Sunday, February 21, 2016

Standout Films of the Decade: 2015

B.e. Kerian: Film FreeQ
WRITER’S NOTE: As I mentioned in my post for my choices from 2010, some of my choices here aren’t necessarily a means of recommendation nor an endorsement for the worldviews expressed in said films. But they do standout in terms of their thematic and universal undertones.

1. Room
No other film this year has shaken me nor moved me as much as this one. Based on the bestselling novel by Emma Donoghue (who also wrote the screenplay), Room is hard to watch at times, due to its strong subject matter. But at its heart, it’s a powerful and loving story of a mother and child who escape captivity and discover the world. Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay are remarkable, heartbreaking, and thoroughly engaging. A unique portrait of childhood innocence, family heartache and drama, and unbreakable love.

2. Inside Out
Pixar hits another home-run with a daring story set inside the mind of an eleven-year-old girl named Riley, as her emotions (and herself) struggle with adjusting to life in a new city. Centered on the emotions of Joy and Sadness (along with support from Anger, Disgust and Fear), both learn the importance of growing up and moving on, including the theme that happiness isn’t everything. Quirky, funny, and deeply emotional, Inside Out transcends its own medium, like its preceding hits from the animation studio, and creates something for everybody. (The preceding short, Lava, is a fitting companion piece.) 

3. Bridge of Spies
Just as they did with Band of Brothers and The Pacific, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg deliver another untold story from American/world history, this time set during the Cold War of the 1950s. Attorney James Donovan (Hanks) is tasked with defending a Soviet spy (an excellent Mark Rylance), and eventually gets involved in an international exchange for captured American spy pilot Francis Gary Powers. Brilliantly directed, acted and photographed, this film reminds us of the power of cinema in telling a compelling and important part of history. 

4. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
No surprise to the box-office demographic, but certainly a bigger surprise to audiences and critics worldwide as director J.J. Abrams took both back to the “galaxy far, far away” (and broke just about every highest-grossing-film record, for that matter) that George Lucas created nearly forty years ago. Episode VII brings back the excitement and popcorn thrills that launched the popular space opera (not to mention a parallel homage, and more grit mixed in) while introducing new characters (Rey and BB-8 stand out) that have quickly become a new part of the pop culture zeitgeist. The force is indeed strong with this one. 

5. The Martian
What seems like another mere lone survivor story a la Cast Away is actually a clever, intense, and often witty science-fiction film, based on Andy Weir's bestselling novel. Matt Damon takes control as a NASA botanist accidentally left on Mars by his crew after being presumed dead in a sandstorm. The Martian not only focuses on Damon’s efforts to contact NASA and his crew. Even better, it shows the global effort it takes to (quoting the film’s tagline) bring him home. Despite unnecessary strong language, this is an impeccably cast, plausible, and executed film experience. 

6. Mission: Impossible--Rogue Nation
Tom Cruise returns as IMF agent Ethan Hunt on a new mission, this time to track down and bring to justice a ruthless organization out for a global takedown. An intense and provocative examination (as well as a thrill ride) of the line between heroes and villains, agents and vigilantes, and the organizations that carry both. The practical stunts (including Cruise literally hanging outside an A400M airplane!) and chase sequences hit home. 

7. Mad Max: Fury Road
Director George Miller returns to the post-apocalyptic world he created in the 1979 original starring Mel Gibson. Tom Hardy takes over Gibson’s role as the road warrior Max Rockatansky, drifting in a fallen and insane world, ruled by the tyrannical Immortan Joe. But Hardy’s Max really takes a back seat to Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, who leads a group of female prisoners to freedom. Shot as an insane two-hour car chase, the thrills and surprises (which stand out against the likes of Furious 7 and Avengers: Age of Ultron, in terms of substance) keep coming. Action afionados will likely be enthralled, while the squeamish will (and should) keep their distance.

8. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
A favorite at the Sundance Film Festival last year, this quirky and heartbreaking drama tells the story of Greg, a high school senior who chooses to drift through his final year. His mother eventually forces him to spend time with classmate Rachel, recently diagnosed with cancer. Described by one critic as a mesh between the styles of directors John Hughes and Wes Anderson, Me and Earl does feature some unnecessary sexual references and an existential worldview a la Juno. But it also emphasizes the importance of friendships and being there for others, as well as choosing to live over merely surviving. 

9. The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water
The ever-popular Nickelodeon sea critter makes a return to the silver screen after ten years, in both 2D and 3D animated forms (a rarity for the former these days). Yes, it’s silly and ridiculous and absurd. But that’s the point. Sponge Out of Water represents the kind of creative freedom that the television network has arguably lacked since the 90s. The result is an entertaining culmination of high art and low art, with parodies and homages of everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Mad Max to The Avengers. Pharrell Williams’ music is very catchy and fun. 

10. Joy
Jennifer Lawrence reunites with director David O. Russell in a surreal, often strange, and well-made story based on the life of entrepreneur Joy Mangano (creator of the Miracle Mop), as well as several other “brave and daring” women, according to Russell. Shot almost like a Paul Thomas Anderson film a la Punch-Drunk Love, Mangano’s story is chronicled from her childhood dreams to her creative mindset to her dysfunctional family to her stands against corporate America to the formation of a family business dynasty. The always-determined Lawrence gets terrific support from Russell-regulars Robert DeNiro and Bradley Cooper.

Other Notable Mentions:
Set during the 1950s, a young Irish girl named Eilis (played wonderfully by Saoirse Ronan) immigrates to New York in America for a new life. Seems like a love story on the surface, what with a triangle romance Eilis has between two different men; one in NY, and one back in Ireland. But it’s really (with an unnecessary suggestive scene notwithstanding) a telling and heartbreaking coming-of-age story about a young woman’s choice between two different lives and the place she calls “home”. Based on the book by Colm Toibin.

Disney continues its streak of live-action adaptations of some of its own animated classics (following Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent) with a beautiful rendition of Charles Perreault’s classic rags-to-riches story, and a more grounded sense of realism that makes this the best adaptation of Cinderella to date. An impressive film debut for Lily James, backed up by the always-stellar Cate Blanchett as her wicked stepmother. 

I picked this Rocky spinoff largely because of Sylvester Stallone. Michael B. Jordan's riveting performance (as the son of Rocky’s former rival and friend, Apollo Creed) and Ryan Coolger's direction give the film a gritty and engrossing tone. But it's Stallone’s supporting role that guides and holds the story together, and makes it worthwhile with a portrayal of an aging and ill-stricken man who gets a new lease on "going the distance,” as well as a lesson for his protégé in leaving a legacy.

The Hunger Games series (2012-2015)
Both Suzanne Collins’ book trilogy and the film adaptations (which concluded with Mockingjay—Part 2 last year) are arguably the most relevant books and films in today’s culture, socially, ethically, and media-wise. Gripping and intense, these are provocative stories set in a post-apocalyptic ancient Rome-type of world, casting a light on what is considered “entertainment” versus what is true and right for the world.

The Peanuts Movie 
Charles Schultz's beloved comic strip and characters are brought to the screen in eye-popping 3D, yet in a way that faithfully honors the late cartoonist's legacy. Featuring dance-filled music by Meghan Trainor, as well as everybody from Charlie Brown to Snoopy to Linus to Peppermint Patty, this is a fun time at the movies that will fill kids and adults with joy.

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