The 15 Best Movies of 2015 | Hallucinations and High Octane
Is it just me, or was 2015 one weird year for movies?
We saw blockbuster entertainments that turned out to be award-worthy, and we saw independent films so daring that nobody even knew how to categorize them. Powerful documentaries have become so plentiful that it’s harder than ever to keep up with them all. A period piece biopic about a music group became the #1 movie at the box office for weeks, destroying a big budget superhero movie in the process. A movie made by, for, and about total nerds turned out to have massive mainstream appeal.
So it’s been an eclectic group of films, especially the best of them, and that’s an excellent sign. It means that filmmakers are taking their blockbusters more seriously, and are more willing to take big chances when they’re working outside the studio system. It means audiences are expecting more from their movies, and are actually paying a lot of money to see some of the most interesting films of the year, and not just the ones with the biggest explosions. In other words, they actually went to see some of the best movies of 2015.
It may not have been the best year for movies on record, but only a few years arguably are. This year I saw nearly 200 new motion pictures and had a very difficult time whittling this list down to a manageable “Top 15,” with a bevy of runners-up at the bottom for good measure. And I still didn’t have room for Inside Out, or Straight Outta Compton, or Carol, or Creed. Any year in which films as good as those don’t even come close to the Top 25 is a year worth celebrating.
So here they are, my carefully selected picks for the best movies of 2015. Some of them you have probably seen. Some of them you quite probably haven’t. Find those films. Watch those films. They will surprise you and shock you and quite possibly have a profound effect on your life. Or at least you’ll think they’re interesting as hell.
But before we get started, we need to talk about the elephant in the room. We need to talk about a film isn’t one of the best movies of 2015, but instead is simply…
Unquantifiable: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
There is a very good chance that, whatever its quality, someday Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be the only movie that some people even remember came out 2015. By virtue of the “Episode VII” in its title alone (which sets it part from all the non-episode movies, which fans seem perfectly willing to forget about), it has already entered into the cinematic lexicon, fully formed.
Fortunately, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is actually very, very good. It’s a little too concerned with repeating old plot points and recycling old character traits to ever really stand out on its own, but it’s a stirring and well-crafted new installment of the ongoing adventure that features a villain who, if nothing else, is likely to go down in history as an exciting and fascinating creation. No discussion of “the films of 2015” would be complete without this, even though it’s technically not as good as any of the fifteen official entries on my list of the best movies of 2015.
Which are as follows…
15. The Gift
Joel Edgerton wrote, directed, and gave himself a plum role in the unsettling thriller The Gift, a film with a lot on its mind and a lot of creepy ways to talk about it. Edgerton plays an eccentric, socially stunted man who worms his way into the lives of Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), leaving them presents and trying to make nice after a mysterious adolescent encounter between the two men left them both with heavy baggage.
You think you know where this is going, but you don’t. The typical stalker thriller set-up implodes beautifully in Edgerton’s film, as the movie starts revealing more and more about the victims and the supposed assailant until you’re not quite sure who the bad guy really is, if anybody. And by the time the film finally comes to its own conclusions, you feel both sympathy and horror for everybody involved. This is a film about how people fail each other, and how they perpetuate vile behavior. It will make you shudder, and it will make you think.
14. Tales of Halloween
Eleven filmmakers teamed up to bring you a horror anthology unlike most others, in that unlike most other horror anthologies, Tales from Halloween is consistently great. From the opening campfire story of “Sweet Tooth” (who would give any child nightmares) to the ridiculously ambitious concluding chapter about man-eating Jack O’Lanterns, the creative team behind Tales of Halloween had a field day with Halloween iconography and produced almost every segment with equal wit, darkness and reverence.
And the beautiful part is, even the one or two segments that don’t stand out as Tales of Halloween‘s best are – by necessity of the fact that this film features ten segments in only 92 minutes – brief enough that they don’t outstay their welcome. The next Halloween horror classic begins just a few minutes later. Tales of Halloween screams into the pantheon of the best holiday horror films, and has already erected a very nice, presumably haunted home there.
13. The Last Five Years
The best romance of the year was also one of the most overlooked motion pictures of 2015. The Last Five Years, directed by Richard LaGravanese, is an ambitiously intimate musical that is simply about the inner world of a married couple. It opens with Cathy (Anna Kendrick) mourning the end of her marriage to Jamie (Jeremy Jordan), and her story plays backwards until we see her first inklings of love. But it also begins with Jamie, feeling those pangs for the first time, and slowly working his way towards the dissolution of their five year relationship. Their two paths meet in the middle, when they are betrothed.
Adapted from Jason Robert Broan’s Off-Broadway musical, The Last Five Years captures every nuance of love – good, bad, confident and neurotic – at the same time, never losing sight of the idea that our moments are fleeting and yet also that they make up a rich tapestry. The clever lyrics, sung splendidly by Anna Kendrick in particular (giving her best performance yet, and by far), are funny and sad and hopeful and sweet. Rarely do we get to jump as fully into the minds of any characters in our movies, and rarer still do we come away literally singing their thoughts.
12. The Big Short
Talladega Nights director Adam McKay was, funnily enough, the perfect director to expose the worldwide corruption of the housing market, which lead to the economic meltdown. It takes a clown to appreciate the massive global pratfall we all took together, and it takes a clown to appreciate that pratfalls also hurt.
McKay’s film The Big Short follows several different people who saw the calamity coming, and tried to profit off of it. Along the way the filmmaker explains exactly what complicated things went wrong in a way that even an imbecile could understand, with wit and appropriately cinematic metaphors. But this isn’t a master class and it isn’t a screed: it’s a devious black comedy about corruption and avarice that shines a light on this secretive world, and reveals – disturbingly – that we all fall under its shadow.
11. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Bang up entertainment doesn’t bang much further up than this. Christopher McQuarrie took the reins for the fifth installment of the mostly enjoyable, but consistently flawed Mission: Impossible franchise and smoothed out all the creases, delivering a slick action thriller with impeccable stunts, clever writing and the sort of emotional storyline that the series only even bothered attempting once before.
The trick, it turns out, was finally admitting that there’s nothing interesting about Ethan Hunt, played once again by Tom Cruise as a man who saves the world and has no other interests. So McQuarrie shifted the focus to the enigmatic and troubled Ilsa Faust, a British double-agent who spends half the film saving Hunt’s life and the other half trying to kill him. She’s trapped in a situation that gives Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation its weight, and on top of that Christopher McQuarrie ladles impressive set pieces and ironic twists of fate that make every development just a little more difficult than it would be in any other film. Rogue Nation is just impossibly great.
Tom McCarthy successfully captures the blue collar cinematic spirit of the 1970s with his journalism drama Spotlight, about the real life reporters who gradually uncovered the truth about the Catholic Church, which actively covered up a staggering number of molestation cases for decades (if not longer).
And yet despite the vastness of the scandal, McCarthy keeps the drama intimate. These reporters – played exquisitely by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery and Brian d’Arcy James – plow through the busywork of discovering the truth, and through them we feel suspense, suspicion, betrayal and victory. McCarthy keeps every piece of the drama connected, giving Spotlight focus and drive. It’s powerful in its quiet moments, and quiet in its powerful moments, and from start to finish it’s absolutely exceptional.
9. The Walk
We don’t always go to the movies to be challenged. Sometimes we go to have an experience unlike anything we’ve ever had before. Many films try to pull that feat off, but few succeed as well as Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk. Or at the very least, few films succeed as well as the last 20-30 minutes of this soaring heist movie, about real-life tightrope walker Philippe Petit sneaking into the World Trade Center, tying a line between the Twin Towers, and walking between them without the aid of a net… over and over again.
The first two-third’s of Zemeckis’s movie repeat, more or less, the events that were explored in James Marsh’s Oscar winning documentary Man on Wire. So much so, in fact, that we begin to wonder what the point was of making The Walk at all. But then Zemeckis finally puts us on the wire with Petit, where every gust of wind is a terror, and every second is a miracle. Zemeckis gave us something the documentary never could (because nobody thought to film Petit’s walk at the time), and put audiences somewhere we have never been before, or will ever go again. And for those few minutes The Walk became something singularly glorious, and one of the most incredible motion picture experiences in years.
8. The Duke of Burgundy
Carol was a fine feature film that explored the complex romantic, emotional and sexual relationship between two women. But The Duke of Burgundy gave us a relationship with more complexity, nuance, and soul. Peter Strickland’s film tells the story of an older woman (Sidse Babett Knudsen), whose younger lover (Chiara D’Anna) has sexual needs so particular and specific that flash cards become necessary to keep all her kinks straight, and if you look closely you’ll see that everyone’s marks have been taped off on their house’s many rugs.
It’s a hauntingly photographed production about the sticky lives we share with our lovers, and what happens when needs give way to resentments, and sex no longer represents a connection. Strickland’s film evokes the classic Eurosleaze of Jess Franco while adding its own brand of romance and humor, and dips its toe only once or twice into the horrific possibilities of two women who lose themselves in each other. The consequences are clear. The way out, less so. The Duke of Burgundy is the year’s most fascinating labyrinth.
7. The Voices
Jerry is a happy man. He loves his job. He loves his coworkers. He loves his cat and dog, even when they tell him to do things he’s not proud of. In the latest film from Persepolis writer/director Marjane Satrapi, we travel deep into Jerry’s troubled mind and come closer to understanding what being a serial killer actually feels like than, frankly, we probably ever wanted to.
And yet the brilliance of Satrapi’s The Voices comes from her undying sympathy for this monster’s plight. The old adage that villains don’t think they’re villains comes thrillingly to life as we watch our hapless “hero” convince himself that these various mutilations are the right thing to do, maybe even the only thing to do. And in the brief moments where reality peeks in, we understand the true horror of self-awareness. Escape is freeing, truth is ugliness, and tragedy lies behind every laugh. The Voices is a brilliant horror movie, an extremely bleak comedy, and a powerful drama.
Professional eccentric Charlie Kaufman and stop-motion filmmaker Duke Johnson teamed up for an animated film about staying in a hotel, having an affair, and possibly losing your mind. It’s just about what you’d expect, in that it’s nothing you would expect at all, and that it thoroughly blows your mind.
The story of a man (David Thewliss) living in a world where everyone has the same voice (Tom Noonan, doing spectacular work) lulls you into a trance after a while. You, like our protagonist, begin to accept that life is a constant drone, and that people are all alike. But then he meets a woman named Lisa who sounds like something entirely new (she sounds like Jennifer Jason Leigh), and a world opens up. Or maybe comes crashing down. Or maybe reveals its sinister center.
Anomalisa plays with the conventions of animation with the same morbid enthusiasm as it plays with human emotion. It is a film that completely encapsulates loneliness and connection, and quite possibly also, the nature of our individual despairs.
5. The End of the Tour
Honesty should be simple, but honesty is actually a wholly complicated beast that keeps us at arm’s length for fear of it. In James Ponsoldt’s incredibly thoughtful, utterly rapturous drama The End of the Tour, the desire to express oneself and the need to hold back prevent two writers from saying what really needs to be said. David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) is interviewing Infinite Jest author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) for Rolling Stone, and it’s obvious they want to have a real conversation with each other. Instead, they spend so much time sussing out each other’s motives, and trying to dig for secrets, that they nearly miss each other completely.
It’s so desperately sad and yet so desperately beautiful, watching two thoughtful people with so much to say try to peel back all the layers, and barely actually say it. You can lose yourself in their potent thoughts on creativity and culture, or fall deep into the chasm of their jealousies and insecurities. The End of the Tour represents one of the finest conversations ever captured on cinema, and we can all learn a lot from it.
Barely released in America, but one of the most excitingly conceived motion pictures I’ve ever seen, Blind is the story of a woman who lost her sight not too long ago, and is starting to forget what the world looks like. But it’s not a story “about” this woman, it’s the story she’s telling about what her husband does when he leaves the house. Maybe he’s having an affair. Maybe he never actually leaves, and spends the day standing quietly in the corner, watching her, knowing she’ll never know he’s there.
It sounds like a thriller, and sometimes it is. Sometimes Blind is erotic and sometimes it’s funny. It’s always inventive. Our heroine (played impressively by Ellen Dorrit Petersen) doesn’t leave her apartment and doesn’t know what it even looks like anymore, and her environment changes based on her mood. If she’s pissed off it’s a war zone. If she’s sad it’s sparse. If she thinks her husband is conspiring behind her back, the conversation he has with his friend changes locations mid-sentence, because she has no damned idea where they really are.
It could be a recipe for madness, but Blind is too hopeful for that. It’s about the way a woman imagines her way out of a psychosis, and into a world where she knows everything, dictates events and passes judgment, and not a helpless woman who has to take the world at its word. It’s empowering and fragile, and dazzling in every way.
3. The Boy and the Beast
Mamoru Hosoda hasn’t broken out in America quite yet. His last few films (including Summer Wars, which is so far arguably this decade’s best motion picture) have been theatrically released in this country but they are rarely talked about outside of anime enthusiast circles. This needs to change, and The Boy and the Beast is only the latest proof. It’s a film that combines exciting genres into a cohesive new entity, and binds them all with an emotional storyline about fathers and sons, strength and weakness, and the difficult road to maturity.
It’s the story of a young boy who runs away from home after his mother dies. His father left long ago. But before he can settle into the life of a bitter vagabond he’s swooped up, taken underground, and becomes a monster’s apprentice. Together they learn what family really is, and you probably think you know where that’s going, until it doesn’t go there at all. It becomes something distinct and special and heart wrenching and fantastical and you probably won’t believe some of the imagery Mamoru Hosoda has in store for you. I’ve certainly never seen some of these ideas before, and I daresay you probably haven’t either.
By the end of The Boy and the Beast I was crying like a child, and felt closer to my own father than I ever had before. By the end I think I actually learned how to become a better person. It astounds me that there were two better films than this in 2015. This film will astound you too.
2. The Look of Silence
Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 documentary The Act of Killing had a shocking premise. The filmmaker gave the unrepentant killers behind the 1960s Indonesian genocide, who freely brag about their crimes in their home country, the opportunity to make a movie about the massacre. The film they made was steeped in American popular culture, and made them out to be heroes. It was a horror show, but the Oppenheimer’s follow-up adds a new element: judgment.
The Look of Silence follows the brother of one of the most famous murder victims from the genocide, now an optometrist, as he confronts his brother’s killers under the guise of giving them a gift: new glasses. They don’t know he’s one of the people whose lives they destroyed, and when he finally breaks the news, watching these unapologetic maniacs clam up is one of cinema’s greatest feats. Oppenheimer’s documentary captures, suddenly and unexpectedly, that one moment when a criminal’s justifications falter, and they have to actually admit they did something wrong.
And they don’t. That’s what the title means. It’s a film comprised of guilty looks from people who try not to feel guilty, and watching them flounder – and watching their families realize, for the first time (or at least, for what they claim is the first time), that their beloved patriarchs murders hundreds of people by hand, and even committed atrocities worse than that… ugh, this movie is an unadulterated, tragic nightmare.
So I feel more than a little guilty for saying that this one car chase movie was better.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
“My name is Max. My world is fire and blood.” That’s how George Miller’s film begins, and it’s a promise the filmmaker keeps. Mad Max: Fury Road is fire, and it is blood. It is a violent chemical reaction captured on celluloid, given life through the adrenalized performances of Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult and Hugh Keays-Byrne.
Much has been made of the fact this film is, in essence, just one long car chase. That it is the finest car chase ever photographed, propelled by legitimate outrage, that transforms the male-dominated action genre into a rallying cry for feminism is probably more important to consider. When the dust settles, and it may take a while after all those cars crashed into the dunes, Mad Max: Fury Road is alone this year, and it would be in most other years, as an example of pure cinema. Visually arresting, narratively sparse, rich in detail and significance.
Like Star Wars before it, the genre trappings make this medicine go down. The action is entirely the point and entirely besides the point. With or without the screeching tires this is a great story, greatly produced and greatly performed, wadded into a stick of dynamite. George Miller lit the fuse. I honestly believe we will be watching the aftermath for many years to come.
The Martian is one of the smartest blockbusters in years. I felt especially bad leaving it off of the list, but I had to cut it off somewhere.
The Revenant is a smart and vicious revenge saga, but its pacing problems kept it off the best movies of 2015 list.
Steve Jobs is an impressive character study that doesn’t come to enough of a conclusion about the character to be as significant as it obviously thinks it is.
Brooklyn, When Marnie Was There and Youth are all emotional powerhouses that come up just a little short in the story department.
It Follows is an intimately scary film; only a distractingly “badass” climactic showdown breaks its spell.
Shaun the Sheep Movie is the funniest movie of the year, but not one of the fifteen best movies of 2015.
Sleeping With Other People is the second funniest movie of the year, but also not one of the fifteen best movies of 2015.
The reasons why everyone currently hates Jupiter Ascending are the same reasons why I think everyone is going to love it someday (although I didn’t love it quite enough to put it in my top fifteen).
Predestination is an impressive little sci-fi puzzle box, but it’s mostly noteworthy for an amazing lead performance from Sarah Snook.
What We Do in the Shadows is funny and clever but a little too slight to make a long-lasting impression.
Top Photo: Paramount Pictures
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.