Anytime we tell anyone that we cover film, we are immediately met with questions regarding the last good movie we have seen. The problem with responding to this question is the same problem anyone reading this has encountered when asked to list the last great album or book they enjoyed. Subjectivity is part of what makes art so unique and wonderful. The same story that moves one of us to tears may be considered a riotous comedy to others, and vice versa. The best anyone can hope to do when recommending a piece of entertainment is to suggest something seemingly anyone could enjoy and pray that the person you recommend it to is not in that small percentage of people who simply won’t “get it.”
This list, unlike the others you may see us produce from time to time, does not play it safe. The films on this list are the ones that reached through the giant screen they were projected upon and touched our oversaturated journalistic hearts. In a year where we saw far more movies than our mothers would ever approve of, these 25 have stuck with us through thick and thin, leaving lasting impressions on our hearts, minds, and creative souls.
Throughout 2015 you may have caught us bemoaning the current state of cinema, but upon further reflection it’s clear this year was a rather exciting one for the 126-year old spectacle. There were stories big and small, shot on everything from a top of the line Alexa to a phone you might have in your pocket, and they came ripe with performances that both broke and defined careers. The best titles welcomed us into a reality not unlike ours and shared journeys most of us would never otherwise considered a possibility. They pulled the curtain back from the mystique of reality and showed us visions of existence that fueled our desire to reach a little further in our own interactions with the world around us. Many films released in 2015 did that and more, often in ways we never saw coming, and our biggest hope with our picks for the best films of the year is that you are introduced to a film that has that kind of impact on you.
25. 99 Homes
Director Ramin Bahrani, like all reasonable people, fell in love with Michael Shannon the first time he saw him perform. When Behrani learned he and Shannon were attending the same film festival years back, he walked up to the actor and told him he was going to write a movie for him to lead. Shannon, to Behrani’s surprise, was already a fan of the director. Several years and a growing collection of impressive work for both later, Behrani and Shannon finally joined forces earlier this year for 99 Homes. The Florida-based foreclosure film, which also featured Andrew Garfield, dealt a powerful blow of painful realism to audiences in a time when many Americans are still trying to recover from the recent housing crisis.
24. Steve Jobs
Though its premature wide release was an unfortunate PR nightmare, Danny Boyle’s latest delivered the best Jobs film to date. The script from Aaron Sorkin provided plenty of tension and wit, but in the end it was the film’s incredible performances that made it truly memorable. Fassbender is electric as Jobs, and he’s supported by equally powerful turns from Jeff Daniels and Kate Winslet, not to mention some impressive dramatic delivery from Seth Rogen. I doubt Steve Jobs will be a hot topic during Awards season, but regardless it’s a film worth seeing.
This film, which runs just over two hours in length, was made in just one take. The story follows a young woman from Madrid who encounters four local Berliners after leaving a crowded night club. The group soon strikes up a warm friendship, but their good times are cut short due to one of the locals owing a favor to the kind of gangster you don’t ever want to owe a favor. The mysterious criminal demands the friends rob a bank just as dawn begins to break, and Victoria is left with no other choice than to follow along. What happens next is both riveting and exciting in equal measure, with numerous moments of cinematic beauty riddled between crimes. Victoria the kind of movie watching experience you never forget, even if the story runs a little too long for its own good.
It took nearly a decade of development for the widow of Charles M Schulz to allow a feature film using her late husband’s beloved Peanuts characters to be made, but the final product was well worth the wait. Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy and the entire gang burst onto cinema screens this past November with a story lifted straight from Schulz’s original comic strips, and in doing so gave an entirely new generation of animation fans a chance to discover the magic of the Peanuts universe. Whether or not we will see a sequel is still undecided, but the film’s success gives us hope we will one day see Joe Cool dance on screen again.
The work the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team did to reveal the role the Catholic Church played in covering up the widespread abuse of children by priests is perhaps the greatest example of investigative journalism in the last 25 years. Spotlight, the film that attempts to condense those efforts into a two-hour story, does a fine job of conveying the highlights of the Spotlight team’s experience without overlooking the real work that went into uncovering the unsettling truth. All too often movies about journalism get lost in the relationships between characters and end up showing very little actual reporting or research, but not Spotlight. This is a film that celebrates hard work, and it never loses sight of that fact. The performances are great, but the real treasure of this film is the argument it makes for people to continue supporting local papers.
20. Mistress America
Noah Baumbach and his wife/musician/collaborator Greta Gerwig have long proven their ability to deliver unique original stories in an age where the vast majority of films being made are sequels, prequels, adaptations, or tales allegedly inspired by real events, but Mistress America was something special all its own. The term “zany” isn’t used in reference to comedy as much as it was when films like Naked Gun or Airplane were being released, but that may be the best way to describe what Baumbach and Gerwig have created with this film. It’s high-brow stupidity in the best possible sense, and features perhaps the best parody of our newly reinvigorated ‘PC’ society written all year. What more could you ask for?
19. Listen To Me Marlon
If someone told you that you could hear Marlon Brando tell his own life story, regrets and all, for less than the cost of a fast food value meal, would you believe them? Listen To Me Marlon, created by Stevan Riley, features a collection of insights and reflections on a life lived to the fullest as told by the man himself, Marlon Brando. It’s an intoxicating showcase of multimedia that has been tirelessly pieced together over the last several years, and it leaves you feeling as if you knew Brando on a personal level. While there were many great docs released in the last year, this title is by far the best example of a life brought to film.
18. Inside Out
Pixar has rarely disappointed moviegoers, but Inside Out was a special title even for the world’s leading animation company. Filled with brilliant metaphors and unforgettable characters that helped explain why people are the way they are, this film touched hearts young and old when it was initially released at the beginning of summer 2015. Viewers of all ages were given VIP access inside the mind of another person, with all the imagination and memory such an adventure would entail, and they were guided on their journey by a brilliant performance from veteran funny person Amy Poehler. We probably cried a dozen times before the credits rolled during our private screening, and that number remained unchanged during a second viewing later in the year.
17. 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets
Considering the horrific and heartbreaking number of lives lost to gunfire in the United States over the last year it should come as no surprise that 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets made its way onto our list of favorite films. Unlike any other doc on this list, 3 1/2 minutes examines a recent controversial event that captured the nation’s attention in a way that speaks to larger cultural issues regarding gun control and racism. It’s about as far from a feel-good movie as you’re likely to find, but the message it conveys is one everyone should be required to hear. To see the way guns and the split-second reactions of those who possess them can irrevocably change an untold number of lives is the kind of thing that sticks with you and makes you question your own beliefs. We find it hard to imagine anyone could see a film like this and walk away unchanged, but feel free to try.
16. Stanford Prison Experiment
Every couple of years a film comes along that flies largely under the radar, but hosts a wealth of impressive performances from people who are not quite A-list stars, and in 2015 that film was The Stanford Prison Experiment. Based on the study of the same name, the latest film from Kyle Patrick Alvarez offered an unflinching look at what can happen when everyday people are put in a position of power over their peers. It’s one of those movies that would be crazy even if it weren’t based on actual events, but the fact it really happened pretty much blow by blow the way it appears in the film is practically frightening. Add to this the talented cast, including Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Billy Crudup and Michael Angarano, just to name a few, and you have a recipe for high tension entertainment that does not disappoint.
Carol is a love story, plain and simple, but it’s a love story unlike any you have seen before. Todd Hayes has delivered a restrained and gorgeous picture, ripe with fine performances from Cate Blanchett, Mara Rooney and the absolutely stunning Sarah Paulson, that will resonate in the heart of anyone with a pulse. The story may be of two women with two very different histories, but when all the character traits are stripped away there is nothing more than a tale of what happens when two people meet and feel as if their lives have only just begun. It’s a movie about the universal desire to capture the spark of young love and maintain it for as long as possible, regardless whatever trouble may follow in its wake. It’s all of this and more, but there is rarely as much as a raised voice in terms of onscreen action. That fact might drive some to complain, but for those who appreciate a good character study there are far worse ways to spend your time than with this film.
14. Turbo Kid
Set in an alternate dystopian universe and packed to the gills with the kind of insane, yet brilliant ideas that makes midnight movie crowds foam at the mouth, Turbo Kid is without a doubt the craziest (good) movie we saw this year. The story tells of a young boy who dons the identity of his favorite comic book hero in order to save his enthusiastic best friend and defeat an evil overlord. It’s kind of like Mad Max, only with BMX bikes instead of cars and teens instead of Mel Gibson. Oh, and there is a lot more blood. A lot more.
13. Cop Car
Kevin Bacon has the unfortunate luck of having his best performances appear in films that all too often go overlooked by the general public. This was painfully obvious with The Woodsman, and it’s clear yet again in Jon Watts’ Cop Car. The film follows two young boys who, on a day like any other, discover an abandoned cop car and steal it, unaware of the hostage fighting for their life in the trunk. Once the murderous cop (Bacon) finds his car has been stolen, a one-of-a-kind pursuit begins that will keep you on the edge of your seat until the credits roll.
12. The Final Girls
The Final Girls is for slasher films what Cabin In The Woods was for movies about teens on doomed vacations. Being lifelong fans of Friday The 13th and Nightmare On Elm Street ourselves, we believed this movie was right up our alley long before Sony sent over a screener, and we’re happy to report we weren’t wrong. A group of friends flee from a theater fire only to discover they’ve arrived in the world of the film they had just paid to see. To make matters even weirder, one of the characters is portrayed by another character’s dead mother. Oh, and of course there is the masked, knife-wielding maniac on the loose. What more could any horror-comedy fan ask for?
11. Finders Keepers
Not too long ago, two men made international headlines after getting into a feud over a severed leg found in a grill. Their story, as well as those of the people their battle impacted, is told in this film from Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel. It’s a story that was quite literally ripped from the headlines, but the way it’s showcased here is beyond anything that a news organization could hope to convey. In an age where viral stars are here today and gone today, Finders Keepers reminds us that those we see on the internet are indeed real people with real feelings and lives that can be irrevocably changed by the way we react to their lowest points.
The fact Lily Tomlin has not entered the 2016 Oscar conversation in any meaningful way for her role in Grandma is a damn shame. It’s probably the most frustrating oversight so far this awards season to be honest, and the only explanation seems to be the fact Grandma was released back in August and not in November/December (aka the time of year members of the Academy start seriously considering the year’s contenders). Whatever the case, this tale of a grandmother who will stop at nothing to help her granddaughter seek an abortion is one of the best original stories brought to theater in 2015. Writer/Direction Paul Weitz gives Tomlin room to bring her character to life, and her aggressive delivery is perfectly complemented by the promising talent of Julia Garner. Sam Elliot also appears, and though he is only onscreen for about 15 minutes he delivers one of the best performances of his career.
9. The Revenant
Following up on the success of Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu challenged himself, a very brave crew and a few of Hollywood’s elite to shoot a survival-revenge thriller set in an uncharted part of the American wilderness in the 1800s sequentially using only natural lighting and minimal CGI. Leonardo DiCaprio was among the talent who accepted Inarritu’s call, along with Tom Hardy, Will Poulter and Domnhall Gleeson. Together these men crafted a visceral cinematic experience that will no doubt be studied and celebrated for years to come. It’s an absolutely brutal film, complete with bear attacks, battle sequences, scalping and a lengthy list of other violent acts that offers no characters any breaks from the harsh forces of Mother Nature and their fellow man, but through its barrage of carnage there is an important lesson to be learned about the human spirit that will resonate in the heart and soul of anyone who has faced an impossible fight of their own.
8. Mad Max: Fury Road
Easily the wildest ride of 2015, Mad Max: Fury Road is a high-octane thrill ride that quickly became the new go-to late night movie for many action movie addicts throughout the year. It’s the second and highest-ranking film on our list to feature Tom Hardy, which should come as no surprise as his performance in this film is almost as memorable as that of his co-star, Charlize Theron. The real star of the show however, is writer/director George Miller, without whom there would be no Mad Max. At 79, Miller has become the oldest living director most teenagers know by name (sorry, Woody Allen), and that legacy will no doubt continue as he plans to share additional franchise films in the years to come.
We love movies that carve their own narrative paths, and this year few films did that better than Dope. Part tongue-in-cheek take on urban teen films, part classic coming-of-age tale, this film from Rick Famuyiwa had us dancing, laughing, and cheering for its main characters from the first act right on through to the end. Shameik Moore makes his presence in Hollywood known as Malcolm, a 90s hip-hop fan with an indie-punk band that is cooler than your favorite group. His friends, played by Kiersey Clemons and Tony Revolori, are equally hip in their own way. Together the gang accidentally comes into a large amount of narcotics, which they then attempt to return before getting in trouble and ruining their lives forever. It’s a familiar setup, but the execution is fresh and new.
6. Love And Mercy
Equal parts fun and heartbreaking, Love And Mercy tackled the tough story of Beach Boys member Brian Wilson in a unique way that gave the world two amazing performances, as well as an entertaining turn from Elizabeth Banks. Paul Dano outshines John Cusack in our opinion, but both actors bring something to the role of Wilson that stays with you. What also sticks is the unabashed approach to how Bill Pohland presents mental disease, not to mention the way people are those suffering from it do not always know how to respond. Everyone wants the best for those they love, but sometimes knowing what is truly best is a lot harder than it sounds. Love And Mercy doesn’t have all the answers, but it does leave you with a deeper appreciation for Wilson’s genius and the inability to shake his biggest songs from your head.
There have been several harrowing stories of women and children being saved from lives of captivity in the news over the last decade. Room brings one of those stories to life with a commanding performance from Brie Larson as a young mother who has spent nearly a decade living in a shed in a quiet neighborhood just like any other neighborhood in the United States. Each day, the mother and her child live out their lives as if the room they share is the only real place on Earth, until one day when an opportunity for freedom appears. Everything that follows is incredibly enthralling, offering an insight into the lives of trauma survivors that few other films have dared to shared.
4. Magic Mike XXL
It’s hard to explain the greatness of Magic Mike XXL to anyone who hasn’t made time to see this immediate road trip classic. Like all great tales of friends, the film finds a reunited group of pals going on one last hurrah only to find themselves caught up in a bunch of roadside nonsense along the way. There are beach parties, cougars (not the cats), food trucks, emergency rooms, private adult night clubs and—of course—dancing. There is so much dancing, and it is often executed in such a way you have to rewind (or in our case, buy another movie ticket) to make sure your eyes are not playing tricks on you. More importantly, the movie is fun, and it never tries to do anything but entertain its audience. The only downside is that it ultimately leaves you wanting more, and right now there are no plans for more Magic Mike films.
Shot entirely on an iPhone, Tangerine offers a look at a possible reality within our own world that most people have probably never even thought about, and it does so in a way so original you can’t helping wanting your time in its orange-tinted universe to never end. The film follows a hooker and her best friend who, after learning of the hooker’s boyfriend’s infidelity, set out on a day-long request for revenge that takes them all over the streets of Los Angeles. The twists and turns that follow will surprise you at every bend, and the performance of Mya Taylor will keep you glued to the screen. The film’s success has opened the door for a new generation of innovative filmmakers to try their luck with original features, and we can only hope their efforts are even half as memorable as this awesome film.
2. The End Of The Tour
Maybe it’s the Midwestern blood coursing through our veins or our lifelong admiration for the two people the characters in this film is based on, but The End Of The Tour has been stuck in our minds for months. We’ll be the first to admit that most of the movie feels like a podcast in motion, with set pieces serving as distant second fiddles to the riveting conversations between David Lipsky and David Foster Wallace, but the more we think about everything said and the way it is delivered by Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel the more we love everything about this film. Segel loses himself in portraying Wallace, and through great writing supplied by Donald Margulies he’s able to deliver dialogue that taps into the way people battle with depression and addiction in a way rarely, if ever, brought to screen before. Eisenberg is equally strong, conveying the battle between admiration and his responsibilities as a writer without falling into the schtick that has become his go-to onscreen persona.
To put it simply, Brooklyn is a dream come true. It’s a timeless film that transcends every modern cinematic norm in an earnest way that feels right and true to share a love story that feels equally without age. We mentioned this in our review of the film, but when one considers the recent titles that will be remembered 20 years from now there are very few films that come to mind. With Brooklyn, this calendar year now has one truly exceptional work of art, and we all have John Crowley to thank. This is the kind of film that reminds you why you first fell in love with cinema. It’s beautiful, fun, quick, engaging, romantic, funny and every positive adjective or descriptive phrase in between. We wouldn’t blame you if you ducked under your seat after the screening you paid to see came to an end and hid there until the next screening began just to experience it all over again. It’s that good, and we believe it will only get better with repeat viewings.