Film Feature: Carrie’s Top 10 Films of 2015

by Carrie Kahn on January 1, 2016

Spinning Platters film critics present their top 10 films of 2015

Spinning Platters film critics Carrie Kahn and Chad Liffmann each share their ten favorite films of 2015. Here is Carrie’s list, presented in alphabetical order. (And you can find Chad’s here.)

1.) Brooklyn

Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) shares a tender moment with boyfriend Tony (Emory Cohen).

The immigrant experience in America is exquisitely captured in director John Crowley’s finely crafted film about love, loss, and longing in 1950s Brooklyn. Based on the novel by Colm Tóibín, Nick Hornby’s screenplay presents us with the intrepid young Irish woman Eilis, who leaves her family in the Irish countryside for adventure and opportunity in New York. Saoirse Ronan suberbly conveys Eilis’s gradual shift from shy newcomer to confident cosmopolitan. Called back home for a family emergency, Eilis must choose between familiar comforts and new possibilities, and Ronan depicts Eilis’s struggle with heartrending openness and aching honesty. Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson, as competing suitors on opposite sides of the Atlantic, also deliver strong, sharply drawn performances.

2.) Grandma

Lily Tomlin’s Elle is no pushover Grandma.

Septuagenarian Lily Tomlin gets her juiciest role yet in writer/director Paul Weitz’s film about an acerbic former academic and feminist poet who helps her granddaughter obtain money for an abortion. The subject is deftly handled with sensitivity, humor, and truth, and Tomlin’s Elle is one of the most indelible characters to be found on screen this year, or any year, for that matter. Themes of family bonds and personal history come to the forefront as Elle and granddaughter Sage (a delicate but determined Julia Garner) slowly collect the needed cash. Tomlin’s scene with the wonderful Sam Elliott, as a former lover of Elle’s, is a master class of nuanced and forceful acting, and the movie is easily worth seeing just for that alone. First-rate supporting work by Marcia Gay Harden, as Elle’s daughter and Sage’s mother, and Judy Greer, as Elle’s most recent ex, also help make this smart black comedy one of the best of the year. (You can also read my full-length review here).

3.) Little Accidents 

Diana (Elizabeth Banks) and Amos (Boyd Holbrook) are bonded by a traumatic accident.

This indie picture by writer/director Sara Colangelo (who expanded her award-winning short film of the same name) played the film festival circuit in 2014, and then had a limited release early this year. That it didn’t receive more exposure is a real shame, as its exploration of truth, morality, and socioeconomic status is particularly relevant and compelling today. A film about parallel accidents in West Virginia coal country, its story unfolds like a Greek tragedy. The picture features exceptional performances by Elizabeth Banks as a mine executive’s wealthy wife, Boyd Holbrook as a miner who has survived a terrible disaster, and young Jacob Lofland (Mud), as a boy involved with a harrowing incident that mirrors what the adults around him are facing.

4.) Me and Earl and the Dying Girl 

Greg (Thomas Mann) and Rachel (Olivia Cooke) walk and talk.

Deservedly winning both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance earlier this year, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s adaptation of Jesse Andrews’s young adult novel is one of the best coming of age pictures ever made. The so-called, au courant “Sad Teen Death Movie” is turned on its head here, with Gomez-Rejon bringing dry humor and an honest awareness to the story of young wannabe-filmmaker Greg (an excellent Thomas Mann) and his friend Earl (RJ Cyler), who befriend cancer-stricken classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke). Terrific supporting performances by Nick Offerman and Molly Shannon as the teens’ parents only enhance the proceedings. Funny, clever, and moving without being sentimental, Gomez-Rejon’s film is uniquely charming and unforgettably poignant.

5.) Meru

Climber Conrad Anker looks back at how far he’s come.

Another of this year’s Sundance winners, this dazzling mountain climbing documentary won the Audience Award for Best Documentary, and was also nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. Directed by renowned climber and photographer Jimmy Chin and his wife Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, the picture details the efforts of Chin and fellow climbers Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk to climb Mount Meru via the Shark’s Fin route, one of the most difficult climbs in the Himalayas. The trio’s perseverance in the face of a host of challenges and setbacks is an awe-inspiring testament to the strength of the human spirit. Interviews with the climbers, their friends, family, and outdoor writer and mountaineer Jon Krakauer invigorate the dynamic human interest story, while the jaw-dropping, breathtaking cinematography will leave you enraptured. Inspiring, enthralling, and absolutely stunning, Meru has been short-listed for a Best Documentary Oscar nomination, and it’s my pick to win.

6.) People Places Things 

Newly single Dad Will (Jemaine Clement) tries to manage his twins.

New Zealander Jemaine Clement is perhaps best known as one half of the folk rock-comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, but both his fans and those unfamiliar with him will delight in his performance in this warm and sardonic indie comedy by writer/director James C. Strouse. Clement plays Will Henry, a graphic novelist and art teacher reeling from the news that his girlfriend (and mother of his adorable twin girls) is leaving him for another man. The dissolution of a long-term relationship and its effects on all concerned – from grief and anger to eventual acceptance and hope for the future – is gracefully explored with tenderness, authenticity, and wry humor. Emotionally layered performances by Clement, Regina Hall (as Will’s new love interest), and Stephanie Allynne (as Will’s ex) help make Strouse’s film a refreshingly different romantic comedy – one that is as perceptive, engaging, and realistic as it is genuinely funny.

7.) Spotlight

The Spotlight team at work.

Based on the true story of the Boston Globe’s uncovering of the pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church in Boston, and, ultimately, beyond, writer/director Tom McCarthy’s powerful and absorbing picture celebrates the skill and resolve of the Globe reporters at the same time it laments the decline of print journalism. The film fittingly puts the story front and center, and the stellar ensemble cast brings the narrative to light with appropriate no-nonsense purpose. Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, and Mark Ruffalo all get chances to shine, but the methodic investigation that the Globe’s Spotlight team conducts, despite various challenges and hindrances, always remains the heart of the film. Emotionally rich and always riveting, McCarthy’s film stands along All the President’s Men as a masterpiece of the newsroom drama. (You can also read my full-length review here).

8.) Star Wars: The Force Awakens 

Old friends Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) are back in trouble again.

You have to hand it to JJ Abrams: he took the reins of the beloved and iconic series, and made us all feel ten again. Is his picture a retread of the ’77 original? Sure. Is it exactly what legions of fans wanted? Definitely. Is it the most collectively joyous, fun-filled experience you’ll have at the cinema this year? Without a doubt. Because if your eyes don’t tear up at hearing the first notes of the classic John Williams score, and if you don’t grin stupidly and applaud madly at the first sight of the Millennium Falcon, then, quite simply, your heart must be as icy as a winter on Hoth. (You can also read Chad’s excellent full-length review here).

9.) The Walk 

Be careful, Philippe!

While the 2008 documentary Man on Wire expertly detailed French tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s daring 1974 high-wire walk between the World Trade Center towers, writer/director Robert Zemeckis, in this dramatic retelling, brings the viewer into the story in a pulse-quickening, visceral way that the documentary couldn’t. Sprightly Joseph Gordon-Leavitt is well cast as Petit, capturing the Frenchman’s determination, artistry, grace, and pluck. The picture works well as both a shrewd caper tale and a lovely treatise on the power of art and creativity. It also, bittersweetly, serves as a haunting, beautiful memoir of the Twin Towers themselves. The cinematography and special effects are the real stars here, though; the visuals will leave you breathless and altogether stunned. Indeed, the verisimilitude of the picture is such that you’ll feel you’re on the wire with Petit, experiencing every wobble and every breeze. Just don’t look down.

10.) Welcome to Me 

Alice (Kristen Wiig) cooks and eats her favorites live on TV.

Reality TV and social media come under the knife in director Shira Piven’s pointed yet compassionate darkly comic tale of a former veterinary nurse with borderline personality disorder. Alice (a remarkable Kristen Wiig) wins the lottery and turns her life into a spectacularly self-absorbed talk show, but her disease and her chosen forum for self-expression don’t always mesh well. Marvelously acted by Wiig and supporting players Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack, Wes Bentley, James Marsden, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, Piven’s film serves not only as a brilliant showcase for Wiig’s dramatic acting talent, but also as a caustic but affecting exploration of some of the most troubling issues of our modern times.

Honorable mentionsAll Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records, The Big Short (see Chad’s review here), and Trumbo.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll. Proud new member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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