Favorite Films of 2015

When I put together my annual top 10 movies of the year list, I consider a few things: the quality of a film upon first viewing, the extent to which it lingers (or doesn't), the beauty and truth it unveils and the relevance it has in today's world. My top 10 list this year contains four films set in the past, four films set (more or less) in the present, and two set in the future, but they all have something to say about our world today. My list contains what might be called "old fashioned" narratives as well as decidedly contemporary styles, but all of these films are decidedly cinematic, taking full advantage of the visual language of the medium. Thus, I'd highly suggest seeing them on the big screen in a distraction-free theater if you have the opportunity, though several of them are available on Netflix and other streaming sites too. There were too many films that I enjoyed this year to limit to a mere 10, so below I include my Top 10, another "runner-up" 10, a set of 10 honorable mentions, and then my 10 favorite documentaries. So if you're looking for some good movies to watch over the holidays, here are 40 I recommend!

Overall Top 10

1) Brooklyn: This perfectly told love story is subversive in its simplicity and its straightforwardness. At a time when the human plight of the immigrant gets lost in political furor and terror-fueled fear, Brooklyn helps us empathize with the immigrant’s in-betweenness and complicated conception of “home”; things every one of us can identify with. It’s also a movie that presents old-fashioned, girl-meets-guy romance in a way that feels like a refreshing reminder in these sexually confused times. I saw the film in a theater after trailers for The Danish Girl (transgender drama), About Ray (transgender comedy) and Carol (lesbian romance). Brooklyn makes no special point about its cisgender heteronormativity; its most powerful political statement is that it doesn’t really have one. It simply lets the viewer bask in a beautiful, old-fashioned but eternally true story, well-told.

2) Bridge of Spies: At first glance (and indeed, upon initial consideration after I saw it), this was “just another Spielberg film.” That is: expertly made, emotionally stirring, starring Tom Hanks. But Bridge lingered with me this fall amidst headlines about fear and terror and xenophobia, and I keep returning to its quiet celebration of humane compassion in the midst of war and prejudice. Featuring a star-making performance by Mark Rylance as accused Russian spy Rudolf Abel, Bridge is vintage Spielberg: top-notch period storytelling, with subtle (but potent) relevance to today.

3) Spotlight: Tom McCarthy’s film about the Boston Globe’s 2003 reporting on the Catholic church sex abuse scandal is one of the best films about journalism that I’ve ever seen. But more than that, this subtle, well-acted ensemble film captures poignantly the human cost of abuse, not only for the abused but for the entire community who must reckon with the “how did this go on so long?” questions. The film raises big questions about faith, religious institutions, power and the durability of belief in a secular age. (my full review)

4) Sicario: Denis Villeneuve is a master of moody, stylishly foreboding thrillers (see Prisoners and Enemy), and his latest film is no different. A beautifully shot movie about CIA operations against Mexican drug lords, Sicario is cinematic splendor from start to finish. Each sequence and set piece is more unnerving than the next, and the performances by Emily Blunt (as a naive FBI agent) and Benicio del Toro (as a disconcertingly cryptic, Virgil-like guide through cartel hell) are superb.

5) Phoenix: Christian Petzold’s noir psychodrama, set in post-WWII Berlin, follows a Holocaust survivor (Nina Hoss) as she seeks to resume life after the horrors of the concentration camps. Mysterious, understated and haunting, Phoenix is a film that beautifully captures the tenuous first steps out of the depths of betrayal and trauma, and into the light. Or as the title suggests: out of the ashes, new life; new hope.

6) Mad Max: Fury Road: The award for blockbuster surprise of the year goes to this film, a furiously visceral, non-CGI celebration of cinema in all of its glory. As intense as it is beautiful, Fury Road injects new life into the post-apocalyptic genre and brings surprising amounts of hope to a desolate, war-torn world that feels resonant amidst the doomsday despair of our present age. (my full review)

7) Son of Saul: This Hungarian film, the debut of László Nemes, won the Grand Prix at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, and for good reason. The Auschwitz-set Holocaust drama builds on the cinematic vocabulary of the genre (in the post-Schindler’s List era) while bringing a new level of realism to it. By shooting in a claustrophobic 4:3 aspect ratio and putting the viewer relentlessly (sometimes dizzyingly) into the visual perspective of Saul, Nemes brings a powerful subjectivism and slice-of-life intimacy to a huge and horrific subject matter.

8) The Martian: Ridley Scott’s “Matt Damon alone on Mars” survival story joins the ranks of the increasingly loaded “one man survival story” genre (see also The Revenant… which made my "runner-up" list). But unlike many of these films which are so apt at creating relentless tension and struggle, The Martian also makes room for fun. This is an incredibly fun movie, as well as stirring and powerful in all the ways it should be.

9) Creed: I’m the first to admit that a Rocky movie is an unexpected choice to make my top 10 films of the year list. But Creed is more than a Rocky movie. Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) has made a film that is stylish, cinematic and timely, a boxing movie that is also a movie about fathers and fatherlessness, race and role models. It’s a great film with great performances from Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone (in the role of his career).

10) Room: The turning point moment in this film is simply sublime: terrifyingly, enthrallingly, heart-stoppingly sublime. It’s the first moment a 5-year-old boy (Jacob Tremblay), whose whole world has been inside “room” as a captive with his mother (Brie Larson), feels the air and sees the sky of the outside world. The moment is the hinge point climax between the film’s two movements (captivity and life after captivity) and provides one of the most stirring bits of cinematic catharsis I’ve seen all year.

"Runner-Up" / Second 10

Honorable Mention

About Elly, Stations of the Cross, Love & Mercy, While We’re Young, 45 Years, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Slow West, 99 Homes, Macbeth

10 Favorite Documentaries

  1. Salt of the Earth
  2. Amy
  3. Best of Enemies
  4. Seymour: An Introduction
  5. Iris
  6. What Happened to Miss Simone?
  7. The Thread
  8. Paleo
  9. The Nightmare
  10. The Wolfpack