How good was 2015 for movies? My first draft of a top ten was a staggering top thirty. I had to make some agonizing cuts and punt by giving documentaries their own sidebar — this year, they’ve earned it. Your challenge, should you choose to accept it: Watch every one by New Year’s Eve. OK, OK, at least by New Year’s Eve next year — by which point, Hollywood willing, we’ll have another long list of flicks to celebrate. Masochistically, I hope making that one will be just as painful.
10. Tangerine — Sean Baker’s comedy about two transgender prostitutes who spend Christmas Eve hunting their estranged boyfriend/pimp was the last film I saw at this January’s Sundance. What a way to kick off a great year of movies. Tangerine is a fresh look at Los Angeles, a city I love with all of my heart. Best of all: It’s my new favorite holiday movie. Adios, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.
9. The Second Mother — Brazilian comic Regina Casé is her country’s Lily Tomlin — she’s been doing great, eclectic work for decades. And, like Tomlin in Grandma, by starring in a semi-serious drama, she gets an overdue ovation. In The Second Mother, Casé plays a beloved live-in maid who finds her role in her boss’s family disrupted when her estranged daughter, a smart, snobbish girl who can pass for upper-class, moves in to the house — and a much nicer bedroom than hers. Don’t miss this good-hearted movie with a very sharp sting.
8. Spy — Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy make such a potent pairing that Bridesmaids won her an Oscar nomination. For my money, she deserves it more for their third team-up, a madcap riot that showcases the comedian’s under-tapped intelligence and strength. Every beat is delightful, especially Jason Statham’s masterclass in deadpan meatheadedness. The entire cast — Rose Byrne, Jude Law, Miranda Hart, Peter Serafinowicz — is an argument for why we need to reward comedies, and comedy directors, during awards season.
7. Victoria — Whoop-dee-doo that Birdman forged a continuous single shot. Wanna see the real deal? Check out this astonishing — and unfaked — German film about a Spanish girl who gets swept up in a crazy night with four drunk thugs, and try to keep pace as the camera chases the unlucky quintet across Berlin from rooftops to clubs to scary vans. Director Sebastian Schipper shot the film three times — this is the last take — and he timed it so perfectly that it ends right as the sun rises. But Victoria is more than a gimmick. Lead Laia Costa, who masters all these emotions in real time, is a big-deal discovery.
6. Room — Last year, Lenny Abrahamson earned a spot on my top ten for his soulful music dramedy Frank, a/k/a the movie where Michael Fassbender wears a giant puppet mask. Good lord, does this Dublin director have range. Room turns two people trapped in a backyard shed into an epic exploration of the force, and fragility, of the human spirit. I’m thrilled to see Brie Larson get the acclaim she’s already more than earned — and to see what the astonishing nine-year-old actor Jacob Tremblay, just seven during filming, goes on to do next.
5. Mad Max: Fury Road — In the spirit of the flick, who needs words? Buckle up and vroooooom.
4. American Ultra — I was knocked sideways by Nima Nourizadeh’s giddy thriller about a stoner couple hijacked by the CIA. That plot sounds generic; the film is anything but. Nourizadeh and screenwriter Max Landis are inventive, energetic, and clever. But this soars thanks to the lead performances by Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg, serious actors and longtime friends, who deepen their pothead lovebirds with genuine emotion and angst. American Ultra was too comic for gorehounds, too gory for pure comedy. It’s its own strange monster, and I loved every second.
3. The Hateful Eight — After his masterpiece Django Unchained, Tarantino has nothing left to prove. So now he gets to have fun with this wicked head-scrambler that plays like the bastard child of Agatha Christie and Sam Peckinpah. The Hateful Eight is meant to be watched big and with an audience who will gasp, squirm, and laugh in all the worst places. Dress warm — this blizzard-set film literally and emotionally chills you to the bone.
2. Anomalisa — The only way Charlie Kaufman could follow up Synecdoche, New York, tied for my favorite film of all time, is with this small marvel about a miserable narcissist. Over a single night in a generic hotel, the man — or, really, the puppet — is slapped awake by love. But Kaufman is such a clear-eyed expert on human behavior that he shuns easy endings. Forget action flicks. This hushed stop-motion drama might be the most brutal film of the year.
1. Chi-Raq — Spike Lee’s savage satire of sex and violence is the only contender for best film of 2015, a year marked, painfully, by gun violence from planned mass attacks to unarmed civilians shot by the police. Chi-Raq takes aim at everyone, and everything, responsible for the bloodshed — racism, poverty, desperation, apathy, and machismo — and destroys his targets. Welcome back, Spike. And stay awhile — America needs you.
SIDEBAR: The Year’s Most Essential Documentaries
Tear through 2015’s best nonfiction films and you’ll see the great range of the modern documentary: the straightforward brilliance of the political history Best of Enemies, the nail-biting battle footage of Cartel Land, the humanist wit of Finders Keepers, the quiet patience of The Look of Silence, the eerie animation of Listen to Me Marlon. Four of the films — The Russian Woodpecker, (T)error, Democrats, and We Come as Friends — tackle government inaction and idiocy, but each leaves a unique bruise on its audience. And the last on the list, The Wolfpack, is hardly a documentary at all, yet it’s filled with love for what the best movies do for our souls.
Best of Enemies
Listen to Me Marlon
The Look of Silence
The Russian Woodpecker
We Come as Friends