What an unexpected year. Four of the films that made my top 10 list premiered in January at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Two of them had their formal debuts at Cannes in May. If you’re not sure where I’m going with this, shockingly, only one film on the list made its public debut after Sept. 5. That’s slightly disconcerting, but probably a topic for another day.
Overall, the past 12 months we saw more filmmakers attempt to take their cinematic skills to another level by experimenting outside their comfort zone. Out of the twenty films I selected for recognition either on my top 10 list or the following 10, you could argue only four of them are conventionally made films. The rest are wrestling with the confines of the medium. What can be done that hasn’t been done before? The past year’s works may be a subconscious reaction to the increasing quality on television and streaming. It may be the benefits of new and less expensive technology reaching independent filmmakers working outside the Hollywood ecosystem. It may be a new generation of directors and actors (well, some are new) finding their voices in yet another overwhelming media age. Or, it could be a combination of all of those theories. Whatever the case it resulted in some of the more transformative works in recent memory and, in my opinion, that can only be a good thing.
Of course, even if you attend all the great festivals of the world and try to cover as many films as possible it’s simply unrealistic that you’ll see everything. The one category that affects this particular writer the most is the documentary one. So, keep that in mind when reviewing the following, shall we?
10. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”
A wonderfully realized drama that breaks the conventions of the modern coming of age film with a message of self-discovery that plays to all ages. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung create one of the more unexpectedly visually inspired movies of the year while stars Olivia Cooke and Thomas Mann bring an authenticity to the tale that is simply heartbreaking.
9. “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”
Marielle Heller’s directorial debut is a shot across the bow of a filmmaker with a unique and realized voice (are you paying attention Hollywood studios?). The underage relationship between the lead character and her mother’s boyfriend might creep some out, but Bel Powley shines with one of the best and bravest performances by any actor this year.
Lenny Abrahamson pulls off an almost impossible feat in bringing Emma Donoghue’s popular novel to the big screen and finding a way for an untraditionally structured story to resonate so powerfully. Moreover, the chemistry between Brie Larson and newcomer Jacob Tremblay make the material more palatable and emotional than you could have ever believed.
7. “The Revenant”
It may not have the tearjerker impact you would have expected based on its historical storyline, but Alejandro Iñárritu depiction of a man overcoming all odds to avenge the death of his son is a unique and powerful experience that features some of those most cinematic sequences of any film this decade. And, lack of dialogue aside, it features one of the best performances of Leonardo DiCaprio’s career.
A superb script is elevated to greatness by an ensemble cast who are interested in only serving the story and not their own interests. Moreover, Tom McCarthy has crafted a film that exposes the everyday horror in the scandal that rocked the Catholic Church first in Boston and eventually the world.
Much has been said about how relevant the film’s immigrant storyline is to modern day political controversies, but at its core the picture beautifully portrays the journey of a young woman into adulthood. And director John Crowley’s ability to keep the story’s romantic charms grounded while still tugging at your heartstrings is somewhat remarkable.
4. “Son of Saul”
An incredibly realized piece of cinema that depicts the atrocities of the Holocaust more than any other narrative film in recent memory. Is there still a need for films about the events of WWII in 2015? Yes, there clearly is.
One of the definitive films of life in Los Angeles this century, Sean Baker’s touching drama (shot completely on iPhone) pulsates with an energy and verve that grabs ahold of you and simply won’t let go. Stars Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor deserve every accolade they get. The duo’s performances simply blow everyone else off the screen.
Sepastian Schipper’s one-take thriller runs for over two hours and the last half may be the most visceral experiences I had in a theater this year. Star Laia Costa gives a jaw-dropping performance that you simply won’t believe was done in one complete take and that’s not even taking into account the spot on camera work. The entire film is an inspiring piece of cinema that just haunts you for days.
1. “Mad Max: Fury Road”
George Miller’s masterpiece is not only a testament to the powers of creative filmmaking, incredible editing and inspired production design, but an example of a stable of actors willing to push their performances to unexpected extremes. “Fury Road” isn’t a genre film, but a piece of cinematic art that will inspire other filmmakers for years to come. It’s wondrous.
Next 10 (in alphabetical order)
“Beasts of No Nation”
A stunning achievement from director Cary Fukunaga that more people should have seen on the big screen.
It’s well crafted and beautifully acted, but the Cannes favorite still doesn’t rank among director Todd Haynes’ top three films (“Safe,” “I’m Not There,” “Far From Heaven”).
Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson are simply at the top of their game in Alex Garland’s striking and remarkably intimate thriller.
“Jafar Panahi’s Taxi”
A searing and crafty indictment of modern day Iran that probably warrants a separate documentary chronicling how they were able to shoot it in the first place..
“Love & Mercy”
Bill Pohlad’s impressive Brian Wilson biopic proves some producers need to spend more time in the director’s chair.
Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s comedic farce that has an authenticity the director’s other 2015 release, “While We Were Young,” can barely manufacture.
Denis Villeneuve and Roger Deakins are quickly becoming one of the more intriguing collaborations between a director and a cinematographer working today (the “Blade Runner” sequel is next).
An exciting directorial debut for Joel Edgerton grounded by superb turns from both Rebecca Hall and Jason Bateman.
If it weren’t for the meandering second half this inventive and hilarious piece of art would have easily made my top 10. Also, a movie where Colin Farrell is so good you completely forget about all that crap in “True Detective” season two.
Paolo Sorrentino’s haunting symphony on the revelations of age may not be the masterpiece “The Grand Beauty” is, but it’s powerful enough that if there were a no. 11 on my list it would have landed there.
Quality: “45 Years,” “Amy,” “Anomalisa,” “Bridge of Spies,” “Chi-Raq,” “Creed,” “Dope,” “The End of the Tour,” “Escobar: Paradise Lost,” “The Hateful Eight,” “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” “Inside Out,” “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” “The Lady in the Van,” “The Martian,” “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” “Mr. Holmes,” “Mustang,” “The Night Before,” “The Overnight,” “The Second Mother,” “Spy,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” “Viva”
Quality, but overrated: “The Big Short,” “Cop Car,” “Goodnight Mommy,” “Grandma,” “It Follows,” “Steve Jobs,” “Trainwreck”
What were your top movies of 2015? Share your thoughts in the now easier to use comments section.