A bit belated, but as comprehensive as I could make it: here’s my take on the best movies for 2015.
It begins with the Top 10, in ascending order, then continues with my 11 through 20 choices, and concludes with a brief listing of the other movies I really enjoyed throughout the year.
Many film critics – and people – often complain about how tough it is to come up with a full Top 10 list. I never have that problem. Mine is always the opposite, actually. Every year is a good year for movies from where I’m sitting. It just depends on where you’re looking, and what you’re looking for. Sure, there’s often a lot to wade through, but the good – and occasionally great – ones are always there to be found, discovered, and enjoyed.
Here are the 30+ films from 2015 that I Can’t Unsee…and am grateful for it. (Where applicable, film titles are linked to my full reviews.)
JEFF HUSTON’S TOP 10 LIST FOR 2015
Emerging African-American filmmaker Ryan Coogler doesn’t just give us the best Rocky movie since the first. He shows us that following old Hollywood formulas doesn’t have to be a bad thing – and can even be a virtue – when you imbue those formulas with this much heart, sweat, and soul. Chills, tears, and cheers from start to finish.
9. Mad Max: Fury Road
An arthouse movie on a blockbuster scale, this crazed kinetic vision from director George Miller is bold, daring, original, and surprisingly powerful. Surprising because this really isn’t Max’s story but Furiosa’s (Charlize Theron, who packs emotion and pathos with her fierce strength). People can debate whether Fury Road is a feminist fable or not (and they have), but for me it’s simply a refreshing, rewarding hero’s journey for a woman seeking redemption – more for her community than even for herself.
8. Inside Out
An instant classic, and instantly one of Pixar’s all-time best, Inside Out is not only the animation studio at peak form but, most of all, it displays a thematic sophistication that wisely shows us a powerful human truth: repressing sadness (as our extroverted, always-affirming culture often does) is truly dysfunctional. Sadness has its place, not only to be expressed but also to help us heal and grow. #BingBong (Rent on Amazon Streaming)
7. Steve Jobs
For as much praise as this garnered on initial release, its subsequent failure at the box office has made Steve Jobs the year’s most under-appreciated film. By sticking to his playwright strengths, writer Aaron Sorkin redefines the cinematic biopic. Director Danny Boyle then imbues it with style (but not desperately so) and Michael Fassbender anchors a riveting ensemble of actors, all of whom are passionately spectacular (Seth Rogen especially, who’s doing career-best work). Sorkin and Boyle take liberties to get to the truth about one of the most important figures of the last century, and it’s absolutely mesmerizing.
6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
I’ve written more than enough on this film (and will likely continue to), but the bottom line is this: director J.J. Abrams delivered on the promise of what we all hoped for, giving us one of the most rewarding movie experiences of our lifetimes. May this Force be with us. Always.
While this tale of a star-crossed lesbian romance in early 1950s America didn’t grab my emotions, director Todd Haynes‘ filmmaking sure did. As simply as I can put it, the directorial vision and skill Haynes wields here is at a level so precise, so nuanced, so trusting of the audience, and so disciplined, it’s a film school all in itself.
Subtle and humble in ways most films of its type refuse to be (others opt for hyper melodramatics – see this year’s Truth as an overwrought counterpoint), this patient examination of the 2001 Boston Globe expose into the Catholic Church’s priest scandal of child sexual abuse is chilling yet sober. Never gratuitous or salacious, yet still honest and raw, this anti-corruption (not anti-Catholic) film indicts all complicit institutions: the Church, the Government, and even the Globe itself. One of the year’s best ensembles, Spotlight is the finest filmmaking in all the fundamentals: acting, writing, and directing, and perfectly metered, impressively restrained craftsmanship on every level.
No film filled my heart more fully in 2015. This early 1950s love story is one to instantly fall in love with, as it arcs from an immigrant story to a love story to a transatlantic family drama, portrayed with mature yet heart-pounding complexity by Saoirse Ronan. Sort of an American immigrant story as if told by Jane Austen, Brooklyn is like the favorite old novel you never knew existed that just became the favorite, charming, hilarious, dramatically tense yet still beautifully lush and sophisticated period piece you’ll return to again and again for the rest of your life.
Commercials and promos have revealed far more than I wish, or will (either here or in my review). The less you know about this tale of a young female captive in a one room shed – raising her 5-year-old son fathered by her captor – the more powerful it will be. Brie Larson should win the Oscar, and Jacob Tremblay is a boy of raw heartbreaking innocence. A profound experience, Room is an emotional gauntlet.
1. The Revenant
Violent cruelty sparks a survival tale of physical and psychological extremes, but ultimately it’s a spiritual parable of death and resurrection. The bridge between the two is grace, and it glimmers only briefly (but powerfully) in this brutal, grueling haul that stays mostly in the dark places. Leonardo DiCaprio incarnates these themes (what we see him endure physically is an icon of his spiritual journey) and director Alejandro Inarritu – coming off Best Picture and Director wins last year for Birdman – cements himself as one of our most vital contemporary filmmakers. The Revenant is epic, daring cinema that goes to tortuous lengths to see just how far mercy will go as well.
Here’s that list again, this time in simple descending order:
1. The Revenant
6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
7. Steve Jobs
8. Inside Out
9. Mad Max: Fury Road
And now for the rest of the best: my 11 through 20 picks, with some short-takes (I never published a formal review for half of them).
11. Sicario – the toughest one to leave out of the Top 10, this slick, smart, enigmatic crime thriller about the drug war hearkens back to the best of Michael Mann (Heat, The Insider, Collateral). Powerful trio of performances from Emily Blunt (she really can do anything), Benicio Del Toro (his best in over a decade), and Josh Brolin (having a lot of fun), and now I’m more excited than ever to see how director Denis Villeneuve translates his chilling real world cynicism into the stylized Blade Runner reboot. (Rent on Amazon Streaming)
12. Ex Machina – an intense sci-fi parable about artificial intelligence, and the dangers (both physical and moral) of playing God. Working like a claustrophobic chamber play, this riveting 3-person cast – ranging from the volatile to the mysterious – is one of the year’s best. It also happens to include two actors from the new Star Wars (Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson) and the year’s It Girl (Alicia Vikander, in a star-making turn as the enimgatic A.I.). (Streaming now on Amazon Prime)
13. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation – a franchise that just keeps getting better offers its best yet, with complex characters, plot, and motives, yet all clearly – and thrillingly – told by director Christopher McQuarrie. It’s shocking how inventive (and daring) Cruise and company are – including Rebecca Ferguson, who’s Ilsa Faust is an equal in every respect to Ethan Hunt – in a genre where you think you’ve seen everything. Most of all, M:I-5 actually got the better of the James Bond franchise, too (and I really liked Spectre). (Rent on Amazon Streaming)
14. The Walk – based on the true story of a Frenchman who walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers, this has some of the best, quease-inducing visuals ever created. Director Robert Zemeckis gave us the kind of exhilarating experience that comic book movies promise but never fully provide. It’s an entertaining heist-style movie, too, with an undercurrent of 9/11 poignancy throughout – especially at the very end. (Rent on Amazon Streaming)
15. Youth – Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino’s artsy-fartsy Euro style will likely bore (possibly confuse) the average American viewer, but visually it’s champagne cinema – lush and elegant – with a lot on its mind. Not a plot or issue driven movie, Youth is a sophisticated, patient contemplation on age; a rumination of how we feel verses what we do and even who we are, all throughout our lives. Filled with touching reflections and tender grace notes, Youth showcases the great Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel (his best work in far too many years) with a strong, emotional supporting turn from Rachel Weisz and a scene-stealing powerhouse cameo by Jane Fonda.
16. 45 Years – an intimate portrait of a British marriage that finds itself at an unexpected crossroads nearly a half-century in. The wife carries the bulk of the burden, and Charlotte Rampling has been deservedly winning awards for her raw, moving portrayal. Simple but powerful cinema, with a final shot that will haunt you.
17. The Martian – Ridley Scott’s best film in years and a blockbuster for a reason, this “science faction” gives us everything we want from an event studio movie (including originality!). Tense drama, great wit, ingenuity, superb craft and effects, and a brilliant cast top to bottom led by Matt Damon who shows virtually the full range of his chops. A supremely entertaining movie that becomes as supremely harrowing as it is moving in its climactic moments. (Rent on Amazon Streaming)
18. Bridge Of Spies – “minor” Spielberg is still a major event. Old-fashioned but timeless filmmaking, Spielberg’s most subtle effort still excels as a taut Cold War thriller about American ideals in a compromised world. Those themes certainly resonate today.
19. Joy – not as highly lauded (or watched) as director David O’Russell‘s recent slate (American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook, and The Fighter), yet it’s my favorite of them all. An exhilarating, hypnotic hyper-real tale of a woman pursuing the American Dream and risking it all to do it. Jennifer Lawrence has rarely been better (this performance shows discernible growth), and that 2nd hour especially is a dynamic narrative roller coaster that jerks your emotions around in (ultimately) the most satisfying way.
20. (tie) The Big Short and The End Of The Tour (okay, I’m cheating, because I don’t want to go to 21)
- The Big Short – a high-speed, raucous satire about the 2008 Economic Crash that explains the Housing Bubble disaster about as clearly as one could hope (even if you don’t get it all), and entertains while doing it, before leaving you absolutely furious.
- The End Of The Tour – a dramatization of the days-long interview in 1996 between journalist David Lipsky and author David Foster Wallace (Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel, respectively, in a riveting, dynamic two-hander), their deep conversations may often be downers, particularly as much are rooted in Wallace’s lifelong battle with depression, but what emerges from them – and him – is the hopeful longing that honesty will bring healing. (Rent on Amazon Streaming)
To cap it off, a short-list of other 2015 movies that I admired, enjoyed and, at times, was truly surprised by (I’m looking at you, live-action Cinderella). In alphabetical order:
- Beasts Of No Nation (Streaming now on Netflix)
- Black Mass
- He Named Me Malala (Rent on Amazon Streaming)
- I’ll See You In My Dreams (Streaming now on Amazon Prime)
- The Intern (Rent on Amazon Streaming)
- Irrational Man (Rent on Amazon Streaming)
- Jurassic World (Rent on Amazon Streaming)
- Love & Mercy (Rent on Amazon Streaming)
- Mr. Holmes (Rent on Amazon Streaming)
- The Peanuts Movie
- Testament Of Youth (Rent on Amazon Streaming)
- Time Out Of Mind (Streaming now on Netflix)
- The year’s most powerful documentary for me was Winter On Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom. With stunning on-the-ground footage, it covers the events in 2014 of the Ukranian uprising against a Russian invasion. It’s nothing short of a modern-day Les Miserables (without the singing). Also, as an Orthodox Christian, it was personally inspiring to see the Church courageously provide protection, shelter, and even attempt to block aggression. It can be streamed now on Netflix, and you can watch the trailer here:
- And as foreign films go, it’s hard to go wrong with the Taiwan-China-Hong Kong co-produced epic The Assassin, but I’m still waiting to see Son Of Saul, the WWII film from Hungary that takes us into the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in ways we’ve never experienced before…or so says everyone who raves about it. A true miracle, for a genre that seems overdone. Winner of the Golden Globe, Son Of Saul is easily the highest on my must-see list this Oscar season. (It’s scheduled to open in Tulsa at the Circle Cinema on Oscar weekend, but should be playing now in major cities.)