Top 15 Films of 2015 – Allen’s Picks
How do we see others? How do others see us? Perception is at the center of Oliver Assayas’ masterful Clouds of Sils Maria. Juliette Binoche continues to prove she is one of the best actresses of her generation as Maria, a film star coming to grips with age and the deterioration of her career. Maria finds herself cast in a revival of a play that made her a star twenty years ago, but now is assigned the part of the older character. Maria’s internal conflict with this predicament drives the plot with a subtle power that only reveals itself in the final act. Binoche, as always, gives a performance worthy of praise, but the surprise here is Kristen Stewart, who gives her career-best work in the role of Maria’s young assistance. Stewart is natural and grounded in the character, effective in how authentic her performance is. This is a movie where its strength is perceived after we see it. I found myself returning back, trying to decipher the imagery and messages Assayas laid out with delicate restraint.
7) Crimson Peak
It’s a crime how mismarketed Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak was. This is not a horror film, but a gothic romance/mystery with elements of horror blended in. Easily del Toro’s best English language film, Crimson Peak is a vibrantly twisted ode to Hammer Studios. There is so much detail and texture to regard from every point of the screen: from the puffy dresses to the living, breathing house that acts as the main centerpiece. Mia Wasikowska is excellent as the lead character, a woman who unknowingly ends up in a story not so unlike the ones she fancies herself to write. Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston are also great in their respective parts – it appears everyone had a good time making this. I usually try to stay away from using phrases like “this is a movie for people that like movies,” but it fits here. This has everything you could possibly want: mystery, sex, and violence – done in a way that only del Toro knows how. This was one of the most fun viewing experiences I had in a theater this year.
6) Ex Machina
Alex Garland’s Ex Machina traverses familiar terrain of artificial intelligence but in a manner comparable to Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin (2013), meaning: man’s projection of their desires and insecurities upon others, namely women. The young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) and his genius employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac) both have a perception of Nathan’s robotic creation Ava (Alicia Vikander). But is that perception reality, or is it hindered by their own doing? It’s a dynamic that immediately questions who is the real protagonist here, and who is the real villain. Alicia Vikander delivers a convincing performance as a robot so lifelike she could easily be mistaken as a human, and Oscar Isaac plays Nathan as an eccentric who could fall off the edge at any given moment. Ex Machina can be viewed as an effective thriller, a cat and mouse game between characters that don’t trust each other, or as a deeper allegory for how members of society are “meant” to be perceived. Truth, as the saying goes, is in the eye of the beholder.
Nihilistic, uncompromising, extreme – these are only a few descriptions that fit into Quentin Tarantino’s latest outing into immorality. Unlike the classic good guys versus bad guys motif, Tarantino fills his narrative with shades of gray. The characters that populate this bloody 19th century western all have dirt on their hands, and are more than willing to jump back into the depravity for their own causes. For the first time in his career, Tarantino has made a film that harkens to present day issues. This may be the angriest call against racism and bigotry he has done. There is no fantastical wish fulfillment here, ala Inglorious Basterds (2009) or Django Unchained (2012) – but a straightforward attack against discrimination and hate. Oddly enough, in a story featuring killers and racists, this is where we see Tarantino at his most socially conscious. Shot in beautiful 70mm and incorporating elements of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) – including a score by the great Ennio Morricone – Tarantino has made a closed room mystery that has his usual flair for dramatic bloodshed. Of the superb cast, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, and Jennifer Jason Leigh all turn in performances worthy of critical acclaim.
4) Inside Out
After a number of underwhelming output, Pixar returned to solidify their place at the top of the animated world. Inside Out is one of the very best films Pixar has ever released; a story that digs into the mindset of a child with the precision of an advanced psychological study. Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) are all separate emotions that reside inside of the young Riley (Kaitlyn Dias). As Riley and her family move to a new city, Riley’s emotions collide against each other in a whirlwind, with Riley’s own personality at stake. The realization of Riley’s mind and thought process is an accomplishment of creativity – everything is well tuned and makes complete sense within this context. Riley’s emotional development showcases a maturity that is missing in a lot of adult oriented movies. In fact, I’d say parents would actually get more out of Inside Out than their children. This is classic Pixar, and the best animated film of the year.