It is very easy to say that such-and-such a year was a good one for film. But sometimes you don’t the reality of such a statement until you are sitting there, three weeks after that year has ended and still struggling to put together a top ten list. And that is where I am now. There are still a handful of films from the past year that I have not yet had the chance to see and consider for this list, but if I try to add any more contenders to my deliberations, we may well be much deeper into 2016 and delaying our discussions of everything the current year has to offer. So without further ado, and with the foreknowledge that at some later point I could conceivably restructure this list entirely, here are my (at the moment) Top Ten films of 2015.
10. Amy and Bajrangi Bhaijaan
I know, I am starting things off with a bit of a cheat, but after much wrestling, I found that it felt wrong to leave either one off my list. Amy, of course, is the documentary that takes us into the private circle of the talented yet troubled singer as we follow her journey from obscurity to her death by drug overdose. Bajrangi Bhaijaan is a Bollywood story about a simple man (Bollywood superstar Salman Khan) who struggles to reunite a lost child with her Afghani mother after the two get separated on a trip to India. While they seem dissimilar on the surface, both deal with innocence and the danger it is in when confronted by the larger, uncaring world, though both lead to dramatically different endings.
9. Sleeping With Other People
The romantic comedy is probably the genre that is most constrained by formula, so it is always a delight when someone comes along and is able to do something a bit out of the box. Director Leslye Headland does such a trick, taking the basic set up from When Harry Met Sally…, with Jason Sudeikis and Alison Bire in the Billy Crystal/Meg Ryan roles, and turns it into a smart and funny meditation on the travails of modern dating. Headland gives her two leads plenty of space to develop their characters’ chemistry and augments it with subtle directorial choices. A strong buzz out of last year’s Sundance did not translate into many people seeing this film when it was theatrically released, but it is definitely worth tracking down.
8. Ex Machina
While cinematic science-fiction often uses genre trappings for big budgeted action fare, literary science-fiction is often more about exploring ideas and themes, and in that way, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is more literary science-fiction than cinematic science-fiction. Donhnall Gleeson is summoned to the home of the reclusive and eccentric genius, Oscar Isaac, that owns the tech firm he works for. There he is tasked with determining whether a new created robot, in the form of Alicia Vikander, is truly sentient or not. Garland’s screenplay has its characters exploring and debating all manner of ideas about what constitutes sentience and would that be the same as being “human,” all the while building up a tension that finally explodes in the films finale. And spoiler, this will not be the only film featuring Isaac and Gleeson that is on this list.
We got three films this past fall all set in post-World War Two America and there was only one that felt authentically captured that time period was director John Crowley’s Brooklyn. Saoirse Ronan gives an amazingly nuanced performance as a young Irish woman who immigrates to New York City and settles in the titular outer borough. Saoirse Ronan’s performance her of a young woman torn between two worlds and the promise of a new life in each as her old one fades into the past is, regardless of gender, one of the best of the year.
6. Inside Out
Pixar is often noted for their films having a strong emotional core, but the studio does one better by diving into a young girl’s psyche and anthropomorphizing those emotions, sending them on the emotional journey of dealing with her parents’ move across country to a new school and away from all her friends. It is interesting to note that there is no outright antagonist in the film, no exterior villain that Joy and the rest are struggling against. If not the animation studio’s best film, it is certainly their most unique. Definitely a treasure.
Charlie Kaufman’s overall work could be described as bittersweet existentialism and that theme continues here in his story of a depressed customer service expert who has flown to Ohio in order to speak at a seminar. On the surface, it certainly doesn’t seem like a story that one would turn to animation for, but Kaufman’s stories are very seldom what they seem to be on the surface. To explain more as to why animation is the proper medium for this would be to spoil some surprises best left discovered by the viewer.
4. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
When rebooting the Star Trek film franchise, director J. J. Abrams had the tough job of honoring the franchise’s past while creating a new template for moving forward. And despite that experience, he was under even more pressure here rebooting what might be the most popular movie franchise of all time. And he does it with such an easy and aplomb that makes one easily forgot any ill-will left over from the franchise’s last couple of missteps courtesy of its creator. Is it a perfect film? No, but it is perfectly entertaining and that is all one needs out of a picture of this type.
Ignore the buzz around this movie about how it was shot on a smartphone with specially adapted lenses. That only distracts from the fact that director Sean Baker is telling a story one doesn’t see every day in cinema featuring characters equally as neglected. If anything, the method in which he shot the film only helps to immerse us into the West Hollywood neighborhood that the characters here are traversing. At times, raw, sassy, gritty, tender and above all great filmmaking.
2. The Big Short
Director Adam McKay’s explanation of how the housing bubble burst in 2007 is a raging primal scream directed at the greed and shortsightedness that triggered the economic disaster. Some have found McKay’s use of comedy to be off-putting but the film’s at times darkly comic tone is exactly what is needed to offset the anger that builds in the audience as the story unfolds. Christian Bale disappears into his role as the investment genius who first sees it coming, while Steve Carell’s slow burn serves as the conduit to the audience’s own slow-growing anger. McKay has taken something not very well understood by many economists and has turned it into an entertaining and easily digestible form.
If ever there was an example of how a movie can be more than the sum of its parts, it is Spotlight. Strong acting, direction and screenplay all combine to raise the story of the newspaper investigation team that uncovered the Boston arch-diocese sex abuse scandal to near perfection. There isn’t a false note or moment in Tom McCarthy direction nor the amazing ensemble cast he has assembled.