2015 is over, and 2016 has just begun. Since 2015 is no more, it feels natural of me to compile a list of the best films of 2015. Like the past few years, its been a helluva year for the movies. While the general consensus is that Hollywood makes nothing but crap that’s unoriginal nowadays (a sentiment that is sort-of true), there are always several cases of that being false. We’ve seen some great films from Hollywood and the independent distributors. Films that debuted at film festivals will be on this list. Films that made millions (if not billions) will be on this list. I’m gonna cut the crab and give you the best films of 2015. I’ll start out by listing the 20-11 best films, then end it with the top ten. I hope you enjoy my list, and please let me know what you thought of this said list. Here we go.
20. Bridge of Spies
Another fine period drama from Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies told the story of how a lawyer was able to negotiate the release of an American pilot held in Germany, whose plane had been shot down over the partially-communist country. Tom Hanks gives a great performance, as does Mark Rylance as a Russian agent who was arrested in America and was sent back to his country in exchange for the pilot. It’s not as good as Spielberg’s Lincoln, but it’s a solid late entry into the legendary director’s vast filmography. Bridge of Spies will be released on home media sometime in 2016.
19. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
I considered making this an honorable mention, but I decided not to. The general consensus after my review of The Force Awakens was that I didn’t like the film, which is far from the true. While it’s not a perfect film, its a welcome addition to the Star Wars universe after years of horrible prequels from George Lucas. Abrams sticks to the originals maybe a little too much, but its a winning combination thanks to a fun and exciting new take, new faces as well as some old faces, and so on. The standout of the film being Daisy Ridley’s performance as Rey, the new lead of the Star Wars universe. Picked from obscurity, she’s one of the finest young actors that I’ve seen in my time as a critic, and I can’t wait to see what she does next in her career, and I can’t wait to see where this franchise goes next. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is still playing in theaters.
Judd Apatow’s return to making quality comedies came with a screenplay and lead-debut from Amy Schumer, a comic who had a huge following with her Inside Amy Schumer show on Comedy Central. Trainwreck was one of the funniest and smartest R-rated comedies of the year, and benefited greatly from Schumer’s performance and screenplay. Some folks were turned off by Schumer’s crude and raunchy humor, but if you’re a fan of the comedian like myself, and you like Apatow’s comedies in general, you’ll find that there’s a lot to love about Trainwreck. It’s currently available on home media.
Raiders! was a film that I saw at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival back in March. It was a documentary chronicling the making of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, which was a fan film made by a group of friends in Mississippi. This film chronicles the 3-decade long production, and how they got funding from Kickstarter to film the sequence when Indy saves Marion from the Nazi’s and fights the giant next to the plane. The film is a blast to watch if you love films about filmmaking and even if you’re just a fan of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The film is also this really poignant coming of age story of how these three kids started it as kids and ended it as adults. The film had its world premiere at SXSW and is still looking for distribution.
16. Straight Outta Compton
One of the best music biopics of the past couple of years, Straight Outta Compton brilliantly portrays the rise and fall of N.W.A., one of the most influential and iconic hip-hop groups of all time. Featuring a cast of unknowns in the roles of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy E and others, with Jason Mitchell’s portrayal of E as the highlight of the film. Straight Outta Compton is an emotional and exciting retelling of one of music’s more interesting periods in the 80s and 90s. The music’s great, the performances are great, and the direction by F. Gary Gray’s is fresh and exciting, especially for a studio summer tentpole. Straight Outta Compton will be released on home media later in 2016.
15. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
One of the most controversial films of the year, Alex Gibney’s brilliant documentary adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s equally brilliant book is one of the most shocking and polarizing films of the year. Documenting the troubled history on the Church of Scientology, Gibney and Wright uncover some of the churches biggest secrets and human rights violations that the church has allegedly committed against their members in the 50+ years of the churches inception. Skewering everyone from the president and spokespersons of the church to their golden boys John Travolta and Tom Cruise (one of which released a film that’s very high on this list). If you don’t know a whole lot about the Church of Scientology and want to learn more, Gibney’s haunting documentary is just the film for you. It’s currently available on HBO GO.
Easily the best Rocky sequel since the original Rocky, Creed hits all the right spots possible when it comes to boxing and the boxers behind it. Ryan Coogler’s terrific love letter to Rocky and boxing is another fine addition to his young and exciting filmography. Michael B. Jordan gives one of his finest performances as the titular Creed, but its Sylvester Stallone’s performance as the Italian Stallion that deserves a lot of awards consideration for his heartbreaking and emotional performance as an older Rocky. Creed is still kicking ass in theaters.
13. Ex Machina
Ex Machina is one of the best science fiction films of the past few years, and one of the most original and inspired. Featuring some of the best performances by Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and a starmaking performance by Alicia Viklander as the mysterious A.I. Ava, Alex Garland’s terrifying and beautifully haunting science fiction piece was one of the highlights at the beginning of the year, and continues to be so as one of 2015’s finest. Ex Machina is currently available on home media for your viewing pleasure.
12. Mad Max: Fury Road
George Miller’s brilliant reboot/remake/return to the Mad Max franchise was one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2015 summer movie season. Featuring Tom Hardy in the titular role this time around, the scene stealer of this film ends up being Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, whose probably the most badass female action heroine since Sarah Conner in Terminator 2. What is essentially a two-hour long chase sequence, Fury Road ends up being one of the most exciting and adrenaline-fueled films of the past year, and one that has turned into a dark horse Oscar contender. While it’s not my favorite film of the year, there’s a little bit of me that roots for this film to take the gold, since it would be such a bizarre choice. Mad Max: Fury Road is currently available on home media.
11. Cartel Land
Speaking of terrifying, the scariest film of 2015 wasn’t a sci-fi or horror film, but was actually a film that documented the struggle on the U.S./Mexican border. Cartel Land told two stories, one from the point of view of Arizona natives who “guard” the border, and the other being the village and villagers who are terrorized by the cartels on a daily basis, and decide to take the matter into their own hands. Directed by Matthew Heineman and executive produced by Kathryn Bigelow, Cartel Land will make you think real hard about the drug war that’s happening right now in Mexico, and you’ll walk out of the film with a completely different opinion and take on what’s going on. Few films have had that effect on me, and that’s why Cartel Land is on this list. Cartel Land is currently available on home media.
Now, let’s get into the ten best films of 2015.
10. The Big Short
Adam McKay’s brilliant take on the 2008 financial crisis begins this top ten for a number of reasons. One being the surprising direction and screenplay by the man best known for making Will Ferrell comedies like Anchorman for a living. It’s also on this list for the terrific ensemble, consisting of Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, and many more. It’s really worth noting how McKay was able to make something as confusing and unexciting as the housing crisis and wall street, and make it engaging for the audience. It’s one of the smartest and funniest studio gambles of the year, and I look forward to hearing this one around Oscar time. The Big Short is currently playing in theaters.
Quite possibly the saddest movie I saw in 2015 (I looked like an emotional trainwreck after this film), Asif Kapadia’s documentary on possibly the greatest rhythm and blues singer of this century, Amy Winehouse’s story is one that serves as a cautionary tale for anybody seeking stardom of some kind, and no matter how big you can get that some folks can’t really handle new founded fame. This is apparent as you watch Winehouse, a skinny English girl with a voice on par with Aretha Franklin or any other black singer of her kind, who loses herself to an addiction to heroin. It’s a beautiful film about an artist that I really loved and admired, but its a documentary that’s so good you don’t even need to be a fan of Amy Winehouse in order to appreciate her work and life. Amy is currently available on home media.
8. The Hateful Eight
Quentin Tarantino’s latest masterpiece in the Western genre category is some of the finest work of his career. I really loved how grounded and contained this three-hour epic is made, and its a testament to Tarantino as a writer and director, as well as the impressive ensemble cast that’s been assembled for this film. Everyone is terrific in this film, with the standouts of the film being Samuel L. Jackson, Walter Goggins, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. If you’re a fan of Tarantino or a fan of movies in general, I don’t really need to recommend this film to you since you’ve probably seen it already. I can’t say what the 70 mm Roadshow release was like since I saw it on a digital projector, but I imagine that Robert Richardson’s gorgeous cinematography is like something from another world in that format. Hopefully I can get around to that. The Hateful Eight is currently playing in theaters.
7. Inside Out
Another example of me looking like an emotional trainwreck after a film, but in a good way. Inside Out, the latest film from Pixar, is a beautiful and emotional film about growing up, and how it resonates with all of us. I saw the film with one of my best friends in a theater with nothing but kids and parents, and by the end of the film we were all sobbing like babies. The ending of the film is one of the most beautiful things that I’ve seen in any film recently. I don’t think I’m spoiling much when I say this (and that everybody saw the film over the summer). It’s the scene when Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phillis Smith) share a memory together, and that’s all I’m going to say about that. It’s beautiful, poignant, sad, funny, and everything in-between. Inside Out is currently available on home media.
6. The Martian
A film that I saw the night before I made this list, I really loved Ridley Scott’s latest film. It’s a statement that I don’t regularly say about the filmmaker, since his last great film was 2007’s brilliant American Gangster. Matt Damon gives one of the finest performances of his career as the titular martian, and the ensemble that encapsulates the film is also incredibly stellar. The film, and its screenplay by Drew Goddard, is hilarious, heartfelt, exciting, emotional, and so much more. If you haven’t gotten around to seeing The Martian, I suggest you do so at your earliest convenience. The Martian is currently available (to buy only) on iTunes.
5. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Haters gonna hate. And yes, I did mention that a top Scientologist would be high up on this list. The critic in me shouldn’t even bother with films like the most recent Mission: Impossible, but Rogue Nation was just such a damn fun ride from beginning to end. Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie takes what made Brad Bird’s last Mission: Impossible so fun, doubles down on the fun, and helps make a lot of those films flaws from that film become some of the highlights of this new film. Tom Cruise is great as always, but the breakout here is Rebecca Ferguson as a mysterious agent that crosses Ethan Hunt’s path. Great chemistry with the cast, great writing and directing, as well as some of the finest action set pieces of the franchise and of any action film of the past few years help make Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation the finest action film of 2015. It’s current available on home media.
4. Steve Jobs
It’s a shame that this film did as poorly as it did when it was released. Because Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, with a screenplay adaptation by none other than Aaron Sorkin, was one of the more unique studio releases of the year. Michael Fassbender is phenomenal as the titular tech genius, as is the rest of the incredible cast (Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, etc). With the film consisting of only three scenes, each scene feels more and more monumental and exciting than the previous one. Sorkin’s dialogue plays out like music to the audience, helping the film feel like a breeze, well under its two-hour runtime. When you get the chance, please go check this one out, which will most definitely receive a few Oscar noms.
This may not be the first border-themed film on this list, but it’s certainly the best. Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to his terrific 2013 film Prisoners is probably the scariest and most grounded in reality scripted film that I saw in 2015. Featuring Emily Blunt in a performance that solidifies her as one of the finest actors of her generation, as well as some terrifying supporting work from Benicio Del Toro, not to mention the brilliant direction and writing that helps make Sicario the exciting and tense drug war film that it is. It also doesn’t hurt that Roger Deakins, the best cinematographer in the business, is behind the camera on this one. This should be out on Blu-Ray later in 2016.
I truly feel that Carol and my number one film should tie for the top spot, but it would’ve been a bit unfair for this list. I really loved Carol, and thought it was one of the finest character pieces made in the past five years. Cate Blanchett is terrific as always (even if Kyle “Coach Taylor” Chandler is underused in the film), but the real standout is Rooney Mara as a young woman who crosses paths with the titular character. Todd Haynes’ gorgeous and beautiful love story is one for the ages, and a film that I will be talking about and thinking about for ages and ages to come. This is practically tied with my number one pick, but don’t tell anybody that. Carol is currently playing in theaters.
Spotlight is a masterpiece, and one of the most important films of the last couple of years. Chronicling the investigative Boston Globe team that uncovered the sexual abuse by the Catholic Church, Thomas McCarthy’s dramatization of this story is some of the finest work about reporting that I’ve seen since All The President’s Men. Featuring a terrific cast with Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachael McAdams, and many more, McCarthy’s Boston set film felt like a breeze from beginning to end, and I never saw a film more intense and exciting this year than Spotlight, hands-down the best film of 2015. It’s currently playing in theaters.