By that, I don’t mean I’m getting old (though I did turn thirty, and that hit me harder than expected), but if you were to compare my best-of lists from years prior (2011, 2012, 2013 & 2014), you will see far “hipper” entries atop my list from international masters like Abbas Kiarostami, or unqualified visionaries like Paul Thomas Anderson, or ambitious, convention-bucking memoirists like Sarah Polley.
My selections for this year, by comparison, feel a lot more conservative, a lot more mainstream. They’re movies I know my mother and my nieces love as much as I do. There’s a lot of work here from old masters, from the prestige porn pseudo-genre, and (admittedly) from a fairly homogenous pool of talent, in terms of race and gender. They are mostly American (or English-speaking) productions. Hell, two of the movies in my top ten are even sequels.
This year, there’s nothing hip about my selections. My selections feel comfortable. They just feel… old.
Yet perhaps that’s cause for celebration; I frequently say that a movie year is only ever as good as the effort you’re willing to put in to seeing movies. I saw 85 movies this year (see my complete ranked list if you don’t mind spoiling my picks), which is up considerably from last year. But what’s remarkable is I didn’t have to go too far outside my multiplex or arthouse chain to see the movies listed below. I didn’t have to count too heavily on reviews or word-of-mouth to hear about them, which means I didn’t have to work that hard to find movies I genuinely loved – and I love all my top picks, and most of my runners-up. What this tells me is that, for a middle-brow cinephile like me, this has been an exceptional year filled with enough interesting titles to keep my hunger for good movies sated. In fact, I’d go so far as to say this was the most consistently solid year for movies since I started writing at Film Misery back in 2011.
And what’s more, I’d be remiss if I didn’t concede that a man twice my age made by far the hippest film of the year. So if an embarrassment of mainstream movie riches is my cause for complaint, or that age and hipness are somehow correlated, I should probably zip my ageist lips for now.
With this year’s list, I may officially have stopped being hip, if ever I even was, But at least I’m still happy to spend so much time at the movies.
Notable Films I Did Not See:
Every year, a movie blogger will rattle off the ten or so pictures that most moved them, dedicate a few hundred words’ worth of superlatives, and consider their work with the movie done. They may revisit those movies some day, perhaps even reconsider them, but more often than not they won’t. There is a finality of sorts with lists, loath as we may be to admit it (after all, there are so many other movies to watch!). More often than not the review, the year-end list, even the pithy tweet, becomes the ceremonious punctuation of one’s digestion of the movie.
And that’s precisely why I’ve declined even to consider Star Wars: The Force Awakens for my top ten list. Because of all the movies I have seen this year, this revival (reboot? remake?) of easily my favorite series of all time is a movie to which I’m not even close to coming to full terms. I say this bearing tremendous affection for the movie as a whole (the characters!), and not-insignificant reservations (the Snoke!). There’s no doubt in my mind, though, considering the amount of my brain-space The Force Awakens has annexed, how much money it sucks out of consumers’ pockets, how many new movies will come until we are even I grow weary of it all, that The Force Awakens is to me the movie of the year.
But when I talk about Star Wars I’m talking about more than a movie. I’m not being maudlin; I’m being frank about the baggage I bring to the movie. No other movie this year, good or bad, should be held to those standards (frankly, neither should The Force Awakens, but you pick your battles). So I’ll put Star Wars aside (mostly), so we can celebrate the many other great movies of 2015.
2015 saw its share of prolific breakout stars, with marginal performers like Alicia Vikander and Domnhall Gleeson delivering enough star-making roles in a single year to make Jessica Chastain look like a lazy chump. And though Vikander and Gleeson’s Ex Machina co-star Oscar Isaac – who was just as prolific but far better-established – broke out a few years ago, his screen presence in 2015 all but cemented his status as the most exciting new screen talent. In Ex Machina, Isaac pumps his character up with a kind of Silicon Valley braggadocio that’s at once welcoming yet buoyed by a mean-spirited undercurrent. In Show Me a Hero, his best work of the year (yes, I’m cheating by including TV) he elegantly guides Nick Wasicsko’s decline from political enfant terrible to local pariah with measured intensity and fascinatingly self-defeating solipsism. As for his work as Poe in Star Wars, a role that would feature in his obit headlines even if he’d slummed the part, imbues an underwritten role with so much charisma, there’s a reason why “Needs more Poe” ranks among the film’s most noteworthy critiques.
Several critics have already likened Oscar Isaac to a young Pacino. That’s not quite right, but it’s not quite wrong either. He did not give his best performance in 2015 (that was in 2013), but he’s never had a year as strong as this. And of all the actors with his potential working today, he’s the one I trust most to have a full, interesting, even iconic career.
Runners-Up: Ennio Morricone’s score, The Hateful Eight, Roger Deakins’ camera, Sicario, Chris King’s editing, Amy; Michael B. Jordan, Creed; Laia Costa’s lead work in Victoria; Old Fogey support from Sylvester Stallone and Harrison Ford, respectively, in Creed and Star Wars: The Force Awakens; The new guard, Star Wars: The Force Awakens; Teyonah Parris, Chi-Raq
It’s a rare achievement, largely because too often it veers into tidiness, to successfully embody the entire point of your film in your final scene. But if the scene feels like a truly natural culmination of everything preceding, it won’t so much wrap things in a bow as cause everything to click. And no scene this year clicks as crisply for me as does Tangerine‘s ending, a moment of placidity so rare that it becomes this relentlessly paced film’s sole source of respite. In this final moment, where Alexandra must stop fighting with Sin-dee to contend with a physically harmless yet cruelly transphobic act of violence, few words are spoken. And eventually, both Sin-Dee and Alexandra are left to wait, in a laundromat of all places, to their own tacit thoughts. What clicks for me so beautifully in this scene, punctuating ninety minutes of snowballing energy, is how well this idleness contrasts with the rest of the movie. Idleness for Sin-Dee and Alexandra is revealed as a luxury. And as raucous and boisterous as Tangerine feels beforehand, this chance to breathe allows for the movie’s true meaning itself to breathe. And the satisfaction of that click is why I love the Tangerine so much.
Runners-Up: Revealing the Millenium Falcon, Star Wars: The Force Awakens; A love scene “Flung from Space,” Carol; Bing-Bong’s final sacrifice, Inside Out; Farewell to Bunzo, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter; The bear mauling, The Revenant; The grande finale, Phoenix; Truth of the Lincoln Letter, The Hateful Eight
We don’t talk enough about the joys of watching a truly terrible new movie. That’s really a shame; among good friends and certain substances (consumed legally and responsibly, of course), a communal experience of sharing scoffs, guffaws, and snide remarks can be as sacred and as gratifying an experience as bonding over Mean Girls or Fight Club. In that spirit, I have no choice but to recommend Rob Cohen’s fearlessly terrible The Boy Next Door, a low-budget, low-risk Jennifer Lopez vehicle out of which director Rob Cohen sincerely tried to make, I suspect, a decent movie. The result, however is a gloriously (gloriously!) schlocky Fatal Attraction update so rife with clumsy double entendres, slapdash filmmaking, gratuitous cake of cheese and of beef, horribly misguided presumptions about the publishing world when Homer wrote The Iliad, and a climax of knee-slappingly grody proportions that to not recommend it would be an elision of critical duty.
Some naysayers dismissed this as failing even to meet the criterion of “so bad it’s good.” But with respect to them, nuts to them. The Boy Next Door is so bad, it’s practically orgasmic. See it with a friend this weekend, and have an orgasmic time.
Runners-Up: Entertainment, The Good Dinosaur, Unfriended, Zombeavers
Arguably the year’s biggest sleeper, and inarguably Ridley Scott’s first hit in years, I am actually quite heartened by The Martian‘s success, even if I don’t like the movie very much. Lest I be written off as a complete wet blanket, I love that a movie of its type – one where the solution to the problems faced involves diversity, intelligence, heady scientific concepts, and good ol’ gumption – would even be green-lit by a studio, not to mention would become popular. I love that The Martian exists.
My problem comes is how the movie mines these great ideas for drama, and as drama The Martian feels disappointingly thin. The movie’s most quotable punchline, “I will science the shit out of this,” epitomizes the movie’s problems: it’s not nearly as funny as writer Drew Goddard seems to think it is, and it encapsulates the movie’s generic, underexplored position that science will simply get it done. Too many of the story’s dramatic ligaments – the tissue connecting each well-conceived instance of science Maguyvering Matt Damon off of Mars – feels underwritten. I wish I had counted the number of times somebody says something to the effect of “You can do that; it’s impossible!” only to have a higher up simply respond “we’ll do it anyway.” And by george, they do it!
The Martian is a story bereft of tension, which I consider a major flaw for a movie about a guy stranded alone, literally a whole planet away from another living thing. It feels about as dramatic a Boys’ Life survival guide to Mars. Scott and company science the shit out of The Martian. And that’s great, but I just wish they’d fictioned the shit out of it too.
Runners-Up: The Big Short, Grandma, The Revenant, Steve Jobs, Trainwreck, Youth
It was not that fun to poo-poo Jurassic World back when it came out, when I feel like the rare soul to find it mostly laughable. But when a movie like this makes over a billion and a half dollars by following basically the same blockbuster building block template – by relying far to heavily on CGI carnage and thin characters; by not allowing charismatic actors like Chris Pratt and Oliver Platt to inject any humanity into their roles (in other words, to act); by being so contemptuous of the women in your movie that you condemn your lead to an arc where she must learn her career is getting in the way of her maternal instincts, and to sentence another to a horribly gruesome death for being, essentially, a bad babysitter; by cynically introducing a meta textual reading about corporate-mandated franchises only never to follow through in a satisfying way; by being just a listless slog of an action movie – that vague disdain will curdle into utter contempt. In many ways, Jurassic World is the anti-Martian; I resent this movie’s very existence.
Runners-Up: Black Mass, Krampus, Lava, Spectre, Trumbo, Truth
Honorable Mentions (#11 – #20)
About Elly (dir. Asghar Farhadi) – Farhadi’s 2009 film only hit stateside this year, now that he’s become a known quantity. Even before A Separation, Farhadi proves himself the true master of empathy and low-key/high-stakes human drama.
Brooklyn (dir. John Crowley) – A disarmingly earnest, unaffected story of love and immigration and coming of age, centered around Saorise Ronan’s breathtakingly assured central performance. More directors should watch this movie, if only to learn about the effectiveness of good costume design.
Creed (dir. Ryan Coogler) – You don’t need to be a Rocky fanboy to love this, and that’s coming from somebody who only (finally) saw Rocky to see this. Coogler sharpens his skill with character, following his too-simplistic Fruitvale Station, and he shoots each boxing match like an old pro.
Inside Out (dir. Pete Docter & Ronaldo del Carmen) – Pixar never really strayed all that far. Still… PIXAR’S BACK, BABY! Docter and del Carmen navigate this movie’s convoluted premise with stunning clarity and emotional intelligence. Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith deliver vocal work as strong as any IRL performance this year. Now let’s all weep for Bing-Bong.
Magic Mike XXL (dir. Gregory Jacobs) – Of course it took male
strippers entertainers to make the year’s most good-spirited, body-positive, sex-positive movie about self-affirmation. While XXL runs light on tension and story, Jacobs makes the inspired choice to craft this as something of a low-stakes heist flick (one last big score before retirement!). The finale feels inspired by Gold Diggers of 1933.
Sicario (dir. Denis Villeneuve) – For me, with Villeneuve, fifth time’s the charm. I believe this was about the drug war or something, but the (Oscar nominated!) music and camerawork cast so transfixing a spell I can’t be too sure. A cop drama like few others.
Spy (dir. Paul Feig) – The year’s best conventional comedy, this is also both Feig and Melissa McCarthy’s best work since they first collaborated on Bridesmaids. McCarthy and Jason Statham puncture the spy genre’s most banal tropes so acutely, I almost feel bad for Spectre having to come out this same year.
Tangerine (dir. Sean Baker) – Inventively shot and teeming with empathy, this LA film about trans prostitutes (actually performed by trans women) is more than a success of representation. Breezy and funny – and tinged with sadness and resignation – Baker may have just launched a new wave on the indie scene.
Taxi (dir. Jafar Panahi) – In the response to his government’s oppressive sanctions, Iranian filmmaker Panahi has created as clever a circumlocution of film language as you could hope. It just goes to show, you can’t keep a good artist down.
Victoria (dir. Sebastian Schipper) – The whole movie is worth seeing for the 138-minute long take alone.
Justin’s Top Ten Films of 2015
The quintessential Spike Lee Joint – ambitious, messy, electrifyingly well-acted, angry, funny, meandering, and alarmingly on-point. But here’s where Chi-Raq is most quintessential: it couldn’t have arrived at a more critical moment. While the greek sex comedy Lysistrata serves as the stylistic template for Lee’s exploration of inner city violence in Chicago – and of the modern condition of American anti-black racism – what sticks hardest as this movie goes down is just how elegantly Lee uses the artifice of meter and rants to bring emotional resonance to each of his none-too-subtle points. I’ve always considered Spike Lee a didact more than a filmmaker; a social critic who uses cinema to elucidate his points. Lee just so happens to know cinema better than most other things. And so if Chi-Raq feels like a dramatized rant, it matters not one bit because the rant is itself so beautifully dramatized. Chi-Raq doesn’t always feel good. But when it does feel good, it feels great. And when it doesn’t, it feels necessary.
In a year where riffing on the Coen Brothers’ most beloved movie might’ve officially become old news, Zellner’s take on an urban legend about a person inspired by Fargo’s rural legend finds much more to glean from its source material than its meta-textual riches. Kumiko is, of all this year’s movies, the one most effectively drenched in sadness and misery. In telling this story about a woman who (vainly) travels from Japan to Minnesota to excavate the treasure buried beneath a red ice scraper in the snow, Zellner taps into two different kinds of heartbreaking isolation in each of those worlds: first emotional, then physical. He remains stalwartly empathetic throughout. Rinko Kikuchi, in a performance too painfully internalized to get the attention it deserves, conveys exceptional clarity to Kumiko’s twisted ambitions and doomed logic. You want to shake her, then hug her, then shake her again. You’ll also want to get a pet rabbit after Kumiko; Bunzo is the only movie sidekick this year to rival BB-8 for cuteness.
As the year’s prime example of why you should never watch trailers, I don’t think anybody expected this adaptation of Michael Bond’s children’s lit staple to be any good, let alone great. But regardless of how it was marketed to kids (which was poorly), Paddington is as much a work of cinema as any other movie listed here. Paul King’s movie actually feels directed; he sports a unified sense of vision and wit, he knows how to be playful with the camera, and he knows how to establish a sense of space and stakes around his many, many set pieces. Best of all, the script propels the characters – human and ursine – with utterly relatable dreams and aspirations (Sally Hawkins’ arc revolves around little more than communicating with her teenage daughter… and it’s handled wonderfully!). Even when the movie gets silly – specifically, Nicole Kidman’s brilliantly goofy villain – humanity fuels characters’ actions. Paddington is a rare beast indeed: a children’s movie that actually feels like a movie.
I take solace in knowing Steven Spielberg, the director perhaps chiefly responsible for the king-sized blockbuster-addled movie culture haunting the multiplexes today, has chosen to wield his incalculable cultural capital to make Hollywood movies on a considerably more modest scale. Following Lincoln, the 11th-best of all his movies, Bridge of Spies continues Spielberg’s self-reflective probe into his old-fashioned liberal American values, with all the expertise you’d expect. But unlike Lincoln, whose uneasy subtext reverberates above all else, Spies is strikingly old-fashioned in its civic ponderances. Livened with Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance’s humanizing work (Rylance in particular ranks immediately among Spielberg’s best performers), This Cold War drama of a former Nuremberg lawyer defending an outed Russian spy treads its moral terrain rather neatly, but there’s thrilling traction in watching these characters navigate each other while also serving their ideals (and ideologies). It’s straightforward, albeit deceptively so. And it’s a showcase for impeccable craft, from Janusz Kaminski’s stunning light work to the shrewd set design (Rena DeAngelo and Bernhard Henrich) to outstanding direction from the greatest of mainstream directors this side of Hitchcock.
It’s at once crucial, yet still miraculous, that the fictionalized chronicle of the Boston Globe’s investigation into a generation’s defining criminal conspiracy would feel so selfless. Urgent yet never didactic, tense yet never strident, moral yet never moralistic, this journalism-centric procedural toes the “Issues Movie” highwire with such success because it commits so entirely to the story. Just as the Spotlight team operated collaboratively to expose the Catholic Church’s decades-long history of rape and cover-up, this movie’s crew and ensemble work with a simpatico rhythm so assured, not one individual seems inclined to out-act or out-craft everybody else. Even the lone “ACTING!” scene from Mark Ruffalo is in service of story and tone; a much-needed moment of cathartic anger. Spotlight honors its story, in a sense, by being its story. And the story it tells is of a team of professionals committed to doing their jobs well, at the service of uncovering a necessary if gut-wrenching truth.
Early last year, unbeknownst to a world clenching their spine-creased, dog-eared copies of E.L. James’ bestseller as they anticipated its film adaptation, they already had the opportunity to rock their BDSM jollies on-screen with Strickland’s follow-up to Berberian Sound Studio. Of course, those same viewers may have found themselves screaming “pinastri!” to the ultra-stylized Burgundy, a movie about kinky lesbian sex so shorn on kink and sex (the raunchiest scenes involve clothes-on oral pleasure, and offscreen gargling) it may come off as weirdly tame. Yet it’s that same subversive tameness that lets me proclaim as one of the rare deft portrayals of such sexual expression: Strickland understands these kinks as a canvas to express love, pleasure, and to negotiate the politics of a relationship, and never loses sight for the sake of titillation. With the gentle intensity of Sidse Babett Knudsen (there’s so much to read in her ambivalent smiles) as she attempts to sate her younger lover’s desires (a nearly-as-good Chiara D’Anna), The Duke of Burgundy is the rare love story to treat love as it actually works, human toilets and all.
My favorite science fiction film in a spell, Alex Garland’s directorial debut is astonishingly well-assured from the onset (though the screenwriter’s probably visited a set or two), containing his larger ideas within a quartet of strong performances from Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, and Sonoya Mizuno (remember Kyoko?). Minimalism embellishes the themes beautifully here, from the set designs to scoring to the special effects (this is some of the best low-fi CGI since Attack the Block). Garland also puts the ever-reliable sci-fi trope of artificial intelligence to refreshingly modern use. As strongly as Ex Machina presents itself as a cautionary fable about the follies of human ambition, what gives the movie its edge is how much its narrative blossoms into an exploration of how desire and individuality can be compartmentalized as technology advances, and how those hoping to capitalize on desire and technology might so do. Ex Machina is equal parts existentialist and consumerist nightmare.
The blood-bag that allows my faith in summer blockbusters to endure! George Miller’s long-gestating follow-up to his signature franchise may be one of countless other cash-ins on well-established franchises, but the multiplexes have not seen anything this risky or this fresh in years. Consider any complaint you could lodge against blockbusters in general (c.f. my above rationale for the year’s worst), and the manic, madcap phantasmagoria Fury Road will stand as its antithesis. Miller smartly sticks to the storytelling basics – building a world with tools other than computers, populating it with roundly conceived characters and nuanced performances, and allowing the narrative to stem from there, with as little exposition as needed – and flavoring it all with his singularly bent energy, bordering-on-kitsch aesthetic, and flame-spewing guitars. Fury Road is a staggeringly well-polished pleasure vehicle where each pleasure lands without feeling like the director’s vision has been compromised in the process. (Doesn’t Miller know a woman can’t lead an action movie? That goes against the four quadrants and such-and-such!) It’s a goofy, rollicking, utterly bonkers work of pop art. It embodies, more than any movie this year, precisely why we go to the movies.
When it’s all you have, when society rejects a specific fact of you, you relish like nothing else the simple gestures: the wayward glances, the rare private moment, the light touch on the shoulder, the warm yet intentful smile. Few filmmakers appreciate the coded language of closeted love and how to dramatize it like Todd Haynes, the director whose contributions to independent film in the nineties helped burst open the closet doors for queer filmmakers and aesthetes. There are moments in Carol, a fifties-era lesbian romance adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, that feel positively wistful for a time when dissident sexual expressions remained necessarily unexpressed. Yet that air of wistfulness speaks more to Haynes’ empathy for the times, and for understanding love and desire’s ability to slip through even the tightest of Victorian grips, than for nostalgia. When Carter Burwell’s score swells, those inescapable emotions concurrently swell, until all that’s left for Carol and Therese is submit to them. Carol is a masterpiece of intelligence and control, guided by Haynes’ expert touch as much as Phyllis Nagy’s script, and the equally controlled acting of Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, and Kyle Chandler. Submitting to its magnificence is as inevitable as the act of falling in love.
To give context to the true risk for all involved int making The Look of Silence, you need only sit through the end credits. At one point, as the movie credits the dozens of people who warranted “Special Thanks,” the name of every single individual on screen – did I mention this is a list of dozens? – is replaced with the pseudonym “Anonymous.” That this film could inspire so many to make a clandestine contribution toward this movie – a still-life of the toxic fruits borne of successful political violence and demagoguery – tells me something about The Look of Silence that the movie’s director, Joshua Oppenheimer, is too modest to say outright: As much as making a film can be a commitment to a vision, a telling of a story, an extolling of a certain perspective, sometimes a work of cinema can be, above all, an act of courage.
Certainly The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer’s harrowing companion piece to his 2013 documentary The Act of Killing, is an act of courage for all involved, anonymous or not. Adi, whose own family fell victim to both the actions and legacy of Indonesia’s 1966 nominally anti-Communist massacres, risks most by directly confronting his brother’s murderers, the complacents who facilitated his murder, and the beneficiaries of that death and the death of thousands like him. It is devastating, it is righteous, and it is terrifying to see Adi confront these people so directly, anonymity be damned. Much as you fear for the safety of Adi (not to mention of Oppenheimer and his crew) you also celebrate his inquiries, which are made at a moment when history can still be written by somebody other than the victors.
I’m truly not one, though, to call any movie the best of the year simply because it is “important” or “brave.” The Look of Silence is more than an important, courageous piece of documentary; it is also a wondrous feat of art. While it sheds Killing’s formal inventiveness, it does so for something more straightforwardly affecting, yet equally powerful. Unlike its predecessor, whose audacious concept does most of the intellectual legwork, this vision of a simple man whose family history happens also to be his country’s legacy allows, finally, for some emotional catharsis to break through. Its successes depend more crucially on the individual moment, on the insight learned from Adi’s life, and on the purity with which human pain is allowed to be released.
As much as The Look of Silence documents the ramifications of evil deeds, it is also a vision on the importance of inquiry. More than simply the best picture of 2015, it is a companion piece to possibly the most significant achievement of nonfiction filmmaking since Steve James took a camera to two young, poor, Chicago boys. It’s as definitive an encapsulation as we’re likely to see this generation of modern cinema’s real power. And it is an act of courage.