With Honors
(Best Movies of the Year)

Here we are, with less than one day left in the year and nothing left to discuss except the best of the best, the highest film achievements of 2015. I hope you can all forgive me for choosing to present this list ceremoniously, forgoing the typical format of commenting on each entry so that I might instead discuss the collective afterward, because I think this is the first year that there exists a tonal theme to my Best of the Year list.

It should be noted that, at the time of my writing this article, my favorite 2015 documentary features have been collected in a separate list here. Lastly, keep in mind that this isn’t AE’s formal Best of the Year list. The staff will be providing you that soon.

With all that considered, here are my selections for the ten most intelligent, engaging, affecting, inspiring, and entertaining films of 2015, with the very best reserved for last.

 

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

10. The Visit

 

Phoenix

IFC Films

9. Phoenix

 

Madman Entertainment

Madman Entertainment

8. What We Do in the Shadows

 

Creed

Warner Bros./MGM

7. Creed

Bone Tomahawk

RLJ Entertainment

6. Bone Tomahawk

FilmBuff/Drafthouse Films

FilmBuff/Drafthouse Films

5. Spring

Warner Bros. Pictures

Warner Bros. Pictures

4. Magic Mike XXL

Open Road Films

Open Road Films

3. Dope

The Big Short

Paramount Pictures

2. The Big Short

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

Final Assessment

The question of whether a film year is good or bad is such a difficult (if not useless) one to approach, at least in the immediate aftermath of the year under investigation. But, when I look at my current favorite films from 2015, I get a sense of cultural change that I have not received from recent film years (not even from 2013, which I still think is the best year for film that I’ve been alive to witness). I think this year more than ever, it might be important to think about film as a collective defined by chronological boundary. Because many of these entries possess a similar energy, a sense that the film itself wants to see movies and their consumer culture pick up the best parts of the past and move forward.

Magic Mike XXL, with its unabashed commitment to inject fun into the standard contemplative road trip movie and its unashamed appeasement of the female gaze (finally, right?), might have felt like a curious outlier in other years, a cult classic destined to be more appreciated in future eras. But hold it in the same light as Spring, which took Richard Linklater’s Before-trilogy travel narrative and wrapped it John Carpenter’s monster movie skin to ask deep and intelligent questions about the history of the world’s understanding of love against humanity’s inability to comprehend its biological temporality. Pair them both with Dope’s repurposing of the John Hughes narrative vehicle to tell the story of underprivileged urban teens’ high school experience, a combination that ends up being electrifyingly alive in its 200 mph telling. Add in Bone Tomahawk, a movie that, instead of bending and distorting genre conventions, sews them together so that each viewing might result in a new experience, some narrative thread undetected in initial viewings. Then, the most prominent and continuously-present franchise of all time received what might be the most singularly well-conceived reboot ever in Creed, with Coogler touching up all the flaws from the lesser Rocky films, hitting every nostalgic chord with just the right intensity as to not overplay the note, and sneakily slipping our attention to his new hero, a man whose origin is, in many ways, the direct inversion of his legendary mentor. When you consider all of these films together, it does not feel like a collection of anomalies any more, but some sort of movement.

Even the familiar, established filmmakers are pressing onward and outward, into new territory. In The Visit, M. Night Shyamalan provides functional and thematic purpose to found footage years after everyone pronounced it dead. An evidently angry Adam McKay, the Director of Talledaga freakin’ Nights, in The Big Short puts together the pitch perfect film to address a specific crisis and the cultural flaws that allowed it to manifest. With What We Do in the Shadows, TV veterans Taiki Waititi and Jemaine Clement made the funniest film of the decade with a refreshingly sharp Christopher Guest impression. Even Phoenix, a sort of Bergman-meets-Hitchcock throwback, still employs the storytelling voice of those titans to create a film that is very uniquely modern in its jarring effect.

And all of this still under the umbrella shadow of Mad Max: Fury Road, which reveals itself on every repeat watch to be poetry, symphony, ballet, high art. Fury Road shifts the entire scale; what we thought was world-building from larger franchises in recent years now feels like product testing. Those movies that we deemed to be passable action films since Terminator 2: Judgement Day now feel like whimpering white noise. Maybe the only reason that we aren’t demanding that our movies always be this good is because we have never seen the bar set this high, and we are in awe by the impression left by the best movie of 2015.

So, yes, it is difficult to measure the quality of a year, and it’s especially true that it’s difficult to measure the quality of a year with so much newness in its artists, their visions, and their execution. I cannot say this is a great film year. I can’t predict how these films stack up against traditional standards or where they will ultimately sit on the shelves of film history, but I can say this: for the first time in a very, very long time, it feels like an era is finding its own magical voice. And it feels like the start of something…

2015’s Overall Film Grade: A-

 

Click here for a rough ranking of every new movie I saw in 2015.

 

Best New Directors | Best Comedies | Best Movie Romances | Conflicts and Controversies | Best Horror Films | Misc. Film Images | Best Performances | Worst Movies of 2015 | Best Movies of 2015