Eight writers contributed to The A.V. Club’s list of the best movies of 2015, each ranking their 15 favorites; we used the results of that poll to create an aggregate, mostly mathematical rundown of the year’s finest films. So if you’re wondering who to blame for the exclusion of that masterpiece you adored or the inclusion of that piece of shit you wasted two hours of your life on, wonder no longer: Below, we’ve printed each contributor’s top 15 choices, annotated with superlatives (including an Outlier, or a film that made one ballot but no others) and a wild-card category of the writer’s choosing. As usual, grievances can be aired in the comments. Also, don’t forget to swing by tomorrow for the results of our annual readers poll—an even more democratic take on the year in entertainment.
2. The Look Of Silence
3. It Follows
4. 45 Years
5. Mad Max: Fury Road
6. Approaching The Elephant
7. The Duke Of Burgundy
8. Gett: The Trial Of Viviane Amsalem
9. Son Of Saul
10. About Elly
12. Inside Out
14. The End Of The Tour
15. Tu Dors Nicole
Outlier: Son Of Saul
Twenty-four hours at Auschwitz sounds like the log line for the most depressing movie ever made. But for all its gut-wrenching horror, Son Of Saul is the rare Holocaust drama to locate actual drama, and not just despair, in the living hell of a concentration camp. It does so by providing its titular protagonist (Géza Röhrig), one of the prisoners assigned to clean up the gas chambers, with a purpose, a sense of agency, and even a moral dilemma—all linked to his attempts to arrange a proper Jewish burial for the boy that may be his son. Following Saul through the labyrinth of the Nazi death machine, in shallow-focus close-ups that blessedly obfuscate some of the atrocities happening around him, this remarkably assured debut has earned criticism for giving history’s darkest chapter the urgency of a thriller. But there’s undeniable power to Son Of Saul’s immersive approach, to say nothing of the way it dares to chronicle a quest for meaning in a place of such meaningless evil.
Most overrated: Clouds Of Sils Maria
It’s not an outright disaster or anything, but Olivier Assayas’ showbiz gabfest interrogates the line between life and art with a surprising lack of grace, especially given its rapturous critical reception and the great filmmaker at the helm. Juliette Binoche plays an aging actress cast in a new production of the two-person stage play that launched her career a couple decades earlier; this time, though, she’ll play the less flattering role intended for an older actress, opposite a moonlighting Hollywood starlet (Chloë Grace Moretz). It’s a premise rife with thematic potential, which becomes impossible to miss once Binoche’s character decamps for the Alps to rehearse with her assistant (an admittedly excellent Kristen Stewart) and the two begin spelling out every hint of meaning through conversation, effectively stripping the whole film of subtext, scene by overwritten scene. Films about “the craft” are often stagy and relentlessly meta affairs, but Clouds unpacks itself so thoroughly that there’s little reason for an engaged viewer to even bother. Also, please never make a superhero movie, Assayas. Your film-within-the-film approximation of one is too horrendous to even function as satire.
Most underrated: Sleeping With Other People
While Trainwreck hogged the critical hosannas, mostly for doing little more than casting Amy Schumer in the requisite slovenly man-child role, a funnier, sweeter, and much sexier romantic-comedy came and went from theaters with little fanfare. Sleeping With Other People, the second feature by writer-director Leslye Headland (Bachelorette), doesn’t so much subvert the conventions of its genre as redeem them, one terrific gag and remarkably frank sex scene at a time. Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie, as old college hook-ups trying to preserve their rekindled friendship by staying out of the sack, invest familiar material with the full force of their comic charm. Even the positive reviews (ours included) compared the familiar premise to When Harry Met Sally…, but this is the rare romantic-comedy that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as that classic. It also deserves to find its audience, which is really just anyone that appreciates a date movie done right.
Biggest disappointment: Joy
To some David O. Russell fans, every movie the writer-director has made this decade qualifies as a disappointment. For those of us, however, who see as much to love in Silver Linings Playbook as Three Kings, the only real letdown of his crowdpleasing “comeback” period arrives next week. Joy has all the hallmarks of your average Russell delight, from a working-class backdrop to a dysfunctional screwball family to the combined star power of Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert De Niro. These elements, unfortunately, can’t elevate the weirdly uninvolving story, a fictionalized biopic about the obstacles overcome by Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano. Sometimes playing like the first act of a more interesting rise-to-prominence narrative, Joy never seduces you into loving its heroine or getting invested in her dream; some of the Russell energy is there, but nothing quite clicks. At least it’s better than Accidental Love.
Most welcome surprise: Tangerine
A few years ago, writer-director Sean Baker made an inexplicably acclaimed Los Angeles indie called Starlet—a film whose mid-film twist couldn’t disguise its pedestrian dram-com nature. Never in a million years would I have guessed that the same filmmaker might turn around and make something like Tangerine, his punk-as-fuck portrait of a much seedier L.A. It’s not just a total creative 180, but kind of the opposite of a sell-out move: Trading a formulaic story for an unpredictable one and a slick Indiewood aesthetic for a gorgeous, radical lo-fi approach, Baker trains his iPhone camera on the kind of characters—black and transgender prostitutes, immigrant cabbies—that the movies rarely acknowledge, let alone put into starring roles. Tangerine is genuinely, flagrantly underground. Coming from a filmmaker whose last feature seemed the epitome of a calling card, it’s also proof that going small can be a big move forward.
Best substitute for a Richard Linklater fix: The End Of The Tour
Two years in a row, The A.V. Club named a film from writer-director Richard Linklater the best movie of the year, with Before Midnight topping our 2013 list and Boyhood claiming the title in 2014. The trend did not continue this year, as Linklater’s latest, a supposed “spiritual sequel” to Dazed And Confused, isn’t premiering until this coming spring. So the closest I got to a Linklater fix in 2015 was The End Of The Tour, James Ponsoldt’s dramatization of the five days that journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) spent interviewing Infinite Jest author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel, better than anyone dreamed he would be in the role). Ponsoldt doesn’t yet possess Linklater’s grace and confidence behind the camera. But in its best moments, when the two Davids are sweating the small stuff and hashing out the big issues, Tour comes within spitting distance of the laid-back conversational poetry of Linklater’s best work; it gets you hooked on the gift of gab, on two people getting lost in each other’s words. Runner up: Spring, which is basically Before Sunrise with a monster.
2. It Follows
3. Hard To Be A God
4. The Assassin
5. Bridge Of Spies
6. Mad Max: Fury Road
7. The Hateful Eight
8. Crimson Peak
11. Magic Mike XXL
12. Welcome To New York
13. 45 Years
14. Horse Money
15. Queen Of Earth
Outlier: The Hateful Eight
Quentin Tarantino’s stubbornly theatrical, three-hour-long snowed-in Western is a difficult movie by a director who’s not known for making them. Keeping action to a minimum up until the intermission, it then explodes into the nastiest, most gruesome and nihilistic violence of Tarantino’s career, before ending on a disquieting note of hope. This is the writer-director’s take on the promise of American ideals, even more so than Django Unchained, for which it was originally intended as a sequel. (Hence the protagonist, an anti-heroic black bounty hunter who, in the movie’s post-Civil War setting, is about the age Django would be.) Who could have guessed, in the days of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, that Tarantino would become an overtly political filmmaker?
Most overrated: Steve Jobs
I’m inclined to pick a movie that’s just as stagy as The Hateful Eight: Steve Jobs, an Aaron Sorkin screenplay intermittently directed by Danny Boyle. There are things to like about Steve Jobs (the energy of the first act, much of Seth Rogen’s performance), but for the most part, it plays like an object lesson in how to get the least out of a highly stylized approach, and whatever whiff of integrity it might have is snuffed out by the maudlin ending. The use of a different format (Super 16mm, 35mm, digital) is a low-maintenance substitute for doing anything interesting with the camera.
P.S. I’m also picking this to get back at Steve Jobs fan Jesse Hassenger for putting The Immigrant in this category last year, which was unforgivable.
Most underrated: Saint Laurent
The last few spots on these lists are the hardest to pick, with so many worthy movies jockeying for each. So let’s hear it for a few of the movies that could have been in an alternate draft of my Top 15: Joel Potrykus’ nervy black comedy Buzzard; John Magary’s eclectic, Arnaud Desplechin-indebted family drama The Mend; Lisandro Alonso’s minimalist Western Jauja; Andrew Bujalski’s off-beat and unpredictable rom-com Results; and Michael Mann’s misunderstood techno-thriller Blackhat. But the movie I really want to highlight here was one that was never going to make my ballot: Saint Laurent, Bertrand Bonello’s abstract-to-a-fault biopic of the iconic fashion designer. We don’t make enough room in our movie culture for imperfect films, even though they’re often where you’ll find some of the finest and purest filmmaking.
Biggest disappointment: Burying The Ex
Joe Dante’s a great filmmaker, but I wish he had made his return to features with a movie better than Burying The Ex, a glib, EC Comics-influenced horror comedy that would probably work better as a short chapter in an anthology film. It’s takes almost half an hour for the movie’s super-simple premise (guy’s girlfriend dies right as he’s about to break up with her, returns from the dead just as he’s started dating again) to get going, and one often gets the sense that the low, partly crowd-funded budget is preventing Dante’s imagination from really cutting loose.
Any year with more welcome surprises than I can list is a good year. (Hey, I’m as shocked as anyone that I’m picking a super-serious Denis Villeneuve thriller about Evil as one of the best films of the year.) A few unexpected minor pleasures: the time-travel flick Predestination, an adaptation of a Robert A. Heinlein short story that’s one of those rare sci-fi movies that feels like it was made by people who read sci-fi; the horror Western Bone Tomahawk, which feels, in the best way, like someone filmed a first draft script and didn’t cut anything, all its little quirks of character kept intact, narrative expediency be damned; and In The Heart Of The Sea, the cornball sea adventure of which I enjoyed every minute.
Most welcome return: The Western
Jauja, The Hateful Eight, The Revenant, Bone Tomahawk, The Salvation—it’s been one heck of a year for re-workings and riffs on this most pliable and perfect of all film genres. The Western was declared commercially dead long ago, and yet ambitious filmmakers keep going back to it, because its underlying themes and elemental qualities are still the best canvas there is for stories about the fundamental building blocks of society and moral sense. Westerns can be testaments to the senselessness of the world or to the innate goodness that survives in bad men and ragged landscapes; they can subvert myths, or build them; they can be about the vast unknown wilderness, or the small comfort of a homestead. Here’s to hoping one of these makes some goddamn money, so more filmmakers can trick studios into backing what are, more often than not, complete expressions of worldview disguised as stories about cowboys and horses.
1. The Duke Of Burgundy
3. Mad Max: Fury Road
4. The Forbidden Room
6. It Follows
8. The Martian
10. Tu Dors Nicole
11. Approaching The Elephant
12. Heaven Knows What
13. Christmas, Again
15. Winter On Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom
Female friendship gets dismayingly little attention from the movies, probably in part because so few movies are made by women. Breathe, the second feature directed by Mélanie Laurent, digs deep into the initially liberating, ultimately toxic relationship between a wallflower named Charlie (Joséphine Japy) and Sarah, the charismatic transfer student (Lou De Laâge) who waltzes into Charlie’s life and merrily sets it ablaze. In the wrong hands, this story could have made for a trashy thriller; working from Anne-Sophie Brasme’s novel, Laurent instead realistically explores the sort of asymmetrical, symbiotic attachment that often takes root in high school, in which one party feeds off of the other’s grateful attention. Sarah is more than a villain, while Charlie is much less than a hero, and where they end up together is powerfully disturbing.
Most overrated: Room
By all accounts, Emma Donoghue’s novel, written from the perspective of a 5-year-old boy who’s spent his entire life locked up with his mother in a madman’s garden shed, is a terrific, harrowing read. And it’s perhaps understandable that the film version, which Donoghue herself scripted, doesn’t retain the book’s childishly skewed interior monologue. But Room desperately needed a director who could find a creative visual alternative, and Lenny Abrahamson (Frank, What Richard Did) wasn’t the right choice. He has no feel for the claustrophobia that should define the story’s first half, and utterly fails to make the expanse of the world in its second half feel alien and unsettling. Any chance we could try this one again, under new management (and with an actual 5-year-old rather than an 8-year-old)? Brie Larson as Ma can stay.
Most underrated: The Humbling
Literary critics were generally unkind to Philip Roth’s 2009 novel, and the film adaptation, starring Al Pacino, received mixed reviews overall (including a C hereabouts). On paper, it does look noxious, being the tale of a famous actor (Pacino), suffering from a late-life crisis, who has an affair with a woman (Greta Gerwig) who’s not only decades younger than he is, but has spent most of her adult life identifying as a lesbian. The Humbling plays considerably less offensive and more nuanced than it sounds, though, and director Barry Levinson, who’s been on autopilot for years, brings a surprising amount of energy and conviction to the movie (which he shot mostly in his own house). Pacino and Gerwig are terrific together, too, with the latter finally straying from her standard dithery persona, to galvanizing effect. This isn’t a great film, by any means, but it didn’t deserve to be humbled quite so aggressively.
Biggest disappointment: Results
The gleefully bizarre Computer Chess (which placed at No. 5 on our 2013 list) laid magnificent waste to Andrew Bujalski’s constricting reputation as the founder of the so-called mumblecore movement, making it difficult to guess what he might do next. The surprising answer: make a glossy, superficially accessible romantic comedy with actual name actors (Guy Pearce, Cobie Smulders, and Kevin Corrigan). Bujalski is too singular a talent for such a conventional genre, and that’s the problem—Results falls into an awkward, unsatisfying middle ground between art and entertainment, lacking both the former’s keen insight and the latter’s emotional catharsis. All three actors do their best, and the milieu (Pearce and Smulders’ characters are fitness instructors, with Corrigan as a schlubby millionaire client) is fresh and appealing, but the movie is largely stillborn. That’s okay, though. Failed experiments are a necessary part of any healthy creative career.
Most pleasant surprise: Heart Of A Dog
The big surprise here isn’t that Laurie Anderson’s second feature is good, but that it even exists. Her only previous effort as a director—the concert movie Home Of The Brave—was released way back in 1986, and there was no indication that she’d ever make another. The personal-essay doc Heart Of A Dog was commissioned by Franco-German TV network Arte, as part of a series in which artists discuss the meaning of life, a pretty damn broad topic. Anderson opted to reminisce about her late rat terrier, Lolabelle, though that’s really just a loose clothesline upon which to hang a number of typically offbeat and trenchant observations (as well as a stealth memorial to her late husband, Lou Reed). Visually, it’s not much of a movie; aurally, however, it’s her best album in ages.
Most accidentally relevant: Approaching The Elephant
Amanda Rose Wilder’s documentary about the attempt to open a “free school” (no enforced curriculum, virtually all rules co-created with students) in New Jersey was shot way back in 2007 and 2008, well before the recent controversies on college campuses involving everything from trigger warnings to microaggressions. All the same, it’s remarkable how much these grade-school kids, when encouraged to take an active role in their own education, pre-emptively echo some of the videos that have gone viral of late. One little girl, Lucy, files a “harassment” complaint against the school’s founder when he forces kids to stop jumping onto a mattress from some storage bins (after two kids injure themselves doing so), and then announces her intention to ignore any school policies made unilaterally by the administration. This is an 8-year-old who’s already speaking the same language as aggrieved undergrads. Wonder what she’s like now, at 16?
1. It Follows
2. Mistress America
3. Mad Max: Fury Road
4. Bridge Of Spies
5. Inside Out
6. Sleeping With Other People
7. While We’re Young
8. Ex Machina
9. Mississippi Grind
11. Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation
14. Steve Jobs
Outlier: Mistress America
Mistress America was supposedly filmed sometime before Noah Baumbach’s other 2015 film While We’re Young, which is mostly about people in their 40s, but after 2013’s Frances Ha, which is about people in their 20s. His newest film sweeps the corners on the ages not covered by those two films, focusing on the unlikely friendship between a college freshman (Lola Kirke) and a woman hovering around 30 (Greta Gerwig)—and in doing so, Baumbach and Gerwig cook up what may be his flat-out funniest movie of the past decade. Frances Ha used its quick cuts like punchlines; Mistress America does plenty of that (it’s quick, coming in under 90 minutes) but also stages a bravura, extended farce sequence in the Connecticut suburbs that turns its snappy dialogue into a symphony of wit and movement. It’s not just clever but expressive—of character, of points of view, and of real life—in a way that comedies rarely are. The rest of the movie is great, too, featuring an ace comic performance from Gerwig, a romantic Manhattan in color complement to the black-and-white version in Frances, and loads of quotable lines. I’ll be saying “I’m gonna shorten that, punch it up, and turn it into a tweet!” for years.
Most overrated: The Martian
I understand why The Martian was a huge hit: It’s a jaunty crowdpleaser with a sharp ensemble and a charming movie-star performance from Matt Damon. Plus, it’s pro-science and pro-teamwork. What’s not to love? Well, I can answer that rhetorical question: For an interplanetary nail-biter, it’s largely devoid of actual suspense, and its much-vaunted sense of humor consists primarily of cutesy faux-irreverence and dad jokes (apparently imported intact from the beloved novel, courtesy of screenwriter Drew Goddard, who’s usually wittier). The movie never really digs into the terror of isolation or the desolate beauty of life on Mars—there’s hardly a single memorable image in the whole thing, and generally serves as a prime example of how director Ridley Scott is more polished journeyman than top-tier visionary. Here he’s made an agreeably entertaining big-budget sci-fi picture that isn’t actively stupid, which was apparently enough for plenty of critics and fans to flip for it. I’ll take the visceral thrills of Gravity, the wonder of Interstellar, or even the imagery and unpleasant characters of Scott’s own Prometheus over the slick weightlessness of The Martian any day.
Most underrated: American Ultra
American Ultra was sold and to some extent received as a one-joke goof: What if Jason Bourne was played by a cross between Jesse Eisenberg from 30 Minutes Or Less and Jesse Eisenberg from everything else he’s been in? That is, as it turns out, a funny joke, but the movie goes deeper in its comedy, which is very much informed by Eisenberg’s vulnerability; its thrills, which are helped along by some well-executed semi-slapstick action sequences; and its surprisingly affecting dramatic angle, with a lovely performance by Kristen Stewart as the live-in girlfriend to Eisenberg’s sleeper agent, attempting to do damage control on their meager, anxiety-wracked lives. The box office of this movie and Adventureland suggest that America is not as excited by the prospect of a long-term Spencer Tracy-and-Katharine Hepburn-style collaboration between Eisenberg and Stewart as I am—and, frankly, the sequel-prompting ending of American Ultra suggests that even its savvy filmmakers don’t entirely understand what’s so appealing about the pair. But director Nima Nourizadeh and writer Max Landis nonetheless made a funny, offbeat vehicle for two underappreciated stars.
Biggest disappointment: Tomorrowland
Writer-director Brad Bird has made great original cartoons (The Iron Giant; The Incredibles; Ratatouille) and a great live-action thrill ride (Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol), so the prospect of him making a great original live-action thrill ride seemed like an easy layup. Instead, the Disney-produced and vaguely Disney-inspired Tomorrowland wastes Bird’s talent, a scrappy female lead, and Clooney gravitas on what amounts to a feature-length prologue; this movie about a retro-futuristic utopia in an alternate dimension accessed by the world’s best and brightest takes approximately forever to get going, marking the first time Bird’s whiz-bang set pieces haven’t set his movie’s pace. Maybe Tomorrowland dawdles its way to its climax because that particular set piece is such a bust: an underpopulated and anticlimactic action scene that doesn’t come close to fulfilling the promise of the movie’s best moment, a mid-movie single-take tour of the Tomorrowland that once was. Not only does the uneven Tomorrowland ultimately disappoint as a Bird film, its failure carries potential disappointment for Disney fans hoping the company might find a reason to produce more in-house movies beyond live-action recreations of their classic cartoons.
Most welcome surprise: Welcome To Me
Any followers of Kristen Wiig’s movie career knew what to expect out of Welcome To Me. Girl Most Likely, Hateship Loveship, and The Skeleton Twins made it clear that Wiig would play a depressive and/or antisocial type in another faux-quirky dramedy that would be serviceable at best and tone-deaf at worst. Imagine my surprise, then, that Shira Piven’s Welcome To Me would turn out so funny and borderline brilliant. Wiig’s Alice Klieg is indeed a depressive and antisocial type (specifically with borderline personality disorder), who in this case wins a massive lottery prize and uses it to buy herself an insane daily talk show all about herself. But Piven and screenwriter Eliot Laurence push this conceit to its most uncomfortable and hilarious limits, harnessing the uneasy question of whether Alice is meant to inspire empathy or derision, and directing it into some of the biggest laughs of any movie this year. The talk-show segments in particular play like a 10-to-1 Saturday Night Live sketch gone gloriously haywire. Wiig’s dedication to this kind of movie finally pays off big; one Welcome To Me is worth five or six iterations of Girl Most Likely.
While a lot of big-name directors wiped out this year, a few filmmakers risked self-parody with projects that indulged their personal tics and obsessions with unapologetic thoroughness; the results were strange, kind of wonderful exercises in playing to a dwindling cult on their studios’ dime. Michael Mann’s Blackhat kicked off the year of boondoggles with a hacker thriller as Mannish, as ridiculous, and as ridiculously Mannish as possible, stubbornly and beautifully pushing the smeary digital aesthetic Mann has favored for the past decade-plus. A few weeks later, the Wachowskis rehashed The Matrix by way of The Matrix Reloaded and Speed Racer with Jupiter Ascending, a sincerely silly and visually marvelous space opera featuring Brazil homages, rocket-powered flying boots, and other nerd delights. And like those two films, Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak is far from its creator’s best, but it’s worth waiting around the atmospheric but spread-thin first hour or more to get to the unleashing of his bloodletting id. Lousy box office and middling-to-poor reviews ensure that these filmmakers probably won’t get carte blanche next time out, and while their results aren’t quite strong enough to place on my legit best-of list, the auteur madness sure was fun while it lasted.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
2. Inside Out
4. The Duke Of Burgundy
6. 45 Years
11. James White
12. Bridge Of Spies
13. Crimson Peak
14. Gett: The Trial Of Viviane Amsalem
Screenwriter Eskil Vogt’s collaborations with his fellow Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier on Reprise; Oslo, August 31st; and the upcoming Louder Than Bombs have shown an uncanny ability to externalize what characters are thinking and feeling without having them just blurt it out. Vogt makes great use of that gift in his directorial debut Blind, which is mostly about what’s inside the head of a married, childless, newly blind woman (played by Ellen Dorrit). The film’s staging and editing is comparable to something on the Charlie Kaufman/Spike Jonze/Michel Gondry side of cinema, with multiple locations and characters converging on a single space as Ingrid keeps interpreting and reinterpreting sounds—nearly always imagining that she’s overhearing the secret sex lives of her husband and neighbors. Blind’s ending is way too blunt given the subtlety and ambiguity of what comes before, but that doesn’t diminish what is a consistently lively and surprising movie, all about how people sometimes funnel their deeper emotional needs into their erotic reveries.
Most overrated: 99 Homes
A lot of the raves for Ramin Bahrani’s drama about the corrupt real estate market have focused on the performances of Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon (as, respectively, a laid-off construction worker and the sinister realtor who hires him to be his right-hand man) and the contemporary relevance of the subject matter. And those things are, indeed, praiseworthy. But while 99 Homes isn’t as stilted as Bahrani’s “state of American agriculture” address At Any Price, it still feels more like an illustrated newspaper editorial than a living, breathing story. Without that vitality, and the sense of discovery that comes with it, 99 Homes is reduced to making points… and ones that are handled more fleetly in any given 10 minutes of The Big Short.
Most underrated: Mortdecai
Look, comedy’s highly subjective, and Johnny Depp’s aggressive onscreen quirkiness wore out its welcome about four Tim Burton movies ago. That’s all fine. Still, the violently negative reaction to director David Koepp’s adaptation of Kyril Bonfiglioli’s cult pulp novels seemed wildly out-of-proportion to the actual quality of the film, which is an uneven but mostly genially wacky globe-hopping adventure. The same critics who rightly pegged Koepp’s similarly hyperactive Premium Rush as a must-see somehow weren’t willing to extend the same goodwill to Mortdecai, even though it has the cinematic flourish and distinctive sensibility so often missing from modern movie comedies. Although it’s not exactly a criminally neglected masterpiece, this picture does stand a good chance of being the 2015 flop that gets an Ishtar/Hudson Hawk-style reassessment in the decades to come.
Most disappointing: Hitchcock/Truffaut
Don’t misunderstand: Kent Jones’ documentary about the extensive 1962 interviews between French New Wave filmmaker François Truffaut and master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock is fascinating, insightful, and highly recommended. Any opportunity to hear Martin Scorsese and David Fincher break down sequences from Vertigo and Psycho is always going to be valuable, and welcome. But Jones doesn’t spend nearly enough time on his actual subject—the interviews, and their enduring influence on cinema studies—and instead turns the film into just another Hitchcock appreciation. And the complete lack of any female voices (be they scholars or directors) is inexplicable, given the rich history of women writing and thinking about Hitch’s concepts of gender. This is a very good doc. It could’ve been an all-time great.
Most welcome surprise: Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief
Documentarian Alex Gibney has damaged his brand over the past couple of years by being distressingly prolific, pumping out movies that often feel overlong and under-realized. But he’s still the guy who made Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room and Taxi To The Dark Side; and when he finds a subject that lets him tell a good story and express deep outrage, he can get the job done. His adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s well-researched exposé Going Clear essentially repeats the jaw-dropping anecdotes and strange Scientology history lesson of the book. But Gibney assembles alarming archival footage, and gives ex-Scientologists the opportunity to explain how their personal search for meaning and healing led them deeper into an abyss. The result is a doc that’s both edifying and absorbing, detailing an American success story gone awry.
The best film of 2015 (under 15 minutes): “World Of Tomorrow”
The best animated film, the best science-fiction movie, and the most astonishing piece of cinematic design this year? The winner in all three categories would be Don Hertzfeldt’s short “World Of Tomorrow,” which also has two of the most memorable characters of 2015—and is alternately this year’s funniest and most heartbreaking 15 minutes of cinema to boot. Since wowing Sundance audiences on opening night, “World Of Tomorrow” has been played the festival circuit and has been made available to rent on Vimeo (with a Blu-ray release coming soon); and it’s drawn raves and obsessive analysis from critics and fans. Hertzfeldt’s vision of a bleak, beautiful future is a brilliant marriage of form and content, with art that blends crude stick figures with complex backgrounds, all to tell the story of one happy-go-lucky toddler and her emotionally damaged, time-traveling clone. The film is both an entertaining trip through a universe of robot poetry and memory-galleries, and a poignant study of how for all of humanity’s advances, we remain flummoxed by love, death, and want.
3. The Assassin
4. The Princess Of France
5. Li’l Quinquin
6. The Forbidden Room
7. When Evening Falls On Bucharest Or Metabolism
8. Horse Money
9. Amour Fou
11. The Look Of Silence
12. Magic Mike XXL
13. Hard To Be A God
15. Heaven Knows What
Playing a Danish officer stationed in Argentina circa 1880, Viggo Mortensen has the perfect comportment of a civilized military man; as the film goes on and his character is forced to wander through the wilds in search of his disappeared daughter, this brilliant actor gets to shows off his vast vocabulary of body language, from urgent, purposeful striding to weary, wary resignation. An (apparently unintentional) riff on The Searchers that’s also perfectly in line with its director’s previous visions of lone figures in the landscape, Jauja is finally chancier and more surprising than its minimalist aesthetic might suggest. It risks a late detour into magic realism and comes out the other end as an even stronger and more idiosyncratic piece of work—and, thanks to Mortensen’s presence, a possible international breakthrough for a filmmaker whose cult could stand to grow a little going forward.
Most overrated: Sicario
Denis Villeneuve’s gleaming thriller is arguably one of the year’s best-made movies, but it’s so glib and superficial in its treatment of the war on drugs—and the collateral damage left in its wake—as to border on exploitation. Even before its late detour into action movie silliness (including a ridiculous badass set piece that belongs in a James Bond movie) Sicario feels like a film whose immaculate craft disguises its hollow center. How seriously can we take a movie in which a hotshot FBI agent Googles “cartels” during an assignment down Mexico way? Shooting Juarez to look like a hothouse abattoir doesn’t take any real imagination (or empathy), and after a while, the skillful framing of Roger Deakins’ cinematography becomes oppressive. He’s a great DP, but even his impeccable eye can’t convince us that there’s any real vision—moral or artistic—at work here.
Most underrated: Entertainment
Entertainment was raked over the coals by many critics for its “ironic” title, but Rick Alverson’s film is plenty enjoyable in its way—provided that your pleasure centers can be stimulated by a movie that plays out as an extended joke at its protagonist’s expense. No matter how desperately the Comedian (Gregg Turkington, as his eternal alter ego Neil Hamburger) tries to alienate the audiences at his stand-up shows, he’s the one who genuinely can’t connect to the world around him; as his tour goes on, the landscapes and scenarios grow so increasingly implausible that it’s as if the character—and the film around him—have suffered a psychic break. It’s easy to make a movie that’s unpleasant. What’s harder is to give that ugliness a sense of urgency. Alverson and Turkington’s film is soaked in the kind of flop sweat that leaves a residue—it’s like that old joke about Pagliacci told by David Lynch.
Biggest disappointment: Ex Machina
Alex Garland cannot end a movie. He’s good at starting them: The scripts for The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and his directorial debut Ex Machina all bristle with promise at the outset. But for all his inflated ideas about using genre as a vehicle for social commentary—which peaks with Ex Machina’s tale of a reclusive genius programming a perfect A.I. in comely female form—he’s got a weakness for regressive climaxes that feature characters chasing each other through hallways in search of violent physical conflict. In a lot of ways, Ex Machina is a good movie: It’s beautifully shot and designed, it features some very game actors (including Golden Globe-nominated Alicia Vikander, vying for the all-time Fembot Hall Of Fame), and it’s nicely mindful of movie history. In the end, though, it falls short of its cybernetic heroine’s own desire to evolve beyond her station. Garland’s hardwired tendencies get the better of him.
Most pleasant surprise: Magic Mike XXL
A glorious movie jukebox musical—one ecumenical enough to put “Pony” next to “I Want It That Way” and elegant enough to evoke Busby Berkeley even as it’s gyrating away in tacky Tampa Bay. The let’s-get-the-band-back-together plotline feels like a pretense for dance numbers, and so it is, but Gregory Jacobs’ movie is anything but lazy; it’s essentially a story about a crew of professionals who re-learn to love what they do by finding space for personal expression within their daily (bump ’n’) grind. Kudos to Channing Tatum for the kind of self-effacing star turn you wouldn’t expect from an actor whose character is both eponymous and “magic”; cheers to Jada Pinkett Smith (as the troupe’s hype-woman) and Andie MacDowell (as a wealthy society client whose chaste amusement ripens into something else) for stealing their scenes with the evident pleasure of consummate thieves. Everybody here is having fun—compared to these jacked-up buddies in arms, the Avengers seem like mechanically bantering, CGI-enhanced wannabes.
Most unexpectedly beautiful: Aloha
Who expected the box-office flop roundly mocked by critics—and also in the emails unleashed by the Sony hack—to be one of the year’s most elegantly shot American movies? Not me, which is why I didn’t watch Aloha for months until after it was unceremoniously drummed out of theaters, at which point I realized that its DP, Eric Gautier, was responsible for some phenomenal images in films by Leos Carax and Olivier Assayas. Aloha’s pile-up of dexterous, handheld shots and fluid whip-pans between characters—all gloriously lit in accordance with the Hawaiian setting—is more than a technical achievement. Rather, the warm aesthetic matches up perfectly with Cameron Crowe’s humane sensibility, which has been missing in action for so long that most of us had probably pronounced it dead. Here, with Gautier behind the camera, he’s at long last showing signs of life.
1. The Look Of Silence
2. Mad Max: Fury Road
3. The Duke Of Burgundy
7. It Follows
10. (tie) The Martian and The End Of The Tour
In a way, Room is an exceptionally well-produced Lifetime Original Movie. The story is female-centric, ripped from the headlines, and pits a fiercely loving mother and her vulnerable child against a predatory older man, all tropes of the type of TV movie that makes middle-aged moms cry into their chardonnay. What lifts it above movie-of-the-week status is Lenny Abrahamson’s sensitive direction, eliciting powerful performances from Brie Larson as a kidnapping victim who’s been held in a garden shed for seven years and Jacob Tremblay as her 5-year-old son, whose young mind can’t even conceive of a world outside “Room.” Telling the story from Tremblay’s perspective allows us to share his sense of wonder at discovering the world, turning what could be a horribly bleak story into a touching affirmation of human life. (And, for the record, there is nothing wrong with crying into your chardonnay.)
Most overrated: Straight Outta Compton
Since when does a self-congratulatory musical biopic count as “revolutionary”? Straight Outta Compton’s structure recalls an extended episode of Behind The Music, with an emphasis on sentimentality and celebrity worship. Politically, the film’s blind spots are many; some are quite egregious, like the complete lack of acknowledgement of Dr. Dre’s record of abusing women. And arguing that the film’s casual misogyny—I can’t make “Bye, Felicia” jokes any more after seeing it—is necessary because “that’s how it was” is hypocritical, considering any incidents that might make look producers Dre, Ice Cube, or Tomica Woods-Wright (widow of NWA member Eazy-E) look bad are omitted. Yes, police brutality is terrible. And Do The Right Thing came out in 1989, and didn’t stroke any rap moguls’ egos in the process.
Most underrated: Tales Of Halloween
Released on VOD this October to little fanfare, Tales Of Halloween has all the makings of a seasonal cult classic. Embracing the theatrical fun of ’80s horror—a welcome change after the self-consciously raw and edgy V/H/S movies—the segments in this 10-part anthology were directed back-to-back on the same suburban street by a tight-knit group of directors, many of whom call each other friends. As a result, Tales Of Halloween is unusually consistent in tone with few missteps, while spanning subgenres from straightforward ghost story to claymation splatter-comedy. In other words, somebody should put this movie on Netflix next fall, and see what kind of cult grows around it. I should have graded it higher.
Biggest disappointment: Trainwreck
The third season of Inside Amy Schumer was so hilariously, fiercely, unapologetically feminist, it got a lot of people’s hopes up—mine included—for the premiere of Trainwreck, which came 10 days after the Comedy Central series’ season finale. Surely Judd Apatow would use the same approach here as with Girls’ Lena Dunham, and allow Schumer’s comedic voice to dominate. Nope. About 30 minutes in, Trainwreck becomes a “Judd Apatow movie,” complete with unnecessary second-act padding and disappointingly conventional happy ending. If Schumer really intends to reinvent the rom-com, next time she should leverage some of her newfound celebrity and insist on directing.
Most welcome surprise: The Diary Of A Teenage Girl
To be completely honest, I initially avoided The Diary Of A Teenage Girl based on its premise. Reviews (including The A.V. Club’s) praised it for its lack of judgment, but that didn’t make the prospect of watching an adult man take advantage of a teenage girl any more palatable, no matter how complex his motivations. What I should have known is that the movie is based on an autobiographical novel, and in the end the hook of the movie—the affair 15-year-old Minnie (Bel Powley) has with her mother’s 35-year-old boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard)—is just the first step on the ladder of her sexual awakening. And the movie’s not just about sex, either, but all aspects of that confusing time when the first glimpses of the person you’re going to be start emerging from the hormonal adolescent fog.
Best costumes: Crimson Peak
Guillermo Del Toro’s visual genius is, at this point, unquestionable. And the director put an extraordinary level of detail into all facets of Crimson Peak’s production design. But perhaps the most sumptuous aspect of the entire elaborate production is the costumes. Kate Hawley’s gorgeous, formal, hand-stitched Victorian designs are not only beautiful to look at, but reflect each character’s personality, with innocent Mia Wasikowska outfitted in voluminous, high-necked white nightgowns and evil queen Jessica Chastain in elaborate velvet gowns dripping with metallic and beaded details. Their beauty really can’t be overstated, to the point where one line in my notes on the film simply reads, “Oh my god, that dress.”
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
2. The Look Of Silence
5. The Assassin
6. Hard To Be A God
8. Slow West
9. James White
10. Bone Tomahawk
11. The Nightmare
12. A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence
14. The Revenant
15. Crimson Peak
Like a deep dive into a filing cabinet stuffed with notes, transcripts, and other assorted legal documents, Spotlight proves a stirring retelling of The Boston Globe’s 2001-2002 inquiry into the city archdiocese’s cover-up of its priests’ rampant child abuse. With a keen interest in newsroom dynamics and the way stories are initiated, researched, developed, and finally published, Tom McCarthy’s film is a procedural-style David vs. Goliath thriller in which the paper’s investigative “Spotlight” team—led by Michael Keaton, and featuring Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian D’Arcy James—is pitted against a powerful Catholic Church, as well as a pious local community, determined to squelch the story before it reaches print. Equally invested in the practical nuts-and-bolts of how newspeople do their jobs, and the ethical and socio-political responsibilities of their work, it’s a rousing, expertly calibrated tribute to both the journalism profession and moral courage.
Most overrated: Furious 7
As if the Village People had been reimagined as hot-rodding Robin Hoods, Vin Diesel and his merry band of auto-eroticized meatheads delivered more of the same contrived multicultural pandering and laughable noble-crook action in Furious 7, a torturously self-important, overstuffed film whose billion-dollar global success can be chalked up to the fact that it featured Paul Walker’s final performance. Otherwise, there’s little to distinguish this outing from the franchise’s previous six, except that the budgets are bigger, the locations are more varied, and the stunts are stunt-ier, replete with Diesel driving a car out of one high-rise’s window and into another. Nonetheless, all the lame quips and lamer CG work can’t mask the series’ wholesale incompetence—the prime example being its focus on the charisma-deficient Diesel while leaving the infinitely more magnetic Dwayne Johnson on the sidelines until the finale. There’s also that continuing, soul-crushing fondness for embellishing every conversation with faux-meaningful references to “family.”
Most underrated: Crimson Peak
Guillermo Del Toro is one of genre cinema’s true visionaries, a man whose horror and science-fiction work is marked by breathtaking visual splendor, socio-political incisiveness, and pulsating passion. For his latest, Del Toro went gothic for a romantic ghost story about a young woman (Mia Wasikowska) whose marriage to an English inventor (Tom Hiddleston) compels her to relocate to his remote, crumbling mansion, in which her sister-in-law (Jessica Chastain) also resides. The ensuing tale is one of cryptic messages from the great beyond, undead specters roaming empty corridors, and murderous secrets bubbling to the surface, though more than its narrative twists and turns, Crimson Peak is a film of pure aesthetic wonder. From its opulent falling-into-decay manor, to the pulsating reds and barren whites of its visual palette, it’s a thing of rich, malevolent aesthetic majesty—and an illustration of how a movie’s form can be so overpoweringly evocative that it enlivens its narrative.
Biggest disappointment: Bridge Of Spies
Steven Spielberg pairing with Tom Hanks for a Cold War thriller seemed like a can’t-lose proposition—which is what makes Bridge Of Spies such a dispiriting letdown. Based on real events, Spielberg’s tale concerns a lawyer (Hanks) who’s tasked first with defending a Russian spy (Mark Rylance), and then trading him to the Russians in exchange for a captured U.S. pilot. Written by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Cohen, the script has Hanks expound at length on the need to treat our enemies fairly lest we lose or moral standing—notions that aim to give the story contemporary war-on-terror parallels. Unfortunately, such efforts are undermined by a hazy understanding of past and present geopolitical dynamics, as well as a shaky comparison of the two. Far more frustrating, however, is merely the sluggishness of this all-talk, no-suspense tale, which is handsomely crafted but dramatically inert—a failing at least partially ascribable to the fact that, at every turn, Hanks’ hero merely acts impulsively, tells everyone to trust him, and then sees his predictions and plans come to neat-and-tidy fruition.
Most welcome surprise: The Martian
After the underwhelming Prometheus and Exodus: Gods And Kings, it was fair to wonder if Ridley Scott still had a great film in him—a question that was answered, impressively, with The Martian. Scott’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel, about an astronaut (Matt Damon) who’s stranded on the red planet and must fend for himself until remote help can arrive, is science fiction that emphasizes the science, depicting in detail the practical problems facing Damon’s interstellar traveler, and the ingenious systematic solutions he devises to his life-threatening dilemmas. Scott dramatizes his material with a visual panache that never overwhelms the story’s focus on inventive troubleshooting, which also soon comes to involve the American comrades (both in space and on Earth) responsible for his retrieval. Set against gorgeously barren otherworldly landscapes, it’s a race-against-the-clock thriller that recognizes, and celebrates, the fact that a hero’s greatest tool is always, ultimately, his intellect.
Best genre mash-up: Bone Tomahawk
For much of its lengthy 132-minute runtime, S. Craig Zahler’s directorial debut plays like a talkative riff on John Ford’s The Searchers, ambling alongside a group of Old West archetypes—the noble sheriff (Kurt Russell, sporting his bushy The Hateful Eight mustache), his old and frail backup deputy (Richard Jenkins), a well-to-do local (Matthew Fox), and a grieving businessman (Patrick Wilson)—as they set out to rescue Wilson’s wife, who’s been kidnapped by a horde of savage “Troglodytes.” Content to merely spend time with its characters as they chat, bicker and strategize, the film comes off as a lackadaisical throwback oater until it reaches its climax, at which point Bone Tomahawk veers suddenly, shockingly into outright horror, replete with what may be the most chilling, unforgettable death scene of the year. It’s an unexpectedly potent shift that rattles the nerves, and in the process, casts the preceding action as merely a prelude to what turns out to be a brutal portrait of the frontier clash between the civilized and the primitive.