I was almost entirely cut off from watching movies in a movie theater for the whole of 2015, for reasons having to do with my health. Today’s multiplatform availability thankfully means that I was able to see a lot of movies regardless, but I won’t rule out that the way I watched them may have impacted my appreciation. I miss the collective experience of moviegoing in a way I didn’t think about it until I was cut off from it. For genre movies in particular – comedies, action flicks, horror – something is inherently lost in the transition to small screen solitude. But even with these logistical hurdles. I managed to see a lot of movies, many of them good. Below are some of my favorites.
A reminder for returning readers and in service of newcomers; any movie which received a theatrical run, festival screening, DVD or VOD premiere or first airing exclusively on television between January 1, 2015 and December 31, 2015 was eligible for inclusion. For example, that explain why the HBO documentary Regarding Susan Sontag, a 2014 movie which first screened at the 2014 Bergen International Film Festival is included. Many movies fly under the radar at festivals, but it was shown on national television in 2015.
Some of you also know that the release schedule in Norway differs from the one in the US or the UK. Many of the 2015 Oscar contenders won’t premiere here until well into the new year, and thus will be treated as 2016 movies under these rules. That means (unfortunately), no Spotlight, no Big Short, no Carol, no The Revenant, no Hateful Eight, Son of Saul, Anomalisa, Room, etc. Conversely, it means that A Most Violent Year, which was on the long-list for Oscar glory in 2014, can take its proud place in my 2015 top five.
Lists are always works in progress. There are lots of movies I haven’t seen yet (The Force Awakens, Spectre, Eden, Victoria, Bridge of Spies, 45 Years, Joy, Song of the Sea, The Martian, Clouds of Sils Maria, Our Little Sister, The New Girlfriend, In The Crosswind, Thr Salt of the Earth, The Pearl Button and Louder Than Bombs, among many, many others), large and small. I retain the right to amend this list with further titles in time, when the year’s total output has had time to settle. You can look up my lists from previous years if you’d like, but know that had they been made today, they would’ve looked very different. Also, although I rank them in order in preference, the exact order is not important. Rather, I want you to see all the movies on my list. They are all very good.
You can see a complete ranking of 2015 movies here.
1. Ex Machina (Directed by: Alex Garland)
After penning several successful films (Sunshine, 28 Days Later), Alex Garland made a virtuosic debut as director with Ex Machina. An intense thriller? Thought-provoking speculative fiction? Psycho-sexual character study of intra-personal dynamics and all-encompassing ambition? Check, check and check. Oscar Isaacs and Domhnall Gleeson are both excellent as shifty duelists, but the number one standout has to be Alicia Wikander as the A.I. that keeps you on your toes. The technical aspects, from effects to photography, sound design and score, only add to the almost eerie sense of perfection, marrying style and substance on yet another level.
2. Inside Out (Dir: Pete Docter)
A simple, great premise elegantly executed is the key to Pixar’s best film since 2010’s Toy Story 3. You could say the insights it’s getting praised for are obvious, but I guarantee you haven’t been thinking th about this way before. Voice work from Amy Schumer and Lewis Black adds the comedy, but the standout is Phyllis Smith, who has the tricky task of voicing Sadness. My favorite scene might be the nod to abstract thought with its inherent kid-unfriendliness.
3. The Look of Silence (Dir: Joshua Oppenheimer, Anonymous)
This “second volume” to Oppenheimer’s docu project about the Indonesian genocide definitely puts the infuriating lack of accountability or repentance from the perpetrators portayed in The Act of Killing into sharper relief, but it also raises the question of whether Oppenheimer’s method of having them dramatize their evil acts was the right one. Here, they are instead confronted by the son of one of their victims, and the effect is equally enraging, if earned by slightly more traditional means. Whether seen as standalone movies or taken together, these movies are a masterpiece of humanist cinema and discourse, and a landmark in the progression of the documentary form.
4. A Most Violent Year (Dir: JC Chandor)
I liked J.C. Chandor’s financial thriller Margin Call (2011) a lot, but by moving into an unconventional gangster universe, he has upped his game further. Jason Isaacs, basically omnipresent wherever great movies are made and great performances delivered these days, plays a guy for whom doing the decent thing is often just too hard. By setting familiar conflicts in an unusual milieu, Chandor reconceptualizes the mob drama in a way that feels fresh and exciting.
5. It Follows (Dir: David Robert Mitchell)
My discomfort with the horror genre is near absolute, but a combination of sensational critical buzz and Mitchell’s tender and perceptive debut feature, The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010), forced me to look this atmospheric suspense-builder in the eye. A clever tweak on the sexual politics of the genre and packed with nuanced, down-to-earth performances, It Follows delivered moments of well-earned dread and genuine character engagement. Sex is still dangerous in It Follows, but not in the way you think.
6. Maps to the Stars (Dir: David Cronenberg)
Maps plays like a natural extension of Cronenberg’s previous film, Cosmopolis (2012), only less tedious. A dark Hollywood satire anchored by two of the greatest actresses alive today (Julianne Moore and Mia Wasikowska), it eventually even made me understand some its depraved characters. The weirdness of Maps is par for the course in a filmography as rich as Cronenberg’s, but if you count the somewhat more conventional A Dangerous Method (2010) and Cosmopolis, he has taken an interesting, more introspective path lately.
7. Mistress America (Dir: Noah Baumbach)
If you wanna be traditional about it, Mistress America is a “Noah Baumbach film” (his second of 2015, the first of which was the also good While We’re Young.) But this comedy, continuing in the vein of 2014’s Frances Ha, feels very much like a project co-realized with Baumbach’s lead actress (and girlfriend) Greta Gerwig. Her unstoppable energy and wit is all over this up-to-11 screwball comedy, which adopts the temperament of Woody Allen and the pacing of His Girl Friday. Its characters may not be instantly likable, but their competing experiences and expectations for life could ring true, nonetheless, or maybe for that very reason.
8. White God (Dir: Kormel Mundruczo)
It’s easy to see why this Hungarian export has made the rounds to all sorts of international film festivals in the last couple of years. Part futuristic, animalistic revenge saga, part anti-authoritarian social realism, the rise of the city of the dogs is both funny, exciting and visually impressive. The closing scene, while not exactly original in concept, is among the most moving and beautiful ones I’ve seen in a long time.
9. Magic Mike XXL (Dir: Gregory Jacobs)
Magic Mike XXL surprised me by improving on Steven Soderbergh’s fine first movie, gaining in both insight and wit. It starts off as a self-aware workplace roadmovie (including a hilarious scene with Joe Manganiello dancing “seductively” to I Want It That Way), but sensing that its strength lies in character development and mood rather than narrative propulsion, it thankfully allows itself several detours along the way to the stripper convention. Stay for the discussion on female desire and male insecurity.
10. Stations of the Cross (Dir: Dieter Brüggemann)
Dieter Brüggemann’s drama about the self-destructive convictions of a devoutly Catholic 14 year-old taught me more about fundamentalism and the dynamics behind personal sacrifice than many a straight-laced documentary. While different in a lot of ways, it reminded me of Stephen Cone’s The Wise Kids0 (2011). Both movies feel sincere a0nd curious of its characters, and they take a non-judgmental approach to religious conviction and how, for some people, no task is more important, and more painful, than trying to make it square with the demands of a secularized society.
Honorable mentions: Slow West, Whiplash, Starred Up, Obvious Child, Wild Tales, Citizenfour, The Shaun the Sheep Movie.
Wildly overrated: Birdman.
Not exactly overrated, but one I didn’t connect to as strongly as every other film buff in the Western hemisphere: Mad Max: Fury Road.
Respect, but not love: Nightcrawler, Tangerines, Leviatan, Phoenix, Palo Alto.
Better than expected: Wild, Laggies, Maggie, We Are Your Friends, The Wave (Bølgen, Norway).
Movies with big stars which need to be singled out as lazy crap: Big Eyes, Focus.
Pure poison: Too many to mention, but in particular The Cobbler, Minions, Men, Women and Children.
Hey Jørgen, thanks for posting your annual list! As you know I love to look at your lists and read a little bit about your take on each of the movies on there. Sorry to hear about your health. :\ Hopefully this year, you’ll get a chance to watch more movies in a theater. Conversely, however, I argue that some movies are better to watch on the small screen, or not in theaters—especially the bad ones. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t seen (and paid!) for a bad movie in theaters. I’ve found I’m slightly more forgiving toward bad movies when I’ve seen them while sitting on the couch with a blanket on.
Ex Machina — I enjoyed the movie a lot, but during the awards season, I must admit I started to get annoyed with people saying it deserves [this] or it deserves [that] or that it’s Top 10 material or Best Picture material. Ugh. It’s a more ruminative science fiction film with a few great ideas and questions but, to me, it’s not the kind of movie that will—or should be—remembered as a classic in any sense of the word. Vikander definitely captured my attention here.
Inside Out — Wow, you really think that it’s Pixar’s bet since the last “Toy Story”? Maybe. (I enjoyed “Monsters University” a lot–an unpopular opinion.) Like yourself, I enjoyed the movie. I thought it was wonderful, very energetic, color, poignant—in parts. However, I felt it ran out of steam toward the final third. I am, however, very interested in a sequel, preferably tackling the big P-letter word.
The Look of Silence — I saw this without having seen “The Act of Killing” and thought it was very effective. I felt so angry during segments where the perpetrators recounted/reenacted what they did. I felt not a whiff of remorse or accountability, always claiming that they did what they did because the government told them to. Some of them even appeared to look proud! I won’t forget this movie for a while and I’m happy it made your list.
A Most Violent Year — Maybe I didn’t understand the point of this movie. I saw it last year when it came out and while I acknowledge that it was well-acted all around, maybe it was “too different” of a mob drama for me… Actually, I think I should revisit this one because it’s likely that my expectations got in the way of what was actually in front of me.
It Follows — The kind of horror movie I can’t help but love: small, silent, but teeming with rich undertones. Gosh, I will never forget that “giant” scene in the bedroom. When that thing came out, I jumped in my seat. That almost always never happens in a horror film because I tend to anticipate the scares. It absolutely took me by surprise. The movie made my Top 20.
Maps to the Stars — I felt the material was almost afraid to touch a specific emotion: sadness. The characters are so disconnected but, overall, I found something about the film felt… off because the screenplay failed to get entangled with such a basic human emotion. I loved Moore’s performance and I’m not mad at you for claiming that she is one of the greatest actresses alive. I don’t know about Wasikowska, though. She’s more of a mannequin to me here. (She was pretty good on “Crimson Peak,” though.)
Mistress America — Greta Gerwig, I love her! During the first hour, I was convinced that I was watching a movie that deserves to be a modern classic… But then that move Connecticut. You didn’t feel that the tone and pacing felt disconnected from the first half? It took a while for me to adjust… In fact, I don’t think I ever did. I found the characters to be so sympathetic during the first half and completely annoying or bothersome or downright ugly during the last half. I’m interested to see Gerwig to try and tackle a different kind of acting in a completely different movie. I hope she’s not a one-trick pony.
White God — I still don’t know how they trained those dogs. More people should see it.
Magic Mike XXL — I can’t bring myself to watch it—LOL. But you say it’s better than the predecessor? I’m slightly—slightly!—curious. I don’t know, I feel like the movie is best seen via YouTube clips. As in, just the stripping parts. lol. I kid.
Stations of the Cross — I will look into this one.
“Wildly overrated: Birdman” — THANK YOU! Ugh, I cannot believe it won Best Picture at the Oscars last year. I mean, really???
“Pure poison: …Men, Women and Children” — Hmm, I thought it worked as a really ham-fisted melodrama. I didn’t think it was that bad? Care to elaborate why it didn’t work for you?
Also, I saw your ranking on MUBI and I’m surprised “G.B.F.” didn’t end up at the very bottom. I hated that movie so much, I could rip my hair out just thinking about it. Yuck!
P.S.: “Kingsman: The Secret Service” was great! Stoked there’s going to be a sequel.