Since I started reviewing films regularly in 2012, I’ve managed to see more and more films each year. As my film intake has broadened, the variety of films I’ve seen has also increased. This year, I watched a total of 208 films before the end of 2015 that qualified for this list (the requirement: the film must have first been released in 2015 in the United States in limited or wide theatrical release; films viewed at festivals also count unless they’re subsequently scheduled for release in a later year). It’s the first year I’ve cracked 200, and while it didn’t necessarily make selecting my Top 10 vastly more difficult than in the past few years, it did make it harder to ignore the films that just missed out. So just like I did last year, I’ve included a list of 20 runners-up at the bottom of this post.
What I like about the films that just missed out is how they represent a wider variety of films. Though they didn’t make my Top 10, a handful of documentaries and foreign language films ended up cracking the Top 30. There’s also a solid mix of box office hits and indie releases, and that mix extends deep into my Top 10 list.
What I’ve realized over the past four years is that my tastes have shifted in some significant ways, but in other ways, I love what I’ve always loved. More than in previous years, this split is reflected in my Top 10 Films list. Given how many films I see in a given year (and that number above doesn’t include many other films I watched this year), it takes a lot for something to really register with me. These films all have different qualities that stood out to me this year, and I’ll get into the specifics in each description. But the biggest common link between the ten films is how each one stayed with me well after the credits rolled. They lingered for different reasons, but they all had an impact.
With that in mind, I want to be clear: like any Top 10 list, these are my selections. While someone could argue that a lower-ranked film is a better film than a higher-ranked film (and I could make a few of those arguments myself), I’m going with an order that feels right to me. Ask me after this is published, and I might change my mind a little. Or a lot. But for now, here are my Top 10 Films of 2015:
The last few years have seen an uptick in strong, multifaceted female leads in action roles; you’ll see a few more later on this list. What I loved about Sicario is how Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is positioned as such a character – and how the men in this film completely decimate that positioning. Her marginalization at the hands of Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) and Matt (Josh Brolin) could have happened to a male character as well, and to a degree, it does happen to her (black, male) partner. But at this point, we as a collective audience are used to rooting for the female hero. Showing how she’s worn down is shocking, and Sicario isn’t interested in making its audience feel better at any point.
9. Ex Machina
Erotic paranoia. Ex Machina succeeds in telling its rather straightforward story by blending in a growing sense of paranoia with an undeniably erotic charge between the characters at the center of this story. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is called to the home of his company’s head, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). The purpose of the trip, it turns out, is to perform a test to determine if an artificial intelligence he’s developed is truly an A.I. When he meets with the A.I., Ava (Alicia Vikander), she begins to make him question Nathan’s true plans, Ava’s abilities, and even if he himself is human. It’s a great example of modern science fiction, and boasts a team of talent in front of and behind the camera ready to break out.
8. The Martian
To quote Breaking Bad‘s Jesse Pinkman, “Yeah, science!” The Martian‘s approach to providing inspiration doesn’t involve prayer or God; it involves Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a botanist, using his knowledge of science to survive against seemingly insurmountable odds in a foreign place. Science and technical jargon are heavily featured in The Martian, but the film makes sure to keep the audience interested with a propulsive sense of humor that keeps events in the film light at times, and dark at others. Inspirational films have littered the market for a century, but The Martian‘s proactive approach makes it far more interesting and relatable than the umpteenth take on vaguely divine intervention.
For five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay), life in a 10’x10′ room is all he knows. It’s all he thinks he could want, thanks to the tireless efforts of his ma, Joy (Brie Larson). But Joy knows there’s more beyond the walls of Room, and when a chance to escape presents itself, she has to convince Jack to help with her plan. Watching Room can be emotionally draining; it was for me. Seeing how the two make a life for themselves within such close confines shows how much Joy loves her son, and how much he depends on her. The film’s second half, though, is the real test. Watching how the two operate in a changed environment, growing apart as Jack begins to explore and Joy begins to fall in on herself, shows how life’s changes can bring any relationship between a parent and child apart.
2015 saw the rise of the “legacyquel,” or legacy sequel. Long-dormant franchises returned with fresh eyes, new stars, and stories that hearkened back to the best of their series while charting a path forward. Creed is, as far as stories go, the most interesting of these films. Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan, fresh off their success with Fruitvale Station, got Sylvester Stallone agree to bring the Rocky series back to life with the story of Adonis Johnson, son of Rocky’s nemesis-turned-friend Apollo Creed. Creed uses the original Rocky as a template, and adds to it issues of class and race that make it unique among blockbusters this year. From Coogler and Jordan to Stallone himself, everyone involved in the film comes out strong. Here’s hoping for Creed 2.
In a year where a slew of LGBT-themed films disappointed, Carol stood out as a welcome exception. But more than that, Carol is simply a great film. Director Todd Haynes’s visual style makes the films of the 1950s come roaring back on screen, and it’s matched with a story told at a deliberate pace. If the content wasn’t focused on a lesbian relationship, it might seem like it actually came from the 50s. The key to Carol‘s success, though, comes from the relationship between Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara). It’s incredibly subtle, and understandable in the time period. Still, there’s an electricity to the scenes they share, from their first glance at one another across a department store to an interrupted dinner. It’s a powerful love story that rewards patience.
4. Inside Out
Pixar’s track record as of late has been less than stellar, but Inside Out proves they can still execute a concept better than any other animation house. A movie about five brightly-colored emotions ended up tackling the pains of growing up, loss, parental expectations and not properly letting emotions express themselves. And that’s before Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) come across Riley’s (Kaitlyn Dias) imaginary friend, Bing Bong (Richard Kind). Writer/director Pete Docter has worked his magic in Pixar films before, most notably in Up‘s opening five minutes, but with Inside Out, he created Pixar’s best feature to date.
The Mad Max series last hit theaters in 1985, with Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The series’ creator, George Miller, hasn’t directed an action film since then, and he hasn’t directed a live-action film at all since 1998’s Babe: Pig in the City. None of that matters. At the age of 70, George Miller returned to live-action (emphasis on action) filmmaking with a film that doesn’t raise the bar so much as shoot it into outer space. Essentially a long chase film in two sections, there’s not a lot in terms of plot. But with Miller’s attention to detail, he creates a world that captures the insanity that the earlier Mad Max films merely suggested. Mad Max: Fury Road is the new gold standard for action; let’s see who will try to surpass this.
Some stories don’t need to be sensationalized. Tom McCarthy wisely acknowledges this with Spotlight, his look at the Boston Globe‘s shocking 2002 series of stories on sexual abuse of minors within the Boston archdiocese of the Catholic church. There’s no need for a series of dramatic outbursts or looming threats of danger against the reporters of the Spotlight team. The facts slowly revealed over the course of Spotlight are disturbing enough to make each new revelation stomach-churning, and the cast and crew all know this. And while there’s victory in the team getting the initial story published, there’s also a discomforting acknowledgement that the stories led to more discoveries through a list of cities across the country and the world where similar events were subsequently discovered.
Ten years may have separated the releases of Revenge of the Sith and this film but The Force Awakens had more to do than simply revive a series. It had to serve as a sequel to 1983’s Return of the Jedi, integrate old characters with new ones who will serve as the series’ new leads, set up a new narrative for the series going forward and bring people back to the series following the commercially-successful, much-maligned Star Wars prequel trilogy. With so many different goals, this film could have easily flopped. Not only did it not flop, it reignited interest in this series. Writer/director J.J. Abrams and his co-writer, The Empire Strikes Back‘s Lawrence Kasdan, created a film that pulls from the original trilogy to create a new set of worlds that feel familiar, while introducing a slew of compelling new characters who are the best new characters introduced to the films since Lando Calrissian. It’s the best the series has been since Empire, and while there are other films that may have exceeded this film on different fronts, no other film in 2015 filled me with as much pure joy as Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
As promised, the films that just missed the list: