Posted January 18, 2016  /  Revised January 22, 2016

 

For the very first time in 11 years as a film critic...I knew that I saw the very best film of the past year early in the summer when I exited the screening for it.  Now, how could that possibly be, seeing as I had several more months of seeing potential Best Film honorees?  Well, my number one film of 2015 just spoke to me on so many multiple levels that I firmly believed that no other possible film in its wake could match it for sheer technical craft, audacious creativity, and inspiring limitless awe and wonder. 

One or two came awfully close, but as the Highlander might say, there can be only one…number one film. 

My screening and review output in 2015 diminished significantly for a variety of reasons, some beyond my control.  All in all, I saw 18 less movies in 2015 than the previous year, an all-time low for me in five years.  Nevertheless, I sincerely believe that I still experienced a strong cross section of films from this past year from a multitude of genres and disciplines, which, I think, makes me a pretty good authority on compiling lists such as these.  As with previous years, I’ve elected to expand my Top 10 selections into a greater and more inclusive Top 25, which allows me to celebrate 15 more films that I thought were resoundingly solid efforts, but ones that I simply couldn’t find a place for on my Top 10.  Beyond that, I've also listed every single other film from 2015 that I gave a favorable review to (3-stars or better).

The clear-cut genre winner for me this past year was science fiction, as not one, not two, but three films made it on my Top 10.  The western genre followed a close second with two entries making the cut (granted, you could make the argument that one is more of a period film/outdoor survival thriller than a classical western).  A horror film makes an ultra rare appearance on the Top 10, rare in the sense that I hardly ever see any new horror films that are worthy of a 4-star rating.  Compellingly rendered character dramas also show up here again (two of them) and one film by a superlative French Canadian director makes another appearance on my end of the year honors compilation.  As always, I've strived for genre variety in making these lists, but sometimes when you have three science fiction films as good as the ones included below…variety becomes hard.

Final note: There remains a few films that I have not yet screened before publishing this article (like CAROL and THE DAINISH GIRL, to name a few).  Once I've screened them and they deserve placement in this blog, I will revise my list according. 

 

 

Watch me talk about some of my picks on CTV:

 
 

1.   MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

 
 

Seemingly everyone at the end of 2015 was talking about STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, but there was indeed a much better sequel to a 30-year-old science fiction classic that came out this past year…and that film was George Miller’s MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. 

This was easily the best two-plus hours that I had in a movie theatre in 2015 simply because this sort of sequel, sort of reboot of Miller’s landmark post-apocalyptic series did the most bravura job of transporting me as an escapist thrill ride.  The filmmaker is 70-years-old, but in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD – right from its opening few minutes – he displayed more unbridled creative passion and boundless enthusiasm for the material than any other film that came out in the past twelve months…or arguably from any other filmmaker half of his age.  Everything in this film had a remarkably lived-in and tactile look and feel, showing Miller at his most cheerfully fetishistic in terms of conjuring up nightmarishly horrific costumes and makeup design, not to mention a ghoulish menagerie of vehicles that were the stuff of our most perverted collective car-porn fantasies.   And when the film unleashed its positively eye-gasmic orgy of vehicular mayhem – all choreographed astonishingly well with practical cars and stunts – I was in a state of action cinema Valhalla. 

Miller also had more up his sleeve than simply assaulting us with exhilarating action sequences.  The film also had a strong undercurrent of feminist empowerment, emphasizing the might and superiority of righteous female characters as positive catalysts of change in a deranged hellscape run by despotic men.  MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is the best possible MAD MAX film ever envisioned.  The gargantuan breadth of Miller’s crafty imagination and gutsy showmanship was on unparalleled display here, making the film one of the great pioneering visionary sagas of our current decade.  

This film will ride eternal...shiny and chrome. 

 

2.  THE REVENANT

If it weren’t for the titanic filmmaking achievement that was MAD MAX: FURY ROAD then Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s sixth film THE REVENANT would be my choice for the best film of 2015.

Hot off the filmmaker’s multiple Oscar winning BIRDMAN came this extraordinarily rendered outdoor survival thriller, set in the early 1800’s and loosely based on the fact-based account of a frontiersmen that was viciously attacked by a bear, left for dead, and then traveled across 200 miles of harsh and uncomprimising wilderness terrain to survive.  Inarritu and company have expanded upon this real premise by making it a larger tale of the survivor’s thirst for ultimate vengeance against the man the ultimately left him for dead.  Featuring an astonishing physical and mostly non-verbal performance by Leonardo DiCaprio (who should finally be a lock to win a Best Actor Oscar), absolutely breathtaking cinematography that paints the screen with the intoxicatingly foreboding beauty of the terrain that comes to haunt the film’s characters, and bravura direction by Inarritu – who frequently used ultra-long and unbroken shots (especially during action sequences) – that gave the proceedings a startling sense of realism and immediacy, THE REVENANT was a tour de force display of filmmaking craft.  It was also a spellbinding tale of perseverance, anguish, and the dicey relativism of savage eye-for-an-eye frontier justice.  This film was an endurance test to sit through, but it was a visceral experience like no other in 2015.

3.  ROOM

ROOM was one of the most heartbreakingly sad, yet oddly uplifting films that I saw in 2015.  It was a searing and emotionally powerful drama steeped in hellish tragedy, but eventually morphed into an odyssey of one woman's self-determination and courage when faced with insurmountable odds, both physical and emotional. 

Featuring a career high performance of strength and conviction by Brie Larson, this harrowing human survival drama detailed the seven year imprisonment of a teenage girl by her kidnapper, forced against her will to live her adolescent and early adult life in a small, locked up shed-like room, having no contact with the outside world.  Worse yet, she’s gives birth to the sociopath’s child, a product of rape, and then takes it upon herself to raise the child as best as she can under such frightening circumstances.  When mother and child escape, acclimatizing themselves to a world and society that they know very little about becomes a whole new horrific set of psychological obstacles for them. 

I’ve only scratched the surface of this extraordinary drama, which tackled its shocking subject matter with a frank and brutal honesty and commitment that few other genre efforts dare.  Oddly, ROOM reminded me considerably of THE ROAD; even though both films could not be any more different, both are intense portraits of the inseparable bond between parent and child and how that love can be used to overcome impossible hardships to stay alive.  Ultimately, ROOM became an endlessly tender ode to family relationships and what it truly means to nurture and support the one you care about the most.  The film certainly has a terror-inducing premise that will make many viewers uneasily squirm in their theatre seats while watching it, but its payoff was an inspirational and powerful one that respected the patience and endurance of its audience.   

4.  THE HATEFUL EIGHT

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When Quentin Tarantino made a critical splash 23 years ago with RESERVOIR DOGS he became instantly known for being a unique filmmaker for populating his films with a rich assortment of amoral scumbags that were somehow oddly endearing.  I’m not sure that any film on his resume would have prepared audiences for the type of duplicitous minded vermin that exist in THE HATEFUL EIGHT, Tarantino’s eighth film and arguably his finest in years. 

This was Tarantino’s second western, which came right on the heels of his Oscar winning DJANGO UNCHAINED, but this time he expanded his silver screen canvas (electing to shoot the film in magnificently pristine 70mm film, the first film to do so since 1992) to pay a loving homage to the Sergio Leone Westerns of the 1960’s that he clearly loves.  The fascinating angle, though, to THE HATEFUL EIGHT was that it set itself up as a fairly standard western, only to then radically pull the rug out from audiences and became a deeply perverted Agatha Christie who-dunnit from hell.  That’s the pure Tarantino-esque touch: his innate ability to marry so many divergent film genres and then completely subvert our very expectations of what’s to come next.  THE HATEFUL EIGHT showed the director at the zenith of his filmmaking powers, and even though the film is long (nearly three hours) and is built up largely on dialogue and character interactions, it’s a testament to Tarantino’s skills that it had such breakneck pacing and intensity.  It was a wonderfully insular and brilliantly character driven western that made me captivated throughout by the hateful personas that occupied the screen.

5.  EX MACHINA

There have been so many films that have tapped into the dicey ethical themes of mankind’s dabbling in creating and sustaining artificial intelligence, but Alex Garland’s EX MACHINA proudly stood apart from the dense pack. 

The film posed ageless themes: When is true artificial intelligence reached and or achieved?  When does a robotic being break its shackles, so to speak, with its creator and become a free and independent thinking entity with feelings?  The science fiction genre has been tackling such queries since the turn of the last century, but Garland approached them with a stark and refreshing simplicity.  His film was more of a cerebral sci-fi effort than an action driven one, letting the fascinating interactions and dialogue exchanges between his characters drive home Garland’s message.  It featured an intoxicating three-way relationship between an inventor, an artificial human being, and a neutral third party brought in to challenge the sentient machine on its own notions of being alive.  EX MACHINA was a work of simmering and nail-biting tension, not because it was built upon a foundation of bombastic action and cutting edge visual effects (although it abundantly contained the latter), but rather for how it became a more thoroughly rewarding science fiction film that valued contemplative ideas to be debated first and foremost. 

6.  SICARIO

French Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve might be one of the finest and purest cinematic craftsman working today.  His films – whether they be the shockingly effective morality tale PRISONERS or the grand mind-bender ENEMY – have an intrinsically strong grasp of tapping into the darker underbelly of the human psyche…and he achieves this with a brutally unflinching veracity. 

On a cursory glance, SICARIO dealt with the escalating and bloody drug war between the US and Mexico, but the film was digging much deeper into the darker and drearier depths of the multi-country battle by exposing the level of seedy corruption – on both sides of the law – that defines it.  The endlessly compelling quandary of the film was simple, but far-reaching: When does the end truly justify the means and how far is one willing to go into the heart of darkness to achieve law and order in society?  With Oscar nomination worthy performances by Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro (robbed of said nominations when they were announced last week), stunning cinematography, and intense direction by Villeneuve, SICARIO rarely felt like it was appeasing perfunctory genre conventions; the film embraced its own inherent societal bleakness with a surgical precision that placed Villeneuve on a whole other upper echelon level apart from his contemporaries.    
 

 7.  IT FOLLOWS

David Robert Mitchell’s IT FOLLOWS was a $2 million dollar little engine that could for the independent horror film genre in 2015.  Within a few minutes of screening this little gem I knew that was in for something far more than what the obligatory teen slasher genre has been predictably offering up for decades. 

Yes, IT FOLLOWS certainly did adhere to many standard troupes of the genre in question, but it was the manner that Mitchell teased us with them and then did a complete about-face and gave us something immediately fresh and new that was the film’s real coup de grace.  In a relative age when horror film after horror film emphasizes torture porn gore and animalistic bloodshed, it was a treat to bare witness to how IT FOLLOWS focused in on developing an undulating sensation of dread and unease throughout.  Like a strange and perverse cinematic cocktail of Hitchcock, Kubrick, Tarantino, and Carpenter, IT FOLLOWS was an unusually intelligent, richly atmospheric, and altogether terrifying horror thriller that also managed to comment on the troublesome nature of teenage sexuality without cheapening it for sick, sensationalistic thrills.  Very few horror films tap into the psychological weight on its victim’s shoulders and further devlves into their inner conflicted fears of the unknown as well as this one did. 

  8.  SPOTLIGHT

Like an ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN for the modern era, writer/director Tom McCarthy’s SPOTLIGHT was a gracefully low key, yet superlatively handled account of real life investigative journalists uncovering lurid crimes with global ramifications.  Not many films bare the moniker of being an “important” one to watch, but this one sure earned it. 

This inordinately well cast fact-based drama shed a crucial light on a series of Catholic Church sex abuse scandals that ravaged Boston in the early 2000’s, which was courageously reported on by the intrepid newsmen and women of the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team.  The inherent greatness of SPOTLIGHT was in how it showcased the unwavering dedication of noble minded journalists in attempting to unravel a sickening pattern of systematic sexual abuse and the broad scale attempts to cover it up.  Rather wisely, SPOTLIGHT never became an egregious anti-Catholic Church or anti-faith film; instead, McCarthy was trying to take a tactful and thoughtful look at the whole laborious process that was undertaken to reveal to the world a malicious widespread crime that just happened to involve priests.  With one of the finest ensemble casts of recent memory at the very top of their respective games and a nuanced and sensitive handling of the very dicey subject matter, SPOTLIGHT emerged as a compelling ode to journalistic heroism. 

9.   MISSISSIPPI GRIND

 

MISSISSIPPI GRIND is unlike most films about compulsive gamblers in the sense that so many others dealing with the addiction seem to glamorize it for sensationalistic effect and cheap dramatic payoffs.

Filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (the duo that previously helmed HALF NELSON and SUGAR, both of which made my TOP 10 list of their respective years of release) are much more soulful and introspective with their focus on how the gambling addict is truly a lost soul that has no idea of how damaging his life-imploding actions have been to those around him.  The central tragedy of MISSISSIPPI GRIND is that it was about the worst inclinations of self-destructive human behavior.  Fleck and Boden have always been known as a special creed of directors with assured voices and an innate ability to capture their characters – warts and all – with a fly-on-the wall realism of a documentary, and that was clearly on display all throughout MISSISSIPPI GRIND.  Best yet, they garnered out of Ben Mendelsohn - a chameleon-like character actor that’s so quietly powerful that he often gets overlooked come Oscar time – one of his most spare and economical performances of his career.  Fleck and Boden perceive their characters so differently from other directors: all of their films have a highly unique viewfinder that gazes upon their flawed and wayward characters with a non-judgmental detachment.  MISSISSIPPI GRIND was not a flashy bit of Oscar bait, but it masterfully communicated one sad truth: sometimes in life, there’s simply no hope or chance of redemption for some people.
  
 

10.  THE MARTIAN

 

Rounding off the strongest year for science fiction movies in many a moon is Ridley Scott’s THE MARTIAN, based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir about an astronaut that’s accidentally stranded on Mars and then must use all of the scientific know-how at his disposal to stay alive.  The movie was like CASTAWAY and ROBINSON CRUSOE in space. 

Actually, that latter descriptor doesn’t do THE MARTIAN much justice at all.  Ridley Scott has always been highly regarded in the sci-fi genre as a filmmaker of impeccable and sometimes incomparable technical skill, but he stripped down his aesthetic tendencies with THE MARTIAN and honed in on the film’s central story of human survival.  And Scott cast just the right actor in Matt Damon to portray the doomed astronaut in question, who gave a thanklessly serene, yet empowered performance as a man caught between the ultimate rock and a hard place that had to summer up all intestinal fortitude – and some remarkable wits and intuition – to stave off death from the inhospitable conditions of an alien planet.  What ultimately won me over about THE MARTIAN was that it was an ultra rare science fiction film that mixed humor (there was a surprisingly amount of it in there considering its tragic premise), brains, and heart.  That, and it was ultimately uplifting and kind of exhilarating to witness a science fiction film that existed as a love ballad to scientific MacGyverism.  And how rare is it for scientists to be the heroes in these kind of films?

  ...and now to round off my TEN BEST FILMS OF 2015 with my selections from 11-25:  
 

11.  STEVE JOBS: Michael Fassbender - even though not looking at all like the title character - gave a completely immersive performance as the iconic Apple creative icon.

 

12.  MISSION IMPOSSIBLE - ROGUE NATION: An impossibly great fifth film in the longstanding espionage series.

 

13.  SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE: A joyous and boundlessly creative stop motion animated effort that not nearly enough people saw in 2015.

 

14.  MACBETH:  A haunting, hallucinatory, and savagely epic retelling of Shakespeare's classic play.  

 

15.  BROOKLYN:  Saiorse Ronan was the strong emotional and performance anchor in this lovely immigrant period drama.  

 

16.  THE WALK:  Robert Zemeckis pulled out all of the technological tools at his disposal to helm this completely credible fact based drama about a Parisian highwire artist that walked between the World Trade Center buildings in the mid-1970's. 

 

17.  CREED:  Just when you thought that the ROCKY series was out of creative gas came writer/director Ryan Coogler's semi-reboot of the franchise that proved us all wrong.

 

18.  MAGGIE: Terribly underrated post-apocalyptic zombie survival horror drama that featured the finest and most nuanced performance of Arnold Schwarzenegger's career.

 

19.  Z FOR ZACHARIAH:  Another resoundingly confident and fresh post-apocalyptic drama, completely held together by the outstanding performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Margot Robbie.

 

20.  PREDESTINATIONContinuing the stellar year that was for the sci-fi drama was this intoxicating mind-bending time travel thriller.

 

21.  BLACK MASS:  A creepy and sinister performance by Johnny Depp made this fact-based mobster drama all the more enthralling.

 

22.  STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON:  An engaging and stirring chronicle of the musical rise and fall of the N.W.A.

 

23.  THE PEANUTS MOVIE:  Charles M. Schultz's legendary comic strip came convincingly to life in this splendidly good natured animated film..

 

24.  THE GIFT:  An unexpectedly powerful home invasion thriller than mixed nail-biting terror and soulful tragedy in equal dosages.

25.  TURBO KID:  An infectiously enjoyable love ballad to schlocky 1980's action and sci-fi films.  

 
  Beyond my TOP 25, here's a further selection of films that are definitely worth seeing, but just not quite great enough to make the final cut:  
GOOD KILL:  Andrew Niccol made a fine return to directorial form with this examination of military drone warfare.

ANT-MAN:  One of the finer Marvel films of the year that was that benefited greatly from the atypical casting of Paul Rudd in the lead super hero role.

MCFARLAND, U.S.A.:  A genuinely involving reality based sports drama starring Kevin Costner that placed emphasis on exploring the fragile mindsets of its athletes.

BLACK OR WHITE:  Another decent Costner effort, this time in an uncommonly perceptive and honest race relations drama.

WHILE WE'RE YOUNG:  Writer/director Noah Baumbach's witty and wickedly unflinching portrait of Gen Xer's and Millennials going head-to-head.  

SOUTHPAW:  The second best pugilist drama in 2015 after CREED, which featured yet another grounded and authentic performance by Jake Gyllenhaal.  

DANNY COLLINS:  A mostly forgotten, but exquisitely drawn show-biz dramedy that displayed a top-of-his form Al Pacino.

KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE: The spirit of spy films and comic books came positively alive in this action packed and frequently funny effort from director Matthew Vaughn.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS:  The force was mostly with this long gestating sequel to 1983's RETURN OF THE JEDI.  

RUN ALL NIGHT:  Yet another commendably entertaining thriller that put Liam Neeson's ample talents on full display.

 

CHAPPIE:  The third science fiction film was Neill Bloomkamp was problematic, but had ambition to tackle some compelling thematic material.

 

THE SECOND BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL:  A mostly unnecessary, but mostly enjoyable sequel that made fantastic use of its inspired ensemble cast.

 

CINDERELLA:  An opulent and stunningly designed live action adaptation of the cherished Disney animated classic.

 

FURIOUS 7:  Yet another well-oiled sequel that successfully delivered the series status quo of improbably ludicrous, but always exhilarating car chases.

 

THE DUFF:  A sassy and endearing Mae Whitman made this otherwise prosaic romcom worth watching.  

 

TED 2:: I can't deny that I laughed a lot during this sequel, which contained enough merry humor to make up for its other obvious deficiencies.    

 

TERMINATOR GENISYS:  A problematic, but somewhat intriguing continuation of the classic futuristic/time travel sci-fi series.

 

SPY:  The unlikely pairing of Melissa McCarthy and Jason Statham made this spy comedy frequently uproarious.

 

TRAINWRECK:  Amy Schumer gave one of the more memorable introductory performances of recent memory in this Judd Apatow directed romcom.

 

MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.: A Guy Ritchie directed espionage romp that got great mileage out of its strong period production design and the chemistry of its cast.

 

LOVE AND MERCY:  A fascinating musical biopic regarding former Beach Boy Brain Wilson, told with two different actors playing him at two different time periods of his life.

 

EVEREST:  An epically staged true story human survival drama involving a disastrous attempt to scale Mount Everest in the mid-1990's.

 

COP CAR:  An ultra lean chase thriller that featured one of Kevin Bacon's most sinister performances.

 

ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL:  A strangely touching and genuine portrait of adolescent friendship and dealing with loss.  

 

BRIDGE OF SPIES:  This Coen Brothers scripted, Steven Spielberg directed Cold War era thriller managed to breathe life into a Hollywood genre than sometimes feels like it's on life support.

THE BIG SHORTA thoroughly complicated, but thrillingly performed comedic satire regarding the Finaical Crisis of 2015.

CONCUSSION:  Will Smith gave his most internalized performance of his career in this reality-based sports drama.

LEGEND:  Tom Hardy gave not one, but two staggeringly strong performances playing twin brothers in this Brian Helgeland directed gangster drama.

CAROL:  Todd Haynes' remarkably acted period/romance drama.

 

 

   

 

 
 
 

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