Okay, folks. I think it's time to do this once again. The time has come to look back at the year that was, and to offer my personal choices for the greatest, the most exciting, and the most disappointing movies that 2015 had to offer. For those who weren't around last time, I made the choice to skip the usual "Top 10" format and put together a kind of faux "awards show" format with categories and awards of my choosing. That seemed to go rather well, so we'll be trying it again this year. The categories will be divided into three different articles, all of which will follow the same basic rules:
1. The only films considered will be those that I’ve personally seen and reviewed. Sadly, this means that Bone Tomahawk, Everest, The Keeping Room, Danny Collins, A Royal Night Out, Mustang, Minions, San Andreas, Vacation, Pixels, Freeheld, Miss You Already, Secret in their Eyes and several others will not make the cut. This also means that The Danish Girl, The Revenant, The Witch, and Anomalisa will not be considered, either because I haven't gotten to them yet or because they still haven't arrived in my neck of the woods.
2a. Movies released before 2015 are disqualified. Because What We Do in the Shadows, '71, Eden, and Clouds of Sils Maria were all publicly released somewhere in the world at some point in 2014, they are counted as 2014 movies and therefore not eligible.
2b. Festival screenings in 2014 don’t count. Because movies can and have been known to change between festival screenings and public releases, I tend to give the benefit of the doubt and assume that a movie isn't really finished until its first public debut. For example, while Pawn Sacrifice may have debuted at the 2014 TIFF, it wasn't publicly released until a year later. Anything could have been done with that movie in the interim, so I'm calling it a 2015 movie.
3. Only one award per movie, and only one movie per award. I don’t want any tied wins because that’s lazy, and I don’t want any one film to win everything because that’s boring.
4. No more than five nominees to a category. I have to draw the line somewhere.
Without any further housekeeping, let's take a look at the Masterpieces of 2015. We start with...
Best Light Drama
Grandma was a sweet little character drama that took on some pretty bold material in a tastefully lighthearted way, and I think it deserves recognition for that much. I was also very fond of McFarland, USA, which successfully blended the racial "fish-out-of-water" comedy and the inspirational underdog sports story into something far more creative and uplifting than either individual genre. Another pleasant surprise was Mr. Holmes, which eschewed the typical "mystery adventure" expectations of Sherlock Holmes in favor of a more low-key and heartfelt story centered around a fantastic Ian McKellen performance.
But I'm giving this one to The End of the Tour, because I could seriously spend all day listening to its two lead characters. Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel play two budding friends who talk about art, fame, drugs, romance, and pretty much everything else under the sun. That may sound boring, yet the conversations are so intelligent and funny and creative and sincere, and all presented with a faint undercurrent of tension. This movie absolutely should not work as well as it does, yet it's superbly constructed and masterfully performed in a way that simply has to be seen to be believed.
Best Coming-of-Age Drama
Dope was one of the year's surprise hits, as a racially charged genre mash-up that also served as a love letter to the '90s. It's very sweet and very funny, even if the radical changes in tone mess with the pacing. Anyone else might call this the year's best coming-of-age film. But then, practically nobody else saw A Girl Like Her.
Very few other movies this year stuck with me the way Girl did. Even if the mockumentary format strains credulity at times, this was still a very bold and powerful examination of why teenagers bully each other, how bullying has changed in the Internet Age, how bullying affects the victim, and even how a teenage suicide can affect an entire community. And it's all presented with heartbreaking sincerity, which only hammers home the point that somewhere out there, this exact same tragedy is playing out as you read this. I very strongly recommend every teenager and their parents to seek it out.
Best Crime/War Drama
I'm giving A Most Violent Year an honorable mention, because even if it wasn't the best film of the year, it still deserved better than instant banishment to obscurity because some shithead decided to release it on New Year's Eve.
Anyway, critics everywhere were much more enamored of Sicario, though the movie (for all of its many strengths) revels in cynical nihilism to the point where I personally find it abhorrent. The same goes for Beasts of No Nation, though that movie at least has the excuse of being told through the eyes of a child who'd have no idea how to actually fix the violent unrest in West Africa. And as much as I loved The Hateful Eight, even I have to admit that the movie had more balls than brains.
So I'm giving this one to Bridge of Spies, a top-notch Spielberg movie with a Coen Brothers script that actually manages to be both suspenseful and optimistic, with some relevant statements about constitutional freedoms and the value of human life. And of course, that U2 spy plane crash is exhilarating.
Best "Recent Events" Drama
It was quite surprising how many films we got that were based on actual events from the past 15 years, with effects that are still playing out in newspapers today. One example was Concussion, a movie that got more people talking about CTE and the physical dangers of professional football, even if the film's agenda was conveyed by way of a laughably thin plot. Compare that to The Big Short, which may have had some pacing problems, but at least it presented a lot of information about the housing market crash in ways that were consistently clever, entertaining, hilarious, and infuriating in the best ways.
We also had Truth, which is a very underrated movie, in my opinion. While the film may have been a bit hamfisted and preachy for its own good, the movie still made a lot of smart and nuanced statements about the ambiguities of modern journalism. But then it got blown out of the water by Spotlight, a movie that boldly addressed the Catholic pedophilia scandal in great depth while also talking about matters of religion, faith, culpability, and journalistic integrity. It's a film that was beautifully directed and tightly plotted, with fantastic performances across the board.
While The Walk may have had a jaw-dropping climax, the rest of the film was just kinda so-so. We also had a highly underrated biopic of Steve Jobs, though I'm not sure the film made a convincing argument as to why we needed a biopic of Steve Jobs at this point in time to begin with. By contrast, Trumbo made some very compelling and timely sociopolitical statements by way of a whip-smart screenplay being read by an astronomical cast.
Even so, I'm giving this one to Straight Outta Compton, the NWA biopic that took the world by storm this year. Here was a movie that made some powerful statements about racial profiling and police brutality, presented with heartfelt performances and superb reproductions of some of the greatest rap music ever recorded. It's a movie with drama, action, sex appeal, and genuine pathos, presenting its subjects without making the mistake of lionizing them.
It's tempting to call Youth a mindfuck, as so much of the film is comprised of dreamlike imagery and bizarre editing choices. That said, it's equally possible that the film's sensibilities were simply lost on me. But then we have Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, which is ultimately a movie about a mentally disturbed young woman who retreats into her own self-insertion fantasy instead of confronting her harsh and unforgiving real life. It's basically a Terry Gilliam movie masquerading as a Coen Brothers tribute posing as an adaptation of an urban legend, which is wickedly deceptive and incredibly creative.
But of course the clear winner is Ex Machina, a dizzying sci-fi suspense thriller that constantly keeps the audience guessing what's going on and who knows how much toward accomplishing what end. And it does all of this while constantly raising profound and novel questions about the nature of existence, humanity's hubris, interpersonal communications and sexuality, and even logic itself. Throw in a fine sense of humor, and you've got one of the smartest and most engaging films we had all year.
Best Star Vehicle
The Walk deserves another mention, since the whole film revolved around a delightful performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But we also have Creed, which makes the strongest argument yet for why Michael B. Jordan deserves A-list status immediately.
Though as good as those performances were, I'm giving this one to Room (2015) and Brie Larson's powerhouse turn. I know I'm bending the rules a bit because it's Jacob Tremblay's movie just as much, but still. The whole movie is heartwrenching from start to finish, as we watch our two lead characters sink to devastating depths and come out stronger than ever, if maybe not completely undamaged. It's empowering, it's uplifting, it's poignant, and it features a tour de force lead performance from one of the most underappreciated young female talents working in cinema today.
We come at last to my choice for the greatest film of 2015. The smartest, most ambitious, most creative, most exquisitely crafted, most superbly acted film of the year. The movie that, in my opinion, is most likely to be held up as a true masterpiece by cinephiles yet to come. And there was only ever going to be one choice for this one.
I was so thrilled to see The Martian find as much success as it did. The film came out to tremendous critical acclaim, a reported $596 million worldwide take against a reported $108 million budget, skyrocketing book sales of its source material, and hopefully a lot of awards love in the weeks to come. It's a genuinely funny and inspirational movie that treats its audience like sentient thinking adults, presented with staggering production value and a cast loaded with actors at the top of their game.
Far more importantly, this movie is very explicit in its passion for science and engineering. It's a love letter to the heroes who are making the scientific breakthroughs that push us forward as a species, and it serves as a reminder of what humanity can accomplish when we set our petty differences aside and work together to solve one problem at a time. The success of this movie could potentially mean more people inspired to keep on pushing the envelope, bringing us new discoveries and more advanced technology. It could even mean that Hollywood is given more motivation to spend $100 million budgets or more on intelligent works of hard science fiction. This isn't just a well-made movie or a creative and thoughtful movie, it's an important movie. So it gets my top honors for the year.
Agree with my list? Did I leave anything out? Feel free to drop a line in the comments and come back tomorrow for the Disappointments of 2015.