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The Film Stage’s Top 50 Films of 2015

Written by on December 30, 2015 

20. The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)

The Hateful Eight

Not only a film about hatred, but a film that has hatred in its bones — for the ways of its ostensible heroes, for the destruction they bring, and, by extension, for the ways that both can be felt in the modern day. (The timing of this release and the writer-director’s recent protests certainly doesn’t feel coincidental when you consider the trajectory of, to name but one example, Samuel L. Jackson‘s Major Marquis Warren.) And while Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film isn’t simply a howl into the winter winds — hardly a surprise, since he’s never been interested in such single-minded gestures — it remains capable of startling whenever empathy, gentleness, and grace shine through. (How easy a constant brutalization of Jennifer Jason Leigh‘s Daisy Domergue, the sole female lead, makes easy to forget this movie’s willingness to stop and watch her catching snowflakes on her tongue during an ever-so-brief freedom.) With its ensemble cast working in morbidly funny harmony, Robert Richardson helping beautify its battered world, and Ennio Morricone serving giallo-esque musical stylings (better than hats or horses as a signal of what’s being attempted), The Hateful Eight is also a grand entertainment — in many ways the most complete cinematic package of 2015. – Nick N.

19. The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer)

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Calling Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence the year’s finest documentary is not inaccurate; the film certainly deserves that crown. Yet it’s hard not to feel like such a classification does Silence a slight injustice. The film is, after all, an overwhelmingly emotional modern classic. Like Oppenheimer’s 2012 masterpiece The Act of Killing, this stunning follow-up features the actual perpetrators of the Indonesian killings of 1965–66. With shocking openness, these men discuss and even demonstrate how they killed. Killing was one of the most powerful films of the last decade, but The Look of Silence is even stronger. This time, Oppenheimer narrows his focus to one man’s tale: an unidentified (for safety reasons) Indonesian eye doctor who talks to the men responsible for the horrific death of his brother. He and the audience discover terrifying truths together. The result is extraordinarily upsetting and startlingly moving. – Christopher S.

18. Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle)

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs was the most enjoyable, I-need-to-watch-that-again-right-now experience I had at the movies this year, and it was also the best-made. From Aaron Sorkin’s sharp, witty script — playing with truth to craft a tale of hubris, genius, and the sociopath who led a revolution that needed fifteen years for the world to catch up — to Danny Boyle‘s electric direction, which keeps a triptych of vignettes as dissimilar to each other as they are identical, it’s a feat of expert precision. And that doesn’t even mention the stellar acting: Michael Fassbender kills it as the flawed egomaniac, Kate Winslet is flawless as his conscience, and Michael Stuhlbarg steals the show with his biting and subtly hilarious retorts. Don’t ever let me hear you say computers aren’t art. – Jared M.

17. The Mend (John Magary)

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First it’s an angry relationship drama; then it’s about a guy wandering the streets of New York; suddenly it veers into a one-night-party movie about two brothers; and then it turns back toward the relationship drama; then there’s a potential ménage-a-trois; and then… what? John Magary’s directorial debut The Mend pits a number of characters in a cramped Hamilton Heights apartment for a truly indefinable drama about two brothers from opposite sides of the tracks finally coming to terms with who they are. But the electrifying nature of Magary’s camera is his ability to keep this dramatic tension spooling through a number of scenarios, each one filmed with a different gravitas. It wouldn’t work if Magary wasn’t so intent on capturing the rhythms of these characters with his precise editing and camera compositions, which are primed for both comic effect but also dive deep into the emotions. The film climaxes with two characters staring right at each other before defusing the tension with an actual knife. Most directorial debuts feel like imitations of certain respected forms. The Mend is boldly original and confident in every one of its movements. – Peter L.

16. Heaven Knows What (Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie)

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This is a great New York movie — the Safdies and DP Sean Price Williams use long lenses to suggest the whirlwind, assault-like turbulence of a life lived on cold Manhattan sidewalks — and a harrowing look at heroin addiction that just doesn’t let up. (The protagonist, played by the explosive Arielle Holmes, digs a razor into her wrist in close-up within the opening minutes.) But the directors, working in large part with non-actors and real-life addicts, look at this milieu with profound respect and even a kind of communal warmth. The quiet knockout of an ending hints at a type of stability that is harmful — but it’s not nothing. – Danny K.

15. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)

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If the meditative stylings of Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky were applied to the martial arts genre, the end result would likely resemble Hou Hsiao-hsien’s rapturous tone poem The Assassin. As much concerned with the essence of nature as it is the essence of humanity, this endlessly beautiful film is equal parts enigmatic storytelling as it is purely enthralling cinema. Though some will find the plot obtuse and hard-to-follow, the elegance in the composition of each frame, combined with subtle use of natural sound, creates an absorbing atmosphere that will transport you to 8th-century China. Featuring a subdued yet spellbinding performance from actress Shu Qi as the titular killer, The Assassin delivers a detour from traditional tropes of the wuxia genre and instead creates a breathtaking experience full of wonder and awe. – Raffi A.

14. Eden (Mia Hansen-Løve)

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With the breadth of time and emotion it displays, Mia Hansen-Løve‘s Eden is a simultaneously sprawling and intimate journey of ambitions and community within the then-emerging electronica scene. In capturing both the intoxicating allure of following one’s passion and the steadily unraveling grasp on the prospects of making it a livable career, Eden is masterful in its moment-to-moment, understated depiction of the transformation. Rich with details in time, place, and character, this is far from the Daft Punk-layered, rousing spectacle of electronica stardom its marketing might suggest, and all the more better for it. – Jordan R.

13. World of Tomorrow (Don Hertzfeldt)

World of Tomorrow

Most movies have time enough to explore one idea. World of Tomorrow, in one-eighth the runtime of your average film, somehow finds the space for every idea. Universal concepts regarding time, mortality, love, science, exploration, family, morality, and memory all exist in harmony with one another. The result is a dense, hilarious short that reaches staggering heights of emotional intensity while raising questions and teasing out ideas that no other film would dare glance at, let alone fully examine. Strange, beautiful, and unlike anything else in film this year, Don Hertzfeldt‘s creation stands as one of the most vital and interesting of 2015. – Brian R.

12. Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs)

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Magic Mike XXL is a movie of improbably long sequences, triumphantly goofy digressions (the gas-station dance set to the Backstreet Boys), and a very special feel-good vibe that is not to be taken for granted. (Ignatiy Vishnevetsky summed up the feeling well: “Doggedly positive. Rare experience of leaving the theater feeling slightly better about the world than when I went in.”) Steven Soderbergh’s clinical cynicism is a necessary pill in a lot of contexts, but Gregory Jacobs‘ follow-up is a big-hearted breath of fresh air that still possesses the Magic Mike director’s ecstatic powers of color, pace, and composition. – Danny K.

11. Inside Out (Pete Docter)

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Without a note of hyperbole, I give you the finest work by Pixar yet: Inside Out. I adore Up, too, but Pete Docter and the countless collaborators at his side over years of development and retooling have outdone themselves here. It seems too cerebral for anyone unversed in the nuances of emotional turmoil and earth-shattering life changes, but that’s just because you’ve gone through those things. However, just as it speaks to you on that level — making you laugh and cry with universal clarity — it has the kiddies, still blessed with youthful innocence, in stitches thanks to three-dimensional characters as goofy as they are poignant. There’s literally something for everyone to grab ahold of as the screen transforms into a mirror looking into your soul. It’s about growing up and exactly how fun and painful that process proves in equal, mutualistic measure. – Jared M.

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