‘Brooklyn’ to ‘Chi-Raq’: The Nearly-Great Movies of 2015

The greatest movies of 2015 cover the gamut from apocalyptic vision quests like The Revenant to investigative potboilers like Spotlight and riveting documentaries like Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. The list can be daunting, but I tried to cover as many of them as possible in this year’s edition of my annual film guide which inspired this publication: Eyes Wide Open 2015: The Best (and Worst) Movies of the Year.

Since you have to draw the line somewhere, the guide only fully covers the top 25 movies. But there were plenty of movies released in 2015 that didn’t quite make the cut for best-of but are certainly worth checking out.

Here are last year’s Honorable Mentions:

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling in ’45 Years’

45 Years

As acerbic as it is touching, this autumnal piece from the maker of HBO’s Looking finds a seemingly idyllic retired British couple, Kate (Charlotte Rampling, flinty as ever) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay), on the cusp of their forty-fifth anniversary when they’re hit with a bombshell about the woman with whom Geoff was in love before he met Kate. The apparently impervious Kate tries to take it all in stride, but more and more the news seems to highlight faults in the relationship that she has tried to ignore for years. The film’s build to their anniversary party is quiet on the surface but roiling underneath with decades of tension and mistakes just waiting for the right spark to set everything off.


Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon in ’99 Homes’

99 Homes

Ramin Bahrani’s neo-noir potboiler is set in the endless housing tracts of Florida that were so richly spun into debt-packed financial time bombs by the banking and real estate industry. Andrew Garfield plays Dennis, a contractor who’s one of the financial crisis’s many unsung human casualties. On the verge of homelessness, Dennis is thrown a lifeline with a Faustian stink. Rick (Michael Shannon), a sharkish hustler who cruises the wreckage of the housing collapse for any revenue-producing opportunities, hires Dennis as his right-hand fixer. The up side: Dennis and his family have money in their hands and a roof over their heads. The down side: Dennis has to enforce rules that get people like him thrown into the street. The story’s moral quandaries are never so simple as they seem. Shannon’s sleek viciousness lacks the film villain’s usual sadism. For him, it actually isn’t personal, no matter how many lives he destroys.


Emory Cohen and Saoirse Ronan in ‘Brooklyn’

Brooklyn

Unlike most American immigration stories, John Crowley’s adaptation of the Colm Toibin novel dwells neither on the nostalgia of an earlier time (sepia-tinted views of Ellis Island and the Lower East Side) nor the tensions of modern era (deportations and bureaucracy). A serenely self-confident Saoirse Ronan plays Eilis, a young Irish woman who emigrates to New York in the 1950s looking for work. She battles homesickness and loneliness as well as uncertainty that she’s doing the right thing; her staying an American is never a given. It’s a simple and unsentimental story well-told, rich in background detail and well-stocked with vivid supporting performances; particularly a twinkly Jim Broadbent as a mentor priest and Emory Cohen as Tony, the Italian boyfriend who has no idea how hard he will need to fight for Eilis’s hand.


The women of ‘Chi-Raq’

Chi-Raq

In Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the women of Greece deny sex to their men until they stop waging war. In this farcical, infuriated updating, Spike Lee restages it on the killing fields of Chicago’s South Side, rhythmic verse dialogue and all. It’s a scorchingly angry piece of work, casting hellfire blame on everyone from carelessly homicidal gangbangers to a government and media that would rather look away. But Lee also brings a crackpot sense of humor that ranges from dead-on — a lisping Wesley Snipes as gang leader Cyclops, and an electrifying Samuel L. Jackson as a one-man chorus, narrating the action with dark humor and a succession of beautifully awful suits — to misfires — most of the raunchier material don’t land. Surprisingly, the raging core of righteousness at the film’s center is John Cusack, playing a South Side priest who tears the house down with a funeral oration that says almost everything that needs saying about America’s sick fascination with weaponry and lazy refusal to do anything about it.


Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan in ‘Creed’

Creed

A reboot that doesn’t suck. Director Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan’s second collaboration after the smart and stark indie drama Fruitvale Station is an unlikely continuation of the Rocky series (can we call it a saga now?). Jordan, tilting between bottled-up tension and cocky humor, plays Adonis Creed, son to Rocky’s one-time nemesis and later ally against the Soviet menace Apollo Creed. Tired of working an office job and fighting secretly in Mexico, Adonis defies his mother (Phylicia Rashad) and moves to Philadelphia to train with old Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) himself. The story might be predictable but it takes second stage to the instantly charming father-son rapport between Adonis and Rocky.


Bel Powley and Alexander Skasgard in ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

In Marielle Heller’s grungy but somehow still bright-eyed coming-of-age story, the awkward but vivacious Minnie (a radiant Bel Powley) navigates the raging storm of her adolescent hormones while remaining true to her desires. It’s San Francisco in the 1970s and the whiff of countercultural permissiveness is still heavy in the air, allowing Minnie room to roam once she decides to start playing the field. But that doesn’t mean Minnie’s mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) would exactly be excited about the affair her daughter is having with Charlotte’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skasgard). Although the film’s look is hazy and dim, that’s more for period effect. The spirit of Heller’s film is eagerly positive and exploratory, while managing not to ignore the potential pitfalls of Minnie’s risky behavior.


Lampooners

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the ‘National Lampoon’

While National Lampoon remains known to most people as the name occasionally appearing above the title of movies like Animal House, for the kind of comedy nerds who will happily dig into this warts-and-all documentary, it’s something of a Holy Grail. Director Doug Tirola rounds up everybody he can find who was present for the meteoric rise and almost as fast collapse of the comedy magazine that defined countercultural humor in the 1960s and ’70s. Hitting the cultural zeitgeist with just the right combination of low humor and assaultive anti-establishment rage, the magazine essentially defined the American comedy scene for years — and that was before their radio show brought the likes of John Belushi and Chevy Chase to national attention, just in time for Lorne Michaels to poach them for Saturday Night Live. There’s enough genius on display here that later missteps like Caddyshack can (almost) be forgiven.


Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segal in ‘The End of the Tour’

The End of the Tour

In 1996, Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky tagged along with David Foster Wallace for five days of a book tour just as Wallace’s behemoth Infinite Jest was garnering him acclaim as the voice of a generation. In James Ponsoldt’s emotionally acute recreation of Lipsky’s book about the tour (Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself), Jesse Eisenberg plays Lipsky as a nervy guy on the make while Jason Segal’s Wallace is all shaggy-dog anxiety and overwrought intellect. The script is refreshingly literate in capturing the way that book people actually talk, while the insecure jab-and-thrust of Lipsky and Wallace’s burgeoning friendship is as heartfelt as it is anxious. Throughout, Lipsky watches and listens to the motormouth Wallace as though seeking all the answers, while Wallace predicts our post-book, screen-fixated world with a self-aware Gen-X sarcasm that doesn’t hide his fright at what’s to come.


Sadness and Joy in ‘Inside Out’

Inside Out

Now that we’re past the Golden Age of Pixar, it’s nice to see they can still generate original ideas that don’t pander nearly as much as the average Disney or Dreamworks animated product. A young girl named Riley moves with her parents from Minnesota to San Francisco. In the process, her whole world is upended. So far, so normal. The kicker here is that all of her emotions — Anger, Disgust, Fear, Joy, Sadness — are represented as individual characters operating her subconscious as a kind of committee who all battle for her attention. It could easily have been Herman’s Head by Pixar. But the depth of imagination the writers put into spelling out this scenario is impressive, and the ensemble humor is about as good as it gets in modern animation. Anecdotal evidence suggests that kids who have seen Inside Out multiple times are using it as a tool for controlling their own chaotic feelings. Whether that is a good thing remains to be seen.


A bad idea in ‘It Follows’

It Follows

A horror film that lies somewhere between the relentless classic killer-stalker scenario and the body-horror grotesquerie of David Cronenberg, writer/director David Robert Mitchell swirls suburban slacker ennui and a post-millennial view of dead-end America into his breakout film’s gruesome mix. After having sex with a guy she doesn’t know in the back seat of his car, a young woman discovers that he’s passed a kind of possession on to her: A relentless and soul-hungry spirit now follows her wherever she goes, inhabiting any body it needs to along the way. The unnervingly low, electronic score and bleak Detroit landscapes more than compensate for the film’s occasional gaps in horror-film logic.


The boys strike a pose in ‘Magic Mike XXL’

Magic Mike XXL

This just-tongue-in-cheek-enough sequel to Steven Soderbergh’s 2012 surprise hit about the lives, struggles, and choreography of a band of male strippers, carries a devil-may-care confidence that wins you over precisely because it’s not trying to go bigger and bolder. Instead, director Gregory Jacobs — Soderbergh’s usual assistant director, who also works with him on the period medical drama The Knick — is content to tell the further adventures of a merry band of male entertainers who love what they do, know they can’t keep doing it forever, and want to go out on a high note. There isn’t much to the story, just Channing Tatum (whose easygoing charm permeates the whole endeavor) and his crew taking a road trip to the “Stripper Convention” (no gilding the lily here) in Myrtle Beach and finding plenty of opportunity for hijinks and new dance moves along the way. It’s a playful, good-natured fantasy that stands in stark contrast to the summer’s more frantic and insecure sequels like Jurassic World. Tatum vogues; the women scream; dollar bills are thrown; friendships are affirmed.


Benicio Del Toro in ‘Sicario’

Sicario

There are a couple major problems with this tautly shot but slackly written U.S.-Mexico border cartel thriller. First is the casting of Emily Blunt as a hard-bitten yet clueless FBI agent who gets sucked into a violent shadow world of hush-hush double crosses, secret task forces, and quasi-legal deals. Second is that for all the story’s post-9/11 urgency, it can’t help falling into standard revenge flick clichés in the last act. But the seven-foot-tall swagger of Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro and the gorgeously dark sheen of Roger Deakins’s cinematography go a long way towards making up for it. For all its indulgent mistakes, there’s something dire, hard to shake, and familiar seeming about the tensions conjured by the film. “This is the land of wolves now,” Del Toro’s character says about the border region. A few years from now, it might sound prophetic.


NWA meets the world in ‘Straight Outta Compton’

Straight Outta Compton

In this full-throttle biopic about epochal hip-hop group NWA, F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job) finally showcases the promise that was clear in 1996’s all-women heist flick Set It Off. The film smartly weaves together the story of how the group’s raw sound and harsh lyrics not only channeled the rage of the poor and police-oppressed but changed the genre as irrevocably as the Sex Pistols changed rock and roll. It spends a little too much time on the squabbles between the group and the alliance between one of their frontmen, Easy-E (Jason Mitchell), and manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). But the against-the-odds narrative is hard to resist, particularly in the later stretch when we see how the post-NWA arcs of Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Ice Cube (Cube’s real-life son O’Shea Jackson Jr.) managed to reinvent hip-hop all over again.


City of night: ‘Tangerine’

Tangerine

A non-stop blur of verbal combat, frantic movement, and pathos, Sean Baker’s film about transgender hookers on the streets of Los Angeles has the kind of plotless pulsating energy that merits comparisons to Mean Streets. The story is as simple as the complications are dense: It’s Christmas Eve and vengeful Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is tearing up the streets looking for her pimp and (maybe) fiancée Chester (James Ransome) who she suspects of cheating on her. Sin-Dee’s quieter best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) is stuck in the crossfire, pining occasionally for a different kind of life but seemingly aware that anything different is worlds away for her. Baker’s transition from broad farce to quiet tragedy hits like a punch.


Helen Mirren and Bryan Cranston in ‘Trumbo’

Trumbo

Yes, there is a lot to Jay Roach’s star-packed, seriocomic story of Dalton Trumbo and the Hollywood Blacklist that makes it seem like the perfect sort of thing to premiere on HBO on a Sunday night. Yes, Bryan Cranston’s wry and stirring take on the writer whose progressive politics blacklisted him for years is the best thing about it. And yes, Peter Askin’s 2007 documentary of the same name — in which a roll-call of greats from Donald Sutherland to David Strathairn intoned the great screenwriter’s words in a variety of stirring cadences — was better. But if you’ll take any opportunity to see the likes of John Goodman and Helen Mirren playing to the back row (and who wouldn’t?), then this is highly worth your time. At the very least, it’s a reminder of the slippery slope towards self-censorship and the battle between commerce and ideals.


Read more in Eyes Wide Open 2015: The Best (and Worst) Movies of the Year. On sale now in both paperback and ebook.

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