If you had told me at this time last year that my ten best films of the year would include 6 movies released in the first nine months of the year, I would have said you were crazy. Nevertheless, here we are and six out of my top ten films of 2015 were released before the prestige award-worthy movie months of October, November, and December. It's an eclectic mix of films on this year's list, and without a ton of really obvious stand-outs, I went more with my heart than my head in the selection process. If I have written a full review of the film, click the title or picture to be taken to my review. You can also check out my 10 Worst Movies of 2015 list by clicking here.
Animation had a banner year in 2015, with no fewer than a half-dozen animated offerings I considered for this list. While The Good Dinosaur, Shaun the Sheep Movie, and even Minions were considered for this slot, I went with the film that gave me the warmest feeling inside, The Peanuts Movie. The animators at Blue Sky did the absolute best work in their studio's history by lovingly recreating the characters we all know so well and giving them a tad more dimensionality, literally and figuratively. In an age where everything from our childhood is being repurposed, repackaged, and resold to the movie going public, it's nice to see a film that doesn't feel like a completely soulless attempt to cash in our familiarity with the property.
9. Mississippi Grind
From its inception, Mississippi Grind sounded like a modern day take on Robert Altman's California Split. Even the title sounds cribbed from Altman's film, and while familiarity with that criminally under-seen film is helpful, it's not a requirement to enjoy Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's gambling dramedy. The always brilliant Ben Mendelsohn slides comfortably into a co-lead role with a never better Ryan Reynolds, and the pair's exploits up and down the Mississippi River make for some of the most compelling cinema I saw this year. It was especially nice that the film had an ending that felt like a natural extension of the plot, rather than tacked on. In an age where so many films fall apart in the third act, it's nice to see a film actually get better in the third act.
When British chanteuse Amy Winehouse joined the notorious 27 Club in 2011, the media had painted a portrait of a woman who had done herself in thanks to hard partying and a love for drink and drugs. The truth behind Amy's life and death is vastly more complex and beautifully told by filmmaker Asif Capadia in this moving documentary. Combining footage of Amy with audio interviews from her friends, family, collaborators, and admirers makes her story more real, more immediate, and infinitely more tragic. It's a film that will rattle you, but which will also make you think about the pain so many addicts keep hidden.
This intense examination of the Boston Globe Spolight team that exposed the institutional corruption within the Catholic Church not just in the city of Boston, but all over the world, played like a film straight out of the 70s. Tom McCarthy rebounded quickly from his Adam Sandler misfire The Cobbler to bring us this impeccably shot, written, and acted film that has an agenda, but takes the time to invest the audience's attention in that agenda. There are no explosive scenes, no fiery confrontations, no "this whole court is out of order" extravagance that is usually used to rally an audience to its cause. It does it with slow burning intensity and gripping conversation. That's nothing short of a miracle in this day and age.
6. Slow West
In a year chock full of westerns, only one of them really played like a classic western. First time feature filmmaker John Maclean's Slow West may have the word slow in the title, but it betrays the film's brisk running time. Balancing brutality and humor like a seasoned professional, Maclean's film is a pitch black look at survival in a time when the only rules were that there are no rules. Couple two brilliant lead performances from Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee with a brilliant supporting turn by the always spectacular Ben Mendelsohn, and you've got a film with no shortage of fantastic moments, all of which add up to make this the first western since The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford that's actually better than the sum of its parts.
Having seen this film well before it was released theatrically, I'm a little dismayed by the comparisons the film has been getting with The Wolf of Wall Street. For the record, I think this film is a note perfect satire that maintains enough aesthetic distance so as to not make the audience completely complicit the way Scorsese did with his film. Where Wolf was all fun and laughs, this is comedy built around outrage, and the way director Adam McKay plays it all for laughs only makes it that much more outrageous. There are obvious comparisons to be made between this film and Wolf, in particular Ryan Gosling's spot-on performance that wildly lampoons DiCaprio's performance, but I wish people would stop getting hung up on the obvious ones. Once you get below the surface, you quickly realize what a much better movie this one is by comparison.
4. Steve Jobs
Aaron Sorkin is a wizard of words and, almost inarguably, a genius. Who better than he to craft a film about another complex genius, Steve Jobs, in the year's most compelling conversation piece next to the number three film on my list. Danny Boyle brings his kinetic energy to a script that, yes, does involve a lot of Sorkin's trademark walking and talking, but there's so much importance in those words. Distilling the life of Steve Jobs into three afternoons is a bold task, yet Sorkin pulls it off with aplomb, and Boyle gets some terrific performances out of his ensemble, notably Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, and the severely underrated Michael Stuhlbarg. If you're a Sorkin fan, this might be his most Sorkin movie yet.
3. Ex Machina
Alex Garland's feature directorial debut is a fascinating meditation of the perils of artificial intelligence, but even more so on man's insistence on playing god. Man has sat atop the food chain for so long, we think we're invincible, and watching this theme play out in this pot-boiler of a film is one of the most satisfying viewing experiences you're likely to have in this—or any—year. The major theme with my Top 3 is rewatchability and I think all three of these films have that quality in no short supply. I will watch all three of these films many times in my life, but Ex Machina is one to revisit for so many reasons, not least of all the trio of amazing central performances from Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and the brilliant Alicia Vikander.
Blockbuster filmmaking got a much needed boost this year from George Miller's epic action opus. A crowd-pleasing film for which you didn't have to shut off your brain? Sign me up! That Miller manages to keep things moving at a breakneck speed for two hours is but the first of many minor miracles occurring before your eyes as you go along on this ass-kicking ride. That the film also manages to subtly weave in the message that women will be just fine in the post-apocalyptic world is but the icing on this delicious cake that plays as great the fifth time you see it as it did the first. Would that all big budget movies had this much firepower, this much chutzpah, and were this much fun.
1. Inside Out
Putting Inside Out at the top of my list of the best movies of 2015 was, at first, somewhat disappointing to me. I thought surely that another film would swoop in and make me reconsider, but every film I held up to it was ultimately weaker by comparison. A film that can be enjoyed by audience members of all ages, Inside Out is both wildly universal and achingly personal. Dealing with emotions is a surefire way to make an audience connect with a film, and much like last year's brilliant Boyhood, manages to keep the stakes just low enough to truly emphasize the characters and conflict more than the plot. Pixar is the king of the animation world because they take bigger risks than everyone else, and they almost never play it safe. Inside Out was a potent and powerful reminder of just how amazing that kind of freedom can be, and just how effectively it can be used to tell an incredible story.