It’s hard to believe, but I’ve reached a decade of top 10 lists. Only a month and a half late! It is, of course, a completely arbitrary exercise, one that has vacillated between a “best of” list and “favorite” list, but I like lists. Lists are American! What are you? A communist? For reference, previous top 10s: [2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006]
Alyssa Rosenberg recently posed a question on twitter: “if you like rankings of movies, or albums, or whatever, what is it that you like about them?” There were a few schools of thought. One was about how fun it is to argue and play petty status signaling games (which is emphatically not my draw). Another was as a means to discovery, finding something obscure that you’ve never heard of, but might love. Then there’s the list-writer’s perspective, where you’re forced to clarify your thinking in order to generate a meaningful list. In terms of my strategy in building a list like this, there’s definitely a bit of the second thing there, I really do try to highlight some movies that don’t get typical love in other year-end lists. Sometimes I’m more successful at that than others (less so this year, actually). Mostly, though, it’s the third one that I struggle with. I try my best not to let my biases dominate the list, but on the other hand, I want to make sure I actually like the movies in the top 10. It’s tricky. You want some variety, but you don’t want to force it. I like to include a documentary, which has the added bonus that my favorite documentaries tend to be less activist focused than the ones most people choose, but again, I don’t want to force something unworthy on the list. Similarly, I have an affinity for SF, horror, action, and other genre fare that tends to get overlooked in most top 10 lists… but I also don’t want to make it purely genre, because there are other, better movies that must be considered too. It’s a balancing act, and it can be extremely difficult to line up a top 10 that is coherent, represents my tastes, but is also filled with worthy movies.
Especially in a year like 2015, which is filled with excellent choices. I’d make this a top 13 list if that was a thing, and I guess nothing’s stopping me, but again, the value in putting together a list like this is to force a decision. This was a genuinely jam-packed year full of wonderful movies, from the lowliest indie film to the biggest Hollywood blockbuster, the great films just kept coming. Identifying emerging themes is always a silly proposition, but there were a couple that struck a chord with me. The more obvious one is the long-gap sequel, or what Matt Singer called Selective Sequels. Two of the best movies of the year, Mad Max: Fury Road and Creed, were clearly of this mold. Ostensibly sequels, kinda reboots, but both were excellent. Less successful attempts happened this year too, like Jurassic World and Terminator: Genysis, even if one of them was a box office behemoth. The other trend I’m spotting is particularly welcome, and that is the rise of serious science fiction. The past decade has seen a marked rise in quality for cinematic SF, but it’s also often used as window dressing rather than embracing the heart of SF. Several movies this year actually dared to engage with their ideas in ways that most cinematic SF does not, which I judge to be a very good thing.
As of this writing, I have seen 80 movies that could be considered a 2015 release. This is about on-par for me, more than your typical moviegoer, but less than your average critic. Not exactly comprehensive, but enough such that a top 10 is actually a meaningful segment. Standard disclaimers apply (as touched on above), so let’s get to it:
Top 10 Movies of 2015
* In roughly reverse order
Predestination – This Spierig Brothers’ time-travel flick constitutes the best adaptation of a Heinlein story ever put to film. Of course, there are strangely few Heinlein adaptations, but this one embraces the sense of wonder that SF is known for (which is more than can be said about most SF films). It’s got some flaws for sure, but they’re endearing ones, and worth it for the payoff (which I’m certainly not going to ruin here).
This is the wildcard on my list, the one you’re not likely to have seen. Go check it out, then head over to a diner with a friend and spend the day making time-travel diagrams with straws. Paradoxes abound, but Heinlein never let that get in the way of a ripping good yarn. In his words: “A Paradox May Be Paradoctored.”
Finders Keepers – Starting with a decidedly macabre premise, this documentary about a mummified leg found in a smoker grill at a storage auction manages to pivot into a surprisingly moving story. The true stories of John Wood and Shannon Whisnant are darkly comic, for sure, but there’s a lot of pathos here. Wood’s struggle with survivor’s guilt and drug addition, Whisnant’s quest to become famous at any cost, both are played against each other, but it’s not exploitative as the initial premise makes it seem. Call it a bait and switch, but in a good way that’s ultimately more satisfying than you’d ever have thought.
Room – My heart was literally pounding as I watched a certain sequence in this film, moreso than any horror or suspense film of the year. In a way, I suppose this is a horror film, one that is more grounded and emotionally draining but oddly uplifting in the end. I don’t want to give anything away, but while this will put you through the wringer , even moreso than you think it might as you watch, I found it worth the heartbreak. Exceptional performances all around, but especially from Jacob Tremblay, who plays the child in the story. Not for the faint of heart, but excellent nonetheless.
Ex Machina – Movies haven’t quite caught up with the full implications of artificial intelligence, but they’re inching closer, as this film amply demonstrates. It is a bit contrived, but there are enough red herrings and misdirects bolstered by programmer philosophizing to keep you guessing and even surprise you a few times. First time director Alex Garland keeps things ominous and tense, coaxing excellent performances from the three leads. Especially Alicia Vikander’s chilling take on a manipulative AI, one of the year’s best performances.
The Hateful Eight – Tarantino has a way of producing conflicting emotions in me that I feel is somewhat underrated in the general discussion of his work. In particular, I’m frequently struck by the way Tarantino manages to juxtapose horrifying violence with comedic timing or thrilling action that results in a sorta delayed conscience reaction once the action subsides. Most pick one side and rail on Tarantino for that, but I cherish the ambiguity and confusion it produces in me. It’s something I’ve noticed all throughout his work, but it is certainly on display here as well.
This may very well be Tarantino’s darkest work, a bit of a sucker punch after his previous two historical epics. In some ways, it’s a difficult movie, but it’s hard not to respect what’s going on here. It’s very, very Tarantino, talky and indulgent, and I love it for that.
The Martian – I can’t help but love this movie for bringing my favorite parts of the written SF genre to the screen. It’s one of the few movies that really emphasizes problem solving, competence, can-do attitudes, and genuine cooperation. Such attitudes are often seen as jejune and unsophisticated by our literary betters, but they are the beating heart of the SF genre, and only a few movies have ever really engaged with this core the way The Martian does. Optimistic, inspiring, gorgeous, and even funny, this movie tackles lots of complicated math and science and puts it on display with an uncommon clarity (which, to be fair, is mostly drawn from Andy Weir’s book, but kudos are still due to Drew Goddard for maintaining the tone and clarity in his adapted script). I don’t know that this will usher in a new era of throwback SF optimism, but a man can dream.
Spotlight – The subject matter here, a look at the journalists who broke the story of decades of child abuse by an alarmingly high number of priests, would normally lead to histrionics, but director Tom McCarthy takes a restrained approach. And this is the best kind of restraint. It’s a movie where you could have created a single character who would be an amalgam of all the people working at a newspaper, had him discover perfidy and make grandstanding speeches to oppose it. But McCarthy plays it straight up, like a journalism procedural, highlighting all the little people digging around in cellars with dead rats, looking for obscure evidence. Many of the actors here are known for their scenery chewing, but once again, McCarthy pulls restrained performances out of them, and the movie benefits greatly from this approach. Oddly, this restraint seems to be painting the movie with terms like “unsexy” or “workmanlike”, which is bizarre because that’s exactly what the story needs. If McCarthy sexed it up, it would not be anywhere near as good a movie. I was tremendously impressed by this movie, perhaps because I just wasn’t expecting what it really delivered.
Inside Out – After some lackluster sequels and troubled original productions, Pixar had a delightful return to form with this movie. It took a simple premise, personifying various emotions inside a young girl’s brain, and embraced the emotional complexity that life requires. Like the best of Pixar’s efforts, it is fun, imaginative, and deceptively insightful.
What We Do in the Shadows – Comedy gets short shrift in these sorts of lists, so it’s always great when I can point to a genuinely hilarious movie that manages more heft than just a few good lines. This mock documentary about four vampire roommates in New Zealand hits the nail on the head. It’s very funny, but it’s also a loving tribute to old-school vampire lore. Most new vampire movies try to subvert the tropes and as a result, vampires are overplayed and boring, but this movie revitalizes the concept by embracing the commonly accepted lore. It’s a spoof, yes, but it’s also an excellent vampire film on its own.
Mad Max: Fury Road – This is the most propulsive action film of the year. Visually impressive, it relies primarily on practical effects and communicating more through action and visual cues than dialogue or exposition.
Plus, it has something called the Doof Wagon, a giant truck that has a bunch of stacked speakers and a guitarist who is bungie corded to it so that he can provide a diegetic heavy metal soundtrack for the militia’s attacks. Oh, and his guitar doubles as a flame thrower. How can you not love this movie?
I had a really hard time with the #10 choice above, and frankly #9 and even #8 were in question, especially when I had three movies like the below to consider. On any given day, one of these may have snuck on the list, depending on how whimsical and capricious I was feeling.
Creed – The best movie in the series since the original Rocky, primarily because it is literally reckoning with the idea of living in the shadow of the legends of the past. It’s a clever conceit, and director Ryan Coogler gives the film a visual dynamic that really sets the film apart from its predecessors. Perhaps it leans on its predecessors a bit too much, and there are some Rocky tropes that aren’t quite as effective here because they feel a bit perfunctory, it’s hard to fault it for such reaches because there’s no real way to win that battle. This movie does as good as you could ever expect though, and again, it’s something I could have seen in the top 10 if the mood struck me.
The Big Short – Sharp, incisive, damning portrait of the 2008 economic collapse, as told through the eyes of a bunch of dudes who could see the disaster coming and decided to profit off of it. It’s a bit loose, and yet its focus prevents certain aspects of the story from being told. That being said, it’s still one of the best explanations for the crash that I’ve seen, all while maintaining a darkly comic tone.
Bridge of Spies – Sometimes I think we take folks like Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks for granted. This movie was generally well received, but I feel like it’s one of the more underrated movies of the year (the irony of this not making the top 10 is not lost on me, but I take that more as the strength of the year than a reflection on the movie itself). In a year with tons of excellent action-packed spy adventures, this one takes a more grounded, real world approach. It’s all deftly put together, filled with excellent performances, and you can even see the Coen brothers’ influence in a few scenes. Not action packed, but a great movie nonetheless, worth seeking out.
* In alphabetical order
Ant-Man – You’ve got to respect Marvel’s commitment to trying new and unexpected things, and while I don’t think this year’s efforts were as good as 2014, they did a few interesting things, like resurrecting this obscure character and producing a well executed little heist film. Tons of fun, lots of nice visual gags, and a decent enough introduction to a new hero. Certainly not perfect, but the stage is set for something I could see working well.
Bone Tomahawk – This one was close to an alternate #10, but I figured that I already had a Kurt Russell western where he’s sporting a bitchin’ frontier beard on the list, so this one ends up here in the honorable mentions. It’s a fascinating film though, excellent script, and the gruesome payoff is worth the early deliberate pacing (if, uh, that’s your thing – this is mostly fine, but the violence towards the ending will turn a lot of folks off). I really loved this movie though, and it’s worth checking out for some excellent performances (I mean, Matthew Fox guys, he’s great in this) and dialogue alone.
Cartel Land – This documentary depicts two conflicts with Mexican cartels, one of which is utterly fascinating, spellbinding, and in the end heartbreaking. The story of a Mexican citizen uprising against the cartels is enough to make this a riveting watch. The other conflict, on the American side of the border, is much less compelling. It’s still interesting, for sure, but it just pales in comparison to what’s happening in Mexico, such that I’d almost rather see these be separate movies. Still, this is well crafted and heady stuff.
The Final Girls – Cheeky self-aware slasher horror has been a thing since Scream, but this movie takes it a clever step farther by not only having its heroes steeped in slasher movie knowledge, but by actually inserting them into the movie (Last Action Hero style). It’s breezy and fun, a bit derivative, but with just enough of a tweak on a played-out theme to give it the honorable mention it deserves.
It Follows – This movie has the best pure-horror premise of the year, and while it does get presented in a visually interesting and tense way, it later becomes clear that the filmmakers didn’t really have anywhere to go with it. That being said, there’s enough here to highly recommend it, and it features some of the scariest stuff of the year.
Kingsman: The Secret Service – In a year with many (many!) action-packed spy adventures, this one takes the cake. Energetic, propulsive stuff, adventurous filmmaking, and some expertly choreographed action sequences. In particular, the long takes in the Church sequence are truly impressive, filled with conflicting emotions, confusion, slow motion, and an excellent usage of Free Bird. There are some unfortunately juvenile shots that might take this down a peg, but it’s overall quite a fun updating of classic British spy action (certainly moreso than the most recent Bond installment).
Krampus – Delightfully mean spirited take on Christmas lore that really embraces the darker side of these things. It’s clear that writer/director Michael Dougherty just gets the darker side of holidays (his previous film, Trick ‘r Treat is quickly emerging as a Halloween classic). It’s not especially satisfying, of course, but that’s the point, so it’s really hard not to respect the hell out of a movie like this, even if it’s not something I could see myself watching every Christmas…
Magic Mike XXL – Take the original movie, remove the obligatory romance and seedy thriller side-plots, and you end up with this episodic road trip movie that basically just treats sexuality as a thing worth celebrating. There’s no real plot or conflict here, just good old-fashioned sexytimes and fun. There’s some overarching themes about finding oneself and whatnot, if you’re willing to look for it. I have a lot of respect for this, but truth be told, it’s not really my kinda movie. Dance, music, no-plot, etc… I can respect what it’s doing, but it’s emphatically not my bag. But that’s cool! That’s why list-making exercises are interesting, because if we all loved the same stuff, that would be pretty darn boring.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation – This is the little franchise that could, improbably getting better, movie after movie. This is arguably the best in the series so far, thanks to writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (a Kaedrin favorite, for sure), some excellent stunt-work, and the incomparable Rebecca Ferguson. It’s not redefining the spy adventure genre, but it’s a superbly executed version of it for sure.
The Nightmare – Director Rodney Ascher’s chilling documentary about sleep paralysis and how terrifying such an experience can be is extremely well done. A little more straightforward and less layered than his previous effort, Room 237, it is nonetheless one of the best documentaries of the year, one that I really connected with (such that it nearly made its way onto the top 10 – in a weaker year, it very well might have).
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens – I have to admit that a large portion of my enjoyment of this film is purely nostalgia, but enjoyment is enjoyment, and while this may have perhaps been a bit too derivative of its predecessors, it’s still a whole boatload of fun, and the new characters are so fun and engaging that I can’t wait to see where they go next.
Victoria – It takes its time to get going, but this is nonetheless an incredibly impressive film. It’s over two hours long and it’s shot in one single take. This isn’t one of those cheats like Birdman where the filmmakers use clever cuts and CGI to make it seem like a single take. No cheats, no cuts, just a very, very long single take. And it’s not a boring single-location shoot either, there’s all sorts of machinations going on here that makes the whole thing that much more impressive. The pacing is a bit deliberate and you can quibble with some of the choices, but it’s a worthwhile movie nonetheless.
Just Missed the Cut:
But still worthwhile, in their own way. Presented without comment and in no particular order:
- The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
- American Ultra
- The Revenant
- Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Should Have Seen:
Despite having seen 8o of this year’s movies (and listing out 30+ of my favorites in this post), there are a few that got away. Or never made themselves available here. Regardless, there are several movies here that I probably should have caught up with:
- The Editor
- The Assassin
- The Duke of Burgundy
- Steve Jobs
- The Look of Silence
- The Lobster
So there you have it. That’s a pretty damn good year for movies right there. Stay tuned for the Oscars coverage in a couple of weeks. After that, it’s onwards and upwards to 2016 movies…