At long last, the top ten list. Everyone else has already put up their lists, and for the most part we've all moved on to what 2016 has to offer us. But with the Oscars only a week away, and myself actually having some time, now's the perfect time to put this list up. Please note that I finalized this list in mid-January based only on the 2015 films that I had seen up until that point, therefore several films that could have easily made the list are not present here. I shouldn't have to note this, but these is also my personal favorites, not some objective ranking of the best films of the year.
And the top 10 films of 2015 are...
10. Tangerine (dir. Sean Baker)
By now, you've likely heard about this film's gimmick: the entire film was shot on a few iPhones and stars two nonprofessional trans* actors. That alone is a nice piece of trivia, but the film is much more than that. A truly independent production, the film is a raucous, campy, and blustering comedy of friends Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) roaming the streets of Los Angeles to find Sin-Dee's cheating boyfriend (James Ransone). From one scene to the next, the energy never lags, thanks to Baker's sun-drenched visuals and standout performances from Rodriguez and Taylor. Tangerine seems destined for a place in the queer and independent film canons.
9. Sicario (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
No American film has ever depicted the cartel wars of the United States-Mexican border quite like Sicario. FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) are recruited to join a special task force to investigate cartel movements along the border. However, it slowly becomes evident that the unit, led by Matt (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), is not exactly what it proclaims to be. Roger Deakins' astonishing cinematography and Villeneuve's tense direction displace the film in a realm of ambiguity. What's not ambiguous, though, is this film's masterful production, with Blunt, Brolin, and Del Toro delivering some of the best performances of their careers and Jóhann Jóhannsson composing one of the year's most haunting scores. More than anything, though, the film is a powerful examination of "the land of wolves" without any easy solutions.
8. Ricki and the Flash (dir. Johnathan Demme)
Demme doesn't get enough credit as a filmmaker. He works mostly as a documentarian, yes, particularly music docs, and his most well-known films have been thrillers such as The Silence of the Lambs (for which he won an Oscar) and The Manchurian Candidate (the 2004 remake). But his narrative films spring to life because he trusts his actors with the material. Take Ricki and the Flash, for example. While most of the marketing focused on Ricki (Meryl Streep) the would-be rock star, the film is, at heart, about a dysfunctional family not exactly trying to put itself back together. That's not a sexy premise, certainly not in a film culture that values flash and cleverness over low-key and straightforward. But this film is an absolute marvel, hinging on Ricki's (in)ability to see beyond herself and her dream - a tension that drives the film in unexpected ways. With a terrific cast and solid musical performances, the film is a triumph of old-fashioned filmmaking done right.
Numbers 7-1 after the jump.
7. Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland)
What does it mean to be human? This is a question that many science-fiction films have pondered in the past, nearly to the point of cliché. What makes first-time director Garland's film so remarkable is how he rephrases the question: in a male-dominated sphere, what does it mean to be female? Domhnall Gleeson plays a nebbish programmer who is invited to spend time at the estate of eccentric tech genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who is experimenting with creating an artificial intelligence that would be indistinguishable from a human being. That AI, Ava (Alicia Vikander), may be more advanced that she lets on. With measured visual space that alternates between beautiful exteriors and clinical interiors, oblique performances by the main cast, and a script that derives its power from what goes unsaid, Ex Machina takes a long look at the male construction of femininity and how destructive it is. That the film also includes some killer dance moves from Isaac (in a plunging V-neck, no less) is just icing on the cake.
6. Clouds of Sils Maria (dir. Olivier Assayas)
Clouds of Sils Maria is the kind of film that's difficult to really describe because it obscures what should be straightforward: in narrative, in characterization, and in style. Juliette Binoche stars as an actress, Maria Enders, who returns to the stage to star in a revival of the play that launched her career, only now she's playing the older woman rather than the young starlet. That latter role has gone to teen star Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moritz), who has a major YA franchise and a record of bad behavior. Maria struggles with the recent passing of the playwright and her own position in the film industry while her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart, awe-inspiring) tries to keep everything on the rails. It sounds simple, perhaps even rote, but Assayas muddies the water with hints of metafiction that don't imply something cosmic or preternatural at work, but rather a question of what constitutes performance. You could call it yet another riff on Ingmar Bergman's Persona, but it's not quite that either; Assayas and his marvelous actors are pushing different boundaries. Movies about movies (or any performance art) are a dime a dozen, but few feel as accomplished and special as Clouds of Sils Maria.
5. Spotlight (dir. Tom McCarthy)
Maybe it's because I've recently moved to Boston, home of the Boston Globe newspaper and the Spotlight team that the film's about. Or maybe it's because I really enjoy talky-but-cinematic films (see also: #'s 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 on this list). But Spotlight stood out mostly because it's an impressively-acted, efficiently-written, visually-underrated film that tackles a difficult subject matter (the Catholic sex abuse scandal) without resorting to melodramatic histrionics. Mark Ruffalo, Brian d'Arcy James, Rachel McAdams, and Michael Keaton headline as journalist team, each delivering phenomenal performances (especially Keaton, in what may be his best performance to date) that function best in the group dynamic. This is a film about the grunt work that goes into investigative journalism, and the pacing reflects the process: there are no secret sources or grand reveals, just people trying to make sense of the facts in front of them. And though it seems wrong to call someone who is Oscar-nominated under-appreciated, Thomas McCarthy proves his strong hand as a director in guiding the brilliant performances and focusing on how Boston's small-town atmosphere contributed to the problem in ways both positive and negative. Like the Spotlight team's investigation, the film isn't sexy, but it is damn effective.
4. The End of the Tour (dir. James Ponsoldt)
It's not at all surprising that a film about acclaimed author David Foster Wallace would emerge in the years after his shocking suicide in 2008. What is surprising, however, is that such a film would be as intimate, respectful, and beautiful as Ponsoldt's. Based on journalist David Lipsky's account of his 1996 interview with Wallace for Rolling Stone, The End of the Tour ambles gently as Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and Wallace (Jason Segel) discuss a wide variety of topics, ranging from Wallace's dogs to the meaning of his work. With a strong, literate script by playwright Donald Margulies and strong performances from Eisenberg and Segel, the film stays true to Wallace's legacy as a prickly, awkward, but deeply intelligent individual who tried to open up when he could. And Ponsoldt's uncomplicated direction keeps the focus on Lipsky's and Wallace's interactions, letting their words and actions speak without any distracting symbolism or other visual motifs. Like Wallace's novels, it's a dense, but rewarding, film.
3. Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller)
Enough has been said already about how excellent Mad Max: Fury Road is. It's a visually-striking gonzo chase film that reinvents an '80s franchise for the present day without sacrificing what made those earlier films notable to begin with. It's a feminist action film in which the title character (Tom Hardy) really just wanders into Imperator Furiosa's (Charlize Theron) attempt to liberate women from the abusive clutches of warlord Immorten Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). It utilizes practical effects whenever possible rather than heavily relying on CGI. It has a character named "Doof Warrior" who plays an electric guitar while strapped atop a moving truck in front of massive amps. That it does all of this while remaining heart-pounding and entertaining makes it all the more impressive. George Miller is a genius. Mad Max: Fury Road is his bonkers Sistine Chapel.
2. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (dirs. Ronit Elkabetz & Shlomi Elkabetz)
I will readily admit knowing very little about how the Israeli court system works. But as portrayed in sibling duo Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz's film Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, it looks like a labyrinthine nightmare. Ronit stars as Viviane Amsalem, a woman attempting to get a divorce from her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian) after 20 years of marriage. Their proceedings must go through the religious court, and what results in a long, drawn-out battle for the right to leave her husband in a society where women are given little legal agency. The performances are uniformly strong, and though the film takes place entirely within the courtroom, the directors masterfully keep the action invigorating and disheartening as the trial continues. What's most stunning, however, is the way Viviane transforms over the course of the film, moving closer to liberation even as the court seems anxious to keep her in her place. The film is an absolute marvel, worthy of mention in the same breath of Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi's similar-themed A Separation (2011).
1. Inside Out (dirs. Pete Docter & Ronnie Del Carmen)
When I was roughly 10 or 11 years old, I started to feel really sad most of my waking moments. I had just moved to North Carolina from Georgia; instead of the neighborhood I had known, I now lived in a house deep in the woods and a good distance from town. I was at a new school where I didn't feel like I fit in. I was shy, closed off, and mostly kept to myself. At first, I assumed this sadness I felt was just me missing my old friends and old school. But as I settled in, made friends, and got more involved at school, the sadness never went away. In fact, it only deepened. Inadequacy dominated my thoughts, loneliness dictated my life; it was hard to tell only because I got so good at hiding it. When I did really open up to friends, I alienated them. My thoughts got darker as I got older, and unfortunately there were people who exploited how I felt for their own gain. I went to some places I wish I never had. And, to this day, that sadness stays with me. I do feel happy sometimes, or angry, or disgusted, or afraid, but it's sadness that remains my default.
Pixar's Inside Out has mostly been trumpeted as a "return to form" for the company after the disappointments of Cars 2 (justified), Brave (better than you remember), and Monsters University (cute but forgettable). And without a doubt, that is true. The film is a remarkable creative achievement, cleverly realizing the very conceptual nature of our interior lives and how that interiority changes with age and experience. But for me personally, the film directly tapped into how I feel every single day. I saw on the screen the days in which I feel no control over myself, the days in which it feels like my personality has been shut off completely. And the film provided me with a powerful reminder that it's going to be okay. Sadness is a part of life. In my case, it's too much a part of my life, and that's something that I have to work on. But the other emotions are there, the rest of me is still there. I came out of Inside Out feeling affirmed. I thank Docter, Del Carmen, and everyone else who worked on the film for that. Inside Out presented to me everything that's been going on in my head. For that and more, it's the best film of the year. Nothing else comes close.