By Chris Balboni
Reader Film Contributor
It’s just after Christmas and I have yet to see The Force Awakens because, despite me being a huge fan of Star Wars since childhood, there are roughly zero theaters in the wild world of small-town Montana where my holiday fun was located. There. Now that we have that out of the way, here are what I consider to be the best films that 2015 had to offer:
- “The Walk”
“The Walk” could have simply dramatized the (excellent) documentary “Man on Wire” in order to tell the tale of Philippe Petit’s unbelievable high wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. It would have been decent, but altogether forgettable. Instead, director Robert Zemeckis injected the narrative with the very soul of Petit: It’s fun, lively and at times overly silly, but never anything less than engaging and Joseph Gordon Levit’s acting is worth the price of admission alone. More than any of that, though, is the fact that “The Walk” serves as a love letter to the Twin Towers, apolitical and full of reverence. There’s a sense of catharsis in seeing the towers come alive again, if only for a few hours.
- “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”
Alex Gibney’s look at the profoundly disturbing history of Scientology is the first true documentary about the mysterious (and very litigious) organization, and it’s everything it should be: Encompassing, personal, and utterly horrifying. The film gives us a long-awaited look at the insides of one of the most powerful new religious movements in the country, covering everything from how members are sucked in by the church to the abusive leadership and the endless harassment of anyone who chooses to leave. Told through the eyes of several former members, this is masterful work done by one of the best documentarians working today.
- “The Gift”
When middle-aged couple Simon and Robyn move to a new city, a man from Simon’s childhood stumbles into their lives, forcing Simon to confront a past that was all but forgotten. The brilliance in “The Gift” lies in its subtlety, both in script and stellar performances from Jason Bateman and Joel Edgerton (also the writer/director). It’s a quintessential slow-burn thriller that gradually ramps up until your skin crawls, and Edgerton’s prowess in making that happen is one of the most overlooked accomplishments of 2015.
- “Crimson Peak”
Guillermo del Toro’s “Crimson Peak” is a genre film, though not at all the one most people expected. There’s a haunted house filled with ghosts and other terrible sights, sure, but it’s hardly the point. This is a gothic romance, a style long since abandoned by Hollywood and resurrected here by del Toro with lush, stunning visuals and a heartfelt script.
- Straight Outta Compton”
In a year full of biopics, “Straight Outta Compton” stands out as the finest with its unflinching honesty about the rise of N.W.A., the legendary hip-hop group that began in the late 1980’s and launched Dr. Dre and Ice Cube (amongst many others) into their status as worldwide icons. Regardless of whether or not you’re a fan, F. Gary Gray’s depiction of the group has as much to say about hip-hop culture as it does censorship and race-relations with authorities, topics that couldn’t be more relevant today.
- “Ex Machina”
A computer programmer is invited to view the world’s first artificial intelligence in the form of an android created by his billionaire employer. “Ex Machina” asks heavy questions about what it means to be alive and self-aware, making no conceits and holding no hands along the way. Combined with a minimalist approach to set design and characters (there are essentially three in the entire film), “Ex Machina” ends up being an incredibly satisfying character drama steeped in science and philosophy, and one of the most thought-provoking science-fiction films in recent memory.
- It Follows
Something stalks you. It appears human, but isn’t. It moves slowly and you can get away, but it never stops coming for you. What makes “It Follows” one of the best films of the year isn’t that premise, but the execution of it. It is utterly drenched in atmosphere and relies on an endless sense of dread rather than a series of scary moments (though there are several of those), a task accomplished by using almost entirely wide angles and long takes that never fail to make you wonder “is that ‘it’ back there? Is it getting closer?” With a gorgeous soundtrack and a surprisingly talented cast of unknowns, this is psychological horror at its finest.
- “Inside Out”
“Inside Out,” tackles the topic of human emotions by making them anthropomorphic characters living inside an 11-year-old girl’s head as she struggles with moving to a new city. Making topics of psychology into a film enjoyable for all ages sounds impossible, yet Pixar wildly succeeds. More than just turning abstract issues like joy and sadness into likeable characters, “Inside Out” makes them protagonists in a story about the loss of childhood innocence that just about anyone can relate to.
- “The Martian”
“The Martian” is without a doubt the best science fiction film of the year, and possibly of the last ten. Between Matt Damon’s spot-on, intense-yet-humorous portrayal of astronaut Mark Whatney (left for dead on Mars after a botched expedition) and the script’s steadfast adherence to real science, we’re left with a compelling drama set on another planet that is absolutely believable and enthralling from start to finish.
- “Mad Max: Fury Road”
There is nothing like “Fury Road,” not this year or any year. The original “Mad Max” trilogy pales in comparison, as does every other attempt at an action film this year (looking at you, “Age of Ultron” and “Jurassic World”). It’s a lean and fast film with no excess; every scene is paramount, every shot crammed with details about the exceedingly bizarre, steam-punk western world that never stops moving and engulfs you for two straight hours. There’s little overt CGI and cleverly subdued performances from Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron, but what makes “Mad Max” the best of the year is under the hood: Masked in the spectacle of modern action is a film about gender equality, a feat of filmmaking that never once feels heavy-handed and the unlikely beating heart of a movie that also features a man in a onesie playing a flame-throwing guitar while strapped to a semi-truck barreling through the desert. It’s a wild, intelligent ride that everyone should take.
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