ground the deep experience of watching this film.
3. Tangerines. (Not to be confused with Tangerine which is on a fair number of top ten lists.) I often appreciate films that have the feel of a classic dialogue-rich play. That is true of this film, though the dialogue is slow and sparse in a way that fits the story very well. This is a film about simplicity and symbolic action; it is a plea for recognizing our common humanity as deeper than regional hatreds and revenge.
2. The End of the Tour. Clearly this is not the kind of movie that is for everyone, but my experience of watching this was deeply engaging and thought-provoking. One could enjoy the layers of what was going on in the extended conversation at several levels simultaneously – intellectually, relationally, psychologically, etc. If you didn’t read the tag-team review that Vic and I wrote about this, see it here.
1. Ex Machina. The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that this film has the kind of brilliance and creates the kind of film experience that deserves topping my list. I wrote a long and spoiler-filled review here (please don’t read it until you’ve seen the film unless you really don’t care). It’s well-acted, well-made, atmospheric, symbolic, question-raising, disturbing in the right ways, and my #1 for 2015.
Two tasks remain. First, leftovers from 2014: there were some great films that didn’t get the chance to make my top ten list last year because I don’t get to a theatre very often. Late additions that would have made my list: certainly Selma and Force Majeure, and possibly Leviathan. Wild and Imitation Game would have been considered but probably left out, and Birdman and Whiplash were interesting to watch but not contenders.
Finally, my annual spilled coffee list of disappointments: First special note should be made of Inside Out, which, though not at all a bad film, was such a disappointment to me. What on earth were they wasting their time on during that long, crazy adventure of trying to get home? It was a pointless shortage of creativity that distracted from what I had so hoped this film could be. I really cannot fathom the extent of the praise for it. Inherent Vice, Wish I Was Here, and Kingsman were examples of time wasted in front of a screen, though I didn’t make it through the first two. And the worst film of the year (that I saw) was Entourage– my watching it demonstrates the desperation one reaches on 14 hour flights.