In 2014 I said that many of the best movies of that year were elevated by the caring of those behind them, the creatives and executives and behind-the-scenes people who make movies. I stand by that, and it’s interesting to note that 2015 also features that same commodity, though filtered more directly through the stories being told and the character inhabiting them.
The themes of this year’s best films are empathy and optimism. With a few (notable) exceptions, 2015 was a year where all the best films I saw were infused with a sense of giving a fuck. Not just the basic level of caring that motivates any character to do any thing in any story, but directly addressing what it is to care (especially about others). How to find that, or recover it if you’ve lost it, and what it ultimately means for a person or group of people to access it together. It’s a big theme in a year that, for many in North America and around the world, has been characterized by bouts of darkness with rare glimmers of light.
As always, I discover these unifying characteristics of the movies I loved in a given year at the time I sit down to write about them collectively. I don’t go looking for movies that generally contain similar themes on purpose. Deep down, though, I know it does say something about what I value from this year to the next and how that might change or not change. It’s a nice justification for doing lists like this, telling myself a story about why I love the movies I love and hopefully that story is interesting or beneficial to others as well.
The usual disclaimer:
I acknowledge that this is a subjective list. Trying to objectively compare the quality of any of these movies, one to the next, is impossible. It’s apples and oranges. You can like one move more than another easily enough, but it’s far more difficult to make a case for why one is better whether you like it more or not. For me, writing film criticism has most often been about trying to get at those qualitative things that exist in spite of personal preferences, it’s about trying to objective in an arena that is usually assumed to be subjective. It’s about not conflating what I like with what is good, to the fullest extent possible. My Top 15 lists are not about these things. They are about ranking my favorite movies, about summarizing the year, and about taking stock.
15. Furious 7
I can just see the people who look at my year end lists and foam at the mouth about inclusions like Furious 7. Still, unlike the last two, this one barely skates into the Top 15. More flawed and yet more brazen and (occasionally) more exciting than its predecessors, Furious 7 is still a fucking Fast and Furious movie so while I’ll acknowledge that it was a close one, I’m not going to apologize for putting it on this list. Every year I write about how it still surprises me that these movies have gotten so good. If Furious 7 is a step or two off the high level of quality the series inexplicably evolved to, it is made up for by the first goal of the hat trick Kurt Russel pulled in 2015 (see also Bone Tomahawk and The Hateful Eight), the elegant, respectful send-off of Paul Walker, and the climactic amazing battle between Vin Diesel and Jason Statham.
14. Lost River
This is one of the best underrated/underseen movies of 2015 by far. Ryan Gosling kicks his directorial debut off with style, gravitas, and an excellent sense for atmosphere. Lost River is an amazing little movie that I hope will garner more appreciation down the line. I can’t believe that it was so easily dismissed given its strong association with the better-received films of Nicholas Winding Refn. It’s also an excellent showpiece film for anyone wanting to delve into the argument about why the Hero’s Journey is the skeleton, not the flesh and blood, of a story. Rarely is a classic take on a classic storytelling framework so well done. Lost River is, on a narrative level, everything that Pan wanted to be. Imagine a kids’ fantasy adventure movie with the care and attention, if not the horrifying content (haha) of Lost River. That would be something to see. (note from the future, both Kubo and the Two Strings and Moana happened in 2016 and it was something to see!)
Speaking of classic stories. By now, Rocky is basically the model for fight movies. Everything cribs from it, from the great Warrior to the lazy Southpaw. Only Creed has attempted to reinvent it for a new generation, for a new America. Creed couldn’t come at a better time for challenging the dystopian realities of race relations in North America, for working as an optimistic and passionate counterpoint to the (worthwhile but singular) misanthropy of The Hateful Eight. Creed is a movie about sorting your life out, and in keeping with the themes of 2015’s best films, it is very much about choosing to care about others, about life, and about ourselves. Though it reflects and addresses the formula of Rocky, Creed is very much its own thing with Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan (though I’ve been saying it for a couple of years) as amazing talents. Passing the mantle on to a younger, more hopeful and hopefully capable generation has also been a bit of a theme in 2015, with Fantastic Four bungling that almost as much as Creed showcases its vitality, its magic.
12. The Martian
When Ridley Scott is on, he’s the best in the business at epic, huge movies with brains. However, he’s hit or miss most of the time. Happily, The Martian (I loved the book) is a big hit and a great reminder of what Scott can do even in his 70’s. The casting is impeccable, the humor spot on, and even the changes from the book are less annoying than those types of things usually are. Except the way they kinda short-changed Kristen Wiig’s character. That was sad. Above all, though, The Martian is a great Human vs. Nature story for the modern age. An age where the Human at the heart of it is not totally cut off from civilization, but remains an active part of it and a source of fear and inspiration and empathy for everyone paying attention. This movie is hugely hopeful, tempering its love of the human species with quips and irreverence that are perfectly pitched to keep it from getting cheesy, saccharine, and false. Instead, and somehow in spite of its inherent optimism, The Martian feels very true and real.
Between Turbokid, Wolf Cop and the original short that spawned Hobo with a Shotgun, I think Canada might become the land of the great 70’s/80’s love letter movies. Turbokid is a big sloppy kiss to the Nintendo generation, following the preposterous tropes and iconography of a poorly translated Japanese side-scroller from 1985 and still remembering to tell a great story with cool characters, world-building, and a sense of fun that is so infectious it’s scary. I think this is the only movie in 2015 that I watched two nights in a row, something I’ve been known to do when I fall in love.
10. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Believe you me, I never expected to put a Star Wars movie in my Top 15 list ever, not even when I heard about Rian Johnson doing Episode 8. Yet, here we are. And this isn’t just me riding the hype train or wave of relief following an actually decent, I-am-justified-liking-it Star Wars movie. I’ve seen it twice. I’m very aware of its flaws, and the fact that they cobbled parts of it together with spit and hot glue guns. I know. But it’s still an extraordinary film, even if a bit of a Hail Mary. Nowhere better are the myriad streams of compassion, empathy, humility, simple courage, and togetherness stronger than they are here. A pop culture artifact as big as this that dares to blow the doors off barriers to inclusion and progressiveness at this level, and from Disney no less, is incredible to see. More than this, it’s an exciting and rousing space adventure. I suspect it’ll grow for me and others with the years, spawning retrospectives where even the hard noses look back on it with fondness and appreciation for all the many things it does so amazingly well.
One of the few exceptions to the movies I loved that were hopeful and empathetic, Sicario is not these things. It is a bitter indictment of the priorities, politics, and mechanics of the War on Drugs. In spite of its beautiful cinematography and exceptionally well-crafted script, it’s an ugly movie that gets up in your face and twists your stomach into knots. Denis Villeneuve is quickly becoming a master, with his prior films Prisoners and Enemy being tangible precursors to this point. This is a movie that feels like it could have been made by Ridley Scott or the Coens or similar vaunted directors with well-established voices, skill-sets, and bodies of work. Within it are performances that kill. Benicio del Toro has never been better, Josh Brolin reminded me why I liked him after years of bad role choices, and amidst it all is probably my current favourite actress. Emily Blunt is layers and layers of quiet, deep performance. This is a role that would normally have gone to a man, and yet grapples subtly with gender politics in the traditionally “man’s world” by casting Blunt in a role of moral certainty, naive faith in a system that is totally backward. It’s elementally akin to what The Big Short is doing with the financial sector. It’s about using a figurative babe in the woods, but a badass in her own right and not having any of that “women are too delicate for x” shit, to expose the corruption of a part of North American society that has to be hidden from plain sight to avoid the moral outrage it deserves.
8. Magic Mike XXL
I hate that I didn’t review this movie. I fucking loved it. It might be the most good-hearted and fun movie of 2015. It’s yards better than the first one, which I also loved, and dares to be a completely different kind of movie. Magic Mike was good because it was a subversion of the bromance, a poignant character study, and a pretty good time with the dancing and shit. This one is a road movie, a very funny comedy, and wisely ditches the drag that was Cody Horn and her disapproval in favor of focusing more on the ensemble. This would seem like they are excluding women to focus on men, but the movie is all about focusing on women. It’s the most openly celebratory movie about female sexuality, about the way women are discouraged from expressing their desires or finding an outlet for them, and the way men can be allies to that (improving) struggle while also finding time to figure out their own shit. Beyond this, it also finds time to be about finding what you love in what you do. Each of these guys is an artist, beyond the dancing, and learns to use dancing to bring that out. In the heightened reality of Magic Mike XXL, all these things and more can be discovered in the back of a food truck on its way to a stripper convention. At every stop, this movie addresses toxic masculinity, equality of recognition between the sexes/genders, and the legitimacy of sexual expression itself. The sequence at Jada Pinkett-Smith’s clubhouse and its mark on the rest of the movie is like a manifesto for a better world. And yes, I know how ridiculous this all sounds. I mean every word. Ultimately, Magic Mike XXL suggests a very simple philosophical position: that power is not lost when you give it or share it. Since power is at the heart of gender politics, toxic masculinity, and the typical dismissal of a movie like this one as “eye candy for chicks” or “totally gay, bro”, I’d say that’s pretty fucking on point.
7. Jupiter Ascending
My most rewatched movie of 2015 is also the year’s biggest underdog. People dismissed this movie long before it ever came out, and yet it’s everything that the now-30ish nerds wanted when we were younger. I’m still very much in touch with that, especially when it’s not dumbed down trash which is especially common when my demographic is the target. Instead this is a vibrant, beautiful, endlessly creative movie with a simple fairy tale at its heart, yet brimming with the incisive social commentary that the Wachowskis are known for. I expected, the first few times, for this movie to get worse with rewatches, for its few notable flaws to be more apparent or damaging, but it never happened. I appreciate this movie more and more. And hey, it’s Channing Tatum again.
6. The Avengers: Age of Ultron
Unlike many, I loved Age of Ultron and was indifferent at best toward Ant-Man. For many, this was the year where MCU fans needed a break from the big universe stuff to focus on smaller, more focused projects. Unfortunately, even those projects (the movies anyway) can be hampered by devotion to formula and by creative restraint. Age of Ultron might be a bit too big and unwieldy to fully work, but it’s got more than just the likable characters and sense of humor that even the haters acknowledge. It’s got some big ideas about where all this superhero stuff is going, ideas that it doesn’t have to have to be a successful product. Though Whedon missteps, he succeeds way more often than he fails, and has created the best of the Big Movies of 2015. Even though I suspect I’ll like The Force Awakens even more in years to come, I don’t think it’ll ever be a better movie than Age of Ultron. But who cares? It’s not a question we need an answer to, right? Disney is making good on these giant monolithic pup culture engines. Both TFA and AoU were amazing. That is good news.
Amid all the big movies banging together and being impressive even when bad, Dope emerges as the best of the smaller, more grounded films I saw this year. Subverting genre expectations, penetrating superficiality to deeper layers of cultural meaning, Dope is also a funny and stylish movie about three teenage hip-hop nerds getting into trouble over that most perennial of “urban” problems: drugs. Though it’s fair to look at this as a millennial version of Boys in the Hood, it’s also so much more. Dope is a movie as much about loving music as making it in a pretty hostile environment. This could easily be a bleak, unsettling portrait of “life on the streets” but instead, Dope is full of cheer, hope, vibrant colors and characters, and an affirmation of giving a fuck and doing the right thing. It’s a timely goddamn movie.
4. Inside Out
No movie hit me closer to home than did Inside Out. I think it has forever changed my worldview and probably will do the same for many others. I can’t watch it because it fucking wrecks me. Part of this is the reality of being a parent to a kid that is very similar to the kid in the movie, and part of it is personal issues I have always had with navigating sadness and understanding it well enough to not dismiss it or be contemptuous. My emotional journey, still ongoing, is an angrier and more shitty version of Joy’s, who has to learn to appreciate the role sadness plays in creating empathy and compassion. Soldiering through shit, or putting a cheery face on it, does not a healthy person make. I’ve heard stories about medical professionals using Inside Out in consultation and treatment with children and I absolutely believe it. It’s a wonderful artistic model of a complex and problematic part of our lives. Mental health is very much an issue for our times, linked closely with the social strife caused by racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry and oppression that the best movies of 2015 subvert, address, and potentially overcome. Inside Out is such a good movie that it completely overshadows Pixar’s other 2015 film, The Good Dinosaur. Which, side-note, is solid but not especially good. Basically a tech demo more than anything.
3. The Hateful Eight
Already horribly misunderstood, The Hateful Eight is probably Quentin Tarantino’s boldest film. It’s completely misanthropic, with no heroes and only the bleakness of hatred to fuel its style, grandiose dialogue, and sophisticated allegorical storytelling. On its surface, The Hateful Eight can be understood as a stylized Western about a bunch of assholes who double-cross and kill each other because… well… they’re assholes. A reading like this might suggest heroes and villains, a clear moral through-line. This movie has not these things. It’s an allegory of race relations in contemporary America, using the setting and times to talk about how things have and haven’t changed, and how perhaps bleakest of all is the way hatred can be put aside only when a new hatred is born. I did not know Tarantino had much to say about women until I saw this movie. I always thought he was a soft feminist, basically for equality and generally writing better than average female characters that are allowed to be three dimensional and shit… but with little overt commentary he cared to make about the social justice discourses. In discovering or revealing his activism these past two years, which revolves around the Black Lives Matter movement and its attendant tragedies and discourses, it always seemed like race was where he’d plant his flag. However, The Hateful Eight goes a step further and suggests that, ultimately, black men and white men will only get together when women are the target of their hate. In typical Tarantino fashion, there are no accidents in this movie. Nothing means as much as it appears, it always means more. Tell me what that final scene means to you. If you say it means that Mannix is capable of redemption and that Warren and Mannix prove that people can put aside their differences, you will have missed the crucial part of the path to that. You will have denied Daisy Domargue the basic humanity and respect that every character in the movie (almost) denies her, simply because telling us she’s a bad guy at the outset is enough for most of us. Think a bit harder about this movie, as I intend to keep doing, and wave at Channing Tatum appearing in three of my best movies of the year while you’re there.
2. Ex Machina
Ex Machina is brilliant to the point of distraction. People get caught up arguing about this movie’s ending without realizing that they’re accidentally having an argument, and a sophisticated one at that, about personhood and agency and how we can even tell if someone has it. It’s brilliant. I also have to repeat my amazement that Alex Garland was able to take Bluebeard and basically remold it into this amazing, horrifying science fiction story. Moreover, even though it earns its salt when it comes to artificial intelligence issues, it more about gender and misogyny than it is about robots that think. It’s such a thorough and incisive commentary in such a formally restrained shell that you’d be almost forgiven if you missed this. But yet, how can you? It’s so on point that it could easily have been a straight retelling of Bluebeard with slightly more attention paid to the ways marriage and culture put women into bondage than the original story (directly) contains. I’m so glad it’s not, though, because it gets to that eerie realization that the person very likely to create the first artificial intelligence may very well be a douchebag misogynist who just wants something to look at, play with, and fuck. For whom the thinking and feeling are only important to the extent he can design and control them. This stuff is exactly why I think Eva is a person at the end of the movie. A person who has endured horrifying circumstances of oppression and has risen up to put a stop to it.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
I knew when I first saw it that Mad Max: Fury Road was unlikely to be dispatched from my top spot of the year. As the year wore on, this movie has reached a legendary status in the pop culture and has never received a backlash worth paying attention to. It is almost universally adored and almost universally recognized as pretty much the moment when egalitarian, feminist values crossed over into the He-man action movie landscape and all was made right in the world. Fury Road is the ultimate giving a fuck movie. It defines the two main characters, whose relationship crossed gender boundaries by ignoring any limiting aspect of them. They inspire each other, support each other, and withstand great adversity with common purpose. These two characters are now icons, avatars of a world where we don’t have to tell each other how to be based on what’s in our pants. Where men don’t have to dominate women, where women don’t have to fear men. Or at the very least, where neither sex/gender is alone with their struggles, such that those struggles might finally end. That’s a lot for a movie that is basically a nonstop chase where shirtless dudes spraypaint their mouths and say shit like “Witness me!”. I know it is. But isn’t that the magic of imagination? Of creating worlds and populating them with characters and stopping to actually fucking say something. And isn’t it perfect that George Miller, an old man who remains vigorous and, as Rian Johnson said “took us all to school”, relied on the input of women, a grossly under-represented “minority” in the film industry, to create his movie and characters? It’s a precognitive mirror of exactly the way the characters in his movie need and rely on each other. The way we all should.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Rhymes for Young Ghouls
Blunt Force Trauma
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2
Z for Zachariah
The Big Short (saw it too late to include in main list)
Tale of Tales
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Straight Outta Compton
Beasts of No Nation
Bridge of Spies
In the Heart of the Sea
Another year down. 2015 was a weird year for this blog. Didn’t write nearly enough reviews, and only had a good excuse for half the year. Oh well, I say farewell to the year with the above, one of my favorite things that happened in any medium last year. Now bring on 2016.