One of my favorite recent complaints is the happy grumble that there were too many great movies released in 2015. Having a difficult time narrowing the year’s best down to fifteen is the kind of problem I hope to have every single year.
It’s practically impossible to see every movie released in a year, but I think the only title of note that I haven’t had the opportunity to see (and that would potentially have made the cut) is Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.
After much consideration – and after being told in no uncertain terms that #15 could most definitely not feature a six-way tie – these are the films that occupied and engaged my mind the most this year. These are the films that stayed with me across 2015, some for the past few weeks and others for many months. These are my picks for the fifteen best movies of the year.
Walt Disney Pictures
Look, I did say these are my picks, so if Brad Bird’s much-maligned adventure for the eyes, brain, and heart is the particular cinematic hill I have to metaphorically die on so be it. The lead is a smart, independent, science-loving teenage girl who even Max Landis would love as she fumbles and grows on her way to a world-altering conclusion, and while it initially appears to be another tale about “the one” who can save us all it subverts that idea with the radical notion that we can actually save ourselves. Far from just a message movie though it’s also an energetic ride featuring beautifully orchestrated action sequences, equally well-crafted laughs, and optimism laced with tough-love and common sense. Check your cynicism at the door, and share it with the smart kids in your life.
14. The Revenant
20th Century Fox
Part revenge tale, part man-vs-nature endurance test, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s newest film follows through on the promise teased with each of his previous features. It’s a stunningly photographed journey through an ice-cold hell complete with gorgeous mountain vistas and a tangible winter that threatens to freeze over the screen. Long, unbroken takes move viewers through the bloody chaos of combat from the ground to horseback and back again, and through it all Leonardo DiCaprio delivers an intensely-focused performance that gives life to the strength of one man’s will to live. One line of dialogue (and Tom Hardy’s epic bungling of its delivery) threatens to unravel all that came before, but the film’s breathtaking, all-consuming weight is an equally tenacious force.
13. What We Do In the Shadows
This horror/comedy import from New Zealand is one of two films that I’ve re-watched the most this year – the other sits at #5 below – and while its playful, slapstick style and goofy vampire-centric focus make it far less serious fare than the rest of the films here, they don’t prevent it from being one of the year’s best. It’s a ridiculously funny and extremely smart comedy that proves no topic is ever truly squeezed dry of potential in the right hands. Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement are the owners of those right (and left) hands, and their deliriously humorous peak behind the curtains of the undead is pure genius.
12. Slow West
John Maclean’s genre-bender is something of an acquired taste as it infuses a violent Western adventure with wit and big laughs, but the result is an immensely satisfying look at the American dream on the wild edges of a sleepy America. It gallops with bloody ease between the deadly serious and the morbidly funny, and the organized chaos extends to a narrative that’s confident and crazy enough to avoid predictability. Michael Fassbender’s part scoundrel/part mentor cowboy is as charismatic an antihero as you’ll see this year, and he makes for a terrifically off-kilter guide on this cockeyed trip into the Old West.
11. Mistress America
Fox Searchlight Pictures
This is what pure delight looks like. The second (of two) flat-out comedies to make the list, Noah Baumbach’s latest film is easily his best as it charts the ups and downs of a new friendship through a series of unexpected life lessons. It’s a coming-of-age film that recognizes that the act of becoming an adult is a journey, not a destination. Both witty and wise, the script is brought to life by a terrific Lola Kirke and the modern day queen of screwball perfection, Greta Gerwig. It’s a fast and funny ride, but don’t let that distract you from the honesty and warmth on display beneath the zaniness.
This is most likely the least-recognizable title on the list, but it deserves to reach a wider audience as it’s a beautiful little gem of a film about knowing the difference between the things we get in life and the things we deserve. Alaska’s vastness can create an isolation of sorts if you let it, a feeling that walks a fine line between loneliness and solitude with the balance decided only by the weight of your heart, and this film is one of the very few to capture that appealing desolation. The film finds beauty, calm, and trust between two strangers and makes it as compelling an experience as any big-budget spectacle could ever hope to create with gorgeous cinematography, a smartly affecting script, and a pair of fragile yet powerful performances by Ella Purnell and Bruce Greenwood.
9. Steve Jobs
Danny Boyle’s latest may be a faulty biopic, but real-life details are for nerds. Instead it’s an utterly engrossing and fantastically entertaining look at the personal price of genius. Michael Fassbender gives one of the year’s best and most-engaging performances, and Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, and Jeff Daniels shine alongside him, but the real star here is Aaron Sorkin’s lightning-fast, constantly mesmerizing script. It packs a lifetime into three days as it examines the value of ambition, loyalty, success, and failure, and facts be damned – we should all be so lucky when it comes time for our own biopics.
8. The Look of Silence
Documentaries don’t often make my year-end lists due mostly to the sad fact that I just don’t watch very many of them throughout the year (but yes, I also enjoy trolling fellow FSR editor Chris Campbell). Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to The Act of Killing though is a must-see film that demands inclusion on anyone’s list of the year’s best. Forgoing the stylized structure of the earlier film, this look at Indonesia’s horrific past and painful present takes a quieter, more meditative approach as it examines the unimaginable equally through conversation and silence. This is important, necessary film-making and a reminder of how yesterday’s atrocities can impact tomorrow.
7. About Elly
The Cinema Guild
I’ve been beating this particular drum since 2010 so I’m thrilled that Asghar Farhadi’s finally saw a release in the U.S. this year. As he did later with A Separation, Farhadi invites viewers into a story that feels far more universal than we might expect for one set in modern day Iran. Tone and character are expertly executed and work beautifully with an evolving narrative resulting in a suspenseful and engaging drama where the only thing more important than a possible death is the plausibility of a life.
6. The Martian
20th Century Fox
Director Ridley Scott’s 23rd feature is not only his highest-grossing, but it’s also one of his best and a real powerhouse return to form. It helps that other members of the cast and crew were also on their A-game and produced a blockbuster that manages to excite audiences and make them care without ever talking down to them. The film embraces the idea of education, science, and optimism the way so few films do – blockbusters or otherwise – but it carries that attitude alongside immensely entertaining action beats, a heavy dose of humor, and a real compassion for humanity. There’s no “bad guy” here, just a challenge to overcome, and it’s a refreshing change of pace.
5. Mad Max: Fury Road
Warner Bros. Pictures
Who would have thought George Miller’s long-awaited return to the world of Mad Max would be such a goddamn achievement. Time and the bad taste of studio concessions leftover from Beyond Thunderdome marked this as a giant, sand-covered question mark leading up to its release, but any and all doubts have been erased in a gorgeous display of cinematography, choreography, and legend-building. It’s the year’s biggest and best action film, but its chaotic mayhem, visual mastery, thrilling score, and immediately iconic characters move it effortlessly beyond any genre limitations.
The gradual loss of sight is a nightmarish scenario, and as written by Eskil Vogt (Oslo August 31st, Reprise) you’d also expect it to be a melancholy one. Vogt’s feature debut as director is both of those things, but it’s the unexpected elements that raise it to the realm of modern classic. Fear and loneliness, confidence and humor – one woman’s inner world shifts outwards as she’s forced to deal with her affliction, and the resulting film is a marvel of warm imagination, honest observations, and unadulterated sexiness. It’s a film for adults, but there’s no shortage of creativity, wit, and wonder on display.
It’s rare for an action-thriller to make room for serious observations – political, cultural, or otherwise – but Denis Villeneuve’s impassioned exploration into the front line of the United States’ war on drugs does just that. Even better, the savage commentary never comes at the expense of exhilarating action sequences or intense, nail-biting scenes of suspense. The cast is uniformly fantastic too with Emily Blunt crafting a strong, idealistic, and very human protagonist while Benico Del Toro gives a career-best performance as a man who’s seen too much. Add in Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography, and we’re gifted with a beautiful, harrowing look at man’s ugliness.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
More observational character piece than narrative-driven drama, Paulo Sorrentino’s wise and relaxing ode to life is quite possibly the year’s most beautiful film. Each frame reveals eye-catching visuals in nature, architecture, human motion, or even the simple, occasionally sad visage of Michael Caine or Harvey Keitel. The beauty extends beyond the visual though with a score (by David Lang) and soundtrack that evoke mood and memory alongside surreal scenes of human affirmation and a lust for life’s smaller pleasures.
Open Road Films
Far from the year’s flashiest film, Thomas McCarthy’s latest is a rare piece of dramatic near-perfection. Every element – from the superb ensemble cast (including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James, and more) to the sharp cinematography (from Masanobu Takayanagi) to the constantly engaging script (by McCarthy and Josh Singer) – works in flawless unison to make a familiar tale and a known outcome feel genuinely suspenseful and exciting. It’s also a celebratory battle cry for the power of investigative journalism (and journalism in general), and as the end credits reveal the scope of the issue nationally and worldwide that cry echoes louder and farther.
Honorable mentions: 45 Years, Black Coal Thin Ice, The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Creed, Man from Reno, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Predestination, Timbuktu
Read more of our Best of 2015 coverage!