Best Movies of 2015 – My Picks

10. Trainwreck

Judd Apatow | 125 mins | Comedy/Drama/Romance
Amy Schumer | Bill Hader | Brie Larson | Colin Quinn

Amy Schumer has recently come under fire for stealing jokes from other comedians and using them in her film Trainwreck.  Regardless of how she got the jokes for her film, I suggest she keep doing it because Trainwreck is the funniest comedy of its kind since Bridesmaids.

In Trainwreck, Schumer plays a thirty-something party girl with no intentions of settling down.  That is, until she meets a likeable sports physician (Bill Hader) who happens to be best pals with Lebron James.  Schumer and Hader are both very funny, but James steals the show by turning in the best performance by a basketball player since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar defended his defensive effort in Airplane!

Comedies seldom receive their fair-share of recognition from critics or from Oscars, yet it is so seldom that a smart comedy like Trainwreck gets released.  And in a genre where jokes get recycled on repeat, Schumer is at least using jokes that feel new and, more importantly, are very funny.

9. 45 Years

Andrew Haigh | 91 mins | Drama/Romance
Charlotte Rampling | Tom Courtnenay | Geraldine James | Dolly Wells

45 Years holds the unique distinction of being the only film I saw in 2015 where multiple groups of people exited the theater before its heartbreaking ending.  Sure, Andrew Haigh’s slow-paced film isn’t for everyone, but it does reward patient audience members that have a keen eye for detail.

At its surface, 45 Years appears to be a simple film, but few films in 2015 were so layered.  In just 95 minutes, Haigh’s film examines relationships by telling the story a retired couple (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay) whose marriage is tested after new details from a tragic past event surface, just days before their 45th anniversary celebration.

Obviously, it makes sense that 45 Years was marketed heavily towards the senior crowd, but it is a real treat for moviegoers of all ages – at least those who don’t give up on it halfway through.

8. Ex Machina

Alex Garland | 108 mins | Drama/Sci-Fi/Thriller
Alicia Vikander | Domhnall Gleeson | Oscar Isaac | Sonoya Mizuno

Ever since the dawn of film, the movie industry has had an obsession with artificial intelligence, but many of the films examining the topic lack intelligence themselves.  Fortunately, that’s not the case with Ex Machina, the impressive debut film from Alex Garland.

Ex Machina tells the story of a computer scientist named Caleb who is invited to a private home to take part in a series of studies on a highly advanced android named Ava.   Ava may be the most lifelike robot in the history of cinema – she has human emotions and reasoning, which quickly fascinates both Caleb and viewers.

Much of the film’s success belongs to the underappreciated performance from Alicia Vikander.  She is considered the frontrunner for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in The Danish Girl, but her role of Ava may be the single best performance I saw in 2015.  She’s captivating and unforgettable, much like the film itself.

7. Anomalisa

Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson | 90 mins | Animation/Comedy/Drama/Romance
David Thewlis | Jennifer Jason Leigh | Tom Noonan

Typically, the animated films on my lists are reserved for Pixar films.  Then again, there’s nothing typical about Anomalisa, or its brilliant creator, Charlie Kaufman.  Quite simply, Kaufman is the greatest screenwriter of our time – and perhaps even of all time.

I could go on and on about Kaufman’s previous works, which include Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but the thing that makes Kaufman’s films so special is that they take us to a place that we’ve never been before – which is certainly the case with Anomalisa.

Anomalisa tells a simple story: Michael Stone is a best-selling self-help author who feels trapped by the dullness and predictability of his everyday life.  That is, until he meets Lisa, a star-struck fan who literally has a voice of her own.

Anomalisa certainly isn’t for everyone, but Kaufman’s films never are.  Perhaps that’s what I like most about them: they always seem to be made just for me.

6. Spotlight

Tom McCarthy | 129 mins | Biography/Crime/Drama
Mark Ruffalo | Michael Keaton | Rachel McAdams | Liev Schreiber

This year’s Oscar race for Best Picture is wide open, with four films all having a decent shot of taking home the top prize.  Three of those four films – The Big Short, Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant – were disappointments to me.  Spotlight was not.

Like many of the other gems of 2015, Spotlight is a film about doing the right thing.  It centers around a team of Boston Globe reporters who are assigned to write a feature on the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals.  At first, the story is just another assignment for the reporters, but as time goes on they realize its significance and do everything they can to do it justice.

Spotlight received six Oscar nominations, including two for the great performances of Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams, but perhaps its true testament of greatness is that critics needed to dig back nearly 40 years (1976’s All the President’s Men) to find a film worthy of comparison.  And Spotlight is definitely deserving of those comparisons.

5. The Martian

Ridley Scott | 144 mins | Adventure/Drama/Sci-Fi
Matt Damon | Jessica Chastain | Kristen Wiig | Kate Mara

There are two historically acceptable ways to portray mathematicians and scientists in the media.  The first way is to make them as nerdy as possible, a la The Big Bang Theory.

The second, slightly more flattering view is to portray them as academically brilliant, but lacking the social skills to make anything of it.  In the best cases, you get Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting.  In worse cases, you end up with schizophrenia (A Beautiful Mind) or in need of shock treatment (The Imitation Game).  And I won’t even mention what happens to the mathematician in Pi.

The Martian, however, dared to make science and math seem cool, and knocked it out of the park.   Matt Damon plays astronaut Mark Watney, who is left behind on Mars after being presumed dead by the rest of his crew.  In order to survive, Watney must rely on his brains and wit to save his life.

Much ink has been spilled over how Leonardo DiCaprio deserves an Oscar, which is true.  However, I’d argue that Damon is the reason The Martian works so well.  He pulls off a one-man act that is superior to any one-man acts in the history of cinema, including Tom Hanks in Cast Away and Robert Redford in All Is Lost.  It’s because of him that The Martian is the single most entertaining film of 2015.

4. Brooklyn

John Crowley | 117 mins | Drama/Romance
Saoirse Ronan | Emory Cohen | Domhnall Gleeson | Jim Broadbent

We live in an era where a smart, old-fashion love story has become a real rarity.  The genre, which dominated the screens during the golden years of cinema, has become nearly extinct today.  In fact, you may have to go all the way back to the 90s to find a traditional love story as smart and lovely as Brooklyn.

At the heart of the film is Saoirse Ronan, who received an Oscar nod for her wonderful performance.  She plays Eilis, an Irish immigrant who must decide between the life she has made in America and the one anxiously awaiting her return back in Ireland.  And, to complicate things even more, Eilis has a love-struck guy in each location.

Brooklyn feels like a Jane Austen story that takes place in the 1950s, and it feels like a film that could have been made in the mid 90s.  Yet it’s timing could not be better, because Brooklyn is exactly the type of movie we need more of right now.

3. Inside Out

Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen | 95 mins | Animation/Adventure/Comedy/Drama
Amy Poehler | Bill Hader | Lewis Black | Mindy Kaling

Even after releasing a countless number of masterpieces in its first twenty years, Pixar Studios continues to surprise me with the abundance of beauty, creativity and depth it puts into each of its films.  And when it comes to those three qualities, Inside Out has as much as any of the Pixar masterpiece before it.

The film centers around a team of emotions – Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness – who are the emotional core in charge of keeping a young girl’s mood in balance when her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco.  If that sounds complex for a “kids’ movie”, it’s because Inside Out is really for the whole family.  In fact, I’d argue with its brainy storyline, it’s aimed more towards adults than most of the Pixar films before it.

Perhaps that’s why I liked it so much, even to the point that I don’t hesitate putting it alongside the Toy Story series, WALL-E and Finding Nemo as the best films from the most consistent studio around.

2. Sicario

Dennis Villeneuve | 121 mins | Action/Crime/Drama
Emily Blunt | Josh Brolin | Benicio Del Toro | Jon Bernthal

Is there a better action star in Hollywood right now than Emily Blunt?  After her triple play of Looper, Edge of Tomorrow and Sicario, I seriously doubt it.  She is the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the 2010s, except with far more talent, beauty and brains.

In Sicario, she plays an FBI agent who is recruited by the government to help tackle the war on drugs.  Her colleagues – which include Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro – have more experience and less integrity.  Their ambition is mysterious, which pushes Sicario’s tension to a level that wasn’t reached by any other film from 2015.

Many have compared Sicario to the film that made Del Toro a star, Traffic.  Although Traffic was a very important and smart film, Sicario greatly exceeds it in entertainment value from it’s thrilling opening to its unforgettable final shot.   In fact, the more I think about it, Sicario exceeds Traffic in every way.  And that’s high praise.

1. Carol

Todd Haynes | 118 mins | Drama/Romance
Cate Blanchett | Rooney Mara | Sarah Paulson | Kyle Chandler

I have to admit, I may be a bit biased towards films starring Rooney Mara.  She has now appeared in three of the last six films to top my list.  Yet, I don’t view this feat so much as a bias, but rather as a recognition of Mara’s commitment towards making films that will stand the test of time.  There isn’t an actor in Hollywood right now whose passion for cinema as an art form is more obvious.

Although she’s been billed as a supporting actress in Carol, she is really the heart and core of the film.  She plays Therese, a high-end store clerk who begins a romance with a wealthy older woman, played to perfection by Cate Blanchett.  The dual performances by Blanchett and Mara leave little doubt that these two actresses are in a class of their own.

I could go on and on about their performances, but the real reason that Carol deserves the top spot on my year-end list is because of the film’s abundant beauty.  Take, for example, a scene where Mara catches a ride from a coworker to avoid the rain.  It’s a scene that has been shot thousands of times before, yet never with so much elegance.

Director Todd Haynes is a master when it comes to shots like this.   One of his most acclaimed films, Far From Heaven, was praised with comparisons to the Douglas Sirk melodramas of the 1950s for its beauty and mood.  Far From Heaven was very good and is worthy to be called Hayes’ All That Heaven Allows.  But Carol is his Casablanca.