The Best & Worst Movies of 2015
I've been exchanging year-end movies lists with the same collective since college, usually in the form of incredibly long e-mails. But since this site now exists, I thought I might as well put everything out in the open. For a long time I went through a process of trying to pick 10 movies that I liked, and it usually ended up being three I adored, six pretty good ones, and one I definitely saw. But last year, I had about 18 flicks I genuinely loved, and I had a similar problem whittling down my list this year. Is it because the movies are better? Almost certainly not. Have I become slightly more discerning about what I see, often skipping blockbusters for the sake of making time and space for limited-run indies? That is true. Have I also become more intimate with my own taste, and do I more actively seek out movies I'm more apt to be enamored of? Also the case. Am I becoming less negative in my advanced age? Uh-huh, that too.
Whatever the combination of criteria, I felt 2015 was a pretty good year at the pictures. Here are my 10 favorites and five that I wish I could scrub from my memory.
The Bottom 5
5. The Revenant. This just keeps happening: I know for a fact I dislike every Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu I've ever seen. I know I hated Birdman, or Whatever the Pretentious Subtitle Was. I know I saw the trailer for The Revenant and thought, "That looks like shit on toast. Frozen shit on frozen toast." And yet I still bought a ticket and spent over two hours rooting for the bear. The Revenant is a complete storytelling failure, with no characters to speak of. Tarantino photographed the winter better, and Herzog does a far superior job of expressing the brutality of the natural world. Innaritu is a pretender, and I hate that he keeps getting positive reinforcement.
4. Victor Frankenstein. What a pointless exercise. Harry Potter does a reasonable job but Professor X really dies on the vine. More here.
3. Chappie. Mostly because I hate Die Antwoord. But it also sucks. More here.
1. (tie) Sinister 2, Insidious Chapter 3. Hey everybody! We need to stop saying anything even remotely positive about middling mainstream horror movies. You feed them once, and they spawn! More here and here, if you are so inclined.
The Top 10
10. The Big Short. I could watch movies centered around the financial crisis of 2008 forever, particularly if they are as breathlessly thrilling as Margin Call or as simultaneously funny and angry as The Big Short. Michael Lewis' book did a great job of taking a particularly bewildering set of circumstances surrounding a relatively obscure series of financial products and making readers understand exactly where everything went to shit. Adam McKay's film does an even better job, keeping the characters just slightly ahead of the narrative and putting everybody on almost equal footing. I know a lot of people thought those drop-ins from Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez were too cute, but I thought they really played into the central stylistic idea that the reason why we weren't paying attention to the collapse of capitalism was because celebrity culture was more interesting. Few movies have made me laugh so hard while simultaneously filling me with disgust for humanity.
9. Ex Machina. I may be overrating Ex Machina because I was so thrilled by the fact that I legitimately didn't know where it was going most of the time. How often does that happen? How many movies have you walked into genuinely not knowing where it was headed? Even my favorite films on this list have a predictability to them, but Ex Machina did a solid job of setting expectations at a strange angle. The first third of the movie is understated and mysterious on purpose, with Oscar Isaac subtly bamboozling Domhnall Gleeson at his odd in-the-woods retreat before revealing Alicia Vikander and her robo-butt. The second act exploration of the possibilities of artificial intelligence and the moral questions it raises dovetail nicely with the increasing paranoia that develops between the two leads. Sure, the third act stand-off is a little rote, but the journey there was top-notch, and the feel of Ex Machina is unlike anything I've experienced recently, particularly in a sci-fi movie. Mildly unrelated: I think the acting awards at the Oscars should be based on a body of work and not a single role, so actors would have to submit every movie they were in during a given year in order to qualify. If that were the case, Gleeson would have a good claim on the prize, as he was excellent in every role he played in 2015, each time playing someone very different. Seriously, did anybody have a better 2015 than the dude who stole scenes in Ex Machina, The Force Awakens, Brooklyn and The Revenant?
8. The Hateful Eight. AKA The Revenant, Except Actually Good. The complaint about The Hateful Eight seems to revolve around the idea that it's overstuffed, and anybody who says that is boring. Quentin Tarantino gets cut a ton of slack, but that's only because every single choice he makes is both deeply considered and completely off the wall. Of all the movies on this list, The Hateful Eight might be the one I'm still living with the most—I'm still thinking about the way Tarantino shoots the entirety of Minnie's Haberdashery, or the way Samuel L. Jackson negotiates with each of the people he welcomes into his carriage during the opening act. Those small script moments are easily eaten by the sudden blasts of violence or the immersive storytelling that dots the biggest moments of the movie, but they should not be ignored. I just keep thinking about how much everybody is fellating themselves over the beauty of The Revenant, but Tarantino does so much more with the landscape, and then also gives us a series of characters who feel fully lived-in, even if some of them just are a collection of tics. Every day I have a different opinion about who my favorite Hateful Eight performer is (today it's Jennifer Jason Leigh), which is a pretty nifty trick as well.
7. Diary of a Teenage Girl. As sweet, smart, and thoughtful a movie you'll ever see about statutory rape, Diary presents a vivid portrayal of adolescent hormonal psychology and does a miraculous job of presenting a balanced picture of a relationship that the audience knows is wrong. It never judges teen Minnie (Bel Powley in a performance that would be legend-making if anybody had seen this movie), and only ends up casting a side-eye at middle-aged lover Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard) very late in the film. Even if this movie didn't have any illicit sex in it, there would still be a compelling character piece about Minnie, Monroe, and each of their relationships with Minnie's mom Charlotte (Kristin Wiig). I know the Oscars for Production Design tend to go to historical epics or sci-fi universes, but nailing the strange between-epochs drabness of the mid 1970s should count for something.
6. Crimson Peak. And speaking of production design: Obviously Crimson Peak looks stunning, with a slouching old haunted house and some genuinely spooky spirit effects. But there's also a deep-seated Gothic romance at its center, which is really the engine that drives this thing—a big step for Guillermo Del Toro, who is still far more interested in the way doorknobs look than in storytelling but does his best job yet in driving home some top-shelf 19th century madness. Also, this is my favorite Jessica Chastain performance yet.
5. Sicario. One of the reasons I hate those types of horror movies mentioned in the worst-of list is because they trade on tension that is unearned, typically based around lighting tricks, soundtrack shortcuts, or a reliance on the audience's familiarity with the tropes of shitty horror movies rather than anything having to do with narrative. Sicario is the opposite. Outside of one bravura night vision sequence, a lot of Sicario takes place in broad daylight, and from the moment Emily Blunt's Kate gets drafted into an operation she never really understands, I never once unclenched my asshole. A lot of people got into Benicio Del Toro in this movie, but he's playing a character we've seen a bunch (and in the case of Traffic, a character we've seen him play before), but Blunt has to play both confident and bamboozled, and she's one of the best audience surrogates I saw all year. I was with her every step of the way, trying to suss out Josh Brolin's motives and balancing the need to follow orders with the nagging suspicion that those orders are not on the level. I was bummed when the flick abandoned Blunt three quarters of the way through to focus on Del Toro's manhunt, and was double-bummed when the audience I was with ended up rooting for Del Toro's character to murder children in cold blood. I haven't been with a group who watched a movie wrong like that since a bunch of bros booed the arrest of Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street.
4. Inside Out. Pixar has been so good at multi-level storytelling for so long that it would be easier for it to become routine, but make no mistake: Inside Out is the best script of 2015. It's smart, it's funny, it's sweet, and most importantly it's real-feeling while still maintaining a clear sense of fantasy and wonder. There's enough for a bunch of different movies here—the trip to the dream studio, the train of thought, and the meta-adventure through Riley's subconscious could all be their own movies—but it never feels too busy. All of the voice acting is strong, and I think there's a true case to be made for Amy Poehler as a Best Actress nominee for her work as Joy. But the best thing about Inside Out is that it hits on a lot of cliched adolescent emotional tropes without seemingly cloying or exploitative. Or rather, they never actually feel like cliches, and in that sense Inside Out has a lot more in common with Diary of a Teenage Girl than you might think. Two other points: That stinger at the end where we got inside the cat brain is probably the best on-screen joke of 2015, and I really really hated the Lava short for reasons that I still can't quite put my finger on.
3. It Follows. Like Sicario, I never got comfortable at any moment during It Follows, which is exactly how I like my horror movies dating all the way back to the original Halloween. It Follows has enough meta fun with genre conventions to let you know there are smart people behind the camera but doesn't get bogged down in academics or double-turn gags when a good old-fashioned pursuit will do the job. The dream-like quality of the movie has really stuck with me, and its vision of suburbia is incredibly on-point (the way most small midwestern towns feel slightly out of time is a vibe I don't see in a whole lot of films, horror or otherwise). Maika Monroe is an absolute star here, both in playing the larger confrontational set pieces and the smaller character moments with her authentic-feeling group of friends. Also, and this should not be understated, she really runs convincingly, which is not something that can be said of a lot of actors. This scene was the most terrifying goddamn thing I saw in a cinema all last year, and it has stuck with me. Also, shout out to Disasterpeace, who crafted the best John Carpenter score this side of The Fog.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road. Everything about this movie is perfect. The performances are all uniformly fantastic, and the characters are developed far more with actions than with any words. (Fury Road is almost entirely devoid of exposition, which is refreshing considering the amount of explaining shit that goes on in something like Jurassic World, which is a movie I liked but had some seriously leaden sequences of people talking.) It has a ton of memorable characters, not only Furiosa and Max and Nicolas Hoult's lovestruck War Boy, but also the Pole Boys and Immortan Joe and the Vuvalini and the War Pups and the goddamn Doof Warrior. The stunts were incredible. Lots of shit blew up, and I always knew why it blew up and what that meant for the people around said blow up. (Fury Road is basically the opposite of a Michael Bay or Zach Snyder movie, where everything keeps escalating with no consequences or specific purpose.) Hoult shouting "Witness me!" as he sacrifices himself actually got me choked up, because I was legitimately invested in his character's journey. Bonus points for being an amazing in-theater spectacle but for losing nothing in the translation to watching it at home on HBO Go.
1. Dope. This is a sentimental pick, because obviously it's not a better movie than Mad Max or even It Follows or Inside Out. But it arrived just at the right time for me, as apropos of nothing I had decided to go back to watch a bunch of the post-Do The Right Thing entries in black cinema, which had a brief but impactful run in the early '90s indie explosion. So Dope works as a brilliant nostalgia trip for anybody who loved Juice or South Central or Menace II Society or Fresh or Boyz N The Hood, but it also functions as a meaningful meditation on how hip-hop permeates all facets of culture, and how that culture manifests in myriad ways. I would usually be upset that there are as many fake endings as there are, but Dope does such a nice job of splitting apart its story threads and weaving them back together that it's hard to get mad at it. Also, I now feel like I not only more fully understand certain aspects of black culture, but also teen culture—after watching Dope, I think I understand Snapchat now. Has there been a more miraculous moment at the cinema in 2015 than that?