The Best Films of 2015

Is it wrong of me to complain about how many good movies there are right now? Is that in bad form? Well, I guess that never stopped me before: there are simply too many good movies out there for me to watch. I can’t keep up. I just can’t.

Of course, I’m not angry. Better to have an abundance than a drought, even if the big screen is severely lacking in comparison to its small-screen competition these days. But, again, it’s hard to keep up with everything, man.

I tried. I tried really hard, but even with the delay of this article (this list comes out over a month after I wrote my worst list last month), I still wound up short. I couldn’t make it through some favorites on my peer’s line-ups, namely Beast of No Nation, Listen to Me Marlon, The Duke of Burgundy, Phoenix, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, The Look of Silence, Heaven Knows What, Tokyo Tribe, Grandma, Iris, 45 Years, Macbeth, Queen of Earth, The Tribe, Victoria and Son of Saul, just to name some of the ones I was itching to catch up on. I didn’t even see Junun, the newest from my favorite director, Paul Thomas Anderson. Sometimes I feel like a bad movie fan.

But I did see a lot of movies this past year. I mean, a lot. Maybe not as much as previous years, but more than my fair share, I can assure you. And I saw a lot of movies I liked, which is why we’re here today. As always, there were some that really impressed me that didn’t even make it into my honorable mentions. Movies like Love & Mercy, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, The Second Mother, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, Tangerine, The Wolfpack and The Voices — films that really struck a chord with me when I saw them — didn’t make the cut. And that’s not even mentioning Carol, Entertainment, Bone Tomahawk and Me & Earl & the Dying Girl, movies that were filmed with technical precision, acted almost flawlessly and offered a ton of things to love, but just didn’t earn enough goodwill to make it with the best of the best. It’s a tough race, guys. Don’t discourage yourself. You all put up a good fight.

But none of those films are in my top 10 list. Instead, these are the ones that made the cut. It wasn’t easy; I had to second guess myself several times in the process. I’m still not sure if I’m completely comfortable with the ones I picked. But they were, in fact, picked —and I’m not going back on them now. It’s time to move forward. I gotta rip this band-aid clear off, and celebrate the motion pictures I’ve decided are the best of the best of the previous year. I mean, we’re hours away from the Oscars telecast. It’s now or never. So let’s get on it, shall we?

Honorable mentions: Mr. Holmes, Slow West, The Primary Instinct, Mistress America, The Gift

Runner-ups: Spotlight, What We Do in the Shadows, Mississippi Grind, The Stanford Prison Experiment, The Nightmare

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10. The Hateful Eight

Is Quentin Tarantino our most audacious working auteur? It certainly takes some balls to shoot a 65mm Panavision western largely inside a small wooden haberdashery during a snowstorm. And with his eighth film, The Hateful Eight, the Pulp Fiction filmmaker is still as uncompromising and unrestrained as ever.  It’s a hoot-and-hollering, snoot-nosed, punched-up, rough-nut, foul-mouthed, root-and-tooting old-school Old West fable, with lots of vengeance on its mind and packets upon packets of blood to leave bone-dry in the process. It’s not without its faults (aren’t we all?). It occasionally reeks in self-indulgence, and it suffers from excessiveness just as often as other recent films from the writer/director do. But it’s Tarantino, dammit — not only working with another stellar cast of familiar character actors (Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Demián Bichir) but handing them one of his best screenplays to date to go. Even with nearly three hours on its plate, it’s among the tightest, most gripping and extremely entertaining features the no-holds-barred filmmaker has put together yet. It’s an unflinching, ice-blooded work of a director well into his craft, letting his love of cinema be shown through mercilessly throughout. It may be about a despicable bunch of low-lifes, but there’s a lot to love here.

Leigh’s wild-mouth performance is the best in a very good line-up, with Russell, Goggins and Jackson also provide some of their best work either in years or to date —or both. It also has some fantastic cinematography and an killer original score from the master himself, Ennio Morricone. Though the feature borrows a lot from others (as per usual for Tarantino, especially John Carpenter’s The Thing —which Morricone also scored, and bothered some unused tracks from to compliment the score here), its reverence to its execution, its deliberately well-groomed pacing and love of blood, guts and limbs flying in many different directions proves Tarantino’s still got it, and knows how to appeal to my sensibilities. The Hateful Eight is the best movie he’s made in years, and I sure hope it’s not the last great movie we’ll get from him. I can’t imagine it will be. I won’t believe it. Don’t make me do it.

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9. Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road is a high-end adrenaline rush of a movie. It’s a towering achievement in mad-cap frenetic energy and batshit craziness, featuring some of the best practical stunt work you’ll ever see in a modern blockbuster. Does it come a little short in the story department? A tad. As many have pointed out before me, the fourth installment in the Mad Max franchise is basically what happens with these dystopian characters decide to make a left turn while driving their rad gas-guzzlers in the desert. Doesn’t sound like much on paper, but when it comes aided with two-headed lizards, young suicidal men with stray paint in their mouth and white make-up all over their dehydrated faces, a woman with a buzz cut and a robot arm and a blind guitarist strapped to a top of a truck blasting hot licks on an instrument that shoots out fire, it’s a gloriously mad thrill-ride of a picture.

Everything about it is just so damn good, from the editing to the choreography to the sound mixing to the cinematography. It’s a frantic film where every inch of passion is squeezed onto every single frame. It’s almost tiring in its masterful execution of mayhem, but never once do you feel lost in the shuffle or out of the loop. Mad Max: Fury Road is a simple movie by design, but not a dumb one in the slightest. It’s a giddily bonkers movie, and it’s an absolute blast. Much like Martin Scorsese at the helm of The Wolf of Wall Street, director George Miller can not only match the enthusiasm found in filmmakers half his age, but outpace them with time to spare. He’s not afraid to revel in the crazy, drive headfirst into pure chaos and doesn’t blink his eye for a second at whatever other looniness may come out in the process.

It’s the kind of blockbuster you wish you saw more regularly at the multiplex, but that would ultimately make the whole shebang less special in the process. For much like Creed later down on this list, Mad Max: Fury Road shows sequel-hungry Hollywood how it’s done, and it sprints shiny and chrome into Valhalla with insanity for days. There’s nothing mediocre about it.

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8. Inside Out

I’m among the few who thinks Pixar hasn’t had a false step yet. Yes, their last couple films are not without their shortcomings. Cars 2, Brave, Monsters University and, most recently, The Good Dinosaur don’t quite live up to the high standards of Toy Story 1-3, Monsters Inc., Up, The Incredibles and WALL-E before them. They’ve most definitely hit a rough patch these past couple years, but amongst it all, they hid an ace in the cannon: Inside Out, one of the most audaciously clever, heartwarming, heartbreaking, tender and maddeningly inspired films to come in years —animated or otherwise, Pixar or not.

2015 was a pretty damn good year for animation, as I’ll discuss a little further later down the list, and the latest from director Pete Doctor (Up) was among the cream of the crop. Telling a story that might not be as original as it promises — Fox’s short-lived sitcom Herman’s Head did do this idea about two decades prior, and Osmosis Jones, as the Nostalgia Critic pointed out not too long ago, also worked with a similar idea maybe a little less than ten years later — but what the inside-the-mind film lacks in complete novelty, it most definitely makes up for in creativity, ingenuity and sheer inventiveness.

The set pieces, characters and color designs are among the most eye-popping and majestic the studio has produced under their banner. The voice work, from Amy Poehler as Joy to Lewis Black as Anger, are exceptionally well-cast and played to a T. The writing is among the most honest, mature and emotionally gutting the company has put together to date. And just like the good ole’ days, it’s hard to walk away from it without the room getting a little dusty before it’s done. It might not quite be top 5 Pixar, but that’s a very high bar to jump — and this new film easily gets close. Inside Out is a beauty and a marvel to behold, and proves Pixar still has what it takes to steal our hearts and win over our emotions.

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7. James White

James White is not going to win over a ton of admirers. Producer Josh Mond’s feature directorial debut is a character piece centered around an unappealing lead and a heavy subject matter. It wasn’t meant to become a crowdpleaser. But from the extended first frame until its very last, I loved the hell out of his little movie. The kind of riveting, hard-knocking indie film that I found hit maybe a little too close to home for my complete liking, it’s a diligently small-scale work of restraint that bleeds honesty at every turn and never falls short on being as beautiful as it is tragic. It’s an engulfing little number that’s not afraid to tell it as it is, and let the audience come to understand and ultimately accept its lead character, played all-so-wonderfully by Girls alum Christopher Abbott, rather than love him from the start.

Supported mightily by Cynthia Nixon as the titular character’s ailing mother, and also steered very, very well by co-stars Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi, Ron Livingston and Makenzie Leigh along the way, it’s a powerhouse picture, and promises a very strong future for Mond in the director’s chair. Even when it gets more dramatic and more aching, it never rings false. It’s a staggering, fire-bellied work of finding yourself when the world around refuses to let you be yourself. It’s a mature, thoughtful piece of upright majesty, and it’s exactly what I like to see when I look out for these little movies. Much like White himself, it won’t have a lot of friends, but those who do end up enticed will stick around for the long run.

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6. Creed

Don’t call it a comeback: Rocky’s been here for years, rockin’ his peers and puttin’ suckers —Russian and otherwise —in fear. Yes, the Rocky series has most certainly had its hills-and-valleys over its plane of existence. The sequels, no matter what affections I’ve had for Rocky III and others have had for Rocky IV in the past, have never quite reach the heights of its 1976 Best Picture-winning peer. And while Rocky Balboa left things on an admirable high note nearly ten years ago, director/co-writer Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) proved there was still a fire burning, lightning chewing and thunder crapping inside the heart of the Italian Stallion’s series — and how right he was.

Creed, the seventh film in the MGM franchise, may just be the best to date. Easily the most enjoyable and emotionally skyrocketing any Rocky film has been in decades, it’s a towering achievement in persistence. It’s a shockingly good character examination taught well by the original film, highly respectful to the films that preceded it afterwards and not afraid to do its own thing in the process. While the titular boxer often plays second fiddle to the new champion in the ring, Adonis Creed (played with a wallop of a punch by Michael B. Jordan), this is just as much Rocky’s film as it is his younger trainee’s. Neither step on each others toes, thankfully, and Sylvester Stallone’s long-earned on-screen charisma never overshadows Jordan.

With that said, Creed features some of Stallone’s best acting in years —maybe his best ever, in the right moments. He fits into this character like a boxing glove at this point, and Coogler gives him the right stuff to knock this one out cold. It’s a powerful tribute to his legacy, and one that’ll likely be rewarded handsomely with an Oscar later tonight. And he completely earned it. Because Rocky is a fighter — in more ways than one — and he, Coogler and everyone else involved with this one proved he’s still fighting with a vengeance.  Rocky’s still flying high. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

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5. The Night Before

I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m the only critic in the world who has this one on his top 10 list. But I don’t care. Screw the haters. I was floored by this raunchy R-rated buddy Christmas comedy. It’s easily the funniest and most wildly imaginative comedy I saw last year, and it proves that Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen are unstoppable when they work their magic under the well-commanded gaze of director Jonathan Levine (50/50). The Night Before may look like your average holiday stoner flick on the surface, something not too far along the lines of A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas from a few years prior. And it some ways, it is. There are dick jokes to spare, many joints hit and shots guzzled before it calls it a wrap, and more than a few celebrity cameos throughout the tidings this yuk-fest brings. But there’s also a throbbing, beating heart in the proceedings as well —one that feels whole, genuine and complete, and finds plenty of room for the nice bromance sweetness found in the best Rogen pictures, which this is one of.

It’s a wild ride, but an absolute pleasure to watch. There’s never a dull moment, and Levine and his co-writers, including Rogen’s long-time writing collaborator Evan Goldberg, constantly find ways to one-up themselves and keep movie flowing at breakneck speed — all while paying careful attention to character development and providing plenty of laughs in the process. In a time where good Christmas movies are rare, save for an Arthur Christmas now-and-again, The Night Before is the best present of them all. A joyful, earnest, winning seasonal greeting that never falls short on love and soul, it brings a lot of happiness and goodwill to this Grinch’s old heart. It’s one I’m very much looking forward to seeing under my own tree in the future, and one I’d feel honored to have on rotation for several Christmases to come.

 

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4. Brooklyn

Brooklyn is the very definition of a lovely film. Meticulously wonderful and slight in design, it communicates feelings both big and small, fragile and gigantic, in the most painstakingly beautiful of ways. It’s a small wonder to behold, a work of near-flawless execution. And even when it borders on schmaltzy material, the filmmakers always find a way to ring out something gentle, honest, touching and downright moving at every turn. It’s a gem of a film, and a gift to the art of patient, quietly captivating cinema at some of its most dialed-back and becomingly fantastic.

And man oh man, can we talk about how good the cast is for a second? Saoirse Ronan is perfectly cast in the lead role: inquisitive, sensitive and deeply relatable in all the right ways —as she communicates a universal appreciation for finding yourself in a very big world, and the discovery of every delightful or heartbreaking facet it holds dear. And Emory Cohen is a real find here, providing a nice balance between good-hearted sentimentality and hard-headed puppy-dog loyalty. Also great is Domhnall Gleeson —whom I’ll talk about again in just a moment — proving himself, once again, just as versatile and talented an actor as his father.

Brooklyn is a sensationally old-fashioned film in all the right senses, a love letter to the art of cinema and the notion of finding yourself in the real world or in some realm in-between. It’s the kind of movie you’ll love to show your grandma — or anyone in your family, for that matter. It’s the Best Picture contender that stuck me the most, and though it’s not at all likely to take the top prize later this evening, it’s the nominee that bewitched me the most. And the one I’m likely to continue praising in the years to come.

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3. Ex Machina

As calculated and meditative as original sci-fi films come today —or any day —it’s staggering to think Ex Machina is novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland’s first go-about in the director’s chair. An accomplished, astonishing feature that’s easily ten times leaner and smarter than most of the garbage released in the loose genre today, it’s the kind of adult, thoughtful feature you wished was produced more often on the big screen. Guided with great intelligence and sterling captivation by our leads, Star Wars: The Force Awakens co-stars Domnhall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac, as well as potential soon-to-be Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander, it’s a commanding display of theological depth and heady science social commentary. While never short on heavy dialogue, its incredibly intercut sets and luscious cinematography always appeals to the eyes, and its state-of-the-art visual effects are simply incredible in their execution. How they were able to make a movie that looks this good on this budget is baffling to me, but it’s just another testament to Garland’s assured skills as a freshman filmmaker.

There’s so much to chew on and meditate here. It’s the kind of movie that swims in your head for days, and invites you to think about its constructive insights into present day technological advancements for much longer.  Good sci-fi movies are always ten steps ahead of their audience. Ex Machina is about 50 steps ahead — never impatient for us for catch up, but not one to waste a moment in the process either. It’s a crowning effort for not only its genre but for the future of cinema. It reminds us that contemplative, mature filmmaking should — and will — always find a place in the theater, and it most definitely lives up to the I in A.I. Also, Isaacs dance scene along is enough to make this one worth a watch. Do yourself a favor: put down Terminator Genisys and plug this one in the machine instead. Your brain will thank me later.

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2. The End of the Tour

Late author David Foster Wallace was easily among the most accomplished and thoughtful writers of the past two decades. His work is unparalleled and masterful in its execution, if a little long-winded as a result, and the tragic figure deserves to be celebrated as one of the most revolutionary writers of our time. It’s hard to pinpoint his greatness into one two-hour film, and director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) had a hell of a task bringing the pained figure back to life with his fourth feature The End of the Tour, an adaptation of the memoir Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky and translated vividly from page-to-screen by Pulitzer-winning playwright Donald Margulies. Ponsoldt pulls it off beautifully, gracefully displaying the flawed philosophical figure in a light sympathetic enough to appreciate his greatness but never afraid to show off his bitter weaknesses. I’d like to think Wallace would approve.

A cathartic celebration of writing, living and the pleasant mundaneness of middle America, The End of the Tour is an endlessly fascinating character piece anchored by two incredible lead performances by Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg as our two Davids: Wallace and Lipsky, respectively.  Segel may never look or sound like the mystical author, but he makes the performance rooted in honesty and cemented deeply in existential angst. It’s easily the best work he’s produced thus far as an actor, and how he was blindsided for an Oscar is unquestionable to me. He acted circles around everyone nominated for Best Actor this year, in my humble opinion. Eisenberg matches him in his contemplative, ever-questioning turn — never afraid to flip the script at the right moment while adding layers-upon-layers to Wallace’s allure and Lipsky’s interpretation of the man.

It’s a grand celebration at a writer who never wanted to be celebrated as something he wasn’t, but found himself living up to standards impossible to overcome. It’s a goldmine of fragile wealth and insight into minds of those brilliantly wondering into their mid-life struggles. As such, The End of the Tour paves the way for a lot of gratitude and heart for an artist who took his life much too soon, and promises to give a new generation of word builders like myself the inspiration to feed on life and look for different ways to see its pain and excellence in every single step.  It’s a special movie in a lot of ways, but most special of all for how it brings out the magnificent in the commonplace. Wallace wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

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1. Anomalisa

Anomalisa paralyzed me as I watched it. I was left in a literal state of shock by how good this new movie was by the time the credits rolled. It’s arguably the best film I’ve seen in this decade, and quite possibly one of the richest, deepest, most honest and true movies I’ve seen in my whole life. It’s a masterful work of art, the kind of film I pray to see at the cinema. It’s the type of work that made me fall in love with cinema to begin with, the type of film that reminds me just how captivating and bewitching the art form can be when done right. And Anomalisa does so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so many things right. It’s a masterpiece of a film, a vision captured in flawless detail and done with masterful strokes of genius. It’s the stuff of dreams, and for certain the most human movie I’ve seen in a long, long time. And that doesn’t change one iota by the fact that it’s staged around puppets, utilized by some of the best stop-motion animation I’ve ever had the pleasure to behold.

I could spend hours praising Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s film, and I already have. I don’t even know where to begin talking about how many things Anomalisa does so well. It’s ultimately one of those movies you need to see for yourself to witness in its full glory. Is that a cop-out on my end? Sure, but it’s the truth. There’s nothing I could say that could give this godsend of a movie its full due. There’s so much to dissect; there’s so much to unravel that I can’t wait to see it many more times to get a full sense of its masterful artistry. So I’ll just say this: Kaufman, the man I would have no problem calling the best working screenwriter in the business right now, has done it again. He’s found more ways to marry the mundane with the extraordinary than ever before. He and Johnson have discovered vital ways to make the rich tapestry of life seem so approachable and so massive in its scale. They’ve created a vividly realized work of absolute essentialness, the kind of film that needs to be studied and looked at over and over again.

I know not everyone is going to appreciate it as much as I did, and I’m sad to know that’s the case. It certainly didn’t win over my audience as much as it did me when I saw it, and I can somewhat see why. It’s a challenging film in some rights, and a highly unconventional one to boot. But I implore everyone to give Anomalisa a shot, and to see for yourselves everything it has to offer. It’s a gorgeous work of aching sorrow and contemplation, and an endless stream of fully-realized self-reflection. It’s more than just the most brilliant, moving and inviting film I’ve seen from 2015: it’s the most realistic one too. I don’t care if it features only puppets. It’s the truth, and the movie I’m proud to call the year’s absolute finest.

 

Thanks for reading everyone. To check out my worst list, click on the link here.

 

 

 

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