With the Oscars finally arriving tonight, it’s time to take a look back at the incredible year of film that was 2015. For every superhero sequel there were plenty of indie smashes, and it was easy to find art at the multiplex as easily as it was in your local arthouse cinema. So let’s look back at the movies that will shape the film world for the next few years.
A riveting psychological thriller set in the ruins of postwar Germany, Phoenix is a hypnotic slow-burn that builds its tension deliberately and devastatingly. Nelly is a Holocaust survivor who had her face disfigured in a concentration camp and when she returns to her hometown to find her lost love, she finds he may nothing may ever be the same. It takes cues from Rainer Fassbinder and Alfred Hitchcock, but manages to morph into its own cerebral mystery that results in an absolutely stunning final scene that’s among the year’s best.
14. Bridge of Spies
Steven Spielberg may be the closest thing our generation has to Frank Capra, a filmmaker who tries to unearth what it really means to be an American while not shying away from the darker underbelly of our culture. So while it might be interpreted at first as simplistic or unsubtle, Bridge of Spies is an intricate deconstruction of the peril that Cold War attitudes placed our world into. Given a biting wit by writers Joel and Ethan Coen, Spielberg uses America’s sweetheart Tom Hanks to craft a beautiful slice of Americana, bolstered by his confident direction and an excellent and understated Mark Rylance performance.
Timely, nail-biting and cerebral, Sicario is yet another masterpiece of unbridled, heart-stopping tension from director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy). An unflinching look into the heart of darkness at the center of the Mexican drug war, Sicario keeps the audience in the dark just long enough until its razor wire tension explodes in a third-act confrontation that will leave your jaw on the floor. The Oscars should be ashamed for not nominating Brolin or Blunt but especially Benicio del Toro in one of the highlights of his career.
12. The Big Short
Propelled by one of this year’s sharpest and most inventive screenplays, The Big Short proves director Adam McKay’s talents lie beyond just Will Ferrell vehicles like Anchorman. The financial collapse of 2008 is a subject of fascination for McKay (touched upon in his underrated The Other Guys) and takes full advantage of the big budget and star-studded cast of The Big Short to tell this story in its entire tragic fullness. While some of the explanation may feel like condescension, the directorial flair that McKay presents his story with keeps things fresh and funny but with the dramatic weight the subject deserves.
As much as Tangerine could’ve just been “the movie shot on an iPhone,” it manages to transcend and become so much more. It’s an epic exploration of the Los Angeles underbelly on Christmas Eve, told through the eyes of two lovably rambunctious transgender prostitutes. The iPhone cinematography gives it a wonderful kineticism of life and verve, but its two leads give it a warm heart at the center. It’s hilariously madcap with just a hint of melancholy about finding your place in this world, but Tangerine is a sweet portrait of an unusual friendship told with some awesome filmmaking technique.
10. Love & Mercy
One of the best biopics in recent memory, Love & Mercy is a stunning recreation of the dizzying highs of creating one of pop music’s greatest records ever in Pet Sounds and the soul-crushing lows of Brian Wilson’s subsequent mental dissolution. By intertwining the two award-caliber performances of Paul Dano and John Cusack as two eras of Wilson, Love & Mercy crafts a heartbreaking arc of redemption through the power of love and music. recording sequences alone are worth the price of admission (supplanted by a great electronic Atticus Ross score) and it’s a career high for every actor involved, especially Dano and Cusack.
9. Crimson Peak
All of director Guillermo del Toro’s finest films are about the relationship of innocence vs. brutality, and Crimson Peak is indeed another visual masterpiece from one of the few living visionaries left in genre filmmaking. Moreso a Victorian melodrama than a straightforward horror film, Crimson Peak is a testament to Del Toro’s intricate craft, building another terrifying world within Allerdale Hall, full of shadows and ghosts. It's an old school kind of horror told with unapologetic camp and nobody is better at crafting atmosphere or creatures than Del Toro. Hail to the king, baby.
While it may have been impossible to top the heights of the Burj Khalifa from Ghost Protocol, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation is a roundly satisfying addition to one of the greatest modern action franchises. Mission Impossible is a series that understands scale more than any other and once again crafts some of the year’s most awe-inspiring action setpieces that simply suck the breath right out of you. Tom Cruise once again throws himself in the jaws of death for our amusement and Rogue Nation takes the best elements from all four of its previous installments to form a supremely entertaining summer blockbuster and one of the year’s best action films.
7. Inside Out
Just when it seemed PIXAR might be in a creative lull, a film as fresh, funny and inventive as Inside Out comes along. The concept of one’s emotions personified as little people inside your head is already quite a clever idea, but Inside Out’s screenplay grows this concept into one of PIXAR’s funniest and most moving films ever. It never offers easy answers to some of life’s toughest problems but is still a valuable portrait of how to deal with the combating emotions within ourselves. And with a cast this perfect, it’s no wonder it brings you to tears of both laughter and sadness.
It is a small miracle that The Force Awakens manages to feel so organic, natural and so thoroughly a part of the Star Wars canon so instantly. Yes it’s great to see more practical effects, location shooting and overall more competent direction, but the characters are what make us truly love Star Wars and The Force Awakens creates them with marvelous aplomb. It’s the most solid foundation fans could’ve hoped for and a cast and crew of marvelous talent did what most thought was impossible: make the entire world love Star Wars again.
After a few false starts and script leaks, it seemed unlikely that Quentin Tarantino was ever going to get around to making his next Western, but somehow it arrived and was bigger and badder than anything we could’ve hoped for. Shot “In GLORIOUS 70mm” as the posters loved to proclaim, The Hateful Eight was incredibly heartening to see so many turn out for the roadshow 70mm film screenings, a cinematic event unlike anything seen in America for the last 40 years. Not to mention that the film itself is one of the director’s finest, assembling some familiar faces from the Tarantino oeuvre and shoving them in a snowbound cabin as their wits slowly whittle into blasts of blood-soaked brutality. Beautifully shot by Robert Richardson and given the year’s best score by the maestro Ennio Morricone, the elegance is contrasted by one of Tarantino’s screenplay, one of his most black-hearted treatises on the nature of humans. Three hours simply whizz by and we’re left with a landmark for Westerns, Tarantino and the medium of film itself.
4. The Look of Silence
Documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to 2012’s groundbreaking The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence somehow manages to eclipse and become an even more important piece of cinema than its predecessor. The Act of Killing was a sickening snapshot of how people who committed some unforgivable atrocities manage to live with themselves, but The Look of Silence manages to make that pain even more immediate and disturbing by having a survivor of the massacre face his persecutors in front of the cameras. The interviews are pulse-pounding, cringe-inducing, absolutely revelatory bits of cinema and once again Oppenheimer has crafted a gorgeous, gut-wrenching document that is both important and artful. If you only watch one documentary from last year, make it this one.
Few movies are ever as gorgeously photographed as Carol but even fewer manage to pack such a devastating emotional punch. The forbideen romance between Therese (Rooney Mara) and Carol (Cate Blanchett) sounds like the stuff of pure melodrama, but becomes the most purely affecting relationship depicted onscreen this year. The breathtakingly composed shots are given the dreamlike qualities of memory, as if groggily recalling the nostalgic minutia of romance: the lingering gaze of a lover, the offhand smile, the squeeze of a shoulder. Not since Her has a film managed to capture the thrill of falling in love but also the heartbreak of separation. It's a gorgeously orchestrated piece of filmmaking, one that plants a tender ache in the heart that doesn't fade quickly.
2. Ex Machina
With all of the recent success of sci-fi on the blockbuster scale, Ex Machina is a refreshing reminder that the best science fiction stories are based in exploring big ideas and not necessarily on visual spectacle. First time director Alex Garland, screenwriter of such recent sci-fi classics as Sunshine, Dredd, and 28 Days Later, is certainly no slouch in the visual department, but Ex Machina is more interested in exploring the dynamics between its three main characters. It’s an absolute delight to watch its intricate plot unfold, throwing twist after turn up to one of the year’s most shocking endings. It’s heady science fiction at its finest and it rewards rewatch after rewatch. Drop everything and watch it as soon as possible.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a once in a generation event. A movie so pure in its unbridled creativity and filmmaking boldness deserves every amount of praise one can muster. At its core just a chase film with a feminist bent, it manages to transcend and become so much more. Director George Miller takes his incredible apocalyptic fairy tale begun over thirty years ago and creates even more dazzling mythmaking out of the nuclear wasteland. Visual storytelling is rarely this simple and coherent in a modern action film, but it’s also hardly ever this fun. No film was as viscerally exciting, visually bold and unabashedly badass as Mad Max: Fury Road. It set the film world on fire and will probably dominate the conversation on action cinema for decades to come. Perfectly paced, perfectly shot, perfectly edited and bathed in sound and fury, Mad Max: Fury Road is one of this decade’s absolute finest.