I must begin this best-of-the-year list with the biggest of all disclaimers: I did not see half the movies I wanted to this year, and a lot of the ones I missed were in the annual awards season flurry where seemingly every “must see” film of the year comes out in the span of three weeks, so if you’re wondering about a particularly egregious omission from this list, the sad truth is that I probably haven’t seen it yet!
That being said, unlike the last few years this list was mercifully easy to put together. While I saw a lot of movies that I liked this year, the list of films that I truly, deeply loved was considerably smaller. I’m sure this is a direct result of the aforementioned issue of missing so many movies, but I’ll admit that it was nice, for a change, to not have to agonize over one of these things.
So here we are, my top ten movies of 2015:
To say that Anomalisa is a strange film would be to irresponsibly undersell how truly weird and unusual this picture is. It’s a movie that’s unafraid to be almost off-putting with its odd tics that seem to serve no purpose beyond empty posturing. If you’re willing to stick with it, though, everything begins to click into place. As the layers peel back, the film constantly proves itself to be more brilliant than it seemed to be a moment ago, and seemingly ostentatious stylistic choices are revealed to be essential thematic metaphors. It’s a biting critique of male ego fueled by narcissism as well as a surprisingly human and sympathetic look at a tragedy of one’s own making. Much like the film’s animation style, it’s simultaneously beautiful and crude.
The Hateful Eight
Speaking of films that use beautiful filmic techniques to tell stories of horrific ugliness, one must discuss Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. After a pair of crowd-pleasing revenge fantasies, Tarantino returns with a third period piece that is not a celebratory bit of revisionist history, but instead a seething, angry, deeply cynical rebuke against a country that is as ever unable to get past the same issues of racism, misogyny, and hate we’ve been drowning in forever. On every level this is a film that’s designed to provoke, from an ensemble cast that more than lives up to the title, to Tarantino’s cheeky decision to revive the Ultra Panavision format for a movie that’s largely confined to a single location. There are no heroes to root for, no gorgeous vistas to get swept up in, just an unblinking look into the blackness of our nation’s soul, captured in excruciating detail on glorious 70mm film. And I love it to pieces.
If I’m being entirely honest, Crimson Peak wouldn’t have made it on this list after my initial viewing. I liked it well enough that first time, but it didn’t land for me in the way I hoped it would. While I certainly wasn’t in the “it’s not scary enough” camp, I think I was thrown by a movie that was wildly different from the one that Universal had been selling me. Upon revisiting the film (on a gorgeous 35mm print at New Beverly), I was able to approach the movie on its own terms, and I suddenly found myself falling in love. It perfectly delivers on both the gooey melodrama of gothic romance and the tragic horrors of the classic Universal monster movies. Who knows if Guillermo del Toro will ever actually make the Haunted Mansion movie he’s producing at Disney, but in the wake of Crimson Peak it seems almost superfluous. It’s beautiful, fun, delightfully old-fashioned, and just the right amount of scary, and when it finally hits home video, I expect a lot of people are going to realize how badly they goofed by passing on this one in theaters.
There are few feelings that are better than going into a movie you expected would be bad and being proven dead wrong. If ever there was a movie that seemed cosmically destined to be bad, it was Paddington. It’s a live action “re-imagining” of a classic children’s story starring a CG talking animal (strike one), it was pushed back from a Christmas release to January (strike two), its lead performer was replaced fairly late in the process (strike three), and it had a slew of horrifically bad trailers, TV spots and other advertisements (strike four, five, six, etc.). And yet, when I sat down to watch this, I was enraptured. I was immediately head-over-heels for this bear, and for the remainder of his 95 minute adventure I was moved in ways I never expected, be it laughter, tears, or even the moment I was genuinely fearful for the death of this marmalade-loving ursus. Beyond that, it’s also surprisingly smart, taking the original stories’ antiquated notions of colonialism and restructuring them into an understated, but effective pro-immigration theme. If there was ever proof for why you should not judge a film by its marketing, it’s Paddington.
Bridge of Spies
It’s insane how much we take Spielberg for granted. This is a certified genius who helped to fundamentally change the world of cinema, and he’s still making great films, and yet nobody seems to get excited about it. Case in point, is the criminally under seen Bridge of Spies, which, despite being a “lesser” Spielberg is still head and shoulders above the vast majority of films released this year. This film very much feels like a B-side to Lincoln – it’s not quite the masterwork Lincoln is, but it’s incredibly similar in style, tone, and themes. It’s a story about a man who refuses to compromise his morals even if it means being hated; a man who will stand up and defend the honest and true American ideal, even as his country turns away from it. It’s a film that feels like a product of another time, and I mean that in the best possible way. It’s a Frank Capra/Jimmy Stewart movie transposed to 2015, and Spielberg does an incredible job with it. There are moments of incredible, profound meaning conveyed effortlessly in single, wordless shots. Spielberg is, without a doubt, our greatest living filmmaker, and I feel incredibly privileged to live in a time when he’s still making movies.
What does sexism look like? That is one of the questions at the heart of Ex Machina (I was tempted to call it the central question, but this movie is so stuffed with interesting, thought provoking themes that it feels almost insulting to limit it to one). Is sexism just the brash, macho posturing of men who both view and present themselves as being inherently superior to women, or is the guy who believes himself to be the heroic savior, rescuing the poor maiden from her helpless situation just as terrible? This is a story about feminism and women’s empowerment smuggled in with a story about artificial intelligence and robotics. It’s a film that challenges your perception of the film’s hero character and by extension your perception of yourself on top of being a super compelling sci-fi thriller.
It would have been easy to end Room halfway through its running time. There’s a satisfying, obvious ending, and it would have made for a solid, enjoyable movie. But Room doesn’t end there, instead it pushes past the point lesser films might have called “the end” to deal with the fallout and messy human drama that would follow such an ordeal, and it’s here where Room is elevated from being merely good to being truly great. The film is buoyed by a pair of spectacular performances from both Brie Larson and newcomer Jacob Tremblay. Both actors sell not only the heartbreaking gravity of the years of abuse these characters have endured, but also the deep, heartfelt love that’s kept them going through it all. I’m afraid this will gain a reputation as being a “sad movie” and it is sad, but it’s also as triumphant and rousing as something like The Martian though on a much more intimate scale.
I get frustrated when people complain about movies that are “emotionally manipulative”. In no small way, the entire purpose of cinema is to manipulate an audience’s emotions. Horror movies frighten you, comedies make you laugh, romances make you swoon, action movies make you excited, and one of the best damn movies of the year – possibly of the decade – literally times a profound moment of emotional catharsis to the push of a button. I’ve bemoaned the idea that Pixar has been off their game as of late (and with a future slate comprised almost entirely of sequels, their future doesn’t look much brighter), but Inside Out reminds us what Pixar (and specifically geniuses like Pete Docter) can do when they’re firing on all cylinders. It’s a brilliant, beautiful film with an enormous amount of emotional honesty, and that’s the key. When people complain about movies that are “emotionally manipulative” what they really mean is that they’re emotionally dishonest; they attempt to tug at your heart strings in crass and clumsy ways with moments that are unearned and phony. Inside Out is anything but phony. It’s an incredibly meaningful film about depression that also happens to be a joyous, fun, and frequently hilarious kids’ cartoon. It’s as pure a cinematic triumph as I’ve ever seen, and it is such by literally being about characters who manipulate emotions.
Mad Max: Fury Road
This is definitely one for the ages, right? I mean, it has to be. It’s cultural impact is too huge and it’s too instantly iconic to just fade away as a flash in the pan. It’s hard to gauge where things will fit in the long arc of our cultural canon, but Mad Max: Fury Road feels like something that will be with us for a long time. It’s a positively perfect film, a breathlessly paced action movie that’s loaded with metaphor and meaning; a film with tremendous things to say about feminism, toxic masculinity, and independence without ever having to resort to big speeches or portentous dialogue to get the point across. It’s beautifully shot, impeccably directed, and brilliantly structured, and the fact that it’s also a masterful revival of a nostalgic ’80s film series comes across almost like showing off. This is how you make a goddamn movie.
As I mentioned, this list was fairly easy to put together, but I did agonize a bit over the number one spot. After all, I just called Fury Road a perfect movie, one that I think will stick around in our culture forever, but in the end, as much as I love it, I couldn’t give it the number one spot. It had to be Creed. With the exception of Hamilton, nothing has consumed my thoughts this year the way Creed has – not even Star Wars, which I’ve written several thousand words on over the past twelve months. I’ve seen the movie three times now, and every day I haven’t seen it I’ve wanted to. What Ryan Coogler does with this film is nothing short of brilliant, he takes the basic structure of Rocky, but reframes it around a whole new character so that every familiar beat reverberates with a dramatically different meaning. Adonis Creed is not the down-on-his-luck underdog Rocky Balboa was, but is instead someone who is simultaneously fighting against and for his legacy. He’s a character having to deal with his relationship to a father he never knew and the expectations forced on him by a name he didn’t choose, and this difference is everything.
It’s a legacy film that is about legacy, and rather than being empty fan service, every moment that calls back to the previous Rocky films is a meaningful payoff to an emotional thread established within the context of this one film. Not only that, but the continuing story of the Italian Stallion himself not only feels totally organic and welcome, but never overshadows the story of Adonis. It’s a miraculous balance, where we accept and embrace this new character while also getting to spend time with an old friend, and while I hope Sly comes back for another go ’round, I’d be just as happy if Creed II was exclusively Donny’s story. This movie sings in a way I never expected, and even more so than Rocky Balboa, it is a perfect followup to the original film. It’s a movie that has as much to say as any awards bait does while still being a damn good time at the movies, and in the end, that’s the best we can possibly hope for.