My Favorite Films of 2015

The Martian Looks Back

Who says you have to get your year-end list published in a timely fashion? We may be nearing February, but why not take a moment to look back on 2015.

Initially I resisted doing a year-end wrap up because I felt I hadn’t seen enough new films last year. For whatever reason I think I should see about sixty films a year. So when December 31st rolled around and my final tally was thirty-four thirty-five newly released films (based, as always, on Mike D’Angelo’s New York master release list) seen, I felt so off my game that I shouldn’t even put together a list. I’ve since seen two more 2015 films, bringing the total for our purposes here to thirty-six thirty-seven films; still too low for my tastes, but it’s enough.

Enough buildup. Here are my top ten films from the year, only loosely (and sort of arbitrarily) put in an order.

1. The Martian

No one is more surprised than me that The Martian even made it onto my year-end list. I found the book to be a little boring (a friend told me early on that if I don’t like the epistolary style then I’ll have a rough go of getting through it; he was right) and annoyingly flat. But it was clear as I was reading it that it was so broad that it could be made into a brilliant film, and that’s exactly what Ridley Scott, Rumpelstiltskin-like, spun out of it. The film shows off a gorgeous, other-worldly (obviously) yet home-like version of Mars. Matt Damon rose to the challenge of making a man who talks to himself seem watchable.

The film’s final action sequence is one of the most beautiful free-floating space spectacles to my memory. I think it may even be better than the more technically audacious Gravity, but I’d have to sit through both again to pass judgement. Nevertheless, Ridley Scott remains a director with a keen eye for action and horror. Thankfully here he had a script that was good enough (ahem, Prometheus) to match his skills.

2. Steve Jobs

Oh, Steve Jobs, the film that caused Mac and tech journalists alike to lose their heads. I regret not writing about this here when the film initially came out, but briefly: this film is a brilliant piece of cinema despite the fact that it plays fast and loose with both historical and emotional accuracy. Its cardinal flaw is that it assumes Steve Jobs was like the rest of us. He wasn’t, and so his emotional makeup wasn’t either.

Nevertheless, it is a brilliant fantasia about Steve Jobs and the times he lived in. I mention this because a common refrain is that writer Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle should have made a Citizen Kane-style film, that Jobs should have had a stand-in just as Charles Foster Kane was a (presumed, by the way) stand-in for William Randolph Hearst.1 But this is a film about what it means to live in extraordinary times, and what it means to be in the center of that.2 Sorkin and Boyle have done a brilliant job of compressing time and space, including some riveting flashback sequences that do some of the best work of cross-cutting in an emotionally truthful way that I can recall.

You know, Steve Jobs reminds me a lot of Robert Altman’s Secret Honor, the 1984 monologue film based on Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone’s play, which features Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon, rambling to himself alone at home. The words are a complete fiction, and the performance is neither an impersonation nor a burlesque, but an attempt at reaching an emotional truth. That film, about one of history’s giants talking to himself for ninety minutes, is exhilarating to behold. The same is true for Steve Jobs. I can’t remember another film like it. It’s Boyle and Sorkin stretching their talents to new limits, and in my opinion, succeeding.3

3. Trainwreck

Between March and July of this year, I had to consistently bite my tongue when wanting to talk about this movie. I was able to see Trainwreck at SXSW, where I instantly fell in love with it. Moreover I knew my girlfriend would love it too, but I’d have to wait months until I could share it with her. (When she finally saw it she said it was the funniest film she’d seen since Bridesmaids, which is the highest praise possible.)

This is a very special kind of film that shows off the chops of both Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer. It is raucously funny and wonderfully modern, yet affecting and romantic in sort of throwback ways. The film’s final sequence, a dance number, of all things, nearly had me in tears. It manages to be narratively propulsive, hilarious and yet, still a bit unkempt all at once.

If you’re above a certain age you might not be able to make it through this film (my parents almost walked out; an older woman in their theater called it a porno), but I laughed more than I have in a long time at it. Part of the reason, I would guess, is that Schumer’s character, the brash, promiscuous misfit, is so rarely written for a woman; and never, to my mind, as a sympathetic lead. She has opened up a whole can of worms, replete with new jokes and perspectives; and it’s a feast for us.

4. Creed

In a film environment littered with ill-considered reboots, rehashes and sequels, Creed is a refreshing take on a big screen mainstay. If 2006’s Rocky Balboa was all about redemption for a franchise that fell from grace hard, then Ryan Coogler’s film is all about a rebirth.

Creed is every bit as affecting and visually daring as Stallone and Avildsen’s original Rocky. Philadelphia looks stunning, and I must say reminds me of the city as it is, warts and all. If you missed it in the theater, I highly recommend going somewhere with an excellent sound system for the pivotal fight about halfway through the film. It’s a feast for the eyes and ears alike.

5. Losing Ground

Losing Ground was made in 1982, but never actually had a theatrical run until it was revived last year. This isn’t the first time I’ve put an older film in my top ten, and who makes these rules anyway? It is an incredible piece of work that played on TCM once this year (it will be coming out on DVD in April) and I was wise enough to set the DVR.

Kathleen Collins’ film is a poetic achievement. It’s a film about a professor and a painter trying to understand themselves and the world around them, but coming at their issues from opposite angles. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen, and bears re-watching regularly. It bounces between jazzy flourishes, expressionist lighting and minimalist realism throughout. I don’t want to say too much about it, so I’ll let Richard Brody at The New Yorker do all the heavy lifting. Do yourself a favor and seek out Losing Ground.

6. Mad Max: Fury Road

To date, Fury Road is the only Mad Max film I’ve ever seen. I’m not quite as smitten with it as many critics were, but I can’t deny that it’s a technical achievement and unlike anything else out today. Our action cinema today is so much a mishmash of indecipherable blurry objects cut together in as disorienting a pace as possible, George Miller’s film is a reminder that things don’t have to be this way.

The action moves the story forward along a clear pathway. The viewer always knows where they are, and moreover always cares. This is something that has been lost, but finally restored. Here’s hoping the makers of other, brand name action films (for who else can afford to make them) take heed and learn a thing or two.

7. Manglehorn

I’ve become a sucker for David Gordon Green over time. Manglehorn is just an excellent, small, meditative picture. Al Pacino and Holly Hunter shine in it, though be warned much of their interactions will have you gritting your teeth from awkwardness. I think it’s the very small touch of magical realism in the film that sold me.

8. Iris

Iris will likely be the last documentary Albert Maysles completed before his death last March, though honestly the man worked so much who knows how many posthumous films are in the can. It is a delightful portrait of a woman with taste. I am so often loath to include documentaries among my favorites, since I find the form often repetitive and simplistic. Not so with Maysles, though. He finds the perfect moments of a life to bring to the screen. It is a delight to behold. He will be missed.

9. The Overnight

After Creep, I became something of an instant Patrick Brice fan. His follow-up is a similarly small film that leans more toward coming-of-age than it does toward horror, though there is absolutely an element of dread baked into the script. Two couples get drunk and open up. And nothing is off limits. I honestly can’t wait to see where Brice goes next.

10. The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight doesn’t really make it into my top Tarantino films, but it’s hard to keep it off this list. It’s just such a gorgeous picture, and not only because of the 70mm photography. Tarantino lets the story unfurl like a puzzle, which is fun to play along with. Unfortunately, as with so many mysteries, the payoff proves not that well worth it, but the fun is in the game.

I know it will never happen, but I really, really wish Tarantino dropped the whole “chapters” thing. The film loses me when a chapter change reveals an omniscient narrator that fills in blanks that would have been better served to reveal themselves in time. Still, it beat out the competition to this list, just barely.

Honorable Mentions:

  • I really liked Bob Byington’s 7 Chinese Brothers and hope to see more films from him.
  • Ex Machina didn’t really do it for me, but I did like it. Oscar Isaac in particular gives one out-there performance.
  • Dope would have made this list had it not been for the fact that it wraps itself up so tightly in indie/festival darling formula. It’s such a fun watch, and at times a daring film. It just feels like it’s been workshopped into something it’s not, which is a shame.
  • Jurassic World. What? I liked it.
  • Spectre is a great little Bond film. I’ve heard all the complaints against it and I just don’t follow. The film’s opening sequence is a technical wonder. I do hope that we’re past the gloomy questioning-of-the-surveillence-state era of Bond, though.
  • The Little Death is a fun little sex-comedy that straddles the line between raunch and cuteness. It’s imperfect but certainly an enjoyable watch. One sequence I dare not describe goes so dark and strange then wraps up with a happy ending; I have a lot of respect for the way that played.

And that’s the year. It was a pretty good one, movie-wise. Maybe I should try for fifty films in 2016.

For the curious, here are all the other films I saw this year, posted without comment:

  • American Ultra
  • Ant-Man
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron
  • Black Mass
  • Bridge of Spies
  • Chagall-Malevich
  • The Cobbler
  • Creep
  • The Final Girls
  • Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief
  • It Follows
  • Inside Out
  • Kumiko the Treasure Hunter
  • The Mend
  • Sicario
  • Something, Anything
  • Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens
  • Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine
  • Straight Outta Compton
  • That Guy Dick Miller
  • Tomorrowland

Update: It seems I forgot Sicario in my inital tally. Whoops. I wonder what other films I forgot…

  1. There is so much wrong with this logic from so many angles, but that’s for another time. ↩︎

  2. Moreover, the film does get a lot right about Jobs’ life, it’s clear that making this film about someone else would have been even more dishonest than the film they made. ↩︎

  3. One more thing. When current Apple CEO Tim Cook called this film “opportunistic” on a Late Show appearance in September, he gave the tech press the rallying cry against this film they needed. Here’s John Gruber, after having seen the film, getting down to brass tacks:

    …calling this movie “Steve Jobs”, and using real names of real people to tell a largely fictional story, is purely cynical. They’re selling a lot more tickets to a movie about “Steve Jobs” and “Apple Computer” than they would if were about, say, a Jobs-like character named Dave Gibbs (or whatever) who was the headstrong founder of Orange Computer.

    Incorrect. This film would never have existed without Steve Jobs. For this to be a cynical cash grab, Sorkin would have had to have had a script ready to go about a fictional executive, and then when Jobs passed and his biography and life rights were up for sale, found a way to wedge all the pieces together so it resembled Jobs enough to sell tickets. That’s nonsense thinking. ↩︎