For the past three years, I’ve been ranking every film I see- just the new releases, from January 1st to December 31st. The rankings are subjective, based entirely on how much I enjoyed and/or connected with or appreciated the film rather than on some sort of objective artistic criteria. Basically, this is a list of 140 films released in 2015 ranked according to how much I liked them.
Read the Full 2015 List HERE.
Three acting Oscar nominees fall into this section, including frontrunner Brie Larson whose performance in Room made me wish I liked Room more. At least three more actors in this section of the list should have been nominated too. Alas.
31. Hitman: Agent 47
Slick, brutal, intense and deeply human, this action drama led by the great Rupert Friend was the best straight action film of the year.
I’m so so so psyched to see Brie Larson finally get what’s been coming to her since United States of Tara, if not before. The consistent indie standout (whose tour de force in Short Term 12 remains one of the great performances of the decade) is finally getting noticed because of Room, a traumatic film about trauma in which she brilliantly plays a captive young mother. The flaw in this screen adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s beloved novel is that it’s clear from the poster that the characters will eventually free themselves and, sure enough, they’re free by midway through the film, dispelling the tension to the point that I spent most of the second half wondering if Tom McCamus would turn out to be evil (Canadian theatre goers will understand the suspicion based on his usual casting model). Room the film is a lot about coping after a tragedy, which is certainly a worthy subject, but what I was more interested in was the tenacious will to live that drives the book.
33. Pawn Sacrifice
This extremely competent biopic has been unfairly overlooked this year. It’s a tad more conventional than it needs to be, especially considering the wealth of philosophy and stirring imagery conjured with the word “chess”, but the acting is excellent and, with the exception of a too-long sequence meant to reflect the noise in Bobby Fischer’s brain as he tries to concentrate, the chess sequences have great tension and stakes.
Saiya said it best in her review of this lovely romance: “for me, it was hard to enjoy the movie when I kept whispering at the screen, ‘Make better choices’”. Writer Nick Hornby, director John Crowley and star Saoirse Ronan capture perfectly the unique ache of homesickness but as soon as Emory Cohen’s Tony comes onto the scene, it’s hard to ever invest in a plausible reality in which Eilis might actually return to Ireland for good, Domhnall Gleeson or no Domhnall Gleeson (and y’all know how I feel about Domhnall Gleeson).
35. Our Magic
This documentary by R. Paul Wilson is brimming with love. Magic is such an insular world and those who perform it are such an odd lot that it’s the perfect subject. My only wish is that some of the subjects had been more free to let their opinions really fly when it comes to the less-respected members of the magic community (unfortunately sometimes also the most successful). But, even without much grit, some of the personal stories here are so profound that you can’t help but cheer for people who want nothing more than to trick you.
36. Mistress America
It’s now been enough years since the coining of the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” that we’re beginning to see the generation of films made specifically in response to that trope. Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America is most definitely one of those, a brutal deconstruction of the sad hollowness that lies inside a woman whose enchanting, irresponsible mania had served her so well before she aged out of its acceptability. It’s the perfect role for Greta Gerwig, one of those hipster dream girls who seems to exist solely as an instrument for the deconstruction of something mainstream without herself existing in any concrete way outside of mainstream ideals. It’s an often frustrating, ultimately sad and stirring film about growing up and being a real person, whatever that means.
37. Clouds of Sils Maria
This arty, wordy, atmospheric film about an ageing actress asked to return to the play that made her famous opposite a new ingénue is at its best when it’s just Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart sitting around, debating the meaning of the play-within-the-film. Without it being too much of a gimmick, the dynamic between those two characters mirrors that in the play well enough that the two layers of dialogue are easily confused- is Binoche chastising Stewart or are they rehearsing lines? Stewart, a blockbuster actress with independent artistic sensibilities and underrated skill, plays Binoche’s insightful, unassuming assistant who sees the potential in Chloë Grace Moretz as the blockbuster ingénue with artistic sensibilities cast alongside Binoche in the play. It’s as insightful a piece of casting as I’ve ever seen. The film dawdles (it takes forever to get going), the sound editing is highly suspect, and I could have done without the overly long “epilogue” that attempts to wrap things up by moving actual plot for the first time, but there are moments when Clouds of Sils Maria is pretty remarkable.
A fascinating story told well with a superb ensemble (the Louie casting is particularly on-point), my gripe with Trumbo is how absurd it is that a film about the vilification of screenwriters has a screenplay that so thoroughly lacks moral nuance. Bryan Cranston delivers a great speech at the end wherein he literally says there are “no heroes or villains” but the film seems to disagree, with a mustache-twirling John Wayne (David James Elliott) and monstrous Hedda Hopper presented as positively sub-human (as Hopper, Helen Mirren has one closeup of humanity and that’s all). Dean O’Gorman as Kirk Douglas is triumphant.
39. The Night Before
I was really into The Night Before until the final act when all of the film’s themes are stated so clearly that it’s clear the filmmakers had less than no faith in their audience. That said, the chemistry between the central three friends (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen and Anthony Mackie) is fantastic, the hijinks are a lot of fun, the Tracy Morgan narration is a blast, strong supporting turns from Lizzie Caplan, Mindy Kaling, Ilana Glazer and a particularly great Jillian Bell keep the film from getting too bro-centric, and the central thematic concern (is there an age when you need to leave your friends behind?) is one that always hits me right in the heart. JGL’s complexly drawn character is called out on one of those widespread flaws that no one ever calls anyone out on and there are multiple karaoke rap scenes. What more do you need?
There’s a point late in act one of this 90s hip hop-doused coming-of-age dramedy when it feels like the trouble our heroes have stumbled into will lead to a pretty basic hijinks comedy. The film drags for awhile and there are too many supporting characters introduced who don’t really accomplish much, then our savvy narrator Malcolm (an irresistible Shameik Moore) turns the story into a sort of Ocean’s 11-esque con that is a ton of fun. At the end of act two, there’s a hugely impactful moment that suggests this might be a Most Violent Year-esque descent-into-darkness tragedy. Ultimately, the film resolves itself (a little too neatly, but why nitpick?) into a tale of a remarkable kid in a crappy world who refuses to settle for what he’s expected to want. It’s a bumpy ride that takes a long time to get moving, but it’s a good one. It also has one of the best titles of the year, all three of the disparate definitions of the word “dope” (as outlined in a title card at the beginning) very much coming into play over the course of the film.