Best films of 2015

Dec. 18, 2015

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Rooney Mara (left) and Cate Blanchett star in “Carol,” nominated for five Golden Globe Awards. Publicity photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

Each year, the film experts — and movie lovers — in Emory’s Department of Film and Media Studies assemble a list of the year’s best films. Selections are primarily based on films available to Atlanta moviegoers as of Dec. 16 (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “The Big Short” are not included). Many of these films are in theaters or available for streaming online or on video (Blu-Ray, DVD).

The expert faculty members and movie raters include Tanine Allison, Robert Earl Barracano, Matthew H. Bernstein, William A. Brown, Ryan Cook and Eddy Von Mueller.

Beasts of No Nation
Having already thoroughly discombobulated serial television with its binge-friendly, whole-season-at-a-go sensations like “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black,” streaming media powerhouse Netflix is now shaking up the feature film racket with this brutal, brooding drama about boy soldiers in an anonymous, war-torn African republic. Written, directed and shot by Cary Joji Fukunaga, who made mighty waves with the first “True Detective” on HBO, and bolstered by a searing performance by the redoubtable Idris Elba, better used here perhaps than in anything since “The Wire,” Beasts offers a compelling mixture of art house atmosphere and topical urgency that beautifully complements the 2005 novel from which it was adapted. Although it’s available already on the small screen, it’s a film more than pretty enough, important enough, and powerful enough for the big one.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                  — Eddy Von Mueller
The Best of Enemies
“The Best of Enemies” smartly configures archival footage from the William F. Buckley Jr./Gore Vidal ABC News Debates held during the 1968 political conventions. Desperate to grab viewers on the cheap, ABC’s executives decided to let two of the country’s leading public intellectuals engage in a lively debate from the right and left. Both Vidal and Buckley were straight out of central casting East Coast elites, acknowledged intellectual leaders of their respective ideologies. But what they shared was an intense mutual contempt that became the stuff of legend. Vidal was prepared and precise. Buckley was spontaneous and acerbic. It was great TV and a reminder that intelligent commentary can reach a mass audience. It just takes two very smart debaters consumed by a personal animus that is obsessive, unrelenting, and memorably expressed.  
                                                                                                                                                                                                                    — William A. Brown
Bridge of Spies
“Bridge of Spies” is flawless late career Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks. Hanks stars as a mild-mannered attorney who specializes in fender bender settlements, has the super power of good negotiating skills and is sucked into a world of spies and intrigue. The film does a fine job of creating the “spook” word of the Cold War and Mad Men era New York. Another highlight is Mark Rylance’s performance as an unlikely deep cover spy, who is completely the opposite of what we’ve come to expect in this era of “Mission Impossible” and Jason Bourne. “Bridge of Spies” is an old-fashioned, well-crafted American movie, almost naïve in its worldview but wonderful to spend two hours in; it even offers up a touching and simple lesson about the value of our constitution.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                    — Robert Earl Barracano
Carol
Director Todd Haynes returns to his abiding preoccupation with non-normative sexuality amid the oppressive normativity of mid-20th century America. “Carol” portrays a lesbian relationship between a wealthy divorcée and a younger woman in 1950s New York. It is a mannered, meticulous and understated period drama with a tinge of the luridness of lesbian pulp fiction or even film noir: It cites Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard,” a 1950 camp noir requiem for silent Hollywood, and adopts that film’s circular narrative structure. If the filmmakers are overly fastidious in their attention to fashion, décor, diction, posture and the visual surfaces of things, it is because surfaces govern the lives of the characters onscreen, both in their conformity to social expectations and in the fetishism of illicit looks and coded gestures. Haynes still believes in the period costume drama as a queer utopia even in a moment that some are starting to call “homo-normative.”
                                                                                                                                                                                                                      — Ryan Cook
Ex Machina
2015 was the breakout year for Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, who appeared in the transgender period piece “The Danish Girl,” retro spy thriller “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” and philosophical robot thriller “Ex Machina.” As an android in the latter, Vikander follows in a long tradition of sexy female robots from “Metropolis” to “Blade Runner” to “Her.” As the robot Ava, Vikander is manipulated by her reclusive billionaire creator (Oscar Isaac) and the programmer he brings in to test her (Domhnall Gleeson), but she also concocts some of her own manipulations. In the end, “Ex Machina” will leave you thinking about what makes us human, how intelligence is determined, and how our lives are increasingly mediated by machines. And instead of simply presenting the female robot as the ideal in domestic (and sexual) submission, the film raises questions about male technological fetishism and female self-determination.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       — Tanine Allison
Grandma
“Grandma” is a vehicle for Lily Tomlin, who sits in the driver’s seat both of the film and of a barely roadworthy vintage Dodge. The film is as economical and modest—but also as poignant and defiant—as the obsolete car that takes three generations of women on a cross-town quest for an abortion. Tomlin’s character is a world-weary poet and former professor, a lesbian and a stalwart of 1960s second-wave feminism, who is tasked with shepherding her granddaughter to the women’s clinic, and raising funds to pay for the procedure along the way. This is an adult film in the sense that it takes a lifetime of experience as its subject, and because it respects its audience as adults. Tomlin’s road warrior fills one with a kind of hope. Her character is something to aspire to: a role model of defiantly graceless aging and agitation.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                        — Ryan Cook
The Peanuts Movie
“The Peanuts Movie” juggles flaming chainsaws from start to finish and escapes gracefully unscathed. Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy and the rest are now so familiar and so uniformly adored that it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone attempting a revival without mucking it. Riffing roughly equally on Charles Schulz’s iconic strip and Bill Melendez’s beloved holiday TV specials, “The Peanuts Movie” pulls it off. Stylistically, the 3D feature miraculously manages to retain the loose-lined charm of the characters’ 2D origins while narratively holding true to the essential, underdog sweetness that made these characters cornerstones of American cartoon culture for decades. 
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       — Eddy Von Mueller
Room
Adapted by Irish author Emily Donoghue from her powerful novel and sensitively directed by Lenny Abrahamson, this tale of a woman kidnapped and kept in a tiny garden shed for seven years by a barely glimpsed captor and rapist is enthralling at every turn. Brie Larsen gives a career-making performance as Ma; Joan Allen (as Larsen’s mom) reminds us how much we’ve missed her on screen; and young Jacob Tremblay, as Larsen’s five-year-old son Jack, is simply astonishing. This is a powerful film about childhood, memory, letting go and the ties that bind, especially between mother and child.  
                                                                                                                                                                                                                    — Matthew H. Bernstein
Son of Saul
Yes, there have been Holocaust films aplenty, but Hungarian director Lazlo Nemes’s film, set in Auschwtiz in 1944, is as compelling as the best of them and unique in its approach to this difficult topic. Rarely has over-the shoulder, long take shallow focus been used to such appropriate effect. Death camp atrocities surround Saul (the fascinating first time actor Geza Rohrig) but they occur off in the background, reflecting on Saul’s intense focus on and detachment from the dehumanizing dirty work he must perform as a Sonderkommando, a Jewish laborer who hopes for an extension of  uncertain duration on his life. In a perennial state of existential crisis over 36 hours, Saul finds a kind of mission in hoping to properly bury a young man who may be his son. A truly gripping film based on survivor accounts, this is a must-see.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                     — Matthew H. Bernstein
Spotlight
A masterpiece of the procedural genre, “Spotlight” dramatizes the true story behind the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning exposé of child molestation in the Catholic Church. Named after the Globe’s team of special investigative reporters, the film keeps you riveted as the investigation uncovers, step by step, the complicity of the highest levels of the church in the cover-up of priests’ sexual abuse of children. Although it does include some emotional scenes with now-adult survivors, it focuses on the efforts of the reporters and editors to go after the “big story.” In an era of click-bait and opinion blogs, the Spotlight team—played by Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James and Mark Ruffalo—represents the value of good, old-fashioned reporting. 
                                                                                                                                                                                                                        — Tanine Allison

Honorable mentions

  1. “Brooklyn”
  2. “45 Years”
  3. “Spy”
  4. “Trainwreck”
  5. “He Named Me Malala”
  6. "Far From the Madding Crowd"
  7. "The Martian"