by Philip Price
10. “Straight Outta Compton”
I was born in 1987. By this time the likes of Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren and DJ Yella were already beginning to make waves in their home town of Compton, Calif. In just a little over a year’s time these five individuals, collectively known as N.W.A, would release their seminal record that shares it's title with the group’s new biopic, “Straight Outta Compton.” “Straight Outta Compton” is full of energy, at least for the majority of its two and a half hour runtime. It is a film that grabs you right from the beginning. It throws the audience into the midst of what this generation was facing and experiencing as far as prejudice and pop culture was concerned. Because of its decade spanning timeline and the depths in which it covers the people involved in creating this music and the events that inspired them to do so it feels like something of an epic. Epic in the vein of narrating the deeds of these now historical figures and rap heroes that explains the caveats of the history of south Los Angeles county. Sure, it has its issues in trying to contain it's sprawling epic-ness (apparently the first cut of the film was nearly four hours), but I can't help but know that on repeat viewings I will only come to love and enjoy this movie more and more.
9. “The End of the Tour”
“The End of the Tour” is, on the surface, a road movie about one writer doing a profile on another writer, but more than that it is a film of conversation and constant introspection. It's almost exhausting to constantly think in the way our two main characters presented here do, throwing out ideas and immediately reassessing those ideas or deep-diving further to find the root of where such ideas come from. The talking. It can be a bit much, it can feel overbearing even, but it ultimately captures so much of the soul that it can't help but feel soothing at the same time. It's strange, to be sure, but it makes perfect sense, especially when it's so elegantly and perfectly phrased by writer David Foster Wallace. As portrayed by Jason Segel, Wallace doesn't so much convey the narcissistic pretension that we might expect from someone of his stature, but rather he is constantly wrestling with this idea of self-reflection and the awareness of one's self. Through this journey Segel's Wallace doesn't discount much of what we see as good, seductive commercial entertainment for the sake of feeling better than everyone else, but more he loves it as much as we do despite knowing it's akin to junk food. In this regard, the film is an insightful portrait of the male psyche and the messiness of life and all the bullshit one has to sift through in order to even catch a glimpse of something real.
8. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
Moving backward to move forward. In this first installment of a new ‘Star Wars’ trilogy that seems to be the sentiment everyone was after. In essence, that is what the fans have wanted for so long-for everything to change, but nothing at the same time. By evolving the characters yet keeping them within the same world director J.J. Abrams has appeased the masses that remain angry at George Lucas to this day over the prequels while at the same time enlisting a whole new generation of ‘Star Wars’ fans who have likely only heard whisperings of why this franchise is so great and means so much to so many people. With ‘The Force Awakens,’ Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan hammer home the idea that this universe has always centered around: legacy. With this in mind it makes sense that we see where Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa have been all these years and that despite them seeming to have everything under control when we last left them, that things don't always go the way we hope or expect. To see the fruition of these full lives come to life on the big screen makes it easy to want to relive this experience time and time again, but to also be able to discover compelling new characters and story arcs that make fans anxious for the next installment is truly gratifying, most of the time even pretty stimulating.
Alice in Wonderland has been used as inspiration for what are surely an innumerable number of stories. The idea of getting lost down a rabbit hole or your life not going the way you'd imagined it when you were a child is universal. The metaphors and analogies to be made are no doubt endless with any aspect of any single person's life, but “Room” is a certain kind of Alice story as you can feel the loss of our protagonist both physically and psychologically. Loss is a key word, a key theme if you will, given the circumstances of the situation presented in the film, but if you don't know that situation going in you're all the better for it. All that is necessary to know is that Brie Larson plays Joy Newsome, a woman who has seemingly been trapped in a single room for an ungodly amount of time while having raised her five-year old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), in this confinement for the entirety of his life. Larson is incredibly moving in the most genuine sense of the word. That sounds like a sound bite, I'm aware-"her performance is so real," but it is and the depths she brings to Joy's arc are incredible. The film itself operates as a tense and unnerving thriller for its first half before becoming an intense psychological trip in it's second. Both are equally engaging with the whole benefiting as it ends up being doubly compelling.
6. “Ex Machina”
Over the last few years, filmmakers and writers have become more and more fascinated with the idea of artificial intelligence. It is an idea that has always been present of course, but as we get closer to the actual realization of such a thing the consequences of it become all the more real and thus all the more frightening. You can look to “Her,” which is likely the closest in terms of what these films are saying about developing convincing relationships with artificial beings and their inability to stay with us for too long before moving on due to their superiority, but there are also films like “Transcendence” and “Chappie” that have come out within the last couple of years and have attempted to tackle the consequences of creating a God-like being. While “Transcendence” spun too many ideas that it couldn't keep track of, “Chappie” gave us the cliff notes for what make up the most interesting discussions in “Ex Machina.” It is the conversations here that propels the movie forward. Writer Alex Garland makes his directorial debut with this film and it couldn't be more impressive. It's clear the relationship and understanding he developed while crafting the script informed the making of the film as we can feel the themes and big idea jumping off the screen as if we were deep in the heart of a rapturous novel. “Ex Machina,” despite being heavy-handed and wordy, makes itself so inviting and fascinating time and time again if not for the conversation, but one unforgettable dance scene.
5. “The Big Short”
Adam McKay has been making movies like “The Big Short” for years now, he just hid them under the guise of broad comedy. That McKay has moved on to what is now simply classified more as a "drama" rather than a "comedy" doesn't seem to have changed his approach as “The Big Short” is still a frequently funny movie with McKay's hallmark sensibilities very much intact. The real difference between “The Big Short” and anything McKay has made in the past is that this time around he's been granted the ability to react to the material he's examining and get angry with the fact that what's been done is outrageous and wrong McKay takes author Michael Lewis' book and crafts a multiple arc story that focuses in on characters who have well-defined moral compasses and who come to their decisions to take on the big banks for the banks greed and lack of foresight rather than for the explicit reason of becoming rich. That McKay is able to bottle all of these emotions into a single film: the anger, the disgust, the outrageous quality of the situation and make us feel all of them while keeping us consistently entertained is a marvel in and of itself, but that it also teaches us more than we probably ever cared to learn is invaluable.
“Brooklyn” is gorgeous and moving and all things warm and fuzzy without ever devolving into a Hallmark Channel original. From the moment the film opens on a doe-eyed and innocent Saoirse Ronan working feverishly in a convenience shop in the early 1950s I was hooked by the effortless quality of the inviting atmosphere director John Crowley establishes. This immediate sense of safe familiarity allows for the rather objective-less story adapted from Colm Toibin's novel by Nick Hornby to feel all the more profound and affecting as it unravels. Thus is the power of simplicity and pure old-school filmmaking and storytelling. There is really no reason as to why “Brooklyn” should work as well as it does and upon my initial viewing I think I was simply surprised it ended up working as well as it did. I couldn't stop thinking about how happy the film made me though. It was, unlike say something meant to elicit awards chatter like “The Danish Girl,” a film that left a lasting impression. One that I couldn't shake and couldn't wait to share with others. Ronan's performance is absolutely brilliant as it combines pure devastation with real hope and optimism, but the MVP here is Emory Cohen as Ronan's love interest Tony. “Brooklyn” is solid from the start, but once Cohen shows up it becomes exceptional.
3. “Love & Mercy”
I've probably watched “Love & Mercy” more than any other film on this list. I saw it on the big screen, I watched it as soon as it was available on Blu-Ray, I watched it with the commentary from director Bill Pohland and writer Oren Moverman as well as making my wife watch it simply because I love it so much. Any time since its release in June when I've been asked to recommend a movie to friends or family I've used this one as a default. Any time anyone has followed up with me after checking out “Love & Mercy” I've heard nothing but appreciation and I can't help but to think that's due to the fact the film is about a popular figure who produced incredibly familiar songs, but is done in a unique fashion that features two equally impressive performances. Many music biopics take the route of exposing famous people and their personal demons rather than exploring why they came to be in the music business in the first place. In short, the love of music and the passion for the craft is largely left out of the mix, but as with last year’s “Get On Up,” “Love & Mercy” uses the music and how it influences the life of Brian Wilson to lead us to get to know this man better making John Cusack's performance all the more meaningful and Paul Dano's beyond fascinating.
2. “Steve Jobs”
Like with “Love & Mercy,” “Steve Jobs” is a biopic with a twist and thus the reason I probably find it so fascinating as well. I care to make no qualms about it: Aaron Sorkin is the best screenwriter working at the moment. The guy delivers precise, other-worldly dialogue that would never actually come from a human's mouth, but is somehow able to render itself immensely soulful. With the premise of yet another Steve Jobs movie the question would be in approach-how would they do it differently that might justify the reasoning for another movie about the same man? After all, we already have the Ashton Kutcher film and he looks way more convincing as the Apple founder than Michael Fassbender. Wait...Fassbender? Despite looking nothing like Jobs, Fassbender takes the role and turns Sorkin's rapid fire dialogue into a deadly combination of punches. If Fassbender were a boxer his opponents would have been knocked out in the first round. He's relentless. Stacked with credentials and structured as three acts backstage before the launch of a new product, “Steve Jobs” is an incomparable film that will undoubtedly stand the test of time and serve as a stirring portrait of one of the great minds of the twenty-first century.
Being a Catholic myself this could be seen as overcompensating, but there really were no issues with picking the best and most enthralling movie experience I had this year and that was with “Spotlight.” I don't like that these things happened, I don't like that they happened within an organization I affiliate myself with, but they did happen and we can't act like they didn't. The church has recently taken steps to be more transparent with their parishioners and I can appreciate that. What I appreciate about the film though, is that it never attacks the Catholic faith and it never criticizes those who choose to follow the church, but instead it simply tasks itself with exposing the repercussions of the victims while getting to the bottom of an investigation that was being covered up by some bad folks: clergy and lawyers alike. Director and co-writer Tom McCarthy has delivered a perfectly executed film with no hiccups, no time for second guesses and nothing narratively to take away from the main objective. “Spotlight” is a prime piece of meat with all of the fat trimmed and only the juiciest parts left so as to make the whole experience one of pure, concentrated excellence.