So, right off the bat, yes, I know it’s a little weird to be posting my list of the Top 10 Movies of 2015 when we’re already almost two months (and one or two decent movies) into 2016. It started out I was waiting to see The Revenant before writing this post, but then the winter semester started and…well, procrastination begat procrastination. But now The Oscars are happening, so I figure it’s is as good a time as any to get my thoughts down in writing while I’ve still got a news hook to hang them on.
Also, if you’re one of those remarkable people who both read this blog and listen to my friend Carter’s podcast (to which I am a regular contributor), you might notice my Top 10 has changed slightly since I shared it in spoken form back in December. In all honesty, that is in large part under the influence of #OscarsSoWhite and the movement it galvanized, which have forced me to re-examine some of my own subconscious biases and to re-evaluate the meaning and importance of certain movies I had previously left out.
Before we get into it, though, I’ll just run through the usual disclaimer: this list is based on films from 2015 that I personally have seen. I like to think it’s reasonably representative, but I’ll leave that up to your judgment. And of course, film criticism being the subjective field it is, this list may change over time – as indeed it already has. Now, with all that said:
Honourable Mention – Turbo Kid: For the first time in the admittedly short history of my Top 10s, there was one movie this year which wasn’t quite « good » enough in the classical sense to beat out the films on the list below, but was just so delightful (and, honestly, Canadian) that I have to mention it: Turbo Kid. Made by a group of Quebec filmmakers, the film tells the story of a lone, unnamed boy obsessed with superhero comics who must learn to become his own hero and defeat the evil post-apocalyptic tyrant Zeus. The whole thing is, of course, one giant wink at the camera, but it has enough enthusiasm for its deliberately retro affectation and enough heart in its characters and story that the end result is a real bloodsoaked treat.
10) Cop Car: Hey, so Kevin Bacon was in a really good movie this year! He plays a cop and everything…but it’s not Black Mass. In Cop Car, it’s Bacon who plays a corrupt sheriff whose nebulous but clearly illicit racket is disrupted when two young boys (strongly implied to be runaways) steal his cruiser to go joyriding. The movie starts out as an almost Linklater-esque story of broadly innocent boyhood and gradually but inexorably morphs into a tense thriller with clear influences from the Western genre. All along the way, it does a compelling job of putting the audience in the headspace of a pair of kids swept up in a world of violence they demonstrably do not understand – and may or may not survive.
9) Dope: Come to think of it, Dope actually has a pretty similar set up to Cop Car in some ways: circumstances conspire to place a small group of kids (in this case, three high school students from « The Bottoms » in Inglewood, California) in possession of an item (a supply of ecstasy) of vital importance to a criminal enterprise (a street gang run by A$AP Rocky as drug dealer Dom) desperate to get it back. But beyond that, beyond the comedy and the excellent cast fronted by instant movie star Shameik Moore, Dope has something to say. It blurs the lines between established institutions and illicit enterprise and forces us to question them – and ultimately, the degree to which they are shaped by racist biases.
8) Ex Machina: So you may have heard this movie described as a love story between a young man and an artificially intelligent robot, but that is utterly underselling it. The plot of this film is a mind-bending game of three-dimensional chess between a hyper-millennial tech billionaire played by Oscar Isaac, his demure employee played by Domhnall Gleeson and the AI he has notionally been summoned to perform a Turing test on, played by Alicia Vikander. It takes the by-now familiar set of philosophical questions associated with artificial intelligence and adds a fascinating angle by introducing gender, sexuality and power into the mix, with results that are both thrilling and thought-provoking.
7) The Look of Silence: A companion piece to 2012’s The Act of Killing, this documentary once again tackles the Indonesian Genocide of 1965-66 from a new angle. Whereas the previous film gave one of the génocidaires a chance to re-enact his glorified killings, slowly awakening in him a sense of guilt in a « catch the conscience of the king » kind of way, The Look of Silence is much more direct. An optician whose brother was killed by the death squads goes around confronting those responsible under the pretense of giving them eye exams. The film suffers a little to the extent that it doesn’t have quite the same forward momentum as its predecessor, but it feels more raw and political and remains a bracing experience to watch.
6) Far from the Madding Crowd: Alright, here’s where we start getting in to the movies that really gave me the feels. Starring Carey Mulligan and three European actors of varying levels of hunkiness, this movie tells the proto-feminist story of Bathsheba Everdene, a young English woman who inherits a farm from an uncle and finds herself thrust into the thoroughly patriarchal world of the British landowning classes. I could tell you about how great the acting is or the truly beautiful cinematography, but I think the best part of this film is that it manages a love triangle (er…parallelogram?) in which no character feels like an obvious third wheel and we are forced to ask ourselves: what truly matters in love and romance?
5) Slow West: Yeah, so, I feel like I may have been the only person to see this movie, but HOLY CRAP IT WAS GOOD! I mean, Michael Fassbender as a badass gunslinger! Congolese dudes singing by the side of the road! Some bizarre, anachronistic metaphor for colonialism involving the Moon (which I’m pretty sure was actually in this movie and not just something I dreamed)! Fundamentally, this a fairly classical Western about a naïve newcomer to « the frontier » seeking his lost love, but it has just enough interesting ideas and scenes (see above) to stay refreshing, some good old-fashioned gunfighting, and an ending that raises fascinating questions about the way we project our desires onto to the people we love.
4) Inside Out: So, I shouldn’t have to explain this one. Young girl, anthropomorphized emotions, moving to a new city, childhood depression, all the feels, right? In fact, you’ve probably already seen this one, so I don’t even have to tell you about the hilarious jokes, the clever world-building in Riley’s brain and the successful tugging of your heartstrings. But for me, what makes this film great and not just really good is that I left it feeling like I’d learned something about myself. As someone who has struggled with…well, probably not clinical depression, but certainly recurring bouts of intense sadness, the payoff at the end of Sadness’ character arc felt cathartic for me in a deeply personal way I have yet to forget.
3) Sicario: There is one thing that Denis Villeneuve does and he does it unbelievably well: he makes thrillers assembled with living genius levels of craftsmanship that drive relentlessly through piles of tension, sharp dialogue and social commentary on the way to a world-changing dénouement that leaves you walking out of the theatre unable to get them out of your mind. Today’s subject is the War on Drugs along the U.S.-Mexico border (prominently featuring Ciudad Juarez). Today’s cast includes Emily Blunt as a smart young FBI agent, Josh Brolin as her Mephistophelean superior and Benicio del Toro as an even more enigmatic character whose unfolding story will give you a salvific punch in the gut.
2) It Follows: Look, in any other year where an epoch-making movie of the calibre of my #1 pick had not been released, this would easily have been my favourite: an indie horror film which mixes a stunning level of naturalism with some truly inventive high-concept horror. In the most basic terms, this is a movie about an unknowable, malevolent being whose deadly attention passes from one person to another like a sexually transmitted infection (literally). But beyond the cool, incredibly well-executed horror premise, what really got under my skin about this film was the setting and the characters: never before have I seen a more authentic depiction of teenage life in the suburbs committed to film. Seriously.
1) Mad Max: Fury Road: I…I mean, do I even have to keep writing? WITNESS ME! Who killed the world? The Doof Warrior! And above all, above everything and everyone, Imperator Furiosa, the coolest character in the history of human storytelling (I mean, unless they find more fragments of the Epic of Gilgamesh which introduce another all-slaying badass who redefines the term « strong female character »). The George Miller that made The Road Warrior is back and in his infinite charity he has seen fit to give us the best action movie of the new millenium with jaw-dropping practical effects, an utterly engrossing and effortlessly-built world, some truly gorgeous cinematography and Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy kicking ass.