Here’s the obligatory caveat that I haven’t seen every movie this year; no one who makes these lists could possibly see everything (good for them if they have), especially with the rush of prestige, Oscar-ready releases that clog theaters in December. I also don’t believe in doing a mad rush of catch up for purposes of list making. My list is comprised of the films that I did see, and that’s that.
My philosophy behind year-end lists is that I like to spotlight under-the-radar films that deserve attention during the end of the year and awards campaign crush. But I also have the requirement that for a film to make my own list, it has to move me emotionally in some way. That has made making these lists difficult in years past —there are so many movies universally recognized as technically perfect or important or well-executed that just didn’t move me for some reason. This gets at both the magic of cinema —that it has the power to elicit powerful emotional reactions, and also at an inherent subjectivity. What moves someone else might not work on me due to my identity, life experiences, opinions, etc.
I realized in writing this that if there were a theme to this list, it’s would be interpersonal connections, the perseverance of the human spirit, and the will to live that overrides everything else. These are the kinds of stories that punch me in the feels, even when those connections are dark or violent or otherwise not so nice. But they are ultimately real.
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This subjectivity is the bedeviling thing about lists —inevitably someone has to chime in that something’s missing or ranked too high or doesn’t belong. That’s just, your opinion, man. Lists aren’t perfect, this one isn’t, but I thought about it a lot (it’s different from the one I submitted to our Top 20, and to Criticwire and to the Village Voice). It’s ended up a mix of smaller films and also ones that have gotten a lot of love. Here’s to the pile on —I’m happy to take part.
15. “The Big Short”
Adam McKay’s everything-thrown-at-the-wall approach doesn’t always work for me in “The Big Short,” but damn if it isn’t some bold, witty, and downright weird filmmaking fearlessly taking on a dark and complicated subject. That’s something that should definitely be commended. The performances from stars Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling are all pitched somewhere between comedy and drama. Carell’s probably got the meatiest role as the anger-management case Mark Baum, but Bale’s performance as heavy metal-thrashing, glass-eyed Dr. Burry has to take the cake for most committed. It’s refreshing to have the rest of the roles rounded out by lesser known or on-the-rise actors, especially Jeremy Strong as Baum’s intense numbers guy Vinnie and Adepero Oduye as his embattled JP Morgan keeper. The sound design is a symphonic and rhythmic cacophony that seems to rise with Baum’s blood pressure, as well as your own.
14. “Mississippi Grind”
Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s take on “California Split” is a bittersweet “Wizard of Oz” journey down the Mississippi, with two sad-sack degenerate gamblers searching for something at the end of their yellow brick road. Redemption? Love? Probably that big win. Ben Mendelsohn is utterly winning and heartbreaking as the hopeless Gerry, and Fleck and Boden are able to put Ryan Reynolds’ inherent smarminess to perfect use in the character of Curtis, who talks like a con man, and just might be. An American odyssey and a portrait of an addiction that dictates every interaction, every moment, and every relationship.
13. “Labyrinth of Lies”
Germany’s entry into the foreign-language Oscar competition is an interesting counterpart to Hungary’s “Son of Saul,” an incredibly brutal depiction of life in the concentration camps. “Labyrinth of Lies” is a reparation of sorts and a confession to the crime of the Holocaust, in this story based on German prosecutors who brought Nazi guards and SS officers to justice in the 1960s. Director Giulio Ricciarelli creates a pristine veneer of a quaint and lovely post-war Germany that covers up the horrible secrets underneath the surface. Star Alexander Fehling carries the picture as the young and determined prosecutor who doesn’t know what Pandora’s box he opens when he doggedly pursues the case. Slick and sophisticated but not without deep wells of emotion, “Labyrinth of Lies,” sometimes feels akin to Costa-Gravas‘ political thriller “Z” in its hellbent pursuit of justice.
The understated pleasures of “Brooklyn” lie in its lovely filmmaking, its evergreen and universal story, and the star turn by Saorise Ronan in John Crowley‘s film. This immigrant tale strikes a chord for anyone who’s moved away from home, gone to the big city and suffered crushing loneliness and homesickness. Ronan brings a sweet, elegant sincerity to these emotions, and Crowley’s direction, with classically-inspired cinematography from Yves Bélanger, has a light touch which allows the story to shine. Two swoon-worthy performances from revelatory Emory Cohen and dependable Domhnall Gleeson are the icing on the cake, not to mention scene-stealing from young actor James DiGiacomo and the hilarious Julie Walters. Just a treat.
I’m an L.A. resident who didn’t have a car for three years, so the thing that most spoke to me about Sean Baker’s “Tangerine” was the representation of the town on foot that we almost never see. Yes, there’s public transportation in L.A., and yes, there’s a subway. Plenty of people use it, but it’s not something we see in film, because the people who most often make films are driving. It’s the logical socioeconomic backdrop to the story that Baker tells, a Christmas tale about two best friends, transgender women and sex workers just trying to make it. Baker discovered stars in Mya Tayor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, who are quick with a read or an acid ad-lib. They are equal parts funny and heartbreaking, and Baker captures it all from the ground up, with a sense of cinematic grandeur seen through an iPhone 5s.
This is the kind of film I had to sit with and think about for a long while before it started to work on me. I initially came away from it quite cold; I felt as if I had just watched a very good episode of “Mad Men.” But the more deeply I thought about its gorgeous cinematography and the subtle excellence of its performances, the more I came to understand the film. Todd Haynes’ exquisitely executed period pieces are strategies to write subversiveness into representations of that time period that could not have been created at the time. With Edward Lachman’s tangibly felt cinematography (you feel like you can reach out and stroke the fur or trace a fogged up window), and the language inscribed in the meaningful glances between Carol and Therese, Haynes creates a world in which a relationship like theirs can be very real.
9. “Cartel Land”
I found “Sicario” to be very flat and unengaging, perhaps because I had already seen “Cartel Land,” whose searing and immediate non-fiction approach to the world of Mexican drug cartels made “Sicario” look like flimsy child’s play. Director Matthew Heineman was embedded with an anti-cartel group in Michoacán, and captured the real street shoutouts, the real meth cookers, the real moral ambiguity and the real line between government and cartel that gets so easily blurred. The cinematography is a saturated and crystal-clear depiction of this world, with all the agonies, tumult and tragedies on both sides of the border, and every shade of gray in between. The definitive 2015 cartel film.
8. “Mistress America”
The latest Noah Baumbach-Greta Gerwig collaboration “Mistress America” is far smarter than it initially lets on. It’s a fizzy, dizzy urban farce powered by Gerwig’s inimitably sunny energy, and it’s also a post-recession treatise on millenial notions of “work” rife with capitalistic ennui. Gerwig and Lola Kirke are perfectly matched as misfit, selfish dreamers who find a kind of dysfunctional kinship in their absurd notions of reality. The sparkling and snapping dialogue is sharp and hysterically funny, but the real meat of the film is the trenchant social commentary about our mistress America who works hard, though she’d rather be hardly working. All that in 1 hour and 24 minutes —it hardly seems possible, and yet this “Mistress America” does it all.
Director Justin Kurzel and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw have created a visual poetry that matches Shakespeare’s verse. This version brings out the madness, the blood and the steaming innards of the story. The film catches fire as the flames of Macbeth’s power-mad insanity ignite in his mind, and it brings an earthy and ethereal presence to the words —it’s muddy, warm, made of twigs and fur and ash— but it’s also a subjective expression of Macbeth’s ascent and descent. With the always excellent Michael Fassbender and featuring a performance in a new and mystically ferocious register from Marion Cotillard, the true standout performance for me was from Sean Harris as Macduff, who becomes the embodiment of righteous revenge.
The journalism procedural is all about work, and showcasing people doing their work very well. This is true of the film itself, which isn’t innovative but is Hollywood storytelling at its very best: captivating, inspiring, powered by performance and never over-indulgent. There’s something very satisfying about watching people do their jobs at the highest level, and here we get it twice. We see the characters onscreen taking the time and care to get the story about the Catholic Church child abuse scandal in Boston done right, and we see director Tom McCarthy and his ensemble of performers doing the same thing. Restraint doesn’t get enough credit, but with many overwrought films this season, “Spotlight” is a panacea that shows just how compelling an understated performance can be.
Very few films left me as breathless as Mélanie Laurent’s impeccable mean girl thriller “Breathe,” in which the filmmaker demonstrates an incredible sense of control over her tone and material. Somehow she manages to create a film that is loose and languid, but also tight as a drum with tension. Laurent explores the heady transitional space of awkward fumbling teenage years defined by epic, high-stakes best friendships. She finds two perfect sides of the BFF necklace in the mesmerizing Lou de Laâge as the manipulative sophisticate and Joséphine Japy as the naif. With genius sound design and naturalistic, intelligent photography, Laurent’s film captures something inherently truthful about the dark sides of female friendship and high school cliques. In “Breathe,” there’s nothing more intoxicating, and nothing more terrifying, than the undivided attention of a Cool Girl.
The power of “Room” lies largely in the performances by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, but director Lenny Abrahamson deserves kudos as well for creating a film that not only doesn’t get in the way of those performances, but also lays out the conceit of the project without many gimmicks. With the script written from the perspective of 5 year-old Jack, it could have easily drifted into overly wrought aesthetics. Instead, that perspective is subtly indicated (with help from writer Emma Donoghue), letting the stars of the film be the focal point. Larson is impeccable as the raging and traumatized victim who holds it together for her son with a feral edginess glinting in her eyes, and Tremblay more than matches Larson in giving a moving and multi-layered performance. This is a film that captures an indomitable will to really, truly live, not just survive. Of all the lines of the year, nothing had a greater effect on me than, “you’re going to love it out there —the world.”
3. “Son of Saul”
László Nemes’ stunner of a film takes the Holocaust genre and turns it completely on its head. The oversimplified truism that “Son of Saul” “makes ‘Schindler’s List’ look like a Disney movie” is nonetheless totally true in this instance —this stripped down, visceral and chaotic journey through the day in the life of a concentration camp sonderkommando doesn’t make anything easy to understand, or even easy to follow. But explaining the mechanics and hierarchies of the concentrations camps is not the goal of this film —its thesis is laid out when Saul (Géza Röhrig) walks into focus in the first shot, and the camera stays locked on his face for the duration. This is his tumultuous and violent existence, and this is the way that he survives and gets through horrific and dehumanizing tasks. His goal —to give the young boy he believes to be his son a proper burial— is simultaneously so small and so enormous; showing respect for the boy’s humanity is a tiny act of resistance in the crushing wheel of death that he can’t get off. Just witnessing the human labor involved in the machine is almost too much to bear, and the sheer logistics of the production are breathtaking. A true achievement.
Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s first feature “Mustang” is a shockingly assured debut, a film so determined in what it is and what it wants to say, expressing it beautifully and defiantly, like one of the five sisters at its core. There’s something so invigorating about a film that’s so unapologetic about its message, especially one as overtly feminist as this. The message of “Mustang” is so intensely pure that it can only be achieved with this level of bravery and boldness, and perhaps that is actually due to the fact that this is Ergüven’s debut. And what a debut it is. The story of five Turkish sisters imprisoned in their own home for fear of their own sexuality conveys a message that extends beyond a female story. It’s about the futility of locking up and repressing anything that should and will be free —it’s only a matter of time before it wriggles its way out searching for sunlight and air. Little, impetuous Lale was one of our tiniest but fiercest heroines this year.
1. “Mad Max: Fury Road”
This is the only film on this list that I’ve seen twice in theaters this year. I wrestled with the #1 and #2 ranking, but ultimately, my gut feeling is that “Mad Max: Fury Road,” needs to be in the number one spot. Perhaps it was because when I watched David Erhlich’s Best of the Year countdown video, I inexplicably teared up during the ‘Fury Road’ sequence, set to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” That reaction was unexpected but not unwelcome. Something about Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa glowering and leaping and punching and wailing to the strains of Cyndi Lauper’s classic is a combination that hits some raw nerve —but I don’t mind it. This film is a miracle: that George Miller pulled it off after years of delays, that he pulled it off like this, that he made an old property new, fresh and utterly daring, is remarkable. He takes Mad Max and turns it into a feminist fable, but the wonderful thing about this takedown of patriarchy is the way in which it explains the ways in which young men are also exploited in patriarchal capitalism. Nux and Max are two such perfect examples to demonstrate that feminism is all-inclusive. And it all comes wrapped in a gorgeous, fuel-injected, adrenaline rush of a ride. Thanks George.
The two films that just about made it onto the list were the David Foster Wallace biopic “The End of the Tour,” mostly for its excellently adapted screenplay by Donald Margulies, and Ramin Bahrani’s devastating housing crisis drama “99 Homes,” which is the dramatic counterpart to “The Big Short.” Michael Shannon is riveting, and Andrew Garfield more than holds his own.
“Suffragette” features an excellent performance from Carey Mulligan and an amazing under-told story, though some aesthetic choices didn’t work for me. “I Smile Back” also features a powerhouse performance by Sarah Silverman that’s worth the price of admission.
There were a few films that really stuck with me at Sundance 2015, including “Ten Thousand Saints” from Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini that came and went far, far too quickly; Sebastian Silva’s fun yet confounding “Nasty Baby”; and the sweet charmer “People, Places, Things” with Jemaine Clement at his best.
“Stanford Prison Experiment” features so many great performances from young actors that it serves as a catalog of Young Male Hollywood on the rise. “Victoria” does it’s one shot trick very, very well, and makes its temporality an integral part of its story. “Nothern Soul” was a blast from start to finish with a killer soundtrack. Leslye Headland is proving herself to one of the sharpest rising writer-directors, eviscerating the rom-com and turning it inside out to great returns in “Sleeping With Other People.” “The Martian” was just a really fun, smart sci-fi with Matt Damon at his most winning.
I finally caught up with the rest of the world in listening to the excellent podcast about 20th century Hollywood, “You Must Remember This,” by Karina Longworth. I binged about 30 episodes in a month this fall and haven’t looked back. It’s beautiful, deeply researched, educational but emotional storytelling that should be required listening for any film fan. Keep a note of recommendations for films and books from the pod. Don’t be like me and don’t sleep on this one.
Kendrick Lamar released several amazing music videos this year in collaboration with Director X for his album “To Pimp a Butterfly.” “King Kunta” and “Alright” captured a zeitgeist of racial politics while also harkening to classic West Coast rap videos, showing that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Instagram-friendly aspect ratio of “King Kunta” also is also a fascinating demonstration of the way technology and evolving modes of audience consumption can push media to evolve and adapt in new ways.
The best cinema on TV this year had to be the wild and weird and funny and bloody “Fargo,” which even in this golden age of television is on a completely different plane in terms of purity of vision. Strangely, “Fargo” found a non-fiction counterpart in the Netflix nonfiction series “Making a Murderer,” about a Midwestern murder, which snuck in during late December and became a sensation. While the twists in the unbelievable true story drove fans to Twitter and launched a thousand busy subreddits, the unobtrusive filmmaking innovates the true crime genre and makes “The Jinx” look silly in comparison.
The Playlist already presented a list of Best Documentaries of the year, but a few great docs that didn’t end up on that list that I loved were the sweet and hysterically funny New Yorker cartoonist doc “Very Semi-Serious,” the Ross Brothers’ border town portrait “Western,” and Alex Gibney’s audacious takedown of Scientology in “Going Clear.”
The best as-yet-undistributed film I enjoyed this year is probably Celia Rowlson-Hall’s eerie and mystical desert-dance silent Madonna and child film “Ma,” which is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
Well 3,200+ words later, that’s the best send off I could possibly give 2015 —cheers to 2016!