A couple of caveats before I begin.
First, I still haven’t seen all the films of 2015 I wanted to see. That happens. The films I see from here on out will be spoken of in due time, and I’ll publish a full ranking of all the year’s films once I announce the results of my awards. So I have two weeks to augment this list, and I kind of hope I don’t have to augment it too much. Because it works fairly well.
Secondly, let me contradict that last sentence just a tad. This is a solid list, but compared to the last three years, it’s pretty weak. My #1 is the best new film since I began the blog. My worst film is the worst. But my #2 would’ve been #6 at best last year, and my #10 would have been in the lower teens. And my #20 would’ve been about #34. For a long time, this looked like it would end up as one of the weakest years in recent memory.
But the best of the year is the best of the year, and the worst is the worst, and that’s what we’re here to celebrate. So let’s get to it.
My Top 20:
20. The Stanford Prison Experiment
This got on the list almost at the last minute. I wanted to see it sooner, but it barely got a theatrical release and I ended up renting it. But it’s a hell of a movie. In focusing pretty much exclusively on the experiment itself, and keeping the scene-setting and context to a relative minimum, it may fall short of being the final word on the subject (I can just see a big-studio treatment of the story, simply called Stanford), but it creates a purer, more intense experience, as the “guards” grow more brutal, the “prisoners” begin to buckle under the pressure, and Dr. Zimbardo (Billy Crudup, excellent) simultaneously seems to go mad with his own portion of power and fall into despair at the upshot of his experiment. It’s extremely well-made across the board and has a superior ensemble cast (though top honors go to Michael Angarano), and I really have to recommend it as one of the year’s most overlooked films.
I should note than another film which I saw late in the game, Oren Moverman’s Time Out of Mind, is my #21 (and was nearly higher). It’s a look at the life of a homeless man in New York (Richard Gere), and his struggles to stay alive and stay out of trouble, made no easier by his alcoholism, his deteriorating mindset, and his lack of documentation. It’s a film whose scope seems almost limitless; I never felt as if there was anything Moverman and company wanted to show us that they weren’t able to put on the screen. And the cinematography is truly breathtaking at times. A few mildly contrived moments aside, it’s a fine film and worth seeking out.
19. Shaun the Sheep Movie
This film is a simple, sweet, and uplifting as The Stanford Prison Experiment is complex, dark, and troubling. It feels wrong to say too much about it, given that it eschews dialogue completely (admittedly, to the point of contrivance). It’s a perfect family film, beautifully animated, charming, and funny, and a reminder of how great Aardman can be. And it’s only the third best animated film of the year!
This really was the year of successfully revived franchises. Admittedly, I’m not a particular fan of the Rocky films, having only seen the original (which I like but don’t love), but the trailers for this had me genuinely excited, and my generally positive feelings about Fruitvale Station–particularly the direction and acting–didn’t hurt a bit. And…what can I say? It’s exactly what you want out of a Rocky film. Maybe the ending copies the original a touch too closely (and I have a few other minor quibbles), but Michael B. Jordan is strong, Sylvester Stallone will probably win an Oscar (and not undeservedly so), and the boxing scenes are as rousing as you could wish.
17. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
I’ve been seeing bits and pieces of this film at work for over a month now. There are scenes I’ll probably have rattling around in my mind for years. And yet, when I see those scenes again and again, I remain entertained. “So who talks first, you talk first? I talk first?” “One…quarter portion.” “What was the second time?” Does it have issues? Sure. Was I thoroughly entertained when I finally saw it from start the finish (which I’ve only done once, actually)? You bet. I’m not even a Star Wars devotee. But J.J. Abrams made a film that, in its best moments, fits perfectly into a canon he had no part in creating. And I can only imagine how much I’d love it if that canon were a major part of my life.
16. Ex Machina
This might go up a spot or two on repeat viewing. Most of this film I loved. Two astounding performances by Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac, and a very strong one by Domhnall Gleeson (I’ll get back to him in a bit), a crisp script, low-key suspense, all-around fine-filmmaking…if the ending worked a little better for me, it might be in my top 10. Even so, it hung around there for quite some time, and I’m delighted the Academy recognized its script and special effects. I’ll be glad to return to this one of these days.
Thank God I gave this a second chance. Because I did, I’m now totally behind its Best Picture nomination, and much more behind its surprise Best Director nod. I’m also convinced not only that Brie Larson fully deserves to win the Oscar she’s almost certainly going to get, but that Jacob Tremblay’s omission was one of the worst snubs of the year. They’re both magnificent, creating the best mother-son dynamic in a film since The Babadook (which is not totally dissimilar, actually). I still have a few issues with it, mostly relating to William H. Macy’s truncated role and the character of Old Nick, who seems to be as savvy as the script needs him to be at any given moment, but it’s not enough to overshadow the many, many virtues on display. Seek it out, because it hasn’t been sufficiently widely seen.
14. The Look of Silence
The Act of Killing was a brilliantly haunting look at the anti-Communist purges in 1960s Indonesia, told from the POV of the perpetrators, who are even now venerated as heroes in their home country. This is the companion film, and it takes the POV of a man whose brother was killed in the purges, before he himself was even born, who covertly confronts the perpetrators and tries to discover why his brother was killed and if they feel any guilt about it. At one point, one of the perpetrators angrily suggests that bad times may come again if the families of the victims continue to seek justice–a moment so antithetical to human decency that you wonder why those words were spoken in front of a motion picture camera. But thank God that Joshua Oppenheimer and his team (many of whom have remained anonymous for their own safety) were there to capture it. Most of the world probably doesn’t know the purges ever happened. But these films will forever serve as testament that they did.
Just a lovely little film, the story of an Irish immigrant girl trying to belong in 50s New York, falling in love with an Italian boy, and then being summoned back home and finding herself torn between one life and another. The maxim is “home is where the heart is”, and Eilis (Saoirse Ronan, who’s wonderful) isn’t sure if her heart is truly with Tony (Emory Cohen, also great) in New York, or possibly with Jim (Domhnall Gleeson) in Ireland. The means by which she finally decides strike a slightly sour note (though I’d like to see the film again to see if I might not have misjudged it), but the characters are so charmingly realized (and I must also mention Julie Walters as Eilis’ landlady–just delightful), the period is so convincingly evoked, and the whole mood is so pleasingly warm, that it ends up this high.
12. Love & Mercy
I’m not sure if it’s the script or the editing that holds this back from unequivocal greatness, but I feel like there’s a longer, slightly better version of this film out there somewhere. Not that what we have is at all lacking. The dual performance by Paul Dano and John Cusack as Brian Wilson at two stages of his life is a singular achievement; by film’s end, you really do believe this is the same man at two different points in his life. Elizabeth Banks is excellent, and Paul Giamatti, despite his limited screentime, is just as big a son-of-a-bitch as Eugene Landy must have been. And Bill Pohlad’s direction really pushes it into the upper echelon of musician biopics, balancing the free-form, hedonistic 60s with the repressed, sterile 80s perfectly. It’s a tremendous film in so many ways that I can mostly forgive the ways in which it falls short.
11. The Martian
I’ve got a special kind of respect for films which are supremely rewatchable. This is that kind of film. It’s breezy enough (perhaps overly so) to be watchable at nearly any time, and it’s dramatic enough to keep you caring about Mark Watney and how he and NASA will somehow get him off the Red Planet. Matt Damon is great, the huge supporting cast is full of gems (Benedict Wong and Donald Glover merit special mention), and Ridley Scott is clearly having more fun behind the camera than he’s had in a long while. This is the kind of film whose success just makes me feel better in a fundamental way, and I’m really fascinated to see how it holds up in the years to come.
1o. Mr. Holmes
And now we get into my top 10, all of which are **** films–and only those 10 are. I even considered doing a Top 10/Bottom 5 article instead, but no matter.
This film, as I’ve said elsewhere, was tremendously underappreciated. Had it come out later in the year, Ian McKellen might actually be getting some of the recognition he deserves for his performance, which is one of the year’s best. And then there’s the script, which is one of the year’s best. And the performances from Milo Parker and Laura Linney, among the best of the year in their respective categories. The whole film really is superb, though one approaching it as a mystery should realize that the real mystery being solved here is Holmes himself. McKellen so perfectly balances Holmes’ aloofness and analytical genius with moments of painfully raw emotion; “Do you regret anything?” “So much!” is a truly heartbreaking moment. For acting, for drama, and for its look at one of the most iconic characters in Western fiction, it secures its place among the best of the year.
One of things I love about Anomalisa is how open it is. You can read it in at least two ways: as the story of two lonely souls finding a moment of happiness together, or as the story of a philanderer who takes advantage of a lonely woman’s emotional vulnerability. But even taking the latter approach, the film itself understands Michael’s agonizing emptiness, even better than it realizes Lisa’s painful self-effacement. And because it is animated and depicts with loving care so many of the inane rituals of human interaction, it compels us to consider each of these asinine gestures more carefully–and perhaps to realize just how much of what we do is done to avoid awkwardness, but with the net result of making life even more awkward and unhappy than it already is. And yet, Kaufman wisely does not leave us with Michael’s malaise, but with Lisa’s sincerity and joy, as she does not mourn what she has lost, but rejoices in what she had, however briefly.
8. The Revenant
I feel like I could say my peace regarding The Revenant rather easily, since so much of what makes it so good lies not in the words but in the images, in the grueling journey, in the wide open spaces and forbidding weather. The opening Arikara attack (with some stunning long takes), the bear attack (if only when they found him he had said, “You should see the other guy.”), the murder of Glass’ son and his own hasty burial, “God is a squirrel”, Glass’ fever dream (in a magnificent ruined church), the final stakeout in the woods…there are so many brilliantly realized scenes on display, and they all pay testament to Iñárritu’s direction and Lubezki’s cinematography, both of which are truly incredible. If the story and the acting are merely very good, it’s the experience–especially on a big screen–that makes it great.
Also, a quick word on the year Domhnall Gleeson has had. From playing the essentially decent (if arguably selfish) protagonist of Ex Machina, to the unquestionably kind and sincere Jim in Brooklyn, whose only misfortune is to be Tony’s rival, to the wonderfully vicious Hux in Star Wars (his speech before the unveiling of the Starkiller is one of my favorite moments in the film), to the outmatched but honest and humane captain here, he’s shown incredible range this year and in the last few, and I really hope he keeps it up.
7. Bridge of Spies
I’m not sure if there was a nicer surprise this year than the degree to which I liked this film. After three good but not great films in a row, I was ready to assume that Spielberg had passed firmly into the realm of respectability and tastefulness. Not that this film is groundbreaking or transgressive–but he does his best work behind the camera in years here, and as glad as I am that it was able to secure a Best Picture nomination, it’s a damn shame he wasn’t nominated for Best Director–he actually deserves it. As a portrait of a vital period in our nation’s history and a reminder of the importance of giving even the most hated defendants a fair trial (a sentiment we need to be reminded of in this day and age), it’s prestigious. But as a tale of an honest and moral man who used his legal genius to help us through that tense period, and of an unassuming spy who became his friend, it’s truly great.
Of all the times Harvey Weinstein couldn’t wangle a Best Picture nomination, it had to be a truly worthy film. But it secured 6 nominations and deserved them all–for Cate Blanchett’s luminous performance, a true star turn that enraptures us as much as Carol enraptures Therese; for Rooney Mara’s very good performance as the shy Therese, who blossoms under Carol’s love; for Phyllis Nagy’s finely tuned script (from Patricia Highsmith’s novel); for Ed Lachman’s glorious cinematography; for Carter Burwell’s lovely score; and for Sandy Powell’s excellent costumes. Like The Revenant, it’s a tough film to write about because so much of its greatness is non-verbal: the images, the emotions, the whole lush romantic aura of it sucks you in from the first and holds you until that final smile slowly begins to crack.
5. The Hateful Eight
It seems like a lot of critics decided this would be the film where they finally took Tarantino to task for all the things they let slide in his previous work. And yet, while I think it’s in the lower half of his filmography, it’s still one hell of a film. I haven’t entirely worked out how I feel about its themes, or about what it says about justice, misogyny, racism, and America itself. I have worked my feelings regarding the cast–at best brilliant (two words: Walton Goggins), at worst completely adequate–and regarding the filmmaking, which is up to the usual Tarantino standard. I was predisposed to embrace a film which demanded the full roadshow treatment, from 70mm cinematography to reserved seats to an intermission (and you should know, I love an intermission), just as I was predisposed to love a film about Jews taking down the Third Reich. I might not love this film as much as that one, but damned if I don’t love this one more every time I see it.
4. Inside Out
How can you not love this film? Yes, the middle may meander a bit, and I still don’t think the fate of Bing Bong is quite the gut-punch they intended it to be, but when Riley comes home and finally opens up her emotional floodgates…I don’t often get choked up at films, but that moment is as heartbreaking as any I’ve seen in a film this year. And that’s just the climax of a film which is full of moments both moving and hilarious, courtesy of one of the year’s finest scripts. Add in the typically beautiful Pixar animation and the incredible voice work (Amy Poehler is just phenomenal here), and you’ve got a film which belongs right here.
This was #2 until very recently. And maybe if I see it again, it’ll go back up. But right here is no slouch. This film packs so much into its 84 minutes. It’s full of energy, crackling along from the moment Sin-Dee sets out to track down her man and/or the woman he’s cheating on her with. But it also takes time for the quieter, more somber moments, as we realize just how lonely and unfulfilled so many of the characters are. That we end on a moment of reconciliation only proves the resilience of the human spirit. And this melancholy strain reaches its height in the beautiful scene where Alexandra sings “Toyland”, and Sin-Dee watches with a wistful look, transforming a kitschy fantasy song into an expression of longing for a better world. Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor are both excellent, and the supporting cast doesn’t disappoint; that it was shot on an iPhone gives it a rawness and immediacy which only makes it more rewarding. One of my true personal finds of the year, in a year short on finds.
2. The Big Short
Anna called it.
For the other 99.99999% of you: What a fucking film. I don’t know if I’ve gone from expecting so little to getting so much from a film before. When I saw the first trailer, I had no idea the film was even being made and assumed it was all some kind of weird troll. Then it turned out to be real, and I thought it looked like shit. Then I started to warm to the trailer, and then the reviews began to trickle in: mostly positive, though with a few dissenting opinions. Then it started gathering awards momentum, and then I saw it. And knew right away I’d have to see it again. And did. And here it is, the 2nd (albeit a somewhat distant 2nd) best film of 2015. I still don’t even fully know what happened–I’ve never had much of a grasp on the stock market–but this film explains it as well, and far more enjoyably, than any source you could consult. It’s inventive as all hell, incredibly edited (stylistically, it’s closer to Godard than to your average Hollywood film), very well acted, magnificently written…and it might win Best Picture, and I wouldn’t mind that one bit. It’s a film which says what every American needs to hear: that unchecked greed nearly destroyed us, and will keep on nearly destroying us, until we realize that the unrestrained pursuit of wealth destroys us more than it enriches us. As funny as it is (and it’s very funny indeed), it’s a sad, angry film, one where the heroes win and get no joy from their victory. The final image, of Mark Baum (Steve Carell) sitting alone, down in the corner of the screen, miserably triumphant, is as perfect a final image as I could have hoped for. It’s the perfect companion piece to The Wolf of Wall Street, which was about the people, one man in particular, whose greed made them fabulously rich before bringing them crashing down to Earth. This is about how that same greed ended up destroying the lives of so many people who just wanted to own a home, who thought the American dream was in their grasp…only to lose it all. It may the most important film of the year, and thank God it’s so good. I don’t know if I could bear it otherwise.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
Is there anything I can add to what I’ve been saying about this film since May? Is there anyone unconvinced of its magnificence whom I could convince? Some see the thinnest of stories and the flattest of characters. I see perfectly deployed archetypes, precision crafting, and savvy casting which gives those characters the precise amount of depth they require. And I see a film which deploys its themes, especially in the feminist sphere, so gracefully as to win over all but the most bull-headed of MRAs. I see greatness from the grim start to the soaring finish. I see a beautifully crafted world, the fruit of 35 years spent developing a universe, built around a man seeking peace of mind in the post-apocalyptic wastes, a man played by one of my favorite working actors, here joined by a woman (played by one of our best working actresses) who is realized perfectly as a warrior of this future world looking for a safe haven from the madness she has spent so long in the service of. I see direction and editing of the first order. I see production design which takes one of the most distinctive aesthetics of modern cinema and gives it a blockbuster budget. I see action scenes which burst with limitless invention. I see little moments of humanity, tucked away amidst the sound and fury, which elevate the whole from mere technical brilliance to dramatic genius. I see, I hear, I feel, I thrill…
I live. I die. I live again.
My Bottom 10:
10. Fantastic Four
Not really that terrible (**½), but a painfully compromised mess of a film. That there are genuinely solid moments makes its overall failure the more tragic. It’s not entirely clear who deserves the blame, but maybe it doesn’t really matter; maybe, with a film of this caliber, you just stand back and let it fade away quietly.
9. Terminator Genisys
Also not truly terrible (it and the next film are **), but…can we just let this series end already? Is the timeline for this franchise not sufficiently fucked? Because I think it is. To be fair, I haven’t watched all of these films, but to be fair, I don’t give a shit. This film was just a mess, and aside from Arnold, who’s as game as ever, there are few thrills to be had. Jai Courtney is just generic (it’s almost a punchline how unpopular he is, despite continuing to receive leading-man roles), Emilia Clarke is badly miscast, and on the whole, I just don’t give a shit. They could keep this series going in perpetuity, with each entry tweaking the timeline ever so slightly, but I hope to God they don’t.
8. Little Boy
I don’t even know. I think it’s supposed to be inspirational, but it implies a little boy’s faith was somehow responsible for Hiroshima. Or maybe it just draws a “cute” parallel, I can’t remember. I do remember the pointless voiceover, Kevin James as a creepy doctor, and one of the most bizarrely pointless final shots I’ve ever seen in a film, and a decent performance from Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa as the only interesting character. I wasn’t as disgusted by the ending as some were, but maybe I was just numbed by the bizarre-yet-sincere mediocrity on display.
7. Jupiter Ascending
And now we drop 13 points and get into the really bad films. This one made me sad, since I wanted it to be good (or at least fun), but it was incredibly derivative, had an incredibly passive title character, and was just a complete fucking mess. Needless tonal and aesthetic shifts, too many characters by far, Eddie Redmayne almost Norbiting himself out of an Oscar, and “I love dogs, I’ve always loved dogs!” If you know the context, that last line is one of the most ridiculous in any blockbuster I can think of. But this whole film is ridiculous, and of course, I was given it for my birthday. (I’m not complaining.)
6. Jem and the Holograms
This was probably a very sincere film. As such, it’s a rather sad failure, but it’s so crushingly generic as to totally contradict its own message. which is something anodyne about being yourself, even though Jem’s fans don’t seem so much to “be themselves” as they just worship and imitate her. At one point, she cries out to the audience “This is our time!”, but in the ephemeral YouTube the film tries to embody, that time is fleeting. As fleeting, in fact, as the film’s theatrical run, which earned less in two weeks than Star Wars has earned in its weakest two days.
Can one still have faith in Neill Blomkamp? As a director, perhaps, but as a writer, not remotely. If District 9 had the occasional lapse in logic, Chappie drips with them, the result being a film that seems to cut wholesale across any notion of good storytelling or character development to get us to where the plot decided to go. I’m not sure if Sigourney Weaver is as humiliated here (by being forced to say “burn it to ash” of a metal robot) as Jodie Foster was in Elysium (by being saddled with one of the worst accents in recent memory), but either way, it’s painful to see. Kind of like the whole goddamn movie.
4. Fifty Shades of Grey
Oscar nominee Fifty Shades of Grey.
I don’t really have anything more to add. It’s a shit movie whose shittiness has been picked over for close to a year. The fleeting moments of quality–mostly minor touches in the direction and cinematography–don’t alter the inherent vapidity of the story or characters. However or how much the film disgusts you, it’s as likely as not that it does–and yet it was a huge hit and the sequels are on the way. Because God loves us and wants us to be happy.
It’s rare that I hate an individual performance as much as I hate Garrett Hedlund’s in this film. But is Hook is so grating, so obnoxious, so far from being charming or likable or compelling, that if it were the only bad thing about the film, it would still be at least in the bottom 20 of the year. But it’s not. Terrible decisions abound, from the use of Nirvana to bringing in the Battle of Britain, for no reason other than to have a dogfight. Between this and the mediocre Anna Karenina, I can’t say I’m expecting much more out of Joe Wright. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that careers are harder to kill than you’d think.
That horrible, cluttered, chaotic long take early on is just a sign of things to come. It’s the perfect start to a film which is barely about whatever the fuck it’s about, not that you could easily explain that, since Cameron Crowe’s script is an utter mess. It proceeds to flail its way to one of the most absurdly idiotic climaxes in modern cinema, and continues to be stupid after that, before finally ending. To their credit, the actors mostly avoid overt humiliation, the lion’s share of which belongs to the fallen mastermind behind it all. At least it exerts a morbid fascination, which based on what little I’ve seen is more than can be said for We Bought a Zoo. But that’s a low, low bar to clear.
1. Dancin’ – It’s On!
A full 27 points lower than Aloha, this is a whole different kind of awful. Aloha had no reason to be as bad as it was. Dancin’ – It’s On! probably had no chance to be any better. But in its absolute ineptitude, it achieves a magic which makes for a far more delightful viewing experience than any of the other films on this list. Films like Pan and Aloha suck the life out of you a little. This film puts it all back and then some, kind of like an overflowing gas pump. It’s the kind of bad film which makes you giddy. It’s The Room for dance musicals. It’s an infomerical for a random beach town in Florida. It’s a mess of clichés, so much so that it can’t even keep them straight. It’s so terrible it’s actively disconcerting whenever a shot is properly framed or lit. It’s one of the most magnificently absurd experiences I’ve ever had alone in a casino movie theater.