Usually, I begin my list of the best films of the year with a vicious condemnation of the reckless abandon studios have towards releasing films in an accessible way for mass audiences. Ask any director, screenwriter, or actor “Who do you make these films for?”, and they will all say they make these films for everyone to see. They never say they make them for critics, celebrities, or select invitees of a closed premier. It’s always for the people. Still, this double standard of releasing a film in minimal markets so it can qualify for Oscar eligibility only to open wide on some obsequious and noncompetitive weekend continues to persist. I know it seems like I just did open my list in that way, but if you go back and look at The People’s Critic’s Top 10 Films of 2014, you’ll see that I went easy this time. Why? Because, I think the tables are finally turning! This year’s Golden Globes saw the first film from Netflix get an award nomination not designated for television with Beasts of No Nation. Additionally, films like Steve Jobs, Everest, Sicario, Creed, Trumbo, The Martian, and Bridge of Spies all opened wide well before the limited release Christmas fake-out films. In fact, so many films were released early in the fall season, it was hard to catch them all (I’m talking to you, The Walk). While the People’s Critic can not and will not take full credit for this shift in the paradigm, he will bring attention to it! For the first time in my four years of compiling the best films of the year, I have been able to see more excellent films by December 31st than ever before, and that’s even with a one-year-old at home. Yes, thanks to earlier release dates, more wide releases, and sooner DVD/streaming turn-around, the people can finally see the best films of the year in the same year they are released! Keep it up!
Oscar nominations will be announced Thursday, January 14th, and I am pleased to announce that the field is much better than last year’s. Some good films were released last year (Birdman rightly being deemed the best!), but this year will be far more exciting when the announcement for the Oscar for Best Picture is made. But clearly, a far more important announcement is being made right now. While no Top Ten List can ever satisfy everyone, great care has been taken to analyze each film on my own particular set of criteria ensuring reliability! So without further ado, I present The People’s Critic’s Top 10 films of 2015.
Quentin Tarantino is no stranger to my lists of the best films of the year; his film Django Unchained was my favorite film of 2012. While 2015 is no exception to Tarantino’s inclusion on my list, this year he starts it off rather than finishes it. The epic western and eighth film from the auteur is a veritable character study told in chapters and even occasionally narrated by the director himself! Never has Tarantino’s dialogue been this front and center, and while not a bad thing, this certainly leaves us a little beaten over the head by the time the nearly three-hour film is over. This is still a great film and it is never a bad thing to watch Samuel L. Jackson deliver Tarantino dialogue. In the oeuvre of Tarantino, this is his fifth best film and still the 10th best film of the year!
Brooklyn is a surprisingly engrossing film that I found myself lost in right from the start. Anchored by its brilliant heroine and protagonist Ellis Lacey, played by Saoirse Ronan, this period piece romance about an Irish immigrant who must wager her future and happiness against family and heritage is certainly the most emotionally raw film on my list this year. Ronan should be considered a sure thing for a nomination for the Best Actress Oscar, and the film, while committing a slight stumble towards the finish line, should also be on the short list for a nomination as well.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a delight. It is exciting, it is insightful, it is nostalgic, and it is beautiful. This is the seventh episode in the space opera, and it takes place 40 years after the events of Episode IV: A New Hope. J.J. Abrams revitalizes the Star Wars universe for a new generation hitting the sweet spot that mixes crowd-pleasing fun with expert storytelling and character development that is usually reserved for Steven Spielberg. This may be the most notable blockbuster since Raiders of the Lost Ark (and I include Avatar and Titanic in that list).
Steven Spielberg was mentioned as the innovator for films like number 8, but he is on this list for number 7, Bridge of Spies. This is the fourth pairing of Steven Spielberg as director and Tom Hanks as actor. The key to Bridge’s success is that its agenda is not to trick the audience like so many other espionage films, but rather to let us hold all of the cards and experience the weight of each decision that is made. That along with some brilliant set-pieces, scenery, and top notch performances from Hanks and Rylance allow Bridge of Spies to work very well.
6. The Martian
Last year, Interstellar topped my list of the best films. The year before that, Gravity was ranked number 4. Now The Martian, another lost in space film is number 8 (consequently two steps up from a Star Wars film). Now some might say if it’s in space, The People’s Critic likes it. In defense of these claims, I suggest that these films provide fascinating view on level of humanity that other films struggle to provide. We have an insatiable appetite for watching humankind’s intelligence put to the test. When The Martian is over, that is the piece that stays with you, not the performances or even the directing, but the way human intellect is pooled to solve unsolvable problems! We may simply be in the midst of a science fiction renaissance, as there is no denying the exemplary films that are being constructed and released in the genre. The Martian is everything you want in a big budget, exciting, tense blockbuster. It is entertaining, researched, and impressive.
While some of the best films of the year are rightly some of the biggest, it does seem that characters drive the films that shine the brightest. For all the money and effects thrown at films like Star Wars, films like that rarely cross the threshold of the top five. You’ll notice a clear adjustment in tone, subject-matter and appeal as this list goes on because for a film to be the greatest, it must succeed in all areas of filmmaking. Sequels rarely appear in top ten lists. However, unlike the previous Rocky films, Creed is not so much a sequel as maybe a “spin-off.” It is also both technically and creatively successful. Michael B. Jordan continues to impress as the son of the late, great boxer Apollo Creed. A quest for personal legitimacy guides him to ex-champ and former rival of his father, Rocky Balboa in the hopes Balboa will train him. This is a story of legacy, individuality, reputation, and personal drive told through boxing. It is a sports move, but like all of the best sports movies, this one is not about the “game.” It is a metaphorical exploration of just one slice of life.
4. The Big Short
The Big Short mixes cinematic sharpness with top notch lecturing. Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Steve Carell, and Brad Pitt all provide multiple dimensions to the fascinating perspective of knowing the 2008 financial collapse was coming. While the content is complicated, cameo-studded mini-lectures are sprinkled throughout to assure the film doesn’t lose you. I mean if Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining sub-prime mortgages doesn’t keep your attention, then go see another film on the subject. Truly though, The Big Short does dabble in Wolf of Wall Street territory (Margot Robbie included), but it is a far smarter film that that one, allowing for some spectacular inside information that will certainly inspire conversation long after you leave the theater.
Few films this year feel as important as Spotlight. As print journalism is increasingly threatened by the Internet, as fully researched articles are threatened by immediacy, Spotlight reminds us that great journalism is one of the greatest weapons we have as human beings against corruption. Starring an all-star cast, Spotlight brilliantly tells the true story of a group of Boston Globe reporters who uncover terrifying secrets about child molestation within the Catholic Church. Like the popular Netflix documentary series, Making a Murderer released this year, Spotlight gives us a glimpse at the value of people willing to take on a corruptive force that seems bigger than life even at the risk of the consequences that come along with poking a sleeping giant.
Sicario is a sad, terrifying, and dramatic film from director, Denis Villenueve. Those same words can be used to describe his phenomenal 2013 film, Prisoners as well. Sicario is outrageously successful at building an atmosphere around the war on drugs between the U.S. and Mexico, and Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and especially Benicio Del Toro are perfect in their roles. This is a difficult film to watch and like most of Villenueve’s work, it deals with some ethically murky territory. Sicario also reunites Villenueve with director of photography, Roger Deakins who elevates this already tremendous film to new levels through vividly powerful and startling camera placement and movement.
1. The Revenant
Last year’s #2 director is this year’s #1. Birdman director, Alejandro Iñárritu pulls off a beautiful back-to-back double whammy with The Revenant. DiCaprio is in fine position to win his first Oscar playing American frontiersman, Hugh Glass. When his party leaves him for dead after a near fatal bear attack, Glass endures a brutal odyssey through the frozen wasteland of South Dakota seeking retribution. This film is the best for so many reasons, it’s hard to even list them all. First of all, be warned if you loved (or even hated) Birdman for its silly and oddball look at the tension and majesty of the theater, this film is a complete 180! The Revenant has more in common with Iñárritu’s early work in films like Amores Perros. And with that being said, The Revenant is also a return to brutality, as evidenced from the film’s opening scene. DiCaprio forces the audience to experience Glass’s struggle and Tom Hardy portrays a true-life villain worse than anything you’ve seen on screen this year. Iñárritu and his Birdman cinematographer are a dynamic pair once again, leading me to believe that no one else will ever win another director of photography Oscar as long as Emmanuel Lubezki is still working. This film should mark his third Oscar for cinematography in a row. This is the finest survival film not about war that I’ve ever seen, and while it is not the easiest film to sit through, it is certainly the most rewarding.
The Five Worst Films of 2015
So now that the best films are identified, it’s time to mention the five worst films of the year. This task was actually tougher than usual – not because of the number of disappointing films released this year, but because of the number of great films released. Therefore, I never had to suffer through widely hated films like Pixels, Mortdecai, or Fantastic Four. Still, I did manage to make a few mistakes at the theater this year and was able to identify five real stinkers that should be avoided at all costs.
5. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
So I rarely walk out of a movie, but for this one, I had to make an exception. I’m all for expressionist, teen-angst, world-against-me movies. But occassionaly one comes around that I just…don’t…get. As Me and Earl and the Dying Girl meandered around from one unrelated moment to another, I found myself bored, but what made me walk out was the absurd self-pitying this film demands without any bit of sincerity. Everyone I know that saw this one loved it, so maybe it’s just me. And Me and Earl had the last laugh because the film I walked into after walking out of this one is also on this list.
Oh man, when I’m right, I’m right! Last year number four on this list was Divergent. I recall saying, “How the hell did people like this movie?” Now Insurgent takes that question to a new level. This film is excruciatingly bland from its performances right down to its color palate! We do get a new director this time; Robert Schwentke replaces Neil Burger with moderately better results, but still not good enough to escape this list! I can’t believe there is more of this story to tell, and not to spoil anything but I can imagine the relief of one particular Oscar winner in this film who will not have to return for Allegiant (an early favorite for this list next year).
3. Terminator: Genisys
Remember when I said Me and Earl and the Dying Girl got the last laugh because I walked out of that film and into one that is further up on this list? Well, Terminator: Genisys is that film. This is the worst Terminator film of the series, and while that may not be saying much given the last couple films, it is a tremendous disappointment given the return of Arnold and the promise that this was going to be the film that revives the franchise. This film fell victim to the “trying too hard to be important” flaw that takes down many a film. Even from the inexplicable decision to spell “Genesis” as “Genisys,” this film thought it was way more hip than it had any hope of being.
2. Fifty Shades of Grey
Usually the book is better than the movie, but in this case it’s the opposite…AND the movie is terrible! If it were sexy, then at least you could say it accomplished something, but most of this movie is Dakota Johnson feeling nervous or (God forbid) biting her lip! This movie takes feminism back to the stone age – “Me man, you woman! You sign contract! I spend money! You confuse misogynist abuse for untamed manliness! I welcome your submission as a substitute for the abuse I suffered as a child.” Sexy stuff. This movie is a mess.
I know! I’m as surprised as you are. I’m pretty sure no one expected to see Unfinished Business on the top of this list because who even saw this film? That’s right, the $10 million this movie made is not even a drop in the bucket of its $35 million budget. Fortunately, Unfinished Business is so forgettable, it almost slipped my mind when making this list. But when I thought hard about the movie that made me feel most empty inside, suddenly it came to me. It’s the one where Dave Franco plays a guy named Pancake, and a totally awkward subplot about bullying is crowbarred in to supposedly make us feel an emotion. I’m surprised this movie was even in focus.