The Best Movies of 2015

2015 at the movies: There were no fewer than three excellent and satisfying part sevens. 70mm came back to multiplexes. The cast of Ex Machina was in everything, even Star Wars. Women talked about things other than men. The same guy made The Cobbler and Spotlight. There was a fourth movie about singing chipmunks.

It was a weird year, and not without its eclectic, sometimes unexpected pleasures. For our yearly poll, SportsAlcohol.com’s certified heavy moviegoers Nathaniel, Jesse, Marisa, and Sara voted with our ridiculous hearts and came up with fifteen of the year’s strongest achievements in cinema. We also talked about it in an upcoming podcast. But before you listen to us, read us waxing rhapsodic about some of the year’s best.

The 15 Best Movies of 2015

15. Anomalisa by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson

Anomalisa does its best to defy easy description. It’s a stop-motion adaptation of a ten year old short audio play from a writer by the pen name Francis Fregoli. It’s an animated film about a writer invited to speak at a customer service convention. It’s a depressed middle-aged man drama that tiptoes, and then lurches precipitously, into surreality and back again. In short, it’s a Charlie Kaufman film. And it’s wonderful one, funny, moving and sad, and clear-eyed about its characters in a way that stories of middle-aged male malaise so often aren’t. Directed by Kaufman and Duke Johnson, it is also as good an example as any of why animation is a medium and not a genre. Compared to the other animated film on this list (or any of the other strong animated films that came out this year, like Shaun the Sheep, The Good Dinosaur, or The Peanuts Movie), it doesn’t share genre tropes, storytelling or thematic concerns, or even a target audience. It’s difficult, without spoiling the pleasure of discovery, to talk about some of the ways that the film takes advantage of the medium, but the manage a hat trick by having both beautiful and subtle performances and storytelling choices that truly are best accomplished through animation. The puppets, props, and sets are exquisite, and so too are the vocal performances by David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tom Noonan. And while some of its content lines up with adolescent notions that sex-n-swearing make for Adult Animation (in the likes of something like 2015’s disappointingly tiresome Hell and Back), Anomalisa offers truly adult storytelling, sad and wise and honest (even the sex scene, also performed by two puppets, is too honest and intimate and realistic to work as titillation). If I’ve talked around the actual content of the film a bit, it is partly to preserve some of the surprise in a film that many surely haven’t had a chance to see yet (this isn’t a film based around twists and turns, but there are certainly discoveries to be made). But it’s also because it’s such a quiet, personal thing. It’s funny and frightening and deeply moving, and Kaufman is never more lacerating than when he’s looking inward. – Nathaniel

14. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation by Christopher McQuarrie

Mission: Impossible movies have very little subtext. They barely have text, frankly. Like late-period Tom Cruise, they exist to show off their perpetual energy and unflagging action. A lot of movies, big and small, have tried the pure-popcorn approach; as fun as the results sometimes are, they’re often fleeting, or downright exhausting. But Rogue Nation makes this potentially fruitless pursuit into something resembling pure cinema: Fast, thrilling, sometimes downright lush in its Euro-inflected, post-Bondian spycraft. McQuarrie has less of a filmmaker’s persona than past directors Brian De Palma or Brad Bird, which seems like a drawback until he reinvents himself as Hitchcock by way of Woo (which is to say the motorcycle chase here corrects the totally lame motorcycle chase from Mission: Impossible II). This may be the end of the series as an auteur playground; there’s more continuity than before, and McQuarrie, flush with this film’s success, was recently rehired to make the sixth installment — the first time the series has re-used a director. But if this is the point where the series turns into one of those mythology-heavy TV series on steroids (appropriate, I suppose, given the films’ origins on television), at least it goes out with spectacular style. – Jesse

13. Steve Jobs by Danny Boyle

Obviously, this was written by Aaron Sorkin; a more perfect project could not have been devised for the man. It checks all of his personal boxes: It’s about a visionary but flawed man who cares mostly about a job he’s great at, who has a woman behind him who’s just as competent but a little less flawed so she can keep him in line, and there are even some daddy issues thrown into the mix. All that’s missing is a mass sing-along to some terrible bullshit baby-boomer song. But Sorkin works best when, like his characters, he has a collaborator to check his worst impulses. With Danny Boyle, you get someone who not only makes better music choices, he gives the story a verve that might not have existed if it were just Michael Fassbender and Jeff Daniels bloviating at each other about the way people use technology. I would have liked to have seen more Boyle craziness on screen, but he director does give each of the three time periods in the film their own, distinct look. With enough Boyle enhancement, Steve Jobs becomes a reminder of why we may have liked Sorkin to begin with. He has the ability to make a movie that’s mostly conversations between the same six people into something intense and exciting, and something that makes us think about the way we live today. Most of my favorite films of the year have a limitation in scope to them (see: Ex Machina), and Steve Jobs shows how these kinds of restrictions can really work for a biopic. Instead of the formulaic, three-act story that starts with a troubled childhood and end in some kind of redemption, we get so much more about Jobs from three single days in his life. It may not be the “perfect thing”—especially with that elbow-to-the-ribs iPod foreshadowing at the end—but, like Apple products, it’s sleek, stylish, and a lot of thought went into it. – Marisa

12. While We’re Young by Noah Baumbach

You have to be born between the years of 1977 and 1983 to perfectly appreciate While We’re Young. I’m born in that sweet ’77-’83 window, so I could laugh at its jabs at both Generation X and Millennials, but I’ve had people older than me and people younger than me swear that their generation was really given the brunt of the criticism at the end. (“Yeah, it was equal, until…”) It doesn’t matter who really gets the short shift, though. While We’re Young is the only movie I’ve seen so far that’s bothered to observe the friction between the tectonic plates of these two generations. The fact that Noah Baumbach can rub these nerves while still making both sides laugh, at least at first before the jokes land too hard, shows how sharp his focus is, and how well-observed his movies are. (“I remember when this song was just considered bad.”) Baumbach also makes the best version of the typical Ben Stiller movie. Stiller’s characters can’t get ahead, mostly because of machinations of their own devising. Baumbach pushes Stiller’s characters hardest, making them as close to insufferable as they can get—yet somehow not crossing the line; they still get our empathy. I think some of the negative reactions to While We’re Young had to do with people seeing enough of themselves in Stiller (or Adam Driver) to scare them. Mistress America may be the Baumbach effort that ranks higher on the list, but that’s because the characters in Mistress America are more fanciful constructs (in a good way). While We’re Young hits closer to home, and it won’t be long before we’re all drinking weird concoctions and throwing up on Dean Wareham to feel youthful again. – Marisa

11. Sicario by Denis Villanueve

The term “strong female character” has rightly been lamented by feminists as pretty condescending and unhelpful and Sicario is a potent demonstration of why. Nobody would dispute that Emily Blunt’s character Kate is strong in both the literal and figurative sense, which is why it’s frustrating to watch her be put through the wringer here. Playing an FBI agent enlisted into a mysterious government task force battling Mexican cartels, she’s deliberately undermined at every turn, by both her male colleagues and the film itself, until eventually she’s shouldered out of her own story almost completely. It’s a bit like Silence of the Lambs if Clarice had been stripped of what little powers of persuasion she had (also: minus the cannibalism) and feels authentic to the push back and condescension many women in her position experience in the real world. It’s also propulsively filmed and completely engrossing, the tension as delicately calibrated and impossible to escape as a Chinese finger trap, while never forgetting who the real victims are in the drug war: the families left behind, destroyed by violence, the women raising children they can only pray will remain safe. Political but not pushy, smart but not pretentious, grim but not lifeless, it’s the sort of genre-flirting prestige picture that it seemed Hollywood forgot how to make for a while there. A purported sequel is in the works centering on Benicio del Toro’s hitman character, which makes me wonder if everyone involved here actually understands what made the original project so compelling and unique. No matter, Sicario will stand on its own. And hopefully next time Emily Blunt can actually kick Josh Brolin’s ass. – Sara

10. Spotlight by Thomas McCarthy

Making a film that dramatizes the day-to-day nuts and bolts of reporting rather than merely valorizing such work is hard but Tom McCarthy and his own crack team make it look effortless. Spotlight tells the story of the Boston Globe team that uncovered the decades-long, wildly successful efforts of the Catholic Church to conceal rampant child abuse perpetrated by its priests, and while it doesn’t feel quite right to call a film about such a painful subject entertaining, it is in much the same way David Simon’s The Wire was, where a sure, patient hand on the material and a righteous anger at broken systems also combined to masterful effect. This makes sense, as director McCarthy cut his teeth on the fifth season of that show, playing (what else?) a morally flexible reporter at the Baltimore Sun. At least two of the actors here have played superheroes (and at least one a superheroic drinker on Mad Men) but here they grapple with real world injustice rather than CG apocalypses or cartoonish supervillains. This is the real trick of Spotlight, and what makes it stand out in another year that saw a glut of true-life stories lacking in inspiration: though the outcome of the film is already written in history, while watching it never feels like a guarantee that our heroes will prevail. We’re there with team Spotlight every step of the way. – Sara

9. Creed by Ryan Coogler

Sylvester Stallone already did the “years later” sequel thing for his best known (and best loved) character with Rocky Balboa, his excellent and lovely coda to the Rocky series, back in 2006. So it would certainly be natural to approach another sequel coming nearly a decade after that one with some skepticism. What an incredibly welcome surprise then, that in a year filled with revivals and legacy sequels that proved surprisingly successful artistically, critically, and financially, Creed stands out as a kind of best case scenario for this strange new practice. It’s a film built on hoary cliches (Rocky becomes the trainer for the son of his greatest opponent turned friend), but writer/directory Ryan Coogler not only found the perfect series for making cliches sing (Rocky is, after all, the ur-text for underdog sports drama), but he also makes each one feel fresh and vital and exciting. Coogler, and his Fruitvale Station leading man Michael B. Jordan, handily accomplish the impressive feat of creating a character in Adonis Creed (nee Johnson, illegitimate son of Apollo Creed) that is likable and compelling enough to earn the focus away from Rocky Balboa (one of the most purely lovable characters in film) in his own series. Adonis isn’t struggling with exactly the same things that Rocky was forty years ago, and he and Bianca (a wonderful Tessa Thompson) aren’t just copies of Rocky and Adrian, but they are characters we can instantly root for in the same way. And for all of the great work that Coogler and company did in giving us a great new protagonist to root for, he is also generous in giving Stallone one more wonderful turn as Rocky, here giving probably the most soulful performance of his career. The film has a surprising reverence for Rocky history (pour one out for Paulie), and while it isn’t oppressive or alienating for new audiences, this lived-in portrait of Rocky’s Philadelphia lends an incredible depth of feeling to an already excellent, crowd-pleasing film. This blend of the old and new crystallizes in an incredible moment in the final boxing match in the film. As Adonis and Rocky exchange a few heartbreaking words right before Adonis heads back out for the final round, a familiar music cue kicks in, and grown men everywhere brag to you afterward about how it made them cry. – Nathaniel

8. Star Wars: The Force Awakens by J.J. Abrams

Around the SportsAlcohol.com offices, we keep referring to this new Star Wars outfit as “exactly like Stummies, but a much larger pill.” Sure, the story beats are the same as A New Hope. Sure, the Starkiller Base is basically the exact same as the Death Star (but a much larger pill). In the end, that doesn’t really matter, because the differences, no matter how cosmetic they are, make the movie so much damn fun. The new trio of Rey, Finn, and Poe bring three different kinds of enjoyment: Rey gets to go on the hero’s quest (and for once the girl gets to use the Force), Finn is the fish out of water, and Poe is the dashing, cool-headed hero. Layered on top of that is a chance to revisit characters we already know and love, like Han Solo, who gets to be loose and silly. (Jesse argues that Han and Chewie are better in The Force Awakens than in the originals in our podcast; send complaints to rob@sportsalcohol.com.) And, just when you thought it couldn’t get any more maxed out for your enjoyment, there’s BB-8, the cutest lil’ robot to ever roll across a sandy junk planet. Yeah, every bit of The Force Awakens is designed to be crowd-pleasing. But what’s wrong with being pleased every once in a while? – Marisa

7. Ex Machina by Alex Garland

Last time I was in Seattle, I went to the Experience Music Project, which is more of a general pop-culture museum now than strictly a musical institution. There was an exhibition there about science fiction, and it was geared towards teaching kids what sci-fi was. The overarching theme that the kids were supposed to take away: Science fiction asks big questions. It’s easy to forget that when you consider sci-fi movies of the past few decades. If the EMP were doing an exhibit on sci-fi movies today, the overarching theme would be: Sci-fi movies have lots of big, splashy special effects. But Ex Machina is a reminder that real science fiction doesn’t need aliens, or spaceships, or explosions. It just needs to ask a big question. And, in the case of Ex Machina, it asks the biggest question: What does it mean to be human? That this question could be so thoroughly explored in a limited-location three-hander is a testament to Alex Garland – mostly his writing, though he directed as well. (This isn’t a ding on Ex Machina‘s special effects, which are actually impressively seamless for such a small movie.) Handled by three actors having a banner year—Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, and current Internet boyfriend Oscar Isaac—Garland does a deep dive into humanity in general, and male egos in particular. These are huge ideas to mull over, and Garland does it elegantly and in the best way possible: By just giving everything over to Oscar Isaac dancing. – Marisa
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6. Bridge of Spies by Steven Spielberg

Call us squares, but it’s little wonder that a film directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Tom Hanks, and co-written by the Coen Brothers ended up on this list. And yet, I still can’t help thinking that this movie is underappreciated (or, at the very least, sadly underseen). For this latest stop on their tour of history that loomed large in their childhoods, Spielberg and Hanks deliver a lesser-known story from the Cold War. Modern audiences may know about Gary Powers and his crashed U-2, but significantly fewer know about the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and the American lawyer tasked with first defending him and then negotiating his exchange for Powers. It’s a story that is largely centered around guarded conversations in gray rooms, and it’s easy to imagine the deadly dull version of it you could expect from so many other filmmakers. Luckily, with those conversations written by the Coens (the dialogue isn’t their most pretzeled, but it’s got plenty of wit and snap), performed by the likes of Hanks and (a really terrific) Mark Rylance, and directed by Spielberg (his camera effortlessly enlivening each meeting), it’s a rather entertaining history lesson. Capra with a dash of Kafka, Bridge of Spies has been called “minor Spielberg,” but that is grading on a curve set by some of the greatest films of all time, and really unfairly damns it with faint praise. It’s so easy to take both Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks for granted, but here they both show just why they are such valuable voices in cinema. Spielberg negotiates both the spectacular (the viscerally frightening U-2 crash) and the mundane (the sequence as Hanks returns home at the end of the film) with a technical skill and storytelling mastery that has few rivals, while Hanks gives a performance of such easy humanity and decency that is charisma can obscure the gravity and skill he brings to a movie-star role like James Donovan. Would that we continue to get “minor” films like this from the both of them for many years to come. – Nathaniel

5. Mistress America by Noah Baumbach

What did Noah Baumbach do to deserve two whole spots on our movie list — a full 13.3% of it? He swept the corners on generational angst. While We’re Young looks at twentysomethings and fortysomethings from a twentysomething-turned-fortysomething perspective, following the astute post-college blues chronicled in Kicking and Screaming and Frances Ha. So Mistress America bops in, moving as fast and snappy as ever, to take on freshman year, plus that nebulous time around age thirty where you might start to wonder if your time to do something great has run out. And what an utter delight he makes out of these ruminations, casting his collaborator and muse Greta Gerwig as that thirtyish woman who would be self-made if she’d actually gotten all the way to making it, and pairing her with Lola Kirke as a lonely (yet still ambitious) college freshman. Baumbach’s always-funny dialogue finds some sharp new edges when mixed with Gerwig’s off-kilter sensibility, but let’s not sleep on his directing, which has often gone overlooked and underrated. Here he stages an extended farcical set piece at a posh home in Connecticut, with characters whooshing in and out of frame, leaving terrific lines in their wake. It’s a wonderful, sustained bit of comic choreography, ensuring that Mistress America is no lesser companion piece to Frances Ha. Rewatches have convinced me it’s very near its equal, which makes it one of Baumbach’s best. Really, if he keeps making movies this good, especially with Gerwig at his side, it wouldn’t be a stretch to see 13.3 of his titles on our future 100-best-of-the-2010s list. – Jesse

4. It Follows by David Robert Mitchell

I’ve written a lot about It Follows this year — frankly, I should be sick of it by now. But David Robert Mitchell’s mesmerizing horror film stuck with me for the whole year, maybe because in some ways this is a movie about aging, and you can rely on aging every second of every day, all year long. But the movie’s sense of dread and the slow, steady camera movements that enhance it have been documented plenty. So let’s instead mention how weird and funny this thing is. The casual interplay between a bunch of sorta-teenagers talked by a slow-moving but unstoppable (and sexually transmitted!) force features very little exposition; in its place sits a lived-in familiarity. Maybe that’s why the movie has more rewatchability than so many horror films. After it was over the first time, I couldn’t tell you the name of the girl who was constantly either eating, sleeping, or reading off her retro-futuristic compact. But she felt like an old friend. Or at least, someone that I used to know — not a specific, actual someone, but a person rattling around somewhere in a hazy memory. Trust me: it’s rare that a horror movie ever makes me think, oh, yeah, I know this feeling. – Jesse

3. The Hateful Eight by Quentin Tarantino

Nobody should be surprised at this point in his career that Tarantino is a filmmaker who delights in his own perversity, pushing at the open wounds of our country (racism, violence, racially-motivated violence) and laughing when the blood spurts out. Case in point: his first use of the 70mm format turns out to be, essentially, a drawing-room film that takes place in one interior location rather than making much use of the sweeping vistas just outside the door. The Hateful Eight is his meanest and, frankly, most disgusting film yet – and also his most political, gathering several post Civil War-era angry men (and one angry woman) in a room to spit his patented dialogue at one another, until they start shooting instead. The continued divide between whites and blacks who once fought for common causes, the harsh treatment of women in the West (whether or not they’re deserving of it), the power of symbolic gestures no matter their veracity; in the end it’s all fodder for carnage wrought by opportunistic people with weapons. “I don’t know what all that was for,” my dad said as we left, which seems like a pretty succinct description of America’s history of violence to me. I suspect Tarantino agrees. His unwillingness to compromise, and exceeding willingness to kill off his characters, can make his work seem nihilistic but that would ignore the strict morality his worlds adhere to, whether it’s a Southern plantation or the battlegrounds of WWII. To be good in these worlds is hard work, and not to be undertaken lightly, and it doesn’t matter how strongly you stood for something yesterday if you’re not around today to keep standing. It’s not a hopeful message exactly but it’s certainly not a hopeless one either. – Sara

2. Inside Out by Pete Docter

There are many reasons this is a very special film. There’s the pleasure of adding lovable new Pixar characters to the pantheon, particularly those played by Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith in an incredibly winning variation on the Pixar buddy-comedy dynamic. There’s the brilliant conceit of the film, creating a vocabulary for discussing emotions and how they affect behavior that can have genuine, real-world usefulness. There’s the Triple Dent Gum song. There’s the wonderful level of invention all throughout the film, creating a recognizable and thoroughly imagined ecosystem inside a person’s consciousness, full of things that seem obvious in retrospect but are thrilling and full of delight each time we see them (think the journey through abstract thought or Dream Productions). There’s the lovely and grounded story that is taking place outside of Riley’s head, a small but completely recognizable conflict with crucial emotional stakes. There’s the Triple Dent Gum song. There’s the tremendous technical accomplishment of the film, with pitch perfect vocal performances, gorgeous and expressive animation, moving score, and remarkable clarity in telling a story that takes place on multiple planes in a way that even young children are able to understand how the interior affects the exterior and vice versa. There’s the story of Bing Bong.

But most of all there’s that yellow memory, tinged with blue. It’s that realization about Sadness’s role in Riley’s head that truly makes Inside Out one of the most special films released this year. So many films (indeed, so many people) place such a premium on happiness that it is very easy to look at sadness as an enemy or obstacle to overcome. It is easy to see, both in the film and in life, why we would make the (mistaken) assumption that having Joy at the controls all of the time is the solution to any problem. But Inside Out wisely illustrates (in buddy comedy form, no less!) the difference between joy and happiness. It’s an understanding, and level of emotional complexity, that comes from growing up, but the miracle of this film is that it makes that understanding accessible for people of all ages, whether you’re a child being told it’s okay to cry or an adult who needs to be reminded. – Nathaniel

And there’s the Triple Dent Gum song.

And as for the best movie of 2015…

here because it gets its own post! Don’t get miffed; we did this last year and it worked out well!

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.