Woah! That was fast. All of a sudden here I concluding my list of my favorite 2015 films, feeling wistful that my barrage-watch of many recent titles is but a memory. It’s not all bad news, though, as now I have an excuse to give a handful of unabashed recommendations and plow forward into the movies of tomorrow. Perhaps they will not literally come out tomorrow (it’s boring-ass January), and they sure as hell won’t include the mediocre Tomorrowland, but you get the idea. Enough dilly-dallying; let’s get down to business.
The budding career of Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has already featured several highlights (Prisoners, Enemy), and now we can add the mesmerizing Sicario to the list. The story centers on FBI agent Kate Macer (the wonderful Emily Blunt), a real go-getter dedicated to doing the right thing. She has trouble cultivating a meaningful personal life but is all-in when it comes to the war on drugs and crime syndicates. Macer and later her partner (Daniel Kaluuya) are invited to join a special task force after an explosive-rigged house leaves several men dead, and they jump at the chance to find those responsible for all this terror. Macer spirals down into a dark world of concepts she doesn’t understand and doesn’t want to, as her relationships with Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) turn everything she stands for upside down.
This is a paralyzingly tense experience, which shouldn’t come as much of a shock to anyone familiar with the director’s other work. What could have been a standard recount of the border war on drug cartels is instead a lurching wall of menace, each scene steeped in dread and some extremely difficult to watch. There is no clear-cut stance on who’s good and who’s evil, and every principal cast member brings it hard. So many action-oriented films don’t work because they don’t understand how to make an audience feel the emotions of its characters; this isn’t a problem for Sicario.
Like me, you’re probably only somewhat familiar with the events of the Catholic Church scandal that was uncovered over a decade ago. Sure, I knew that a slew of priests were discovered as child molesters, but I had no idea how many and how deep the cover-up of these events permeated the church. Spotlight revels in the details, telling the story of a slow-burn news team at the Boston Globe tasked with bringing the heinous crimes of the many to light in a city where bad-mouthing the church just wasn’t something one was allowed to do.
The reason Spotlight works so well is that it focuses firmly on the work done by the investigative news team, showing the hard work and determination necessary to create real change. This isn’t remotely close to the kind of drama one might expect with this kind of subject material; we all know the ending, but the journey is a sight to behold. The dedication of these reporters might not jump off the screen like it does without a truly top-notch cast. Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci, and John Slattery all excel here. If there was an academy award for ensemble performance, Spotlight‘s cast would take it down without a single dissenting opinion being voiced. Reading about Spotlight may make the movie sound rather procedural, but it’s anything but. This is a thorough and rewarding experience.
03. The Big Short
Much like Spotlight (and honestly more so), The Big Short covers a recent historical event that we’re all familiar with by finding an angle that makes it a palpable two-hour film. In The Big Short‘s case, the event in question is the housing market collapse of 2008. This is difficult material, but it’s handled deftly and enhanced by a stellar cast of actors willing to do the research and get into their roles. The film starts in 2005 and focuses on individuals who predict the market collapse well before it happens and have to act accordingly. Different approaches are taken by the principal characters, but each man’s level of disgust eventually reveals itself.
Adam McKay–you know, the Will Ferrell fart-comedy director–helms The Big Short, and he fucking nails it. This is a movie centered on the financial crisis of 2008, and yet it remains funny, breezy, and easy to follow throughout. Unique visuals and endless charisma help McKay reach the finish line without ever once threatening to bore his audience. The Big Short gets its facts in order, delivers on examining the greed that destroyed the lives of so many, and above all never strays into territory that risks its status as an entertainment. This is a great fucking movie.
02. Ex Machina
There wasn’t a film in 2015 that struck me visually the way Ex Machina did, and that’s only a piece of the puzzle. Shot like a dream and creatively directed by Alex Garland in his first stint behind the camera, Ex Machina is a slow-burning science fiction story told without ever rushing itself or resorting to boorish action. Reclusive techno-mogul Nathan (Oscar Isaac) invites a young employee named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to come evaluate artificial intelligence he has created at his remote, underground home and lab. It’s such a simple setup, and one that pays off in spades.
As great as Isaac and Gleeson are in their roles–and they are great–the highest of accolades go to Alicia Vikander as the physical embodiment of the AI in question. As Ava, Vikander is at times innocent, at times knowing, and always imbued with appeal. This is necessary because Nathan is trying to create the most realistic form of AI that he can, and it’s up to Caleb to tell him how good a job he’s done. What none of the characters count on is Caleb prying further into Nathan’s real plans, Ava beginning to wonder what she truly is, and everything fraying at the edges. In a year of pretty solid sci-fi, Ex Machina stands head and shoulders above the rest while bucking every trend that so easily could have been indulged.
01. The Hateful Eight
The eighth film from the meticulous genius Quentin Tarantino, The Hateful Eight hasn’t garnered the same kind of critical attention many of the director’s previous efforts have. I, for one, have no idea why. The Hateful Eight finds Tarantino gleefully tossing several different elements of his previous success in a mixing bowl and then marveling at the results, and the end product is a wild and gripping tale that stands up admirably alongside his best work. If you’ve never liked Tarantino before now (shame on you!), then you aren’t likely to be converted by this one, but the auteur remains fixated on dancing around the parameters of what he does so well. Tarantino’s films always feel distinctly his own, and yet they all bring formidable new ideas to the table. Isn’t that what we want from our favorite artists?
The Hateful Eight tells the story of a couple of bounty hunters (Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson) trying to make it to a nearby Wyoming town with their bounties in order to collect some serious cash. Standing in their way is a torrential snow storm, one which leads them to Minnie’s haberdashery. The result is a tense, talky affair that flips itself into a locked-room murder mystery around the midway point and never eases up in any sense of the word. The dialogue sparkles, the actors are terrific, and the director’s tried-and-true method of melding laughs with gore is on full display. There is no conceivable way to guess exactly how this movie will unfold from the outset, and there isn’t a single character deserving of our trust. This is my kind of movie, but it’s also a masterful one no matter who you are. Keep taking your time and doing your thing, weirdo.