After much sitting in cinemas, here is my third consecutive "Top Films of the Year" list!
I saw 80 of 2015's films. These, in ranked order, are my favorite 15.
2015 was the best year for movies that I've experienced since I started writing about film, so this list wasn't full of easy decisions as the year went on. Every film in the top 15 earned a 4.5/5 or higher rating in my book. As such, I have a few more Honorable Mentions this time around. Here they are, listed alphabetically and each with a short description:
Honorable Mentions: (or, movies that weren't great enough to make the Top 15 but were great enough to deserve recognition):
45 Years- an elderly couple risks falling out of love and into disrepair. Tragically honest.
The Big Short- the funny and frustrating true tale of Wall Street and big banks colluding to screw over the American people.
Creed- the Rocky franchise's inspiring spinoff shows us that Sylvester Stallone still cares.
It Follows- indie horror built entirely on tension, with a killer soundtrack and artful photography direction.
Kingsman: The Secret Service- a massively entertaining send-up of and love letter to spy movies. Oh, that glorious church scene.
The Night Before- proof that a vulgar Christmas comedy can still excel at character development.
Spotlight- a great ensemble cast makes the kind of story you don't want to be true quite gripping. Second best closing shot of the year.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens- STAR WARS 7.
Straight Outta Compton- a bombastic, politically charged biopic about the influential and seminal rap group N.W.A.
Tangerine- the misadventures of two transgender prostitutes on Christmas Eve. It was shot entirely on an iPhone 5s. And it's terrific.
But what are the best 15 films of 2015? In my humble opinion,
15. The Gift
-written and directed by Joel Edgerton
What is it? A Hitchcockian thriller and actor Joel Edgerton's directorial debut. A young married couple- Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall)- move into a beautiful LA home, only to encounter a strange man from Simon's past (Joel Edgerton). He starts leaving them unwanted gifts, but soon transitions to far more suspenseful behavior.
Why it made the list: Joel Edgerton's new directorial flair succeeds at both crafting a movie in the vein of classic thriller films and one that's still gutsy in its originality. The Gift is harrowing both because of its sure-handed visual suspense cues and handling of dark subject matter. Edgerton tackles a theme that should be worrying, but that our culture tends to stay quiet about- and reminds us that it should be a torment to watch unfold. The ending starkly epitomizes this. He intelligently lets the theme develop with restraint until that point, slowly revealing its details and consequences at an edge-of-your-seat pace. Jason Bateman shows off his serious acting ability and Rebecca Hall makes her uncertainty our uncertainty; Joel Edgerton manages to be both unnerving and deserving of sympathy. And many shots have great framing!
Why it's not higher: The Gift is not the kind of movie that is scary because of jump scares, so when it tries to be, it comes off as an awkward attempt to be another type of film. There's a moment early in the movie that so clearly signposts "SOMETHING BAD WILL HAPPEN BECAUSE OF THIS" that the eventual reveal concerning the moment is entirely bereft of dramatic weight. The Gift's biggest problem is the insulting removal of Robyn's agency. She spends most of the film as the main character, setting events into motion and solving problems, but the climax turns her into little more than a damsel in distress suffering from the consequences of mens' actions. It's a weird power shift and an uncomfortable picture of the film industry's gender politics.
14. Goodnight Mommy
-written and directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala
What is it? An Austrian horror film about a mother and her sons. Twin boys Elias and Lukas have a loving relationship with their TV personality mother- until she comes home from a routine plastic surgery with not only bandages covering her face, but a seemingly different personality as well.
Why it made the list: So good. So disturbing. So good at being disturbing. Franz and Fiala master the art of taking something inherently comfortable to many people (aw, motherhood) and twisting it into a form so frightening that it's impossible to get out of your head. Last year's equally good indie horror The Babadook accomplished motherhood terror with a bit of supernatural flavor, but Goodnight Mommy operates on a more disconcerting plane: by not giving us one hint as to what the hell is going on until precisely when we do not want to know. Well, there are some hints, but the filmmaking cues are so subtle that I only caught onto them after the movie was over. The primary actress and actors commit well to the tone's oscillation between dark humor and dark darkness; the closing shot is the year's best and the most haunting in recent memory.
Why it's not higher: Goodnight Mommy takes a faulty amount of time to become interesting. When the disturbing imagery and content really ratchet up, it's impossible to look away- but the film's beginning hour doesn't take full advantage of building up to such a show of horrors. It plays coy with what the film is preparing to unleash, but in a way that is mostly confusing and unnecessary rather than involving. If you're a seasoned horror film enthusiast, you might see one twist coming: I definitely did not, but I know a few who caught on quite early.
13. The End of the Tour
-adapted by Donald Margulies from David Lipsky's Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, directed by James Ponsoldt
What is it? In 1996, Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky embarked on a road trip with influential author David Foster Wallace to conduct a five day interview. In 2008, Wallace committed suicide. In 2010, Lipsky published a transcript/novel of their time together in 1996. In 2015, The End of the Tour became a cinematic version of that five day conversation.
Why it made the list: Filmmaking that consists mostly of conversation is a truly a higher art form (see: the Before Trilogy). Human connection is always interesting, but to enrapture an audience with an hour and 45 minutes of conversation, that connection has to matter- and matter it does in The End of the Tour. Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and Wallace (Jason Segel) mull over the difficulties of friendship, the empty promises of fame, artistic integrity, what depression really looks like, and even predict present fears over media culture, with an importance that's always natural and a sincerity that's always human. This can be largely credited to the actual conversation between the two men twenty years ago, but Ponsoldt's pacing and cutting of these talks and the actors' outstanding performances both add a lot of meaning. Jason Segel blows every other performance he's ever given out of the water with his portrayal of David Foster Wallace: it's a shame his depth and understanding didn't lead to an Oscar nomination.
Why it's not higher: Jesse Eisenberg's fine acting ability is hugely overshadowed by Jason Segel's work. During a few "turning point" scenes, it's painful to watch Segel give his role his all and wildly succeed while Eisenberg aims for satisfactory and achieves just that. While every conversation is well-written (or well-adapted), only a small few are particularly memorable. If some key heart-to-hearts were given more of a chance to shine from a directorial standpoint, I might have remembered them as well as I do exchanges from the aforementioned Before trilogy.
12. The Martian
-adapted by Drew Goddard from Andy Weir's The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott
What is it? Matt Damon, the actor most adept at playing characters that get left places, gets left behind on Mars after a mission to the dry planet goes awry. With his botany/science skills and the combined effort of many NASA friends back on Earth, he attempts to survive and get back home.
Why it made the list: It's a surprisingly well done feel-good movie. While many were expecting The Martian to be a serious rescue thriller- much of the movie's marketing mistakenly painted it as such- it's actually a very lighthearted affair. Anyone who read Andy Weir's original novel of the same name might have guessed this: humor and humanism abound in the book, and screenwriter Drew Goddard retains this spirit wonderfully in the film. The screenplay is just as funny as many of the year's outright comedies, gifting The Martian with a fun flair that's given an equal amount of attention as its character development. Distinct personalities litter the screen, filled out by a great cast- but this is Matt Damon's show: he delivers quotable quips with ease and adds dramatic weight when the tone lightens too much. The Martian succeeds by breathing amusement into a story that demonstrates the power of science and the power of humanity.
Why it's not higher: The movie's biggest flaw exists alongside one of its greatest strengths. As I briefly mentioned before, The Martian's tone has trouble balancing between the weighty drama of being stranded alone on Mars and an addiction to levity: while the latter certainly provides the film with its best and most memorable moments, the lighthearted feel tends to undermine scenes that should realistically be far more stressful. Ridley Scott's direction is nothing special: he's playing it too safe to atone for the number of bad movies he directed before this.
11. Mistress America
-written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, directed by Noah Baumbach
What is it? A screwball comedy with a lot to say. College freshman Tracy is floundering while trying to discover love and pursue interests in university, so she reaches out to her soon-to-be stepsister Brooke, an exciting New York socialite with a flashy life. Things go crazy from there, as Tracy discovers bits and pieces of what the pursuit of the American dream is actually like.
Why it made the list: When Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig make a movie together, unique things happen. In 2013, he directed another movie that they co-wrote and she starred in: Francis Ha, a perfectly indie exemplification of what an honest friendship is like. Mistress America, which is just as hilarious and odd as that previous collaboration, is quite different at its core: rather than aim for character development, it focuses on thematic development. The entire film tightly revolves around one concept: when it comes to financial success, respecting and valuing people, and living your dream, it's beyond rare to have all three. Mistress America utilizes its characters to explore what aspects of American culture cause this dichotomy, and it's comedy gold all the while. Whip-smart dialogue, the contrast between Gerwig's outlandishness and Lola Kirke's subtlety, and a set piece that's intricately constructed for maximum comedy make Mistress America a fireball of wit and critique.
Why it's not higher: This movie moves at a mile a minute. At only 90 minutes, a movie paced this quickly almost feels too lean to remember the next day. With the amount that Mistress America has to offer, receiving it all within such a short time can be overwhelming. A film that already isn't primarily concerned with character development loses even more character emphasis in the frenetic pacing. This will especially be a turnoff for fans of character-driven indies like Frances Ha.
10. The Diary of a Teenage Girl
-adapted by Marielle Heller from Phoebe Gloeckner's The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures, directed by Marielle Heller
What is it? After 15-year-old Minnie loses her virginity to her mother's boyfriend, she begins exploring her sexuality in earnest and discovering what bearing it has on her identity.
Why it made the list: Societal taboos be damned? No matter the answer, every ethically complex sinew of this movie's tale is about Minnie. The Diary of a Teenage Girl plays out like a thematic antithesis to the American horror film, admiring femininity and depicting sexual acts not as deeds to be punished, but as facets of humanity that make sense to question and delve into. It accomplishes this in empathetic fashion by maintaining the utmost respect for Minnie, no matter what she does or goes through- while not shying away from asking what is morally questionable and what is not. Its representation of sexuality is human in its messy honesty and feminist in its subversion of too common, patriarchal cinematic standards for women. Bel Powley is raw and convincing as a girl six years her junior; Kristen Wiig is moving in one of her best serious roles. Heller's direction is just as decorated as the graphic novel that the film is based on.
Why it's not higher: The third act of The Diary of a Teenage Girl dips into Minnie's struggle with drug addiction and the accompanying shame, but it gives this leg of Minnie's journey nowhere near the same amount of attention and detail as her previous experiences. While Heller's screenplay still seems to care for Minnie as a character, her foray into drugs is treated mostly as a plot device to move her forward instead of another opportunity to dig into her character. As a result, the last third of the movie feels rushed to its conclusion.
9. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
-written and directed by Brett Morgen
What is it? A documentary about the life and death of Kurt Cobain, the talented and tortured frontman of Nirvana.
Why it made the list: This movie is the first I've ever watched on a long plane flight and still been engrossed in. Montage of Heck is a thorough and absorbing look at Kurt Cobain's seminal musical career, fight with depression, and unfortunate young death at 27. Chief among the documentary's successes is its transfixing visual style: Montage of Heck is a living painting, and a masterful one at that. Animators Stefan Nadelman and Hisko Hulsing are the unsung heroes of the film. They bring Cobain's actual journal drawings to haunting life and illustrate key moments with a somber flair- it really is a marvel to watch unfold. Sheer amounts and organization of information is the movie's next greatest weapon: Cobain's family let Morgen access the late artist's "entire personal and family archives", including previously private "home movies, recordings, artwork, photography, journals, demos, and songbooks." (Rolling Stone) For anyone interested in Cobain's personal journey, this documentary is nirvana.
Why it's not higher: The tail end of the movie consists primarily of home videos of Kurt Cobain and his widow Courtney Love. This works and it doesn't: on one hand, it's painstakingly sad to see heroin abuse distort their relationship and the life of their daughter Frances. On the other, the series of home videos lacks the eclectic momentum of Montage of Heck's pervasive visual art. The documentary dwindles to a quiet finish as a result, but not in a way that feels especially natural.
-adapted by Phyllis Nagy from Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt, directed by Todd Haynes
What is it? A romance between the married and mature Carol (Cate Blanchett) and the young, shy Therese (Rooney Mara) that transforms both women into different individuals; an implicit reproach of anger-fueled responses to homosexual women.
Why it made the list: Exquisite. Carol embodies an exquisite spirit as it floats, ethereal and effortlessly, above the marketed audience pleasers that dominate the mainstream film industry. It brings together a number of talented artists whose vision is so unified that it's tangible- a vision of evolving the romance between two elaborate women as artfully as possible, no matter how many moviegoers would be interested or what kind of movies most people want in the current culture. The love between Carol and Therese develops slowly but instinctively, their changes as separate people are understood as crucial elements to such a relationship; the cinematography is a classical kind that teases with visual metaphors and recalls the style of an Orson Welles film; Blanchett and Mara make acting choices with careful intention; inherent social concerns are addressed nimbly. Carol tells a simple story, but in such a delicate way that it might break if you draw in a breath too sharply.
Why it's not higher: The first act of the film suffers from pacing issues that leave us desiring the ardent character development we know Carol will eventually provide, but don't bring us enough of that development to promote attentive watching at first. The last shot of the movie is technically clunky, which is distracting given the masterclass cinematography that precedes it.
-written and directed by Charlie Kaufman
What is it? A dark depiction of midlife existential crisis, starring stop-motion puppets.
Why it made the list: Charlie Kaufman is a singular kind of filmmaking genius. If you've seen Being John Malkovich or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, you might have a grasp of his style: each of his movies utilizes an unconventional weirdness in structure in order to convey an incisive truth about the human experience. Anomalisa is Kaufman's weird little masterpiece of human nature dissection. Narratively, the movie isn't that odd (at first): it follows Michael Stone, the author of a popular self-help book for people in service industries. Staying at a hotel the night before a speech at a convention, Michael- and the film as a whole- confronts the inescapable phase of midlife existentialism. He has lost the ability to truly connect with new people; he fails to understand what is special about each person. Kaufman submerges us in this depressing mindset with brilliant animation and voice acting choices that are too purposeful to give away. After Michael meets the titular Lisa, he proceeds to use this structural groundwork to both prompt fear of and hope in our own humanity.
Why it's not higher: Kaufman's screenplay spends a lot of time in the expositional stage convincing us of Michael's depression, dipping ever so slightly from profundity into boredom. A slightly on the nose speech near the climax spells out the movie's themes a bit too clearly. If you're not or haven't been a disillusioned middle-aged person, Anomalisa will be very difficult to empathize with. This isn't technically a flaw, but I've had friends disappointed with the movie for that reason.
-adapted by Nick Hornby from Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn, directed by John Crowley
What is it? The story of a young Irish girl who moves to Brooklyn to find a new life and her own identity (not a man, like the marketing would lead you to believe.)
Why it made the list: Brooklyn is full of vibrant color (my friend Chloe enthusiastically asked me to see the movie by repeatedly crying "the colors!!"), both in a pleasing visual sense and in honoring the woman at its center. Between Saoirse Ronan's endlessly piercing eyes, the splendidly natural character growth of Eilis, and the gorgeous cinematography capturing the landscapes of Ireland and cityscape of New York, Brooklyn is a beautiful movie at every turn. Novelist/screenwriter Nick Hornby lets the conflict of transitioning from one phase of life to the next thrive at the forefront of Brooklyn, designing a delightfully elegant film that anyone who has ever changed can relate to. Saoirse Ronan brings such a transition to life with a performance that is believably delicate or fierce when need be; relative newcomer Emory Cohen and personal favorite Domhnall Gleeson display promising talent as well.
Why it's not higher: The film's main motif is muddled when Cohen and Gleeson's characters are both vying for Eilis' reciprocated love. Brooklyn is strongest when it maintains its tight focus on Eilis, letting the movie's primary conflict remain one that exists within her. When the conflict shifts to that of external romance, it's a tad discordant until the final minutes find their footing again.
5. Beasts of No Nation
-written and directed by Cary Fukunaga
What is it? The all too real and too often ignored plight of child soldiers. Agu's family is slaughtered and he is taken in by the "Commandant" (Idris Elba), who forces him into a war that dulls his humanity and edges him closer to the line between child and savage.
Why it made the list: Thematic contrast is the flesh and bones of Beasts of No Nation. The term "child soldier" is in and of itself an unfortunate contrast between two human states that should not coexist, so the movie chooses to thrive deeply within an oxymoronic reality. It takes place in a distinctly African country, but one that is unnamed and physically fantastical; the war at the narrative's center never happened but is reminiscent of ones that have; Fukunaga's direction and cinematography oscillate seamlessly between dreamlike and raw; his screenplay's dialogue consists of a mix of English and Twi that dips in and out of a foreign sensibility; Agu's life is convincingly painted whether genuine, familial warmness or appalling inhumanity is depicted. Idris Elba definitely deserved a Best Actor nomination (and let's face it, probably the win) for his formidable work in enveloping a character that's worth both disgust and sympathy. The movie is undeniably a hard watch, and not for those with weak stomachs. But the heartbreak it brings is necessary for our world, as are the slightest glimmers of hope that Fukunaga mercifully provides.
Why it's not higher: Just before the end of Beasts of No Nation, it slows down considerably. Not in a way that makes sense in an effective pacing sense, but one that makes you feel like you're watching a far less riveting film. This doesn't last for long, but it's hard to ignore how borderline tedious the climax almost was. I suspect it seemed like a good idea in order to lead into the tone of the ending, but it doesn't play out well.
4. Mad Max: Fury Road
-written and directed by George Miller
What is it? Beautiful, intelligent madness.
Why it made the list: Mad Max: Fury Road is visual poetry. It's an incredible action film created with masterclass filmmaking. How often do those come along? George Miller continues his pioneering Mad Max franchise (30 years after the last entry!) with Fury Road, the fourth entry that's somewhat a reboot and features Tom Hardy as Max instead of Mel Gibson. The narrative is deceptively simple: in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the tyrannical leader Immortan Joe and his army of War Boys capture Max for his rare blood type, and Max has to escape. There are lots of car chases and explosions. There's so much more to the film though: subtext and spectacular action direction catapult Mad Max: Fury Road into a league of its own. The furious action bursts to life with the best use of practical effects I've ever seen (yeah, that means it was all done for real), its feminist undertones are so strong that men's rights "activists" spoke out against it, a fully realized world and characters evolve with utmost subtlety simultaneous to the action. Charlize Theron's scene-stealing boldness, like the movie as a whole, is a sight to behold. What a lovely day!
Why it's not higher: There was a point about halfway through Mad Max: Fury Road that I distinctly remember being exhausted. As strange of a complaint as this is, this movie is a classic example of "too much of a good thing". The true source of this is a kink in Fury Road's structure: there are pauses for significant emotional moments, but they are clustered too closely together. The further from this cluster, the more tiring the action is.
-written and directed by Spike Lee
What is it? A satirical musical comedy/drama based on the Greek comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes (the movie is written almost entirely in rhyming verse!), redone to tell the story of powerful women in South Side, Chicago that withhold sex from their men until peace arises in an attempt to stop the gang violence and murder of innocents that their partners are propagating. It also doubles as both a Black Lives Matter proclamation and an anti-gun culture protest. Oh, and Samuel L. Jackson is a one man Greek chorus.
Why it made the list: Social justice warrior and filmmaker Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X) has delivered a remarkable film that bleeds the kind of messages our country needs to hear right now. Chi-Raq is passionately provocative, endlessly creative, and societally necessary- a furious protest wrapped in film form. It more than successfully strikes a balance between provocation, situational comedy, emotional devastation, rousing hope, and even makes room for some musical/dance numbers. It's a cinematic contradiction that transforms into something essential, courtesy of its thematic through line of social justice. Lee's spirited direction lets these pieces meld naturally while his screenplay works to combine the crude comedy of Aristophanes with Chicago slang. The results are frequently hilarious and always entertaining, adding to Chi-Raq's irresistible uniqueness with a satirical flair. Teyonah Parris is absolutely electrifying as Lysistrata; Samuel L. Jackson is in fine form as the chorus, delivering rhyming comedy with great ease; John Cusack's priest preaches the most important sermon of the year- cinematic or otherwise.
Why it's not higher: One original song felt heavy-handed, and sometimes the genre balancing leans a bit too much to one side. Those with a conflicting political agenda may unfairly slight Chi-Raq without thought.
-adapted by Emma Donoghue from her own Room, directed by Lenny Abrahamson
What is it? The best tearjerker of the decade. A young woman, Joy, was kidnapped and permanently imprisoned in a small room as a 17 year old. 7 years later, she has a 5 year old son named Jack, who was conceived with her rapist. She and Jack try to escape and find life in multiple senses.
Why it made the list: Room is a synthesis of immense acting, writing, and directing talent serving a powerful narrative; a masterpiece of cinematic storytelling. It has the most nuanced and genuine performance of the year, pitch-perfect thematic and tonal balance, and a screenplay that exudes empathy in an honest bid to relate to any struggling person. This all adds up to what is experientially one of the most affecting displays of human emotion that cinema has to offer. Abrahamson is a director of genuine feeling (as he teased with the final scene of his previous film Frank) and screenwriter Donoghue has a compelling story to tell- and the human vessels through which they convey their themes are fantastic. Brie Larson's performance as Joy is so uninhibited, natural, and most of all understanding that she envelops every scene with an indelible empathy. Her personal development in this role leads to a universal connection that leads to our own personal development. It's breathtaking: she unquestionably deserves the Oscar for Best Actress (fingers crossed). The artists behind this movie want to show us real pain and to experience love, and Room hammers home the "love conquers all" theme with superb vision.
Why it's not higher: It just couldn't measure up to...
1. EX MACHINA
-written and directed by Alex Garland
What is it? An exploration of what makes us human.
Why it's the best film of 2015:
How many movies have changed your life?
The first time I remember my life being irreversibly changed by a film was my introduction to Fight Club. My identity as a moralist and as a capitalist consumer was shaken and left to be rebuilt. Years later, Cloud Atlas expanded my horizons on the inconceivable bigness of the world, a viewpoint that would later be reinforced by traveling it.
The night I saw Ex Machina, I sat in my car for nearly an hour after, my head swirling with conceptions (preconceived? Discovered truths?) of human nature falling apart and joining one another in the resulting mess. I knew that my religious beliefs and identity were in for another check; I knew that it was the result of a particularly powerful piece of art. Some movies are exceedingly well made. Some can be life changing. Ex Machina is both.
Alex Garland, an established screenwriter, strengthens a perfect screenplay full of huge ideas with his first go at directing. The result is a phenomenal work of filmmaking prowess that never loses a visionary grip on one question: what makes humans, human? Ex Machina's story- that of tech millionaire Nathan (Oscar Isaac, in menacing form) using one of his company's brightest employees (Domhnall Gleeson, in discerning form) to test the closeness to humanity of his new Artificial Intelligence, Ava (Alicia Vikander, a wondrous mystery)- asks this question to us directly and indirectly, by means of subdued clues and testing our tendency to ascribe familiar human characteristics to certain kinds of cinematic characters. Ex Machina's cinematography and direction- full of gorgeous melds of nature and steel surrounded by stark lighting contrasts- asks this question implicitly in every frame. Every line, every physical or intangible symbol, every enjoyably witty or horrifying or thought provoking moment is in service of a thematic exploration of human nature. Concepts such as free will and empathy are rarely spoken of blatantly, but are woven into Ex Machina's soul in a way that must be soaked in. The movie's soul is just as enigmatic as Ava's: you'll leave with more questions than answers, but you'll be armed with the tools to look at the world differently and start discovering these answers.
A film with that ability is an ultimate representation of what art is for. Ex Machina is unforgettable, and my favorite film of 2015.