TOP 10: A film student’s look at 2015 cinema

by Chris Sanchez

sanchezch@mnstate.edu

With 2016 in full swing, reflecting on my favorite films of 2015 seems appropriate.

Throughout the year, it seemed every notion I had of its best film was soon to be overshadowed by a newer release.The bulk of my favorites were fall releases.

There were so many good films this year, so I’d like to first offer my honorable mentions. Those just missing the top ten mark are “Brooklyn,” “Carol,” “Creed,” “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and “Steve Jobs.”

10. “Spy”

Starring Melissa McCarthy and directed by Paul Feig, the surprise comedy hit “Bridesmaids” made a big splash in 2011, doling McCarthy an Oscar nomination for supporting actress and making way for the 2013 buddy cop flick “The Heat,” which paired McCarthy with Sandra Bullock. But the pair’s third collaboration, “Spy,” is their best work to date. The film puts McCarthy in the role of a CIA analyst turned undercover spy. The popular comedian is front and center as she tries to infiltrate deadly arms dealers to prevent a global crisis. The hilarious and witty comedy finally gives McCarthy a role worthy of her comedic chops. The film also deserves kudos for incorporating physical comedy without distasteful jabs at McCarthy’s weight.

9. “Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter”

“Kumiko” was the closing night film at 2015’s Fargo Film Festival back in March, and it’s the one that’s stuck with me the most. The film tells the (supposedly) true story of an isolated Japanese woman named Kumiko, who watches a VHS copy of the Coen Brothers classic “Fargo” and mistakes it for a real life occurrence. Kumiko becomes particularly interested in the scene in which Steve Buscemi’s hitman character buries a suitcase full of cash in the middle of a snowy field outside of Fargo. Thinking the suitcase is still there, Kumiko leaves her lonely life in Japan and adventures to Minneapolis where she trudges through wind and snow to find something nonexistant. Indie filmmaker David Zellner co-wrote the film’s script with his brother Nathan, and directed and shot the “Kumiko” on a low budget. The criminally underseen release is deliberately paced, strange, darkly comedic and ultimately melancholic. It’s an odyssey of a woman trying to find meaning in her life. Star and Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi (of Babel and Pacific Rim) lends the film an intriguing presence that makes her one of the most moving and sympathetic heroines of the year.

8. “Ex-Machina”

One of 2015’s most pleasant surprises, Alex Garland’s directorial debut about an Internet programmer features Domhnall Gleeson, who, in addition to this film, is having quite the year with “Star Wars” and “The Revenant.” Gleeson’s character wins a competition and is flown to spend a week at a mountain estate owned by a brilliant CEO, who introduces Gleeson’s character to his work with artificial intelligence. His experiment, Ava (my MVP of the year, Alicia Vikander), displays intelligence more sophisticated — and emotional — than both men had imagined.

7. “Spotlight”

A likely Oscar frontrunner, this riveting and intelligent drama tells the hard-to-swallow true story surrounding allegations of sexual misconduct by priests in the Catholic church. The film follows Boston Globe’s finest reporters (played by Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Michael Keaton) as they uncover decades of cover-ups from Boston’s legal, government and religious establishments. Director Tom McCarthy’s tense drama gets its hands dirty as these brilliant reporters dig up damning evidence against  the Catholic church, and churn out what might be the best investigative journalistic drama since “All the President’s Men.”

6. “The Martian”

Based on the best-selling novel, “While on Mars,” Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon, perfectly cast) gets left behind by his crew after an intense storm wreaks havoc on them. Stranded alone on the red planet, Watney uses his ingenuity and resources to survive. With a stacked supporting cast including Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig and Jeff Daniels, this visually stunning and enthralling drama manages to be brainy while still entertaining. “Martian” has the strong vibe of optimism “Tomorrowland” just couldn’t achieve. This is easily master craftsman Ridley Scott’s best film in 15 years.

5. “The Hateful Eight”

It wouldn’t be a top 10 list for me without including a Tarantino film. What can I say? This guy always wins me over. His eighth feature film, set in the western front of a post-Civil War Wyoming, begins with a stagecoach hurtling through the winter landscape. Passengers include a bounty hunter (Kurt Russell) and a fugitive (Jennifer Jason Leigh) being brought to justice. The pair eventually ends up at a haberdashery, where they encounter several secretive and menacing strangers. Though this isn’t my favorite Tarantino flick, it still delivers his usual goods: memorable characters, snappy dialogue, an unconventional narrative and a satisfying bloodbath.

4. “Room”

No film this year has punched me in the gut more than Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel “Room.” The film tells the story of a woman (Brie Larson) trapped in a 10-by-10-foot space with her 5-year-old son, Jack (stellar newcomer Jacob Trembley). After seven years without freedom, Larson’s character, only referred to as “Ma,” decides to risk their lives and make a daring escape. “Room” is filled with hope and compassion, thanks to its unique and unpredictable structure.

3. “Inside Out”

Ok, maybe there is another film that hit me hard in 2015. Pixar’s latest picture involves a young girl, Riley, who is forced to move from Minnesota to San Francisco  when her father gets a new job. The film explores Riley’s personified emotions as she deals with the shift. Each emotion operating in Riley’s head does a masterful and ingenius job of delving into the psychology of human emotions. In usual Pixar style, the film has gorgeous visuals. Extremely entertaining and particularly emotional, “Inside Out” is one of Pixar’s best.

2. “The Revenant”

After the enormous success of Oscar-winning film “Birdman,” Alejandro Inarritu’s follow-up is as visceral and intense as anything you’ll see all year. This true story of explorer Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is set in the wilderness of South Dakota. After being abandoned by his team (including Tom Hardy) while in the woods, he gets brutally attacked by a bear. What ultimately is a revenge story is also the most gorgeous and immersive film of the year, thanks to Emmanuel Lubezki’s breathtaking and bleak, yet beautiful cinematography. If getting mauled by a bear doesn’t earned Leo that Gold statue, I honestly don’t know what will.

1. “Mad Max: Fury Road”

My number one slot was a toss-up between this and “The Revenant,” but I just had to cave in and pick this incredibly unique film as my favorite of 2015. Director George Miller created “Max”’s world on his own, filming it in the outback, using “practical” effects and very little CGI to create one of the most mesmerizing and entertaining genre pictures ever. What, on the surface, seems like a simple story is really that of survival, female empowerment and spirituality, featuring a badass female heroine, Charlize Theron as Furiosa. Main character Max (Tom Hardy, having an amazing year) is not at the forefront in this film, but does carry weight throughout the film. “Max”’s action sequences are visceral and heart-pounding, and raise the bar to an entirely new level of filmmaking. It’s a key player in the awards conversation, which is beyond amazing and shows how far blockbuster filmmaking has come in the last 20 years.

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