2015 has been a rather strange year in cinema. About halfway through the year, I had already seen two four-star films, which is highly unusual, and at the very beginning of awards season, I saw yet another. It was shaping up to be one of the most amazing years in a long time, as I usually have to struggle to find a single four-star film per year (the last three years only garnered one apiece). However, when the season truly got under way, it turned out a lot of the big films going for Oscar gold ended up being rather disappointing (“The Big Short,” “Brooklyn,” and especially “Spotlight,” the current favorite for Best Picture), while a few others were good, but not particularly great (“Carol” and “Room”), but luckily, at least some of the “award” films did live up to the hype. For the rest, I’ve had to turn to some smaller films, and perhaps a film or two that you wouldn’t expect to see on such a year-end list, but that’s what makes assembling these lists so much fun, because you’re never quite sure until the end of the year just which of the hundreds of films you’ve seen are going to make it. So let’s get to it:
10. Spectre – “Casino Royale” had brilliantly rebooted the James Bond franchise back in 2006, delivering a great blend of story and action that resulted in what many have called one of the very best films in the series. However, after such a grand success, the series went on a downward swing, delivering “Quantum of Solace,” which tried to be too much of an action film with a muddled plot, and “Skyfall,” which had a ploddingly-paced narrative and not quite enough excitement. However, with “Spectre,” the series gets back on its feet, delivering another grand mix of action and a compelling mystery-based story. The action itself is done marvelously (thanks in large part to Sam Mendes’ excellent direction and Van Hoytema’s gorgeous cinematography), providing plenty of thrills and spectacle as the film’s intriguing plot unfolds, with both keeping you near the edge of your seat for the entire trip as the film’s nearly two and a half hour runtime flies by. Now that the series’ producers have rediscovered what really makes the series tick, let’s hope that they’ll stick to it and deliver further knockouts in the future.
9. The Look of Silence – One of the most disturbing and horrific documentaries of the last several years, “The Look of Silence” follows a young man as he interviews his brother’s murderers several decades after the fact. As he talks with them, along with others who were involved in other ways, about the events of the Indonesian genocide, it’s utterly shocking how he finds practically no remorse from those who were directly responsible, with most trying to shift the blame onto someone else. This is mixed with him watching footage of men describing how his brother was murdered, detailing it almost with a sense of glee, only adding to the film’s chilling effect. After having been rather disappointed with Joshua Oppenheimer’s previous documentary, “The Act of Killing,” it’s a pleasant surprise to find that his latest effort has a much better sense of focus, though it too had large bits of unnecessary fluff that could have been trimmed out. However, this young man’s spellbinding and compelling quest for the truth easily makes this rank as one of the best documentaries and one of the very best films overall of the year.
8. The Martian – In terms of great sci-fi films of 2015, we had two kinds. For the first kind, we have Sir Ridley Scott’s rather bold adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel, “The Martian,” a sci-fi blockbuster that tells the story of an astronaut left for dead on Mars. Much of the film is simply a one man show of Mark Watney (Matt Damon) using his science skills to survive on the barren planet, while his NASA comrades back home try to figure out the best way to get him back to Earth. It may be a little episodic in that it’s basically one problem after another that Mark has to solve, and the ending could have been tightened up a bit, but “The Martian” is highly entertaining, with a few laughs thrown in for good measure (though completely mislabeled as a comedy for the upcoming Golden Globes), and above all, it’s an incredibly compelling story that has you rooting for Mark’s survival every step of the way, even though you can probably already guess how it ends.
7. Ex Machina – On the flip side of “The Martian,” you have Alex Garland’s directorial debut, “Ex Machina,” a film that focuses more on ideas rather than on being an effects-fueled extravaganza. Telling a deceptively simple story of a young man asked to perform a Turing Test on an A.I., we slowly start to realize that his host and his subject might not be telling the whole truth, wrapping us up in a guessing game that is both thought-provoking and gripping. Featuring an exceptional performance from Alicia Vikander as the A.I., Garland has fashioned a sci-fi film that won’t be for all tastes (especially those who prefer a big-budget spectacle), but for those that are open to the possibility of a film that will make you think about deep concepts involving artificial intelligence, you’ll find it a very rewarding experience.
6. Trumbo – A fascinating biopic that focuses on perhaps the most infamous screenwriter of all time, Dalton Trumbo. The film follows the highs and lows of his life, with a specific concentration on his years on the Blacklist, which kept him from working in the business in any official capacity. Of course, this didn’t stop him from secretly working on a number of projects, two of which won him Oscars (though he wasn’t given official credit until several years later). Driven by a great ensemble that includes Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., John Goodman, Diane Lane, Alan Tudyk, and Michael Stuhlbarg, “Trumbo” is a biopic filled with energy that you can’t help but get absorbed in as it takes you through one of the darkest times in Hollywood.
5. The Revenant – Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s beautifully epic tale of survival and revenge set in the American wilderness of the 1820s tells the story of a scout for a hunters’ expedition that is left for dead after being mauled by a bear. Miraculously, he survives and sets out to get the man who not only left him behind, but also murdered his son right in front of him. This bleak and unforgiving tale features top notch work from everyone involved, including marvelous direction from three-time Oscar winner Inarritu (“Birdman”), a brilliant performance from Leonardo DiCaprio (who will more than likely earn his first Oscar), and gorgeous camerawork from master cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki (a two-time Oscar winner for “Gravity” and “Birdman” who could easily win a third time in a row). It’s a film that might be a little too much for some, and you could argue that it’s a little longer than it needs to be at 156 minutes, but for those who are patient, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most breathtaking films of the year.
4. The Hateful Eight – After Quentin Tarantino had released the good-but-not-great Western “Django Unchained,” I was a little skeptical about seeing him return to the genre right away. This feeling only grew as the first part of his latest opus played out. Here we had a lot of characters sitting around having some pretty interesting discussions, all punctuated by Tarantino’s amazing knack for great dialogue, but in terms of plot, there wasn’t really a whole lot going on besides a couple of bounty hunters trying to get to the town of Red Rock to turn in their bounties, with lots of paranoia thrown in for good measure. However, when the film’s second half hits, it’s like a powder keg going off, kicking the plot into high gear and showing us what Tarantino had up his sleeve the entire time. Then you slowly begin to realize that everything that Tarantino had been doing up to this point had been entirely on purpose so that we would get to know the characters who would soon be thrown into the chaos of the second half. When all is said and done, “The Hateful Eight” becomes a fascinating portrait of deception and mistrust, featuring outstanding direction and, of course, a sharply-written (and soon to be Oscar-nominated) screenplay from Tarantino, and all of this on top of an exceptional cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, and Bruce Dern. This is another one that requires a little patience, but if you give it a chance, you certainly won’t be sorry that you did.
3. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl – One of the smaller, and most under-appreciated, films on this list is this little gem that tells the story of Greg (Thomas Mann), a high school kid who is forced by his mother to visit a girl, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), from his school that recently found out she has cancer. Brilliantly mixing comedy and drama, the film focuses on the development of their relationship as it goes from being somewhat awkward to a deeper kind of bond that has them seeing each other just about every day. Working from a hilarious and touching script from Jesse Andrews (based on his book), Mann and Cooke deliver unforgettable performances that tackle the demands of their roles flawlessly. This is one of those films that really makes you appreciate the small films that come out year after year. They may not have anything fancy about them, but sometimes they end up being some of the very best that cinema has to offer.
2. Steve Jobs – It’s rare to find a movie like “Steve Jobs” that fires on every single cylinder. From Danny Boyle’s excellent direction to Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant screenplay to a masterful ensemble that includes Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, and Jeff Daniels, this is a film that grabs you from the very start and never lets go. Following the technology icon prior to the launch of three different products, we see him not only dealing with last-minute technical problems, but also his personal situation, which includes a daughter that he claims is not his (despite strong evidence that she is). It’s a spellbinding, dialogue-driven character piece that shows just what kind of magic can happen when all of the right people are brought together for a film like this, another one that’s not really dependent on more than the performances and the dialogue. It’s an absolute shame that the film never found an audience at the theater (probably thanks to that OTHER movie about Jobs’ life), but we can only hope that that’ll change once it gets its home release.
1. Inside Out – What could I possibly add to the multitude of praise that has already been heaped upon Pixar’s latest film? In telling the story of a young girl (and the emotions inside her head) as she moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, Pixar has truly outdone themselves, delivering their most intelligent, ambitious, and flat-out best film yet. Working with a multi-layered story, dazzling conceptual design, and the same gorgeous animation that we have come to expect, “Inside Out” comes with a surprising amount of depth, resulting in a film that is not only delightfully entertaining, but also thought-provoking and very much emotionally-complex. No other film this year, live-action or animated, dealt a punch nearly as strong, and while kids may not quite understate the film’s deep undertones, there’s still plenty for them to enjoy, while parents will be able to appreciate its rich and compelling emotional subtext. There isn’t really any other way to say it: it’s quite simply a masterpiece, and easily earns the title of the best film of 2015.
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