We’re two months into 2016, and I finally feel that I’ve seen enough 2015 films to put together a top 10 list (just in time for the Oscars). More than ever, last year had a ton of variety in its excellent films, and the lists that I have seen do not have a strong overlap with one another. I’ve watched 62 new releases from 2015 (by far a personal record), and yet there are still several high-profile films that I’ve missed and thus couldn’t include. Without further ado, here is my list:
Inside Out is a children’s film that is all about the importance of sadness in a person’s life, explaining that it’s okay feel emotions other than happiness sometimes. If someone tries to block out the “bad” emotions, it can result in he or she feeling nothing at all. That is an incredibly mature message, one that many adults struggle with from time to time, and yet it is packaged in a way that is easily digestible to children. The creativity on display is nothing short of incredible. The movie is always fun, frequently hilarious, and consistently moving. Perhaps the best compliment I can give this film is that when it ended, I was immediately ready for a sequel; I just wanted to see what else was possible in this world.
Were it not for a few questionable directorial decisions, Steve Jobs would easily be in my Top 10. Aaron Sorkin knows exactly how to make a fascinating biopic that transcends its source material. Steve Jobs takes place during three major product releases throughout the history of Apple as Jobs (Michael Fassbender) runs around behind the scenes having confrontations with a half dozen important people in his life. The film very clearly takes extreme liberties with actual events, and is all the better for it. The story of Jobs himself somewhat takes a back seat in his own film, and the man is portrayed simultaneously in a sympathetic yet largely negative light. The result best captures the essence of who Jobs was and how his “reality-distortion field” pushed the people around him to be the best they could. This film stretches the definition of what a biopic is supposed to be, and is far more powerful and engaging for it.
This film probably deserves to be on the list for degree-of-difficulty alone, yet sadly I was unable to make room for it. This 2 hour 20 minute thriller takes place in one take. Not stitched together takes. No CGI or editing trickeries. Just one, single, 2 hour and 20 minute take. Victoria doesn’t take shortcuts either by, say, limiting the film to a single location or shooting away from the action. Instead, we travel all around Berlin, following our characters as their night evolves. Despite the technical difficulty, I would not consider this a gimmick film. The format very much serves the story, and really helps you invest in the main characters and empathize with (most) of their choices, since you have been along for literally the entire ride.
Love and Mercy
Love and Mercy is exactly the film that I would usually skip. Biopics, particularly ones about musicians, very rarely do it for me. Love and Mercy was an enormous surprise. What this film best captures is the sense of what it may be like to be a genius in an artistic field. The sound design in particular is just incredible, putting the audience directly into the head of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. Both Paul Dano and John Cusack are at the top of their game, presenting two sides of the same coin, while Paul Giamatti gives a quietly terrifying performance as Brian’s caregiver and manager.
TOP TEN OF 2015
10. The Big Short
Like many people, I go to the movies mostly to feel something I wouldn’t otherwise. The best films can give you the happiness and catharsis of the characters’ successes, or perhaps feel the pain and sadness that comes with loss. The Big Short mainly seeks one emotion from its audience: rage at the injustice of the housing crisis of 2008. In this, it is incredibly successful. By the end, the audience cannot help but seethe at all involved (including the protagonists of the film, to an extent). The other goal of The Big Short is to use wit and direct address to educate its audience on the details of the crisis that the average layperson may not know. Here it succeeds as well, as it is entertaining throughout and doesn’t talk down to its audience. Is it a flawless film? No, it’s not. But in terms of sheer potential impact it has on its viewers, it is one of the most important films of the year.
Sadly, I haven’t seen this one on many lists. Faults follows a washed-up cult-deprogrammer, Ansel. Desperate for money, he agrees to take one job out of retirement to try to pull one cult-member back into society. This film is darkly hilarious at first, eventually transitioning into straight drama. What I appreciate best about this movie is that it really takes the audience through the mindset of someone who has been brainwashed by a cult. Much like It Follows, Faults is able to very subtly cause viewers to empathize with an experience that they’ve likely never considered. This film is compelling throughout, and is a great example of what low-budget, independent cinema is capable of.
8. Mistress America
Mistress America, co-written by Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, is one of the funniest films of the year and an excellent follow-up to a personal favorite, Frances Ha. It follows college freshman and aspiring writer, Tracy (Lola Kirke), as she connects with Millennial Extraordinaire and soon-to-be step sister Brooke (Greta Gerwig). What I find so hilarious about this movie is that the writing seems as though it is ripped straight from the pages of Tracy’s novel (also titled Mistress America). The characters are wacky, the dialogue is fast-paced yet wordy and rigid, characters frequently do things that no one in real life ever would. It all seems very sophomoric, with all the mistakes an aspiring writing student would make. And yet it is all extremely self-aware. It knows exactly what it is doing, and somehow strikes a perfect balance to allow the farce to be thoroughly entertaining rather than annoying. This meta-textual reading really pushed this film over the edge for me, from straight comedy to one of the most interesting films of the year.
7. Ex Machina
Ex Machina raises so many fascinating questions about the nature of artificial intelligence; it had to make my list. As I’ve discussed previously, I believe the film to be more about human nature than it is about artificial life, and it claims that the two are closer to the same than we might like. This three-person, one-building film exemplifies the best of low-budget, cerebral science fiction. The three lead performances are incredible, all from actors that have long, successful careers ahead of them. The music is on-point and creates the perfect mysterious and ominous atmosphere. If Ex Machina is any indication of what is to come, I cannot wait to see what Alex Garland does for his sophomore film.
For many, Carol captured the feeling of first falling in love, and all of the ups and downs that a relationship has to offer. While that film is fantastic, the film that best captured those feelings for me was Brooklyn. This is a lovely coming-of-age story that explores new love and home-sickness. It exemplifies how no one can truly choose your life except for you. This is an immigrant story at heart, but anyone who has ever moved away from home can identify with the struggle of Saoirse Ronan’s character. This is also easily the best date movie of the year, and one that I think practically anyone can enjoy.
Anomalisa is an extremely difficult film to digest, and one that I think will disagree with many people. It is also the most poorly-marketed film of the year; the trailer pretends the film sends a positive and uplifting message. In reality, it focuses on depression, narcissism, and self-loathing; anyone going in looking for happy, carefree whimsy will likely hate it. The audience realizes early on that the film’s protagonist, Michael Stone, is not a “good” person. From there, they must choose whether to empathize with some of his plight while perhaps detesting his actions. Michael is unable to connect to literally anyone around him: a sad, lonely man who feels that everyone is the same, and that he is somehow different or special. That is, until he meets Lisa, who he sees as the one other unique person, an anomaly. To me, this film is really about ego taken to an extreme, painted beautifully in a world of mostly-realistic stop-motion animation. It gives an extremely honest position on a slice of humanity, and features one of my favorite movie moments of 2015 in a rendition of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”
4. Mad Max: Fury Road
This was by far the most difficult to place, and could easily be my #1. Fury Road is a film that reinvigorates the action/sci-fi genres in a way no film has since The Matrix. George Miller has somehow created a masterpiece after being absent from the genre for 30 years. Fury Road is, at its heart, a silent film, and borrows visual techniques that date back to the dawn of cinema. Where it best succeeds is in combining those techniques with modern technology to create an action movie the likes of which have never been seen. It has the courage to sideline its titular character in favor of the much more interesting Furiosa. Add to this that the film has a heart, purpose, and a strongly feminist message, and this film earns all of the praise it has received throughout the year.
3. It Follows
It Follows is the film that inspired me to start this blog. Despite being firmly in the horror genre, it was one of the only films this year that made me see the world from a perspective I had never fully considered: that of a victim of sexual assault. I’ve argued that this film could work without the supernatural element, yet the addition of the unstoppable, sinister force imbues the audience with the victim’s sense of dread in a way that would be extremely difficult for a straight-up drama. On a strictly genre level, this film also excels. It is impossible to fully detect the setting; the movie is shot in Detroit, but in an unrecognizable time period in which people watch black-and-white television tubes yet have iPhone-like devices. The soundtrack evokes the 80’s classic Halloween, yet feels modern and fresh. All of this lends to the general nightmarish atmosphere of inescapable doom.
Sicario easily wins the “Gone Girl Award” for most gripping, edge-of-your-seat film of the year. Emily Blunt plays an FBI agent thrown into the world of trying to maintain control of Mexican cartels, and it is quickly revealed that though capable, she is in completely over her head. This film has so much going for it. Roger Deacon’s cinematography is some of the best of the year. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score is blaringly intense, driving the tension further with every scene. Even the themes are poignant, ranging from breaking up the Boy’s Club to a consideration of whether the ends always justify the means. Perhaps most importantly, all of the action and conflict feel terrifyingly real. Another 2015 film that pairs quite well with Sicario is Cartel Land, a story of vigilantes fighting the cartels along the border. Cartel Land demonstrates just how real the horrors of Sicario are.
Lenny Abrahamson’s Room is a film that surprises at every turn. The film follows Ma (Brie Larson), who was kidnapped 6 years ago and has been raising her now 5-year-old son (Jacob Trembly), who has never known a world outside of a tiny shed. This sounds like the most depressing film of the year, but I can’t stress enough how surprisingly uplifting it is. The perspective is mostly through the child’s eyes, and the film is very much about wonder and the tenacity of a child’s spirit even in the presence of horrible circumstances. I’m going to have to give away late-film plot details that are revealed in the trailer, so if you want to go in completely clean, stop here and just see it.
This movie is as much about the aftermath of living in Room and the trauma that comes with it as it is about life in Room itself. It features an escape sequence that easily rivals Sicario’s most tense moments, even if you already know the outcome. It contains the most heart-warming moment of the year, a single line delivered by a child. The two leads are nothing short of incredible, as both melt into their roles and perfectly deliver extremely challenging, powerful performances. If this film affected me this much, I can only imagine the reaction of viewers who have raised children. It was an extremely difficult decision (all of the top 4 have been my #1 at one point), but at the end of the day, it has to be Room.
Overall 2015 has had an excellent selection of films, and I’m extremely excited to see what’s to come in 2016. For more on my thoughts on 2015, check out my best “stuff” of the year post here. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.