Jacob Hall's Top 10 Movies Of 2015

When I sat down to create my top 10 movies of 2015 list, I decided to jot down a quick list of every single movie that I felt was a contender. You know, just to get the creative juices flowing. Over 30 titles later, I realized I had to start getting picky.

2015 was one hell of a year for cinema and the rare year where major Hollywood productions often seemed to match the independent scene step-for-step. One of the distinct pleasures of this past year wasn't just the sheer number of good movies, but the variety. Animation and comedy and horror and drama and action films all found a place on my top 10. The fact that the mold-shattering biopic Steve Jobs and the effortlessly entertaining and inspiring The Martian didn't make the cut boggles my mind. How could I not find room for the oddly romantic and deeply funny S&M oddity that is The Duke of Burgundy? The sobering Spotlight probably should have been on this list. The Big Short, too. In any other year, the elegant thrills of  Bridge of Spies would have been a shoo-in for this list.

But try as I might, there is only room for 10 movies in my top 10 list. These are the movies that still cling to me in the early days of 2016, the films that, for one reason or another, feel like they matter the most. Not all of them will cling to you in the same way and that's okay. These lists are less about making definitive statements and more about encouraging conversation. No, I didn't "forget" anything on my list, but I'd certainly love to hear what's on your personal top 10. Let's start talking.

top 10 movies of 2015

10. Son of Saul

In Son of Saul, director László Nemes has made one of the toughest and most disturbing films of 2015. A Holocaust drama stripped of of any shred of sentiment or decency, this film is a guided tour through Hell on Earth that is as immersive as it is horrifying. Shot almost entirely in lengthy close-ups and over-the-shoulder shots, Nemes places the audience squarely in the shoes of his title character. He is so used to the waking nightmare that is his life that he walks, head down, through out-of-focus horrors that have simply become just another thing he lives with now. The immediacy of Son of Saul has to be seen to be understood and fully appreciated, as does Géza Röhrig's lead performance, which demands we find a connection with a man whose humanity has been wrung out of him, leaving a blank husk who fights for survival and nothing else on a daily basis. Draining, exhausting and technically astonishing in ways that leave handsome schlock like The Revenant far behind, Son of Saul is an unforgettable portrait of a ruined man and the awful place that stripped him of his spirit.

top 10 movies of 2015

9. Inside Out

The Pixar factory tends to churn out a bonafide masterpiece every few years, but Inside Out may be their greatest achievement yet. In many ways, this is the beloved animation studio's smallest movie, telling the story of young Riley and her emotionally traumatic move to a new city. But within her mind, director and co-writer Pete Docter finds a vast landscape full of color and whimsy, grief and reality. As our young heroine powers through one relatable incident after another, her struggles play out in the exploits of her personified emotions, namely Amy Poehler's Joy and Phyllis Smith's Sadness. These adventures, while never anything less than hilarious and thrilling, ultimately build to one of 2015's most powerful statements: grief is as important as happiness and sadness is the key to empathy. Inside Out has jokes for days, but it is the emotional catharsis of the final act, where the pain that accompanies letting go of childhood is internally dramatized, that makes it a masterpiece. And Bing Bong. Oh, Bing Bong.

top 10 movies of 2015

8. Ex Machina

Set in one location and almost exclusively focusing on three characters, Alex Garland's Ex Machina is one of those small films that wears its intentionally limited scope as a badge of honor. This a little movie built upon massive ideas, a tight, lean thriller that contains more chilling science fiction concepts than genre films ten times its size. As an enigmatic tech genius billionaire who has built a high-functioning artificial intelligence in his isolated estate, Oscar Isaac creates one of the most disturbing villains in recent sci-fi history. As his employee who gets roped in to perform a Turing Test on his boss' top secret creation, Domhnall Gleeson reveals himself to be one of modern cinema's great secret weapons. And as Ava, that above mentioned artificial intelligence, Alicia Vikander proves herself to be a real deal movie star, crafting a femme fatale whose personality and complex motivations are terrible yet wholly justified. As a sci-fi thriller, Ex Machina is absorbing and frightening stuff. As a sly commentary on how men in the tech industry treats and views women, it is nothing short of a genre masterpiece.

2015 top 10 carol

7. Carol

Evocative and nuanced, Carol is the kind of movie that politely ask you to meet you halfway. Its characters, a young clerk and the older woman she falls for in 1950s New York City, must hold their affections and desires close to their chest. One misspoken word, one wrong glance, and their worlds will come crumbling down. This means Carol is a romance built around two women whose longing for one another is told through subtle looks and dialogue with double meaning. To carefully watch these two carefully fall in love with one another is to fall in love with them as well. Director Todd Haynes wields melodrama like precision weapon – there is just enough of his Douglas Sirk fetish on display to heighten the drama, but not so much that the film ever loses touch with its complex emotional core. Haynes and cinematographer Edward Lachman frame their low-key but deeply moving tale of forbidden love in painterly compositions, where colors often tell us everything we need to know. Carter Burwell's score fills in all of the blanks the characters leave in every spoken sentence. Costume designer Sandy Powell ensures that both leads are impeccably dressed. Most importantly, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara give career-best performances, breathing life into characters who could have easily felt cold and distant. This is a beautiful film in every way.

2015 top 10 it follows

6. It Follows

The best horror stories feel like they've always existed. The genius of David Robert Mitchell's It Follows is that it feels like an adaptation of an urban legend that's always been around. You can see this yarn being cooked up around a campfire or in the wee hours of a sleepover: a malevolent force (a ghost? a demon?) that pursues its victim at a slow and steady pace, never moving faster than a brisk stroll but also never stopping. And the only way to get rid of it is to "pass it on" by having sex, cursing your partner with a new walking nightmare. Mitchell, a master of capturing suburban malaise and unrelenting terror, has crafted a instant a horror classic. It Follows isn't just nerve-wracking – it's smart and funny and filled with actors who transform this list of victims into people worth caring about (Maika Monroe is especially good). While it may be easy to dismiss this film as a "haunted STD" story, the horror at the center of It Follows is more personal than that. There's a reason this story takes place in a Peanuts-style world of no adults and there's a reason these kids are so painfully on their own at all times. It Follows is less about a killer ghost/demon/It and more about raw terror that accompanies the bumpy passage into adulthood. The best horror is about something and It Follows is about that key summer where you learn that life is short, your childhood is over, and that you are going to die someday. And it does all of this while being really, really fun.

2015 top 10 the hateful eight

5. The Hateful Eight

With The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino has provided a vicious retort for Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. While his previous two films were about giving the victims of historical wrongs a chance to fight back and find bloody, fanatical satisfaction on the movie screen, the latest effort from modern Hollywood's most consistent provocateur rubs your nose in the sins of the past, giggling the whole time. Shot with antique CinemaScope lenses on 65mm film, The Hateful Eight looks like a high-pedigree epic but feels like Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia's equally sleazy cousin (who just finished reading some Agatha Christie). For the its first 90 minutes, the members of Tarantino's all-star ensemble feel each other out, speaking in riddles, half-truths and outright lies. In its second 90 minutes, the guns come out and the truth starts to gush alongside the blood and the gore and the brains. The Hateful Eight is a murder mystery where everyone is guilty, where each character is emblematic of the rot festering in post-Civil War America and, by natural extension, America in the year 2015. Despite their varied backgrounds, everyone in this sordid tale is a foul, loathsome villain, a symptom of the darkness no one wants to talk about. This is a mean movie, a bucket of icy water in the face after the catharsis of Django. The Hateful Eight takes its time, and indulges in its own tangents. It doesn't like you and it doesn't care if you like it. That's aggressive and brave and suicidal and ridiculous and, well, that's Tarantino.

2014, WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS

4. What We Do in the Shadows

Someday, and it could be tomorrow or it could be ten years from now, What We Do in the Shadows will be widely recognized as one of the best horror-comedies ever made. If you'll allow some anecdotal evidence, it's certainly weathered the past year awfully well as I've watched it more than any other movie released in 2015. It just keeps getting funnier and more satisfying every single time. Directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi have created something that could have been unbearable: a faux documentary following a house full of vampires struggling to get by in Wellington, New Zealand. The film works because on three levels. First, its legitimately hilarious, full of quotable lines and layered gags that pay off like clockwork. Second, its characters weather these jokes without becoming jokes themselves and you end up legitimately caring for eccentric cast of misfits. Most importantly, Clement and Waititi actually showcase a respect for the horror genre and monsters in general. This silly comedy does more with vampire mythology than most "real" horror movies, crafting a world that is respectful to ancient legends and past cinematic incarnations, mining comedy from transplanting these concepts to modern day. The result is a movie that deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as Shaun of the Dead, a movie that's as sweet as it is funny as it is bloody. You may not know it yet, but this is your new favorite movie.

2015 top 10 the look of silence

3. The Look of Silence

Joshua Oppenheimer's The Look of Silence is unlike any movie you've ever seen and you spend every second of its running time wishing it didn't have to exist. But this is the world we live in, so it must exist. And it may be one of the most valuable and sobering documentaries ever made. Although it's a companion piece to Oppenheimer's equally astonishing The Act of KillingThe Look of Silence stands alone. You literally cannot believe what you are seeing. With The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer asked the death squad leaders responsible for massacring hundreds of thousands of men, women and children during the "anti-Communist purge" of 1965 to recreate their crimes on film. For his follow-up, he films a middle-aged optometrist as he seeks out and confronts those responsible for murdering his brother and traumatizing his family decades earlier. Their conversations go about as well as you'd expect, offering a powerful, and compelling, glimpse into the abyss. What happens when you stare into pure evil and see a human face staring back? Is there room for forgiveness? Is there capacity for understanding? How do you even begin to heal wounds like this? Watching these men stumble over themselves to justify themselves to a man whose family was torn apart by their actions does lasting, fundamental damage to the soul. Unlike the stylized The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer rightfully chooses to tone down any and all theatrics. The Look of Silence is dispassionate, clinical, and observational. It lets this material speak for itself. It is brave, necessary filmmaking.

2015 top 10 mad max fury road

2. Mad Max: Fury Road

Director George Miller vanished into the desert for a decade and returned with one of the best action movies ever made. Mad Max: Fury Road is a near-perfect movie, utilizing the raw language of cinema to tell a simple story almost entirely through visual beats, both massive and minuscule. When characters don't need to speak, they don't speak – Miller trusts Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron to communicate drastic shifts in motivation through gestures and quick glances. They deliver. These dynamic between these two characters, the weary Max and the righteous Furiosa, is the heart and backbone of Mad Max: Fury Road, which is essentially one long car chase that tests the will and spirit of everyone involved. Despite the sheer amount of action, Miller never runs out of surprises. Hardy struggles through one dangerous encounter after another with the skin-of-his-teeth luck of a silent movie star. Theron crafts a powerful, but wholly feminine, heroine who may very well become the most recognizable pop culture icon to emerge from 2015. Surrounding them both is a perfectly executed mixture of practical stunts and invisible CGI. The post-apocalypse of the Mad Max series has never been this detailed, colorful or alive. The movie movies with such haste that you never want to slow down, but you could. There is so much detail on display and so much to take in. The fact that you absorb the necessary facts at 70mph while engines roar and chainsaws whir and tornadoes tear convoys asunder is a miracle. That Max and Furiosa change and their relationship subtlety evolves through the carnage is a testament to Miller's skills as a storyteller. You know the old adage: "Show, don't tell." Mad Max: Fury Road kicks tell to the curb and drives show all the way to Valhalla, shiny and chrome.

top 10 movies of 2015

1. Anomalisa

The moment it clicks why Anomalisa has to be stop-motion animated may be the most powerful and unique cinematic moment of 2015. Set almost entirely in and around a nice (but not too nice) hotel, Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson's heartbreaking and brutally honest film is quietly, mesmerizingly, stylized. These stop-motion puppets, each of them animated with so much detail that they become performances worthy of study, reinforce the worldview of David Thewlis' thoroughly broken Michael Stone: every single man, woman, and child looks the same, blending together into one Tom Noonan-voiced blur. Except for Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The brief relationship between Michael and Lisa, whose chance encounter with one another and ensuing series of conversations forms the backbone of Anomalisa, is moving and devastating. These two people, both desperately unhappy, look to one another as a miracle cure of sorts, that new element that will fix a broken life. Kaufman and Johnson guide us through the highs and lows of a relationship in record time: the elation upon meeting someone who stands out from the crowd, those intimate moments where you establish a powerful connection... and then the self-sabotage, where your the rotten bits of you, the broken elements, surface and poison everything. Michael Stone, a miserable father and lackluster husband who seeks profound solace from a woman he just met in a Cleveland hotel, is so specific that it hurts to watch him. Call this a tale of a mid-life crisis. Call it the story of a mental breakdown. Whatever it is, Anomalisa cuts to the darkest, most despairing truths of human existence: for some people, happiness is fleeting, loneliness is a way of life, and all you can do is desperately hold onto those little moments that shake you out of complacency. Anomalisa, which brings these complex people to life with wicked black comedy and uncomfortable nuance, is almost too real. Not bad for an animated movie.

big short

Honorable Mentions:

The Big Short

Bridge of Spies

Creed

Crimson Peak

The Duke of Burgundy

Magic Mike XXL

The Martian

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Spotlight

Spring

Steve Jobs

The Tribe