12 December 2015

Best Films Seen For the First Time in 2015

Amidst the flurry of Top Ten lists that always clog up the interwebs every December, there is another concept that's far more personal that always feels much more interesting to me. For the first time ever, I want to discuss not only the Top Ten Films of 2015, but the Top Ten Best Films I Saw for the First Time in 2015. That is, regardless of release date, here are truly the best flicks I sunk my eyes into over the past year.

For a comprehensive list of every single film and television show I watched in 2015, you can of course check out this little ditty right here. This is of course a personal and random list that includes movies from all over, certainly skewed towards 2014 releases that I've caught up on, along with a handful of great 2015 films. I disincluded great films that I had already seen before. For instance, I watched JAWS (1975) and Goodfellas (1990) this year, and they would probably make the list otherwise. So, let's get down:

#10: The Raid: Redemption (2011)
The Finest in Indonesian Cinema

I had heard non-stop great things about The Raid: Redemption, and I managed to catch it as well as its sequel this year. Even though The Raid 2: Berandal (2014) is a spectacular film, the first one is a bit stronger with its more focused narrative and relentless action set-pieces. There is hardly a more pure action movie out there and the inventiveness of its brutality, formulation of stakes, and clarity of cinematic composure is magnificent.

#9: Dope (2015)

I was on board with Dope since the first trailer dropped, which promised a unique coming of age tale that also dared to defy dangerous racial stereotypes. It's all that, even when it descends into a slightly preachy final monologue, but the path up to that point is near Michael Corleone-esque as it showcases a straight-A Harvard-hopeful Inglewood youth faced with a series of escalatingly bad decisions that threaten to shove him on the path of a drug dealer instead. It's all this and also really fucking funny, with confident direction and acting by a mostly freshman cast, with one of the best soundtracks of the year.

#8: John Wick (2014)

I brushed off John Wick (2014) as a typical revenge thriller, but it's also the best American action film of 2014. I finally caught up with it this year and was extremely impressed. The plot is nothing incredibly inventive, save for the relentless focus of Keanu Reeves which creates this balance of fear and respect between him and the enemies who killed his dog. So, it's a bit more clever than typical action films. It carries its weight on crisp, steady action beats along with a stellar performance by Keanu. See, he's super-wooden, but the movie uses his super-woodenness to its advantage. It's compelling.

#7: Zodiac (2007)

I don't know why it took me so long to catch up to Zodiac, which is totally Dave Fincher's most underrated film, although maybe that's just it. It hasn't had the lasting appeal of Se7en (1995) or The Social Network (2010), maybe because the story is basically like All the President's Men (1976) with serial killers. Actually, speaking of Fincher, isn't it totally random that he took on The Social Network? Almost all his other movies are about serial killers. Anyway, Zodiac is a near-perfect telling of obsession, fear, paranoia, and slugfest journalism detective work that all adds up to the only thing we know now - that who the hell knows who the Zodiac Killer really was. The cast is spectacular, notably Robert Downey, Jr. minutes before he exploded with Iron Man (2008).

#6: Barry Lyndon (1975)

There was a lot of Internet out there that claimed Barry Lyndon to be Kubrick's greatest work, and I was skeptical, considering how much of his other films have shaped pop culture, even if every single one of them was reviled upon release. It's not easy company to say that this random 18th-century fop epic stood on equal or higher ground to more accessible (could that even be a thing?) films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), or The Shining (1980), but Barry Lyndon totally does it with a three-hour slow burn featuring simultaneously the most interesting, tragic, and asshole-y figure in Kubrick's oeuvre. Every scene builds on what came before and pushes Barry Lyndon further down this path of becoming a complete dick as he works his way (fakes his way) up to the top of high society. All this in addition to the purity of natural lighting (even in indoor night scenes) makes the film dreamlike to behold while boasting breathtaking cinematography.

#5: Inherent Vice (2014)
As it turns out, Joaquin Phoenix is only mildly insane

Inherent Vice didn't seem to catch on the way I thought it would but as 2015 winds to a close, this film which I saw almost a year ago has stood with me. It's partly a typical Paul Anderson Altman-style ensemble film, but the performances are so ripe and the time period so well defined without becoming gimmicky that it's impossible to look away. It's as if Paul Anderson directed The Big Lebowski (1998) with a little less goofiness and a more concerted effort to divulge into the culture clash, cult wars, and efficacy of doing nothing that the hippie movement was all about. It could even pass as a sillier Season 2 of True Detective. I remain a big fan of its aesthetic and themes in addition to everything else at work here.

#4: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

The way things are shaking down it improbably appears as if Fury Road is getting a lot of end-of-year love, which seems insane until you face the challenge of actually naming a better film. This year is sort of all over the place, unlike the remarkably strong 2014, and even though there's typical Oscar bait films that ought to dominate the Awards come February 28, we're suddenly left with this huge split. Can Fury Road be the film that finally brings crazy action movies into mainstream contention for best film of the year? Probably not, so I can no doubt visualize some kind of formal or informal split. The best part about Fury Road is that it's actual this small little simple indie story locked inside one of the most expansive and thrillingly weird movies of the year. It's the kind of film where everything works, and by far the best action film, if not the best film of 2015. Have you recognized a pattern, yet? I like clear action films.

#3: What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

This was technically a 2015 release in the States, but I always feel weird about judging it that way, so for now I'll probably leave it off my 2015, as much as it deserves to be there. There's certainly not a funnier New Zealand vampire mockumentary that was made this year. The core gag of juxtaposing cultural stereotypes of vampires with insights to their every day life activities could have been an ignominious re-tread yet the steady subtle gag-fueled hand of director Taika Waititi steers it into something unique and delightful.

#2: Ex Machina (2015)

Ex Machinia is such a closed-in story, a bottle featuring an alcoholic genius tech billionaire, his Frankenstein-esque robot discovering herself, and the plucky contest winner that gets to give her a Turing test. I know what you're thinking - that's a sexy premise! But the film actually is legitimately sexy and stars three of the hottest stars out there today - 2/3 of which are in fucking Star Wars coming out this week. I'm tempted to name the delicate balance of horror and silliness in this scene as the best of the year, and even though it's a film filled with techno-babble, it also made me think more about what it means to be human than any other film this year. Well, except for one.

#1: A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014)
Bleh! BLEH!

I had kind of heard of this movie as being good, but the title didn't make it seem nearly as interesting as it is. I read the tagline description, "the first Iranian vampire western" which seemed incongruous with my earlier disinterest. After finally catching the damn thing there's no film I've thought about more this year and no film I consider superior. It builds its story on pure visual brick and mortar, not unlike fellow 2014 entry Under the Skin, although also not quite so opaque. There's an intricate dance of who the protagonist actually is, who is under who's spell, and a constant threat of danger and mystery. Plus it combines the vampires of What We Do in the Shadows with more great dance scenes.

Honourable Mentions:

Since I like keeping this to a crisp and clear Top Ten, here's a handful of other great films I saw for the first time in the Calendar Year 2015: Bronson (2008), Dear White People (2014), Mad Max (1979), and Why Don't You Play in Hell? (2014). I also finally saw Nashville (1975), and while I really loved Altman's direction and how that film was constructed, I hated the subject matter. Maybe if I liked country music at all, that would have been alright.

Well, as it turns out, 7/10 of these films were actually 2014 or 2015 releases, mostly foreign or obscure releases that took me a while to get around to see. That's not really surprising. Stay tuned for more high caliber 2015 coverage!

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