As 2015 draws to a close, it seems the state of modern moviemaking and cinema has been captured in a snapshot. Currently, audiences have greater variety than ever before in how they choose to view movies—be it on Blu-ray, via VOD rental services before even theatrical release, waiting to stream off Netflix, or even by occasionally going to the theater.
And in that realm, the biggest movie of the decade in Star Wars: The Force Awakens is playing next door to the equally star-studded and far more pointed study of a collapsing imperial leviathan, The Big Short. And maybe even further down the multiplex in a few weeks, you might be lucky enough to see a Quentin Tarantino film presented in legitimate 70mm!
The list of options can be so daunting that it still proves difficult to whittle the movie calendar of 2015 down to the essentials. Yet, we at Den of Geek are going to try to do just that. On the next two pages, our two chief critics David Crow and Don Kaye will give you their picks for the 10 best movies of the year. And don’t worry, there is a comment section below that to tell them just how very wrong they are!
David Crow’s List
Honorable Mention: It Follows
This unique chiller from director David Robert Mitchell personifies the unspoken reason horror movies are so much scarier when we’re young. At that stage of life, death is a stranger from a foreign shore, whose icy touch feels perversely macabre and forever distant. But like the ticking clock of a crocodile for adolescents, Mitchell presents a world where death is made flesh as a wordless, tireless, and all around nasty STD demon. Like the worst game of telephone ever played, whoever contracts “It” after a bout of unprotected sex is doomed to be the next victim until the STD is passed to the next poor, promiscuous soul.
As the central protagonist who contracts this curse, Maika Monroe is heartbreaking with the level of violation and stolen innocence articulated in her constantly frantic glances toward the outside of the frame. She and Russell sell the idea of a slow, but inevitable embrace of death being just around the corner for even the youngest and nicest of us with a dreamlike splendor. Proving that the 1980s are as synonymous with horror now as gothic castles, It Follows is anachronistic wonderland of Reagan era iconography and modern isolation.
10. Clouds of Sils Maria
The role of what is feminine appears to be constantly in flux in modern culture. And yet, the world has changed so little that the pressures and double standards placed on women since Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve make that film as contemporary as anything else in 2015. Perhaps that’s why writer-director Olivier Assays so lightly retraces those same timeless truths in Clouds of Sils Maria with a decidedly more modern reflection on the moviemaking industry and the place for femininity in it.
Equal parts self-aware and lyrical, Clouds of Sils Maria tracks a triptych of women in the industry at different stages in their symbiotic careers, creating a motion as circular as the titular winding mist pictured in the Swiss Alps. Juliette Binoche plays Maria, a respected actress of stage and European cinema who finds herself reduced to supporting, older roles—and opposite Chloe Grace Moretz as a cunning, foul-mouthed starlet who’s literally stolen the acting parts of Maria’s youth.
But the real standout is Kristen Stewart as Maria’s personal assistant; she’s not a replacement waiting in the wings like Moretz or that classic influential Bette Davis film, but a friend who pushes Maria and the audience to reevaluate what is art and what is commercialism, and if there can be beauty found in aging… or even superhero and werewolf movies. It’s a career best for Stewart and allows the movie a very satisfying bite.
9. The Hateful Eight
Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film (assuming you count Kill Bill as a one-and-done affair) is also his most classically structured. Yes, it’s a roadshow picture, but it is also a straight ahead Western that happens to merely take place during the dead of winter. Assembling his ensemble with the patience of John Ford circa 1939, it isn’t until intermission that he fully lets his more modern, gory sensibilities fly, and the delayed satisfaction is as exhilarating as any thriller half this three-hour running time.
Yet Hateful‘s real draw, besides Samuel L. Jackson in another iconic performance as the bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren, is the presentation. Like the poster says, its shot on “glorious” 70mm and desperately should be viewed that way, complete with an overture and a perfectly placed intermission.
8. Mad Max: Fury Road
Leave it to the 70-year-old director of Babe and Happy Feet to make the best action movies in years. Mad Max: Fury Road is the long awaited sequel to Miller’s original Mad Max trilogy that ended 30 years ago, but it is also so much more. Turning explosions and car collisions into an art form as legitimate as any oils or acrylics, Fury Road is a feast for the eyes with stunning compositions of fire and anarchy that are contagious. Also, the fact that most of it is done in-camera is truly maddening.
But the best thing months later is still that Mad Max (now Tom Hardy) is merely a sidekick to the far more fascinating Furiosa (Charlize Theron). With this one performance, Charlize Theron crafts an action heroine on the level of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley or Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. Every bit as ruthless and mercurial as Max, Furiosa finds a hellscape still smoking from the arrogance of men and she drowns it in the righteousness of an instant action classic.
7. The Revenant
There is no sequence this year as gruelingly jaw-dropping as the near five-minute bear attack at the heart of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant. Presenting as much an ordeal of brutality as an entertainment, the director of Birdman reteams with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki for the most intense viewing experience of the year.
Together, they reimagine the frontier as a primordial Garden of Eden, untouched and unconcerned with the petty vendettas of man. It is all so stark that it’s a marvel Leonardo DiCaprio’s nigh silent performance burns so hot. There has never been a Western quite like The Revenant and its vengeful beauty.
6. Ex Machina
Alex Garland’s Ex Machina imagines a horrifying destiny where man creates artificial intelligence, and that AI then becomes our undoing. However, the difference between this conceit and so many other robotic science fictions is that one senses Garland doesn’t consider this a bad thing. In fact, everything about Ex Machina and its synthetic fatale Ava (Alicia Vikander) is designed to entice us toward a digital doom.
By far the most frightening “Frankenstein” of the decade, Ava is the pet project of eccentric search engine billionaire Nathan (Oscar Isaac). A sweaty and madly mercurial scientist, Nathan flies an introverted employee (Domhnall Gleeson) up to his mountain estate in order to test Ava’s supposed intelligence. But there is more going on here than this simple mystery, which is solved the first time Ava pouts her lips at Gleeson’s defenseless nerd. More intriguing is the haunting effect Garland’s cinematic shell game leaves after the lights go up.
While not the most expensive genre movie of 2015, Ex Machina is one that might have the greatest longevity. Assuming our machine overlords don’t ban it first.
5. Inside Out
More than just the year’s best animated family film, Inside Out is a modern triumph and a return to form for Pixar. Tired of trying to milk our emotions for all their worth with proxy characters, the animation studio cuts right to the chase by making a movie about those now anthropomorphic feelings that apparently live inside all of our heads.
Peter Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen’s nifty idea makes for one of the most satisfying movies of the year that hits just as many real-life emotions as those digitized onscreen, particularly those of Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). These two emotions’ budding friendship in a young girl’s head go to some dark and transcendent places, articulating concepts like depression and despair in a universal, visual language. Plus, Bing Bong! Why did it have to be Bing Bong?! [Sniffles]
Tom McCarthy directs the best ensemble of the year in a picture that delicately yet unflinchingly recounts The Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Church and its conspiratorial cover-up of countless pedophilic priests. Set in the early 2000s, and in the shadow of 9/11, this film’s cinematic investigation harkens back even further to the no-nonsense maturity and intelligence of 1970s Hollywood moviemaking found in the works of Sidney Lumet, William Friedkin, and most especially Robert Redford’s All The President’s Men.
A densely plotted and streamlined procedural, Spotlight reminds viewers of the importance of investigative journalism and features A-list performances from Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James, and Stanley Tucci. No performer will likely be flashy enough for the Academy and a certain breed of awards voters, but everyone is pitch-perfect authentic, capturing that dawning realization of indescribable horror and shame for their community and their faith. This is powerful, searing filmmaking.
3. Steve Jobs
Whatever Apple or the box office might think, Steve Jobs is a tremendous achievement across the board that demands to be seen. Featuring 2015’s most memorable screenplay, this is a high-wire act for writer Aaron Sorkin since he distills his adaptation of the Apple co-creator’s life into three real-time sequences: the behind-the-scenes jitters prior to the product launches for the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Cube in 1988, and the iMac in 1998.
If The Social Network was Sorkin’s Silicon Valley version of Citizen Kane, then Jobs is something akin to King Lear with the visionary creator supplanting his true daughter Lisa, for three children of glass and aluminum. Whether this is an accurate portrayal or not of the genius is a muddled and, ultimately, moot question. The real truth is that Boyle flawlessly visualizes this knotty material into a breathless and suspenseful two-hour crash course in horror and hagiography for one of the screen’s most complex protagonists in recent memory—also allowing for a tour de force from Michael Fassbender that has no equal in the Best Actor race.
A beautifully understated film, Brooklyn marks the announcement of Saoirse Ronan as one of the most impressive actresses of her generation. She was already a remarkable child star, but Brooklyn stands as her first adult role, and it also so happens to be in one of the most thoughtful of recent films.
Directed by John Crowley and adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby, there is an air of wisdom and maturity to this deceptively simple tale about coming of age. In fact, the faintest rays of adulthood come in one of the harshest transitions imaginable: a lonely immigration across the sea.
Ronan plays Ellis, a young woman with no prospects in her Irish homeland during the early 1950s. Thus, she embarks on a journey without her sister or mother to Brooklyn. There, she might be able to start a new life with career opportunities and the attention of a sweet kid named Tony (Emory Cohen), but she is often found drawn back to the Old World. A constant struggle between old and new, and girlhood and womanhood, Brooklyn is hardly sentimental but is endlessly endearing—a powerfully quiet movie with a focus on the American immigrant dream that’s all the more poignant in a year where politicians wish to dismantle it.
Room conjures images of one of the most terrifying experiences imaginable: a young woman being held captive in a retrofitted toolshed for years. But somehow, it is also amongst the most uplifting and optimistic viewings of the year.
Ostensibly telling the story of Joy Newsome’s nightmare, where she was held captive for seven years by a monster in human clothing, director Lenny Abrahamson and screenwriter Emma Donoghue do not imagine this terror from Joy’s point-of-view; the world is rather glimpsed from the perspective of Jack, a five-year-old boy who was born and grew up in “Room,” which is all there is to the world in his mind.
Brie Larson as Ma and Jacob Tremblay as her son Jack are tremendous throughout, convincing not only each other but the audience that a universe can be made within the confines of four walls and a roof, and a child’s innocence can be preserved even on the threshold of Hell. When Jack finally does experience more than just the world he knows, a suburban backyard might as well be another planet. Miraculously, herein lies a testament to the best of life in the very worst of circumstances, and a rare achievement in any art-form.
Click on over to the next page to see Don Kaye’s picks for the 10 Best Movies of the Year!
Don Kaye’s List
I have to say that overall, I had a much better time at the movies in 2015 than I did in 2014. Yes, some of my most anticipated films proved underwhelming (Avengers: Age of Ultron), but on the other hand, some lived up to and even exceeded my wildest expectations. And of course there were some genuine surprises along the way, some of which made it all the way to my Top 10. So without any further ado, here are my 10 favorite films of 2015.
Director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank), aided by Emma Donoghue’s own adaptation of her novel, takes a story that on the surface would seem almost unfilmable and makes it into a gut-wrenching work of emotional violence and ultimate transcendence. The film’s first half, which stays in the room of the title with Ma (Brie Larson) and her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) – a product of rape by their hideous captor — is claustrophobic and dread-inducing, making the story’s resolution that much more powerful and poignant. Larson and Tremblay are incredible in a film that examines the power of love and parental bonds in an extraordinary way.
I’m about as tired of biopics as I can be, but this documentary about the short, sad life of singer Amy Winehouse riveted me from start to finish. A lot of it has to do with Amy herself, who is both a forceful, charismatic and sly personality, and at the same time a ghost walking through her own life. The supporting players, from her loyal, heartbroken friends to her dirtbag father and husband, are drawn even more distinctly than usual.
Even knowing the outcome, I wanted to keep watching and spend more time with this haunted yet immensely talented enigma of a woman, and I was rooting for her to somehow pull herself out of the crash.
8. Steve Jobs
Didn’t I just say I was tired of biopics? I actually had only a passing interest in Danny Boyle’s take on the life of the Apple co-founder and resident visionary (a term that is used far too often these days but is totally appropriate in this case), yet I found myself drawn in by Michael Fassbender’s fantastic, wholly immersive performance, and the way he made you see the wheels turning in Jobs’ brain without saying anything. The energetic supporting cast, Boyle’s crisp direction, and even Aaron Sorkin’s crackling screenplay all stayed with me as well.
7. Inside Out
It’s rare than an animated film makes it to my Top 10 in any year; while I enjoy a great many of them, almost none have ever have the same impact for me as live-action. Inside Out, however, is on an entirely different level. Co-director and co-writer Pete Docter’s (Up) central concept of personifying the emotions inside a child’s head, just as that young girl become more aware of those emotions and struggles to control them, is beautifully rendered on both a visual and metaphorical level.
Similarly, the themes of memory and loss are so profoundly moving (particularly if you are a parent) that I’m getting choked up now just thinking about them again. Pixar has had a bumpy ride these last few years, but Inside Out is one of the company’s finest achievements.
6. Love and Mercy
I realize this is becoming a joke, since this is the third biographical film to make my Top 10, but damn if Love and Mercy didn’t upend the traditional biopic structure to at least make the story seem fresh and somewhat unique. The risky idea of having Beach Boys musical madman Brian Wilson played by two different people in his younger and older days pays off, although to be honest I have to give the edge to Paul Dano as the more youthful Wilson; he’s simply brilliant as a tortured soul who somehow manages to eke out some of the world’s most gorgeous pop music.
John Cusack also delivers one of his best recent performances as the older Wilson, and kudos also to Elizabeth Banks for a career-best appearance as well as the one woman who can reach the vulnerable soul inside Wilson’s labyrinthine mind.
5. Ex Machina
It seems like we’ve been living in a mini-Golden Age of science fiction cinema for the last few years – thanks to some amazingly resourceful and thoughtful films on the indie scene – and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina either represents the apex of that or the beginning of a new, even more profound phase. Either way, this is one of the best sci-fi movies in years with Garland delivering two indelible characters in the insane genius Nathan (a superb Oscar Isaac) and his otherworldly creation Ava (Alicia Vikander in a star-making turn).
The themes of artificial intelligence, the definition of humanity, the Singularity, and sexual politics all fit compactly and coherently into Garland’s endlessly clever script, which develops its ideas organically through the actions of its characters. Garland has been writing excellent screenplays for years and it’s terrific to see him handle his directorial debut so confidently as well.
If you told me that the seventh installment in the Rocky franchise would knock my socks off, I would have probably laughed in your face – even if I have a soft spot for boxing movies above all others in the sports genre. But Creed is much more than a boxing drama; it’s thoroughly satisfying mainstream entertainment as well as an incisive and moving character study of two men, bound by love, loyalty, and death, who find strength from each other at the opposite ends of their lives.
Michael B. Jordan gives the latest in a string of strong performances as Adonis Creed, while Sylvester Stallone is simply stunning as an aged and weary Rocky. Director/writer Ryan Coogler fulfills the promise of his excellent Fruitvale Station, delivering poignant melodrama, warmly funny character moments and exciting action in the ring.
3. 99 Homes
There were two movies this year about the 2008 housing market crisis that brought the economy to its knees, and while I appreciate a lot about Adam McKay’s The Big Short, Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes was the more searingly effective of the two. It made me both furious and even a little physically ill – as well it should, given the horrifying subject matter.
Michael Shannon’s home-flipping real estate magnate is a monster in every sense of the word, yet Shannon still imbues him with enough traces of humanity to draw you in. Andrew Garfield shakes off the stink of his Amazing Spider-Man run with an emotionally honest performance as well. Bahrani’s documentary-like visual style and use of non-actors makes the scenes of people being thrown out of their homes – often at a moment’s notice – nearly unbearable yet essential viewing.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road
Just as George Miller gave us a classic of its time with the second film in this franchise, 1982’s The Road Warrior, he’s done the same with its fourth entry some 33 years later. Fury Road is as visceral, kinetic and eye-popping as filmmaking gets, with the tireless Miller lobbing inventive and electrifying action sequences at you every few minutes in his sunblasted post-apocalyptic wasteland.
But it’s not just the stunning visuals or mind-blowing action that give Fury Road its power: it’s the human moments shared by the mostly silent yet eventually humane Max himself (Tom Hardy) and, most significantly, the imperator-turned-rebel Furiosa (Charlize Theron), whose mix of unexpressed longing, protectiveness and steely resilience embodies the soul of every woman forced to batter against the walls of a patriarchal society.
Tom McCarthy wrote and directed what is nearly a perfect movie in this true story of a determined team of newspaper reporters who take on a dominant power structure — in this case the Catholic Church — and gradually reveal the rot within. Spotlight is so many things: a gripping drama, a compelling character piece, a defiant stand for justice and a celebration of a brand of journalism that has all but vanished from today’s 24/7 stream of infotainment.
McCarthy’s script doesn’t sound a wrong note once, his direction of the material is crisp and efficient, and the cast — featuring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Stanley Tucci – is impeccable. I walked out of Spotlight with a mix of turbulent emotions, including awe at the power of filmmaking done so well – and satisfaction at knowing I had seen the best motion picture of 2015.
Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order): Anomalisa, Ant-Man, Beasts of No Nation, Bone Tomahawk, Cop Car, Finders Keepers, It Follows, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Macbeth, The Martian, Mommy, Son of Saul, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Straight Outta Compton, What We Do in the Shadows, and Youth.