Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Movie Guru's Top 20 Films of 2015

2015 has been one of the most spectacular years for cinema in recent memory. Looking back at the past couple of years, 2014 brought us a wide variety of great titles including Interstellar, The LEGO Movie, Whiplash, Nightcrawler and The Grand Budapest Hotel, while 2013 gave us films like The World's End, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street, Inside Llewyn Davis and Captain Phillips. Both terrific years by any standard, and I'd argue that 2012 was even better with its lineup of Argo, Django Unchained, Skyfall, Silver Linings Playbook and The Dark Knight Rises.

But I don't think that there's been a year with as much depth as 2015 in a very long time. Every genre was filled with wonderful movies and there were so many great ones that I had to make a Top 20 list instead of my usual Top 15. And while it was a great year for indie cinema, it was an even better year for the studios and especially for old properties that found new life with a fresh generation of filmmakers. It was the year that Mad Max roared through the Wasteland again, the year that the Millenium Falcon soared the skies once more, and the year where Rocky returned to teach a new pupil in the rousing Creed. The films made us laugh, cry, hope and dream. We sat on the edge of our seat as Tom Cruise jumped on an airplane. We lamented the death of an imaginary friend. We witnessed the near-collapse of the American economy and the destruction of the reputation of the Catholic Church. And we sat in suspense as Quentin Tarantino put eight violent strangers in a room together for three hours, creating one of the best movie events of the last several years. This year couldn't have been any better in the cinematic world.

So, here it is. My picks for the 20 best films of 2015, along with five honorable mentions and one special mention.

ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL

One of the best emotional experiences of 2015 was Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, a cancer dramedy that offered so much more than the typical "Girl with cancer" young adult drama. Watch for one of the year's best scenes in the final moments.

THE NIGHT BEFORE

A very funny and honest Christmas comedy, The Night Before is filled with everything that you would expect from a Seth Rogen movie- drugs, sex and plenty of raunchiness. Although this time, there's much more heart than you would anticipate.

THE GIFT

The summer's biggest surprise, The Gift was a tense and wild thriller with stunning turns from Jason Bateman and Joel Edgerton. Constantly filled with twists that you won't see coming, this is a slick and incredibly effective sleeper hit.

SPY

The best comedy of the year, Spy showed a side of Melissa McCarthy that I hadn't seen before. Her performance as Susan Cooper is sweet and funny, and I love how Spy parodies classic Bond movies while still charting its own path.

SPECTRE

It may not have reached the dazzling heights of Sam Mendes' 2012 instant Bond classic Skyfall, but Spectre was a respectable follow-up that mixed iconic Bond entertainment with a modern twist. Christoph Waltz was under-used as Blofeld, but as a Bond superfan, I was thoroughly entertained by Spectre.

Special Mention- THE LOOK OF SILENCE

The Look of Silence is the darkest, most harrowing movie experience of the year. It's a movie that everybody, no matter who you are, absolutely must see. A haunting look at the pitch-black corners of the human mind and soul, Joshua Oppenheimer's second look at the 1965 Indonesian genocide combines sickening interviews and silence to chilling effect, creating a comprehensive look at corruption and justification of violence. An undeniably tough watch, The Look of Silence is a necessary film in every way and the best documentary film made this year. If this doesn't win the Oscar, it'll be a very sad day for cinema.

Now, for my Top 20 films of the year.

20. EX MACHINA


I initially wasn't a huge fan of Ex Machina. I gave the film a "B" and pretty much moved on with my life. I liked Alex Garland's sci-fi flick, but I was puzzled by the ending and didn't quite understand all the hype. Only after a second viewing did I truly begin to appreciate the eerie film experience created by Garland and the cast, led by the terrific trio of Alicia Vikander, Domnhall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac. All three give wonderful performances and the film is shocking and thrilling in the way that it proposes an incredibly bleak vision of the future and scary in the way that it warns of the potential horrors of Artificial Intelligence. I believe that future viewings will only enhance the power of Ex Machina and I'm both intrigued and terrified to see how the debate over A.I. continues.


19. SICARIO


Sicario is quite possibly the most intense film of the year. Denis Villeneuve, who broke onto the scene with Incedies and solidified his position as a great director with Prisoners, injects so much raw tension into each scene that it's unbearable at times. Exquisitely shot by iconic cinematographer Roger Deakins, Sicario is another cold and desolate affair from Villeneuve, tackling the ambiguous drug war with a sheer power that can't be matched by most filmmakers. The mid-section is a bit sluggish, but the bloody intensity of the action scenes and the gritty performances from Josh Brolin, Emily Blunt and especially Benicio del Toro make Sicario one of the year's best.


18. LOVE & MERCY


Anchored by a terrific set of performances from Paul Dano and John Cusack, Love & Mercy is a magnificent musical biopic about the tortured genius of Beach Boys icon Brian Wilson. Sad and joyous in equal measure, this flick was a surprising summer treat, one which mixed the fun of a Beach Boys song with the underlying sadness that inhabits so much great art. The Beach Boys ended up becoming the soundtrack to my summer and I can pretty much thank this film for that. Dano and Cusack both deserve Oscar attention for this insightful look at one of the great musicians of the 20th century.


17. KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE


This was the year of the spy movie in every possible way. I mentioned Spy and Spectre earlier, featured Man from U.N.C.L.E. on my most underrated list, and will discuss another great spy movie further down on this list. But the one that kicked everything off was Matthew Vaughn's Kingsman: The Secret Service, a hyper-violent mix of James Bond, Kick-Ass and Quentin Tarantino. The action sequences are zippy and full of pizzazz and the performances are top-notch across the board. Newcomer Taron Egerton solidifies himself as a star, while Samuel L. Jackson and Colin Firth are terrific in this spy parody that will become a cult classic for a long time.


16. MISSISSIPPI GRIND


The most underrated movie of 2015 and a true hidden gem, Mississippi Grind is a textured, brilliant film from directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Led by Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn, this gambling drama might just be the best pure character film of the year. Mississippi Grind is the story of Curtis and Gerry all the way through, and each actor brings so much depth and pathos to the role. You probably haven't heard of this one, and that's a shame- Mississippi Grind deserved much, much better.


15. CAROL


I have yet to review Carol, but know that it's one of the best films of the year. Nuanced, rich and endlessly fascinating, Carol is a beautifully designed look at the 1950s and the forbidden love between two women that carries them away from the cultural norm. There's a reason that this movie is right in the thick of the awards conversation- Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are both phenomenal and director Todd Haynes does a marvelous job. Profound and thrilling, Carol is a triumph of movie-making.


14. BEASTS OF NO NATION


It's the most beautifully brutal movie of the year. Netflix's first original movie is agonizing and heartbreaking, capturing its subject with terror and artistry. Cary Joji Fukunaga establishes himself as one of the premiere American filmmakers with Beasts of No Nation, a savage look at African child soldiers that never lets up. In all honesty, I'm thankful that Beasts was released on Netflix instead of receiving a theatrical run- I'm not sure I could have made it through the whole thing without pausing to take a breath. But beyond the horror lies a war film that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Apocalypse Now. It's that thrillingly emotional and disturbing.


13. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE- ROGUE NATION


It's not as good as Ghost Protocol, but there's something simultaneously epic and intimate about the fifth Mission: Impossible adventure. It's well-scripted and directed and there's a constant source of tension that carries through the whole thing. Those things alone would be enough to make Rogue Nation a great ride. But you can't talk about this movie without mentioning the truly astonishing stunt scenes. A stunning motorcycle chase through the mountains of Morocco. A high-wire opera house shootout. An underwater setpiece for the ages. Oh, did I mention that Tom Cruise hangs off a plane? This is one fantastic flick that never quits.


12. THE END OF THE TOUR


The End of the Tour is probably the smallest film on this list, but it's one worth seeking out. Consisting mostly of a conversation between Jesse Eisenberg's David Lipsky and Jason Segel's David Foster Wallace, this mesmerizing drama is one of the most oddly compelling movies of the year. Tackling a whole range of subjects from sexuality to media addiction, The End of the Tour is sad, profound and funny- often at the same time. James Ponsoldt burst onto my radar with The Spectacular Now, but with The End of the Tour, he's fully proved himself as a filmmaker to watch.


11. JURASSIC WORLD


Yeah, I know Jurassic World isn't a great movie. The characters are pretty thinly drawn and there are some pretty blatant attempts at nostalgia. But for me, none of that mattered. I was constantly thrilled and dazzled by this piece of pure popcorn entertainment. Chris Pratt proves why he's the biggest movie star on the planet in this absolutely wild instant summer classic. Jurassic World feels like the kind of movie that you want to see in the summer- it's big, crazy and feels like a theme park ride. It's not great art, but the unadulterated pleasures of Jurassic World are more than enough to make this film a terrific ride.


10. STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON


I'm not sure that any movie not titled Star Wars: The Force Awakens captured the cultural zeitgeist this year as much as F. Gary Gray's rap epic Straight Outta Compton. The "Straight Outta ____" meme was literally everywhere in August and there was a sudden resurgence of N.W.A's classic music. As a high school kid, I saw this stuff constantly at my school. But beyond the hype, Straight Outta Compton was a legitimately great film and a near-perfect biopic. Well-written on a character level and stunningly ambitious in every way, Straight Outta Compton is a comprehensive look at a very tumultuous time in recent American history. And man, that soundtrack is great.


9. SPOTLIGHT


Spotlight may just be the best-made film of the year. Precise and absolutely gripping, Tom McCarthy's Oscar favorite is a classic ensemble piece filled with good performances from Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and especially Mark Ruffalo. But at its core, the reason that Spotlight works is because of its necessary and endlessly compelling story. It's haunting and disturbing, but by the 30 minute mark, Spotlight has a firm grip on your mind and soul and you won't be able to stop watching. It's a journalism masterpiece worthy of the comparisons to All the President's Men.


8. CREED


Who would have thought that the Rocky franchise had any gas left in the tank? Obviously Ryan Coogler and Sylvester Stallone did. Creed is a total knockout, a legacy and character-driven drama that takes the franchise back to its gritty roots. Michael B. Jordan's movie-star level performance is truly mesmerizing and Stallone fills the supporting role with nuance and sadness. The fights are so thrilling and the film is so satisfying on a basic cinematic level that I can't see anybody walking away from this one disappointed. And I dare you to not want to cheer when you hear that classic Rocky theme song play during the film's climax.


7. THE BIG SHORT


The Big Short should be a really boring film. Credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, tranches, subprime mortgages- it all sounds like a lot of financial mumbo jumbo. That's the magic of Adam McKay's financial masterwork. It helps you to understand what practically crashed the American economy and it does it in a way that is funny, fresh and engaging. But when McKay lifts the veil of comedy to reveal the disturbing heart of what happened, The Big Short is elevated to a level of anger and frustration unmatched by most films this year. It's one amazing ride, and one that I can't wait to take again and again.


6. STEVE JOBS


Steve Jobs takes place in three locations, and yet somehow, it manages to be one of the most epic films of the year. An unconventional biopic in every way, Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin's memorable and haunting look at the life of the tech giant is breathtaking in its use of dialogue and miraculously performed by Michael Fassbender. With a supporting cast rounded out by Michael Stuhlbarg, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels and Seth Rogen, Steve Jobs is a film that we'll be talking about for a very, very long time. It's a Citizen Kane for the tech age.



5. THE HATEFUL EIGHT


Quentin Tarantino never disappoints and The Hateful Eight (ironically his eighth film) was no exception. By bringing back the 70mm Roadshow experience, Tarantino reinvigorated an aspect of cinema that we hadn't seen in a long time- the idea of the event. But beyond the showy aspects of the director's latest is a vicious and violent potboiler that simmers and builds for its first half before an explosion of bloody insanity. It's pure Tarantino, it's pure cinema and it's a film that I'll be revisiting again and again.


4. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS


No movie in 2015 was more hyped up than Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And no movie delivered quite like The Force Awakens. A blend of compelling new characters and sweet nostalgia, J.J. Abrams' seventh installment in the beloved franchise was a fun, entertaining ride that gave me everything that I possibly wanted. Star Wars has always been a franchise driven by a sense of enjoyment and wonder, but also with a deep sense of emotion. The Force Awakens made me laugh. It made me cry. And it made me cheer. It was the Star Wars movie that we needed.


3. THE MARTIAN


I was very nervous about The Martian going into 2015. Ridley Scott had let me down a couple of times, and I wasn't sure how I felt about him handling a major sci-fi epic. Thankfully, Scott directs The Martian with ease and humor, playing off the strengths of star Matt Damon and Drew Goddard's script to create the most human film of the year. If The Hateful Eight is the movie about how terrible humanity is, The Martian is the feel-good movie of the year- a sci-fi story about the triumph of the human spirit and the lengths that others will take to help one man. It's fun, it's witty, it's emotional and it's one of the most stunning films of 2015.


2. INSIDE OUT


It was a dogfight for the #1 slot on my Best of 2015 list. And I truly mean that. I hadn't picked a #1 until earlier today, and even then, I was still fighting over which film to put at the #1 slot. I wanted to do a tie, but I knew that I would regret that down the line. In any regular year, both of these films would be unquestionably the #1 film of the year. But 2015 was no regular year, and unfortunately, a film had to finish in second place. That film is Pixar's masterpiece Inside Out.

No film in 2015 hit me like Pete Docter's animated masterwork. It's the best animated film since Toy Story 3 and a movie that is so clever and profound on every level. Pixar has done emotional stuff before, but Inside Out is new territory. It's about the loss of innocence and the bittersweet experience of growing up. It made me cry multiple times and it still hits me very hard with each subsequent viewing. Simply put, it's one of the best films of the 21st Century. And Bing Bong might just be the greatest character ever created.


1. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD



Mad Max: Fury Road was not a film that immediately became my favorite of the year. I didn't even give the film an "A+" when I first saw it. I loved the film and recognized the craft of George Miller's epic, but it didn't scream "Best Movie of 2015!!!" It maintained a consistent spot as my #2 movie of 2015, and my appreciation for it grew over time. 

And then I saw it again. And again. And again. Each time that I rewatched Mad Max: Fury Road, I picked up on new things and I was consistently thrilled by the pacing, subtlety and pure filmmaking behind this action masterpiece. And after careful consideration, I know that it's my favorite film of the year. The performances, cinematography, music, direction, screenplay, world-building- it's a nearly perfect film. We'll be watching this film in 20, 30, 50 years. You can't say that for many movies. That's why Mad Max: Fury Road is the best film of 2015.


So with that, I say farewell to 2015. We'll still be covering the year that was in the Oscar race, but my end of year coverage has concluded. It was a truly phenomenal year. Here's to a great 2016!

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