This was one helluva year. The process of making a top ten list this year was a strange mix of very easy and very hard. There were a lot of films that were excellent this year - my initial list of possibilities numbered over 30 - but once I looked at everything laid out the films I loved, truly loved, jumped out at me aggressively. Some years I dither about whether to include a movie or not, but this year the line between films that were great and films that were great and I also loved was obvious.
Some years I also work hard to make sure my list has some kind of diversity to it, that the list isn’t just hitting all the obvious choices. 2015 brought that diversity to me. None of the films on this list are filling a slot - I don’t have a movie that had to be included because it was foreign language or a movie that had to be included because it was important or indie. Every movie here more than earned the spot, and the diversity on display only became apparent to me in retrospect. This list spans megabudget spectacle to microbudget indie, and perhaps more than any other year this list really reflects my current thoughts and beliefs about cinema right now.
Without further ado, the list:
Son of Saul
You expect a Holocaust movie to be harrowing, but Son of Saul is a totally unique experience. About the Jews who were forced to work the gas chambers in Auschwitz, Son of Saul is told from an incredibly unique perspective - almost entirely over the shoulder of its lead, Géza Röhrig as Saul. The film thus throws us directly into his experience, surrounding us with horrors while never exploiting them. It’s more immersive and enveloping than any sort of 3D gimmick, and your immersion makes the atrocities immediate and personal. It’s a hard watch, but it’s also a gripping one.
What We Do In The Shadows
Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement took a silly concept - a group of vampires sharing a house in New Zealand - and turned it into not only a hilarious movie, not only a truly great vampire story but also an incredibly touching and human tale. There’s real emotion amidst the laughs in What We Do In The Shadows, and there’s real horror as well - while the vamps are silly, they’re also treated with seriousness when it comes to lore. In a movie landscape obsessed with creating universes, this movie deftly and quietly creates a world I want to revisit again and again.
The Duke of Burgundy
A couple of the films on this list were actually 2014 movies that got 2015 releases. Duke of Burgundy is one, and that tells you just how good it is. A riff on high end softcore movies, Duke is a film without a single man, a film that is deeply erotic without being exploitative or graphic, a film that explores the concepts of power within relationships both sexually and emotionally, a film that is sumptuously gorgeous in every way and a film that is just left field weird enough to undercut all the rest of it with a great sense of humor. I honestly don’t know what genre Peter Strickland’s film fits into, and that’s part of what makes it so special.
This is not an ode to the mid-life crisis. This is not a movie about finding a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. This is not a film that reassures you that your sadness and loneliness and sexual restlessness are romantic. But at the same time this is a Charlie Kaufman story, so the cynicism is leavened by a very unexpected sweetness. That it’s a stop motion movie doesn’t make Anomalisa any less painfully human.
This year a couple of films got away from me and I never reviewed them. Room is one of them, and I regret it. This movie is extraordinary, and it plays like a thriller at times. Locked in a room with her son, a child of rape, Brie Larson’s Joy must raise her child as best she can while also trying to figure out how to get away. A mix of survival story, gnostic philosophy, kitchen sink drama and tear-inducing acting from Larson and newcomer Jacob Tremblay, Room is a film that will shake you, crush you and ultimately move you a gorgeous epiphany about life.
When people complain there are no movies for adults being made by studios do they mean only relationship dramas? Because I hold The Martian as the gold standard of movies for adults - a thrilling, often funny story about survival, hope and perseverance, all told with a great deal of respect for science and the men and women who explore the universe. Other actors have flashier ‘alone in the wild’ roles this year, but nobody beats Matt Damon, who plays Mark Watney as the kind of hero we need: decent, good natured, smart and unwilling to ever give up.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
How good was 2015? This film isn’t even my number one of the year. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is an absolutely extraordinary movie. Based on an autobiographical book by Phoebe Gloeckner, Marielle Heller’s directorial debut is an explosive entry into the sometimes stale coming of age genre. A lot of that comes from the naked honesty that Gloeckner and Heller bring to the story of 15 year old Minnie Goetz exploring her sexuality with her mother’s 30 year old boyfriend, but much of it also comes from the searing performance by Bel Powley. Powley is so good that I don’t have the words to capture her deep excellence. If you missed this masterpiece in theaters you simply must get to it on home video next month.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Sometimes the hype is real. From the first footage I was wound up about George Miller’s return to his seminal post-apocalyptic series, but I worried that the movie could never live up to the expectations. Four viewings later I can tell you that it exceeded the expectations and, along with the next film on this list, it totally fucks up the bell curve for reboots/long-gap sequels. It’s a Mad Max movie, sure, but it feels so fresh and current that it almost doesn’t fit in that canon. It’s propulsive in a way that is nearly experimental; the story is told through action, and I mean that literally - this is a tale told with screeching metal clanging against heavy steel. And, amidst all the chaos and dust and madness there’s a movie that is casually, off the cuff inclusive and feminist. It’s a film that shows the way towards a more diverse cinema that doesn’t need to make a big fuss about it.
Great movies can entertain. The first Rocky won Oscars based on this premise, the idea that a film can be meaningful and expertly made while also moving an audience to tears or getting them up on their feet. Creed, the second film from rising superstar Ryan Coogler, reproves the theorem. What makes Creed such an astonishing movie is that it hits the the feel-good beats of a sports underdog story while also feeling like a masterful work of cinema. Coogler quietly has made a great film that also happens to be a total fucking crowd-pleaser. Take your Oscar bait and shoo, I’ll be here with a movie I can alternately enjoy as cinematic art and as a great big heartburster.
My favorite movie of the year is a movie I almost didn’t see. When I heard that Sean Baker’s latest film had been shot on an iPhone 5 I instantly dismissed it. That kind of gimmicky shit is tedious for me, and I really hate the aesthetic of digital ugliness that plagues so many indie movies. But I kept hearing great things and I caved, making it the last movie I saw at Sundance 2015. It blew me away.
Baker’s film is beautiful. He took his iPhone and made a movie that is simply gorgeous, full of wonderful and evocative cinematography. He has shot Los Angeles in a way that reflects the gritty reality of the streets while also luxuriating in the resonant beauty that exists everywhere here. All of my iPhone fears were swept away in minutes.
More than beautiful, Tangerine is funny and touching, and it’s a great Christmas film. The main characters - two trans hookers and the Armenian cabbie who loves one of them - are defiantly fucked up but also tenderly human, and there is a sweetness in the way these misfits come together... even if there’s plenty of collateral personal damage along the way. Tangerine is a miracle movie, a film that seems ill-advised on just about every level and yet works. What’s more, Tangerine is a low-budget indie movie that has the emotional scope and heart of a slick Hollywood film. Like Creed, Tangerine entertains while also being an important moment in movie-making. It’s just about perfect.