Second Opinion | The 10 Best Movies of 2015
2015 was, it must be sadly acknowledged, one of the weakest years for film in recent memory. Most of the year’s biggest blockbusters were the very picture of mediocrity (with a choice few notwithstanding), while most films from notable filmmakers and studios (Steven Spielberg, Guillermo Del Toro, Cameron Crowe, Paul Feig, Neill Blomkamp, Aardman, Pixar) turned out to be not-really-at-all-notable films. Several superhero flicks were released and none made an impact beyond their predictable box office numbers. 2015 was the year of walking straight up the middle, with occasional dips into awfulness.
That’s not to say the year was devoid of quality. Indeed, there were some truly excellent films lurking under the surface. One just needed, in many cases, to dig down a little bit to find the gems. The bulk of the year’s best films were smaller, limited releases or low-budget indie films. Six of the slots in my top-ten list below are occupied by quiet, talky films, rather than slick giant actioners.
Some sad concessions: As with every year, I must confess to not yet having seen some of the more striking films that would possibly make their way onto a top-ten list. As of this writing, I have not yet seen David O. Russell’s Joy, the acclaimed Room, the quirky Anomalisa, or the turgid-toned The Revenant. And since I am also – as a night job – in the employ of one Quentin Tarantino, I am prevented from commenting on his western The Hateful Eight one way or another; you will not hear my opinions on the picture in any public context, as that would be a conflict of interest. Also, as someone who recently became a father, my consumption of new films was limited this year to a mere 126, which sounds like a lot to the casual filmgoer, but which is below the industry average for people in my profession (I think the average is probably closer to about 160).
Having made those comments, I present to you my picks for the best films of 2015.
10. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
This was my first exposure to Swedish director Roy Andersson, a man with a varied and lengthy career. His Pigeon, then, caught me off-guard, presenting audiences with a weirdly hilarious, visually static, and oddly exhilarating absurdist fable. Told in a series of theatrical, still-camera vignettes, Pigeon is a collection of stories about oddball characters like joke salesman, mourning aged soldiers, 18th-century royalty (in a modern-day diner), and electrocuted monkeys. I can’t tell you what it all “means” but I can tell you that I left the theater elated.
9. It Follows
Horror films, particularly in the indie world, are experiencing a heartening boom, and it’s such a thrill to see so many new talents arising within the genre. Low-budget horror has become the venue where style, theme, and new ideas can be fully explored. One of the best indie horror films I saw this year was David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, a parable about a sexually transmitted haunting. The film manages to get thrills from the mere sight of watching people walk slowly toward you, and it has a lot on its mind in terms of the way we view sex, sexual guilt, and sexual history. It’s smart and skilled.
8. Mad Max: Fury Road and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation – Tie
Two truly great action films were released this year, both sequels to long-running film franchises, and both amazing beyond expectations. These are movies that feel like their respective directors suddenly remembered how to make action again, free of the overstuffed CGI familiarity of most modern-day actioners. Mad Max: Fury Road has been endlessly praised for its odd, mythic iconography, fast pace, and overall awesomeness; it’s like the cover of a heavy metal album come to life. Different in tone, but just as exhilarating, is the fifth Mission: Impossible film, which is relaxed and slick and wholly assured. Spy movies don’t get much better.
7. The Look of Silence
Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to his groundbreaking and deeply stirring documentary The Act of Killing takes a look at the same horror he previously covered – the large mass murder of much of the Indonesian populace by a bully police state – but manages to make it more personal. Told through the eyes of an ophthalmologist looking for his brother’s killers, The Look of Silence looks hard at perpetrators, who brag about their techniques and murder savvy. It’s a shaking, soul-shattering film about the depths of human cruelty, and the unending quest for acknowledgment.
6. Mistress America
I recently caught up with Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America, and I quietly fell in love. No film captures the college experience – and the mixed mature/immature mindset of that age – quite like this one. A young woman, recently free from home, finds herself following the dynamic 30-year-old whirlwind Greta Gerwig, whose assertive personality is irresistible. It’s only after spending some time with her that our heroine begins to see the shambles that Gerwig’s life has actually become. Intense personalities cannot subsist. Hero worship, maturity, and wit mark Mistress America. It may even be better than Baumbach’s Frances Ha.
5. The Martian
Many have been heartened that such an entertaining film can be made from, essentially, dry scientific principals. Bragging a scientifically accurate pedigree, Ridley Scott’s The Martian follows an intelligent and good-natured astronaut after he is accidentally stranded on Mars. While it’s exhilarating watching him find ways to survive (all based on an endless depth of resourcefulness), it’s more exhilarating to watch him maintain his good humor. A flip sense of humor, the film argues, is humanity’s most essential survival trait.
Spotlight tells the story of the real-life journalists who, in the late ’90s and early ’00s, slowly broke the scandal in the Catholic church, which was, we now all know, covering up the sexual crimes of a great deal of their priests. This is a jarring film from an emotional and theological perspective, and it perfectly handles the emotional slow-burn of the characters, as they gradually struggle with their objectivity and, in some cases, faith. It’s also an excellent film about the importance of journalism, the old way of running a newspaper, and how information like this has been altered – and perhaps weakened – in its presentation.
3. Inside Out
Pixar’s latest film is quite possibly their best, and is easily one of the best films of this year. Based on a very high concept – a story told from the anthropomorphic emotions of an 11-year-old girl – Inside Out functions as an arch comedy piece (I was especially fond of the sequence that reduced the characters to abstract thoughts), a flat-out tear-jerker (you may sniffle more than once), and a salient metaphor for emotional health. It’s also about emotional maturity in a way most mainstream children’s features frequently eschew: Sadness is part of you, and being an adult means the creation of that rarely celebrated emotion… bittersweet.
2. Ex Machina
What makes a person intelligent? Can artificial intelligence be created? If it can, how does one test it, and what does one do with it? Ex Machina sounds like, on paper, a dry academic discussion of the above questions. In practice, though, those questions are the mere backdrop for something far more insidious: misogyny. The creators of an intelligent robot are both men, and the robot is made to look like a woman. How does one test for the intelligence of a woman? By ensuring she is a conniving seductress. This is a film that should be taught in gender studies classes, and also merely enjoyed by lovers of well-pieced low-budget cinema and lovers of sci-fi.
1. The End of the Tour
No film left me more satisfied this year than James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour. Based on a days-long interview conducted by David Lipsky of the celebrated (and late) David Foster Wallace in the late 1990s (a nostalgic sweet spot for me), Tour is fraught with a dangerous intelligence, and a hero worship dynamic that leads to resentment. These are smart characters who are finally and mercifully given a chance to be smart in front of one another, and in front of us. The wit, the conversation, the character combat, all come through in a series of exhilarating and punchy verbal back-and-forths that are too frequently cut from mainstream movies for being “too talky.” I like talky. I want more talky.
The following films are all of note, and should also be considered:
Steve Jobs is bright and upbeat and features some of the year’s best performances. The Big Short is an easy-to-consume thrill ride about the 2008 financial collapse. Brooklyn is classical filmmaking at its best, telling the story of an immigrant without any gimmicks. Jupiter Ascending is one of the most enjoyably crazy genre films I’ve seen in years. Spike Lee punched you in the gut with his energetic Greek comedy/tragedy Chi-Raq. The calm psychological dissection of Experimenter is wry and enjoyable. Seek out the polemic of the creative process Blind. A new Halloween classic Tales of Halloween was released this year and deserves to be watched every year. And, for those of your who get high on movies like Gremlins, Krampus will hit that same sweet spot.
Top Photo: A24
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, The Robot’s Voice, and Blumhouse. You can follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.