If there was one confidently sure thing that defined the films I had the privilege of seeing this year, it would certainly be the spirit of diversity and creativity that made each of the selections on my annual shortlist distinctive in their unique cinematic way. Curiously enough, the fifteen films that comprise my list this year were evenly divided into five key film genres: comedies, documentaries, animation, indies, and blockbusters. This is perhaps a serendipitous sign that regardless of their silver screen pedigree, the illustrious crop of films below represent a positive step forward in the right direction as far as the future of filmmaking is concerned, and that there will always be something for everyone. From massive tentpole crowd-pleasers to critically-approved arthouse works, may you find something to discover and enjoy in my list of the Best In Film Of 2015.
A brilliant and hilarious subversion of so many romantic comedy movies, Trainwreck is a refreshing take on the man-child-meets-serious-girl trope, only this time the “irresponsible and promiscuous man-child” is portrayed by a pitch-perfect Amy Schumer and the “ready to settle down career woman” is played with surprising sensitivity by SNL alum Bill Hader. Packed with spot-on laughs and featuring an oddball mix of supporting characters—i.e. John Cena as an emotionally insightful bodybuilder paramour and Tilda Swinton as an overly bronzed and brassy magazine editrix—this film is proof for all the hopeless romantics out there that it’s not always the men who are the hot messes in a boy-meets-girl scenario.
When art imitates life, the results never fall in a liminal grey area but often land in a field of extremes. Mistress America is a laugh-out-loud exploration of the consequences that happen if a person’s life unknowingly becomes the inspiration for a work of fiction. Indie comedy queen Greta Gerwig adroitly retools the character she portrayed in Frances Ha into a new incarnation of a financially struggling NYC girl-about-town who inspires newcomer Lola Kirke into writing a short story based on Gerwig’s creative yet carefree persona. Packed with whip-smart dialogue and a farcical third act that is worth the price of admission, this is a can’t-miss film for those seeking a smartly written and skillfully performed comedy film.
It’s actually a wonderful blessing to realize that all of the comedy films that made my annual shortlist for 2015 were all headlined by women, and Fort Tilden is no exception. While this pick is a little more obscure than the first two selections, its comedic radiance certainly cannot be denied. Presented as a sharp yet scathing satire on pretentious Brooklyn hipsters with a privileged background, this film doesn’t hold back on skewering the lifestyles of jaded Caucasian hipsters while also examining the caustic and passive-aggressive dynamics of female friendship as showcased by indie ingénues Bridey Eliot and Claire McNulty. If you’re into the idea of seeing a hot mess of a road trip by two clueless hipster girls, then this one’s for you.
First off, a side note: the three documentary feature films that headline this section of my annual list are all set in New York City. It’s not surprising considering the Big Apple has always been a hotbed for stories that truly capture the city’s eccentric spirit and coterie of multifaceted characters. Chief among New York’s well-known personalities is the sprightly nonagenarian style icon that is Iris Apfel, whose documentary directed by the late Albert Maysles (of the Grey Gardens fame) is a fascinating look into the life of a creative eccentric that only someone like Apfel can provide. The genius of Iris is that it is less about the outré fashions and costume jewelry but more about the erudite woman underneath all that crazy regalia.
Homelessness is a serious issue that isn’t just a concern among third world countries, but also within wealthy and highly developed nations like the United States. Even the very streets of a very expensive metropolis like New York City are littered with hundreds of homeless people barely struggling to scrounge for food, find places to rest and bathe, or worse—gain employment. But this fly-on-the-wall guerilla style documentary about Mark Reay—a middle-aged man with rather handsome features and an even more unexpected personal background is just the tip of the homeless iceberg. Homme Less is an eye-opening discourse that looks can certainly be deceiving at first glance when homeless people are involved.
The magic of filmmaking is that it always has the uncanny ability to impart in many people a potent sense of escapism from reality, and this final documentary feature set in New York City takes a much darker tone than the previous two stories. The title of the film refers to a band of six brothers whose entire lives are tightly controlled by their mysterious and cult-like father. Almost never allowed to leave their cramped tenement apartment on the Lower East Side, the Angulo Brothers find solace within their precious collection of Hollywood films which they lovingly reenact through inventive cosplayed scenes. The Wolfpack is a powerful yet haunting glimpse into a near-isolated life that requires the very fantasy of cinema to survive.
Pixar has earned its sterling reputation for producing gorgeously animated feature films for kids that slyly masquerade as emotionally manipulative works of art aimed at adults, but in a good way, of course. The studio returns to flawless form this year with Inside Out—a film that shouldn’t work on paper but whose very existence on the silver screen defies all logic and reason and goes straight for the heartstrings. Both cerebral and emotional, this high-stakes adventure between two diametrically opposing emotions—Joy and Sadness, obvs—is an imaginative tour-de-force that defends the significance of sorrow and cautions us on the often destructive ways that forced happiness can influence our lives.
THE LITTLE PRINCE
Antoine De Saint-Exupéry first published Le Petit Prince in 1943 and it took about seventy-two years to adapt the French author’s most iconic work into an animated feature film worthy of its venerated legacy. Animator and director Mark Osborne who conceived of Kung Fu Panda has breathed new life into the classic story about the titular royal of celestial origins by cleverly using the original source material as a parallel and interconnected framing device in order to tell a universal story about the pitfalls of prematurely forcing children to act like adults. Sumptuously animated and featuring a stellar voice cast, The Little Prince is mandatory viewing for lovers and fans of the highly beloved novella.
WORLD OF TOMORROW
You may or may not have noticed that the title of this list emphasizes the term “film” as opposed to “movie”. That’s because of the inclusion of this mind-bending and astonishingly emotional short film by independent animator Don Hertzfeldt. To ignore this spectacularly genius work simply because of its concise runtime of seventeen minutes is to deny the art form of animation itself. The brevity of this high-concept piece is more than enough to contain immensely majestic ideas of science fiction while delivering a heartfelt story about a precocious toddler girl and her third-generation adult clone. Go see World Of Tomorrow immediately and you too will realize that you “no longer fall in love with rocks”.
As someone whose social circle involves rubbing shoulders with DJs, this enchanting French indie film by director Mia Hansen-Løve and based on her brother’s experiences as a former disc jockey completely resonated with me on a visceral level. Felix De Givry—a handsome and scruffy French actor on the rise—plays an idealistic young man who dreams of embarking on a career as a DJ but realizes over the years that the path to success is not an easy one. Blending a fictional side story about the origins of Daft Punk together with the main narrative, this dramatic piece is also packed with a great soundtrack. Eden is dedicated to all my DJ friends whose big dreams of stardom are sustained by the very music they play.
Alex Garland has always been one of my creative favorites given that he has written one of my favorite novels (The Beach) and a screenplay to one of my favorite movies (28 Days Later). In his directorial film debut, Garland fires on all cylinders with a spectacular yet minimalist science-fiction thriller that brings a fresh spin on the battle between man and machine. Garland has crafted an intelligent chamber play that skillfully builds unsettling tension between an unwitting employee, his devious and eccentric tech genius employer, and the employer’s beguiling AI gynoid creation. Unfolding with stimulating precision, Ex Machina is proof that even the smallest of indie films can tell a transfixing story with such bold ideas.
Last year, I praised the merits of The Babadook as a champion of the horror genre that did not rely on cheap jump scares and other tired shock tactics but solely through inventive storytelling and building an eerie atmosphere of fear and suspense. This year, the torch is passed on to a creepy Austrian horror film that is drenched with a spellbinding mix of dread, darkness, and violence that will make you think twice about messing around with identical twins or aloof mothers with sinister medical bandages obscuring their faces. Infusing a bracing twist on old-fashioned elements in horror filmmaking, Goodnight Mommy is the kind of gonzo freakish nightmare that you wish would never ever happen to your own family.
STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
The three major blockbusters honored on this year’s list represented three distinct fandoms that have made a significant impact not just on box office sales, but striking conversations about issues beyond their entertainment value. Episode VII of the hallowed Star Wars universe made headlines for casting an unknown actress in the lead female role and a black actor as a Stormtrooper. But both Daisy Ridley and John Boyega proved the naysayers wrong when the final product was released to critical acclaim and overwhelming financial success. Star Wars: The Force Awakens reinvigorates the beloved space opera saga by introducing gifted new characters while retaining the grandiose spirit and vigor of the epic franchise.
AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
Superheroes, too, made for a strapping summer presentation as Marvel Studios went full-throttle with the crown jewel of their Phase Two lineup of films. It’s hard to believe that over three years ago, a misfit team of super-powered individuals assembled to form The Avengers and became a colossal cultural phenomenon where superhero films can indeed merge art with commerce. But while director Joss Whedon may have buckled under the pressure in making the follow-up to that 2012 behemoth, the end result still packs lots of solid punches while keeping the continuing storyline of our band of heroes stable. Avengers: Age Of Ultron is another satisfying addition in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe.
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Forget everything you know about high-octane action films because George Miller basically threw the rulebook out the window and produced a new set of nigh impossible filmmaking standards so shiny and so chrome that lesser directors would probably tremble in their blatant mediocrity. A nuclear desert wasteland populated by maniacal tyrant warlords, ultra-violent ghostly skinhead soldiers, proactive post-apocalyptic feminist princesses, badass geriatric sharpshooting biker ladies, and two drift-compatible road warriors filled with so much pathos and bravery—everything is all here combined to pure cinematic perfection. To that end, Mad Max: Fury Road is hands-down the summa cum laude of the Best In Film, Class Of 2015.