I hate to admit it, being such a hardcore movie fan, but for the last ten years or so, I tend to see more shows on stage than in a movie theater. I still go to the movies. I still write a movie column, still attend film festivals when I can. But I just don’t see as many films as I used to, or wish I could. So, the following list of my favorite films of 2015 is based on (uh, obviously) those movies I saw.
And unlike in the long ago past, this year, I didn’t see all of them.
Or haven’t yet, anyway.
I have not, for example, seen ‘Room,’ which I hear is awesome, and is landing on several Top Ten lists and awards nominations press releases. I have yet to see ‘The Hateful Eight,’ ‘The Revenant,’ ‘The Big Short,’ ‘The Good Dinosaur,’ ‘The Danish Girl,’ ‘The Lobster,’ ’45 Years,’ ‘Son of Saul, ‘Beasts of No Nation,’ ‘Carol,’ ‘Amy,’ ‘Anomalisa,’ ‘Brooklyn,’ ‘Phoenix,’ ‘Sicario,’ or ‘The Clouds of Sil Maria.’
All of those are being mentioned as potential candidates for various awards, list placements, and other journalistic accolades.
Which is to say, I may not have seen the best movie of 2015.
But I have seen a fair number of films I really liked, and for what it’s worth, many of them ARE showing on other journalists’ lists, so maybe, just maybe, the movies I saw were (at least some of) the right movies.
With that lengthy explanation now out of the way, let me proceed to my own personal list of favorite films of 2015.
1. Spotlight — Not just the best movie about journalism since ‘All The Presidents Men,’ Tom McCarthy’s brilliant, quiet, gorgeously seething drama is the best, most emotionally engaging, edge-of-your-seat, socially challenging, intellectually inspiring and thought provoking film of the year. The story of how the Boston Globe broke one of the biggest stories of the 21st century, despite the powers-that-be outside and within Boston’s most important newspaper, was brilliantly acted by a world-class ensemble, and meticulously (yet almost invisibly) directed by McCarthy.
2. Ex Machina — The quiet masterful menace of Alex Garland’s brilliant exploration of human intelligence – organic and artificial – not only incorporated its FX so beautifully it was possible to forget they were FX, the genre-defying pace and slowly unfolding story felt, at times, like a movie from another world, time, dimension or level of human evolution. The flash and dazzle it provides are all interior, within the gradually terrified minds of its audience, as the repercussions of the filmmaker’s subtle, yet stunning, accusations become impossible to escape—or forget.
3. Straight Outta Compton —With all the edge and grit one would hope for from a movie about the founding of the iconic rap group N.W.A., this entertainingly structured biopic transcended the genre, turning the story of childhood friends from the Hood, who form a group to make music, make noise, make a difference, and maybe change the world — and then actually do it, for good and bad — was rooted in the complex, sometimes admirable-and-sometimes-unforgivable actions and personalities of its true-life characters. Perfectly carried to the screen by director F. Gary Gray, solidly acted by a cast of mostly unknowns (along with Paul Giamatti, giving yet another egoless performance as the band’s neurotic, faithful and probably larcenous manager), ‘Straight Outta Compton’ went straight to the my top ten list.
4. Creed —The amazing things about director Ryan Coogler’s semi-sequel to the ‘Rocky’ movies is that, even if those previous six films had never existed, this would be a magnificent film. At the same time, when taken as a hand-off of one of the most iconic (if woefully uneven) film series in Hollywood history, it also works, hitting all the marks faithful fans want from a film that takes the supposed wrap-up of the ‘Rocky’ franchise (2006’s ‘Rocky Balboa’) and pushing the story into fresh new, emotionally satisfying territory, simultaneously launching what could be a whole new Rocky-less franchise. As the hungrey-but-angry son of Rocky Balboa’s original opponent Apollo Creed, Michael B. Jordan is electrifying, and Stallone give the best performance of his career.
5. The Martian — From the moment Matt Damon’s stranded astronaut utters the line, “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this!” it’s clear that ‘The Martian’ is not going to become some typical who-cares-if-things-don’t-really-explode-in-space science-fantasy adventure. Based on the best-selling book, it’s precisely the story’s fidelity to science-fact that makes this such good science fiction. It’s also funny (some awards groups are actually nominating as best comedy of the year), heartbreaking (Matt Damon’s performance hits all the colors and tones possible, effectively playing plucky self-preservation and grim, soul-shattering despair), and excitement.
6. It Follows — At a time when horror movies seem to have run out of originality along with steam, up walks ‘It Follows,’ a supremely creepy, audaciously slow-paced, rule-breaking, genre-defying movie that is both novel and very, very scary—but not in the usual, ‘jump out and go boo,’ make-the-audience-jump-with-a-loud-sound kind of way. In telling the story of a sexually-transmitted curse, in which a shape-shifting phantom just walks (not ‘Freddy Krueger’ fast, nor with that annoying ‘Friday the 13th’ ability to be in two places at once) the infected teenagers must put miles in between themselves and It—and never let their guard down. This thing may be slow, but it always catches up eventually. Directed with calm, sure-handed style by writer David Robert Mitchell, ‘It Follows’ may not always be classy, and the premise starts to wear out a little by the end, but for sheer inventiveness and atmosphere, it was my favorite scary movie of the year.
7. Mad Max: Fury Road —2015 was the year for surprisingly good re-launches of once-popular series that have long been thought to be dead-and-buried. Three of them are on this list. I’ve already mentioned ‘Creed,’ and now ‘Mad Max: Fury Road,’ a movie that not only recaptures the energy of the original post-apocalyptic trilogy (a threesome that, in its leather-punk aesthetic and gonzo car-culture stylings, has had a profound influence on the way movies portray mankind’s desolate future) but arguably improves on it. Overseen by original director George Miller, ‘Fury Road’ offered massive visuals, outrageous ideas (“The Doof Warrior,” charging into battle playing a fire-shooting electric guitar to charge up the troops? Crazy, but perfect), a powerful new action character in Charlize Theron’s Imperitor Furiosa, and a level of intensity rarely sustained for twenty minutes inmost films, here stretched to three times that, and after a break to catch our breath, does it again. Brilliant.
8. Inside Out —Though I refute the claim made by many that ‘Inside Out’ is the best Pixar movie ever (all three ‘Toy Stories,’ ‘Monsters Inc.’ ‘Up,’ and ‘Finding Nemo’ all deliver more, and better, in my opinion), the story of a tween-age girl and her inner emotions was definitely one of the best Pixar movies in a while. It’s clever use of color, psychology, imaginative landscape and daring storytelling made it one of the most original movies of the year, and with its suggestion that sadness is something to be learned from and not just something to be suppressed or medicated, this is one movie that might actually make people’s lives better for long after the original watching is over.
9. Star Wars: The Force Awakens — The other big presumably-dead film series to be miraculously resurrected is, of course, the new “Star Wars” movie, in which J.J. Abrams attempts to erase the bad taste left in the mouth of so many
fans who couldn’t digest the clunky misdirected prequels, a trilogy which both made billions AND almost killed the franchise it was part of. No one doubted that “The Force Awakens” would be a hit, out of worldwide curiosity, if nothing else, but ever since it was announced, the movie has caused fans to express as much public concern about its potential for success as genuine anticipation. Now, here it is. And it’s as good as everyone hoped, though perhaps not quite as good as it could have been. Still, it’s both nostalgically satisfying (and deeply emotional, for longtime fans) and also tantalizingly promising for what might come in the future. The Force is strong in this one.
10. Monkey Kingdom — As part of Walt Disney’s impressive recent spate of wildlife documentaries, ‘Monkey Kingdom’ may be its most entertaining. Edited together from thousands of hours of footage filmed around a community of
monkeys in Thailand, the film focuses on a low caste jungle dweller, named Maya, who ends up with a daughter. Her attempts to rise higher (literally) within the ranks of the community are as heartrending and gripping as any drama about humans. Some critics complained that certain scenes appeared to be “staged,” though I’ve read enough descriptions now from the filmmakers to be convinced that such scenes were a product of good timing, clever planning, and a remarkable amount of experience on the the experts who study this same community. Either way, it was a fascinating look at the way monkey’s interact, with themselves and the humans they occasionally overlap with, and in the end, it’s as inspiring and heartwarming a story as one could hope for from the company that turned inspiring and heartwarming into an industry.
[NOTE: As I see some of the aforementioned films listed as those I’ve not had a chance to screen yet, should any of them become obviously worthy of belonging on this list, I might add them, causing some of these to slip off; Check back later to see if this list changes. It almost certainly will, which does not bode well for ‘Monkey Kingdom,’ but for now, it’s definitely one of my ten favorite films of the year.]