Continuing our coverage of the best that cinema had to offer us in 2015, we have saved the best for last – the unveiling of mxdwn’s Top 10 Films of 2015. We hope you have enjoyed reading our analysis of the last twelve years at the movies. This list was compiled and democratically sorted throughout the entire mxdwn staff. Now without further ado…
10 – SICARIO
No movie kept me on the edge of my seat more than Denis Villenueve’s Sicario. There have been plenty of films about “the war on drugs” but none have captivated me like this one. We follow an FBI Agent (Emily Blunt) who joins a government task force to police the U.S.-Mexico border. Much has been discussed about the border scene but I constantly caught myself trying to catch a peek to see if anything was around the corner of the border-spanning tunnel or the raid on the dealer house, that opens the film. This speaks to the excellent camera work from Roger Deakins who understands how to show space and when to hide it. The three lead performances are also excellent, particularly Benicio Del Toro as the mysterious hired gun Alejandro, who is as fascinating as he is terrifying. Villeneuve has made something special with Sicario and I can’t wait to see whatever he does next.
Bleaker and more challenging than most thrillers would ever dare to be. It’s less of a gritty, realistic look at the modern drug trade and more of a journey into the pitch black heart of the duplicitous and morally bankrupt world of espionage. Emily Blunt gives a ferociously raw and devastating performance, while Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin exude icy cool while tapping into the horrific sociopathy that makes spooks truly dangerous. It’s politics might be somewhat dubious, and it’s definitely not for the faint of heart, but Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario is a gut-wrenching, edge of your seat thriller that pays dividends long after the film has ended.
9 – BROOKLYN
Read our review.
A beautiful period piece posing big questions about choices and about life itself; the movie stays with you long after the lights come up. Saoirse Ronan’s compelling performance anchors the drama and Domnhall Gleeson’s sincere, understated turn again proves he is one of the industry’s rising stars.
A movie that came practically out of nowhere. A heartwarming and honest look at a growth-filled time in America and the pains and joys that came from the melting pot that was. The purity and whimsy of the era is lovingly captured and most importantly, the main characters are rendered in supremely likable and endearing fashion.
This film is one of those rare pieces of artistic magic that captures perfectly the nuances of its story. Undoubtedly the most charming film this year, Saoirse Ronan shines while playing the complicated duality of a naive girl transitioning into a mature young woman. The time period comes across authentically and each piece of the story – from characters, plot, costuming, and set design- fits together seamlessly.
8 – CAROL
Read our review.
When the dialogue ceases, the music swells and the characters gaze at each other, Carol really comes alive. In an achingly real and deeply moving story, Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett shine together as two women who fall in love in 1950s New York. Perhaps the most affecting film of the year, the film speaks to the audience with an emotional clarity and resonance that will make you think and feel vividly even after leaving the theater.
Ravishingly using all the tools in the filmmaking chest to a glorious degree, director Todd Haynes has gorgeously crafted a love story for the ages. Wonderfully realized by Phyllis Nagy’s economic and sharp screenplay (adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s groundbreaking 1952 novel), shot to the heavens with Ed Lachman’s lush cinematography and brought to captivating life by the serene and almost otherworldly chemistry of stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, Carol is a masterwork of craft and precision. Yet, thanks to Haynes’ compassionate direction, also a soulful and marvelously emotional romance. Here’s a film for the heart, brain and eyes and one so beautiful you never want to escape from; watching Carol is tantamount to falling in love for the first time.
7 – THE MARTIAN
Take the always popular simple survival tale – man against nature – and combine it with seeing the vastness of space on the biggest screen you can find, and you have The Martian. Based on the Andy Weir novel, the movie ended up being a welcome surprise for both fans of the book and the general moviegoing audience alike. Director Ridley Scott and star Matt Damon (bolstered by a terrific ensemble) created a fun movie that had just enough science to make it feel smart, but not enough to make it feel like a lecture. An effects spectacular with a focus on character more than simply action or CGI monsters, The Martian was a welcome reprieve from most big budget extravaganzas. And it’s always a nice thing when a movie reinvigorates our wonder in space travel.
-Brett Harrison Davinger
6 – ROOM
Read our review.
The premise of Room was a hard sell; did I want to be stuck in a movie theater watching a mother and son imprisoned in a claustrophobic 10 x 10 foot space? Well, yes. In the sure hands of director Lenny Abrahamson and actors Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, the film allows its audience to access the full range of human emotions that only the best of films can evoke. Larson deserves an Oscar nod for her searing portrayal of Ma; Tremblay as Jack is a natural. Kudos to production designer Ethan Tobman and cinematographer Danny Cohen for making Room such a real space. Yes, there is pain and tragedy, yet the film offers a compelling meditation on life’s complexities – its horrors, comforts, freedoms, dangers, and exhilarations – which stays with you long after the lights come up.
Perhaps a difficult film to convince your friends to see it because most people aren’t necessarily excited to watch a movie about a young boy and his mother forced to live inside a small shed for five years but it is not as dismal as it may seem. Though it veers into some extremely dark territory, Room is surprisingly heartwarming because it is shown through the eyes of a young boy who is a beacon of hope and humanity. The film is not a crime drama nor a crude attempt to emotionally manipulate an audience, instead it is a beautiful story of the power of unconditional love between a mother and son. Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay are a uniquely remarkable team and their performances are unforgettably evocative. Despite heartbreaking scenes and tear-jerking performances, Room has an incredible amount of heart which makes it one of the best films this year.
There was no better pairing this year than Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in Room. The movie, which was adapted by Emma Donoghue from her best-selling novel, is a harrowing but ultimately hopeful movie experience. Larson plays Ma, who at 17 years old was abducted and kept in a garden shed. As the film opens, she is celebrating the fifth birthday of her son, Jack (Tremblay), who was born in captivity. The shed – or “room” – is all young Jacob knows. Ma has to create a life within their confinements for Jacob to experience. What’s great about Room is we experience the entire picture through the eyes of Jack and how he sees and understands a pretty bleak situation. Larson is phenomenal but Tremblay is stunning. His performance is without any Disney channel precociousness but contains a rare depth – not to mention he was 8 years old when the movie was shot.
5 – INSIDE OUT
Read our review.
A stunning and original animation work that manages to be funny and entertaining while exploring deep psychological concepts which can change the cultural conversation about how we humans experience emotions.
Pixar came back in a big way with Inside Out, conceiving a new reality as deeply textured 2008 with WALL-E and it’s clear they cared about the details. The casting was also brilliant with Amy Poehler (Sisters) voicing Joy, Phyllis Smith (TV’s The Office) as Sadness, Lewis Black (Accepted) as Anger, Mindy Kaling (TV’s The Mindy Project) as Disgust, and Bill Hader (Trainwreck) as Fear. While the film is hilarious, it’s also the most emotionally affecting film of the year, representing everything we think and feel when we think about growing up. I might be biased as someone who moved a lot as a kid and stopped playing organized hockey at 13 but I’m also a human being.
Let’s set aside the lovely story, standout voice cast and awesome character designs. On second thought let’s not, because they’re all great. But still, can we just push them to the back of our minds for a moment and marvel at the fact that Disney, the dictatorship of happiness gave the go ahead to a film that tells kids sometimes it’s okay to cry until you can’t move anymore. As a rather sad individual myself, I wholeheartedly approve this message.
4 – STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
Less than 10 days into its run, Star Wars: The Force Awakens already crossed the billion dollar mark. Impressive. But, that record-breaking pace is fueled by a great film and not just the lore of the Star Wars franchise. J.J. Abrams did a great job of introducing new characters and abandoning talk of senates and midi-chlorians. Wise choice.
3 – SPOTLIGHT
Spotlight is high-minded filmmaking that requires almost as much patience and diligence as the reporting team that the movie centers on. But like a lot of challenging things, it’s wonderfully rewarding and drives to the center of how much investigative journalism- especially a team focused on it- means to our society. Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachael McAdams all turn in Oscar worthy performances, but it’s the lack of Hollywood gloss that makes this one truly jump off the page.
Immediately after release, Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight was heralded (myself included) as the awards frontrunner and best picture of the year and that hasn’t changed. No other film feels as perfectly crafted, acted or shot in a year with plenty of great films. McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer understand that this true story thrives as a classic reporters as detectives tale rather than being about victims. This is also the first true ensemble cast in a long time with no one actor standing far above the rest. There is a clear understanding of the finer details of journalism and their life in the early 2000s whether it’s the characters norm-core costumes or their reporting techniques. I understand people’s hesitation, given the subject matter, but they owe it to themselves to see what will likely be one of the last true American journalist films.
Spotlight stands out by being seemingly unremarkable but it is because it is so “unremarkable” that it shines. In a sea of films that are full of intensity and action, Spotlight just brings the facts to light without every trying to outshine its message or characters; the film is extremely modest in this way and there is no star and none of the actors ever try to outshine the other. The cast works together as an extraordinary team to shed light on a very important and sobering issue.
Spotlight is the best film of the year, featuring the best ensemble of the year. Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Brian James D’Arcy make up the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team, which uncovered the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Their performances, writer-director Tom McCarthy’s script tell the story passionately without ever sensationalizing. What makes Spotlight so great is that it seems like a straightforward procedural but is thrilling from start to finish.
Spotlight is, undoubtedly, the most important film of the year. It reminds us of the necessity of investigative journalism, that is unfortunately becoming increasingly scarce with the rise of citizen journalism on the Internet. McCarthy masterfully directs the film to make it seem and sound as realistic and normal as possible, in contrast to the severity and colossal nature of the story they uncovered. Mark Ruffalo’s performance, in particular, was fantastic though the movie as a whole was superbly acted.
2 – EX MACHINA
Despite Hollywood’s recurring attempts to breathe new life into Frankenstein (e.g. Victor Frankenstein and I, Frankenstein) plus its penchant for taking the “intelligence” out of Artificial Intelligence (e.g. Chappie), Alex Garland’s Ex Machina bucked both trends by being the best movie about both in years. While Alicia Vikander has gotten a lot of praise for her work as the robot Ava, one shouldn’t overlook Oscar Isaac’s masterful performance as Nathan, the Post-Modern Prometheus, who is simultaneously extremely proud and deathly frightened about being the man who created the thing that will destroyed humankind.
-Brett Harrison Davinger
Ex Machina, also boasting a wonderful performance by Domnhall Gleeson and an alluring lead performance by Alicia Vikander, has a sleek take on the dangers of playing god with artificial intelligence.
It feels like writer/director Alex Garland finally put it all together in this one. The tone is haunting and the pacing is perfect. I could go on for hours about the precision of the film’s setup, both narratively and cinematographically. Gorgeous acting all around and a wickedly suspenseful movie that’s always manipulating you in ways you’re somehow still okay with.
I was also pleasantly surprised by Ex Machina because of its effortless ability to circle around the very interesting idea of artificial intelligence. Like The End of the Tour, most of its brilliance lies within the dialogue between the main characters. Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander are all very different characters and they all shine in their roles, while being incredibly understated. It is a fascinating depiction of a fascinating scenario that sheds light on some very heavy issues of morality and what it means to be human.
This movie says a lot about artificial intelligence, the human mind, the human soul, human interaction, interpersonal relationships, gender, sexuality, sexual identity, and the value of an artificial vagina. But, at its core Ex Machina, is a well written, well acted, well directed, beautiful looking Hitchcock-ian psychological mystery set in one house (albeit a house with a secret laboratory) with only four characters. This film does so much more with so little than most movies even attempt to do. Also, it’s got hands down the best dance sequence of any film this year.
The coolest film of the year- mysterious and suspenseful and a slick piece of filmmaking. Writer-director Alex Garland crafted one of the most assured debuts as a director, building on a tension-filled atmosphere. Alicia Vikander is alluring as the A.I. and Oscar Isaac gives another diverse performance.
Over-all 2015 was 1985 all over again. Pretty much every film from our childhood was brought back (and brought back well) to the big screen. One of the rare original films to come out was Ex Machina, Alex Garland’s directorial debut, an intense psychological sci-fi thriller.
1 – MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
The standout movie of the year, Mad Max: Fury Road surprised everyone in the best of ways. A studio feature unlike any other studio feature, this reboot/sequel/whatever to the 1970s/1980s Mel Gibson trilogy managed to capture the nihilistic spirit of the original films without feeling either overly modern or too nostalgic for the past. The choice of Tom Hardy as the successor to Gibson was a brilliant move and the supporting cast, including Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, and Hugh Keays-Byrn as Immortan Joe, further filled out the post-apocalyptic Wasteland. In addition to having arguably the best cinematography this year, its visual design was incredibly fresh and fully realized – what other film would have a skull guy? Let’s hope that the Oscars for Best Costume Design recognize the sheer creativity that went into the props and wardrobe for this film instead of doing what it always does and nominate unexciting period pieces (my money’s on The Danish Girl and Brooklyn over Mad Max and Star Wars).
-Brett Harrison Davinger
One of the few movies that actually benefits from 3D, sporting better effects than any other film this year, with characters who are flat out awesome. Mad Max does world building better than any other sci-fi film I’ve seen in years, on par with the original Star Wars movies.
Mad Max: Fury Road might be one of the very best action movies ever made. There isn’t much room at the top of that categorization, but this sits easily on the scale of Terminator 2 or Aliens as one of the most electrifying and downright intelligent action movies to date. Truly brilliant.
What more or less amounts to one giant car chase is filled with details but more importantly, the film doesn’t take time away from the action to explain those details. The most impressive aspect though is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, Prometheus) who is one of the most exciting heroes of this or any film of the decade. Subsequent viewings have proved the theater experience was no fluke and I’m looking forward to watching it again.
Going against age-old action movie stereotypes, Mad Max: Fury Road stands out from the mold through George Miller’s fantastic story and direction. Miller created an inventive new world fueled by adrenaline, beautiful visuals and top-notch performances, particularly by Charlize Theron. An unforgettable experience, Mad Max: Fury Road will stand the test of time, not only as one of the greatest action movies, but as one of the best and most original movies of the 21st century.
After nearly two decades stuck in development hell, Max Max: Fury Road exploded onto screens with the kind of auteuristic insanity we just don’t see any more. George Miller, whose last directorial credit was Happy Feet 2, takes the road movie and elevates it to hallucinatory heights that pulses to the beat of its first-rate score. Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, and Nicholas Hoult give gravitas, raw intensity, and deceptive profundity. Simply put, Mad Max: Fury Road is the best action film made in years.
Just plain fun. It’s been a while since there was a movie that actually keeps you on the edge of your seat for two full hours.
Earlier in the year, the summer was dominated by Age of Ultron and Jurassic World, but there was one film that rose above the dust left by the two billion dollar-earning films and that was Mad Max: Fury Road. From the light use of CGI in favor of true stunts, to the stripped down script with little dialogue and the female-driven plot that pushed Max to background, this film delivered on so many levels. During this time of year, many Oscar-bait films will hit theaters, but Fury Road is the best film of 2015.
And that’s a wrap on 2015. Agree? Disagree? Sound off in the comments.
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