Of course, being an avocational film reviewer, rather than one with a professional obligation to see everything, means I get to be far more selective about what I watch. So my list isn't radically different from other "Best of 2015" lists you've already seen - though it does allow for some highly personal, idiosyncratic choices and rankings here and there. It also reflects the fact that I ran out of time, opportunities (and in a couple of cases, inclination) to see all of the following: Creed, Steve Jobs, The Assassin, Beasts of No Nation, Diary of a Teenage Girl, It Follows, Eden, The Hateful Eight, Chi-Raq, and The Force Awakens. Be assured, I have definite plans to see almost of all those in the next month or so.
My standard of eligibility for this list is that any film released for the first time in the Chicago area between January 1, 2015 and December 31, 2015 was up for consideration, whether that initial release was to theaters, streaming services or HBO. That's why Selma, American Sniper, Two Days One Night and Still Alice were considered for this year's list rather than last year's; for the same reason, The Revenant, 45 Years, Anomalisa and Son of Saul will be considered for next year's "Not the Best of 2016" list.
Here are my choices, counted down in ascending order of preference:
20. The End of the Tour
I said it before, can't say it any better now: "It plays like an extended college bull session with your smartest friend who is idealistic, vulnerable, sometimes ridiculous and sometimes profoundly wise. (Jason) Segel's performance is so good that I was honestly disappointed to see the film end."
19. Woman in Gold
You won't see this one on many end-of-year 'best' lists, but don't let that deter you. There is solid, impressive acting by all, plus the well-told, deeply engrossing story of Adele Bloch-Bauer's niece and her struggle to reclaim her aunt's portrait (famously painted by Gustav Klimt) many years after the Nazis looted it from her family's home. My enjoyment was undoubtedly heightened by my enthusiasm for Klimt's art, my long-time interest in early 20th century Vienna, and the fact that I have actually seen this painting in both Vienna's Belvedere museum (where it was originally installed during the Nazi occupation) and in New York's Neue Gallerie, (to which the family sold it in 2006, as depicted in the film.) But I guarantee it is sufficiently fine to appeal to those who do not share these interests.
18. What Happened, Miss Simone?
Although I saw this documentary about the life of singer Nina Simone quite early in 2015, I still haven't shaken off the memory of it. First, I was profoundly intrigued to see and hear how Simone's classical piano training informed her interpretations of jazz standards. (A performance of "For All We Know," shown in its entirety near the film's beginning, is underscored with a classical-based accompaniment that breathes new and thrilling life into the song.) Then I was overwhelmed by the unfolding story of Simone's many demons: the racism that prevented her from achieving her dream of a career in classical music, her abusive marriage, the volatile intersection of her righteous anger with a long-untreated bipolar disorder that nearly destroyed her. An indelible portrait of a truly original artist and a complex, difficult woman.
17. The Gift
If you saw trailers for The Gift, you'd be excused for writing it off at just another standard-issue lonely-loser-stalks-happy-family story. I certainly did, which is why I didn't get around to seeing it till just a few weeks ago. To my surprise, Joel Edgerton's modest thriller delivers some fine performances (mostly notably Edgerton's own), breathtaking plot twists and a unnerving visual style worthy of Hitchcock or Polanksi. Sometimes trailers actually don't show you all the good stuff...
16. La Sapienza
So here's one of my more eccentric choices: an odd film with some highly stylized and rather stiff acting that nonetheless grew on me and affected me deeply. An estranged couple, both highly intellectual and uneasy with one another, find romantic and spiritual renewal on a trip to Italy. She befriends and mentors a young Swiss woman, while he tours Roman churches with the Swiss woman's brother. Director Eugene Green sends his camera slowly, lovingly up the walls and into the sky-lighted domes of sacred spaces designed by Bernini and Borromini, capturing the subtle significance of each architectural detail along the way. I don't know that I can sell anyone else on this film entirely; I'm pretty sure my reaction to it is as much a product of my own recent, spiritually enriching trip to Rome as to anything La Sapienza delivers on its own. But any film that defines happiness as "finding a place where you can see the light of God and love other people" has got to be worth your time.
15. Pawn Sacrifice
Was chess master Bobby Fischer an eccentric genius or severely mentally ill? Was he a hero or an unwitting pawn in a Nixonian Cold War propaganda campaign around his match with Russian chess master Boris Spassky? Edward Zwick's film chooses the latter of each of those sets of possibilities and elicits thrilling performances from both Tobey Maguire (as Fischer) and Liev Schreiber (as Spassky). This would make a particularly compelling double feature with another 2015 release about Cold War propaganda in the sports world: the documentary Red Army about what happened to the USSR's Olympic ice hockey team after losing to the US in the 'miracle' game of 1980. (Hint: it involved long, grueling hours in Siberian 'training camps.')
14. Love and Mercy
Paul Dano plays Brian Wilson as a young man, John Cusack plays him in middle age, and both actors capture the loneliness, fears and tentative hopes of a troubled, gifted artist to perfection. Director Bill Pohlad explores the shared boundary of madness and genius with sensitivity, clarity and a refreshing lack of sensationalism.
The film to which I would have given the 2014 Oscar for Best Picture. Director Ava DuVernay finds a visual structure that drives and enhances the storytelling, and her cast performs to perfection - especially David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King.
12. Inside Out
Everyone's seen this, everyone loves it, and I'm not sure I have anything substantial to add to the discussion. Pixar continues to produce highly imaginative, emotionally complex animated films that resonate with both children and adults; Wall-E remains my favorite, but Inside Out is solidly in second place.
11. The Duke of Burgundy
I wasn't sure what I was getting into with this one. This pastiche of softcore 1970s Euro-erotic films details a mistress-and-slave relationship between two women, although not nearly as explicitly as you might expect. (I can already hear some of my readers clicking away from this site in disgust - Don't leave! Just scroll down to the next review!) What I ended up liking about the film was the way it conjured up this bizarre, contained world populated only by female entomologists: there are classroom lectures on butterfly mating behavior scattered throughout and the titular Duke of Burgundy is a particular type of that insect Plus all the creepy, role-playing artifice around the central relationship is gradually stripped away to reveal the heartache, vulnerabilities and genuine longings that lurk beneath the kinky stuff. Not a movie for everyone, obviously, but better than you'd initially expect.
10. Ex Machina
Another film that conjures up its own strange, isolated world - in this case, the techno-luxurious home of a billionaire genius who creates robots and invites a lowly employee to determine whether one particular robot is distinguishable from a human. Ex Machina has a tense, creepily seductive vibe and a sense of foreboding that never relents, plus a fantastic performance by this year's It Girl, Alicia Vikander, as the robot who just may outwit her creator.
Its most astonishing moment comes early on when a teen-aged Amy Winehouse, captured on home video, belts out "Stronger Than Me," in a voice that clearly shows her to be (as her former manager puts it) "a very old soul in a very young body." At that moment, you're reminded of what a prodigious and original talent Winehouse possessed and stunned to think how far she might have gone if only she'd been saved in time. This compilation of home movies, TV footage and interviews with Winehouse's friends, family and collaborators is chilling, strongly suggesting that Winehouse fell victim to demons not entirely of her own making. (Both her father and her husband are shown to be opportunists who used Amy for every dollar and handout they could get.) In the end, every one of us who so much as snickered when Jay Leno used her as a punchline is implicated.
8. The Martian
Here's how I know I loved The Martian. (Spoiler Alert!!) When a newscaster announces that Damon's character has been rescued and is heading home from Mars, I actually blurted out a cry of relief and joy. There's no better reason to go to the movies than to experience that kind of visceral connection with a story and a character. 'Nuff said.
7. Two Days One Night
Marion Cotillard is a real-life glamour puss who not only takes on unglamorous roles, but brings a genuine soulfulness and gritty truth to them. Here she's a factory worker who's forced to ask her co-workers to turn down their raise so that she can keep her own job, a kind of devil's deal that she handles with enormous grace and sensitivity. Cottilard is brilliant and the film is too honest and too humane to be merely depressing.
Xavier Dolan, the 26-year-old wunderkind of French Canadian cinema just keeps getting better and better. This tale of a single mother struggling to keep her violent, emotionally disturbed son at home and out of institutions grabs you by the throat from the opening shot and doesn't let go. Not as harrowing in every minute as it may sound and graced by a trio of remarkable lead performances, Mommy is an accomplished and sustained work of powerful filmmaking.
I like to believe that, if Turner Classic Movies is still around in 2050, this is the movie they'll show on a lazy Sunday afternoon, that people will snuggle up on their sofas to get lost in. Old-fashioned in the best sense of the word, this story of a young Irish immigrant learning about who she is, what she wants and who she loves is distinguished by a beautiful performance by Saoirse Ronan and a keen sense of storytelling that it sorely missing from the hipper films of our time.
Not nearly as creepy as I expected (and believe me, I avoided this until its multiple Oscar nominations made me sit up and take notice.) Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay are the mother and son being held prisoner in a garden shed by the man who kidnapped Larson's character when she was 17; the pair of actors are freakishly good together and individually. The escape scene at the halfway point of this film is, honest-to-God, the most unbearable, unnerving, five-or-so-minutes of suspense I think I've ever seen on film. But this isn't a horror film or suspense film, really, so much as it is about the difficulty of emerging from a trauma and re-acclimating to the kind of life others take for granted. And it tells that story in way that will break and then mend your heart without the slightest emotional manipulation.
3. Bridge of Spies
This may be Steven Spielberg's most under-appreciated film, its Best Picture nomination notwithstanding. Tom Hanks is again the "everyman" character, an insurance lawyer who takes on the defense of a Soviet spy (brilliantly underplayed by Mark Rylance) and winds up orchestrating a prisoner exchange with the Russians for a captured American pilot. This film is of a piece with Lincoln in depicting a particular moment and mood in American history, and carries its allusions to our present-day political climate lightly but definitively.
2. Clouds of Sils Maria
I've recommended this film to a few friends; their reactions have been evenly split between "WTF was that?" and "That was AWESOME!" I can't predict which of those camps you'll fall into, but maybe, like me, you'll wind up watching it four times in the space of a couple weeks. How to sum up the un-summarizable plot? Well, Juliette Binoche is an aging actress, Kristen Stewart is her assistant and Chloe Grace Moretz is the Lindsay Lohan-esque youger actress cast opposite Binoche in an upcoming play. Binoche and Stewart take a house in the Swiss Alps where they run lines, often while hiking in the Alps; they are electric together and fascinating to watch, sparks fly off their interactions. Oh screw it... my friend Bill (who loved it) is much more eloquent: "It was disarmingly complex. It seemed simple and straightforward, but on a closer look, it was far more textured in its analysis of human nature, relationships and personal growth." If any of that sounds intriguing to you, rent it and lose yourself in it. You'll be in for a treat.
I knew it would be gorgeous; it is, after all, a film by Todd Haynes whose homage to Douglas Sirk's 1950s melodramas, Far From Heaven, was breathtaking in its super-saturated Technicolor palette. But I was unprepared for how beautifully screenwriter Phyllis Nagy adapted and even improved on Patricia Highsmith's odd, difficult stream-of-consciousness novella about the forbidden love between a young woman behind a shop counter and the older, affluent woman who meets her while Christmas shopping. Haynes and Nagy have created a classic love story in which both women's yearnings and heartache are distilled into the simplest, most subtle expressions and gestures, as the times they lived in would require. Ultimately it is a story about passion that is transmuted into genuine, mature love as both characters grow and sacrifice to be true to themselves while protecting the ones they love. I'd be unforgivably remiss if I didn't mention how remarkable both Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are as the lovers. There simply aren't enough good things to say about Carol - or enough bad things to say about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for failing to give it a Best Director or Best Picture nomination.