2015 was a notably average year. The best films were pretty good, but at no point did I feel like I was watching something that would have been in my top few films of any of the previous five years. This makes our top 10 lists a bit watered down, but they are all really solid films that are worth seeing and remembering 2015 for. The year was dominated, of course, by Star Wars and the Marvel franchises, but those were not the best films of the year. Box office surprises like The Martian and Straight Outta Compton highlighted the fact that audiences are actually after fresh stories and original ideas and that you don’t actually need to make a popcorn movie to get people in the seats. Check out what my top movie-going experiences of 2015 were after a quick year in review…
Films seen: 90
Thumbs Up percentage: 55.56% (55.56% at this point in 2014!)
Actor of the year: Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina, Show Me a Hero, Star Wars: The Force Awakens)
Actress of the year: Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight, Anomalisa, Welcome to Me)
Best Actor: Robin Williams – Boulevard, Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant, Matt Damon – The Martian, Richard Gere – Time Out of Mind, Jack O’Connell – ’71
Best Actress: Kristen Wiig – Welcome to Me, Arielle Holmes – Heaven Knows What, Elisabeth Moss – Queen of Earth, Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn, Rooney Mara – Carol
Best Supporting Actor: Richard Jenkins – Bone Tomahawk, Benicio Del Toro – Sicario, Emory Cohen – Brooklyn, Idris Elba – Beasts of No Nation, Jin-woong Jo – A Hard Day
Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Jason Leigh – The Hateful Eight, Suzanne Clement – Mommy, Mary Elizabeth Winstead - Faults, Chloe Grace-Moretz – Clouds of Sils Maria, Mya Taylor – Tangerine
Best Original Screenplay: The Hateful Eight, Inside Out, Sicario, Dope, Digging for Fire
Best Adapted Screenplay: Carol, The End of the Tour, Brooklyn, Steve Jobs, Beasts of No Nation
Best Ensemble Cast: The Hateful Eight, Digging for Fire, Mommy, Carol, Black Mass
Most underrated film: Dope
Most overrated film: Kingsman: The Secret Service
Biggest surprise: It Follows
Biggest disappointment: Everest
Best sequel: Mad Max: Fury Road
Worst sequel: Hot Tub Time Machine 2
Great indie films that no one saw: Bone Tomahawk, Cop Car, Digging for Fire, Faults, Heaven Knows What, Results
Bottom five of the year (from bad to worst): Serena, The Cobbler, Jupiter Ascending, Lost River, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus
Film I still need to see: 99 Homes, Anomalisa, The Assassin, Chi-Raq, Coming Home, Jaraf Panahi’s Taxi, The Look of Silence, Son of Saul, Straight Outta Compton
OTHERS RECEIVING VOTES
15. Results (directed by Andrew Bujalski)
14. Timbuktu (directed by Abderrahmane Sissako)
13. Ex Machina (directed by Alex Garland)
12. The Revenant (directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)
11. Trainwreck (directed by Judd Apatow)
10. Welcome to Me (directed by Shira Piven) It pains me to leave Trainwreck off, especially in favor of another female-centric comedy, but Welcome to Me is something special. Kristen Wiig, Oscar-worthy, plays Alice, a woman with borderline personality disorder who winds up winning the lottery, quitting her medication, then funds her own network talk show, starring only herself. The show is awful, but voyeuristically fascinating. Welcome to Me reminds me quite a bit of HBO’s failed, but sort of cult classic Lisa Kudrow series The Comeback. The humor is so biting and uncomfortable, but it is realistic and hard to look away. Ironically, in a year when Adam McKay might be a Best Director nominee, it is his wife Shira Piven who makes one of the best comedies of the year and who should be getting the recognition.
Personal nominations/wins: Best Actress – Kristen Wiig [1st]
9. Dope (directed by Rick Famuyiwa) This was one of the biggest surprises of 2015. Shameik Moore plays Malcolm, a geek of ‘90s hip hop culture who gets in over his head with a drug dealer and others in The Bottoms, one of the notoriously toughest neighborhoods in Inglewood, CA. The movie is filled with big laughs and original characters, and while it is in love with ‘;90s hip hop and everything about that culture and lifestyle, it also feels undeniably 2015. It is equal parts Superbad, Boyz N the Hood, Better Luck Tomorrow, even including shades of The Girl Next Door. I actually think it surpasses every one of those movies. It is a complete original and a movie that I can see revisiting as much as any movie last year.
Personal nominations/wins: Best Original Screenplay [4th; The Hateful Eight], Best Original Song (“Go Head”) [1st], Best Original Song (“Can’t Bring Me Down”) [3rd]
8. Brooklyn (directed by John Crowley) Eilis (Saorise Ronan, incredible) is a young Irish girl who is immigrating to the US in 1950s Brooklyn. While there, she experiences intolerable roommates and unexpected love, while trying to make a living and rid herself of her homesickness and a life that she left behind. The movie is almost flawless. It gives perspective into class and relationships, but what makes it different is its absolute love for New York and how it doesn’t simply fall into the cliché coming-of-age subgenre. It is a bittersweet film that is absolutely old-fashioned, but in a good way. The changes that we see Eilis go through are as beautiful and rewarding as any movie experience I had in 2015.
Personal nominations/wins: Best Actress – Saoirse Ronan [4th; Kristen Wiig], Best Supporting Actor – Emory Cohen [3rd; Richard Jenkins], Best Director [4th; Todd Haynes], Best Adapted Screenplay [3rd; Carol], Best Costume Design [5th; ‘71],
7. Digging for Fire (directed by Joe Swanberg) This is another case of my unexplained love for mumblecore and its talented filmmakers. Swanberg also had one of my favorite movies of 2013, Drinking Buddies. His 2015 effort, Digging for Fire, is one of those special little movies that is the perfect mix of subtle comedy and dark themes. The movie is about Tim (Jake Johnson, co-writer) and his wife Lee (the underrated Rosemarie DeWitt), who discover a bone and a gun buried in the backyard of a home they are house-sitting, while having a get-together with friends. The film is low-key, as you could probably guess by starring Johnson, but it is also true and meaningful. The quest to figure out where the bone and gun came from might be easy screenwriting ploys, but it works within the context of this movie. It gives insight into the ups and down of marriage, of love. The ensemble cast lends commendable support, including Brie Larson, Orlando Bloom, Sam Rockwell, Sam Elliott, Anna Kendrick, among others. It is a special movie and one that really gets under your skin and stays there. Swanberg has gone from no-budget films to these borderline mainstream movies within a decade. He could be our next Woody Allen in another 10 years.
Personal nominations/wins: Best Original Screenplay [5th; The Hateful Eight], Best Ensemble Cast [2nd; The Hateful Eight]
6. Faults (directed by Riley Stearns) This is a movie that I do not expect anyone else to have on their list. I watched it on Netflix, and I was drawn in more than almost any other movie I saw last year. It is about Ansel (Leland Orser, fanstastic), a man whose job is to provide seminars and materials to debunk cults and mind control, is sort of roped into helping out an old married couple whose daughter Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) was taken in by a cult and brainwashed. Following Ansel’s sketchy way of abducting Claire and locking her in a motel room with him for three days, it is strictly surprises and oddball occurrences and images throughout the entire second and third acts. Any more details would be a disservice to the experience of actually watching the movie, but it gets bizarre and totally enthralling. The implications from the ending make it almost terrifying.
Personal nominations/wins: Best Supporting Actress – Mary Elizabeth Winstead [3rd; Jennifer Jason Leigh], Best Editing [4th; Sicario],
5. The Hateful Eight (directed by Quentin Tarantino) Another Tarantino movie, another spot on my top 10 list. This is Tarantino’s third dive into the western(ish) genre, but again, it is not typical of that genre at all. It stars Kurt Russell as John Ruth, a bounty hunter with a prisoner Daisy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who are traveling across the wilderness to collect a bounty, but have to stop in a remote cabin with some other dangerous characters due to a blizzard. Each and every one of the characters is undeniably Tarantino, and the guessing game of who is playing who, and if anyone is actually who they say they are is fascinating and, finally, brutal. The technical and artistic achievements only enhance the atmosphere and make it QT’s most beautiful movie to look at. The final 45 minutes of this quick 3 hour movie are pure movie-going bliss, filled with gut-busting laughs (and violence) and some of the best one-liners Tarantino has ever written. It is not among his best movies, but it still is as good as anyone could do in 2015.
Personal nominations/wins: Best Picture [5th], Best Supporting Actress – Jennifer Jason Leigh [1st], Best Director [3rd; Todd Haynes], Best Original Screenplay [1st], Best Cinematography [2nd; Sicario], Best Art Direction [3rd; Ex Machina], Best Sound Mixing [5th; The Martian], Best Original Score [1st], Best Ensemble Cast [1st]
4. Cobain: Montage of Heck (directed by Brett Morgen) There may be a bit of eye-rolling in seeing this movie on my top 10, but that would be from those who haven’t actually seen the movie. Yes, I have a lifelong love of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, but this documentary is not just a send-up or worshipping of its tragic genius front man. It has some raw invasive footage of Kurt Cobain and his tumultuous lover Courtney Love shot by her ex in their apartment that is deeply unflattering and somewhat mesmerizing at the same time. You really get an idea of what Cobain was like in his personal life by the reading of his diaries and suicide note, which has always been somewhat of a mystery. There are interviews with all of the most important people to really tell the story of his fame rise and fall in the most provocative way. This is not a documentary about the conspiracy, it is about an artist and the environment that fed his genius and how that same environment led to his insanity and ruin. It is a movie that really shook me and one that should be seen even by those who didn’t hold Cobain up on as high of a pedestal as I do. It's haunting.
Personal nominations/wins: Best Picture [4th], Best Documentary Feature [1st]
3. Sicario (directed by Denis Villeneuve) This was a movie whose trailer sold me unlike any other from 2015. Somehow, the movie was even better than I could have imagined. Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) is an FBI agent who gets recruited to be part of a task force to infiltrate the drug wars at the US-Mexico border. The cartel had rigged a bomb that took out members of her team, so she is willing to do whatever it takes to seek justice. She is joined by the irritating Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and the mysterious and brutal Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro, Oscar-level) in her efforts. The movie is incredibly dark, which is probably self-explanatory given that it is helmed Prisoners director Denis Villeneuve and written by Sons of Anarchy vet Taylor Sheridan. The second half of the movie will have you on the edge of your seat, and while not every single scene works, the vast majority do and are absolutely breathtaking. When I first saw it, I said it is a cross between Traffic, No Country for Old Men, The Silence of the Lambs, Breaking Bad, and Zero Dark Thirty. I still cannot explain this movie any better. It is the real deal.
Personal nominations/wins: Best Picture [3rd], Best Supporting Actor – Benicio Del Toro [#2; Richard Jenkins], Best Director [2nd; Todd Haynes], Best Original Screenplay [3rd; The Hateful Eight], Best Cinematography [1st], Best Sound Mixing [2nd; The Martian], Best Editing [1st]
2. Inside Out (directed by Pete Docter) Sometimes it is discouraging when you see a movie early in the year that remains at the top throughout, but in the cast of Pixar, it is becoming a regular occurrence and no longer something to feel bad about. Inside Out is one of their best movies yet. The main (human) character is Riley, a young girl whose family moves from lovely Minnesota to horrible San Francisco. She is homesick and loses the charm (and hockey!) she has always had. The actual main characters are her emotions Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. They have a sort of control center in her mind and are able to shape how and what she feels to an extent. It is a beautiful movie and one that is almost impossible to not tear up at. Docter is the best director at Pixar, adding this gem to Monster’s Inc. and Up. This movie especially shows that the best movies that they make are their original ideas. This was probably their most ambitious effort, and it comes up all aces. With time, it could very well settle into the #1 spot of 2015.
Personal nominations/wins: Best Picture [2nd], Best Original Screenplay [2nd; The Hateful Eight], Best Original Score [3rd; The Hateful Eight], Best Animated Feature [1st]
1. Carol (directed by Todd Haynes) Todd Haynes is a genius. He is as great of an auteur as any director working today. This isn’t even his own material, yet it still feels unmistakably Haynes. The movie centers on Therese (Rooney Mara) and Carol (Cate Blanchett), a young photographer and a mysterious older woman who begin an unexpected and passionate love affair in 1950s New York. From the opening frames, the audience’s eyes are glued to the screen, marveling at the flawless performances and stunning sets and costumes. The drama grows deeper and becomes something similar to a Hitchcock aching romantic film in the ‘40s. There is not a false note or line that does not ring completely true. It is a meticulously-detailed and rich screenplay. There was not a movie in 2015 that was as in touch with its own tone and story as Carol. It is beautifully-mounted and tense, sexy, and ravishing. It may not quite have the impact of Far from Heaven or the vastness of Mildred Pierce, but it is hard to not refer to Carol as a Todd Haynes masterpiece. It lingers in your mind for days.
Personal nominations/wins: Best Picture [1st], Best Actress – Rooney Mara [5th; Kristen Wiig], Best Director [1st], Best Adapted Screenplay [1st], Best Cinematography [4th; Sicario], Best Art Direction [4th; Ex Machina], Best Costume Design [2nd; ‘71], Best Original Score [2nd; The Hateful Eight], Best Ensemble Cast [4th; The Hateful Eight]
Thoughts? Comments? You list? Let me know below!