The end of the year has arrived once again in its typical fashion – surprising, jarring yet oddly welcome. On this occasion, per usual, it is time to celebrate 2015 in cinema. Thanks to a number of festivals as well as generous assistance from studio and regional publicists, I was able to see more movies than ever before. This year, the tally of 2015 releases alone soared to over 200. (I came so close to reviewing them all … but would rather provide well-considered commentary instead of rushing to meet an arbitrarily imposed deadline.)
When I sat down to pen my first top 10 list back in 2009, I doubt I had even seen 100 films, so the list represented roughly the top 10% of my year. With 2015’s edition showcasing less than 5%, I feel obliged to at least mention 10 other films that left an indelible mark on me this year but, for whatever reason, fell outside the upper echelon. These, too, are worthy of your time and attention. In alphabetical order, they are:
- “The End of the Tour“
- “Far From the Madding Crowd“
- “It Follows“
- “James White“
- “The Martian“
- “Meet the Patels“
- “Time Out of Mind“
- “The Tribe“
- “Welcome to Leith“
But the ten films that stood out above the rest this year all had one thing in common: they looked beyond their characters and plots towards larger, more difficult concepts to capture. Each in their own way spotlighted (pun fully intended) an institution or a system that guides, influences and even inhibits the actions that take place. I make no secret that my two fields of study in college were film studies and sociology, and to have such an exciting slate of movies that evinces how the former can shed light on the latter was a source of great joy (again, pun fully intended) throughout 2015.
Remarkably, each work never lost sight of the individual personalities that power our emotional engagement. The human element never detracts from the issues at hand, instead providing an entry point to ponder impersonal or intangible forces. In an era where television provides a depth of coverage that has become tough to rival, these films found power in a concentrated bursts of content where every second was carefully and wonderfully calibrated.
So, without further ado, here are my ten favorite films of 2015 along with the individuals and institutions featured within them.
Directed by David O. Russell
Written by David O. Russell and Annie Mumolo
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro
Call “Joy” sloppy, uneven, unfocused or any of the adjectives leveled in criticism of the film. These epithets only strengthen David O. Russell’s core argument. Being a working mother like Jennifer Lawrence’s Joy Mangano is a messy business, and each chaotic second powerfully communicates the physical and emotional labor she must exert before even having a moment to consider her own needs and desires.
With all this to take care of, it’s a wonder she still possesses an entrepreneurial spirit and nothing short of a miracle that she can face down institutional sexism in the world of business. But in spite of it all, Joy never becomes some transcendent being. She’s a special woman yet also every woman in this gushing ode to half our population that somehow still gets short shrift in our society.
Directed by John Crowley
Written by Nick Hornby
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson
If life is a journey, as the popular truism puts it, then we are all ultimately headed towards some destination. For Saoirse Ronan’s Eilis Lacey, an American implant fresh off the boat from Ireland in the 1950s, her desired destination is home. Over the course of “Brooklyn,” we discover that home is constructed, not found. Only by pushing her boundaries, exploring her options and asserting her agency does Eilis come to a full realization of what she wants. Each step towards the attainment of that wisdom provides a rich, well-wrought emotional resonance.
Directed by Thomas McCarthy
Written by Thomas McCarthy and Josh Singer
Starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams
Quite possibly the ultimate tale of the power of entrenched institutions, “Spotlight” follows how a team of fearless Boston journalists loosened the chokehold in which the Catholic Church held their town. The silence they enforced around the victims of the priests’ sexual abuse proves only the beginning of the story. Thanks to their meticulous, process-oriented journalism, the Spotlight team exposes more than just crimes committed by people. They uncover the very ways in which loyalty, affiliation and interaction with long-standing social powers refines a culture of complicity.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Written by Taylor Sheridan
Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro
If anyone wondered whether ethics are a social construction, varying on the societal conditions in which decisions must be made, “Sicario” ought to put all doubts to rest. This riveting, thought-provoking thriller traversing the border between the United States and Mexico provides a window into a prolonged quarrel. In a year where presidential candidates proposed policies ranging from the simplistic to the downright facile, how wonderful it was to get immersed into the battlefield experience in all its difficult quandaries. A decision that promotes peace and upholds values for the film’s protagonist, Emily Blunt’s FBI agent Kate Macer, seems practically impossible. Campaign rhetoric that argues otherwise will forever ring hollow.
“Son of Saul”
Directed by László Nemes
Written by László Nemes and Clara Royer
Starring Géza Röhrig
Admittedly, “Son of Saul” will hold more intrigue for those with a background in film studies. But even without the toolkit to discern the logic behind shot choice, perspective or depth of field, the potency of this work cannot be shaken off or denied. Director László Nemes, working closely with cinematographer Mátyás Erdély, creates a cinematic experience of the Holocaust like no other. He seeks to dramatically reorient the way viewers come to understand the tragedy, urging a comprehension of its vast scale by shrinking the scope down to a single man’s harrowing passage through the concentration camps. The film achieves nothing short of shaking up the system of images through which our culture has determined are acceptable to depict such calamitous occurrences.
Directed by Asif Kapadia
The wounds have not entirely healed from Amy Winehouse’s departure in 2011, a fact Asif Kapadia exploits in his documentary of her life, “Amy,” to enhance its urgency. With her tragic spiral still fresh in mind, the film corrects her narrative and assigns some blame to the parties involved. While Winehouse had personal demons and compulsive tendencies, the bigger force bringing about her downfall was our hyperconnective, obsessive celebrity culture. Since we all play a part in this destructive maelstrom, it’s on us to pitch in and make sure “Amy” never receives a spiritual sequel.
Directed by Ramin Bahrani
Written by Ramin Bahrani and Amir Naderi
Starring Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon and Laura Dern
In Charles Ferguson’s Oscar-winning documentary “Inside Job,” Chinese banking authority Andrew Sheng observed, “A real engineer builds bridges. A financial engineer builds dreams and, when those dreams turn out to be nightmares, other people pay for it.” Ramin Bahrani’s fictional drama “99 Homes” – which feels searingly real – delves into the dark heart of that nightmare, the Florida housing market. After years of borderline criminally easy access to home loans, the bubble bursts and destroys the lives of many working-class Americans.
Bahrani’s film tracks the descent of one such man, Andrew Garfield’s Dennis Nash, as he makes a Faustian bargain with the ruthlessly pragmatic realtor who evicted him, Michael Shannon’s Rick Carver. As he does the devil’s bidding, Nash’s journey illuminates the mechanisms through which average citizens are bamboozled into thinking the interests of corporate bigwigs are always aligned with their own.
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig
Starring Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke and Matthew Shear
Interpersonal relationships are strange entities, and very few have an egalitarian distribution of power. Most tilt towards one party who commands a lion’s share of the attention or need in the union. Half novelistic and half theatrical-style farce, Noah Baumbach’s “Mistress America” delights in the joys and the absurdities of imbalanced friendships. With whip-smart and endlessly quotable dialogue co-written by Greta Gerwig, the film provides a riotous romp pitting self-serving peers, friends, enemies, strangers and unrequited lovers against each other. The proceedings may only increase in ridiculousness, but the insights revealed along the way lead to often painful recondition and identification.
“The Big Short”
Directed by Adam McKay
Written by Adam McKay and Charles Randolph
Starring Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Christian Bale
“99 Homes” might have ranked higher on this list were it not for the late-breaking addition of Adam McKay’s “The Big Short.” The two share similar concerns surrounding the housing market collapse in 2007-2008; “The Big Short” looks at the factors that caused the bubble while “99 Homes” examines the effects of its rupture. Where McKay excels, though, is going one step further and indicting the Wall Street system that enabled the proliferation of dangerous subprime loans. Through a toxic combination of fraud and hubris, greedy bankers scammed the American people by inventing some wacky financial products to more or less create a short-term windfall of cash. The escape clause on which they repeatedly fall back is the inane, arcane minutiae of these derivatives, which they argue are too complex for the average Joe to understand. That’s why we need their smarts, so their logic goes.
McKay calls their bluff, showing just how easy it is to explain their ludicrous scheme. His comedic background makes the writing on the wall thoroughly hilarious, but when the apocalypse arrives, the complete lack of humor instantly sobers the mood. Given the complete lack of punishment for all those involved, it’s hard not to feel the need for systemic changes to prevent this kind of economic cataclysm from repeating itself.
Directed by Pete Docter
Written by Pete Docter, Meg LaFauve and Josh Cooley
Featuring the voices of Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith and Bill Hader
Emotions: they’re untidy, complicated and thorny … unless, of course, we’re talking about the ways the Pixar brain trust puts them on display in “Inside Out.” Their ingenious map of the mind, from imagination to memory to event processing, showcases the enormous capability of animation to express what is deeply felt and understood but tough to visualize. No other film in 2015 came close to the feat pulled off here, which both enveloped me in a cinematic word and plunged me into the depths of my own experiences. Perhaps the ultimate coming-of-age tale, “Inside Out” finds a forward-moving narrative that matches the maturation of the mind. Joy, as personified by Amy Poehler’s cognitive-dwelling pixie, must ultimately cede her naive primacy in 11-year-old Riley’s mind in order that she can fully develop as a person. This is devastating, sure, but it also allows for a much more colorful, nuanced appreciation of life.
The film demonstrates how the “cult of happiness,” so pervasive in our society, might do more harm than good. Embracing the full spectrum of our emotions to understand the important purpose that each serves is a message of such importance, and hopefully it reaches everyone who presents a fake smile to the outside world while rotting away inside.