Once again an inordinate percentage of the best films showed up in the last few weeks of the year. As with most years, I see two or three films that seem just okay that seem to have a contingent of people who think they are really something special. I cannot say I am too impressed with ANOMALISA in spite of the high response. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is a fairly good action film with some really impressive stunts, but certainly nothing to be nominated for best picture. My own film society voted it the best film of the year. At this point I have not seen STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS or ROOM. I cannot judge how they might rank, but I will consider them for next year. This list is the top ten films I saw from January 1 to December 31, 2015.
Dalton Trumbo has been for many years a person of singular interest in Hollywood. He went from being one of the most respected film writers to being blacklisted for his political beliefs and unable to sell his work. After refusing to testify before the House Un- American Activities Committee in 1947, Trumbo was added to the blacklist. For years he could sell his film writing only under a false or borrowed name. His story is very much the story of the Hollywood blacklist. In 2007 that story was told in Peter Askin's film TRUMBO. The current TRUMBO is a narrative film telling the story of how Trumbo came to be blacklisted and how his case eventually broke the blacklist. The story is told well and with wit, and it tells how the First Amendment was seriously threatened by the government sworn to uphold it. And it tells how a small set of filmmakers fought and defeated the Hollywood blacklist. Jay Roach directs a screenplay by John McNamara from the book by Bruce Cook. Rating: high +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
2. BRIDGE OF SPIES
BRIDGE OF SPIES is a Cold War thriller based on fact. Tom Hanks plays a New York insurance lawyer who defends a Soviet spy and then negotiates the exchange of that spy for U-2 pilot Gary Powers. Steven Spielberg directs a script provided by the Coen Brothers (and Matt Charman). This is a truly adult thriller. Its thrills come not from the barrel of a gun or master martial artists jumping from building to building. Instead it is about a plain lawyer doing his job and somewhat more than his job. In the process he changes history. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
3. EX MACHINA
EX MACHINA is written and directed by Alex Garland. From the world's most powerful Internet company, Caleb, a software engineer, has been chosen to spend a week as a guest of Nathan, the company's reclusive founder. Nathan is a technical and entrepreneurial genius who lives and works at a highly secluded house and lab. There Caleb finds that during his visit he will be asked to talk with a robot to determine if it is truly conscious or just a machine. Bits and ideas in the story are borrowed from FRANKENSTEIN, BLADE RUNNER, HER, and even from film noir. When the story is all over there has been surprisingly little story told, but the viewer will have been privy to some very sophisticated philosophical ideas. This is a film that respects the thinking ability of the viewer, and if the intelligence is there it will be rewarded. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
Denis Villeneuve directs a suspenseful story of an inter- surveillance-agency team chosen for a mission to illegally cross the border into Mexico and to attack and if possible assassinate a powerful drug lord living in Juarez. FBI agent Kate Macer needs to figure out why she is on this team and mission and is highly troubled by the answers she is or is not getting. The theme is about how the violent drug war in Mexico warps the US law enforcement. But the film makes for a tense thriller. Rating: +3 (- 4 to +4) or 8/10
5. THE MARTIAN
Andy Weir's popular science blog turned best-selling novel comes to the screen with Matt Damon in the lead. Ridley Scott (ALIEN, GLADIATOR) directs the tense but at times humorous story of an astronaut accidentally left behind on Mars whose incredible science knowledge keeps him alive. The screenplay is by Drew Goddard (WORLD WAR Z, CLOVERFIELD). The science was vetted by experts and Weir proves you do not have to bend the laws of science to tell a good science fiction story. This is a highly gripping film. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
6. THE BIG SHORT
There is a podcast about economics called "Planet Money". This film could almost be PLANET MONEY: THE MOTION PICTURE. The film, like "Planet Money", tries to explain the finance all simply and understandably and in that noble purpose fails. But it is told with wit or even an acid cynicism that is apparently more than justified. This is a film about naked greed. We follow three story lines (true stories) with three people through the 2008 financial crisis, People who saw the financial bubble bursting and who exploited it in each's own way. Michael Burry (played by Christian Bale) saw the crash coming and committed his company to seriously exploiting it; Mark Baum (Steve Carell) discovers it is happening and slowly comes to realize how serious the situation really is; Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) discovers his company is criminally courting serious financial damage. This is a film that names names and signals a warning that the world seems to be ignoring. While being fun to watch it tells you what you need to know about the financial crisis and almost certainly do not. It is best to see this film multiple times until it starts to stick. It is hard to believe how serious and at the same time how funny the film is. I guess it also should be considered a horror film since virtually the same meltdown could happen again. Adam McKay directs a screenplay he wrote with Charles Randolph, based on a book by Michael Lewis. Rating low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
7. 99 HOMES
This is the other film this year that looks at the ailing US economy and explains what is going wrong, who is manipulating finances, and who is undeservingly reaping the very, very large rewards of the recession. We see the steps of home evictions and how a predator, chillingly played by Michael Shannon, can get very rich on the misery of others. Unlike THE BIG SHORT this is not the story of one real predator but a narrative films with a predator who is a composite of many real people. MARGIN CALL, THE BIG SHORT, and 99 HOMES together are an education on just what is going wrong with 21st century capitalism. Rating low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
This is the true story of the Boston Globe's crack investigative reporter team uncovering corruption rife in the Catholic Church. The team starts by examining one case of a Catholic priest's sexual molestation of a young parishioner and finds a story that just keeps growing with many cases of abuse and systematic covering up all over the Catholic Church. The double standard applied to the Church by the legal system will have many people leaving the film indignant and angry. The account has much of the feel and appeal of ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN. Tom McCarthy directs a cast led by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel McAdams. Rating low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
9. 24 DAYS
This is a docudrama about the kidnapping of Parisian Jew Ilan Halimi, who in January, 2006 was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered largely because he was Jewish. The film follows the Halimi family, the police, and the criminals, all the time sticking fairly accurately to what is known about the case. The Halimi family and the police race to find and save the hostage. The film looks at many connected issues including immigration policies, anti- Semitism, class, and police competency and prejudice. Not all the issues are fully discussed, nor would we expect them to be in a single film, but the viewer is aware of them. 24 DAYS is directed and co-written by Alexandre Arcady, perhaps in the United States best known for the horror thriller HIGH TENSION. Also writing the script were Emilie Freche and Antoine Lacomblez. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
10. HE NAMED ME MALALA
Pashtun Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai was 15 years old in October of 2012 when she stood up for and spoke out for female education. She knew she was endangered by the Taliban who want to ban all girls from being educated. A gunman boarded her school bus, specifically asked for her, and then shot her, twice missing her and once hitting her in the head. Critically injured she fought for her life and rehabilitated herself. She has recovered enough to return to her cause of female education. This is her story. She is the youngest ever winner of the Nobel Prize. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
Mark R. Leeper Copyright 2016 Mark R. Leeper