As many of my fellow writers here have stated in their own individual lists, and collectively through all our year end 2015 movie coverage, if you thought 2015 was a weak year for movies, you just weren’t looking hard enough. Hell, that should be The Playlist motto far as I’m concerned. It’s that digging deep here into all corners of cinema that first attracted me to this site when it was still a simple, independent site on Blogger. Though admittedly the first 3/4 of this year was fairly weak outside of the occasional off-the-beaten path release or a couple massive tentpoles that more than lived up to any expectations or hype, when shit got real and Hollywood log jammed these last few months with so many great titles it quickly became a lot harder to whittle my personal list down to just 15 great movies from this year alone.
It has become a kind of sick game to keep up with everything that’s released in theaters, even just in November and December alone (never mind the entire year) when all the big hopefuls are unleashed at the same time. Nevertheless, it’s actually a pretty good problem for us movie lovers, and one I can’t complain too much about in the end. In my monthly Films To See column here at The Playlist, I have to research all known theatrical releases before the start of a new month and try to assess which ones are worth your time to seek out. It’s a great and sometimes daunting gig, but not nearly as enjoyable as my producing and editing duties on The Playlist Podcast, which I hope to make a more regular thing here. Perhaps you’ve enjoyed some episodes (and if you’re not burnt out on ‘Star Wars‘ talk by now, make sure to check out our latest podcast where me, Kevin Jagernauth and Rodrigo Perez talk spoilers for ‘The Force Awakens‘), or maybe you’ve even come across my own independently produced film podcast, Adjust Your Tracking? If you’re not familiar with either, I tried to link to all episodes from 2015 that feature reviews of the films on my list below. Hopefully you’ll give them a spin and spread the word. Or, even better, check out some of the films I’ve highlighted as the very best from another strong year at the movies.
If there’s a common thread amongst these top 15 I’ve chosen, it’s that in some way they all put me through the wringer and leveled me with their craft and emotion. And, most importantly, these films are all best suited for the cinema. Not TV, YouTube, Vimeo, or Vine pages. They are all cinematic and creatively take advantage of the medium’s many possibilities. Pure and simple.
Thanks for reading and listening. I’ll see you in the new year real soon.
15. “Black Coal, Thin Ice”
It’s a shame that most of us had almost no chance outside of a festival to see this Chinese neo-noir from director Yi’nan Diao (his third feature to date) in a theater, where its very particular, muted, and affecting atmosphere and narrative time jumps could be best appreciated. So could the dynamite cinematography from Jingsong Dong — which captures a golden hued winter urban landscape that’s steely, quietly nightmarish, and perfectly atmospheric — and the committed, deeply sad performances from its two leads, Fian Liao (who won Best Actor at Berlin) and Lun Mei Gwei. Now that it’s streaming on Netflix, many have a chance to catch up with this brilliant, funny, and chilling noir about a detective looking for a murderer dumping body parts in coal trucks around his city. Would make a perfect triple bill with “Zodiac” and “Memories Of Murder.”
This one-take wonder is something to behold, the closest thing cinematically to that SQUID technology from “Strange Days.” The technical achievement from DP Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, director Sebastian Schipper, and the rest of the cast and crew can not be denied, but refreshingly it’s more than just a cool trick. The film uses its real-time narrative to boldly up the tension and stakes while also lulling the viewer for its first third into thinking this is a very different story then what it ultimately is. I was exhausted after watching it, because I was so immersed and taken for a thrilling ride. [Listen to my review on AYT #117]
13. “The Forbidden Room”
Indulgent, nightmarish, almost always hilarious. The ultimate Guy Maddin film, in that it feels like a grand thesis statement to all his work to date. His oddball brand of cinephile nostalgia is in top form here, in what plays like a long shorts program cut together by a mad scientist uber film nerd who stumbled across piles of discarded old B-movies from some distant past that never really existed. Highlights include an opening lesson on taking baths (wherever Maddin found actor Louis Negin is beyond me, but the man is just brilliant) and a song about Udo Kier being obsessed with butts. So much fun, that is, if you can fall under its spell.
12. “Son Of Saul”
Visceral, intense cinema in the vein of the Russian ’80s masterpiece “Come and See,” but also stylistically modern in its use of video game aesthetics to put the viewer in the perspective of its lead character. A unique take on the Holocaust drama genre, and an experience you won’t soon forget.
11. “The Hateful Eight”
Quentin Tarantino is an indulgent filmmaker. But that may be the only thing we can all agree on with his latest, and perhaps most divisive, film to date. “The Hateful Eight” is as brash as it is loquacious, and its overall worldview is colder than even its narrative-inducing blizzard, yet after a second viewing any of these potential concerns all but washed away. Instead I was able to get lost in the language and expert character work, and the glacial pace felt more fleet and, dare I say, tighter than “Django Unchained.” Unlike that previous film (which shares some thematic concerns with ‘Eight’) and all his work from “Kill Bill” on, the revenge here is murky, ugly, and not really satisfying, even though the violence is still poised and executed for maximum effect. Nobody does splatter as good as Tarantino, and he definitely delivers those goods in gooey spades, but those who claim his movies aren’t really about anything beyond the cool surface may have good points in most cases, but not with “Hateful Eight,” which works as an allegory-cum-state of the nation address on our frustratingly angry, divided, and extremist country yet even more so as a grand, gorgeously-photographed, paranoia-inflected suspense piece. [Listen to my review on AYT#121]
10. “The Tribe”
Nobody would call this pleasant watching, but we need more bold, challenging films like “The Tribe,” in which a shy boy arrives at a boarding school for the deaf and tries to find his place in the hierarchy of the school’s insular criminal community. Working in the mold of “difficult” Eastern European arthouse cinema, Ukrainian director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, in his debut feature, may give in to a certain level of monotone miserablism common in many films of its ilk, but it functions so well as a deeply allegorical, original piece of crime fiction that the overwhelming dread and grisly violence are simply inevitable, not forced or intended only to shock. Nothing can undo the intensely rigorous and stylish filmmaking on display here, which plays like an even more disturbing combination of “City of God” and “Lord of the Flies.” The potentially gimmicky conceit — all dialogue is spoken through sign language with no subtitles — creates a unique, wholly cinematic world where the viewer’s perception of cinema is radically altered. Nearly all scenes play out in impeccably choreographed long takes, via a camera that rarely stops moving — its style is akin to Michael Haneke’s “Code Unknown” and features a similar foreboding, disquieting sense that things are going to end badly. Although its formalism is rigid, it’s not without a few genre-inflicted thrills (relatively) that make for a very good entry into the grand, storied crime genre. It conjures its own world, commenting on our own and gives the audience something that’s palpably new. [Listen to my review on AYT #110]
9. “Mad Max: Fury Road”
Not much more can be added to the deserved praise heaped on George Miller‘s bonkers, next-level action masterpiece. It’s just so damn great it’s hard to mess with it (though give our podcast a spin if you want to her my co-host, who wasn’t a fan, take it down a peg). With this and 2012’s “The Raid: Redemption” (and several sequences from its sequel), the bar has been almost impossibly raised for those looking to forge new, exciting ground in the genre. I do hope filmmakers can top it, but that task sounds nigh-impossible at this time. [AYT #108]
8. “James White”
Though its lead character — who the film relentlessly follows — is challenging to sit with at times, he’s a fascinating and honest one. A very intimate and particular perspective — the camera rarely ever strays from the titular character’s vantage point, often locked in on a closeup of actor Christopher Abbot‘s face — guides the viewer through an incredibly difficult and demoralizing six months in this young man’s life. He’s self-destructive, narcissistic, entitled, and selfish. But he’s real, and this character study from the third talented member of the Borberline Films team, Josh Mond, is original and modern, in all the best ways. It also frayed my emotions, leaving me as spent as a burnt out wick from a candle. Though the budget was minuscule, Mond and his committed cast (Abbot especially is a force of nature) make use of all the tools available to an independent filmmaker — pitch perfect lensing, soundtracking and design, performances, editing — for a small, intimate, yet completely cinematic experience. [AYT #118]
A lot of attention was given to this street-level indie because its two leads are transgender women and it was shot with an iPhone and actually looks like a proper movie, which is all well and good and understandable. But I was more taken with the film’s boundless verve, intensely bright and kinetic visuals, the pitch perfect soundtrack that brings so much of it all to life (highlights include: the opening credits track; DJ Lightup and DJ Heemie‘s “Team Gotti Anthem”; “Decadence” by White Night Ghosts), and director Sean Baker‘s inherent empathy and curiosity for his characters and in bringing their corner of Hollywood to life. I do find it strange how little has been written about the film’s humor, since this is one of the fastest, funniest pure comedies in years. There hasn’t been shit-talking this good since the early ’90s crime films of Scorsese and Tarantino. None of that would matter, though, were it not for the lead performances from Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, who are the reason it all truly works. But also, there’s James Ransone‘s Chester, who steals all of his scenes in the film’s Donut Time-set penultimates moments, making way for a deeply moving climax between two friends who’ve really only got each other, but are all the better for it. [AYT #112]
6. “The Duke Of Burgundy”
British genre deconstructionist Peter Strickland is steadily building an impressive filmography wherein he manages to pay loving homage to films of yore and still create something wholly his own. His debut, “Katalin Varga,” was a near-brilliant take on the rape-revenge genre. And the charming, Lynchian “Berberian Sound Studio” was a fun movie-about-movies look at a sound engineer for Italian Giallos. But with this third effort, he’s made his first truly great film. It’s so wholly relatable, charming, deliciously stylish, and funny. That it’s set in some kind of alt-universe/time period in which only women exist, butterflies are studied by everyone, and the drama comes from the lead couple’s sadomasochistic lesbian romance is merely the cinematic, genre window dressing to dig into an allegorical tale of the compromises inherent in all relationships. [AYT #103]
5. “Ex Machina”
There’s a lot of surface pleasure to Alex Garland’s tightest and most fascinating screenplay to date, and his highly successful directorial debut, but what makes it endlessly re-watchable is all the subtextual interpretations to mull over and then debate at length after the credits roll (which we did on The Playlist Podcast earlier this year). Garland has always been an intimidatingly smart and naturally gifted writer, in both his books and script work, but he’s often hindered by his tendency to go for broke in the climax. Not so with “Ex Machina,” a dramatically juicy, funny piece of science fiction and chamber drama. Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Sonoya Mizuno make up another perfectly utilized and assembled cast that brings to life a deeply allegorical exploration of institutionalized misogyny bubbling below its technological singularity sci-fi A-narrative. Garland has always struck me as a gleefully subversive genre deconstructionist, familiar with all the tropes other movie lovers know all too well. By the time the brutal, cold and calculated climax hits, all signs point to this being something of a brilliant re-working of the rape revenge genre, as if “I Spit On Your Grave” was surgically grafted with the first two ‘Terminator‘ films and Spike Jonze‘s “Her.” It’s a heady, thrillingly talky brew, which gets better with every glass. [AYT #107]
4. “Inside Out”
I love this film, but I was not ready for it. I should’ve known better. Director Pete Doctor has made one of the very best Pixar films to date, which left me puzzled as to how he so thoroughly mined my own life experiences for a wholly original family film that wrecked me emotionally. So much of this film hits me on a deeply, bizarrely personal level (all the hockey stuff; the family moving from Minnesota to the West coast; the father character who looks eerily like my own, and so much more) that it’s almost impossible for me to look at “Inside Out” objectively. So why even bother? Maybe Doctor (a fellow Minnesotan, who grew up in a suburb not far from mine) should be thanking me. How else to explain the “Inception“-level excavating of my own brain for his film? Such is the power of great cinema, and the still-going-strong talents at Pixar, that it all feels like it was made just for me when, in fact, this is about as good a four quadrant movie as one can hope for, accessible for everyone yet unafraid to challenge our long-held fears of letting sadness do what it does to us so we can then enjoy the happy times. I’m getting choked up just thinking about it again.
Somewhere along her already very strong career, Emily Blunt went and became a total badass. While “Sicario” looked on the surface like the third entry in her trilogy of characters where she’s the toughest person in every scene, starting with “Looper” then “Edge of Tomorrow,” it ingeniously subverts that notion — only stripping away her agency by the film’s end, which is of course the point of this story, as she’s more our window (and tragic moral center) into this world than the protagonist — through its always-gripping, stomach-churningly tense narrative. Director Denis Villeneuve, a favorite around here for years now, has finally made good on all his promise and made, for me, his first complete and unabashedly great film. Blunt, alongside Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro, make up one of the strongest casts in a movie this year, with Del Toro, still one of our very best actors working today, reminds us all once again that nobody else can do what he does with a character. And don’t get me starting on the cutting, score, and visuals in this air-tight arthouse action drama. Everyone is on the A-game here: Roger Deakins‘ expert cinematography creates a sun-dappled, bullet-riddled urban nightmare; the spectacular Jóhann Jóhannsson score peaks with guttural, deathly sub textures that slowly boil into a quiet fervor, familiar to but never simply aping the Hans Zimmer style we’ve all grown accustomed to. I couldn’t be more excited to see what Villeneuve does with the sci-fi “Story Of Your Life” and the “Blade Runner” sequel. [AYT #116]
2. “World Of Tomorrow”
Indie animation genius Don Hertzfeldt continues his rise as quite possibly the most important and exciting filmmaker of the Internet age. Here he packs in a host of original science fiction concepts with his usual bizarro cult sense of humor. Most of the laughs come from his niece, who voiced the child lead character. Pretty much everything she says is gold. But it’s also visually stunning, incredibly sad, and layered with meaning beyond the cool genre elements and laughs, making it the most complete and full meal I’ve enjoyed at the cinema in a while. In only 17-minutes. It’s available to rent in HD at Vimeo. Trust me, it’s the best $3.99 you can spend on a movie out there. [AYT #104]
1. “The Revenant”
This is why I go to the movies. To feel and experience something so intensely visceral that you get lost in it. This is true immersionist cinema, and a heart of darkness tale that looks, breathes, smells, sounds, and feels like nothing else of its kind. Nothing grips you like this film, and once its hooks have dug in it doesn’t relent. Though it does breathe, occasionally, affording the viewer some valleys in its simple revenge western hybrid that’s full of action peaks on par with the Omaha beach sequence from “Saving Private Ryan” in their intensity, realism and the overall craft in their construction and execution. Leonardo DiCaprio is never better as the real-life Hugh Glass, who survives a horrifically staged bear attack (a terrifying highlight) and then goes on a survivalist quest for revenge on the man who left him for dead and killed his son (the villain played by a terrific, sneakily funny Tom Hardy). The plot is simple and told straightforwardly, even with its fractured storylines that intersect and bypass as things move forward, but even that’s another strength. It’s an arthouse revenge action film, after all, and a damn entertaining one to boot. Not since “Under The Skin” last year has the mood, atmosphere and tone of a film held me under its spell so strongly. It’s easily Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s best film yet. Other MVP awards go to: DP Emmanuel Lubezki who continues to blow my mind with every thing he shoots; Production Designer Jack Fisk; and the music and sound design team. A fantastic film that will only get better with age. [AYT#121]
And another thing!
Other films I loved this year that just missed the cut include: “Catch Me Daddy,” “Wild Tales,” “Creed,” “Heaven Knows What,” “Beasts Of No Nation,” “Carol,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “Spotlight,” “Li’l Quinquin,” “Goodnight Mommy,” “Meru,” “It Follows,” “Junun,” “Arabian Nights” (all three parts), and “Jauja.”
I got in to reviewing some TV this year, and also hope to do more of that in 2016. The shows I loved the most were: “Game Of Thrones” was as good as ever in its thrilling 5th season; two utterly bingeable and highly cinematic new shows this year — “Mr. Robot” and “Master Of None” — had me buzzing with delight and obsession; “Bojack Horseman” got even weirder and darker in its second season; “The Knick” contains some of Steven Soderbergh‘s best work as a director; Comedy Central‘s “Review” and “Nathan For You” are both next level brilliant awkward/dark comedy shows; David Simon‘s HBO miniseries “Show Me A Hero” is further proof he’s still our greatest talent working in the medium today; and finally, “Rick and Morty” on Adult Swim is just amazing all around.
My favorite non-2016 filmic discovery this year + the most exciting new Blu-ray release, has to be the 1983 Austrian home invasion shocker, “Angst.” If you need more convincing please take a look at the essay I wrote for Indiewire about the film and its direct influences on the career of Gaspar Noé. If you’re a horror fan and/or you like Noé‘s films, you owe it to yourself to track this true masterpiece down. And now, it’s easier than ever thanks to Cult Epics Blu-ray release in September. See it and be forever changed.