I still have a lot left to watch this year, like every year the prestige films get flooded upon us throughout December and mid-January leaving the unprofessional cinephile without extra cash or Friday evenings. There was a lot of stuff that was highly acclaimed that I was pretty meh on (It Follows, The Duke of Burgundy, Love & Mercy, Spotlight, Tangerine) and quite a few movies that I recognize as flawed but excited me enough to ignore those flaws (Dope, Sicario, Slow West, Straight Outta Compton). I think I’ve become less willing to accept the merits of the “average” film, meaning that a movie better do something to excite me or I’m not having it. This probably happens after so many years and is probably why I haven’t made time to watch Oscar bait like The Danish Girl or Steve Jobs or super hero movies like Ant Man; they just don’t cut it for me anymore.
Another trend you may notice is that in nine out of the top ten, a woman is the most important character in the film. This wasn’t intentional by any means, but shows what could be an exciting new trend in cinema.
This is a list of films that did excite me this year, one that I will continue to update as I see more and more (so check back!).
Before we start, a list of things I haven’t seen (embarrassing, I know): Son of Saul; The Tribe; Bridge of Spies; The Big Short; The Martian; Chi-Raq; 99 Homes; 45 Years; The Assassin; Mustang; Heaven Knows What
20. The Stanford Prison Experiment
A thrilling movie that captures the debated prison guard/prisoner experiment that took place in the 70s on Stanford’s campus. There is a lot out there about the validity of the experiment and its results, but I think that’s inessential when talking about the quality of this film. Sure it get’s a lot out of its wow, this actually happened premise, but it’s a compelling piece of movie making, with great performances from its young cast, and reflects on the nature of power and violence really well.
19. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
This might be a low placement for some, a high placement for others, but I think it perfectly encapsulates Star Wars in 2016. It deserves credit for being as good as it is, but its flaws should also be recognized. Daisy Ridley deserves 95% of the credit here, even if the rest of the film was awfully cast and there were terrible plot choices throughout, but Ridley was still the film’s star, I would have enjoyed it. Plus I’m really into what they did with Kylo Ren, where even if every moment didn’t work, they’ve created something more unique than anyone’s talking about: a villains whose conscience is haunted by the good in him.
Like Star Wars, Creed shows just how important casting is to a reboot. Sure Stallone is pretty good in what will likely be an Oscar winning performance, but this film goes nowhere without Michael B. Jordan. Jordan’s charm drives this film, whether it be his desire to follow in the footsteps of his father, his interactions with Rocky, or (especially) his blooming love story with Tessa Thompson’s Bianca. Add to this Ryan Coogler’s great direction (that first fight scene!) and you’ve got something great. I can only see this growing in my estimation for years to come.
Timbuktu tells the tale of a fictionalized terrorist group has taking over a small town in West Africa. It’s timely in portraying how an all-encompassing and corrupt religion can destroy a culture. There are moments of deep distress at the injustice that occurs when certain powers take over. Perhaps more importantly there are scenes of heartbreaking beauty showing slight rebellion in the form of playing music or pretending to play soccer. No other film shows just how essential mercy is to the systems we create.
Sicario features the most thrilling experiences I had in a theater this year. Emily Blunt takes the lead and is our entry into the dark and politically muddled world of the drug war where she quickly learns the rules don’t matter. I actually don’t think the film really has any interesting insight on the drug war, but those big action scenes left me white-knuckled.
The last third or so of this film completely undermines the tone by throwing in a strange plot twist, but for most of it Dope feels so fresh. It’s about a group of kids out of place in Inglewood, not only trying to tackle poverty’s obstacles, but also what it means to be an outsider in that situation. It’s got a great aesthetic, a great soundtrack, and tackles identity.
No other movie left me as wrecked as this one did and while usually this is a good sign, the happenings of Room were mostly presented in a way that I wouldn’t want to really watch them again. It’s a movie that brutally captures your imagination as it tells the tale of a mom (played by Brie Larson) and her young son being held captive in a room together. Luckily the movie isn’t all explicit heartbreak, the boy’s angelic voiceovers about all he knows of the world offer a poetic beauty. I’m just not sure I’d want to experience it all again.
13. Slow West
A movie I was mixed on while watching it that has grown on me ever since. It stars Kodi Smit-McPhee as a Scottish immigrant who is trying to find his love who has recently fled to the Wild West. He’s in way over his head and is soon joined by a bounty hunter (played by Michael Fassbender) who begins to guide him with mixed motives. It’s a Western that allows itself to be weird, showcasing little quirks and a dry sense of humor. McPhee’s naivety drives the film, especially when placed in the midst of the self-serving evil the chaos of the West inspired. It’s a gorgeously shot film and features one of the best endings of the year.
12. The Hateful Eight
I think this is Tarantino’s most nihilistic film, each of its characters don’t really seem to have any bit of good within them as they express their violent, misogynist, and racist tendencies. But throw eight of these people in a room together with Tarantino at the helm and you’re bound to get something worthwhile. Unlike most, and perhaps in spite of what I just wrote, I do think Tarantino has a conscience of justice that he expresses throughout (there are literally speeches about justice in this movie!). I do think it’s a little long and not quite as fun as his last couple of films were (as strange as that is to say about movies about slavery and the Holocaust).
11. Straight Outta Compton
While not the most cinematic film of the year, Straight Outta Compton was both a banging music biopic and a treatise on the racial tensions present all throughout 2015. To see the events that inspired “F*ck Tha Police” presented in dramatic fashion at the same time as those sentiments were being expressed in various forms throughout the country due to violent interactions with the police was disheartening, but thrilling. In the midst of capturing this tension, and the effect of the group on culture, is a really fun movie that hits every note you’d want from a biopic.
Todd Haynes’ latest is a gorgeously shot drama set in the 1960’s about two women’s love affair. While most of the dramatic tension lies in the forbidden romance, I think the film’s true thematic tone has to do with those who push against the traditional power structures. Carol’s husband (played by Kyle Chandler) is wrecked by his wife’s true sexual orientation, but he seems more distraught that he cannot control her. Therese is meek and mild-mannered and is inspired by Carol’s dominance as she wrestles with her relationships and career path. It is the system that holds them back more than any explicitly presented social mores. It’s a love story about a girl coming into her own and the love that inspired her to do it.
9. The Diary of a Teenage Girl
This is a difficult film to recommend or praise because it is about an illicit affair between Minnie, a 15 year old girl played by Bel Powley, and her mother’s boyfriend, played by Alexander Skarsgard, an affair that is never presented as an immoral act. However, I would probably credit the film for this, because instead of moralizing, it shows the whole thing from Minnie’s perspective. She’s mostly thrilled about her newfound relationship and we hear her innermost thoughts through a voice recorded diary and her comics which often come to life throughout. It’s obviously not all daisies and writer/director Marielle Heller portrays her growth in flashes of excitement, confusion, and regret. It’s really well done.
The best pure romance film I’ve seen in a long while, I can only hope this takes the place of The Notebook as a go-to for romantic dramas. Brooklyn follows Ellis, a discontent Irish girl who seizes on the opportunity to come to America. While in America she struggles with the immigration experience which leaves her timid and uninspired. At an Irish dance she runs into Tony, a plumber from an Italian family who quickly expresses interest in her. The chemistry explodes even with her timidity and the two become a couple. Brooklyn is amazing at how well it pulls off the sincerity of each moment. It could have devolved into dramatic tropes, but instead lets its characters bask in joy; it gives them drama but grounds it in reality. Ellis is forced into a series of decisions that throw everything into question (and bring 2015 all star Domhnall Gleason into the mix) and the film pulls it off, giving us a fitfully beautiful ending.
7. About Elly
Technically released internationally in 2009, Asghar Farhadi’s drama didn’t get an American release until this year. Like A Separation and The Past, About Elly centers around a mystery and the gray areas that encapsulate the decisions of each of its characters. A group of friends go away for a vacation, bringing along Elly–a quiet girl with some sort of mysterious past. A serious events occurs that leaves the group traumatized and the leaves the viewer in a clouded knot. Farhadi is the master at showing how each of our decisions is based in a slew of cultural and religious biases that are so complex is becomes near impossible to declare rights and wrongs.
6. Tu Dors Nicole
Tu Dors Nicole follows Nicole as she navigates her unsatisfying life during the summer in a small Canadian town. It’s about the restlessness of being post-high school, the overwhelming purposelessness that occurs, and the disillusionment that comes as a result. Director Stephane Lafleur guides us by giving the film an airy feel, lead by its black and white cinematography and the dreamlike quirks presented throughout whether overtly or slyly. Ultimately though, the film gets by on the charm of its characters who make every moment engaging.
Charlie Kaufman’s latest film presents itself as being fairly straightforward at first, but throughout the opening, which features Michael Stone riding on an airplane, landing, and taking a cab to the airport, everything feels a little bit off. As we learn more about Michael, his experience of the world soon becomes clear, and Kaufman’s latest vision about a man in a midlife crisis all fits together beautifully. Life can be difficult to navigate, especially when it becomes mundane and all the joy gets sucked out of it–Kaufman illustrates this like Kaufman would. He also represents what it’s like to find joy in the midst of this and beautifully brings it to life in shocking and unexpected ways. Ultimately though, Michael is not allowed to be entirely cynical, he’s not allowed to seek joy however he pleases to, because neither of these are fulfilling life choices; Kaufman doesn’t tell us what will satisfy the man lost in his own life, but he does paint a great portrait of what will not.
4. Mistress America
Noah Bambauch’s latest collaboration with Greta Gerwig is the funniest film of the year. It’s a His Girl Friday style screwball comedy where its throwaway lines are up there with the best written comedy of the year. It’s quick witted and manically paced, following its two female protagonists, Tracy (Lola Kirke) and Brooke (Greta Gerwig), through their lives in New York City. They are very different people and in different places in their lives–Tracy is a timid college freshman trying to figure it all out, while Brooke is a New York socialite with a new plan every minute–they hit it off and their relationship is a catalyst for the film which explores loneliness and personal growth.
3. Mad Max: Fury Road
This was everyone’s surprise film of the year and I must note it lives up to every bit of hype placed upon it. It’s a progressive post-apocolypitc car chase that nails every action sequence, storytelling device, and emotional beat it throws into the ether. I held my breath for large sections of the movie without noticing that I was doing it. I teared up as Max and Furiosa, two people unable to be vulnerable because of their experiences, slowly open up to one another. I laughed and cringed at the comic and ugly weirdness director George Miller places in the movie, showing at once how disturbing and lived in this world was. It hits on every level.
2. Ex Machina
Alex Garland deserves so much credit for how he was able to set the mood of this film. It’s set in a futuristic house where most of what’s happening is happening in conversation between it’s three central characters, but the tension is unbelievably high–evoking dread of whatever the outcome is to be. Domnhall Gleason plays Caleb, a young programmer, who gets sent to his CEO’s house (Nathan played by Oscar Isaac) for a mystery test. He soon learns he will be performing a Turing test on Nathan’s recently created robot Ava (Alicia Vikander). Even as the tension builds, Garland allows for his characters to be themselves, undermining the typical portraits of a mad scientist for one much more bro-ish and allows spontaneous dance scenes. It’s tense, surprising, well-written, and the kind of movie that actively engaged my mind more than anything else this year.
1. Inside Out
I am an unabashed Pixar fanboy, it’s become my tradition to see each new film the studio makes on its opening day and update my rankings soon after. When I heard about the idea and casting of Inside Out, I could not have been more excited, this was a film that was made purely for me and let me tell you, it did not disappoint. I think this is a masterpiece for the way it portrays our mind so cleverly. I think it’s a masterpiece for being able to capture the complex emotions behind moving to a new place and growing up. I think it’s a masterpiece visually (the abstract thought bit nails it). I think it’s a masterpiece in how it created new classic characters and that all of our children will grow up playing with a toy called Sadness. I think it’s a masterpiece comedically, creating great bits about annoying tunes that come in our head and how we dream. And finally, I think it’s a masterpiece because of the way it embraces sadness, advocating for an emotional complexity, and being able to portray this all on screen.
Honorable mentions: Shaun the Sheep; Wild Tales; Phoenix; Pitch Perfect 2; Spy