2015 has been a very satisfying year at the movies. Even if my end of year list lacks 2014’s superlative one-two punch at the top, it was extremely easy to pick a dozen excellent films.
In choosing my favorite films, I ask myself a few questions. Does the movie tell a good story? Is it stylistically creative, if not innovative? Is it socially important? Is the film psychologically meaningful? Is the film beautiful? The more yes answers to this question, the more likely a film will make this list.
With that brief preamble, let’s look briefly at my favorite films in ascending order. (Links to my full reviews are contained in the movies’ titles.)
12. Steve Jobs
I’ll admit, for a while I lost interest in Danny Boyle’s films. Much as I loved (and still love) 28 Days Later, I didn’t catch the wave of admiration for Slumdog Millionaire. But Boyle’s look at the life of Apple innovator/promoter Steve Jobs is a keeper.
To his credit, Boyle flips the bird at all the tiresome biopic conventions. Instead, he tells Jobs’ life story very effectively through a three act structure, where each act is the unveiling of a particular computer product. Spanning the years in this fashion, we see how Jobs both changes and stays the same, by way of his relationships with his daughter, his mentor, and a pair of colleagues.
Michael Fassbender is terrific in the title role, as is each of the supporting actors (Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, and Seth Rogen). And just as in 28 Days Later, Boyle’s sense of style here is unimpeachable.
In a year of mass shootings and on a weekend where a nearby city is burying a high school football star caught in gang war crossfire, I hope with all my heart that America’s love affair with guns is reaching a breaking point. If so, Abigail Disney’s documentary can be thanked for helping to tip the scales.
The Armor of Light smartly takes a fly on the wall approach to showing us the emotional and psychological journey of evangelical leader Rob Schenck, as he weighs the pros and cons of gun control. In discussions with fellow believers and through his encounter with the mother of a gun violence victim, Schenck gives us an example of compassion and critical thinking at its finest.
A tough film to watch, but an important one. Christophe Cognet’s austere documentary shows us numerous paintings and drawings composed in Nazi concentration camps by their victims.
These surviving works (many by Jews who didn’t survive the camps themselves) run the gamut from primitive to sophisticated. Some are landscapes, some are portraits completed minutes before their subjects drew their last breath. Together, they illustrate our species’ need to create, document, and preserve, even when humanity is at its darkest.
Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s follow-up to The Great Beauty may not possess quite the same wow factor of his prior film, but it’s splendid nonetheless. Like his previous film, Youth looks at the challenges of aging, in this case through the eyes of two lifelong friends reuniting at a Swiss spa.
Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel are delightful here, as are their supporting cast of Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, and Jane Fonda. Using the Alpine scenery and spa setting to great effect, Youth is stuffed with wonderful and often comic images. In spite of the humor, Youth seriously considers how one can either grow old with vigor and curiosity, or fade into despair.
Sure, The Force Awakens is demolishing box office records, but George Miller is the director who gave us in 2015 the best example of how to revive and vitalize a 30+ year old action movie franchise.
Fury Road is basically a two hour car chase, but oh, what a chase! Its choreography is so elaborate yet easy to follow, it would’ve made Buster Keaton crack a smile. At the same time, it serves up several distinct post-apocalyptic cultures and a tasty visual palette. On top of that, despite its sparse dialogue, it offers spiky sociopolitical commentary and a parable of feminist empowerment. (Tom Hardy may have the title role, but Charlize Theron’s Furiosa steals the show.)
7. White God
Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo’s film may be an odd amalgam of horror story, revenge flick, domestic drama, and child-and-pet bonding tale, but it works incredibly well. White God employs the most dogs of any film in cinematic history (and uses all 274 of them in quite a memorable fashion), while building to a perfect, beautiful conclusion.
Some of the material in between is difficult to watch for animal lovers, as White God tells in tandem the woes of 13 year old Lili and her brown mutt Hagen. Daringly paralleling the trauma of animals to that of WW2 concentration camp prisoners, Mundruczo’s film challenges its viewers to realize that we humans are not the only thinking, feeling, and suffering animals on our planet.
Over a decade in the making, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s film hauntingly shows us the life of an African child soldier. Just as he did with the opening season of True Detective, here again Fukunaga overwhelms with his visual mastery, in this case using saturated colors reminiscent of old Polaroid photos.
At least as importantly, through the experiences of his lead character Agu (Abraham Attah, in an amazing debut), we grasp the psychological molding of a child soldier. Idris Elba is just as convincing as the charismatic yet loathsome leader who does the molding.
5. Love & Mercy
Like Steve Jobs, this is another biopic for people bored with biopics. Director Bill Pohlad takes all kind of chances with Love & Mercy, and they all pay off magnificently.
In telling the life story of The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, Pohlad jumps around chronologically and uses two different actors: Paul Dano as young Brian and John Cusack as older Brian. Pohlad shows us the ascendance and breakup of The Beach Boys and deliciously depicts the creative energy that went into making such songs as “Good Vibrations” and “God Only Knows.” By manipulating camera movement and sound, the director also places us inside the brilliant, troubled mind of Wilson.
By way of his interactions with two key supporting actors, we see the emotional tug of war that is Wilson’s life. Elizabeth Banks is wonderfully empathic as Melinda Ledbetter, a car salesperson with a deep love for Wilson. Conversely, Paul Giamatti is terrifying as a rogue psychologist who battles Ledbetter for Wilson’s loyalty and sanity.
This lesser known film could make for an interesting mental illness double feature with Love & Mercy. However, Signe Baumane’s feature debut takes a completely different tack, as a vivid and often surreal animated work.
In this tale of her own and her family’s struggles with crippling depression, Baumane not only directed this film, but also narrated, animated, wrote, produced, and co-edited. The result is one of the best cinematic depictions of mental illness that I’ve seen.
Rocks in My Pockets could’ve been a lugubrious slog, but Baumane manages a light and hopeful touch with her subject matter. And her visuals continually amaze with their inventiveness and metaphorical power, ranging from a slithery personification of suicide’s allure to a depressed cousin trapped in a life-sized bottle.
One of the pleasures of being a film critic is introducing readers to easy to miss yet terrific films. I was lucky enough to catch this gem at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in April, and last I heard, it’ll be available for home viewing in early 2016. Please trust me, it’s worth remembering and tracking down.
Like Film #4 above, From This Day Forward is the first feature by a female director, and it recounts a family drama. In the case of this documentary, Sharon Shattuck tells of her parents’ unconventional relationship: when Shattuck was a child, her father Michael began gender reassignment, now identifying herself as Trisha.
Full of candor, humor, and brightness, From This Day Forward illustrates the turmoil and triumph across the 35 year marriage of Trisha and her wife Marcia. In a year that saw great advances for LGBTQ civil rights, Shattuck’s documentary delightfully and touchingly humanizes these concerns.
Thomas McCarthy’s film is easily one of this year’s most important releases, illuminating a crisis that still afflicts an institution with 1.2 billion adherents. How fortunate that Spotlight so intelligently and compellingly tells this important story, of how The Boston Globe broke open the Roman Catholic clerical sexual abuse epidemic.
McCarthy without exception elicits superb performances from all of his actors. Equally impressively, he manages authenticity, the communication of crucial data, and an engrossing narrative. Spotlight lives up to all of the buzz surrounding it.
Just as he did for his previous documentary Nostalgia for the Light, here again Chilean director Patricio Guzman flawlessly blends social justice with visual beauty. Where his former film situated its narrative in the sands of Chile’s Atacama Desert, The Pearl Button locates itself on the Pacific waters that adjoin his nation.
Water ties together the stories of two “disappeared” peoples of Chile. The Patagonian peoples lived beside the sea, often spending nights in their sturdy canoes. Once considered subhuman, their language and culture are quickly vanishing. More recently, political dissidents under the regime of the military dictator Augusto Pinochet were often buried in the Pacific, their whereabouts undisclosed to family and friends.
Guzman’s combination of old black and white photographs, video, and reenactment is sometimes painful to watch but challenges us to do the necessary work of remembering. Fascinatingly, Guzman admixes these stories with the work of Chile’s massive telescopes, which are discovering water in faraway quasars. Human time and misdeeds are more bearable when juxtaposed with cosmological chronology and discovery.
Bonus Round: Three Essential Books of 2015 for the Humanist’s Library
The Meursault Investigation, by Kamel Daoud
Algerian journalist Daoud passionately reimagines Albert Camus’ existential classic The Stranger. However, the story’s point of view is changed from the detached French murderer to the younger brother of the nameless Arab victim. By doing so, Daoud underscores and undermines the dehumanizing quality of colonialism. He also manages a scathing takedown of organized religion, as when his narrator states that “none of [an imam’s] certainties was worth one hair on the head of the woman I loved.”
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Coates, a black correspondent for The Atlantic, writes in his small yet potent book that he has “rejected magic in all its forms.” In this open letter to his teenage son, Coates dismantles American exceptionalism and our nation’s reflexive racism with a poetic craft that took my breath away.
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf
Wulf’s dynamic, affectionate biography will hopefully introduce a new generation to the life and work of this extraordinary scientist, explorer, and humanist – the man who was a key inspiration for the likes of Darwin, Thoreau, and Muir.