2015 has been a really interesting year at the movies. While the year as a whole has been fairly average, there have been what feels like greater extremes on both sides of the “good/bad” fence. The good movies we’ve gotten have been really great, and the bad movies have been outstandingly horrible. It makes creating lists like these difficult, as there are just so many contenders. I had to leave off films like Me and Earl and The Dying Girl, The End of the Tour, Bridge of Spies, Straight Outta Compton, Clouds of Sils Maria, Sicario, Brooklyn, Steve Jobs, and a few other really great movies that in a weaker year would make my Top Films list.
Note: I still have not seen The Revenant, The Hateful Eight, or Anomalisa. As such, those films could not be included on this list.
Without further ado, here are the 8 best films of 2015, in alphabetical order.
Directed by Todd Haynes. Produced by Elizabeth Karlsen, Stephen Woolley, and Christine Vachon. Written by Phyllis Nagy. Release date: November 20, 2015.
When I finished watching Carol, I felt underwhelmed. It’s an interesting romance that’s beautifully shot and wonderfully acted, but it didn’t feel like much beyond that. But then, a couple of hours later, it was still with me. It still had me thinking about it. It’s one of a rare breed of movies that just doesn’t want to let you go.
Carol is a movie about a love affair between two women – one undergoing a divorce because of a similar affair in the past (Cate Blanchett), while the other is just beginning to find her way in the world (Rooney Mara). That’s pretty much it. There isn’t a ton of dialogue or action; there isn’t even much in the romance category. It sits with its characters, watches them watching each other, and sets the stage – New York in the 1950s – so effectively. One scene early on in Carol instructs a character to notice what’s not being said, or what’s being said in a look, not with words. And that’s a key to watching Carol. So much can be said with a stare, and this is a film that takes full advantage of that.
Of course, since it is set in the 1950s, the subject matter is a star unto itself. Same-sex relationships can have struggles nowadays – which makes the film feel relevant to this day – but it was so much worse back then. And Carol doesn’t shy away from the attitude the era had toward them.
Directed by Ryan Coogler. Produced by Irwin Winkler, Robert Chartoff, Sylvester Stallone, and Kevin King Templeton. Written by Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington. Release date: November 25, 2015.
Creed is the best Rocky movie yet, and considering it’s the seventh film in the franchise, and the first film won Oscars, that’s no small feat. This is a film that takes everything Rocky did and improves on it. A slightly more interesting protagonist? Check. A better Sylvester Stallone performance? Check. Significantly better boxing scenes? Absolutely! A better romance? Yes, sir. Its homages to its predecessors don’t feel forced or like the movie wants to pause to have us appreciate the past.
This is one of the best boxing movies of all time – and may very well take the crown. If it was previously between Raging Bull and Rocky, it’s now between Raging Bull and Creed – and Creed‘s boxing scenes are so much better, due to the advancement of technology and a much larger budget. There’s one boxing scene in Creed that takes place over the course of five minutes, has two rounds of action, and doesn’t have a single cut. That’s just outstanding filmmaking, and results in a great rush of adrenaline. Add on the emotion that comes from both the main story and the Rocky subplot, and you’ve got an incredibly complete film.
Michael B. Jordan, who lost most of the goodwill he gained after Fruitvale Station thanks to Fantastic Four and That Awkward Moment, reminds us of how much talent he has, here playing Apollo Creed’s son. Sylvester Stallone, who has been mostly terrible for the last couple of decades, has a few scenes so good that he very well might get an Oscar nomination. The two actors work together really well, and if Creed does spawn a new series, one can only hope Rocky comes along for at least some of the ride.
Directed and written by Alex Garland. Produced by Andrew Macdonald and Scott Rudin. Release date: April 10, 2015.
Ex Machina is a smart sci-fi movie with an intriguing premise, interesting characters, a tight screenplay, gorgeous cinematography, and fantastic performances. Tack on its themes, which are so wonderfully explored, and its suspenseful setting, and you’ve got not just one of the films of the year, but one of the best sci-fi movies in recent years – if not ever.
The film follows a computer programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) who goes to a reclusive cabin in order to visit his company’s reclusive CEO (Oscar Isaac). But once there, he discovers he’s not just there for a vacation; he’s there to test an A.I. (Alicia Vikander). But one – or perhaps both – of these entities isn’t trustworthy, and the programmer soon finds himself struggling with what’s real and what’s not, whom he can trust, and what the difference is between a human and A.I.
This is another one of those movies that sticks with you for ages after it ends. It makes you think while it’s playing, and then it makes you continue to contemplate it for days after it ends. It’s exhausting, honestly, because of the amount of work it wants you to do. But, even if you don’t want to do that work, it still offers a gorgeous view, a thrilling plot, and wonderful acting. It’s the total package, is easily the best film from the first half of 2015, and is one of the best of the year. This is one that we’re going to be talking about for years to come.
Directed by Pete Docter. Produced by Jonas Rivera. Written by Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley. Release date: June 19, 2015.
Pixar had two movies released in 2015, something that the studio hadn’t previously done. And because the second film, The Good Dinosaur, wasn’t all that good, it’s not likely something that it’s going to do again. However, earlier in the year, Pixar released Inside Out, one of its best films ever, the top animated film of the year (having not yet seen Anomalisa, that is), and a fantastic watch for both kids and adults.
The premise is that everyone has anthropomorphized emotions in their heads controlling their every thought and movement. So, when something goes wrong in the head of an 11-year-old, a couple of them – Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) – have to go on a journey through the adolescent’s brain in order to sort things out.
Inside Out has creativity flowing from every orifice. The way that it builds its world is some of the best of its kind. Some of the various areas and characters found in Inside Out will stick with you for a long time. (I still love you, Bing Bong!) It’s also got a sharp script that contains both jokes and emotionally resonating moments for anyone watching – regardless of age – fantastic voice work, beautiful animation, and so many small details that just add to the experience. This is the type of film that critics often talk about when comparing “family” films and “children’s” films. The former has something for everyone watching; the latter panders toward children likely too young to get much out of it to begin with, and will be more annoying than endearing to anyone older than that.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Directed by George Miller. Produced by Doug Mitchell, George Miller, and P. J. Voeten. Written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nico Lathouris. Release date: May 15, 2015.
How’s Mad Max: Fury Road for a comeback story? George Miller, a 70-year-old director who largely worked only in family movies for the last couple of decades, made the best pure action movie of the year, the best Mad Max movie ever, and a potential candidate for best film of 2015. This is a franchise that had been dead for 30 years, and now it gets resurrected by Miller and becomes an incredibly hot property. What a narrative.
The film’s narrative, meanwhile, is essentially just one long chase scene. Max (Tom Hardy) and Furiosa (Charlize Theron) team up to rescue a bunch of women from the tyrannical Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). They run away and get chased. But what separates Fury Road from films of a similar nature is the way that it manages to still build characters while also delivering some of the most viscerally thrilling, inventive, and impressive action scenes of the year. Oh, and it had Flamethrower Guitar Guy.
It’s hard to really describe how great Mad Max: Fury Road is, because in a lot of ways it’s a “see it to believe it” type of film. You can talk about how the action scenes keep topping themselves, or how the characters develop and grow organically, or how awesome Furiosa is, but you really just need to go see the film in order to understand why it works as well as it does. The point is: this is an amazing R-rated action movie that’s also gorgeous and wonderfully acted. It’s a rarity, a game-changer, and one of the best movies of the year.
Directed by Ridley Scott. Produced by Simon Kinberg, Ridley Scott, Michael Schaefer, Aditya Sood, and Mark Huffam. Written by Drew Goddard. Release date: October 2, 2015.
If Mad Max: Fury Road was a comeback story, then what does that make The Martian for Ridley Scott? Here’s an even older director who, despite working constantly, was being written off as being over-the-hill and incapable of making a good movie. Then he makes The Martian, and we are reminded of how good Scott is when he’s in top form.
The Martian stars Matt Damon as an astronaut who gets stranded on Mars. He has to figure out a way to survive for years while people on Earth try to figure out how to rescue him. It’s hard sci-fi, it’s funny, it’s thrilling, it’s often quite pretty, and it never gets dull even with all of its scientific dialogue. Damon reminds us how effective he can be at delivering comedy, as well as drama, and the rest of the cast is given a lot to do – even minor roles feel important.
It was something of a prediction when the trailer for The Martian came out and it was declared to be “the good version of Interstellar,” but that’s basically what it was. Because it’s Ridley Scott and not Christopher Nolan, the human elements don’t feel forced or false. You care about these characters because they feel like actual humans with feelings and emotions – not robots masquerading as humans. Add on all of the importance placed on science, the thrilling and funny screenplay, and a great leading performance, and you’ve got a fantastic movie.
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Produced by Ed Guiney and David Gross. Written by Emma Donoghue. Release date: October 16, 2015.
While it’s a little less clear now that some of the various groups have begun to give out their end-of-year awards, I’ve thought since seeing Room that Brie Larson would win the Best Actress Oscar for 2015. Room contains two great performances. The first is Larson, while the second is from Jacob Tremblay, a child actor. Do you know how rare it is for me to praise child acting? It happens a couple of times a year, if that! That is how good Tremblay is in Room. The only other child performance this year that is on par with Tremblay is Abraham Attah‘s in Beasts of No Nation.
It’s not just the acting that makes Room a wonderful experience, though. The plot takes us in such a great direction. I don’t want to spoil where it goes, but suffice to say that it allows for characters to experience wondrous things, and watching them feel the various emotions they go through in this film is heartbreaking.
This is a film that makes you think about the bond between a mother and child, the nature of humanity, and the amount of perseverance that can be contained within a single individual. This is a layered, twisty film that, again, is one that doesn’t leave your brain for days after it ends. It makes you feel, it makes you think, and it makes you appreciate how much good acting matters. A bad performance in this movie topples it like a house of cards; a great one turns it into an unforgettable experience.
Directed by Thomas McCarthy. Produced by Blye Faust, Steve Golin, Nicole Rocklin, and Michael Sugar. Written by Thomas McCarthy and Josh Singer. Release date: November 6, 2015.
Up there with the best films about journalism of all time – so, there’s this and All the President’s Men – Spotlight is a movie that succeeds in every facet. It’s revelatory, it’s got probably the tightest screenplay of the year, it has tremendous performances, it does a lot with its largely enclosed spaces, it’s paced perfectly, it has moments of both humor and horror, it gives us interesting and smart characters, and the way it shines a light on something that everyone’s aware of but nobody does anything about is just … it’s powerful.
This is a movie that makes journalism not only seem interesting, but important. It has a target on its mind and will do everything in its power to bring the perpetrators into the light. But it doesn’t forget to makes its characters human, giving them flaws and not overlooking past mistakes made both by them and by the company for which they work. It does such a tremendous job of getting the audience on its side, shocking us with things that it reveals – even though they’re things we likely already either knew or suspected. It times everything perfectly.
Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton both deserve Oscar nominations for their performances here. Rachel McAdams turns in career-best work. Liev Schreiber is really good, and Stanley Tucci is as reliable as ever. Thomas McCarthy is forgiven for directing The Cobbler earlier in 2015, as he proves that was just a misguided film from start to finish by directing the best movie of the year later on. Everything about Spotlight works about as well as it could, and it’s my favorite movie of 2015.