This time of the year, people make lists: Top 10s, Best 20s, Superlative 50s. These lists are seldom definitive: Who really saw everything in the list category? And why include only the top items in your list? They fake their authority.
I can truthfully say this list is definitive — it contains every one of the 53 narrative feature films that I saw that were released this year. (An additional list of 20 documentaries will be published next week.)
In the process of ranking, one factor superseded all others: enthusiasm. I found myself asking: How many times did you recommend Clouds of Sils Maria? How few times did you start conversations about The Martian? How many debates occurred over Steve Jobs versus Trumbo? My ranking is highly informed by discussability — why else even see a movie?
Lists can be tedious, but I recommend performing this completist twist on the exercise, which forces some aesthetic consideration of the middle and bottom: Did you really enjoy Tomorrowland? That Brian Wilson biopic was a surprise, but was it better than this year’s overlooked Woody Allen? Was Entourage the worst, or second-worst?
Anyway, from best to worst:
- The Big Short. Imagine if one of those “investigative comedy” bits from John Oliver about an inscrutable topic were expanded into a feature dramatic film starring Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Christian Bale, and Brad Pitt, with cameos from Anthony Bourdain, Selena Gomez, and Margot Robbie. That would be pretty great, right?
- Clouds of Sils Maria. The stars — Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloe Grace Moretz — all enact vaguely refracted versions of themselves in this layered Olivier Assayas masterpiece that stuck with me all year, despite its confounding title.
- Anomalisa. Charlie Kaufman had a seven-year gap on his IMDB page, until a dark puppet movie mysteriously appeared. This bizarre still-action feature, involving a Fregoli delusion-suffering motivational speaker with a detachable face who has muppet sex, was the most realistic and depressing film of the year.
- Straight Outta Compton. Thank you for reminding us that Dre was, like, the third or fourth most important member of N.W.A.
- End of the Tour. This isn’t actually a good movie, as it’s often kinda boring, but it’s also ultimately fascinating; something like the way Van Sant’s Psycho and Madonna’s Truth or Dare captivate, despite themselves. David Foster Wallace is ostensibly the subject, but the film circumnavigates a modern media construct that is seldom analyzed: the celebrity interview.
- Stanford Prison Experiment. The experiments were one story; what happens behind the glass, a more sinister one.
- Mad Max: Fury Road. True story: this is the first 3D movie I have ever seen. My virginity was relinquished to one of those Times Square IMAX theaters with barcaloungers that vibrate to the action. It was awesome. (Thanks for making me go, @harryh!)
- Ex Machina. It seems futuristically inaccurate to move the android workshop from the evil corporation laboratory to the genius hobbyist basement, but it also reveals a different shade of humanity, like an extended play of Black Mirror.
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Many purists deemed this a nostalgic pastiche, but for me it was perfect mix of old and new, a battle of generations in every sense, somehow proving that Gen X and Millennials have more in common than they will ever admit. (Use the force for good, you narcissistic snots.)
- Spotlight. Finally, a movie about the media that isn’t horrible! That’s a low bar — but one that has not been hurdled in decades. With more stylistic flourish (à la All the President’s Men), this measured work would be higher on the list, but the straight-forward camerawork creates its own reportorial appeal too.
- Sicario. The overall message here is questionable… but Emily Blunt for el presidente!
- While We’re Young. Opinions on Noah Baumbach vary wildly, but this generationally-stunted sap connects with his sad-but-amiable characters.
- 99 Homes. Whoa, this was a surprise! The trailer suggests a liberal preach-fest, but it’s shot like an action film, with a nuanced story and terrific performances by Michael Shannon, Andrew Garfield, and Laura Dern.
- The Revenant. Deliverance meets Call of the Wild meets Dances with Wolves meets Jaws meets Fitzcarraldo meets 12 Years a Slave meets Birdman. But unique.
- Steve Jobs. Why the controversy? I didn’t see this biopic until late December, after all the blowback had dissipated, so this portrait seemed, to me, a fair rendering of a man who “wasn’t built right” but who also empowered the world with new tools. Certainly no Sorkin apologist, I suspect this flick will age better than most people think.
- Chi-Raq. Spike Lee seems to have convinced himself that the ol’ Aristophanes abstinence trick would really stem the violence in South Chicago. With several unnecessary scenes, and a set that can feel like a high school play, like spray-painting “penis envy” on a tank gun, the warring couplets are nonetheless provocative and powerful.
- Predestination. This trans-gender time-travel mind-bender was sadly ignored, and you won’t hear this often: Ethan Hawke is fantastic.
- Bridge of Spies. The late-phase Spielberg, who creates historical dramas like this and Lincoln, is significantly more appealing that the mid-phase one, who made sappy sci-fi like A.I. Artificial Intelligence.
- Mistress America. In Noah Baumbach’s second film of the year, Greta Gerwig plays one of those daffy Annie Hall types you either adore or abhor.
- The Martian. For once, they got the science right! Alas, the characters were botched. (Why does the head of NASA PR not know math? And why on earth is she played for yucks by Kristen Wiig?)
- Maps to the Stars. That we still find a way for Cronenberg to make weirdo films about weirdo Hollywood gives the movie industry a rationale for existence.
- It Follows. A horror movie for people who studied theory in college, the ominous “It” here is either love, gentrification, addiction, desire, or disease — pick your poison. Best horror movie in years.
- Irrational Man. Before it was even released, a negative aura emanated from this Woody Allen vignette, apparently conjured by people who went as far as reading the description: Emma Stone plays a college student who sleeps with her professor, Joaquin Phoenix. Only those internet-critics who didn’t actually see the movie (which seems to be everyone) could have despised this little O. Henry fable of justice.
- Manson Family Vacation. This little surprise produced by the Duplass brothers, about brothers who visit the sites of Charles Manson’s murder spree, received minimal distribution, but tracking it down on VOD is completely worthwhile.
- Creed. A little over-rated, this reboot nonetheless puts a twist on class, race, media, and masculinity, without resorting to “Eye of the Tiger” bravado.
- Trumbo. Supposedly about black-listed communists, this biopic frustratingly avoids expressing a scintilla of politics. Scenes with Bryan Cranston and Louis C.K. save the film from being a TV special.
- Love & Mercy. Did you even notice the Brian Wilson biopic this summer in which two different actors (Paul Dano and John Cusack) play the lead Beach Boy? It has gaps, but so did Wilson. Fans of the music will enjoy this.
- Experimenter. In the other ’60s social psychology experiment flick of the year (see #7 above), Peter Sarsgaard recreates the infamous experiments of Stanley Milgram. The timely coupling create a fortuitous double feature, with similar side-plots that involves their wives, played expertly by Olivia Thirlby and Winona Ryder.
- Spectre. Over the past few installments, as James Bond morphed from charming playboy to brooding rogue, likely influenced by Dark Knight, Daniel Craig has been beaten, tortured, and mutilated more than all Bonds put together. This is the least compelling of Craig’s four Bonds, but give Eon props for risking the franchise with a major tonal shift during this run.
- Trainwreck. Though more unfocused than we expect from Judd Apatow (why exactly is LeBron James in this movie?), the performance is peak Amy Schumer.
- Project Almanac. Lo-fi time-travel sci-fi. Like a teenage version of Primer.
- Carol. This huge fan of Todd Haynes and Mara Rooney was pretty bored during this.
- Chappie. Better than you’ve heard; not as good as you hoped.
- Tomorrowland. Time to start worrying about Clooney?
- Inside Out. Pixar’s take on the brain biochem takes form in a really expensive after-school special.
- Concussion. An important story that needs to be told better than this.
- The Hateful Eight. This superfan is dismayed by Tarantino’s strained mess, easily his worst movie. With exactly two settings, both indoors (a stagecoach and a frontier room), there is simply no reason this self-indulgent shaggy-dog “western” needs three hours or 70mm.
- Black Mass. Johnny Depp is a convincing Whitey Bulger. That’s all.
- Avengers: Age of Ultron. Just when the Marvel Cinematic Universe starts to look constrained, enter James Spader!
- Joy. If you like David O. Russell, you’ll probably like that he has meandered into Shark Tank material.
- True Story. Everything that Spotlight was, this wasn’t.
- Paper Towns. This movie is about the desire to take Cara Delevingne to prom.
- Blackhat. Michael Mann got props for getting hacker culture right, but the dialogue is horrendous.
- Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. The plot makes no sense, but Tom Cruise does his own stunts!
- Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Teenage angst has paid off well now I’m bored and old.
- Knock Knock. Did you know that Keanu Reeves starred in a horror movie directed by Eli Roth this year? It’s basically the filmic version of Gamergater revenge porn, with a twist!
- Ant-Man. Let’s hope Paul Rudd made a mountain of money from this.
- No Escape. The cast — Owen Wilson, Lake Bell and Pierce Brosnan — sounds intriguing, but this foreign-countries-are-dangerous action movie is not.
- The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The trailer portends a fun twist on James Bond and Trainspotting. Nope.
- Jupiter Ascending. The Wachowski’s should invent a time machine to go back and change everything they’ve done since The Matrix.
- The Walk. It’s a commercial for the carnival ride called New York City.
- Entourage. Bro. Wtf?
- The Leisure Class. The outcome of HBO’s reality show Project Greenlight is almost unwatchable. Never has “the making of ____” so far exceeded the actual “____.”
You can’t see everything! In the spirit of transparency, here are some notable films from 2015 that I have not yet seen: The 33, The Assassin, Beasts of No Nation, Brooklyn, Burnt, By the Sea, Crimson Peak, The Danish Girl, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Far From the Madding Crowd, Fifty Shades of Gray, Goodnight Mommy, Grandma, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2, In the Heart of the Sea, I Smile Back, The Intern, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, Macbeth, Mustang, Our Brand Is Crisis, Phoenix, Pitch Perfect 2, Ricki and the Flash, Rock the Casbah, Room, Sisters, Shaun the Sheep Movie, Son of Saul, Southpaw, Suffragette, Timbuktu, Truth, Welcome to Me. This page will be updated if I see them.
Rex Sorgatz is based upon a true story @fimoculous.