And lo – like a phoenix rising from the ashes that are the dismal remains of 2015, 365 Days of Reviews returns to the lives of the few who care (mostly me, my parents, and my co-worker Matt). I took a break from long form reviews last year, and I hold few warm feelings toward the year that my complacency wrought. So what better way to turn things around in 2016 than to go back to the well that kept me consistent and made most of my nights a living hell? I can’t guarantee we’ll get 365 brand new reviews out of 2016 (I just had the brilliant idea of syndicating some of my older reviews when necessary – are you all ready for reruns?), but Stevie needs a little structure in his life.
All the preamble aside, let’s dive into the first review of the year – a look back at last year’s best movies.
2015 was an odd year for film – there were a lot of really good movies (I have 70 on the list from which I narrowed down this top ten), but there weren’t a whole lot of features that I really loved. I’m happy with this list, and even now still question the what belongs where, but even some of the most critically acclaimed movies left me feeling lukewarm (and I’m nothing if not a follower of the critics).
Enough hemming and hawing, however. Here are the best movies of the year, as chosen by a total amateur.
10. The Big Short
Adam McKay (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, The Other Guys) has a knack for making funny films, but I would be hard-pressed to consider any of them top 10 material (okay, maybe Step Brothers). That’s part of what makes The Big Short such a surprise – McKay is going for more than just laughs here. The filmmaker’s investigation of the financial crisis is super loose, funny, and self-aware in really interesting ways. Sure, the accents and the wigs are distracting, but that’s not really much of a problem. McKay and Steve Carell even manage to infuse some real pathos into the picture – something McKay has never seemed interested in doing before.
This revival of the Rocky franchise is way better than it really has any right to be, thanks in large part to some brilliant directing by Ryan Coogler and really strong performances from Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone. Coogler finds new and different ways to keep the audience present in each of the fights, and even brings flair to quieter moments, such as a lovers’ quarrel exchanged through a door.
It would be easy to write off Mustang as a Turkish Virgin Suicides, and I have surely done the film a disservice just by mentioning the comparison. The similarities are unavoidable, as both movies depict the trials and tribulations of five sisters kept hidden away from the very youth they should be embracing by strictures they can’t control. But Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s film resonates in ways Sofia Coppola’s did not, pitting these girls against their society as a whole, rather than just their parents.
7. The Martian
Movies about smart people solving difficult problems aren’t usually too interesting – there’s not much drama or intrigue to be found if you know your protagonist is preternaturally intelligent. Ridley Scott and the team behind The Martian manage to side-step that issue by crafting a movie that digs into the process of solving problems, rather than the answers themselves. Featuring a huge supporting cast and engaging plot developments, The Martian achieves heights by never being boring.
Unique in almost every way, Tangerine is a film about and starring trans women shot on an iPhone on the streets of Hollywood, CA – the real, seedy Hollywood. Despite a seemingly sub-par camera, director Sean S. Baker crafts a beautiful film with the kind of perspective that we desperately need to see more of.
5. The Forbidden Room
Of the 665 features I watched this year, some of the most interesting were made by Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin. Putting his newest feature on my list may be a bit of a cheat – I saw it at AFI Fest and it seems to only be playing on subscription film service Fandor – but it’s really good, so I don’t feel too bad about it. Featuring Maddin’s distinct retro style intended to evoke the films of a bygone era, the director crafts a nest doll of short stories that are at times affecting, and almost always hilarious.
4. Mad Max: Fury Road
Visually stunning and exuberantly driven (is that the first pun of the year?), George Miller’s revival of his cars, sand, and apocalypse franchise is not only the best action film of 2015 – it’s one of the best films period. Charlize Theron’s Furiosa is the kind of strong female character we need to see more of in blockbusters (and she really gives Tom Hardy a run for his money in terms of which actor is the picture’s real star). In an age when so many movies are release each week, it takes a lot to get me into a theater to see the same movie more than once; Miller and company managed to get me out to the cinema four times.
Every year has its holocaust film, and 2015 is no exception. Set after the end of the war, Phoenix depicts the return of a concentration camp survivor to her home after suffering massive facial trauma. Her face has changed, but her feelings for her husband have not, despite the fact that he may have been the one to betray her to the Nazis. German director Christian Petzold’s movie is all mood and tone and unspoken tension. And that ending isn’t too shabby either.
2. 45 Years
A last minute addition to the list, I only had a chance to see 45 Years in the waning days of 2015. I’m so glad that i did, though, because Andrew Haigh’s depiction of a long-standing marriage thrown into disarray by a singular piece of news ended up being one of the best pictures of the year. Haigh puts so much faith in his stars – Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay – and that confidence pays off; Rampling does some incredible emoting throughout the film, including a tour de force lesson in silent acting at the picture’s conclusion. At times sweet, but mostly bitter, 45 Years will probably hit home in some way with viewers of any age.
Brooklyn looks deceptively simple from the outside – the story of a young Irish immigrant (Saoirse Ronan) looking for life in America and finding love along the way – and it’s hardly a complex tale, but that simple story lets director John Crowley, cinematographer Yves Bélanger, and the actors (Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Fiona Glascott, everyone really) create a beautifully moving film. I cried – and I have no qualms about saying it out loud.
And that’s that – all you need to know about cinema in the year 2015. What’s that? You want honorable mentions? Well alright.
I wish I had had more room on this list to squeeze in a documentary or two, because there were some excellent docs this year, including Amy, Approaching the Elephant, Ballet 422, Best of Enemies, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, Dior and I, Hitchcock/Truffaut, The Look of Silence, The Nightmare, Red Army, The Salt of the Earth, Stray Dog, and The Wolfpack. The other big category missing from my list is animation – unfortunately things are a little more dire there; the only animated that really stood out to me this year was Pixar’s return to form in Inside Out.
Below are the last of my honorable mentions, in alphabetical order. Each is worth your time, and many of them are steps away from being in this top ten themselves. As 2016 inches forward and movies are added to Netflix, keep an eye out for ’71, 99 Homes, Appropriate Behavior, Blind, Bridge of Spies, Carol, Chi-Raq, Clouds of Sils Maria, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, The Duke of Burgundy, Ex Machina, Furious 7, Girlhood, The Hateful Eight, Heaven Knows What, Irrational Man, It Follows, Jauja, Joy, The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Legend, Love & Mercy, Macbeth, The Mend, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Mommy, Mr. Holmes, Room, Sicario, Sisters, Sleeping With Other People, Spotlight, Spy, The Stanford Prison Experiment, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Stations of the Cross, Steve Jobs, Taxi, Timbuktu, The Tribe, Unfriended, What We Do in the Shadows, While We’re Young, White God, and Wild Tales.
Now let’s see what 2016 has to offer.