2015 marked another great year at the movies. Complaints of no originality can’t be extended to the medium as a whole, with independent films really pushing the medium forward. Thanks to outlets like Netflix, Amazon and Vudu, it’s easier than ever to discover new cinematic voices. I wanted my list to reflect both the mainstream, big budget releases as well as indies that are worth your time. Never have I seen so many films about women and in some cases, by women, that have been captivating and engaging in truly great ways. This was also the first year in which I couldn’t just pick 10 selections, 15 more accurately represents the immense number of films I took in this year and of the quality present throughout.
Runners up: Hitchcock/Truffaut, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Black Mass, Tangerine, Steve Jobs, Magic Mike XXL.
Carol / Todd Haynes: Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are a pair that at first seem unlikely to click but end up having what is perhaps the best on screen romantic chemistry in any film of 2015. Blanchett owns every minute she is on screen, particularly tense scenes shared between her ex-husband Harge (played by Kyle Chandler). Rooney Mara sincere performance is greatly reflected by her nuanced facial expressions and offer a mature transformation throughout. Handled with great sensitivity, Carol is inspired filmmaking by director Todd Haynes, and a film that could’ve come straight out of another era.
Janis: Little Girl Blue / Amy Berg: The leader of Kozmic Blues and the Full Tilt Boogie Band finally gets her due in this documentary, featuring in depth interviews and letters from Janis’ brief life and career. Using narrations of correspondences between Janis and her friends and family as connective tissue, director Amy Berg creates an amazing feeling of warmth and love as brilliant as any of the great rock docs by Scorsese or Pennebaker. Janis loved music and we really get the sense that Berg loves Joplin’s music. Unexpectedly, legendary talk show host Dick Cavett steals the film as he shares stories of meetings between he and the singer. FULL REVIEW
Krampus / Michael Dougherty: An awkward holiday family gathering comes to a head in the scariest way possible. This modern day fairy tale skips the overt gore and jump scares, but creates an amazing atmosphere that most modern horror films could never dream of. Adding a rich element to the film is its all-star cast, including Adam Scott, Toni Collette, Dave Koechner and Allison Tolman. With an excellent cast in tow, Dougherty tackles an iconic holiday to explore the figurative and literal monsters that tear a family apart from both inside and out. Above all, the movie’s got some of the most memorable creature designs in recent memory, including a jack in the box that will haunt your dreams long after the film ends. FULL REVIEW
Crimson Peak / Guillermo del Toro: Channeling the look, feel and aesthetic of the classic Hammer horror films, Del Toro creates a haunting tale about the death and the salvation of love. Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain are brilliant as two tortured siblings who can’t live without each other. With Del Toro’s brilliant writing and eye for rich aesthetic depth, the story transcends genre conventions to become a chilling and modern romantic milestone.
Ex Machina / Alex Garland: Hubris is damnation in this tale that blurs of line between sentience and artificial intelligence. Leads Oscar Isaac (who is absolutely incredible in this film), Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson hold their own amidst incredible set design and nuanced photography which are reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Garland’s writing and execution are sleek, with a mystery that resembles a blossoming rose. Vikander’s Ava is the mysterious embodiment of gender, identity and existential exploration. No one is safe from the film’s paranoiac claustrophobia, not even the audience.
Victoria / Sebastian Schipper: In one fell swoop, literally, Schipper and his Director of Cinematography, Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, capture what appears to be a typical German night until it spirals into something more unbearably devastating. Delivering a brilliant performance in the title role, Laia Costa leads a brilliant cast of unknowns as they create characters which we instantly relate to. Shot entirely in one take, the film takes us on a roller coaster of emotions, including a heist getaway that is one of the most exhilarating sequences ever committed to film.
The Revenant / Alejandro Gonzales Iñarritu: How does Alejandro Iñarritu follow up his Oscar-winning bow with Birdman? By directing the most realistically brutal blockbuster epic of the year. Leonardo DiCaprio brings frontiersman Hugh Glass to the screen as he’s brutally attacked by a grizzly bear and then left to die; DiCaprio’s portrayal is frighteningly good to the point of losing himself in the character. Not your typical revenge film, it is cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki that steals the show, shooting over several months and using only natural light.
The Hateful Eight / Quentin Tarantino: Thank goodness for Tarantino. The man makes movies for people who love movies. Ripe with homages to Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah and John Carpenter, the director’s 8th film is his most grown up to date. Playing like a chamber piece 80% of the film’s action occurs in and around a small cabin. Film using 70mm Ultra-Panavision technology, the film creates an amazingly claustrophobic experience in the most grandiose fashion. The final “cherry on top” is Ennio Morricone’s haunting score, which actually contains unused cues from The Thing.
Bridge of Spies / Steven Spielberg: Deep into his historical drama career phase, Spielberg has become a master at finding the humanity in history’s most iconic and infamous people. His latest follows insurance lawyer James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks at his absolute best. Mark Rylance hits a home run as well as Rudolf Abel, a Soviet Spy who involved in the first ever prisoner exchange of the Cold War. Capturing the period accurately and questioning the relevancy of the rules which make us American, creates a worthy film to Spielberg’s legacy. FULL REVIEW
Love & Mercy / Bill Pohlad: Brian Wilson is one of the greatest music minds of our time and Bill Pohlad’s sophomore effort gives us a biopic like we’ve never seen before. Contrasting two landmark events Wilson’s life, the film allows for a tandem, dual performance featuring Paul Dano and John Cusack in the mid 80s. A colorful palette, incredible score from Atticus Ross and a truly unique vision make this one stand out from any biopic in recent memory. FULL REVIEW
Creed / Ryan Coogler: Sometimes all you need is a fresh perspective, and Creed successfully gives us a new take on a familiar story.Delivering one of the best performances of his career, Sylvester Stallone delivers a heartbreaking performance as the Rocky we all know and love, while Michael B. Jordan births a new, heroic icon. Both are challenged to rise to a greater level of themselves as director Ryan Coogler showcases his skill with character and inventive narrative techniques.
It Follows / David Robert Mitchell: What sets this film apart, aside from its smart premise is Mitchell’s strong penchant for surreal dread – all throughout, there’s a strange aura that you can’t quite put your finger on. Sold by its top-notch cast, excellent score and atmospheric direction, It Follows is one of the best horror movies of the 2000s.
Bone Tomahawk / S. Craig Zahler: John Ford’s The Searchers meets Cannibal Holocaust. This film has no business being this good and yet, it is. Richard Jenkins, Matthew Fox, Patrick Wilson and Lili Simmons are lead by Kurt Russell into a heart of darkness. Equal parts rescue mission, character examination and horrifying thriller, S. Craig Zahler’s magnificent direction makes sure the film stays with you long after its over.
Sicario / Denis Villeneuve: Lead by the powerful Emily Blunt and electrified by a career defining performance from Benicio del Toro, this film pulls no punches. This isn’t a film that you can sit back and watch without being affected, instead it seeps into your being, with palpable suspense and a complex, but pragmatic view of good and evil. Roger Deakins’ cinematography and Jóhan Jóhannsson’s score make this one of the best-made movies of recent memory.
Mad Max: Fury Road / George Miller: Aussie director George Miller roared the dormant Ozploitation franchise back to life in this 2-hour epic that takes back into Max’s dangerous Wasteland. An blaring score, bright cinematography and no-holds-barred performances from the entire cast brought Max back to the forefront of the film world and created one of the most iconic heroes to ever to grace the screen: Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron.