A&E

The year in film

The best, the worst and the most memorable movies of 2015

In his essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus," Albert Camus famously analyzed the ancient Greek myth -- that of a king brought low by the cruel punishment of a perpetually failed task -- as a philosophy of absurdism. Though existence is absurd and futile, Camus concluded, "The struggle itself ... is enough to fill a man's heart."

Now, I make no claims to royalty, but I can relate to the notion of a Sisyphean task when it comes to boiling down a year in cinema to a digestible list. Something in the neighborhood of 987 feature films played in American theaters this year. In the Bay Area, it's not uncommon for six or more movies to open in a given week.

From these facts, I draw two conclusions.

First: The task of compiling a top 10 list is absurd. Even this hard-working Friendly Neighborhood Film Critic only managed to see 24 percent of the year's feature films. Besides, such lists are inherently deeply subjective, with no accounting for taste.

Second: Top 10 lists, like weekly movie reviews, are useful tools to help the consumer decide which films might justify the expenditure of her or his valuable time. Having seen a few hundred movies this year, perhaps I can shine a spotlight on some off-the-radar gems.

"How on earth does one single out 10 films from among well over 200?," you may well ask. The glib but true answer is that I agonize. The process wasn't made any easier this year by the output of dozens of excellent but few truly great films.

Two of the criteria that guide me -- above the usual considerations of craftsmanship and creativity -- are sociological importance and sheer entertainment value. Belly-laughs and thrills are not to be discounted, though they were in dishearteningly short supply from Hollywood dream-makers this year (yes, even "Star Wars" fell short of sublimity). Easier to come by were films that spoke to our sociopolitical struggles here and abroad -- films that helped us see, understand, and begin to make sense of social catastrophe, political morasses and that greatest mystery of all: our selves.

The TOP 10 FILMS OF 2015

10. 'In Jackson Heights'

Octogenarian documentarian (and top 10 perennial) Frederick Wiseman returns with another of his rigorous adventures in community and societal institutions, this time allowing us to be a fly on the walls and streets of one of America's most culturally diverse neighborhoods, where 167 languages are spoken and hopeful immigrants proliferate. Our three hours spent with Wiseman in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, New York City don't seek out "if it bleeds, it leads" or "sex sells" sensation. This is journalism of a higher order, letting us draw our own conclusions from remarkably unaffected subjects as they work or play, establishing footholds or holding fast to the best of life in a community threatened by corporate-fueled gentrification and bureaucratic challenges.

9. '45 Years'

Writer-director Andrew Haigh has a knack for burrowing under the skin of those who lead lives of ostensible creature comforts but creeping emotional discomfort. Best known for "gay-themed" projects (the lovely film "Weekend" and the nearly departed HBO series "Looking"), Haigh here adapts David Constantine's heterosexual-themed short story "In Another Country" to examine how a man and woman, poised to celebrate the titular anniversary, are forced by one bit of news to reexamine their entire history together, including the viability of their marriage. Haigh's typically sensitive direction abets performances of heartbreaking personal and relational frailty from Charlotte Rampling and the unjustly neglected Tom Courtenay.

8. 'Welcome to Me'

No comedy went for the jugular this year like Shira Piven's "Welcome to Me." This satire for the Age of Narcissism made the most of a darkly hilarious script by first-time-feature-screenwriter Eliot Laurence and a fearlessly funny performance from the do-no-wrong Kristen Wiig. Though Wiig's character suffers from borderline personality disorder (admittedly dicey territory), Alice's looking glass is universal to modern life: the screen as a vehicle for oversharing, spying, obsessing and generally refusing to accept a mere 15 minutes of fame. Reminiscent of classics like "Network" and "Being There," "Welcome to Me" is the comedy to answer our cacophonous modern world of reality TV, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram.

7. 'Beasts of No Nation'

Cary Joji Fukunaga's searing adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala's novel considers the devastating effects of war on a people and their homeland and, more specifically, the phenomenon of child soldiers, seen here in an unnamed West African country. Fukunaga's own dazzling cinematography never feels flashy; rather, it feels like the essential filmic language to evoke the horror of a boy's journey from son to orphan to conditioned instrument of genocidal civil war. Shot through with incisive and heartfelt performances by Idris Elba and 14-year-old Abraham Attah, "Beasts" serves as a nightmarish psychological take rather than a literal political one, and as such stands out as one of the most potent, most purely cinematic films of the year.

6. 'The Big Short'

Easily one of the smartest and angriest movies to appear in cineplexes this year, Adam McKay's take on Michael Lewis' nonfiction book, "The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine," wielded star power and the backing of a major studio (Paramount) to good effect. The film made comprehensible to the average moviegoer what Bernie Sanders calls the "rigged economy": the conditions that allowed the previous decade's housing and credit crisis and that maddeningly persist today. The film's Master-of-the-Universe anti-heroic outliers (Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, et al) thrive by virtue of their superior education, their intellects and a bit of luck. Yet as they and we watch corporations and big banks somehow win the game, that old sinking feeling returns with a vengeance.

5. 'The Cut'

This year, the world woke up to the "European refugee crisis": according to the UN Refugee Agency, the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide reached 59.5 million by the end of 2014. But German director (of Turkish descent) Fatih Akin walked ahead of this cultural curve with his astonishing and visually ravishing epic of an Armenian-genocide survivor (Tahar Rahim of "A Prophet") traversing the globe in search of his daughters. Beginning in 1915, the story takes us from the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey) to Lebanon, Cuba and the United States as one man meets seemingly endless despair -- and the cruelties of natural and man-made borders -- with unquenchable hope and love.

4. 'Timbuktu'

This poetic French-Mauritanian drama from Abderrahmane Sissako ("Bamako") won a nomination earlier this year for Best Foreign Language Film. In its subtle treatment of life gone wrong -- in Mali circa 2012 -- the specific (the erstwhile jihadist takeover by Ansar Dine) speaks to the general crisis of fundamentalism and the pernicious effects of social impositions like Sharia law on ordinary people like cattle herder Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino) and his loving family. Rapturous photography compliments Sissako's wedding of the literal and the symbolic as he observes resistance under occupation and irreversible tragedies of personal and cultural destruction.

3. 'Cartel Land'

Matthew Heineman's documentary about the war on drugs introduced us to vigilante groups and their semi-charismatic leaders on either side of the Mexican border while laying bare the pernicious influence of the Mexican cartels and their witting and unwitting sponsorship by limbs of the U.S. government. Tim "Nailer" Foley of the Arizona Border Recon and Dr Jose Mireles of the Autodefensas make fascinating anti-heroes, and the film's jaw-dropping footage and elegant construction give maximum impact to the madness of the drug war.

2. 'Democrats'

Danish documentarian Camilla Nielsson had the smarts and chutzpah to win amazing access to the drafting of and referendum around Zimbabwe's new constitution (from 2010-2013) under the ongoing rule of strongman Robert Mugabe. This document of historical sausage in the making vividly characterizes the men behind the pens -- Mugabe's man Paul Mangwana and opposition party representative Douglas Mwonzora -- especially in how the contentious and corrupted process eventually brought out surprising mutual respect.

And the best film of 2015 goes to:

1. 'Chi-Raq'

The right film at the right time, Spike Lee's latest is his most creatively fertile and socially immediate narrative feature in years. A grabber from its opening sequence, a lyric video for Nick Cannon's gut-punching "Pray 4 My City" (complete with a U.S. map graphic composed of assault weapons), Lee's film reformats Aristophanes' classical comedy, "Lysistrata" -- of women withholding sex to force a truce -- as a hopeful wail for our modern urban war zones. Lee and co-scripter Kevin Willmott audaciously employ verse dialogue for their combination of boisterous take-no-prisoners satire and poignant elegy for fallen African-Americans of yesterday, today and tomorrow, twinning a chant of "No Peace! No Piece!" with Lee's career-long motto, "Wake Up!"

Runners-up

"Horse Money," "The Assassin," "Queen of Earth," "Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem," "Son of Saul," "Girlhood," "Spotlight," "What We Do in the Shadows," "The Duke of Burgundy" and "Mr. Holmes."

THE BOTTOM FIVE FILMS OF 2015

5. 'We Are Your Friends'

This dimwitted DJ drama starring Zac Efron pumps up bad electronic dance music and empty visual flash, and in the process accidentally evokes one of those YouTube ads you skip after five seconds. Ninety-six minutes of watching Efron and his bros dream of crossing over the Hollywood hills gives new meaning to life in "the Valley."

4. 'Chappie'

They don't come much more annoying than this Neill Blomkamp sci-fi actioner stitched together from the parts of vastly superior movies (like "Robocop" and "Frankenstein"). This story of a runaway robot might be bearable if you take a drink every time a slaphead yells "Chappie!," but since that would send an inordinate number of readers to the hospital, I'll just advise you stay away completely.

3. 'Aloft'

This very serious, very dull adult drama from Peruvian filmmaker Claudia Llosa wastes the time of actors Cillian Murphy and Jennifer Connolly, along with any indie-film fans unfortunate enough to give it a whirl. Two hours feel like two years, and given Llosa's obfuscatory mismanagement of symbolism, tone, and dialogue, eyes will roll.

2. 'The Boy Next Door'

This idiotic cliche parade doesn't even rise to camp value, despite telling the tale of suburban mom Claire (Jennifer "Jenny from the Block" Lopez) flinging with teen Noah (Ryan Guzman), who goes psycho when rejected. While it's true no one can live without J. Lo without risking insanity, this toothless thriller couldn't muster any thrills or even dare make what's treated like a sexual "transgression" transgressive in the least (Claire is separated from her husband, and Noah's a legal 19).

And the worst film of 2015 goes to:

1. 'Little Boy'

Though its official synopsis calls the film "an instant cinematic classic," I disrespectfully disagree. No film this year was more blithely offensive than this faith-based one in its implication that Fat Man and Little Boy, the bombs that decimated Nagasaki and Hiroshima, are (perhaps literally) the answers to a seven-year-old boy's prayers to bring his father home from WWII. Watching this film wrestle with its racial politics and confused theology is like watching a cat try to escape from a pile of yarn.

Of course, there's plenty more to remember beyond 2015's highest highs and lowest lows. Read on for our take on the best good guys, the worst baddies, the top documentaries and the most magical animated movies.

THE BEST HEROES

5. Amy Poehler as Joy and Jennifer Lawrence as Joy Mangano in "Inside Out" and "Joy," respectively (TIE)

4. Shaun the Sheep in "Shaun the Sheep Movie"

3. Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes in "Mr. Holmes"

2. Harrison Ford as Han Solo in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

1. Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in "Mad Max: Fury Road"

(Honorable mention: Geza Rohrig as Saul Auslander in "Son of Saul," Ravi Patel as Ravi Patel in "Meet the Patels" and the girls of "Mustang" in "Mustang")

THE WORST VILLAINS

5. The Bear in "The Revenant"

4. "It" in "It Follows"

3. The Hateful Eight in "The Hateful Eight"

2. Adam Driver as Kylo Ren in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

1. Michael Shannon as Rick Carver in "99 Homes"

(Honorable mention: Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro in "Sicario," Len Cariou as Cardinal Bernard Law in "Spotlight" and L. Ron Hubbard, et al. in "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief")

THE TOP DOCUMENTARIES

5. "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief"

4. "The Hunting Ground"

3. "The Pearl Button"

2. "Listen to Me Marlon"

1. "The Look of Silence"

THE ANIMATED WINNERS

5. "Shaun the Sheep Movie"

4. "When Marnie Was There"

3. "Anomalisa"

2. "Inside Out"

1. "Boy & the World"

Watch the webcast of film critic Peter Canavese discussing the year in film at youtube.com/paweekly.

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