The Best Films (and a Couple of the Worst) of 2015 (So Far)

I am not generally a list maker, but in trying to keep things arranged in my head more than in the past, I have found it both intriguing and necessary to throw together a form of "Best of" list for the year 2015. If I say, "This list is in alphabetical order" and then you don't see a certain favorite film of yours on the list, keep reading through, because I have side categories that amend the "Best of" portion. 

I have added a "(So Far...) to the title, because as of this writing, I will be seeing a couple more 2015 releases in the next day or so, so I might add more titles to the list in the future as I struggle to catch up with recent award nominees. 

And there are a couple of "Worst of" mentions too further down in the article. It can't all be golden.

The Cinema 4 Pylon "Best Films of 2015" (So Far...) 
[in alphabetical order]

The Big Short
When I got out of The Big Short (and it was an accidental screening because I had intended on seeing a different film that day), I texted my wife that the movie made me feel smart and dumb at the same time. Smart, because I was able to follow along with the multiple stories that were being juggled by director Adam McKay (taking a big boy step up from Anchorman), and at least pretend that I fully understood the Wall Street machinations at play in the film. But, dumb because I really did need Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain some of the more advanced economic concepts to me. My 401k took a big hit from the bullshit the asshole bankers in this film pulled, and even though the lead characters are technically villains, you really get to rooting for them as they bet against the American economy. I felt like yelling, "C'mon, America! Take a dive!" It's like a sexual act that you know is wrong but it feels so good, and then when you are done, the shame factor kicks in. That's sort of the feeling of watching the citizens of this country getting screwed hard in The Big Short.

Ex Machina
It's rare that I like a film that is supposed to take place in Alaska, because I was born there and lived there until I was forty. I can get a little particular about when the state is not represented correctly in a film. In Ex Machina, which was actually filmed in Norway subbing for Alaska, the only thing that matters regarding the location is the isolation of the characters. It could have been in Canada, in the middle of the Mojave Desert, or on the bottom of the ocean. Who cares? A treatise on what it means to not only be human but also on the importance of appearing human, Ex Machina plays mind games with its viewers as it portrays the ultimate mind game between its characters. The plot is built around a Turing test, which a multimillionaire tech-industrialist (think of Oscar Isaac as Steve Jobs gone rogue) poses to a feminine robot of his invention (grandly and seductively played by Alicia Wikander) by basically trapping a nebbish from his company and forcing him to take part in a very deadly game. This is why we can't have nice things...

The Hateful Eight
If you are not attuned to Tarantino’s style of fun, then why even bother seeing his films? I ask this of the lady that I saw complaining about the film after she and her companions sat through nearly three hours of what should have been thoroughly expected QT excess. She voiced her opinion loudly as she sat through the credits about the length of the film, the blood and gore in the film, and how there was just far too much talking. That these all happened to be the three main elements that I look forward to in Tarantino films would probably sail over her head. (In regards to "length,' I prefer to think that he likes to take his time.) Look, people, a tiger ain’t gonna change his stripes… QT is going to continue, until he gets tired of dealing with the Hollywood game, of putting out his offbeat, fanboy homages to trash culture, and I am going to keep going to them. The genre doesn’t matter, and the plotline is secondary to me. When I heard the words, “western” and “Tarantino,” what I envisioned in my head is pretty much what I got from The Hateful Eight. I knew he would show incredible obeisance to the genre (and especially spaghetti westerns) in some areas, but I also knew (and hoped) that he would subvert the material wildly at the same time. And all while remaining twistier than M. Night, but never really getting called on it the way Shyamalan does. He probably gets away with it because it is the one area where Tarantino prefers to keep to subtlety.

Inside Out
One of my old acquaintances from back in the day posted on Facebook recently that after hearing so many of his pals praise Pixar's Inside Out to the high heavens, he finally saw it and, in his words, found it "meh". That's fine... he can use that idiotic shorthand for finding something so-so or blasé if he wishes. I just didn't like the way he posted it, as if he has judged it from on high and found the opinions of all others who enjoyed the film to be lacking, and as if he was sorely disappointed in everyone's taste. I feel sorry for anyone that can't recognize the brilliance of Pixar's concept behind revealing the inner workings of our common emotional lives (even cats!), and also the way the studio continues to stretch the boundaries of popular animation with nearly every film they release. Kudos for making Sadness one of the most unexpectedly wonderful characters of the year, and also for giving me the moment in 2015 when I probably laughed the loudest in a movie theatre... and yes, that moment involved cats. And we had just gotten a new cat, so it touched a hilarious nerve... so sue me.

It Follows
It Follows played film festivals throughout 2014, but didn't get a theatrical release until early 2015 (there are a few on the list that did this), but the boundaries of when a film is made and when it is actually seen are rather vague anyway. Probably the closest I have seen another filmmaker recapture the vibe of a John Carpenter film without totally aping it, director David Robert Mitchell's It Follows manages to roll slasher movie paranoia up into a ball with a heavy dose of sexual self-shaming, while keeping the viewer's eyes checking the background of nearly every scene constantly for an evil that sometimes comes right at you, and sometimes doesn't. Lead actress Maika Monroe, who frankly seems to me like she could play a young Gwen Stefani, won't get many notices for her acting in this film, but I thought she was captivating. Having watched it a couple of times now on Blu-ray, It Follows holds up in the rewatch test, and it may become a regular horror treat for me like other classics of the genre moving forward. But damn if it doesn't make you question your own past choices as you watch it.

Love & Mercy
I didn't know that I needed a film in my life where two different actors (Paul Dano and John Cusack) played Brian Wilson, but I am glad that it happened. As a Wilson fan, I found Love & Mercy thoroughly intriguing and mostly spot on as to the details (there is some wiggle room that has been debated by individuals far more OCD than I), but Dano's performance is lovely and almost flawless, and Cusack is an eye opener as the older Wilson (while perhaps not being as visually comparable as Dano is to the younger musician). This is also one of the few films that I got to write a full review about last year when I returned to blogging, and you can read my review here.

Mad Max: Fury Road
I would have put this on my list of biggest surprises of the year (see below), but the trailer pretty much had me from the start, and I had a sense that George Miller would not fail me. In any year that didn't have a Star Wars film in it, this may have been the favorite, and of the films in this list, it is the one that will probably have the most replay factor for me going into the future. I was wary of Tom Hardy in the title role (who was just fine), but as is well known now, this film is not really about Mad Max at all. Max may have the title role, but he isn't the lead character -- that would be Charlize Theron's Furiosa (a damn great name to match up with the Mad one) -- and yes, there is a huge feminist streak a full desert wasteland wide in this movie. Mad Max: Fury Road is all the better for it. Guys of the world: Yeah, you had to put up with sisters (mostly) doing it for themselves in a series that you thought was all about you. But you still got to see some boobies. Get a grip, you whining dumbasses. 

An example of a film where I had this strange mood that overtook and almost dragged me into the film, even though the subject matter didn't particularly thrill me on a surface level. And then I preceded to have my mind blown. Sicario is a violent, uncompromising look at politics along the U.S.-Mexican border, and the parts that one has to play to survive in that environment. Emily Blunt gives a fine turn here as an FBI agent practically coerced to join a drug cartel task force and ends up working with a rather shadowy operative played by Benicio del Toro. Del Toro is aces here  -- probably the best performance of his career -- and I cannot wait to see the proposed sequel/prequel (whatever it turns out to be) with his character. I was so caught up in the furious (and often intentionally confusing) action in Sicario that I honestly had the sense that I might not leave the theatre alive. The tension on the screen was so palpable that I couldn't help but feel like a hostage to the film itself. But I am not unhappy that I experienced it.

Another 2014 film festival selection, Spring totally snuck up on me. A few months ago, I happened upon an article about the Top Horror Films of 2015, and when I read about the plot. A guy who meets a mysterious woman who may be something other than what she portrays herself to be is a common enough horror trope, but Spring has everything right going for it. The locale (Italy) adds immeasurably to the odd circumstances of their romance -- that's right, it's a full-on romance -- but when the shadings of Lovecraftian elder gods and the strange and gruesome deaths of several locals start to get added, Spring is in a universe of its own. And so what if your girlfriend has a vestigial tail? A must for fans of the bizarre and offbeat.

Straight Outta Compton
Director F. Gary Gray’s biopic of the members of NWA, Compton is vibrant and compelling throughout, and features some excellent performances from its youthful cast. I'd like to say it really took me back, but the world of this film was not my world, and while I know many of the songs, hip hop and rap are really not represented in my huge music collection very well. But I do know the history of music fairly well, and this film is not only remarkable for its capturing of time and place, but also for advancing the racial issues that plagued the group in its heyday and even in our country to this day. I pretty much only knew Gray as a director of caper films that I kind of enjoyed (The Italian Job remake, The Negotiator), and he also made the truly awful Be Cool. So to be hit with a movie from him as solidly etched as Straight Outta Compton was a real pleasure.

What We Do in the Shadows 
Yet another 2014 film festival fave, I was blindsided by Shadows. I had not even heard about it, and I am a huge Flight of the Conchords guy. Possibly the best use of the found footage genre I have yet to see. Shadows is monumentally silly, a little bit creepy at times, and wonderfully conceived. A group of vampires in New Zealand live on the sly in the big city and have to do battle with others of their kind on the dance floor and at society cotillions, and also have to contend with a rival gang of macho werewolves. It might just have my favorite performance of the year in co-director Taika Waititi's portrayal of the puckishly innocent vampire, Viago. You can read my full review here

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
This is how I put it on my friend's Facebook page the other day: "There were films in 2015 that I thought were better made, but no film this year caused me to smile as wide as Star Wars: The Force Awakens did. And I friggin' hate to smile. It is the Star Wars film I have been waiting for since the first three (and only in their original form), and while I have problems with some elements in TFA, like I do with almost any film (even ones I love), to be taken back to exactly how I felt as a 12-year-old in the summer of 1977 is worth more than the rest of this year's films combined." As of this date, I have seen it three times (My wife is mad at me for going without her once, but hey, she wasn't quite born yet when the first one came out -- a couple months late -- so I feel that I have license as Star Wars Fan First Generation.)

The Martian
And my love of space opera like Star Wars extends to actual science fiction (which Star Wars is not), and to the business of astronautics in general. It took me a few weeks to finally get a chance to see The Martian (I won't go into it), but when I did see it, I watched the crap out of it (and I am not just talking about the human fertilizer scenes). I did not read the popular novel upon which it is based -- in fact, barely knew it was a novel before it came out -- and my interest was purely based on the appeal of seeing Matt Damon as an astronaut trapped on Mars and learning how to survive there. Seemed like a winning combo, and it worked great. Marvelous tension is sustained through most of the picture, and the more it go into the details of his survival, the more interesting it became. A great time.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Lambert & Stamp
The Nightmare
What Happened, Miss Simone?

Roxy: The Movie
The film says 2015 on IMDb, but this thing is really over 40 years in the making, and has only come to light by the hands of expert editing, as the music tracks that were never able to sync properly with the footage from Frank Zappa's documentary of his band's several show stand at New York's Roxy Ballroom in 1973 were finally figured out. This really won't mean much to anyone but a Zappa fanatic, which I have been since my teen years, which were not long after Roxy: The Movie was filmed. You can read my review of the film here.

The Editor - read my review here.
The Final Girls - read my review here.
What We Do in the Shadows

Goosebumps - read my review here.
The Visit - read my review here.

Fantastic Four
The worst film of the year and the worst time at the movies for me too. Certainly there were films that I saw that were crappier (many of the Syfy Channel variety), but Fantastic Four took everything that I loved about the comic that I have read since I was five and just ground it into oblivion. When I heard someone be snarky and say Roger Corman got it right the first time in the '90s, I kind of had to agree. Though no one has yet to crack the FF formula for real yet on the big screen.

I expected far more from Neill Blomkamp, the director of District 9, and I really hated anyone human in the film. Did not make me a fan of Die Antwoord. Not even close.

The Peanuts Movie
Surrounded by moms with kids who loved the film (it was well done but not great), I got to be a hero when the trailers didn’t come up and we only heard the sound, and I chatted happily about Charlie Brown and Snoopy with many people that I will probably never see again.

Prince of Darkness
A great time at the old church next to Little Tokyo in L.A. where the John Carpenter semi-classic was filmed. A special revival showing of the film, combined with Q&A with the director's wife and Peter Jason, one of the actors in the film. And I got to hang with my writing partner Aaron and his family.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The anticipation paid off for once, but in a strangely subdued crowd for an advance night screening, one little kid got bored after six or seven apocalyptic trailers in a row and screamed out “STAR WARS!!!” in the row right behind us. The whole place erupted in brief laughter, and it prepped everybody for bursting out in the expected applause a few minutes later when the title words came up onscreen. And then, for the next two-plus hours, I could barely breathe. (Which is a good thing.)

  • Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Emily Blunt, Sicario
  • Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  • Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
  • Alicia Wikander, Ex Machina
  • Maika Monroe, It Follows
  • Malin Akerman, The Final Girls
  • Rebecca Ferguson, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
  • Melissa McCarthy, Spy
  • Nicholas Hoult, Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Benicio Del Toro, Sicario
  • Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation
  • Harrison Ford, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  • Samuel L. Jackson, The Hateful Eight
  • Jason Mitchell, Straight Outta Compton
  • Matt Damon, The Martian
  • Sylvester Stallone, Creed
  • Ian McKellen, Mr. Holmes
  • Jemaine Clement, What We Do in the Shadows
  • Taika Waititi, What We Do in the Shadows
Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jane Adams, and Jared Harris in Poltergeist
James McAvoy in Victor Frankenstein

Practical special effects and makeup used instead of CGI (or in harmonious unison)

Running away from dinosaurs in bad heels.



Notable films from 2015 that I have not yet seen as of this posting:
99 Homes, Amy, Anomalisa, The Assassin, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Carol, Clouds of Sils Maria, Concussion, The Danish Girl, Diary of a Teenage Girl, The End of the Tour, The Falling, The Good Dinosaur, Grandma, He Named Me Malala, In Jackson Heights, Joy, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Mediterranea, Mistress America, Mustang, Room, Shaun the Sheep Movie, Son of Saul, Spotlight, Steve Jobs, Tangerine, Trainwreck, Trumbo, Truth, Where to Invade Next, Youth


Alexis Tibor said…
Iam limited in my opportunities to see films right now, but can agree with you on Mad Max. I even bought it for my man for Christmas. He doesn't know what a treat he's in for!

Inside Out Is wonderful. I'm partial to Anger and Disgust, but Maggie is a full fledged Sadness devotee. I loved the views from inside multiple characters.
Zach Murphy said…
Awesome list. A large handful of these made my Top 25 of 2015.

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