2015 proved to be an interesting year for film. A lot of prestige projects by renowned directors disappointed, or came in under expectations making them much easier to admire for their ambitions if not their execution.
There was also an absence of quality films in the first half of the year where summer titles did booming box office, but failed to make much of an impact on the critical spectrum. So, many of us at The Fellowship of the Screen eagerly anticipated the glut of films awaiting us during awards season only to find many of those also failed to live up to festival hype or insider buzz.
There were also some stark disagreements between the staff on the perceived quality of many of the films (not to mention TV shows. Don’t get me started on our differences of opinion on this past season of Game of Thrones) released in 2015. I’ve regularly debated with David on the merits of the generally well-respected Spotlight. He thinks it’s the best film of the year; I found it to be a well-intentioned bore with nothing new to bring to the table of the journalistic drama subgenre. Carol (my review is forthcoming) is held in high esteem by both Chase and Rachel, while I found it to be a gorgeous, but tedious retread of far greater works by Todd Haynes – namely Far From Heaven.
Chase and I both came to love Tarantino’s problematic new work The Hateful Eight, while David admired its craft, but couldn’t gel with its disdainful characters. Chase championed Inarritu’s daring The Revenant, while I found myself snickering at all the over-the-top suffering for art’s sake and ponderous Malick homages presented via Lubezki’s unquestionably jaw-dropping lensing. Nathan, Caleb, and Brian all have their own champions for the year, which is the nature of criticism and also what makes this site so special in my eyes. We’re all right and we’re all wrong. You get a lot of different perspectives from smart individuals from all walks of life here at FOTS.
Perhaps I was just spoiled too early back in May with the release of Mad Max: Fury Road. My review speaks for itself, but needless to say my estimation of its quality has not diminished with time — it has only strengthened. That a bizarre, large budget, studio-backed, auteur, action art-film sits at the top of my list and many other critics’ lists surely came as a shock to many of us. There just isn’t anything else like it. Its bold vision and wild, practical stunt-filled execution felt like a shot of adrenaline to the heart and a much needed wake-up call to the Hollywood machine.
Mad Max also served as the starting point for a year in film that was awash in nostalgia for 70’s film franchises. We saw the unexpectedly powerful reboot of the Rocky franchise with Ryan Coogler’s Creed, which excelled not only in its single-shot boxing matches, but also with its carefully crafted characters and emotionally-driven narrative. And then, of course, there is the juggernaut that is Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which has already become the highest-grossing domestic film of all time and started a fan frenzy the likes of which hasn’t been seen since 1999. That it is a very good film that recaptures that “lightning in a bottle” feeling from way back in 1977 is icing on the cake. These films do not feel like retreads, but bold new steps forward that honor our cinematic past while promising a new beginning tapped with unlimited potential.
That the 2015 film year seems like a disappointment is more of an indication of just how good recent film years have been rather than a condemnation of this past year’s cinematic output. You just had to dig a little deeper in 2015 and take a film’s faults in stride, especially when big studio fare once again exemplified the excellence of a bygone era, daringly shining a new path forward. We can only hope that the trails blazed in 2015 continue to burn even brighter in 2016. Without further ado, here are my top 10 films of 2015.
10. The Hateful Eight
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of The Hateful Eight after my initial viewing. The craft on display was undeniably stunning, and Tarantino seems to mature more and more as a filmmaker with each new outing, but without his razor-edged editor Sally Menke, his work also feels more indulgent. The Hateful Eight goes on seemingly forever before anything really happens and though the tension is undeniably high, a tighter structure would have benefitted the film immensely. There is also the general ugliness of the characters and storytelling to contend with. But the thing with Tarantino is that once you see one of his films, you don’t stop thinking about them, and I kept coming back to moments, sequences, and performances over and over again in my head.
The truth is, Tarantino wants to push buttons and the underlying social commentary in the film is purposefully bathed in bleak, pitch-black humor and copious amounts of blood. Never has a title for one of his films been so apt. Samuel L. Jackson gives one of the best performances of his career as former union soldier-turned-bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren, and relishes in the wicked dialogue found within Tarantino’s foul-mouthed whodunit script. Jennifer Jason Leigh is as humorous as she is vile as the prisoner Daisy Domergue, and Kurt Russell superbly subverts the mythic American cowboy image with a less-than-flattering John Wayne riff as John Ruth, “The Hangman”. Top that off with stunning 70mm photography and excruciatingly detailed mis-en-scene by Robert Richardson and the production crew, and an atmospheric new western score by the legendary Ennio Morricone, and you have one of the best and most divisive films of 2015. (Chase’s Review)
Directed by Justin Kurzel
From my review: “Director Justin Kurzel’s new take on Shakespeare’s infamous ‘Scottish Play’, as it is referred to by those with a more superstitious mindset, is a deeply cinematic piece of work. The adaptation hues closely to the original text, but comes at it from fresh perspectives that give new insight into power-hungry madness. It’s a film filled with eerily intoxicating visuals, brutally violent flourishes, lavish craft, and quietly intense performances. What it lacks in original oratorical poetry it more than makes up for in visual elegance. This is a boldly oppressive Macbeth that embraces the darkness within and makes that quality a character unto itself. It does what only the best cinematic interpretations of the Bard’s text can do, which is make you look at one of his signature works in a fresh and unexpected light.”
8. Steve Jobs
Directed by Danny Boyle
A lot of ink has been spilled over how inaccurate Steve Jobs may actually be, but viewed as a dramatic interpretation of innovative genius, the film soars on the back of Aaron Sorkin’s tightly structured 3-act cinematic play. The performances are stellar as every member of the cast lets Sorkin’s rat-a-tat dialogue roll effortlessly off the tongue. Michael Fassbender in particular attacks this piece as if he is possessed, and as a result it’s a mesmerizing performance. Director Danny Boyle finds unique visual queues to keep the film interesting (like shooting in 3 distinct formats for the 3 distinct acts) and editor Elliot Graham keeps the film whizzing along, building the intensity with each passing scene. Steve Jobs serves as a natural companion piece to Sorkin’s The Social Network. Time will tell if it can stand alongside it in greatness. (Nathan’s Review)
7. Beasts of No Nation
Directed by Cary Foji Fukunaga
Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation is certainly a challenging film in many aspects and the atrocities depicted on screen are gut-wrenching in their frank execution. Though it could use a bit more specificity, the world depicted on screen is all-too real on the African continent and the subject of child soldiers is one rarely tackled in any artistic medium. The performance of young actor Abraham Attah as Agu is startling in its emotional nakedness, and Idris Elba smartly underplays the frighteningly magnetic role of the NDF Commandent. But it is Fukunaga’s unflinching directorial eye that is the real star here, and he makes Beasts of No Nation a film that you may have a difficult time sitting through, but also one that you won’t soon forget. (Chase’s Review)
6. Bridge of Spies
Directed by Steven Spielberg
From my review: “Spielberg used War Horse as an homage to John Ford and he is using Bridge of Spies in a similar fashion for Frank Capra. It’s an incredibly patriotic film representing the best of American values. Its liberal ideals are worn proudly and at a time of great uncertainty in this country and around the world, Spies defines American exceptionalism and our humanitarian values boldly. It’s a film that is unashamed in its message of standing up for human dignity and progressive principles. It’s also a film that goes out of its way to be compassionate to the other side, and for that it should be celebrated.”
5. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Words can’t really describe what a treat this film turned out to be. Against all odds J.J. Abrams delivered the Star Wars film that we have been waiting for since the end of the original trilogy. I do not have the scorn for the prequel trilogy that many of my endlessly butt-hurt generation do and I find the treatment Lucas has received by fans since their release to be absolutely appalling. BUT, there is no denying that the prequels did not represent the Star Wars we all came to know and love as children. They were something new, and for many, something very disappointing. What a relief it is to report that The Force Awakens is a return to that gloriously old-school past while paving the way for the future of the franchise that boldly represents the diversity of today with great new characters, wondrous new mythology, and heart-stopping spectacle. In short, they nailed it, and it’s going to take some time for it to sink in just how much of an achievement this actually was. Let’s just hope Disney doesn’t oversaturate the market and blow it with the spin-off films. (Chase’s Review)
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Coming fresh off of his critically-acclaimed independent debut Fruitvale Station, Coogler and the studio took a big gamble with a reboot of the Rocky franchise seen through the eyes of Apollo Creed’s son Adonis, now under the tutelage of Rocky Balboa himself. With a confirmed date for a sequel already in place, it appears the gamble paid off. Much like Star Wars, Creed celebrates the past while ushering the franchise into the 21st century with remarkable ease and a hell of a lot of heart. Sylvester Stallone returns as the former heavyweight champion and his performance is so natural and affecting that it reminds us all of why he was called “the next Brando” when the original Rocky premiered. Under that action star visage lies a great actor who pours every ounce of himself into a role that he has owned for over four decades. Michael B. Jordan makes a powerful new boxing star, and Tessa Thompson dazzles as the fully-formed woman by Adonis’s side who has her own passions, struggles, and dreams. But it is Coogler’s deft direction and reverence for the material that makes Creed shine even brighter than any Rocky film before it. (David’s Review)
3. The Martian
Directed by Ridley Scott
The Martian’s greatest quality is how effortless it all seems. The film is a crowd-pleasing breeze anchored by strong performances from its ensemble cast, an exceptional star turn from a charismatic Matt Damon, surprisingly light, unfussy, and confident direction from the great Ridley Scott, and a witty screenplay by Drew Goddard. But better still is how The Martian makes science and space itself seem damn cool again. The Martian is about the thirst for exploration, discovery, and adventure. It’s about the triumph of human ingenuity and our will to survive against all odds. You’ll laugh, cry, cheer, and have great time while doing it. Isn’t that the reason we go to the movies? (David’s Review)
2. 45 Years
Directed by Andrew Haigh
Andrew Haigh is well known in queer film circles for his miraculously honest indie gay love story Weekend, and his slightly more high-profile work on HBO’s underrated and underseen gay drama series Looking. He has yet to break out into the mainstream, but hopefully his latest offering will fix that. The director’s cinema verite style lends itself beautifully to character studies and relationship dramas, and his new film 45 years is a thoughtful and bittersweet examination of a several decades-long marriage. But 45 Years isn’t interested in what’s there on the surface for the world to see, but rather the secrets that bubble underneath even after years of companionship. It’s about regret, and longing, and how things might have been. The film is gorgeously acted by the luminous Charlotte Rampling and the wonderfully understated Tom Courtenay, both of whom offer a wealth of emotional insight even in scenes without a single word spoken. The script (also by Haigh) is a masterclass in minimalist restraint. And the final moments of the film are so personal they hit you like a punch to the gut. If 45 Years and Weekend before it are any indication, then we can continue to expect great things from the gifted Andrew Haigh.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
Directed by George Miller
How could the number one spot go to any other film from 2015? Mad Max: Fury Road may be a continuation of a franchise, but it’s also the most unique and original film to come out of Hollywood in well over a decade. Its action has gotten the lion’s share of praise, but its visual storytelling, feminist kick, and nuanced myth-building are its most inspiring attributes. The creative ambition on display in Fury Road makes it one of the most overwhelming film experiences I’ve ever had. As I said in my review: “This is the action film of the decade, if not the century. Hyperbole? Possibly, but this film is as close to the “m-word” as I’ve ever encountered in its genre. George Miller, thank you for this gift. Thank you for making the old new again. Thank you for renewing faith in the action genre. Thank you for making me feel like a kid. And yes, thank you for making going to the theater cool again.” I’d actually like to amend this review – Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t just a masterpiece, it isn’t just the best film of 2015, and it isn’t just the best action film ever made. It is one of the best films ever made. Period. How’s that for hyperbole?”