2015 in Movies

Movie reviews for movies released theatrically (or released to streaming services) in 2015.

1. The Big Short, directed by Adam McKay (10/10)

The most essential film of 2015. Read the review.

2. Anomalisa, directed by Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman (9/10)

Kaufman is probably the most interesting American screenwriter of his era. This film is based on his 2005 “sound play” (i.e. a modern stage equivalent of an old radio play).

POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT

It’s an incredibly innovative solution, using puppets to create a world which was non-existent in the play. Puppets are particularly appropriate for this material. (But I won’t say anything about the story because I believe you should just see it…)

The story is both incredibly funny and affecting. And once again Kaufman has found a way to create an utterly unique experience for a story that, in the hands of others, would be pretty conventional.

The only reason I don’t praise it even higher is that it feels like he’s covering much of the same ground as Eternal Sunshine and, well, that movie was, for me, an even greater achievement.

2. Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy (9/10)

This is a nearly note-perfect newspaper film about the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Church’s protection of pedophile priests. It’s nearly the All the President’s Men for our decade, it’s that good. The film ropes you in with some office politics and unfolds the horrible story slowly, which builds tension, despite our knowledge of the outcome. It wastes little time on the personal lives on the reports involved and instead concentrates on the story. Just a few minor quibbles:

  • Ruffalo’s big blow up feels like it was mandated by someone. As if someone watched an earlier version of the film and asked “Where’s the drama?” (There’s plenty of it. But there weren’t any big speeches.) It feels like it belongs in a lesser film.
  • Though the soundtrack is, at times, effective, it is also, at times, curious and occasionally feels out of whack with what’s on screen.
  • There are a couple of shots that feel oddly unnecessary and I don’t know why they’re there.

But these are minor quibbles (save Ruffalo’s blow up). On the whole, this is an excellent movie and was a candidate for the best movie I’d seen released in 2015 to that point in the year.

4. Best of Enemies, directed by Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville (9/10)

Read the review.

5. What Happened, Miss Simone? directed by Liz Garbus (9/10)

I’ve not yet gotten around to listening to Nina Simone so this is all new to me.

The filmmakers do an excellent job – a superior job – of combining archival pictures and Simone’s own audio interview – with a relative paucity of talking heads – to give a fantastic of Simone’s life and music, and her times – it’s almost as if it’s told by her herself.

This is how you do a biography on film.

Read the review.

6. Green Room, directed by Jeremy Saulnier (8/10)

This is the second straight excellent thriller from Saulnier, featuring “real people” in movie thriller situations. Much like his classic Blue Ruin – which I strongly, strongly suggest you see if you haven’t seen yet – this film combines an incredibly tense thriller with elements of (very) dark comedy, to great effect.

I had such high hopes for this film that I was initially disappointed by the first act. However, things really kick into gear later and it’s liable to be the tensest film you see this year.

It’s not Blue Ruin. It’s obviously not as original, it’s not as ruthless with it’s deconstruction of thriller cliches, and it’s not as effective a critique of US gun laws, but it is still an excellent and entertaining thriller which you should go see as soon as possible.

7. Cartel Land, directed by Matthew Heinemen (8/10)

Read the review.

8. Bridge of Spies, directed by Steven Spielberg (8/10)

Read the review.

9. Thought Crimes, directed by Erin Lee Carr (8/10)

This is a provocative and morally ambiguous film about the so-called “Cannibal Cop,” the NYPD police officer who was charged and convicted of conspiracy to kidnap women, without kidnapping any women, and certainly without eating anyone.

The film is not the best technically made film you will ever seen. The pacing isn’t perfect and some of the shots depicting the porn at issue were oddly distorted.

However, this is still a must-see documentary. The film depicts the rather alarming nature of the “trial by outrage” of a person who actually didn’t do the vast majority of the stuff he was accused of. His internet fantasies and Google search history are, instead, taken as proof that he would have acted eventually. (Please remember that this is where we are going with terrorism in Canada once C-51 passes, folks. Someone only needs to search for how to do it to be guilty.) I can’t tell you how alarming that is to me.

The film sides with him, legally, which I think is correct, but lets you worry about the moral and ethical issues, as well as the nature of these types of disorders, without forcing you to a conclusion. And I love that in a documentary.

Pretty near mandatory viewing, given how much we all use the internet.

10. La calle de la amargura aka Bleak Street, directed by Arturo Ripstein (8/10)

This is an utterly gorgeously shot film about life in particularly downtrodden corner of what I must assume is Mexico City or some other major Mexican city. It’s practically Dickensian in its depiction of life in the shittier parts of a city.

Honestly, the film is so well shot that I was rapt by it and really didn’t spend too much time on whether or not the plot was actually solid, or anything like that. It was amusing, at times, though. But everything about the production design is so well done that I didn’t care about anything else.

This guy is a master director and I really need to see his other films.

11. Max Max: Fury Road, directed by George R. Miller (8/10)

It’s been years since I’ve seen the original trilogy in any kind of thorough way (since Thunderdome used to be on TV all the time, I’ve seen parts of it more than the other two) and I have to say I wasn’t keen on this movie. I hate remakes / reboots in principle (unless they are done effectively, which is relatively rare) and frankly, my favourite of the trilogy is the first one, whereas it seems like everyone else’s favourite is the sequel. This movie takes its cue from the sequel, as is obvious from the ads.

Read the rest of the review.

12. Demon, directed by Marcin Wrona (8/10)

This is the most unique horror comedy I’ve seen in some time. Whereas most horror comedies are ready to notify their intention to get you to laugh early on (and usually to laugh instead of scream or to laugh and only occasionally scream) this movie’s humour is rooted in the absurd dramedy of a cast of characters at a Polish wedding. The humour is based almost exclusively in the characters and their situation and has nothing to do with horror movie conventions, and I really cannot tell you the last time I saw a horror comedy that wasn’t concerned with mocking horror movie conventions. That’s because this is a unique and unusual “horror” film.

Read the full review.

13. Sicario, directed by Denis Villeneuve (8/10)

One scene away from being a classic or near-classic. Read the review of Sicario.

14. Speed Sisters, directed by Amber Fares (8/10)

This is an entertaining and captivating documentary about the Palestinian women’s car racing team, who supply their own cars, who race against men (and each other) and who practice in empty parking lots and on local streets.

Read the rest of the review.

15. Hitchcock/Truffault, directed by Kent Jones (8/10)

This is not a “great” film in many ways; it’s condescending in its use of screen effects – for example, they highlight the text of sooooooooooooooooo many things on screen and it’s soooooooo annoying – but I don’t care.

Hitchcock was the first filmmaker I fell in love with and even if I don’t love him any more, it was still fascinating and wonderful to hear all these people pouring out their love for this work.

And though I have a love/hate relationship with Truffaut, this has too much great insight – from Hitchcock and Truffaut but also from the great directors interviewed about Truffaut’s book – to nitpick about the filmmaking techniques of the not so great director who made this movie. It’s also pretty funny at times.

Pretty much essential viewing for anyone into filmmaking.

16. The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott (8/10)

Read the review.

17. Hardcore Henry aka Hardcore, directed by Ilya Naishuller (8/10)

have never seen anything like this. This is an action film made using GoPros, filmed entirely from POV. It is essentially a video game as a film. To my knowledge, this has never been done before in a feature, fictional film.

The film suffers from a number of issues: it is entirely too much like a first-person video game – not just a first-person shooter but any first person game – as it relies on the other characters to explain the plot in completely unnatural ways. It’s also probably misogynist and, at times, it is almost impossible to watch due to the excessively shaky camera. Also, the CGI is too clearly CGI in a couple scenes in the climax.

But this is a path-breaking film and whatever flaws it has should be overlooked because it manages to take an utterly unique concept and make it very entertaining. Coply is in full Peter Sellers mode here – or should I say Alec Guinness mode? – and it’s yet another role(s) he has added to his resume that makes him one of the most exciting actors in the world. Seriously, the man should be a star, instead of someone who only film nerds worship.

A daring and entertaining reinvention of the genre.

18. Spy, directed by Paul Feig (8/10)

There have been a lot of Bond parodies, both in film and on TV. A lot. And it’s kind of been done to death. One of the reasons I love Archer so much is what it does with its tired premise.

Well, this is another, surprisingly fresh take on it, in part because it combines McCarthy’s shtick – which I was unaware of – with the Bond parody, which allows for humour in a Bond parody that, well, wouldn’t have been present were a man in the lead role. So it’s a refreshing twist that’s shockingly funny and shockingly (and refreshingly) crude. The leads are all excellent – Statham is particularly fantastic mocking himself – and the laughs don’t let up. I really enjoyed it and I am quite surprised.

Also, I just wanted to note that this is the rare Hollywood film made in Hungary that admits it’s in Hungary, so there’s that.

19. Amy, directed by Asif Kapadia (7/10)

Read the review.

20. Ninth Floor, directed by Mina Shum (7/10)

This is an important film for Canadians, about a subject that should have been turned into a documentary years ago, no doubt. And it is a necessary part of our history. However, I’m not sure this film is the film the events at Sir George Williams University in 1968 and 1969 deserve.

This is Shum’s first documentary and it’s rather glaringly obvious. She jumps around in time a little and has a bunch of seemingly superfluous scenes – including a performance of “Redemption Song” – which could have been replaced by more information. Shum assumes too much knowledge on the part of the audience – I say this as someone who knew literally nothing about this incident – and really fails to give a complete accounting of the story.

All that being said, this film contains so many illustrative moments for Canadians – especially the majority of Canadians, i.e. white, anglo Canadians and enough powerful interviews with the participants that it’s hard to be really critical.

This movie is flawed but I still recommend it as a necessary corrective and an important document of our not-so-ideal past (and possibly, our present).

21. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, directed by Stanley Nelson (7/10)

Read the confused review.

22. Comoara, directed by Corneliu Porumboiu (7/10)

This is a gentle but amusing examination of life in contemporary Romania: the absurdities, the bureaucracy and the dreams that make those bearable.

MILD SPOILERS

The film suggests it is going one direction – a dark direction – but then does not ever go that direction and then, instead, the miraculous happens. It’s rather incredible that we live in a world now where “artificial” happy endings can feel fresh and new, but that’s what Porumboiu does here. He plays with recent film conventions to make an old Hollywood-style ending seem fresh and believable.

23. The Clan, directed by Pablo Trapero (7/10)

Though I see a lot of movies – and I mean a lot of movies – and I can usually articulate what I like and don’t like in a particular film, there are always one or two where I feel like there is something wrong but I can’t articulate it, I just feel it. This is one of those movie.

Read the rest of the review.

24. The Club, directed by Pablo Larrain (7/10)

This is an extremely black comedy – as black as black comedies get – about a group of delinquent priests that have been forced to “retire” in a house in a small town in Chile.

Read the full review.

25. The Wolfpack, directed by Crystal Moselle (7/10)

Read the review.

26. April 25, directed by Leanne Pooley (7/10)

This is a fascinating attempt at creating a different kind of documentary about war and the past in general: the diaries and journals of six participants in the Gallipoli campaign (it’s the 100th anniversary this year) are used as the sole narration for an animated film about the campaign.

This film is not realistic, and perhaps that was one of my hangups. The filmmakers were not attempting to be realistic, rather they were trying to approach the subject in a unique way, which they certainly did. Some of the animation is, for me, too ‘graphic novel’ for such a serious subject. But it’s an innovative solution to the problem that there could be no true talking heads, as everyone who participated is long dead.

An interesting idea, even if, for me, it didn’t work entirely.

27. Nasser, directed by Jihan El-Tahir (7/10)

This is an exhaustive documentary about Egypt’s President Nasser. It appears to be meticulously researched and apparently reveals some things that were relative secrets until the present – such as Russian pilots defending Egyptian skies between the 6 Day War and the Yom Kippur War.

As journalism, it’s pretty good. As a film… well, this is more of a history lecture. And the newspaper headline signifier is a very tired device – I mean, how many movies have you seen it in? El-Tahri uses it way too much (and rather clunkily). Also, both of us felt like we were in university again.

But, even though as a film, it’s not entirely successful, it’s hard to criticize something too much that is this informative. (And, also, to her credit, this film ambivalent about its subject. It’s a rare thing for a documentary filmmaker to try not to judge…)

28. Breaking a Monster, directed by Luke Meyer (7/10)

This is going to be a problem for a lot of kids. Read the review.

29. Brooklyn, directed by John Crowley

Nice to look at. Read the review.

30. Carol, directed by Todd Haynes (7/10)

Well done but not my thing. Read the review.

31. The Invitation, directed by Karyn Kusama (6/10)

Not in the right mood. Read the review.

32. The Witch, directed by Robert Eggers (6/10)

Overrated.

Read the spoilerific review.

33. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, directed by Christopher McQuarrie (6/10)

This is an entertaining film – and another one of the successful sequels in what has to be one of the more surprising franchises of the last few years – and it is continuing the recent trend of having real stunts in blockbusters.

Unfortunately, too many of these otherwise good stunts go too far and arrive in the realm of supreme (sublime?) ridiculousness. Also, at this point, the number of lines directed at praising Cruise’s character – including an utterly ridiculous speech by Alec Baldwin’s character near the end of the film – is really, really trying.

But as these things go, I would rather watch something like this than a number of other Cruise films and a lot of other blockbusters.

34. Spectre, directed by Sam Mendes (6/10)

Read the brief review.

35. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, directed by JJ Ambrams (6/10)

Read the review.

36. Chuck Norris vs Communism, directed by Ilinca Calugareanu (6/10)

Not as good as Hotel Dallas. Read the review.

37. Ant-Man, directed by Peyton Reed (6/10)

Read the review.

38. Jack, directed by Elisabeth Sharang (6/10)

What do we do with fictional films that drastically deviate from the truth?

I am a strong believer that, in the right circumstances poetic justice is not only a right of the artist but a necessity. However, I do feel like there is a line between the search for poetic “truth” and being disingenuous, being willfully ignorant and being deceptive. So, uh…

SPOILERS

This is an engaging story about Jack Unterwerger, an Austrian killer/celebrity author, featuring a bravura performance from Johannes Krisch, a performance that may stand as the best I see in a movie from 2015.

The problem with the film – beyond its overuse of music cues – is that it absolutely does not tell the truth. A quick googling will tell you that the film’s version of events is highly problematic. That might be okay if it were more clear, from the film, that this is entirely from his perspective, but it doesn’t make that clear enough, if that’s even the approach that Sharang took. And that’s a problem, because Unterwerger is made to be a compassionate figure and, well, if the real evidence is considered, he likely was a serial killer.

The film itself is mostly a success and, had I not done the briefest bit of research to establish that this version of events is balderdash, I might have rated it higher.

39. The Hunger Games: The Mockingjay – Part 2, directed by Francis Lawrence (5/10)

Read the review.

40. The Avengers: Age of Ultron, directed by Joss Whedon (5/10)

Yet another Marvel movie. Read the review.

41. The Night Before, directed by Jonathan Levine (5/10)

A bunch of different movies, rolled into one. And not funny enough. Read the review.

42. Being Canadian, directed by Robert Cohen (5/10)

Read the review.

43. The Return of the Atom, directed by Jussi Eerola, Mika Taanila (4/10)

This is an episodic and pretentious documentary about Finland’s newest nuclear power plant that manages to somehow both be hysterical (not “hysterical” as in “funny” but hysterical as in “insane”) and, somehow, extremely boring.

Read the full review.

44. Last Knights, directed by Kazuaki Kriya (3/10)

Read the review.

45. The Rezort, directed by Steve Barker (3/10)

Stupid. Read the review.

46. The Scorch Trials, directed by Wes Ball (2/1o)

Read the review.

Shorts

1. “Hell Runs on Gasoline,” directed by Martin Bureau (9/10)

This is an extraordinary 7 minute film about something I was utterly unaware of: the absolutely insane, free-for-all racing in Saint-Felicien, Quebec. I cannot begin to describe how nuts this race is, or how well this short captures the chaos.

Basically, I practically wanted to go for one of these races by the time the film was over.

Really cool.

2. “The Chickening,” directed by Nick BenDoer, Davy Force (9/10)

An absolutely insane absurdist take on The Shining that will never let you watch that movie the same way again.

3. “The 414s,” directed by Michael T. Vollmann (6/10)

Most of the short films I have seen in my life have been fictional. The documentary shorts I have seen have either been borderline features or so arty as to not really qualify as documentary. And I guess now I know the reason.

This is a fine short about the “original” hackers – teenagers who, inspired by what was wrong in War Games, successfully hacked a military base, among other things. But the problem is that it’s too short. I know that might seem an odd thing to say, but this is a story far more interesting than 12 minutes could ever allow for. And in much of those 12 minutes he has unnecessary shots of newspaper clippings or media. I’d rather have watched a feature.