For our final year-end feature, we’re providing a cumulative look at The Film Stage’s favorite films of 2015. We’ve asked our contributors to compile ten-best lists with five honorable mentions — those can all be seen on the last page — and, after tallying the votes, a top 50 has been assembled.
It should be noted that, unlike our previous year-end features, we placed no requirement on a selection being a U.S theatrical release, so you may see some repeats from last year and a few we’ll certainly be discussing more during the next year. So, without further ado, check out our most comprehensive rundown of 2015 below, our complete year-end coverage here (including where to stream many of the below picks), and return in the coming weeks as we look towards 2016. For those on Letterboxd, one can find the list here.
50. The Big Short (Adam McKay)
Co-writer / director Adam McKay made a genuine Adam McKay film with The Big Short. The director of Step Brothers isn’t exactly known for drama, but his outrageous sense of humor serves this fierce, angry, high-stakes tale of outsiders. In exploring the recent financial crisis in a way that’s entertaining, funny, and shocking to watch unfold, The Big Short is the rare example of a film built entirely on exposition that can still work. – Jack G.
49. Mississippi Grind (Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden)
Though it came and went this year without much more than a whimper, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck‘s superb gambling picture is sure to age nicely. Starring Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds as a yin-and-yang pair of drifters, Mississippi Grind plays like a masterful American film from the ’70s that got lost in the shuffle — not unlike Robert Altman’s California Split, from which this borrows mightily. You’ll be hard-pressed to find better writing or acting in another work from this year. – Dan M.
48. The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (Ben Rivers)
Here’s a film that lives up to the promise of its title. Filmed in the Moroccan desert and rendered in hand-processed, hallucinatory 16mm, Ben Rivers’ latest experimentation with docu-fiction plunges the viewer down an increasingly nightmarish rabbit hole. If you get the chance to see it projected on celluloid, don’t miss out. It’s absolutely ravishing and about as close you’ll get to tripping without psychotropic assistance. – Giovanni M.C.
47. Sunset Song (Terence Davies)
Even with a somewhat less impressionistic narrative (likely due to its canonical Scottish source material), Terence Davies‘ newest still sees through an attention to both the grandest of landscapes and minuscule of gestures — a genuine sense of the transcendental. Even combining 70mm with digital feels utterly timeless. – Ethan V.
46. Amy (Asif Kapadia)
Amy is genuinely moving because it asks what you would do if you were a loved one witnessing Amy Winehouse’s demise. It’s a question many of us would like to pose an answer to, but the reality is that you were dealing with a woman who was fully independent and had more money at her fingers than many could imagine. This enabled her and the people around her, who may or may not have wished the best for her mental and physical health. Bolstered by powerful home videos that showed her behind the scenes, the film gave an unfiltered look at the late artist and gave new appreciation to her music — especially the lyrics. Amy is a one-of-a-kind documentary that truly stands out as giving the audience a deep dive into the life of the extraordinarily talented singer-songwriter. – Bill G.
45. Ballet 422 (Jody Lee Lipes)
A lot of modern cinema, between superheroes and action stars, involves people who are preternaturally good at things without trying, and effort seems to be in short supply. It falls to documentaries, then, to really show the steps one must take in order to achieve or create something extraordinary. Ballet 422 is notable for being clear-eyed and unsentimental about the creative process while also perfectly showcasing the unerring beauty of the act. Lacking narration or talking heads, the film instead relies on the work of the creator himself, and is much richer for it. – Brian R.
44. James White (Josh Mond)
We often don’t know what we’re made of until faced with insurmountable tragedy. For five months, James White exists inside his emotional ground zero, his life turned upside-down by his father’s death and mother’s cancer recurrence. His only reprieves from the ocean drowning him are drugs and alcohol numbing the pain, and yet we’re still able to see the type of man he is underneath the external preconceptions that these temperamental binges manufacture. Josh Mond‘s debut film serves as a portrait of what so many endure as death surrounds them with little hope and less to say besides that long-absent admission of love and gratitude. Christopher Abbott embraces his dark helplessness and Cynthia Nixon radiates beauty and strength as she faces a clock counting down. It’s a story of the heart’s resilience and the scars surviving inevitably leaves behind. – Jared M.
43. Creed (Ryan Coogler)
Perhaps after one well-remembered surprise hit and five sequels of quality varying from passable to laughable disaster, no one expected much from Ryan Coogler’s new spin on the Rocky franchise. But Coogler freed himself of the burden of trying to follow its footsteps while doing exactly that. Creed is Hollywood filmmaking at its absolute zenith: a film that sets up archetypes and, without subverting them, turns them into breathing characters who don’t have character goals, but desires. Coogler sets up familiar scenarios and then gives a little bit of a twist: an unexpected camera angle emphasizes a minor point, a held beat allows us to feel the intimacy between people, and the long takes never show themselves off — only the drama on screen. Coogler obviously loves Stallone’s original, but he’s never exploitative; the iconic references become integral to its new characters, unlike in the latest installment of another awakening franchise. Readers, I’ll admit: I mocked people for discussing how much they cried during Creed before I saw it. But what I didn’t understand is how well Coogler builds our interest in the characters, so that creating an emotional response to discovering whether Michael B. Jordan’s emphatically determined newcomer can prove his worth is absolutely necessary to his work. Which is to say that Coogler does exactly what Hollywood films have been trying to do since their birth, and reminds us of their power. – Peter L.
42. The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson)
To my eyes, The Forbidden Room plays like a live-action, hard-R, unrelentingly hilarious, ceaselessly melancholy SpongeBob SquarePants episode that decided to communicate with the spirit of yesteryear’s cinema. Which, yes, is to suggest that this is a lot of movie, and it’s rather amazing how a work with as much layering of visual and textual senses (the two are always in conversation with each other) can make its exhaustion — a big part of “the point” — integral to its pleasure. And, well, if none of that clicks, you’ll still have something neat to look at for two hours. – Nick N.
41. Bone Tomahawk (S. Craig Zahler)
The western genre gained a few interesting titles this year, though none proved quite as delightfully strange as the directorial debut from S. Craig Zahler. The author and screenwriter freshened a traditional rescue narrative by adding cannibalistic troglodytes to the mix, but what could have been written off as The Searchers meets The Hills Have Eyes rose above expectations with its absurd juxtaposition of extreme barbarism and humorous repartee. The film’s appeal extends to its cast, a dream ensemble featuring Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, Patrick Wilson, and Matthew Fox as a posse with more personality and wit than a horror hybrid demands. – Amanda W.
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