Tony K's Best Films of 2015
Once a week, I walk into a darkened room, walk up some stairs, find a chair in the dark and drift off into diverse worlds. With the advent of technology, I never really stop working and even at night in my own home, I rarely cut myself off from the heartbeat of the world. But that one time a week, I enter a movie theater and wait for my life to be transformed. Sometimes I'm entertained beyond my wildest dreams, other times, it's a mere distraction, but when a film truly works, it leaves an impression on my mind like no other art-form; it takes me out of my body, mind and absorbs me whole. Whether it is Marvel's Ant-Man or Spike Lee's Chi-Raq, I feel as if I'm in the middle of a emancipating windstorm ready to carry me to the promised land. When a film works, it conjures up cognizance within, looking in the mirror for shortcomings that I can fix through a lens of compassion.
The world of cinema in 2015 was thriving and turbocharged. I can't remember a year with this many strong films. My top forty films all could have been a top ten films in different years, a testament to the variety and quality released in 2015. As I write this the credits are rolling on yet another film I'm looking to find a place in the top fifty. 2015 took my back to school in Pittsburgh, to the streets of Inglewood, the blood stained streets of Chicago, an imprisoned shed, boardrooms of Wall Street, a marriage based on a lie, the mind of a technology genius, the inner mind of a pre-teen and to a world from long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. I was in love with movies this past year like never before.
Below is a first for me, a listing of close to one-hundred movies that brought me unbridled joy. No, I didn't list every movie I saw, plenty disappointed me and others such as Jurassic World left my consciousness before I even stepped out into a hot summer night. There is something powerful and poignant about each of the films below. They're all worth your time, even if you haven't heard about them. I continually hear about the decline of film, but by reviewing the list below, those assumptions are dead wrong but the issue is that as you gaze down upon the list below, my hunch is you haven't heard of more than half of them. This is why I write. I urge you to go to your local library, search Netflix, Amazon Prime, Redbox, VOD and wherever else you can find films to unlock these films, each and every one is not just worth your time, but may empower you in ways you never could have imagined.
#1 ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon directed a few dozen episodes of the Fox TV series Glee, but what many do not know is he worked for Martin Scorsese as an intern throughout the 1990s observing and learning from our greatest living director. He's taken those lessons to this coming of age masterwork where he balances durable storytelling with delicate direction and astonishing emotions brimming at the surface. Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) is a high school senior walking through life without any substantial relationship, aside from his best friend since childhood, Earl (RJ Cyler). He's thrust into a friendship with Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke) due to her cancer diagnosis. What I loved about this story is it didn't unfold how I thought it would. The emotions are genuine and you are thrust into a world all-too-real but also all-too-beautiful. The film made a splash at Sundance, disappeared from theaters quickly but deserves to be seen now. The emotional terrain that the three lead characters trek upon isn't new or novel, but it resonated with me longer than any other film this year. This is a spiritual cousin to The Perks of Being a Wallflower (also set in Pittsburgh) and is every bit as enduring. It tackles tangible struggles that are not defined to adolescence and the three leads, especially RJ Cyler, whose inconspicuous performance isn't flashy but it was worthy of a golden statue. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a coming-of-age film for not just a generation, but all of us.
Three geeky straight-A students who love Yo MTV Raps, play in an alternative rock band and live in the brutal and violent Inglewood, California take the audience on a journey off self discovery and also a gripping MacGuffin side plot that ups the ante on this coming of age film. Like my number one film, Earl, Dope is a high school story that yields amazing performances from its three leads; Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons. Most of us have not experienced the trials, tribulations or horrors of a city like Inglewood, and this story will most likely put your assumptions to the side as these characters are bursting with life. High school films tend to be overlooked come awards time, because many in the establishment feel the younger actors have not paid their dues or have a handle on the intricacies of life, but the leads in Dope taught me otherwise. It's a movie that not just entertain you, but will put you in the driver's seat of their lives.
#3 THE END OF THE TOUR
Jason Segal became David Foster Wallace in this road trip movie where Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky, played with great control by Jesse Eisenberg, spends a week with him as he heads out on a book tour. It wasn't the journalistic talent of these two that moved me, but the conversations they shared under duress, over women, with drinks, junk food and anxieties all bubbling to the surface. If there was an emerging theme throughout all of the best films of 2015, it's small stories where the characters humanity is on full display. As Brian Eno's "Big Ship" plays over the end of the film, I felt I was right there with them letting the memories of my past tapping me on my shoulder. I've shared moments like these with friends and many have drifted away and yet their memory remains.
Room stole a piece of my soul. My knuckles weren't white at the end of this film, they streamed red from the cracked skin. When I discuss this film to people they often wonder why they would find this entertaining; it's not, but it is enlightening and redeeming. Of all the Best Picture nominees at this years Oscars, this one stayed with me the longest. Two humans find the truest version of themselves from one another.
#5 STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
JJ Abrams can never be thanked enough for making us not just like Star Wars again but love it. More than anything, he made the world feel like Star Wars with tangible sets, characters and props. The script, the cast and the execution gave us the year's most entertaining film that I can't wait to see again.
Emily Blunt plays a FBI agent who isn't just good at her job, she's haunted. Her life is in ruin and the only thing that makes sense is her job. She's not even sure if what she's going for us justice, but it's all she knows. Benicio del Toro once again proves why he's one of our greatest living actors by embodying a shadow of mystery. Sicario isn't an easy film to watch, but it's an invigorating masterpiece that won't leave you alone, even long after you have seen it.
The poster for Brooklyn features Saoirse Ronan leaning against a wall with her hands behind her back. It's an unassuming and simple image of the movie, however, after seeing the movie, it's no mere image, it's the heart of the movie. The film may not offer any novel approaches to acting of filmmaking, but every second of the film is crafted with a pure heart.
#8 THE BIG SHORT
Michael Lewis is my favorite living writer and The Big Short is a teetering masterpiece of what brought the world economy to its knees in 2008. It's a gripping read, but also challenging. Amazingly, they've translated this beautifully onto celluloid with humor and tangible facts weaved into the story in such a way that anyone can comprehend. Christian Bale leads a stellar ensemble cast where characters often break the fourth wall, pulling the audience in like an insider. It's been labeled a comedy, but for many Americans, it's an all-out nightmare they've yet to recover from.
#9 INSIDE OUT
Pixar makes a grand return with an original film that takes us deep inside the mind of a young girl, making sense of our emotions, the good, the bad and the moody. Joy and sadness go hand-in-hand. Aside from Star Wars this is the film from 2015 that stands the best chance of enduring for multiple generations.
#10 MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
George Miller revisited one of his greatest triumphs for a reboot I could not have imagined that would surpass the original, but his eye for futuristic dystopian flair was a visual feast with Charleze Theron delivering a two-fisted knock-out performance.
#11 STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON
Music biographies, while highly entertaining are often challenging as they often try to encapsulate an entire career in less then two-hours. What makes Compton work is the all-too-short lifespan of hip-hop group N.W.A. The wrong script, obvious casting and invasive directing all could have derailed this film, but it stands as one of the best all-around musical biographies every given the big screen treatment. From Eazy-E's humble beginnings to Dr. Dre's magical ears, the film touches on what made them such a force to be reckoned with and more importantly, puts the viewer right in the midst of police brutality, racism and discrimination forcing you to rethink not just their motive and music, but their legacy as well. If you didn't think N.W.A. was one of the most important musical acts of the last thirty-years before this film, then you most likely will after having seen it.
#12 THE DANISH GIRL
Eddie Redmayne plays Lili Elbe, a man who went through one of the first reassignment surgeries to become a woman. Redmayne was divine is handling of the lead role, but it was his long suffering wife, Gerda Wegener, played with immense vulnerability Alicia Vikander that has stayed with me. She's beautiful, creates exquisite art but theirs is a suffering deep within that isn't easy tpo convey but she does so with such elegance you will keep your eyes on her in all future performances.
#13 EX MACHINA
Alicia Vikander turns heads again as the supreme example of artificial intelligence in this brilliant science fiction thriller. Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson spar off against one another not with brawn but with their brains. A wholly original film that has no peer. Alex Garland has graduated from top-tier script writer to director and he's left such an indelible impression.
Despite being set in the 1950s, the rippling burst of emotions from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara take center stage in this period drama. Director Todd Haynes guides the viewer with meticulous direction allowing stares, winks, and delicate touches speak volumes in a love story that ripples radiantly throughout each and every frame.
#15 45 YEARS
This film is all about Charlotte Rampling. >From The Verdict to Swimming Pool she's an entrancing presence who exudes more than natural beauty but a kinetic sexiness which is even more impressive considering she appears to have had no plastic surgery. I mention this because 45 Years is a film that is laborious and sneaks secrets in when needed. It plays out over the course of a week before a couple's 45th wedding anniversary which is clouded by a secret from the past. It all comes down to the film's final scene. In a standout year for women performances, this may be one for the ages. Rampling is resilient throughout it all, but in the final seconds, something else happens that is burned into my mind for all time.
Amy Schumer is a star and Judd Apatow helped mold her talents and strengths into what may quite possible be the year's funniest film.
Rocky V came out in 1990 and appeared to be a sad ending to an otherwise strong franchise. That changed with Rocky Balboa nearly a decade back, and now with Creed one has to wonder if there is still gas in the engine. Sylvester Stallone looks to be primed for a long overdue Oscar but it's the pairing of actor Michael B. Jordan and director Ryan Coogler (who previously collaborated on the excellent Fruitvale Station) that elevate the film to be one of the best in the franchise. It's a crowd-pleaser on every level.
There will come a time where the world tires of Jennifer Lawrence, but not yet. She's a firecracker in Joy going through a range of emotions. Lawrence never ever shows her age, always making the viewer believe she's wise beyond her years.
#19 STEVE JOBS
Danny Boyle made a brilliant biopic covering the life of Jobs over fourteen years, with three specific product launches. Michael Fassbender doesn't necessarily look like Jobs or sound like him, but he embodies the brilliant man, warts and all
#20 KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE
Colin Firth is one of the coolest actors on the planet and from a pure entertainment perspective, Kingsman provided more pure entertainment for me than just about any other movie on this list. It's largely implausible, has a ridiculous plot and a sideways performance by Samuel L. Jackson, but it all works and is guaranteed to intoxicate your senses.
#21THE LOOK OF SILENCE
An Indonesian man, who was born after his brother was brutally killed, seeks out the men who killed his brother and asks them why. It's as unsettling as anything you will ever watch, but it opens your eyes to governments around the world and how even a broken democracy is better than none at all.
#22 CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA
Kristen Stewart showed great poise in last year's Alice, which won Julianne Moore her long overdue Oscar, and this year, she very well could have been nominated for one herself for this French film co-starring Juliette Binoche. This was one of 2015's great surprises as the film took me places I never could have imagined and was ambiguous enough for it to warrant repeat viewings. Binoche and Stewart offer grim counterpoints of the world of celebrity, with Stewart flexing acting muscles most don't want to acknowledge.
#23 CALL ME LUCKY
For forty-five minutes, I was amused by the life of comedian and political activist Barry Crimmins. Then Bob Goldthwait's documentary took an unsuspecting turn. I went from being slightly engaged to crawled up in a corner. Crimmins has led a hard life as a comedian, but it's his early childhood and his later day activism that establishes this film as one not to be missed. It's a revealing look at a man who did more than make people uncomfortable, but who through tragic circumstances of his own, changed the lives of others for the better.
Without giving too much away, it would make a great double-feature with Call Me Lucky.
#25 WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE
One of the last films from Studio Ghibli, it's a yearning story of the past, of heartache, mystery and forgiveness. Ghibli has always prided itself on making smart animated features that transcend adolescence and are often told with wide brush strokes, because no other medium can capture their imagination. It's rumored this could be the final Studio Ghibli release ever and if this is the case, they've gone out on top.
#26 THE MARTIAN / #27 THE REVENANT / #28 THE HATEFUL EIGHT / #29 BRIDGE OF SPIES / #30 LOVE AND MERCY / #31 BEASTS OF NO NATION / #32 IT FOLLOWS / #33 PAWN SACRIFICE
#34 THE VOICES / #35 MISSISSIPPI GRIND
Ryan Reynolds is breaking box office records as the unconventional superhero Deadpool right now but what many have overlooked are several eccentric films with fetching stories showing this is a man who appreciates the craft of filmmaking. The Voices is not for the weak-hearted but it shows Reynolds as a mentally unstable man and his performance is one of subtly and wry humor while Mississippi Grind is a road trip gambling movie with Ben Mendelsohn as the pair relish in their bad luck and fortunate as the thrill of the game takes them to extremes. Both of these films are on Amazon Prime now.
#36 GRANDMA / #37 ANT-MAN / #38 PHOENIX / #39 CRIMSON PEAK / #40 PADDINGTON / #41 CHI-RAQ / #42 SPECTRE (JAMES BOND) / #43 PEANUTS / #44 THE GOOD DINOSAUR / #45 MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION / #46 PITCH PERFECT 2 / #47 SISTERS / #48 WHILE WE'RE YOUNG / #49 AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON / #50 FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD
#51 SHAUN THE SHEEP / #52 DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL / #53 TANGERINE / #54 I'LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS / #55 TOMORROWLAND / #56 GOING CLEAR / #57 CHILD 44 / #58 THE SECOND BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL #59 MR. HOLMES / #60 AMY / #61 LEARN TO DRIVE / #62 WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? / #63 THE DUFF / #64 WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS / #65 MOMMY
#66 PAPER TOWNS / #67 TRUTH / #68 FREEHELD / #69 SPY / #70 MISTRESS AMERICA / #71 CINDERELLA / #72 THE AGE OF ADALINE / #73 IRIS / #74 HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT / #75 TESTAMENT OF YOUTH
Everything Else: CAKE, MINIONS, THE COBBLER, ROCK THE KASBAH, THE OVERNIGHT, A WALK IN THE WOODS, THE WALK, THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT, SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE, CHAPPIE, THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINJAY- PART 2, WOMAN IN GOLD, MAPS TO THE STARS.
Films I Missed: BLACK MASS, MACBETH, YOUTH, TRUMBO, LEGEND, ENTERTAINMENT, 99 HOME, THE ASSASSIN, MISS YOU ALREADY, SUFFRAGETTE
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
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