This was an especially hard year to single out just 10 films. As of this writing, I’ve seen 63 new release movies in 2015, and while there were many excellent films this year, very few of them captured that certain thing that makes them a deeply personal experience for me despite being made for a mass audience. Usually I start with films I know must be on the list and then try to fill in around that framework, using rewatchability as a guide to how much I connected with the material. This year I had trouble narrowing down beyond my top 20.
It’s an odd feeling, especially when one genre of film stood above the rest in quality and quantity. For whatever reason, we got five excellent spy films: Spy, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, Bridge of Spies, and American Ultra (we also got a decent Bond film) but it pains me to say that despite being one of my favorite genres, none of those managed to actually end up in my top ten, when in another year, that could have been half my list. Crazy.
Notable films I haven’t seen yet: Ex Machina, What We Do in the Shadows, Mistress America, While We’re Young.
Again, this list is my personal best/favorite, all the usual caveats and posturing aside, here’s the list:
10. Avengers: Age of Ultron (dir. Joss Whedon)
This is definitely a flawed film, and it astounds me that this movie exists as it does. I never would have imagined that Disney would let Joss Whedon take its biggest franchise and a $250 million budget to make a deeply personal film and simultaneously hijack that effort to force him to set up Phase 3 of their film universe. Ultron is bursting at the seams, and I love it for a few reasons. One, it captured the exact feeling of a giant summer comic book crossover, including that part about setting up future events while trying to tell a story (Marvel’s Secret Wars comic this year started in May and is still not over, and expanded from eight issues to nine). Secondly, James Spader’s portrayal of Ultron gets better the more I watch the film. He is both menacing and comedic, and Spader’s voice emphasizes his link to the film’s major themes. And third, it is a deeply weird movie, introducing a character who is a literal deus ex machina in the final third, using visual and storytelling-based shorthand to explain his powers and what side he’ll be joining. My review.
9. Paddington (dir. Paul King)
Paddington is a film that left me stunned. Going into it, I wasn’t expecting much based on the overly slapsticky trailer. Little did I expect to experience a film that is full of heart, exceptionally well-crafted, and has a strong topical message embedded within. Paddington manages to be all of these things. A quintessential immigrant story (in a world where no one thinks anything odd about a bear in a raincoat), Paddington’s search for home is at once inseparable from 20th century British history and standing apart from it, revealing its universality in terms of how immigrants should be treated. It's astounding that something created to honor those who took in London children during the Second World War is so easily applied to current refugee crises.
8. The Martian (dir. Ridley Scott)
While I enjoyed the novel this film is based on, my favorite thing about the film by Ridley Scott is that it gives equal weight to Mark Watney’s plight on Mars as it does to those back on Earth working for his rescue. It is an illogical endeavor, the kind of massive, unifying project that demonstrates the value of a person’s life. It is a call to action, a hope that working together, the nations of the world (or at least their scientists) can solve any problem thrown their way. While we’ve been getting great hard science fiction lately, The Martian seems to perfectly balance the strengths and weaknesses of Gravity and Interstellar and come away with a movie that is more entertaining than either.
7. Inside Out (dir. Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen)
Of all the films on this list, this is the one where, after walking out of the theater, all I could think of was, 'I’ve never seen something like that before!’. It’s a film that could only truly be done in animation, and takes such a high concept like emotions, distills it so that it is easy to understand for both adults and children, and by the end of the film, completely flips that concept on its head, all while being moving and quite funny. Like other films on this list, it has no definable antagonist. You want every character in this film to succeed, and the sheer amount of story in this film is incredible.
6. Spotlight (dir. Tom McCarthy)
I am a sucker for ensemble films featuring super competent people being super competent at their jobs. While that is something that this film and The Martian both share, Spotlight is even more focused on the process. The timing of a big story, the role the fourth estate plays in modern society, and its importance when confronting those in power. Each actor, from Liev Schreiber, to Michael Keaton, to Rachel McAdams, to Mark Ruffalo, to Stanley Tucci is absolutely giving a great performance. Additionally the film manages to create both a sense of injustice as well as a deep sense of empathy for the victims and the toll this investigation has on the Spotlight team. Even the location scouting is note-perfect, often featuring steeples of Boston Catholic churches looming ominously in the background.
5. Creed (dir. Ryan Coogler)
Even as a lifelong Philadelphian, I have no particular love for the Rocky franchise. The first movie is excellent, the fourth one I like a lot, and I don’t know if I have seen the others complete in one sitting. But Creed is a masterpiece regardless. Director Ryan Coogler plays with the genre in interesting ways, twisting things around and giving us an alternative perspective rather than just the usual rags-to-riches story. Adonis Creed, as played by Michael B. Jordan, is a fully realized character, complex and deep, but with singular focus. And Jordan’s performance is electric. He’s always been good, but seeing him step into the limelight here is extremely gratifying. In my entire life, I never thought I would be emotionally moved from a new Sylvester Stallone performance. But here we are. He plays grumpy old man well, and captures the essence of a survivor (sorry), who keeps on living despite feeling alone. Absolutely brilliant.
4. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (dir. J.J. Abrams)
If you’ve been reading the site for the last few weeks, you know I am a huge Star Wars fan. I’ve already written a bunch about why the characters of this film work so well, so I won’t repeat myself here. At this point, having seen it four times, I think that excellent characters aside, the film does a great job using the mythological building blocks of the original film to tell one story that will serve as the root for many more to come while being a sublime piece of entertainment.
3. The End of the Tour (dir. James Ponsoldt)
I never read a single page of Infinite Jest when I saw this film. I knew almost nothing about David Foster Wallace aside from the fact that he wrote Infinite Jest. And yet this movie spoke to me. The film is largely structured as a series of conversations between Wallace and his interviewer, David Lipsky, played by Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg, respectively. Taking place in the wake of the release of Infinite Jest, a large focus for Lipsky is trying to see just who Wallace is and how fame has affected him. Wallace in turn, talks openly about not wanting to come off as too pretentious, or as a drug addict. The tension between the two men as interviewer and subject, as well as their respective egos concerning writing and women, is a captivating watch, and is ultimately a loving tribute to David Foster Wallace.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller)
So much has been said about this film, to the point where there’s not much left to say. It’s an adrenaline-fueled chase. It’s a feminist statement. It has a clear message without muddling the carefully-crafted post-apocalyptic hell. But of all the wonderful things included in this film, my favorite might be the wordless world building. Director George Miller is constantly showing and not telling, leaving scores of minute details to be discovered on repeat viewings.
1. Clouds of Sils Maria (dir. Olivier Assayas)
This is one film where I really feel like I captured what I love about this movie in my review:
Of course, as Maria and Val run through the paces of Sigrid and Helen, their own relationship is refracted back, furthering the splintering and blurring the line between reality and fiction for these characters. Stepping into the role of Helen after years of carrying Sigrid is taxing on Marie, and emotionally draining. Val’s perspective on the play, and perhaps more importantly, her ideas on what Maria’s perspective on Maloja Snake should be complicates things further. It’s not so much that they slip in and out of roles, but Marie’s attempt at playing the role of Helen, and truly understand her character seems to drive a wedge between her and Val. This wedge underlies all the other issues they discuss, from the popularity of superheroes to the merits of what constitutes a brave performance, reflecting both broad generational divides as well as ones specific to these women. This film is truly a showcase for Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, who each fully inhabit their characters in a very distinct and real way. Even while dancing through the brambles of the film’s ‘roles within roles’ in the second act, there is never any doubt as to the weight and feeling underlying these women. While Binoche gets a few moments for outbursts of emotions, Stewart matches her intensity despite ultimately giving a more subtle performance.
And that’s all that needs to be said, really, except that the second time around, I was just as captivated by these two actresses.
Non-spy honorable mentions: Dope, Phoenix, Duke of Burgundy, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, Carol