THE BEST MOVIES OF 2015, ACCORDING TO A NOTED FILM EXPERT: ME
2015 was an odd year for me personally, not the least because it was my first full calendar year as a post-New Yorker (the only condition I can think of to explain the origin of this completely alien thought on a November business/personal trip back: “Man, the subway really is dirty and gross. . .”) It was a weird year at the movies, too, with a number of widely-acclaimed pictures that couldn't have been tailored closer to my taste leaving me growling with steam coming out my ears, and a number of both widely-reviled and personally uncharacteristic selections taking me by surprise.
It was also a year of movie-adjunct drama and import on the personal front. I covered my first Sundance, albeit in a secondary capacity, but I was there, man. In the shit. Unrelated, a deeply unpleasant harrassment campaign of which I was the target finally began to wind down (it now seems to be completely over, knock on wood). Then there was a bizarre situation with my apartment management company in Salt Lake City leading to my eviction and a window of several weeks where I wasn't entirely sure I wasn't on the lam from a collection agency (I wasn't, thankfully). The previous two developments (as well as numerous long-simmering frustrations) led me to briefly retire from writing film criticism and thinking I was doing so of sound mind, which was almost certainly my second-funniest lapse of self-awareness ever, the first being when I loudly and indignantly insisted “I'm not dramatic!” after someone broke up with me for being too dramatic.
But fuck all that shit. Let's talk movies. Actually, the reason I got into all that personal derp-de-doo above is to explain a change I'm making in my end-of year list format. The previous years, mostly hosted at my old (now-defunct) blog and then last year at my (now-defunct) Letterboxd, were ranked. This was one of the things that my professional existential crisis led me to leave behind. This year, I'm going to list my favorites in alphabetical order, with the single favorite one (which I, coincidentally, actually have this year) at the end.
A few movies that were quite good and/or that I fully enjoyed that didn't make the “best” list, which should not be held against them: The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Bone Tomahawk, Furious 7, Hard to be a God, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Mustang, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
A few movies others' takes on are probably more accurate quality-wise than mine: Brooklyn, The Hateful Eight, Sicario, Spotlight
A few movies I regretfully wasn't able to see that may have figured into the “best” list: Bombay Velvet, Chi-Raq, Crimson Peak, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Martian
That's about it for the also-rans. So, without any further preface, one man's favorite 2015 films, mostly addressed to people who haven't seen them yet:
3 ½ Minutes, 10 Shots: A gripping, brilliantly edited non-fiction account of the 2012 murder of Jordan Davis and the ensuing trial(s) of his killer, Michael Dunn. Refreshingly eschews talking head interviews for the most part in favor of non-staged footage, and somehow manages in the horrible year 2015 to be a movie about a murder of a black person that actually resulted in justice.
99 Homes: Not a movie I was particularly expecting to enjoy but hey, I guess that's why you actually have to watch movies. Michael Shannon's always worth watching, and while the stylized variety of naturalism is a tricky balance (particularly when, like me, you fucking haaaaaate bad naturalism) Ramin Bahrani pulls it off here, and Andrew Garfield overcomes a rough start to become a compelling axis for this story about the perfidy of modern capitalism, and Laura Dern is excellent in a too-small role (god I miss Laura Dern).
Baahubali: The Beginning: I tweeted “no one in the world embraces the essential unreality of CGI and co-opts it to an artistic end like S.S. Rajamouli,” and it's true. Made in Tollywood for a tenth the budget (or less) something like this would've been made for in America, Baahubali is, among other things, Rajamouli telling Hollywood “fuck your money, I know ownage. Top this if you even dare.” It's big, bold, sexy, mythic, and there are elephants. The only debit is, this is only the first half of the story, but the conclusion is on its way.
Blackhat: I'm beyond trying to recommend this to anyone. Late-period Michael Mann is what it is. I, for one, am in favor.
Clouds of Sils Maria: This is one of those movies where I'm like “do I only like this because I'm an actor and Kristen Stewart is in it and the film-within-a-film and play-within-a-film are so funny? and because the dialogue all reads like subtitles but the actors are all actually speaking English? because that's so perverse as to be kind of hilarious?” You know what, though? It's Assayas. It's near-full Binoche. That's enough.
Creed: Anyone yet to see this may be getting suspicious, because everyone loves this and it's on every top ten list, but let the testament of someone who's always hated Rocky movies (me) sway you: it's everything that was good about the Rocky movies, and none of the things that were bad about them. It's the immaculately conceived and executed Platonic ideal of Hollywood movies. MBJ, Sly, and Tessa T are all utterly glorious. Ryan Coogler joins the ranks of people like Welles and Truffaut who made perfect movies before they even turned 30. Creed cannot be oversold.
The Duke of Burgundy: Hey, kids. Ya like 70s Euro sexploitation films? Meet your new best friend Peter Strickland. His thing, as with giallo in Berberian Sound Studio, is the kind of rigorous genre recreation that Tarantino popularized, only Strickland is like if you sent Tarantino to college/grad school and took away his weed (not a value judgment, note). Not for the squeamish or the particularly vanilla, but if you're the kind of person who was really pissed when Netflix took all their Jean Rollin away this is a must.
Ex Machina: If I hadn't known, I'd have thought this was the screenwriting debut of an established director rather than the directing debut of established screenwriter Alex Garland, because the filmmaking is terrifically accomplished and holistically one with the text here. The architecture of rich mad scientist Oscar Isaac's house is as cold, austere, and accomplished as his work: the creation of robots in the humanoid (specifically, severely attractive women) robots who can pass the Turing test. The philosophical implications are as deep as how much weed you smoke to it, but the movie's gorgeous to look at, very well played (particularly by Alicia Vikander and Domnhall Gleeson), and ends in a quietly satisying fashion.
Experimenter: Speaking of another word that starts with the letters “exp,” I saw this under interesting experiential conditions, namely freezing my balls off during Sundance after thinking “sure, I'll walk over to the venue” and forgetting that it was only unseasonably warm during the day. So I was in a shitty mood and didn't really like Michael Almereyda movies all that much and generally in one of the kind of mood that leads even people who love me the most to say things like “Christ, he's insufferable when he's like this.” And yet I managed to slay the asshole within and appreciate this picture for the marvelously weird blend of non-fiction, artifice, and tall tale that it is. I apologize to the director for all the mean things I've thought about him over the years. Sarsgaard for life. Winona forever.
The Forbidden Room: Guy motherfucking Maddin motherfucker. Get some.
Girlhood: Celine Schiamma's real good, and while not everything in this lands smoothly (or at all), I would be remiss leaving this off any best-of list solely because of the Rihanna “Diamonds” scene. The Rihanna “Diamonds” scene is one of the most glorious thing I've ever seen in a movie. Karidja Touré is spectacular in the lead.
It Follows: I really like John Carpenter, something I was shocked to find did not make me a special snowflake. So does David Robert Mitchell! Despite all the similar use of widescreen and synth score, this never felt overly beholden to the past, at least no more than Carpenter was to Ford and/or Hawks. I don't keep up with horror as well as I should, but when an effective horror movie comes down the pike I always like to wave at it and ask it to introduce me to its friends. So to speak.
Jupiter Ascending: We have, at this late point, seen any number of movies that feel like they were directed by a precocious, geeky 13 year old boy. What this movie presupposes is, what if a movie felt like it was directed by a precocious, geeky 13 year old girl? Et voila.
Mad Max: Fury Road: “WHAT A DAY! WHAT A LOVELY DAY!” George Miller reassuming his position in the action pantheon was important, and so was the attention and credit (which is still insufficient, but still) Margaret Sixel got for her editing. And the world is a better place with Furiosa in it, because it was frankly kind of fucking stupid that Charlize Theron hadn't yet had an eternal, iconic role. At least we got that taken care of this year.
Magic Mike XXL: I have seen the face of God. “Yes, my God is a She.”
The Mend: One of the best New York Movies (not every movie set in New York is A New York Movie, the latter needs to embody the spirit of the place in totality, and this one fucking really does) in recent memory. It's writer-director John Magary's debut, and I cannot wait to see what he's got in store next. Also, the best thing Josh Lucas has ever done.
Mississippi Grind: A refreshingly low-key shamble with two excellent performances by Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds at the center. It only dawned on me an irritatingly long period after I had to file my review that its observational rather than blocked cinematic style and coincidence-driven plot spiritually fit the subject matter, the luck that underlies the entire act of gambling and frequently thwarts the skill of the gambler. When every molecule is the whole itself, you're onto something, and this movie has stuck with me with a rare tenacity.
Mistress America: Wherein (fellow Bard alum) Lola Kirke becomes a star and Greta Gerwig continues to Gerwig, and all is well. My “Greta Gerwig totally carries Noah Baumbach and deserves 98% of the credit for their collaborations” take might be a little toasty but such is life.
Paddington: Look, someone made an elegantly blocked and gorgeously designed Paddington movie in 2015, with a top 5 Nicole Kidman performance and a CGI bear that was actually cute and worthy to be voiced by Ben Whishaw. That's stacks on stacks of miracles, okay?
Results: Can't really put it any better than this.
The Russian Woodpecker: Oh, you had me at “non-fiction film about a performance artist who literally has radiation in his bones trying to unravel a Soviet-era conspiracy.” It is my mission in life to convince as many people see this movie as possible.
Straight Outta Compton: Producers Dre and Cube don't engage in a ton of auto-critique, making this kind of a victory lap, but here's the thing: they won. The vertiginous sweep of their sudden, immediate, literally world-changing success propels the movie past a lot of the parts of the chronology where it's like, “uhh . . . it feels like a few things were elided here.” And there were. But there's also a scene where Jerry Heller hears “No Vaseline” for the first time. And the scene where the gang members board the schoolbus. And that jaw-dropping climactic confrontation. There are a lot of normal biopic things in it, but it pulls them off, and does a lot of other things extraordinarily well.
Tangerine: So. Earlier this year there was this window of time where I was going to be moving to Los Angeles, and obviously that window closed at a certain point but while that was going on I saw this movie and it was shot in basically the same neighborhood I was probably going to move to and goddammit nothing has ever made me feel more welcomed. I know this has nothing to do with the movie and it's a little bittersweet now that moving to Los Angeles is on hold maybe for good but this feeling will all make sense if/when you've seen the movie. And will probably make you think “Christ, Danny's weird” but if you don't say that five times a day already you simply don't know me.
Timbuktu: Set during the occupation of Timbuktu by jihadists, the attraction here is less the story (though there is one tying everything together) than the observations Abderrahmane Sissako makes, the patient assembly of all those observations into a fully realized universe, and the faith in the audience to follow everything and process all the observations. One of the rare “important” movies that's also legitimately great cinema as well.
And, my #1 for the entire year of our lord 2015 . . .
Carol: I could do a rambling thing about how crucial Todd Haynes and Patricia Highsmith have been to my personal and cinematic upbringing (to say nothing of Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett), or I could do the thing where I say “this is literally everything I've ever wanted in a film.” The former is certainly true, but beside the point, and the latter is slight hyperbole, because there's no car chase where Blanchett lead-foots it while Mara leans out the side with shades on and a cigarette in her mouth machine-gunning agents of the patriarchy in a trailing car that then explodes but the one of the eight billion reasons why Carol is so wonderful is because it actually, no shit, nods in that direction (the whole business with the gun and the private detective, mild spoiler). I'm digressing, and irrelevantly, but the point is this is my list and Carol is perfect and wonderful and yes.