JR'S TOP 10 FILMS-2015
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"Good Old JR" Jim Rutkowski weighs in with his picks for the TOP 10 films of 2015

THE YEARS BEST...
Movie Reviews by:
Jim "Good Old JR" Rutkowski
10. Amy
  9. The Assassin
  8. Tangerine
  7. Son of Saul
  6. Phoenix
  5. Carol
  4. Anomalisa
  3. Mad Max Fury Road
  2. Spotlight
  1. Ex Machina
What a terrific year at the movies! I know that because the list that you're about to read was a difficult one to compile. Not in finding enough films to fill the list. But in deciding what to leave off. There were so many contenders, that it hurt leaving some of them to languish in the dreaded 11-20 slots. So before we get down to the top of the heap, here's a few that live just below the top ten:

Inside Out
The Martian
Brooklyn
Room
Steve Jobs
What We Do In The Shadows
45 Years
The Look Of Silence
Creed
Diary Of A Teenage Girl
The Clouds Of Sils Maria
Sicario
Trainwreck
And yes...Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

On the not so good list:
Terminator: Genysis
The Hateful Eight
Ant-Man
Vacation
Ted 2

And maybe the worst of all...Jupiter Ascending (rent or stream at your own risk).

So with that out of the way, let's get on to the main event.
#10-AMY
Directed By: Asif Kapadia
The years best documentary. My own feelings about Amy Winehouse before seeing this film, were midling. Known for her huge hit, Rehab, which turned out to be darkly prophetic, Winehouses' story, upfront anyway, seemed like just another singing star tragedy. Amy is hardly the first documentary about a musician succumbing to their demons through one vice or another, but it’s one distinctly of its time; Winehouse ascended to stardom in the early days of digital cameras and viral videos, and fell apart right as the Internet turned the tabloid news cycle into something more vicious and constant than anybody could have fathomed. Because of this, it’s largely through Amy Winehouse herself that Amy tells her story. To be famous now is to willingly (or otherwise) surrender your autonomy to a populace that can never have enough, and is encouraged to only want and crave and demand more. Amy allows for a kinship with a modern fallen star that few films manage, one that is sometimes uncomfortable and often every bit as voyeuristic as the cameras that hounded her in life. But it is also a film which demands that audiences sit and watch it over again, from a more empathetic perspective this time, and to consider how they were watching it the first time. When it might have mattered.
#9-THE ASSASSIN
Directed By: Hsiao-hsien Hou
The story of a female assassin is ordered to take out a nobleman she was previously engaged to. This a uniquely beautiful take on the traditional wuxia film. An epic martial-arts period piece that's beguiling, ambiguous and -- for some, at least -- frustrating in its storytelling. One hallmark of a good action director is the ability to make stillness and silence as dramatic as movement and noise. The Assassin, carries this principle as far as it can go. Hou Hsiao-hsien wields cinematic tools with such delicate precision, it's as if he's working with a paintbrush. From the conversations shot through filmy drapes glowing with blobs of candlelight to treks through tall golden grass, dozens of individual shots are breathtaking in their composition. An enchanting cinematic work of art that turns a martial arts drama into a meditation on beauty and empathy.
#8-TANGERINE
Directed By: Sean Baker
Tangerine is a bit of a marvel, a low-budget film reportedly shot entirely on the iPhone 5 but one which combines extraordinary visual inventiveness, humor and pathos. Set on Christmas Eve in Los Angeles, it follows two "trans" prostitutes as they roam the city. One, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is furious to learn that her pimp boyfriend cheated on her while she was in prison. The other, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), is an aspiring performer who wants to recruit an audience for her show. The third principal character is an Armenian cab driver (Karren Karagulian) who seems a decent family man but has a fatal fascination with the red light district. The film is shot in iridescent color. Frequently very funny but also brimming with pathos. You won't find a film that exudes this much raw energy. Baker shoots Tangerine in a freewheeling, improvisatory style that rekindles memories of John Cassavetes films following equally strung-out and desperate characters. Sometimes shocking, unexpectedly charming and ultimately rather moving.
#7-SON OF SAUL
Directed By:László Nemes
The Nazis have assigned Saul to the Sonderkommando, made up of Jewish prisoners treated by the Germans as a higher class of the doomed, aiding the Nazis in the death camps. The first few minutes of "Son of Saul" establish the visual rules of Nemes' storytelling. The unspeakable activity of Auschwitz (the ovens, the shoveling of ashes) is never sanitized, yet it remains a deliberate, unsettling blur, just beyond complete visual clarity — much as Auschwitz itself lay just beyond a century's perceived limits of inhumanity. There is no exposition, and little of the usual conflict and resolution. We never see or hear what Saul cannot see or hear. In a pile of bodies, Saul spies what he believes to be his dead son. The film concerns this man's attempts to give the boy a proper burial; to locate a rabbi to oversee that burial; and to do so without jeopardizing the prisoner rebellion afoot. "Son of Saul" belongs on a very short list of first-rate narratives (in this case a fictional narrative) to respond to the Holocaust in a way that makes honorable sense and gripping drama of its perspective. Nothing in "Son of Saul" is engineered for pathos. In other words it's a very different experience than other Holocaust dramas with a far harsher, truer notion of heroism in hell. What makes this all the more impressive is that this is Nemes forst film as a director.
#6-PHOENIX
Directed By: Christian Petzold
A spellbinding mystery of identity, illusion, and deception unfolds against the turmoil of post-World War II Germany in the stunning new film from acclaimed director Christian Petzold. Nelly, a German-Jewish nightclub singer, has survived a concentration camp, but with her face disfigured by a bullet wound. After undergoing reconstructive surgery, Nelly emerges with a new face, one similar but different enough that her former husband, Johnny, doesn't recognize her. Rather than reveal herself, Nelly walks into a dangerous game of duplicity and disguise as she tries to figure out if the man she loves may have been the one who betrayed her to the Nazis. Evoking the shadows and haunted mood of post-war Berlin, Phoenix weaves a complex tale of a nation's tragedy and a woman's search for answers as it builds towards an unforgettable, heart-stopping climax. Hitchcock's Vertigo has been invoked repeatedly as a comparison for Christian Petzold's mesmerizing drama, but while he's adapting a French novel that has already been turned into a film once before, absolutely nothing here feels second-hand.
#5-CAROL
Directed By: Todd Haynes
Set in 1950s New York, two women from very different backgrounds find themselves attracted to each other. A young woman in her 20s, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), is a clerk working in a Manhattan department store and dreaming of a more fulfilling life when she meets Carol (Cate Blanchett), an alluring woman trapped in a loveless, convenient marriage. As an immediate connection sparks between them, their connection deepens. While Carol breaks free from the confines of marriage, her husband threatens her competence as a mother when Carol’s involvement with Therese comes to light. As Carol leaves the comfort of home to travel with Therese, an internal journey of self-discovery coincides with her new sense of space. Carol is a haunting motion picture - the kind of film that stays with the viewer long after the multiplex’s neon signage has disappeared from the rear-view mirror. Despite having a deceptively simple storyline, the film is entirely unlike any other period piece love story. The manner in which Haynes uses images creates a dream-like state. The movie opens with a tracking shot and favors extended takes over quick cuts. The recreation of the 1950s is evocative of how we view that decade from existing photographs and footage of the decade. We enter easily into the world of these characters and quickly become absorbed in their situation. The approach is more European than American in style. Carol finds the perfect tone for its subject matter - at times sober, at times hopeful, at times giddy, and at times mournful - and it ends on a perfect note.
#4-ANOMALISA
Directed By: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson
The years best animated film. But this one is not for the kids. Anomalisa marks another brilliant and utterly distinctive highlight in Charlie Kaufman's filmography, and a thought-provoking treat for fans of introspective cinema. Michael Stone, husband, father and respected author of "How May I Help You Help Them?" is a man crippled by the mundanity of his life. On a business trip to Cincinnati, where he's scheduled to speak at a convention of customer service professionals, he checks into the Fregoli Hotel. There, he is amazed to discover a possible escape from his desperation in the form of an unassuming Akron baked goods sales rep, Lisa, who may or may not be the love of his life. "Anomalisa" is gorgeous to look at and maybe, at times, a little creepy, a nightmare Michael experiences wandering deliciously into territory regularly occupied by Luis Buńuel and David Lynch. The core landscapes and themes, though, as well as the wants and desires and confusion of its characters, are empathetically anchored to planet Earth. People can be cruel and fickle. They can be miserable, perpetually unsatisfied, and stuck in their ways. Michael is all of these things, and he's floundering. The heart wants what the heart wants, but what if the heart no longer knows?
#3-MAD MAX FURY ROAD
Directed By: George Miller
With exhilarating action and a surprising amount of narrative heft, George Miller's post-apocalyptic franchise roaring vigorously back to life. Mad Max: Fury Road delivers. There's no clearer or more succinct way to put it. 30 years after last appearing on the big screen, Max roars back with a vengeance. Part reboot, part sequel, and part something entirely different, Fury Road takes us on a trip that is both like and unlike the earlier excursions. Miller uses a new cast and a sizeable budget to deliver the Mad Max film he always wanted to make but was never quite able to. Talk about taking things to a new level. A kinetic, hallucinatory, boldly feminist chase flick that, with its vibrant color palette, harrowing stunt work and show-don't-tell style of yarn-spinning, leaves every Marvel movie and every Fast & Furious in its irradiated dust. Miller invited Vagina Monologues playwright Eve Ensler to the set in Namibia to help the cast try to understand the perspective of victims of sexual violence in war zones. A tall order for a summer popcorn flick, putting it mildly, not to mention for a film that, for all its brutality, sustains a lighter tone than most superhero films of recent vintage. (The sight gags are straight out of a Road Runner cartoon.) But it's all of a piece. The feminist and ecological payload of the movie is so inseparable from its simple narrative of flight and pursuit that it never feels didactic. It feels, well, visionary.
#2-SPOTLIGHT
Directed by: Tom McCarthy
Spotlight tells the riveting true story of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe investigation that would rock the city and cause a crisis in one of the world's oldest and most trusted institutions. When the newspaper's tenacious "Spotlight" team of reporters delves into allegations of abuse in the Catholic Church, their year-long investigation uncovers a decades-long cover-up at the highest levels of Boston's religious, legal, and government establishment, touching off a wave of revelations around the world. This is a tense investigative dramatic-thriller, tracing the steps to one of the biggest cover-ups in modern times. Spotlight is, at its core, a movie about chasing documents. It’s about waiting for court filings and digging through basement archives. This might not sound inherently cinematic, but McCarthy brings this story to life with a rich array of characters played by a uniformly excellent ensemble cast. It doesn't wallow in the glory of old-media ethics or lament the ongoing death of newspapers, but the movie quietly celebrates the rigorous standards of journalism that are dissipating in this era of click-baiting and Twitter outrage. In the pantheon of great films about journalism, which already includes All The President's Men and Zodiac, Spotlight joins the ranks.
#1-EX MACHINA
Directed by: Alex Garland
I saw this film in April and knew then, that it would top my list at the end of the year. Alex Garland, writer of 28 Days Later and Sunshine, makes his directorial debut with this stylish and cerebral thriller. Caleb Smith, a programmer at an internet-search giant, wins a competition to spend a week at the private mountain estate of the company's brilliant and reclusive CEO, Nathan Bateman. Upon his arrival, Caleb learns that Nathan has chosen him to be the human component in a Turing Test-charging him with evaluating the capabilities, and ultimately the consciousness, of Nathan's latest experiment in artificial intelligence. That experiment is Ava, a breathtaking A.I. whose emotional intelligence proves more sophisticated--and more deceptive--than the two men could have imagined. Ex Machina leans heavier on ideas than effects, but it's still a visually polished piece of work -- and an uncommonly engaging sci-fi feature. It's bleak and propulsive sci-fi noir, then, even without reference to its woozy intellectual depths, and Garland could not have hoped for a more promising or exciting debut. A film that keeps throwing everything at us that it can come up with, without visibly breaking a sweat. Ex Machina is memorable and downright challenging, full of sharp performances that blur the lines between humanity and programming – as well as twists that playfully defy the film’s audience. It’s an art-house movie, one that may move too slow or spend too much time in subtle reflection for casual viewers, but that doesn’t mean Garland has missed his mark. Tracing a careful line between good and evil, genius and insanity, as well as soul and soullessness, Ex Machina is captivating viewing experience – one that will leave moviegoers with plenty to contemplate.
 
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