2015 was the hardest year of my life. It was a year of loss and of mourning, as detailed here in a rare personal essay. I spent a lot of time this year engrossed in media, seeing more movies in theaters than I ever had before. Film is comforting to me, even when the content depicted is dark or hard to watch, and I enjoy reflecting on what I’ve seen this year.
While I didn’t accomplish much creatively in 2015, I did release Ghost’s Towns, a brief puzzle/story game that’s free on PC/Mac/Linux/Android.
Rather than just list a few top picks, I’m going to do something different for this year’s list and create tiered ranks for every film I watched and every video game I played. The top tier choices get a paragraph each, the rest get a sentence or two. Bear with me; this is a pretty long list.
As usual, this article is an evolving piece and will be updated if I see anything else from the past year that is good enough to warrant going back for.
I managed to see nearly everything that caught my interest this year and thought it was a strong year in film overall. The theme this year’s blockbusters, weirdly, is The Soft Reboot: Films that function as sequels and as an introduction to newcomers, while re-appropriating or remaking imagery from previous films. Off the top of my head, we’ve got Creed, Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Terminator: Genisys all following this model. And surprisingly, these films were mostly pretty good! I didn’t see Terminator, but the rest ranged from “pretty fun” to “best of the year.”
A few films I missed that I still want to see: Anomalisa, Freeheld, Macbeth, Straight Outta Compton. Hopefully I’ll check them out, and I welcome any others that people suggest! No, I did not see Avengers 2. I also didn’t see anything that I’d rank in the “awful” tier. Let’s get to the list!
99 Homes – An intensely personal look at the housing crisis with fantastic performances by Lauran Dern, Andrew Garfield, and Michael Shannon. This is one of my absolute top picks of the year; it’s a painfully real story of becoming a monster in order to provide for your family and of greed corrupting even the most well-intended souls. The film follows Garfield’s Dennis Nash, a man recently evicted from his home who winds up in the employment of the very agency that foreclosed on him.
The Big Short – A film that pairs well with 99 Homes, The Big Short is a jokier, but nonetheless still bitter, indictment of the financial crisis that led to the personal suffering seen in Homes. Often shot almost documentary-style, the film attempts to explain convoluted nonsense policy in a way anyone can understand and get mad about, using cutaways to celebrities like Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez to focus your attention. The big joke is that the entire film is one of these celebrity cutaways; the main reason people will see it is that it stars Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt.
Brooklyn – In contrast to the two films above, Brooklyn is a pleasant, light film whose entire conflict is a small and personal one. Saoirse Ronan plays an Irish immigrant who comes to America in the 1950’s in search of work and finds love and friendship after a painful transition, torn between her new home and her motherland. As a story, Booklyn is a fairly conventional film, but its exceptional performances, wonderful costume and set design, clever writing, and pretty visuals elevate it above the norm.
Creed – The seventh film in the Rocky franchise, Ryan Coogler’s Creed focuses on Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis, son of famed boxer Apollo Creed, while series star Sylvester Stallone takes on a supporting mentor role in his return as Rocky. The film is divided between the young Creed’s fight to find personal meaning and identity outside of his father’s shadow and the new family bonds he begins to form with Rocky, who falls ill and needs to find his own resolve to keep fighting. Featuring incredible cinematography, Creed showcases the best boxing scenes in the series. The love story here, with Tessa Thompson playing a promising young musician, is also very genuine and endearing. Creed affected me on a lot of personal levels and is my pick for the best film of the year.
Ex Machina – Writer Alex Garland makes his directorial debut with a tense, nervous film about control, deception, and manipulation. With a total of only four characters (played by Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuno, and Alica Vikander,) Ex Machina is the story of a scientist who has created an artificial intelligence and has brought an eager young man to his remote lair to test the limits of this new intelligence and the potential of its humanity. It becomes much more than that, playing out as an elaborate game of poker, and serves as a commentary on abusive father figures and the way men (both sincere and devious) treat women. Every performance here is exceptionally strong, and some of the visuals are wonderfully nightmarish.
The Hateful Eight – Quentin Tarantino’s latest film is another that I argue could fit into Soft Reboot territory, as it’s essentially a Civil War era take on his first film, Reservoir Dogs. An ensemble cast led by Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Kurt Russel finds themselves trapped in a remote cabin during a blizzard, as tension rise and each of the titular hateful ones begin plotting against each other (there are more than eight people present, but not all are hateful.) Shot largely in one room, the film is deeply tense and often grotesque, at times uncomfortably nihilistic in a way Tarantino usually doesn’t go. When we do see the outside world, its snowy fields are at once beautiful and monstrous, with the elements being just as heartless a monster as the people within the cabin.
Inherent Vice – P.T. Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s hippie-noir novel from 2009 is a bit of a borderline case for this year’s list; technically released in limited theaters in December 2014, Inherent Vice didn’t get a wide release until January 2015. Playing like a somber combination of The Big Lebowski and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Vice is an often wistful film that veers between drama, mystery, and comedy masterfully. The overall conspiracy behind the scenes in mostly nonsense, but our hero, played by Joaquin Phoenix, doesn’t really focus on the big picture, and neither should we. There’s a big cast of cameos and outstanding comedic performances by Josh Brolin and Martin Short.
Inside Out – I haven’t loved all of Pixar’s recent films, but Inside Out is a return to form and one of their best. Cutting between the physical world and the life of the mind of 11-year old Riley as her family moves across the country to a new city. The film, smartly, does not contain a villain, and instead focuses on Riley’s emotional turmoil as she attempts to reconcile her own hopes, fears, and insecurities in her new home.
Mad Max: Fury Road – Brash, weird, and wonderful, there’s nothing else this year like Fury Road. Featuring a nice reversal of expectations, the film really focuses on Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa, while Tom Hardy’s Max plays a more supporting role. George Miller’s fourth Max film is a funny departure from the director’s last decade of work, where he focused largely on family films like Babe and Happy Feet. Incredible landscapes, ridiculous costumes and vehicles, and poetic, unnatural dialogue give Fury Road the feel of a waking dream, and it’s the best kind. Every piece here is perfectly executed.
Room – A study of perspective and psychology, Lenny Abrahamson’s Room (based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, who also wrote the screenplay) is a story that sounds like a horror film; a woman is kidnapped and held in an improvised cell where her captor abuses her mentally and sexually for seven years. Instead, it’s a story told through the eyes of her five year old son, who doesn’t see the horror for what it is, and instead sees this single room as all that exists, unaware of an outside world. The film is divided into two halves, the first being entirely within the room and the second being outside, with the room itself being treated as a sort of bizarre womb (thanks to BHD for discussing this imagery with me) from which our child lead is eventually birthed. The film doesn’t ignore the horror at hand, but focuses on a story of the hope and optimism of children even in the worst of times, and features one of the best child actor’s I’ve seen. Very different from Abrahamson’s 2014 masterpiece Frank, but just as expertly crafted.
Sicario – Denis Villeneuve’s newest film follows FBI Agent Kate Macer, played by Emily Blunt, as she falls into the slimy world of warfare between America’s drug enforcement agencies and Mexico’s drug cartels, alongside Benicio del Toro’s mysterious, threatening Alejandro. This is the best shot film of the year, with cinematography by the always incredible Roger Deakins, with many shots giving a lingering feeling of being trapped between the real world and the surreal. It’s a bigger, less personal film than Villeneuve’s previous two (Prisoners and Enemy, both 2013) but is no less brilliant in spite of that. Villeneuve has since become one of my favorite current directors, and this is a close second to Creed for my favorite films of the year.
Spotlight – Following a group of reporters at the Boston Globe, Spotlight focuses on the years-long attempt to uncover systematic abuse of children in the Catholic church. It does not sensationalize the abuse, focusing instead on the organization at large and on the aftermath of specific victims, alongside the mental turmoil of the reporters who struggle to make sense of their own lapsed faith in light of each new truth they find. Strong performances by Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Ruffalo lead the film, along with a solid supporting act by Liev Schreiber as the new head of the paper.
Steve Jobs – Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs film was largely ignored, in spite of general critical acclaim, and is notorious for being pulled from wide release less than two weeks after release. Whether due to Apple fatigue or audience remembering Ashton Kutcher’s 2013 biopic Jobs or a lack of faith in Michael Fassbender as the titular character, Steve Jobs was a flop. In spite of that: It’s a great film. Focusing on three specific product unveilings rather than the man’s life in general, Boyle’s film, written by Aaron Sorkin, is exceptionally good, with a relentless pace and an examination of CEO megalomania as a mental state, rather than an attempt to function as a realistic biography of Jobs. Fassbender’s performance is great, and Seth Rogen’s supporting role as Steve Wozniak is wonderful.
Amy – A documentary covering ten years in the life of the late Amy Winehouse; essential viewing for fans, but a strong narrative on stardom and depression even for the unfamiliar.
Beasts of No Nation – Idris Elba’s charismatic monster, a man who leads a child soldier army through an unnamed African country, is the highlight here, in a film that features gruesome imagery but never congeals quite the way it needs to to be a classic.
Chi-raq – Spike Lee’s absurd modern adaptation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is the funniest film of the year. It’s dirty, ridiculous, and charming, with standout performances by the beautiful Teyonah Parris and a deranged Wesley Snipes, but it really does not need to be over two hours long.
Carol – Great looking film, strong performance by Blanchett. The film is from the point of view of Rooney Mara’s Therese as she falls in love with Blanchett’s Carol, a woman in the midst of a messy divorce. Structured like a very old school Hollywood romance while playing with gender roles; the strong and assertive Carol plays a role much akin to classical Handsome Suave Male roles while the star-struck Therese mostly stares at her in wonder while functioning in large part as a blank slate character. Her other love is photography, but the only person to show a great interest in this passion is a minor male character with which there’s certainly no romantic bond.
Crimson Peak – Strong art design and an immensely charming performance by the always good Tom Hiddleston are the solid core of Guillermo del Toro’s latest Gothic Romance/haunted house film, which plays things a little too safe and with a few too many winks. It’s a strong film, and miles beyond del Toro’s lifeless Pacific Rim, but lacks the beautiful menace of Pan’s Labyrinth or the lovable weirdness of his Hellboy films.
Furious 7 – The death of Paul Walker cast a dark cloud over this film’s release, but it’s nonetheless an incredibly fun, silly action movie that would have had the year’s most impressive stunt work if not for this year being the year of Fury Road. In this film, The Rock sees his friends in danger and flexes so hard he bursts a cast off and heals some injuries and jumps back into action, further cementing him as one of the world’s most endearing action stars.
Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 – The first two Hunger Games films are classics, and the third is a fine action movie that sadly sheds a lot of the wonderful art and color that make the first two so memorable. The fourth and final film is a fitting conclusion to the series, and an improvement on Mockingjay Part 1, but still doesn’t hit the highs of The Hunger Games or Catching Fire.
It Follows – A beautifully shot horror film in which the stalker/slasher is the living embodiment of sexual disease/shame. Set in a dreamy world made of elements of the 50’s, 70’s, today, and the future, It Follows is a horror film whose strength is entirely in psychological tension, only rarely shifting focus to he grotesque.
Jurassic World – A film about mixed messages, which condemns the attendees of the new, fully operational Jurassic theme park for wanting bigger, louder thrills with more teeth while simultaneously serving up big, loud action scenes with tons of teeth. It’s a fun, sometimes dumb action-adventure film that sheds the wonder of nature found in Spielberg’s original classic, choosing instead to be a rollercoaster that makes fun of you every now and then. It tries to do what Gremlins 2 did but without the same success.
The Martian – The best part of Ridley Scott’s latest film is the horrifying storm that separates Matt Damon’s Mark Watney from his crew and leaves him behind, stranded, on the surface of Mars. The rest of the film is mostly a feel-good celebration of science and human ingenuity, but lacks any real tension. It’s pretty, sometimes funny, and mostly pleasant, but lacks much emotional commitment.
Mr. Holmes – Ian McKellen plays a 93 year old Sherlock Holmes, long since retired from the detective game. An old man struggling to hold on to the last remnants of his once brilliant memory and deductive reasoning, this Holmes is hugely different from the recent versions popularized by Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch. A bittersweet film about loneliness and losing one’s identity to the ravages of time.
The Revenant – Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s follow up to Birdman could not possibly be more different. A survival/revenge story set in a snowy wasteland, The Revenant is a harsh, cold film with a standout performance by Leonardo DiCaprio that doesn’t hit the level of writing or surprise found in Tarantino’s similar feeling Hateful Eight.
Spectre – 2012’s Skyfall is my favorite James Bond film; Sam Mendes returns to direct Spectre, a very good Bond film that doesn’t quite live up to Skyfall’s highs. The film is a convergence of the plots and enemies of the Daniel Craig Bond films, and features lots of spectacular sets and the bluntest yet Bond as the Grim Reaper imagery.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens – This is probably the best paced a Star Wars film has ever been; I’ve written extensive thoughts on this one and linked them in the title here. It’s not a flawless film, but none of the Star Wars are, and I like them all.
The Visit – A good year for M. Night Shyamalan: The Visit is a very funny, very bleak horror-comedy shot in a much more believable than usual found-footage style, and Wayward Pines is a solid sci-fi mystery mini-series with Twilight Zone vibes. I recommend both, and am happy to see Shyamalan finding his groove again.
Ant Man – This one could have been great if director Edgar Wright had stayed on board and had creative freedom. There’s nothing terrible here but nothing that stands out; it’s effectively a lesser remake of the original Iron Man film.
Black Mass – Johnny Depp gives a wonderful performance as a sort of vampiric version of mobster Whitey Bulger. The rest of the film is fine, but doesn’t measure up to Depp’s role.
Fantastic Four – Josh Trank’s Chronicle is a spectacular film, an original superhero story with echoes of Akira and Carrie. His adaptation of Marvel’s Fantastic Four could have been great, and has a few sparks of greatness, but was ruined by studio interference and miserable reshoots.
Jem and the Holograms – This film was reviled by critics and audiences alike, who balked at the idea of an incredibly loose adaptation of the 1980’s cartoon. As it stands, divorced from the drama and taken on its own as a film, it’s an average rags-to-riches story with some great visual moments that’s nowhere near as bad as people claim.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation – Simon Pegg’s funny, Tom Cruise gets to go nuts, and there are some awesome stunts. This isn’t a bad film at all, but it feels dated in a world where the Fast and the Furious series and the Daniel Craig Bond films exist.
Tangerine – A radioactive orange Los Angeles is filmed on an iPhone with shocking clarity and realism as we follow Sin-Dee, a transgender prostitute recently released from jail on the hunt for her unfaithful boyfriend-pimp. This film focuses on a real, grounded situation, while shot in the style of a surreal music video, giving us a weird disconnect that makes the whole world feel at once alien and familiar. Sin-Dee herself spends most of the film angry and violent, while her best friend, the stable and more confident Alexandra, tries to talk her down; we’re shown two very different women in the sex industry whose friendship would be a much more fascinating thread to follow than the madcap revenge plot that takes up most of the film’s runtime.
Pitch Perfect 2 – I liked the music and some of the chemistry among the cast, but the jokes are almost all bad and almost all at the girls’ expense. Lots of laughing at, little to no laughing with.
Tomorrowland – I’m a fan of Brad Bird’s films, so I wasn’t expecting this one to be such a mess. It’s bad as a comedy, bad as an action movie, and creepy as a lost-love story between George Clooney and child actor Raffey Cassidy, playing a wise old robot in a ten year old’s body.
Joy – My biggest let down of the year. I’m a fan of director David O. Russel’s previous films, and a big fan of Jennifer Lawrence, but I found nothing here. It’s a nominally uplifting film about bootstraps capitalism and ingenuity, with a strong middle section (the titular Joy selling her invention on QVC) and lazy, dull first and third acts. The film attempts to blend reality with soap opera weirdness, but only Isabella Rossellini really seems to understand what’s going on and plays to this strength.