Now that I’ve seen all that I’ve been anticipating from 2015, now’s the time where I count down what I personally found to be the very best of the whole year. While I made a favorites list of 2013 a couple of years ago, I lacked the time and energy to make an equivalent for my 2014 viewings a year later. I do want to try to keep up with making these wrap-up lists in the future (along with lists that cover my top new-to-me viewings of the corresponding year), and perhaps I’ll even go back and do a top of 2014 just for the heck of it.
As of now, I’ve watched a little over 100 films from 2015, which is not only the most I’ve watched from a year during a year itself (I logged ninety-something films from ’15 by the end of December), but also the most I’ve watched from a single year period. Most importantly, I think 2015 was the year where my own personal tastes found itself in a genuine state of maturity. In previous years, I tended to watch films that other people were watching and praising, and while I still do exactly this, I also opted a lot more toward films that interested me on a personal level. Thus, this list is not to say what are objectively the most well-made movies of the year, per se, but rather which ones stood out to me the most. Furthermore, most of my top 25 have a lot of similar qualities – which is exciting, because it finally feels like a list that is tailored just for me. I’m excited for this to continue throughout 2016.
While it’s debatable that 2015 is any “better” of a year in movies than others, I did find myself loving a whole lot more here than in previous years. Thus, I’m expanding my usual top 20 to a top 25 – simply because I want to write about all 25 listed. Before I go on with my top 25, I’ll give off a few honorable mentions.
- What We in the Shadows (dir. Jermaine Clement) proves that Taiki Waititi and folks are some of the cleverest jokesters working in movies today. This probably would’ve hit my top 25 if I didn’t have to watch it dozens of times during its run (a downside to working at a movie theater), but it’ll still be a welcome rewatch given some more time.
- Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland), thematically, doesn’t do anything that dozens of other sci-fis in the past have attempted (The man vs. machine narrative? How original!), but it is one of the most visually interesting and complicated additions that the genre has produced in years. Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander are standouts.
- Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (dir. David Zellner) takes a bizarre real-life treasure hunt and spins it into its entirely own mythos. Here, a completely absurd premise becomes its own narrative that’s a little funny, a little depressing, and strangely magical. Helmed by Rinko Kikuchi’s quiet performance, it’s a neat little film I’m exciting to revisit.
- Cobain: Montage of Heck (dir. Brett Morgan) forced me to reminisce on my Kurt Cobain and Nirvana obsession back when I was thirteen. At its core it’s a straightforward biographical documentary, but the way it employs candid clips, animation, and the band’s music really elevate this into something greater.
- Cinderella (dir. Kenneth Branagh) entertained me more than it probably should have. It follows much of the same beats of both the classic Perrault tale and Disney’s previous animated depiction, with the added bonus of some of the best sets and costumes I’ve seen all year. And as Cate Blanchett could do no wrong, she even outshines her role here as the wicked Stepmother.
- Anomalisa (dir. Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson), though one I found almost incomprehensible at a first watch, has also really struck a chord in me. The more I reflect upon it, the more I appreciate it for more than the sum of its parts. With more in common with Being John Malkovich than any of Kaufman’s other works, its a weird little animated picture that’s well worth its efforts.
And without further ado, here is my top 25 of 2015.
25) Infinitely Polar Bear (dir. Maya Forbes)
I came for the terrific Mark Ruffalo performance and stayed for everything else. Infinitely Polar Bear is a somewhat autobiographical story based on Forbes’ upbringing with her father who is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Despite this premise, I was misled into thinking it would be more of a straight comedy; instead, it’s more of a subdued family drama with comedic elements. Besides Ruffalo, the rest of the cast really shone. This was the first time I’d watched Zoe Saldana separate from a big studio film and she really held her own. Child actors Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide are also a real joy to watch. It’s not hard to see how this film went under the radar, but as a portrait of family dynamic under adversity, it truly succeeds.
24) Brooklyn (dir. John Crowley)
I’ve never been to New York, but something tells me that Brooklyn is not as lovingly precise in its depiction of the city as, say, Manhattan or Taxi Driver. Nonetheless, there’s just something about it – it’s hard not to get won over by its charm that it so effortlessly emits. It sensibly portrays the confusion that comes with immigrating to an unknown country in the form of both a coming-of-age story and a tender romance. Saoirse Ronan plays her lead role with such subtle beauty and grace, her Oscar nomination truly well-deserved. And it’s hard to deny Emory Cohen’s absolutely smooth, charming performance; he’s definitely one of my favorite male romantic counterparts to come by in years. While it does suffer from some third-act laziness, the overall effect of Brooklyn left me hugely satisfied.
23) Unfriended (dir. Levan Gabriadze)
One of the biggest surprises I’ve stumbled across all year, Unfriended also stands as the horror movie of the year for me (although I also really enjoyed Crimson Peak and It Follows). It follows all the expected tropes of the high school slasher narrative, but at the same time the genre never felt so fresh and compelling. It also helped that both viewings of the film for me were done at home on a MacBook, elevating the intimacy of its desktop setting to discomforting proportions. Every nuance of its navigation – from the use of Spotify as background music to the hesitancy in pressing ‘enter’ after a line of chat text – feels so accurate, giving greater power to the “return of a dead friend” story. Not without its flaws, but definitely worth checking out.
22) The Big Short (dir. Adam McKay)
This year, I tried not to hold all the obvious Oscar faves to such high regard – in my experience, I tend to forget about most of them within the following year or two. The Big Short, however, is an exception to this rule, if only for the reason that it’s so damn well-crafted. I’ll admit that most of the convoluted dialogue went way over my head, but the film is also very self-aware. It understands that the issue of the financial meltdown is extremely important, though inevitably replete with terms most of its audience have never come across. Flashy celebrity cameos and jarring fourth-wall breaks undercut what is undoubtedly a serious, scary topic, giving way to a odd brand of absurdity rarely found in anything else from this year.
21) Creed (dir. Ryan Coogler)
I’m so excited to see what further opportunities will come along for both Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan. While Fruitvale Station told us to watch out for them, Creed solidifies their talents behind and in front of the camera respectively. With this film, I’ve also come to realize that boxing films are probably my favorites among the sports genre. I’ve yet to watch any of the previous Rocky sequels, but the story of a struggle with and rise from adversity – helmed by both Sylvester Stallone the person and Rocky Balboa the character – definitely interests me, especially with how it finds itself in Adonis Creed’s narrative. Finally, with all the talk surrounding this film, I feel like Tessa Thompson’s performance is largely ignored – simply put, I want her in all the movies.
20) Advantageous (dir. Jennifer Phang)
In this world where female storytellers are seldom seen within genre film, Jennifer Phang’s Advantageous is an excellent breath of fresh air. Largely led by a stellar performance by Jacqueline Kim, it is a supremely understated commentary on aspects of gender roles and double standards placed on women in the modern world – especially women of color. There’s just so much packed in this little film: not only are its messages compelling and important, but the story at its foreground is complex and packed with a number of narrative turns. All tied together by an invigorating visual style, it’s definitely one film that has stayed in my mind for a long time after watching. Why it isn’t on more top lists of 2015 is a true mystery indeed.
19) Star Wars: The Force Awakens (dir. J.J. Abrams)
Like many a cinephile, the Star Wars franchise has always maintained a factor in my life to some degree – even though I never actually watched the original trilogy until much later. The Force Awakens, however, is special to me, as it is the first film of the franchise that has made me a genuine fan (it also helps that I’m dating a bonafide Star Wars nerd as well). Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are terrific protagonists, and although the story is essentially a remake of A New Hope, it does the mythology great justice. Above all, it’s just a really fun, successful blockbuster. I can’t really say much about it that hasn’t already been reiterated again and again, except that I’m happy to say I finally see what the big fuss is about Abrams.
18) Amy (dir. Asif Kapadia)
After Amy Winehouse’s untimely death in 2011, I revisited her Grammy-winning album Back to Black and fell in love. After watching the official documentary covering her short life, I’ve now grown to appreciate her, not just as a musician, but as an icon with a story that, sadly, mirrors so many others’. As with many celebrities’ tales of tragedy, there’s always a side that the tabloids conveniently ignore. Winehouse’s tale is full of unfortunate circumstances and poor decisions that ultimately led to this talented soul to crash and burn. Using only the voices of interviewees, candid footage, and musical recordings to tell the story, Amy is a rightfully intimate, sensitive portrayal that honors and reminisces upon Winehouse and all she represents.
17) What Happened, Miss Simone? (dir. Liz Garbus)
I’ve always been an admirer of Nina Simone’s music, but What Happened, Miss Simone? – the best documentary I watched all year – helped me to love her as an icon and individual all around. It covers everything from her distinct brand of art to her controversial activism to the many, many obstacles she encountered in the meantime.Beautifully edited with found footage and stunning live performance clips, it shines far beyond the constraints that talking heads docs tend to put on their subject matter. The film portrays a truly heartbreaking life, but also an immensely inspiring and beautiful one. Above all, Simone is such an interesting and important figure, and anyone even the slightest bit interested in her work should definitely check this out.
16) Straight Outta Compton (dir. F. Gary Gray)
In the midst of a flurry of sub-par musical biopics that have come out this past decade and a half, Straight Outta Compton came onto the scene as explosive as its subject matter. Fueled by awesome performances – O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Jason Mitchell are standouts – it covers N.W.A.’s ride to national notoriety with the absolute coolest energy. Even more impressively, it uses the group’s material to put forth particularly relevant, important messages regarding police brutality in the Black community. Powered by a strong sense of pathos and strung together with some of the best beats and rhymes ever recorded, this is the blueprint that future biopics should follow. Its underlying sexism is troubling, of course, though its sheer craft in presentation makes this one unforgettable.
15) Magic Mike XXL (dir. Gregory Jacobs)
In a year full of brilliant surprises, Magic Mike XXL has got to be one of the most pleasant – especially considering I was never fond of its predecessor. But this is how you do a sequel: the listless drama that held back the first film is watered down here, opting instead for a delightful hodgepodge of ridiculously fun dance scenes. It’s sharper, funnier, and much more crowd-pleasing overall. More importantly, while I’d hesitate to call it a “feminist” film, it is one of the most celebratory films regarding women, their right to be pleased (sexually and otherwise), and their capacity to just have some fucking fun. While I’m still trying to warm up to Channing Tatum as a leading man, Jada Pinkett Smith’s, Joe Manganiello’s, and Adam Rodriguez’s performances offer a welcome compromise.
14) The Diary of a Teenage Girl (dir. Marielle Heller)
Anyone who has ever been a teenage girl could perhaps say with confidence that those are some of the most frustrating, confusing, scary times of a woman’s life. Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl offers some of the most confrontational perspectives on this issue, particularly with Minnie Goetze’s being taken advantage of by an older man. It’s this intersection between sexual awakening, feminine expectations, and a budding sense of maturity that often makes this such a difficult watch. Yet these are difficult things to mull over, and while I have yet to read the graphic novel from which this is based, I’d say this is one of the better ways a film has dealt with such dark, seedy material. Highlights include powerhouse performances by Bel Powley and Kristen Wiig, as well as some of the most vibrant meldings of animation and live-action I’ve seen in film.
13) The Second Mother (dir. Anna Muylaert)
In The Second Mother, the protagonist is Val, a live-in maid who sacrifices her own time in order to supply for her estranged daughter. Val is played magnificently by Regina Casé; I am unfamiliar with Casé outside of this film, but hearing that she’s mostly a comedic performance makes me even more impressed at the turnaround that must’ve been done with this film. At it’s core, it’s a meditation on class barriers, family, and the unspoken societal rules and conventions that exist among relationships, whether by blood or otherwise. It’s also about motherhood, what it means to be a mother, and the struggles that women often have to go through in order to provide for those most important to them. It’s got such a powerful screenplay, yet has remained largely ignored by most – an unfortunate crime that many of the best films tend to endure.
12) Girlhood (dir. Céline Sciamma)
As I mentioned earlier, the teenage years are the most confusing, especially if you’re a girl. Céline Sciamma has a real knack for examining the complexities of gender and gender roles (along with sexuality, via Water Lilies). While Girlhood isn’t as strong as Tomboy and suffers from some third-act misfires, it’s a beautiful film nonetheless. Through an unflinchingly natural performance by Karidja Touré, we essentially watch a young woman mature before our very eyes. Yet it’s not all beautiful – with her dubious choice of friends, staggering relationship with her brother, and not-so-good choices made along the way, the path to adulthood is a rocky one. Still, the authenticity presented on screen is some of the most compelling of the year, the pinnacle of which coming in the vibrant “Diamonds” scene, possibly my favorite scene of the whole year.
11) Heaven Knows What (dir. Ben Safdie & Josh Safdie)
While I admire absurd, escapist cinema, it’s also true that films that challenge the perception of reality and blur the lines between fact and fiction are also some of the most memorable. Heaven Knows What is based off of Arielle Holmes’ personal memoirs of her life as a heroin addict on the streets of New York. As she essentially plays herself on screen, framed by a grainy, shaky camera, the results are harrowing. It’s as if Close-Up met The Panic at Needle Park, with a more disturbing degree of cynicism and bleakness than both of those films imply. It is absolutely unflinching in showing the lives of these individuals who seem in the midst of a perpetual downward spiral. Yet this is not mere exploitation – rather it offers a sensitive insight into the types of people whose stories are rarely heard without the filter of media sensationalism. It’s a cautionary approach, a must-see.
10) Mistress America (dir. Noah Baumbach)
I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I leapt headfirst into Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s latest collaboration. Sure, I loved Frances Ha, but am relatively unfamiliar with the two artists otherwise. But in yet another surprise from 2015, I found this to be one of the most straight-up amusing films I’d come across all year. Just as in Frances Ha, Gerwig is a most charming creature in this one and her interactions with Lola Kirke are for the ages. And much like Frances Ha, this is another film about young adults in the new millennium finding life to be more trying than what their parents and grandparents prepared them for. Yet the cynical mess that this could have been is brightened up, once again, by the beacon of light that is Gerwig, whose steadfast characters’ determination to keep moving forward is such a blessing.
9) The Duke of Burgundy (dir. Peter Strickland)
As I mentioned earlier, weird and abstract movies are right up my alley, and The Duke of Burgundy is the most successful film of the year in this regard. I didn’t entirely love Strickland’s previous outing, the giallo homage Berbarian Sound Studio; this film, however, is quite a visual treat. For a film that features little to no sexual content, it is one of the most erotic movies I’ve come across all year. Half the time, I’m not even sure how to process the images that arise – moths, elaborate landscapes, bubbles, and other visual forms inexplicably create the same delicate results. At the same time, it’s also a fiercely intimate overview on romance and partnerships, with all the dimensions of love and pain that come along. Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna are absolute goddesses in velvet, and no men are ever shown on screen. What more could I ask for?
8) Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (dir. Ronit Elkabetz & Shlomi Elkabetz)
The divorce drama at the heart of Gett takes place in a setting where women are offered no autonomy and rely on the decisions of men for their life’s trajectory. Sound familiar? Thankfully, the actual narrative isn’t so cut-and-dry as the previous statement implies. Viviane herself (played marvelously by Ronit Elkabetz) isn’t a martyr for patriarchy, but a real, flawed human being; her husband isn’t a militant sexist, but a well-intentioned-yet-misinformed subject of the same system. This is definitely one of the most infuriating films I’ve come across all year long. Watching the divorce trial take place over the course of several years is exhausting, especially in the ways the same methods of systematic sexism are retread again and again. The knowledge that similar dilemmas are still endured by women in Israel – and all across the globe – make this all the more depressing. It’s not a fun watch, but it is extremely important.
7) Tangerine (dir. Sean Baker)
With Starlet and now Tangerine, Sean Baker has proven himself capable of fleshing out the stereotypical depiction of sex workers, forming them into multi-dimensional characters with their own lives and aspirations. Much has been made about Tangerine‘s impressive iPhone-captured visuals, and while it does have some of the best cinematography of the year, it’s so much more than that. For one thing, it’s probably the single funniest film of the year – it seems that I uncover new, hilarious lines every time I revisit its dialogue. Along with the number of other stereotypes it unravels, it also provides one of the most interestingly accurate depictions of Los Angeles I’ve seen in years. Finally, there’s no way I couldn’t mention the fierce, fiery performances by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, who are absent from pretension and deliver only solid realness.
6) Mustang (dir. Deniz Gamze Ergüven)
Although I already wrote in length about this film last month, I still feel like there’s so much more to say about it. I love when movies (as well as books and TV shows) start off seemingly lighthearted, only to get progressively darker in its path to uncovering the dismal core of its narrative. I’ve also come to realize that I love films about teenage girls – especially from directors who truly understand what being a teenage girl is all about. It’s true that Mustang accurately depicts the double-standards and internalized misogyny that often accompanies a young woman’s upbringing. At the same time, however, it also sensitively portrays the solidarity that girls often seek amongst themselves, finding their own coping methods with the chaos and confusion that surrounds them. As most coming-of-age films tend to value the importance of boyhood over girlhood, it’s so vital that films about teenage girls find this kind of circulation.
5) World of Tomorrow (dir. Don Hertzfeldt)
Don Herzfeldt is one of my favorite filmmakers working today. I have seen all of his films and am consistently fascinated by his distinctly sparse style, campy sense of humor, and – in his most mature works – stunningly humane philosophies. World of Tomorrow is, no question, the strongest work he has put out yet. I’m so grateful to have seen this one a big screen as it’s his most visually impressive overall, implementing a more colorful, spacey animation that is still distinctly Hertzfeldt. It’s a film that is obsessed with society’s ever-expanding technological bubble, but rather be reprimanding or condescending in its tone, it gracefully melds the electronic world into a significantly more humanistic context. While the eternal transference of memories is much desired, the inexplicable joy given to us by butterflies and toy cars still remains. While the dark existentialist of Herzfeldt’s work still remains, the collaboration of Julia Pott’s and little Winona Mae’s voice acting emit a welcoming, warm, touching optimism that elevates this to greater standards. Above all, I am so, so excited to see what tricks he’s got up his sleeve in the future.
4) Inside Out (dir. Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen)
The most resonating line from World of Tomorrow also applies enormously to Inside Out: “I am very proud of my sadness, because it means I am more alive”. Indeed, in a successful return to form for Pixar, Inside Out tackles the thorny subject of emotional representation, dealing particularly with sadness. It moves at the peppy, adventurous pace that is to found in other Pixar outings, yet deals with some of the most mature, risky themes in the meantime. The animation is beautiful and the voice performances are great all around, with special emphasis to Phyllis Smith who touched my heart the most. All in all, it’s a film that is not solely about the physical or even emotional growth that accompanies the preteen years (although it covers this topic rather richly). It’s also about keeping in touch with ones own emotions and talking about depression, not as a malady or defect that must be combatted, but as a common, regular part of ourselves that inevitably comes along with all the happy, good things in our lives. Along with all this, it’s also kid-friendly, which is probably the most important aspect of them all.
3) Phoenix (dir. Christian Petzold)
It’s tempting to compare the style and themes at play in Phoenix to something in the vein of Hitchcock – definitely Vertigo – but I think there’s so much more here than that. Phoenix trades more obvious traits of suspense and thrill for a more deep-seated, subtle tensity that runs throughout its entirety. It is an absolutely heart-breaking tale, helped in part by Nina Hoss’ spellbinding performance as a woman who visually struggles with her loss and reclaiming of identity underscored by intense trauma. In Phoenix, memories are the antagonist – whether it be the memories of a life once lived, memories of a relationship gone awry, or memories of a horrific concentration camp. The story is told slowly through these memories, from the outside in, building its own breed of tension that escalates to jarring proportions. By the time we reach the final scene – well, let’s just say that I was in tears. If it isn’t my favorite final scene of the year, it’s definitely the one that most resonated with me emotionally. The journey to get there, however, is surely not one to be forgotten.
2) Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller)
From the initial moment first watched it this past summer, Mad Max: Fury Road was sitting at the very top of my list for months. I was so sure that there couldn’t be a single film to ever top it; in fact, this may as well be tied at the top, since it couldn’t possibly be compared or contrasted to my #1 in any way. Or any other film for that matter. Fury Road is in an entirely different league of its own, from its golden-drenched cinematography, to its mile-a-minute pacing, to its off-the-wall… well, everything else. While I couldn’t call myself an action movie connoisseur by any means, this has to be one of the most perfect action films out there. Its got just the right amount of explosions and frenetic action to keep such a narratively simple film like itself so compelling through its entirety. If we’re talking about cinema as a primarily visual medium, with its accompanying traits serving to aid in its overall entertainment value, it’s safe to say that Fury Road is a complete success. And while I’m also very reluctant to call this a “feminist” film, there’s no denying that Charlize Theron as Furiosa kicks so much ass and is one of the best female characters to come out of 2015. It’s such a temptingly rewatchable movie, and one that I could rewatch again and again a hundred times over, never tiring of a single minute. God, I love this film.
1) Carol (dir. Todd Haynes)
The best films, for me, are the ones where even simply hearing the title spoken or reading the name typed out transports me to the comforting memory of the first time I ever watched it. Before Sunrise does this, as does Her and Obvious Child. It’s safe to say now that Carol could definitely be added to this list. My favorite scene of this film – besides the truly magical final scene, of course – is a brief moment where Carol and Therese are driving in her car. Familiar images of the road ahead and the overpass above are obscured as is the music on the radio, playing a very fuzzy transfer of Helen Foster’s “You Belong To Me”. This is precisely how romance works, especially ill-fated love that is reminisced upon years later: only fractions and shades of the memories remain, yet even the mundane ones bring about an odd sense of warmth that cannot be shaken. This warmth permeated throughout the entirety of my viewing of Carol – no doubt helped by the nostalgic sets and costumes and the retro haze of its 35mm format. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara play off one another so beautifully, even the most simplest scenes are breathtaking and leave fragments of its existence behind long after they’ve concluded. Yes, there’s a moral message of forbidden love amongst traditional times that lingers in its narrative, but I’m more fascinated with the ways these characters are written as infinitely more than their identities. Above all, I interpret Carol as a celebration of nostalgic love in the purest, most universal sense. No film has touched my heart more than this one all year round.