The Movie Sleuth's Top 15 of 2015!

We give you our favorite 15 films of 2015!

It feels like the past few years of film have zipped by. So many terrific films it seems are getting released more frequently and it's hard not to carry a sense of guilt for missing so many of them. We get so overwhelmed with trying to keep up that even our fairly sized staff for our small publication just can't get to all them. Even considering our collectively, and wildly eclectic taste, we don't get to see everything we want. Still, we managed to experience some uniquely remarkable events. Chris got to see Love in France before it made it State-side and Andrew visited a handful of spectacular theaters exhibiting films in their most ideal, and grandest forms.

At the moment, I don't think we could put a label on 2015 as "The Year of (Whatever Category)." It was an eclectic year, just like us at The Movie Sleuth, where intensely smart small films like Ex Machina somehow don't get forgotten under the shadow of fun blockbuster juggernauts like The Force Awakens. If anything, 2015 is another year closer to closing the gap between what a low-budget indie film can do amongst the money rakers, especially when you have elastic actors like Oscar Isaac stretching his wings to both ends of the spectrum. Here are what we consider the best films, big and small, of 2015 in a not so particular order...

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens -  directed by JJ Abrams - by Chris George
No matter what your stance on this latest Star Wars incarnation is, Mr. Abrams brings back the nostalgia of the pre-prequel era of the galaxy many of us grew up with. With a shift in tone back to the serials that initially inspired Mr. Lucas to make the original trilogy, The Force Awakens is a thrilling adventure that brings the fun and the family feeling back to a saga that lost much of its luster through the eyes of an annoying Gungan and horrendously wooden acting. With flawless chemistry between Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, this return to Star Wars may borrow heavily from its originator but still has a heart rooted in the hero's journey that will generate a new, younger audience while satisfying a large portion of adults that grew up with the non special edition versions of Episodes IV-VI. With focus shifting to a hybrid style of models and CGI, the Abrams vision may fall a bit short of some expectations but still lands somewhere in the best of 2015.

The Gift - directed by Joel Edgerton - by Michelle Kisner
The Gift was my surprise film of the year as it boasted one of the most bland and uninspiring movie trailers I have ever seen. It’s billed as a by-the-numbers thriller but as the film progresses it turns out to be much more subversive and sinister than it lets on. Joel Edgerton both directs and stars in the film and somehow manages to knock both of these things out of the park. Edgerton plays a mysterious man named Gordo, a childhood friend of the protagonist of the film Simon Callum (Jason Bateman as his usual snarky self). Simon and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) have moved back to his hometown and ghosts from the past start to haunt the couple’s life. It’s a slow burn film (perhaps just a tad too much) but the payoff is immense and the characterization is intriguing and complex. Every character is like an onion and the audience has to watch as each layer is slowly peeled away to reveal the core. This film is also kind of…mean and that adds to the discombobulated atmosphere of the setting. Something isn’t right and you can absolutely feel it—as the movie barrels to its conclusion the feeling of dread only get stronger. Though this film had abysmal marketing, I hope enough word-of-mouth gets out about it so that more people are able to experience the biggest sleeper film of 2015.

Love & Mercy - directed by Bill Pohlad -  by Christopher S. Jordan
This film about the artistic genius and psychological struggles of Brian Wilson is far from your typical biopic. Filmmaker Bill Pohlad puts the audience right into the iconic musician's turbulent mind with a psychologically-subjective portrait that cross-cuts between two of the most crucial and difficult points in his life. Paul Dano gives one of the best performances of his career as a young Wilson in the mid-1960s, pouring his soul into the groundbreaking orchestrations of The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, while his mind and personal life begin to fracture under the weight of mental illness and auditory hallucinations. John Cusack gives us some of his finest work in years as a middle-aged Brian in the 1980s, fighting to emerge from years of hell under the abusive and manipulative control of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), with the help of his new girlfriend Melinda (Elizabeth Banks). Pohlad's film cuts between these two storylines to give us a deeper understanding of this fascinating and tragic person, and also a deeper appreciation of just what a deceptively brilliant body of work lies behind the poppy orchestrations of his music. Love & Mercy is one of the most emotionally powerful films you will see about the topic of mental illness, and it also makes a strong case that The Beach Boys' sunny surf-rock actually contains the complex work of one of America's greatest composers. Atticus Ross, who collaborated with Trent Reznor on the Oscar-winning music for David Fincher's recent films, creates the brilliant soundscape which so thoroughly pulls us into Wilson's psyche. He uses abstract interpretations of the core elements of Beach Boys songs as springboards to engineer the eerie and enveloping auditory hallucinations that both plagued Brian Wilson and also inspired the music that he wrote. If ever there was a film that makes clear the emotional and storytelling impact of sound design, this is it. You don't need to be a Beach Boys fan to appreciate what a compelling piece of cinema Love & Mercy is.

Bone Tomahawk - directed by S. Craig Zahler - by Chris George
2015 revealed a slew of new Western based films including the phenomenal Bone Tomahawk. Seeing the return of Kurt Russell to the genre which defined the most successful era of his career, the film blends classic tones with a deep rooted element of horror that's hardcore and hyper-realistic in its presentation of the old west and its brutality. Featuring one of the most diabolical scenes of carnage of the entire year, Bone Tomahawk is a highly creative return to form for the genre as a whole that puts Richard Jenkins in the best role of his decades long illustrious resume. With hard edged attention to detail, unrelenting cannibalistic violence, phenomenal costume design, and excellent performances all around, Bone Tomahawk is a modern masterpiece highly reminiscent of years gone by. 

Roger Waters: The Wall - directed by Roger Waters and Sean Evans - by Dana Culling
One part concert film, one part personal documentary, The Wall follows former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters and his live band across Europe during live performances of Waters' re-imagination of his magnum opus. The portions of the film directly taken from the concert performances are epically stunning, showcasing updated puppet designs, lighting effects, and film elements Waters added and rearranged to introduce the album's story to a modern audience in a genuine spectacle. It is the delicate, almost private moments which really bring the material to life, however - Waters confronts his lifelong nightmares, guilt, and depression head-on as he contemplates his father's death during World War II, a number of his personal failures, and the mounting difficulties he had once found as a young man rising in stardom decades before. Essentially, Waters' own 'Wall' comes tumbling down as he talks of the moments he has found on the road; all of the meaning inherent in the music comes to life in his journey, and it is a far more intimate portrait of the musician than has previously been captured on film. Weaving through the performances and the conversations are glimpses of a man tearing down the Wall he has built up brick-by-brick since his childhood, at last finding peace and allowing himself to move forward gracefully into his twilight years.

Lost River - directed by Ryan Gosling - by Andrew Kotwicki
Initially reviled upon release by critics as a Nicolas Winding Refn and Mario Bava wannabe with troubled studio Warner Brothers inexplicably working to bury the film’s theatrical exhibition, the writing-directing debut of actor Ryan Gosling turned out to be the one of the year’s secret successes still yet to be discovered by devoted cinephiles.  Shot and set in Detroit, Michigan, Gosling’s psychedelic fairy tale about a family living in the inner city refusing to accept eviction from their home as the surrounding ghost town grows full of derelicts wound up hitting much close to home than initially anticipated.  With members of my own family holding on tight to their homestead as the city they reside in recedes further and further into Hell, Lost River may be the most telling portrait of citizens who will not take no for an answer even if the city has already told them so.  Detroit has never looked prettier than it does here with Gaspar Noe cinematographer Benoit Debie’s lush and colorful images nor has it sounded dreamier with electronic composer Johnny Jewel’s ambient soundtrack.  While not necessarily a masterpiece, Gosling’s confident and daring directorial debut presents our home town as a candy colored sort of waking nightmare that is equal parts Xenia Ohio in Harmony Korine’s Gummo and Taiwan in Refn’s Only God Forgives.  All technicalities aside, Lost River speaks to all trapped in a life of poverty struggling with all they can just to get through to the next day.

Creed - directed by Ryan Coogler - by Chris George
Ryan Coogler's Creed reignites the Rocky franchise with a quasi-sequel/soft reboot that introduces a new generation to a story eerily similar to the original rags to riches tale of a down on his luck boxer. Featuring a gripping performance from an aging Sylvester Stallone and a fresh twist on the Rocky legacy, Creed is a nearly perfect continuation in the decades long saga of the Italian Stallion. Hinging on a large amount of heart and a seething performance from Michael B. Jordan, Creed never forsakes the positives of the first few Rocky movies while moving well beyond the cheesy sins of the later entries. Relying on a  youthful, more spry screenplay and overall narrative, Coogler's film is a breath of fresh air for a franchise that was strangled of originality around the time Tommy Gunn showed up. While Creed didn't light the box office ablaze, it's a rousing retreat to better times when an audience could feel comfortable cheering for the underdog. 

The Martian - directed by Ridley Scott - by Sarah Shafer
The Martian is what Gravity would have been like if science had more of a hand in the respective outcomes, destroying each and every futuristic space movie, and quickly making all of them seem as tame as Toy Story. It’s a film that pools all possible outcomes and with the strong and steadfast will of humans and turns an “I wish” into an “I can”. There are several glaring instances of defeat that Watney is challenged with – no food, no water, no support system. Scott teaches us scene-by-scene what adversity feels and looks like, throwing in flawless and perfectly timed comedic relief to once again reassure that although this man is stranded on a planet 140 million miles from Earth, the smallest ounce of humor in even the toughest situations can nearly save a life. The Martian, based on the 2011 novel of the same name that made Andy Weir a surprise hit of the decade, is something relative of an Apollo 13-style theme mixed with Castaway type nuances.

Inside Out - directed by Pete Docter - by Dana Culling
Although the concept of personifying abstract concepts is as old as morality plays, Pete Docter and his team at Pixar both modernized and endeared the idea for young and old alike in Inside Out. Ostensibly about the everyday trials of growing up as it focuses on Riley, an eleven-year-old girl, the stakes are highest inside her mind as the five emotions which drive her reactions must come to terms with the unexpected changes occurring as her childhood literally crumbles around them. As they learn how to redefine individual roles within their young charge's consciousness, the real challenges they face come as they struggle to understand the growing complexity of her world - and within themselves. The heartfelt humor expected from Pixar is balanced evenly with a nostalgic, sweet sadness brilliantly brought to life by fantastic voice-acting, particularly by Amy Poehler as buoyant Joy, Phyllis Smith as the lachrymose Sadness and an especially sentimental performance by Richard Kind as Bing Bong, the personification of a childhood imaginary friend. The colorful internal world of young Riley's mindscape is contrasted with the confusing changes in her outer reality, in a visually lush film rife with esoteric symbolism made simple enough for younger viewers without resorting to mawkishness or condescension. And with Pixar's usual knack for all-ages appeal, it carries enough depth and soul to bring in the whole family, adding it to a growing list of classics.

Love - directed by Gaspar Noé - by Andrew Kotwicki
When Argentinian enfant terrible Gaspar Noe announced after his hallucinatory head trip Enter the Void his next project would be a 3D porn film that would “bring the sex right into your lap”, fans and filmgoers alike couldn’t help but smirk.  True to form, Noe had the last laugh when he unleashed Love: a kind of spiritual sequel of sorts to Enter the Void replete with a protagonist not unlike the aforementioned film’s hero.  Told largely in flashback, it’s the story of an unhappily married man with a child reflecting on how the former love of his life slipped through his fingers.  While openly pornographic in form, Love doesn’t seek to titillate but rather to normalize the daily romantic functions of its characters, demystifying the graphic copulation on display.  While no doubt an ego-driven expression by its iconoclastic and at times impish director, Noe’s earned the right to be so with his dense knowledge of film history, his unmatched technical prowess and desire to tell his story honestly without compromise.  Like it or not, the power of Love lies with creating a wholly original cinematic vision with all the aching beauty and despairing ugliness people locked into a relationship can experience.  Most surprising of all is the director seems to have outgrown his nihilistic shock tendencies in favor of a startlingly life affirming and hopeful humanistic expression.

Sicario - directed by Denis Villeneuve - by Blake O. Kleiner
One of the most harrowing and intense motion picture experiences of the year — perhaps even the decade — Denis Villeneuve’s third straight appearance on the Movie Sleuth’s Best of the Year list proves that he is no fluke. This is meticulously crafted and tension-fueled filmmaking, completely uncompromising in its vision of a grisly underworld full of people with good intentions driven to do unspeakably awful things in the name of law, profit, and even family. More than worthy to sit alongside masterpieces like Traffic, Sicario is also a terrific ensemble piece with Oscar-worthy performances, flawless cinematography, and one other key thing in common: Benicio del Toro offering arguably the best performance of his career. He is utterly terrifying in a role that takes him, and us, to some of the darkest corners of our hearts and has us questioning if there are any good guys left. If you are looking for this year’s frontrunner in the Supporting Actor race, look no further than Sicario.

Ex Machina - directed by Alex Garland - by Michelle Kisner
Alex Garland decided to come out from underneath his screenwriting mantel and finally direct a film: Ex Machina. His skills as a writer are well known (he penned Sunshine and 28 Days Later) and with this entry into the sci-fi genre I think his director skills will have the same fate. Ex Machina is a slick and thoughtful film that covers many themes: love, transhumanism, self-doubt, megalomania and ultimately—what it really means to be human. The film’s main three stars play off each other wonderfully with Oscar Issac’s chilling portrayal of Nathan Bateman, a completely charming and possibly sociopathic mad genius, stealing the show. The robot “woman”, played by Alicia Vikander, is simultaneously mesmerizing and disconcerting partly because of her excellent performance, but in no small part attributed to the outstanding and subtle special effects used for her appearance. Rounding out the trio is the nerdy and well-meaning Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) who has really been raising his acting chops since the Harry Potter films. The musical score is great as well with Geoff Barrow from Portishead working in tandem with British composer Ben Salsbury. It’s chilling, ethereal, foreboding and perfectly captures the ever-changing moods in the film. Ex Machina is hands-down one of the best directorial debuts I have ever seen and definitely one of the finest films from 2015.

Mad Max: Fury Road - directed by George Miller - by Mike Stec
"My name is Max.  My world is fire and blood."
These are the opening lines of Mad Max: Fury Road, visionary director George Miller's triumphant return to the Wastelands after a 30 year absence.  And that line doesn’t begin to do justice to the spectacle on screen.  A tense, engaging story is woven beautifully into an explosive barrage of mind-blowing action sequences.  Tom Hardy ably steps into the boots of Max Rockatansky (a role famously originated by Mel Gibson), but despite the title Fury Road is Charlize Theron's show, and she runs it with absolute authority.  Mad Max: Fury Road is a thrilling symphony of beauty and chaos that more than earns its place in action movie Valhalla.  Witness it.

The Hateful Eight - directed by Quentin Tarantino - by Andrew Kotwicki
Ever since Paul Thomas Anderson and Christopher Nolan began working with 65mm film in an age where digital shooting and projection has become the norm, mainstream filmmakers have embarked on a resurgence of the event driven film which offered far more wonders than television possibly could.  Nowhere is that truer than the 70mm roadshow experience of Quentin Tarantino’s bleak yet beautiful western horror film The Hateful Eight.  Touted as the first film to be shot and exhibited in Ultra Panavision 70mm in over 50 years, Tarantino and The Weinstein Company presented a remarkable $8 million endeavor of restoring lenses which haven’t been touched since 1966, rebuilding projectors able to show the film and culling projectionists out of retirement to oversee the roadshow.  Grandeur aside, The Hateful Eight raised the bar even further by confidently defying audience expectations and giving them an uncompromising excoriation of the heart of the American dream peppered with Tarantino’s trademark humor but lacking the crowd-pleasing finales of Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained.  Where Samuel L. Jackson was ‘trying real hard to be the shepherd’ in Pulp Fiction, it was refreshing to see the playing field full of no-good doers with little to no moral compass to speak of.  Gone is the cartoonish over the top violence, instead aiming for genuinely digging beneath the viewer’s skin.  Its centerpiece takes place just before the intermission where Samuel L. Jackson’s General Warren recounts a shocking horror story about Bruce Dern’s Confederate General’s son that is even uglier than Zed’s basement in Pulp Fiction.  It drops on the audience like a wicked gavel and that the intermission occurs shortly thereafter leaves viewers with a lot to process during the bathroom break.  Where Tarantino’s prior works seemed aimed at giving viewers a rollicking good time at the movies, The Hateful Eight marks the director’s most mature work since Jackie Brown by giving its audience what it needs instead.

The Revenant - directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu - by J.G. Barnes
The Revenant is one of the few films to deliver on precisely what it was advertised to. It was brutal, cold, rugged, dirty, unforgiving, and distressingly gorgeous to experience. Filmed with almost entirely natural light, the story was given a necessary realism that dragged us into the frigid, deathly landscapes, carrying us through the mud, the freezing rivers, vast forests, and frightening mountains of 1823 Montana and South Dakota. Filmed in several locations throughout Canada, Argentina, and the United States, Alejandro and the ingenious long-shot cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki takes you by the face and practically forces you into being engrossed by the setting. The camera rarely stops rolling, further pulling you knee-deep into the surroundings as dozens of rugged, beaten men run from and battle Native Americans with arrows whizzing from behind you, men running and screaming from all corners, all while the camera spins and dives, uncut, through the chaos as if you're there slipping against the filthy snow amongst the fray yourself. The film surrounds you, engulfs you, from every facet. The sound design is as thick, immensely detailed, and true-to-life as the production design. The writing is genuine, never overt, telling us only what we need to, coupled with the vividly intense performances from DiCaprio's Hugh Glass versus Tom Hardy's grumbling nihilistic John Fitzgerald, the story becomes a scathingly addictive arc to follow.

The Revenant
is an exquisite example of the finest that film making has to offer in just about every way. Don't be surprised when it's nominated for probably every category there is for film, including Best Picture and a much deserved nomination for DiCaprio. This year I haven't seen a performance better and it's about time he wins something. He damn well better. The conditions on the actors were as brutal as they were captured and DiCaprio gritted his teeth, fought to the bone, and screamed until his lungs bled. Give the man what he deserves already!

-The Movie Sleuth