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2015 wasn’t a bad year, but I’m calling it a “bag” year.

What am I talking about?

Well, you know how sometimes movies just aren’t your bag? In an attempt to be a well-rounded cinema goer, I try to appreciate things that aren’t necessarily my bag. It’s one of the reasons that I do things like complete film lists, because then not only will it force me to confront things that aren’t my bag, it might also help me find new things that are my bag that I’d never have suspected were my bag. Most years I end up trying to catch up with some critical favorites which, on the surface, would seem not to be my bag. Sometimes I feel like I haven’t watched nearly enough movies to even have favorites. For example, what if instead of the ~60 new movies I saw this year, I had watched a different 60? That’s entirely possible. What if I have a bunch of favorite movies that I don’t know are my favorites because I never saw them?

Yet I feel like this year has been uncommonly predictable in the sense that I pretty much knew what I was going to like and dislike before I ever watched it. Most of the stuff that I thought would be my bag was my bag, and there weren’t a lot of surprises when I went looking for things that weren’t my bag. I mostly enjoyed movies from directors that I already favor (Baumbach, Tarantino, Villeneuve, Inarritu, Del Toro) and from genres that I favor (thriller, sci-fi), and disliked movies I didn’t expect to like (Jurassic World, Pixels). There were a couple of minor surprises – I liked Tomorrowland more than the consensus, didn’t love The Martian – but when I sought things a bit off the beaten path, like Tangerine or The Duke of Burgundy, none of it really made a big impression.

So while I’m pleased as punch to be a film aficionado right now, I can’t help but feel my own habits – and by extension, my year-end list – failed to capture the breadth of what filmmaking looked like this year. There’s no Holy Motors on my list, and no A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, no Sleepwalk with Me. It just feels like I didn’t see any stalwart indies or ambitious art films that I really fell in love with. Maybe that means I missed out. Or maybe it means mainstream movies were uncommonly good this year. I’d be more than happy to recommend Buzzard, for example, but to say I liked it better than any of the movies on this list would be dishonest – and there’d be no point in doing a personal list if it isn’t honest.

So with 2015 in the bag, here are the movies that are my bag this year:


15. Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller)

If there was ever a case to be made against the idea that sequels are derivative, boring, or creatively bankrupt, Fury Road to the front of the line. Director George Miller returns to the Mad Max franchise 30 years later (!) and makes this wild, weird, balls-to-the-wall 120-minute chase sequence that left movie audiences feeling like they’d been run over by a train; and almost no one saw it coming. The film has been arguably the sensation of the year in the film community, and is now a Best Picture nominee (!)

As you can see from its placement on this list, it isn’t my favorite movie of the year. Fury Road is extraordinarily well edited and choreographed, and it excels at world-building and at telling its story through action rather than words; yet the spoken script that does emerge is pretty weak (characters should probably not talk about redemption like it’s a coin they dropped somewhere) and the relentless pace of the action can become repetitive and even numbing. Still, though, it’s exciting to live in a time when a movie this off-beat and uncompromising is dominating the conversation over limp re-treads and pre-packaged, interchangeable franchise entries. Guitar guy fully deserves to become a cultural icon.

14. Carol (dir. Todd Haynes)

I don’t know what it is but somehow movies about lesbians always seem super relevant to my life (see: “Take Me or Leave Me” from Rent). It helps that Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett are utterly perfect. Blanchett always looks like a creature from another world, her unmistakable cheekbones giving her an air of nobility whether she’s playing an immortal elf or going to the laundromat. It’s ironic she calls Therese (Mara) a visitor from space. Mara, who has proven she can do tough-as-nails, does passive vulnerability and wonder perhaps even better.

What Carol captures are those aching spaces that seem to define so many relationships. For all the smiles and the fiery passion there always seem to be so many more moments of hurt, uncertainty, anger, and loss. It also reminds you of that explosive feeling when you first become involved with someone and it’s so overwhelming that you just need to be with them every moment, and those moments are a blissful sanctuary. There’s a sense of the thrill of the forbidden – not played up very much, but it’s there under the surface. The film is bathed in rich reds and golds with a lovely Carter Burwell score to complete the ambiance.

13. It Follows (dir. David Robert Mitchell)

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With one exception appearing later on this list, It Follows is the scariest movie of the year. That’s not to say it’s particularly frightening, but it does have a simple, effective premise that somehow keeps milking suspense out of the same visual of a figure approaching in the background. Not only does this tap into a fundamentally disquieting notion of zombie-like inevitability, but it imbues even the sunniest compositions with a sense of paranoia and keeps you constantly scanning the frame for threats. It’s not a subtle movie but its metaphors are also not too easy to pin down. The weird, gross teenage stuff combined with the psycho-sexual nature of the curse is an awkward, unsettling stew, delightfully unhinged in places despite its general low-key demeanor. Maika Monroe is winning and sympathetic in the lead. The last third unfortunately does not live up to the film’s ample promise, but it’s still some enjoyable throwback horror with an Carpenter-inspired synth soundtrack.

12. Crimson Peak (dir. Guillermo Del Toro)

A bloody, deranged fairy tale from director of Pan’s Labyrinth. Crimson Peak is nowhere near as great as that film, but it nevertheless evidences Del Toro’s strengths as a storyteller. His movies often feature young heroes and heroines, and a childlike sense of discovery even in the most gruesome of contexts. In Crimson Peak, a key or a letter can hold an enticing secret, and those secrets are kept just long enough for us to squirm with anticipation. The meat of this story is a period romance like something out of Jane Austen (also name-dropped) that gets all gothic and tragic and melodramatic on us. Occasionally it flies a bit too close to Tim Burton territory for my taste, but it’s enjoyable to watch even when it’s playing it so, so big. Jessica Chastain in particular has a few lines that shouldn’t work, but it’s all in service of this kind of arch theatricality. Burdened by unfair expectations – many wanted straight-up horror –  Crimson Peak is one of the year’s most beautiful presentations and destined to be the most under-appreciated.

11. Steve Jobs (dir. Danny Boyle)

Maybe it was the lingering fumes from that Aston Kutcher movie that soured audiences on this flick sight unseen. I should have learned from The Social Network that when Aaron Sorkin writes a movie about a disagreeable modern tech giant you go see it, even if you previously had no interest in the life of said disagreeable tech giant. Great actors like Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, and Michael Stuhlbarg deliver some of the year’s best performances bringing the blistering script to life. The pace and intensity of their verbal jabs and parries can be exhausting, but it’s rarely less than engrossing. Boyle’s direction cannily uses three different film stocks for the three acts of the film (each set in a different year), but it’s a touch so subtle audiences may not even notice. What they will notice is Fassbender’s commanding turn and Sorkin’s signature high-wire drama.

10. The Visit (dir. M. Night Shyamalan)

M. Night Shyamalan apologizes to audiences for the past 10 years of his career. If the next 10 are nearly as good as The Visit, I’m tempted to forgive him. This movie should be terrible. It’s found footage. It’s PG-13 “horror.” It has child leads. One of them fancies himself a rapper. On paper it’s dookie in a bag. But it’s so much fun! Legitimately, un-ironically, The Visit is a blast. It nails the semi-campy tone that The Happening tried but miserably fumbled. It laughs at its naive 12-year-old emcee. It gets surprisingly nasty when called upon. It has at least one surprise that will knock the air out of you in a pleasing, old-school way. It’s more funny than scary, but so many of the laughs land. And hey, it has the massively under-appreciated Kathryn Hahn to bring it all home.

9. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (dir. Christopher McQuarrie)

My recap of this movie could just be REBECCA FERGUSON in all caps. She just won all our hearts and if starring in this doesn’t make her a big movie star, well… why wouldn’t that happen? She is a big movie star now. She steals the show with her Ingrid Bergman baby-blues and kick-ass action chick stylings. Christopher McQuarrie of Jack Reacher fame didn’t excite me as the newest helmer in a series that to this point has been director driven; but he delivers a twisty, hard-to-follow, too-many-allegiances-and-triple-crosses plot similar to the first movie (that’s a compliment), and the action setups are effective and memorable if not quite as grand as in Bird’s Ghost Protocol. The humor from that film is back as well, with Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, and Alec Baldwin contributing to a deep bench of supporting talent. There were a lot of big Hollywood spy movies this year – The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Spectre, Kingsman – but Rogue Nation is the best of the lot, and the most pleased I’ve been with a new franchise sequel in 2015 (my apologies to Star Wars, Mad Max, and The Avengers).

8. The Revenant (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)

Let’s cut through the grit and gristle: it doesn’t matter whether DiCaprio wins an Oscar or not (he will), or whether you think Iñárritu is pretentious or not. The Revenant is a breathtaking work of visual artistry by two filmmakers (Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) at the top of their respective games. If there was nothing to The Revenant but their images it would still be 100% worth your time. As it turns out there is more, and I was surprised to find myself touched not only by the aesthetic beauty of the images but by their meaning. The film is a testament to the inhospitality of nature and the survival grit of man despite its dwarfing indifference. There are scenes of remarkable virtuosity and savagery, the opening onslaught recalling nothing short of the Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan. The bear scene is harrowing and difficult to watch. It seems strange to say this given the notoriously troubled shoot, but what comes across on screen is a director whose baser tendencies are somewhat curbed by the shortage of words. DiCaprio crawls and wheezes his way through a Gravity-like gauntlet of physical tests, while Tom Hardy’s gnarly delivery makes his villain character fun to watch and listen to. It’s a long movie and when its over you’ll feel you too have endured something, in a good way.

7. Spotlight (dir. Tom McCarthy)

McCarthy’s film about a team of crack journalists working to expose systematic sexual abuse in the Catholic church in Boston is extraordinarily well-paced, credibly acted, and evenly directed. Its true-crime brand of drama recalls Zodiac and All the President’s Men. It almost seems oafish to call it entertaining, but it’s certainly magnetic. A bit of subtlety and understatement goes a long way for the often dark and sensitive material which is fleshed out by a wonderful cast. We’ve come to expect great things from Ruffalo and Keaton, but I would have thought Liv Schreiber out of his depth until I saw his rock solid performance. This isn’t a movie that’s going to blow minds. It isn’t showy. There’s not a single dominating performance or killer sequence. What it has is alchemy, a distillation of elements that together present a sobering treatment of a difficult subject.


6. The Hateful Eight (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Quentin Tarantino has never been known for his restraint, and The Hateful Eight is his most extravagant movie yet. Released in super-wide 70mm in a roadshow cut that was three hours long with overture and intermission, you could argue it’s too much of a good thing. For fans of the style, though, it is a delicious indulgence. It’s a western, chamber drama, whodunit, and twisted revenge tale. You’ve got Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Walton Goggins thrown into a snow-bound cabin that becomes a pressure cooker of suspicion primed to explode. You have a wonderful Ennio Morricone score. You have Tarantino’s trademark gleeful bloody violence. Perhaps best of all, you have what may be his funniest script to date. It left me cackling madly as the credits rolled. I was still laughing when I got home. I may be a sick individual.

5. Sicario (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

I sort of want Denis Villeneuve to make a horror movie, though I’m not confident I’d survive it. He’s one of the best working directors at cultivating unease and hitting you with big surprises that you feel in your gut. Sicario is a masterfully shot film, with all-star DP Deakins now lensing difficult twilight and dawn setups left and right. It looks most of all like the Coens’ No Country for Old Men, which Deakins also shot. The film reminds me of a Michael Mann joint with its matter-of-fact, unsentimental violence and “guns-are-loud” action. It’s a serious, dark movie for adults, the kind of thing that would scar a kid who stumbled across it on cable. There are multiple sequences I’d name among my favorites of the year. Benecio Del Toro is a force, and Emily Blunt anchors the movie as the naive agent caught up in a chaotic, amoral bid by American powers to control Mexican drug cartels. Those hoping for a more comprehensive or scathing political treatise may be disappointed, but fans of tense thrillers will find plenty to love.

4. What We Do in the Shadows (dir. Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi)

Is there a genre that has been skewered more often in recent days than the vampire movie? Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords leads this mockumentary that follows a group of vampire roommates as they go about their days (or, rather, nights) clubbing, feasting on virgin blood, and sparring with werewolves. Shadows thankfully avoids strained references to popular media like Twilight or True Blood and instead creates its own original characters while playing on classic vampire tropes. Witty, silly, dark, and delivered in perfect deadpan, the actors understand exactly what they’re doing and find just the right combination of understatement and mugging. I saw this in a theater and the audience was frequently laughing so loud that I missed the next line of dialog. It’s hands down the funniest movie of the year.

3. Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland)

Artificial intelligence is well-worn ground in the sci-fi genre, but first-time director Alex Garland (writer of Sunshine and 28 Days Later) pulls off a stunning claustrophobic thriller within these familiar confines. When Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is invited to the remote home of his rich, tech genius boss Nathan played by a boorish Oscar Isaac, he is put to work administering Turing tests to a beautiful and lifelike A.I., Alicia Vikander. Of course all is not as it seems and Nathan’s bro-riffic arrogance takes on a sinister quality as Caleb tries to figure out what’s really going on. This might be the breakout cast of the year, especially Vikander whose turn is subtle, commanding, and touching. The film asks what it means to love, to trust, to feel, and it does it with slick-looking effects and terrific players. I saw this back in the spring and it was the first movie of the year to make me stagger out of the theater with the feeling that I’d seen something great.

2. Mistress America (dir. Noah Baumbach)

Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig are making movies about my generation, right now. They have an insight that would be impressive even if the movies themselves (this and the lovely Frances Ha) were not so buoyant and funny. This one has a bit more of a cynical streak than Frances Ha did, but its barbs of darkness are frequently shouted down by the screwball commotion. Gerwig is a fireball. She’s eminently watchable even when her character is being insufferable, and especially when that insufferable shell begins to waver and she is vulnerable, just for a moment; because underneath all that bluster is someone filled with doubt and insecurity. Lola Kirke, too, deserves praise for her straight-woman performance that rises to meet Gerwig’s luminous whirlwind. These are complex, interesting characters that deepen and enrich the fast-paced mannered comedy of the last act. It fails me to sum up the complex ironies that make this all work so well, but the film skips along with such youthful energy (and a throw-back synth soundtrack) that it will be easy to watch it many more times in the attempt.

1. Inside Out (dir. Peter Doctor, Ronaldo Del Carmen)

Remember when movies had ideas? Inside Out has more per minute than Jurassic World had in its entire running time. The magicians at Pixar take us inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley, where her brain is illustrated as a literal control center manned by anthropomorphic emotions Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. The primary conflict involves ringleader Joy, voiced by Amy Poehler, trying to prevent Riley’s mental breakdown when her young life undergoes seismic external shifts – her parents move her to a new school in a new city – and stop Riley’s core memories from being contaminated by the well-meaning but bumbling Sadness (Phyllis Smith). Their misadventure takes them through a staggering procession of actualized mind-spaces, including riding a Train of Thought; joining forces with Riley’s mostly-forgotten imaginary friend; and even a trip through the abstract. If Charlie Kaufman hadn’t actually made a different animated movie this year, I’d swear he consulted on this one. Inside Out is a meaningful film that explores such phenomena as puberty, family relationships, and the impermanence of memory. If it ever seemed Pixar was in a slump, Inside Out is a triumphant return to form. It’s as creative, funny, and emotionally powerful as the studio’s very best.

BONUS
In honor of Inside Out being my #1 movie of 2015, I’ve decided to award 5 films that made me feel the five primary emotions from the movie: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. They are:

JOYMistress America
SADNESSRoom
ANGERPhoenix
FEAR It Follows
DISGUSTJurassic World

The Next Ten
Here are my runners-up. List is in alphabetical order:

Avengers: Age of Ultron
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Buzzard
Creed
The Gift
Krampus
Room

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Tomorrowland

Ten Movies I Missed – A few potential top-listers that I didn’t get a chance to see: 45 Years, Anamolisa, The Assassin, The End of the Tour, Goodnight Mommy, The Look of Silence, Son of Saul, Straight Outta Compton, Timbuktu, Youth

20 Top Performances

Best Actor
Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs
Paul Dano – Love & Mercy
Samuel L. Jackson – The Hateful Eight
Oscar Isaac – Ex Machina
Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight

Best Actress
Brie Larson – Room
Nina Hoss – Phoenix
Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn
Juliette Binoche – Clouds of Sils Maria
Elisabeth Moss – Queen of Earth

Best Supporting Actor
Walton Goggins – The Hateful Eight
Benecio Del Toro – Sicario
Michael Keaton – Spotlight
Seth Rogen – Steve Jobs
Tom Hardy – The Revenant

Best Supporting Actress
Rooney Mara – Carol
Greta Gerwig – Mistress America
Alicia Vikander – Ex Machina
Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs
Jessica Chastain – Crimson Peak

Now for some bonus stats (note: these stats only include movies I saw)

Best Couple
Tom Cruise and Rebecca Fergson – Mission: Impossible -Rogue Nation
Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara – Carol
Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain – Crimson Peak
Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson – Creed
Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’anna – The Duke of Burgundy

Best Director: Denis Villeneuve – Sicario

Best Soundtrack: Mistress America

Funniest Movie: What We Do in the Shadows

Biggest Surprise: Steve Jobs

Biggest Disappointment: The Martian. Heard so many great things about this and then found it to be a dramatically inert drag.

Worst Movie: The Dead Lands. Unless you’re hardcore about Maori you won’t like this, and maybe not even then.

Most Overrated: Queen of Earth. Nasty little movie with no payoff, despite a great turn from Elisabeth Moss.

Most Underrated: Crimson Peak. This year’s victim of mishandled advertising.

Best Sequel: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Worst Sequel: Jurassic World

Least Enjoyable Good Movie: Room

Most Enjoyable Bad Movie: Knock Knock

Best Performance by a Bad Actor: Liam Hemsworth in Cut Bank

Worst Performance by a Good Actor: Keanu Reeves in Knock Knock

Longest Movie: The Hateful Eight (3 hours, 7 minutes)

Shortest Movie: Shaun the Sheep Movie (1 hour, 25 minutes)

Best Title: The Duke of Burgundy

Worst Title: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Movies Named After People: Steve Jobs, Carol, Mad Max: Fury Road, Creed, Ashby, Mr. Holmes

Titles That Form Complete Sentences: It Follows, The Force Awakens, Kill Me Three Times, Get Hard, Ride

Movies with Colons in Their Titles: Mad Max: Fury Road, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Kingsman: The Secret Service

Fiction Movies Based on Real Life: Spotlight, The Revenant, Steve Jobs, Bridge of Spies, The Big Short, Love & Mercy

Movies Featuring the Cast of Ex MachinaThe Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Danish Girl, Brooklyn, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Revenant

Movies Featuring Dinosaurs: The Good Dinosaur, Jurassic World

Movies Featuring Male Nudity: The Hateful Eight, The Revenant, It Follows, Bone Tomahawk, Beasts of No Nation, Tangerine

Movies Featuring Horrific Violence Done to a Man’s Genitals: Bone Tomahawk, The Hateful Eight, The Revenant

Movies That Crucially Feature a Plate of Spaghetti: Brooklyn, Buzzard

Movies With Gratuitous Cats: Inside Out, What We Do in the Shadows, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Most In Which Someone Falls in Love with a Machine: Ex Machina, Tomorrowland, Steve Jobs

So… that was my year in film. How was yours?

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