2015 was definitely a year, and that year had movies. Some of them were good, some of them were bad. How to know which is which? Well, allow me to be your machete as you hack your way through this dense thicket of #CONTENT.
A lot of people wonder why I don’t start at the bottom first, treat this like a real countdown. There’s a simple reason for that. Aside from the fact that I’m not much for stagecraft, who ever thinks about what their 15th favorite movie is? No, me, I start at the top, with number one, because that’s what I’m most confident in. Sort of like wearing your nice underwear on the first date. Start strong and fizzle out, that’s my life advice.
As always, all opinions are final, and I will fight you. KNIVES OUT!
1. Anomalisa (original review)
I know, I know, what a hipster. (I vote a moratorium on this word in ’16, BTW.) I am, picking a movie that almost no one reading this has even seen, one that didn’t open in New York and L.A. until this week. I’m sorry! I swear I didn’t choose it to be cool!
To be honest, it was a tough decision trying to decide between Anomalisa or Fury Road at number one. I ended up going with Anomalisa simply because I feel like I’ll end up thinking about it the most. It offered that ol’ “Insight Into The Human Condition,” and did it in a cheeky, clever way. It took what could’ve been a depressive observation on the illusory nature of attraction and was so eloquent in the telling that it made it feel inspiring. Thank God for Charlie Kaufman. There was no other movie I saw where I had less of an idea where it was going, or was happier when it got there. It was like one long pleasant surprise, and I think it will stay with me a long time. It’s up there with Charlie Kaufman’s best, and with him that’s saying something.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road (original review)
Mad Max: Fury Road is probably the populist pick, and mostly the correct one, which is a rare thing. If more sequels were like Fury Road, I would love sequels. Fury Road makes The Road Warrior seem almost quaint by comparison. George Miller didn’t just build a world, he built it, and then invented a logic of how it would develop, and went crazy with it. He did world building so well that the story barely even mattered. I’d watch any story that took place amongst a gang of engine-worshipping marauders who huff chrome and name their tumors, so the fact that the stunt work was the best of the last 10 or 15 years was just added value. Did Mad Max: Fury Road forever kill the shaky cam? I hope so.
3. Brooklyn (original review)
Brooklyn is the kind of movie I feel like I can recommend to anyone, because it was patently not “my kind of movie” and I still ended up loving it, intensely. Describing why is much harder, especially when you’re talking to your shoot-’em-up-action-movie-loving dude friends.
“What should I see?”
“Really? What’s it about?”
“Uh, it’s about this Irish girl, and she comes to America.”
“Oh nice, does she join a gang or something?”
“No, no, nothing like that. She, uh… she gets a job at a department store, she starts dating a plumber, and she ends up torn between two suitors.”
“Oh. Uh… Huh. So is it, like, sexy?”
“Oh no, it’s very chaste. She wears poodle skirts and the guys wear really high-waisted trousers and mostly they just pine for each other. I cried a lot. Anyway, brah, you want another beer?”
Brooklyn had two of my favorite performances this year, Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen, who managed to seem suave despite playing a plumber with his slacks pulled up to his nipples. More importantly, Brooklyn was a nice reminder that you can have compelling drama without major trauma, or surrounding your protagonist with evil predators. It’s sort of the anti-The Immigrant, a period drama that depicts the heartbreak of immigrating without sensationalizing it. And almost all of the characters are… really nice, actually. Having pleasant characters, who seem nice to be around, is an underutilized storytelling technique these days. Something I realized especially when I was watching Joy the other day, which spends 45 minutes surrounding Jennifer Lawrence with awful, hectoring, completely unlikable (and not especially believable) dickheads.
Also, that Irish dude singing a sad song in the soup kitchen on Thanksgiving was worth at least three Up openings on the making-me-cry scale.
4. Ex Machina (original review)
Speaking of performances I loved this year, holy hell, Oscar Isaac. Is he too young for a lifetime achievement award? Playing a charismatic, sociopathic billionaire in Ex Machina, he was like if Bill the Butcher was techno-utopianist Men’s Rights Activist. And Alicia Vikander gets my vote for best supporting actress. I doubt many actresses could bring to life a seductive robot with ulterior motives, and all without a scalp. You try acting without a scalp, that’s high-level stuff. Ex Machina was by far the best movie about AI and the nature of consciousness I saw in the last few years, and I saw at least 10 of them. (Better luck next time, Self/Less).
5. It Follows (original review)
I’ve already written about this movie more than once, and I’m hesitant to do it again, because every time I do I get at least five commenters going “Hurrrrrr it wasn’t even scary hurrr durrrrr,” (I’m paraphrasing). So, I won’t “overhype it” with my gushy opinion yet again. Silly me, I thought a horror movie that wasn’t like other horror movies, that was creepy on a much deeper level, without jump scares, loud noises, or underexposed shots, that explores ideas every other horror movie takes for granted, was sort of a good thing. Someone should make a horror movie about horror movie fanatics, who are worse than the Nazis.
6. The Hateful Eight (original review)
This one was an odd one to place. There was plenty I didn’t like about it, it sort of dragged in the last bit, and the ending didn’t really work for me. (It didn’t help that one of the reels was screwed up during my screening, jacking up the pacing and adding 20 minutes to an already three-hour movie.) I read negative reviews and comments about it and find myself mostly agreeing with all the points people make. But at the end of the day (I’m sorry for saying “at the end of the day”), I’m planning to see it again to get the full 70mm experience. How many other three-hour movies could I say that about? I would rather deliver a litter of baby tarantulas than watch any of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien movies again.
I think what it comes down to, is that while I might not share all of Quentin Tarantino’s weird obsessions (post-Civil War politics, Australian cowboys, the N-word, bounty hunters, Michael Madsen), I’m always interested in which strange direction his obsessions are going to take him. The Hateful Eight was like a collection of unfiltered Tarantino obsessions. Also, Walton Goggins and Demian Bichir were perfection.
7. Call Me Lucky (original review)
I honestly had no idea Call Me Lucky was about childhood sexual abuse when I went in. I was at least 45 minutes into the movie before I realized (not sure I would’ve signed up if I knew, which is why I tried not to mention it in my original review, though I’m pretty sure that cat’s out of the bag by now). It may not be the most “important” documentary of the year (it’s still important), but it’s one of the most unique, the kind of story that could only be told by the guy who told it. I saw it at the Sundance premiere, and I’ve never seen a crowd emotionally steamrolled like that before.
Both Bobcat Goldthwait (director) and Barry Crimmins (subject) combine a social conscience with extreme bluntness in a way that I think the world needs right now. Can’t we care about important things without grandstanding and sounding full of sh*t? Goldthwait and Crimmins are aspirational examples that yes, yes we can.
(See also: my interview with Goldthwait, one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever done)
8. The Big Short (essay)
For years I’ve been wishing that a biopic or a based-on-a-true-story movie would just come out and tell the audience when it was taking creative liberties. The Big Short finally did it. (Narcos did the other thing I’m always pushing for, mixing in archival footage of the real subjects. 2015 was a great year for creative non-fiction.) I don’t think Adam McKay even thought he was doing anything that groundbreaking, which makes it that much better. He was just trying to find creative ways to do a Michael Lewis book justice on film. And it worked. The Big Short makes The Blind Side and Moneyball look as quaint as black-and-white musicals from the ’20s. If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out. Don’t be put off by all the silly wigs, I promise it’s not your typical awards movie wigapalooza.
9. Chappie (original review)
Look, I can’t convince anyone to not find Die Antwoord obnoxious, but all that aside, this movie is bonkers! The character design of Chappie alone was worth the price of admission. It felt like someone gave Neill Blomkamp millions of dollars to make a film in his backyard, and I love that about it. I’m just going to plagiarize myself here, apologies:
“Why did you build me just so I could die?” Chappie asks his maker, kicking you right in the gut while your sides are still sore from watching a spazzy robot in a gold “HUSTLER” necklace roam around town boosting cars for the previous 10 minutes. It raises profound, unanswerable questions and then, implausibly, answers them, with sarcasm-drenched eighties action scenes. It’s like a mega-budget take on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s Lethal Weapon parodies. It combines brief moments of honest introspection with gleeful gore while retaining that child-like quality of a backyard wrestling video. Feels like it just gets me, you know?
10. The D-Train (original review)
I’ve yet to find a single person who agrees with me about The D-Train. I suspect a big part of that has to do with the fact that it’s a Jack Black movie where Jack Black isn’t especially funny. But I don’t think he was meant to be. The situations were funny, and if James Marsden steals the show, so what? I thought that was the point.
I stand by everything I wrote, but I will say that context matters. I saw The D-Train at Sundance, where so many movies make a huge deal about how “subversive” they are, and comedies mostly pander hard to the arthouse status quo. (Grandma being a good example. I dare you to watch this and explain how it’s tracking NINETY-TWO PERCENT on RottenTomatoes.) In the midst of that, The D-Train was subversive without shouting about it, and funny in ways that were both challenging and unexpected. It reminded me of an Alexander Payne movie in its mix of funny/sad/weird, set in a small town full of characters leading lives of quiet desperation. I still think that if Payne’s name had been on it, people would’ve loved it.
I always love a movie that takes something a hundred other movies have taken for granted and actually examines it. What It Follows did for the sexy teen tropes in horror movies, The D-Train does for the bromance subplot in almost every comedy.
With Spotlight, I almost feel like I have to defend not putting it higher. To me it’s a good story well told, and I understand why it’s gotten great reviews. A good story well told is always welcome, which is why it’s on the list. But to me, it’s a movie that doesn’t make any mistakes more so than it’s a bold piece of art, which is why it’s not higher. It turns a story about journalism (oh God, please no) into a brilliantly-paced suspense thriller, which is no small feat.
But I also had a feeling of “and then what?” at the end. Spotlight feels very much a product of a time when our understanding of child sexual abuse was still in its infancy. In the film it’s still all about the chase. Once we find the pedophiles and lock them in a closet and throw away the key (which is a fine first step), then what? Spotlight sort of ends on that false feel-good note without asking the harder questions.
12. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (original review-type thing)
I honestly don’t know if this belongs on the list since the standards by which I review a Star Wars movie are so different from how I review anything else. I agree with most of the criticisms of the film in theory (it was a rip off A New Hope, we didn’t need a new Death Star, not again with the daddy issue stuff, etc), but a Star Wars movie that I actually enjoyed watching seems almost miraculous given the last 20 years of Star Wars stuff. It actually seemed funny and clever at times. How insane is that? I don’t know if making a Star Wars movie that most people sort of liked is more of an artistic feat or a commercial one, but it’s damned impressive either way. I’m a little disappointed that they chickened out on showing an interracial sex scene, but c’est la vie. I still have my fingers crossed for Star Wars: The Dongs Going In. Don’t disappoint me, Rian Johnson.
13. The Revenant (original review)
If I’m being honest, The Revenant wasn’t nearly as good as I was hoping, but if I’m being fair it was still pretty good. It wins this year’s award for “best movie I saw that I’m in no hurry to see again.” Also, the award for “movie that looks like it smelled the worst.”
DiCaprio doesn’t deserve the Oscar for drooling and snotting at the camera, and Tom Hardy proved that he can be nearly unintelligible in all situations, but all kidding aside, it was easily the most visceral and immediate movie I saw this year, and for that it squeaks onto the list, if just barely.
14. Sicario (original review)
I didn’t like Sicario quiiite as much as everyone else seems to, but I agree that it was a damned well-made movie. Like Christopher Nolan did with the Dark Knight movies, it feels a little like Denis Villenueve’s narrative subterfuge and incredible filmmaking techniques distract people from characters and plotting that’s a little cartoony if you actually stopped to think about it. Of course, the fact that you’re too busy having your nuts kicked into your throat to notice is more a credit to Villenueve than a knock on him.
Sicario relies a little too much on comically hard-boiled GRRR VENGEANCE character motivations to make the top 10, but Villenueve’s action sequences are better than anyone since Michael Mann in the nineties. Also, if we’re talking about protagonists who repeatedly got the sh*t kicked out of them in 2015, Emily Blunt > Leonardo DiCaprio.
15. Furious 7 (original review)
Never before has a film packed so many ridiculous moments into one film. The Rock flexing so hard he breaks his cast. Vin Diesel taking a sledge hammer to a tombstone. Paul Walker grabbing onto Michelle Rodriguez’s spoiler while jumping off a bus over a cliff. An in memoriam montage with product placement for Corona. Vin Diesel killing a helicopter with a muscle car. I never liked a Fast/Furious movie before this one, and in dispensing with the pretense that these movies were ever about street racing or grounded in reality, Furious 7 took the Fast franchise from mission impossible to mission in-freakin’-sanity. There was a street racing event called “Race Wars.” Never before has a movie so beautifully fulfilled the mandate set forth by Weird Al Yankovic, “dare to be stupid.”
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.