There was a lot to see this year at the movies, and looking back at everything I’ve seen, it’s a fool’s errand to try and list 10 of the best films. Even some of the ones I wasn’t crazy about had some absolutely amazing aspects that left me stunned. From Charlize Theron completely owning every bit of the amazingly crazy Mad Max: Fury Road, to Saoirse Ronan’s growing into a leading lady before our very eyes in Brooklyn, and of course the immaculately constructed “Carol” (Is there anything Cate Blanchett can’t do?). The Martian came close to dismantling the record Gravity set just 2 years ago, while Johnny Depp found his way back to critical acclaim, and the Rocky franchise found new life in director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan. Oh, yeah, maybe you heard about that little indie movie called Star Wars: The Force Awakens that broke a dozen box office records.
So what films made the cut? And which films came close? Let’s take a look.
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Miranda Hart, Bobby Carnavale, Allison Janey & Jude Law
Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy are both at the top of their game when they’re working together. Bridesmaids and The Heat are both fine examples of that very valid point. Fig brings out a naturalism in McCarthy, without losing her signature craziness. In Spy, both McCarthy and Feig combine the most successful elements of their previous collaborations to form their best work to date.
What makes Spy so great is that it doubles as a great satirical takedown of the spy genre, while being a credible action film. We knew McCarthy was a leading lady before, but this eclipses her Academy Award-nominated performance in Bridesmaids with sheer star power. Feigns script is tight, but loose enough to allow his actors space to breathe.
And when all is said and done, the cast is really the best element of Spy. Each actor is on fire, mining laughs from even wordless gestures. The biggest surprise is Statham, who has never hinted that he possessed such comedic timing before, but it’s Rose Byrne who steals the show. Donning a ridiculous wig and an accent to match, it’s a full-bodied performance unlike anything we’ve seen from her before, making every single line reading a laugh out loud moment. The film is worth seeing for her performance alone, but really is entertaining on a bunch of different levels. At this rate, I wouldn’t be mad if Feig and McCarthy became the next Scorsese and DiCaprio.
9. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Domnhall Gleeson, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis & Mark Hamill
I’ll admit, the first time I watched The Force Awakens, I thought so much of my positive reception towards the film was due to the overwhelming feelings of nostalgia. Seeing characters like Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca and C-3PO brought back strong memories, and director J.J. Abrams clearly studied A New Hope; Moments in this film are almost lifted from the original trilogy for a new generation of Star Wars fans.
But despite any feelings of familiarity or nostalgia, The Force Awakens not only is a great addition to the Star Wars saga, but a strong film in its own right. In a year with disappointing sequels, reboots and big budget blockbusters, The Force Awakens boasts great acting, tight editing, thrilling action and intricate craft work. Two stars are born in both Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, who light up every single scene they’re in, exuding star power and charisma that eclipses their contemporary actors (Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, basically any of the Marvel heroes that aren’t Mark Ruffalo or Scarlett Johansson). I would follow these two all across the galaxy if I had the chance. Rounding out the cast is the always reliable Oscar Isaac, who makes a great impression with a brief amount of screen time, Girls‘ Adam Driver, and the ubiquitous Domnhall Gleeson. It has never been more exciting to see the words: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”
Bonus Points for Carrie Fisher’s AMAZING press tour, by the way, which is just as entertaining as the film is. This woman is brilliant.
8. Mad Max: Fury Road
Starring: Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoë Kravitz & Abbey Lee
What’s there to say about Mad Max: Fury Road that hasn’t been said already? If you look up “masterpiece” in the dictionary, you should find a screen cap from this film somewhere in the entry.
This film is truly a director’s vision; George Miller brought this bat shit crazy, blast of color to life with a technical precision that escapes so many blockbusters today. Sure, Tom Hardy and Nicholas Hoult are great, but this is truly Charlize Theron’s film; Imperator Furiousa was always destined for iconic character status, but Theron delivers a performance unlike anything we’ve seen from her thus far. The cinematography, production design, editing, costumes… there’s not a weak link here in painting this beautifully desolate world. This isn’t just a blockbuster, it’s pure art, and a reminder that even though we may think we’ve seen it all, we haven’t.
Bonus points for the film angered fan boys everywhere for being a “feminist action film” and this:
Starring: Kitana “Kiki” Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian, Mickey O’Hagen & James Ransone
Tangerine will go down as the most criminally underrated film of 2015. Despite a bunch of buzz right out of the Sundance Film Festival, an Oscar campaign fronted by trailblazer Laverne Cox and some Independent Spirit Awards nominations, it’s been unfairly ignored by awards bodies. Not that the film needs awards validation, because despite being shot on an iPhone 5S, and made for less than $1 million it’s a modern day classic.
Mya Taylor and Kiki Rodriguez are electric as a pair of best friends trying to hustle on Christmas Eve in Los Angeles. Yes, they are prostitutes. Yes, they are trans. Neither of these points are exploited for dramatic effect or to push the plot along. Tangerine presents us a pair of marginalized protagonists and just allows them to simply be, something that’s far too rare in the world of cinema. The luscious, blood orange L.A. sky immerses us in a warm, unpredictable and almost unfamiliar place. The film is edited with an electric, zany energy to match that of its lead characters. The beauty in Tangerine comes from the authenticity of the relationship its depicting. These women may not always get along or see eye to eye, but they’re there for each other when it matters. I can’t believe director/writer Sean Baker was able to do so much with so little. He reminds us that movies, despite their reliance on the familiar, can still be magical and groundbreaking. For what it’s worth, I would watch 100 more movies with Rodriguez and Taylor at the center, with Baker behind the camera (or in this case, phone).
Starring: Domnhall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander & Oscar Isaac
I haven’t stopped thinking about Ex-Machina since I saw it last spring. The breathtaking imagery, the three central performances, the haunting score… I could go on and on.
What may seem like a modern twist on film’s such as “A.I.” and the timeless question, “What does it mean to be human?” is actually a wildly inventive and incredibly experience, one that’s unlike anything in theaters right now. Where most sci-fi movies are focused on expensive visuals and awe-inspiring special effects, director/writer Alex Garland has crafted an enthralling experience that’s focus on mood and its characters makes up for its lack of flair and flashy tricks.
The “It Girl” of 2015, Alicia Vikander, delivers not only her best of several performances, but one of the best and most iconic performances of the year. It’s hard to separate the film from Vikander’s quiet work; She dominates even when she’s off screen, a testament to her prowess as an actress.
Few films this year, or in the past few years, have caused me to sit in the theater long after the credits rolled in an attempt to catch my breath. Thrillingly stylish, thought-provoking and mesmerizing, Ex-Machina breathes life into the world of independent Sci-Fi filmmaking.
Starring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, William H. Macey & Sean Bridgers
It would so easy to say that the power of Room lies in its central performances. You wouldn’t be wrong in saying that; Room relies so heavily on the relationship between Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay’s Ma and Jack. As the audience, we have to believe that these two characters have spent every waking moment of the past 5 years together, locked inside a soundproof shed. Their chemistry is electric, and certainly gives the film its beating heart. But Room is a strong film in its own right that will tug at your heartstrings.
Much like the confines that our two protagonists find themselves in the film’s first half, it’s a small film. Academy Award-Nominee Joan Allen and William H. Macy round out the supporting cast; Most of what we’re watching is Jack and Ma interacting with one another. It takes a special kind of hand to make that story compelling, and director Lenny Abrahamson and screenwriter Emma Donoghue (adapting her own novel) deserve just as much praise as Larson and Tremblay have been receiving. Room is a tough, but ultimately rewarding sit about how hope and love are stronger than any scar. You’ll need a whole box of tissues for this one, (maybe two).
Starring: Amy Winehouse
It’s sad that it’s taken society until 2015 to lament over the loss of Amy Winehouse, and accept the role we all played in her very public demise. When the news broke that she had passed, I remember so many people rolling their eyes and saying, “Well of course. She was a junkie.”
But in the years since, it’s become increasingly clear that Winehouse was a an artist, first and foremost. She possessed a voice unlike any of her contemporaries; She understood her art, and crafted one of the best albums in recent history. As much as she loved music, she loved love, and she loved to love, even if the people she loved repaid her with consistent exploitation.
“How big do you think you’re going to be?” Amy is asked at one point towards the beginning of the film.
“I don’t,” She replies. “I don’t think I’m going to be at all famous. I don’t think I could handle it, I would probably go mad.”
It’s almost as if she was warning us from the very start, but no one directly around Winehouse, nor the general public, chose to listen to her. After delivering us the modern day classic that was Back To Black, everyone demanded more. More than she was able to give. Her father wanted more money. Her fans wanted more music, more performances. Her cries for help were mocked by comedians and the media, as we watched and flipped through magazines and ogled at her body wasting away before our very eyes.
Director Asif Kapadia makes us feel Winehouse’s sunny, infectious energy in her bright beginnings, and the tragedy that was her untimely end. We see just how autobiographical her music was. Though many will remember her for protesting being sent away in “Rehab,” it’s “Love Is A Losing Game” that will keep us mourning the loss of such a bright, talented star, and the role we played in her death.
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domnhall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent & Julie Walters
Brooklyn is many things. It’s an adaptation of the best-selling novel of the same name by Colm Tóibín. It’s a love letter to old school Hollywood, and 1950s America. It’s an incredible showcase for Saoirse Ronan, but it’s also a reminder that Hollywood can still make coming of age films seem authentic and exciting.
As strong of a film Brooklyn is in its own right, with its handsome production, intricate costumes and beautiful screenplay, it would truly be nothing without Ronan’s incomparable Ellis Lacey. Never has carrying a film looked so easy, and perhaps that’s why she’s been winning a lion’s share of the critics’ prizes so early in the awards race. We see Ellis grow from a meek, unsure immigrant in a strange new land to a strong, independent woman, perfectly detailed by Ronan’s nuanced, but powerful performance. The film presents her choice of choosing between forging her own path in America and returning to her past in Ireland as just that. Never mind the two love interests pulling at her skirts; At no point does the screenplay simplify her choice by making it about which love interest is ultimately better like some more popular films have (I’m looking at you Hunger Games). The film is more interested in Ellis’ journey to self-assurance, and where she wants to call home.
The concept of home is huge in Brooklyn. Anyone who has ever left home to start a life of your own will no doubt see themselves in Ronan’s Ellis. It’s a universal story, and is by no means a movie that will inspire a laundry list of think pieces. But it doesn’t have to be. It’s simple, but grand and masterful in its execution. This is classic Hollywood filmmaking done right, and though some will question if Ellis has made the right choice in the end, it’s through Ronan’s nuanced work that leaves us cheering at the very end.
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacey & Kyle Chandler
There is so much going on in Carol that it was so hard not to make it my number 1 film. As a long time fan of director Todd Haynes, I knew even before going in to screen the film that the production value was going to be immaculate. I was not disappointed. As with Far From Heaven and Mildred Pierce, Haynes has once again created another masterful period film.
Though he certainly didn’t do it alone. Adapted from the novel The Price of Salt, screenwriter Phyllis Nagy penned a film that was able to evoke the sweltering passion of a forbidden love with no words. She’s much more concerned with gentle hand placements and stolen glances, which encapsulates the repressive time period of the 50s. This is executed perfectly by leading ladies Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, who proves The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was no fluke.
Carol might just be the most beautiful film I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. Kudos again to the handsome production value and vision of Haynes, but it’s the cinematography by Ed Lachman who makes every shot look like a potential painting from a museum. Shot sometimes entirely through doorways or windows, we feel the discretion and secrecy that threatens to suffocate the love between our two protagonists, the kind that makes you lightheaded, and so strong that it’s undeniable. The silent, but powerful finale will leave you breathless.
Starring: Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin & Victor Garber
There wasn’t a single film this year that thrilled me in the way Sicario did. A pulse-pounding, intense as hell of a rollercoaster ride, it was a no brainer for me after that masterful opening scene, that this was going to be my top film of the year.
Running at 2 hours and 1 minute (exactly), Sicario is tightly edited. It’s a slow, but heart-pounding ride that builds to a batshit crazy crescendo that will have you sitting on the edge of your seat. Emily Blunt as FBI agent Kate Macer, once again proves she’s one of the most versatile, and frustratingly underrated, actresses working today. And I dare you to find a more complex and haunting performance than Benicio del Toro’s as Alejandro (trick question: There isn’t one). His presence is always felt, whether he’s on or off the screen. By the film’s cathartic finale, he’s completely run away with the whole film. It’s a shame he hasn’t been dominating the Best Supporting Actor race this year.
From the cinematography, direction, screenplay, everyone is working at the top of their game here; Sicario is a film that is much more concerned with ideas than attention grabbing action sequences (though the film’s action sequences are some of the best you’ll find in any film). It’s a film that asks us, much like it does of its lead heroine, if it’s worth to bend the rules to chase an outcome that may never come to pass. Much like Kate, we’re not sure we have the answer.
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): Beasts of No Nation, Cinderella, Clouds of Sils Maria, Creed, The Diary of A Teenage Girl, The End of the Tour, Grandma, The Hunting Ground, Inside Out, I’ll See You In My Dreams, Love & Mercy, Magic Mike XXL, Steve Jobs, 45 Years, 99 Homes
Worst Movies of the Year:
- By The Sea (dir. Angelina Jolie-Pitt)
- Joy (dir. David O.Russell)
- The Hateful Eight (dir. Quentin Tarantino)
- It Follows (dir. David Robert Mitchell)
- Pitch Perfect 2 (dir. Elizabeth Banks)
- Trumbo (dir. Jay Roach)