Looking Back: Alex's Top 12 Favorite Films of 2015 - 'Mad Max' Reigns
by Alex Billington
January 16, 2016
"You shall ride eternal. Shiny, and chrome!" Looking back at 2015, it was an exceptional year for movies and if you don't feel the same way, you probably didn't see enough movies. I always struggle to put together a year end Top 10 list, mostly because there's so much I need to watch/rewatch and it's just not possible. This year I came up with a list of 12 movies from 2015, the last two added because I felt like they deserved a spot even though it was already full. These are the movies that I genuinely love the most, that connected with me and stayed with me throughout the entire year. Many of my favorites from 2015 are movies that, if you asked me about them at the beginning of the year, I would've admitted it's unlikely they'd end up here.
For my Top 10 of 2014 list, which features Xavier Dolan's Mommy plus Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, click here. You can also read Jeremy Kirk's list of his Top 10 Favorite Films of 2015 here. My full 2015 list below.
This is madness! Yes, another Top 10 list with Mad Max: Fury Road as #1. But you know what, it's looking like 2015 was the year of Mad Max (not just Star Wars) - as seen with this Metacritic roundup. I've noticed some saying that Fury Road is good, but not that good, however the opposite is starting to prove true - it's actually the one movie that is towering above all others when it really comes down to it. Not everyone will agree, of course, and that's fine. But I still remember that feeling I had when I emerged from seeing it for the first time, and nothing compares to that feeling, when you've seen a movie that you know is one of the best of the year and can not be challenged. I'm always on the hunt for exceptional films that stick with you.
A few notes: this is a list of my favorite films, not the best films of the year, these are the ones that I love for my own reasons and I'll try to explain why with each one. As always, I wish I had so much more to time to watch/rewatch films, and see everything else that played in 2015, but that's impossible so this is just what I decided to run with. Also - my film selection is based on the date when I originally saw the film at a public event, including film festivals (Telluride, Sundance) or public releases limited or otherwise. This list is not based on only film's released in 2015, but only the ones I saw in 2015, and is a good representation of the best of the best, in my opinion. I'm admittedly a bit anxious to share this, its been a while, but let's jump in.
#12. The Diary of a Teenage Girl directed by Marielle Heller
Adore this film. One of the two Sundance films on this list, that stayed with me all the way to the end of the year, and I felt like it deserved the 12th spot. There's just so much energy and enthusiasm in this film, and it's brave and fearless to tell a story about sexuality in this way with such a young main character. Marielle Heller makes her directing debut and shows how wildly talented she is, infusing the film with so many unique touches, like the drawings. Of course, the lead performance by Bel Powley is what makes this film really stand out, as she's one to watch and certainly makes her mark with this debut. I'm very happy this was chosen as one of the nominees for the DGA's inaugural award for the best film by a "first-time" director.
#11. Steve Jobs directed by Danny Boyle
What can I say. Aaron Sorkin's script is so damn good, with Danny Boyle's direction, I had to include this somewhere. I first saw this at the Telluride Film Festival premiere, and it was supposedly longer than the cut that was released in theaters (which I went to see again). I appreciate that Boyle shot each of the triptych segments with a different format (16mm, 35mm, digital) and he didn't go wild with style, and instead honing on the performances and the mind of Steve Jobs. Michael Fassbender is exceptional as Jobs, and the entire cast is worthy of mention - Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels (my favorite performance of his this year), Michael Stuhlbarg and Kate Winslet. Each of them is at their very best in this, and it's so delightful to watch.
The first time I saw this movie I felt awkward about the dramatization, the fact that it was so "fake" (Steve Wozniak claims he never said any of these things to Steve Jobs as he does in this). After conversations about the structure and the way it's modeled like an opera, or even just a play, I started to like it more and more, realizing that is exactly what makes it distinct. This makes it so much more grand as a performance piece, an impressive examination of the mindset of genius. And I found just as invigorating the second time around - the dialogue is often breathtaking. What a film. "Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra."
#10. Beasts of No Nation directed by Cary Fukunaga
A powerful, harrowing, tremendous film. I don't desire to overuse "masterpiece", but it's close to being one (read my original Telluride review). Cary Fukunaga gets better every project he works on. What I admire the most about this is the way it spans a very complete emotional story arc with the main character Agu, played so well by newcomer Abraham Attah. We start with him in the village, spend time getting to know him without the war, then later after two hours of hell, see him try to go back to normal life. It beautifully shows how horrible war is, and how much it can change so many people, and places, and ideas, so quickly. Aside from Attah, the performance by Idris Elba is one of the finest all year and deserves recognition.
#9. The Martian directed by Ridley Scott
This only made the cut after I watched it again, confirming that it definitely is one of my favorite movies. There's just so much hope to it, stuffed with optimism. It's a near perfect story showing the importance of knowledge, intuition, and a desire to learn. Matt Damon is so much fun to watch. Mark Watney is the kind of character that inspires real people to be more ambitious, to dream bigger than they ever have before, to survive against all odds, and to strive to push forward even when no one else is watching. Everything with Watney on the red planet is perfect, anytime it cuts back to Earth things can get a bit iffy (Jeff Daniels is better in Steve Jobs), but there's so much to enjoy on Mars I've been able to look past that. I want to grow space potatoes! "I don't want to come off as arrogant here, but I'm the greatest botanist on this planet."
#8. The Revenant directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Yep, this film. I saw it twice, in two days, the first time around because I was so taken back. I'm mostly a big fan of the cinematography and how realistic and raw this survival story is; but I also think the filmmaking is so damn impressive that it can't be disregarded. I agree with critics that say the film's themes are surface level, and it's just a story about how useless revenge always is, but it's still a brutal and exhausting film to watch. Leonardo DiCaprio goes through hell, and they capture it all on camera. Tom Hardy is just as good, with Will Poulter and Domhnall Gleeson close behind. Each time I saw it, I felt mentally and physically drained by the end, not that I had done anything besides sit in a seat, but it had that kind of effect. Every frame of this film is something to behold, with so much raw beauty that it always wins me over.
#7. Sicario directed by Denis Villeneuve
Roger Deakins is one of the only other cinematographers that can actually compete with Emmanuel Lubezki. Sicario is the other film on here (besides The Revenant) that has truly jaw-dropping cinematography. It's one of my favorites not just for that reason, though, but it's intense; I love a well-made, fast-paced film that moves with determination. The audience is always on their toes. I also love what the film is, I think, trying to say. Which is - you may think you know something about the Mexican drug cartels and the way things work down there, but really, you know nothing. The way it all connects together, how deep the ties are, it's all bigger than you will ever understand. Denis Villeneuve is such a brilliant filmmaker, and like Cary Fukunaga, he gets better and better as he makes more films. Emily Blunt is also at the top of of her game.
#6. The End of the Tour directed by James Ponsoldt
"I'm not so sure you want to be me." This excellent film made my mind light up and wonder endlessly about life, and philosophy, and the purpose of living, more than any other film last year. Jason Segel gives his single greatest performance to date, fully becoming the brilliant author David Foster Wallace, taking us on a journey into his mind. This is another one I love rewatching just for the dialogue, it's so fascinating to get lost in the conversations these two (Jesse Eisenberg as David Lipsky) are having. What I admire the most about James Ponsoldt's films (Smashed, The Spectacular Now) are how he makes them feel so effortless, like he just went out and recorded these people in real life. It makes his work so refreshing to experience, like there's always something new to learn every time you watch, even if it's in the pauses and reactions.
#5. Sherpa directed by Jennifer Peedom
Yes - a documentary! Sherpa is a phenomenal documentary that is so outstanding it was better than most other feature films I saw last year. Everyone always asks - but have you seen Meru? Yes I have, and it's good, but it doesn't compare to Sherpa. The big difference is that - Sherpa is the kind of film that has the potential to change the way an entire culture of people are viewed (the Sherpas) and alter opinions forever. It's made by an immensely talented director, with intimate access, and a deep love for the people of Nepal and the mountains of the Himalayas. There is footage in this film that I still can't believe they have. And as long as everyone keeps discovering it, more and more people will learn to treat the Sherpas with the utmost respect.
This is one of the first times a documentary has ever made my Top 10 and I think it just goes to show we're living in an remarkable time for docs. This is also the kind of documentary you should watch if you're not always entertained or moved by them. It's so stunning to see all the footage, and it will run you through the full gamut of emotions, the way great films should. Please seek out and enjoy this doc as soon as possible.
#4. Creed directed by Ryan Coogler
"Your legacy is more than a name." Creed! Hell yes. I don't think anyone was expecting Creed to end up on so many Top 10 lists, but I'm glad it turned out this amazing. To borrow a line from The Martian, Ryan Coogler directed the shit out of this. He deserves the success and attention. The most graceful franchise hand-off since Toy Story 3, bringing back Sylvester Stallone with another memorable performance as Balboa and introducing Adonis Creed, played perfectly by Michael B. Jordan. It's not only a great story, but the way Coogler integrates the music, the score, the cinematography, the emotions into the storytelling, is what makes it particularly impressive. I already have the soundtrack and listen to it often to pump me up.
#3. Victoria directed by Sebastian Schipper
Another film that blew me away. This is the much-talked-about single-shot German film, an invigorating story of connection told entirely in one long take. The reason this film made the list is that I kept thinking about it for days after I saw it. I kept thinking about how I felt, and how my emotions evolved as the film progressed. I kept thinking about how beautifully it was setup to make you believe one thing, but as things unfold and as you see real connections being made, you realize how wrong you were, and that it's possible to learn from that. I felt a deep connection that stuck with me for days, which is always a sign a film is special.
I don't know how director Sebastian Schipper and his crew pulled off the two-hour long-take, but it is astonishing. And the performances from the lead actors, Laia Costa and Frederick Lau, are convincingly realistic. I have a friend who is very much like Sonne, and I kept thinking about him; how there is always more to learn about other people, more to figure out beyond what's on the surface. We should know this already, of course, but Victoria strongly emphasizes the importance of authentic connection and honesty.
#2. Son of Saul directed by László Nemes
Now this film is a masterpiece, and I don't hesitate saying that. Son of Saul is Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes's poignant, terrifying, brutal film set entirely inside a concentration camp during World War II. It was an ingenious decision to tell this story focused solely on the face of one Jewish prisoner, Saul, played by Géza Röhrig, letting the atmosphere and occurrences around him provide the horror. The attention to detail in every scene, the subtlest of emotions on Saul's face, the palpable desperation, the calm intensity, the authenticity, are aspects that make it a bonafide masterpiece. I wrote in my glowing review from NYFF that Son of Saul "is a shining example of how cinema continues to evolve and improve every single year."
#1. Mad Max: Fury Road directed by George Miller
"I live, I die. I LIVE AGAIN!" I FUCKING LOVE THIS MOVIE! I'm not holding back anymore. Mad Max: Fury Road is, hands down, the #1 movie of 2015. It's big, bold, brilliant, beautiful, badass, and best of all, endlessly rewatchable. I remember coming out of the theater the first time, I wanted to grab someone and just yell "that was awesome!!!!" What I love about Fury Road: the minimal script (it's not about Max as much as it is about Furiosa), the stunts and action set pieces in this, the killer score by Junkie XL (which I'm listening to as I finish writing), the performances by everyone including Hugh Keays-Byrne as Immortan Joe, all the vehicles. I love all of it. Ever want to know what a perfect movie looks like? This is it. Right here.
I'm serious. This movie is perfect. I have no complaints at all, nothing to criticize, nothing to nitpick, Mad Max: Fury Road nails every fucking nail on the head. And then some. I even love the way it ends. Perfect. No need for more than that nod to Furiosa, then he's out. Time to move on. This movie has everything I want in the most satisfying big screen entertainment and it's even so damn perfect that nothing about it gets tedious when revisiting. It's the kind of cinematic entertainment that is going to stand the test of time, and will be something that people talk about for years and years and years to come. George Miller, I bow to you.
Special Mention: Boy & the World directed by Alê Abreu
This is such a beautiful, beautiful film and I couldn't help including it on this list somewhere. It's so special, and so unique, that it didn't fit in with everything else and so I decided to single it out as a special mention (not just a runner up). Boy & the World is an animated film from Brazil made by filmmaker Alê Abreu that I only caught up with late in 2015, and it is utterly magnificent. It's a story about a boy leaving home told entirely through hand-drawn, sketch animation and no dialogue. Not only is it extremely innovative in the way the story is told with this animation style, but it's also a wonderful film about the big, stunning planet we call Earth and all the peaceful nature that surrounds us. I adore this film, and recommend it to everyone.
Runner Up Favorites: J.J. Abrams' Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Alex Garland's Ex Machina, Stevan Riley's Listen to Me Marlon, Matthew Heineman's Cartel Land, Clement & Waititi's What We Do in the Shadows, John Crowley's Brooklyn, Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, Adam McKay's The Big Short.
That's it for now! Alas, I don't have time to get into my favorite performances or anything else. My favorite cinematography is between The Revenant and Sicario, both of which are listed above, for obvious reasons. There were a number of films that I did not like as much as many of my colleagues did, including Room, Tangerine, Carol, The Assassin, It Follows, and the documentary Amy. In addition, there were a few films that I did not get the chance to see, including: Macbeth, The Danish Girl, Timbuktu, Chi-Raq and The Gift. If you have any additional questions about my favorite films of 2015, please get in touch: @firstshowing.