2015 was an exceptional year in movies and what follows is one of my favorite Top 10 lists I’ve been able to put together. From the art-house to massive box-office, there were so many great films that pairing it down to just 10 has been a difficult task, more so than in past years. This year I will be including my first five out that just missed.
Just Missed: The Martian / Bridge of Spies / Ex Machina / Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation / Beasts of No Nation
The Martian, based on one of my favorite books in years, is adapted incredibly well (though the novel is very cinematic) by Drew Goddard and realized with the impeccable attention to detail that we’ve come to expect (and at times take for granted) from Ridley Scott. Bridge of Spies doesn’t find Spielberg stretching himself much but rather just surrounding himself with old pro’s and telling a really good Cold War story. Bridge of Spies is a tight ship that doesn’t make missteps. That’s what you get with hands as reliable as Spielberg, Hanks, and co. at the helm. Ex Machina showcases standout performances, a haunting tale, and stunning visual effects work and is well that can be returned to again and again to find more meaning. Rogue Nation was one of the best blockbusters of the summer and keeps the Mission Impossible series riding high after Ghost Protocol. Beasts of No Nation is a visually and dramatically powerful yarn with a knockout performance from Idris Elba.
Denis Villeneuve (of Prisoners) directs this Drug War thriller with an intensity that grabs you from the opening frame right through until the end leaving you breathless. Benicio Del Toro steals the show frequently (and rightfully so) as the mysterious and lethal Alejandro, but Emily Blunt does some of her best work as a federal agent trying to maintain her integrity and soul in a world where it’s only a liability. Every frame of this movie is gorgeously shot by Roger Deakins and the going across the border into Juarez sequence ranks as one of the most intense of the year.
After the success of Rocky Balboa, it seemed this franchise was ready to drift off into the sunset on a high note until Ryan Coogler came along and reinvigorated the series in all the right ways. It’s unconscionable how Michael B. Jordan isn’t a bigger star, but he’s finally found the perfect role for himself and he’s outstanding as Apollo Creed’s castoff son, Adonnis. Stallone does career-best work as an aging Rocky who’s made peace with his life being behind him and all his loved ones gone. The real star here for me though was Coogler. The boxing matches are expertly and thrillingly staged but it’s the film’s final sequence that is all parts exciting, moving, and inspiring all rolled into a sensational ride that makes you want to leap out of your seat and cheer.
Written by Emma Donoghue and adapted from her own novel, Room is the story of 5-year-old Jack and his Ma who have been living their lives held prisoner in a small room. Room is all that Jack knows of the world, and when he and his mother finally escape, his discovery of the outside world is simply wondrous. Brie Larson, one of Hollywood’s most underrated actresses, gives a performance that is both heartbreaking and uplifting while young Jacob Tremblay is one of the most naturally gifted child actors to come along in quite some time. Room is a hard movie to watch but is also incredibly moving and rewarding.
7. Love & Mercy
Being an enormous Beach Boys fan, with Pet Sounds being one of my all-time favorite albums, this movie was already playing with house money for me. However we see far too often how musical biopics fall into the same the “Greatest Hits” trap time and time again. Not here though. Love & Mercy takes the brilliant, surreal, and heartbreaking life of Brian Wilson and juxtaposes against his greatest creation: the recording of Pet Sounds and the results are both soaring and wonderful. Paul Dano and John Cusack do great work as different versions of Wilson, while Elizabeth Banks is very underrated as well. This is one of two unconventional biopic approaches on this list and I certainly hope this style of storytelling becomes a larger trend leading to more interesting films.
6. The Revenant
The Revenant is an incredible accomplishment of craft on every technical level. Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki create a wholly immersive experience unlike any other as legendary tracker Hugh Glass must crawl back from the dead and avenge his family. The skill on display as trackers are ambushed by Natives, or Glass being mauled by a grizzly, or the haunting winter landscapes is simply staggering. DiCaprio gives a performance that can only be described as Herculean with the physical lengths he goes to here, and with rarely saying a word. The movie doesn’t quite grasp the metaphysical heights it’s reaching for, and the journey is both brutal and exhausting, but is ultimately unforgettable.
5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
It’s a sequel, it’s a reboot, it’s a rebootquel – say what you want about The Force Awakens recycling old plot elements from film’s past, but director J.J. Abrams was faced with the impossible task of restarting our culture’s most-loved franchise, regaining trust from the fanbase, taking things back to the way things were in the original trilogy, and kicking off a new story with new characters that fans new and old could get excited about. Abrams and his team accomplished all of this in the most entertaining way imaginable. Old heroes not only passed the baton to a set of fantastic new characters (led by a wonderful group of actors), but were integral pieces of the new story and will continue to be. The film certainly has its flaws, but Abrams made Star Wars fun again, reminded us why we loved the movies in the first place, and gave us a long line of future stories to be excited about. We all felt like kids again, and that’s what Star Wars does and should do best.
4. It Follows
The Horror genre was one my favorites growing up and the original Halloween is one of my all-time favorite movies that I’ve rewatched countless times. I fell-off the genre in the 2000’s when the success of Saw and The Blair Witch Project gave way to a slew of torture-porn/found-footage factory produced movies. Even with the hype that surrounded It Follows this past summer, it still took me months to watch it. I’m so glad I did. It Follows, taking a brilliant premise, brought the horror movie back to its John Carpenter-esque roots where the terror is all in what you can’t see. This isn’t about shocks, it’s not about gore, it’s about what could be around the corner – it’s tension and suspense above all. It Follows is also more than just scares, it’s also a thought-provoking exploration of growing up and the world around us. After seeing it, I couldn’t get it out of my head and look forward to revisiting it time and time again.
3. Inside Out
Few films (if any) have been able to explore the human psyche as deeply, as lovingly, or as entertaining as Inside Out did this year. So much of growing up is based on your emotions locked in constant battle with another that it forces us into confused and misguided decisions (even as adults we continue to battle our emotions). Inside Out portrays this concept and the inner workings of the human mind in both relatable and poignant ways. The idea of memories being linked to our emotional reactions and what happens when the emotional-association for a memory changes is shattering work. From premise to realization, no film did it as perfectly and completely as Inside Out this year. The emotional complexity, humor, and heart of the movie raises it to upper echelon of not only Pixar’s greatest hits, but the entire animated form.
2. Steve Jobs
The most woefully overlooked movie this year is without a doubt Steve Jobs. Aaron Sorkin takes the Walter Isaacson’s novel, and structures the film in a way so unconventional (all taking place during three different product launches) that it’s able to probe deeper than most biopics or even his own magnificent screenplay for The Social Network did. Danny Boyle, the most energetic and creative directorial voice out there, is a perfect match for Sorkin’s confined script and takes the action to unexpected and operatic places. The performances across the board are tremendous but Michael Fassbender shines as Steve Jobs, playing the man as a force of the nature that cannot be contained, and is my favorite performance of the year. Can’t wait to do a Steve Jobs/Social Network double feature.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
The top spot belongs to the Mad. As soon as Mad Max was released this past summer, it was all over. This movie was perfection. George Miller, in his 70’s, went back to the action movie basics of incredible stunts and non-CGI set-pieces and ended up creating one of the most thrilling, intense, and satisfying action films of all-time (far surpassing peers half his age). Tom Hardy owns the title role, but the film belongs to Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. Her character and performance ranks right next to that of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor or Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. The most cinematic film of the year, that does an enormous amount of world-building by showing (not telling), takes its place as not only my favorite film of the year but also as a worthy addition to the great pantheon of action films that include Die Hard, Terminator 2, and The Matrix.