34. While We’re Young
We love Woody Allen too, but this is a love letter to Woody at his most slapdash. If the choice Noah Baumbach's Brooklyn offers is Ben Stiller's self-important Gen-Xer or Adam Driver's amoral Millennial, we'd rather live in Princeton. (KH)
32. Taken 3
2015 was not a good year for Late Neeson.
The tagline for Taken 3 is "It Ends Here," and we know the producers mean it when CIA agent Bryan Mills, chased by unknown assailants, is forced to pause and catch his breath in a bathroom stall. "I have low blood sugar," he explains gravely, "because I haven’t eaten since yesterday." Liam Neeson, our modern Alexander, sits, weeps, and demands a bite of chocolate, because there are no more Albanians left to kill.
And then, magically, more Albanians arrive in Run All Night! But Liam Neeson does not even get to kill them.
I have higher hopes for Neeson as Gen. Douglas MacArthur next summer. (MK)
The cultivation of nostalgia is a weakness of both movies and families, a weakness this Ed Helm reboot simultaneously admits and denies. Everything good is in the trailer, which is pretty good. Everything in bad taste, they saved for the film. Christina Applegate is still the smartest, most beautiful girl in your high school. One day she will get a role worthy of her wit. Debbie Do Anything is not that role. (KH)
Apparently, somebody thought it was a good idea to make a fim that’s 15% anti-capitalism and 85% prison rape jokes. Michael Bay’s underrated Pain & Gain is a far superior example of brocialist cinema. (MK)
Hollywood seems especially interested in what Jake Gyllenhaal can do without. In Source Code, they took his legs. In Southpaw, they take his girls. He is never very happy about the loss, but he always barrels on like your best Adderall-addicted student, determined to pass the test. Unfortunately for Billy "The Great" Hope, he seems to have learned a little too well from the Rocky school of boxing, in which young six packs are taught to mumble and take every single punch their opponents throw. (KH)
I saw this with the same friend in the same theater in which we saw Part 1, possibly even in the same plush reclining seats on the Upper West Side, which wouldn't be a bad place for the 1% to take refuge when the real Panem falls. (KH)
We will always root for a film featuring A$AP Rocky and hoodless sweatshirts. But when Harvard is the only imaginable salvation, suffice to say, we got a fucking problem. (KH)
26. The Girl in the Book.
A Lolita with literary talent lost her innocence to her famous mentor, and has been floundering ever since. The film is helped by writer-director Marya Cohn's remarkably nuanced script as well as strong performances from Ana Mulvoy-Ten and Emily VanCamp as Alice then and now. (Shout out to Iron List favorite Ali Ahn who totally nails it as the loyal but judgmental friend.) Cohn apparently lived a version of this story, which sort of earns the romantic comedy ending, but only makes its plea for male approval more dispiriting. (KH)
Will they or won't they have an orgy? Always a fun question, always a disappointing answer--but not without some brave moves along the way. Best sport of the year: Adam Scott. (KH)
2015 was the year in which Hollywood decided to test the limits of women named Joy. In this version, much lauded for its engagement with psychology research, Amy Poehler learns the value of Sadness. Thanks to an Internet obsessed with brain science, America can, too. (KH)
A very modest, cautious film about a very immodest, incautious man. I liked Louis CK as a rumpled Hollywood red, and I liked Trumbo’s explanation of communism to his young daughter—basically, it means sharing your lunch. This, like the rest of the movie, seems to have infuriated conservatives, but it’s hard to see why they should be so worked up: Stalinist apologetics have seldom been so placid. (MK)
Enough with heroic individualism. In a form obsessed with mavericks and geniuses, Eilis Lacey's reserve is as refreshing here as it was in Colm Toibin's novel. While we would all appreciate a respectable job and a garden apartment on Clinton Street, every Brooklynite knows that life in America doesn't really begin until you get a great swimsuit and choose a baby Brando for yourself. The soft, pale, ordinary flesh of this film felt even more radical than sunglasses in Ireland. (KH)
Thomas Hardy's happiest novel, practically tailor-made for Hollywood. Carey Mulligan is sharp and modern as Bathsheba Everdene, whose head for business is as cool as her romantic heart is hot, and Matthias Schoenaarts is our shepherd, we shall indeed want, especially when he stabs sheep to life. But like Tom Sturridge as Sgt. Troy—one of Western literature's all-time greatest chotches--the film, for all its lush visuals, somehow felt too thin. (KH)
19. Jurassic World
Two movies about the power of Nature, as measured against the power of Man (yes, him again). Both Men in question are full of classic Hollywood charisma, although I found Chris Pratt's Harrison Ford impression much more appealing than Matt Damon doing his level-best with a script that still reeked of the message-board geekery that infused The Martian in book form. ("Oh no, disco music!").
But the two movies present diametrically opposite views of the same question. Jurassic World offers a charming edition of the original franchise's traditionally conservative bio-politics: Nature is ungovernable, and arrogant human efforts to adapt it are doomed to disaster. The Martian, meanwhile revels in the limitless technical mastery of capitalist civilization, filtered through heroic individual genius. The gender politics also diverge in interesting ways: Damon's stranded Man becomes whole by subduing Mars's rugged Nature, while the source of Pratt's masculine prowess (reactionary as it may be) is precisely that, when confronted with genetically engineered monsters, he does not "science the shit out of this."
Shorter version: I have a lot of pompous, half-baked thoughts about science, gender, and capitalism. These movies are both fun. (MK)
17. Straight Outta Compton
Paul Giamatti spent his year as the music vampire of Southern California, sucking the blood of an aging Brian Wilson, before moving on to the young Eazy-E. He does much better by E, for a time. At least he protects him from racist cops. Love and Mercy almost transcends the tired biopic genre with its focus on Wilson's kooky inner sounds, while Straight Outta Compton is unfailingly timely, if a bit too attached to the narrative we already know from MTV and VH1.
I would've liked a less obvious hero-villain scheme from Love & Mercy, and more interior self-expression from Straight Outta Compton. But the revolutionary music shined in both, like it was charging us for the very first time. (KH)
Add "nerds" to Hollywood's many pipelines in need of serious attention. The tech geek, the eco-terrorist, and the fiction writer should not in any way have the same flat, peevish personality, but if all you saw were Jesse Eisenberg films, you'd be forgiven for being confused. Jason Segal was the surprise of the year here, inventing, rather than channeling, a humane DFW all his own. (KH)
15. Sleeping With Other People
After Lesleye Headland's spiky, triumphant Bachelorette—everything Bridesmaids should have been—we've both been looking to her follow-up film. This one is a mixed bag, as any bag that contains the luminous Alison Brie and the profoundly unconvincing Jason Sudeikis is likely to be (Hollywood is apparently determined to make this smirker a Leading Man, but he's Ryan Reynolds, not Chris Pratt.) In any case Headland's raucous wit drives things forward, and Brie brings pathos to her role as a woman oddly obsessed with an unappealing ex (Adam Scott, in a vaguely repulsive turn). It's not a great film, but it's a reliably funny and surprising one: I'm eager to see what Headland does next. (MK)
From the first shot, of a dead baby, Justin Kurzel brings every strength of cinema to this adaptation, offering a number of thrilling nonverbal glosses, all of them fully supported by the text. The thunderous opening and closing battles are a movie all their own. But for all the filthy beauty of Michael Fassender at war, Macbeth is still a story about the dangerous power of words and political ambition. It's a shame so many of the Bard's great lines were rushed, and his Scottish state so thinly realized. (KH)
It's now apparent that the prequels had to fail so J.J. Abrams could restore our faith in the franchise. Sometimes there's nothing better than a film about the future that feels like a gift from the past. (KH)
Amy is not broken, and she knows it. I can only imagine Judd Apatow made her say that. But despite his nebbishy moralizing, Trainwreck is pretty close to the New York rom-com we needed, bending gender roles at necessary moments and never failing to bring in LeBron. (KH)
The horror of Room doesn't actually depend on its ripped-from-the-tabloids premise, but on its sly evocation of our crumbling welfare state. How many mothers are like Brie Larson, in love with their miraculous children, but confined, at wit's end, and at the mercy of a capricious master? It shouldn't require an imagination as indomitable as Joy's to demand the larger world we deserve. Lovely turns by Larson and Tremblay. That treacly score, though? Ugh. (KH)
Can we talk Michael B. Jordan pecs for a minute? Bro is aesthetic. It hurts for me to say—more even than you know—but this year, at least, I think he's got Tatum and Hemsworth beat. Well done, sir.
As for the lesser matter of the film itself, it was a pretty damn good Rocky movie. I have no credibility on this subject, because I love them all, including the unjustly maligned Rocky Balboa. But Ryan Coogler's film stayed true to the best features of the series—humility, sincerity, unsentimental Phillyness—while avoiding many of its classic pitfalls (it helps that the plot doesn't pivot on the humiliation/defeat/literal death of a black guy). Coogler's fierce, Meek Mill-infused spin on the unavoidable running montage is one of the highlights of my year in film. (MK)
God, I hate car chases. God, I loved this film. There's no accounting for it. In the end, I just have to give it up for Charlize's blistering fortitude, Tom Hardy's quiet, workmanlike support, and that unconscious thing with the electric guitar. I don't even mind models in distress—not in a narrative that dares to kill a pregnant woman, and makes rescue a female art. A solidarity story through and through, as all the think pieces say. (KH)
7. 99 Homes
Two ways of looking at 21st century capitalism—one from the top down, and the other from the bottom up. Guess which got the megawatt cast, the Oscar noms and $121 million at the box office?
None of this, of course, would surprise Rick Carver, Michael Shannon's feral Florida real estate boss in 99 Homes: "America was built on bailing out winners," he tells the hapless Andrew Garfield, whose family he evicted weeks earlier. "A nation... of the winners, for the winners, by the winners." Of course I loved the movie's savage portrait of the housing crisis, and the actual eviction scenes here are some of the rawest and best film moments of 2015. But Shannon's performance actually pushes past simple polemic: he embodies the ferocious joy of profit so well that I left the theater wanting to hop into his Porsche, evict some poor saps, and listen to more hard-man speeches about America.
As for The Big Short, well—you don't have to be Hal Draper to be suspicious of its glossy portrait of financial ruin, focused on the handful of "underdog" winners who swapped high fives in their garages while the market buckled and Rick Carver kicked senior citizens onto the curb. For all its progressive politics, the movie does betray a certain yearning for "emancipation-from-above"--as if a more moral, organic gardener-capitalist might be all we need to save us (especially if he looks like Brad Pitt).
Really though, it's hard to begrudge the movie its stars or its success. If Adam McKay can get millions of Americans to watch what amounts to a two-hour campaign ad for Bernie Sanders, more power to him. No one who sees even this improbably jolly film can come away from the theater thinking that "America never stopped being great," or that the system really works for most of us. (MK)
Jared Leto's Oscar night dig at Magic Mike was unconscionable, more evidence that we are living a pretty narrow room. As our Iron Uncle noted, the sheepish undulations of Channing Tatum do recede in this chapter, but only to make way for the dreams and doubts of his fellow travelers. More buddy comedy than hero cycle, XXL knows that what America really wants is to feel valued and economically stable, without ever having to be ashamed. It's not quite the female liberation movie it wants to be, but for God's sake, at least it wants to be. (KH)
If the Gaga-Biden Oscar ticket suggests important movement on our understanding of sexual consent, the year's second retelling of Lolita from a woman's point of view takes an equally important step. Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) has been sleeping with her mom's boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgaard), not because he makes or tricks her, but because she really, really wants to. It may not be a great idea for anyone, but what matters in Marielle Heller's assertive, unapologetic adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner's graphic novel is not what's best for anyone at any age, but what people actually want, and how turbulent that feels no matter what. (KH)
Does lifelong couplehood work? Is it even, like, a good idea? These are the small matters at stake in Andrew Haigh's quietly brutal film. Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling play a comfortably retired English couple whose 45th anniversary plans are disturbed when the remains of his long-lost girlfriend, who died half a century before, have been found in the Swiss Alps. In truth the movie is a bit of a trap: we meet these at their moment of greatest upset, and we never get a rich enough sense of how they made it together 4 years, let alone 44. But Rampling is brilliant--"a star presence who can command the screen just by watching the passing landscape from a boat"—and the final five minutes, when the trap is sprung, make up my favorite film scene of the year. You'll never hear "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" the same way again. (MK)
Best friends and transgendered sex workers Sin-Dee and Alexandra tear across Los Angeles on Christmas Eve, each in pursuit of respect. It's a big ask, but writer-director Sean S. Baker offers what they seek so readily, it almost insults them to congratulate him. Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez are exquisite screen presences, commanding our attention and reminding us that there are all kinds of people who actually walk in LA, and ride mass transit, too. Hands-down down the most admirable movie of the year, and not just because it's shot on an iPhone. (KH)
Like all of Olivier Assayas's work, this is many films in one, but mostly, it's an extended conversation about power, time, and compassion between aging star Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and her personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart). I understand why Kirk needed to watch it multiple times, because the eye can miss so much when the weather changes, and an actress disappears into her role. Anguished, funny, natural, false, it's one of those rare films that gives range to everything we might've thought too limited to bother with, from Kristen Stewart to a view through the clouds. (KH)
Between Force Majeure, 45 Years, and this film, the last two years have been very tough for Alpine vacationers. I think I'm going to stay away from Switzerland until things settle down for a bit. (MK)
An animated masterpiece about love in a hotel best experienced without knowing much else. I thought I was over Charlie Kaufman, but obviously, I hadn't even begun to fall. Boredom has never been so interesting, awkardness has never been so beautiful, and the human mind has never been so effective at convincing itself it is real. Just see it. Then read Zadie Smith say everything I would want to say if I had her gig at the New York Review of Books. (KH)