Now that 2015 is over, it’s time to look back on the films that had the most profound effect on me. Of all the lists I write, this is always my favorite one (hence the length). As fun as it is to trash something, it’s far more fun to praise something. And I hope that you will not have heard of a few of the movies on this list and decide they’re worth checking out. I assure you, they all are. I decided to forgo attaching numbers to any of them because that’s a silly way of ranking great films. I consider all of the films listed below to be masterpieces well worth your attention. Ranking them would be arbitrary and counter productive. However, I will say that the last film on this list, way down at the bottom, is my choice for the absolute best film I saw in 2015. Want to find out what film that is? Read on!
A brief note before we begin. This is a list of the best films of 2015 that I have seen. There’s a lot that I haven’t seen so if you feel like shouting at me and asking where such and such film is on the list, chances are I haven’t seen it. To prevent you from getting mad, here is a list of possible contenders that seem to be on a lot of other lists that I have simply not gotten around to sitting through yet: The Revenant, Son of Saul, Hard to be a God, White God, The Big Short, Amy, Anomalisa, Carol, Bridge of Spies, The Martian, Tangerine, Sicario, Creed, Mistress America, Dope, and The Assassin.
Love and Mercy
Love and Mercy ditches the conventional biopic structure by jumping back and forth in time and using two actors to create a fully realized, layered portrait of Brian Wilson. John Cusack does very strong work as the older Wilson and he’s ably supported by Elizabeth Banks and Paul Giamatti. But it’s Paul Dano as the younger Wilson who gives the movie its heart. Overflowing with ideas and new music concepts, his creative passion and lack of business skills eventually cripple him. Dano makes his plight profoundly affecting and the back and forth structure makes the film more engaging cuz we sit there wondering how this creative, energetic young man became a quirky, quiet loner. When the threads eventually come together, it makes for a very rewarding experience. And of course, great goddamn music.
Guillermo Del Toro’s visually sumptuous gothic romance was poorly marketed and failed at the box office as a result. What was billed as a straight up haunted house movie turned out to be a decadent period piece with more in common with Rebecca and Notorious than The Haunting. This is a lush, vibrant tale that uses set pieces, costumes, art design, and one very creepy house to create a grand, bloody opera. All the performances, particularly Jessica Chastain’s, are deliciously over the top and that adds to the fun. The beats of the story are predictable but Del Toro is not concerned with story. He’s focused on mood and atmosphere and Crimson Peak is an absolute triumph in both those areas.
Electric Boogalo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films
If you like bad movies as much as I do, then Mark Hartley’s documentary on Cannon films is like a gift from the gods of Trash Cinema Heaven. Featuring interviews with stars, writers, and producers, it chronicles the rise and fall of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, two boys from Israel who dreamed of making an impact on Hollywood. And they did, just probably not in the way they’d hoped to. Their studio produced some of the most entertaining schlock of all time, like the Death Wish sequels, Masters of the Universe, and Superman IV. Hearing everyone involved in the production process talk about how insane it all was is equal parts insightful and hilarious. My only complaint about the film is that it’s not four hours longer. I could have listened to these stories for a full day and not have been bored for a second.
The Hunting Ground
Kirby Dick’s powerful documentary on the rape epidemic prevalent on nearly every college campus is the most terrifying film of the year. And make no mistake, epidemic is the right word. He shows us how colleges create an environment where rape is not only ignored but practically embraced. College websites have sections on what to do if you’re accused of rape while victims are asked questions like, “are you you sure that’s what really happened?” As damning, horrifying, and enraging as the film is, there’s also a sense that things can change for the better. This is highlighted by Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, two young women who create an activist group for other victims. The changes they make are small to be sure but they also suggest that sooner or later, the institutions are going to have to stand up and face the music. The fact that the movie is able to feel somewhat triumphant in the midst of all this tragedy only heightens its power.
The Hateful Eight
This is pure, unadulterated Tarantino and while that may not be for everyone, it’s certainly for me. The Hateful Eight is the best illustration I’ve ever seen of that old story where a film student is analyzing a director’s latest work and telling him what it’s all about and what the themes are. The director then sighs and says, “Look, it’s about the telling of itself”. That’s The Hateful Eight through and through. This is a movie uninterested in being PC or having a message. It simply wants to tell it’s own dark, twisted, darkly comic story and entertain you with that. It succeeds in spades. Tarantino takes the tension he created in the barroom scene from Inglorious Basterds and stretches it out to feature length while also providing a showcase for some of the best scene chewers in Hollywood. Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Madsen, Demian Bichir, and Bruce Dern all give excellent performances but it’s Walton Goggins and Jennifer Jason Leigh who steal the show. And what a show it is! Functioning like a three hour stage play, The Hateful Eight brims with malice and dread right from the very first shot. The blood soaked second half gleefully informs and improves upon the first half and my oh my does all that carnage look beautiful in 70 mm. Make sure to see that way if you can. It’s a terrific cinematic experience.
Mad Max: Fury Road
A blast of unrestrained kinetic energy, George Miller’s return to his post-apocalyptic world is not only the best Mad Max film but also one of the best action films ever made. It wastes no time at all, hurling us headfirst into its perfectly coordinated and practical chase scenes. Simply put: they’re breathtaking and a further reminder—as if one was needed—that practical effects are always more engaging than CGI. Even better was the way the film used the action as a way to define the characters rather than as a way to make up for the lack thereof, ala the Fast and Furious movies. We learn and grow to care about them through their actions, not through tropes or expository speeches. This made the film incredibly emotionally involving, which is why the final chase scene puts us so on edge before making us want to stand up and cheer. It’s a triumph on every level.
A Little Chaos
This criminally underrated period film directed by Alan Rickman (good for him!) and starring Kate Winslet consistently surprised me. It starts out feeling like a typical period piece with lavish costumes and little drama but quickly reveals itself as something much more. Winslet plays Sabine De Barra, a landscape artist tasked with building a garden at the palace of Versailles for King Louis XIV. I know, I know, it sounds stuffy and dull but trust me, it’s anything but. This is partly due to the fact that Rickman shoots the movie with a real command of the camera, allowing the gorgeous visuals to speak for themselves while squarely keeping the focus on the characters and their relationships. He allows the film to slip into screwball comedy on more than a few occasions, highlighted during a hilarious scene where Winslet mistakes the King for a common gardener. But there’s also a great deal of depth to the story, as Winslet’s past is slowly revealed. She’s allowed to process her grief in a way that feels completely organic and natural. The film was unjustly criticized for presenting Winslet’s character as too much of modern woman. That’s missing the point. This isn’t a story of the past but one of the present and it simply uses the setting as a springboard to make truly meaningful points about the role of women in society and how frequently put down they are. Historical accuracy goes right out the window in favor of crafting a more interesting story. As someone who thinks being historically accurate is highly overrated (just tell me a good story, I don’t care about facts), I found that approach refreshing and liberating.
Michael Shannon plays the most deliciously evil villain of the year in writer director Ramin Bahrani’s topical and riveting thriller, 99 Homes. His Rick Carver is a modern monster, born out of greed, opportunity, and a lack of morals. What makes him so interesting to watch is the fact that he’s aware of how corrupt he is but no longer cares. And why should he? People are going to lose their homes anyway. He may as well be the guy to make a profit out of that. But it’s not just Shannon who makes the film so interesting. By focusing on a small group of people, Bahrani is able to make the housing market crash sting. Andrew Garfield provides a lose moral center as a man struggling to take care of his family by destroying others. The scene where he kicks a clueless old man out of his house is perhaps the most devastating of the year. But Bahrani doesn’t hit us over the head with a hammer during sequences like the one just mentioned. This isn’t Crash. It’s a suspenseful thriller and a moving drama that also happens to have some very real things to say about how we got to this point in the first place.
Perhaps the best film Pixar has ever made–which is saying quite a lot–Inside Out is as moving and insightful as the best human dramas. It’s fun and fluffy but displays a great depth of understanding when it comes to how the human mind works. As the emotions in Riley’s head struggle to keep her happy, we are reminded of times of great change in our own lives and how our emotions were thrown into turmoil. The ultimate message that sadness is as crucial and important an emotion as joy is one that should resonate for both children and adults. Add to that the hilarious voice work of Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Richard Kind and Mindy Kaling coupled with the Pixar’s team inventive visualization of Riley’s mind and you’ve got a movie that makes you laugh as much as it makes you cry.
Good Sci-Fi films are hard to come by. Most of them are trumped up action movies set in space or in the future with as many interesting characters and ideas as the Fast and Furious movies, which is to say none at all. What most people call Sci-Fi are really Space Operas and while some of those are fine (I like The Force Awakens very much, just not enough to appear on this list), I much prefer the true science fiction films, ones with frightening ideas about the future that are based on actual scientific developments already being made. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is such a film. Like The Hateful Eight, it often feels like a stage play. It traps three characters in a house and then lets them talk. Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson are both terrific as the arrogant inventor and naive student but it’s Alicia Vikander who steals the show as the machine that turns out to be smarter than both of them. The plot moves slowly and the reveals are gradual but that only gives them more devastating impact.
The best pure horror movie of the year, It Follows should already be considered a classic. It takes an ingenious premise–that an evil entity spreads and attaches itself to its victims through sex–and uses it to explore the fears of growing up. It’s also scary as hell. Writer director David Robert Mitchell makes effective use of wide shots to constantly show us the malicious entity lurking in the background getting closer and closer…step…by…step. The fact that the thing can look like anybody only adds to the sense of fear that permeates nearly every scene. Maika Monroe is terrific as the afflicted heroine (even better here than she was in last year’s The Guest) and the rest of the cast create characters who all feel and look like actual teenagers. As stated above, Mitchell uses his premise to meditate on that dreamy summer after high school when childhood was over but adulthood wan’t here yet but he also knows that this is a horror film first and foremost and never forgets to scare the crap out of us. This makes it the best kind of horror movie, one that taps into real life fears while also working on a purely visceral level.
The second of two westerns starring Kurt Russell appearing on this list, Bone Tomahawk creates as much dread and builds as much tension as The Hateful Eight while featuring characters who are far more likable (that’s not a criticism of the Tarantino film btw, merely an observation). Russell plays a Sheriff who sets out on a mission to rescue the town doctor from a band of savages. He’s accompanied by his deputy (Richard Jenkins), the doctor’s husband (Patrick Wilson), and the local gunslinger (Matthew Fox). All four characters are well drawn and engaging, with Fox’s amoral gunslinger being the standout due to his complex nature. First time director S. Craig Zahler makes as assured a film debut as I’ve ever seen, displaying real command of the camera and a terrific grasp on how to generate suspense. The characters relationships are well-defined and their conversations wonderful to listen to. I could have let them talk for hours. When the carnage arrives–and it arrives with a bang–it raises the stakes tremendously because we care so much about these four men and now fully understand the horror of what they’re up against.
When you make a genre hybrid, the most difficult thing to achieve is a consistent tone. Which is why Spring is such an incredible achievement. In their sophomore feature, directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead proves themselves not only as masters of tone, but also as sure-handed, wise writers who are interested in exploring many themes. Lou Taylor Pucci stars as Evan, a lost young man who flees to Italy on a whim after his mother dies. It’s there he meets Louise (Nadia Hilker), a local girl with what can best be described as a primordial secret. The early scenes between Pucci and Hilker beautifully capture that dizzy feeling you get when entering a new relationship while the later scenes capture the philosophical arguments that come into play once two people really know each other. These scenes are the heart of the movie but there’s also a gruesome horror element that never feels out of place and is used as a springboard for the characters to open up rather than as a way to illicit a few cheap scares. Some have wondered why Benson and Moorhead didn’t simply make a romance and toss the horror element completely. The answer is simple: they’re genre lovers who want to mess around with with typical conventions to create something deeper and far more engaging. That kind of audacity should be admired instead of criticized.
Director Christian Petzold’s Hitchcockian melodrama uses an utterly preposterous set-up to explore the way human beings are able to deny and distance themselves from their own guilt. Set in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, the film focuses on Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), a survivor with a disfigured face. She receives corrective surgery but does not quite look like her former self. Against the advice of her only friend, she goes off into the streets of war torn Germany to find her husband, a gentile who may or may not have given her up to the Nazis. He doesn’t recognize her but thinks she looks enough like his dead wife that he convinces her to pose as herself in order for them to collect the insurance money left behind by her family. Of course, this is a set-up that is more than a little hard to believe but it works nevertheless. Nelly doesn’t know who she is anymore but pretending to be her old self allows her to feel alive again. It’s an act of extreme denial but one that is understandable considering what has happened to her. What isn’t so understandable is the way her husband and his friends deny their role in the atrocities of the Holocaust. They didn’t kill people or join the Nazi party but they stood by and let it happen. The can’t acknowledge the truth about their actions–or lack thereof–anymore than Nelly can acknowledge that her old life is gone forever. Beyond the powerful exploration of denial, this is also a terrific thriller with not a single wasted shot, fantastic lighting that evokes a film noir sensibility, and a conclusion that will leave you breathless. That is not hyperbole. The last scene is a masterclass in tension, editing, shot construction, and acting. It builds to a moment of realization so powerful and raw that I truly could not breathe for a moment or two.
John Crowley’s Brooklyn is the rarest of things: a damn near perfect movie. Watching it in the theater, I kept waiting for it to make a misstep, to veer off into melodrama and reduce its characters to the victims of idiotic and cliched plot points. It never happens. Saoirse Ronan gives the best performance of her career as an Irish immigrant living in Brooklyn in the 1950’s. Lonely and homesick, she soon lands a job and meets a young Italian man named Tony (Emory Cohen). A romance blossoms and just as this strange world is starting to feel like home, she’s called back to Ireland to deal with the aftermath of a tragedy. It’s a simple story and one that sounds like it could have been written by Nicolas Sparks. But this is not some banal love story where great proclamations are made in the pouring rain and characters keep absurd secrets from each other. Every moment of Brooklyn feels true and honest. Take the scenes at the boarding house Ronan lives in. The dining room table is ruled by the landlady (a hilarious Julie Walters) as she criticizes and supports the young women in her home, and these scenes are so naturally played, so carefully written, and so filled with warmth that the entire movie could have taken place at that table and it still would have earned a spot on this list. Great care is taken with every scene and character. There’s not one person in the movie who feels like a cliche. Each character walks into the story fully formed with a backstory we may not know but one that is clearly there nonetheless. Nick Hornby’s screenplay gives everyone room to breathe while making sure that the focus is squarely on Ronan. Like the film itself, she never strikes a wrong note. We feel her isolation when she first arrives, her trepidation to leave, her love for the young man she meets, her loss of her old life, and her joy for the many pleasures of this world. These emotions she grapples with are universal, which allows Brooklyn to be as much a focused and driven narrative as it is a cathartic and moving experience. Everyone experiences love, change, and loss, and how we deal with those things shapes who we come to be as adults. This is a truth that Brooklyn understands above all and the result is a film that is hilarious without being farcical, moving without being manipulative, and profound without being pretentious. Not only is it that best film I saw in 2015, it is one of the best films I’ve seen in the past ten years. Watching it sweeps you away to different world that is somehow similar to your own. It’s marvelous.