The Top 10 Films of 2015

I’m never one to do my end of year top 10 lists on time (who can see all the most buzzed about movies by Dec. 31???), but 13 months, yea, that’s a little late even for me. Nevertheless, I’ve gone on a tear to not only catch up on what I missed in 2016, but what I missed in 2015, and now have a pretty firm grasp on my top 10 films of both years (2016 list to follow).

For me – and maybe most people – 2015 was a big year for genre films. Only half of my top 10 can be classified as traditional dramas (though a couple of them are extremely traditional). And if you go as far as to check my Top 25 of 2015 list on Letterboxd, you’ll also see a great deal more genre films. It was a different year, but a solid year and I’m happy to relive it with you below.

10. Amy

Asif Kapadia’s documentary gives us unprecedented access to Amy Winehouse, the young music star who constantly struggled with drugs until her death. What makes this doc worthy of my top 10 is the almost exclusive use of archival footage and images. Kapadia keeps us completely fixed on Amy, yet also manages to hold up a mirror to ourselves and how we like to consume more than just an artist’s art, and what that can do to a soul that really wasn’t meant for it. (Read my review)

9. Love & Mercy

This Brian Wilson biopic stands out for depicting Wilson at two different times in his life played by two different actors (Paul Dano and John Cusack) without succumbing the melodramatic opportunities that making a film about a man who allegedly spent two years in bed present. Of all biopics, musical genius biopics tend to be the most formulaic, but Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner’s script take a much more sensitive, character-driven approach that has nostalgic touches of Beach Boys hits. (Read my review)

8. Sicario

Writing this from 2017, it’s hard not to take into account what director Denis Villeneuve accomplished in “Arrival,” but his previous film, “Sicario,” has its own strengths. Both films have fantastic leading ladies in strong roles, but “Sicario” has an earth-shattering realism to it with so many characters that cross the line between good and evil. A slow-burn drug war thriller, “Sicario” defies its genre with calculated suspense and violence, so that when something does happen, it’s deeply unsettling. This is a director who knows how to guide his audience and he will doubtless keep making great films. (Read my review)

7. Brooklyn

Director John Crowley and the exceptional writer Nick Hornby deliver a real cinematic throwback, and not just as a mid-20th century period piece, but mainly to a type of storytelling more common in other decades: a time- and globe-spanning immigrant tale and love story. It’s stupidly charming and the kind of movie you’re bound to get sucked into anytime it comes on TV. There’s not much by way of plot, but Saoirse Ronan gives a standout performance and her chemistry with Emory Cohen is undeniable thanks in large part to the strength of this script. It’s easily the most pleasurable watch of my top 10. (Read my review)

6. Phoenix

Far and away the most underrated and under-discussed film of 2015 was the German film (with a bit of English) “Phoenix” from writer/director Christian Petzold, a psychological post-World War II drama and a stunning portrait of a Holocaust survivor trying to reclaim her identity. It borrows on elements from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” as well as stories about other characters who return home after being presumed dead. “Phoenix” is a haunting yet deeply moving drama about the past, love and trying to move on, and one I’m glad I snuck in before writing this list thanks to Netflix. (Read my review)

5. Carol

Another film I recently caught up with, “Carol” should’ve gotten way more love at the Oscars than it did, though at least the Academy didn’t neglect the stunning performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as two women feeling different kinds of lonely who find each other in 1950s New York. Todd Haynes has such a gentle touch, creating palpable attraction and tension between the two leads and making this a story about so much more than LGBT issues. It’s an enthralling romance no matter your orientation, and the drama puts it ahead of the previous 1950s NYC romance on this list. (Read my review)

4. The Hateful Eight

Not one to be easily won over by Quentin Tarantino, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed “The Hateful Eight.” I don’t particularly care for Tarantino’s films that opt for mayhem and throw away the rules, but the single-location nature, mystery components and raw tension of “Hateful Eight” completely grabbed me, and the Western feel and time period seems like the trappings where his antics make the most sense. I still don’t know what artistic justification he has for rattle the viewer with violence against women and n-words, but there are some really interesting insights here into the nature of justice that help elevate this film out of total pulp. (Read my review)

3. Inside Out

Pixar might be able to continue putting out average sequels if every few years we get a film as ingenious as “Inside Out.” Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen have hatched a brilliant vision for how to demonstrate the workings of the human mind. Their premise just works and carries the film on its back, broadcasting a critically important message about the role of our emotions that’s so simple yet gets so lost. Bursting at the seams with creativity, “Inside Out” is arguable Pixar’s finest effort to date and worthy of leapfrogging more traditional films. (Read my review)

2. Mad Max: Fury Road

I was not impressed by “Mad Max” or “The Road Warrior.” I didn’t get what made George Miller’s films great despite their unique aesthetic. But after 30 years on the backburner, “Mad Max: Fury Road” found the franchise incredible new life and purpose. Built on a story that’s shot out of a cannon, Miller creates a vibrant and imaginative world and assembles it with tons of practical effects, which prove endlessly refreshing in this CGI-dominant era. “Fury Road” is just one of those rare action film that devotes itself completely to production values and its six Oscars were well deserved. (Read my review)

1. Spotlight

As a journalism major in college, and someone who watched a lot of journalism films in high school, I have a soft spot for “Spotlight,” the best procedural film in years and the best journalism film since “All the President’s Men.” Tom McCarthy hooks our attention and holds it from start to finish and that’s what it takes to make a film about investigative reporting stand out. There’s also an emotional component that McCarthy and Josh Singer don’t lose sight of, which is critical to what makes it great. Anchored by rock-solid performances, “Spotlight” is just great storytelling that reminds us how pivotal the fifth estate is even though journalism is struggling on so many fronts. (Read my review)

See the rest of my Top 25 of 2015 on Letterboxd,


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