Seeing Double: Bob Mondello Picks 2015's Best Movies, 2 At A Time

Dec 30, 2015
Originally published on December 31, 2015 5:22 pm

I'm not sure why this happened, but as I assembled this year's best-of list, I kept seeing matched sets: Two terrific desert movies, two swoon-inducing romances, two single-minded crusades by men who think they're already dead, and even a pair of riveting mortgage crisis flicks (and what are the chances of that?). The doubleness is a good organizing principle, since my 10-best list nearly always turns into a 20-best — so here goes:

Two Desert Films: 'Mad Max: Fury Road' And 'The Martian'

Mad Max: Fury Road is a gorgeous, scrap-metal demolition derby — a popcorn picture with a surprising feminist twist: Tom Hardy's Max is more or less a sidekick to Charlize Theron's Furiosa.

Ridley Scott, meanwhile, makes conquering a desert on another planet downright cerebral. The Martian is about an astronaut accidentally left for dead by a crew that won't be able to get back to Mars for four years.

Two Beautifully Realized Love Stories: 'Carol' And 'Anomalisa'

Anomalisa is about a motivational speaker who is convinced that everyone is the same, until he meets Lisa, who's an anomaly. This extraordinary film is the latest weirdness from Charlie Kaufman, who gave us Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This time, his leads are puppets — figures in miniature with emotions writ grand.

Carol is another love story uncommonly told. Director Todd Haynes has adapted a Patricia Highsmith novel about a love that dared not speak its name in the 1950s — a love between two women. Lush and sumptuous, Carol is forever having its camera peer at these women through glass, mirrors and windshields, reflecting the way '50s society saw homosexuals while keeping them at a slight remove.

Two Cinematic Head Trips: 'Inside Out' And '45 Years'

Pixar's Inside Out takes audiences literally inside the head of an 11-year-old girl by giving personalities to her emotions. And while Inside Out expresses everything its heroine is thinking, the tragedy 45 Years gives us Charlotte Rampling as a wife who keeps her feelings bottled up. So much so, that when a revelation shakes her marriage, the film could almost be called "outside in."

Two Brutal Historical Epics: 'Son Of Saul' And 'The Revenant'

Both of these films feature men who risk everything because they figure they're already dead: Son of Saul's Saul because he's in Auschwitz, and The Revenant's 1820s fur trapper because he was left for dead by a man who also killed his son. Both of these films left me wrung-out.

Two Mortgage Crisis Films: '99 Homes' And 'The Big Short'

Both of these films left me angry. I'd suggest you watch 99 Homes first. It'll have you seething about predatory real estate brokers. Then, once you've become acquainted with the ordinary folks who were the housing bubble's big losers, check out the guys who saw the crash coming and figured out how to profit from it in The Big Short. It plays like a comic heist flick, but this heist had real-world consequences.

Two Eye-Openers From The Muslim World: 'Timbuktu' And 'Taxi'

Timbuktu chronicles the confusion in Mali when jihadists issue conflicting edicts about worship and culture. They ban music, for instance, which leads to this line in the subtitles: "They are singing in praise of God and the prophet. Should I arrest them?"

The Iranian film Taxi finds gentle comedy in a different set of contradictions: Internationally celebrated director Jafar Panahi is banned by his government from operating a camera, writing a script or directing a film. So what does he do? He drives a taxi with a camera on its dashboard, and lets Tehran's dramas come to him.

Two Films That Exalt Journalists: 'Spotlight' And 'The Salt Of The Earth'

Spotlight is a sharply made newspaper procedural about a Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe investigation that documented not just sexual abuse by priests, but a cover-up by the Catholic Church.

The documentary The Salt of the Earth also turns a spotlight on horrors — this one through the exquisite black-and-white images created by photojournalist Sebastiao Salgado. Salgado makes the world face up to landscapes of famine, drought and war by finding humanity in scenes of despair.

Two Feminine Perspectives On Sex And Maturity: 'Diary Of A Teenage Girl' And 'Trainwreck'

Women have been having an extraordinary year in front of the camera, so it's fitting that in two of the year's best films they also excelled behind the camera. Both Phoebe Gloeckner, who penned the autobiographical graphic novel on which The Diary of a Teenage Girl is based, and director Marielle Heller contributed to giving that film a distinctly feminine teen outlook. And Amy Schumer's script for her riotous comedy, Trainwreck, about a woman who realizes she's been undervaluing both her feelings and herself, gave her hilarious performance authority as well as laughs.

And now that I'm tallying, let me mention some remarkable films that stood alone: Tangerine, a brash story about trans prostitutes shot on iPhone 5s; The Tribe, a wordless portrait of deaf juvenile delinquents; Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a little indie flick you might have heard of; and Love and Mercy, the story of Beach Boy Brian Wilson, who struggled mightily with mental illness and played extravagantly with sound. I think about sound all day in my job, and Love and Mercy made me reconsider everything I thought I knew. Not bad for the 20th film in a year full of good vibrations.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When our critic, Bob Mondello gets back from a film festival, we all ask him the same thing - how are the movies? And this year, he gave out a lot of B-pluses. Now, with that good but not great rating, we wondered if there were enough movies he really loved to make a best-of 2015 list. Well, he did - and oddly, in duplicate. He'll explain.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Not sure why this happened, but I kept seeing matched sets as I was assembling my bests - two terrific desert movies, two swoon-inducing romances, two single-minded crusades by men who think they're already dead, even a pair of riveting mortgage crisis flicks. And what are the chances of that? The double-ness is a good organizing principle, since my 10-best list nearly always turns in to a 20 best. So let's start with two beautifully realized love stories, each named after its leading lady - "Carol" and "Anomalisa." "Anomalisa" is about a motivational speaker who is convinced that everyone is the same, until he meets Lisa, who's an anomaly - "Anomalisa."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANOMALISA")

DAVID THEWLIS: (As Michael Stone) I think you're extraordinary.

JENNIFER JASON LEIGH: (As Lisa) Why?

THEWLIS: (As Michael Stone) I don't know yet. It's just obvious to me that you are.

MONDELLO: The movie's extraordinary, too, the latest weirdness from Charlie Kaufman, who gave us "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind." This time, his leads are puppets - figures in miniature, emotions writ grand. "Carol" is another love story uncommonly told.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAROL")

CATE BLANCHETT: (As Carol Aird) What do you do on Sundays?

ROONEY MARA: (As Therese Belivet) Nothing in particular. What do you do?

MONDELLO: Director Todd Haynes is adapting a Patricia Highsmith novel about a love that dare not speak its name in the 1950s - a love between two women.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAROL")

BLANCHETT: (As Carol Aird) Would you like to come visit me this Sunday?

MARA: (As Therese Belivet) Yes.

BLANCHETT: (As Carol Aird) What a strange girl you are - flung out of space.

MONDELLO: Lush and sumptuous, "Carol" is forever having its camera peer at these women through glass - mirrors, windshields, reflecting the way '50s societies saw homosexuals while keeping them at a slight remove. Two splendid films in desert settings made the most of their bleak landscapes. "Mad Max: Fury Road" is gorgeous, scrap metal demolition derby.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAD MAX: FURY ROAD")

CHARLIZE THERON: (As Imperator Furiosa) Want to get through this?

MONDELLO: A popcorn picture with a surprising feminist twist - Tom Hardy's Max is, more or less, a sidekick to Charlize Theron's Furiosa.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAD MAX: FURY ROAD")

THERON: (As Imperator Furiosa) Go.

MONDELLO: Ridley Scott, meanwhile, makes conquering a desert on another planet downright cerebral. "The Martian" is about an astronaut accidentally left for dead by a crew that won't be able to get back to Mars for four years, or four times 365 souls, in NASA speak.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MARTIAN")

MATT DAMON: (As Mark Watney) Let's do the math. Our surface mission here was supposed to last 31 souls. For redundancy, they send 68 souls worth of food. That's for six people. So for just me, that's going to last 300 souls, which I figure I can stretch to 400 if I ration. So I got to figure out a way to grow three years worth of food here on a planet where nothing grows. Luckily, I'm a botanist.

MONDELLO: "The Martian" and "Mad Max" are physical journeys. Equally striking this year were a couple of cinematic head trips. Pixar's "Inside Out" takes audiences literally inside the head of an 11-year-old girl...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INSIDE OUT")

AMY POEHLER: (As Joy) Train of thought - right on schedule.

MONDELLO: ...By giving personalities to promotions.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INSIDE OUT")

POEHLER: (As Joy) Anger, unload the daydreams. I ordered extra in case things get slow in class.

LEWIS BLACK: (As Anger) Might come in handy if this new school is full of boring, useless classes, which it probably will be.

POEHLER: (As Joy) Oh, Sadness...

MONDELLO: And while "Inside Out" expresses everything its heroine is thinking, the tragedy "45 Years" gives us Charlotte Rampling as a wife who keeps her feelings bottled up so much so when a revelation shakes her marriage that the film could almost be called "Outside In."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "45 YEARS")

CHARLOTTE RAMPLING: (As Kate Mercer) We never talked about it in all the years that we've known each other. And it's tainted everything.

MONDELLO: That's six films. The next two are a pair of brutal historical epics about men who risk everything because they figure they're already dead - Saul in "Son Of Saul" because he's in Auschwitz and the 1820s fur trapper in "The Revenant" because he was left for dead by a man who also killed his son.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE REVENANT")

LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (As Hugh Glass) He's afraid. He knows how far I came to find him.

MONDELLO: But "The Revenant" and "Son Of Saul" left me wrung out. The year's match set of mortgage crisis films left me angry. I'd suggest you watch "99 Homes" first. It'll have you seething about predatory real estate brokers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "99 HOMES")

MICHAEL SHANNON: (As Rick Carver) This home has been foreclosed on.

ANDREW GARFIELD: (As Dennis Nash) No, this is not happening.

MONDELLO: Then, once you've become acquainted with the ordinary folks who were the housing bubble's big losers, check out the guys who saw the crash coming and figured out how to profit from it in "The Big Short."

STEVE CARELL: (As Mark Baum) You're saying that at 8 percent the bonds fail, and we are already at 4 percent?

RYAN GOSLING: (As Jared Vennett) That's right.

CARELL: (As Mark Baum) If they go to 8, it's Armageddon.

GOSLING: (As Jared Vennet) Let me put it this way - I'm standing in front of a burning house, and I'm offering you fire insurance on it.

MONDELLO: "The Big Short" plays like a comic heist flick, but this heist had real-world consequences. Consequences in the Islamic world drive two eye-opening films by Muslim directors. "Timbuktu" chronicles the confusion in rural Africa when jihadists issue conflicting edicts about worship and culture. They ban music, for instance, which leads to a line in the subtitles - they are singing in praise of God and the prophet. Should I arrest them? The Iranian film "Taxi" finds gentle comedy in a different set of contradictions. Internationally celebrated director Jafar Panahi is now banned by his government from operating a camera, writing a script or directing a film. So what does he do? He drives a taxi with a camera on its dashboard and let's Tehran's dramas come to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TAXI TEHRAN")

MONDELLO: That is six sets of matched pairs - a dozen films. I've got two more doubles, and then some singular sensations. The next twosome - films that exalt journalists - "Spotlight," a sharply made newspaper procedural about a Pulitzer-winning Boston Globe investigation, the one that documented not just a sexual abuse by priests but a cover-up by the Catholic Church.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPOTLIGHT")

MARK RUFFALO: (As Mike Rezendes) They knew, and they let it happen to kids. We got to nail these scumbags. We got to show people that nobody can get away with this.

MONDELLO: Also dealing with turning a spotlight on horrors, the documentary "Salt Of The Earth," which looks at the exquisite black-and-white images created by photojournalist Sebastiao Salgado. He made the world face up to landscapes of famine, droughts and war by finding humanity in scenes of despair. And my last matched set - two feminine perspectives on sex and maturity. The youthful, indie version is "Diary Of A Teenage Girl."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL")

BEL POWLEY: (As Minnie) I had sex today. I know nothing's changed, but everything looks totally different to me now.

MONDELLO: And for the adult version, there's Amy Schumer subversively funny "Trainwreck."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TRAINWRECK")

AMY SCHUMER: (As Amy) I slept at the doctor's place last night.

VANESSA BAYER: (As Nikki) You never spend the night. What were you, black-out drunk?

SCHUMER: (As Amy) No, I was sober. I had, like, two drinks - three, max - four, now that I'm tallying.

MONDELLO: And now that I'm tallying, let me mention some remarkable films that stood alone - "Tangerine," a brash story about trans prostitutes shot on iPhone 5's, "The Tribe," a wordless portrait of deaf juvenile delinquents, "The Force Awakens," a little indie flick from J.J. Abrams you might've heard of, and "Love And Mercy"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD VIBRATIONS")

THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) It's weird how she comes in so strong.

MONDELLO: ...The story of Beach Boy Brian Wilson, who struggled mightily with mental illness and played extravagantly with sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LOVE AND MERCY")

PAUL DANO, JAKE ABEL, GRAHAM ROGERS, KENNY WORMALD, BRETT DAVERN AND GEHLFUSS: (As The Beach Boys, singing) I'm picking up good vibrations. She's giving me...

PAUL DANO: (As Brian Wilson) Good, we got that part. Cut it. I want to move to Gold Star for the next part.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Oh, not again.

DANO: (As Brian Wilson) OK, let's cut, please. OK, so try to - more staccato, OK? You guys are the rhythm now, so it's like an engine underneath the sound. Dennis, can you be quiet please while we find the sound? Thanks.

MONDELLO: I think about sound all day in my job. "Love And Mercy" made me reconsider everything I thought I knew - not bad for the 20th film in a year that - B-pluses or no - kept those good vibrations happening. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD VIBRATIONS")

THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) Good, good, good, good vibrations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.