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.)
The Housing Crisis Was a Moral Failure
The Big Short
(My take on the film’s structure)
Like Spotlight and Mad Max, The Big Short is a film about a broken institution: in this case, Wall Street and the big banks deemed “too big to fail.” This is an unabashedly political movie that’s at once entertaining, educational, and infuriating. If you didn’t get how the crash happened, you will—and you’ll be angry about it. The film is being sold as a comedy, but it’s a tragedy, or, perhaps, a tale of tyranny.
For my money, Ramin Bahrani is the best at what he does: wonderfully human social realism, exploring the experience of marginalized communities in the United States (immigrants, orphans, poor people) in a way that never patronizes. For 99 Homes, Bahrani turned his attention to the victims—and victors—of the recent housing crisis. It will rankle you, and it pairs well with The Big Short.
The Meaning of Life (Via Animation)
World of Tomorrow
This short animated film is the first digitally-created offering by the master of the form, Don Hertzfeldt. You can (and should) rent it on Vimeo. I have watched this film many times this year (and corresponded about it with my friend Tim Grierson for Movie Mezzanine). Hertzfeldt somehow combines absurdity and bleakness with an adorable protagonist (voiced by his niece) as she’s guided through a dystopian vision of the future by her own great-great-grandclone—never mind, you just have to see it. World of Tomorrow raises vital questions about what humans are, and whether we might try to preserve ourselves so much through science and technology that we cease being human. The line “now is the envy of all the dead” has stuck with me. And it was the movie we put on when the clock struck midnight and ended 2015.
I’ve found it incredibly hard to write about this film, the latest offering from Charlie Kaufman, King of Weird Movies (he penned the screenplays for Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and wrote and directed Synecdoche, New York). This movie features a stop-motion puppet who encounters a woman at a chain hotel in Cincinnati who—he thinks—will change his life. In its exploration of solipsism, disillusionment, sex, desire, and despair, Anomalisa is hard to forget.
Get Off My Lawn
While We're Young
(Brett McCracken's review for CT)
Noah Baumbach had two films come out this year—this one and Mistress America—but of the two, this is my favorite. It’s the tale of an older couple and a younger couple in Brooklyn who become friends, and it explores both generational disparities and the discomfort that comes with finding one’s place in the world. It may be most remarkable for its hilarious but non-caricatured portraits of what concerns both millennials and Gen X-ers—the kind of portrayal that’s hard to find anywhere.
Clouds of Sils Maria
Juliette Binoche plays Maria Enders, a veteran actress being forced to deal with her own history as she ages. In this, she faces a much younger actress (Chloe Grace Moretz) as her foil, but her true foil is her assistant Valentine, played by Kristen Stewart, who doesn’t want to be Maria so much as she wants to be involved in shaping art. The power struggle that emerges between Valentine and Maria is buried beneath their interactions and fascinating to watch. The movie raises questions about audience and artist, assistant and celebrity, older and younger.
Music Done Differently
Straight Outta Compton
I still don’t know much about ’90s West Coast rap, but after watching Straight Outta Compton I have a much better sense of the milieu from which it emerged. The movie is surprisingly timely, exploring the cultural panic over “gangsta rap” and how critiques were often divorced from any understanding of the music’s context. Sure, it's got flaws. But it’s relatively rare to see a music film that’s making a strong, contemporary political argument, and this one pulls it off.
Love & Mercy
(CT’s review, by Brett McCracken)
Probably the most haunting scene in this film is where Paul Dano, playing the young Brian Wilson, is composing “God Only Knows”—one of the finest songs ever recorded—only to be shot down by his jealous, overbearing father. But what makes the film special (alongside its sound design, as Brett wrote in his review) is that it’s a musician biopic that drops all conventions of the genre that don’t serve the storytelling. So often, films about musicians follow the exact same narrative arc: sweet kid with talent has a breakout song, then gets hooked on drugs and a wild lifestyle, hits rock bottom, and is finally rescued (or not), usually by a loving woman. Wilson’s story is basically this, but the film cuts back and forth between past and present and is content to gesture at those crashes rather than depict them in detail—and that bit of genius construction means the film is fresh. (It also features Paul Giamatti in his second music-film role of the year as a skeezy, abusive leech—the other was in Straight Outta Compton.)
This French film about teenage girls growing up in a rough neighborhood outside Paris isn’t about music, but that’s a big part of it. One unforgettable scene at the film’s center—in which Marieme, our protagonist, and her friends dance to Rihanna’s “Diamonds”—may be the best crystallized moment of female coming-of-age I’ve ever seen, the moment when a girl goes from being a child to feeling like a woman. It’s integrated so naturally into the film that it takes your breath away.
Life, Death, and Trauma
I can’t get rid of Jacob Tremblay’s face in my mind; as the young boy raised by his mother entirely in the one-room shed in which they are captives, his is the breakout role of the year. But Brie Larson—who plays his mother—is just as fabulous, and this is her story. Trauma and PTSD are hard to portray well. The effects on the soul of not just individuals but whole families and communities is even harder. Room is somehow simultaneously uplifting and devastating.
Speaking of tyrant tales, this is an underappreciated (as of yet) masterpiece of Shakespearean filmmaking that is more unsettling than any other adaptation I’ve ever seen, probably because it conceives of Macbeth’s descent into madness as the result of unspeakable loss. It is raw, with battle scenes as eye-popping as those in Mad Max, and leaves you with a knot in your gut.
This film startled me. It’s about people living in and near the ancient city of Timbuktu in Mali who are grappling with the everyday consequences of the jihadists who have occupied the town and are trying to control the way they practice their faith as Muslims. There’s some comedy in the jihadists’ ineffectiveness (even they are painted as humans, not cartoons), until they stop being ineffective and start wreaking havoc that has long-reaching repercussions for several families.
The Look of Love
In this lush, classic romance set amongst immigrant communities in mid-century Brooklyn, Saoirse Ronan shines. The film is gentle and lovely, and just when you think you understand its story, it switches gears, asking important questions about what constitutes home, where you find family, and what it means to commit to someone and something. I can’t get it out of my head, principally because most of the work is done in the actors’ eyes. What vulnerability, to look into another’s face and see love there.
This is another film where everything is in the gazes. I have trouble explaining my reaction to this film; the first time I saw it I wasn’t sure what to think, and the second time it was shattering. The relationship (and eventual romance) that develops between the two main characters (played by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara) is a painful and very realistic exploration of the inexplicable human glue we call attraction. It’s shot with the same eye, which means we’re part of that exploration as viewers, too.
To speak of 45 Years is to speak of Charlotte Rampling, even though Tom Courtenay is fabulous as well. The two portray a long-married couple who encounter a revelation and feel the sands of their marriage shift under their feet. Everything in this film happens in Rampling’s face as she tries to make sense of what happened. Can you love someone when you’re not sure you know who they are anymore?
Can You Be Great and Good?
The ostensible subject of The End of the Tour is David Foster Wallace, whose writing literally changed my life (I wrote about it here). But really the film functions best as a two-man play, one that Wallace himself could have written, since it covers all of his recurrent themes: whether it’s possible to live a good life, the conflicted nature of fame, the possibility of trusting and loving another person. It makes very little sense that this works as a film, but boy does it ever.
Like The End of the Tour, this Aaron Sorkin–penned film featuring Michael Fassbender as the Apple founder feels more like three one-act plays than a film, and its drama resides entirely in its conversations. The main question at stake is whether Jobs is actually as important as he thinks he is, and the answer is more complicated than anyone expects, including Jobs. Even though it falters a bit at the end, Steve Jobs is exhilarating; in some ways, this is the film that Birdman wanted to be. And the question at its center—can you be a genius and a good person?—is more important in a world of instant celebrity than it has ever been.
Many of these films include content that some readers may find problematic. Check the MPAA’s ratings and movie reviews so you have the information you need to make an informed decision about viewing.
And of course, I haven’t seen every film from 2015, yet.
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today’s chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. She is co-author, with Robert Joustra, of How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World (Eerdmans, May 2016). She tweets @alissamarie.