Here is the last part of my list along with the honorable mentions for the year. It’s been especially tough in 2015 to come up with the order of these films. Although, I can tell you that #1 has stayed in its place since May, but spots 2,3, and 4 have been shuffled around quite a bit these last couple months. Really it has come down to what has stuck with me the most and what I’ve been itching to watch again… or even already have watched again.
As I wrote in my review of this film late last year, this was the important film of 2015. Never have I seen such a sensitive, hard-hitting, and difficult subject handled so responsibly by a director like Tom McCarthy. The writer/director obviously cares for his characters and the subject at hand. Each actor gets their chance to flourish and each victim portrayed in the film is handled with the utmost respect. Dealing with child molestation within the Catholic church could obviously have been managed in a number of different ways to simply anger and disgust their audience. While there are hints of that obviously here, the focus is less on acts themselves but on how a number of people came together to expose these terrible crimes. Spotlight is both an inspirational and devastating drama.
Sporting arguably the best cast a film has seen all year, we are treated to great performances all around. Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci all bring something different to the table here and the film strives because of it. Overall, the film just flat-out works. The screenplay, performances, direction…this is one that will stick with you.
4. Ex Machina
Wow. This movie really snuck up on me. I was initially intrigued by the trailer for the film before seeing it, especially seeing the names Alex Garland and Oscar Isaac attached. Never did I think I would get the experience that I did. For a small sci-fi film to touch on such big questions in such a tense and effective way is a feat unto itself. The fact that it’s arguably two people sitting in a room talking for two hours and is one of the most entertaining films of the year is another story. Ex Machina is much too small and science fiction-y of a film to get any big category nomination, but I really think Alex Garland deserves a Best Director and/or Best Original Screenplay nod here. Oscar Isaac, on the other hand, is uniformly excellent here as well (as he always is). He gives so much weight and mystery to his character without speaking a word. He is an actor that is quickly becoming one of my favorites, and I am happy to see him coming up in a number of great projects. Isaac gives a fantastic performance and it is equalled by Alicia Vikander as Ava, the A.I. in question. It’s a weird thing to say and seems like a backhanded compliment, but it’s the best performance of a robot I have ever seen. The small movements and twitches in her performance are fantastic, only bettered by the film’s sound design. This probably won’t be a crowd-pleaser for the masses, but for those who want a good, character-driven sci-fi story…it’s hard to beat this one.
This is actually the last movie I have seen. I hate putting it on a list so quickly, but I don’t want to wait until March to put out my favorite films of 2015. However, this is an extremely impressive film. Alejandro Iñárritu is an impressive filmmaker, so it makes sense, but I have to say that this is his first film that I am finally 100% on board for. His films are consistently depressing and, while last year’s Birdman was the closest he’s gotten to making a comedy, the last 20 minutes of that film really ruined everything that came before to me. It was a beautiful and remarkable film, but the story didn’t hold up for me in the end, no matter how fantastic Michael Keaton and Edward Norton were. Here, we have a completely different story. While the revenge plot is about as straight forward as it gets, the performances, scenery, cinematography, and overall craftsmanship that Iñárritu has shown throughout his films are in top form here. This is a tense, brutal, dirty, cold, and uncompromising film…and I really did enjoy every minute of it. While DiCaprio has really become a shoo-in for Best Actor this year, I have to say that I’m a little sad that this is the performance he will get it for. As I see it, the man should already have two Oscars after The Aviator and The Wolf of Wall Street (or even a nomination for Django Unchained). The Best Actor categories have simply become, “Well this isn’t their best performance, but they’ve been nominated so many times and haven’t won yet.” This works out for DiCaprio this year, but really sucks for Michael Fassbender, who gave far and away the best performance this year – and in 2013 for that matter in 12 Years a Slave. Speaking of performances, it was Tom Hardy and Domhnall Gleeson (both having absolutely incredible years) who impressed me here, probably because they were the most interesting characters in the film. DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass doesn’t speak much and goes through most of the film just being put through the ringer. There are a number of terrifying and intense sequences here that will stick with me for quite awhile, the bear attack being among them. Iñárritu blends practical and CGI well here and it never took me out of the film. I am surprised by the love this film is getting because it has many similarities to 2011’s The Grey, a film that has been completely forgotten. Sure it wasn’t shot in all natural light or have as big of actors, but I found The Grey more emotionally satisfying as a film. Critics LOVE Iñárritu though, as apparent by Babel receiving 7 undeserved nominations. Like I said before, I am 100% on this film and much of this criticism is strictly pointed towards the Academy Awards and critics themselves and not the film. This is an extremely unique experience that must be seen on as big of a screen as possible. You won’t regret it.
Director Denis Villeneuve has really been hitting it out of the park since he made Incendies in 2011. He followed that up with 2013’s Prisoners, easily one of the year’s best, and the very divisive Enemy in 2014 (a film that I very much enjoyed). He continues this streak with a stirring thriller about the Mexican drug war. This is a tense and thought-provoking film at its best, and it’s only made better by award-worthy work from Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro. Other than a number of exciting and well staged action sequences, the characters are what really stick with you here. Emily Blunt is our surrogate here into this world of the drug war, often voicing what we are feeling throughout the movie. You, and her as well, are constantly trying to figure out what exactly is going on and who exactly you can trust. Once you start to figure things out, the film does something completely different from what I’ve seen in a film. It lets you choose a side. There are two characters in the film who firmly believe in how they should go about the mission – depending on how you feel about the events taken place, you will side with one character or the other. You may empathize with both sides, but I find it extremely difficult to be completely neutral either way. This film is a polarizing one and definitely will not appeal to everyone. It is beautifully shot and very well constructed. The cast is all around terrific with some great additional work by Josh Brolin and Jon Bernthal. It’s a brutal and in-depth look on the current war on drugs, easily the best film on the subject since Traffic fifteen years ago. Sicario is Villeneuve’s best film to date and it’s obvious to see why they chose him for the Blade Runner sequel, something I now am hopeful for (especially since he is taking his Sicario/Prisoners DP with him, Roger Deakins). I hope to see a lot of this film come award season, but something tells me it will be the big one that gets completely ignored this year.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
When I saw this film back in May, I knew it was going to be the movie to beat this year. Even having seen all of the previous Mad Max films, I had never seen anything like this. It says a lot that director George Miller was 70 years-old making this film. We have action films coming out every year left-and-right…yet by far the best action sequences we get all year come from a grandpa?
This is truly an amazing film on all fronts. The set pieces, the storytelling-through-action, world building, production design, costume design, score…I could go on. Everything here simply works. You know, before reading any reviews for this film, I felt it was strictly a movie made for me that not many would truly appreciate. I was glad to see that it received wide critical praise (and even for the few that did not think it was good, have since referenced it for it’s groundbreaking action). While yeah, Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron) really is the main character while Max (now played by Tom Hardy) is simply there to help, this is a Mad Max movie through and through. It feels like what Miller has had cooked up in his head from the beginning, but was finally given the budget to do.
I can’t say enough great things about this film, and I know a lot of you will probably disagree, but when you can make what is essentially a two-hour car chase and still create such memorable characters and emotion from scant dialogue…it is immensely impressive. A number of films typically make my top films of the year, but I don’t often go back to watch them again and again (save for The Dark Knight and Skyfall) because the ones at the top are heavy, emotional dramas or epics. They are great stories or characters without much replay value. I am glad to say that I will always be up to watch this film, like The Dark Knight, because I can get a great story, great characters, and an immersive world and still be greatly entertained. Put simply, Fury Road is a milestone in filmmaking and a completely original experience at the cinema. This is the first film since The Dark Knight to instantly become one of my all time favorite films, and it has only proved it’s place on repeat viewings. This is without a doubt the most technically impressive, well-made, and strictly entertaining film of 2015. In a year of astounding films, none of them have really held a candle to this one.
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Final Top 10 of 2015:
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
3. The Revenant
4. Ex Machina
6. Steve Jobs
7. The Hateful Eight
8. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
9. Inside Out
Man this was a great year for films! There are quite a few I was really hoping would make my top ten this year, but simply didn’t. First off is What We Do In the Shadows, a mockumentary about vampires living together. It is absolutely hilarious and if you don’t laugh hysterically within the first 10 minutes, it may not be for you. Seen the film a dozen times and it is simply genius. Next is 99 Homes, both Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield give bravura performances here in what was an emotional roller coaster of a film – tense, heartbreaking, and insightful all at once. This year was a great year for spy films, but none were as fun as Kingsman: The Secret Service. A throwback to the Roger Moore era of James Bond, this film is no-holds-barred in the best sense, features a charismatic lead, and a pair of against-type performances from Samuel L. Jackson and Colin Firth. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation was also outstanding. With what may be my favorite of the franchise, this fifth installment perfectly blends the action I loved from Ghost Protocol with the intelligence of the first film.
There are a couple of smaller films that didn’t quite make the list I want to make note of. A little film came out this year that really blew me away, and that was John Maclean’s Slow West. It’s everything I want from a western – beautiful scenery, dry wit, colorful characters, and well done shootouts. The fact that this stars Michael Fassbender is simply the cherry on top, it really kills me this didn’t make it on my top ten. As long as we are talking about westerns, S. Craig Zahler came out with his debut, Bone Tomahawk, this year. A great, traditional western with some truly horrific elements thrown in. The cast alone is reason to see it (and there isn’t a weak player among them), but it’s an impressive film for a debut. I cannot wait to see what Zahler does next.
The scariest film I saw this year belonged to a little film that got some notice, It Follows. Almost a Nightmare on Elm St as directed by John Carpenter, this is a completely original flick that uses low budget scares to their most effective by allowing your imagination to do most of the work. Tense, smart, and horrifying, this is one you won’t forget anytime soon. I do want to give a shout out to Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak for bringing back the old fashioned gothic romance/haunted house flick. Deliberately plotted and paced, this may not be the horror film for everyone, but the impressive sets and Jessica Chastain’s terrifying performance really made it special. Last but not least, the forgotten gem Danny Collins. Al Pacino makes a fantastic comeback of sorts here, perfectly blending comedy and drama to make an effective and heartfelt film. His pairing with the always great Bobby Canavale is the heart of the film and it really pays off. This is one that really stuck with me. I wish we got to see more of Pacino.
There’s a ton of movies I could list here…Black Mass, Creed, The Gift, The Martian, Black Sea, The Big Short, or Me, Earl and the Dying Girl. This was a great year for films.
I do want to kind of post a disclaimer here too. I try to see every movie out there, but some simply just don’t make it out my way or are only out for a very short amount of time. Unfortunately, this year the unlucky film was Room. I was looking forward to it quite a bit, since the director produced last year’s Frank (which I loved) and Brie Larson has become an incredible actress. Her performance in Short Term 12 was apparently forgotten by everyone, and I hope she really gets some notice this year. I haven’t gotten to see the film yet, but I plan on to very soon.