I say it every year and I’ll say it again: this was an excellent year for movies. Of the 150 new films I saw, most pleased me, many floored me, and only a few left me wanting. It’s a wonderful thing to have spent so much time over the last year enjoying my favorite art form and I’m blessed to have been able to share my thoughts with all of our lovely readers. So before I get started, I just want to say thank you to Jill, Ryan, and Eric for allowing me to vomit words so regularly. You are the best. Thank you to all of my fellow writers who have contributed to the site this year. I’ve read every word you’ve written and it has been enlightening, educational, and fun. Most of all, thank you to anyone who has read, shared, commented, corrected, or interacted in any way with my output. I love you all.
Ok, let’s do this. A few caveats up front:
– It Follows, a movie I adore, was on my 2014 list, which is the sole reason why it’s absent from this one.
– The best movie I saw this year wasn’t a movie at all. It was season two of Fargo.
– This list reflects solely how I feel at this very moment. Anyone who has ever put one of these things together understands the pain of omission, and even though I’m limited to 10, believe me when I say that getting the list down from 30 was extremely heartbreaking.
– To make this an easier task, I followed a very simple criteria. The movies that made my list are not necessarily the most perfectly crafted films of the year, but these are the films that stuck with me. The below 10 entries made the cut by virtue of the fact that they have not left my mind. These are the films I wrestled with, thought about, and admired long after the credits rolled. For all of the critical discussion I engage in, it really comes down to entertainment value, and if I find myself spending time and energy on a film that I’m not even watching, it ups that entertainment value exponentially.
Still with me? Good.
10. Tangerine (dir. Sean Baker)
The thing that stuck with me most about Tangerine was the manic energy which permeates the entire film. Not the almost documentary look at the lives of trans sex workers, not the star making performance from two first-time trans actresses, not the bouncing soundtrack, not the masterful editing, not the uniquely hilarious sense of humor. The energy! Tangerine opens up at a full sprint and never stops to take a breath. Man, this movie just pops. There was a time before “independent film” was a method of production rather than a genre, and Tangerine reminds me of that time. Sean Baker has a very distinct style, so much so that I can’t pinpoint any influences. This is where I usually say that I can’t wait to see what Baker does with a budget, but I’d honestly love to see him continue milking magic out of nothing.
9. Carol (dir. Todd Haynes)
I was seduced by Carol. That’s the only way to describe it. This is classically the type of movie I catch at a late season screening as pre-Oscar homework, but I’m very glad I didn’t wait. The spell it cast was intoxicating from moment one. Cate Blanchett’s knack for layering her characters is used to its fullest potential, as I can only imagine the performance that a 1950s lesbian would have to put on just to survive. Rooney Mara brilliantly exhibits the struggle of a woman unsure of her own desires, due in part to her inexperience and in part to the template imposed upon her by society. Kyle Chandler portrays one of the most nuanced “villains” of recent memory. He acts monstrous, but is as much a victim of the mentality of the times as the protagonists. Todd Haynes has created a stunning period piece and filled it with dense, fully-realized performances. It’s a masterpiece, and it came at the end of a long, extremely troubled production.
8. The Duke of Burgundy (dir. Peter Strickland)
Sexy, funny, unique, and very relatable to anyone in even the most vanilla of relationships, The Duke of Burgundy is one of the most rewarding big screen experiences of 2015. In his previous film, Berberian Sound Studio, Strickland proved himself a master of sound composition, and with The Duke of Burgundy he put it to much stronger narrative use. The film is hypnotic at every turn, and despite its modern subject matter, it feels like a throwback to old Hollywood. I’ve watched this movie 3 times and each time a new layer reveals itself. This is a filmmaker blossoming into a master right in front of our eyes. Any single frame from the film could be a poster for it. The quality of the craft on every level of production is mind-boggling. If, by some grace of God, you get a chance to see this in the theater, do not miss it. And if you’re going to watch it at home, do it with good speakers or headphones. Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna will hopefully follow in the footsteps of Christoph Waltz and Noomi Rapace by relaying their incredible talents into a Hollywood career.
7. Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland)
This year we watched the explosive rise of three incredible actors: Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, and Domhnall Gleeson, all of whom did their finest work in Alex Garland’s directorial debut. Ex Machina, on the surface, is a Twilight Zone-esque thriller, but upon repeat viewings it becomes so much more. A viewer can approach this film at a hundred different angles and find a new takeaway each time. As the gap between biology and technology grows smaller and smaller with each passing day, Ex Machina asks all of the right questions. Perhaps the most incredible feat (outside of Garland’s brilliant visual aesthetic) is that in order to have any of the many conversations resultant from the film’s handling of technological sentience, it had to pass its own Turing test, and it did so with flying colors. Is Ava conscious? I don’t know, but she very well could be. It’s an impossible sell, and we all bought it.
6. Bone Tomahawk (dir. S. Craig Zahler)
When everyone inevitably asks how Mad Max: Fury Road did not make my list (despite my intense love for it) the first half of my answer is Bone Tomahawk. I’ll get into the second half later. As far as tales of toxic masculinity go, Bone Tomahawk says it all. Moreover, it’s an exciting genre mash-up of western and horror. Not since The Descent have I felt so gruesomely on edge for such a prolonged period of time. This is a great story told extremely well. It’s tense, fun, and narratively rich in both theme and character. And while it condemns toxic masculinity, it doesn’t vilify masculinity as a whole. Much like Fury Road, the idea is that connection trumps division at every turn, and that wisdom comes with experience. This is the best script of the year, hands down, and it features a career best performance from an almost unrecognizable Richard Jenkins. As the dimwitted moral anchor of the film, his performance is touching and oftentimes laugh out loud funny. I feel like this movie was made just for me. The combination of Kurt Russell, a cowboy hat, and a baller mustache never ever fails.
5. Anomalisa (dir. Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson)
I have a strong feeling that people will have mixed reactions to this one, mostly due to its perspective regarding fidelity. But there is no endorsement or condemnation here, just raw honesty. It’s a simple story, certainly Kaufman’s most straightforward, but it’s as human as we’ve come to expect, maybe more so than his other work. This is without a doubt the most adult stop-motion film in existence. The medium works as a tool to sneak some very grown-up themes past our guard while also serving to bring the film into the realm of magical realism. As subdued as it is madcap, as sanitized as it is raw, this is the type of film that begs to be watched again and again. This may sound odd, but Anomalisa contains perhaps my favorite sex scene in all of cinema. This film took my heart and made it zoo-sized.
4. What We Do in the Shadows (dir. Taika Watiti, Jemaine Clement)
At the halfway point of 2015, I had this listed at number one. I’ve watched it more than a few times since then (I think the running total is nine) and each time I find multiple new laughs. I have a bittersweet relationship with modern comedies. I find that all too often the films of the post-Apatow era are so steeped in winks and nods to the audience that the humor falls flat. Or even worse, the film is lost behind a parade of cameos that are all but screaming “we’re friends in real life! Isn’t it totes adorbz?!?” What We Do in the Shadows has none of that insufferable garbage. The players commit to the joke 150% and it pays off in spades. Yet even in the midst of all the silliness, the film has a heart. It captures all the fun of being a vampire but also depicts the inherent tragedy of it. Did I mention that this is a film about vampires? At this point, the mere inclusion of vampirism is enough to make a film stale, but Shadows is as fresh as they come. The budget is small, but the filmmakers make fine use of every dime, conjuring 100 years of cinematic vampire lore with a warm reverence. And really, isn’t Stu just the coolest?
3. Creed (dir. Ryan Coogler)
This is the other reason why Fury Road didn’t make the cut. THIS is how you revitalize a franchise. Creed honors the original series and blazes a new trail all its own, making a star out of Michael B. Jordan, giving Ryan Coogler a permanent tenure in Hollywood, and reminding the world that Sylvester Stallone, when given the right material, is a very, very talented actor. It’s been years since I’ve reacted so strongly to a movie. I cheered when it wanted me to cheer, I cried when it wanted me to cry, and I left the theater ready to take on the world – as did everyone else who was fortunate to see it while in possession of a functioning soul. Folks will fight me on this, but I happen to think its the best of the series. The ENTIRE series. Why? Because this is the entry with the best boxing sequences, the best story, and most importantly, the best character work. Nobody here is a sideline player, and everybody, including the female lead, has a life outside of the main narrative. This is a remarkable film in every way. Big, bold, classic blockbuster filmmaking done right. This is the type of movie that has the potential to make you a better person.
2. The Hateful Eight (dir. Quentin Tarantino)
We’ve reached the point in Tarantino’s career where people are inexplicably starting to sour on his style. The general criticism is that his films are a mishmash of homage lacking their own vision. The Hateful Eight puts this notion to rest in a big way. Yes, this film is in and of itself an homage to classic westerns, but this is distinctly a Tarantino film – a phrase which finally means something after all these years. Moreover, let us film nerds collectively bless Tarantino for introducing a ninth character into his roster of eight malevolent maniacs: film. Tarantino is doing more than anyone else to elevate a night at the movies into an event. If seeing a stellar, three hour Mexican stand off isn’t enough to put your ass into a theater, then the prospect of seeing it projected in a dying format (70mm Panavision) absolutely should. I was all but ready to dismiss tangible film as a thing of the past; a novelty equivalent with vinyl records, but after seeing The Hateful Eight during its roadshow release, I am reminded of how dynamic a well-projected film can be. There’s an overture to showcase Ennio Morricone’s first film score in four decades, an intermission designed for bathroom breaks and discussion, and did I mention that the movie itself is superb? Well it is. (See: Kurt Russell in a mustache and cowboy hat).
1. Slow West (dir. John Maclean)
Here we are at number one, and I’m as surprised as you. When I first saw Slow West, I knew I’d seen something special, but I didn’t realize how long the film would stick with me. Not a day has gone by where I haven’t found myself ruminating on one aspect of the film or another. It’s a simple story, told with confidence and style. Not a pixel goes unutilized in any shot, and Maclean gives it a hypnotic, dream-like feel. There are moments, it could be argued, that didn’t actually happen. Or maybe they did. It doesn’t matter. It’s a parable of perception vs reality made literal and it all leads to a bleak climax that is more thematically challenging than any western I’ve ever seen. There are no half measures here, yet not an ounce of it is exploitative. Maclean mirrors his music career (most notably with The Beta Band) by exhibiting artisan craftsmanship bolstered by a willingness to be ethereal and surreal. Slow West simultaneously excites and relaxes me. It’s the type of film that is immediately enjoyable but has enough class and ambiguity to invite many a rewatch. And at a lean, economical 84 minutes, it’s an easy one to put on before bed. Yippee ki-yay.
Alright, 2016, lets see what you got!
Honorable mentions: The Walk, Diary of a Teenage Girl, Mad Max: Fury Road, Spotlight, The Martian, Love & Mercy, Bridge of Spies, Steve Jobs, The End of the Tour, The Look of Silence, Wild Tales, White God, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.