We’re right in the middle of awards season, and things are going to be heating up over the coming weeks as nominations are announced right and left. 2015 was a big year for movies, as we saw record-breaking grosses along with new distribution models and the domination of Walt Disney Studios. I gained a lot of new favorite movies this year, and my list runs the gamut of blockbusters to the art house specialties.
Honorable Mentions: The Walk, Clouds of Sils Maria, The Martian, Sicario, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Bridge of Spies
And now, my Top 10 Movies of 2015:
Beautifully told and gorgeously shot, Carol succeeds in all departments. The story of two young women who fall for each other in 1950s New York feels like a relic of time gone by. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are convincing lovers, and sell you on their love with minimal dialogue. Sly looks, sensual provocations bring Carol and Therese together, and the film is a perfect representation of what makes people fall in love. Todd Haynes’s has such respect and admiration for his protagonists, and he extends that care to the filmmaking, with breathtaking cinematography and costume design.
The Big Short
The Big Short, like Steve Jobs, is a riveting drama with its own rhythm. Adam McKay’s film gives you a behind-the-curtain look at what caused the housing collapse of 2008, and if this sounds like a bore, trust me, it’s anything but. The accessible approach makes it an appropriate film for any adult looking to learn some economics but also what caused them to lose their job. It’s a film that will make you mad but also intrigue you. The Big Short‘s ensemble of characters gives you a new perspective on the national economy.
Judd Apatow’s protagonists are always stunted in emotional growth, and what makes Trainwreck so invigorating is Amy’s transformation over the course of the two-hour film. She goes from carefree serial dater to mature professional 21st century woman, but her journey never feels like an “A to B.” Her speed bumps along the way harden her emotionally, and you’ll lust for her new relationship with Aaron to go well for her own sake. The film never makes judgments about behavior, as every character in Amy’s life has flaws of their own. Amy Schumer’s star vehicle is more than a great case for her leading lady status, it’s a complex yet straightforward raunchy comedy with an unforgiving cast of characters and sharp writing.
Love & Mercy
Music biopics are a dime a dozen, but the best ones are the ones that truly understand their subject. Comparing it to Straight Outta Compton might seem presumptuous, but both these films are creative endeavors that reflect the artists’ music as an extension of the artist themselves. Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy, however, is unique in its take on Beach Boys’ frontman Brian Wilson’s life, as it tells a parallel narrative of Wilson’s life in the 1960s and his life in the 1980s. The two different actors show Wilson’s transformation from troubled creative to patient zero but never feel disconnected from the overall narrative. Gorgeously directed music recording sequences are contrasted with the somber reflective second half of Wilson’s life, and the links between the two are never ostentatious, always accessible.
Spotlight is unbelievable. Tough subject matter aside, this is a thrilling film, back when journalism would be described as “hard-hitting.” The ensemble is remarkable, and seeing them grapple with the personal and professional stress of the story is made riveting thanks to director Tom McCarthy’s emotionally rich script. It’s a film about deception and scandal, but also one about truth and justice, as the Spotlight team knows the stakes behind this story are sky-high. Coupled with great production design and more than a few standout sequences, Spotlight joins the ranks of Zero Dark Thirty and the podcast Serial as the best modern-day journalistic endeavors.
Screwball at its finest, Noah Baumbach’s second film of 2015 is one of his greatest, and marks his collaborations with Greta Gerwig as one of the finest in the indie business. There are a lot of films and programs about millennials in New York City, and Mistress America‘s take on a young college girl who bonds with her soon-to-be sister is simply a delight. There’s shades of Woody Allen here as the city comes to life as a supporting character, but the friendship between Tracy and Brooke is the real heart and soul, and gives the film a personality of its own. It’s the kind of film that you put in on a rainy afternoon, as it sucks you into their world and makes you feel not like an observer of the hijinks, but a real participator.
On the surface, there may not be anything immediately fascinating about the movie Brooklyn. The story is not the most complex one, and it may look like a typical immigrant tale if you’re just window shopping. But Brooklyn’s simplicity is what makes it stand out, and it was refreshing to see a movie so classically told, one that won’t make you scream or shout, but rather one you’ll be admiring for years to come. Saoirse Ronan sells you on Eilis’s experience, as she’s torn between her new home in New York and her old one in Ireland. The elegant simplicity of the filmmaking and writing allows Brooklyn to focus on other things, and the result is a new classic, one that will never feel old or dated.
I was possibly the biggest emotional wreck in the theater after the movie Room. Based on the novel of the same name by Emma Donoghue, and brought to the screen by director Lenny Abrahamson, Room has such a marvelous first act that you might wonder if the film can keep up the pace for the remainder of the film. Told beautifully and made with the tender touch of a mother, Room makes such a convincing bond between Ma and Jack. You’ll grow frustrated with them but also yearn for their release, and both Brie Larson and young actor Jacob Tremblay tap into these fictional characters and make them feel “ripped from the headlines” real.
Steve Jobs is electric filmmaking. The film retains such a rhythm throughout its entire run, and it makes the experience feel like you’re watching history being made, which you kind of are. Michael Fassbender gives the best performance of his career as the enigmatic Jobs, and Danny Boyle’s film allows him to explore new angles of Jobs that we may not have previously known. The brilliant three-act structure gives a Shakespearian atmosphere to the whole affair, and Boyle and writer Aaron Sorkin never let the film lose momentum. Boasting brilliant direction and some great supporting turns from Kate Winslet and Jeff Daniels, Steve Jobs is unlike any other film you’ll see this year.
Many (including this writer) thought that Pixar’s glory days were behind them, yet Inside Out is the studio’s best film to date. It’s worth repeating that Inside Out is a creative masterpiece, overflowing with ingenuity and attention to detail, with accomplished voice actors and a beautiful score. But then again, so are all of Pixar’s films. What makes Inside Out so special is that it may be the first animated film truly made for adults and children. Yeah, there are jokes that range from slapstick to witty quips, but the emotional mileage that Inside Out gets out of its protagonist Riley is simply unprecedented. You’ll think of your own adolescence as Riley struggles with hers, you’ll relate to Joy and Sadness and their adventure through Riley’s head, you’ll laugh and cry along with Riley’s parents as they adjust to a new home. What Inside Out does is make these experiences universal, while allowing the viewer to make it personal. All of this is coated with the signature Disney-Pixar polish that we’ve known and loved, and you’ve got a new classic for the ages.