Stephen Simon’s Top Ten Movies of 2015

December 29, 2015

As I note each year, I do not call this a “best” movies list because I see film imagesas an art form much like music and art itself. Can anyone objectively claim that Rembrandt was a better painter than Van Gogh or Mozart a better composer than Beethoven? I believe that all any of us can honestly do is say which film, music, or art we personally prefer. As a proud member of The Academy who has been voting for the Oscars for more than thirty years, I keep hoping we can change “Best” to “Favorite”…but I’m not holding my breath ;-).

For the first time this year, my favorite films arranged themselves into four specific categories:

The Spellbinders

Three completely different films–literally light years apart- that riveted me to the screen throughout.

 Spotlight

MV5BMjIyOTM5OTIzNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDkzODE2NjE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_In 2001, Spotlight, the Boston Globe’s special investigative unit, launched an inquiry into allegations of child abuse by priests in their city. During the year that it took them to unravel the tangled web of deceit and cronyism that lay at the core of the heartbreaking story they uncovered, they faced a myriad of obstacles from skeptical, uncooperative city officials and potential sources. The team also faced the daunting task of confronting one of the most powerful of all U.S. Cardinals (Bernard Law) and the machinery of the Catholic Church itself.

Undeterred, the Spotlight team became the first journalists to expose and document both the shockingly rampant abuse that had been occurring for decades and also the coverup of moving offending priests from parish to parish instead of defrocking them and exposing their crimes.

Director Tom McCarthy does a masterful job of telling a complex story in a straight-forward, compelling style, aided greatly by a brilliant ensemble cast, including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Live Schreiber, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci.

Haunting, mesmerizing, and emotional, Spotlight is at its heart a profile in courage about a small group of men and women who risked everything to report a story that the world needed to know.

The Martian

MV5BMTc2MTQ3MDA1Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODA3OTI4NjE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) gets stranded on Mars when his crew mates leave for home without him, mistakenly believing that he has been killed in a vicious storm. By the time Watney can communicate that he has survived, it becomes clear that he will have to somehow survive for three or four years until a rescue mission can reach him…and he must do so in an enclosure with food and water that was only designed to sustain human life for thirty days.

Pretty simple set-up, yes? Kind of like Cast Away on Mars…but with no volleyball. You had to really want to spend time with Tom Hanks (who doesn’t?) in that earlier film, and the same holds true for Matt Damon here. Watching him meet and solve the myriad of challenges he faces while NASA and his crew mates race to save him is beyond fascinating…and often delightfully humorous.

Director Ridley Scott is no stranger to space (Alien) and here he takes full advantage of both his prodigious visual talents and also the irresistible charisma of Mr. Damon to make an old-fashioned, edge-of-your-seat-don’t-go-to-the-bathroom thriller.

Even more importantly, the film reminds us of how beautiful we humans can be when we operate at our very best. As another space traveler once noted about our species in Starman: “Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you? You are at your very best when things are worst.”

Joy

MV5BMzc2MTI5Mzk0MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDIxMDg1NjE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_The third straight Holiday season film gift from brilliant writer/director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Book, American Hustle), Joy is based on a fascinating, inspiring true story…and is very aptly titled.

Jennifer Lawrence gives another terrific performance as Joy Mangano, the woman who invented The Miracle Mop and then built a business empire with over one hundred patented products, including Huggable Hangers, the best-selling product in the history of HSN (Home Shopping Network). As with most success stories, however, Joy’s pathway was strewn with obstacles, delays, opposition, doubt, personal challenges, and financial missteps. Through them all, Ms. Mangano’s indomitable spirit persevered, survived, and then prospered ..as we the audience are rapt witnesses to her amazing journey.

Such is the brilliance of Mr. Russell’s vision that Ms. Lawrence (arguably the most sought after actress in film today) stars in her third film with Mr. Russell and is joined  by Bradley Cooper and Robert deNiro, who also appear in all three films…and here both leading men play supporting roles.

The uplifting heart and soul of Joy is beautifully encapsulated by the  dedication at the very beginning of the film: “Inspired by the true stories of daring women. One in particular.”

Amen..and Awomen…to that.

Old Hollywood

Three movies that–time travel aside– could have been made in the Golden Age of Hollywood:

Bridge of Spies

MV5BMjIxOTI0MjU5NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzM4OTk4NTE@._V1_SX214_AL_Every frame of this engrossing thriller is a resonant and emphatically positive answer to the question “Why don’t they make more movies like they used to make them in Old Hollywood?”

Set in 1957 during the intensity of the Cold War between the United States and Russia, Spies revolves around the fascinating true story of Gary Powers, an American pilot who was captured when his top secret spy plane was shot down over Russia, and Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) who was arrested for espionage in the United States. With both countries wanting to repatriate the two men, the United Staes hired an attorney named James Donovan (Tom Hanks) to go to Berlin (just as the infamous wall is being finished) to negotiate the trade.

Tom Hanks is his usual brilliant self as is Mr. Rylance and everyone else in the cast. Director Steven Spielberg has always been a master storyteller and his genius is on full display in Spies, in which he eschews any cinematic techniques that could get in the way of simply telling the story.

Bridge of Spies is a wonderful example of what we fondly remember as an Old Hollywood “movie-movie”.  Those indeed were the days.

Creed and Southpaw

Old Hollywood had a rich tradition of making classic films about boxers, with stars from Kirk Douglas to John Garfield to Paul Newman. In 1976, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky joined that pantheon… which now comes full circle in the poignant Creed. 

MV5BODg5NDM1MDI4NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzg0MzQxNzE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_This time around, old rival and friend Apollo Creed’s son Adonis comes to Philadelphia to seek Rocky’s help in becoming a world class boxer. With his wife and best friend deceased, and his son having moved across the country to start a new life and family of his own, Rocky has settled  into a quiet, often melancholy retirement in which his body and spirit are showing the effects of the wear and tear of a life in the ring..and the absence of loved ones.

While what happens from there is no surprise (Rocky relents and becomes to Adonis what Burgess Meredith’s iconic character Mickey was to Rocky himself), how the film unfolds is inspiring, deeply emotional, and life-affirming. Michael B. Jordan is absolutely wonderful as Adonis, as is Tessa Thompson as the young singer with whom he falls in love. But the real revelation here is Mr. Stallone himself who, in a break from all previous Rocky films, hands over the writing/directing reins to others in Creed and gives the best performance of his career. Warm, humble, wise, and witty, Mr. Stallone gives us a lovable, vulnerable, older-sadder-but-wiser Rocky to remember him by. Even though it might require a Rocky-like upset in the late rounds, don’t be surprised to see Mr. Stallone receive a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work here. To which I say–“Yo, Rocky”!

MV5BMjI1MTcwODk0MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTgwMDM5NTE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_-3Southpaw features another career-defining and Oscar-worthy performance by Jake Gyllenhaal as World Light Heavyweight champion boxer Billy Hope, who has clawed his way up from poverty to wealth and fame, alongside his wife/best friend/muse Maureen (Rachel McAdams). When we meet Billy, he is a happy, humble man who dotes on his adoring wife and young daughter. When Maureen is tragically and accidentally killed, however, Billy’s life completely unravels, leaving him bankrupt and alone, without even his daughter who has been taken away from him because of his erratic and self-destructive behavior. Motivated by his drive to regain custody and the respect of his daughter, Billy begins to work his way out of the abyss.

While there is nothing terribly surprising in the plot lines of either Creed or Southpaw, the journey we take as an audience is engrossing, emotionally resonant, and ultimately very life-affirming…with stirring and vulnerable performances by all concerned. After both films, I walked out of the theater feeling better about being human..and that is in and of itself a wonderful gift in these perilous times.

The Originals

After over a century of movie-making, coming up with a truly original film is a prodigious, daunting undertaking, not to mention the financing, casting, marketing challenges, etc. There were two in 2015 that I particularly admired (Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl also gets very honorable mention):

The Danish Girl

MV5BMjA0NjA4NjE2Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzIxNTY2NjE@._V1_SX214_AL_Talk about “boldly going where no man–or woman–has dared to go” (on screen), The Danish Girl is one of the bravest films of recent memory, featuring perhaps the single most courageous and vulnerable performance I have ever seen.

Based on the true story of 1920’s married Dutch artists Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda (Alicia Vikander) Wegener, the film introduces us to a couple who are deeply in love. Immediately, however, we see that Einar is utterly fascinated and beguiled by women, not as potential lovers but as role models of grace and femininity. Soon, Einar becomes inexorably drawn to dressing and behaving like a woman. With the loving support of his wife, he inhabits a female persona whom they call Lili. Einar’s male persona soon disappears into Lili, culminating in him volunteering to be the first man to ever undergo transgender surgery.

Tom Hooper’s (The King’s Speech) direction is flawless, sensitive, and pitch perfect and Ms. Vikander’s performance of a woman who unconditionally loves her husband is very touching. The film, however, belongs to Mr. Redmayne who gives an astonishing, nuanced, vulnerable, heartbreaking performance that even surpasses his Oscar-winning role in last year’s Theory of Everything. Mere words cannot capture how courageous Mr. Redmayne’s portrayal is ….except to say that is one for the ages.

 Ex Machina

MV5BMTUxNzc0OTIxMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDI3NzU2NDE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_-1A young computer programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleason) at the world’s largest internet company wins the opportunity to meet Nathan (Oscar Isaac), his company’s visionary founder, at a remote, almost inaccessible research facility/home. When Caleb arrives, he discovers that he has been chosen to “test” Ava (Alicia Vikander), a “robot” that Nathan claims is the world’s first true artificial intelligence.

Writer/director Alex Garland creates and maintains an intense, fascinating, foreboding, erotically charged atmosphere and, in a complete departure from her role in The Danish Girl, Ms. Vikander is creepy, convincing and coldly shrewd as Ava, who has much more on her mind than her creator might imagine.What makes the film even more compelling is our understanding that we are indeed at the doorstep of a tipping point beyond which A.I. may no longer need –or even more chillingly–want–human assistance.

For those of us who are concerned that the evolution of our humanity has not kept pace with the evolution of our technology, Ex Machina is an innovative, chilling, hypnotic, surprising experience…and cautionary tale.

Second Chances

Danny Collins and Ricki and the Flash

MV5BNDk5NTYxOTk2MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzIxMjE0MzE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Unfortunately, Danny and Ricki came and went in theaters with barely a ripple..which is a shame because they’re both wonderful, adult movies with some very important things to say about the choices we make…the regrets that haunt us…and those often elusive second chances we sometimes get the opportunity to embrace.

The title characters are portrayed by movie industry royalty (Al Pacino and Merly Streep) who both play musicians that made the same fateful decision to place their careers above their families.

When we meet Mr. Pacino’s Danny Collins, he is rich, famous, and still performing his greatest hits for sold out audiences. Even so, he is also feeling burned out and hollow when his manager and best friend (Christopher Plummer) changes everything in an instant by giving Danny a forty year old letter from John Lennon that Danny had never received. Mr. Lennon’s observations galvanize Danny to seek out his adult son whom he had never met because of Danny’s obsession with his career. Danny’s son, however, wants nothing whatsoever to do with the father who had so completely abandoned him.

Forced to finally face the consequences of his actions and choices, Danny finds new direction and meaning in his life.

Mr. Pacino is wonderful and completely believable in his role, as are Mr. Plummer, Bobby Cannavale as Danny’s son, Jennifer Garner and adorable Giselle Eisenberg as the daughter-in-law and granddaughter he never knew existed, and Annette Bening as a hotel manager who somehow becomes Danny’s muse as he transforms his life.

MV5BMTY1NzIxNzkzM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzAzNjIzNjE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Meryl Streep’s Ricki also abandoned her family in favor of her career but, unlike Danny Collins, she never rose to fame or fortune. When the film opens, Ricki is barely surviving by playing gigs in bars with her sometimes lover Greg (played by Rick Springfield–yeah–him!) when she she receives news that her daughter, who was about to be married, has been jilted. Going home after many, many years of absence, she must face her son, her daughter, her ex-husband…and the consequences of the fateful choice she had made long ago.

Ms. Streep’s own daughter Mamie Gummer plays her daughter, making the scenes, confrontations, pain, love, and ultimate reconciliation between them even more poignant.

Oh…and along the way, Ms. Streep and Ms. Springfield play some incredible, get on your feet and rock along music that we baby boomers all remember!

That’s my list. What were your favorite films of the year?   

Please leave a comment here www.TheOldHollywood.com and/or join us on Facebook (Bringing Back The Old Hollywood) and Twitter (@Old_Hollywood)

Thanks so much and have a wonderful 2016!!

Stephen Simon

                       

 

 

 

 

 

 

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Julio Torresoto December 30, 2015 at 1:59 pm

Completamente de acuerdo.

Reply

Stephen Simon December 30, 2015 at 2:55 pm

Gracias!

Reply

Brian Mills January 3, 2016 at 11:45 am

Hi Stephen,
Here are my favourites of 2015. Films were all seen in 2015 mainly at Press Screenings which are always before their general release dates.
1. Room.
2. Brooklyn.
3. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.
4. Hitchcock/Truffaut.
5. Love & Mercy.
6. Slow West.
7. Gemma Bovery.
8. Trumbo.
9.The Assassin.
10. Carol.
11. Youth.

Reply

Gary Morrison January 12, 2016 at 12:11 pm

Your mini-reviews are insightful, cogent, beautifully expressed, sensitive and considerate. I will use these reviews as a guide to seeing some films I missed. Thank you.

Reply

Stephen Simon January 12, 2016 at 2:53 pm

Thank you so much, Gary!!

Reply

MUKUL January 14, 2016 at 11:13 am

Dear Mr Simon, Can we get your 10 best movies in a DVD pack.

Regards
Mukul

Reply

Stephen Simon January 14, 2016 at 11:17 am

Wow–that would be great but you will have to either go see the films in theaters or on DVD because I do not have the right to send them to anyone. Enjoy!!

Reply

dianne January 14, 2016 at 12:56 pm

Was the Revenant not qualifying for 2015? After so much given at the golden globes I thought there might be a mention.

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Stephen Simon January 15, 2016 at 2:01 pm

Hi Dianne…..yes, it is absolutely qualified..it just got 12 Academy nominations…but it’s not my kind of movie. Thanks for your comment and question!!

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Susan Petsche January 15, 2016 at 8:29 am

Stephen,
Thanks for your list. I agree with you about the Martian, the Bridge of Spies, and Danny Collins. My list would also include Run, Boy, Run and Only in my Dreams. It sounds like I would like Get Ready for Ricki Flash since I am of the baby boom generation also.

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Stephen Simon January 15, 2016 at 1:59 pm

Thanks so much for your additions, Susan. We baby boomers rock!!

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Rev. Kate Murphy January 21, 2016 at 8:55 am

Oh, what fun! Every year I copy down your picks, Stephen, and watch them as I can find them, throughout the year. This year looks GREAT!
I don’t get out to the theater much, so the only one I saw this year was Brooklyn, which was fabulous on the big screen – don’t know how it would rate on DVD.
Thanks again!

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Stephen Simon January 22, 2016 at 4:45 am

Hi Rev…it’s always so great to hear from you!….there were indeed some wonderful films last year that will be coming to pay per view and dvd soon…..have a great 2016!!

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Richard Kibbey January 25, 2016 at 8:13 pm

Stephen, I enjoyed very much your thoughts and choices. Since I have been doing some boxing , I was very impressed with the reality of those films. I was also glad to see you looking so well in the photo accompanying the article. Cheers , Richard

Reply

Stephen Simon January 26, 2016 at 4:44 am

So great to hear from you, Richard…it’s been a looooong time, yes?…..and thank you!

Reply

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