10 Best Movies of 2015

And the five worst.

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This year was a rich phantasmagoria of features and strong performances, capped off by a slate of better-than-average prestige pictures into December. Some years we get lucky, I guess. Here’s one critic’s take on the best the year had to offer (and the worst, which you can skip to here). Please note a couple of these films have not actually been released yet. Their opening dates are listed where applicable.

The Best Films of 2015

10. The Lobster 

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If Kafka had been born later and became a filmmaker rather than a writer, this is the kind of thing he would have enjoyed making. Yorgos Lanthimos continues to explore his peculiarly captivating vision here with a wild-eyed conceit played as drolly deadpan as a staid chamber comedy. At a special hotel somewhere outside a large city, single people are given 45 days to find a partner to share their lives with, or be turned into the animal of their choice and set free in the nearby woods. Lanthimos’s film is ostensibly a comedy, but because of his visceral acuity, and penchant for disturbing violence, the whole enterprise has a gritty edginess to it. He doesn’t want you comfortable; he wants you transfixed. My TIFF review here(Release Date: March 11, 2016)

9. Inside Out

One of the rarest of modern children’s films, as it involves the revolutionary notion that sadness is absolutely as important and essential as joy to a child’s healthy development. As much as we may want to coddle our kids and hope they never have a rotten day in their blessed lives, realistically, they will be subject to the same miseries and horrors that afflicted us. Pete Doctor and Ronnie Del Carmen’s film is many things – kids can learn about their emotional make-up, while their parents can openly sob for the death of imaginary friends – but perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is the way it can connect both generations simultaneously, while also hitting them on different levels. Full review here.

8. Anomalisa

Very adult stop-motion animation story from Charile Kaufman and Duke Johnson, and I designate it that not just because of a surprisingly graphic sex scene (the first time I have ever witnessed stop-motion cunnilingus), but because the emotionally sophisticated story – an older customer service expert spends a night in Cincinnati to speak at a convention, and tries to assuage his perpetual loneliness – would absolutely bore the pants out of anyone under 10. For the rest of us, it’s a hauntingly sharp observation on the suffering human condition. Kaufman can sometimes go too Ziggy Stardust for my taste, but here he’s completely on-point.” More here(Release Date: January, 2016)

7. Spotlight

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A powerful paean to the importance of watchdog journalism, Tom McCarthy’s masterful journo-procedural follows the very real story of the investigative Boston Globe team who broke open the Catholic Church sexual misconduct story, after decades of having it swept under the rug by sympathetic Church powerbrokers. The cast, featuring such luminaries as Michael Keaton, Marc Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Liev Schreiber, is impeccable, the filmmaking moves briskly and with considerable restraint, and the film’s ending, which includes a roll call of the news outlets all over the world who followed suit in their investigations, is absolutely haunting. Full review here.

6. 45 Years

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Andrew Haigh (Weekend) has made a luminescent and powerful film about marriage and the passing of time. Based loosely on a short story by David Constantine, the film finds an elderly couple (played by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, both absolutely brilliant) about to celebrate an important anniversary suddenly questioning their choices when one of them receives a startling letter in the mail. Quietly reverberating, the film shimmers with life, and the performances are nothing short of thrilling. It might sound staid, but as with the aging couple themselves, there is a lot of daring vitality in its ancient bones. More here.

5. Mad Max: Fury Road

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Easily the best action movie of the year, largely because its numerous insane set-pieces and wild stunts had the edge of verisimilitude. George Miller and his extraordinary stunt team worked for months perfecting the on-screen insanity that pervades nearly every scene, and the effect – especially after a loathsome, steady diet of CGI cheats and hosed-up green-screen drama that passes for entertainment during the summer season – was nothing less than scintillating. Full review here.

4. James White

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When Christopher Abbot left Girls in a seeming huff about the triviality of his character a couple of years ago, most of us shrugged and assumed he was just another kid who was too late to recognize what kind of a break he had just gotten, that is if we thought about him much at all. Turns out, he was absolutely right to leave the show and move on to more serious work. He stars in this devastating film from writer/director Josh Mond, the titular character, a well-meaning, but hugely irresponsible young man who has a knack for making the wrong calls and forcing everyone around him to live with his bad decisions. This is especially true of his long-suffering but loving mom, played by Cynthia Nixon, who’s been sick with cancer. When the disease comes back with a vengeance, it forces James to face the world a little more head-on, but not without it exacting a pretty horrific toll on him. Quick-tempered and hugely impulsive, he has no place to put his anguish except upon everything else around him. For those of us who have lost a parent, the film’s unrelenting intimacy is very nearly unendurable, but I have nothing but mad respect for a filmmaker who can look into that particular abyss so unflinchingly. This is a monster of a film, and the announcement of a phenomenal young actor, suddenly proving his earlier career choices were more than justified. More here.

3. The Look of Silence

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Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion film to his Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing returns us to the uneasy tension in Indonesia, a country still under martial rule in the wake of the brutal regime crackdown by a military coup in the ’60s. Whereas Killing gave us the savage military purging from the perspective of the oppressors – a movement that ultimately resulted in the deaths of more than a million innocent citizens, Silence offers the view from some of the survivors, and their families, forced to live and work alongside the men who wiped out their friends and loved ones nearly five decades ago. The film takes its title quite seriously, there are many small, quiet spots, but rather than setting a mood of tranquility, they underscore the forced suppression the survivors have to endure, living amongst their oppressors. When one man, an optometrist whose brother was killed in the uprising, goes on a series of interviews of the perpetrators, he’s not seeking revenge, he just wants someone – anyone – to take some accountability for their actions and acknowledge their wrongdoing. Instead, he’s treated to an endless assortment of excuses and guilt-suppressing denial. Each film standing on its own is brilliant; together it’s a stunning achievement, one of the more important visual documents of the last couple of decades. More here.

2. Brooklyn

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It’s a masterful, sweeping drama about a young Irish woman (Saoirse Ronan), who travels alone to America in the early ’50s in order to make a better life for herself, even as she desperately misses her mother and older sister. Eventually, she meets a kindly young Italian man (Emory Cohen) and falls in love, but has to return to Ireland, where she ultimately has to make a fretful decision between staying in her beloved home, or returning to the life she only half begun across the ocean. It’s the kind of emotionally driven story that you could imagine Hollywood snapping up – and thoroughly botching. Fortunately, the screenplay, based on the novel by Colm Tóibín and adapted flawlessly by Nick Hornby, never loses sight of the potency of the small, well-observed detail. It doesn’t demand that emotions well up in you, it just goes about the business of telling its story, and the wonderful acting and sharp screenwriting do the rest. The film quickly got picked up by Fox Searchlight, and you would have to immediately put it on the short list of next year’s major awards, as long as the studio doesn’t thoroughly screw up its distribution. (Hello, Selma.) More here.

1. The Witch

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Robert Eggers’ 16th-century horror story takes place in the wilds of New England, with a pilgrim family led by a proud, God-fearing patriarch (Ralph Ineson) getting banished from their small village to forage on their own. They settle down on a clearing right on the edge of a great and malevolent forest. After their small baby is suddenly whisked away from under the gaze of their oldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), things turn worse for the family: The crops grow fallow, the goats start milking blood, and the rest of the children are in constant peril, until the family begins to turn on itself and the accusations of witchcraft readily fly. Expertly constructed, with a startling use of both growing, incessant sound and eerie silence, Eggers’ terrifying folk-tale captures a lot of the angst we feel confronting a natural world that we can’t bend to our force of will. This is one ghoulish story you most definitely do not want to tell your kids around the campfire, unless you want them huddled around you shaking and sobbing all night. More here. (Release Date: February 26, 2016)

Other Worthy Mentions:


The Worst Films of 2015

5. Blackhat

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A weakly plotted, idiotic Internet action thriller, it asks us to find Chris Hemsworth credible as a visionary hacker (um, no), and able to knock out a group of trained assassins utilizing tips he learned from watching episodes of The Wire. Michael Mann: How the mighty have fallen. Full review here.

4. San Andreas

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Yes, one always has to allow for a certain amount of disbelief when it comes to big action flicks, but this idiotic Rock vehicle didn’t just have plot holes amongst its various inconsistencies, it had veritable caverns. Full review here.

3. Fantastic Four

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Almost a wasted spot for this Josh Trank film, which was absolutely pilloried by critics and ignored by theater-goers in its August release. But a special shoutout for the film’s “climax” which involved one of the least likely and most fully fungible final battles ever, a moment where you could feel the studio just shrug its shoulders and toss the film in the write-off bin. Full review here.

2. Tomorrowland

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Another hagiographic Disney flick about the wonder of Disney-ness was one of the most cynically creepy films of this or any year. What the producers hoped would be a new franchise to blow-out with merchandise, turned instead to be a pretty significant misstep for the mouse. We’d like to think this might teach them some humility, but whom are we kidding? Full review here.

1. 50 Shades of Grey

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Can’t say the books much called to me in the first place, but this turgid adaption, dutiful as it was pushing the cultural envelope with its intensely dull scenes from within a sex dungeon and CGI pubic hair, suffered greatly from the utter lack of what you might call chemistry between its two leads. Nothing against Dakota Johnson, who has shown promise elsewhere, and Jamie Dornan, who hasn’t, but it can’t be much of a treat for them to have to reunite for at least two more productions of this dull mess. Full review here.

Other Dishonorable Entries:


More Thoughts

Inexplicably Overrated

Biggest Welcome Surprises

Most Bitter Disappointments

Films Critics Got Wrong

Follow Piers Marchant @kafkaesque83 or on his blog, Sweet Smell of Success.

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