As 2015 winds to a close, I cannot help but feel thankful. Though I did not get to see as many films as I typically would have (damn you, life events!), there were some PHE-NOM-INAL flicks released this year. And as apathetic as I could get about the rank order for the latter half of this Top 10, the top 5 were some of the best movies I have seen in recent memory, so how can I not be ecstatic about 2015 for those contributions alone?!
Obligatory Disclaimer: There are several films that I have not yet seen that I suspect will make this list by the time it is etched in stone, namely (in order of my interest level): The Revenant, Anomalisa, The Big Short, Steve Jobs, The Martian, Beasts of No Nation, & Straight Outta Compton. I will accept any flogging, verbal or otherwise, that results from my lapse in duty this year.
Finally, a special thank you to Jill, Ryan, and Eric for their constant assistance and flexibility throughout the year. Cheers to another great year at Cinedelphia and continued fun together in 2016!
10. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (dir. JJ Abrams)
Amidst the incessant marketing tie-ins and overwhelming press coverage that make Star Wars’ return to the big screen too-big-to-fail, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that The Force Awakens is a great movie. It simultaneously calls back to the original trilogy that die-hard fans fell in love with while ushering in a new era of younger fans that Disney is counting on to fund the Star Wars juggernaut in perpetuity. It is somehow vintage Star Wars without being obsolete (screen wipes included). Add to that a new generation of characters whose arcs I cared about as much as the return of the original cast, all while setting up Rian Johnson for Episode VIII, and you have a near-impossible feat that I applaud JJ Abrams for pulling off. Say what you will about its parallels to A New Hope, The Force Awakens makes history for all the right reasons and allows us to forget all about the prequels.
9. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (dir. Christopher McQuarrie)
The appearance of any Mission Impossible movie on a year’s best list is enough to call into question the author’s credibility, but damn– Rogue Nation is just a great time at the movies. Writer, Director, and frequent Tom Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie wholly understood what people love about Mission Impossible: Tom Cruise doing insane stunts in memorable set-pieces without taking himself too seriously. From the opening sequence onward, McQuarrie imbued every frame of Rogue Nation with over-the-top fun and no less than three unforgettable action sequences. It is, in my opinion, the best Mission Impossible to date and I cannot wait to see Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson in the next one.
8. Kingsman: The Secret Service (dir. Matthew Vaughn)
On paper, Kingsman does not sound all that great: Colin Firth as an aging pseudo-Bond teaming up with an unproven teenage actor to serve as his apprentice to take on Samuel L. Jackson, doing his best Russell Simmons impersonation. I did not expect to like Kingsman as much as I did, though I should have, given my faith in Vaughn’s track record for unique, original takes on classic genre entries. Taron Egerton is an utterly fantastic center for this story, Colin Firth is believable as an action star, Jackson is having a great time with his take on a Bond villain, and there are several notable action sequences that turn Kingsman from a loving send-up of spy films into a great first entry in its own right.
7. Southpaw (dir. Antoine Fuqua)
Few will remember Southpaw’s unremarkable turn at the box office before falling into limbo. Mixed reviews and marketing that gave too much away did it no favors. It also came out too early in the year for legitimate consideration in any awards category, which is a shame, because Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance in Southpaw is nothing short of spectacular. It is arguably the most convincing boxing performance put to celluloid (Raging Bull fans are lighting torches somewhere right now), and director Antoine Fuqua pulls no punches (corny pun not intended but it remains nonetheless) in painting a harrowing, hard-R-rated fall from grace. Southpaw gets so heavy at points that some may postulate it borders on melodrama. While the film itself has some problems, few performances have stuck with me like Gylenhaal’s, earning Southpaw its spot on this list.
6. Creed (dir. Ryan Coogler)
Yes, I’m a sucker for boxing movies, especially Rocky movies. The sweet science of the sport, the necessary lunacy of its participants, and the sacrifice of those surrounding the ring in support makes for compelling drama, regardless of how many times the story is told (if told properly). Imagine our collective surprise, then, when the Rocky sequel/reboot made us stand and cheer in the theater. It has all of the electricity that has made “Gonna Fly Now” a national institution, while retaining the heart that won Rocky an Academy Award for Best Picture in 1976. Creed gave me genuine goosebumps, tears, and sometimes both, mostly due to Sylvester Stallone in an Oscar-worthy supporting role. Creed may not be all that original, but it is no less effective than it was almost 40 years ago. It is that good.
5. The Hateful Eight (dir. Quentin Tarentino)
As a singular experience, the 70MM Roadshow for The Hateful Eight may be one of my favorites memories ever in a theater. From the souvenir program to the orchestral overture played beforehand to set the mood, I felt like I was at a Broadway play more than a movie screening. Thankfully, for me, Tarantino’s 8th film does not disappoint. Though it is hard to recommend to non-cinephiles and Tarantino haters alike, as it is even more indulgent than the director’s previous work, The Hateful Eight is a corker of tension building. Tarantino takes deliberate, “molasses-like” pacing and applies it to a mystery that is so twisted, only Quentin’s brain could have come up with it. Samuel L Jackson and Kurt Russell are on fire here, turning in characters that I could have watched for hours moreover. Set aside the eye-rolling indulgence in racial and sexist slurs, as well as a few odd casting choices, and this film is Tarantino at the height of his powers. The Hateful Eight isn’t for everyone, but for me, it was one of my favorite experiences at a theater in 2015.
4. Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland)
Inventive, disturbing, seductive, bizarre. Ex Machina is my Under The Skin of 2015; a film so haunting and wildly different that it is impossible to forget. Alex Garland’s directorial debut is actually my favorite script he’s written thus far (Sunshine fans will stop reading here). I shall refrain from plot points since this brilliant movie thrives on its twists, but it is unlike anything I have seen before or since, and subplots that get little attention here are actually more interesting than other movies’ entire storylines. Oscar Isaac is, of course, a revelation. His nuanced portrayal here is single-handedly charismatic and disconnected, sinister and admirable. Is there anything this man cannot do?! If you have not yet seen Ex Machina, stream it or rent it NOW. You’ll be happy you did.
3. Spotlight (dir. Tom McCarthy)
On the surface, Spotlight looks like Oscar bait at its stuffiest. A true story about the team at the Boston Globe that uncovered a scandal within the Catholic Church, starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Shreiber, and a bunch of other great actors. I knew the general story as well, which I thought would blunt the impact of the movie. Boy was I wrong. Spotlight is anything but Oscar bait; it is told in a very straightforward way, with little to no pomp and circumstance, including characters that would have otherwise been consolidated, romanticized, or eschewed entirely in other movies. Characters come and go, names are mentioned without introductions, performances exist on screen with line flubs, pens that are out of ink, etc. Spotlight feels like the world we live in, warts and all. It is that feat that makes the ending even more of a gut punch than I expected, when you realize that not only did this happen, but it is still happening on a large scale. Spotlight is not only a great film; it may be required viewing.
2. Inside Out (dir. Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen)
Pixar has made its mark creating a lineage of kids movies that adults can truly enjoy. Since Wall-E, though, the folks at Pixar have seemed to be striving for something a bit different– a movie for adults that kids can enjoy. Wall-E and Up felt lopsided, like great ideas that were incomplete, so they were filled with ultimately meaningless fodder. Inside Out is the first film that fully realizes what I believe they were going for. It is an incredibly complex idea to visualize the competing emotions of a little girl’s mind, especially in a way that is compelling for anyone to watch, let alone various age groups. Not only does Pete Docter accomplish this, but he makes Inside Out exciting and meaningful, raising the stakes of the mundane and important alike like the heightened senses of a growing child whose world is changing all around her. This is done via the internal life-and-death journey her emotions are struggling on as her brain evolves. It’s absolutely brilliant storytelling and is another addition to the mantle of Disney/Pixar greats alongside Toy Story 3, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller)
When I am asked about my favorite films of 2015, only one movie jumps to mind, punches me in the face, and pumps its fists as I plug my bloody nose. Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t only my favorite film of 2015; it is one of my all-time favorites. It simply is the purest action filmmaking I have ever seen; a kinetic, careening, batshit-insane thrill ride that grabs you by the ears and does not let go. The post-apocalyptic world is unlike anything we have ever seen; a guzzoline-covered onion that we see only one or two layers of in Fury Road. It is this type of world building that made Star Wars so popular, allowing fans endless hours of backstory about what is seen and what is referenced, even briefly, throughout the film. Not since Inception, and The Matrix before that, have I been so engulfed by my need to know more about what I just saw. But it is not only the weird, wild world that makes this film truly great and endlessly rewatchable. It also helps that Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa is an Oscar-worthy performance and one of the great female heroines of all time, in a film where very few lines are ever spoken. There is a scene in Fury Road that I actually teared up… in an action movie! She is that good. Take that performance and pit it against the backdrop of some of the greatest stunts ever attempted (let alone captured on film), and Mad Max: Fury Road is an undeniable masterpiece, head-butting its way to the top of the greatest action films ever made, brought to us by a director whose last three films were Happy Feet 2, Happy Feet, and Babe: Pig In The City. Fury Road will be studied in film schools for years to come and is the bar I used to gauge all other movies this year. Bravo and thank you, George Miller!
So those were the best movies I saw in 2015; what were yours?