You say you want a revolution…
Mere hours before the 88th Annual Academy Awards goes live we find ourselves coming off of the most turbulent and tense years in recent memory. Increasing racial tension, a growing rift between the classes, mass shootings, debate over gun control all loomed over the American psyche throughout last year. As we close out the second month of 2016, we find ourselves tumbling towards one of the ugliest, most polarizing Presidential Elections (if not, THE ugliest) in our nation’s history.
Hollywood, a famously recession proof industry is known for producing entertainment that allows us to escape from society’s issues or ills. And the Oscars are Hollywood’s greatest night, a celebration of its greatest stars and the previous year’s best films. But Hollywood too finds itself in the cross hairs of controversy this year, and perhaps facing its own drastic changes. 2015 Hollywood produced some of the largest money-makers ever (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Jurassic World to name two of the now all-time highest grossing films ever), and on the surface it looked like 2015 was more business-as-usual with seemingly more superhero movies, big budget re-makes, prequels and sequels than ever.
But beneath that looms uncertainty and industry revolution with the rise in streaming entertainment, including NetFlix’s Beasts of No Nation, curiously overlooked by Academy voters. On the social front, this Academy Awards has come under fire for lacking diversity (with no African American nominees in any of the major categories) and overall, just being “out-of-touch.” Academy leaders vow that things will change for the better (and have been for years now) but so far the evidence just isn’t there.
Every year I like to find a common theme through my favorite films. In 2013, I’d argue that all of the year’s strongest films were about the fight for survival; Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyers Club and more abstractly, a raw love story like Her. 2014 featured films whose theme was more about personal struggle, evolution and in some cases transformation, from Wild to Selma to Best Picture Winner Birdman. In my opinion, neither 2013 or 2014’s films clearly reflected our society’s most prevalent and public issues and concerns as closely as 2015.
Many of 2015’s most critically-acclaimed narratives touch upon common themes of rebelling against an oppressive government (Straight Outta Compton, Trumbo) or personal oppressor (Room), uncovering the devastating lies and corruption of a major religion (The Roman Catholic Church in Spotlight) corporation (the NFL in Concussion) or the world’s financial infrastructure (the mortgage crisis that catalyzed the 2008 Recession in The Big Short).
So after that lengthy introduction, here are my Top 10 Favorite films of 2015…(SOME SPOILERS AHEAD)
In all ways, the NFL has become one of the most successful corporations in the world, typified by some of the most dynamic and toughest athletes we’ll ever see. When one of these athletes (Pittsburgh Steelers Hall-of-Fame Center Mike Webster) died in 2003, his body would come across the examination table of Bennet Omalu (played by notable Oscar snub Will Smith). Omalu’s obsessive research uncovers an accelerated brain disease which he comes to define as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Webster is not the only player to suffer from CTE, as he quickly begins to learn as more and more former NFL players take their own lives, a consistent and tragic end result for suffers of CTE. Omalu, a Nigerian immigrant wants to take his findings to the NFL where he can help them learn more about the condition and work together towards developing strategies to stop it. He’s surprised to find out that the NFL doesn’t share his concern for their player’s safety and well-being. In fact, they see him and his findings as a direct threat to their wallets, so instead they try to destroy his reputation, and even get the FBI to investigate and deport him. It’s all part of the NFL’s calculated cover up and control over the awful truth (one that continues to this day). While Concussion certainly has its flaws, Will Smith’s portrayal of Omalu is impossible to shake. And after he demonstrates what happens to the brain by smacking a floating piece of fruit repeatedly against the base of a mason jar, he 100% assures that if I’m ever fortunate enough to have a son, he won’t be allowed to play football. I assume this decision may be the same for many other parents, one strengthened by the fact that the NFL clearly hasn’t done enough to get out in front of the issue, nor care for the core of their beloved “product…” their players.
#9. Steve Jobs
Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs was one of the most anticipated films of 2015, although it didn’t perform at the Box Office as well as expected. Created from a script by Academy-Award winning, all-world screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, Steve Jobs feels like a sprinting, speed-talking stage play with the visionary co-founder of Apple portrayed by Oscar-nominee Michael Fassbender. As the titular character, Fassbender is phenomenal, displaying a clearly brilliant but deeply flawed ground-breaker who struggles with his own manhood, especially when it comes to being a father to his oldest daughter Lisa. This relationship is not his own strained one, as he battles with his mentor and surrogate father figure John Sculley (played by Jeff Daniels), his reliable best friend and partner Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) and his loyal confidant (Kate Winslet). All while struggling to repair his most important relationships, all Steve Jobs do is revolutionize the way we compute, communicate, do business, and oh yeah…think.
#8. Ex Machina
When young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is selected for a prestigious experiment in artificial intelligence by his uber-rich and eccentric boss Nathan (the guy that was everywhere in 2015, Oscar Issac) he meets Ava (Alicia Vikander), a striking artificially intelligent android. As Caleb spends more time with Ava he uncovers the terrible truth of Nathan’s work, while simultaneously falling in love with her. I’ve always been a sucker for smart sci-fi, and Ex Machina delivers just that – a story that effortlessly unsettles us and question what’s next in our evolution, especially if we abuse and try to control all that supports us.
So Rocky is arguably the greatest underdog story of all-time. An iconic character created by Sylvester Stallone, one that launched a career and a slew of sequels. Each subsequent sequel to the Academy-Award winning original took another step down the quality ladder (even though I loved Rocky III and IV when I was a kid). So when I first saw a preview for Creed which centers on the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed (Rocky’s one-time nemesis and later best friend) getting into the ring, I was skeptical about how good it would be. But Michael B. Jordan (as the title character) injects brand new life into the franchise by introducing us to a new underdog to root for. What made the original film so powerful was that it was a relatively small story about mostly down-and-out people. Creed gets back to the story’s roots and personal intimacy, with the bond between Jordan’s Creed and Stallone’s Rocky Balboa (now taking on a reluctant trainer’s role) is sweet, moving, and a nostalgic reminder of what made the original so inspiring. Filmmaker Ryan Coogler’s Creed will make you believe in underdogs again, and Stallone will tug at your heart strings. Creed’s a winner.
So Bryan Cranston’s one of the most decorated television actors in history, winning numerous times for AMC’s Breaking Bad. He’s a phenomenal, transformative “character actor” who can fool you into believing a menacing bad guy is actually a desperate and forgivable entrepreneur who only wants to give the best to his family. In Trumbo he’s at the forefront, playing historic novelist and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo who also happened to be a known communist. Trumbo was a leader of the Communist 10, a group of Hollywood filmmakers who were convicted for Contempt of Congress when they w0uldn’t admit to wrongdoing as communists. Trumbo spent over a year in prison, and when he came out he found himself blacklisted, unable to make money as a writer under his own name. So, Trumbo assumed various pen names throughout the 1950s, with his screenplays winning 2 Oscars (for Roman Holiday and The Brave One). On Hollywood’s most prestigious night, Trumbo watches his work awarded to someone else from his tiny living room. In my opinion, Cranston gives 2015’s best performance – acting excellence at every level, commanding the big screen as well as he ever did on TV. His performance in Trumbo offers an interesting parallel between the blacklist of the 1950s and our own modern day witchhunt for Islamic extremists or illegal immigrants. Rooting out subversives is nothing new for humanity, as is the fear of people with different religions, ideas, or cultures from us (especially when they threaten to lighten our wallets). Fear-mongering is timeless and past is prologue – two things Trumbo is sure to remind us of.
#5. The Revenant
20 years from now, I feel that The Revenant will be the film most talked about (and studied), remembered for it’s epic direction, eerie cinematography and of course the brutal crawling, grunting, fighting for air survivalist performance of star Leonardo DiCaprio. Essentially a lock to take home his first Oscar, DiCaprio is at the center of the film, portraying 19th century fur trapper and scout Hugh Glass. After he’s horribly mauled by a mammoth grizzly bear, some of his companions (led by Tom Hardy) decide it’s better to kill his son and bury him alive than drag him through the wilderness any longer. But Glass overcomes all odds and finds his way back to his murderer, seeking vengeance. Last year, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu won his first directing Oscar for Birdman. In Revenant he uses a few of the same camera tricks, but mostly creates a very different film all-together, brutal, cold, one where the audience feels truly one with nature. It’s beautiful direction, stunning cinematography, and gritty performances make The Revenant 2015’s best made film, but the story pacing can be sluggish and uneven, and the film occasionally feels in love with it’s own artsy imaging osmosis. However, DiCaprio’s ability to wordlessly convey anguish, regret, and loneliness in a non movie star way is nothing short of awesome.
If not for one hard pill for me to swallow character choice, this would be higher on the list. Room is a chilling and uncomfortable film that will move and inspire anyone that’s ever had a mother (there’s a few of us). Brie Larson’s character Joy lives in a tiny room with her five year old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay). On the day of his 5th birthday Joy starts to unravel the harsh truth about their lives to her son – that they are being held captive here in a shed by an abusive predator, and she’ll need him to muster courage he didn’t know he had to help them escape. And boldly, that’s only the midpoint of Room which while boasting a tricky, high concept plot, is really an intimate story about a mother protecting her young son, and amazingly, how he can reciprocate that love and heroism. Brie Larson’s Joy and Tremblay’s Jack are this year’s greatest heroes, even though the only people they’ll save are each other. Room is a thriller that’s more concerned with the psychological effects of pain, and the ability for us to overcome such pain because of a mother’s or child’s love.
# 3. Straight Outta Compton
Telling the origin story of 1990’s Rap group NWA mostly through the experiences of its three most important members (Ice Cube played by O’Shea Jackson Jr., Dr. Dre played by Corey Hawkins, and Eazy-E played by Jason Mitchell). Three friends from the very tough streets of Compton in Los Angeles would blaze a trail for music. In the process Straight Outta Compton shows us the police brutality so publicized in 1990s Los Angeles and how it shaped their rebellious music, mostly chastised by the American establishment. Easy-E, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube all have their own experiences with the greed that comes along with big business, never mind other challenges that come with gang violence, drugs, and the AIDS epidemic. While this drama does its due diligence in framing the story with these events and issues, at its core SOC is a film about the unbreakable bond of friendship between three guys, no matter what happens to them in life, success or tragedy.
# 2. The Big Short
Focusing on several different groups of financial experts in the years, months and days leading up to the 2008 Financial Collapse, The Big Short takes a quick-talking, sarcastic, fast-moving approach to great greed and financial tragedy. A big star cast (including Ryan Gosling, an understated Brad Pitt, a very serious Steve Carell, and a transformative-as-always Christian Bale) lead the way as filmmaker Adam McKay moves us through the mid-90s housing crisis with swift and unforgiving ease. His film’s aloof, arrogant, “who gives a shit” tone underscores the arrogance of a greedy time where people made as much money as they possibly could for themselves, and worried about the consequences to everyone else…uh, never. The mortgage crisis led to a devestating recession where countless people lost their homes and their savings. Of course the financial visionaries at the center of this film ultimately profited from the crisis in one way or another as they saw it coming, but the devastation leaves its scars on them as it did all of us. The Big Short gallops from scene to scene, and even though its characters are energetic and compelling, the despairing nature of the subject matter is overwhelming, especially as characters in the film learn incredibly alarming truths about the crisis that we all know (but seem to have forgotten) years later.
The most poignant aspect of the film is that it reminds us that NO ONE was really punished for their excessive greed, other than the average American. Late in the film, after the impact of the crisis is assured Steve Carell’s Mark Baum tells a colleague…
“I have a feeling in a few years people are going to be doing what they always do when the economy tanks. They will be blaming immigrants and poor people.”
The film later goes onto add via title…“and teachers.”
# 1. Spotlight
In my opinion the best film of 2015 is longtime supporting actor Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight which tells the story of an investigative reporting team called “Spotlight,” which works within the Boston Globe. Thanks to the paper’s new editor and chief, portrayed by Liev Schreiber, (a transplant from Miami who as we are reminded often in the film also happens to be Jewish) he re-focuses the S-Team, led by Michael Keaton’s Walter “Robby” Robinson onto the story of a Catholic priest accused of abusing a Boston boy. As the team begins to investigate it soon becomes apparent that this one priest and this one boy are really just the tip of a terrible iceberg. After some work, the S-Team has uncovered almost 80 Priests in the Boston area they believe to be pedophiles, and a controversial cover-up that travels all the way up to the Vatican. The truth rattles these reporters (all Catholics) to their spiritual core, but compels them to keep going to uncover the truth and assure the victims receive justice, against all odds.
The best scene in the film comes from Mark Ruffalo. His character, quirky reporter Mike Rezendes blows up with an impassioned speech to his boss Robby about how this abuse can’t continue and how they have to stop it. The raw anguish and conflict is unmistakable, and one that speaks perfectly to a cast displaying guilt-ridden, conflicted, but determined to find the truth characters. It’s an actor’s film; selflessly directed, shot, and edited. One you won’t be able to get out of your head.
In my opinion, it’s the best film of the year.