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When Ten Isn't Enough: The 12 Best Films of 2015 - Part II

6. Wild Tales - Or, as I call it: Politically Incorrect with Damian Szifron. The Argentinian-born director/writer cooked up, by far, the nastiest black comedy I've seen this side of Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street, and the funniest piece of filmmaking of the past year. It's a vignette of six stories of people who unleash their darker nature when pushed to the edge, be it from a sleazeball husband who's been screwing around with other women ("Until Death Do Us Part"), or a group of passengers who discover they all share a single thread with an irate pilot ("Pastenak"), humanity's basic rest impulse is the central theme; that despite our concealed appearances, we're all just animals waiting to be unleashed. This is a twisted look on the dark side of our species, and I laughed long and hard through it all.

5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Simply put: this was the movie I expected Mad Max: Fury Road to be, and never was for me, on a personal level. What an exhilarating ride J.J. Abrams took me on, and what skill it took, balancing the nostalgia for the original trilogy and creating a new galactic adventure for a generation that will look to the spunky and resourceful scavenger Rey (a star-making performance by newcomer Daisy Ridley), the redeemed First Order Stormtrooper Finn (the charming John Boyega) and hot-shot Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac, blending swagger and tenderness with incredible ease) as their movie heroes. Sure, Episode VII reaches for familiar tricks, like the 3rd act where Resistance forces gather their forces on a wing and a prayer to destroy Starkiller base, and the melodrama of the mistakes of the parents determining the future of their offspring, but the writing goes about showing the conflict in a different, subtle way that makes the device interesting to let itself play out. The ending sequence is perhaps Abrams' at his best - he bridges the link between the battered, yet glorious past and the bright future that's around the bend that both generations can be grateful to look forward to. Well done.

4. Clouds of Sils Maria - Seeing this character-study of an aging actress and her assistant who runs her life has been one of the most perplexing and rewarding experiences I've ever encountered in the years I've been going to the movies. Juliette Binoche plays world renound theater and film actress Maria Enders, who has been offered a chance to perform in her career-making stage play, Maloja Snake as Helena, the older woman who has an affair with a younger woman named Sigrid - the part which jump-started her path to fame - only to be used and discarded when the relationship runs it's course, while Kristen Stewart (yes, Bella Swan from those godawful Twilight movies), plays Valentine, the loyal American assistant. The pair stay at a late playwright's house called the Sils Maria, as Maria mulls over how to approach the character, as well as head full on into her growing insecurities as an actress, as well as her relationship with assistant. What follows in two hours and three minutes is a myriad of endless conversations about the play, about movies, about the hot young starlet, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz) chosen to play Sigrid, despite her run-ins with controversy, and the question of is the art of the play mirroring Maria's life up until this moment, or is is the other way around. Director and writer Olivier Assayas offers no conclusive answers, but gives us a sweeping drama that's filled with terrific performances by it's three leads, excellent writing and direction that feels like a play in motion and like diving headlong into a dream - sometimes both, simultaneously. The end result is a character-driven piece that begs to be seen multiple times, and it's a trip worth taking.

3. Steve Jobs - It's a real shame that almost no one bothered to watch this near-American masterpiece from director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin about the life of one of the most innovative figures of our time, told in a three-act structure, because if they had, they would have seen writing, dialogue, acting, directing and editing laced to perfection. Michael Fassbender nails the overbearing perfectionist to the letter as we're shown a day in the life of a man who's selling the future, while leaving just about everyone around him as roadkill, including his co-founder and creator of the Apple II Steve Woznak (a terrific Seth Rogen) and former CEO John Sculley (Sorkin regular Jeff Daniels). The only two people who don't play dead and roll over are his right-hand woman Joanna Hoffman (a marvelous Kate Winslet) who refuses to let Jobs' forget the best part of him should be his daughter, Lisa (played by Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo & Perla Haney-Jardine at different ages thought the film) and not just for the simplicity of his machines. Many see Jobs' as a visionary, others see him as a narcissistic asshole who can't "put a hammer to a nail". Sorkin and Boyle search through the mixed wires and the elegant sheen of both the man and his products to find a complex man at the center of it all - a machine trying to learn what it means to be human.

2. Ex Machina - What do you get when you combine elements from Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, Steven Spielberg's A.I., and Mamoru Ohii's Ghost in the Shell? The end result is writer/director Alex Garland's (the scribe behind 28 Days Later and Sunshine) debut sci-fi thriller, a spellbinding and triumphant piece of work that ranks right alongside Children of Men, District 9, Inception, WALL-E and Her as one of the best films in it's genre in the last fifteen years. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer for a software company has won a one-week trip to visit the company's CEO and founder, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Issac). The true purpose is to show Caleb his latest creation: artificial intelligence, in the form of Ava (Alicia Vikander), a humanoid robot. Nathan wants him to administer an advanced version of the Turing test to determine if he can see her as a human being, but as the tests go further, the line between artificiality and humanity begin to blur, as Caleb tries to work out if he's being played by Nathan, or Ava, or both. If it sounds like I'm being vague, that's because I am. This is one of those movies you need to go in a experience four yourself, because the script is that hypnotic and cerebral, and because the film is this good. Issac and Gleeson are excellent as a creator who's playing God with two beings - one human and one artificial, and the other a guy who's caught in the middle of two forces playing mind games with him, and each other, but it's Vikander who shines as Ava, the seductive robot at a crossroads on whether or not she's really a person.

1. The Hateful Eight - Perhaps one of the most controversial pictures to come out of 2015, Quentin Tarantino's three-hour whodunit western is perhaps his best film since 1994's Pulp Fiction, and his most polarizing. You either loved the fact he decided to shoot the film on 70mm and released his "roadshow" version (complete with an overture, a program pamphlet and an intermission!), or you hate that it's Tarantino pandering to hardcore cinemphiles for his own sake. You either loved the long-stretches of dialogue between QT's hard-boiled characters or you hate that it's a gabfest that goes nowhere for the first hour and a half. you either love the burst of unexpected and graphic violence, or you hate it for the same reason, especially in it's blood-soaked second half, where just about everyone ends up with a bullet somewhere. For me, no other film had me wanting to go back to the theaters; no other film walked a thinner, tighter rope between good taste and being politically incorrect and had more to say about who we are than this spaghetti western/murder mystery/pitch-black comedy from the mind of Tarantino.

The premise is deceptively simple - eight strangers are held up in a cabin when a blizzard hits before they can reach the town of Red Rock, Wyoming, all heading there for various reasons. John Ruth - aka, "The Hangman" (Kurt Russell) is transporting outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to be hung  Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) is transporting three dead bodies to the same location to collect his bounty money, Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins), hitches a ride with Ruth, his prisoner and Maj. Warren, claiming that he's the new sheriff of Red Rock. A Brit with a funny name, Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) is supposedly the town's hangman. A cowpuncher named Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) sits at the back of the haberdashery. Bob "the Mexican" (Demian Bichir) is the caretaker of Minni's Haberdashery when she's mysteriously disappeared. And a Confederate general, Samford Smithers (Bruce Dern), hates black people as much as he does Yankees. They all are connected in terrible ways, and it's not until one vicious moment including poison that they're all not who they say they are. Tarantino's decision to make each character morally suspect, detestable and shady as the next is done purposefully: One, he wants us to stay on our toes and to view these characters with the same sort of suspicion as they do each other on-screen. And two, he's setting us up for the a twist, as well as a flashback that puts everything into focus.

Does Tarantino go too far? Duh, it's Tarantino. Brains, bullets, blood and balls (literally) are splattered across with ferocity after the intermission. Daisy Domergue's kicked, slapped and punched so many times, it does begin to cast a dark shadow over the film's three-hour run-time. Is Tarantino's dialogue too self-indulgent as he makes the three acts all setup? Probably, but when you have actors like Sam Jackson, Walter Goggins, and Jennifer Jason Leigh bringing life to QT's script and words, it all goes down easy and makes it addictive to watch. Does Tarantino use the N-word, along with other racial epithets too damn much? No doubt, but there's a point to the hateful talk: it's all a product of our nation's original sin of slavery and promoting white superiority over the enslaved, lesser races, as well as how it still resonates with us today. And is Tarantino's story, script and themes too far-reaching that doesn't always come together? Yes, but not for a minute do you feel the filmmaker is spinning his wheels for his own sake. The Hateful Eight is messy, both figuratively and literally. It's nasty, ugly, brutal, violent as hell (which is saying something coming from the guy who made a movie where Jewish soldiers took bats and knives to the heads of Nazis everywhere in Inglorious Basterds), and is politically incorrect as all hell. But Tarantino raises the grime to an art form, showing us these people coming together after a civil war, and how the scars of racism, hatred and bitterness still linger in the fabric of our country to this day....all done with the style we've come to expect from one of film's most outrageous and skilled storytellers.

And here's the full list, ranking from 12-1:

12 (tie). Truth & Spotlight
11. Suffragette
10. Sicario
9. Inside Out
8. Straight Outta Compton
7. Beasts of No Nation
6. Wild Tales
5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
4. Clouds of Sils Maria
3. Steve Jobs
2. Ex Machina
1. The Hateful Eight


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