Since the awards season always falls in December, it makes sense that a lot of the year’s best films are last minute releases that critics have caught up with literally days before composing their Top 10 lists. Even though that’s usually the case, I can’t remember any other year where a huge chunk of my Top 10 was comprised of great films I saw mere weeks before putting my list together.
That’s a bit of a problem, and I think that a more balanced release of great films throughout the year would be more palatable and feasible than being pummeled with a bunch of them all at once. This release strategy eventually forces engaged audiences to have to miss out on some great cinema, simply because they don’t have the time to catch up on all of the awards contenders getting stuffed in a single month. Thankfully, I was able to catch up to most of these films thanks to awards screeners, but what about the general audience who don’t have that luxury?
Now that I’m off of my soapbox, I have to confess that I have let my emotions guide me through this list more than it had in previous years. There are some films here that I admit aren’t technically perfect, but to deny their profound visceral impact on me would have been unfair.
Forget about the lazy, cynical Oscar-bait “The Danish Girl.” “Tangerine” is the 2015 film about trans protagonists that you should seek out. Sean Baker’s ultra-indie mini-masterpiece about a couple of trans prostitutes (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, who deserves a Best Actress Oscar nomination) looking for their cheating pimp through the sleazy underbelly of Los Angeles is at times heartbreaking, at times hilarious, and always engaging.
Every frame feels authentic and rings true, thanks to Baker’s honest and unpretentious take on his subjects. Much has been written about the film’s iPhone cinematography, which infuses the film with a unique beauty that once again reminds that it’s not the tool that matters, but the artist who uses it.
9. “The Duke of Burgundy”:
“Come for the kinky BDSM lesbian sex; leave with a profoundly touching love story” could’ve been a perfect alternate tagline for “The Duke of Burgundy,” writer/director Peter Strickland‘s hypnotic, haunting, emotionally engaging near-masterpiece. Beneath its über-stylized art house veneer, it’s emphasis on audiovisual stimulation over exposition and plot, and an aesthetic that harkens back to ’60s French melodramas, “The Duke of Burgundy” is essentially a simple and therefore empathetic story about a fading love affair, and one half of a couple’s struggle to keep the passion burning.
The film is running over with sex that some might find shocking, unsettling, and even disgusting. But Strickland’s point is not to exploit the central relationship in the film for mere titillation, but to use the visual language of cinema to show that the way every individual expresses love is unique, which should be celebrated and not judged. It’s a film that will challenge preconceived notions of life and love —isn’t that what cinema really about?
It might not be a bona fide masterpiece, and you might be asking “what the hell is a ‘Rocky’ movie doing in a supposedly prestigious Top 10 list?” But I can’t remember another 2015 release that made me feel as energized as Ryan Coogler’s excellent sequel/reboot/spin-off of a beloved franchise no one thought could be resurrected in a fresh and engaging way.
But like Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan in a powerhouse performance), the protagonist who’s determined to break out of the shadows of his past in order become his own man, Coogler defies all expectations and gracefully pulls “Rocky,” a franchise that gave us Hulk Hogan, Mr. T, a talking robot, and “Rocky IV,” into the 21st Century while still paying respect to what made that original film so relatable in the first place. The 133-minute runtime flies by, Sylvester Stallone gives the best performance of his career, and “Creed” is the best “Rocky” film since… well, “Rocky.”
7. “Inside Out”
“Up” helmer Pete Docter‘s “Inside Out” signifies a return to form for Pixar. It’s a delightful, gorgeous, endlessly creative, and perhaps in tune with the film’s subject matter, deeply emotionally engaging experience.
As near perfect as “Inside Out” is with respect to the manner in which it summarizes and visualizes the complex emotional patterns of childhood (and even adulthood, during some very funny scenes that show us the minds of the parents), you shouldn’t make your kids see it only for educational reasons. This is a profoundly entertaining and touching film, where Pixar once again shows us that family films don’t have to be random explosions of bright colors and loud noises, providing little else in the way of storytelling values.
6. “The Big Short”
This film is way better than I thought it would be. I was questioning whether or not “Anchorman” director Adam McKay was the right choice to helm a sprawling ensemble dramedy about a subject as serious as the 2008 global financial collapse. After watching “The Big Short,” it’s clear that he was the perfect choice, because it takes McKay’s unique brand of giddy irreverence to make any sense out of the worldwide clusterfuck. The characters and situations are as outlandish as any in “Anchorman” or “Talladega Nights,” yet millions of lives were ruined because of it.
That fact turns “The Big Short” into an equally hilarious and infuriating experience. This is one of those “you owe it to yourself to see it” movies that’s actually entertaining, engaging and fast-paced from beginning to end. After it’s over, you won’t know whether to laugh your ass off at the absurdity of it all, run to the bathroom and throw up in disgust, or start tearing the theatre apart out of sheer uncontrollable anger.
5. “Mad Max: Fury Road”
“Mad Max: Fury Road” is basically a roided-up remake of “The Road Warrior,” and that’s very, very good news. Returning to the franchise he created after a thirty-year hiatus, co-writer/director George Miller not only fully embraces the goofy excess of the original films, but he goes above and beyond in his mission to create a willfully insane orgy of dirt, fire, blood, and tons and tons of gasoline.
Since Miller went balls-to-the-wall crazy after getting his hands on the kind of budget for this film that he couldn’t have even dreamed of while filming the original “Mad Max” trilogy, “The Road Warrior” looks quaint and adorably low-key when compared to “Mad Max: Fury Road.” What we end up with is a perfectly paced and streamlined modern action classic, an opus of violence, a festival of light and color that doesn’t have a remotely dull moment during its gripping and breathtaking two-hour runtime.
4. “The Good Dinosaur”
Yes, I think that Pixar’s touching, fun, and gorgeous “The Good Dinosaur” is slightly better than “Inside Out.” For the second time in a single year, which is an unprecedented move for the animation pacesetter, the studio’s obsession with perfection pays off, as we get a gorgeous looking, emotionally captivating, and rousing adventure that’s as dedicated to its story themes as it is to exciting set pieces. The plot beats may be predictable, but the Pixar story team and screenwriter Meg LeFauve manage to find a fresh angle by internalizing the conflict as much as possible, and making the arc of the story mostly about our scared dino protagonist overcoming his fear while taking his first steps into adulthood.
Incidentally, both films released by Pixar in 2015 deal with the theme of finding a balance between two opposite emotions. In “Inside Out,” as much as Joy wanted to eliminate Sadness altogether, she eventually came to the realization that a certain amount of sadness is necessary for people to feel happy in the first place. In “The Good Dinosaur,” Arlo the dinosaur gradually begins to realize that in order to conquer his fear, he needs to acknowledge its existence in the first place. What “The Good Dinosaur” says about what it truly means to be an adult is more insightful and honest than a lot of adult-oriented live action dramas.
3. “The Walk”
I don’t care that Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s French accent made him sound like a bad Maurice Chevalier impersonator. First of all, if you’ve seen “Man on Wire,” you know what Philippe Petit sounds like, which is exactly like a bad Maurice Chevalier impersonator. And second, Gordon-Levitt’s enthusiastic and whimsical performance seamlessly mirrors the wholesome and adventurous tone of Robert Zemeckis’ breathtaking representation of the true story about a team of lovable wackos determined to walk a tightrope between the twin towers of then-newly-constructed World Trade Center. It’s downright tragic that one of the most awe-inspiring big screen events of the year went mostly unnoticed. The first two acts are fun and breezy, but the third act might represent the only film going experience in my life where I was absolutely terrified and completely enthralled at the exact same time.
Let’s get the obligatory “All The President’s Men” comparison out of the way first. Tom McCarthy’s (boy, is he ever forgiven for “The Cobbler”) great journalism procedural is on par with the ’70s classic as far as technical merits and performances are concerned. But this film also manages to do the impossible: It creates a dry procedural that’s also intensely emotional and personal. I don’t remember the last time, or any time for that matter, that a film about a bunch of near-stoic journalists sitting in an office meticulously researching piles of documents made me feel such anger and eventually hope.
This is what I wrote about “Room” on The Playlist’s “The 20 Best Films of 2015” list. I still stand by every word:
Nothing about director Lenny Abrahamson‘s previous work could have prepared us for the emotionally visceral gut punch of “Room.” Based on a best-selling novel by Emma Donoghue, who also adapted her book for the screen, this picture is about Jack (Jacob Tremblay), a loving, energetic, and imaginative 5-year-old boy who spent his entire life imprisoned in a ten-feet-by-ten-feet room with his mother (Brie Larson). In order to raise Jack in this horrific environment with any semblance of normalcy, Ma makes him believe that the room is the only place that exists in the world and that all the people and places he sees on TV are in a different galaxy.
All of the information we get about Ma and Jack’s predicament builds up to one of the most pulse-pounding, nail-biting, any other review buzzword cliché-generating sequences we’ve seen in a long time. Even though the thriller elements are laid to rest about halfway through “Room,” there’s still a tremendously engaging emotional journey ahead, where Abrahamson smartly avoids every trap for conventional melodramatics that the basic story elements would seem to lay out for him. The performances from everyone involved are extraordinary, especially for a story that’s ripe for hysterical dramatics. Tremblay carries the entire emotional weight of the picture with an exceptional display of natural empathy and energy, and Larson’s more than his match. The premise suggested a film that could have been almost impossibly bleak if Abrahamson put a foot wrong: instead, it’s deeply human.