The Best Movies of 2015 (According to Matt Singer)
There are just too many good movies.
That’s my takeaway from this year’s annual critical masochism selection of the ten best films. My shortlist of 2015’s best movies is anything but short; running well over 30 outstanding entries. It feels like something I say every year, but it’s true; there are more great movies left off my list (like Clouds of Sils Maria and Experimenter and Brooklyn and Heaven Knows What and While We’re Young and about 20 others) than are actually on it. I actively agonized over the last couple slots for hours. (Yes, actual hours. I’m sorry, It Follows.)
In a year with so many great movies, there was only one way to narrow things down: Picking the movies that meant the most to me personally. In years past I’ve tried to apply a macro view for top ten lists, selecting the most “important” movies as often as the ones that brought me the most personal pleasure or insight. I also frequently fell into the trap of using my top ten list as a pretext to make some larger point about the state of cinema. If my list has a lot of movies about fathers and sons or romances between mismatched partners, then that must mean something about the zeitgeist.
I now recognize that was absurd; this year, my personal choices do not reflect wider trends in popular culture. They do, however, reflect trends in my own life. Looking at my picks for the best films of 2015, I see that what resonated most strongly with me were things that spoke to my fears about the present and my dreams for the future. They addressed topics like fatherhood (I’m about to become a dad for the first time), the inner workings of the female mind (to a girl!), morality, heroism, and the importance of the theatrical moviegoing experience, something that is under threat like never before.
So, to paraphrase a famous creed, there are many top ten lists, but this is mine. To paraphrase another famous Creed, time takes everybody out; it’s the only fighter in history that’s undefeated. But I firmly believe these ten films will stand the test of time — for me, if not for anyone else. If you want to read more of my thoughts on my picks, you’ll find links to my full reviews in each movie title.
(And yes, I have seen Star Wars. It’s not as good as any of these movies.)
10. Ex Machina
Directed by Alex Garland
The best directorial debut of 2015 belonged to Alex Garland, the writer of 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Dredd, and now this complex look at the increasingly thin line between humanity and technology. A brilliant brogrammer (Oscar Isaac) invents the world’s first artificial intelligence, gives it a shapely female form (Alicia Vikander), and recruits a naive employee (Domhnall Gleeson) to test its abilities. It seems like a simple battle of wills, but there is more to all of these characters, and to Garland’s ingenious screenplay, than meets the eye. Who is the hero of this story? Who is its villain? The answers to those questions shift from scene to scene, and from viewing to viewing. In Garland’s chilling formulation, it’s only a matter of time until robots replace us. And perhaps not a moment too soon.
Ex Machina is currently available on home video and Amazon Prime.
Directed by Sean Baker
The spirit of independent cinema is alive and well in this brash comedy about a trans sex worker (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) fresh from a jail stint, who goes on a hunt through Los Angeles to find her pimp-slash-boyfriend (James Ransone) after learning he’s been shacking up with a “fish” in her absence. Every review of Tangerine notes that Sean Baker shot it on an iPhone; not enough talk about how beautiful the movie looks even though it was shot on an iPhone, with vibrant sunsets and swirling tracking shots. The whole thing is pure adrenaline; live-wire lead performances form Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, frenetic editing, thumping music, and that dynamic low-fi cinematography. Donut Time forever.
Tangerine is available on home video and Netflix.
8. The Hateful Eight
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
SPOILER ALERT FOR MY EMBARGOED REVIEW OF THE HATEFUL EIGHT: I liked it a lot.
The Hateful Eight opens in theaters on Christmas.
7. The Walk
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
There were two essential theatrical experiences in 2015: The Hateful Eight’s 70mm roadshow and The Walk in IMAX 3D, where director Robert Zemeckis and star Joseph Gordon Levitt transported audiences 1,368 feet into the air for an astoundingly visceral journey between the Twin Towers of the original World Trade Center with high-wire walker Philippe Petit. Petit’s story was previously told in the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, which is a great film in many respects. But The Walk achieves something that Man on Wire could not: Putting the viewer up on that wire with Petit. It was the worst movie of 2015 for people who are afraid of heights; it was essential viewing for everyone else.
The Walk will be available on home video on January 5.
6. Bridge of Spies
Directed by Steven Spielberg
I loved Bridge of Spies when it premiered at the New York Film Festival in October. But with each new international tragedy — and each hateful response — Steven Spielberg’s film about maintaining one’s moral compass in a time of war feels even more urgent. This is Spielberg putting on an absolute clinic; at 68, he’s a filmmaker in total command of every tool in his toolbox. And he draws an unforgettable performance out of Mark Rylance as a Communist spy whose legal case becomes an unlikely test of our nation’s core values; freedom, fairness, and equality. In a very strong year for spy and espionage movies, this was far and way the best.
Bridge of Spies is now playing in theaters.
5. The Look of Silence
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
American blockbusters are filled with stories of outsized heroism; men with huge muscles and suits of armor defeating cartoon aliens. The Look of Silence shows what a real hero looks like: a middle-aged optometrist. In the mid-1960s, Adi Rukun’s brother was killed, along with hundreds of thousands of others, in a mass genocide. More than forty years later, with no super-powers beyond his incredible bravery, Adi confronts the murderers with the lure of a free eye exam. As he tests their vision, he probes their memories and their sense of culpability. The men who committed these heinous acts rarely offer answers to Adi’s questions. But sometimes asking a question is more important than getting an answer.
The Look of Silence will be available on home video on January 12.
4. The Duke of Burgundy
Directed by Peter Strickland
Is it weird that the 2015 movie whose depiction of marriage felt closest to my own was the one about two lesbians who spend their days studying butterflies, role-playing as master and servant, and indulging in the pleasures of a human toilet? Beneath that “shocking” window dressing, The Duke of Burgundy is a straightforward and very relatable story about relationships and the way true love and compromise go hand in hand. Stars Chiara D’Anna and Sidse Babett Knudsen do a terrific job of finding wry humor in their characters’ specific tastes without reducing them to sexual punchlines. These women live in a strange and lurid world. Don’t we all.
The Duke of Burgundy is available on home video and Netflix.
3. Mad Max: Fury Road
Directed by George Miller
Speaking of strange and lurid worlds… in one scene from Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next, Michael Moore interviews Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, Iceland’s (and all of Europe’s) first female president. Speaking about the future, she says “If the world can be saved, it will be women who do that.” Mad Max: Fury Road is like an adaptation of that idea. It was not only the best action movie of 2015, the best costuming and production design of 2015, and the best car chase movie maybe ever, it was a pointed critique of toxic masculinity and a loving ode to the power of strong women like Charlize Theron’s magisterial Imperator Furiosa. Some critics complained about the film’s structural simplicity; the characters drive in one direction for a while, then turn around and drive back. But the symbolism is key. Furiosa is searching for redemption. You can’t redeem yourself (or save the world) by running away from it. You’ve got to witness the problems, and then drive right through them.
Mad Max: Fury Road is currently available on home video.
Directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson
Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa consists of 118,089 individual frames. On a good day, an animator could shoot 48 of them. At six frames an hour, that makes Anomlisa the product of 19,681 (and a half!) man-hours. That astounding output of effort is visible in every astonishing detail of this stop-motion masterpiece; steam on a mirror, the wrinkles in a sportcoat, the remarkable range of expressions on the faces of the main characters, Michael (voiced by David Thewlis) and Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The film’s premise is so simple — a married man on a business trip to Cincinnati — but it has so much to say about life, loneliness, mortality, depression, and love. Its surfaces are gorgeous; its depths are bottomless.
Anomalisa opens in theaters on December 30.
1. Inside Out
Directed by Pete Docter
How emotional is this movie? When I put the DVD into my player to rewatch a few scenes before writing this list, the sound of Michael Giacchino’s score over the Disney logo got me choked up. Just the opening logo! Pixar’s latest classic already has a reputation for being overwhelmingly sad. (“Who’s your friend who likes to play? Bing Bong! Bing Bong! Who made you wallow in the tragic and fleeting nature of all existence? Bing Bong! Bing Bong!”) But Inside Out isn’t just an exercise in nostalgic melancholy for its own sake. There’s a very meaningful idea behind all that blubbering, and behind the voyage of Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) through the inner recesses of a troubled 11-year-old’s mind. True happiness, Inside Out reminds us, isn’t found in the ignorance of sorrow, but in the acknowledgement of it. Plenty of movies every year make people laugh and cry. Inside Out belongs to a special and rare breed that actively makes its viewers better human beings.
Inside Out is now available on home video.