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The Dissenter’s Top Films of 2015

Editor's Note

Like many others, I enjoy the annual ritual of making a list of my top films from the past year around this time. I selected films which made me feel something extraordinary and left an impression on me. Days later, I was still thinking about or talking about them with others. Or, I picked films which I believed pushed boundaries.

I have been doing this since I started publishing “The Dissenter” column in 2011. As with previous lists, the films are not ranked in any order. It is not “The Dissenter’s Top Films” because I picked ten films that I thought will be on nobody else’s year-end list. Some on the list are probably on many year-end lists.

If I introduce a few people to one great movie they never heard of or remind them of a film they did not get to see from this year, then this list was well worth putting together. –Kevin Gosztola

The Big Short

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With an incredible ensemble of actors, director Adam McKay transforms the tragedy of the collapse of the American economy in 2007 into a hilarious, informative, and mesmerizing story of how it unfolded. It is based on Michael Lewis’ best-selling nonfiction book of the same title and follows a set of characters from 2005-2008, who take advantage of the development of the credit default swap market and bet against the economy to make millions. McKay crafts the story in a way that one feels like they are watching a heist unfold.

The Big Short” truly excels when it is amplifying the eccentricities of the characters, played marvelously by actors like Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Melissa Leo, etc. McKay also draws inspiration from his work at Second City and breaks the fourth wall multiple times to explain dense aspects of the financial economy to the audience. Each time the wall is broken, McKay playfully informs the audience of what they need to know and never treats Americans as if they’re stupid. There is a reason people do not understand credit default swaps. It is because those involved in corruption do not want the lower classes of Americans to fully grasp the scale of fraud they committed.

Call Me Lucky

Screen shot 2015-12-29 at 6.27.03 PMBobcat Goldthwait directed this moving documentary about comedian and peace activist Barry Crimmins. The film is masterfully structured in such a way that it starts as a typical film about an artist, who a group of people believe more people should know. Comics who were given opportunities thanks to him or have memories of his early work appear on screen. Goldthwait then hits the audience with information about a horrific experience from Crimmins’ childhood, and the film is instantly transformed into something incredible.

The film may not have been produced without the encouragement of Robin Williams, and much of the film may seem revelatory to anyone who does not know of Crimmins. He is described as a cross between Noam Chomsky and the cartoon character, Bluto. His brash wit and knowledge of current events produce material that still is edgy today. His material is inspired by a motivation for peace and justice. He may not be on huge stages, but he still performs locally in upstate New York. It is refreshing to know there are people in the world of comedy like Barry.

Creed

Screen shot 2015-12-29 at 6.31.24 PMDirector Ryan Coogler brings an aesthetic to this film that makes it pulsate with raw emotion. For example, there is a scene where Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), son of boxer Apollo Creed, is jogging down the the middle of the street. Rapper Meek Mill is spitting lyrics about fighting stronger over a reworked version of the “Rocky” theme. Neighborhood boys are following Adonis on their bicycles and motor bikes. The camera circles Adonis as the boys circle him in the street. It sent my heart racing and solidified my opinion that this was one of the best films of the year.

Nobody needed another “Rocky” movie, but what Coogler, Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, and others in the film bring is powerful story about relationships between strong characters. It builds on many of the themes of “Fruitvale Station,” a film which Coogler and Jordan worked on together. Adonis was on a path to being caught up in the vicious cycle of the prison industrial-complex, but he was given an opportunity to prove himself. This is a positive representation of what a young black man can be. When given the chance to pursue his dreams, he does not have to resign himself to a life moving in and out of prisons.

Heart of a Dog

Screen shot 2015-12-29 at 6.36.14 PMThe idea of death as the release of love is such a powerful idea, and Laurie Anderson beautifully explores this idea in “Heart of a Dog,” an intensely personal meditation on life, death, and the afterlife. She also weaves in expressions of social displeasure with the post-9/11 rise of the security state. All of these reflections center on the life and death of her rat terrier, Lola Belle.

Many of the sequences are composed of stunning abstract imagery. Sometimes Anderson relies on animated illustrations. The score is a landscape of ambience, which accentuates the experimental nature of the film and encourages viewers to ruminate on the ideas being explored. It is a wondrous piece of art that leaves one confronting their own emotions and beliefs about life and death. We can never know what happens to us when we die, but we can certainly formulate our own philosophy in order to help us move onward through life.

Inside Out

Screen shot 2015-12-30 at 10.16.14 AMImagine what it is like inside of a child’s mind. Pixar suggests there are five emotions competing against each other to color memories. In the film, they are: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). At any time, these emotions can come into conflict with each other. When life-changing moments happen, like when Riley’s parents move from Minnesota to San Francisco, these emotions can do irreparable damage to a child’s most important memories—her “core memories,” which inspire her personality.

Through Riley, we see what it is like for a child to gradually sink into depression. It is shown through the characters, who go on a journey to save Riley’s memories. Each emotion brings out a bit of empathy for what drives that emotion. The storytelling is filled with the wit and charm audiences have come to expect from Pixar films. By raising the stakes for the characters, the audience is given an opportunity to explore the imagined world(s) brilliantly conceived by the creators.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Screen shot 2015-12-30 at 10.20.55 AMThis is a shot of pure cinematic adrenaline, and the reason it works so magnificently is because director George Miller made the choice to use practical effects. The vehicles in the chase, which basically spans all 110 minutes of the film, are real. The digital elements and tools used to make sequences seamless do not rely on, as Miller would put it, “green screen fakery.” The film also gives us one of the best characters to root for in recent movie history: Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron).

Also, Miller presents a post-apocalyptic world that might as well be our planet’s real and actual future. Climate change has ravaged the Earth, nuclear battles have unfolded, power grids no longer work, and then economy has withered away entirely. It is a barren wasteland of lawless lifeforms at war over the water supply. It is a primal depiction of a resource war, with women at the center of the struggle who show they are not going to let despicable and grotesque men treat them as property.

Room

Screen shot 2015-12-30 at 10.23.51 AMAdapted from a best-selling novel of the same title, Joy (Brie Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who is five years-old are held captive in “room” by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). Joy has been there for seven years, and Jack is the product of rape. The two live in “room,” which is a shed in the backyard, until an escape can be manufactured. But, once they escape, the two must cope with life after “room,” which is much harder than they could have ever expected.

Both Larson and Tremblay are brilliant in their roles and bring to the life the key conflict between the characters. Joy wants out of “room” because it is nothing but a place where she has been violated numerous times. Jack only has ever known “room,” and it is how he understands life. The cinematography makes “room” seem like a place Jack could play and live in forever. But, in later scenes, the smallness of “room” becomes clear. There is one scene, where a news correspondent makes Joy feel like she is to blame for her situation, and as awful as that scene may be, this portrayal of news media is dismally accurate.

Spotlight

Screen shot 2015-12-30 at 7.45.24 PMAt a time when investigative journalism is in decline, there is something important and profound about this film, which shows how effective journalism can be at exposing deep corruption within powerful institutions. In this case, the story is about how journalists on the “Spotlight” team at the Boston Globe exposed the fact that dozens of Catholic priests abused children. They showed the church shielded priests from any consequences for their criminal acts. In fact, the entire city of Boston was collectively responsible for looking the other way as children fell victim to predators.

Director Tom McCarthy, who helped write the screenplay, meticulously depicts the deliberations, struggle, and toil involved in pursuing a story of such magnitude. Mark Ruffalo, who plays reporter Mark Rezendes, is the soul of the team. He tirelessly fights for the publication of the story and even takes the newspaper to task for failing to pursue the story years ago when the paper was provided a news tip. Liev Schreiber could fool someone into thinking he actually was former editor-in-chief Marty Baron. The pacing of the film is perfect as the story builds to the anticipated publication. It reminds us why journalism is so immensely valuable.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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Those involved in the creation of this film had one goal, which was to make another film in the “Star Wars” universe that had all the magic of the original trilogy. What was produced is a captivating and stunningly good continuation of the saga. It brought all the joy to me that I desired when I decided to buy advanced tickets in October.

What makes the film most enjoyable are Daisy Ridley as Rey, the scavenger, John Boyega, as Finn, the stormtrooper turned conscientious objector, and Poe Dameron, the Resistance fighter pilot. Each of these actors masterfully deliver sarcastic quips, which were a hallmark of the first films. The new villain, Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver, is a glorious Darth Vader wannabe. The First Order, which the Resistance must defeat, is a fascist force that has sprung up in the wake of the collapse of the Empire. It feels inspired by the rise of far-right ideology throughout our own planet. Sure, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill reprised their roles, but Ridley, Boyega, and Dameron give us hope that this trilogy will rival the original.

Tangerine

Of films from the past year, few pushed boundaries and felt as groundbreaking as this film. The main characters are black transgender sex workers played by actual transgender actresses. One of the workers, Alexandra, is played dynamically by Mya Taylor, who infuses the character with aspirations of finding something more in life. The characters are part of a culture of people all too often treated with disgust. Instead, in the film, they are humanized, sometimes with pretty fantastic humor.

It also is a spectacular low-budget accomplishment. Director Sean Baker relied on iPhone 5S cameras to film it. Baker equipped three of them with rigs and anamorphic lens, and then in post-production he built on the aesthetic by giving many of the scenes an orange quality. Altogether, it gives the simple story of the film a vitality that holds viewers’ attention.

Honorable Mention:

Amy • Love and Mercy • Shaun the Sheep • Sicario • The Stanford Prison Experiment • What Happened, Miss Simone?

Films I Wish I Had Seen Before the Year Ended:

About Elly • Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution • Jafar Panahi’s Taxi • The Look of Silence • Theeb

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."