2015 will go down as one of the great years for film – it set box office records with films like Jurassic World and Star Wars, but saw the return of practical effects with films like Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars. But even the smaller films were groundbreaking – the feminist AI paranoia of Ex Machina (or Fury Road). The Western-Horror mashup that was Bone Tomahawk. Two music biopics that broke the formula and turned out to be fantastic (Love & Mercy and Straight Outta Compton).
2015 proved diversity does big dollars, with Furious 7, Creed, Star Wars and Straight Outta Compton. 2015 is the year when three separate film franchises released a seventh installment that was among the best of their respective films – Creed, Star Wars and Furious 7. And 2015 is the year the superhero films universally underwhelmed – Age of Ultron was good but not great, and plagued with gender issues. Ant-Man was fine, but the MARVEL formula is starting to show some wear.
Many of the films I saw in 2015 are among the best films I’ve ever seen. Here are my top 15 films of 2015 in the order that felt right when I wrote this post.
15. The Martian
I’m one of the few who preferred Andy Weir’s fantastic book to Ridley Scott’s film adaptation. Scott’s film was fantastic, but he had to cut too much of astronaut Mark Watney’s clever innovations – his entire journey to the Sciaperelli crater was basically a montage. But the film is fantastic. Matt Damon brings Watney’s snark and drive to life, and the entire supporting cast is great. Man vs. Nature films are always about the endurance of the human spirit, even when that nature is Mars. The Martian is a love letter to humanity, and an invitation to be the best version of ourselves. Plus, SPACE!
You want to know why the drug war will never end? Watch Sicario, where we see the drug war through the eyes of an FBI agent who wants to make a difference. She’s swept into the bowls of the fight against the Mexican cartels by a shady CIA agent who’s realized the war can’t be won. What happens next is thrilling, confusing and frankly, disheartening. The acting is amazing – especially Benicio del Toro. The directing is great. The story feels all too true.
Everest haunted me for days. Based on the climbing castastrophe on Everest in 1996, this is a Man vs. Nature film where Nature wins. Why do we climb Mt. Everest? To discover the limits of our humanity. Mt. Everest is not fit for human life. At our best, we can conquer even Everest. But when competition, selfishness and greed win the day, we lose – big time.
Also – I’m not sure how they filmed this movie, but it looked great. If it has a weakness, it’s the huge cast, but it’s based on a true story. I’d recommend seeing the film with as little advanced knowledge as possible, then reading up on it.
12. Goodnight Mommy
For about the first 2/3 of Goodnight Mommy, I was annoyed. I was confident I had called the film’s big twist early on and was watching an entertaining but by-the-numbers horror film. When the third act kicked in, however, the film let me know that it knew I had “figured out” the twist because it had wanted me to. Then the film went in an even more terrifying direction, one that left me genuinely horrified. Stay away from spoilers for this one. But go ahead and try to figure it out. I dare you!
11. The Big Short
A comedy about the housing crisis of 2008? Yes. Directed by Adam McKay (of Anchorman fame), The Big Short is a brilliantly told, star-studded story about the guys who figured out the crash was coming and made big money off it (after they tried to warn everyone). What really makes this film scary is that it’s not really about the housing crisis. It’s about how the American Dream is killing America, how our refusal to live within our means is going to crash our economy again and again. It’s terrifying. So you can cry, or you can laugh and then cry. The Big Short invites you to laugh a little first.
10. Welcome to Me
Kristen Wiig is an incredible comedic actor, and Welcome to Me is her chance to showcase her chops. She plays Alice Klieg, a woman on several psyciatric medications, who wins the lottery, quits her meds and buys her own talk show. The film succeeds by never laughing at Alice. At every point along the way, we are rooting for this woman who wants to be known. Wiig’s performance is pitch-perfect. I’m sure this film won’t work for everyone, but I loved it.
9. Hateful Eight
I’m not the world’s biggest Tarantino fan, though I’ve enjoyed his last few films immensely (maybe he’s growing on me). Hateful Eight worked really well for me. The cast is outstanding. The story is tense and interesting, a perfect setting for Tarantino’s famously talky dialog. And the whole film is a meditation on power and truth. Does the fact of a story matter, or does the belief we place in it? Tarantino uses the classic Western setting to point out that even rule of Law is one more story we tell ourselves to get by. The film ranges from religion to American identity to civilization. I hope to write about this film once I see it a few more times. It’s that good.
8. The Final Girls
This horror comedy flew under a lot of radars, which is a shame because it’s perfect. What happens when kids who love horror films end up in the granddaddy of all slasher flicks? They play by the rules, of course. The Final Girls is a horror spoof up there with Scream, A Cabin in the Woods and Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. If you’re going to watch it, do yourself a favor and revisit the original Friday the 13th first. It pays off.
7. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
No surprise The Force Awakens made the list. The first installment of the first (of many) new Star Wars trilogies, Episode VII strikes a careful balance of nostalgia and new ideas. Sure the plot is exactly the same as Episode IV, but it adds in diversity, girl power and a few new questions. Hopefully The Force Awakens started somewhere familiar to take us into worlds unknown. We only have to wait two more years to find out, when Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII is released!
6. The Revenant
Director Alejandro Iñárritu wowed us all with Birdman last year, which won him a well-deserved Oscar for Best Director. He somehow brought us another groundbreaking film. The direction in The Revenant is gripping, intense and breath-taking. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shot the entire film using only natural light, which is gorgeous and makes Iñárritu’s many long tracking shots even more stunning. And the two leads, de Caprio and Hardy, give stellar performances all the more amazing given their sparse dialog. The Revenant is a brutal, haunting meditation on the high cost of vengeance.
5. Inside Out
Pixar is at their best when they create original content (with the notable exception of the Toy Story franchise, which just keeps getting better). Inside Out proved it yet again, by delivering an emotionally powered punch that left us equal-parts laughing and crying. I’ll admit it: I cry for Bing Bong every time. Every. Time.
Sylvester Stallone said good bye to the Rocky franchise with the surprisingly good 2006 Rocky Balboa. But writer/director Ryan Coogler (who directed the criminally-underrated Fruitvale Station) convinced Sly to revisit the character again so he could hand the franchise off to a new generation. Enter Michael B. Jordan as a tremendous Adonis Creed, illegitimate son of Apollo. There are a thousand reasons this movie shouldn’t have worked, but it did. So incredibly well. I cannot wait for more Creed. Thankfully, Jordan has a franchise ahead of him, since the Fantastic Four reboot tanked so hard.
3. Ex Machina
Three films this year asked what the coming AI singularity will look like – Chappie, Terminator: Genysis and Ex Machina. Two of those films were disappointing. Ex Machina was amazing. The film features an ultra-small cast (basically three persons for the whole film) that invites us to ask what exactly is wrapped up in our quest for artificial intelligence. It’s a smart, feminist film that doesn’t offer any easy answers, just uneasy speculation.
2. Bone Tomahawk
Why aren’t there more Western Horror films? (I’m guessing for the same reason this excellent, star-studded film couldn’t find any distribution: that’s the definition of a niche market.) Bone Tomahawk tells a story that is perfectly Western (a sheriff on the frontier has to go rescue some townsfolk from some Native Americans) and perfectly horror (those Natives are inbred cannibals). Kurt Russell and Patrick Wilson are fantastic and the film works because it at no point stops being a Western or a horror film. It’s genuinely terrifying and flat out terrific.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
Did we need another installment of a 30+ year old franchise, even if that franchise sort of invented the post-apocalyptic genre? It turns out the answer is Yes! Even lovers of the Mad Max franchise couldn’t have anticipated how perfect Fury Road would be. From the amazing practical stunts to the thick and complex world-building that’s shown, not told to the sparse, character-driven script and astoundingly feminist story, Mad Max: Fury Road gave us everything we want in a summer block buster and proved director George Miller’s thesis that the chase scene really is the purest cinematic language.
- It Follows: A fantastic horror film that deserves every bit of the buzz it’s garnered.
(Amazon | Origami Elephants Discussion)
- Furious 7: Proves diversity is big bank at the box office, and a surprisingly tight, effective story given Paul Walker’s death mid-filming.
- Straight Outta Compton: The summer’s biggest surprise that would’ve ranked much higher if it hadn’t glossed over Dr. Dre’s history of abuse.
- Black Mass: A mob biopic that was much more compelling than Legend (despite Tom Hardy’s brilliant performances), this film belongs to Johnny Depp.
- Love & Mercy: I love the Beach Boys and had heard a little of Brian Wilson’s psychological struggles. Love & Mercy tells the story in the present and the past, with two great performances from Paul Dano and John Cusack as Wilson.
Films I Haven’t Seen
It’s impossible to see every film, and there are several that have received tons of acclaim I just haven’t been able to catch. If I had, they might be in my top 15. Here they are:
Spotlight, Mr. Holmes, Beast of No Nation, What We Do in Shadows and Brooklyn