I do not like to call this list a “best of.” There is no way I can see every film in a given year, let alone try to rank them in any order. I prefer to say these are my favorite films of 2015.
In order to narrow down the field a bit, I stayed with films that were available for general audiences to view legally in the United States last year. This means that I excluded some amazing films I saw at festivals that did not receive a U.S. release in 2015. If those films are released in the U.S. in 2016, I will include them on next year’s list.
2015 FAVORITES (in no particular order):
I’m a sucker for films that are able to successfully meld multiple genres that do not normally fit together. SPRING pulled off the difficult feat of a horror-romance. That alone gets it a place on this list. But writer/directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead took things a step further by writing two layered, sympathetic characters and placing them in an imaginative and ever-evolving plot—even as it is derivative of everything from H.P. Lovecraft to Richard Linklater’s BEFORE films. Some of the digital effects are a little dodgy, but that weakness is quickly forgiven when taking into account the great chemistry between Lou Taylor Pucci and Nadia Hilker, a scene-stealing cameo by Jeremy Gardner, and a witty and sweet script that consistently goes in unexpected directions. After RESOLUTION, I expected great things out of Benson and Moorhead. They blew away those expectations, upping the bar of imagination for independent genre fare.
There are no “big” cathartic moments in SPOTLIGHT. Co-writer/director Tom McCarthy’s direction is not at all flashy. The script never hammers home any points with on-the-nose dialogue or angry monologues. The performances by the excellent ensemble cast are understated—aside from a few actors going a little too heavy on the “Baw-ston” accent. Overall, this is the type of film that could be easily overlooked as a workmanlike take on a true story. But even though I knew the major points of the story going into the film, it drove me to righteous anger. McCarthy never stacks the deck or manipulates the audience’s emotions. He simply sits back and details the way the investigative reporting team for the Boston Globe methodically broke through the lies and tricks the Catholic Church used for so long to cover up the high rate of child molestation by priests. In doing so, he presents a clear-eyed look at the long-term psychological damage done to the victims and digs into the sticky ethical situations that journalists have to work through to properly do their jobs. This is the type of deeply satisfying and intelligent film that we rarely see get a wide release. The topnotch cast and sense of a truly fleshed-out world are simply bonuses.
WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS
The funniest movie of the year, while relying on the high-concept idea of a mockumentary about vampires, works because of how much affection co-writers/directors/stars Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement have for their characters. While there are the expected nods to and parodies of classic vampire movie tropes, the film is more concerned with mining laughs from gathering together a group of recognizable movie vampire types and placing them in a roommate situation where arguments over who is supposed to wash the dishes escalate into hissing, fang-baring, levitating temper tantrums. Every joke hits its intended target and Waititi and Clement find a surprising amount of pathos in characters that start out as broad vampire caricatures and wind up with all the vulnerabilities and flaws of the humans they feed on.
An exhausting exercise in sensory-overload…and I mean that in the best way possible. Sion Sono’s TOKYO TRIBE is a neon-lit immersion into a strangely specific Hellscape. This is the hip hop musical/action/comedy/fantasy film to end all hip hop musical/action/comedy/fantasy films. The film’s plot is nearly impossible to describe, so I will not even try. Just go in knowing that Sono somehow manages to keep the chaos just reigned in enough to tell a coherent story that is juvenile, crass, often offensive, and ridiculously funny. This one is a pure blast.
When I first heard the premise of CREED, I thought it was a terrible idea. Even with talent like co-writer/director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan involved, it sounded like a too convoluted attempt to continue a ROCKY franchise that probably should have never continued beyond the original movie in the first place. Perhaps it was my lowered expectations or the fact that the film wound up being one of those mid-budget, crowd-pleasing studio films that are rarely made these days, but I was thoroughly entertained and moved by the film. Sylvester Stallone gives his best performance since ROCKY, Jordan cements his status as a movie star, and Coogler shows off his directorial flare in some beautifully choreographed and shot fight scenes. This was one of the most wholly-satisfying theatrical experiences I had last year.
THE END OF THE TOUR
Much like CREED, I thought THE END OF THE TOUR sounded like a terrible idea. I have never read anything by David Foster Wallace. I only knew of Wallace by his literary reputation and that driven by unknown demons, he had taken his own life in 2008. Thankfully, the film never tries to uncover those demons. Instead, it is a study of two men and their contrasting views of commercial and critical success. Jason Segel is surprisingly well-cast as Foster. He casts a wary eye on the massive success that has come his way with the release of his novel Infinite Jest. Distrustful of his new-found fame and the Rolling Stone reporter who wants to write an immersive profile of him as he wraps up a book tour, Segel’s Wallace is cursed with a keen awareness of his own flaws and tries to play off that understanding with light self-deprecation. Equally good is Jesse Eisenberg as David Lipsky, the reporter trying to get Wallace to open up about his work and how he feels about the lavish praise being given to him by readers and critics. Jealous, eager to make his name as a serious author rather than another Rolling Stone writer penning pieces about boy bands, and in awe of the talent that Wallace seems to so easily tap into, Eisenberg brings a sense of a guy trying desperately to keep up with the smartest guy in the room without noticing that Wallace could care less about how their intellects stack up. The snappy, intelligent dialogue is largely taken from the taped interviews that Lipsky conducted and director James Ponsoldt works with cinematographer Jakob Ihre to capture the conflicting beauty of a snowy Midwestern winter with the drab interiors of the Illinois college town where Wallace teaches. The locations and characters feel lived in and recognizable, making this story about the struggles that come with the gift of being a genius feel more relatable than most films.
Far from the traditional Holocaust survivor film, PHOENIX adds a pulpy noir plot to its tale of Nelly (Nina Hoss), a Jewish singer who survived the concentration camps only to return to a new nightmare in her hometown. Given a slightly altered appearance by the reconstructive surgery necessary to heal her injuries, Nelly finds that her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) no longer recognizes her. Believing Nelly was killed in one of the camps, Johnny recruits Nelly to play herself in a scam to claim her inheritance. Cribbing liberally from VERTIGO, co-writer/director Christian Petzold piles on the ironies and cruel psychological twists as Nina goes along with Johnny’s scheme, desperate to determine if he played a part in turning her over to the Nazis. To do so, she allows Johnny to shape her into his image of who she was, whether he is correct or not. It’s a dizzying conceit that becomes more horrifying as it passes the point of no return, building to a perfect mic drop of an ending.
All you really need to know is that Charlie Kaufman wrote and co-directed a stop-motion animated film incorporating his usual theme of loneliness in the face of existential dread. That alone should get you on board. But the tremendous vocal work by David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tom Noonan help sell the casual absurdities and surreal nightmares in a way that challenges ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND for Kaufman’s finest work. Co-director Duke Johnson provides natural lighting and settings for the animation, offsetting the fantastical elements in the story and the visual limits of animated characters to create a wholly original looking film. I don’t want to say any more or spoil any surprises. It is a beautiful, funny, heartbreaking experience that I highly recommend.
On the other end of the animation spectrum, INSIDE OUT heralded Pixar’s return to artistic form after a few misfires. The bittersweet story, witty script, imaginative animation and design, and relatable characters that marked the best of the company’s films are all here. The script by Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen, Meg LaFauve, and Josh Cooley is expertly constructed and the direction by Docter and Del Carmen never misses the real emotional stakes of what it is like to be an adolescent whose world is flipped upside down.
In all honesty, TURBO KID is not for everyone. It draws more than a little of its inspiration from the well of ’80s Italian MAD MAX knockoffs and it helps to have at least a casual knowledge of films like WARRIORS OF THE WASTELAND. But even if you haven’t wasted too much of your life following Fred Williamson’s career in Italian post-apocalyptic action films, there is much to love about TURBO KID. Munro Chambers is sweet-natured and likable as the naïve titular character, Michael Ironside sinks his teeth into a role that is actually worthy of his villainous talents, and Laurence Leboeuf steals scene after scene as the relentlessly upbeat Apple. And while the surface fun of the film largely lies in the homage present in the hammy performances, pop culture references, and gory violence, the writing/directing team of François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell pull off the difficult task of giving an actual heart to the story. By the time of the film’s final battle, I was surprised to realize how much I cared about the heroes and how much I wanted to see Ironside’s villain get his comeuppance. I can’t say that TURBO KID ever fully transcends its roots as a tongue-in-cheek pastiche, but it comes damn close and provided one of the most purely entertaining films of the year.
How and why did FAULTS bypass theaters and VOD to quietly show up on Netflix without any publicity? The distribution and economics of low-budget indie films have drastically changed over the last decade, but that a film as clever and challenging as this one could fall through the cracks is a sad example of just how little room there is in the current marketplace for a film not based on an existing property. Honestly, I do not want to say much about the film since much of its power comes from its consistently surprising story. It should be enough to say that career scene-stealer Leland Orser makes a meal out of his first leading role and that Mary Elizabeth Winstead is right there with him, offering a master class in screen acting. The alternately funny and creepy script by writer/director Riley Stearns and ace supporting turns by great character actors Beth Grant, Chris Ellis, Lance Reddick, and Jon Gries is just icing on the cake. I loved this film and hope it gains the cult audience it deserves.
Marty Jackitansky (Joshua Burge), the protagonist present in basically every scene of BUZZARD, is a hard guy for an audience to care about. He’s sullen, passive-aggressive, and socially awkward. Working as a low wage temp in a thankless job at a bank in suburban Michigan, he is the type of guy who takes three hour lunches, leaving his co-workers to pick up the slack. But there is an anger and desperation lurking under Marty’s cynical, sarcastic exterior that Burge doles out slowly. I am honestly not sure how well the film plays outside of the Midwest. Having lived almost my entire life in the region, I have encountered too many people like Marty who live life paycheck to paycheck, either sponging off their parents (like Marty’s even sadder pal, Derek, played by writer/director Joel Potrykus), or pulling off low-rent hustles to get free healthcare when injured. Potrykus has an eye and ear for the world that Marty inhabits, giving the film an uncomfortable authenticity. That reality explains and deepens the anger that Marty dangerously begins to harness as his desperation takes over. BUZZARD starts out as a very funny movie, but it ends as a bleak look at an angry young man starting his descent into a hopeless future, but not quite smart enough to realize that things can get much, much worse.
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
It is fascinating to realize how worked up critics and audiences can get for a film that has good acting, a script that does not insult anyone’s intelligence, skillful stunt work, and cleanly filmed and edited chase sequences. Based on these elements, FURY ROAD arrived in theaters with an amount of hype that it was impossible to live up to. But that does not mean that it isn’t one of the all-time greats of the post-apocalyptic action genre. Despite all the hullabaloo about it supposedly being a “feminist” action film, it is unfair to look at George Miller’s return to the franchise that made his career as anything more than a skillfully-constructed chase flick. Visceral, outlandish, and surprisingly melancholy at times, FURY ROAD benefits from a kickass, old school movie star turn by Charlize Theron and very different, but equally effective supporting performances by Tom Hardy and Nicolas Hoult. They lend a little gravitas to the action by finding the sadness and desperation in characters who are unable to express those emotions for fear of appearing weak. While they don’t exactly give the film the depth that so many read into it, they do provide the audience with characters worth caring about and that makes the action that much more exciting.
Despite camping out in the sci-fi genre, EX MACHINA was the best horror film of the year. From the honest terror that comes from realizing that one day artificial intelligence will surpass even the most brilliant human to Oscar Isaac’s disturbing portrayal of a misogynistic, egomaniacal genius to the creeping dread of how vulnerable we are when we use the Internet, EX MACHINA gets under the skin and stays there. All of this is to say nothing of the film’s cold, alienating look and the quietly desperate loneliness that Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is forced to confront when he finds himself falling in love with Ava (Alicia Vikander), the beautiful, but very artificial construct that is incapable of returning his feelings. Veteran screenwriter and novelist Alex Garland pulls off a directorial debut that is as smart as is it is casually horrifying. In many ways, this was the most disturbing film I saw last year.
THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY
THE HATEFUL EIGHT
BRIDGE OF SPIES
CALL ME LUCKY
KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE
LOVE & PEACE
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Tags: Best Of 2015