The Top Twenty Movies of 2015 — Part Three!
10. Star Wars: The Force Awakens — This was the hardest film to find the right place for on my list. I briefly had it in my top five, and then for a while had it all the way down at number twenty. This is a film that has me very much of two minds. There is so much about it that works spectacularly well. The tone is perfect — this is a Star Wars film that is actually FUN (and funny!) again, a welcome relief after the stiff and dour prequels. The film is wonderfully paced, carrying the audience along from one great action bit to the next. The new cast is magnificent, with each actor perfectly chosen, creating a group of new young characters who I can’t wait to follow through additional adventures. The film looks gorgeous, with beautiful special effects and top-notch work from every production department. Harrison Ford returns as Han Solo and gives the best performance he’s delivered in two decades. And yet… there are so many little things about the film that bug me, that don’t work as well as they should. All of the coincidences and plot-holes. The muddiness regarding what exactly the situation is with Resistance, the Republic, and the First Order. The way Han Solo’s final scene works but not nearly as well as it should have worked (something I touched on in both of my articles about the film, and that I’ve been struggling to express to friends when talking about the film. Thankfully, BirthMoviesDeath’s Devin Faraci absolutely nailed what was frustrating me in this terrific analysis.) The fact that for the third time the Rebels have to blow up a Death Star-like thing. This is a film with a lot of imperfections, and yet I do still sort of love it despite how rough around the edges it is. J.J. Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt have brought Star Wars back to life in a big, big way, and for that they have my thanks and appreciation. (Click here for my original review, and here for my follow-up post.)
9. Bridge of Spies — When Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks work together, you know you’re in for a treat, and Bridge of Spies does not disappoint. This quiet, intelligent film tells the story of Jim Donovan, a lawyer tasked with defending a Russian spy caught in Brooklyn in 1957 (an act that then leads to Mr. Donovan’s being tapped to travel to the U.S.S.R. to negotiate for the release of captured U.S. spy-plane pilot Francis Gary Powers). As usual, Tom Hanks proves to be a remarkably compelling embodiment of truth and justice, and Mark Rylance’s gloriously understated work as Russian spy Rudolf Abel is a revelation. This film has very important statements to make about the rule of law and the rights that every man and woman on the planet deserves. At the same time, it’s also a thrilling Cold War caper. Bridge of Spies might not be one of Steven Spielberg’s greatest achievements, but Mr. Spielberg is such an extraordinarily talented filmmaker that one of his lesser films is still one of my very favorite films of the year. (Click here for my original review.)
8. Creed — I still can’t believe that the seventh movie in the Rocky franchise reduced me to tears. Repeatedly. That’s how incredible this film is. I have no emotional connection to the Rocky franchise whatsoever, and yet I was totally captivated by the story of Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan, delivering a movie-star-level performance) and his connection with an elderly Rocky (Sylvester Stallone, who I have never seen been better, save perhaps in the original Rocky). The relationship that blossoms between these two very different men is beautiful, and it forms the emotional backbone of the film. Michael B. Jordan brings a ferocity and a humanity to the young Adonis, a man struggling to find his place in the world and to make peace with his father’s legacy. Sylvester Stallone, meanwhile, brings a soulfulness and depth to Rocky Balboa that I never expected. Director Ryan Coogler, who also co-wrote the film with Aaron Covington, demonstrates what a true artist can do with a franchise film. He takes some of the familiar Rocky characters and story-lines and breathes new life into them, crafting a film that feels fresh and new while still maintaining an element of the comfortably familiar. My friends assure me that this film works great as the seventh film in the Rocky franchise, and I can assure them and you that it also works spectacularly well as a completely stand-alone story. And I haven’t even mentioned that amazing single-take boxing match in the middle of the movie…! (Click here for my original review.)
7. Spotlight — One of the themes I have detected in my list this year is movies with important messages that are also able to be fiercely entertaining. I’d describe The Big Short that way, and I’d describe Bridge of Spies that way, and I’d certainly describe Spotlight that way. This compelling film tells the story of the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team’s investigations, begun in 2001, into the sexual abuse of children by Boston Roman Catholic priests, and by the efforts of the Boston Archdiocese to cover up those incidents of abuse. Director Tom McCarthy (who, in the ultimate irony, played the making-shit-up reporter in the fifth season of The Wire several years back) has created a film that manages to take the complex saga of these reporters’ months-long effort to uncover this story and present it on-screen in a clear and easy-to-understand manner, without ever feeling like the film was dumbing down the real-life story for the benefit of a movie-going audience. The ensemble cast is magnificent, with Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Liev Schreiber, Brian d’Arcy James, and Stanley Tucci each turning in some of their very best work. I stand by my statement, in my review, that this film is the All The President’s Men of this generation. (Click here for my original review.)
6. Ex Machina — Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a young programmer who wins a contest to spend a week with his company’s brilliant and reclusive young CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). It turns out that Nathan has chosen Caleb to give the Turing Test to an artificial intelligence he has created, Ava (Alicia Vikander), to determine if she is truly sentient. Writer/director Alex Garland’s film is extraordinary, a riveting piece of speculative fiction and an engrossing closed-door character study. All three main actors are magnificent. Oscar Isaac has been having a remarkable year but his performance is, I think, his very best of the year, searingly memorable. Domhnall Gleeson is terrific as the audience-surrogate “everyman” character. And then there is Alicia Vikander, delivering a star-making, instantly iconic performance as the robot Ava. Her work is astounding, subtle and rich. This is a performance that people are going to be looking back at for decades to come. I loved every minute of this mind-bender of a sci-fi film, right up through its absolutely perfect, devastating ending. I suspect many of the people reading this list will have not seen — perhaps not even heard of — this film, and I urge you all to remedy that immediately. (Click here for my original review.)
We’re almost at the finish line! I hope you’ll all join me tomorrow as I complete my list with numbers five through one!