Friday, January 8, 2016

Alex Lawson's Top 10 of 2015

by Alex Lawson
A fine year at the moviehouse. Here’s the best of the lot, if you ask me.

10. Spotlight

How do you make a masterpiece out of the mundane without veering into bombast? Ask Tom McCarthy, whose straightforward chronicle of a Boston Globe team busting open the Catholic church molestation scandal does little more than let the excruciating truth of the reporters’ plight carry the day. That plight is more than procedural, though. While the movie excels at probing the tedium of investigative journalism, it really hits its stride when the ensemble is confronted with the real human costs of the scandal they are chasing. The crown jewel of the immaculate cast is Mark Ruffalo, who appears to be holding back his rage in a very non-showy way that makes his eventual tipping point all the more cathartic.

9. Anomalisa
Charlie Kaufman’s latest voyage through the beleaguered male psyche is challenging and affecting in a manner that is so unique I’m still grappling with its implications about humanity, sexuality, loneliness, depression and paranoia. Along with co-director Duke Johnson, Kaufman constructs the deceptively simple story of a man in the throes of an emotional crisis, expertly mixing tones and mastering the Stop Motion Puppet Adult Comedy-Drama genre we didn’t even know the medium needed until now. The meticulous puppet work managed to awe me while never actively distracting from the all-too-human story playing out. It is also played for laughs, but only in select beats that are immediately reined in once the moment for levity has seamlessly passed.

8. It Follows

It sure does. I suspect the whole ‘sexually transmitted stalking demon’ elevator pitch was little more than an effort to build some word of mouth for David Robert Mitchell’s latest (and that, of course, worked to perfection). The true weight and legacy of the film lies not with its commentary on sexual awakening but with its devastatingly straightforward observation that death, in all its forms, is coming for each and every one of us. That message, coupled with Mitchell’s sleepy and timeless atmosphere, crawled into my psyche and still hasn’t slipped out. There’s a steady creeping dread in every frame of the movie, even and perhaps especially in the scenes that don’t involve a chase.

7. Sicario
Denis Villeneuve is absolutely and unquestionably out here in these streets, immersing us in his pulverizing and sweaty take on the American drug war, with each of its pitfalls exposed in their grisly entirety. The French Canadian director has improved with every feature, and Sicario opens up a whole new world of opportunities for him. The movie plays this sick game wherein you have this earnest desire for more scraps of information about the somewhat dense story, only to be thoroughly devastated with each new revelation before starting the whole cycle again. This is an unforgiving thriller with real stakes and emotion from a budding visionary. Stay tuned.

6. The Martian

I apologize for being unable to remember who to credit with first articulating this idea, but Ridley Scott’s entertaining space adventure takes on a whole new significance when viewed through the lens of the modern American blockbuster. On this site and others, we’ve railed against the sort of faceless disaster porn that strips meaning from the action and showcases a wanton distaste for humanity. But here we have the story of so many people working on so many projects and spending untold amounts of government money, all to save a single person. The story is great on its face, with wonderful characters and terrific staging, but taken as a rebuke of CrumbleCore nonsense, it’s an uplifting treasure.

5. Inside Out
Pixar has been bridging the gap between adult and child audiences so easily for two decades now, it seems inconceivable that that specific skill could honed any further. But that’s exactly what has happened with Inside Out, a sprawling adventure about growing up and all the emotional baggage that comes with it. The movie’s true genius is being able to give such vivid life to these abstract emotional concepts that everyone knows about but often struggles to verbalize. Inside Out also deserves plaudits for its rather ingenious production design with regard to the layout of Riley’s mind and choice to keep Headquarters in almost constant view of the wayward emotions Joy and Sadness.

4. The End of the Tour

What an elegant, tender piece of filmmaking. For a film that is ostensibly two saddish men having a chat, I was really struck by James Ponsoldt’s visual language here, shooting the bleak Midwestern snowscapes in a way that not only evokes specific tactile feelings within the audience but more importantly offers a window into the characters’ mindsets. He also wisely refrains from making a movie that wants to offer some academic examination of David Foster Wallace’s genius, instead focusing on the fight-or-flight response that is triggered when the gifted mingle with the masses.

3. Ex Machina
Alex Garland’s directorial debut is firing on all cylinders for every minute of its run time. The whole thing is just so damn tight. That’s true not only from a technical perspective (though the cinematography and design are second-to-none) but from the tightly wound screenplay repeatedly that hides the truth in plain sight and delivers a final 15 minute sequence that deftly jumps from horrifying to heart-wrenching to life-affirming with incredible poise. The Oscar Isaac-Domhnall Gleeson-Alicia Vikander troika does not miss a beat, with Isaac staking his claim as one the best actors working today.

2. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

At the most basic level, this was the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater in a very long time. Even setting aside the massive expectations and the need to be so many different things for legions of fans all at one time, JJ Abrams gave me a singular type of elation, anguish, and warmth that I have never felt before. The most common mark against the film has been its reliance on the treasured original trilogy as a narrative crutch. The echoes there are undeniable, but I can only say that I have seen those movies countless times. I know how I feel when I watch them. At times it seems like it’s imprinted on my DNA. But I have had a distinctly different feeling every time I have seen John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver and Oscar Isaac take me away on this adventure. It’s a feeling that I want to replenish as soon as the credits roll and one that I intend to relish for the rest of my life.

1. The Hateful Eight
What to even say about Quentin Tarantino at this point? His latest is a relentless slugfest laying bare the original American sin and painting the truly ugly portrait of history that Americans need to see right now. The way he exposes this truth is especially brilliant, as he plays a bit of a shell game with the audience about to root for, a game that we only realize is rigged with the film’s jarring final shot. It’s also a feast for the eyes, as Tarantino’s rightly-hailed use of 70mm film evokes the feeling of watching a majestic chamber play while seated squarely on the stage itself. In a year that was full of bold, engaging adventures, it was Tarantino who, once again, stood above the rest.


  1. CrumbleCore! Brilliant!

  2. every once in a while i back into something clever.

  3. Replies
    1. it's a tremendous achievement, but for a number of reasons it didn't get its hooks in me the way it did for virtually every other individual who writes about movies on the internet.

    2. I think when people look back at this time period, there will be a short list of great movies. At the top of that list, will be Fury Road. I agree completely with your Star Wars assessment. They're probably my favorite one, two punch since 2001s Royal Tenenbaums and Wet Hot American Summer.

  4. I had to mention how much I enjoy the style of your writing.