By any standard, 2015 produced a bumper crop of quality films. While Hollywood’s obsession with franchises continued unabated and observers decried the continued homogenization of movie culture, the filmmakers themselves found ways to upend the popular perception. Personal voices found a way to wiggle into summer blockbusters, while smaller films found their share of razzle dazzle to turn our heads. Science fiction enjoyed a huge resurgence, as did espionage pictures, while horror films took a tumble (with a few notable exceptions) after several years of renewed enthusiasm.
Above all, it was a year of women in the movies… though that statement applies far more to the images onscreen than the creative forces behind them. It’s encouraging to think that progress has been made, however: especially in sci-fi, largely relegated to the boys’ club, but which saw women portrayed as stronger, more developed and more dynamic than ever before. That needs to translate into more positions behind the camera, but if nothing else, 2015 marked some significant walls coming down.
My first 10 Best List for this site hopefully reflects the trends and developments that made this year such a notable one for movies. The selections are arbitrary, as all of these lists are, but hopefully reveal a little something about why – whatever your tastes were – 2015 had something to put a smile on your face.
Honorable Mention: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
In terms of pure filmmaking, The Force Awakens didn’t break any new ground. Indeed, critics rightfully noted its resemblance to Episode IV, as well as many of the typical bugaboos that George Lucas’s saga has always contained: simplistic story arcs, breathless pacing, characters that relied more upon archetypes than richness or depth. But that’s never been the core of the series’ appeal, and with so many people crushingly disappointed by the prequels, JJ Abrams’ return to form felt like coming home.
More importantly, it has become a legitimate box office phenomenon in an era glutted with disposable event pictures, and in the process provided a bright spot of unity for a culture increasingly defined by divisiveness and acrimony. No matter what your race, class or politics, you could walk up to someone on the other side of the divide and say, “You know what’s awesome? Star Wars. Star Wars is awesome.” And they’ll likely reply with, “Yeah. Star Wars kicks ass.” Suddenly, that gulf of difference doesn’t look quite so insurmountable… and we have The Force Awakens to thank for it.
10: The Walk
No one saw The Walk, which is a pity because it’s director Robert Zemeckis’s best work in years. With Joseph Gordon-Levitt acting as our guide, we dive into the true story of Phillippe Petit, who conspired to walk a tightrope across the towers of the World Trade Center, and in the process inoculate us against the later horrors which befell that building. Zemeckis never forgets 9/11 in his portrayal, but neither does he let it defeat him, reminding us that we’re capable of great joy as well as unspeakable horror. (And if you’re interested in the story, look for the terrific documentary Man on Wire which covers the same event.)
9: The Martian
There’s something about Ridley Scott and science fiction that combines to create great things. Though its debt to Gravity never feels far away and the physics don’t hold water quite as well as they should, his riveting tale of survival and endurance demonstrates what can happen when a filmmaker of his caliber fires on all cylinders.
Darkness and despair seemingly loomed larger than ever in 2015, and it took this incredible thriller to look it all straight in the eye and evaluate the costs. Emily Blunt’s seemingly rock-solid FBI agent takes a tumble down the rabbit hole into the nightmarish reality of the war on drugs, where evil has become so pervasive that only equally heartless evil can combat it. Director Deni Villeneuve presents it without judgment on either side: just a sad acknowledgement of the way things are and the price that it extracts from the righteous and unrighteous alike.
Call it Moneypenny’s Revenge. In a year glutted with great spy flicks – where 007 himself came across as the runt of the litter – Paul Feig’s satirical romp tops them all. The surefire gags are one thing (who knew Jason Statham was such a fantastic comedian?), but Spy finds its secret weapon in Melissa McCarthy’s heroine. The usual plan for films like this is to mine laughs from the protagonist’s incompetence (which the trailer for this one shamelessly implies). Feig reverses that equation, presenting McCarthy as an ideal secret agent who absolutely no one has any faith in. Her frustration is palpable, and her eventual, hysterically funny triumph feels as hard earned as anything this year.
6: The Big Short
The other great comedy this year hinges on a not-dissimilar concept: a group of people who know exactly what they’re doing and can’t convince anyone else to take them seriously. In this case, however, the subject is heartbreakingly real – the financial meltdown of 2008 – and the effects continue to be felt today. Adam McKay takes those responsible to task in the most painfully funny way imaginable, and in the process reminds us that social commentary doesn’t have to come from self-important drama.
5: Bone Tomahawk
The Western has supposedly been at death’s door since Heaven’s Gate, but you wouldn’t know it to look at Bone Tomahawk. Shot in just three weeks and featuring a big-name cast working for scale, it relishes the poetic vernacular of the era, wrapped up in a riveting rescue story that evokes some of the genre’s greatest films. The gruesome finale hits you like a closed fist, but still feels of a kind with the elegant grace of the two hours that preceded it. That also makes it the best horror movie in a year that desperately needed one. And for the love of God please let Kurt Russell play cowboys more often.
4: Ex Machina
In a year overflowing with notable science fiction – and indeed, notable science fiction featuring Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson – Ex Machina makes sure the genre stays firmly rooted in its very best elements. It combines a quietly unnerving thriller with the kinds of questions we expect from AI stories: the nature of intelligence, free will and morality, all given a contemporary upgrade for our narcissistic age. And Alice Vikander’s deceptively inscrutable fembot not only furthers the year’s delightful trend in letting sisters do it for themselves, but may signal the arrival of a major new star.
3: Inside Out
Welcome back Pixar! My God, we missed you.
There used to be a thing called journalism, which existed to enlighten the public and shine a light on awful situations that needed changing. Spotlight excels as both a celebration of that ideal and a eulogy for its passing, as we follow the steps the Boston Globe took to unearth the Catholic sex abuse scandal that rocked the Vatican to its core. It resembles All the President’s Men in its careful dissection of how such a bombshell gets detonated, and its moral outrage at the systematic nature of the abuse never slips into moral smugness. The pieces of this puzzle were around for decades – left untouched by the Globe despite the Church’s victims practically cramming it down their throats — and the protagonists seek out the truth as much to atone for their own sins as to expose the clergy’s.
1: Mad Max: Fury Road
Think of everything we’ve been missing in the modern Hollywood blockbuster. Resonant themes. Practical effects. Women in the pole position on a truly level playing field. Now find a way to deliver them to us in a movie that essentially constitutes one long car chase. Oh yeah, and have it resurrect a moribund franchise whose previous star is now an active pariah and whose 76-year-old director spent the last two decades making adorable animal movies. In a year featuring surprise hits galore and rejuvenated franchises around every corner, this one – which did well, but hardly set fire to the box office – put them all to shame. The most polished, adept, relevant and thematically complex vision of any sort arrived when we all least suspected it, and made as apt a summation of the year in film as any would-be piece of Oscar bait. We’ve all been reborn chrome… and the movies are a better place because of it.