As the year winds down and the awards season picks up steam, you’ll find that many “Best Films of 2015” lists are littered with the same homogenous, Oscar-bait garbage that Hollywood has been steadily churning out for the last 12 months. I find this extremely disheartening, as so many incredible films are completely overlooked, while rubbish like The Danish Girl or Joy or Point Break garner all the press and unwarranted accolades. Enough is enough; I’m here to give credit where credit is due, so here are five exemplary motion pictures that went above and beyond the call of duty and should be recognized as the best of what 2015 had to offer.
CREED, Dir. Ryan Coogler
Some films take you by surprise. I had dismissed the idea of a Rocky sequel before I even gave it a fighting chance. But when I sat down and started watching Creed, arms crossed and ready to hate it, I discovered not only was this one of the year’s most satisfying films, but also found this to be one of of the most sentimental viewing experiences I’ve had in quite some time. Creed is pure formula, sure, but it’s thoroughly rousing entertainment and features strong work from all players involved. The boxing choreography is electrifying (a one-take fight scene midway through is a real stunner), and Michael B. Jordan (re-teaming here with Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler) delivers career-best work as the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed. But the real miracle here is Sylvester Stallone. Taking a much needed break from his geriatric action-hero Expendables nonsense, Stallone returns to the role that made him a star, and delivers a tender, poignant performance with a heaping of pathos. The Rocky films eventually devolved into caricature (Rocky IV, anyone?), but Creed is a winning return to the saga’s roots, and real proof that the Italian Stallion still has legs to stand on. Trust me, once you hear those first few notes of “Gonna Fly Now,” you’ll want to stand up and cheer.
IT FOLLOWS, Dir. David Robert Mitchell
And now for something completely different. Horror films often get a bum rap these days (because most of them are, well, utter shit), and it takes a truly innovative concept to strike fear in the hearts of unknowing audiences. Enter It Follows, a film that terrified me more than anything else I’ve seen in the last ten years. Much like the titular apparition that relentlessly pursues its victims, It Follows has stayed with me since my first viewing, over nine months ago, and repeat watches have revealed it to be a complex and layered feature. Essentially an AIDS parable, It Follows toys with the notion that “if you have sex in a horror movie, you’ll die,” except here David Robert Mitchell is clever enough to twist genre expectations on their heads with his own personal flourishes, like the truly indistinguishable setting (retro cars and cola cans are frequently seen, but how about that futuristic seashell e-reader?). The core group of kids are also sympathetic and completely likable, but what truly stands out here is the electronic score by Disasterpiece. A sonic triumph that evokes the best of John Carpenter, Disasterpiece’s score not only heightens the film’s dread-inducing atmosphere, it transcends the genre entirely, cementing its status into horror movie legend.
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, Dir. George Miller
Mad Max: Fury Road was a potent reminder that blockbuster action films could be fun. After a three decade absence from his post-apocalyptic franchise, director George Miller roars back to life with this insane beast of a motion picture. Exceeding all hype that preceded it, Fury Road kicks off in high gear and never lets its foot off the pedal. Everything here works brilliantly, from the beautifully captured landscape of the orange-and-teal wasteland to the convoy of intricately-crafted death machines, one of which features a full concert in the form of a flame-throwing guitarist. Hell. Yes. Fury Road is the type of film that keeps finding ways to upstage itself, even going as far as having Tom Hardy’s titular Max upstaged by Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. What is easily her best role in years, Theron is the heart and soul of the picture, and any slander about this feature being “feminist propaganda” is completely unwarranted. Ladies can be bad-asses too, guys. I could go on and on about how I love this film, but please, I implore you, go see Mad Max: Fury Road, if you haven’t already. You’d be doing yourself a disservice by missing out on the best film of the year.
SICARIO, Dir. Denis Villeneuve
With his morose, kidnapping-thriller Prisoners and abstract, doppelgänger puzzler Enemy, Denis Villeneuve has become a talent to watch. Sicario is the capstone of his merits as a filmmaker, a pitch black journey into the heart of darkness. A taut and visceral procedural shaped into a nightmare, Sicario pits the unwavering moral compass of Emily Blunt’’s idealistic FBI agent against corruption mounting from all sides. Brutal, harrowing, and uncompromising almost to a fault, Sicario may contain the single greatest set-piece in all of 2015: an unbearably tense stand-off at the Mexican board that escalates into a horrifying shootout. The entirety of the film also benefits from Roger Deakins’ masterful cinematography (give that man an Oscar, dammit!), and Emily Blunt is in top form here as the rattled agent, but it’s Benicio Del Toro who silently steals the show as a merciless “advisor” to the FBI. Stoic, slick and wolf-like in appearance, Del Toro is phenomenal in an atypically understated performance, and becomes the highlight of an exceptional film.
TANGERINE, Dir. Sean Baker
Who knew a film shot on an iPhone could look so damn impressive? Equal parts profane, sharp, and hilarious, Tangerine was a refreshing blast of energy that resulted in one of the wildest, funniest, and most memorable films I’ve seen this past year. It’s also an incredibly heartfelt and nuanced feature film. The story follows a pair of prostitutes, both of whom are transgender, after one’s release from jail, now looking to settle a score with her boyfriend who cheated on her while she was incarcerated. The backdrop is orangish glow of Santa Monica boulevard at sunset (hence the title). The subject matter may put off some viewers, but with only a handful of places and faces explored, director Sean Baker constructs a dynamic look at an endearing group of losers, and acquits himself well with his iPhone aesthetic, resulting in some amazingly swooping tracking shots through the streets of Los Angeles. Tangerine is a promising breakthrough, and one of the more vibrant films in recent memory.