Reflecting on 2015, I recognize that the majority of my favorite cinematic experiences entail a pull towards nature and the environment. Perhaps even a push back towards not trusting technology; a pursuit for simpler times. Perhaps this is my current state of mind. Not enough open space and fresh air, but surrounded by too much technology and a resounding call for efficiency.
We sometimes try to find meaning and relationships through social media where there are friends we would no longer recognize. We sometimes take for granted our current situations without reflecting on the potential negative affects our actions will leave. In some respects, this aversion towards forward thinking reigns throughout my top 20 films.
Peace out 2015!
#20. While We’re Young (2014)
Settling into mid life, Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) have found themselves stuck in a rut. Josh has wasted the last decade fumbling through a war documentary that no one cares about while Cornelia doesn’t have much more going on than regretting not having children. The couple needs something new. A proverbial spark in their lives. This fiery particle comes in the form of a young, hip couple — Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). Jamie too is an aspiring documentarian and Darby is a free-spirit up for just about anything. For better and for worse, the couples join forces, connect and become business partners.
In director Noah Baumbach’s previous work, Frances Ha (2012), I felt uncomfortable being surrounded by a Gen-Xers, a completely self-absorbed, shallow group. Basically the people who fill my nightmares and I run away from at parties. While We’re Young’s characters possess their own drawbacks, but they’re still approachable. They have ambitions that are relatable and ideas that are palatable.
While We’re Young isn’t a great movie, but it is a relevant one. We understand the message that everything in life is cyclical. And although the character arches don’t quite hit the watershed mark, the final scene as a 2 year old child is thumbing his way through an iphone while Josh and Cornelia look on in horror is quite the ending..
#19. Bone Tomahawk (2015)
What’s with David Arquette getting eaten in every western (Ravenous (1999))?
Bone Tomahawk is like listening to a mashup of Rob Zombie’s Dragula and Sons of the Pioneers’ Cool Water: the crossover of a classical western and a bloody cannibal film that generates an engaging and unique story.
To start, Bone Tomahawk does not begin in the usual western fashion. With a bang we are left looking for answers. We then see the characters ease into their roles as the local sheriff, his sidekick, the damsel in distress, and the gruff cowboy hero. The townspeople mingle in their usual way and Bone Tomahawk begins to drag its boots in the sand. That is, until the unseen enemy comes a knocking. The damsel and others are kidnapped to the hills, presumably for a lovely dinner on the range. Time for action.
Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) and Chicory (Richard Jenkins) are accompanied by Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) and John Brooder (Matthew Fox) to find the three kidnapped citizens including Arthur’s wife Samantha (Lili Simmons). But who exactly took the three and what exactly are they?
The pursuit keeps Bone Tomahawk tantalizing all the way throughout its mosey-mosy set-up to its incredibly violent conclusion. With one of the most shocking scenes this year, I won’t be able to look at a liquor flask the same ever again.
#18. Western (2015)
A silent observer, watching like a hawk. Twitching as his eyes scan the landscape. Never a word. Only searching, watching. The protector of America.
Wearing a ten-gallon hat, the mayor of Eagle Pass, Texas, Chad Foster, isn’t your typical politician. His feet are grounded and his voice has the ability to unite those on both sides of the border. While one border tries to come to grips with the daily violence committed by the Mexican Drug Cartels the other side of the border manifests a chest-thumping, paranoia-driven US. It is up to Mayor Foster breath reason into the political voice.
Seamlessly switching from fluent Spanish that engages entire audiences in Mexico to his speak-easy tone in a southern drawl to reporters in the States, Foster was a special person (he died of cancer just after filming). It is an impossible task asked of just one person. His side-kick, Jose Manuel Maldonado, mayor of the Mexican border town, Piedras Negras, also had a flair to achieve change, but he doesn’t have the intangible ability of Foster to unite.
Brother documentarians, Bill and Turner Ross, settle their lenses on comparable allies who achieve different results. On the other storyline, the Ross brothers follow a small-town rancher with cattle interests on both ends of the border. Once the violence gets too close to the border, the USDA doesn’t allow US cattle inspectors to travel to Mexico, bringing the rancher’s entire operation to a halt. With no backup plan, rumors and the news are followed religiously. It is now just one aspect of Mayor Foster’s duty to ensure the correct news is disseminated to the American public, while also ensuring their racism doesn’t affect their relationship with Piedras Negras.
There isn’t much action, but there are twists and turns and not everyone is fortunate to live through this dark period in Mexico’s history.
#17. The Voices (2014)
Director Marjane Satrapi (who made one of my favorite recent French films Poulet aux Prunes (2011)) has re-emerged with a colorfully unique slasher flick featuring Ryan Reynolds as the slicer and dicer.
Reminiscent of Dr. Doolittle, Jerry (Reynolds) has the ability to hear his pets speak. His pets serve as his conscience and temptation. The obvious option, his dog, Boscoe, tries to steer Jerry in the right direction, whereas his feline, Mr. Whiskers, wants his wickedness to surface. Speaking critters aside, Jerry is a strange one. He’s a pretty upbeat guy working at a factory and he has a normal crush on Fiona (Gemma Arterton) who works at the same factory. After a few conversations with Mr. Whiskers, things soon become apparent that something is a little unusual about Jerry.
The voices aren’t the only unusual thing about Jerry, but what he also perceives to be reality throughout his house. Eventually, reality does catch up to him and his response, again with the encouragement of Mr. Whiskers, takes us to a place that not even Jerry’s psychosis can cover up. If you are a fan of horror films than you cannot miss this oft overlooked gem!
The ending credits, with Jerry, his victims, and Jesus quite simply was a move of genius.
#16. Mommy (2014)
I’ve read that it takes two scenes — two truly great scenes — to create a memorable film. In Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, he creates these two scenes that literally allow his characters more space to breathe and then literally strips it away.
This French-Canadian drama about a mother, Diane (Anne Dorval), and her temperamental son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), is a difficult experience to manage. It is gorgeously shot and the characters feel all too real. Mommy is shot is a square frame, meaning the about a quarter of the screen on both sides are not used. Before long you feel claustrophobic and uncomfortable with the reality Mommy portrays. The small hopes and dreams of Diane are slowly stripped away by the personalities around her. The moment when she comes to the realization that she will need to let her son go drives a dagger through your heart. A decision no single parent could ever want to make.
Mommy is just another shining moment for Dolan from 2015. Even if you are unwilling to watch the entire film, go to youtube and you’ll see the large majority of the film’s segments which watch like a painful music video, but still hold the majestic storytelling Dolan is known to create. Dolan has this unseen talent for juxtaposing music with unlikely scenes that force layers of feelings and experiences all within one scene.
#15. What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
The documentary-style parody follows a clan of vampires as they navigate today’s complex world of roommates, electronics and clubbing. A hilarious group of vampire flatmates — Viago (Taika Waititi), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), and Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) — deal with the same issues we mortals do even after living together for hundreds of years. Squabbles run amok and it takes a new younger, hipper flatmate to show them the ropes on how to vampire properly in the 21st century.
The half goofy parody provides a refreshing tone that resembles a mashed up version of Best in Show (2000) and HBO series Flight of the Conchords. Several moments will have you laughing out loud and quoting lines that will have people questioning what the hell you are talking about.
#14. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Director George Miller reprises his role in telling the story of Mad Max. Max (Tom Hardy) might be in the title, but this story is all about Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and her fight to seek out her homeland. Furiosa takes a group of women into the desert as they attempt to escape their tyrannical ruler. The group doesn’t get too far before they are spotted and forced to return.
The landscape sets the stage and the action keeps you tuned in, but the performance by Charlize is remarkable. Hardy too receives some praise, but other than a few grunts and sideway looks, his presence is always quickly swayed away from the explosive Charlize. For such a big-budget blockbuster to anamor audiences of all ages and genders is testament to how well the story is retold.
#13. Wild Tales (2015)
A fun and inventive series of vignettes showcasing various wild tales of Argentinian individuals. From ruined weddings to road rage and reasons not to have children to reasons not to fly, Wild Tales puts the pedal to the metal and flies fast to tell creative and original stories. Some are absolutely bonkers while others are more methodical and circumstantial. Almost like listening to mates tell a tall tale over drinks and you’re not sure whether to believe the hijinks or just laugh and get on with it.
Without a single tale tall being weak of boring, my wife and I each had differing favorite vignettes proving the Wild Tales is well worth the chaos.
#12. Cartel Land (2015)
Heads are literally rolling in the streets. This is not insensitive. This is the reality. In Cartel Land, a community-based organization has decided it’s had enough corruption and violence in its city and are taking a stand against the drug cartels. Only problem is that when you stand up to the cartels there is likelihood that you may not survive.
Cartel Land begins with the funeral of a family of farmers. The entire family. Babies, children, parents, cousins, sisters, brothers. Everybody. Why? Because the owner of a lime farm couldn’t pay the drug cartel an operation fee. Instead of taking the money or loot, they took the lives of the farm’s workers.
Cartel Land is such a pungent look into the heart of the current drug crisis. What seems like an organic, social movement to eradicate the cartels from their land takes a new spin in the documentary’s third act. Even among the good guys, the environment allows the wicked to flourish and the good to be persecuted. Leaving not much hope for the current and future generation.
#11. It Follows (2014)
From the opening scene, we become aware that this isn’t a normal horror film. As a scantily-clad teenager, inexplicably runs frantically throughout her neighborhood in high heels, neighbors and her father watch in utter confusion. It’s like watching a game of one-person tag.
A cautionary tale of sexually transmitted diseases in the form of a supernatural force that follows the afflicted after bumping uglies with an infected amant. What is the force’s end game? To end you and continue to follow those before you. So you have a decision: let the force take you or pass it on to someone else. Jay (Maika Monroe) has become infected and now has to make this decision just as the person who infected her.
There are several parts that have you jumping in anticipation. Not in a good way. It Follows is one the most psychologically twisted horror films of this decade.
#10. Spotlight (2015)
In 2001, the Boston Globe ran a breakthrough story on the systematic sexual abuse of children by the Catholic Church. The Globe’s internal specialized research team, Spotlight, was responsible for finding the facts and revealing the truth.
If you were paying attention to the news after 9/11 occurred, this shouldn’t be news to you. So the potency and dramatic process of the reveal is truly captivating. Director Tom McCarthy (who doesn’t have a bad film under his name) jam packs the spotlight with an all-star cast (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, ect.), this basic, unflawed narrative packs punches even while you know when the punches are coming.
#9. The Hateful 8 (2015)
Quentin Tarantino masters white lies while the blood runs black.
Immersed in the Wyoming mountains is a group of eight menacing individuals seek shelter in a secluded cabin during a blizzard. All eight have a reason for being in the middle of nowhere, but some are there with yet another purpose. A purpose that not everyone is privy to and a motivation to see that not everyone makes it out of the blizzard alive.
Violence drives more of the story than in previous Tarantino’s masterpieces, but the questioning and who-dunnit back and forth is pure Tarantino. He is always getting the best out of his actors (Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Demian Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madson and Bruce Dern). At times the characters act like toddlers hitting others when one speaks out of turn and the violence teeters between excessive and overblown. Nonetheless, the dark humor stands above and the always unique dialogue speaks volumes.
#8. Star Wars VII – The Force Awakens (2015)
Spoiler Free Zone! Spoiler Free Zone!
Let’s be clear about one thing — this is a fun movie. I don’t care if you’re not into sci-fi or don’t get the whole Star Wars thing. This will keep you intrigued and entertained. Everything about The Force Awakens feels comforting yet new. I couldn’t imagine the pressure to pull it all off, but Director J.J. Abrams has really created something to be proud of accomplishing.
I won’t go into the plot or the fact that my least favorite actor in the galaxy plays a pivotal role. Yet John Boyega (as Finn) has copious amount of screen presence and commands your interest. This isn’t his first sci-fi turn from the maddening underseen Attack the Block (2011). Daisy Ridley (Rey) is breathtaking and not in the traditional Hollywood fashion: hey, let’s allow the women to kick some butt, but just make sure she flaps her hair from side to side and flaunts a v-neck in every shot including dialogue.
My sentiment is perfectly summarized by the gentleman in his mid-40’s sitting in the row in front of me, who had a smile plastered to his face from start to finish, dodging blasters during the action scenes.
#7. Inside Out (2015)
Pixar’s latest takes us into the psyche of Riley and turns it inside out. Riley, a young girl, has moved from the frozen lakes of Minnesota to the veggie pizzas of San Francisco. Riley is driven by five emotions — Joy (Amy Poehler), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), Sadness (Phyllis Smith) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) — each competing to direct her actions and build her memories.
Now that Riley is no longer in her comfort zone, Joy has to give room to some of the other emotions to ensure Riley navigates this trying period. The jokes land and emotions soak. Inside Out is another inventive installment within the Pixar trophy cabinet.
#6. Mr. Holmes (2015)
Director Bill Condon brings to life a retired and mentally frail Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) as he attempts to piece together his final mystery. He is watched over by his full-time nanny (Laura Linney) and develops a close, but sometimes faded, relationship with her son Roger (Milo Parker).
The mystery plays out over several decades as Mr. Holmes’ memories begin to dissolve into an abyss. His regrets, pride and cunning intellect sometimes create barriers to solving the mystery at hand. McKellen portrays Mr. Holmes in top notch form and leaves no doubt that McKellen’s skills haven’t dulled even the slightest after all these years.
#5. Tangerine (2015)
You will be hard pressed to find a movie with more energy and as distinctive a voice as Tangerine. Two transgender youths reunite after Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is released from jail. Her best friend and fellow prostitute Alexandra (Mya Taylor), now run throughout Los Angeles trying to track down their pimp, Chester (James Ransone).
Without a doubt, this indie has the most unique and vibrant voice of 2015. Filmed completely on an iphone and utilizing mostly untrained actors, Tangerine takes us to a place we’ve never seen. While the title is never explained, it astutely describes the fresh and vibrant piece.
#4. World of Tomorrow (2015)
The freshman short film created by Don Hertzfeldt (It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2011)) sits solidly as one of my favorite cinema experiences of my life. Perhaps my affection for that previous short film has created an unfair bias towards his second work, but I don’t care. World of Tomorrow is just as experimental in presentation and storyline as It’s Such a Beautiful Day and the messages are just as nuanced and odd. Emily Prime (Winona Mae) time travels back in time to meet the younger version of herself
(Julia Pott). Emily Prime shows the toddler Emily what she has in store for her life and the reason she has travelled back to meet her.
The story is short but moving. I found myself reflecting on its strange story and the underlying meanings for several days. Even after a second viewing, I still wasn’t able to formalize my thoughts on the overall short, but was instead analyzing sections I hadn’t noticed previously. A sign of a thought provoking experience.
#3. Slow West (2015)
Never has a field of wheat been so perfectly captured on screen since Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978). Sorry Ridley Scott, you tried your best with Gladiator, but its pale in comparison to what director John Maclean was able to accomplish.
All throughout, the ingenuity of the west shines through during a young man’s — Jay’(Kodi Smit-McPhee) — voyage, as he searches for his lost love, Rose (Caren Pistorius) in the American countryside. Rose and her father are clandestine as they try to escape their past, lucrative bounty. It isn’t only Jay searching for the beauty and her father but a gang of bounty hunters lead by the deliciously cavalier Payne (Ben Mendelsohn). Along the way, Jay teams up with an easygoing cowboy — Silas (Michael Fassbender) — who may or may not also have eyes for Rose.
As Jay’s and Silas’ path leads them closer and closer to Rose, the two build a bond. Will the two get to Rose first or will the gang of bounty hunters? And what if Jay and Silas do arrive first? Will that be any better outcome? The answer is both original and rewarding.
Slow West is a simple nod of the hat to the old west. The dialogue is as dry as the desert and the cinematography is as lush as the forest. But what makes Slow West stand out from the pack is it distinctive narration that includes subtle caricaturization with just enough absurdity. Yet we never lose our hope that Jay gets to meet Rose one last time.
#2. Ex Machina (2015)
Architecture, music, lighting — everything creates a sense of space and subtlety. Nothing is out of place. Nothing without its purpose. What purpose is it exactly?
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is given the chance of a life time to experiment a new groundbreaking A.I. robot created by his boss and CEO of the world’s largest internet company, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Everything and everybody has its purpose. For one week Caleb is secluded in a remote mountain house with only Nathan, his butler Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), and a robot Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb’s only purpose is to perform some unexpected tests.
In what is probably my favorite performance this year, Nathan is the perfect villain. He almost resembles something out of a comic book sequel. A genius, mad scientist with more money than Saudi Prince and the charisma of George Clooney. He walks the fine line of begin your bro and a dark sadistic alcoholic that you always have a hand on your wallet.
It isn’t routine that every frame and every word is leading to a final conclusion. From the very beginning when a computer monitor frames Caleb’s expression to the final second, everything was required to move the story forward. Simply mystifying and grande entertainment.
#1. The Revenant (2015)
I haven’t seen Leo this cold since he was spooning an iceberg.
The depths of despair and motivation for revenge tear us through the Canadian wilderness in the magnificent The Revenant. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman (2014) — my #1 film from 2014), has Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and a group of fur trappers maneuver through the wilderness barely escaping the scalping of native americans. Seeking to minimize its losses, the group is on the run, but Glass is horribly injured and delaying the team’s safe return. A decision was made and Glass, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), Bridger (Will Poulter), and Glass’ son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) are left behind to ensure Glass pulls through or gets a proper burial. Unforeseen circumstances leave Glass alone and with a new motive to pull through.
Grizzly bears, wolves, indians, French people, and the elements are all in motion to prevent Glass from seeking his revenge. Glass goes through so much adversity that it begins to feel like torture porn. At every turn a new deadly circumstance surfaces.
Reminiscent of The Thin Red Line, The Revenant seamlessly transitions between the unspoiled beauty of nature and the disturbing impact humans cause to one another. The mountains are breathtaking. The cold sends shivers. You can hear and even feel the noises of the animals.
The Revenant inhabits your senses and sparks an animal-like instinct to survive. From the edge of your seat to diving into a freezing river, you’re in for a real, unique experience.
Best scenes of 2015
To conclude with a little different spin, here are some brief moments from my favorite scenes in 2015.
The Homesman (2014) – Tommy Lee Jones concluding an otherwise disappointing film.
Ex Machina (2015) – Just as the tension begins to mount, some people prefer to dance, dance revolution.
The Revenant (2015) – Grizzly wrestle
Mommy (2014) – Shrink/Expand
Star Wars (2015) – Opening credits
What We Do in the Shadows (2014) – Mobile sunrise
Tangerine (2015) – Final wig share
Wild Tales (2015) – Wedding fight/shag