Each film on this list was available for the first time (either theatrically, on DVD/Blu-Ray, or through streaming services) in the Milwaukee area between January 1st, 2015 and December 31st, 2015. Due to the vagaries of international film distribution, many of these films had their world premieres in 2014, and some won’t receive a wider national release until 2016, but for the purposes of this list these are 2015 releases since my first realistic opportunity to see any of them came during that calendar year.
Notable films that haven’t yet made it to the Milwaukee area
Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson, USA, 90 min.)
The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan, 105 min.)
The Revenant (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, USA, 156 min.)
Films that I am interested in seeing but didn’t get around to in time for this list
Ex Machina (Alex Garland, UK, 118 min.)
The Green Inferno (Eli Roth, Chile/USA, 100 min.)
Inside Out (Pete Docter & Ronnie Del Carmen, USA, 95 min.)
Joy (David O. Russell, USA, 124 min.)
Knock Knock (Eli Roth, USA, 99 min.)
Mississippi Grind (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, USA, 108 min.)
Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, USA, 121 min.)
The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle, USA, 90 min.)
1) The Club (Pablo Larrain, Chile, 98 min.)
This lacerating yet wryly funny indictment of the Catholic Church concerns a group of disgraced priests whose cushy banishment on a Chilean beach house is disrupted by the arrival of a sexually abused former altar boy. His appearance inadvertently sets off a violent event that causes the church to send a crisis counselor to investigate the incident, leading to a chain of revelations that it would be a shame to spoil here. Co-writer/director Pablo Larrain doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the film’s subject matter, but he takes an admirably nuanced and measured approach that prevents this from feeling like a simplistic angry screed. The superb ensemble cast ensure that the priests feel like real people rather than broad caricatures, which makes it all the more effective that Larrain refuses to let them off the hook.
2) The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, UK/Hungary, 104 min.)
Peter Strickland’s latest initially appears to be a dead on parody of ‘70s-era European softcore sex films, as it follows two lesbian lovers (Chiarra D’Anna and Sidse Babett Knudsen) engaged in a sadomasochistic relationship. While Strickland does poke some fun at the conventions of the genre, his real interest is in exploring what happens in the relationship between the sex scenes that you would expect to see in that type of film, and investigating how two people who love each other attempt to negotiate their wildly different desires and interests. Though the film is set in a dryly absurdist world of human toilets and sexy boot polishing it’s exploration of the difficulties inherent in any relationship is genuinely moving, witty and insightful.
3) It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, USA, 100 min.)
David Robert Mitchell’s riveting thriller is the rare horror film that simultaneously boasts a unique concept, a depth of feeling for its characters, and genuine scares. A deadly curse is sexually transmitted, with each victim being pursued by a shape-shifting demon that can be easily outrun but never entirely shaken off. The plot sounds silly in its broad outlines, but Mitchell makes it work by preserving the mystery of the curse’s origins and by slowly building an atmosphere of nearly unbearable dread. Many horror films exploit teenage sexuality, but this may be the first film in the genre to actually show respect and sympathy to its heroes’ excitements and frustrations. The investment in the characters makes the big scare sequences that much more intense. This uncommon level of genuine pathos can’t entirely overcome some of the goofier aspects of the premise – the handful of scenes showing inanimate objects being thrown around by an unseen force are by far the least effective parts of the film – but overall this is the freshest horror film in recent memory.
4) The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark/Indonesia, 103 min.)
The companion piece to the remarkable 2012 documentary The Act of Killing approaches the 1960s Indonesian genocide from the perspective of an optometrist whose brother was one of the victims. The eye doctor visits some of the highest ranking perpetrators (many of whom are still in positions of power) under the guise of medical assistance, but gradually confronts them about their roles in the purging, and the various responses to his inquisitions are intense and psychologically fascinating. As in his previous film, Oppenheimer exposes an entire nation still traumatized by and unable to process their brutal history. While the film lacks the audacious point of view or the unforgettable ending of its predecessor, it has a similarly disquieting power.
5) Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, Australia, 120 min.)
The latest in the Mad Max series runs a full two hours, and there are probably fewer than five minutes that don’t involve something blowing up, getting shot at, or crashing spectacularly. This is the most ferocious, relentless and visually spectacular action film of recent memory. George Miller never lets the pace slow down enough for the viewer to question the film’s one-dimensional characterizations or shallow attempts at feminism, but frankly considerations like narrative and theme seem beside the point in the face of such mind blowing action choreography. Miller executed as much of the action as possible with live stunts and practical effects rather than CGI, and the carnage is so outrageous that it often feels like a live action Looney Tunes cartoon.
6) Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra, Colombia/Venezuela/Argentina, 125 min.)
Ciro Guerra’s visionary epic rivals Aguirre: the Wrath of God (1972) as a viscerally authentic depiction of dangerous jungle landscapes as it follows an Amazonian shaman’s experiences guiding two generations of European scientists to the location of a legendary healing plant. The film threatens to go off the rails during an over-the-top sequence where the heroes are kidnapped by a false prophet, but is otherwise a thoroughly convincing and thoughtful look at the destructive effects of colonialism on South America. David Gallego’s black and white cinematography is consistently mind-blowing.
7) Welcome to Leith (Michael Beach Nichols & Christopher K Walker, USA, 85 min.)
Leith, North Dakota is one of the smallest towns in the United States, with a population of 24. In 2012 white supremacist Craig Cobb began buying up land in town with plans to move in like-minded people and overthrow the tiny local government. This documentary follows the efforts of the native townspeople to prevent their homes from becoming a base of operations for racial extremists. Directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K Walker don’t do anything cinematically flashy or innovative here, but the story is so bizarre, and the copious footage of Cobb’s contentious interactions with his neighbors is so intense, that aesthetics seem almost beside the point. In many ways this piece of real-life journalism was the most interesting true story to appear in theaters this year.
8) Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, France, 124 min.)
Olivier Assayas’ complex backstage drama covers a lot of the same thematic territory as last year’s Birdman, but thankfully replaces that film’s bombast with grace, mystery and profundity. Juliette Binoche stars as a famous actress returning to the play that launched her career decades earlier, though she will now be playing the role of her previous character’s much older lover. Much of the film revolves around Binoche and her personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) running lines from the play, and Assayas gradually blurs the line between the characters from the play, the characters in the film, and the real-life Binoche and Stewart. Assayas’ films haven’t been this loose and witty in years, and the film’s playful tone mixed with his firm grasp of both art history and contemporary pop culture combine to make this an engrossing critical essay.
B Very Good
9) Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry, USA, 90 min.)
A lake house retreat for two longtime friends is spoiled by the attitude of Catherine (Elisabeth Moss), who is wallowing in destructive self-pity following the suicide of her father and the end of a long-term relationship. What at first seems like mere self-centered narcissism is gradually revealed to be outright insanity, and writer-director Alex Ross Perry responds to Catherine’s displays of emotional abuse by filming her in discomfiting extreme close-ups and scoring her movements to creepy string music as if she’s a horror movie villain. At times the combination of horror aesthetics and kitchen sink personal drama seems overly gimmicky, particularly during a party scene that simply does not work, and Catherine and her friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston) are at each other’s throats so consistently that the idea that they are best friends sometimes strains credulity. Thankfully Moss and Waterston’s performances are mesmerizing enough to keep the movie riveting even through the intermittent rough patches of Perry’s script.
10) The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino, USA, 187 min.)
A bounty hunter’s (Kurt Russell) plan to transport a big money fugitive (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the town where she is to be hanged goes awry when a brutal blizzard forces him to make a pit stop at a cabin inhabited by a collection of lowlifes, all of whom have a reason to hate and distrust each other. Quentin Tarantino’s skill at creating tension through lengthy scenes of colorful dialogue is on full display in this playful Western/drawing room mystery hybrid, but the story sadly runs out of steam once the characters’ motivations are revealed and the bodies start dropping. Though his script has some third act issues, Tarantino is consistently at his best as a director here, and his commitment to making this film as purely cinematic as possible is much appreciated. Cinematographer Robert Richardson’s stunning work in the rare mega widescreen Ultra Panavision 70 format and Ennio Morricone’s eerie score (his first work on a Western in nearly four decades) combine to make this the most sumptuous cinematic experience of 2015.
11) Mistress America (Noah Baumbach, USA, 86 min.)
Noah Bambach’s second film of 2015 is vastly superior to While We’re Young, which suggests that he works best when in collaboration with his star/co-writer/wife Greta Gerwig. Like their previous collaboration Frances Ha (2013), Mistress America is a slice of life about a flaky big city dreamer that is told in a series of rapid-fire, punchy scenes that unfold with tremendous deadpan comic rhythm. It’s a much more appealing tone than Baumbach’s usual wallow in misery, and perhaps the best vehicle to date for Gerwig’s oddball charisma.
12) Shaun the Sheep (Mark Burton & Richard Starzak, UK, 85 min.)
This charming dialogue-free clay animated romp follows a band of sheep as they journey to the big city in search of their lost and amnesia-stricken farmer. Aardman Animation’s whimsical aesthetic seems more naturally suited to short films (such as their fantastic Wallace & Gromit series), but they manage to keep this movie action packed and frequently hilarious for nearly 90 minutes. The stop-motion animation is incredibly detailed and fluid throughout, and a nice change of pace from the lazy computer art that dominates so much of the current family film landscape. Generically bubbly kids pop songs intermittently spoil the handmade aesthetic, but overall this is a delight and one of the year’s nicest surprises.
13) The End of the Tour (James Ponsoldt, USA, 106 min.)
This compelling two-hander dramatizes five days in 1996 in which David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), fresh off the success of his enormous novel Infinite Jest, was interviewed by Rolling Stone journalist and struggling author David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg). The film isn’t so much a biopic as it is study of two men negotiating an awkward dynamic fueled by professional jealousy, self-consciousness and loneliness. Whenever it seems that Wallace is about to open himself up to Lipsky the reporter’s ever-present tape record and notepad get in the way. The two leads are more than up to the task of carrying an entire film that has little time for other characters, and Segel in particular is a revelation in a performance that foregrounds the gentle sorrow that has so often been an undercurrent in his comedic roles.
14) Theeb (Naji Abu Nowar, United Arab Emirates, 100 min.)
Cinema’s first Bedouin Western follows a young boy (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat) who is forced to grow up fast when he is charged with leading a WWI British soldier (Jack Fox) to a secret desert location. Things fall apart quickly as their party is attacked by members of a rival clan, leaving the survivors to struggle both to avoid capture and to find drinkable water. The brutality of the film’s desert setting never feels less than authentic, which makes the titular character’s struggle all the more compelling.
15) A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor, USA, 125 min.)
Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) clings to the notion that his up and coming heating oil business is succeeding in spite of the ruthless criminal practices of his competitors, but writer-director J.C. Chandor keeps piling on the evidence that his fortune has less to do with his own hard work than with the unscrupulous accounting of his wife (Jessica Chastain) and the shady dealings of his business partner (Albert Brooks). Rather than turning his tale into a full-blown crime saga, Chandor keeps the action at a low simmer, and he impressively sustains this unique tension for over two hours.
16) Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, UK, 150 min.)
Mike Leigh’s account of the life of Romanticist painter J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall) isn’t particularly effective as a biopic, offering neither a very clear synopsis of the events of the artist’s life or a thesis about the meaning of his work. Nonetheless the film is engrossing for reasons that seem almost incidental to its titular figure. Leigh offers a fascinating look at life in the 1800s, and the film’s meticulous attention to bizarre details about a huge array of subjects (the preparation of pig’s heads for meals, ancient forms of insect repellant, strange scientific experiments with light) brings the period to life in a way that is all too rare in films set in the distant past.
17) The Overnight (Patrick Brice, USA, 79 min.)
A new-in-town couple (Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling) get more than they bargained for when a dinner with some artsy new acquaintances (Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godreche) gradually turns into an awkward swinger situation. Writer-director Patrick Brice’s comedy gets a lot of laughs out of the absurd minutiae of the libertine couple’s lifestyle and the more straight-laced couple’s reaction to same, but he also keeps the details specific enough to make this a credible and insightful look at the lengths that people will go to keep their relationships fresh. The film climaxes with a wonderful punchline that is simultaneously hilarious and disarmingly sweet.
18) Force Majeure (Ruben Ostlund, Sweden/Denmark, 120 min.)
A family ski trip turns tense when the father (Johannes Kuhnke) and mother (Lisa Loven Kongsli) have radically different instinctual reactions to a sudden avalanche. This is basically the comedic version of Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet (2012), but the lighter tone makes Force Majeure the far less ponderous and more entertaining of the two films. Writer-director Ruben Ostlund pokes a lot of amusingly uncomfortable fun at his central couple but never loses sight of their humanity in the process.
19) Focus (Glenn Ficarra & John Requa, USA, 105 min.)
No one will mistake this breezy romantic comedy about con artists falling in love for the second coming of Trouble in Paradise (1932), but the tight pacing and the charismatic lead performances of Will Smith and Margot Robbie do feel like a welcome throwback to an era when big budget films didn’t feel the need to be endless and grim. Writer-director team Glenn Ficarra and John Requa keep the proceedings lively, witty, sexy and stylish throughout.
20) Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg, USA, 141 min.)
This true story follows an insurance lawyer (Tom Hanks) who is unexpectedly thrust into international intrigue when he is charged with defending a Soviet spy (Mark Rylance) in court, and then recruited for further help with a CIA exchange of hostages. Steven Spielberg thankfully avoids giving this material the full prestige treatment, and while he occasionally indulges his weakness for emotion-stoking background music he largely trusts the fascinating story and its basic moral points to hold the audience’s attention.
21) Spy (Paul Feig, USA, 120 min.)
Not a parody of the superspy genre so much as a surprisingly credible action film told from a funny perspective. Melissa McCarthy plays a CIA analyst who is thrust into field work after the cover of her more glamorous co-workers is blown. As expected, much of the humor revolves around McCarthy being an unlikely stand-in for James Bond, but the film refreshingly makes it clear that she is ultimately far more resourceful and intelligent than the generic action heroes who surround her. Jason Statham steals the film as a parody of the type of macho character that he normally plays, and the sequence where he lists off his credentials as a badass (including seeing his wife get thrown from a plane only to get hit by another plane mid-air) is the funniest scene of the year.
22) Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie, USA, 131 min.)
Like all of the Mission Impossible films, Rogue Nation is not so much a proper narrative film as it is a series of excuses to put Tom Cruise’s superspy in ridiculously dangerous situations. But there’s little point complaining about a stock narrative or shallow characters when the results are this fun. Nothing here outdoes the insane Burj Khalifa free climb sequence from Ghost Protocol (2011), but the big action setpieces are still mighty impressive, particularly a wild pre-credits sequence where Cruise scales the outside of a moving plane with no evidence of CGI assistance.
23) Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, USA, 135 min.)
The Force Awakens is such a skillful imitation of the style of the original Star Wars trilogy that it legitimately feels like it picks up where Return of the Jedi (1983) left off. J.J. Abrams has never been a particularly distinctive stylist, but his skill for mimicry serves him well here, and the old school shot-on-film look gives the movie an appropriate iconic sheen.
24) Cartel Land (Matthew Heineman, USA, 100 min.)
Matthew Heineman’s riveting look at vigilante groups fighting against Mexican drug cartels often feels more like a high-octane action feature than it does a documentary. The director (who served as his own cinematographer) was often present when bullets were flying and hostages were being taken, and he managed to capture most of his footage with camerawork that feels remarkably composed considering the difficult conditions he was working in. This is one of the most cinematic documentaries in recent memory, but some tightening up in the editing room could’ve improved it both as a film and as journalism. The material about the Autodefensas, a group of Mexican citizens raging against the notorious Knights Templar gang, is vastly more engaging than the sections concerning a crackpot Arizona paramilitary group who seem more concerned with preventing illegal immigrants from entering the United States than they do with keeping drugs off the street, but Heineman crosscuts between the two frequently as if to suggest that their efforts are somehow equivalent.
25) Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad, USA, 120 min.)
Bill Pohlad’s look at the life of Brian Wilson smartly sidesteps a number of biopic clichés by employing an interestingly fractured narrative structure that contrasts two distinct periods in its subject’s life. A young Wilson (Paul Dano) follows his wandering muse and slowly loses grip of his sanity as he composes Pet Sounds and Smile, while the Wilson of the ‘80s (John Cusack, surprisingly effective playing against type) struggles under the weight of cultural irrelevance. The continuous cross-cutting between the two periods gives the film a melancholic weight that a more generic rise and fall narrative couldn’t have provided.
B- Good but flawed or insubstantial
26) Furious 7 (James Wan, USA, 137 min.)
That Furious 7 is simple to follow even for those of us who are new to the Fast & Furious franchise is less an indictment of the series’ braindead storytelling than it is a testament to the clarity of its mission statement: to be as loud and dumb and explosively entertaining as possible. The shallow characterizations and frenzied (though unusually clearly arranged) MTV-style editing obviously place a ceiling on the film’s quality level, but there’s no denying that the enormous and ridiculously expensive looking action setpieces are tons of fun.
27) Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Belgium, 95 min.)
The power of the Dardenne Brothers’ films comes from their verisimilitude, so it’s a shame to report that their latest effort is their least convincing to date. A factory worker (Marion Cotillard) returns from a depression-induced leave of absence to discover that her co-workers have opted to receive a bonus in exchange for her dismissal, though she is allowed one weekend to convince them to change their votes, and the film is essentially a series of scenes of her attempting to do so. It is interesting to watch Cotillard’s various colleagues react to her desperate pleas, but the scenario feels simultaneously less plausible and more mundane than the plights of protagonists of previous Dardenne masterpieces like Rosetta (1999) and L’enfant (2005). Cotillard’s performance is excellent by most standards, but the directors’ uncharacteristic decision to cast a movie star amidst their usual collection of non-professionals and unknowns is distracting.
28) Jauja (Lisandro Alonso, Argentina/Denmark, 109 min.)
Lisandro Alsono’s epic is an aesthetic marvel, featuring richly colorful Academy ratio shot compositions, a hypnotic long-take approach to editing, and a quietly moody soundtrack that combine to create an almost meditative experience. So it’s a shame that the film’s basic narrative, involving a Danish explorer (Viggo Mortensen) searching for his runaway daughter in an Argentinian desert, goes completely off the rails in its last act, incorporating supernatural elements that seem out of place and laughable in this context.
29) Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, 196 min.)
Though it runs for over three hours and features numerous spellbinding shots of the Anatolian countryside, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Cannes prize winner is not a conventional epic. Instead it is an exhaustive (and ultimately exhausting) portrait of a wealthy hotel owner (Haluk Bilginer) who thinks of himself as a community leader even though everyone around him, including his considerably younger wife (Melisa Sozen) and live-in sister (Demet Akbag), think he’s an asshole. At times Ceylan is able to frame his protagonist’s inability to relate to other people as a compelling tragedy, but after a scene where he spends 30 uninterrupted minutes dismissing his wife’s school fundraising ambitions it’s hard to care about what’s happening to him – and there’s still an hour of the film to go. Bilginer gives a towering performance, and there’s no denying Ceylan’s ability to arrange majestic shots, but there simply isn’t enough here to fill 196 minutes.
30) Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia, 140 min.)
This seemingly simple tale about an ordinary man (Aleksay Serebryakov) trying to protect his seaside property from demolition proposed by the town’s mayor (Roman Madyanov) aspires to be nothing less than a parable about the state of modern Russia. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s deliberate pacing prevents the film from having the urgency it needs to function as an effective state of the union address, and the mayor is too cartoonish a creep to serve as a credible villain, even as a stand-in for Vladimir Putin. The film is at its most engaging when it sets aside its big themes and focuses on the strained interactions between the frustrated protagonist and his friends and family, or during moments when virtually nothing is happening and viewers can simply enjoy Mikhail Krichman’s breathtaking cinematography.
31) Bird People (Pascale Ferran, France, 127 min.)
This playful two-part study of people desperately trying to break free of their limitations doesn’t add up to much of a statement, but it does take some intriguing stylistic risks. The first half is a somber drama about an American computer engineer (Josh Charles) who abruptly decides, in the middle of a Paris business trip, to quit his job and leave his wife (Radha Mitchell). Part two is the fantastical tale of a hotel maid (Anais Demoustier) who suddenly and without explanation turns into a bird. Director Pascale Ferran displays equal skill at navigating the uncomfortably realistic dialogue of the Skype-moderated dissolution of the engineer’s marriage in the first half and at seamlessly integrating special effects and practical animal stunts in the second half, and if nothing else the film is an impressive display of her versatility.
32) Wild Tales (Damian Szifron, Spain, 122 min.)
Damian Szifron wrote and directed all six segments of this revenge-obsessed anthology film, but the results are still as uneven as we’ve come to expect from any collection of shorts. The highlights are a tale of road rage gone horribly awry and a wedding reception where the groom inadvertently reveals his adultery to his violently angry bride.
33) Kingsman: The Secret Service (Matthew Vaughn, UK, 129 min.)
This awkwardly titled homage to the British superspy genre is surprisingly irreverent and fun for a big budget blockbuster. Proudly crude and often brazenly eccentric, Kingsman feels refreshingly free of pandering attempts at cross-demographical commercial appeal. The story, concerning a street kid (charismatic newcomer Taron Eggerton) who is inducted into a powerful underground group of secret agents, is nothing more than silly wish-fulfillment, but that fantasy is delivered with an energizing punk rock attitude. Co-writer/director Matthew Vaughn (adapting Mark Millar’s graphic novel) does occasionally settle for generic hyperactive CGI spectacle, but he seems more interested in filling out the bizarre details of the film’s setting.
34) Selma (Ava DuVernay, USA, 128 min.)
Ava DuVernay’s look at Martin Luther King’s efforts to secure equal voting rights is unmistakably an overly earnest prestige film, but it does distinguish itself from other Oscar hopeful biopics in a few intelligent ways. Rather than attempting to squeeze King’s entire life story into two hours, the film focuses exclusively on his march from Selma to Montgomery, and is more nuanced and detailed as a result. The Civil Rights movement is presented as a contentious tug of war between different factions making strategic political decisions rather than as a blandly homogenized force of good, which introduces some moral complexity and narrative intrigue into what otherwise might have been a tame history lesson.
35) Call Me Lucky (Bobcat Goldthwait, USA, 106 min.)
Bobcat Goldthwait’s documentary begins as a lightweight (and perhaps overly fawning) tribute to his stand-up comedy mentor Barry Crimmins, but gradually works its way toward darker and far more compelling material regarding the sexual abuse that Crimmins suffered as a child. The comedian first revealed his traumatic past to friends and fans alike in the middle of a comedy set, and his later efforts to battle child pornography lend the film a weight and purpose that justify the meandering hero worship of its first act.
36) While We’re Young (Noah Baumbach, USA, 97 min.)
Noah Baumbach’s comedy of generational warfare is sharp and funny when focusing on the minutia of Generation X and Millennial culture, but too often loses its way in pursuit of big laughs. Scenes of the film’s older couple (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) grinding in a hip hop dance class and participating in a New Age retreat feel embarrassingly broad in this otherwise low-key film. Stiller and Watts form an uneasy friendship with a young hipster couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) who both energize and confound them. Baumbach takes great pains to show the ways that his Gen X characters (and ostensible stand-ins) are just as silly and short-sighted as the younger couple, but Driver and Seyfried’s characters aren’t sufficiently developed enough for some of the later scenes to come off as anything but a bitter condemnation of an entire generation.
37) The Big Short (Adam McKay, USA, 130 min.)
Adam McKay attempts to dramatize the collapse of the housing market in this adaptation of Michael Lewis’ best-seller, but the subject matter simply isn’t very cinematic. The all-star cast (particularly Steve Carell and Christian Bale) do a good job of conveying their characters’ disgust with destructive banking practices, but no amount of nervy dialogue exchanges can disguise this economics lesson as a work of art.
38) American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, USA, 132 min.)
Clint Eastwood’s factually shaky biopic about notoriously lethal Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) has proven divisive among cultural commentators, and it seems to be equally divided against itself on an artistic level. The film subtly builds an intriguing thesis about Kyle’s old-fashioned cowboy heroism being useless and delusional in a messy, goalless war, but ultimately undercuts its potentially subversive message by shying away from the real-life soldier’s less heroic attributes (such as his xenophobia and propensity for tall tales) while offering a blanket depiction of Iraqis as sadistic savages. The daring film that might have been pokes through during a few powerful depictions of Kyle’s PTSD, but the hints of moral conflict are heavily compromised by Eastwood’s apparent need to view the sniper as a tragic national hero.
39) We Come as Friends (Hubert Sauper, France, 110 min.)
Hubert Sauper’s disturbing documentary about the chaos in modern Sudan and the various outsiders who profit from the nation’s natural resources features an impressive amount of provocative, unforgettable imagery. Unfortunately Sauper seems more interested in outraging the viewer with distressing footage of political turbulence and abject poverty than he does in actually understanding the Sudanese crisis or offering solutions. The film is undeniably disquieting and striking, but it never even attempts to be edifying.
40) Hard to be a God (Aleksay German, Russia, 177 min.)
Alexsay German’s final film is the most singularly focused movie of 2015 – which is especially remarkable when one considers that he began preparations for it as early as the 1960s. Unfortunately his focus was on creating a one-dimensional medieval world strewn liberally with mud, blood, shit, and outrageous human stupidity. The film truly feels like a Hieronymous Bosch painting come to life as an epic black and white movie, but while there’s no denying the extraordinary quality of the cinematography, the single-minded nihilism of the film’s outlook prevents it from having the spellbinding power that German seemed to be aiming for.
41) A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, USA, 99 min.)
Ana Lily Amirpour’s feature film debut has an irresistible hook, as it is surely the first black-and-white vampire movie set in the Muslim world (though financed and filmed in the United States, it is set in Iran with Persian dialogue). The trouble is that she couldn’t seem to settle on an angle into this unique setting. At various points the movie is a deadpan comedy, a straight horror film, a vaguely feminist allegory, and (most effectively) a quirky teenage romance. The material never coheres, but Amirpour’s sense of style is strong enough that many of the individual moments are compelling. With a stronger sense of focus Amirpour could probably make a great second film.
42) Spectre (Sam Mendes, UK, 148 min.)
Up to this point the Daniel Craig era of James Bond has done a good job of slapping a fresh coat of paint on the beloved but stodgy franchise, but the latest entry feels like a lazy (if fitfully entertaining) return to “Bond by numbers.” All of the classic Bond elements are present but there is nothing to make this film stand out from other series entries. Even Christoph Waltz’ Blofeld seems oddly uninspired.
43) Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, USA, 141 min.)
Writer-director Joss Whedon’s distinctive voice is largely drowned out in the rush to tie together the increasingly convoluted strands of the Marvel cinematic universe in his second valiant attempt to shoehorn six movies worth of plot into one action blockbuster. The conflict with an artificially intelligent menace provides a reasonably diverting main storyline, but everything feels too hurried to have any dramatic impact, and the CGI-drenched action sequences feel downright tame compared to the epic setpieces from Mad Max: Fury Road, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, and Furious 7. It’s telling that the only time the film truly comes to life is during one of its few moments of downtime, when the plain-clothed superheroes are enjoying each other’s company at a party.
44) Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow, USA, 124 min.)
The latest film in the Jurassic Park series is less a sequel than a jokey homage to the beloved 1993 original. Director Colin Trevorrow keeps the proceedings moving at an entertainingly frantic pace, but the glib tone prevents his action scenes from achieving the synthesis of danger and awe that is the series’ trademark.
45) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (Francis Lawrence, USA, 137 min.)
The latest Hunger Games film has the benefit of having virtually non-stop action (as opposed to the virtually non-stop exposition of last year’s Mockingjay – Part 1) but the series never delved coherently enough into its themes to justify its oppressive drabness.
46) Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 148 min.)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel is surprisingly shaggy and aimless for a film with such a lofty pedigree. As far as tales of stoner detectives getting in over their heads go, it’s less funny than The Long Goodbye (1973) or The Big Lebowski (1998), and less profound than Cutter’s Way (1981) or A Scanner Darkly (2006), and far more scatterbrained than any of those movies. Joaquin Phoenix does his best to hold the film together through sheer quirky magnetism, and a few members of the supporting cast are allowed a handful of amusing moments, particularly Josh Brolin as a square police office. Unfortunately all of the talent on display is wasted on what amounts to nothing more than a string of intermittently entertaining non sequiturs.
47) Amy (Asif Kapadia, UK, 128 min.)
Amy Winehouse’s talent was exceptional, but her life story is sadly pretty similar to that of a lot of other famous musicians who died young. Director Asif Kapadia wisely sidesteps certain documentary clichés by eschewing talking head interviews and building the film around the copious amounts of footage available, but the results are still scarcely more revelatory than the average Behind the Music episode.
48) The Last Five Years (Richard LaGravenese, USA, 94 min.)
Even for those of us who haven’t seen it performed live, Jason Robert Brown’s stage musical clearly loses something in translation to film. The play charts the dissolution of a marriage through a skewed chronology, with hotshot novelist Jamie and struggling actress Cathy taking turns narrating the story, he starting at the hopeful beginning and she starting at the bitter end and working backwards, only meeting onstage for one duet where their timelines briefly coincide. That poignant conceit is absent in the film version, where Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick share screen time during virtually every musical number, with the person not singing usually relegated to reaction shots. Director Richard LaGravenese’s complete lack of stylistic flair has the benefit of allowing the viewer to focus on the fine score (and Kendrick’s very strong performance) but this is clearly an inferior version of the material.
49) Chappie (Neill Blomkamp, South Africa, 120 min.)
Neill Blomkamp’s tale of an artificially intelligent and emotive robot harkens back to the style of his acclaimed 2009 debut District 9, and while his skill at combining utterly convincing CGI with documentary-style location shooting remains impressive it also feels far less distinctive the second time around. It doesn’t help that Chappie is constantly raising political and existential dilemmas that it has no interest in exploring (and that countless other sci-fi films have had more interesting takes on). The titular robot has some charm thanks to the incredible robotic effects and the voice work of Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley, but the human characters are universally one-note and unlikeable.
50) Theory of Obscurity: A Film About The Residents (Don Hardy Jr., USA, 87 min.)
This frivolous documentary about legendary avant-garde collective The Residents feels more like a DVD bonus feature than something that belongs in theaters. The group’s commitment to anonymity prevents the talking head footage from revealing any new information to longtime fans, and too much of the performance footage was culled from what appears to have been a relatively mundane recent tour.
C- Below Average
51) Fifty Shades of Grey (Sam Taylor-Johnson, USA, 125 min.)
Hollywood’s stubbornly un-erotic adaptation of E.L. James’ best-selling novel about a sadomasochistic relationship devotes more of its runtime to interminable scenes about contract signing than it does to sex. When the heavy-breathing scenes finally do appear they are tame and shamefully heteronormative, with the female heroine’s breasts supplying virtually all of the nudity despite that fact that the film is ostensibly aimed at a female audience. Dakota Johnstone manages to bring some charisma to her role. The theoretically more interesting half of the relationship, the rich and tortured sadist, is filled blandly by Jamie Dornan, whose strategy for conveying his character’s mysteries seems to be remaining as stone-faced as possible whenever he’s on screen.
52) Jupiter Ascending (Andy & Lana Wachowski, USA, 127 min.)
Early looks at the Wachowskis’ long-delayed sci-fi epic suggested a hyperactively weird clusterfuck that could be this generation’s Zardoz (1974). Sadly, the actual film is a ponderous bore that’s only occasionally enlivened by outrageously campy supporting performances from Eddie Redmayne and Douglas Booth. Baffling plot twists and an insanely byzantine mythology can’t hide the fact that the basic scenario is a clichéd “chosen one versus ultimate evil” story, and the gonzo details are mostly drowned out by the film’s oppressively self-serious atmosphere.
53) Terminator Genisys (Alan Taylor, USA, 126 min.)Yet another tedious action franchise sequel/reboot. The decision to use the Terminator series’ time travelling elements to literally re-stage sequences from the vastly superior James Cameron originals really highlights how bland and uninspired this dreary new film is. Even the special effects – a seriously vital component of any Terminator movie – have regressed from what the series offered decades ago.