In film, 2015 was a year when expectations were upended, when big budget sequels, and not even sequels, but reboots of long-running franchises provided some of the most resonant and cinematically satisfying moments of the year. The film that tops our list, George Miller’s visually brilliant Mad Max: Fury Road, is just such a reboot, but has more inventiveness and energy than any of the previous installments of the series. Likewise, Creed and Star Wars: The Force Awakens both, somehow, found new ways to tell a story that had, in both cases, been told six times before.
And, on the other end of the spectrum came films that were not just small, but tiny -- or, as in the case of Tangerine, hand-held. These films proved that there is no dollar amount attached to creativity, that stories, regardless of budget, can keep us enthralled and take us to worlds that we’ve never been to -- even if they’re not in a galaxy far, far away.
Here, then, are the Top Ten Films of 2015, as selected by the Drunk Monkeys Film Department.
THE DRUNK MONKEYS
TOP 10 FILMS OF 2015
10. SOMETHING, ANYTHING
It’s not wrong to call Something, Anything a small story or a small film, but it would be a mistake to call it slight. Writer/Director Paul Harrill’s film centers on Peggy, a pregnant newlywed settled into a life (handsome husband, good career) in which everything is settled. But when tragedy strikes, Peggy begins to question her life in ways that threaten to unsettle that secure foundation.
The film builds on the spiritual tradition of writers like Merton and Emerson, who also sought a simpler life in reaction to the bustle of their time. Like Merton, Peggy, now Margaret, looks for answers in the Christian tradition, but Harrill doesn’t present that path as the only path to truth. In fact, the path that Margaret takes matters far less than the fact that she has, finally, found meaning in herself.
The film is anchored by the multilayered performance of Ashley Shelton. Her Margaret is not theatrical, but that doesn’t mean she lacks passion. She changes before us subtly, but by the end of the film she is stronger than she ever could have imagined, even if she still hasn’t found the answers she’s looking for. Something, Anything is a tribute to the importance of the search itself, and to the millions of tiny miracles that blink in and out of existence each moment.
Matthew Guerruckey, Editor-in-chief
1st place votes by: Matthew Guerruckey
There may be no writer, in any medium, more capable of expressing the alienation of modern life than Charlie Kaufman. His Anomalisa is built around a simple, but effective metaphor, one that allows Kaufman to explore how we differentiate ourselves from the outside world, the wonder of finding that one person who feels different from the crowd, and the sad realization that they, too, are, in the end, just a person like any other.
The stop-motion technique put us outside of ourselves, makes us look at these characters, these people in a far more intimate way than we would allow ourselves if we were looking at the faces of live actors. That connects us to their joy, their despair, and their most desperate hopes in an immersive way, and makes Anomalisa an unforgettable experience.
Tangerine was filmed almost entirely on iPhones, and there’s something about the immediacy of the film that plays best at handheld size, too. It’s a story that unfolds with the jagged rhythm of a text exchange, when you’re never quite sure if the other party is still listening, or still cares. The ladies of Tangerine don’t care if you’re paying attention to their story, and their crises, whether cheating pimps or a shot at stardom, will continue to play out long after the iPhone battery dies.
The film shows a side of Los Angeles that has rarely been seen before on screen -- an endless march of dimly-lit donut shops and freeway overpasses and buses and taxi cabs. That street-level view of humanity captures reality with a poignancy that no other film in 2015 manages.
Room is really two movies in one. The first half is a harrowing survival tale about a five-year-old boy who has been raised entirely in the confines of a single room, and been taught that the Room is all that exists in the world. The second half is also a survival tale -- this time, though, it’s the mother who fights to survive once freed from her ordeal, as the weight of her struggle and her choices come home. That second half, though less nail-biting than the first, is what separates Room from a more typical thriller. It’s easy to keep an audience at rapt attention when characters are in obvious mortal danger -- it’s another thing to focus on the internal demons that follow trauma of this magnitude.
But the real magic in this film is in the combination of story and performers, and both of the central performances in this movie -- from Jacob Tremblay as the boy, Jack, and Brie Larson as his mother -- are all-time stunners. Larson has been great in smaller films for years. Room is her first big showcase, and she takes control of her moment, and of the movie.
6. THE HATEFUL EIGHT
The Hateful Eight is gorgeous and ugly, cinematic and a talky play, engaging and distancing, with some laughs and some attempts at laughs. I've been torn, obviously, and while I find things like reading about it being The Thing with racism as the monster, the story of its inception, and application of 70mm fascinating, I still don't know if I like the nihilistic eye in which it's told.
However, there's enough aspects that shine that I hope to appreciate it more with future viewings and some time. Almost all of the Eight are as charismatic as they are horrible, with rich backstories and reveals. My favorite character, though, was the Telluride Mountains in which the movie was filmed, ever-present with visible breath and glistening snow blowing through the cracks of Minnie's Haberdashery. Not to mention a sweeping-yet-sparse score from Ennio Morricone as he returns to the genre that made him famous to dorks like me, as well as some candy for us gore hounds as expected.
The Hateful Eight is an experience as much as a movie, giving Quentin Tarentino a new way to harken back to a bygone age with style. Eight mean bastards do mean things to eight mean bastards in a distinctly 2015 take on post-Civil War America.
1st place votes: Gabriel Ricard
5. INSIDE OUT
Inside Out is deceptively complex, despite the premise sounding like an easy joke machine. Psychological research and massive script overhauls paid off in a deeply moving PSA about the validation of every emotion (not just the good ones), and the damage of not expressing them. But also, being Pixar, Inside Out is funny and charming and beautiful, with some opportunities to be more experimental than most projects and themes allow them. Pixar's grand return to form was one of those few films to make me think differently when I left it, and it's one of the company's and 2015's best.
4. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
What might come off as a retread or remix of the original trilogy, the bones of The Force Awakens let Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams do the near impossible - returning older fans to a familiar and distant universe while not alienating those that grew up on the Prequels and cartoons, and gifting both with four new, remarkably lovable and interesting main characters to follow. It's a goddamn miracle, and while some criticized story aspects might not hold up in time, those relationships and interactions most likely will, and those are what are driving the record-breaking numbers.
Those of us that knew Vader was Luke's dad before we ever saw The Empire Strikes Back can now watch with glee as story beats are revealed, and I get the feeling Rian Johnson's Episode VIII will veer much further from the familiar - and because of The Force Awakens, it can. I couldn't be more excited for the scroll on Episode VIII to start and to spend more time with my new space opera BFFs.
There’s no reason that a continuation of the Rocky series had to be good. The last entry in the series, Rocky Balboa, was a sturdy entry filled with fanservice and little true emotion. And, really, there was no reason that we had to continue the series at all. Rocky had his last shot in the ring, he went the distance again, end of story. Except one man -- director Ryan Coogler, whose previous film, Fruitvale Station burned with both humanity and righteous indignation -- believed that Rocky could do more, could be more, could return to its mid-70’s film school roots.
So we have, in Creed, the story of a new kind of Rocky, this time, the illegitimate son of Rocky’s opponent/beach frolicking buddy Apollo Creed. That kid, Adonis Johnson, is compellingly played by rising star Michael B. Jordan, and we’d care about him even if he wasn’t tied into a previous six film saga. But once Adonis travels to Philadelphia to be trained by Rocky himself, the film steps up to its legacy as surely as Adonis does as he steps out to greet the final round of the fight at the film’s climax. Like the fighter at its center, Creed is no mistake.
2. EX MACHINA
The simplest reading of Alex Garland’s other-worldly, atmospheric tale is that is an allegory of heterosexual relationships. Where women are unfeeling and manipulative, doing what they can to survive in a man’s world, and men are either vicious predators or chumps. Perhaps there are less cynical readings of the movie, but that’s what it looks like from where I’m standing.
The film also benefits from three amazing lead performances, a twisty story that keeps you guessing from the start, and a dance scene that you’ll never forget.
Ryan Roach, Film critic
1. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Did George Miller (alongside co-screenwriters Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris) actually set out to make one of the most significant contributions to feminist cinema in recent memory? I could be wrong, but I doubt they did. They simply wanted to make a seriously entertaining action film, which could also serve as a game-changer on a variety of levels. Miller is an action movie veteran, to be sure, but he directs Tom Hardy (as Max), Charlize Theron (as the already-legendary Imperator Furiosa), and the rest of these heroes and maniacs with the energy of someone who just laid film school to waste. Fury Road isn’t an overtly political statement, in terms of its casting, or even in terms of putting Furiosa and her gang at the forefront of the action. What Fury Road did was simply set out to tell the biggest, loudest, most viscerally thrilling action epic possible.
And guess what? As far as 2015 goes, they did exactly that. They just understood along the way that when you’re as fearless in your characterizations and casting, as you are in your action sequences (and my god, does Fury Road leave you dazed and halfway-to-feeling-bloodied-up with its action sequences), the end result can be spectacular.
“Spectacular” is a gross understatement.
Gabriel Ricard, Film Editor
1st place votes: Taras D. Butrej, Ryan Roach, Juese Cutler
LISTS OF NOTE
The Hateful Eight
Mad Max: Fury Road
Beasts of No Nation
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Mad Max: Fury Road
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Big Short
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Z for Zachariah