15. Love & Mercy
Directed by: Bill Pohlad
Written by: Michael Alan Lerner, Owen Moverman
Starring: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Jake Abel, Kenny Wormald, Brett Davern
Another example from this past year of just how powerful a biopic can be when it manages to overcome the cliches that have overtaken the genre over the years. Love & Mercy is one of the most unique biopics I’ve seen, showing the life of The Beach Boys Brian Wilson in his prime and in his later years, portrayed by two terrific actors – Paul Dano plays young Brian Wilson, and John Cusack is older Brian Wilson. Even as a fairly big fan of The Beach Boys, this film managed to show me a great deal I didn’t know about the band’s infamous frontman. Dano’s performance as the young Wilson is incredible, perhaps his most layered performance to date. He perfectly conveys the loneliness and paranoia that Brian Wilson felt as a young rock star, being sympathetic without coming off as pathetic. Dano’s performance is one of the most subdued and subtle of the year, and I hope he stands a chance of earning an Academy Award nomination later this month. John Cusack, who has seemingly recently been taking most projects offered to him, is also infinitely better than I’ve seen him be in years, being one of the highlights of the films flash forward scenes. The composition scenes of Brian Wilson’s attempted masterpiece are incredibly well-handled by director Bill Pohlad, never opting to focus on the music over Brian Wilson’s psyche. Love & Mercy is a film filled with amazing performances, great music, and tight writing and direction that should be seen by everybody, whether or not you’re a fan of Brian Wilson or The Beach Boys.
Directed by: Rick Famuyiwa
Written by: Rick Famuyiwa
Starring: Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, Kimberly Elise, Chanel iman, Tyga, Blake Anderson, Zoe Kravitz, A$AP Rocky
2015 proved to be a massive year for hip-hop in the mainstream, seeing the release of incredible albums like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and the highly successful film Straight Outta Compton, so naturally Rick Famuyima’s Dope seems incredibly timely and relevant. Dope sees three young teens from tough neighbourhoods in Los Angeles unexpectedly unloading large quantities of illegal drugs in any way they can possibly do it, and it’s hilarious, smart, moving every step of the way. The film, produced by the talented Forest Whitaker and Pharrell Williams (mainly the soundtrack), stars three young up-and-comers in Shameik Moore (Malcolm), Tony Revolori (Jib), and Kiersey Clemons (Diggy), all of whom bring their relative inexperience to the film, which helps make it feel more authentic than other similar releases. The soundtrack full of modern and classic hip-hop is incredible, and even had a handful of songs stuck in my head for the weeks following my viewing of Dope. What could come off as a typical and cliched indie Sundance favorite instead feels completely genuine and heartfelt, while still managing to be incredibly funny and even insightful at times. It may not be the most believable film made this year, it’s absolutely one of the most fun to watch unfold. Dope is a film that can be enjoyed by anybody, and I hope its young stars and director will go on achieve greatness in the coming years.
13. The Gift
Directed by: Joel Edgerton
Written by: Joel Edgerton
Starring: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton
The unexpected critical hit of the Summer movie season, The Gift is actor Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut, and hopefully the beginning of an exciting new career path. The Gift is a film that on paper just shouldn’t work nearly as well as it is, but it manages to completely work in all of the cliches of the thriller genre and tell a tired old story in a very unique and interesting way. Edgerton’s screenplay is dark, wickedly smart, and playfully evil at times. Joel Edgerton not only wrote and directed this incredibly tense and taut thriller, but also stars in an incredibly unsettling supporting performance. Also starring in the film are Jason Bateman, who for my money has never been better, and Rebecca Hall, who delivers an incredibly sympathetic and caring performance. The change of focus in the last act of The Gift is an Alfred Hitchcock-worthy twist on the age-old formula, and it works way better than I ever thought it could. My expectations going into it couldn’t have been any lower, and the last act of the film cemented it as a modern day classic of a genre that seems very difficult to master for modern filmmakers. Joel Edgerton is unexpectedly multi-talented, and I can’t wait to see what he has up his sleeve next. Go into The Gift with an open mind, and I promise it’ll be a tense experience you won’t forget anytime soon.
12. The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Directed by: Marielle Heller
Written by: Marielle Heller
Starring: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgard, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Meloni, Austin Lyon
The latest addition to my top 20 list is also one of the most shockingly good films I saw all year. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is the often funny, always relatable story of a young girl growing up in 1970’s America and discovering her sexuality, and trying to find who and what she wants to be as a person. Bel Powley’s performance as the teenage Minnie is one of my favourite performances of the year. Powley’s performance manages to somehow be both over-the-top and subtle in a down to earth and understandable sort of way. Watching a young person come into themselves is relatable to literally anybody, and when it’s peppered with as much humour and as many great side characters as this film has, it’s undeniably powerful and charming. Both Alexander Skarsgard and Kristen Wiig give memorable supporting performances as Minnie’s lover and mother respectively, and it was very refreshing to see both actors stepping out of their comfort zones. Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl feels so genuine in its setting and time period, and so modest in its approach at the subject of aging. It’s never sexy in the same way that similar stories are, but instead a completely open, shockingly honest look at how young people tackle things like sexuality, drugs, alcohol, growing up under their parent’s roof, and finding a passion for something and deciding to try to make a career of it. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is undoubtedly one of the funniest, most shocking and honest coming-of-age films ever made, and one I hope to revisit as soon as possible.
11. The Wolfpack
Directed by: Crystal Moselle
Written by: Crystal Moselle
Starring: The Angulo Family
One of the few documentaries I saw in 2015 also turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in quite some time! Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack turns the camera on the Angulo brothers, living in a Manhattan apartment never having seen the outside world around them. Their father is a reclusively and strict man who doesn’t allow them to go outside unless it’s for shopping trips or a walk around the block, amassing an incredibly large DVD and blu-ray collection for the boys to watch in the meantime. The Angulo brothers learn everything there is to know about humans and the world around them through the magic of film, reenacting their favorite scenes, quoting dialogue, and creating their own costumes and props. The story picks up after one of the brothers leaves the apartment and explores Manhattan on his own, shifting the entire dynamic of the family. The Wolfpack is hilarious, odd, and so indescribably charming. It rivals documentaries like Grizzly Man’s Timothy Treadwell or Grey Gardens’ Edith and Little Edie Beale in how animated and larger-than-life their characters and stories are, and yet somehow it’s still incredibly relatable and touching. While it may not reinvent the wheel, The Wolfpack is an incredible story full of heart and ambition, and I hope it gets the attention it rightly deserves.