I approached the last couple months of 2015 as I seemingly do every year…feeling paranoid because I don’t feel like I have enough films to complete a formal Top 10 list. I looked over my comprehensive list of movies watched throughout the year and I found a lot of fun movies that I liked…but only about five or six that felt like “TOP 10 MATERIAL,” as we say. I tend to be a curmudgeon – as anyone who reads this column or listens to ProjectionCast can confirm – so my love doesn’t come easy. It seems increasingly rare for a film to just blast its greatness into my veins on the first viewing (though this list includes a few films that did just that). More and more, I find that marinating and repeat viewing become incumbent on my love for a given film.
So around November – as I seemingly do every year (see the theme developing here?) – I set on a course to rewatch some of the highlights from the year that was…films that I either loved the first time and wanted to revisit, or films that I appreciated the first but felt I might love once I lived in them more. But of course, the end of the year brings with it an onslaught of screener discs and FYC screenings, offering up more new films to take in, so my rewatch party became – as it seemingly does every year – a combination of feverish first-time viewings and a celebration of earlier year triumphs that got rewarded with repeat viewings.
And then I also ended up rewatching some of the late-year entries I had just watched for the first time.
The result: lo and behold, I ended up with more movies than I could cram into a simple Top 10 – as I seemingly do every year.
I did it, mind you, boldly and valiantly. But there was more to love this year than just 10 movies. So here now is the *Official* Projection: Oscar Top 10 of 2015….plus 15 more for good measure.
I like to spot the common theme in each year’s film slate, and this year there were multiple. This was, at long last, the Year of the Woman, and seven of my top 10 are passionate stories about women both strong and frail…stories of humanity through the female lens. And even many of the films on this list that are not strictly “female centered” contain strong female voices and presences. If the prevailing theme of a year’s films represents the artistic community’s outcry for what is missing, surely this is it.
But there is another unifying theme that adjoins these best films of 2015: humanity struggling in the face of gross inhumanity. One could posit, very effectively, that the struggle of humanity is the common theme of every movie ever, and while there’s truth to that argument, there was something very pointed and unique about the films of 2015. In terms of what in our cultural psyche precipitated this thematic shift, I’m not certain. Maybe it’s the sense of uncertainty as America approaches an election year that is highlighting a sharp ideological divide that pits, quite frankly, humane folks against the crowded, shouting inhumanoids. Maybe it’s part of the cultural catharsis we felt course through us, the result of a year where Americans can now refer to “gay marriage” as, simply, “marriage,” or where the notion of the first female U.S. President is a tangible one (sorry, rest of the world…we are slow to catch up to you). But it’s also a year in which violence is on the rise and terror of all sorts – both foreign and domestic, both physical and ideological – pose legitimate threats. We live in a weird, wonderful, dangerous, beautiful world that is evolving every moment and yet seems teetering on the brink of extinction.
And in the intervening moments, we sneak off to a dark room and stare up at that giant screen, in the hopes that our dreams, fears, and desires are flickering up there. That way we know we’re not alone…we really are all in this together.
That’s the power of film – even for a curmudgeon like me. Movies are my kryptonite…as they always are, every year.
Now, The List.
The First 15, in reverse order…
25. 99 Homes – In which a crisis is crystallized, Andrew Garfield goes dark and deep to help his struggling family, and Michael Shannon brilliantly chews through the scenery.
24. Star Wars: The Force Awakens – In which, haters and purists both be damned, J.J. Abrams delivered the most ideal synthesis of homage and creation, respect and evolution that could be contained in a joyous, enthralling, beautifully progressive movie-movie, ushering that most iconic movie franchise not merely into the future, but into the present.
23. Girlhood – In which a young woman, with no prospects and facing the oppression of the status quo, tries on a variety of personas on a journey to finally, at long last, find her true self.
22. The Danish Girl – In which the history of a movement is traced back to its first known source, revealing a story of true love, boundless acceptance, and heartbreaking reconciliation of one’s identity in a world that isn’t prepared to accept it.
21. Brooklyn – In which a girl attempts to follow the rules but finally realizes that the path to womanhood is a course she must chart herself, on the guidance of her heart and soul.
20. Room – In which the enormity of the world is a revelation to very-young Jack and a cruel reminder to his still-young Ma, and their only saving grace transitioning from one unforgiving space to the next is the love they have for one another.
19. Phoenix – In which a woman emerges from a Concentration Camp with a disfigured face and a new identity, seemingly cruel punishments that nevertheless allow her to uncover the truth of her capture and rise defiant and aware, truly a new person.
18. Beasts of No Nation – In which we witness the gradual dehumanization of a young boy as he is reprogrammed as a soldier in a fight with an increasingly unclear cause against any number of uncertain enemies, one of which may well be the cause itself.
17. Magic Mike XXL – In which Mike goes on one last miraculous trip to Neverland, Ginuwine and Backstreet Boys pulsate on the soundtrack, Jada Pinkett-Smith emcees like a boss, Andie MacDowell is the Perfect Fit, all we do is WIN WIN WIN no matter what, and it’s alllllll glorious fireworks.
16. Dope – In which a nerd stumbles upon an opportunity he doesn’t want and didn’t ask for, so he games the system as only a nerd can, all while making some killer music, macking on the coolest chick in town, and finishing his college admission essay.
15. Inside Out – In which Sadness tries to steal Joy’s thunder, core memories get lost, emotional islands break down and rebuild, and it’s all part of growing up.
14. Steve Jobs – In which we explore the sometimes-genius, sometimes-monstrous essence of a man by going behind-the-scenes of the iconic public presentations that helped form his legend.
13. Mississippi Grind – In which fate is tempted, stories are shared, and secrets are unburdened by characters who wear their mental and emotional tells on their sleeve, daring us to call their bluffs.
12. Spring – In which deep love blossoms as the surface human shell begins to shed, real life is dependent upon a beautiful girl choosing to die, and all young lovers can do is hold each other in the hopes that they’ll both still be there when the sun comes up.
11. Mustang – In which girls become women, home becomes a prison, and caretakers become underground misogyny brokers who must be defeated by these fierce, indomitable women…who become mustangs, running wild and free.
And Now, the Top Ten:
10. Ex Machina – In which Frankenstein IS the hard-drinking, disco-dancing, oppressive monster, and his apprentice is too robotic to outthink, outfeel, and outsmart Ava…who passes the Turing Test with flying colors.
9. Creed – In which Adonis emerges from Apollo’s shadow to mount his own legend, and Rocky finds the strength to engage in one last, ugly, glorious fight.
8. 45 Years – In which a lifetime of comfort is threatened by unexpected news, and all vestiges of trust implode to the terse rhythm and steady hum of an old slide projector.
7. Mad Max: Fury Road – In which Furiosa rages against the oppressive machine, reluctantly takes on a Road Warrior as her partner in rebellion, transports Defiant Damsels to a mythic promised land and back again, to the starting point, to complete the revolution and start anew…all on a stunning cinematographic canvas, choreographed like a blunt-force action ballet…an analog powerhouse merging with a digital world…and what a lovely day is had by all.
6. I Smile Back – In which the plight of humanity withers in the face of slavish inhumanity, a woman cries silent tears, drowns in an bottomless, perpetually half-empty wine glass, slowly disappears in a sinkhole of white sand, weighing the hazards of trying to pull herself out against the seductive numbness of the slow, steady sink…the futility of rehabilitation…the intangible enormity of self-examination…the hollow, insidious voice whispering sterile temptations that become momentarily warm fulfillment…and the choice to give in, knowing that the smile will fade, and the humanity will wilt…in perpetuity.
5. Spotlight – In which the presumably ancient plight of the print journalist is proven to be relevant and immediate, the dogged search for facts, truth, and justice is acutely underscored, and that most crippling and insidious of social ills is indefatigably exposed – page by page, word by word, confession by confession…abuses are permitted, advocated, and concealed…each expose’ is vital but merely a microcosm…the struggle is current and it is continuous…the spotlight must be shone now and always.
4. Tangerine – In which all the little girls and boys meander through Toyland, this magic fantasia of hazy love and insistent need…lost and confused, together but alone, seeking pleasure, pain, revelation, reconciliation, vengeance, comeuppance, and donuts…but ultimately validation and acceptance.
3. The Look of Silence – In which decades-old wounds fester and rot, infecting the mind, heart, and soul like a cancer, stunting a culture’s vocal chords, stealing away its vision…atrocities are committed, blind eyes are turned, silence becomes a form of advocacy…one man travels his still-ravaged city, seeking not vengeance, not even explanation…only vision, hindsight, clarity that the sins of the past will be acknowledged and not repeated…that his children won’t suffer the same fate as his brother, that he will not live through the same pain that his parents lived…someone must listen, someone must see, someone must speak the truth of this terror…acknowledge it so as to evolve.
2. Carol – In which love and attraction are random but powerful, not easily explained but so gut-wrenchingly true, a picture speaks a thousand words and two thousand emotions, words spoken aren’t always meant, words meant aren’t always spoken, moments are everlasting…a simple look, a simple touch…dominant in the psyche even as the rest of the world carries on, but flickering reflections in the rain-tinged windows of our selfish souls…and though society positions constraints as stiff and immovable as wrought iron, the only thing that can deny the power of love is the human decision to walk away…or to meet for dinner at the Oak Room.
1. Clouds of Sils Maria – In which all unifying themes of love and hate, fear and desire, fame and obscurity, fierceness and inevitability come to a self-reflexive head, where success is merely a fading myth, fame is a devious mistress that giveth and taketh away, performance can be either a conduit for truth or sabotage, art becomes the basis for intense discussion, and the discussion becomes the drama, and the drama blurs with reality, until they fuse in a divine synthesis, which itself becomes a meta-commentary on passion for creation, work as a vital driving force, the consuming power of self-reflection…and self-deception…and the transience of it all…of us all…clouds snaking through the mountains, beauty undeniable, presence powerful, impact indelible…but disappearing in the blink of an eye.
Thanks for everything, 2015. The stories, the images, the themes, the characters…the experiences and the memories. May your successor be as generous.