What better way to help ring in the new year than by looking back at the previous year and wondering what everyone could possibly have been thinking?
2015 was a more difficult year for films than 2014 was. There were a lot of huge hits, but many of ones I saw felt shallow and lifeless. They were all, with one notable exception which you may find on the list below, content to hit the same beats as the superior films that have come before.
What’s also been unusual is there is no one film that everyone has rallied around as the definitive film of the year. Usually, there is a movie that everyone agrees will pretty much sweep the Oscars and will define what the year was all about from an artistic standpoint. I can’t think of that landmark film for 2015 the way I associate 2012 with Gravity or 2014 with Boyhood. That’s not to say everything released this year was bad, but I do believe that we’re going to have a hard time determining what strides were taken in the medium and what filmmakers are doing to inspire the next generation of artists based on what we saw in 2015.
Of course, this may also be my own failure. I was not able to see all of the films I wanted to see throughout 2015, including Straight Outta Compton, The Martian, and Bridge of Spies. I plan to watch them as soon as possible, but the fact that I didn’t feel a need to see them immediately in theaters is telling. That experience is slowly dying and there is very little filmmakers are doing to address it. I’m not talking about theaters installing recliners and serving beer at the concession stands, although that is a plus. I’m talking about the need for audiences to experience something together when a film is released. Think about the television shows you watch and how quickly they are consumed and discussed. Everyone wants to see them as quickly as possible so they can join their peers in discussing what they just saw.
Now think about the last film you saw. Was there some cultural conversation you were trying to join? The only thing I can think of that fits this criteria is the new Star Wars entry and that’s definitely an outlier. Films need to be community experiences for fans and the medium is ignoring that aspect. Without that, then film communities are going to become more and more fragmented until someone will declare the “best film of the year” to be a cat video they saw on YouTube. You laugh, but I do think that viewing experience is the wave of the future and that films need to adapt rather than insisting we all pay a price that too expensive for a single film that is just going through the motions in a way that no longer excites people.
Despite all this, there are still some filmmakers who created great works. Even better, there are filmmakers that are able to reinvent themselves and show audiences something new. I hope this list rewards them.
As with last year, I’m going to rank the top three films and then list the rest alphabetically. I liked this format because it does show some competition but also recognizes there is not a way to label certain films as being “better” than others. If you can, please check the films on this list out. I think you will be greatly rewarded.
The Best Film of 2015
It was fortunately easy to pick best film of 2015, but I was still surprised that this film turned out as well as it did. This is a sequel to a franchise that had been dormant for decades. Its production was a disaster and the idea behind it is what produces some of the artistically bankrupt hits of today. Look at films like Jurassic World. That was a fine distraction but was very shallow and already feels about as fresh and inviting as week old sushi.
This film not only rebuilt its franchise, but did so when no one expected it to accomplish anything. The director could have just remade a previous entry, gotten fans excited, made a lot of money, and moved on.
But this film explored new ideas with new techniques. It’s a tribute to old westerns, samurai films, and to a time when special effects were not just built on a computer. But it also introduces modern ideas to make sure that we’re on board with what it has to say. It feels fresh while still engaging those nostalgia obsessed portions of my brain. My pick for the best film of 2015 creates one of the most exciting, thrilling, and action-packed films in years.
Mad Max: Fury Road (director: George Miller)
The Road Warrior is one of the greatest action films of all time. The entire film is one long car chase, but the plot requires that and the film does not use its basic idea to be lazy with its material. It never repeats an idea or a crash.
Fury Road also uses its material to explore themes that resonate more with audiences today. There are critiques against sexual slavery, warfare, and the idea that the perfect society may never be attainable. It’s all done so effectively that I almost didn’t notice any of its deeper poitns when I first saw the movie. This means that Fury Road needs to be seen multiple times to understand everything.
In an era defined by repeating what’s been done before, Fury Road uses the Mad Max franchise’s past success to take risks and share something new with audiences. That makes Fury Road stand out to me. It’s a film that means even things you loved in the past can still be used to show you new things. I wish more populist blockbusters did that.
Most films these days are obsessed with adapting popular novels into films to exploit the built in fan bases. And most people feel they’re being good critics by pointing out every single “difference” between the book and the movie.
That’s the wrong approach. Novels and films are different mediums and what matters is how an adaptation kept the themes of the author while also exploring other elements of the work that may have gone overlooked. In other words, the filmmaker answers the question, “Why did this novel need to be a movie?”
This adaptation did answer that question. While every plot point is shared with the original work, the film took risks and introduced new ideas to the material that would have been impossible to have done in the novel. The film explained why it needed to exist and why people should watch the film. The fact the lead actress deserves to win the Best Actress Oscar is icing on the cake.
Room (director: Lenny Abrahamson)
Room was an incredible novel about two people stuck in an incomprehensible situation. The novel followed the child who would show the reader what his life stuck in a 7 x 7 bunker was like. The film followed the mother, which helped audiences relate to the story by showing us what her life was like and how she’s trying to adapt to a situation virtually no one will ever experience.
There are moments that showcase Jack’s monologues and observations, but his Ma is never out of our minds. We see everything through her eyes and come to understand her plight.
Room is a great adaptation of a novel I really liked. It’s an adaptation that depends on what the filmmakers add and what they have to say when they adapt the novel. Brie Larson also gives the performance of her lifetime as Ma.
Once again, I struggled a bit to determine my “bronze medal” winner. It was between this and Spotlight. Both are excellent films about stories that have had a huge impact on my generation.
But then I realized that the film that manages to explore new ideas in a new way is the film that deserves to be recognized. This film uses unique narrative techniques to affect audiences by having reality TV stars explain what’s happening in simple terms that anyone can understand. And for the story that the film wanted to tell, this approach ensured everyone could understand why the story it had to tell is still important.
The Big Short (director: Adam McKay)
I haven’t written my full review for this one yet, but I admired how the film made its point. It criticized the celebrity obsessed media that didn’t acknowledge the housing bubble, then watched as that same media finally picked up on the story as it became more relevant to the American people. The scenes in which Margot Robbie explain how the housing crisis happened may seem gratuitous to some, but that’s how the modern audience is going to respond to these sorts of things. Fox News has been taking that approach for almost 20 years and it doesn’t have the honesty to admit its programming is only “based on a true story.”
Additionally, The Big Short never loses its desperation. It’s a film about accounting and stock market speculation that is as exciting and breathtaking as an action thriller. Finally, it’s a film that made me question my own viewpoints and ideas. While I always thought that the bank executives who royally screwed up the American economy were pathetically stupid, immature, and undeserving of government bailouts, I never realized how their actions amounted to felonies that should have put a lot of people in prison for the rest of their lives.
Other artists had tried to explain it to me, but The Big Short was the film that convinced me that viewpoint was the correct viewpoint. Most people are too afraid of being “biased” and alienating their audiences to relay their message. How many filmmakers, especially filmmakers that have stuff like Step Brothers on their resume, are brave enough to take risks like that?
These films also deserved to be watched and examined. I know there are omissions based on what I didn’t see in theaters, but I believe this list still highlights some of the best work 2015 had to offer.
Black Mass (director: Scott Cooper) – Black Mass may very well go down in infamy. It was released to big buzz that has not translated to any award recognition. That’s a shame, because Black Mass is more than just about Depp returning to his roots as one of the all time great character actors. Black Mass treats the story of Whitey Bugler seriously and examines what his presence in the world meant for a lot of people. Even Martin Scorsese took the easy way out and treated Bulger as a figure of comedy. Black Mass confronts his story and paints a portrait almost as relevant as The Big Short for demonstrating how institutions repeatedly fail the people they’re supposed to serve.
Crimson Peak (director: Guillermo del Toro) – The fact that Crimson Peak bombed depresses me. Maybe the fault lay in the marketing. This was not a ghost story and the film was very clear about that. Rather, this is a film that serves as a tribute to early Alfred Hitchcock, where building the atmosphere was the most important element to building a thrill. The production design is also the best of the year. This is the first film in a long time that treats the sets as characters. Removing them would be a disaster for the film. If you want a creepy experience, then Crimson Peak needs to be seen.
Ex Machina (director: Alex Garland) – These days, intelligent science fiction films are few and far between. Ex Machina reclaims smart sci-fi by asking what it means to be human and if it’s possible to create an intelligence from the data that we no longer notice. The film, about a robot that wants to escape its prison and seduces a human to help her accomplish this goal, feels like a documentary rather than fantasy. Ex Machina reminds us how close we as a society are from answering the big questions that it asks.
Going Clear (director: Alex Gibney) – I know I’m cheating when I include this film. Although it was released in theaters after its premiere at Sundance, it was more famous for airing on HBO. But I figured, so what? This film had a huge impact on the public conscious, with articles and threatening letters written in response to the film’s points. Alex Gibney, who has directed some amazing documentaries, examined how some very successful people can join something as nonsensical as Scientology. It’s not that that adherents to the religion are dumb. It’s that people are looking for something meaningful in their lives and want to join something they feel will have an impact on the world. Scientology is not necessarily what’s being examined. L Ron Hubbard and David Miscavige could be replaced by any religious figure and the film would have the same message. It’s about how people are so desperate to look for a group they can belong to that they don’t ask the larger questions about what they’re doing.
The Hateful Eight (director: Quentin Tarantino) – It’s saying something about a filmmaker when even some weaker films in your filmography are still among the best of the year. The Hateful Eight Roadshow tour was treated like an event, with programs literally handed out before the screening. But The Hateful Eight is not an epic Leone-esque western. It’s a tense chamber drama that slowly builds up its tension like a stew cooking over a campfire. It requires patience, but the payoff is so rewarding and shocking that it’s worth it. Tarantino remains a master of dialogue who can coach amazing performances with unique dialogue that would destroy any other director. The Hateful Eight is the one film that addressed my bigger question about why films need to be scene in theaters.
Spotlight (director: Tom McCarthy) – Spotlight is the biggest reminder of what the media can do for society. It can take down institutions that have been considered untouchable for centuries. But it also reminds people why they need to be responsible with information and how important it is not to react immediately. The film is ultimately not an indictment of the Catholic Church. That film has already been made. Spotlight is an indictment of people who still pounce on whatever headline catches their attention and makes them feel informed. If only Sabrina Erdely could have watched this film before embarking on her infamous Rolling Stone article.
What We Do In The Shadows (directors: Jermaine Clement, Taika Waititi) –
Flight of the Conchords was one of the funniest TV shows of the past 10 years, and What We Do In The Shadows has very similar humor. It shows sad people who could do great things but let the world pass them by and never bother to try anything to make a difference in the world. What We Do In The Shadows is about vampires, but it does not treat them as figures of fear. Rather, it ends at the logical question of how people would react if they actually became supernatural creatures of the night. Take what you know about the people you hang out with at the local bar. Now imagine their insecurities about having to live for centuries. Finally, What We Do In The Shadows revives the mockumentary as a genre capable of great insight and great humor.