Making my list of the Best Movies of any given year is always fun. It is also painful, especially in a year like this one when I saw much more than just 10 great movies. But you know what they say. There can only be ten.
Is there an overarching theme that unites the ten movies I’ve chosen for this list? I can see certain similarities, like the fact that eight of them have a female protagonist (and one of the other three is particularly interested in women and their pleasure), but the truth is that these are just the ten movies I liked best. I tend to think of these lists as time capsules that let me know what spoke to me at different moments in my life.
I saw more movies in 2015 than in any other year of my life (more than 90 in theaters), and what I learned from this experience is that I’ve spent too much time analyzing what movies are about and not enough analyzing how they are about it. Seeing so many movies made me realize that the ones that stood out and stayed in my mind were the most beautiful ones. The ones that used their sounds and images to create unique experiences. The ones that felt magical. The ones from which I will not only remember what happens in the movie, but how I felt about it happening.
Before we get into it, I want to make clear I only considered movies that had a commercial release in the United States between January 1 and December 31, 2015 when making this list.
And now, finally…
The Ten Best Movies of 2015:
1. World of Tomorrow
(Dir. Don Hertzfeldt, 17 min, USA)
Ok, so I guess I’m breaking my own rules by putting this animated short film (which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was released online a few months later) on my list, but the truth is this is the one piece of cinema I’ve thought the most about all year. Animator Don Hertzfeldt’s first foray into digital cinema is built around the brilliant conceit of juxtaposing a bleak and philosophically complex view of our future with the nonsensical musings of a four year-old girl. It’s an unlikely marriage that results in one of the most moving and original films I have ever seen. And it is available for rental on Vimeo for only $3.99!
(Dir. Todd Haynes, 118 min, USA)
I couldn’t find the time to write a review of Carol, but then again, I don’t even know what I would’ve said. That it’s one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve seen? That Carter Burwell’s score is magnificent? That Todd Haynes is perhaps the most talented director of his generation? That Rooney Mara is brilliant? That Cate Blanchett gives the best performance of her career? That Ed Lachman’s cinematography is gorgeous and his use of glass even better? That it features a sex scene so emotional it made me cry? That its final five minutes are a masterpiece of romantic cinema? Yeah, I’d probably have said all those things…
3. Mistress America
(Dir. Noah Baumbach, 84 min, USA)
Director Noah Baumbach and actress Greta Gerwig are a match made in heaven. Gerwig, an astute observer of her place in the world around her, creates one of the most fascinating characters of the year. The ultimate millennial woman: an autodidact with “so many things” to sell. Newcomer Lola Kirke plays the young student who becomes her biggest admirer. Meanwhile, Baumbach, fascinated with finding truth in the most hermetic and pretentious characters, decides that this exploration of female mentorship should devolve into an outright screwball farce. The movie’s unstoppable middle section -set in a Connecticut mansion- is one of the most impressive, and definitely the funniest, scenes of the year.
(Dir. Christian Petzold, 98 min, Germany)
A Holocaust survivor comes home from the war, but her face is not the same. The only thing she wants is to be reunited with her husband, but he doesn’t recognize it. This is the conceit of Christian Petzold’s gorgeous and brutal melodrama, which accomplishes the impossible task of being a seductive and enchanting piece of dramatic cinema, while simultaneously exploring one of humanity’s darkest moments. How can one begin to reconcile, let alone understand, the emptiness that must have come after such horrifying events? Phoenix dares to try to answer those questions, and in its haunting final scene, comes as close as any movie ever will. And you can watch it on Netflix right now.
5. Mad Max: Fury Road
(Dir. George Miller, 120 min, Australia/USA)
Cinephiles who are constantly complaining about the dire state of Hollywood blockbuster cinema might have finally found the answer they were looking for. I can’t imagine a more perfect action movie for the year of Our Lord 2015 than George Miller’s post-apocalyptic desert odyssey. Fury Road‘s two hours of non-stop action encapsulate the meaning of the word cinema. What’s even more impressive is that a movie this lean and slick could also hold one of the most exciting feminist statements of the year. Based on an ancient Aboriginal Songline, Mad Max: Fury Road is both timely and timeless. A primal legend and a furiously relevant statement at the same time.
6. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
(Dir. Roy Andersson, 101 min, Sweden)
Two middle-aged men, who look more like deteriorating zombies than human beings, come into a store and try to sell comedic toys to a serious doctor. A man dies on a cruise ship’s dining room and the biggest question is who will eat the meal he already paid for. An old man remembers fondly the limping bartender who exchanged drinks for a sailor’s kiss. Roy Andersson has a unique and dry sense of humor. His movies are unique dioramas that explore the ridiculous emptiness of everyday life, and together, they form the most hilarious philosophical treaty imaginable, which by the way is available to stream on Netflix right now.
7. Ex Machina
(Dir. Alex Garland, 108 min, UK)
Good science fiction movies are hard to find. Especially nowadays, when filmmakers seem to think that they need all kinds of crazy twists and turns in order to hold an audience’s attention. The truth is that no crazy reveal -no matter how original- could ever hold a candle to a well crafted exploration of a fascinating theme. Ex Machina asks relevant questions about both the future of artificial intelligence, and our contemporary ideas of what constitutes a human. All of this while being a supremely enjoyable thriller and thanks to the amazing acting trio of Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander, as well as the visual eye of screenwriter Alex Garland in his directorial debut.
(Dir. Céline Sciamma, 113 min, France)
Carol, Phoenix, and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch are all strong contenders for the best scene of the year. But even then, none of them can really touch the moment in which four teenage girls rent a room in a Paris Hotel and sing along to the lyrics of Rihanna’s “Diamonds”. That single scene encapsulates everything that is great about this Celine Sciamma’s wonderful coming of age story, which focuses on the kind of minoritized women who are rarely the focus of any film, let alone one as beautiful as this one. And just so you know, you can experience the best scene of the year on Netflix right now.
(Dir. Tom McCarthy, 128 min, USA)
Spotlight is such an unassuming and well-made movie that it’s easy to forget how exceptional it really is. Beyond the excellent performances by its magnificent cast. And beyond its perfectly structured exterior, which takes the form of a well-oiled investigative thriller in the tradition of All the President’s Men, lies not only an urgent message ready to be heard (the movie focuses on the Boston Globe’s investigation of systematic sexual abuse in the Catholic Church), but a tender and humane movie that never loses track of the fact that the most important people in this story are the victims.
10. Magic Mike XXL
(Dir. Gregory Jacobs, 115 min, USA)
Can you imagine a world in which all men’s existence revolved around making sure women feel happy and satisfied all the time? A world in which a woman’s smile is worth more than a brand new Mercedes? Magic Mike XXL might be as close as we’ll ever be to such a paradise. Mike’s respect for women is as essential as his amazing dance moves in making him the ultimate male specimen. This movie’s fascination with women’s pleasure makes it one of the most radical and exciting movies of the year. There is barely any conflict in the plot of Magic Mike XXL, but then again, if all men were like this, there wouldn’t be any conflict in our world either.
Bridge of Spies
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
The Duke of Burgundy
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Shaun the Sheep Movie
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Movie I Wish I Had Seen Before Making This List:
I’ve been desperately trying to catch up with Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence ever since I missed its theatrical run, but no luck so far. This is Oppenheimer’s second documentary about the aftermath of the Indonesian genocide. After taking a horrifying and bizarre look at the victorious “gangsters” of The Act of Killing (undoubtedly one of the best movies of this decade), the director turns his gaze toward the victims who must live amongst the people that murdered their families.
Best Movie of 2015 that Won’t Come Out until 2016:
Thanks to the folks at Lincoln Center and their Critics Academy program, I got to see a lot of movies at the New York Film Festival this year. Most of them don’t come out until next year, and the very best of those movies, was Yorgos Lanthimos’s science fiction romance The Lobster. It’s supposed to come out in the U.S. in March, and let me tell you, I’d be surprised if it doesn’t end up near the top of my list a year from now.
The Worst Movies of the Year:
It’s not always fun shitting all over the movies I don’t like, but sometimes you have to. Here’s the ten worst movies I saw this year:
1. The Wedding Ringer (directed by Jeremy Garelick)
My girlfriend and I had a joke in which we would go to the movies, and whenever the trailer for The Wedding Ringer played, we would tell each other how excited we were to see it. We got so into the joke that at some point we felt like we kind of had to see this movie we were so relentlessly mocking. I will never make such a joke again.
2. Fantastic Four (directed by Josh Trank)
It seems a little cruel putting Fantastic Four in here considering how it was taken away from director Josh Trank, reworked, and ended up barely resembling what we would call a movie. Nevertheless, I did watch it, and it was painful.
3. Entourage (directed by Doug Ellin)
When I was thirteen years old, I discovered the television show Entourage and thought it was totally cool. About two years later, I was already mature enough to recognize how stupidly inert it was. Watching this movie opened my eyes into exactly how misogynistic and hideous this property always was.
4. Hot Girls Wanted (directed by Ronna Gradus, Jill Bauer)
This documentary presents itself as an exposé on the amateur porn industry, and follows a group of up-and-coming teenage porn actresses. It is so obsessed with proving its point that it ends up objectifying these women as much as the pornographers they work for do.
5. Lava (directed by James Ford Murphy)
and Frozen Fever (directed by Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee)
I put a short film in my “Best” list, so I thought it only fair two include these two atrocities here. Both shorts played before a major Disney release, and both were built around irritating songs. The Frozen short would’ve been disappointing if it were a DVD extra, while Lava shows the diminishing returns of Pixar wanting to make people cry with every single one of its shorts.
6. Pan (directed by Joe Wright)
I was dismayed to see Joe Wright -a director I love- be stripped of the tangible resources that make him such a great filmmaker. Someone must’ve misinterpreted his fondness for fairy tale aesthetics as a sign that he would be fit to direct a children’s movie. Silly, because all his good movies are rooted in a sort of adult sexuality. No one needed another stupid origin story, least of all Joe Wright.
7. Blackhat (directed by Michael Mann)
This movie has a sizable group of avid supporters, but I must assume they are either Michael Mann fanatics, or people who fetishize loud gun noises and shots of minimalistic architecture. If you have the faintest interest in plot, character, or entertainment, this is not the movie for you.
8. Chappie (directed by Neill Blomkamp)
Despite all of this movie’s weaknesses, despite its supremely stupid plot, and despite its suicidal decision to make South African hip-hop group Die Antwoord the (very unlikable) main characters of its story, I must admit that Chappie itself is a pretty impressive creation as far as computer generated visual effects are concerned.
9. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejón)
I still can’t believe people loved this enough to give it both the Jury and Audience award at the Sundance Film Festival. Not only is this a hacky interpretation of what an “indie movie” should look like, but it offensively uses a terminally ill girl and a racial stereotype as devices to tell the story of how a young white boy learned to love himself. Fuck that.
10. Pitch Perfect 2 (directed by Elizabeth Banks)
I wrote a lot in my review about how disappointed I was with the amount of racism in Pitch Perfect 2. And sure, the racist jokes themselves are disappointing, but the truly infuriating thing is that the movie shoots itself in the foot by indulging in all these “edgy” jokes. It doesn’t help that most not racist sequences are also not funny.
I’ve never been a Rocky fanatic. I’ve also never been one of those people who complaint the original Rocky won the Best Picture Oscar because they haven’t seen it and don’t know that it is actually a great movie. I had no interest in Creed, but the reviews were good, and so I watched it. I’m so glad I did. Not only is this an amazing melodrama, but it is part of one of my favorite trends of 2015: rejuvenating ’70s classics through diversity, as seen in Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s the way of the future!
I heard nothing but great things about Sean Baker’s Tangerine ever since it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It is one of the best reviewed films of the year, it is being included in many film critics’ top ten lists, and I just don’t get it. Where others saw invigorating energy, I found only noise. What other people thought was hilarious cleverness, I could barely register as jokes. A no-nonsense comedy about two transgender streetwalkers in L.A. shot on an iPhone sounds right up my alley. I was heartbroken that I didn’t really like the film.
I’ll make the case for Joy any day of the week, but the critical reaction that frustrated me the most this year was how people didn’t give Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey a fair shake. Sure, the movie isn’t perfect -it still had to play by the rules of its ridiculously bad source material- but its images tell a much more nuanced and empowering story than anyone could have expected. Not to mention the fact that Dakota Johnson is pure dynamite in the role of Anastasia Steele.
“The best horror movie of the decade”. That’s the kind of praise that met David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows when it came out earlier this year. Such statements were ridiculous not only because The Babadook already exists, but because It Follows is actually not a very good movie. I will admit this is a brilliant premise for a movie -a horror movie about a sexually-transmitted curse- but I was infuriated by the execution. I was one hundred steps ahead of any of the characters in knowing what was going to happen. The climax of It Follows would’ve come at the end of a better movie’s first act. A (Dis)Honorable Mention goes out to Mia Hansen-Love’s Eden.