COLUMN: The 10 Best Films of 2015
2015 was a big year for this website. I set a new high-water mark for current film reviews in a calendar year with 84 films, and pulled off that feat with a day job, a loving wife, and two toddlers at home. Credit for that whirlwind coverage and push goes greatly to my new access as a regular member of the Chicago press corps for film critics (more on that in a future editorial) through my press credentials writing for Examiner.com. This year's size also extends its quality. I gave out a whopping 16 five-star reviews this year, my highest ever distribution. In most years, I give out 10 or less. Either I'm going soft, or I'm simply finding some outstanding films.
I prefer to be strict enough with my mind and my heart to rank the best and not just give some alphabetical list. This was a difficult list to settle on for an order. As of the end of December, the only two films I feel I've missed that would warrant consideration are the animated offering "Anomalisa" and the consensus top foreign language film "Son of Saul." Other than those two, I think I've seen all I need to see to give out a complete and legitimate "10 Best" list. Here are my picks and, in the spirit of this site, each of the "10 Best" are paired with their best life lesson. Enjoy!
HONORABLE MENTION: THE NEXT TEN
20. "Macbeth"-- I know I'm in the minority of film critics, teachers, and Shakespeare fans, but I was captivated by Justin Kurzel's take on "Macbeth." Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard slow down the prose and the film soaks the scenery with fire, mud, and blood. This film's atmosphere (excellent musical score and cinematography) trumps the quibbles to be found in traditional Shakespeare renditions. (trailer) (full review)
19. "The Last Five Years"-- I normally hate movie musicals. Few ever are worth their time. They are the equivalent of a narrative taking the long way around with excessive song-and-dance numbers that take away from story. Sure, I respect the talent involved and the artistry, but it's not my thing. That normal avoidance is far from the case with "The Last Five Years," a little gem starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan. With reversible timelines told by each performer at different points of their doomed relationship, the emotionality can match the high notes. (trailer) (full review)
18. "Love and Mercy"-- Musical biopics can be paint-by-numbers, more often than not, with birth-to-death, Cliff Notes-level basic touch points. "Love and Mercy" scrambles that cliche to examine the psyche of Beach Boys lead singer Brian Wilson at two different points in his life and builds parallels from there. Anchored by excellent lead performances from Paul Dano in youth, John Cusack later in life, and the excellent Elizabeth Banks, "Love and Mercy" can tap your toe and your heart in the same verse. (trailer) (full review)
17. "Chi-Raq"-- This was the best of the four-star movies I saw in 2015. Buried under a mountain of misnomers that brewed weak controversy, Spike Lee came out swinging to brilliantly speak to the racial issues of today through a modern adaptation of the Greek play "Lysistrata." Smart, symbolic, funny, intentionally over-the-top, and frighteningly relevant, "Chi-Raq" is a movie every one of my Chicagoan neighbors should see. (trailer) (full review)
16. "Avengers: Age of Ultron"-- A shameful fanboy five-star review for the big Marvel sequel leads the countdown of my 15 five-star reviews from 2015. I'm not mad about giving this the full endorsement and I know it's not better than films #16-20 and beyond, but I don't care. The comic book kid in me can't resist. I felt Joss Whedon amped up the character depth for his second "Avengers" film and the action delivered just as it was supposed to as a summer tentpole. (trailer) (full review)
15. "'71"-- From one of the largest films of 2015 to one of the smallest, "'71" is a micro-budgeted Irish film starring "Unbroken" star Jack O'Connell that chronicled the true story of a British soldier separated from his unit on the chaotic and violent streets of Belfast, North Ireland during their historic political and religious strife. Shot as a kinetic "one wild night" action thriller, "'71" was the first great film of 2015 and a gripping experience. Seek it out on digital platforms. (trailer) (full review)
14. "Steve Jobs"-- I'm the kind of guy that doesn't mind Aaron Sorkin's "walk-and-talk" movement and dialogue one bit. "Steve Jobs" works at a brisk pace to also dodge most biography movie cliches to make confrontations and conversations speak for character motivations and personal histories. Boosted by strong technical merit in score and camerawork, Danny Boyle's result is one of the savviest films of the year. (trailer) (full review)
13. "Carol"-- Sometimes you know a film is flawless, but just isn't the kind of thing that moves you to pieces and becomes something you hold to be a classic. That's "Carol" for me. It is an extremely good and important film filled with beautiful detail, unbridled emotion, and Oscar-worthy lead performances from Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett. I can see its high quality and it deserves the pedestal other people will put it higher on than me, but it's just not my pedestal. There are eleven movies ahead of it that impressed me more and hit me harder. (trailer) (full review)
12. "Far from the Madding Crowd"-- This Thomas Hardy adaptation directed by Thomas Vinterberg and starring the effervescent Carey Mulligan was my #1 film of 2015 at the "so far" halfway point back in June. Though it has slipped in my standings (and even been passed by other first-half films from the same list), the film's sumptuous classical romance and engaging beauty has not wavered. Skip Nicholas Sparks and come to a film like this one. It just missed my Top 10, which goes to show how well this year panned out after May when I saw "Far from the Madding Crowd." (trailer) (full review)
11. "The Revenant"-- On the day after the 2015 Academy Awards, I tabbed "The Revenant" in an editorial as the #1 film to watch for the 2016 Oscars. Directed by "Birdman" filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, it boasted unmatched pedigree. Looking at the field (plug for my ongoing Awards Tracker), I don't know if it has that clout in its early days of limited release so far after Christmas. In one regard, "The Revenant" is like "Carol" a little for me. It will be in other critics' Top 5, but it won't be for me. Its excellence is obvious, but the rough film is hard to recommend and ultimately love because the pace and content is so exhausting. However, that rawness and vigor is also exactly its greatest strength. Leonardo DiCaprio acts his ass off in a performance at the polar opposite end from his glamourous and talkative lead in "The Wolf of Wall Street." I'll gladly take this nearly three-hour film to Tarantino's cartoonish "The Hateful Eight." (trailer) (full review)
THE 10 BEST FILMS OF 2015 AND THEIR BEST LESSONS
10. "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"-- I know this probably counts and looks like the same fanboy over-praise I gave to "Avengers: Age of Ultron," but J.J. Abrams's resurrection of "Star Wars" is on another level. Rich new characters merged seamlessly with our old favorites and were given new challenge and increased stakes worthy of the franchise's clout and importance. Stepping aside from the nerdy love, this really did turn out to be a damn good legitimate film, exceeding the high expectations and the colossal hype. (trailer) (full review)
BEST LESSON: THE POSITIVE INTERNAL URGE OF DOING THE RIGHT THING-- Our new main characters, Finn and Rey, are two young people possessing tremendous hearts weighted down by the dangers of their adverse conditions. Finn has been bred since youth to be a killer that follows orders, but refuses to pull the trigger for evil. Rey scavenges to eek out a living in a place where it's everyone for themselves. Both have opportunities to better their life in selfish directions and both choose the path of greater good. Both are compelled by their conscience.
9. "The Big Short"-- This film is the party crasher of the bunch. I had this Top 20 all written and in the can until this film showed up after Christmas and won me over. Arguably this year's ballsiest film, "The Big Short" takes an enormous and complicated historical topic and gives in blunt honesty and villainizing humor without sacrificing topicality or purpose. Directed by Adam McKay and pushing a top-shelf cast of stars from the author of "Moneyball", this film is a cautionary tale that scratches your head and projects your anger in a highly entertaining way. (trailer) (full review)
BEST LESSON: BE AN INFORMED CONSUMER AT EVERY LEVEL-- Separate the comedy from "The Big Short" and you have a cautionary tale that should inspire you to be smarter with your money and livelihood. Whether you're a home buyer or a grocery buyer, educate yourselves and don't be a sucker. Crunch the numbers and do your homework to buy things you can afford. Buy for need and not for want. Be your own expert instead of trusting people that call themselves experts that are only looking for their own gain.
8. "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl"-- Segue from a nerd's realized dream to a movie about a different kind of nerd entirely. "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" is one of two halfway films that has passed "Far from the Madding Crowd" with reflected thinking and evaluation. The winner of the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival (last film to do that was my #1 last year, "Whiplash," which ought to tell you something), this is the cancer film you should be watching instead of "The Fault in Our Stars." Heartfelt and touching meet whip-smart and honest across the board with a cast of virtual unknowns. When people this year ask me for a winning "diamond in the rough" film (much like "The Way Way Back" a few years ago) that isn't mainstream or well-known, I've told them "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl." Go see why. (trailer) (full review)
BEST LESSON: ANOTHER STEP TO FINDING MATURITY IS ACCEPTING SOMEONE ELSE TO CARE ABOUT YOU TOO-- Learning to care about someone else other than yourself is one step and this is the next one for that coming-of-age maturity. Simply put, does that person care about you in return? If they do, can you accept that, because you should. If you finally grow a heart and care about someone, friend or otherwise, you have to let them care for you too. It can't be one-sided. You have to let go of that additional layer of selfishness. Greg does everything he can to shuck the friendship-level labels and responsibilities when it comes to both Earl and Rachel. He denies their efforts of caring towards him and never fully lets them in. If and when he finally does get over that distance, then Greg gains even more maturity.
7. "Inside Out"-- Pixar's return to animated storytelling supremacy was my #2 film of the half-year and has only gotten better with time and appreciation. The wildly boundless creativity in "Inside Out" continues to match its Kleenex-pulling emotions. "Inside Out" is required viewing for parents with pre-teens and is only going to keep getting better with age as the years go on, especially for a dad of a daughter like me. Welcome back, Pixar. (trailer) (full review)
BEST LESSON: ACCEPTING SADNESS-- As it turns out, the most crucial character and emotion of “Inside Out” turns out to be Sadness. She’s not a villain or the troublemaker. In truth, there are no “bad guys” in “Inside Out.” Sadness is her own crucial role. She’s the forgotten, missing half to a necessary balance. See, you don’t know how well or how wonderful happiness or joy can be without sadness as the foil for comparison. Even though we all want to be happy and society finds a way to celebrate everything as awesome or great, we have to know and accept sadness or loss. For Riley and our own youths, being able to do that and come out stronger is an essential, touchstone point in becoming their own person more than the already are.
6. "Creed"-- I'm one that appreciates the "Rocky" series with and without its dated cheesiness. If you would have told me this spin-off was going to rocket into my year-end Top 10 over the likes of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," "Inside Out," and "The Revenant," I would have called you crazy. Here we are and I'm not mad about that truth. Ryan Coogler's fresh and modern new direction starring Michael B. Jordan and an Oscar-worthy Sylvester Stallone impressed me to no end and was the best crowd-pleaser of the year. I witnessed more audience cheering at this movie than "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" a month later, with even my voice among them. (trailer) (full review)
BEST LESSON: FIGHTING TO THE END IN EVERY ASPECT OF LIFE-- Mortality lasts longer than legend and both Adonis and Rocky have fights in front of them in "Creed." In classic "Rocky" themes, Balboa preaches that Adonis's toughest opponent will always be himself and that life is harder than anything in the ring. Winning at fighting is about how much you can take and still move forward, in and out of boxing.
5. "The Martian"-- As a survival film, Ridley Scott's blockbuster is as approachable and enjoyable as you're going to find next to films like "Castaway" and even its 2015 peer "The Revenant." Combine that adventure genre with its own science fiction intelligence adapted by Drew Goddard from the Andy Weir bestseller and "The Martian" is even better. Heck, it's better than "Gravity," "Interstellar," and maybe even "Apollo 13" too. Matt Damon, the movie star, meets Matt Damon, the actor, in a consummate convergence that highlights both his talent and appeal in an excellent mainstream film. (trailer) (full review)
BEST LESSON: THE PERSONAL RESOURCEFULNESS NEEDED FOR SURVIVAL-- Like all great survival movies, "The Martian" has a classic lead character finding and developing the resourcefulness needed for survival. Mark's supplies are limited and his patience and wit have to take over. He has to adapt, discipline, and problem-solve in order to maintain his life and hope in an inhospitable place that can kill you in an instant with a mistake. If life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. Here, life gives Mark Watney human feces and potatoes.
4. "Sicario"-- Canadian Denis Villeneuve's fanatical and uncompromising drug cartel thriller wins the award for inducing the most gasps and agape expressions out of me from any film I saw this year. I promise "Sicario" will do the same for you. Taut, chilling, and sharp beyond measure, "Sicario" is a head-spinning and thought-provoking experience. If Oscar voters had more courage, this would be a frontrunner for Best Picture. (trailer) (full review)
BEST LESSON: HOW FAR YOU ARE WILLING TO BEND YOUR MORALS AND PRINCIPLES-- Kate has to decide whether she can justify her own ability to bend or break. It some cases that means pulling the trigger or turning a blind eye. She is operating on a special team that lacks the high ground she possesses. Craven finds loopholes to strike deals and allegiances to get things done where the goal isn't solving the problem, it's making enough noise to catch the cartels in their own mistakes and reprisals. Alejandro is even more beyond Craven. Both men have crossed the line to make a difference. The question becomes how far Kate is willing to follow these activities.
3. "Brooklyn"-- I cannot complement enough the sweetness of "Brooklyn." John Crowley's film, led by an impeccably wholesome performance from Saoirse Ronan, is the unquestioned best romance of 2015. The film has an earnest and honest sincerity not normally seen in historical dramas. The central love triangle of this immigrant's tale is delicate and real without sacrificing passion. This is courtship as it should be and at its finest. Treat yourself to "Brooklyn" as soon as possible. (trailer) (full review)
BEST LESSON: CHOOSING LOVE FOR PASSION OR LOVE FOR COMFORT-- Both of Eilis's suitors offer decency, honesty, a good living, and honor. Both men represent true futures as potential husbands and fathers providing a comfortable lifestyle. Tony represents her exciting new life and Jim is the unworried solace of home. Neither is a bad route to take for love and Eilis has a place in both worlds, leaving her with an impossible choice.
2. "Spotlight"-- I have not used the word "perfection" yet on this list until now and this is the place to use it. "Spotlight" is a film of the highest possible quality as a historical drama. Showcased ensemble acting, led by Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo, masterfully puts their shine on the virtuous investigative journalism in Boston that broke the door open on the years of rampant and hushed sexual abuse scandals within the Catholic Church. There is no more important film to see this year than "Spotlight." As finely crafted it is as a piece of filmmaking and entertainment, consider it a dose of public service as well. If I was an Oscar voter, this would be Best Picture, hands down, trumping the overkill of "Mad Max: Fury Road," which is winning over voters everywhere in the early minor awards. If you haven't noticed, you won't see that gorgeous, but plot-less three-star film anywhere on this list. (trailer) (full review)
BEST LESSON: THE POWER AND IMPORTANCE OF INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM-- "Spotlight" celebrates the necessary role of investigative journalism. As much as we call out and bemoan the politicized and sensationalized versions of journalism today, there are stalwart entities in the fight that seek the truth. Those independently-minded individuals that burn the candle at both ends to research, report, and draw the proper attention to real issues in their community are vital to society.
1. "Room"-- To those who know me personally or follow me on social media, there isn't a film I've talked about, recommended, or stumped for more this year than "Room" from director Lenny Abrahamson. Every year, I'm lucky enough to see one, maybe two films, that absolutely shatter me to the core and stick with me for days and weeks on end afterwards. I'm not talking about solely a film I go on to respect and love within the art form of cinema as a critic. I'm talking about the rare film that changes my life as a person and the way I look at the world. Without question, that film this year for me is "Room." Adapted by author Emma Donaghue from her own bestselling novel, the outstanding Brie Larson plays the mother to her five-year-old son (newcomer Jacob Tremblay, in the best child performance I've ever seen) who are kidnapped and create their own world and existence within a locked garden shed. "Spotlight" is more perfect and more suited to awards, but "Room" has a level of difficult emotion and ultimate fulfilling beauty I cannot deny or shake. For me, there was no more powerful movie experience this year. (trailer) (full review)
BEST LESSON: THE UNBREAKABLE BOND BETWEEN MOTHER AND CHILD-- In this writer's opinion, there are very, very few things more powerful and beautiful in this world than the bond between a mother and her child. The removed umbilical cord may sever the literal physical connection between the two, but the emotional one is nearly impossible to break. Joy and Jack are rightfully inseparable. When they are apart, they are not the same. Sure, that boy will grow up someday to be a man, but he will look upon his mother and know how to live, how to love, and how to be a parent himself equal to how his mother was for him.