Like a lot of critics, I hate making ranked lists. When it comes to art, we can make qualitative judgments about “better” and “worse,” but I’m not convinced that definitive rankings do anything more than cause Internet commenters to argue.
Nevertheless, tradition and the job demand some kind of list, and 2015 was an uncommonly good year for movies, so I had plenty to choose from. I had two criteria in mind.
First, the film had to be what I’d call great art. Some of these are deeply flawed films, but they also have that spark that keeps me thinking about them. In short, they do what I believe great art was created to do: to cause us to see the world in a new way. I saw other films I loved, of course, but if they didn’t challenge me or move me in some way, they’re not on the list.
And second, they had to be films that were still coming to my mind unbidden for days, weeks, even months after seeing them.
Here’s an unranked list of those 20 films, which together form a little cloud of meaning that will follow me into the new year. I’ve grouped them by the big themes and questions they raise.
Who’s at Fault When Institutions Are Broken?
(CT’s review, by Ken Morefield)
Besides being a great film about journalism that skillfully bucks against the usual “journalist as savior” trope, Spotlight is a biting reminder of the banality of evil and the many factors that have to come together in order for an institution to harbor systemic abuse. This is a film about abuse of children by Catholic priests, but it’s even more a film about how every one of us is complicit when the weak and vulnerable are exploited.
Mad Max: Fury Road
(CT’s review, by Brett McCracken)
A fine sequel (not a reboot!) to the old Australian series—with Tom Hardy in the Mel Gibson role—Mad Max: Fury Road was notable to me for a few reasons. One was the great Imperator Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron), an action heroine who was both bruised and triumphant, with a strong sense of purpose and justice. Another was the experience of watching the film: a glorious assault on the senses that dares you to look away (you can’t). And the third was its exploration of what saves a society after the apocalypse, something I explored in a piece at The Washington Post. Mad Max: Fury Road ought to be watched alongside Spotlight as an important statement about institutions and justice.
Best of Enemies
(My dispatch from Sundance)
I love this documentary about the 1968 debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. It’s an exciting film that plays like a thriller (no small feat). But more importantly, it tries to put its finger on the cultural moment that led to the sort of shouting-heads political discourse we endure today. And there’s a strong argument embedded within it that we viewers are as much or more of the problem than the oft-demonized “mainstream media.” A must-see.
What a crazy mess of a film this is—a passionate, at times illogical plea for today’s violence-ridden Chicago that is equal parts retelling of Aristophanes' Lysistrata and political sex farce. (That will make more sense if you acquaint yourself with Lysistrata.) This film lays the blame at everyone’s feet. Nobody gets off the hook. (It also features an extended scene with a liturgical dance in a church to a worship anthem and a long sermon.)