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2015   Introduction | List

2015 was an intriguing year for cinema. While few great pictures were made, we got a slew of movies that were either lots of fun, culturally significant, deeply thought provoking, or all of the above. If I were a real film critic tasked with generating a proper Top 10 List that encapsulated the most important films of the year (and made myself look smart and cultured, yet hip and accessible, as those end-of-year critics’ lists always seem more interested in doing), about half the entries would be 3-Star movies.  I saw no 5-Star films in 2015 and fewer than ten that garnered 4 stars from me. In contrast, each of the previous three years had twenty to twenty-five pictures that earned 4 or 5 stars. Yet this was one of the most satisfying years to be a moviegoer in quite some time. Conversations about cinema extended far beyond the increasingly narrow communities of thought we so often group ourselves into these days.  I was stunned to find myself at social gatherings where people talked about movies that they had actually gone to see, not just read about or heard about, or watched a piece of on their devices.  2015 was a year when people went out to movies that were worth seeing and liked them—what a concept!

Politically, this was one of the angriest, most polarized years in recent memory, but everyone got along at the movies. The film that best sums up 2015 is the year’s biggest success, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Regardless of your age, race, gender, orientation, political party affiliation, or whether you were a Star Wars fan or not, you went to see The Force Awakens and enjoyed it. Director/co-writer/co-producer J.J. Abrams delivered a tremendously satisfying journey back to that galaxy far, far away, which is remembered so fondly by so many generations (especially mine).  But The Force Awakens can’t be considered a great film by any measure. Many have complained that it is nothing more than big-budget fan-fiction. Of course, that critique can be applied to almost every installment of every movie franchise of the past twenty years. Two notable exceptions were also released this year, Mad Max: Fury Road and Creed.  In the case of Creed, which is essentially the seventh Rocky movie, Rocky creator, star, and frequent director Sylvester Stallone stepped down to the role of co-producer and supporting actor to enable a young writer/director, twenty-nine-year-old Ryan Coogler, to relaunch the series for contemporary audiences without losing the iconic themes, concepts, and characteristics of the original story.  In Fury Road, the fourth installment of George Miller’s Mad Max series, Miller himself (at the age of seventy) rebooted his creation by imbuing it with new levels of subtext and unprecedented displays of technical dexterity.  If Hollywood is to remain limited to primarily cranking out recycled material, I can only hope it is as enjoyable as these three pictures.

What makes those three films more profoundly representational of 2015’s most positive trends is that the unmistakably progressive subtext contained in each was so universally accepted. The most obvious example is Mad Max: Fury Road, which was the first major blockbuster released this year. When the Internet began buzzing in advance about the feminist slant George Miller had worked into his hyper-masculine series, and posters and artwork arrived showing Charlize Theron’s Furiosa more prominently placed than Tom Hardy’s Max, fanboys went ballistic. There was even talk of boycotting and protesting the film. But as soon as people went to see it, this talk all but evaporated. Even those ideologically opposed to the gender themes subtly and expertly contained within Fury Road, or the adolescently minded who hate it when girls come to play in their sandbox, just couldn’t find enough to pick apart in a movie that delivered everything they wanted from it.

The fact that the two biggest new stars in Star Wars are a young woman and a young black man might seem incidental, but it too represents a significant change in Hollywood. Specifically because these characters and actors do not feel like tokens. Rather they seem like the most logical casting choices for relaunching an old franchise for future generations. The fact that the population of the new Star Wars films “looks like America,” to borrow a favorite phrase of liberal politicians, is meaningful because Hollywood output remains extremely segregated, with different films aimed at different demographics. But The Force Awakens was designed to appeal to all markets, and it succeeded spectacularly.

Creed can be read as a metaphor for the future of mainstream cinema. Both on screen and behind the scenes, this is the story of an aging white man who must step aside to make room for the future in the form of a young black man. And while Creed was positioned differently in different markets—as the last chapter in the Rocky series for older white audiences, and as the first chapter in new franchise for younger black audiences—both groups came out to support and enjoy the film in equal numbers. White people didn’t feel threatened by this movie and black people were not resentful of it—at least not until the Academy decided to only grant it one nomination: Stallone for best supporting actor. Thus Creed was also the most egregious example of minorities getting passed over at the Academy Awards for the second year in a row.  Just as all twenty acting nominations in 2014 went to white actors, resulting in the #OscarsSoWhite hash tag on twitter, 2015 saw #OscarsSoWhiteAgain accompanied by a couple of actual boycotts of the ceremony.

I maintain that it’s wrong to look to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as an industry leader. The mostly old, white, men who nominate and vote for Oscars are notoriously behind the cultural curve and almost always have been. Of the forty-five black actors and actresses, seven black screenwriters, six black producers, and three black directors nominated in the 88-year history of the Oscars, most of these were for the type of safe, unchallenging films the Academy loves to shower praise on—earnest biopics and films that make progressive liberals feel good about themselves. The real problem in Hollywood isn’t at the end of the filmmaking process where the awards are given; it’s at the beginning where the movies are developed. There is not a single black studio head nor any person of color in Hollywood with the power to green light a picture; skewed, out-of-date statistics keep alive the myth that overseas markets aren’t interested in stories with non-whites leads; and minority filmmakers are not given the kinds of production and advertising budgets that white filmmakers enjoy. Rather than encouraging the kind of tokenism that hides the problem (which I fear is all the boycotts and Twitter protests promote), Hollywood studios need to update their business models to make more movies that everyone in America (and the world) want to see. 

The Academy did respond to the outrage over #OscarsSoWhite this year by changing its age-old rules. The lifetime membership promised to all those who’ve been invited to join in the past has been revoked in an attempt to only have those active working in the industry as members. This is an interesting development, but I’m not sure it will serve its intended function, since people of color tend to have less longevity in the industry than white people—and dealing with that problem would make a bigger impact. This controversy also proves my point that the Academy is not doing itself any favors by focusing more and more on ratings and trying to attract younger viewers to their big show by focusing on contemporary stars rather than cinema history. After all, if the Oscar’s still featured the Irving G. Thalberg Award, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and other honorary awards as part of the broadcast (those awards were moved to their own mini ceremony in 2009), the past few years of broadcasts wouldn’t have looked so lily white. I doubt Spike Lee would have declined to attend the ceremony this year if the Honorary Oscar he won this year would have been presented to him as part of the big show. But, like James Earl Jones, Oprah Winfrey, and Harry Belafonte in recent years, Spike isn’t deemed enough of a current celebrity for the Academy to spend precious minutes of their lengthy broadcast to honor his body of work. Since 2009, the current year’s nominees are all that matters in terms of ratings, and the show (though it’s gotten shorter) has suffered terribly because of this shortsighted priority.  

The fact that Creed’s leading man Michael B. Jordan did not get nominated is all the more egregious because 2015 did not generate a roster of outstanding lead performances by actors. Sure, Jordan, Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Fassbender, Idris Elba, and Christian Bale all gave notable turns, but none of them ranked with the caliber of work done by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Bradley Cooper, David Oyelowo, Timothy Spall, or Matthew McConaughey in the previous couple of years. And actors who shown so brightly in 2013 and ’14, like Oscar Isaac and Eddie Redmayne, delivered less impressive performances in this year. Only Tom Hardy, with the combined output of his four distinctive roles in three 2015 pictures (Mad Max, The Revenant, and his duel performance in Legend) set the bar impressively high.  On the whole, actresses fared better. Saoirse Ronan, Rooney Mara, and Brie Larson each came into their own and got the respect and acclaim they’ve long deserved. Wonderful young actresses like Alicia Vikander, Rebecca Ferguson, and Daisy Ridley became stars. The most impressive performances this year came from child actors. Considering the work of Jacob Tremblay in Room, Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat in Theeb, Abraham Attah in Beasts of No Nation, Güneş Şensoy in Mustang, Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide in Infinitely Polar Bear, and Jeremy Shinder and Oona Laurence in The Grief of Others, I can say that 2015 was the greatest year for juvenile actors in my lifetime.

It was not such an impressive year for documentaries. Perhaps after the wealth of amazing non-fiction we’ve seen in the past several years, we were due for a season with fewer triumphs in this area. 2015 did offer up some great docudramas. Some explored recent events—Spotlight and The Big Short—and others, important chapters in history that we thought we already knew—Bridge of Spies and Son of Saul.  Each of these movies provided perspective on contemporary issues—the value of long form journalism in an increasingly short-attention-span culture, the need for competent professionals in our rebellious, increasingly anti-establishment society, the importance of understanding how our economy is manipulated by those with power, the role of diplomacy rather than bombastic vilification, and compassion for those we might initially judge harshly.

Unfortunately, the maturation of the biopic that began in 2014 seems to have suffered an arrested development. With the exceptions of Steve Jobs and Love and Mercy, this staple genre of Hollywood studios seems to have returned to its banal and predictable formulas. In some cases the well-worn blueprints still yield satisfying results, such as Straight Outta Compton where the standard well-acted-rags-to-riches-fall-from-grace-triumphant-come-back structure helps contextualize the cultural importance and artistic influence of one of Hip Hop’s seminal groups. But in most cases the lazy writing, directing, casting, and acting that too often accompanies these movies comes up frustratingly short, as with the disgracefully hammy and simple-minded Trumbo, which wasted an ideal opportunity to shed light on one of the most important chapters in Hollywood and American history.

Perhaps the most irksome trend of 2015 was the preponderance of films with one-word titles. This type of moniker has always been a pet peeve of mine because I think it demonstrates either a tremendous lack of creativity, or an unwarranted level of hubris. I don’t mean ultra-specific, fictional proper names like Cinderella, Creed, or Spectre, or abstract but still particular terms like Jaws, Tootsie, or Moonstruck.  What I object to are titles that consist of a single word that could describe literally thousands of pictures—like Legend, Sisters, and Love. It’s not just that single-word names seem lazy and vague; it’s the presumption that a movie could be such a definitive embodiment of a subject that it deserves to possess that subject as its title. If you’re going to call a movie “alien” or “Manhattan,” that movie better be as consummate and iconic as Alien and Manhattan. This year I counted over fifty films guilty of this practice, including the film I consider the best picture of 2015.  While Spotlight is a proper name and also works well as a metaphor for how the main characters (and the film makers) use a narrow, limited focus to illuminate a major, far-reaching story, it is not the kind of inspiring title that will be long remembered in the annals of cinema history. The title of this year’s other journalism picture Truth, is both generic and impertinent. The audacity of a Hollywood docudrama about TV news taking Truth for its epithet is such a laughably idealized elevation of two such inherently compromised mediums that it goes beyond the pale.

The films with proper names, like this year’s Amy, Anomalisa, Bill, Carol, Chappie, Cinderella, Creed, Everest, Freeheld, Goosebumps, Infini, Joy, Krampus, Macbeth, Maya, Max, Maggie, Marguerite, Minions, Pan, Serena, Shah, Spectre, Stonewall, Theeb, Trumbo, Woodlawn, and Victoria are bad enough. It may be easier to sell a movie called Lincoln than one called Team of Rivals, but there’s no question of which movie I’d rather go see based on title alone. And films called The Assassin, The GiftThe (fill-in-the-blank) can be equally weak. This year offered up, in descending order of how well they earned their single-word title: Room, Concussion, Poltergeist, Southpaw, Sicario, Suffragette, Dope, Vacation, Tangerine, Trainwreck, Mustang, Breath, Remember, Amnesia, Aloha, Pixels, Grandma, Sisters, Focus, Burnt, Experimenter, Brooklyn, Truth, Youth, Legend, Life, Love, Ride, Survivor, Captive, and Spy. It may seem a negligible complaint, but if filmmakers are actually running out of strong titles I think this is cause for concern.

On the positive side, one major trend this year pleased me to no end. While 2015 may not have been a great year of films it was a great year for film. Many of the most popular, interesting, and visually exciting pictures were shot on celluloid rather than digital video. And the subject of film’s aesthetic differences over digital came into the mainstream consciousness to a far greater degree than any year since the changeover took place. Several key mainstream filmmakers helped stave off the inevitable demise of motion picture film by shooting with the older, photochemical technology.  Quentin Tarantino famously decided not only to shoot The Hateful Eight with the long disused format of Ultra-Panavision but also to convince many theaters to refurbish or reinstall 70mm projectors so as to accommodate an old-fashioned roadshow release of his latest movie. This unique presentation was full of flaws, avoidable mistakes, and hubris, and it unquestionably reinforced many people’s opinion that film exhibition is more trouble than it’s worth. Still, the release did far more to rekindle interest in the disappearing medium of 70mm than either Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) or Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012).

This year’s major releases shot on 35mm included Sam Mendes’ James Bond blockbuster Spectre, Steven Spielberg’s prestige picture Bridge of Spies, and David O. Russell’s comedy Joy.  In a fascinating occurrence, two of the year’s most visually stunning movies—Todd Haynes’ Carol and Naji Abu Nowar’s Theeb—were shot on super-16mm, an unloved format all but abandoned since the advent of low-rez digital video. Large sections of Steve Jobs, Love and Mercy and What Happened, Miss Simon? also used this format to visually recall or recreate the eras depicted in parts of each film.  Other major releases that eschewed digital filming were Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, The Big Short, Trainwreck, Black Mass, and Embrace of the Serpent.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that some of my favorite films of 2015 would probably never have been made were it not for digital technology. Tangerine, shot with a couple of iPhones, is the quintessential example. And my second favorite picture of the year, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, is the type of near-flawless début feature that inexpensive digital technology all but enables. Still the measurable mini-resurgence of celluloid illustrates that it is not just a tiny fringe of neo-Luddites who care about this matter. It also shows that bringing back film presentations could be as lucrative as 3D, IMAX, High Frame Rate projection, or any of the new ways studios try to get people into theaters.

The biggest victory in this fight for film was J. J. Abrams’ decision to shoot Star Wars: The Force Awakens on film as one of the many ways to reconnect the franchise with its heritage. The choice stabilized the balance sheet for Kodak (which filed for bankruptcy in 2012), keeping the last remaining manufacturer of the nearly obsolete medium afloat at least for a few more years.  And since The Force Awakens relaunches a potentially inexhaustible renewed franchise, and the director of the next installment is another champion of shooting films on film, Ryan Johnson, there’s good reason for those of us who care about the effort to keep celluloid alive to be optimistic. More importantly, Abrams’ choice of format represented a symbolic victory because the Star Wars series (in the form of George Lucas’s disastrous prequels) was responsible for studios and theater chains speeding up the changeover from film to digital projection in ways that cut filmmakers and film-lovers out of that process. Were it not for Lucas’s powerful push, a more well-thought-out conversion might have occurred. Considerations relating to film history, artistic expression, archival requirements, and audience retention might have been given their proper weight over the factors that justified the decision: lowering costs, simplifying delivery and exhibition, and creating a more reliable and uniform viewing experience. 

Seeing so many prominent directors, audience members, theater managers, and even a few executives making such an effort to preserve film exhibition alongside the ubiquitous digital projection made this year an especially enjoyable one for me. The long-term effects of the ideas, trends, and movies introduced in 2015 remain to be seen.

My Picks:


George Miller - MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

Tom McCarthy - SPOTLIGHT


David Robert Mitchell - IT FOLLOWS

Sean Baker - TANGERINE




Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy - SPOTLIGHT

Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, & Joel Coen - BRIDGE OF SPIES

Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley - INSIDE OUT

Ramin Bahrani, Amir Naderi & Bahareh Azimi - 99 HOMES

Deniz Gamze Ergüven & Alice Winocour - MUSTANG



Charles Randolph & Adam McKay - THE BIG SHORT


Aaron Sorkin - STEVE JOBS

Ryan Coogler & Aaron Covington - CREED

Nick Hornby - BROOKLYN



Abraham Attah - BEASTS OF NO NATION 

Jacob Tremblay - ROOM

Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat - THEEB

Michael Fassbender - STEVE JOBS

Tom Hardy - LEGEND




Saoirse Ronan - BROOKLYN

Brie Larson – ROOM

Rooney Mara - CAROL


Alicia Vikander - THE DANISH GIRL

Alicia Vikander - TESTAMENT OF YOUTH

Alicia Vikander - EX MACHINA



Mark Rylance - BRIDGE OF SPIES



John Slattery - SPOTLIGHT

Christian Bale - THE BIG SHORT

Sylvester Stallone - CREED



Kate Winslet - STEVE JOBS

Jennifer Jason Leigh - THE HATEFUL EIGHT

Joan Allen - ROOM

Julie Walters - BROOKLYN



Robert Richardson - THE HATEFUL EIGHT

Edward Lachman – CAROL

Wolfgang Thaler - THEEB

Mike Gioulakis - IT FOLLOWS

Roger Deakins - SICARIO

Emmanuel Lubezki - THE REVENANT




Margaret Sixel - MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

Chris King - AMY 

Claudia Castello & Michael P. Shawver - CREED



Ennio Morricone - THE HATEFUL EIGHT


Rich Vreeland & Disasterpeace - IT FOLLOWS


Carter Burwell - CAROL



THE SALT OF THE EARTH - Wim Wenders & Juliano Ribeiro Salgado


JAG ÄR INGRID  - Stig Björkman

AMY  - Asif Kapadia

CARTEL LAND - Matthew Heineman



THEEB - Naji Abu Nowar

THE SALT OF THE EARTH - Wim Wenders & Juliano Ribeiro Salgado

A WAR - Tobias Linholm

MUSTANG - Deniz Gamze Ergüven





THEEB - Naji Abu Nowar

BONE TOMAHAWK - S. Craig Zahler

MUSTANG - Deniz Gamze Ergüven

THE GIFT  - Joel Edgerton




The STAR WARS series



George Miller & John Seale - MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

Sylvester Stallone - CREED

The 70mm Roadshow



Harrison Ford & Daisy Ridley - STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS


Sean Baker, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez & Mya Taylor - TANGERINE

David Robert Mitchell - IT FOLLOWS

Royalty Hightower - THE FITS



TRUMBO  - Jay Roach


THE WALK - Robert Zemeckis

ALOHA - Cameron Crowe


MACBETH - Justin Kurzel




THE MARTIAN - Ridley Scott

THE ASSASSIN  - Hsiao-Hsien Hou

SPY - Paul Feig

EX MACHINA - Alex Garland

TRAINWRECK - Judd Apatow

THE REVENANT - Alejandro González Iñárritu



Alicia Vikander: Vikander appeared in five films released in 2015 (six if you include her wonderful voice work reading Ingrid Bergman’s diaries in the fine documentary Jag är Ingrid). Her outstanding lead performances in The Danish Girl, Ex Machina, and Testament of Youth ranked among the year’s very best. Though I didn’t care much for The Danish Girl, Ex Machina, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., or Burnt, in each case I thought she was the best aspect of the movie. It’s impressive to shine so brightly even in pictures that are otherwise disappointing.