Best Films of 2015

2015 was a great year for film. A lot of the titles I placed here in my own Top 10 I never expected to like so much. It means that films that would typically appear on this dedicated genre fan's list wound up nowhere near the Top 10. Many of the big awards films didn't hit right for me either, so we're left with a lesser known, adventurous, eclectic mix of cinema.

10) What Happened, Miss Simone?

What Happened, Miss Simoneis a biographical documentary about the rise and fall of Nina Simone. She lived enough for a dozen lives, yet struggled through it all herself. Told through new interviews and archival footage, What Happened, Miss Simone? is just captivating. Simone was such a gifted performer who always wanted more from her life. Just learning about her childhood and early adulthood training and sacrificing to become the first black classical pianist in America opens up her entire approach to music before you hear one note of her breakout single "I Loves You, Porgy."

Available on Netflix


9) Ex Machina

Alex Garland has written some of the most interesting sci-fi and horror in the past 20 years. He wrote 28 Days Later. He wrote Coma. He wrote the novel The Beach that was turned into a mediocre thriller because it so clearly lost his voice. Ex Machina is his first time directing a feature film and it's thrilling. The screenplay is especially nuanced in its weaponization of misogyny and human sexuality for shocking effect. If the camera lingers a bit too long on the physical form of the beautiful artificial intelligence robot at the center of the film, it is used (however bluntly, sometimes) to create sympathy for a robot programmed to be human. Her body is see-through and filled with glowing wires; only her face is designed to truly look alive. Her creator and her tester, both men, unknowingly project their own opinions and prejudices of women onto her in every scene. The result is a painful to watch sci-fi film in the truest sense of the genre: part science, part social commentary, all thought-provoking.

Available on Amazon Prime


8) Unfriended

Another one of the films that just came out of nowhere and shocked me into attention. No, I did not think the Skype horror movie was going to be any good. It is, perhaps, one of the most honest horror films about young people in years. My students are constantly multitasking, talking with, around, and about each other through phones, tablets, and laptops while doing all sorts of other important things through the Internet. Turn that culture into a horror film spurred on by the toxicity of social media and inescapable bullying and you've hit on something special. The final reveal is devastating for how accurately it reflects the kind of revenge postings young people are capable of on social media. It's not like you're really exposing someone's darkest moments; it's just Facebook/Twitter/SnapChat/YouTube, not real life. Except for when the digital sphere overtakes real life. Then it's criminal and worthy of some cathartic paranormal slasher elements.

Review

Available for digital rental and purchase


7) Carol

I wasn't sure I was going to like Carol beyond the performances. I mean, Cate Blanchett and Sarah Paulson sharing screentime is enough to get me to the theater. To see such a quiet story told with such an eye for production design, costuming, and cinematography is breathtaking. John Waters, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, claimed the story of Carol and her much younger lover Therese is so outstanding in 2015 because it's so traditional. I say the doggish commitment to Golden Age standards is an illusion to make you absorb all the little shocking details about power dynamics, a la carte social substitutions, and depression as easily as a typical popcorn romance. There is nothing typical about Carol.

Review

Now playing in theaters


6) Advantageous

I feel like Ex Machina needed a film like Advantageous to finally get released in the same year. They deal with a lot of the same themes--customization of beauty, sex appeal as a weapon against the masses, corporate culture controlling and defining every element of a star employee's life. The big difference is that Advantageous gives the agency in a story about altering your physical appearance to be more respected and powerful in the world to women. The two important male characters in the story are supporting and are themselves controlled by much more powerful women. The people locked in a small world wrestling with advancing technology are a mother and daughter, not relative strangers, and both are able to escape their personal prison of isolation whenever they want by freely walking out the door. It's basically Ex Machina without the hard to handle misogyny and weaponization of female sexuality. Both exist as the subtext, not the text of this brilliant sci-fi story.

Review

Available on Netlix

5) Suburban Gothic

You know I love my mirror films; that's why Mavis Gary (Young Adult) is my spirit animal. If you told me there would be a horror film about a young man who has to move back in with his parents after losing a ton of weight, overcoming depression by simply removing himself from a toxic environment, and struggling to fit in with his extravagant fashions and biting wit, I wouldn't have believed you. Now make that a haunted house film with a dark humor streak and a great hook and you'll have me as a dedicated fan in no time. No film entertained me as much as Suburban Gothic this year.

Review

Available on Amazon Prime


4) Iris

Iris is a charming documentary brought to life by having the right subject at the right time. The titular Iris is a senior citizen who came to fame in her 80s through a major art exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Now she's a popular subject for gallery exhibitions of costuming and jewelry, a successful jewelry and accessory designer, and an in-demand dresser for major department stores. What makes this documentary so much more engaging than so many narrative films this year is the honest and heartwarming romance between Iris and her husband. Try to find me a romance as sweet as Iris and Carl Apfel's in any recent film. I dare you.

Review

Available on Netflix


3) A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is a pastiche of comedy sketches from Sweden. In embracing absurdity through an unmoving camera lens, writer/director Roy Andersson captures the essence of loneliness in the face of death like no other film this year. I mentioned it in my review, but A Pigeon... also features one of the scariest scenes I've ever seen in a film, bookended by biting commentary on colonialism and social elitism. There is no other film like this in 2015, and that's not a bad thing. Sometimes, you need a film to grab you, slap you across the face, and leave you stunned.

Review

Available on Netflix


2) Mad Max: Fury Road

If you were to tell me the fourth film in a series (released 20 years after the previous sequel) would turn into the story of feminist warriors fighting against the patriarchy while dragging around a renegade named Max, I would have laughed in your face before 2015. Now make it a film with barley any dialogue, dance-like action sequences, and Charlize Theron playing a one-armed badass leading abused sex slaves to freedom, and you have my attention. Mad Max: Fury Road is easily one of the greatest action films of all time. It stands out not just for actually giving women voices and agency in their own action film, but for being an amazing technical achievement by any standard. Long live Imperator Furiosa.

Available for digital rental and purchase


1) Tangerine

Writer/director Sean Baker crafts the most adventurous and honest narrative of 2015 in Tangerine. The film follows two transgender prostitutes trying to find their John on Christmas Eve in LA. Shot on an iPhone (yes, an iPhone), the film features some of the most beautiful cinematography of the year. The pacing of the action and intersection of hectic holiday travel and the invisible working girls creates humor, pathos, and thrills like no other film this year. Standout work from Kitana "KiKi" Rodriguez and Mya Taylor as the two prostitutes make the material sing in unexpected ways. One can only hope everyone involved in this production sees nothing but success and opportunity in the future.

Review

Available on Netflix

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