Mr. Reed’s Metaphysical Neighborhood Presents the Best Film Acting of 2015

What follows is a list of what I consider the best acting in films released in 2015. Four days ago, I published my list of best (and worst) films of the year, and most actors in most of those films turned in admirable performances. The same goes with directors. I see no need to publish a separate “best directors” list, since if the film is good, then I credit the director. A few actors and actresses in films which I did not put among my top choices still made into this new list, since they were so mesmerizing and memorable, even if the film was not.

Therefore, the actors and actresses listed, below – each with a clip of their performance (when available, and if none is available – or if the available clip is not very good – then I include the movie’s trailer, instead) – are the 5 per category (I stick with just 5, like the Academy, though this is sometimes difficult) whose work most stands out (for me) within the context of the film they’re in; those performances which most contribute to raising the quality of the movie. All movie titles are hyperlinked to my review, and if you follow that link, you can learn more about the movie, itself, and my thoughts on what makes that actor’s performance so special in that movie.

It’s so difficult to choose, but here goes (in alphabetical order by last name within each category):

BEST ACTRESS:

Brie Larson, Room

Teyonah Parris, Chi-Raq

Bel Powley, The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years (no full review yet, so I link to my “best films of the year” page, where I have a capsule review)

Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:

Joan Allen, Room

Elizabeth Banks, Love & Mercy

Kiersey Clemons, Dope

Olivia Cooke, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina

BEST ACTOR:

Paul Dano, Love & Mercy

Michael B. Jordan, Creed

Shameik Moore, Dope

Géza Röhrig, Son of Saul (no full review yet, so I link to my “best films of the year” page, where I have a capsule review)

Jacob Tremblay, Room

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:

Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina

Michael Peña, Ant-Man

Tony Revolori, Dope

Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies

Alexander Skarsgård, The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Mr. Reed’s Metaphysical Neighborhood Presents the Best and Worst Films of 2015

[For an explanation of my blog post title, check out my “best of” list from 2013.]

So here we go … below you will find a number of lists, including: my top two favorite films of the year; my next 9 favorites; my next 9 favorites after that, for a total of 20 best films of the year; and, finally, my (lucky) 13 least favorite films of 2015. I also add, at the end (before the “worst” list), a list of films that may not have cracked my top 20, but which I enjoyed, nevertheless. My main criterion for liking a film this year seemed to be the following: did it surprise me and tell a story in a fresh and original way?

All of the films mentioned received some kind of theatrical or online release in 2015. Where I have previously written reviews of a movie, the title of that movie is hyperlinked to my original review. If I only wrote about a film after seeing it a film festival, then I link to that write-up, however short it may be. Where I have not (yet) reviewed a film – usually because the film has yet to be released in Baltimore – I have hyperlinked the title to the movie’s imdb page and written a (very) brief capsule review of it, just to explain what I admire (or don’t).

There are a few films not on the list that might have made had I seen them by now, but for various reasons I have not. Anomalisa,* for instance, hasn’t even opened in our area yet (but I’m seeing it, finally, next week). I missed The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution when it came to the Maryland Film Festival this past May, then missed it again when it opened at The Charles Theatre in town, and now I won’t be able to see it until it’s available for home viewing, in mid-February. It’s not going to be nominated for an Oscar (though Anomalisa may be), but it’s at least been mentioned on some people’s end of year’s lists. I also missed – even though it’s been available on Netflix for some time – Beasts of No Nation. I started it, but then got distracted. I watched almost 250 movies this year – not all new ones, for sure – and some TV shows, as well, so sometimes I just … drop the ball (plus, I do have a full-time day job). For the most part, the kinds of films that I review for Hammer to Nail – mainly, micro-budget indies – did not make it onto this list, as I wanted to only include films that non-press folks would have had some chance to see in theaters … or on Netflix.

Enjoy! In a few days, as always, I will publish a separate list of the best acting and technical/artistic achievements of the year.

Top 2 Films of 2015 (in alphabetical order):**

Mustang Son of Saul Best of 2015

  • Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015)
    • Directed and co-written by Turkish-born, Paris-based filmmaker Deniz Gamze ErgüvenMustang tells the riveting tale of 5 young sisters, living in a provincial Turkish village, whose lives are turned upside down and inside out when an innocent, frisky game – with boys – in the waters of the Black Sea is misinterpreted by family members and neighbors, alike. Suddenly, the forces of tradition and morality conspire to to take away the freedom they have heretofore taken for granted. Like wild horses unwilling to accept the bridle, they fight back, but it’s not easy being young and female in a world where adult men have all the power. With a sure hand – all the more remarkable since this is her feature debut – Ms. Ergüven guides us through the intellectual awakening of her main characters and takes us on a journey of hope salvaged from despair that is a must-see for all. Despite her grand ambitions, the director never loses sight of her mission to entertain, and fills her movie with rich details and anecdotes, and even great humor. You’ll laugh and you’ll cry, both, and rejoice in discovering that cinema is not dead.
  • Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015)
    • Unlike Mustang, this movie has no diverting moments of levity. How could it? It is a concentration camp procedural, taking us through the unbearably harrowing realities of 24 hours in the life of a member of the Sonderkommando (Jews chosen by the Nazis to serve in quasi-management positions over other Jews) at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. This film is one long cry of horror, and also absolutely riveting. Another feature debut, Son of Saul is directed and co-written by Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes, who treats his subject with the appropriate revulsion while also giving us another Holocaust film that doesn’t feel like (just) another Holocaust film. This subject has been given, by now, so many different cinematic treatments that it’s hard to imagine there being anything new or fresh to say. And yet, somehow, Nemes does, indeed, offer a novel perspective. His main character, Saul, is a man with a problem – the classic dramatist’s trick – who, despite the nightmare in which he lives, is determined to solve it, giving the film an especially urgent drive. Nemes ups the film’s ante by keeping the camera close to his protagonist at all times. Indeed, much of what makes the film bearable to watch is that the Nazi atrocities are mostly out of focus and rendered through sound, since Saul is almost always in close-up. It’s a cinematic tour de force that teaches us much about the indomitable human spirit without in any way playing down the savagery of the Nazi genocide. It may be tough for some to watch, but it is well worth the effort.

The Next 9 (in alphabetical order):

Second 9 Best of 2015

  • All Things Must Pass (Colin Hanks)
  • Amy (Asif Kapadia)
  • The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller)
  • Dope (Rick Famuyiwa)
  • 45 Years (Andrew Haigh)
    • Director Andrew Haigh (Weekend) offers up what seems, at first, a gentle meditation on the ups and downs of a long marriage, with two beloved actors – Charlotte Rampling (Swimming Pool) and Tom Courtenay (Quartet) – giving terrific and nuanced performances as wife and husband of … 45 years. As the film begins, they are about to celebrate their wedding anniversary, with Kate (Rampling) – the spryer of the two – doing most of the planning. Beautifully shot in Norfolk, England, the film appears initially to offer nothing more than encomiums to a life well lived. Until it all changes, when a secret from the past emerges that threatens to undermine the security that Kate, especially, had so long taken for granted. See it for Rampling, whose face reflects the devastation wrought within as the life she thought she had been living slowly dissipates throughout the course of the film. It is a devastating journey, playing out like a thriller, except the chases and climaxes are all internal.
  • Inside Out (Pete Docter)
  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon)
  • Room (Lenny Abrahamson)
  • Twinsters (Samantha Futerman/Ryan Miyamoto)

The 9 After That (in alphabetical order):

Third 9 Best of 2015

  • Ant-Man (Peyton Reed)
    • I have a review already, so this is just a note added to deflect the surprise I know many will feel upon seeing this title here. The big budget action films that some critics have placed on their best-of lists are Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian, both of which I liked a lot (see my final list of runners-up, below), but which didn’t catch me unawares the way Ant-Man did, which continued to surprise and delight throughout. That’s why it’s here.
  • The Big Short (Adam McKay)
  • Brooklyn (John Crowley)
  • Carol (Todd Haynes)
  • Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley)
  • Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad)
  • Red Army (Gabe Polsky)
  • Spotlight (Tom McCarthy)
  • What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus)
    • Musical biopics are tricky, and often fail when done as fiction films (though not in the case of Love & Mercy, also on this list). This movie, along with Amy (see above), proved how well the documentary format can serve such a complex subject. A brilliant portrait of a brilliant woman, directed by a terrific female documentarian, Liz Garbus (Bobby Fischer Against the World), What Happened, Miss Simone? takes us through the highs and lows of Nina Simone’s life and career, offering up an indelible portrait of an inimitable artist.

12 Final Films of 2015 that didn’t quite crack the top 20 (in alphabetical order):

Worst 13 Films of 2015 (in alphabetical order):

  • Fantastic Four (Josh Trank)
  • Fifty Shades of Grey (Sam Taylor-Johnson)
  • Hot Pursuit (Anne Fletcher)
    • I did not review this, nor did I want to. It is stale and unfunny, and does no favors for its two stars, Reese Witherspoon (Wild) and Sofia Vergara (Modern Family), nor for its director, Anne Fletcher (The Proposal), who has done (nominally) better before. I don’t even think this would be funny on an airplane.
  • In the Heart of the Sea (Ron Howard)
  • Jupiter Ascending (The Wachowskis)
  • The Longest Ride (George Tillman, Jr.)
  • Lost River (Ryan Gosling)
    • This is a great vanity project for its director, Hollywood star Ryan Gosling (Drive), who, in his debut as a director, throws everything but the kitchen sink into mix – strike that, the sink is there, too – without achieving anything of merit. Beautiful to look at and utterly incomprehensible, the film is also so tedious that its mere 95-minute length ends up feeling like twice that.
  • Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs)
  • San Andreas (Brad Peyton)
  • Seventh Son (Sergei Bodrov)
  • Sisters (Jason Moore)
  • Southpaw (Antoine Fuqua)
  • Where to Invade Next (Michael Moore)
    • I used to like Michael Moore, back when he was less convinced of his own goodness. From the time of his documentary debut Roger & Me up to and including his Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine, he seemed like one of those ideologically driven filmmakers whose work was entertaining enough that even those who might disagree with his ideas might enjoy his filmmaking enough to stick around until the end, thereby walking away with a nugget or two of new information. But then, post-Oscar, Moore began to believe his own press clippings, and now, with his latest film, Where to Invade Next, he offers up nothing that we haven’t heard or seen from him before. Worse, he is has devolved into such a smug and self-congratulatory filmmaker that he no longer feels the need to present actual research on screen, assuring us that because he believes in something, it must be true. In this film, he takes us on a journey across randomly chosen countries (he never explains those choices) that ostensibly provide better services and lifestyles to their citizens than we do in the United States, and then presents only one or two examples to back up his claims before moving on to the next country. It is lazy filmmaking at its worst. If you agree with everything Moore says, then you’ll nod along in joy; if, like me, you expect some actual journalistic information, you will be disappointed. As a good progressive, I find Moore – these days – more harmful than helpful to the cause.

*[from 1/20/16: when I finally saw it, I liked Anomalisa, but did not consider it good enough to be among my top films of the year. Maybe among the runners-up, however.]

**Look of Silence[also from 1/20/16: I have to add another film to my top of the top, making it a “Top 3,” and that is The Look of Silence

Triumphs and Failures in Historical Cinefiction: “Love & Mercy” vs. “A Little Chaos”

“Qu’est-ce que le cinéma?” (“What is the cinema?”), asked the great French film theorist André Bazin. The simple act of posing the question is enough to force us to consider the idea that film – like all art forms – needs a raison d’être. There must be properties unique to the moving image that make us – when confronted by its better examples – exclaim in wonder and recognition that this particular story (or idea) could only have been expressed in this way in this medium. And so in today’s post, I review two recent films (both period pieces): one that shows the power of cinema; the other, nothing more than a fanciful waste of time and effort.

Love and Mercy

Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad, 2014)

Much of the credit for the artistic merits of Love & Mercy, the new biopic about Brian Wilson, co-founder of the Beach Boys, goes to screenwriters Oren Moverman (I’m Not There) and Michael A. Lerner (August. Eighth). Together, they have fashioned a story that ping-pongs back and forth between Wilson’s early heyday as the brilliant creative force behind the Beach Boys’ success – and his subsequent mental unraveling – and the dark period of the 1980s when he languished under the autocratic care of his guru-like psychologist, Eugene Landy. The result is a masterful portrait of a troubled genius, the tolls of fame, and the virtues of perseverance and love.

The film (which takes its title from a 1988 song by its subject) is as much a portrait of the creative process as it is of Brian Wilson. We learn plenty about the Beach Boys and about Wilson’s private life, but some of the great joys of the movie are the scenes in the music studio. In particular, we see how both “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations” were recorded – or, at least, how the screenwriters and director imagine they were made – and the sequences reveal how much of an innovator Brian Wilson was, in spite of his growing problems with mental illness. We need to understand the genius in order to mourn his loss (and hope for his recovery).

Much credit should also go to director Bill Pohlad and his cast. This is only Pohlad’s second feature film as director: his first, Old Explorers, was 25 years ago. Since then, Pohlad has worked primarily as a producer, including on The Tree of Life; he shared in that film’s Best Picture nomination. Here, he has assembled a first-rate group of actors, and made the vital decision to cast two different actors as Wilson, both of them up to the task: Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood), as the younger, 1960s Wilson, and John Cusack (The Paperboy) as the older, 1980s Wilson. Given that Dano is in his early thirties, it’s legitimate to wonder why he couldn’t have also played the older Wilson, with added makeup. But therein lies part of the brilliance of the film. Casting two such different actors to play the same character at different stages of his life – the one before a major physical and mental cataclysm, the one after – helps to underline that character’s significant transformation, and the obstacles in his way as he tries to recover. Cusack has further stated, in a recent interview, how even though he and Dano studied Wilson’s life with a similar intensity, neither consulted with the other to make the two performances match in any way. They end up both delivering fully committed portrayals of the same man at vastly different times in his life, and it works perfectly.

The rest of the cast is quite strong, as well. Elizabeth Banks (Pitch Perfect 2), as Melinda Ledbetter, the woman who helps Wilson in his struggles to free himself from Landy, is a marvel of warmth and restraint. Paul Giamatti (Sideways), as Landy, has the difficult task of playing the villain, but he succeeds in making him three-dimensional, if not sympathetic (which the film doesn’t intend him to be). If their final duel is as scary and cathartic as it ultimately is, it’s due to the power of these two actors in these roles. It’s too bad that not all of the other actors – in particular, the rest of the Beach Boys – are as strong, but at least – with Dano, Cusack, Banks and Giamatti – we have a formidable foursome.

What surprised me most as I watched the film – and made me fall in love with it – was how unconventional it was in its approach to the material. Because we are dealing with a man – Wilson – who suffers from both severe hearing loss in one ear and auditory hallucinations – the soundtrack quite often reveals completely unexpected noises, or sometimes drops out entirely. In fact, the opening of the film almost feels like there’s a problem with the projector (be patient), because we start on Dano at the piano, in distress, then cut to black, then land on Cusack, and then slowly begin to discern other sounds as the credits begin. Though the movie settles down, for a while, to tell enough of a story for us to gather salient facts about Wilson in both the 1960s and 1980s, it returns, time and again, to these experimental techniques, reminding us that art – like Wilson – when made with purpose, can seem as it if knows no boundaries. This is a movie with a definite raison d’être, and method to its madness.

Little Chaos

A Little Chaos (Alan Rickman, 2014)

Unfortunately, the new film from actor Alan Rickman (Snape in the Harry Potter films) – whose only other directing credit was in 1997, with The Winter Guest – does not have much of a raison d’être. Neither based on a true story nor based on an idea of merit, the film is a total wash. As expected when a talented actor directs other talented actors, the performances are, individually, mostly a pleasure to watch, though they don’t all belong in the same movie. With a cast that includes Kate Winslet (The Reader), Matthias Schoenaerts (Far from the Madding Crowd), Stanley Tucci (Margin Call) and Rickman, himself, it’s hard to make a total stinker, yet in this case there is nevertheless very little to recommend.

And yet we start with promise. We are in the Paris of 1682, and Louis XIV (Rickman) is preparing to move his court from the Louvre to the as-yet-unfinished Palace of Versailles. His favored landscape architect, André Le Nôtre (Schoenaerts) – a magnificent designer of gardens (Versailles will be his masterpiece) – is struggling with the magnitude of the new project, and is looking to hire additional artists who can help him with some of the details. Along comes Madame Sabine de Barra (Winslet), a widow who has made a name for herself as a garden designer, with plans for an outdoor ballroom that might just help Le Nôtre make Versailles extraordinary. There are immediate sparks between Le Nôtre and Madame de Barra – which manifest themselves initially in argument – but soon the two forge a bond that threatens to become less (or more!) than professional.

That’s not a terrible premise, which even holds out the possibility of some feminist take on the past. Unfortunately, since the story of Madame de Barra is entirely fictional, and since her big moment as a designer, later in the film, would not have been possible without the patronage (and romantic inclinations) of her supervisor, one has to wonder about the motivations of the filmmakers. Why tell this story? Why invent a tale of passion (and loss – don’t forget that Madame de Barra is a widow and that we will, indeed, discover her backstory) that only serves to diminish Le Nôtre’s magnificent achievement at Versailles. Were there no actual women whose story one could borrow and tweak to revisit the past? One of the great joys of Belle – that Austenian fable about a biracial young woman raised in late 18th-century England – was knowing that there was an actual person on whom the story was based. It could – maybe, perhaps- have happened as we saw it on screen. Another joy was seeing how the story addressed issues of race, class and gender, weaving them into the time period in a seamless and believable way.

Sadly, there’s neither the hint of the real nor the hint of the relevant, except in one delightful scene. When Madame de Barra is invited to court, she spends a precious few moments in the company of the wives and mistresses (and former mistresses) of the nobles. Suddenly, we discover what the film might have been, as we see and hear these women as they speak of their loves and losses. They are not quite as superficial as we have been led to believe. Surely one of them – all based on real historical figures – had a story worth telling, no? Instead, we are left with what remains: gorgeously shot fanciful nonsense.