2015 was, simply put, a pretty good year for movies. From revitalized action and drama franchises, to compellingly written thrillers, science fiction, and animation, and beautifully crafted art house pieces, 2015 had a little something for everybody. Here are my favorites from the last year.
15. The Big Short – This film is what happens when a comedy director (Adam McKay of Anchorman and Step Brothers fame) really finds their bearings. Sharply written satire, along with great performances, especially by Steve Carell and Christian Bale, make The Big short an accessible and infuriating look at the mid-2000s financial collapse.
14. It Follows – Sporting a unique visual palette that draws comparisons to the art house slasher films of the ’80s, a Carpenter-esque synth score, and a commendably original concept, this immensely eerie and effective horror thriller marks another milestone in the artistic revitalization of the horror genre that began with last year’s The Babadook.
13. Sicario – Director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners) once again proves that he has the chops for effective and introspective thrillers. Covering the hopelessness of the war on drugs, and the unstoppable nature of revenge, Sicario boasts some of the most intense scenes of any movie this year, and an absolutely haunting performance from Benicio del Toro.
12. Inside Out – I’m really thankful for this film. After some middling efforts (Monsters University, Brave) to some downright not good ones (Cars 2, and later in 2015, The Good Dinosaur), I was worried if Pixar was losing its credibility. Fortunately, Pete Doctor proves that the studio still has potential when it comes to original, touching, and hilarious work.
11. Me, and Earl, and the Dying Girl – It’s rare that an indie teen drama really hits it out of the park, but this film is something special. Quirky, and stuffed full of dry wit, but simultaneously poignant and heartbreaking, without ever feeling sappy, this film succeeds as a moving examination of teenage friendships.
10. Ex Machina
Not all sci-fi films are purely special effects extravaganzas. Some take risks, putting writing and characters above spectacle. Some seek to really challenge their audience and make them think. Or make them really uncomfortable. Ex Machina hits all of these marks. The three lead cast, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander, all three of which have had a hugely successful year, work remarkably well together to sell writer/director Alex Garland’s smart, and occasionally creepy screenplay about what it really means to be human.
9. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Disney, J.J. Abrams, and the rest of the crew had a lot riding on the success of The Force Awakens. Fail, and the planned continuation of the franchise, and any optimism left in the series would likely die a horrible death. But they managed to pull it off wonderfully. Sure, the plot mirrors A New Hope, but it manages to work more as a homage than copy, and every new addition, including John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, and Adam Driver hold their own spectacularly. Simply put, I had more fun watching The Force Awakens than most other movie this year. So here’s to more.
When people heard that director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) was making a sequel/spin off of the Rocky franchise, most people expected something positive. Fruitvale Station was good, Rocky Balboa (2006) was pretty good, and this one was likely to be pretty good as well. What most people didn’t expect was that it would be deeply impassioned, elegantly directed, and feature two of the best performances of the year (Michael B. Jordan, as well as Sylvester Stallone in his absolute best performance since the original Rocky), all while still managing to be immensely entertaining. Creed easily marks the most worthy entry in the Rocky franchise since the original best picture winner forty years ago.
Carol’s plot, the story of a love affair between a young photographer (Rooney Mara) and an older woman (Cate Blanchett) is not a complicated one in terms of action and drama. It can be described as simply a love story. However, thanks to Phyllis Nagy’s multifaceted and layered screenplay, Edward Lachman’s beautiful cinematography, Carter Burwell’s poignant score, and absolutely stunning performances from Blanchett, and Mara, Carol rises above simple love story to one of the most gorgeously realized in years.
If there’s any writer/director so effective at creating emotional ruination as Charlie Kaufman, I haven’t heard of them. Anomalisa, despite having only three voice actors, being composed of stop motion marionettes, and having a somewhat short running time, manages to be the most heartrendingly human film of the year. Kaufman’s vision in his portrayal of human relationships is unparalleled.
5. The Hateful Eight
There are only a handful of writer/directors that can create a three hour picture, set almost entirely in one room, with only about ten leading actors, and have it not only be not boring, but exceedingly entertaining. Tarantino is one of them. Featuring one of his most deranged, ferociously violent, nihilistic, and often hysterical plots, bolstered by outstanding performances from Samuel L. Jackson, Walter Goggins, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and a delightfully grim score from legendary composer Ennio Morricone, this one is quality Tarantino. Pure entertainment.
The true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal in the early 2000’s is not only one of the most well-paced screenplays of the year, but also one of the best acted. Easily the best ensemble of the past year (with Mark Ruffalo as a standout), Spotlight handles its tough subject matter gracefully and effectively, in a way that, suitably, leaves you shaken.
This film gets automatic points for being the only film released last year to make me cry. The film is pretty devastating, but also manages to have a consistent air of hope thanks to jaw-droppingly real and honest performances from Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. Told from the perspective of the child, Room’s sad and terrifying premise is laced with innocence and made into something wholly optimistic and wonderful.
2. The Revenant
Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu continues his streak of artistic masterworks with this brutal and unflinching tale of survival. Leo owns this film through a pretty good number of terrible things to himself including, but not limited to, crawling on face through the snow, going over a waterfall in an icy river, and sleeping inside a horse carcass. It’s a commendable physical performance. Tom Hardy exudes charisma as a traditional villain as well. These performances coupled with Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, which will likely earn him a third consecutive Oscar, and the minimalist score of Ryuichi Sakamoto, The Revenant has a vibrant artistic flare that will likely work in its favor at the Oscars this year.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
If you had told most people several decades ago or even last year that a sequel to a 1970’s Australian exploitation film that struggled for years in development would end up one of the best films of that year, and possibly one of the greatest action films of all time, the response would likely be that of confusion. Yet here we are. Director George Miller masterfully weaves some mind-blowing practical effects, insane, bizarre, and over-the-top chases and set pieces, and some gorgeous, colorful cinematography, along with an emotionally-charged plot, and some very effective world-building, into an epic action masterpiece.