Bloody cowboys and sentient robots. Arid deserts and snowy peaks. Beautiful love stories and brutal tales of survival. 2015’s great films offer a little bit of everything.
As I try to say every year, I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a “best” film. “Best” is just a popular consensus. We experience films in different way, and that’s perfectly fine. In fact, it’s a wonderful thing! David McGinnis is a very close friend of mine and I can’t tell you the countless hours we’ve spent arguing about films via text. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is an all-time classic and I try to not let on to my coworker how much I dislike it. [Ed. Note: Well, now you’ve gone and done it.]
Honestly, I don’t think 2015 was a great year for films. As late as September I wasn’t 100% sure that I’d even be able to make a list of 10 films I thought were deserving. Finally, awards season rolled around and the field improved, but I’d still say that this was the worst year of the decade.
What this was a great year for was women on screen. I’d contend that the Best Actress field is actually stronger than the field for their male counterparts. Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt, Cate Blanchett, Daisy Ridley, Rooney Mara, Brie Larson, Alicia Vikander, and a host of others all did wonderful work this year. How amazing was it to see a franchise as storied as Star Wars place their future in the hands of an unknown actress? And it worked out magnificently. Hopefully it’s the kind of thing that will start happening more.
I tend to have a soft spot for films that take grand swings at greatness even if they aren’t perfect. Better to swing for the fences than play it safe, but I actually feel surprisingly populist this year. I saw a large number of the films on this list at the local multiplex rather than the arthouse.
As usual, there were films I did not see. Steve Jobs, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Son of Saul, and Joy are among them, but without further ado…
Dud of the Year
Directed by Sam Mendes
How can a James Bond film be this boring? It’s as if the entire production realized they could never match the soaring heights of Skyfall and decided to phone it in. After a dazzling opening sequence Sam Smith puts everyone to sleep with his bore-tactic theme “Writing’s on the Wall,” and the film never recovers. Daniel Craig looks like he’d rather be anywhere else, and even the great Christoph Waltz can’t imbue this inane, flaccid version of Ernst Stavro Blofeld with life. I’m sure EON Productions was thrilled to reacquire the rights to the SPECTRE mythology, but the resulting retcon of the entire Daniel Craig era in order to shoehorn it into the story is a huge misfire. (My Review)
Directed by Justin Kurzel
I love a great Shakespeare adaptation, and this underseen gem is among my favorites. The text of the play hasn’t changed in 400 years, but Justin Kurzel’s adaptation visually reinterprets Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as grieving parents to add a new layer of complexity to their actions. Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are both great, but I wish they’d chosen to whisper a little less. It hampers the poetic flow of the Bard’s great language. Highly stylized, this is one of 2015’s greatest visual treats. (Sean’s Review)
Straight Outta Compton
Directed by F. Gary Gray
Is this the best hip hop biopic ever? Compton fully embodies the energy and in-your-face attitude of N.W.A.’s seminal album. You might’ve never heard of Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, or O’Shea Jackson, Jr. before, but this won’t be the last time. All three of the relatively unknown leads rise to the occasion in a film that’s both fun and surprisingly complex. Its greatest asset is a refusal to be simplistic in matters of race, violence, and character relationships. A lesser film would simply vilify former manager Jerry Heller, but Compton knows that, despite his immense faults, he’s a huge part of the group’s success. (My Review)
Beasts of No Nation
Directed by Cary Fukunaga
Cary Fukunaga is doing donuts on Nic Pizzolatto’s lawn somewhere. The director proves himself the true genius behind True Detective’s first season success with this haunting portrait of an African child soldier. Another film with stunning visuals, Beasts is a primal experience about the need for friendship and belonging in the darkest of times. Abraham Attah is a revelation as Agu, quietly holding his own against Idris Elba’s charismatic performance as a paramilitary commander. The film would have benefitted from more specificity as its overt broadness (where exactly is this supposed to be happening?) keeps it from attaining true greatness, but it’s still a beautiful, haunting film. (My Review)
Chase’s Top 10 films of 2015
Directed by Todd Haynes
Carol is the perfect example of how a film set in the past can still retain a modern sensibility. Despite the obvious romantic relationship between Carol and Therese, the film never attempts to label them. It’s just one manifestation of Todd Haynes’s deft touch; he allows his characters to have their experiences without trying to define them. The 1950s period drama is so delicately done that it feels like it would unravel if you touched the screen too hard. Cate Blanchett is her normal spectacular self as the mature, experienced Carol, and Rooney Mara is even better as her young consort. Full of a beautiful measured passion that the world refuses to accept, Carol is a star-crossed lovers film for adults.
9. Inside Out
Directed by Pete Docter
Remember when every Pixar film was this great? A wildly imaginative film about the complicated emotions that govern us all, Inside Out is a children’s film that refuses to pander to children and treats them as an important, thoughtful audience. Impeccably cast with the likes of Amy Poehler as Joy, Phyllis Smith as Sadness, and Lewis Black as Anger, the film’s emotional content is as diverse as its characters. Pete Docter’s film is endlessly clever and a joy to watch. If you ever had an imaginary friend as a child and don’t think of them after leaving the film then you are dead inside. (David’s Review)
8. The Hateful Eight
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
There’s a lot to admire about The Hateful Eight even if you can’t bring yourself to love its detestable story. This bloody, snowy western is so perfectly crafted that it’s a true joy to watch it unfurl onscreen. He may have made better films, but Tarantino’s technical direction has never been sharper. Huge shout-outs to Walton Goggins as the dimwitted sheriff Chris Mannix, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as the battered prisoner on her way to the gallows. It took me two viewings to fully embrace it, but the gorgeous 70mm Roadshow production is the purest enjoyment I had at the movies this year.
7. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Directed by JJ Abrams
A funny thing happened on the way to my review of this film: my poor editor came down with appendicitis, which gave me with the opportunity to review the most anticipated film of the decade. Any complaints about The Force Awakens are short-sighted. No, it isn’t perfect, but J.J. Abrams so wisely refurbished this ailing franchise that it’s impossible not to admire it. This marks a glorious new beginning for Star Wars. His greatest ability is his casting: John Boyega and Daisy Ridley are going to be stars, and Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver are perfect for their parts. You can never recapture your childhood, but Abrams offers Star Wars fans the next best thing. When Rey finally holds a lightsaber on the snowy grounds of Starkiller Base and the Force Theme swells in the background – I had chills for days. (My Review)
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
This is the smallest film on this list in terms of both scope and viewership. There’s nothing inherently new about Lenny Abrahamsson’s kidnapped-mother-and-child drama, but the emotional performances on display are second to none. For my money, Brie Larson gives the performance of the year as a mother struggling to survive while balancing what’s best for her son with her own mental health. I don’t have children of my own, but Room is incredibly effective at universalizing the bond between a child and a parent. Often heartbreaking but never cruel, this is the only film that brought me to tears in 2015. Room is a full embodiment of the cliché that a film can be a testament to the endurance of the human spirit. It’s wonderful.
5. The Revenant
Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Speaking of endurance, some will say that The Revenant is a brutality to be withstood. Others will say that it’s majestically beautiful. Can’t it be both? This is an incredibly difficult film that’s sure to be divisive, and Alejandro G. Iñárritu isn’t making things easy on his audience. The Revenant is the kind of open-ended impressionistic film that I love. Leonardo DiCaprio’s sheer commitment to his role is exceedingly admirable, and this may be the film that finally wins him the Oscar statue he so covets. But the real star of The Revenant is cinematographer Chivo Lubezki, who may soon add a third consecutive Oscar to his crowded shelf of awards. Both staggeringly beautiful and technical, Lubezki’s work personifies nature itself into an antagonist equal to Tom Hardy’s Fitzgerald. You may love it or you may hate it, but it demands to be seen. (My Review)
Directed by Tom McCarthy
Here is your likely Best Picture winner. Tom McCarthy’s meticulously crafted investigative drama is a portrait of print media’s last great stand when the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team revealed the cover-up of widespread child abuse by local priests. Spotlight wisely refrains from sanctifying its journalist characters — they’re not the heroes here. It’s their story that’s the star of the film. Sharply focused, Spotlight harkens back to the glory days of All the President’s Men, and this note-perfect film is a reminder of the joys of physical, investigative detective work. Digital file searches just can’t compare. (David’s Review)
Directed by Dennis Villeneuve
“Sicario,” if you don’t know, is a Mexican word meaning “hitman.” Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer is an idealistic FBI SWAT team member recruited to combat the Mexican drug trade, and the complicated, line-blurring world she finds will forever erode what she thought she knew about America’s fight against it. Cinematographer Roger Deakins does his normal top-notch work, whether shooting the magnificent vistas of the Sonoran desert or the complex technicalities of a drug tunnel raid. Coming on the heels of last year’s fantastic Edge of Tomorrow, Emily Blunt cements her status as Hollywood’s best action movie actress. Benicio del Toro is even better as the shadowy, ever-present Alejandro Gillick whose identity and purpose remain unclear until the film’s white-knuckled climax. Sicario is a film whose complicated morality will have you questioning everything you know about the institutions that surround your daily life. (Sean’s Review)
2. Mad Max: Fury Road
Directed by George Miller
There’s more inventiveness in a single shot of George Miller’s latest Mad Max film than there is in whole other films. Miller’s sandy desert of hotrods and flame-spewing guitars is a world where he dares you to ever feel safe. Tom Hardy’s Max Rockatansky may get top billing, but make no mistake: this is Charlize Theron’s film. Yet another of 2015’s many visual spectacles, Fury Road functions under its own internal logic, but that’s half the fun. Furiosa and Max’s adventures are soaked in adrenaline and gasoline, always toeing the line of insanity. This is the best action movie of the year, and continues to top numerous critical lists of best films, period. There’s simply nothing else like it at the movies this year, and, if you pay close enough attention, you’ll find a surprisingly feminist message at the heart of this wild, two-hour car chase. May we all arrive at the gates of Valhalla together, shiny and chrome! (Sean’s Review)
1. Ex Machina
Directed by Alex Garland
Dozens of films have questioned the meaning of humanity through the eyes of a robot, but you’d have to go back to Blade Runner to find one that does it this well. The story of a young programmer’s week with a hermetic tech billionaire who invites him to Turing test his artificially intelligent android, Ex Machina is Frankenstein for the digital age. The film is intellectually brilliant, sleekly designed, and anchored by three powerhouse performances from Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander. All three performers had fantastic years elsewhere, but they combine here to craft what is my pick for the top film of 2015. Ex Machina is a powerhouse examination of technology and our relationship with it, and the film’s reliance on ideas over action is incredibly refreshing. Vikander’s android Ava is an uncanny wonder, both convincingly familiar and unnervingly foreign, and the film’s journey to its inevitable end feels both realistic and wholly deserved.
For last year’s list, click here.
For more of our Best of 2015 coverage, click here.