It’s the last day of the year, so what better time to reflect on the last 365 days in cinema? Looking back on 2015, it was actually a remarkable time for big screen events – and I don’t just mean big blockbusters like Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Jurassic World. Some really brilliant movies were released in every quarter, and while some didn’t get quite the immediate recognition that others did, time will be kind. Because of the quality of big screen releases this year, I had an incredible challenge on my hands narrowing down the Top 10… but the work is over and my list is done.
Admittedly my tastes are a bit all over the map, and the following list contains multiple animated features, a few indies, and a couple blockbusters. But what they all have in common is that they left me feeling in awe of the power of film. With no further delay, below is my Top 10:
10. RoomRe-watchability often has a significant role to play in my Top 10 selections, as one thing that I really love about movies is revisiting them and discovering certain things that only appear after you know all of the story and the characters. For Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, however, I will make an exception; as while I don’t think I have the will to be hit again by the emotional gut punch it delivers, it also deserves recognition for that impact.
I’m no longer surprised when I come across a great Brie Larson performance (that ship sailed after seeing Short Term 12), but she is truly phenomenal in this film – given an intensely complicated role to play and executing it with deep truth and emotion. Of course, praise of Larson has to also coincide with compliments for the stunning Jacob Tremblay – who amazingly delivers the perspective of a child who has an entirely different world perspective than our own. Just be careful when it comes to the mood that you watch it in, because I can promise you that you that at times it is completely emotionally devastating.
9. Slow WestJohn Maclean’s Slow West has an unfortunate title that may give audiences some misapprehensions about it. To make it clear, this is most definitely not a meandering, deliberately-paced, vista-filled indie about the Old West. What it really is is a surprisingly odd and funny yet dramatic romantic western, and an impressively well-made directorial debut. Following a clumsy young man (Kodi Smit McPhee) on the search for his lady love – and being accompanied by a bounty hunter (Michael Fassbender) for protection, the movie is a strange mixture of genres, but largely plays out like an old school fairy tale.
For the most part, the movie does operate as a serious dramatic western, with impressive threat coming from a menacing bounty hunter played by Ben Mendelsohn (who happens to also be looking for the protagonist’s lady love), but what truly impressed me was its sense of humor. Maclean demonstrates a strong appreciation for irony, and finds a way to be darkly witty in even the most dramatic of situations. And if none of that grabs you, at least go see it to just watch Fassbender be a total old school badass.
8. Inside OutPixar Studios has lost its way a bit in recent years. The company got a bit too sequel happy, and while the films coming out haven’t been bad, they also haven’t been up to the standard that we’ve expected after decades of brilliance. That being said, I can keep confidence in the future of Pixar, because Pete Docter’s Inside Out proves that the creativity light is still burning incredibly bright, and that works of true genius are still well within their potential.
The film is absolutely beautiful in its construction, full of incredible colors and production design bursting with innovation and inspiration, but it’s also all built around a brilliant screenplay by Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley – which goes above and beyond in terms of world-building and structure. It’s a marvel to watch how the two tiers of the plot (the journey of the emotions and Riley’s move to San Francisco) operate in sync with each other, constructing engaging and relatable stories and arcs for the various characters. Above all, the fact that it made me weep like a child on three separate occasions guaranteed its place on this Top 10 when I first saw it in April.
Read my full review here
7. The End Of The TourAs you’ll probably discover reading the rest of this list, I’m a big fan of stories where characters get locked together and are just forced to talk. I can certainly appreciate a tremendous action sequence when I see one (which will also be reflected on this list), but I am also always impressed when a filmmaker can keep me engaged in what amounts a feature-length conversation. James Ponsoldt’s The End Of The Tour is one such film, and I absolutely loved the hell out of it.
This adaptation of David Lipsky’s book about David Foster Wallace does move, as it follows Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) as he follows Wallace (Jason Segel) on his book tour for the novel "Infinite Jest," but the film is entirely about the interaction between its leads, and it is spellbinding. Both Segel and Eisenberg are magnetic - their conversation flowing impressively as they discuss all kinds of fascinating ideas, perspectives, passions and philosophies – but you are also very much drawn in by the evolution of their relationship, neither man ever quite sure what to make of the other. It also firmly establishes Ponsoldt as a tremendous talent to look out for, and I expect many more of his movies will end up on my future Top 10 lists.
Read my full review here
6. AnomalisaAt the time that I’m writing this, Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa has only started to find its way into theaters – the stop-motion animated film sneaking onto the end of the 2015 release calendar to qualify for the Academy Awards. As such, most of you have probably not yet had the chance to actually go out and see it, but let me put this bluntly: as soon as you get the opportunity, seize it.
Kaufman already has a well-established reputation for genius, existential writing put together in new and interesting visual packages, and Anomalisa most certainly continues that tradition in blissful fashion. The film is an incredible meditation on identity that comes together with tremendous vocal performances from David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason-Leigh, and Tom Noonan, and while almost everything plays out through conversations in various rooms of a hotel, its characters drive you to invest in the story and care about where it leaves them in the world. It’s simultaneously gorgeous and melancholy in a way of which only Kaufman has proven capable, and leaves us praying that it won’t be another seven years before the filmmaker delivers another work.
Read my full review here
5. The Hateful EightFull confession: I love the films of Quentin Tarantino. Both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were movies that led to my personal fascination with movies, and to me his "not great" titles are not "bad" so much as "not as good." It’s because I felt Django Unchained fell into the "not as good" category that it was only an honorable mention on my 2012 list, but The Hateful Eight, on the other hand, is one of the best films of the filmmaker’s career.
Creating his own version of Ten Little Indians/The Thing/Clue set in the post-Civil War era, Tarantino’s film is filled with bombastic characters played by an insanely talented cast, and their banter back and forth is fantastic as they try and discover who among them isn’t who they say that they are. With a score by Ennio Morricone and a 70mm presentation (not to mention overture and intermission), it feels like a real cinematic event, and has the classic Tarantino entertainment value to keep you hooked (and by that I mean get ready to see some heads explode). It’s very much a film about bad people doing bad things to other bad people, but also a fun investigation of trust and paranoia in a bottled environment.
Read my full review here
4. The MartianRidley Scott’s The Martian is the kind of magic film that gets to have its cake and eat it too. On one hand, it’s an epic space thriller, as scientists and astronauts work together to save one of their own who has been stranded on the surface of Mars. On the other hand, however, it’s the journey of a goofy botanist who has nothing but his ingenuity, survival skills and sense of humor to keep him alive and sane. The fact that these are both accurate descriptions of the same movie is crazy, and yet it’s what makes it one of the best of the year.
In an age when space exploration isn’t getting nearly the attention and funding that it deserves, The Martian is not only a great film, but an important one – and it truly does what it can to be inspirational. It’s a shocking amount of fun to watch Matt Damon (giving one of his best performances ever) as he bounces around base camp scientifically working out how he can make water, grow potatoes, and solve other various issues, and the movie also makes you marvel at what can be accomplished when great minds get to work. It’s a special big screen experience.
3. Mad Max: Fury RoadWhen I reviewed George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road back in May, I gave it 4.5 out of 5 stars. I truly loved every single minute of the film, but ultimately decided to ding its score for its simple story and a few other minor complaints. In retrospect, I was being too harsh of a critic. It deserves full credit as not only one of the best movies of the year, but one of the greatest action blockbusters of all time.
It boggles the mind that Mad Max: Fury Road is as good as it is – what with being a sequel arriving 30 years after a movie that was believed to be a franchise killer – but the reality is that the film is so jaw-dropping that a screening could be considered a mandible exercise. It truly keeps to the spirit of the franchise, while also exploring brand new territory, adding characters like Charlize Theron’s Furiosa – who will now live on eternally in pop culture history. Miller created a movie with the energy and creativity of five modern blockbusters… and one can only hope that it won’t be long until we see the return of the Road Warrior once again.
Read my full review here
2. SpotlightGreat investigative journalism movies are few in far between, which is why I think I was caught so off-guard by Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight. All The Presidents Men and Ace In The Hole set high benchmarks in the genre, and I didn’t expect much from the recent story of the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Church. But by the end of the film, I fully realized that the movie most definitely stands alongside those greats.
Spotlight doesn’t have a personified antagonist, and there’s no ticking clock to be found – but that just makes how gripping the film is all the more impressive. McCarthy put together what is easily one of the best ensembles we saw in 2015, and each and every one of them – from Mark Ruffalo to Rachel McAdams to Liev Schreiber – deliver fantastic character work and play a key role in the central narrative. The investigation itself unfolds at a perfect pace – fast enough to be gripping, and slow enough to be frustrating for the reporters – and each layer is more compelling (and terrifying) than the last. While watching, I kept expecting some kind of misstep in the story or for something to rub me the wrong way, but it never came. It’s just filmmaking at its finest.
1. Ex MachinaScience-fiction storytelling doesn’t get much better than Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. The writer/director takes ideas that are very much present in our modern world –specifically the rapid growth of technology as well as the internet’s capability to store information and behaviors – and applies it to an amazing, thought-driven, small-scaled plot about artificial intelligence. With just three characters and a house in a remote location, the film explores massive and important ideas about where our society is going and the potential consequences. And it was the best thing I saw on the big screen in 2015.
Making his debut as a director, Garland’s skills are shocking from a visual perspective –capturing the wonder that surrounds the aforementioned house, using visual effects to execute beautiful designs, and making wonderful use of symbolic reflection throughout. Brilliant performances from Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander leave you in a position never knowing exactly who to trust, and the whole things plays out as escalating thriller with a tremendous and powerful ending. To be honest, I don’t think I can sum it up better than the final line delivered by Isaac’s Nathan: "Fucking unreal."
Read my full review here
Honorable Mentions (all of which would have been on my Top 10 in a less-awesome year): Love & Mercy, Dope, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Cop Car, The Night Before, and Carol.