By Scott Harvey, Contributor
It’s that time again. Time to weed out the cream of the crop, the top of the pile, the best of the best. Normally, this is where I would drone on and on about how hard it was to make this list, but this year that’s not exactly true. That’s not to say that there weren’t great movies this year. There were just fewer than in recent years, it seems. With that being said, however, the movies which did make the cut this year were truly something special. The year 2015 may not have offered as many riches as the past few, but the ones it did bring us were solid gold. Here are my top 10 movies of the year.
10. Ex Machina (Alex Garland). One of the earliest movies to make this list, Ex Machina had uncommon intelligence and complexity for a film released in the first quarter of the calendar year. Though the question at the movie’s core, namely the morality of humans playing God, is one that has been addressed in other films, director Alex Garland found a way to make it riveting again in this brilliantly physical movie. Its mazy, but captivating cinematography was complimented by the peerless performances of Oscar Isaac, Domnhall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander, who made up a small but compelling ensemble.
9. The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino). The Hateful Eight may not be as instantly classic as recent Tarantino efforts Django Unchained and Inglorious B******s, but the first 2 hours of this movie are peak Tarantino, full of the director’s signature panache and flair for quirky dialogue and over-the-top violence. Although superficially a Western, “The Hateful Eight” is primarily an Agatha Christie style mystery, with a band of colorful characters confined to a single room, where one or possibly more of them is up to no good. Standouts in the top-drawer cast include Jennifer Jason Leigh, as a deranged criminal being escorted to the hangman and Walton Goggins, as a gung-ho Confederate soldier. The movie goes a bit astray in the final act, but it’s unquestionably one of the spectacles of the year.
8. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie). Rogue Nation is not only way better than the 5th movie in any series has the right to be, but it’s one of the most memorable blockbuster action movies in years. Tom Cruise gets a lot of flack, but the dude can act most anybody into next week, and his effortless charisma makes this Ethan Hunt adventure that much easier to swallow. The real star of the show here, however, is the breathless action sequences, specifically one in an opera house that will leave your jaw on the floor. Director Christopher McQuarrie, who also directed last year’s Tom Cruise actioner, Edge of Tomorrow (which comfortably made my best of 2014 list), deserves a lot of credit as well.
7. Wild Tales (Damian Szifron). Nominated at the 2014 Oscars for best Foreign Language Film, but not released in the US until 2015, Wild Tales is quite simply one of the best foreign films I’ve seen since Amores Perros. It’s an anthology film, containing 6 self-contained stories, united by a common theme of revenge, and its unique structure works to its benefit. Indeed, director Damian Szifron seems to be trying to top himself with each story and the final act, the crescendo, so to speak, set at a wedding reception gone horribly, horribly wrong is one of the best scenes of the year. Alternately funny, twisted, and altogether unforgettable, Wild Tales ranks with the best works of Tarantino and Inarittu and I can’t wait to see what Szifron does next.
6. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller). But if there’s any movie that provides a wilder ride than Wild Tales, it’s this one. Unquestionably one of the movies of the year, Fury Road left critics stunned by its bravura staging and the originality of director George Miller’s vision. Though essentially one long chase scene, Fury Road just kept throwing more and more at Tom Hardy’s Max and Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, and we were happy to go along for the journey. Though its landscape is desolate, the movie is beautifully shot and photographed, seamlessly edited, and soundtracked to perfection (three cheers for flame-throwing guitar man). It’s an unusually rich experience for an action movie and I can honestly say that this is one movie where the hype is justified.
5. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams). For J.J. Abrams to make a Star Wars movie that satisfied pretty much everyone is a remarkable feat. For him to create a whole new Star Wars narrative while still paying appropriate homage to the old one is even more remarkable. Sure, the nostalgia is there and it’ll certainly hit you, but the real take away from this Star Wars is just how compelling the new characters are, brilliantly played by Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, and, especially, Daisy Ridley. Best of all, The Force Awakens has that sense of wonder and imagination that drew so many to the old films, but it’s also just a great film period. Abrams doesn’t borrow too much from his predecessor in the filmmaking department and that’s a good thing. The only thing negative I can say about this film is that we have to wait 2 years for the next one. But we waited 10 for this one. We can do it. We shall endure.
4. It Follows (David Robert Mitchell). I’m not a huge fan of horror movies, so it may surprise you to see one so high on this list. But It Follows was no ordinary horror film and everyone I’ve talked to who’s seen it has agreed. In a year when we got such strikingly visual films as Fury Road and Ex Machina, this, for me, was the most visually stunning movie of the year. The cinematography is practically poetry and, though I know it won’t get nominated for an Oscar, it deserves to more than all of the bigger-budget films that probably will. Director David Robert Mitchell wisely chooses not to rely on too many jump scares and simply lets the terrifically original story do its work on the audience. It Follows is a movie that forces the audience to be alert at all times, to scan the screen for potential threats, and to see any passerby as one of those threats. It’s a magnificent work of high-wire suspense done elegantly and artfully, worthy of any and all awards it won’t be nominated for.
3. Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle). It’s unfortunate for everyone involved with Steve Jobs that this movie had to be released so soon after the similarly themed Jobs, starring Ashton Kutcher, and the critical panning of that film undoubtedly played a role in why this movie bombed out of US box offices. But that’s no indicator of the film’s quality. As always, Sorkin proves why he’s the best screenwriter in the business, with a witty, literate effort that brings to mind his Oscar-winning script for The Social Network, but wisely doesn’t try to cover too much ground, focusing instead on 3 major Apple product launches and the backstage happenings before them. That alone is enough to tell us plenty about the professional and personal life of the mercurial Jobs, brilliantly embodied by Michael Fassbender in an Oscar-worthy performance. And more so than pretty much any other movie this year, Steve Jobs is alive. It hums and bursts with vibrancy. Don’t worry if you aren’t a technology or Apple person. I’m not. Steve Jobs is, at its heart, a human story and a fantastic one at that.
2. Brooklyn (John Crowley). It breaks my heart that I can’t put Brooklyn at #1 on my list because it’s the most pleasant surprise I had this year and one of the warmest and most heartfelt movies I’ve seen in a long time. The tale of a young Irish immigrant to Brooklyn and the struggle she faces between handling obligations and connections on both sides of the globe may sound like the stuff of traditional period fodder. But the sincerity of the material, the humor and intelligence of its execution, and, most of all, the transcendent performance by Saoirse Ronan, the best by any actor this year, makes Brooklyn into a movie for absolutely everyone… as long as you have a heart. You simply aren’t human if you don’t walk out of this movie with a smile on your face.
1. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy). Certainly this isn’t the most original pick for #1 if you’ve paged through other critics’ lists. But it says something about the power of Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight that so many critics have placed it at the very top of their lists. This movie is absolutely impossible to forget or shake from your mind, even weeks after you see it. The story, based on true events, is simple: a team of 4 Boston Globe reporters (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian D’Arcy James) are called to investigate allegations of child molestation against the Catholic Church but find their probe to have repercussions they never could’ve imagined. Featuring a master class in unostentatious acting from everyone involved, Spotlight turns its focus 100% on the story at hand, which makes its impact all the more devastating. Many critics have compared Spotlight to All the President’s Men, one of my favorite movies of all time, which is high praise. But it’s deserved praise. Never has the everyday work of newspaper reporters been so unbelievably gripping. Spotlight has no big set pieces, no sex or violence, and nothing showy at all about it. And yet if there’s a more riveting movie this year I haven’t seen it. If you’re worried that watching this movie will be too depressing, put those fears aside. This movie is moving, powerful, and, most of all, important. It’s the best movie of 2015 and it’s one of the best movies of the millennium.
Thanks for reading. I look forward to sharing my reviews with you in 2016! Let the games begin once again.