The year is wrapping up. 2016 will be here soon enough when all talk of Star Wars will die down and we’ll be ramping up discussions on … eh, I guess there’s another Star Wars movie coming our way, eh? You can throw a rock and hit someone writing, directing, or starring in a new movie set in a galaxy far, far away.
You could also throw a rock and hit a great movie that was released in 2015 (transition complete). We compiled our list of the 25 best films (check back on Monday) and had a problem: there were too many good flicks out there. Fortunately, the ones that didn’t quite make the cut have found a happy home in this here feature. Some of these are movies we loved a lot but not quite as much as 25 others. Some are loved by a handful of us, while a few may have but a lone defender.
Consider these the silver medal movies of 2015. Please don’t think of them as the first losers.
“I’m in the dark, Charlie,” a blind and savage Al Pacino once barked at a pre-Batman Forever Chris O’Donnell. Good film by Marty Brest, no argument there, but Scent of a Woman never really grasps the terror behind that line. Enter Eskil Vogt’s cruelly forgotten Blind. The Norwegian filmmaker’s stunning debut is an intense and thoughtful meditation on the sometimes beautiful, often maddening lifestyle of someone who’s recently lost their vision. It’s one of the few films in recent memory that actually takes the time to tackle all of the 21st century hurdles that might plague a blind person’s day-to-day operations.
Ellen Dorrit Petersen delivers an emotionally nuanced performance as Ingrid, a troubled woman who recently lost her eyesight and opts to spend her days comfortably locked inside her high-rise apartment, which she shares with her husband. Most of the time, she keeps her imagination and memory fresh in order to visualize and reference people, places, and things. This is where the film takes a cruel and hilarious Kaufman-esque turn. To his credit, Vogt only sparingly indulges in the abstract, opting instead to grasp a more grounded surrealism that offers a rather economical cautionary tale. It’s incredible filmmaking.
The found-footage genre is dead … or maybe not. After suffering through such entries as As Above, So Below and the latest Paranormal Activity, things were looking down for the genre. Then along came Creep, a winner from 2014 film festivals that finally saw its release this year. The plot is simple: a videographer takes up an offer on Craigslist to videotape a man at his cabin for the day. That’s it. However (inevitably?), what appears to be a simple gig is anything but.
In its brisk runtime, director-star Patrick Brice (whose other 2015 movie, The Overnight, you can read about in a special upcoming list) uses the found-footage formula with little cheats, keeping matters intense even in daytime scenes that take up half of the movie. Producer-star Mark Duplass’ role as the “creep” in question is a change of pace for one of mumblecore’s founding fathers. Instead of playing a sad sack, Duplass is playing someone who’s playing a sad sack. Creep is disturbing, scary, inventive, and maybe most important of all: funny.
Digging for Fire
It feels a little demeaning to declare that Joe Swanberg really came into his own with Digging for Fire. Truthfully, Swanberg has been making great films for a while now, but it seems like they’ve all been leading up to this. Digging for Fire is by far his most mature and accomplished yet, in both subject matter and execution. Though Fire explores the themes of marriage and facing adulthood, it still breathes with the life that his younger films nurtured when trying to make sense of their characters’ youth. The characters that Swanberg has continuously brought to the screen have always been like the people we know: our friends, exes, or even us. In a way, they morph into one, and this is their collective epilogue. It is by far his most meticulously crafted film, and every element elevates the others.
The story follows Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Tim (Jake Johnson) a couple who are trying to balance parenting and marriage with holding on to who they used to be. When Tim finds a bone and a gun while digging around the estate they are housesitting, the film instantly picks up a new kind of momentum. No longer is it merely another character study, but there’s skill to the way information unfolds, as Tim and Lee embark on their own separate personal adventures, searching for the same things in different places. This presumably being Swanberg’s biggest undertaking in his career thus far, the film allows for each element to perform at its highest degree.
From the undeniably strong cast and the hypnotic score that follows characters, to cinematographer Ben Richardson’s beautifully shot 35mm. Every perspective in the film is cohesively telling the same story, and allows Swanberg to branch out in a new and exciting way.
2015 inexplicably became the year of biopics about notorious sociological experiments: First, we had The Stanford Prison Experiment, which was also compelling; however, it doesn’t hold a candle to the formal bliss that is Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter. Recounting the psychological complexities of the 1961 Milgram experiment, Almereyda offers a curiously metafictional take on the infamous study, in which social psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard, stirring in his intellectual calm) explores society’s fealty to authority at the expense of its morality.
In the meantime, we’re treated to formal flourishes like scenes played out entirely against rear-projection – a trick I’d love to see far more often – and Milgram’s constant, clinical addresses to the audience. Almereyda gleefully blurs the lines between reality and fiction, even as we watch Milgram watch Kellan Lutz play William Shatner playing him in a TV movie that really happened. As the layers of reality continue to blur and shift, we become both observer and subject of the film, giving Experimenter an intriguing relationship with its audience.
A24, a four-year-old studio that has given us some of our favorite films of 2014 (Under the Skin, Obvious Child, A Most Violent Year) and 2015 (While We’re Young, Amy, Room), also delivered a menacing sci-fi gem in April that, as a spiritual cousin to the spooky Under the Skin, has proved to be more polarizing.
Ex Machina pivots around a trio of nimble minds — Nathan (Oscar Isaac), an eccentric genius and search engine CEO; Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), an idealistic programmer who finds himself the winner of a contest to work for Nathan on a top-secret project; and Ava (Alicia Vikander), an expressive humanoid robot with extraordinary levels of artificial intelligence — embroiled in a thrilling pas de trois of wits. Almost all of the action takes place inside Nathan’s modern and high-technology-powered manse, so ensconced in a nondescript wilderness that it can only be reached by helicopter and, as Caleb discovers over the course of his mandated stay, suffocating with secrets too perverse to be contained.
Every component of the film is sharp and nuanced, from its sleek and sumptuous production design to its intricately carved characters to its adroit navigation of moral ambiguities, but the acting is especially superb and under-recognized. Isaac and Gleeson (who also will appear together in Star Wars: Episode VII ) give career-high performances, playing off one another brilliantly as flip sides of the human coin; but it is Vikander — a revelation as the beautiful and manipulative id to their battling egos — who ultimately steals the spotlight.
The Forbidden Room
Watching The Forbidden Room is like having breathtaking dreams after accidentally passing out after a little too much whiskey and red meat. Guy Maddin’s latest, co-directed with Evan Johnson, was a hallucinatory delight, a masterpiece of absurdist laughs, packed with wall-to-wall weird-o imagery. Maddin and Johnson stage a two-hour splatter painting of a film, a colorful menagerie of cave men, lumberjacks, submarines, skeleton women, and more, more, more, all loosely tethered to home bathing tutorials. No, this write-up is not on drugs. This is a full-bodied experimental film, with such bizarre and creative visualizations that it stays with you, deep into your subconscious.
But best of all, the film isn’t merely joke-goofs for the sake of going to Crazy-town. There’s intense, meditative thought behind the vivacious images, a powerful poem about fear and desire, and the things we bury only to rise from the deep when we dream. At least that’s what the whole submarine outline seemed to be getting at. At $30,476 in domestic grosses, The Forbidden Room is ranked #446 at this year’s box office. Lame. Please, find this truly unique gem when it hits on Blu-Ray and hopefully streaming early next year. It’s shouldn’t-have-missed, can’t-forget cinema.
Joel Edgerton’s been a reliable onscreen presence in fare like Zero Dark Thirty and The Great Gatsby, but he’s also been slowly establishing himself behind the camera. It began with a slew of short films and progressed into writing credits on 2013’s Felony and 2014’s The Rover, but it’s his work as actor, director, and writer on this year’s underseen thriller The Gift that truly marks him as an auteur to watch.
Edgerton plays Gordo, a soft-spoken oddball who tries to worm himself back into the life of an old high school classmate (Jason Bateman) who would much rather let sleeping dogs lie. Bateman has never been better, finding nuance and menace in the condescending straight man persona he perfected on Arrested Development, while Edgerton expertly straddles the line between dangerous and pathetic.
A slow burn of tension and disorientation, The Gift simmers with uncomfortable themes of bullying, identity, and the lies we tell ourselves with age. No other movie this year will make you measure who you are now versus who you were in high school.
Magic Mike XXL
This was a great year for film, but ask any number of women about when they had the most fun at a movie theater in 2015 — hell, ask them when they had the most fun in 2015, period — and in answer, you may get nothing but a sly smile. Magic Mike was a somewhat dour but surprisingly thoughtful film. Magic Mike XXL is a goddamn movie.
It’s easy to admire art that aims to provoke or challenge, but often harder to praise that which wants nothing more than to entertain. That’s the goal of MMXXL, but also of the grinning, foolish, oiled-up men at its heart. A roadtrip movie that gleefully subverts the tropes of the genre, the film romps through scene after scene, unabashedly offering its charms, its Channing, and all the rest of its hunks on a platter with a side of “Pony.” Singing Donald Glover? Sure. Twitch cameo? Why not. R-rated Cinderella metaphor? You got it.
It’s not the best movie I saw this year, not by a long shot. But after many films have faded, I’ll remember the triumphant cheers that rang through a packed theatre when Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello) finally got the stoic convenience store clerk (Lindsey Moser) to crack a smile. I don’t always want it that way, but sometimes pure joy is more than enough. Like the dancers, Gregory Jacobs’ adult-entertainment romp wanted nothing more or less than to make us feel terrific. It succeeded. Regardless of gender, we were, all of us, queens.
French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan is only in his mid-20s, but he’s already in the habit of crafting films of surprising, uncompromising maturity. Mommy is a domestic drama that explores what happens when loving a person is simply not enough. The film centers on the tripartite relationship between a single mother, her emotionally volatile son, and the skittish neighbor next door. This relationship is a puzzle defined by its own inadequacies, with pieces that shift and change shape before they ever find a proper place. In anyone else’s hands, Mommy might have been a strange and messy affair. Dolan’s talents not only save the film, but allow it to soar. The director’s most striking choice was to shoot primarily in a 1:1 aspect ratio, creating an effect of suffocation and constriction that mirrors the themes within. But he also excels at knowing when to step back and let his trio of lead actors carry the film. Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, and Suzanne Clément all deliver revelatory performances, capped off by one of the most heartbreaking montages to hit theaters this year. Love will tear us apart, and Mommy is essential viewing for anyone who’s ever tasted the bitter truth behind those words.
The Peanuts Movie
So many remakes, reboots, and sequels promise to do something new while “honoring the original” or some shit. But how many of them actually pulled it off in 2015? At least two (Creed and Mad Max: Fury Road). Alright, three (Magic Mike XXL). Shit, four?!! (Furious 7). Fine, fair enough. But how many of them were kids’ movies? Exactly one. In a year of continuations, The Peanuts Movie still managed to stand out for never losing its sense of sweetness, even as it gave us slicker computer animation and elaborate action sequences involving Snoopy as the World War I Flying Ace.
That kind of eye candy may seem like a severe departure from the hand-drawn animation in previous Peanuts outings, but it still beats with the same heart — a cartoon organ filled with squiggles, grimaces, missed footballs, and lessons that are profound in how simple they are. It gets harder as you get older (and more distracted) to remember that love and friendship trump all. It gets harder to appreciate a soft snowfall. It gets harder to recognize the small victories in life. Luckily, we have another Peanuts film to remind us, one that’s visually suited to our more modern sensibilities.
Phoenix stalks toward its emotionally explosive climax with the same steely precision with which its main character, Nelly Lenz (the immaculate Nina Hoss), pursues her prey. Following the Holocaust survivor and cabaret singer on her quest to rebuild her life in Berlin after undergoing extensive reconstructive surgery – and to find Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), her former husband and the man who possibly betrayed her to the Nazis – director Christian Petzold’s German psychological drama unfolds with stunning precision and timing.
There’s not a single wasted scene, moment, or glance as Nelly tracks down Johnny (who finds her familiar but can’t recognize her), (re)introduces herself to their circle of friends, and contemplates her revenge. But that’s nothing compared to the ultimate payoff. The film’s finale, so well laid out and earned by everything that comes before it, ranks among the most powerful in this or any other year in film. Talk about a mic drop.
World of Tomorrow
World of Tomorrow is Don Herzfeldt’s first real endeavor into digital animation, and it may well be the very best work the venerable animator has done to date. The 16-minute short follows a little girl named Emily (a young relative of Herzfeldt’s he recorded and wrote the film around) and the adventures she embarks upon when Emily Prime, a future version of her, shows up in the past. Like the best Herzfeldt films, Tomorrow exists at a distinct halfway point between deadpan comedy and brutal moments of existential angst.
While Emily is taken away into a future where nobody ever dies and memories can be stored forever, it’s also a world where the chief activity for most people is to watch through their past memories on an infinite loop until their bodies (or planets) go. Sound familiar? Herzfeldt has seen the future, because it’s ours, and he can only imagine where it’s going. But then, he’d prefer not to; the film’s sublime final beat suggests that if the next world is a terror, then maybe we should just savor this one.