James Cole Clay // Film Critic
At the beginning of the year, that’s when the film schedule is at it’s absolute low point. January is called “dump month” for a reason, but it gives critics a bit of a lull from the breakneck speed of award season. But, 2015 saw an abysmal February and March as well, and it wasn’t until April’s EX MACHINA was there light at the end of the tunnel.
But as a film critic you just have to keep on watching and watching until something finally sticks in your cerebral cortex and gets lodged there until December rolls around. This year, I watched around 200 films in theaters and Video on Demand. I kept the running tally for moments like this and consensus says 2015 really wasn’t all that bad in retrospect.
While the giant studio tent-poles eat up the box-office and theater count year, after year I chose to showcase a mixed bag from the personal (ROOM), to the kinetic (MAD MAX:FURY ROAD) and the cerebral (EX MACHINA). And the hardest part about this gig is voting in critics groups and axing off films that just didn’t make the cut– you could ask me next week and films 6-10 could be vastly different in this seemingly arbitrary process.
However, curating an eclectic mix of favorite films is the key to grab potential audience members and champion them all the way into the pantheon. These 20 films had the most impact on my humble opinion throughout 2015.
10. MISTRESS AMERICA
A double film year (the other being WHILE WE’RE YOUNG) for New York City based filmmaker Noah Baumbach had him working on his zaniest feature to date. Teaming up with romantic partner Greta Gerwig again on writing duties the duo created a film about a 30 year old woman (Gerwig) who does everything and nothing at the same time. The script is instantly quotable and a classically hip entry into the filmmaker’s oeuvre that warrants multiple viewings.
Coming at a peak moment for the LGBT community, Todd Haynes’ 1950s period drama is subtle, yet profound. Haynes directs his leads (Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett) to perfection that’s pulsating with taboo and sexuality.
A film as breathtaking as this on every level, it’s never showy or pretentious, but its wildly sophisticated aesthetic never alienates only invites you into a time that seems so long ago, yet painfully relevant today.
8. STEVE JOBS
This was a box-office disaster, but that in a weird way makes this collaboration between screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle all the more special. Simulating for the sheer brilliance of the script and unflinching portrayal of the eponymous figure, STEVE JOBS speaks in hypotheticals rather than factual. Sorkin takes the emotions felt backstage during three distinct keynote speeches and personifies them into a tightly-wound drama that is also emotionally clever
What was once a tabloid star finally gets the chance to have her voice heard for the first and last time. Asif Kapadia made a technically challenging film that captured the essence of Amy Winehouse in her best and worst moments. He does all this through personal photographs and lyrics that are so potent they almost burst through the screen.
Kapadia and his team craft Winehouse as a fully fledged human being that had a passion for music. When it’s all over you really feel that you have lost a friend. No film this year said more about tabloid and celebrity culture then this deeply moving portrait that completely avoids falling prey to hagiography.
6. WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS
Directed by New Zealand filmmaker/actor Taika Waititi, mockumentary style comedy about four archetypal vampires living together, while they deal with real world problems like washing dishes.
The vampires lament over lost loves and not being able to get into nightclubs. This comedy is silly, crude and is undoubtedly hits a pitch-perfect tone.
There are films that are manipulative in a way that are forced and unearned, a person who is more intelligent that myself once said “when I watch movies I want to be moved not manipulated.” ROOM is that film this year.
It profiles a mother and her five-year-old son as they navigate life within the confines of a single room. The movie is told through the eyes of the son, played by Jacob Tremblay, whose narration had me an unconsolable wreck many times through the film, not because what is going on within the frame is particularly sad. It’s because the emotions are profoundly moving.
Director Lenny Abrahamsson has directed two remarkable performances this year and Oscar buzz has been percolating for leading lady Brie Larson.
4. THE HATEFUL EIGHT
Currently the film is under a pesky embargo, but just know it’s bloody, it’s funny and it definitely has Kurt Russell.
3. SICARIO– Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Director Denis Villeneuve the best flowing film of the year. His 2013 film PRISONERS would not have been nearly as good without director of photography Roger Deakins behind the camera, but their collaboration here only adds to the dreary carnage of the Mexican drug cartels. Emily Blunt breaks up the boys club as an idealist FBI agent who tags along with two mysterious special forces agent Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin for a never-ending fight against the war on drugs.
2. EX MACHINA
Alex Garland has been around writing screenplays for Danny Boyle like 28 DAYS LATER and SUNSHINE, but as a first time filmmaker EX MACHINA is simply mesmerizing. I was lucky enough to see the film at the North American premiere at SXSW in Austin back in March. At the premiere, the 1,100 seat auditorium was spellbound because this a special film that is damn-near close to a cerebral masterpiece.
Garland’s film about a naive programmer (Domnhall Gleeson) who goes to his billionaire boss’ estate (Oscar Isaac) to execute a Turing Test on an A.I. being (played remarkably by Alicia Vikander). There are no heroes, there are no villains, only ideas and theories that roll off the tongues of the lead actors like butter. It’s immensely intellectual topic that is brought down to laymen’s terms, but doesn’t condescend.
EX MACHINA is a battle of wits without being too overt at its mechanisms and is a bit of a meditation on how far should we go with technology, it’s simply brilliant. And not to mention Isaac dances to a funky ass disco groove midway through the film.
1. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Two of the three best action films of all-time belong in the MAD MAX film series, the other being THE ROAD WARRIOR (sorry Tina Turner). The starkest of all landscapes, the wastelands where those without a tribe run and fight for survival. Water and guzzoline are the currency in George Miller’s perfect action spectacle MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, which comments on the real life stranglehold patriarchs have put upon societies for centuries.
The endless car chase is fully engrossing theater experience (that may get a B&W release come 2016) is beautifully textured and pulsates with energy and perfect level simplicity. Max (Tom Hardy) and co-lead Furiosa (Charlize Theron) will never fully get their redemption, but you can by celebrating and revisiting this masterpiece for many years to come.
The Next 10:
- MAGIC MIKE XXL
- BEASTS OF NO NATION
- LOVE & MERCY
- INSIDE OUT
- THE REVENANT
- THE MARTIAN
- JAMES WHITE