Just like our Podcast of a similar name, we will each break down all the best films of this past year.
If you agree, disagree (we’re looking at you Clouds of Sils Maria-Haters!), or think we missed some please feel free to comment below.
10. (tie) What makes The Martian so damn good is its ability to use its complicated science as a way to humanize its main character. By having Matt Damon, and the other actors in the film, explain what he’s doing and why it’s important, he automatically becomes more appealing and human. It also gives the film an excuse to use actual science to help our character survive, which again makes him and the film more endearing. Other films of this nature play with the prospect of hoping real hard for a solution until EUREKA one is found, but The Martian wants to make sure it’s as realistic as it can possibly be while still being the most explicitly crowd-pleasing sci-fi film in years. The cast is outstanding, the script is tight and funny, Ridley Scott is at the top of his game, and Matt Damon gives the best performance of his career.
The best film experience of the year, Trainwreck is also the best comedy of the year. Ferociously funny, fresh, and full of life the film is testament to Amy Schumer’s comedic style and director Judd Apatow’s comedic sensibilities. They work so well together that it’s a shame and surprise that this is their first comedic team up. They’ve assembled the best cast of 2015 and crafted an uproarious film that demands to be seen in a crowded theater on a Friday night. Trainwreck finds two comedians at the height of their powers working together for the noblest cause of all: making us laugh.
9. Along with some of the most beautiful animation I’ve ever seen, Anomalisa provides a haunting and fascinating look at our stage in life. The voice cast (which only consists of three people; David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tom Noonan) is extraordinarily realized and perfect for their roles. The film is about times in your life where you feel settled, stuck, and how you can cling to something, anything, to feel invigorated again. The most lasting aspect of the film is how it doesn’t play its ending as one might expect. Both David Thewlis’ character and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s are in a rut, they grasp onto each other because of how they make themselves feel, and yet their stories end at opposite spectrums. So real and rich is Anomalisa that it’s hard to not fall in love and feel invigorated by seeing it, whether it’s just for a little while or long after it’s ended.
8. Yes, there have been a lot of films made about the Holocaust. But there has never been a film like Son of Saul. Told entirely on the shoulders of one man, this extraordinary achievement uses everything from the framing of the camera, to lighting, to sound, to color, to its performances to craft something so so special. Our main character is unreliable and ignorant, blinded by the atrocities he’s seen. We root for and, sometimes against, his quest to bury a child he believes to be his son. The film is bleak and contains all of the necessary Holocaust imagery one would expect but there is so much more going on in Son of Saul. A truly unforgettable experience and possibly the best movie of its kind since Schindler’s List, except there really hasn’t ever been a movie of this kind.
7. Beasts of No Nation simply floors you. Cary Joji Fukunaga’s camera work (he became the cinematographer when the film’s original suffered an injury on the first day) is so stunning that it has stayed so vivid in my mind since viewing the film for the first time. Fluid and wide, the camera moves carefully with the characters. Lighting designs will change (and in one stunning sequence the entire picture turns red and gray) and long shots are used to full effect. One scene in particular is among the best and the most impressive of the year: the camera follows our main character Agu (Abraham Attah, who gave the best performance of 2015) as he moves through a building. The success of the long take is impressive on its own (especially when taking into account most of the actors in the scene were children) but what elevates it is the revelation that every movement of the camera has a specific purpose. Fukunaga does not waste a moment of the scene or film and the ending is the heartbreaking and life affirming at the same time. When a movie so horrific and harrowing can end on such quiet and pulsing enthusiasm it is triumphant.
6. The most old-fashioned film in the best possible way, Brooklyn is classic cinema. An endearing love story, charming characters, a delicate script, and eloquent direction create a film of pure joy. Saoirse Ronan radiates beauty, confidence, intelligence, and strength as Eilis, giving her a fully developed character from the start and reveling in her opportunity to allow her to grow as the film progresses. The sets are lavish without drawing attention to themselves. It’s filmed in bright warm colors that carry you away to an idealistic 1950s’ America. It’s a film of no negativity, no narcissism; it’s here to remind us of the immigrants journey as well as our own. It is a beautiful film.
5. No film experience was as electrifying as this year as Steve Jobs. Directing with frenetic energy by Danny Boyle (it’s his best work) and written with utter glee by Aaron Sorkin this is a film that demands your attention. Subversive editing coupled with raw cinematography give the film a necessary and wholly unique feel. The approach is spellbinding with subtle touches providing ample support (three different scores, three different filming techniques). Every actor is absolutely astonishing headlined by Michael Fassbender’s beautiful, real, and riveting portrayal of Steve Jobs. He brings a deep humanity to a frustratingly complex man. It’s his best work since Shame. Steve Jobs is a biopic for the ages and one that deserves to be remembered.
4. What makes Spotlight so endlessly enthralling is its determination to tell its true life story honestly while never forgetting to entertain its audience. Edited to perfection, the film is built like a thriller; it moves carefully and patiently through its story. Blisteringly real and subtly in depth this is a film that was built to unknowingly leave you breathless. Everyone in the film is great and the screenplay is dense and complete. This is a story that is important and not only exposes a dangerous truth but highlights investigative journalism as a necessary part of American society. It’s honors the victims while honestly portraying it’s heroes as dedicated people who did their job. It’s an important piece of American journalism and now cinema.
3. A beautiful and tender love letter to friendship, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a heartbreaking triumph of independent filmmaking. The film embodies the independent spirit with kooky characters and irreverent but polished humor. There is so much happening in this film; from Greg and Earl’s parodying short films, to the fluid and emotional movements of the camera, to Olivia Cooke and RJ Cyler’s star-making performances, plus it all culminates in a genuinely earned tear jerking ending. It’s a poignant and emotional film that stays with you longer after it’s over. Unique yet familiar and undeniably unforgettable, it’s a treasure of independent film making.
2. I’ve said a lot about Inside Out recently. It’s ambitiously animated, voiced to perfection, and brilliant film making. What I’m going to spend my last blurb about Inside Out (for a while at least) talking about is its lasting impact. Here is a film crafted because those weirdoes at Pixar wanted to better understand how children grow up (namely one of those weirdoes daughter). They found ways to bring to life those emotional pratfalls that we go through as we grow up and understand that we won’t be happy all the time. And in giving those emotions life and voices they made them seem real, so when a child is afraid maybe they will think about Bill Hader running around in their head and maybe they’ll laugh. Maybe they will picture a small blue mop when they are sad and it will make them feel less alone. Beyond understanding the message of the film (that every emotion is important and necessary) Pixar has given kids characters that are there for them when they are confused. Maybe these little fictional creatures will become comforting to children who can’t understand why they are mad or sad or afraid. When they don’t understand the changes in their life and their impulsive reactions to those changes they can look inside and laugh or understand that it’s just a small blue being who is sad with them and know that Amy Poehler might be right around the corner to make everything better. That is what makes Inside Out timelessly special and unequivocally important.
1. Complex and exquisitely crafted, this was the film that fascinated me so much that I had no choice but to put it at the top of my list. A richly layered film told in three acts with supremely different purposes, it’s quite extraordinary. At once a tale of aging with acceptance Clouds of Sils Maria ultimately devolves into one of love and desire, of truth and death, of time and meaning. Filled with gorgeous images and impactful imagery, it’s a film that needs to be seen again and again. There is deep, deep meaning in this film, the likes of which I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of yet. But I’ll keep looking because the film does not just call for it. It demands it. Clouds of Sils Maria is the most polarizing, complex, purposeful, careful, substantial, bewildering, and best picture of the year.
10. There hasn’t been an action movie like this one in quite some time, and certainly not one with such high a profile. Everything about Mad Max: Fury Road sets it apart: Charlize Theron’s All Star performance supported by Tom Hardy’s quiet but undeniable charisma, the gorgeous, dirty, desolate landscapes, the organic, prominent message of female empowerment, and, of course, the action. Good lord, the action. More than anything else, Mad Max: Fury Road is an elongated, explosion riddled chase scene – occasionally broken up by a movie – that brings a new meaning to the word exciting.
9. Clouds of Sils Maria is ethereal. Its aura works itself into your mind and won’t let go. I saw a lot of movies in 2015 that fell down my list as they faded from my mind, but Clouds wasn’t one of them. The details faded, sure, but the essence grabbed hold and refused to let go. It’s thoughtful and moving and challenging without feeling forced. It evokes the wonder of nature without ever really being about it, but it still works. Gun to my head, I couldn’t necessarily tell you what happens in it, but I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to tell you to see it.
8. Blatant exposition is usually considered a fault, and for movies covering complex, of-the-time topics, it’s often an unavoidable one. The Big Short recognizes this, and rather than trying to avoid it, it embraces the exposition with open arms. With The Big Short, director Adam McKay clearly set out to do the work of a documentary (educating the public about the specifics of America’s recent financial collapse) while recognizing that the public doesn’t really watch documentaries. The decision to tell that story while fully utilizing the entertainment potential of a narrative film instead is surprising, impressive, and most of all, hugely successful.
7. The best thing I can say about Steve Jobs is that I had a hard time thinking of words to describe it that I didn’t already use for Mad Max. Aaron Sorkin once again showcases his incredible talent for making angry nerds compelling, and Danny Boyle more than capably translates it all to the screen. The standout though, unsurprisingly, is Michael Fassbender’s performance as the titular Steve Jobs. With Daniel Day-Lewis still on extended sabbatical (or possibly just tirelessly researching for the role of a man on extended sabbatical), Fassbender has gamely slid into the “Best Working Actor” role. At this point he’s mostly just running up the score. A sneakily great supporting cast rounds out this great biopic, hopefully closing the door on Steve Jobs movies for the foreseeable future.
6. Brooklyn is, above all else, effortlessly nice. It’s a story of love and empowerment anchored by a career (so far, at least) performance from Saoirse Ronan. It’s not particularly political or challenging or new, but in spite of all that, it’s just so damn enjoyable to watch. Ronan’s journey throughout the film is seamlessly drawn, allowing you to get sucked in to this old fashioned romance without even realizing how captivated you are.
5. If there’s one movie that makes the strongest argument for diversity in the film industry being a good thing, Dope is it. The beauty of this movie is that while the ins and outs of the story (life in a rough LA neighborhood) work because of the primarily black/Hispanic cast, the themes and tropes behind it (dorky high schooler and his dorkier friends go on a quest through the city, he gets the girl by being himself, etc.) are universal. It’s a teen comedy that we’ve all seen a hundred times before, but it’s told from a slightly different perspective, and not even necessarily on purpose. It’s just a natural byproduct of growing up in a different environment, or with a different culture, and it’s enough to make a movie completely fresh and fun again.
4. You wanna feel sad? Me and Earl and the Dying Girl will make you feel sad. I would have marked spoilers, but I don’t think a movie has been or will be made involving teenagers and romance and cancer that doesn’t end in sadness; it just comes with the territory. What elevates Earl above those that came before it is the impeccable craftsmanship it employs to evoke that sadness. It’s a movie full of details and moments that shed some light without seeming particularly essential, until suddenly, and without warning, they couldn’t be more essential. It earns every single tear it wrings out of you.
3. Sicario has a lot of great elements to it – its score is damn near perfect, it’s absolutely beautiful visually, and it continues to make the case for Emily Blunt, Improbable Action Hero – but it earns the #3 spot solely for being the most thrilling movie of the year. It has multiple scenes that literally keep you on the edge of your seat, and it knows it, so it lingers in those scenes for an excruciatingly long time. It smartly stays away from the politics of the War on Drugs and instead focuses on the horrible realities of the Drug War: it’s Hell down there, and Hell does horrible things to people.
2. There’s been a substantial amount of backlash about The Revenant since it came out. People say it’s too long, or that the flashbacks are silly, or that Leo’s plight is just too overbearing, and honestly, it’s hard to argue with them. It’s a long movie, a lot of terrible stuff happens in it, and flashbacks are hard. Fortunately, this is my list, so there’s only one comeback I need: I don’t really care. For my money, The Revenant was compelling, visceral, and utterly engrossing filmmaking. The visuals were stunning, and they came with an actual plot to string them together (unlike some of Lubezki’s more Malick-ian projects). The three lead performances – DiCaprio, Hardy, and Gleeson – were all outstanding. The bear fight. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for me, every element of The Revenant worth appreciating was an absolute knockout.
1. A good journalism movie is rare, and a great one even more so. There’s All the President’s Men, obviously, a personal all-time favorite and the clear pinnacle of the genre. I’d include Zodiac, though it has the benefit of also being a murder mystery. Nightcrawler technically counts, but it lives in a completely different headspace than the other two. Spotlight is not quite All the President’s Men, but it’s probably closer than anything the world has seen since. It succeeds as a great movie in its own right – it’s got great performances, a terrific score, and a few memorable, heartbreaking scenes – but Spotlight’s greatest victory is simply scratching an itch that hasn’t properly been tended to in a long time.