Like every film critic, I had wonderful intentions of having my annual best-of feature ready to go by the first day of 2016. But hey, if intentions were actions, this would have been ready three weeks ago. Better late than never, but my personal Top Ten of 2015 now has some fortuitous timing with a notable groupthink about the best films of the year, namely the Academy’s. Their opinion is decidedly, well, homogeneous (to put it lightly), enough that sweeping changes to Academy membership rules were approved yesterday – ostensibly to weed out the old chaff that votes for friends, colleagues and crap that’s as plain and predictable as white milk.
If the effort works, it will not only help recognize people of color who are being overlooked, but also acknowledge a deeper, wider breadth of cinema. Which, by nature, surfaces more races, ages, styles, and colors. The results remain to be seen, of course.
I’ve already shared the list of my favorite 2015 films via the Boston Online Film Critics Association as well as Film Racket. Here, I’ve added some further commentary and, as in past years, share where you can see each movie right now. Why talk about the greatest cinema of the year if you don’t share how to find it?
Do you mind if we count backwards? Great, thanks.
:: 10. The Big Short
Okay, here’s one I can’t blame the Academy for loving (although five big-category nominations might be pushing it). Adam McKay’s ridiculously entertaining take on the 2009 world economic collapse imagines the financial industry as a giant circus – complete with a ringmaster (Ryan Gosling), lion tamer (Christian Bale), and sad clown (Steve Carell). It’s a cathartic underdog story worthy of both your laughs and anger.
:: Playing in theaters, currently on 1,765 screens nationwide.
:: 9. The Second Mother
Anna Muylaert combines intelligent direction with two-dimensional cliché, in this story of a loyal Sao Paolo maid forced to consider class structure when her college-age daughter comes to town. Muylaert gleefully plays with ideas of motherhood, gender and status, and it all feels very advanced and strangely effortless.
:: Available now on Amazon Prime.
:: 8. Carol
If Todd Haynes’ story of forbidden love feels a little too formal upon first viewing, try it again. (I did.) The precision takes on layer after layer, and the artistry emerges. Carol becomes a film of deep visual language, often speaking for characters who aren’t empowered to say enough.
:: Playing in theaters in limited release, currently on 790 screens.
:: 7. The Tribe
Speaking of cinema language, no film in 2015 created the strict limitations of this fascinating Ukrainian feature about the frightening, criminal existence of a gang of students at a deaf boarding school. Every scene is a single long take, and only sign language is allowed. By eschewing subtitles, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky already challenges the viewer – the raw violence and pain make the challenge even tougher.
:: Availability unknown.
:: 6. Z for Zachariah
This quiet, post-apocalyptic tale succeeds primarily because of the complex performances of its only three actors, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Margot Robbie, and Chris Pine. As director Craig Zobel (who also helmed the most talked-about episode of The Leftovers) adds each character to the setting, the dynamics change with sure-handed authenticity and subtlety. One of the most overlooked films of 2015.
:: Available for rent and purchase.
:: 5. Call Me Lucky
Bobcat Goldthwait’s documentary about comic / activist Barry Crimmins begins as the biography of an aging bulldog of a comedian and becomes the profile of a brilliant man deeply affected by his horrific early childhood. Despite its darkness, Call Me Lucky is as poignant and enthralling as Crimmins himself, and one of the most inspirational movies of recent memory.
:: Streaming now on Netflix.
:: 4. Brooklyn
Few actresses have carried a film – or will carry a film – the way Saoirse Ronan commands this honest, glorious love story about an Irish immigrant making her way through New York City in the early 1950s. Nick Hornby’s script is crisp and lovely, and Ronan’s performance is super throughout – she’s unsure, mousy, confident, determined, and so believable that she even helps the film overcome a potential misfire.
:: Playing in theaters in limited release, currently on 687 screens.
:: 3. Sicario
A relentless, badass film of incredible craft. Denis Villeneuve – who showed skills in Prisoners and greatness in Enemy – delivers a grand sense of doom in this story of a classified FBI mission to stop a major Mexican drug cartel in any way necessary. Benicio del Toro is a master of silence as the mission’s “advisor,” and Emily Blunt is forceful as ever (Edge of Tomorrow comes to mind), playing the pawn in Josh Brolin’s chess game. Johann Johannson’s music is the best of the year.
:: Available for rent and purchase.
:: 2. Mad Max: Fury Road
Speaking of badass, 70-year-old George Miller’s bravura spectacle of hyper-motorized mayhem is as hardcore as it gets. Every moment plays out like the most gorgeous comic novel page come to life, full of visions that remain hard to comprehend, and edited like the world’s greatest-ever action movie by Margaret Sixel. Here’s one the Academy got right, with 10 nominations including Best Picture, Directing, Cinematography and Editing. (There’s some pretty darned good acting in there too, by the way.)
:: Available for purchase, also showing on HBO.
:: 1. Beasts of No Nation
It begins by celebrating children’s creativity during wartime. It becomes the tragedy of one boy, thrust into early manhood as a rebel fighter in an unnamed African conflict. Cary Fukunaga wrote, directed, and shot this somber, sometimes shocking, metaphor for the loss of youth and the overwhelming presence of violent images in society. Fukunaga’s photographic style is varied and often beautiful, only adding to the confusion and madness. Idris Elba’s performance has been singled out, but the contributions of young Abraham Atta are exceptional and often difficult to watch.
:: Now streaming on Netflix (it’s actually a Netflix original that hit theaters for two weeks)