After what I thought was kind of a down year in 2014, the overall quality of the movies I saw in 2015 went on the rebound and in general, I thought there were far better films in general than the year previous. A little more interestingly, I also thought that there were fewer movies that I’d give 10 out of 10 for this year, which is a bit of a dichotomy; better quality overall, but fewer slam dunks.
However, the films on this list were all as good as you’d find on the lists of any year previous with the top spot going to a movie that I thought was far and away the best film of the year – but oddly enough, very few people have seen it other than on streaming services. We’ll get to that in a moment, but the movies that followed were still of very high quality and are worth seeing every one.
While studio movies have tended to continue going with the traditional distribution model; a wide theatrical release followed by VOD/home video release once the movies are out of the theaters, then onto a premium cable outlet. They are still tending to avoid streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus, although Lionsgate and Paramount have bucked that trend. With Netflix flexing its muscles more and more with indie films, having made some pre-emptive deals even before films were screened at Sundance, something tells me that the majors may start following suit and putting their films on streaming sites or even creating their own. It may not be this year but as more and more people go with Netflix and Chill, it makes good sense for the majors to start looking at that audience more carefully.
As with previous years, you can learn more about each movie on the top 10 list by clicking on the title to access my initial review, or clicking on the photo of the movie to go to the movie’s website or Facebook page when available. The other information given in each entry should be self-explanatory, with box office and critics’ scores available to help you give an idea of how audiences and film critics alike responded to these films.
As always, the list is entirely arbitrary. How I rank these movies today isn’t necessarily how I would rank them tomorrow. I am also ignoring half-points from the initial ratings so you might see a 9.0 ranked ahead of a 9.5. It’s my list. Deal with it. In any case, at the end of the day the order the films are ranked in is unimportant save for the number one movie of the year. The thing to remember is that all of these films including the honorable mention films are all of the highest quality and you can’t go wrong seeing any of them. Hopefully this list will suggest a few to you that you might have missed during the year or didn’t get distribution in your home town. Many of them will be already out on home video or VOD, while a few may still be in your local theaters. Do yourself a favor and try and see as many of these as you can. You won’t regret it.
There are a number of movies that didn’t quite make the cut of the top ten. I thought I’d add them here so you can get an idea of which ones came close, were considered and ultimately not chosen. Again, I will stress that all of these are quality films worth seeking out if you’re looking for entertainment, enlightenment or insight. I didn’t include links here but if you want to read my reviews of any of these, simply type in the title into the search field and have at it. So, in no particular order;
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Stepped Out of a Window and Disappeared, Love and Mercy, The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest, A Brilliant Young Mind, Straight Outta Compton, My Life in China, 3 ½ Minutes, The Wrecking Crew, Bone Tomahawk, Sicario, Welcome to Leith, Mad Max: Fury Road, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Inside Out, The End of the Tour, Stink!, Gett: The Trial of Vivianne Amsalem, Room, Grandma, Phoenix, Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story
10. IT FOLLOWS
(Radius) Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Lili Sepe, Olivia Luccardi, Jake Weary, Daniel Zovatto, Bailey Spry, Carolette Phillips, Loren Bass, Charles Gertner, Debbie Williams. Directed by David Robert Mitchell
Released March 23, 2015 19-year-old Jay has just graduated from high school and it is a summer of transition – soon she’ll be going away to college and it is time for one last hurrah with her friends before they scatter, each to their own place. Everything is perfect; except they are being stalked by something terrifying and supernatural. After having had sex with a seemingly nice young man, Jay has attracted a supernatural entity to her and it is coming ever closer. Her only chance is to have sex with someone else and send the entity after them, although if it kills them it comes back after her. How do you escape the inescapable?
WHY IT IS HERE: An extremely clever concept, for one. After an acclaimed run at Sundance, the movie was given a very brief limited release but the numbers were so astounding that Weinstein hurriedly arranged for a wide release. The movie went on to be one of the more acclaimed horror movies of recent years.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The climactic swimming pool battle.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $14.7 million domestic, $20.3M total (as of 1/19/16).
STATUS: Currently available on home video. Rent Blu-Ray/DVD on Netflix. Stream on iTunes/Amazon/Vudu/M-Go. Download on Amazon/iTunes/Vudu/M-Go/Google Play.
9. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
(Disney) Daisy Ridley, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Max von Sydow, Peter Mayhew, Gwendolyn Christie. Directed by JJ Abrams
Released December 18, 2016 Three decades after the events of the first trilogy, the Empire is rising again and is being faced by a small but determined Resistance. With a new and improved weapon being brought to bear on the peaceful but ineffective Republic, unlikely new heroes will combine with familiar ones to take on a villain so heinous that he rivals even Darth Vader.
WHY IT IS HERE: The anticipation for this movie was enormous and when it finally arrived, it proved to be one of those rare films that was worth the wait. Everything about this movie worked and everything about it pleased fans who went back to see it again and again and again. It is already the all-time domestic box office champion and has a shot at dethroning the all-time global champ. In short, Star Wars is back.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The confrontation between father and son.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $859.0 million domestic, $1.8B total (as of 1/19/16),.
GENRE: Science Fiction
STATUS: Still in wide release
8. THE HATEFUL EIGHT
(Weinstein) Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Walton Goggins, Bruce Dern, Demián Bechir, James Parks, Dana Gourrier, Lee Horsley, Channing Tatum. Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Released December 25, 2015 A bounty hunter with a reputation for bringing in his quarry alive – to be hanged – is escorting a young woman to the Wyoming town of Red Rock but is forced to stop at a stagecoach stop high in the mountains, stranded by a blizzard. There are others there, some apparently innocently enough, others of suspicious character. By the time the snowfall ceases, there will have been a reckoning of Biblical proportions.
WHY IT IS HERE: Despite controversy over alleged racism and misogyny, this is still a well-crafted cracking story that keeps audiences on the edge of their seats throughout. Seeing it in the nearly extinct 70mm format was a rare treat but beyond all the noise surrounding it, at the end of the day this is a movie that sucked me in and kept me there.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Major Marquis Warren and Chris Mannix get some well-deserved payback for John Ruth.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $49.6 million domestic (as of 1/23/15), $86.7M total.
STATUS: Still in wide release.
7. BEASTS OF NO NATION
(Netflix/Bleecker Street) Idris Elba, Abraham Attah, Ama Abebrese, Richard Pepple, Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye, Kurt Egyiawan, Jude Akuwudike, Emmanuel Affadzi, Kobina Amissah-Sam, Fred Nii Amugi. Directed by Cary Fukunaga
Released October 16, 2015 Agu, a young boy in a civil war-torn African nation, is forced to become a child soldier for a charismatic warlord. Convinced he is going straight to hell for all the atrocities he is party to, we watch as his soul becomes more and more tainted, his eyes more and more lifeless. When hope for anything better is gone, what more is left but obedience?
WHY IT IS HERE: There is a realism here that is missing from other films that are similarly themed. It helps tremendously that both Elba as the warlord and young Abraham Attah as Agu deliver searing performances that will remain as indelible impressions for a very long time to come. I thought Elba was a sure thing for an Oscar nomination, although the Academy didn’t agree. This is one that the Academy got wrong.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Young Agu’s rage finally breaks free.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $90,777 domestic (as of 1/23/15), $90,777 total..
STATUS: Available exclusively on Netflix.
6. THE BIG SHORT
(Paramount) Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, Jeremy Strong. Directed by Adam McKay
Released December 11, 2015 In the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, a brilliant medical doctor turned hedge fund manager discovered the terrifying truth; that American banks and other financial institutions were relying heavily on securities based on mortgages, securities that had always been considered stable and rock solid but had been filled with mortgages that were almost certain to be defaulted on. Other managers discovered the same truth and while some tried to raise the alarm, others moved to profit off of the information.
WHY IT IS HERE: A sobering look at how unregulated greed damn near brought the world economy to its knees with the even more sobering warning that those running those same banks and securities firms – who were never punished for their actions which often crossed the line of securities laws – are involved in the same behaviors once again, having failed to learn their lesson the first time mainly because the American taxpayers bailed them out. Although it is admittedly hard to find heroic the actions of those who eventually profited from the human misery that came of the 2008 financial meltdown, this has become perhaps the ultimate cautionary tale to come out of the 2015 movie year.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The mentor of a pair of young ambitious hedge fund managers tempers their enthusiasm by explaining the real-life consequences of their success.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $54.2 million domestic (as of 1/24/15), $72.7M total..
GENRE: True Life Drama
STATUS: Still in wide release.
(Fox Searchlight) Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Maeve McGrath. Directed by John Crowley
Released November 4, 2015 In the 1950s, a young woman in a small Irish village leaves for New York, knowing that she has no future at home. However, she is best by homesickness and finds life in the Big Apple lonely and unsatisfying, but eventually she meets an Italian man at a church dance and is slowly won over by her persistence. However, bad news from home will send her packing back for Ireland where she’ll be courted by an eligible bachelor and where she finds she is fitting in more than she ever had before, but where will her heart lead her; to stay in her native land or to return to the man she loves in America?
WHY IT IS HERE: An award-worthy performance by Ronan in the lead role for one. Crowley, working off of a script by Nick Hornby, has delivered a lyrical and moving paean both to Ireland and America. Beautifully shot, rendering the sweet Irish countryside as well as the charms of Brooklyn, well-acted throughout and buoyed by a terrific script, this remains one of the most charming and lovely movies of the year.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Two lovers are reunited.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $26.4 million domestic (as of 1/24/15), $34.5M worldwide.
STATUS: Still in limited release.
(Open Road) Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Live Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian D’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci. Directed by Tom McCarthy
Released November 6, 2015 At the Boston Globe, the Spotlight investigative journalism team begins to look into allegations of covering up for a single Catholic priest who was accused of pedophilia. As their investigation widens, they discover to their horror that the problem is widespread on a global level. In a city where the Catholic Church is an immense political and social force, they encounter resistance to their investigation but their perseverance will lead to a scandal that will shake the very foundations of one of the oldest and most powerful institutions in the world.
WHY IT IS HERE: This may be the most realistic film about print journalism ever made. The emotional impact of the story itself cannot be overestimated as we see victims recount their harrowing experiences and the devastating aftermaths. The ensemble cast is made up of some of the most accomplished actors in the business and while Keaton and Ruffalo have been getting the lion’s share of the acclaim, the truth is that the performances here are outstanding top to bottom. It is fitting that one of the best-written films of 2015 was the movie about journalism.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The Spotlight team begins to realize the enormity and the impact of their story.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $33.2 million domestic (as of 1/27/15), $34.5 million total.
BUDGET: $20 million.
GENRE: True Life Drama
STATUS: Still in general release.
3. THE MARTIAN
(20th Century Fox) Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Pena, Sean Bean, Kate Mara. Directed by Ridley Scott
Released October 2, 2015 The first manned mission to Mars has to be cut short when a massive storm heads for the landing site. As the team of astronauts scurries to get their things stowed and the landing vehicle launched, one of their number is struck by flying debris and apparently killed. Reluctantly his team leaves without him but in the immortal words of Monty Python, he’s not quite dead yet.
WHY IT IS HERE: This tale of survival is certainly one of the best films of the year and is in my mind superior to other reality-based sci-fi films like Gravity for a number of different reasons. Not only is the science far more accurate than other films of this ilk, it has an Oscar-worthy performance by Damon, a terrific cast behind him and one of the most edge-of-your-seat plots you’ll see in this or any other year.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Matt Damon “sciences the shit” out of a problem.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $227.7 million domestic (as of 1/28/16), $598.6 million total.
BUDGET: $108 million.
GENRE: Science Fiction
STATUS: Download from Amazon/iTunes/ Vudu/M-Go/Google Play. Stream from Amazon/iTunes/Vudu/M-Go/Google Play. Rent DVD/Blu-Ray from Netflix the week of February 7.
(A24) Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Alice Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno, Corey Johnson, Claire Selby, Symara A. Templeton, Gana Bayarsaikhan. Directed by Alex Garland
Released April 10, 2015 A young programmer wins a company competition that spirits him to a weekend at the reclusive founder’s fortress-like mountain hideaway. There he discovers that the tech wizard is working on something game-changing; an artificial intelligence in a robotic body, taking the form of a beautiful woman. However whatever the plans are that both men have for her, she may have an agenda of her own.
WHY IT IS HERE: This speculative science fiction film made on a budget that probably didn’t cover the costs for massages and manicures on Star Wars: The Force Awakens is one of the smartest and most provocative movies to come out this year. I was completely done in by Vikander’s performance which was outstanding and kicked off an amazing year for her in which she’s been transformed into one of Hollywood’s brightest stars. Isaac and Gleeson also performed solidly, leading into a year when both of them also emerged as names to look out for.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Caleb and Nathan have a conversation on a glacier.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $25.4 million (as of 1/29/15), $36.9M total.
GENRE: Science Fiction
STATUS: Available on home video. Download on Amazon/iTunes/Vudu/M-Go/Google Play. Stream on Amazon/iTunes/Vudu/M-Go/Google Play. Rent Blu-Ray/DVD on Netflix.
1. MESSAGE FROM HIROSHIMA
(Cinema Libre) George Takei (voice), Kazuo Fukushima, Akinori Ueda, Ryoga Suwa, Hisako Miyake, Kinue Nakamitsu, Chieko Fujiki. Directed by Masaki Tanabe
Released August 4, 2015 The atomic bomb that dropped on Hiroshima was a watershed moment in modern history. We read about in history books, but that really doesn’t come close to telling us what it was really like. This amazing documentary collects some of the few still-living survivors of the blast and details their stories, complimented with some excellent computer graphics that reconstruct what Hiroshima looked like before the bomb fell.
WHY IT IS HERE: There is no movie, no documentary, no television show, no book and no social interaction that will affect you as much as this movie will. It will literally change your life. Seeing a beautiful, vibrant city come to life before your eyes – and then to watch the astonishing destruction, hear the account of people who were children at the time explain what it was like to lose parents, friends, brothers and sisters – to see the emotions still raw 70 years later, is absolutely unforgettable. The movie barely got any sort of theatrical release and is mainly available on Hulu, but it’s also available on DVD. This should be required viewing for not just our political leaders, but for everyone human. Never again.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Basically, every one of the survivor’s stories.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: N/A
STATUS: Currently available on home video. Stream from Hulu.