Jan 14, 2016

The Best Films of 2015

this is a super timely thing I put together.
I wanted to wait to post my thoughts on 2015 films until the Oscar nominations were announced today. It didn't change my choices, but hopefully it works as a continuation of the conversation. Below are my choices for the best films of 2015, with my (somewhat long-winded) thought process on how I came to these decisions.

Oscar nominees for Best Picture are highlighted:

Top 15 Films 2015
  1. Spotlight
  2. Inside Out
  3. What We Do in the Shadows
  4. Brooklyn
  5. Room
  6. Dope
  7. Amy
  8. Anomalisa
  9. Kingsman: The Secret Service
  10. Straight Outta Compton
  11. Mad Max: Fury Road
  12. Experimenter
  13. Ex Machina
  14. Creed
  15. The Martian

Best Comedy
People Places Things
What We Do in the Shadows

Jemaine Clement (the beefier half of Flight of the Conchords) had an amazing year. People Places Things and What We Do in the Shadows are definitely two of the best films on the calendar. However, while People Places Things is an interesting exploration of middle-aged sadness and angst while also being a touching look at fatherhood, What We Do in the Shadows is just a ballsy, hilarious film. Plus, it’s a mockumentary AND it’s about vampires, which are two things I strongly dislike, yet it’s still amazing. The war between the werewolves and the vampires is everything that Twilight promised but never delivered.

Spy was the best vehicle for Melissa McCarthy since Gilmore Girls and a hilarious movie to boot. It's a great comedy and a fantastic action comedy (which is an increasingly rare commodity). Trainwreck gave the world more reasons to love Amy Schumer, but the last 20 minutes became a completely different movie about "lessons" and crap that felt false and regressive, sexually-politically speaking. Sisters was a little too long and tried too hard to jam in a message, but it gave the world so many wonderful Amy Poehler and Tina Fey moments and great scenes with Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, and the always welcome John Cena (who also killed it in Trainwreck).

Best Retelling of Real Events, Old
Bridge of Spies
The Danish Girl

All of these movies are snooze festivals, and each have their own specific set of problems. Bridge of Spies is sluggishly paced and confusingly acted (except Tom Hanks, who is superb). The Danish Girl is a very pretty film that can't seem to figure out what it wants to say. In a year where trans acceptance and integration rightly became a part of the conversation, this film is more about reactions to trans people than it is about the trans experience. Which is a problem.

And Trumbo is just not very good and seems to be created for no one. There have been better, stronger films about McCarthyism than this, and the movie only seems to exist to let actors do their best Old-Hollywood accents.

Best Retelling of Real Events, New-ish
Steve Jobs
Straight Outta Compton
The Big Short

Spotlight is my favorite film of the year, so it's clearly winning this category.  It's an engrossing film with an important message that delivers exposition in brilliant ways that never feel lazy.  The cast is incredible, the writing is so good, and the silent epilogue will leave you struck.

Joy is a whole lot of nothing, The Big Short is so douche-bro heavy that I want to scream. It's Wolf of Wall Street without the style. But it's funny and I did learn something, so I guess that is important.

Straight Outta Compton is nuanced and engaging, with incredible performances and amazing moments. It's a portrait of genius and hardship, and the new era of racial segregation it showcases is just as important today as it was during the birth of N.W.A..

Best Documentary
Listen to Me Marlon

There were so many great documentaries this year, but these three really stood out as being delicate and insightful portraits of very interesting people.  Iris, one of the final films of the late Albert Maysles (of Grey Gardens fame), follows Iris Apfel, an aging New York businesswoman who did amazing things for textiles, design, and fashion. It's a sweet film, made better by its amazing lead. Listen to Me Marlon is a documentary film chronicling the life of Marlon Brando. Arguably one of the greatest film actors of all time, the film takes new perspective by using audio journals that Brando kept to narrate the film. The only downfall is that Brando’s life is too amazing to be contained in one documentary, and it feels like the film only skims the surface in examining this complicated figure. Amy, following the life of Amy Winehouse and using videos that she and her friends shot throughout her life, is a haunting portrait of genius and depression. What makes it amazing, though, is the films ability to bring out amazing moments of joy even as the audience knows that there is nothing but sadness at the end of the road.

Best Animated Film

Honestly, Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa may be the better film of these two, playing with form and convention and providing mindf*ck after mindf*ck as it paints a portrait of disconnectedness. However, if it weren’t for the stop motion, this would just be a very good entry into Kaufman’s already impressive pantheon of films exploring this same subject. With Inside Out, Pixar finally creates a female protagonist worth rooting for (Brave was a bit of a letdown). In fact, the film gives us three stellar women in the form of 11-year-old Riley and the personifications of Joy and Sadness, voiced by the delightful Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith. I’ve already written a bunch about the movie, so I won’t get into too much detail here. Both films are wonderful and definitely in my top films of the year, but Inside Out squeaks ahead in the polls.

Best Period Piece
The Hateful Eight
The Revenant

There were some amazing period films this year. The Hateful Eight and The Revenant were not two of them. Eight was indulgent, and the nearly-three-hour runtime was completely unnecessary. Also, by hour 2, it really feels like the film was made just so Quentin Tarantino could have a new outlet for saying the n-word. Still, the performances are terrific, particularly Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kurt Russell. The Revenant is a difficult film in nearly every respect. It’s beautifully shot, but it’s a film that’s meant to make you unhappy.  And it succeeds.  Leonardo DiCaprio gives a serviceable performance that literally any actor willing to undergo physical difficulty could do. Many a stuntperson could easily accomplish what he does. And the CGI sometimes looks horrible and it’s distracting.

Todd Haynes’ Carol, a film following a burgeoning lesbian relationship in a time where that sort of thing was thought amoral and untoward, is a beautiful trifle. It’s lovingly filmed, the costumes are a feast for the eyes, and Cate Blanchett is divine. But it’s a romantic drama without any investment in the romance – it often feels trite and poorly handled. The audience is asked to make the leap that two attractive women will fall in love because of a first-glance adoration and a few stilted conversations. They use music and the overwhelmingly sexual charisma of Blanchett to do it, but it still feels lazy.

Brooklyn, based on the novel of the same name, follows a young Irish girl (Saoirse Ronan) as she travels to America to make a better life for herself. It’s a quiet, lovely film, and one that I look forward to re-watching soon. It’s sweet and unassuming, which makes its emotional wallop all that more exceptional. It’s also one of the few films this year that doesn’t hit you over the head with excess dialogue or exposition. It lets you live with the characters. It’s wonderful.

Best 'Coming of Age' Movie
The Diary of a Teenage Girl

These two films are two of the more surprising films of 2015.  Dope is a fun, raucous ride through a youth’s attempt to go to college and make something of himself while also making a name for himself on the underground drug market. It’s a fast-paced and dizzying film whose cast is unendingly delightful.  The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a slightly more depressing look at childhood innocence and the ways in which it can be corrupted. The film is remarkable in the lack of judgment it displays as multiple instances of statutory rape are displayed on the screen. It’s difficult to watch and hard to ignore. The fact that it’s inventively directed and impeccably acted (by a cast that includes future king of the jungle Alexander Skarsgard and the inimitable Kristen Wiig). Lead actress Bel Powley is wonderful.

Best Action Movie: Superpowers/Sci-Fi/Magic
Jurassic World
Star Wars: Episode 7 – The Force Awakens

2015 was definitely the year of the disappointing blockbuster. It’s the year that many people collectively realized that the Emperor had no clothes, and that maybe not every superhero movie is good. And while it made a bajillion dollars, no film was as disappointing as Jurassic World, which made me want to hit myself in the head with a hammer until I could forget the retro-misogyny and lazy plotting that basically ruined a franchise. However, with the disappointing Avengers film at its side, it was at least in good company.

Still, it isn’t all doom and gloom. Ant-Man was dumb fun, and the latest Star Wars film was a welcome return to form that only gets better with repeat viewings. Still, the best of this type of film was the latest Mad Max, a franchise high point. It didn’t sacrifice story for spectacle, providing both in spades and creating a number of indelible characters. Sure, the titular Max was shunted to the side, but Charlize Theron’s Furiosa is a sight to behold.

Best Action Movie: Spies
Kingsman: The Secret Service
Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation

This is difficult. Looking at the franchised films on this list, Mission Impossible soars above. Spectre was disappointing, but there were a few moments that still worked. When all else fails, the franchise still delivers amazing action moments, cool gadgets, and impossibly beautiful women. Except Mission Impossible did all that while also giving audiences great characters and moments that felt new, fresh, and fun. And while Daniel Craig is bitching and moaning about playing the London’s most dangerous weapon, Tom Cruise still brings a dedication and joy to playing Ethan Hunt that should have left him long ago.

Still, the best James Bond film of the year is the campy, smart, and stylized Kingsman: The Secret Service.  It’s such a good movie, made better by its embrace of spy movies of yore.  Colin Firth oozes charisma and old-school charm in a way that makes him a more dapper Sean Connery and a more capable Roger Moore. Taron Egerton (as ruffian-turned-super spy Eggsy) is great and Samuel L. Jackson (as a villain so arch he’s practically an insole) is phenomenal. Supporting performances from Mark Strong, Michael Caine, Sofia Boutella, and Sophie Cookson help to strengthen this fantastic film. Sure, the last joke in the movie is a groaner, but that’s hardly reason to hate on the whole film.

Best Movie with a PhD Protagonist/Antagonist
The Martian

So, this category doesn’t really make any sense, but I couldn’t think of how else to categorize these films. All three of them are in my top 15 for the year, though I give the edge to Experimenter, which is engrossing and, um, experimental. Peter Sarsgaard is fascinating and quietly unhinged as psychologist Stanley Milgram, and Winona Ryder is sublime as his wife. It’s a little too avant garde for its own good, and some of the artistic choices take the viewer out of the film. But it’s still just really good.

Ex Machina is so freaking good, even if the last thirty minutes feel rushed.  The performances are next-level awesome. And The Martian was fun and so well made. After the disappointment of Interstellar, it was nice to see a space movie that worked. And it was nice to like a Matt Damon film even as his 2015 Campaign to Personify White Privilege was roaring along.

Best Miscellaneous
Kung Fury

Okay, there weren't really any categories that worked for these films. Creed is a great reboot of the Rocky franchise that's deftly directed and shot and impressively acted. Kung Fury (released on YouTube in May) is an amazingly weird and violent and hilarious homage of classic action films. Writer/Director/Star David Sandberg is well on his way to being a super weird addition to the film industry.

Room is so good. At every stage it could easily slip into Lifetime-level drama, but the smart writing and brilliant acting take this above and beyond the melodrama that seems inevitable.  Brie Larson is a revelation, and the direction is so tight and precise. The score is overwhelming at times, but it’s still a great film.

Great Performances of 2015
Blythe Danner in I'll See You in My Dreams
Emily Blunt in Sicario
Shameik Moore in Dope
Domhnall Gleason, Alicia Vikander, and Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina
Steve Carell in The Big Short
Tom Hardy in The Revenant
Colbie Smulders in Results
Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy James in Spotlight
Melissa McCarthy in Spy
Brie Larson in Room

It was a really great year for films (I saw a bunch of them), and here's hoping the Academy makes some slightly less Caucasian choices next year.
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