Real-life tragedy, animated emotions, and filmmaking lunacy in our runners-up for 2015

The last few days of 2015 are spent in reflection about the year that's just wrapping up and in anticipation of the year just ahead, at least for me, and since we had our ten best list last week, this week it's time for the runners-up, the fifteen films that also filled out our year. As always, I look at this list and I think it would make a perfectly spiffy top ten if that's how things had shaken out, which is to say that the only real purpose of any of these lists is to remind you of more of the experiences that were worth having in a theater.

There are plenty of good films that aren't on either of my lists this year. That doesn't mean I didn't like them or they're not good. It just means that these films meant more to me for some reason. For now, here are the next fifteen films, following my already-published top ten, and my reasoning for why you should see these, and why they made my movie year so interesting…


11. Carol

There are few writers who have ever written with more authentic empathy about the outsider mind than Patricia Highsmith. While much of her work can be described as psychological thrillers, like “Strangers On A Train” or “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” her real gift was the way she gave voice to characters that other authors might be afraid to explore. Nothing she wrote was more personal than her second novel, THE PRICE OF SALT, published under a pseudonym in 1952, which drew on her own personal experiences. This film adaptation by Todd Haynes is a delicate, painful story of a married woman whose divorce grows complicated when she falls in love with a young shopgirl. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are both exquisite in the film, and Kyle Chandler gives great support as a husband whose ego and male identity is so bruised by rejection that he's willing to do something catastrophically despicable to someone he claims to love. It's a beautiful movie, but more than that, it's an important look at a moment when the mere act of loving the wrong person could destroy your entire life. One of the things I love most about the film is the way it carefully lays bare the secret language of women in the presence of men, and if you want an education in just how microscopic the details can be in film performance, watch the way Mara and Blanchett communicate silently whenever there's a man in the room with them. Todd Haynes remains one of our best and most sensitive filmmakers, with emotional radar so precise it is humbling.

12. Son Of Saul

“I can't imagine” is a phrase you hear a lot, and I'm sure I'm guilty of overusing it in my writing, because there are very few things we can't imagine as people. But when it comes to life inside a concentration camp, I find it is true. I do not have the personal horror to draw on to truly summon up what it must have been like for people on a minute to minute day to day level. Laszlo Nemes and his co-writer Clara Royer made a brilliant choice, in that the entire film is shot as a medium close-up on Saul Auslander, played by the shatteringly brilliant Geza Rohrig. We can't see anything beyond his immediate surroundings, so we only glimpse the horrors as he moves through his day. He's constantly surrounded by visions so piercingly awful that he moves through it all with his eyes down, trying to avoid taking in any more than he has to, just trying to survive. When he finds a boy's body amidst all of the mountains of bodies that he has to process every day, the film never makes if it is his actual son, or just a body that comes to represent the son he lost, but Saul becomes obsessed to the point of no longer caring about his own well-being, determined to give the boy a real Jewish funeral. That simple human gesture consumes him, and by the end of the film, it seems like the most urgent task possible, a way for Saul to remain human when asked to do something inhuman with his every waking hour. This is a picture-window into Hell, and one of the most punishing film experiences I've had.

13. Love & Mercy

I'm not much for music biopics, by and large, but Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner's script for “Love & Mercy” managed to deliver a nuanced, beautiful portrait of Brian Wilson at two key moments in his life, and in doing so, they not only offer up one of the best fictionalized pictures of what it's like to create a masterpiece, but they also tell one hell of a love story. Paul Dano and John Cusack play Wilson at two totally different times in his life, and it's a very canny structure. By cutting between the two, we see Wilson at the moment he broke, and at the moment his healing truly began, and we are able to see that the clearest difference in his life was the arrival of Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks in what may be the best performance she's ever given). It's an amazing film about the toll the creative process can take on people who aren't built for the business side of things, and about the way genuine love can do more good for someone than all the drugs and therapy in the world.

14. 45 Years

We are shaped by our histories, each and every one of us, and our relationships are never just with the people in them. We each carry baggage and scars from one to the next, and even once we're married, even once we think we've found that person who is going to be there for the rest of our lives, and “45 Years” explores the idea that it is possible to spend your life with someone and never really know them. When the body of a woman is found in a glacier where she died decades earlier, it sends the marriage of Kate and Geoff Mercer into freefall. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay have both been very good in any number of films over the years, but what they do here is damn near a magic trick, a beautiful dance of things left largely unsaid that manages to somehow lay bare everything. The idea that you could spend an entire life with someone who is constantly looking over your shoulder, in love with someone long gone, is devastating, and what really killed me about the film is watching Rampling struggle to make sense of what she's learning. It's all a matter of degrees, and as she moves from what she can live with to what she can't, it just hurts more and more. Andrew Haigh is proving himself to be a director of remarkable delicacy, and “45 Years” is a beautiful example of how much empathy he brings to the table.

15. The Revenant

The true story of Hugh Glass is so insane that it makes sense filmmakers would be drawn to it, and several people have taken a shot at telling his story in different ways. There was a '60s TV version, at least two different films in the '70s, and a song by Of Monsters and Men. Michael Punke's novel is truer to the story than the new film is, but it's clear that Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu wasn't worried about the truth. Instead, he uses the broad details of the story of this fur trapper who was mauled by a bear and who then sought revenge on the men who left him for dead, and he uses that framework to tell a story about what happens when man and nature cannot co-exist. Leonardo Di Caprio and Tom Hardy play opposite points on the same line, hard men living in a hard world, but it is the way they collide and differ that defines the film. Just on a technical level, it is a startlingly beautiful film, and Inarritu, working with his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, has become a remarkable visual artist at this point, wrestling impossible images up onto the screen. I'm not a fan of the last twenty or so minutes, when the film takes a hard left turn into the stupid, but there is such majesty to the overall vision that I have a feeling this is going to be a film I return to often just to let it wash over me.

16. Straight Outta Compton

On the one hand, it is about time someone told the story of the way hip hop rose from very real social problems and the way it helped give a community an invaluable voice at a time it was desperately needed. On the other hand, “Straight Outta Compton” is also just plain fun. F. Gary Gray was there at an important turning point for Ice Cube when he directed “Friday,” but he still surprised me with just how a good a job he does at evoking the filmmaking of the new black wave from the early '90s. This isn't just a biopic, but a tribute to the moment when hip hop culture got mainstreamed, and it does a beautiful job of making the story of N.W.A. feel mythic. Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr., and Aldis Hodge all do nice work playing the founding members of one of rap's most influential bands, but the real discovery here is O'Shea Jackson Jr., who doesn't just look like his father, but who does a great job of honoring the legacy he inherited.

17. The Martian

Ridley Scott is only as good as the scripts he works with, and in this case, Drew Goddard's adaptation of Andy Weir's best-selling book is very, very good. By far, this is the funniest movie ever made about a bunch of scientists sitting around doing math. When astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) gets stranded on Mars by mistake, an entire team kicks into action on Earth to try to figure out how to get him home, even as his crew has to decide how they're going to handle the situation. It's a thrilling film, but it's not the sort of pumped up nonsense that Hollywood so often concocts for these types of films. Thanks to the smart and honest script and Ridley Scott's exceptional eye, the film ends up feeling like more than “just” a survival tale, and not enough can be said about how important Matt Damon is to the equation. Damon is one of our great current movie Everymen, and he also projects an intelligence that is required if we're going to believe him as he grapples with the problems that are thrown at him. One of the greatest triumphs of the film is that it managed to be a mainstream hit while still adhering to something very close to scientific accuracy.

18. 99 Homes

Ramin Bahrani has been building one of the most unflinchingly honest filmographies out there, with films like “Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop,” and “Goodbye Solo,” but with “99 Homes,” it feels like he tapped into something of the moment in a way that no one else could. Trying to get your head around the housing market collapse and how it happened is a tricky subject because it's got a lot of moving parts, and Adam McKay tackles the “how” in a film that you'll find a little lower on this list. What Bahrani is after is a human perspective on what it felt like to be caught up in the system as it crumbled around you, and Andrew Garfield gives a powerful performance as a single father who loses his family house, displacing him, his son, and his mother. When he is offered a chance to work for the man who foreclosed on him, he takes the deal, and Michael Shannon offers up a fascinating portrayal of a man whose moral compass points firmly at money. It is a complicated film, and there are no easy choices on display. I haven't liked Garfield in anything this much in years, and he and Shannon are both absolutely amazing as they each challenge the other's sense of right and wrong. 50 years from now, this will be one of the essential films people use to understand what it was like to live though this particular economic moment.

19. Inside Out

When Pixar gets it right, they get it very, very right, and this is one of their most intimate and adult films ever. If you really want to pull apart the metaphorical inner life of Riley, the little girl who is the main character of the movie, I'm sure you can find holes in what Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen built. But why would you want to? The point of the film is to give parents and children a language they can use to discuss life's heaviest moments and emotions, and on that level, it succeeds brilliantly. It also gives Amy Poehler her best bigscreen role so far. It makes sense… Leslie Knope was pretty much the human personification of joy, so casting Poehler as Joy is one of those perfect matches of performer and role. Phyllis Smith is equally perfect as Sadness, and the film's most sophisticated idea is the role those two emotions play in life and the balance they strike. Beyond all of that though, I think one of the year's most beautiful moments is also one of the most absurd, and every single time I think of Bing Bong and his sacrifice, it tears me up all over again.

20. Sicario

Denis Villeneuve has an amazing visual flair, and his filmography so far is jet black.  Working with Roger Deakins, he turns the American border where the Mexican/US drug war is being waged into this nightmare zone where no matter how pure your intentions, you will be ground down by the sheer horror of it. In a year where we've seen any number of film heroines who are ultra-capable, one of the things that makes Emily Blunt's lead interesting is that she is a bit of a disaster all the way through. We're used to seeing movies with flawed men as leads, and there's a long tradition of the shambling disaster in film noir and other genres. Here, Blunt's character is the one who flirts with the darkness, and she's allowed to be just as broken as any male noir lead I can name. Her scene where she takes Jon Bernthal home is a great character moment, and crazy tense. Benicio Del Toro, who has finally caught up to the world weary attitude he's been projecting his whole career, gives an especially sad performance here as a guy who has long since surrendered to the darkness, and he serves as a sort of amoral role model for Blunt, allowing her to see where she could end up. More than anything, “Sicario” is about the way this cycle is perpetuated, and how far we are from any real resolution to what should be a source of profound shame for all of us on both sides of the border.

21. Batkid Begins

There are so many documentaries that are about the world's ills, so many exceptional documents of sorrow and horror, that it almost feels punk rock to make a documentary about just how beautiful it is when an entire community amplifies kindness, and how transformative that kindness can be. The least important part of this story is the connection to Batman; that's simply the thing that is loved by young Miles Scott. What makes this special is the way Dana Nachman pieced together her film from tons of different sources, a technique that speaks to the way an entire city came to a halt for one day so they could help make this one dream come true in  a way that I would bet no one involved could have ever imagined. Roger Ebert said that as he got older, acts of kindness were far likelier to make him cry than something that was overtly sad. He would have wept at “Batkid Begins,” smiling the entire time.

22. Kingsman: The Secret Service

It seems fitting that in the same year the official James Bond franchise stumbled so completely with the ham-handed “SPECTRE,” Matthew Vaughn made a movie that utterly and completely intentionally exploded the Bond model from the inside. Savagely smart in the way it uses genre to deconstruct genre, “Kingsman” also manages to be big wicked fun. From the opening in which we see a James Bond-like spy die on the job to the very last shot, which makes overt all of the smutty snickering schoolboy sexuality of the Bond films, this is a slap in the face to a series that has proven itself to be a very tricky ongoing concern as the world has changed. “Kingsman” acknowledges that there is a new world now, and perhaps the fantasies of the Cold War era feel curdled and even fascist now. No other movie this year grappled more with the past and the future at the same time, and if they are going to make a sequel, I'm curious to see if it can be just as angry and entertaining at the same time.

23. The Big Short

The real trick of a film like this is that Adam McKay really just wants to give you the information about how the financial community failed America in 2008, and how the system was set up to make that possible. He's smart enough to realize that the best way to get that information to stick is by entertaining the hell out of you as he conveys all of it. His cast gets the game, and that's a big part of why it works. This isn't meant to be reality. This is an illustrated textbook, a Power Point presentation that happens to star Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt, and despite the smile on its face, one of the angriest movies of the year. By the time the whole thing comes to a close, it's clear that McKay has earned that anger, and that we should all be just as angry about what's still going on.

24. The Duke Of Burgundy

We are at an interesting cultural moment right now, with more honest conversations than ever about the mechanism of desire and the full spectrum of human sexuality. The more we realize that there is a whole world of possible experience out there and no such thing as “normal,” the healthier we all will be, and “The Duke Of Burgundy” is the movie that mainstream trash like “50 Shades Of Grey” wishes it was. Adult, unflinching, and cheerfully perverse, Peter Strickland's film is bold and unique, existing in a world apparently without any men and free of judgment. It seems fitting that a film about fetish and the role in plays in our lives would also be so clearly the work of a fetishist paying homage to the filmmakers who defined fetish for him. You can pull this one apart on a lot of levels, but first and foremost, it is about human connection, with a perspective I've never seen before. Remarkable.

25. Roar!

Yes, technically this was made in the early '80s, but this year was its first real theatrical release in the United States thanks to Drafthouse Films, and there is nothing I saw in a theater (twice) this year that was more flabbergasting. Produced as a vanity project by William Marshall and his then-wife Tippi Hedren, this is part home movie, part zoological experiment, all insane. Yes, part of the fun of the film is knowing the backstory about how many cast and crew members were attacked and mauled by actual lions and tigers during the years that this film was in production, but even if you don't know the story behind the movie, watching it feels like you're starting to slide sideways into mental illness, like you can't possibly be seeing what you're seeing. Who would put themselves in harm's way like this? Who thought this was a children's film? How were they not all killed? “Roar!” is a testament to what happens when someone believes in a crazy idea so much that they never give up on it, and every now and then, that kind of madness results in something that no one will ever be able to duplicate.

And if that's not enough for you, then by all means, you should hunt down films like “Goodnight Mommy,” “What We Do In The Shadows,” “We Are Still Here,” “Amy,” “Paddington,” or “Phoenix,” just to name a few. There are so many good films you should see from this year, like “Bone Tomahawk,” “Bridge Of Spies,” “Tangerine,” “Heart Of A Dog,” “FInders Keepers,” or “Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck.” I don't begrudge a moment of the time I spent on “The Gift,” “The Diary Of A Teenage Girl,” “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” or “Best of Enemies,” and I'm glad I saw “Slow West,” “The End Of The Tour,” “Cartel Land,” “Trainwreck,” “Steve Jobs,” and “The Walk.” You may well find yourself falling for “James White,” “Dope,” “Queen Of Earth,” “Mr. Holmes,” “Mississippi Grind,” “Far From The Madding Crowd,” or Kenneth Branagh's “Cinderella,” because there's plenty to like about all of them. I enjoyed “Furious 7” and “Ant-Man” and “Avengers: Age Of Ultron,” and I felt like “The Hunger Games” came to a fitting close with “Mockingjay Part 2.” Movies like “Magic Mike XXL” and “The Night Before” and “Krampus” and “Crimson Peak” all enriched my year in some way, and I would hate to imagine a 2015 without them. Jon Schnepp's “The Death Of 'Superman Lives': What Happened?” is new essential nerd text. “Knock Knock” and “Grandma” and “Mistress America” and “The Wolfpack” and “The Final Girls” all offered something to the conversation, as did “The Overnight,” “Sleeping With Other People,” “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” “Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet,” Ben Wheatley's insane adaptation of “High-Rise,” and Gaspar Noe's “Love.” It's sort of amazing to me how many movies I feel strongly about in a given year, and it goes to what I've said before: I like more movies than I don't like, and I can't believe anyone would do this job if they didn't feel that way. I don't have to think “A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence” is one of the 15 best films of the year to be thrilled that it even exists, or to enjoy the excessive lunacy of “Jupiter Ascending” and the way the Wachowskis and Roy Andersson exist at different points on the same continuous line, all part of this overall thing we call cinema. Films like “Cop Car” and “Mustang” and “Z For Zachariah” are small films, but they still all have things to offer. And while movies like “The Tribe” and “Spring” and “Predestination” were 2014 titles or me, they're worth seeing, and I'd encourage you to track them down. Definitely.

So farewell, 2015. Bring on 2016. Let's see what comes next, both big and small. There are films I'm looking forward to, and I'm sure there will be plenty of surprises, too. I remain drunk in love with all of it, and here's hoping I am able to give you guys an even better window into this world right here at HitFix as it all unfolds.