Never before in my life have I spent so much money at movie theaters over the course of a single year. This is also the first year that I’ve ever attempted documenting every single film I’ve watched, whether on the big screen or the small screen. That said, as of writing this I’ve watched 107 films this year, 47 of which were in theaters. (This includes repeat viewings of films, such as seeing Inside Out a whopping 5 times.) Having spent many years working for a movie theater, I’ve surprised myself with my adamant dedication to the film industry–even though I no longer get into movies for free.
For the most part, my dedication to filmgoing stems from 2015 having been a darn good year for movies. At the end of 2014, my favorite film critic Perry Seibert lamented over a weak year that gave proponents of television a good argument for that medium’s dominance over film. However, I proudly declare, on the strengths of 2015’s films, that this war is not yet over!
So today I begin bragging on behalf of the best films I was able to see this year. In an attempt to neatly tie all of my favorite films of 2015 into as neat a bow and short a list as possible, I’ve devised a special manner of presentation: each film in my top 15 will be accompanied by an “Honorable Mention” of a related film that didn’t make the cut. For example, if two movies shared directors, studios, or eerily similar storylines, I included only the stronger of the two, so to be as varied and all-encompassing as possible.
Without any further ado:
15. Ex Machina
I don’t have much taste for sci-fi, and even less for fantasy. But what I do have taste for is a small-scale, concise drama that sweeps you into a story without wasting any time on prelude or unnecessary characters, and then drops you at a stark ending that perfectly concludes the story while convincing you the world will continue without you. Ex Machina is all this and more, a psychological drama wrapped within a claustrophobic near-future setting. Director Alex Garland didn’t allow an ounce of fat to remain on his impressive directorial debut, where even an awkward dance scene isn’t out of place.
While this may be the first of three appearances that Domhnall Gleeson has on this list, the movie belongs to Alicia Vikander, who is receiving raves (along with her role in The Danish Girl) for her portrayal of an artificial intelligence humanoid who’s thoroughly convincing from her first second onscreen. Trying to figure her out and seeing her acquire social skills from conversations with Gleeson’s character is half of the film’s fun, but the scenes featuring only Gleeson and Oscar Isaac are no less riveting. If too cold, the film is nevertheless an intelligent existential thrill-ride.
Honorable Mention: Mad Max: Fury Road
Remember when I mentioned that I don’t care much for sci-fi? Allow that to be my defense as I include George Miller’s modern classic as my first Honorable Mention, even though it is far and away most film critics’ choice for best film of the year. Surely, Fury Road is a technical marvel. I often found myself impressed by the film’s inventive set design and its acute dedication to such a particular style. And yet, for a film that’s essentially a non-stop chase scene, I wasn’t on the edge of my seat. Instead, my favorite moments were the quietest: the night-time conversation between Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron, deciding whether Max will stay or leave, and the tender scene where Riley Keough’s Capable consoles Nicholas Hoult’s brainwashed Nux. I won’t be upset if George Miller takes home the Oscar for Best Director, but it surely won’t be as deserved as last year when Richard Linklater was snubbed for the award.
14. Shaun the Sheep Movie
It amazes me that Aardman Animation isn’t discussed alongside Pixar in terms of quality control. While Aardman has never produced a classic on the same level as Toy Story, it’s now six films into a spotless record. Shaun the Sheep is a simple pleasure, perhaps not as enjoyable as Chicken Run or Arthur Christmas but at least as artistic. Stop-motion animation continues to be an astounding feat, and Aardman took a huge gamble on making a claymation film with absolutely no dialogue. Using solely visual comedy in the most cinematic of ways, Aardman turned it’s cheapest film (with only a $25 million budget) into both a critical and financial success. I, for one, am not upset that a sequel has been announced.
Honorable Mention: Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection ‘F’
As far as out-of-left-field animated films go, Resurrection ‘F’ takes the cake, and it also marks the second year in a row where a Dragon Ball Z film has miraculously given me a “best-ever” theater-going experience. While both ‘F’ and its predecessor Battle of Gods pander to a fans-only audience, they also provide the goods in spades. I saw both of these films with nearly sold-out audiences, peppered with fanatics dressed in full DBZ garb. These films contain all the great action from the television series my generation was raised with, but these full-length movies are really both comedies, playing wisely to the sensitivities of 30-year-olds rather than 13-year-olds. While I’d have to be pretty desperate to watch these movies alone at my house, I’d absolutely watch them in a sold-out theater of diehards any day.
13. The Big Short
I follow directors more than I do actors, and knowing the director of a film makes it pretty easy to predict the quality of a film. But that wasn’t the case with The Big Short, a star-studded docudrama about the financial crisis of 2007-08 from the director of…Anchorman and Anchorman 2? Not to hate on all Will Ferrell movies by any means, but watching a director try to leave his or her comfort zone can be a train wreck. Just look at what happened when the director of (500) Days of Summer was asked to direct a Spider-Man film, or when the director of Finding Neverland was asked to direct a James Bond film. A closer look at Adam McKay’s filmography, though, will bring you to The Other Guys, a hilarious buddy-cop film that, behind the scenes, seemed extremely interested in economics, fraud, and financial crimes; the credits sequence is even filled with financial statistics.
Thus Adam McKay’s decision to direct The Big Short makes a bit more sense, and the results are jaw-dropping. While the film has plenty of big laughs, and even makes some surprisingly experimental storytelling decisions, the overall effect is one of shock and despair. The goings-on within the banking industry (or should I say banking empire?) are downright terrifying. As much as the banks have deceived the American people throughout recent decades, it’s nearly as deceiving to go to the movies for one of 2015’s most entertaining pieces of art and leave the theater having made the decision to never again mortgage a house or apply for a loan.
I should also note that while the film is wonderfully carried by its four stars (Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt), the supporting cast is equally spectacular.
Honorable Mention: Dope
While Dope isn’t nearly as memorable or important as The Big Short, it’s also a pleasant surprise of a film that turns illegal crimes into the bedrock for a comedy. With a downbeat style and a cast of could-be stars, the plot is imperfect and overlong but the characters are vivid and fully-realized, giving off a palpable sense of reality that makes the audience wish to spend more time with them and get to know them better. If only every film could at least accomplish that. And if nothing more, Dope should serve as a turning point in the career of writer/director Rick Famuyiwa and as a launching pad for lead actor Shameik Moore.
12. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Some movies have no choice but to buckle beneath the weight of impossible expectations. Thankfully for Episode VII in the Star Wars Saga, this sequel isn’t following directly on the heels of the legendary original trilogy but instead on the scuffed up, broken heels of the much-maligned prequel trilogy. If The Force Awakens could be better than any of those three poorly-aging films, most fans would likely be content. Better yet, The Force Awakens is far superior.
Functioning both as a sequel and a reboot, this entry in the Star Wars canon is technically a direct follow-up to Return of the Jedi but also works as a remake of A New Hope. Following the latter’s storyline almost point-for-point, the nostalgia factor might feel like a slap in the face to some viewers, but director J.J. Abrams allows it all to feel less like ripping off and more like homage. Why? Because this film is not really about the plot, which (this time around) serves the purpose of comfortably introducing viewers to a whole world of new characters.
The beautiful set designs, old-fashioned practical effects, and incredible work of returning actors Harrison Ford (Han Solo) and Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca) all take a backseat to the franchise’s new faces: John Boyega, who nails every punchline as Finn; Adam Driver, who impresses as the emotionally daft yet complex Kylo Ren; and most importantly Daisy Ridley, who absolutely shines as Rey, the mysterious girl who steals the show. Ridley is the first of multiple actresses on my top 15 list who takes a film by storm, not in a supporting role like Vikander or Theron, but front and center. Rey’s character and Ridley’s acting is a perfect mix that truly makes Episodes VIII and IX even harder to wait for.
Honorable Mention: The Martian
I’m pleased to admit that I’ve nearly run out of sci-fi films that will appear on this list. But I’m also pleased to have this film here, particularly because “pleasing” is what this film was built to do. In fact, the night I saw The Martian, I had been planning to see Sicario but changed my mind last-minute; I was feeling down and wanted a movie that would be more of a pick-me-up. And that’s exactly what I got with this Ridley Scott-directed crowd-pleaser. There’s nothing at all challenging about this film, so I mostly appreciated it as a vehicle for Matt Damon’s talents, dramatic and comedic in equal measure. It’s hard to live down being made fun of as a bumbling idiot in Team America: World Police, yet The Martian is essentially a one-man show that gives Damon a dazzling display for an audience that has largely forgotten about the man who starred in and co-wrote Good Will Hunting.
With each new year, a larger portion of wide-release films are sequels, spin-offs, and remakes. In a way, Creed is all three of those things, yet it is also so much better than those designations imply. Much like The Force Awakens, Creed takes the storyline of the franchise’s original film, populates it with new talent, and brings back familiar faces for emotional heft. In the case of Creed, which closely follows the template set by 1976’s Rocky, the new talent comes in director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan, re-teaming after the critical success of Coogler’s debut Fruitvale Station. Both do excellent work here, providing enough nuance to make Jordan’s Adonis Creed a character worth caring about, worth potentially making sequels about.
For now, though, the most winning piece of Creed‘s formula is the presence of Sylvester Stallone, who plays a supporting role for the first time in the series. And while no one is claiming that Creed is superior to the 1976 classic, Stallone does a better job here as Rocky Balboa than he ever has before, subtly adding humor and sadness to an aging character who truly feels like he’s been living a full life in between each Rocky sequel. Stallone hasn’t received an Oscar nomination since the original Rocky, and now would be as fitting a time as ever for him to receive another, not dissimilar to how Paul Newman won his first Oscar in 1986 by reprising the role of Fast Eddie Felson in The Color of Money, which he hadn’t played since 1961’s The Hustler. And if Creed can help do for Jordan what Color did for Tom Cruise, then everyone will be happy.
Honorable Mention: Terminator Genisys
It’s weird for me, as someone who almost always agrees with the critical consensus, to fight on behalf of a film that nearly all critics hated. While generally considered the worst Terminator film ever, which is particular offensive following Terminator Salvation, this new installment gave me a lot to appreciate and enjoy: namely, the presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the same way that Stallone really brought Creed to life, the “Governator” plays his classic character here with strength, honest sadness, and classic one-liners in equal turns. The most emotionally satisfying moment in any Schwarzenegger film since the end of Judgement Day is when the Terminator’s hand stops working, so he tries to fix it before Sarah Connor notices. With no words, only glances, it’s clear that he’s ashamed by his shortcomings and wants to make sure Sarah always sees him as her strong protector. It’s a short but touching moment in a movie surprisingly filled with them, boosting the action scenes that nicely recall the original James Cameron films. And while I’ll admit that Jai Courtney is a poor actor who was terribly cast as Kyle Reese, Game of Thrones‘ Emilia Clarke does a capable job as the latest incarnation of Sarah Connor. Possibly the most impressive thing about this underrated film, however, is its confident use of time travel, which appears here in a more believable and less cluttered form than films such as the critically lauded X-Men: Days of Future Past.
Read part 2 of 2015’s best films here.
Read part 1 of my favorite music of 2015 here.