By James Hancock December 29th, 2015
When compiling a top ten list for the year there is always that internal struggle between those films that I intellectually feel obligated to include versus the movies that gave me the most raw, visceral excitement while watching them. One of my main criticisms of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is that they typically go the short-sighted route favoring those movies that are good for us, movies that tackle important political topics or espouse the most noble ideals of that time, while ignoring movies that hardcore film fanatics genuinely love, movies that will be watched repeatedly for many years to come. Does anyone actually watch The King’s Speech (2010) anymore? Only five years old, the movie already feels utterly insignificant while a movie like Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, released in the same year but a flop at the time, seems to attract legions of new followers to its cult every year. When I look back at the history of film and my favorite filmmakers, directors like Orson Welles, Howard Hawks or Sam Peckinpah, I am amazed at how few of their movies (if any) fit into that dubious category of films that people feel obligated to acknowledge at the end of the year, those respectable prestige movies that so few people actually enjoy watching or plan ever to sit through again. So in the interest of being a pure cinematic hedonist, I promise only to include movies in the following list that made my eyes and ears tingle and writhe in pleasure while watching them. If I did anything less, I could not honestly go on calling myself a true cinephile.
Side Note: I have failed to see the following films so far and from what I understand they all could easily have ended up on the list: Spotlight, The Assassin, Brooklyn, Anomalisa.
10. The Forbidden Room dir by Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson
If you have never watched the films of Guy Maddin there is no way I can capture what his films are all about in just one paragraph, but the premise of The Forbidden Room will give you a small taste. Maddin essentially remade several lost films from the late 20s/early 30s and then cleverly wove them all together almost like stories hidden inside a giant Russian doll. If your life is not complete without seeing the cultural oddity ‘How to Take a Bath’, Guy Maddin is here to save the day. Those of you who love the films of the late 20s/early 30s as much as I do, and fantasize about the films that have been lost forever to the ravages of time, you not only owe it to yourself to see this film but also to hungrily devour the rest of Guy Maddin’s amazing filmography.
9. Carol dir by Todd Haynes
In general, I could not be a less receptive audience member for love stories but I found Todd Haynes’s Carol impossible to resist. Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara both deliver some of the finest work of their careers in a film that reminded me in the best possible way of David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), one of his darkest and most intimate dramas. Todd Haynes also deserves a shout out for shooting the film in Super 16, proving that there remain a variety of exciting voices in the movie business interested in preserving film as a viable medium. A film of incredible subtlety and nuance, Carol is a refreshing reminder of what a love story can be in the hands of a great filmmaker.
8. Sicario dir by Denis Villeneuve
Unlike lesser films that attempt to tackle complex political issues, Sicario refuses to hold the audience’s hand and guide them toward a sanctimonious conclusion. This film gets progressively more disturbing as its characters explore the ethical and legal grey area of trying to eliminate the threat of violent drug lords along the border of the United States and Mexico. Emily Blunt is outstanding but it is Benicio Del Toro who steals the show in arguably the most interesting role of his career. Sicario is also one of those rare movies that manages about halfway through the story to transition from being a really good movie to one that is completely phenomenal. Denis Villeneuve is officially on my list of directors to be followed diligently.
7. Ex Machina dir by Alex Garland
The dance sequence alone in Ex Machina would earn it a place on this list but this film has so much more to offer. As much as I love a tale of high adventure like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it is hard for me to label that movie as science fiction and keep a straight face. I’m not throwing shade on Star Wars: The Force Awakens (I ranked it #3 after all) but Star Wars for me is pure escapist fantasy and does not have a lot of science fiction concepts for viewers to sink their teeth into. Ex Machina is the best kind of science fiction, a dark, disturbing film with an adult sensibility that poses questions that will linger in your head long after watching the film. More and more these days human beings seem to resemble little more than the sexual organs of technology and it seems like it is only a matter of time before we innovate the human race into total obsolescence. Ex Machina is one of the best films for exploring this undiscovered country and I hope writer-director Alex Garland gets back behind the camera as soon as possible.
6. Hitchcock/Truffaut dir by Kent Jones
There are a handful of film history documentaries that remind movie fanatics why they were seduced by film in the first place. I’m talking about movies like A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995) a documentary that I have watched countless times. Hitchock/Truffaut is a new documentary that I am happy to add to this list. Filled with fascinating interviews with some of today’s best directors about Hitchock’s career and his legendary interview with Francois Truffaut, this documentary is a veritable feast for Hitchcock fans, one that I plan on gorging myself on repeatedly in the years to come.
5. The Revenant dir by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Every time people try and pretend as if the western is dead, a brilliant director comes along and injects new life back into the genre. I already had high hopes for Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (see #2 below) due to his history with genre filmmaking but I had no idea what to expect from Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ambitious experiment with the western. With a minimal amount of dialogue, Iñárritu tells a beautiful yet nightmarish story of murder, hate and revenge that would make any of the great western directors of the past proud. In between the savage scenes of ruthless ferocity, the film kept me in a state of hushed awe marveling at the beauty and grandeur of the frozen mountainous environment in which the story takes place. From what I understand, the production of this film was a horrific experience for almost everyone involved with many crew members quitting under protest because of the harsh working conditions all while the film’s budget climbed to more than two times the original plan. I have no idea how this film will fare when it goes into wide release but for now I can say that the artistic results were absolutely worth the pain and frustration that went into making the movie.
4. Steve Jobs dir by Danny Boyle
For a few weeks Steve Jobs occupied the top spot on my list of favorite movies of the year. Upon release, I watched the film three times in rapid succession mostly because of my love of Aaron Sorkin’s highly adversarial screenplay, one that reminded me of those glorious days of overlapping dialogue in the late 1930s/early 1940s. Watching Michael Fassbender and Jeff Daniels tear into one another in Act II is still one of my favorite scenes of the year. The fact that this movie failed in wide release fills me dread about the prospects of mid-budget movies that endeavor to deliver smart entertainment. More than ever we seem to live in an era of tentpoles and tadpoles with movies in the middle struggling to find their place. The only reason this movie has slipped a few spots in my estimation is that I think I am done watching it for now unless someone I know desperately wants to see it for the first time and needs a wingman. As much as I lovedSteve Jobs the next three movies on my list are movies where I still feel an undeniable hunger to watch them again and again.
3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens dir by J.J. Abrams
During his cameo in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965), Samuel Fuller famously said, “A film is like a battleground – love…hate…action…violence…death…in one word – emotion!” I could indulge in a fanboy rant for hours about what worked in the new Star Wars and what didn’t, but when it comes to emotion, no film made me feel more this year than Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The movie generated so many emotions it is difficult to know where to start. There was that sense of belonging to a community on opening night as we prepared to go back into a world that we had not seen since 1983 (the prequels don’t count). There was the emotion of seeing old friends as Han and Chewie strutted back onto the screen, somehow better than ever. There was the exhilaration of seeing a real lightsaber battle, one that was not a choreographed dance of surgical precision, but rather a raw, brutal exchange between characters, the natural expression of their feelings toward one another. And there was the joy of discovering new friends in this world, Rey, Finn, Poe and BB-8, characters that I will happily follow to the far side of the galaxy and back in the years to come. Star Wars is back in the biggest way possible to remind us all what an old-fashioned tale of high adventure is supposed to look and feel like. I can’t overstate the joy of seeing this world regain its place of love and adoration with the fans after so many years of being subjected to justifiable ridicule for the disappointing Episodes I,II & III. I’ve already seen this very special movie four times and I have no plans to stop anytime soon. The Force is strong with this one.
2. The Hateful Eight dir by Quentin Tarantino
I’ve been watching Quentin Tarantino’s movies my entire adult life and I’m always amazed at the level of controversy his films seem to generate. Even more confusing is how partisans of the hard right and hard left both seem to despise him in equal measure and use every film he makes as an excuse to talk about why his work offends whatever political narrative they have affiliated themselves with. It is almost as if people make up their minds in advance how his films upset their delicate world view and launch into their attacks before even seeing one frame of film from the movie in question. People call him racist and misogynistic, yet he sure seems to write a lot of great parts for people who aren’t white males. Facts can be stubborn and inconvenient to people who get an obvious endorphin rush from expressing their superficial outrage online. Well my first and only true political affiliation is with great filmmaking and I think that Quentin Tarantino is the best director working today. This is not to say that I find every film of his to be a perfect home run, but I have a deep love and respect for his complete filmography. This is a man whose entire life is devoted to celebrating the great films of the past and trying his best to make his own contribution to the history of film frequently with astonishing results. The Hateful Eight is one mean, nasty son of a bitch, yet surprisingly funny from start to finish. Shot in glorious 70mm, The Hateful Eight is a love song to a bygone era where films did not try and score points with the latest topical causes on Twitter but were only concerned with telling the best story possible with the best actors a director could get his or her hands on. Quentin Tarantino unapologetically embraces working in genre films and feels no shame in making his audiences howl with glee at the most fucked up things he can think to hurl onto the screen. There are those who think his only contribution to film was Pulp Fiction (1994). These short-sighted individuals are no more correct than those who erroneously believed Orson Welles’s only achievement to be Citizen Kane (1941). Quentin Tarantino is a master storyteller with a full command over the language of cinema and we as moviegoers are lucky to have him. Haters might love talking trash about him now, but the world is sure going to miss him when he’s gone.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road dir by George Miller
“Witness Me!” I think I’ll be shouting this phrase for the rest of my life. In an era where so many movies seem to be standing still and where audiences are far too content with smaller and smaller screens, George Miller comes along and grabs us by the throat with a movie that seems to roar “Witness Me!” right into our numb, complacent faces. The term ‘cinema’ is incredibly subjective but for me the epic visual storytelling of Mad Max: Fury Road is the essence of what cinema should be, an exhilarating transportive experience projected on the largest screen possible. The fact that George Miller at age 70 is delivering the best of work of his career, putting to shame filmmakers half his age, should be a source of inspiration to anyone working in any way, shape or form in the movie business. Watching this movie, I was so moved by the spectacle of the dystopian story that I frequently found myself having to remind myself to breathe. Mad Max: Fury Road is a rich moviegoing experience, one that I feel no hesitation in ranking alongside some of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen. 2015 might have been a little thin when it comes to great movies, but even without the other nine films listed above, 2015 will go down in history as the year that gave us Mad Max: Fury Road and that alone makes 2015 a remarkable year for this art form I love so dearly.
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Before wrapping this up I have to give one honorable mention to animator Bill Plympton and his feature film Cheatin’. I would have loved to included it on the above list but I worked on the film as a producer and felt obliged not to completely surrender to the temptation of corruption. That said, I am incredibly proud of what Bill accomplished with this film and consider it to be the best project I have been associated with in my career. Check out the trailer below and if you choose to rent or buy the film, you will officially be my new best friend:
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