The Top 30 Films of 2015

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20.) Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Alex Gibney has been crafting politically incendiary documentaries for the last decade, but with Going Clear he meets an opponent that’s pension for secrecy and bizarre behavior matches in equal measure Gibney’s desire to pry it open – the Church of Scientology. Framed around Lawrence Wright’s book, Gibney amasses a library of stunning footage that traces L Ron Hubbard’s life and the religion’s origin to current leader David Miscavige’s gangster tactics and battle with the IRS. With interviews from former members and archive footage, Gibney creates the most complete chronology yet of the church’s story – and it is one hell of a fascinating ride, one that goes from strange and funny to a dreadful slide into jaw-dropping revelations about the church’s imprisonment and torture of those in its ranks that don’t go along. It’s all here – Paul Haggis learning about Lord Xenu, Dictator of the Galactic Confederacy, John Travolta being bugged and blackmailed, Tom Cruise wearing a gold medallion and giving a military salute to a portrait of Hubbard and Miscavige’s missing wife and his tangled bromance with Cruise. Documentaries are still movies and simply exposing Scientology wouldn’t be enough to earn it a place on this list, but Gibney has made his most absorbing and entertaining film here, putting the story and its participants center stage instead of simply attacking the religion’s low hanging fruit. Few films this year had us talking for weeks afterward quite like this one. (Charlie Sanford)

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19.) Love & Mercy

Gifts are often a curse, with the true genius’ of the world also often burdened by the enormity of their talent. The tale of Brian Wilson is a tragic one in many ways, but Love & Mercy never lays the melodrama on thick, doesn’t try to pull too hard on any strings, something much appreciated in a sea of biopic sap. The film is solidly crafted, with first-time director Bill Pohlad shooting the two time periods in which the story is set in starkly different lighting and tones, with a graininess to the 60’s reminiscent of Super 8, and a bright, sunny 80’s that contrasts perfectly with the sad darkness of Wilson’s life, almost taunting him from his Malibu beach house with the rest of the world’s happiness just out of reach. Recording sessions are a special treat; watching Wilson put together “God Only Knows” or “Sloop John B” like Mozart dictating his requiem to the many befuddled Salieris may make ordinary mortals feel slightly inadequate, but enthralled nevertheless at seeing a master at his work. Still, it’s the performances of the two leads as younger and older Brian Wilsons that deliver the knockout punch; Paul Dano plays repression and joyful expression at once, with a buzzing energy that only makes John Cusack’s tired, worn-out wreck all the more tragically endearing. Everyone in the film does their part well, but these two are the true leaders, and through their genius Love & Mercy truly sings, a joyous outburst of the soul. (Patrick Murphy)

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18.) Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

George Lucas might have forgotten what made audiences love his original Star Wars trilogy, but J.J. Abrams was clearly taking notes. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a big schmaltzy return to the franchise’s space opera roots. While this is little more than a “soft” re-imagining of A New Hope, Abrams gets everything right about the tone and spirit of this universe. Many of the themes from Lucas’ original trilogy are re-visited, including honor, redemption, and self-doubt, but Abrams never gets lost in mythology or boring trade disputes. This is a broad sci-fi adventure on the grandest of scales, complete with epic space battles, nefarious evildoers, and wise-cracking heroes. It’s also got a refreshingly-nuanced villain, whose temper tantrums and questioning of The Dark Side make him a fascinating paradox in a galaxy full of straightforward archetypes. J.J. Abrams has not only awakened The Force, but the hopes of disgruntled fans that have been waiting for a proper continuation of this beloved sci-fi saga. (J.R. Kinnard)

The Assassin

17.) The Assassin

To claim that The Assassin is nothing like any movie anyone has ever seen would be…stretching the truth. However, there is much to be surprised by in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s stab at the martial arts genre, no pun intended, chief among them the fact that the film is more interested in the formality associated with the culture of 8th century China during a high tension diplomatic battle between an Imperial court and an independent state-province than it is with fisticuffs. Oh, there is some action, most of it quite well choreographed and shot, with special mention going to star Shu Qi for moving like an assassin that could strike fear into just about anybody’s heart, but the director is vastly more invested in how this world looks and feels, with extra emphasis on the latter, and, appropriately enough, said looks go a long way in conveying just what that world feels like. Austere acting, taciturn characters, drop dead gorgeous aesthetics, and the occasional rush of violence, The Assassin is an invitation into a time and place where powerful emotions boil underneath the surface but remain mostly hidden from obvious view, and where the most beautiful women can also be the deadliest. (Edgar Chaput)

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16.) Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

In the age of vampire love and post-apocalyptic war, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl takes the refreshing stance that high school and terminal disease are worthy enough for a teenager battle. Greg’s (Thomas Mann) talent for apathetic nonchalance is tested when his mother orders him to spend time with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a schoolmate diagnosed with cancer. When it’s discovered he and his best friend, Earl (RJ Cyler) make parodies of classic films, they try to create the perfect movie for Rachel. It’s an unenviable task to make a film about a teenager with cancer that’s moving, funny, original, and relatable but Me and Earl and the Dying Girl got everything right. (Ivy Loftberg)

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