It’s that time of year again. Award season is in full effect, and everybody loves exchanging ‘best of’ lists, myself included. I’ve never understood why some people limit themselves to just 10; I celebrate film as a medium, and I have yet to find a reason not to expand beyond that. I figured that 30 worked well for me last year, so why not repeat that same magic number?
The vast majority of the Oscar-caliber films get released at the very tail end of the year as is custom, so I give myself a little bit of a buffer to catch up. January is the month I have dubbed my “movie crunch,” and I’ve been intaking as many movies as possible. I’ve watched my annual quota of 130 movies released in the year, and I hit everything that I believe stood a chance of making this list. The only one I know I missed was Son of Saul, as I had no means of watching it (to be fair, this is the case for almost all modern foreign films until they hit the home market in Jacksonville, Florida).
Now I do rate and review movies for myself, so while there are a lot of films on here that are widely considered to be great, I have a few wild cards that connected with me personally, two of which are currently sitting at a rating of less than 6.0 on IMDb. Just to give you some sort of frame of reference, before I created this blog last year, both The Call and Pain & Gain fell within my top 10 of 2013, two really good movies that for whatever reason were met with a mixed reception.
If it got a wide release in 2015, it was considered for this list, and if it had a limited 2014 run, it is noted accordingly. This is also the first year where I’ve had this blog from start to finish, so everything will have a hyperlink… eventually. As previously stated, I’ve just been watching as many movies as possible, and I have 45 (!) reviews to catch up on. If it doesn’t have a hyperlink to a more detailed review now, rest assured: it’s coming within the next month or so.
As always, this list is completely subject to change. Without further ado, let’s jump right into my very favorite movies of the year!
Joel Edgerton shows that he can truly do it all with The Gift, pulling triple duty by writing, directing and staring in it. It’s twisty and has enough surprises that your attention will never wan, and while it may play a touch on the trashy side, you are always interested in seeing how it escalates. One thing you may not know about me is that I’m a huge fan of board games, and chess was the one that ultimately started the fascination early on in my childhood. I knew of Bobby Fischer, but only by reputation. Pawn Sacrifice is a fascinating character study that teaches you about the personal life of this legendary player, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen Tobey Maguire act as well as he does here. It was certainly a big year for transgender people in film, and while I found The Danish Girl to be overly dry, Tangerine is the exact opposite, having big personality and style for days. It doesn’t have a whole lot as far as the story goes, but it is vibrant, colorful and energetic as can be. The first of two horror movies on this list is the microbudgeted Unfriended. While I can confidently say that the Paranormal Activity franchise has exhausted the creativity of every brain at the writing table, Unfriended came out of nowhere to show there are still fresh ideas out there in this subgenre, and I couldn’t help but be impressed with how it plays out in real time. The DUFF isn’t the only film about a high school girl to be featured on this list, and it’s worthy of more recognition. It’s positive, has a good message, all the while giving you some well-written jokes. It’s also a great vehicle for Mae Whitman, and it fully showcases the comedic chops that she has.
The Big Short is pretty upsetting, given the source material. I know it is marketed as a comedy, but you should know the humor is very spread out and is few and far between. Still, the quality of the performances given by everybody here (especially Carell) I feel makes this worthwhile. I’ve never seen the stage production of The Last Five Years, but I feel that it translates very well to film. The music is stellar, and they got two terrifically cast people to bring it to life in Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan. I also like how it jumps to different stages of the relationship a la (500) Days of Summer, as it keeps it engaging and fresh. I didn’t know much about Paddington’s source material, but I love the family film they made here. It’s fast moving, all smiles and deserving of its spot on this list, and you will get something out of it even if you aren’t a child. I also don’t have much of a background in the Rocky series, but Creed is an emotionally-charged roller coaster of a boxing movie. Almost every boxing film follows the same template, so it’s the level of acting, writing and backstory that makes or breaks it. You needn’t look any further than Southpaw to see this go mostly wrong, so I am happy to say at least one got it right this year. Brooklyn is traditional and romantic, but hey, I’m a traditional and romantic kind of guy. To me, there’s nothing about this that screams “Best Picture”, but it’s still really good. I was able to connect with the story, and all of the attention to detail is present in all the right spots.
The very last movie I watched for this list was Oscar hopeful The Revenant. It’s an exhausting duration test that makes you feel like you survived a traumatic event, and while it’s easy to appreciate the craft to it, it’s hard to get pumped about selling you on something that is this draining. Still, it should be the movie that finally brings Leo his Oscar gold, and he has certainly earned it at this point. Surprisingly, 2015 was a great year for Westerns, and I’m about to go over 2 of the 3 featured on this list. Slow West is one that’s meant for Western lovers, and Michael Fassbender is the spitting image of Clint Eastwood, playing a badass man of action and very few words. With a terrific final showdown, they have crafted a genre film that is sure to connect with its target audience. Bone Tomahawk, on the other hand, has the most gruesome scene I have seen in quite some time, and I don’t need to spoil it, you will know it when you see it. With some dynamite casting, it leaves an impression long after you walk away. The horror movie of the year is It Follows. It’s an original, and I love it when the “less-is-more” theory is utilized within the genre. It’s also very unique, because you find yourself watching the background for much of the film. This is one where it’s not a matter of ‘if’ the evil entity will catch our protagonist, but ‘when’. Many forgot about early release Ex Machina, but I didn’t. Oscar Isaac is such an incredible talent (which people are now realizing from the new Star Wars installment), and he brings a terrific script to life. Some excellent points on what’s in store for our future are raised, and there is some smart commentary to be found on just where technology is headed.
It was a fantastic year for hip-hop, and Dope kicked it all off. With a wonderful soundtrack and a palpable energy, you’ve got quite an upbeat and enjoyable film. It also doesn’t hurt that it boasts some young talent, and it is sure to get you energized. The next two movies are great, but be forewarned: they are probably the roughest to watch on this list. Beasts of No Nation is enthralling, but seeing these kids in Africa lose their innocence before hitting their teenage years is tough to sit through. You’re essentially watching a place in Africa where humanity is all but lost, which is something that you need to be prepared for. Animal cruelty is also hard to stomach, and while White God features elements that I promise you haven’t seen before, it’s a lot to deal with, especially if you love dogs. The good is definitely in there, but I still find myself debating if the gut-punch of animal abuse is worth it. Probably the biggest snub of this award season is Straight Outta Compton. It’s almost like a superhero team-up movie a la The Avengers, except it’s a biopic based on real life. Featuring some terrific commentary on police brutality that shamefully still rings true today, it’s a movie that should be seen by all. I know many have been curious about how I feel about the biggest movie of the year, but it’s still buried deep in my “to review” queue. Let me get it out of the way: I liked the new Star Wars a whole lot. It washes the bad taste of the prequels away, and it is quite honestly exactly what this series needed: a fresh start. Sure, it does follow the same basic template of A New Hope, but you know what? Back to basics is exactly what the doctor ordered for this series.
10. Jurassic World
Now we are getting to my very favorites, and it’s going to start with this big, loud, insanely entertaining blockbuster. My wife and I are nuts about dinosaurs, and this movie kicked all kinds of ass. You can make arguments against it, saying the script is simple, or that the characters are stereotypical, and I wouldn’t even try to argue against you on either point. That said, I would make the counter-argument that the scope of the spectacle doesn’t get any better than this, and it delivered on everything I wanted in a Jurassic Park movie. The finale to this made me want to jump out of my seat and cheer, it really is that satisfying, and you know what this movie has on every other movie on this list? This is the only movie featured here that I watched 3 times this year, and in theaters no less.
9. 99 Homes (2014)
I will admit, this may have hit closer to my heart than it would have, given where my life is at currently. As of 3 months ago, my wife and I purchased our first home, so obviously, watching people become evicted from their residences was a surefire way get a tangible emotional rise out of me. That said, even if I wasn’t a homeowner, you would still find 99 Homes pretty high on this list. Andrew Garfield has never been better, and I will continue to follow Michael Shannon to whatever project he chooses to grace his presence with. Watching a montage of people being put out on the street is one of the most emotionally devastating scenes I’ve seen this year, and if this doesn’t convince you to make your mortgage payments on time, nothing will.
Bridge of Spies was a match made in heaven for me. I love Spielberg when he isn’t directing biopics about Abraham Lincoln, and I am a die hard fan of the Coen brothers, who just happened to pen this script. Add everybody’s favorite leading man Tom Hanks into the mix, and to paraphrase Leo in Django Unchained, that’s when my curiosity turns into attention. It’s the Coens on the content, Spielberg on the details, and Hanks on the delivery, all of which are major reasons on why I love movies. So much of this captures the paranoia that was rampant during Cold War times, and you never feel certain that anything will go according to plan. I will say that it feels more like a Coen brothers movie than it does a Spielberg movie, but that is something that I am perfectly okay with.
7. Steve Jobs
Another collaboration made in movie paradise for me is the directorial talent of Danny Boyle meeting up with the mastermind writing skill of Aaron Sorkin. I know this didn’t do terribly well at the box office, and I don’t know how much that has to do with people just wanting this to be the next Social Network, because this is definitely not that. It’s also way different than the previous biopic Jobs starring Ashton Kutcher; while Kutcher may have the facial structure that better matches Steve Jobs, the movie undid itself by trying to cover too much of his life. This movie here succeeds far more by just giving you glimpses; you are backstage with Jobs and company for only a handful of different events, and you really get to see where this man was at during these various points in his illustrious career. You don’t get to be this successful by playing nice, and this is a fascinating character study that flows smoothly with deftness.
One of the hardest mediums out there is inarguably stop motion. In fact, it is so difficult that you seldom see it, maybe one time every one to two years. Add a brilliant brain like Charlie Kaufman to the mix and you’re sure to get something truly special. Every decision behind every frame of Anomalisa has a purpose, and it ends up giving you a unique and memorable end product. There are very few voice actors, and there’s an important reason for that as well. Leave it to these animated figures to give you one of the most relatable, personable and human stories out there. I think that this is one that is even better if you experience it alone because so much about this is being alone in an ocean of similar people, just trying to about reach out to find somebody unique that you can connect with.
Talk about not judging a book by its cover. I didn’t have any set expectations when I sat down to watch The Diary of a Teenage Girl, but from the title, I had some vague notion that this would be some sweet coming-of-age movie about a girl that develops crushes on boys and gets her heart broken. You know, something innocent, cute and probably superficial. While this may be a coming-of-age story of sorts, this is anything but fuzzy, and it is actually kind of a gritty tale of this girl discovering her sexuality, and being placed in this bad spot with her family with no great options either way. I know the actress playing this girl is actually 24, but make no mistake, she is playing a 15-year-old girl, and convincingly so. When she gets herself into these bad situations, it is so shocking that it is to the point where you want to yell at the screen. This was the biggest surprise of the year for me, and despite it being a lot to deal with, I do want to watch it again. Very much so, in fact.
Golden Globes be damned, this is still my pick to win it all. Spotlight is incredible, and it uncovers a dark, real life story that got unearthed all too recently. Much like many movies on this list, it is upsetting material, but it is still a story that demands to be told. Apart from a riveting story, this has an authentic feel because of the terrific subtlety to it. You get a really great sense of what this group of journalists does for a living, and it is never glamorized; Spotlight feels like real people, just doing their job. It also makes you interested in journalism and the process of it all, as so much of this is unraveling a mystery and revealing a cover-up. It’s a great film with an emotional charge, and it’s one that’s highly worthy of your time.
While Spotlight is my pick to win, my favorite Oscar movie has to be Room. It is really a case of “the less you know, the better”, and you should actively go out of your way to avoid spoilers in any capacity whatsoever. I won’t touch upon the story because so much of the joy in it is in how it all unfolds. The acting is incredible. Not only do I think Brie Larson deserves to win for this, I think she’s a lock. In addition to that, this little kid, Jacob Tremblay, gives a stupendous performance in his role as well, and I’m sure he has nothing but bright things in his future, as he still has yet to hit the age of 10. I have to apologize for the brevity here, but I don’t want to risk spoiling anything about this: go watch this movie.
If you are at all familiar with my preferred flavor of movies, you shouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see this here. I am, admittedly, a die-hard Tarantino fan, and I quite honestly celebrate the man’s entire library. Even his less well-received films like Death Proof resonated with me, and he still has a perfect track record as far as I’m concerned. This is his longest film to date (if you count Kill Bill as two separate volumes), and it is one of his most contained. It’s a bottle film for the most part, and about 3/4 of this takes place in this in this haberdashery. It is filled with surprises, and the script, while coming close to bursting at the seams, is as full as it can be with Tarantino-isms, which I view as my own personal Christmas. With his movies, I can even have it on without any visuals, as it is so pleasurable just to listen to and hear phrases being turned throughout, and this makes a great addition to his filmography. I wouldn’t necessarily say this is for everybody, as I am well aware of people that don’t care for this, but for me, it is everything I look for in a film.
And my favorite movie of the year is none other than…
1. Inside Out
No matter which way I cut it, the film I kept coming back to over and over again as far as my favorite goes is Inside Out. It’s held this title since I saw it during the summer, and the only thing that came close to touching it was The Hateful Eight. As far as original ideas go, this concept is a bonafide keeper: everything you internalize represented with characters that matches that respective emotion. And everything that comes with it is absolutely beautiful; the internal world Pixar built is as innovative as can be and is undeniably gorgeous. As far as moments go, Inside Out has the most effective emotional punch I’ve seen all year. I watched this in a theater, and all you could hear was adults actively trying to hold back tears, and failing at doing so. Inside Out is brilliant, well-crafted, creative, and deserving of this top spot.
And here are 10 films that you should actively avoid, my bottom 10:
Thank you so much for reading, and happy movie watching!
– Critic for Hire