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Top 15 Films of 2015


Some of you reading this now may have read my most recent series, “My Year at the Oscars”.  In case you haven’t realized, I am an absolute Academy Award fanatic, between the lead-up excitement, the endless predictions on nominations and subsequent predictions on winners to the week long hangover of knowing most of our predictions were wrong (speaking of which, my predictions will be posted this coming Thursday).  But, as I'm sure many of you can relate, they don’t always nominate my favorite movies for the big award, though this year was pretty on point for the most part.  So, here are my Top 15 Films from 2015.  I hope that you enjoy, and maybe discover a movie or two you haven’t heard of, or one that you weren’t sure on and haven’t seen yet.  But before we start…

Star Wars: The Force Awakens — Disclaimer

I'm going to start out by saying that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not going to be included in this ranking. Star Wars is my favorite film franchise by far, and as a total fan boy, the Star Wars bias is too strong with this one in order to properly critique or rank it.  I thought Episode VII was a masterpiece and the franchise has been redeemed from an abysmal prequel trilogy (which of course, I still enjoyed somehow, the absolute fan that I am). Between the ridiculous hype surrounding it, fueled by a two year wait (that felt like twenty years), and the more-than-I-care-to-share repeat trips to the theater to see it, I feel like it would be nearly impossible for me to compare it to other movies on a subjective basis. See it if you haven't, but mostly don't be shocked that it doesn't appear here as it should. 

15. Brooklyn

Director: John Crowley
Release Date: January 26th, 2015 (Sundance); November 6th, 2015 (UK & Ireland)
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture; Best Actress - Saoirse Ronan; Best Adapted Screenplay

Brooklyn is an excellent example of how a simple little film with great acting, directing and writing can turn out to be marvelously popular.  Based on a novel of the same name, this is the perfect vehicle for Saoirse Ronan, a rising star with limitless potential.  It is often heart-warming, frequently funny and occasionally deeply moving.  This romantic drama does an excellent job of exploring the themes of family and leaving home, showing the difficulties and joys of a new life in a new town.  While it may not end up being your favorite film of all time, it is certainly a hard movie not to enjoy.  

14. Carol

Director: Todd Haynes
Release Date: May 15th, 2015 (Cannes); November 20th, 2015 (US)
Oscar Nominations: Best Actress - Cate Blanchett; Best Supporting Actress - Rooney Mara; Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Cinematography; Best Costume Design; Best Original Score

The first thing that stood out about Carol to me was how fantastically all of the various technical aspects work together.  The score is absolutely breathtaking, likely my favorite of the year, and the way it fits perfectly over the artistically brilliant cinematography instantly turns this into a work of beauty.  Even if the story doesn't initially grasp you, it is difficult to argue with how amazing it both looks and sounds.  Outside of this, Rooney Mara steals the show, and could almost be considered the lead (although the Academy apparently disagrees with me on that).  This is to take nothing away from the actual "lead" actress, Cate Blanchett, who does a fantastic job under Todd Haynes direction. 

13. The Martian

Director: Ridley Scott
Release Date: September 11th, 2015 (TIFF); October 2nd, 2015 (US)
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture; Best Actor - Matt Damon; Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Production Design; Best Sound Editing; Best Sound Mixing; Best Visual Effects

The Martian is the best comedy film of the year, right Golden Globes?  In all seriousness, this movie does work so well thanks to the funny moments interspersed throughout.  But don't be fooled, it is a very tense space movie.  Matt Damon is the awards season focus, but the entire ensemble interplays well, particularly Jeff Daniels who is more and more becoming an asset to dramas.  I think the most impressive thing about this story is how there is never a moment where something miraculous happens that suddenly makes everything work out.  Throughout the entire film, the solution is always scientific, making this less your average space rescue movie and more an intelligent and witty example of science fiction done right.  

12. Sicario

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Release Date: May 19th, 2015 (Cannes); September 18th, 2015 (US)
Oscar Nominations: Best Cinematography; Best Original Score; Best Sound Editing

The fact that cinematographer Roger Deakins still has not won is confounding, once again turning the camera into the star of this fast paced thriller. Well, not the only star. Benicio Del Toro gives one of his best performances in recent years in Sicario, an intense action-drama related to Mexican drug cartels. As the mystery within unfolds, you become more and more engrossed in the case just as star Emily Blunt does, and the twists within are plentiful and worth the wait. Violent and graphic should be interpreted in this particular case as gritty and realistic. Absolutely nothing is held back in this great example of what an intense thriller can be when done properly: timely, relevant and meaningful.

11. Trumbo

Director: Jay Roach
Release Date: September 12th, 2015 (TIFF); November 6th, 2015 (US)
Oscar Nominations: Best Actor - Bryan Cranston

Trumbo briefly appeared and fizzled out for the most part, with the exception of Bryan Cranston and his endless and deserved nominations.  But this movie was definitely worth seeing for more than him alone, telling an interesting story about Hollywood in the 40's and 50's.  It has so many various elements throughout.  It comes off first as a legal film, focusing initially on Dalton Trumbo and the Hollywood Ten's fall from Hollywood graces due to communist affiliations, and develops into a great underdog story as he has to work his way back up.  You may think you know the story or you may just be tired of seeing Hollywood make movies about themselves, but this is one you certainly won't want to miss.  

10. Mad Max: Fury Road

Director: George Miller
Release Date: May 7th, 2015 (TCL Chinese Theater); May 15th, 2015 (US)
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture; Best Director; Best Cinematography; Best Costume Design; Best Film Editing; Best Makeup and Hairstyling; Best Production Design; Best Sound Editing; Best Sound Mixing; Best Visual Effects 

Fast paced is an under-exaggeration when describing Mad Max: Fury Road. It goes by so quickly that star Tom Hardy barely has a chance to get a word in, though most of the small amount of talking necessary to advance the story is handled by Charlize Theron and the rest of the supporting cast. When you think of all the effort that went into making this film, from stunt coordination to set building, it is easy to see why George Miller is considered one of the front runners in the category. Seriously, the fact that that many incredibly fast shots could be thought out enough in order to be edited seamlessly is beyond comprehension, but somehow he did it. The Mad Max mythology is ever developing throughout the film and it leaves you with one of the most interesting and in-depth post-apocalyptic visions this side of 1984.  While it is a plus to have seen the older Mad Max films, mostly because they are awesome and great sci-fi/action movies to have seen, they aren’t really necessary to the appreciation of this film.  

9. Bridge of Spies

Director: Steven Spielberg
Release Date: October 4th, 2015 (New York Film Festival); October 16th, 2015 (US)
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture; Best Supporting Actor - Mark Rylance; Best Original Screenplay; Best Original Score; Best Production Design; Best Sound Mixing

When Steven Spielberg is directing Tom Hanks in a Coen Brothers penned script, there really isn't a way for it to not be an excellent movie.  It isn't extravagant or really any different than you would expect it to be with that list of contributors, it is just a solid movie filled with great direction, well-paced writing and superb acting. Tom Hanks is always excellent, but the real star of this one may be the performance from Mark Rylance in a supporting role. Bridge of Spies tells of an interesting and likely lesser known legal battle during the dark times of the Cold War and manages to make insightful points related to the legal system and effects of public perception in a media-fueled world. If you like Spielberg's dramas, this one will be no exception.

8. Straight Outta Compton

Director: F. Gary Gray
Release Date: August 11th, 2015 (Los Angeles Premiere); August 14th, 2015 (US)
Oscar Nominations: Best Original Screenplay

F. Gary Gray deserves credit for making one of the finest music biopics out there in Straight Outta Compton.  It is practically a gangster epic, as one could also define The Godfather or Scarface.  If this comparison seems over-the-top, think about how, just as in those films, this shows the rise of a group of unknowns into sudden notoriety, demonstrates the dangers of excess and how it leads to betrayal, and eventually leads to the fall of a main character. At times brutal in its reality and at other times pure entertainment, this movie is undeniably and surprisingly touching throughout.  The ensemble of actors do an excellent job portraying these hip-hop icons in a film centered around the music of N.W.A. on the surface, but doing an excellent job of being so much more underneath.  Even though the story is 25 years old, the relevance is ever present in today's society.  It is an incredibly bold move on the part of the writers and director to make a rap biopic clocking in at almost two and a half hours long, but in the end, they could not have done a better job honoring the legacy of Eazy E.  

7. The Hateful Eight

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Release Date: December 8th, 2015 (Cinerama Dome Premiere); December 25th, 2015 (US)
Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actress - Jennifer Jason Leigh; Best Cinematography; Best Original Score

True to form, there is a long string of dialog, wrought with monologues and witticism supported by a large cast of characters. Their backstories are revealed and their characteristics developed amidst ever-changing allegiances that all eventually lead to the untimely death of almost every person involved. This could easily be the description of a Shakespearian tragedy, but it is instead the description of almost every Tarantino film. Quentin Tarantino has practically gotten to the point where his movies are so distinct in style that they are almost parodies of themselves. That being said, even when you think you know exactly what you're going to get, he has a few surprises ready. The Hateful Eight was no exception, with his usual engrossing dialog and ultra-violence, balanced with great actors playing hilariously unique characters. The introduction of an Ennio Moricone score and the 70mm filming give this film a classic feel. While it is by no means his finest film, it is still an incredible movie worthy of recognition on this list. For anyone else was lucky enough to have experienced the roadshow, it sure was a neat way to see a movie in this day and age. 

6. Room

Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Release Date: September 4th, 2015 (Telluride); October 16th, 2015 (US)
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actress - Brie Larson; Best Adapted Screenplay

As much as I adored the film Room, and I definitely thought it was excellent, it goes down on my list as a movie that seeing once is all I can handle. Emotionally traumatizing would be a good way to describe this film. What is perhaps most incredible when you think about this movie is how well the director managed to give it a consistent feel despite having two distinct halves that could each be their own genre were they standalone. The first half of the movie related to the protagonists' imprisonment is practically a thriller that suddenly turns into the second half's family drama. This consistency is thanks in part to the two lead actors, Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, who both look to have incredibly bright futures after turning in two of the best performances of this year. What was seemingly a difficult book to adapt has been done justice by phenomenal filmmaking, and I am so excited that it is getting all of the recent recognition it so deserves. 

5. Ex Machina

Director: Alex Garland
Release Date: January 21st, 2015
Oscar Nominations: Best Original Screenplay; Best Visual Effects

Intelligent and creative science fiction has been around for decades, but Ex Machina is definitely one of the best examples I've ever seen. It manages to take its three primary (and practically only) characters and a single location to make an engrossing tale that you simply can't look away from. Oscar Isaac and Domnhall Gleeson are both outstanding, but Alicia Vindikar is the star. Thanks in part to admirable visual effects, you will find yourself forgetting she is a living human being outside of the screen and not an intelligent machine playing tricks on you the viewer, just as much as she is on the rest of the film’s characters. At times you may laugh, at times you may gasp, but you certainly will never feel comfortable as each event leads to a stranger and more off putting moment. You'll question everyone's intentions up until the bitter end. And then you may question everything even more. A movie focused around a machine has rarely been so adept at pointing out so many characteristics about the flaws in the human psyche as we grow into a fully technological age. 

4. The Revenant

Director: Alejandro G. Iñárittu
Release Date: December 16th, 2015 (TCL Chinese Theater); December 25th, 2015 (US)
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actor - Leonardo DiCaprio; Best Supporting Actor - Tom Hardy; Best Cinematography; Best Costume Design; Best Film Editing; Best Makeup and Hairstyling; Best Production Design; Best Sound Editing; Best Sound Mixing; Best Visual Effects

I feel like I'm still wrapping my head around The Revenant almost two months after seeing it. Whereas Iñárittu's last film, Best Picture winner Birdman, was a complicated and dialog heavy story of an actor trying to find himself in the world, dialog in The Revenant is almost as scarce as Leo's resources as he is trying to find somebody else in the world. On the surface, past the gore and horrors of the wilderness, this is a technically astounding film. While everyone is focusing on DiCaprio's award sweeping performance, the cinematography, sound, score and everything else that goes into making an epic are what makes this movie the cinematic feat that it is. It is by no means a perfect film, but what it does well it does so incredibly that is it makes up for the lesser moments. You don't walk out remembering the weaker points or the slower scenes that could be deemed excessive. Instead, you walk out, as I imagine the director wanted, trying to unravel the pure brilliance of scope and spectacle that you just witnessed. 

3. Steve Jobs

Director: Danny Boyle
Release Date: September 5th, 2015 (Telluride); October 9th, 2015 (US)
Oscar Nominations: Best Actor - Michael Fassbender; Best Supporting Actress - Kate Winslet

Michael Fassbender, in any other year, could easily be an Oscar winner for his incredible transformation into Steve Jobs. This movie was released and seemingly vanished, being deemed a box office failure and picking up minimal nominations. But this Aaron Sorkin written masterpiece, which could easily pass as a three act stage play were it not destined to be a film, is a phenomenally well-written and acted film. Instead of attempting to tell the entire life of a man known the world over, it focuses on his character, flaws and all, over the course of three different scenes related to product launches all 4-8 years apart.  Every line of dialogue is brilliantly written and equally brilliantly delivered by the cast, who spent weeks rehearsing under the direction of Danny Boyle before the cameras were even rolling. Yet, the oft-awarded screenwriter combined with an Oscar-winning director and an all star cost somehow didn’t sell the general viewing public.  Those who were apprehensive of embracing the film seemed concerned about how it paints a seeming hero of the technology world, but ignore anything you've heard or read. Regardless of how you want to view the man himself, this is easily one of the best movies of the year and it is a shame that it wasn’t recognized in award season as such. It should have certainly pulled in consideration for picture, director, technicals, but most of all, screenwriting.

2. The Big Short

Director: Adam McKay
Release Date: November 12th, 2015 (AFI Fest); December 11th, 2015 (US)
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture; Best Director; Best Supporting Actor - Christian Bale; Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Film Editing

The Big Short will be shown to economics classes for at least the next few decades. While it is still an extremely intelligent movie, it manages to effectively and humorously dumb down certain economic concepts to help your average film goer understand just what caused the economic crisis of 2007/2008. It is a movie that could have backfired, with so many gimmicky storytelling methods including constant breaking of the fourth wall and random shots edited in at breakneck speed for effect. But these work together so well that they accentuate the craziness of the time while somehow making the film much more comprehensive. Between an emotional performance by Steve Carrell, that is arguably his best yet, and an ever impressive Christian Bale, the character development is outstanding for a film telling a story about three groups of people that never directly interact. If you are interested in economics, business, or are just curious about what in the hell happened in this generations great economic crash, this is a can't miss film. 

1. Spotlight

Director: Tom McCarthy
Release Date: September 3rd, 2015 (Venice); November 6th, 2015 (US)
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture; Best Director; Best Supporting Actor - Mark Ruffalo; Best Supporting Actress - Rachel McAdams; Best Original Screenplay; Best Film Editing;

It was honestly very difficult to chose between this and The Big Short for me, they're practically tied (good luck Oscar voters). Spotlight wins out in the end, based primarily on McCarthy's outstanding writing and directing and an excellent ensemble. Investigatory journalism films are frequently interesting, and one about a conspiracy as huge as this with an entire city seemingly working against the team of reporters also makes this an underdog-against-all-odds kind of story. The actors juggle a lot of incredibly heavy material and the all-star cast of Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams, amongst others, actually come out on the other side as more than the sum of their parts (earning a much deserved Screen Actors Guild ensemble award). Just as the group is a team giving equal parts in the story, the actors do the same, all working in supporting roles without a true central character.  The aforementioned film, The Big Short, is an incredibly atypical movie when compared to the relatively straightforward and linear storytelling of Spotlight. Yet sometimes, if the screenplay, director, production value and actors all go above and beyond and work well together, you end up with an outstanding cinematic work, which I think this definitely classifies as, and I am very confident in my decision to name it my favorite film of 2015.

88th Oscar Predictions coming Thursday, 2/25/16

30 Potential 89th Oscar Contenders coming Monday, 2/29/16

20 Best Nominees of the Last 10 Years coming Friday, 3/4/16

Nicolas Cage Films Ranked Pt. 1 coming Friday, 3/11/16

15. Brooklyn
14. Carol
13. The Martian
12. Sicario
11. Trumbo
10. Mad Max: Fury Road
9. Bridge of Spies
8. Straight Outta Compton
7. The Hateful Eight
6. Room
5. Ex Machina
4. The Revenant
3. Steve Jobs
2. The Big Short
1. Spotlight


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