Top 10 Films of 2015
by Daniel Rester
The year of 2015 is over and so passes its year of cinema as well. That means it’s time for me to make a “best films of the year” list, naturally. Keep in mind that this list is subjective, but I do encourage people to weigh in on their favorite films of the year in the comments section as discussions are great.
My list, like every year, will go by official United States release dates; this means the films had to have had a limited or wide release in theaters in the U.S. in the year 2015 to qualify.
I did miss a few well-regarded movies this year for one reason or another because life happens. That’s not to say the films would have made my list, but many other people have praised them highly so they are worth mentioning. Some of the films I missed this year were: Amy, The Assassin, Chi-Raq, Concussion, The Danish Girl, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, 45 Years, Macbeth, The Tribe, and Where to Invade Next.
I must be honest and say that 2015 was a pretty good year in film but not a great one. There were quite a lot of entertaining pictures, yes, but only a few films really kept me spellbound. However, it is worth mentioning that this was a great year for strong female characters, the science fiction genre, and three actors in particular who were in multiple good films — Alicia Vikander, Tom Hardy and Domhnall Gleeson. Without further ado, here are my picks for the best films of 2015:
15 major honorable mentions that I highly considered for my list (alphabetical order):
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
The Hateful Eight
Kingsman: The Secret Service
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
What We Do In the Shadows
The Top 10:
10. Straight Outta Compton
A sprawling and electric biopic from director F. Gary Gray, Straight Outta Compton traces the formation, highlights, downfalls, and ending of pioneering rap group N.W.A. Jason Mitchell is a revelation as Eazy-E, leading an excellent cast in a film that puts police corruption, censorship, racism and other dirty topics under the microscope — and reveals that not much has really changed today. The film annoyingly avoids the misogynistic undertones of some of the group’s work, but thankfully it doesn’t totally ignore all of the members’ flaws or treat them like saints. Gray’s film doesn’t quite always hit its mark in its second half, but Compton is more ambitious and has more sting than any other biopic I’ve seen in years.
9. Love & Mercy
My #9 choice just happens to be another music biopic (and both it and Compton happen to star Paul Giamatti in a supporting role). This one covers two different parts of Beach Boys member Brian Wilson’s life – in the 1960s as he struggles to change the face of pop music and in the 1980s as he lives as broken man kept drugged-up by a shady therapist. Where Compton is raw and big, Mercy is more of an artistic and poignant biopic, directed beautifully by Bill Pohlad and acted with passion by Paul Dano (young Wilson), John Cusack (older Wilson), Elizabeth Banks and the rest of the cast. Mercy is a bit of an overlooked film and deserves to be discovered by more people.
Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight is one of the most intelligent and well-made films about journalism in years. Featuring an all-star cast including Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton, the film details the true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered a massive scandal in the early 2000s that involved multiple Catholic priests who wear molesting children. Spotlight has a leisurely pace, so it loses momentum at times, but the film is mostly riveting and truly shocks the audience with the truths it presents.
7. Son of Saul
Just when you thought you’ve seen all of the different angles of The Holocaust in cinema, along comes the harrowing foreign film Son of Saul from Hungary. The fact that it’s the debut feature film from director László Nemes makes it all the more remarkable. Saul takes a gritty, you-are-there approach with its mostly close-up cinematography and staging, telling the story of the title character (played brilliantly by Géza Röhrig) as he tries to give a proper burial to a dead boy at Auschwitz. Nemes’ film uniquely covers the Sonderkommandos and ultimately presents a look at The Holocaust that always feels real and never Movie-ized.
Oh, what a charming film this is. Brooklyn follows Irish immigrant Eilis (a luminous and never-better Saoirse Ronan) as she travels to the title city in the 1950s and quickly falls in love before struggling to choose between moving back home or not. Based on Colm Tóibín’s novel, Nick Hornby’s screenplay leaves out the sap and instead gives us wonderful characters and depth as director John Crowley presents everything with a poet’s eye. This is a film that makes you feel really good after watching it but is also much more than just a “feel-good film” at the same time.
5. The Revenant
Based in part on Michael Punke’s novel, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant is an astonishing film full of how-did-they-do-that moments and featuring some of the most eye-opening cinematography I’ve ever seen (from the brilliant Emmanuel Lubezki). Taking place in the 1820s, Leonardo DiCaprio expertly plays Hugh Glass, who gets mauled by a bear and is then left for dead before somehow living and seeking revenge on the man who abandoned him. The mid-section of the film could have been tighter, and I wish I had a bit more of an emotional connection by the finish, but overall The Revenant is an epic, edge-of-your-seat film with craftsmanship to spare.
4. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Is Star Wars: The Force Awakens a bit too similar plot-wise to the original film? Perhaps. But is that a major issue? Not really if you think about it. J.J. Abrams and company managed to bring the franchise roaring back to life while mixing the old with the new. Some of the plot beats feel familiar, yes, but the new characters and diverse cast, visual splendor, witty dialogue, and nods to the original films all blend into what is an energetic and emotional crowd-pleaser. In a year where Avengers: Age of Ultron, Jurassic World, Spectre, and a few other blockbusters were fine but slightly disappointing, The Force Awakens actually managed to live up to – or exceed — most movie fans’ expectations.
3. Ex Machina
Novelist/screenwriter Alex Garland’s directorial debut Ex Machina is a genius piece of science fiction that really is more of a small-scale character study. Mostly only featuring three characters played by Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander, the film covers artificial intelligence in haunting and refreshing ways from beginning to end. In a day and age where science fiction is mostly about big set pieces and is heavy on action, it’s great to get a piece that has science fiction aesthetics while also focusing deeper on ideas, dialogue, and feelings. Vikander is an instant star with her unforgettable work as Ava.
2. The Martian
Speaking of great science fiction, 2015 also gave us a return to form from the masterful Ridley Scott with The Martian. Based on Andy Weir’s book, the whip-smart script by Drew Goddard is aces and Scott’s presentation of it is filmmaking of the highest order. The Martian features Matt Damon in one of his best roles as astronaut Mark Watney, who must somehow survive on Mars after accidentally being left behind by his crew. A large and colorful cast fills out the characters on Earth, but it’s Damon who holds your attention from beginning to end. Where Room and The Revenant were dark 2015 films about isolation and survival, The Martian is actually quite hilarious at times despite being a drama. This is that rare film that works on nearly every level as entertainment.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
There were good films in 2015 and then there was Mad Max: Fury Road. I consider myself a casual fan of the Mad Max series, as the first and third entries were entertaining and the second was excellent; so I don’t bring a lot of fan bias baggage before this entry. Fury Road is its own beast, though, with director George Miller bringing his series back to the table while also letting the newest installment breathe on its own. Miller’s movie is quite simply one of the greatest action films ever made, but it’s the surprising female-centric core and the artistry in both the huge spectacle and the more subtle talking scenes that make it so special. From the mostly practical effects and stunts to the already-classic character of Furiosa to the pulse-pounding music by Junkie XL to everything else in between, Fury Road is a jaw-dropping experience for film lovers.