I love end-of-year list season. I don’t know why, but subjective rankings of fiction just works for me. In celebration of list season, here are my personal favourite movies of 2015. I haven’t seen nearly every movie this year, but I tried to see all of the major awards contenders. I’ll mention some of the notable absences, along with my pick for worst picture of the year, at the end. Out of the subset I did catch, the following were pretty fantastic!
Charlie Kaufman is likely the most reliably original major screenwriter working, and Anomalisa certainly continues that trend. He’s in comfortable territory, once again crafting a wild cinematic experience through allusions to delusions. There’s room for debate on how sympathetic the main character is (I say he’s not at all, but that its still compelling), but Anomalisa is clearly an affecting and memorable piece of work. See it blind though; this is a movie worth avoiding spoilers for.
The Overnight promotes itself as zany, and zany it is. A story about a dinner party that very quickly reveals itself as a potential swinger situation, it plays its first major gag far too strongly such that the remainder seems believable by comparison. It works, and the rest of the movie is hilarious even when quiet, and the great cast of four manage to sneak in some honest-to-goodness character work. It’s a funny and quick 90 minute excursion into bohemian quasi-cringe humour, and an admirable showcase for the prosthetic penis makers of Hollywood.
As much as I’ve found things to like in the last two films by Denis Villeneuve (Enemy and Prisoners), Sicario is the first unqualified English-language success for the Quebec director. Sicario sees Emily Blunt slowly squeezed out of her own movie, making the viewer’s perspective on her marginalization all the more visceral. The movie ends incredibly strongly, and in a year where Supporting Actor is relatively empty, Benicio del Toro simply demands recognition. Most memorably, the border shootout is among the tensest film moment of the year.
Pixar has been in a slight relative slump as of late (when Brave counts as a slump, that’s a good sign), but any doubts that they could still create movies that stand up to their classics were firmly quashed with Inside Out. It’s as conceptually original and earnestly emotionally devastating as any of us would expect from them, and deals with depression in an insightful way. The 2D sequence alone is enough to show the creative juices still flow, and the tragedy of Bing Bong beautifully affords a genuine and touching arc to a ridiculous character.
There were many ways that The Force Awakens could have gone. With Abrams in the director’s chair, a polished product was a guarantee, but would it have the right voice? The first new Trek was enjoyable, but was distinctly not Star Trek. Thankfully, Abrams and co. pulled through, and The Force Awakens was not only a lot of fun, it just felt like Star Wars, with its lived-in and dirty universe and glorious puppets. The new trio of main characters are all compellingly written and wonderfully cast, Kylo Ren is a fantastically flawed villain as opposed to a Vadar rehash, and reconnecting with the old trio was every bit as uplifting as expected. It copies the beats of A New Hope a bit too closely (particularly with Death Star 3), but it sets up the sequels in a very important way: it let’s us know that Star Wars can still be Star Wars.
On paper, Brooklyn looks like a traditionally weepy period romance. What doesn’t come across on paper is how much spark it has. Brooklyn’s period setting is not only window dressing, it truly builds its world into a quasi-fantasy setting that nonetheless feels very alive. Saorise Ronan is a fantastically compelling lead, and Emory Cohen’s New Yawk love interest borders on cliche but is saved by Cohen’s insane amount of charisma. The love triangle that eventually develops works because its not really about the romantic pairings; its about choosing whether to keep your roots or start anew. At its heart, its timeless.
I’m a Tarantino apologist in a strong way, but The Hateful Eight is certainly patience-testing. It takes a long time to set up, and that setup is chock full of casual racism and misogyny. But when it gets going, it turns into an extended riff on the bar scene of Inglourious Basterds or the stage-play effect of Reservoir Dogs. This is a Tarantino whodunit in the guise of a Western, and it results in some of his most memorable moments. The cast is uniformly excellent, particularly Jennifer Jason Leigh, Samuel L. Jackson, and Demian Bichir (and Kurt Russel’s mustache). If you dislike Tarantino, The Hateful Eight likely won’t work for you, but its an absolute treat for the faithful.
Holocaust dramas have a deserved reputation as bleak slogs that are designed to depress people into giving them Oscars (no matter how good Schindler’s List and The Pianist actually are). Son of Saul is certainly bleak, but it is far from a slog; its a lean 1h45, and through its story beats and camera techniques feels utterly distinct from its bretheren. Filmed entirely in close-up, Son of Saul blurs the horrors of Auschwitz by keeping you with Saul but also makes it impossible to look away. It also works very well as a character study (its Kaufmanesque in a sense), with Saul’s motivations never spelled out despite him being our sole viewpoint. It’s a trip through the depths of hell, and a very memorable one.
The journalists-on-a-mission genre has a solid pedigree, but hasn’t shown up in a big way recently. Spotlight is an stupendously entertaining throwback to a classical kind of filmmaking: no tricks, no gimmicks, just great actors and a great story. The ensemble works together fantastically, with no one performer attempting to selfishly upstage the production (which may be why it doesn’t have a hope at the individual acting nominations). The story itself is well known, and they avoid over-sensationalizing an already sensational story. It’s brick-and-mortar, but its enticing stuff.
Like The Force Awakens, Creed sticks to its predecessors blueprint so strongly that you could argue it does nothing new. Also like The Force Awakens, it builds exceptionally on the story beats of the original to create something fresh and fantastic. In updating Rocky for the modern age, Creed throws in some new tracks (the long-take boxing match is absolutely stunning) while having a very classical feel and uplift. Michael B. Jordan continues his world takeover with a charismatic lead performance, and Sylvester Stallone is the best he’s been since, well, Rocky. The loveable lug had a decent swan song in Rocky Balboa, but Creed is a much better, emotionally affecting take on the later years of an athlete. I’m not sure if I want Creed 2 (lest it be like Rocky 2), but Coogler, Jordan, and Stallone have made a worthy and worthwhile capper to the Rocky franchise.
Clouds of Sils Maria is easy to dismiss as pretentious, but its about pretentious actors, so maybe its not such an insult. Obviously, its a beautiful movie, taking place in the Swiss alps. But its also a weirdly enjoyable buddy drama, with Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart bouncing off of each other with incredible chemistry. It’s dense, and I need to see it again to fully unpack it, but even its surface-level discussion of aging in an industry based on youth is compelling. It presents itself as capital-f Film, but when the film is this engrossing, its forgivable.
Out of the movies that should have a legitimate shot at Best Picture, Room is truly the best. It should be a festival of misery and discomfort based on its subject matter, and it manages to be watchable despite not necessarily flinching. Were it a story of survival, this wouldn’t be possible. Instead, its a story about parenting, and a fantastic one at that. Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay are both fantastic. Larson let’s us in on Ma’s strength while surrounded in hopelessness, and director Lenny Abrahamson does a fantastic job of keeping us in Tremblay’s point of view, even if some additional narration was necessary. Room provides a cathartic tearjerker to be sure, but it relates its extraordinary machinations to relatable experiences. More than a quick cry, Room has the thematic depth to give it real weight.
Ex-Machina finds itself in the Moon position this year as the indie sci-fi phenomenon which dives into a single concept with aplomb. Even though the effects are impressive (and effective when diving into body horror), its a much more cerebral film and mostly an actor’s showcase. The three leads are all up to the challenge, with Oscar Isaac proving himself a chameleon and Alicia Vikander announcing her presence in a big way (how she’s up for an Oscar for The Danish Girl and not this astounds me). Some have problems with the ending, but it worked for me. Some have problems with the dance sequence, but that may be my favorite single scene of 2015. It’s an excellent slice of sci-fi, and director/writer Alex Garland is clearly someone to watch closely.
Cartel Land is shocking in not only its subject matter, but in just how it exists. Director Matthew Heineman somehow got his camera in live raids and operations of a group of Mexican citizens rebelling against the cartels. Live fire is exchanged, a hostage is questionably questioned. It’s compelling, tense, visceral, and grim. It’s main subject, Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, is fascinatingly flawed. The American counterpart, Nailer Foley, isn’t nearly as compelling, but serves as an interesting counterpoint and the contrast is stark. Its ambiguities really sell it though; it avoids easy answers or editorializing, forcing the viewer to question everything they see. It’s maybe an unsolvable riddle, but one that needs to be considered.
Lately, it seems like the best horror movies either smirk their way through it (Cabin in the Woods) or are really dramas at heart (The Babadook). It Follows is a great movie in many ways, but its a great horror movie in the truest sense: its very very scary. Its central conceit, that the monster can look like anyone and will always walk towards you very slowly, is the kind of thing that could have been very jokey, but it quickly dispenses with that by showing just how brutal it really is. There is clearly subtext in how the haunting spreads (its sexually transmitted), but its not heavy handed. Maika Monroe continues her domination of the indie scene, and has a great take on the Final Girl trope. It’s terrifying to watch and exceptional to dissect, and an instant classic.
How could anything else hope to top Mad Max? A genre film this bonkers usually is received as divisive, but Mad Max is unquestionably a great work. It’s something of an update of The Road Warrior, but much more consistent and with a much bigger budget. Rather than using that budget to get lazy with CGI, Mad Max is a beautifully practical film with an insane aesthetic. On top of how great it looks, its also wonderfully quotable and populates its world with memorable characters. Obviously Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa is the centrepiece, but populating the fringes really makes the movie: characters like Rictus Erectus, the Bullet Farmer (from the bullet farm, naturally), and the Doof Warrior leave impressions just through sheer presence. On top of all this, its the most thrilling movie of the year by a huge margin. Its essentially one very long action sequence, which only hits the brakes sporadically and yet somehow has enough narrative thrust to be consistently engaging. The first chase is a masterclass in building a scene, and the final is insanely packed without every being unclear. There were a lot of great movies in 2015, but Mad Max’s grip on my #1 spot has never been in doubt.
Stray Picks and Outliers
- Shorts don’t count I guess, but go find a way to stream Don Hertzfeld’s World of Tomorrow. It’s twenty minutes well spent, and maybe exactly what you’d expect from the creator of Rejected with fifteen years of maturity added. It’s bonkers and incredibly touching.
- Slow West and Tangerine were both too messy to really stick, but were among the most distinctive films of the year. They didn’t entirely work as a whole, but individual moments within make them must-sees.
- Speaking of westerns, it was a good year for them. In addition to The Hateful Eight and Slow West, Bone Tomahawk barely missed the list, I’m in the minority for being lukewarm on The Revenant, and I’ve heard great things about Jauga.
- Alongside Kingsman and San Andreas, Unfriended stands out as one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. A short, sweet, and stupid horror movie that executes its flimsy premise to the fullest extent.
- Meanwhile, although far from terrible, Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak was one of the year’s biggest disappointments for me. The actual biggest disappointment crown, though, goes to the Wachowski’s Jupiter Ascending, which has plenty of good ideas mixed with even more bad ones.
- With the major exception of Mad Max, it was not a great year for the summer blockbuster. Avengers 2 was exceptionally mediocre, and Jurassic World, Terminator Genisys and Spectre were straight-up awful. There were some solid options outside the sequels though: Kingsman: The Secret Service and San Andreas were both far more fun than expected, and The Martian (which narrowly missed the list) was one hell of a crowdpleaser.
- As for the notables from this year missing from the list, Beasts of No Nation, Carol, Bridge of Spies, and Straight Outta Compton were all solid enough, but I didn’t connect strongly with any of them. The Revenant was beautiful, but a slog, and The Big Short was certainly fun edutainment but rather poor as a drama or comedy.
- If I had to round out top 20, throw in Kingsman, The Martian, Bone Tomahawk, and the compelling documentary Approaching the Elephant, which examines a Lord of the Flies scenario developing in an experimental school system.
- Hollywood VIP of the year: Domhnall Gleeson’s agent. Gleeson is a nice presence, but how did he end up in so many big films this year? The Revenant, Brooklyn, Ex-Machina, and even Star Wars! When will Gleesonmania end!?
Still To See
- On the foreign film front, I still very much need to see at least Phoenix, The Assassin, and Mustang.
- On the documentary front, The Look of Silence and Amy are high on my to-see list.
- The premise of Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter, based on a real-life story about someone looking for the buried treasure of Fargo, is so batshit that I’m ashamed I haven’t found the movie yet.
- Chi-Raq looks bonkers enough to be either brilliant or awful.
- While for some reason the franchise hasn’t worked for me since the first, I can’t ignore how much good press Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation has. Well, I’ve ignored it so far, but I should cave eventually.
- I still haven’t seen the previous three, so a marathon is in order before I can get on board with the rest of modern society on Furious 7.
Worst Movie of 2015
Dear fuck I hated this movie. Russell Crowe has psychic powers or something and flirts with Olga Kurylenko for some reason and cries a lot because he wants an award again I think. For a movie as batshit crazy as it is, it doesn’t even have the decency to be interesting.
Runners-up: Spectre, Terminator: Genisys