The Best Films of 2015
“It’s no longer enough to tell a story, because television does it—not better, but more, and more easily. The power of the cinema remains undiminished, but few of the directors of this year’s run of “prestige” releases make much use of it……. The greatness of images isn’t in the coherence of their narrative logic, or the nuance of their dramatic implications, but in their excess—not in what they mean but in what they are.” – Richard Brody
“If you try to apply the same yardstick to the new Godard and the new John Wayne, you’re probably missing the point of both films.” – Roger Ebert
“You don’t get to complain that indie movies look like television if you only watch indie movies on television.” – Mark Harris
“My favorite movie is The Princess Bride.” – Ted Cruz
Wow. It’s over. 2015 has come and gone. Can you believe a year is only 12 months? Feels like so much longer right? Not only because social media has reduced my long term memory to oatmeal (I can hardly remember the content of a Homeland episode from two hours ago, much less films that came out 2 months ago), but there’s just so much to consume now. Movies, TV, books, webisodes, tweets, subtweets, Subway subtweets. I’d love to hire an intern whose sole purpose would be to distill culture into a daily, hour long keynote for my perusal. Kinda like the President gets a daily briefing on national security, I need one that includes the projects Alex Ross Perry is circling.
But regardless of my cultural dementia, there were still movies that made landfall. Incredible films that pushed the form forward and the audience backward. Year after year great films continue to get made and 2015 was no exception.
If you want to throw an umbrella over the whole thing, you could say 2015 was the year of “process porn”. The glorification of process. As the world gets harder, better, faster, stronger, everyone looks to the movie Gods to reaffirm that if we, as humans, really buckle down we can still do something with our brains. That’s why we got Matt Damon growing potatoes on Mars, Mark Ruffalo going door to door looking for sources, and Jennifer Lawrence scribbling out mop molds in crayon. Even the larger gossip around movies was about the “process”, whether is was Leonardo Di Caprio eating a real bison liver (Paleo!), JJ Abrams using practical effects, or Tom Cruise holding onto a real plane. People went to the movies to see “real” things get done.
“Hollywood” (whatever that means) always deals with the anxiety of the moment, in 2015 that anxiety was information. The ease of information. Too much of it. Too many people telling you how to interpret it. Bags and bags of information piled up street side, waiting to be sifted and recycled. The world at our fingertips. And the larger feeling that because we have access to anything, we might forget how to do everything. Movies in 2015 seemed to say, let’s get back on the ground. Let’s stomp around in the snow and work with our hands. If only we could put on high octane music and get back to the heavy bag, all the seemingly insurmountable noise of dark money and Militiamen will fall away; and we can finally achieve a brave new world where Hispanics, Whites, and Blacks cast aside their differences to launch cars out of planes.
Per usual, my best list is never definitive. I’m not the NSA, I can’t see everything. So really this is a “Best films that I actually saw list”. Or said another way, a “what I happened to see that was better than the others things I happened to see” list.
Like any “best” list, my picks were influenced by what’s demonstrably good in a film (the cuts, the screenplay, the performances, the color of that tree), as well as by random pieces of context (Was I alone when I saw it? With friends? Tired? Energized? Bloated?). My choices have been effected by the personal (I left New York. I’m in my late twenties. I need a new pair of boots because the sole is so raw that my feet get wet from walking on damp sidewalks.) as well as larger world issues (a fascist might become our next president, a gallon of gas is cheaper than a gallon of water, 90s nostalgia still hasn’t resurrected Starburst Fruit Twists)
And ultimately, what matters most aren’t the casting choices, or new technologies, or dabblings into “experiential journalism“, what matters are the images on screen, the movie that meets your eyes when the room darkens and crowd settles. My biggest personal deciding factor is a film’s ability to pull me under the covers and force me to live as someone else.
So as 2015 gets put out to pasture and 2016 shoulders in, let’s remember a year that started with hand-wringing about declining ticket sales and ended with the revival of a 20 year old format/the highest grossing domestic film of all time.
Movies matter now, as ever.
12) While We’re Young – There was speculation that Noah Baumbach based While We’re Young on his relationship with the younger Joe Swanberg, the under appreciated “Mumblecore” director. Of course both sides were quick to deny this, in the same way anyone who doesn’t want their work pigeonholed into an easy critical skeleton would. Despite that, While We’re Young remains an insightful examination of the process gap (there’s that word again!) between generations. Between those who think truth is a collection of facts and those who think it’s a more fluid thing. 2015 was Noah Baumbach’s year, we were just living in it.
11) Spectre – Much like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows: Part 1, Spectre succeeds because it breathes. It meanders and floats and breaks up the action scenes with psychology exams and repartee (What constitutes repartee anyway, maybe a certain knowingness that charm is involved? Flirting implies romance, so repartee has to be charm, right?)
It’s the James Bond film David Lean would’ve directed. Sure, it’s cheekier than the other movies. It’s got more gadgets. And yeah, it’s not the cheek ripping, black eye Bond that Daniel Craig built in Casino Royale. So? We go to Bond because he isn’t Jason Bourne. He’s meant to be absurd. He’s wearing a tuxedo on a train! Have you ever seen anyone wearing anything other than jeans or sweats on a train? I took a train recently and one dude was in a tank top. A tuxedo on a train is more suspicious than a stocking over your head. But in the Bond world that’s okay. Movies are allowed to be absurd!
10) Joy: David O’Russell gets people talking. He’s like Robert Altman turned to eleven. The best moments in Joy are when the family is furiously yammering. Every time this movie has the opportunity to get the audience back on its side-it goes the other way. The triumphs of business are fleeting. One minute, Joy is awing the audience with her matter-of-fact mop demonstration,the next she’s back at home getting swindled by a parts manufacturer. O’Russel’s direction is expertly improvisational. It’s Alive. It’s ALIVE!
9) Trainwreck – I still crack thinking about Amy’s internal prayer: “Please don’t be a dorm room. Please don’t be a dorm room”. It takes guts to pull off a wrenching funeral scene in the middle of a summer comedy, but those guts are pure lightning when all the emotions are undercut with the funniest line of 2015. “Makes me wish they’d found my father’s remains.”
8) ExMachina – Oscar Issacs has transcended the earthly plane and now inhabits a space beyond. He’s the Gael Garcia Bernal of the current moment, and a strong case for the actor as auteur theory. ExMachina keeps drawing you closer, it whispers so you have to lean forward, then it grips you hard on the back of the neck and doesn’t let you breathe until the final minute.
I hope scientists are on the verge of inventing a synthetic skin like the one that covers Eva. I’d like to have some around the house so instead of lotioning up my elbows, I could just throw a little synthetic skin over them and hit the town.
At first you might think the film is all fiction, because a modern day Frankenstein about a Google-esque genius harvesting the world’s data to build a functional AI sounds like fiction…until you see that one month after the movie’s release… 1,000 tech geniuses wrote a letter warning against AI warfare in the near future. Sooooooo, good luck with that.
7) Mad Max – The experience of watching Mad Max is kinda like having your body torn apart by a pack of starved mountain lions, except right before they attack, some scientist has switched all of the pain nerves in your body with pleasure nerves. It’s a CRUNCHY movie. Every impact has impact. Every gun shot rings. Also, much like Star Wars, Mad Max gifted texture back to the movies. Actual cars. Actual fire. Actual makeup on actual faces.
6) Spotlight – Spotlight draws you in without the schlocky tools of other “social” dramas. It doesn’t use imagery of the abuse. It doesn’t flashback. It doesn’t create a character whose sole purpose is to shame us. Spotlight trusts us to engage in the process (!). It trusts us to find adults doing good work interesting. And it’s right.
5) Creed: The best opening shot of the whole year: juveniles at a detention center walking down the hall. Immediately I was hooked…and I wasn’t the only one. During the final fight scene a guy sitting in front of me was shadow boxing. He almost got out of his seat! That’s the kind of movie Creed is. Like The Revenant, Creed embraces the manipulation. It’s unsubtle. It uses every tool to get at glory.
And Tessa Thompson is a revelation. She takes what could’ve been the token love interest, and shades the role with anguish and history and tenderness. There’s a moment when she and Michael B. Jordan are in bed. He’s braiding her hair. Coogler lingers on the discolorations on her hands. A holy moment!
4) Inside Out – It takes exceptional writing and beautiful pacing to illicit tears from an audience using a character named Bing Bong (resembling a clog in Dr. Seuss’s drain). Inside Out is what animation should be, an audacious, mature film that moves animation beyond bug-eyed animals getting hit in the crotch by coconuts.
3) The Big Short – “They’re not confessing. They’re bragging.” – The best line of the year
Just when you thought you couldn’t handle another morality play about the crookedness of Wall Street, The Big Short reels back on its hind legs and pounces.
The whole film has this frantic, kinetic pacing, the cinematic equivalent of a squealing tire, burning rubber. It’s edited like a conspiracy video, something you’d stumble across at 2 in the morning and watch with a wary eye, but still half-believing the absurdity. The little zooms, and found footage, and the gaping holes up and down the fourth wall. It’s a Bad News Bears of the financial industry. Underdogs and outsiders who saw what no one else could. Steve Carrell’s hair cut, Brad Pitt chopping vegetables, Ryan Gosling doing core twists in a full sweat suit, brilliant, all of it.
You leave the theater with a furious energy. It got my biggest reaction. You wish it were 3D, if only so you could reach out and throttle everyone on screen.
2) Mistress America – When the movie ended I immediately went home and downloaded the soundtrack. The cast is so damn charming. Greta Gerwig continues to imbue even her blatantly comic characters with deep complexity. The film has a tone sorely lacking from everything else this year. Lola Kirk has the most pleasant lisp in film history. The dialog sings. I can offer no higher praise than that I just wanted the actors to keep talking, to keep living.
1) The Revenant: Much like American Sniper (which would’ve been my favorite film of 2014 had I seen it in time) The Revenant has picked up a ton of critical and political baggage making it hard for certain audiences to watch the film fresh.
And to be fair, The Revenant doesn’t hide. It doesn’t hide its actors behind excessive editing. It doesn’t hide its director behind the smug risklessness of other prestige films (cough Carol cough). It doesn’t wink. It doesn’t pretend to be above a desire to amaze. It wants to be a GREAT film. And whenever something wants to be great, you’ll get tons of neckbeards rushing to say it isn’t. Ignore them, please.
You have to approach The Revenant with your sense of grandeur still intact. You can’t come at it from a cynical space. It takes itself seriously. It begs you to be wowed. The Revenant takes the absurdity of myth and covers it with detail and texture and snow and dirt and blood.
There’s a moment (one of many) when Leonardo Dicaprio is lying in the snow, freezing to death and his warm breath fogs the camera lens. The film matches his breath to a shot of wispy clouds high above mountains. That’s The Revenant in a nutshell. Bold. Deliberately poetic. Pure cinema.
I’d be very curious to hear what Werner Herzog thinks of The Revenant. The film picks up on his persistent theme, the brutal passivity of nature. We can struggle and dream and fight and push and desire and want, but first you have to survive.
Worst Film of the year: Ant Man – Marvel continues to impress me. I’m impressed that with unlimited budgets, grade capital A talent, and a backlog of fascinating characters they somehow still continue to make flaccid garbage. Ant Man has one redeeming aspect, Michael Pena. At least he got paid. I pray that he can take the money and run.
2004 Jude Law Award: Domhnall Gleeson. After Brooklyn, ExMachina, The Renevant, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Domhnall Gleeson (Son of Brendan, member of House Targaryan) has solidified himself as that guy from that thing that you saw but you don’t quite remember his name.
If his quick ascension confirms one thing, it’s that nepotism continues to reign supreme in Hollywood. If you aspire to act/direct but you’re not the son, cousin, or neighbor of a famous actor, it might be wise to go ahead and finish that criminal justice degree. Here’s to many more years of Gia Coppola showing us how little she knows about high schoolers
Best Offhand Remark – Ryan Reynolds in Mississippi Grind. Curtis has had a rough couple of days. He’s looking to stirrup some shit. As he wanders down a back alley he passes two skinhead looking dudes covered in tats outside a bar, “You guys taking a little meth break?”.
3rd Annual Ryan Gosling Blandroid Of The Year: Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies. It’s unclear to me why critics and award shows have such a red rocket for Mark Rylance. I suppose it could be left over good will from Wolf Hall? Or maybe it’s because he does exhibit some of the chameleon qualities of a Daniel Day type? And while his performance in Bridge of Spies is solid, I don’t quite understand all the frothing. He just kind of speaks softly and smiles from the corner of his mouth. I’ll take Tom Hanks any day.
Spinoff Potential Of The Year: Unnamed teenager in Jurrassic World. The one standout moment, in the otherwise narrative Ambien that was Jurrasic Word, happened about 40 minutes in. We get a brief cutaway to a bored teenager loading the park’s guests into their pods. As he releases each group into the dino world he says in a dull voice “enjoy your ride”. There should be a movie about that teenager! How great would it be to follow six or seven teens who work at Jurassic World for the summer? An Adventureland with Raptors. It could be fantastic.
He Done Stole My Scene: Jason Statham in Spy – A contender for best joke of the year is right at the end of Spy when Statham hops into a motor boat, saying “Sometimes a man just needs to go to sea” and rides off, completely cocksure…without hearing Miranda Hart ask “Do you think he knows that’s a lake?”
Most Infuriating Piece Of Film Writing: The Decline of The American Actor in The Atlantic. A half-baked piece of cultural backwash. I won’t go line by line and refute everything, but just know that the author’s dream re-cast of The Godfather includes Tom Hiddleston as Michael Corleone……woof.
Theater Distraction Of The Year: The blinking smoke alarm during my screening of End of the Tour. It was right next to the screen! Why on earth would you put anything near the top right corner of the screen, much less an alarm that blinks when the batteries need to be changed. Confirmation why global warming will doom us all.
Alexander Von Humboldt Discovery of the Year: Tie- About Elly and The Window
About Elly: One of the most finely observed, riveting, semi-mystery-dramas I’ve ever seen. It’s action, reaction, repeat. Every single line of dialog matters. The performances are unforgivably intricate. I don’t know what else to say except, see it on Netflix, like, right now.
The Window: When you get past the Old-time Radio Hour-style acting, The Window is a pretty incredible distillation of suspense. It’s Disney does Hitchcock for the 1940s. And then when you read about Bobby Driscoll’s life…whoa.
Well, that’s all I got. As always, thanks for reading. I realize my posts dramatically slipped in 2015. I promise to try and write more in the year to come.