So we again come to my Top 20 films for last year. Today we'll cover 11-20, with the Top 10 revealed tomorrow. I saw just shy of 60 movies from last year, so there are going to be some I haven't seen yet. ROOM is the one I most regret missing, along with BRIDGE OF SPIES. I also have yet to see JOY, TRUMBO, and THE REVENANT, but everything I've heard about those suggests that they probably wouldn't have entered my Top 20.
I missed others, but I suspect those are the ones people will bring up. As these are capsule reviews, I'll refrain from major spoilers.
11. The Stanford Prison Experiment - I'd been hearing big things about this one since Sundance last year. This is a college psych experiment gone horribly wrong... or perhaps more right than its originator, Professor Zimbardo had ever dreamed. 24 student volunteers are gathered, with half of them spending two weeks as prison guards and half of them spending two weeks as their prisoners. It takes shockingly little time for the guards to become abusive in their power, and it's just as disconcerting when the prisoners submit nearly as fast. In particular, I like the relatively subtle way we're shown that Zimbardo is as equally corrupted by his own authority in the experiment as his "guards."
12. Me And Earl and the Dying Girl - The story of a young man who's forced to give comfort to a classmate suffering from leukemia. As the film reminds us (perhaps too often), this is not the feel-good "Hollywood" version of the story. Romance doesn't blossom between Greg and the ailing Rachel. Indeed, Rachel - played by the wonderful Olivia Cooke - is allowed to be a bit more of a raw nerve than these stories cast their cancer patients as. I liked The Fault in Our Stars, but this is very much the anti-Fault, the less romanticized version of the story. I can see the argument that the film at times is a little too cute with its own meta-ness (a subplot has Greg and Earl making a film), but the ending pulls it back from that brink. I think I appreciated the film more than I loved it, but it's still a wonderful piece of work.
13. The Gift - I nearly wrote this one off from the trailers as just another stalker thriller. Fortunately there were enough rumblings about this being a very compelling script that I saw the movie before the big twists were blown for me. What elevates this thriller is the careful character work and the subtle performances. Joel Edgerton (who also directs from his own screenplay here) plays his role very finely on the line where he might be dangerous or he might just be a little "awkward." For a while, it seems like we might be in for a darker version of What About Bob. Bit by bit, we start seeing other shadings to Jason Bateman's character and by the time the big twists arrive, the character work elevates those moments above being mere shock value.
14. Straight Outta Compton - I'll confess I don't have much knowldege of hip-hop, particularly the era documented here. Thus, the story behind the early days of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Easy-E didn't hold much compelling interest for me as a reason to see the film. Still, I found myself pulled into this story, particularly with what it has to say about the relationship between the police and the black community. It feels relevant now in the wake of a number of recently documented police abuses, and then you realize it was relevant when it was shot, just around the time of Ferguson. Then sadly you realize there's probably no point between now and the time the film documents where there wasn't racial tension between the black community and the police, spurred on by a possible law enforcement overreach. Sadly, the lack of accountability in the Tamir Rice shooting indicates that this film will remain relevant for many, many years to come.
15. The Nightmare - Horror films never really scare me, but you know what gets under my skin? Paranormal "documentaries." When I was a kid, the Time-Life commercials for Mysteries of the Unknown were probably the most unsettling thing I'd ever seen. The Nightmare is cut from the same cloth, a documentary about sleep paralysis and the utterly terrifying hallucinations and experiences it subjects people to.
16. Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films - For what's largely a "talking heads" documentary, this look at the work of schlockmeisters Menahem Golan and his partner Yoram Globus is endlessly entertaining. At one point, these men were producing nearly 50 films a year, most of them incomprehensible. Most of the earlier years is dominated by exploitation flicks just shy of soft core porn, but later they tried to make inroads into respectability by making MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE and SUPERMAN IV. The best part of the documentary tends to be the many, many tall tales, from numerous imitations of Golan, to one collaborator noting "We didn't make films for the audience. If you came to our films, they were something to be suffered through."
17. The Big Short - If this movie doesn't make you angry, then you didn't pay close enough attention. Adam McKay's film follows three teams of people who stumble onto a disturbing truth in the early 2000s - the housing market is built with a foundation of quicksand. Not only that, but the collapse is inevitable, imminent, and they can make a LOT of money betting against the market. We didn't really need another reminder that banks are scum and some really terrible people need to be in jail rather than still walking the streets... or did we? It's a shame that films like this can't spur on real change in the system. It's an excellent argument for capital punishment in white collar crime. Call me for the Hank Paulson perp walk.
18. Spy - I haven't always enjoyed Melissa McCarthy's comedies. In fact, I think she's often better used as a supporting character, as her characters wear out their welcome when they monopolize the screentime. Spy is an exception, perhaps in part because she's given other strong personalities to play off. Jason Statham steals several scenes, showing a flair for comic timing no one would have suspected. The film impressively finds laughs in what seems like overdone territory - spoofing James Bond films. Actually, forget it being a spoof - it might actually be a BETTER Bond film than this year's offering, SPECTRE.
19. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation - I didn't love it as much as I loved the previous outing, Ghost Protocol, but if every action film was as committed to interesting set pieces, generating tension and just doing "cool shit" the way the MI series has gone, we'd be in good shape. There's a showmanship to this film that helps smooth out the rough patches that crop up now and then. Both this film and SPECTRE did a little bit of naval gazing into their own past with this year's offerings. The difference is that SPECTRE thought that this sort of inside baseball was what we were paying to see. The opera sequence alone is better than the entirety of SPECTRE, and if we're comparing female leads, Rebecca Ferguson wipes the floor with anything Bond has had to offer in a while, save for Dame Judi Dench.
20. Man Up - It's been way too long since we've had a really great romantic comedy and Man Up excels because it starts with one of my least favorite rom-com conventions (a romance starts with an implausible and inevitably discovered lie solely so its reveal can generate tension) and then just when we think we're ahead of the film, it pops that tension far ahead of schedule. Lake Bell and Simon Pegg also have real chemistry as two older people who feel like complete characters rather than an assemblage of quirks. I'm tempted to call this an anti-rom-com.