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Sunday
Jan172016

KICKING THE SEAT's Top 15 Films of 2015

2015 was a great year for movies, and for Kicking the Seat. Before we get to The List, I'd like to take a step back and look at how different KtS is now than it was a year ago (no judgments for jumping ahead).

At the end of 2014, I resolved to deliver more frequent episodes of the KtS Podcast. Things started off strong, but throughout the year, I lost my regular co-hosts to various circumstances, and the show's future seemed doubtful. Undeterred, I pushed ahead, enlisting a fantastic roster of guests and interview subjects to talk about film--in locations as varied as a crowded theatre lobby, a bustling greasy spoon, and a living room couch (the sound quality wasn't always ideal, but the conversations couldn't have been more fun).

On that note, I'd like to extend a heartfelt thanks to Matt, Graham, Denitsa, Bill, Gari, Charlie, Kevin, Tom, Emmanuel, Aaron, David, Nick, Adam, Brendan, Irvine, Bob, AlexGaspar, and anyone else whose name I'm sure I'll remember tomorrow. Without your enthusiasm, patience, and generosity, I could not have produced 48 episodes last year.

In addition to that project, I wrote 106 film reviews and watched at least a dozen movies that I didn't get around to writing about. Between family; a non-film-related day job; helping with graphics for the Chicago Critics Film Festival; and a deep depression that I won't bore you with, something had to give--which is why I reluctantly shuttered the podcast on New Year's Eve. I miss it. But I don't miss the running around, or the constant, irrational worrying about quality and hits and listenership that come with such endeavors. 2016 is going to be about balance, about making sure I've properly inflated what Zig Ziglar calls "The Wheel of Life", and that it's rolling forward. Hence the lack of content these last few weeks, and the tardiness of this piece.

Hey, let's get back to the positive! I participated in a live podcast at the Navy Pier IMAX theatre (cautiously engaging with an audience that looooved Terminator: Genisys). I saw one of my reviews in print for the first time, courtesy of The Chicago Reader. And I had my socks charmed off by Sarah Silverman at a Four Seasons reception.

None of this compares to the thrill of meeting new film critics, filmmakers, and film fans. Movie criticism is a divisive profession, but the art form it celebrates is both a great uniter and an impetus for fantastic relationships. Yes, watching movies involves sitting quietly in the dark, looking at a screen. But that's only half the experience: the real fun begins afterwards, sharing reactions (some profound, some profoundly pissed) with others who are excited, knowledgeable, and who just plain love to geek out. This appreciation for my film-loving family extends not just to my brothers and sisters at the Chicago Film Critics Association (who I'm convinced will one day figure out their grand mistake in bringing me aboard), but also to the random folks at screenings who have become friends, simply by asking, "Why didn't you like American Ultra?"

Okay, about The List...

Here's the part where I defend not having seen/mentioned/loved [Your Favorite Movie]--or for ranking a movie that, in your mind, cannot be considered great by any self-processed film connoisseur. To be clear, my choices are my own, and are not governed by popular taste. The only common thread in this "Best" list is that each selection moved me, or surprised me, or both. Not all of these have been recognized by the Awards Season crowd, but they are each worth seeing and discussing. We love what we love, and no amount of commentary or taste-maker scolding will disintegrate the warm fuzzies we feel after being profoundly affected by a piece of art.

I learned that lesson this year, too.

Now, for the moment you've been waiting for since mid-December, when this list should have gone out. Feel free to share this list, comment on it, and, above all, check out the films. Thank you for reading, engaging, and staying passionate.

Kicking the Seat's Top Films of 2015 (in approximate order of awesomeness):

1. The End of the Tour For me, the film that best encapsulates 2015 is set in 1996. Director James Ponsoldt's heady road trip movie follows young journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) as he interviews newly minted voice-of-his-generation David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), during the Infinite Jest book tour. Wallace is like an anthropomorphized Facebook that arrived a decade too early: Lipsky's obsession with Wallace's fame, significance, and nth-level-Bandanna-Buddha awareness fuels a half-dozen late-night conversations--during which Lipsky constantly hits "refresh", seeking information, entertainment, and the key to it all.

Wallace is just a man, unfortunately, and we see (and hear about) signs that his cosmic-insight antenna may be primed for overload. Before depression, substances, and unbearable loneliness ultimately killed the author, he poured his soul into dense volumes of essays and stories--warnings, really about the slippery slope of mankind's quest for convenience, its melting morality, and burgeoning disconnection from itself. He warned us of these problems twenty years before they got out of hand, but Lipsky and others were more interested in the light shining on Wallace than the one radiating from him.

2. The Big Short I thought Spotlight was a pretty great film, until I saw The Big Short. Adam McKay's "Housing Crash for Dummies" dramedy is just as sharp and committed to the idea of minutiae as a white-knuckle device as Tom McCarthy's Catholic-priest cover-up flick. But McKay injects his finance-world satire with a contagious outrage that calls the audience to action (or at least vigilance). At first glance, it seems odd that the helmer of some of the new century's biggest, dumbest comedies would deliver one of the most important films in years. But it makes total sense: McKay helped craft the pop-cinema language of those whose voices most desperately need to be heard in the real world.

3. Mad Max: Fury Road People went back to the movies in 2015. It seems studios finally realized the difference between a theatrical release and a big-screen experience: why not make the most out of that sprawling, hope-filled canvas, instead of sticking any old brand, star, and explosion suite up there? The plodding, cartoon silliness of Terminator: Genysis and Jurassic World weren't worthy of the IMAX treatment, but inventive, balls-to-the-wall action epics like The Force Awakens, Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation, and especially Mad Max: Fury Road rewarded moviegoers with spectacles of bombast, practical craftsmanship, and, in the best cases, big ideas to gnaw on months after release.

George Miller was first out of the gate, and claimed the year's high-water mark in mid-May. At nearly seventy years old, he had the guts, ambition, and just plain verve to sideline his title character in favor of creating one of the genre's most unexpected and striking protagonists (Charlize Theron's incomparable badass, Imperator Furiosa). Everything about Fury Road is larger than life, including its implicit thesis that some films are simply not meant to be downloaded and watched on a phone.

4. Victoria There are spectacles of bombast, and there are spectacles of intimacy. Chances are, you didn't see (or even hear about) Sebastian Schipper's two-plus-hour, single-take heist film. But if you did catch Victoria between blinks at a local art house, I guarantee you'd never seen anything like it. A soul-soaring tribute to pure creative ambition and what must have amounted to saintly patience on the part of everyone involved, the Berlin-set drama follows an aimless Portuguese woman who meets a pack of cool criminals while clubbing in Berlin. Newcomer Laia Costa and co-star Frederick Lau didn't just give us last year's most charismatic and tragic movie couple; they mirrored the high-wire passion it took to bring this story to life.

5. Inside Out A good movie is rewatchable. A great movie is rewatchable and creates an emotional bond that doesn't wane on subsequent viewings. Pete Docter's latest film is Pixar's most emotionally intelligent--fitting, since it's all about antrhopomorphized feelings who inhabit the mind of a pre-pubescent girl. Of course, the movie's gorgeous. Of course, the filmmakers brought in top talent to voice the practically tangible animated characters. But Docter and company invest so much insight into what makes us tick as to pack every frame of their lavish brain-scapes with meaning. The death of a very important character takes on greater weight each time I see Inside Out because I'm literally a different person at the start. You won't find such nuggets in The Good Dinosaur.

6. Ex Machina Like The End of the Tour, Ex Machina proves that you don't have to spend a gajillion dollars on capes and creatures in order to blow audiences' minds. Sometimes, all it takes is great actors playing odd characters having profound conversations. Alex Garland's story of a tech mogul's sinister foray into the world of artificial intelligence presents us with beautiful monsters and ugly conundrums. Set almost entirely in a Mac-inspired underground compound, the movie forces us to take a bigger-picture view of the questions Garland's characters don't even know to ask. We can only gasp at the end, as the servant/master dynamic becomes as murky as a phone app's User Agreement.

7. The Final Girls It took several years for Hollywood to shake the horror-remake bug. Fortunately, the meta-horror-throwback craze seems to be working its way through our collective system in a fraction of the time. The Final Girls may look like just another low-budget symptom, but it's really a tender mother-daughter love story wrapped in a fun and visually exciting genre commentary. I didn't expect to cry during a PG-13 slasher send-up, especially not the second time around. But I did, and I still can't hear "Bette Davis Eyes" without thinking of the powerful, fateful moment when Malin Akerman tells Taissa Farmiga, "I'm a movie star."

8. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens One of the biggest films of 2015 was an empty-headed, over-long VFX spectacle that relied exclusively on nostalgia and the death of a beloved series icon to gloss over a "story" that had already been told six times. But enough about Furious 7. The Force Awakens isn't perfect, and it doesn't need to be. After three viewings, I'm still asking questions, still dreaming of possibilities, and still rooting for J.J. Abrams' deceptively complex galaxy of new and unforgettable characters.

9. Room I love Brie Larson, and I love her as Ma, a kidnapping-victim who spends more than half a decade trapped in a shed with her son. But Room belongs to Jacob Tremblay, the earnest and intuitive young actor who plays five-year-old Jack. Director Lenny Abrahamson spends half the movie confining us, and the other half illustrating just how confining freedom can be. The cluttered, oppressive living space that dominates his characters' lives is an eerie, artistic metaphor for the baggage that can keep us from realizing our full potential. Tremblay's performance steers Room into a wholly different perspective for Ma, and for the audience.

10. Trainwreck The Carefree Promiscuous New York Woman is a diverse sub-genre. From Sex and the City to Girls to Bridesmaids to Obvious Child, the entertainment landscape is lousy with "Me, Too!" attempts to prove that men don't corner the market in debauched, unflattering behavior. Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer create a new mold with their story of an alcoholic, commitment-phobic journalist who falls for a straight-laced sports doctor (who's actually--gasp!--a nice guy with nothing to hide!). Some chastised Trainwreck for its tidy ending, suggesting that the filmmakers dulled the protagonist's edge by having her settle down.

I found boldness in the decision, and realism: turning one's back on true love, when one is lucky enough to find it, and especially in the name of bucking so-called societal norms, is foolish and uninteresting--two things that Schumer and Apatow are decidedly not.

11. Amy Asif Kapadia's documentary about the late pop star Amy Winehouse is an innovative and heartbreaking new-millennium tragedy. The film examines every personal, professional, and creative detail of her brief career, while serving as a frightening reminder of ubiquitous digital media and its subsequent all-access invitation to public scrutiny. Kapadia doesn't place us at the helm of Winehouse's substance-abuse trainwreck, but he caught us snapping selfies at the crime scene.

12. Cool Apocalypse Technically the smallest film on the list, Cool Apocalypse made one of the biggest impacts on me this year. Michael Glover Smith's day-in-the-life indie looks at two Chicago couples; as one falls apart, the other is just getting started, and they both converge on a truly awkward double date. The movie feels like a heightened-reality documentary: romantic, funny, and sad in the way we wish real life could be. Cinematographer Vincent Bolger also presents several stunning yet oddly intimate portraits of the North Side, which reinforces Smith's film as a Millennial Manhattan.

13. While We're Young Noah Baumbach's clash-of-generations comedy wrenches keen insight from its high-concept roots. Sure, it's lots of fun to watch airy hipsters Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried pull a long con on Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts--transforming the rut-stuck middle-aged couple into porkpie-hat-wearing, hip-hop-class students--but Baumbach asks some wonderfully difficult questions about the value of truth in the Content Age. The answers form an unsettling, spiritual-post-script to The End of the Tour.

14. Cinderella Yes, Disney made the list again. Yes, Cinderella is yet another live-action Elseworlds take on one of the mega-corporation's already wildly marketed-to-death animated properties. But like Snow White and the Huntsman and Maleficent before it, Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella is a bold, lavish take on the source material that can't just be written off as a theme-park-ride adaptation. Across-the-board-excellent performances from Lily James, Cate Blanchett, and Richard Madden (along with exquisite locations and costuming) smashed my cynicism on the steps of Cinderella's immersive storybook castle.

15. Straight Outta Compton The only complaint I can level at F. Gary Gray's two-and-a-half-hour N.W.A. biopic is that it isn't long enough. As with all "true life" stories, the film's accuracy is suspect, but the electric young cast, hard-driving soundtrack, and action-movie direction make the dramatic experience one hundred percent authentic. The momentum flags in the middle, likely due to a logistically tricky narrative (six guys, nine years, one movie), but Gray and company accomplished their goal: If you've ever doubted the struggle and artistry that comprise rap music, Straight Outta Compton will make you a believer.

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