Finding alternatives in 2015 to big-budget blockbusters and beard-stroking festival films wasn’t easyIt has been a lean year. All too often, it felt like you had seen the movies of 2015 before — each new release seemed to be the shadow of a shadow of an original idea. You could see it popcorn flicks such as “Fifty Shades of Gray” or “Ant-Man” as well as Oscar-bait biopics such as “The Imitation Game” and “The Theory of Everything,” never mind glacial “slow cinema” such as “Winter Sleep.” Cinema is not dead, but it has lost its mojo, split between the extremes of gazillion-dollar superhero fireball porn or beard-stroking festival films while ceding the cultural middle-ground to television and online video.
10 Ex Machina: Let me begin with a protest vote for “Ex Machina,” a sci-fi thriller about a cold, sexy fembot played by Alicia Vikander. Surely releasing this in Japan would be a no-brainer, right? Wrong. “Ex Machina,” Alex Garland’s brilliantly twisted techno-fetishistic take on the Turing test, has opened pretty much everywhere in the world — including nearby South Korea back in January! — but it still doesn’t have a release date here. Japan’s lag on releasing overseas films was once excusable, but these days it’s just pathetic.
9 Mad Men, Season 7, Episode 14, ‘Person to Person’: Protest vote No. 2. This delightfully ambiguous, cynical yet uplifting ending to the long-running AMC series about a 1960s advertising agency — where hippie love and utopianism winds up as just another ad campaign — surpassed almost anything the big screen had to offer. And it was hardly alone in that regard, as “Fargo,” “Transparent” or “Better Call Saul” can attest. Whatever edge in quality movies once had over TV is gone.
8 Whiplash: Every film about musicians plays up the sudden burst of innate creativity to the max, while ignoring the long, practice-till-your-fingers-bleed dedication necessary to master one’s craft. Not “Whiplash,” which portrays music conservatory study as if it’s boot camp, with J.K. Simmons playing its sadistic drill sergeant of a conductor. “Whiplash” delivered the most in-your-face performance of 2015.
7 The Look Of Silence: When I heard that Joshua Oppenheimer had made a sequel to “The Act of Killing” — his poignant documentary of Indonesian genocide and evil unpunished — I wasn’t sure I could handle going into that darkness again. But it was worth it. “The Look of Silence” illuminates the structures of fear and brutality that entire societies are built upon, so deep they exist unremarked upon.
6 Some Velvet Morning: Neil Labute’s latest went straight to DVD, but is worth digging up. Stanley Tucci, in a rare leading role, plays a lawyer who decides to leave his wife in New York and move in with his younger mistress (Alice Eve) in London — oh, and he didn’t bother telling her. One flat, two actors and a script with a lifetime’s worth of experience in messy break-ups. “Some Velvet Morning” is brilliant but claustrophobic, like Richard Linklater’s “Tape” or Roman Polanski’s “Carnage.”
5 Big Eyes: Tim Burton’s first reality-based film since “Ed Wood” is a refreshing change. Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz star as 1950s arthouse power couple Margaret and Walter Keane, famous for their kitsch paintings of saucer-eyed kids. Well, her paintings, really, and therein lies the story. “Big Eyes” is a parable for Generation YouTube, where the people promoting creative content exert a stranglehold on the actual creators.
4 Clouds of Sils Maria: Director Olivier Assayas graces my top 10 for the fifth time now (after “Clean,” “Summer Hours,” “Carlos” and “Something in the Air”) and it’s a toss-up between him and Jacques Audiard for best working French director. “Clouds of Sils Maria” has Juliette Binoche as an actress facing a mid-life crisis, with Kristen Stewart as her personal assistant and Chloe Grace Moretz playing a bratty Hollywood celeb. The boundaries between character and core identity, and cinema’s past and present, collide and explode in 1,000 shards.
3 Inside Out: “Train of thought, right on schedule!” Did I laugh harder at anything else this year? Nope. And “Inside Out,” with its zany look at the emotions battling for control inside an 11-year-old girl’s head — joy, sadness, fear, disgust and anger — may be the only psychedelic Freudian cartoon you’ll ever see. Despite showing advanced symptoms of sequelitis, Pixar retains the ability to do bold, original work.
2 Narco Cultura: This documentary contrasts American Latino musicians making a sweet living off of “narcocorridos” — a kind of mariachi gangster rap, often commissioned by gangsters to celebrate their exploits — and a cop in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, who has to deal with the aftermath of brutal cartel slayings. The gap between mindlessly consuming violent entertainment and the actual violence it is based on becomes painfully clear.
1 Birdman: Michael Keaton (Tim Burton’s “Batman”) plays a nearly washed-up actor who still wants to do meaningful work, but finds himself utterly defined by the superhero role he once played — if that isn’t a metaphor for contemporary cinema, I don’t know what is. “Birdman” is the joy of a filmmaker completely off the leash, a stark contrast to the filmmaking-by-committee that defines Hollywood today.
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