This was one polarizing year in cinema. I like the Top 11 format as a general matter, but it only works when there truly are ten & change films that actually deserve to be recognized as year’s best work. 2015 just doesn’t really have that. The first six were easy. After that, it became a bit of a struggle.
The films on this list are all likely films that you’ve heard about in some capacity, and many of them even you likely went to see. I still haven’t seen everything, but I saw plenty of smaller art films this year, many of which were impressive (and a few of which you will see as honorable mentions) and worthy, but 2015 was simply a big year in eventful spectacle. People went to the movies in droves; Award Season has already recognized that, and will likely continue to do so. So yeah, here’s a list.
Honorable Mentions (in no particular order)
The less you know about what goes on in this film, the better. It’s a tough-minded thriller in a moral battlefield with career-best cinematography from Roger Deakins and impeccable direction. Don’t read any reviews; don’t watch any interviews. Just see it. Trust me.
The Green Inferno
Eli Roth wrote and directed a movie about preening pretentious punks who take their cell phones and internet connections into the Amazon, and get in over their heads faster than a jihadist at a prophet-drawing contest in Garland, Texas. These asinine peddlers of grotesque sensationalism get their just desserts (before it gets worse) in this deliciously sadistic horror movie that’s all about the implications and consequences of drawing attention to yourself. It would be a mistake to infer a substantive agenda from it all, but Inferno has an axe to grind with poisonous attitudes that embody a generation and dictate the methods of modern activism. Don’t pass this up just because it’s gross.
Surprise! Eli Roth actually made not one, but two awesome movies this year, both horror and both revelatory. This movie is The Birds, but with sex-crazed millennials. Featuring a satanic style punishment inflicted upon the pitied adulterer, Roth reaches Sam Raimi levels of screwball showmanship. As opposed to the naïve kitten Lorenza Izzo plays in the former, here her predatory playfulness is monstrous and genuinely terrifying in all the most poignant ways.
This movie probably won’t deserve the awards it has a good chance of getting, but that’s more because of its competition than its merits. It’s a terrific novelization of great journalism, with the kind of payoff Stieg Larsson would no-doubt envy, but it doesn’t think too highly of itself the way a lot of recent biographical dramas have been (looking at you Steve Jobs and The Theory of Everything). It’s also the year’s better feature of Boston, my home city, without ripping off Martin Scorsese’s best movie ever (Johnny Depp rocks, but Black Mass isn’t making this list).
11. The Revenant
The cinematic affectation Alejandro González Iñárritu constitutes both the best and worst things in this movie. It appears to be a likely Award Season favorite again this year, mostly for the great technical work and Leonardo DiCaprio’s rite of passage to the Best Actor award that he’s deserved since Catch Me If You Can. That normally isn’t enough for me, no matter how much blood & guts it has to offer, but here it pays off as the ultimate visceral cinematic experience, and little additional character-specific emotional veracity is needed. Unlike Iñárritu’s Birdman, last year’s painful egomaniacal hodgepodge of bloviating, the non-illusory movie magic in The Revenant actually connects its bone-searing action with the greater theme of nature’s gauntlet for man to run. It makes the list, not because it’s far enough beyond its flaws to be a masterpiece, or that it’s especially poignant, but because of its spectacular success where the effort was.
10. Mad Max: Fury Road (My Review)
As long as we’re still talking about overrated movies that nonetheless hold up their own, there’s also this mini-masterpiece. I do not care for how the lurid yet non-exploitative dominance of women in stunt-action roles, and paternally anarchical allegories seduced and reduced would-be mildly dispassionate judges of quality into consumerist shrills. But you can’t fault a movie this good for that. Or rather, I shall not. Fury Road is simply-presented brazen fun that never runs out of cylinders to fire on. It also inspired this little metallic masterpiece by a friend of mine.
9. Avengers: Age of Ultron (Sverrir’s Review & My Analysis)
I’ll stop putting Marvel movies on lists like these when the movies stop being such revelations. A competent little “Avengers Disassembled but with Ultron” would’ve been enough to make this a good movie, but this movie turned out to have a lot else on its mind, and hit a grand slam on the themes of Phase II as a whole. I understand that putting popcorn flicks on year’s-best lists, gets clichéd quickly, but what was witnessed here was a genre-propelling resurgence of studio-model continuity punctuated by a directorial ethos. Marvel took a big risk with this, even when its success was assured from the title alone. Ultron has lapses in energy, but it’s a pure comic-book demonstration, an enriching ensemble sequel, and a fitting farewell address by Joss Whedon to both the superhero action-movie enterprise and its detractors.
8. The Assassin
This film isn’t for everyone, and even the people it’s “for” may fault it for loitering and lingering. I grew up a martial artist, so I admit that new and innovative variants of this film genre appeal to me more than it might you, but I found this film to be absolutely delightful, even as I sit here struggling to find the precise words that explain why. I could mention the aesthetic and cinematography, both of which are on par with two other films on this list. It’s not by some gimmick; this is technical editing and effects composition at its finest, but I’m not even sure it was needed. It does everything possible not to be The Raid, and it runs its character’s moral arc on the meditative route, with a genuine spirit that, while artsy, worked beautifully for me.
7. Crimson Peak
It’s not a ghost-horror story. It’s a sentimental story with ghosts and gothic horror conventions in it. An operatic, genre-embodying family thriller with great acting turns by Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and Jessica Chastain, Crimson Peak is Guillermo del Toro’s unsung masterpiece.
6. Bridge of Spies (My Review)
It’s a story about the individual lawyer’s struggle to remain ethical as he is thrust into a tense negotiation on both sides of the Berlin Wall, serving as a microcosm of Cold War paranoia and misunderstanding itself. I miss those days, but they weren’t exactly a walk in the park. Instead of descending into the moral relativism “they’re-just-like-us” clichés that preaches of putting humanity first, Steven Spielberg, without even needing to try, exalts the virtues of commanding leadership and aggressive leveraging in service of what’s right. Every frame is put to function, and Tom Hanks phones it in yet still out-acts the inevitable list of Oscar nominees. Frank Capra would be proud.
5. Kingsman: The Secret Service (My Review)
Years ago, I expressed hope that director Matthew Vaughn would direct Star Wars: Episode VII. While that film turned out to be just fine under the helming of J.J. Abrams, I now realize, after seeing Kingsman, that a Star Wars gig would have been a complete waste of Vaughn’s time and talents. This is the kind of dynamic parody I’d have killed to see as a kid. It’s a movie that makes me long for the return to glory for the very pompous British Empire it relentlessly pokes fun at, and a rare modern delight. It’s amazing they get away with this.
4. Inside Out
Sverrir puts this right where I do, and gives a better blurb about it than I ever could, given all the tears it brings back. It’s a beautiful film, which I regret not reviewing, but here’s a brief spoiler-free salute to it I put on Facebook last summer:
In the film the human mind is literally driven like a spaceship by five emotions who are themselves characters: Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Anger. They get on mostly well but in Young Riley they’re a little rambunctious. They occasionally fight with each other for total control over her actions, with Joy herself being the most overbearing (i.e. how she treats Sadness like a poison) because the emotions themselves are singular in their express identity and purpose. The film posits that children think and act erratically for that very reason.
In this clip, however, you get a glimpse into these same emotions working the mechanics of adult minds – Riley’s parents. Here the film is presenting to you not only an essential difference between adults and children but a poignant observation about maturity and reason. In the adults you have (1) a different leader but they’re all driving together and cohesively working together; and (2) a near-universal conformity among their various identities. Notice that Mom’s Sadness is not plainly sad, and that Dad’s Anger is not plainly angry. They are (no pun intended) grounded.
What the film is telling us here is that maturity and the development of reason stem from the growth and evolution of emotion itself – which of course is the entire thrust of the film. It’s not just that you can’t force happiness no matter how much excelsior you bleed (Joy’s chief character flaw), but true happiness, along with maturity and reason, is the result of emotional balance, clarity, and solidarity. It’s literally analogous to learning the value of teamwork.
Not bad for a Pixar kid fest, right?
3. The Hateful Eight
This is the easiest film Quentin Tarantino ever made. 70mm of clarity and trickery – it’s long, nasty, unnerving, and pure. The self-styled trademark signatures are cannibalized more vividly than ever before in this ritualistically explosive bottle western that tests your butt’s patience yet gently guides you into a mythic experience that just isn’t brought to cinema today. Every actor brings to their despicable character an instantly memorable front-and-center performance as the director slyly works the rug and tiles beneath your feet. You’ll always know what’s happening. You’ll also know nothing at all.
2. Creed (My Review)
This year has been a mixed bag for old-school cinematic franchise sequels/remakes, but none stand athwart the glorious new legacy of Ryan Coogler’s Creed. Whether Sly Stallone takes home the Oscar gold or not, Rocky Balboa finally gets a character comeback that will make people who have never seen even a single other movie in that franchise tear up like a toddler, and Coogler proves himself a modern maestro of dramatic sports action.
1. The Martian (My Review)
No other movie this year had a chance. To have Ridley Scott back at his best in epic science fiction again is itself a treat rare enough to get excited about. To have Drew Goddard’s elegant script so beautifully brought to life in a filmmaking style and structure that brings out the best in its heaviest features without getting lost in the algorithms, transcended further by such incredible visualization, and all held together with such crisp and careful editing, juggling the weight of Matt Damon’s spirited solo performance against two different ensembles… that’s something else. This isn’t just a great film; it’s a planetary-aligning miracle. And yet there’s no secret to it at all. It lifts and guides humanity’s spirit of adventure to the Red Planet and back with a commanding presence rooted in optimism. I don’t get taken out of my shell of cynicism very often by movies, but The Martian did its trick and then some. This is far and away the best film of the year, and I just can’t wait to see it again.
Happy 2015! Onwards to hopefully better movies and better times in the theater!
P.S. Here are my bottom five year’s worst contenders (in no particular order).
Fifty Shades of Grey
Dishonorable Mention: Chappie