The Best Movies of 2015 (According to Erin Whitney)
Lists can be extremely useful, especially when you need to get organized, go grocery shopping or break down all the ways Jon Snow will return on Game of Thrones (very important). I like those kinds of lists, as the many Post-Its littered across my desk (and Macbook and iPhone) will show you. But making a Top 10 for the best movies of the year is a whole other monster, a film writer’s Sophie’s Choice. For someone as ridiculously indecisive as myself, it took days to finalize the final spots on this list.
This was an amazing year for film, with new releases ranging from groundbreaking low-budget indies to new Ridley Scott and Quentin Tarantino action-adventures, from stunning foreign entries to emotional animated features. By September I could’ve named a solid 15 films I really loved, but now I could easily publish a Top 30. But alas, there are only 10 precious spots so I had to cut some favorites like Tangerine, The Danish Girl and Ex Machina, to name a few.
So are my final 10 the very best movies to represent this year? Yes and no. Criticism, after all, is subjective and film is one of the most personal interactions with art. I chose the films that personally struck me, stayed with me the longest, that left me with questions, and proved how expressive and transcendent cinema can be. Without further ado, here are the 10 films that I think truly exemplify the best of cinema in 2015:
10. 45 Years
Directed by Andrew Haigh
The final spot on a Top 10 list is usually the hardest and the one that keeps changing up until the last minute. Three different films held this spot until I thought about 45 Years more, a film which asks many questions about love, marriage, loss and jealousy. And the more I thought about the timelessness of those questions and the delicate vulnerability Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay each bring to their characters, the more 45 Years secured its spot. As Rampling’s Kate and Courtenay’s Geoff prepare to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary, a letter arrives for Geoff, revealing that the body of his former girlfriend has been found after she died 53 years ago. The entire history of their loving, secure marriage is thrown into question as Kate wonders how her husband’s former lover colored their life together. Heartbreaking, patient and beautiful, 45 Years is the type of superb filmmaking we need more of.
45 Years opens on December 23.
9. Clouds of Sils Maria
Directed by Olivier Assayas
There are so many shifting layers of Clouds of Sils Maria, a film that demands an awareness of both what’s on screen and what’s off. Both Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart play characters reflective of their real-life selves – Binoche as Maria Enders, a celebrated French actress who’s dabbled in Hollywood blockbusters, and Stewart as Valentine, her personal assistant with an empathy for misunderstood celebs that populate TMZ headlines. But the hall of mirrors that is Clouds of Sils Maria goes even deeper once Maria is asked to star in the remake of the play that made her famous. This time she’s playing the obsessive older woman weakened by the cunning charm of the younger woman, a latter a role she originated in 20 years ago. Assayas’ film is suffused with meta commentary about age, fame, desires, the passage of time and female relationships. Like Bergman’s Persona, it harbors buried revelations about the women at its center, both on-screen, off-screen and on the page. It’s a poetic puzzle you’ll want to study and revisit.
Clouds of Sils Maria is available on home video and Amazon Prime.
8. It Follows
Directed by David Robert Mitchell
I’ve never left a movie theater with as much paranoia, fear and excitement as I did after seeing It Follows. On guard and questioning everyone around me, I couldn’t shake the eerie, haunting atmosphere of the film – it quite literally follows you right out of the theater. David Robert Mitchell’s moody visuals, imbued with an ‘80s nostalgia, and Disasterpeace’s throbbing, synth-heavy score concoct a terror that lodges itself under your skin. The concept alone makes It Follows one of the most brilliant horror movies of the decade as an unstoppable, fatal presence is passed from one teen to the next like a sexually transmitted disease. With no explanation and little backstory, Mitchell gives us a mystery to pick a part, question and create a series of ‘What Ifs’ about, giving the film a longevity and life off of the screen. It Follows is a celebration of great horror movies of the past, but has enough originality to establish itself a staple of the genre.
It Follows is available on home video and Amazon Prime.
Directed by Sebastian Schipper
I’ve recommended few movies this year as much as I have Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria, a two-hour-and-eighteen-minute one-take film. No, it doesn’t hide edits like Birdman or Rope. No, it wasn’t shot in a singular concentrated location, like Russian Ark. It’s one complete 138-minute shot filmed in multiple locations across Berlin in one night. The fact that Schipper and his crew pulled off such a feat is astonishing on its own, but Victoria is much more than a technical gimmick. The one-shot style is the match that lights the intense story and the charged performances that feel like something you’d witness in experimental theater. The film starts off like a quiet indie as Laia Costa’s titular Spanish woman meets a group of German friends, then escalates into a frantic thriller once she volunteers to help them rob a bank. Watching Victoria feels like running a crazed marathon that once you reach the end, you can’t really believe what you’ve just seen.
Victoria is now playing in select theaters.
Directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson
If there ever was a filmmaker who managed to crawl inside your head, warp your reality, and leave you bewildered over a profound revelation, it’d be Charlie Kaufman. In Anomalisa, which he wrote and co-directed with Duke Johnson, Kaufman continues to explore the complexities and anxieties of the human experience, but this time with no humans at all. Using puppets and stop-motion animation, Anomalisa follows the story of Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) a depressed middle-aged man on a Cincinnati business trip. We eventually learn Michael’s world is one of extreme mundanity, sinking in a sea of grey where he’s waiting for an aberration to offer something to live for. With fantastic voice work by Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan, and some of the most emotive puppets film has ever seen, Kaufman creates a masterpiece more palpable, more emotional and more raw than most movies with actual people.
Anomalisa opens December 30.
Directed by John Crowley
There are so many things to admire about John Crowley’s period piece, from the stunning costumes to the great supporting cast (Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent, especially), from the film’s rich color palette to screenwriter Nick Hornby’s script. But most of all, it’s Saoirse Ronan’s performance as Eilis, a young Irish girl immigrating to New York in the 1950s, that’s the most spectacular. Ronan has been great in everything from her Oscar-nominated Atonement to last year’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, but with Brooklyn she establishes herself one of the best young actresses of our time. Just as Ronan has blossomed, so does Eilis as she evolves from a timid girl into a woman paving her own future while being torn between two countries. Brooklyn is the type of film that brings a refreshing novelty to a simple story, and should be remembered as one of the year’s most remarkable gems. (For more of my thoughts, read my review here.)
Brooklyn is now playing in theaters.
4. Inside Out
Directed by Pete Docter
As a kid I dressed up as Woody for Halloween and now, many years later, I still (unabashedly) cuddle up in my WALL-E blanket and tear up over that little robot dancing to Hello, Dolly. Pixar has long been a staple of telling childhood stories for audiences of any age to enjoy, but Inside Out captures that blend better than their previous classics. It gets inside the mind of a 12-year-old girl and explores some very big and daunting elements of growing up and what makes us human. This is a movie where color itself is a defining character trait, and where the lively voices of Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling and Bill Hader help build an imaginary would that’s deeply relatable and original. I never thought a movie with a pink elephant/cat/dolphin (miss you, Bing Bong) would make me sob more than once, laugh out loud, marvel at its brilliance and contemplate the importance of sadness in our lives. Inside Out is the most imaginative film in years, and honestly I’m a little worried Pixar won’t be able to top it. (Who am I kidding? Of course they will.)
Inside Out is available on home video and Amazon Prime.
3. Beasts of No Nation
Directed by Cary Fukunaga
I’ve seen Beasts of No Nation twice, and it wasn’t until the second time that I realized just how essential of a cinematic experience it is. I saw it both times in a theater, as opposed to Netflix, and both were my most upsetting movie-watching experience this year (and I’ve already seen the ultra-violent The Revenant and the holocaust drama Son of Saul). Maybe I’m more of a masochist than I’d like to admit, but I’m fan of unflinching, intense cinema that can make you uneasy, give you chills and leave you with a tear-streaked face. First-time actor Abraham Attah’s performance as Agu, a West African boy initiated into a group of child soldiers, is the most complex onscreen portrait of a child this year (as much as I love Jacob Tremblay in Room, Attah gets at something deeper and more layered). But it isn’t all harrowing violence; the Netflix production is one of the most meditative films about the human psyche in the midst of war since Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.
Beasts of No Nation is now playing in select theaters and streaming on Netflix.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road
Directed by George Miller
You probably already know how fantastic Mad Max: Fury Road is, but allow me to dust off your memory. George Miller’s post-apocalyptic adventure has some of the year’s most spectacular action sequences, from Tom Hardy bobbing between speeding cars on a pole to tank trucks flipping and spinning out of control. There’s a motorcycle crew of fearless women slaughtering gangs of bad guys. There’s Charlize Theron’s one-armed warrior upstaging the film’s titular character. And during all the bonkers, non-stop chaos, there’s a guy in a onesie playing a flame-throwing guitar. What more could you dream of?! Miller managed to not only make a thrilling reboot to his dystopian franchise and one of the most gorgeous films of the year. He also made an action film that subverts expectations and stereotypes while proving some of the most dynamic filmmaking can be found in a summer blockbuster. Mad Max: Fury Road was the most fun I’ve had at the movies all year.
Mad Mad: Fury Road is available on home video and Amazon Prime.
Directed by Todd Haynes
Sometimes the most powerful things are said without saying anything at all. That seems to be the mantra behind Todd Haynes’ Carol, a love story of extreme subtlety and quietude. It’s a film where nuances communicate depths of emotion, where each moment feels like an expression straight from the heart. Cate Blanchett’s piercing glances and Rooney Mara’s reserved mannerisms tell us more about what their characters are feeling as they fall in love than dialogue could. Their performances, paired with Haynes’ gentle direction, Carter Burwell’s dreamy score and Edward Lachman’s sumptuous cinematography all compliment Phyllis Nagy’s script in a beautiful harmony that’s at once timeless and nostalgic. Watching Carol is like standing in front of a painting that catches your eye from across the room, where the longer you look the more beautiful it gets, and the more it grabs hold of you. Few films are as perfect as this one, and I’m certain Carol will only become more of a classic over time. (For more of my thoughts, read my review here.)
Carol is now playing in theaters.
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):