Feature

The best movies we saw in 2015

The Week's writers and editors reflect on the best movies we saw this year

Amy

I saw Amy, a documentary about the life of the late singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse, in July — and I'm still reeling. While the film rightfully showcases Winehouse's raw talent and personality through a compilation of archival footage and interviews, it also highlights, through its mere existence, the always-watching public eye that contributed to Winehouse's early death at age 27. It's a fascinating examination of the line between art and celebrity, and the consequences of devoting your life to each. -Becca Stanek, staff writer

Clouds of Sils Maria

Much has been written about the difference between Hollywood movies and European films. The former tend toward technologically driven spectacles that serve as mass-market entertainment, while the latter aim to be a human-scale art form rivaling literature and painting for capturing the experiences and struggles of ordinary life. For Americans reared on Hollywood blockbusters but open to exploring the more challenging and artistically rewarding terrain of European cinema, Clouds of Sils Maria — the rare French film in which the bulk of the dialogue is in English — can serve as an ideal entry point.

Juliette Binoche stars as Maria Enders, a middle-aged actress whose career was launched when she was cast, over 20 years earlier, in the role of a teenager who seduces and eventually dumps a much older woman who goes on to kill herself. Now, Enders is preparing to appear in the play again — only this time cast as the older woman. Rehearsing with her in the alpine Swiss town of Sils Maria is her American assistant, played beautifully by Kristen Stewart. Beguiling, enigmatic, dream-like, and haunting, the movie explores the challenge of aging as well as the mysteries of creativity, identity, and human motivation — all with the subtly and grace of the best European filmmaking. -Damon Linker, senior correspondent

Creed

I'm an unabashed Rocky fanatic. The Rocky IV training montages are so deeply ingrained in my brain that I know exactly what I'll do if I ever need to lift a giant bag of rocks in a warehouse in Russia.

Creed was even better than I'd hoped. The success of the sequel/reboot is a credit to writer/director Ryan Coogler, who pays proper respect to the Rocky mythology while expanding on it in a plausible, exciting way. Sly Stallone is excellent as a dispirited Rocky Balboa, opposite the fantastic Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed, son of Rocky's late sparring partner Apollo Creed.

The film builds a powerful narrative out of the relationship between the two men. Who is Adonis Creed? How can an older, broken man rediscover his will to fight another day? Can a boxer — someone paid to punch people in the face over and over again — overcome self doubt and concerns about his own masculinity? (Of course, Creed isn't all existential; The boxing scenes are by far the most realistic I've ever seen in a film.) Creed is so good it seems like Creed II and III must be a foregone conclusion — and as soon as they arrive, I'm there. –Chris O'Shea, contributing writer

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

Sooner or later, every acclaimed director gets reduced to a "brand." In the case of Spike Lee, the success of films like Malcolm X and especially Do The Right Thing have led him to be pigeonholed as "the angry director who talks about race" — a designation that undermines his versatility.

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is not devoid of racial commentary, but the opacity of the narrative, which follows a wealthy anthropologist transformed into a vampire, directs attentions to other aspects not so inseparable from Spike Lee's "brand" — even if they have always been hallmarks of his direction. Expressive, outwardly performative acting and heavily saturated colors make Sweet Blood a different kind of Lee film. The audacity and boldness of Sweet Blood should make it impossible for anyone to reduce Lee to a brand. –Forrest Cardamenis, contributing writer

Dope

Malcolm and his friends Jib and Diggy are '90s hip-hop-loving high school geeks living in a Los Angeles neighborhood unceremoniously called The Bottoms. While they live in the hood, they're not necessarily a part of it. "I don't want to go to jail," Jib says, "I want to go to college."

The trio are an easy target for the jocks, bullies, and drug dealers — and try as they might to literally navigate around trouble, ("Some brother really needs to invent an app like Waze to avoid all these hood traps."), they fall right into it. After going to a drug dealer's birthday party, Malcolm is saddled with a backpack full of the party drug Molly. What ensues is a sun-drenched, modern-day Odyssey with this Homer escaping and outsmarting street versions of cannibals, sirens, and witches so he can get to the faraway place called Harvard.

Dope is a fresh take on an old tale that subverts Hollywood's typical narrative for young black men. The banter is quick, the music is on point, and Shameik Moore's performance as Malcolm is a standout. Make sure to stay until the very end — because Moore might just kick Rosie Perez out of contention for the best dance moves ever played over a credit reel. –Lauren Hansen, executive editor of multimedia

Ex Machina

A kind of dark-side companion piece to 2013's Her, Ex Machina dives into the question of what relationships between humans and robots would look like. Ex Machina follows Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to the isolated research facility of tech magnate Nathan (Oscar Isaac) under the belief he'll be helping him test his latest project, an artificially intelligent robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander).

Ex Machina is a voyeuristic exploit: It's never entirely clear who's watching who. The paranoia is further emphasized by the fishbowl-esque facility where the film takes place, full of floor-to-ceiling windows, but compartmentalized by locking doors that require special clearance. It's a reminder that there will always be things we cannot see — even when we're constantly looking. –Stephanie Talmadge, editorial assistant

Inside Out

In recent years, Pixar has tested its most devoted fans' patience, greenlighting sequels to movies better left alone, and gravitating away from the groundbreaking original work that made its output in the first decade of the 21st century so memorable. Fortunately, this year's Inside Out reversed that trend, instantly climbing near the top of Pixar's impressive filmography.

Welcome to the mind of 9-year-old Riley — the movie's central character, though she's offscreen most of the time. Instead, the movie follows the wonderfully visualized personifications of Riley's emotions, voiced by the likes of Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith, as they grapple with the new and surprising developments in her rapidly evolving mind. In the process, director Pete Docter and screenwriters Docter, Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley unravel the rare story that treats the dramas and traumas of childhood with as much care and sophistication as those of adults. Even viewers who can't identify with moving across the country at a young age can find something in Inside Out that resonates, whether it's the gradual understanding that forms between Joy and Sadness or the clashing ideologies of trigger-happy Anger and knee-knocking Fear. It's a movie for and about children that doesn't condescend to them. For the young ones, it's an entertaining ride. For everyone else, it's a punch in the gut. –Mark Lieberman, contributing writer

Mad Max: Fury Road

Director George Miller's revamped fourth installment in the Ozploitation action series Mad Max is a reminder that bigger is better if done gracefully. Where the gratuitous explosion buffets of the Michael Bay school are exhausting to watch and frustrating to analyze, the booms and bangs in Mad Max are placed strategically, making it all the more satisfying when they inevitably go off.

Unlike the quick cutting typically used to create the illusion of larger-than-life action, Miller's deep tracking shots follow along as trucks of various camps flee and pursue one another across the dystopian wasteland Earth has become. Rather than disorient the viewer, Miller brings them into the fray with camera work that both parallels the plot and enhances the setting. The creation of a female-governed New World Order lends Mad Max additional feminist cred that, while imperfect, is certainly refreshing in a genre that's so susceptible to traditional gender roles and formulaic plotlines. –Roxie Pell, editorial intern

Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation had a seemingly impossible mission. It needed to stand out in a crowded blockbuster landscape while following in the footsteps of the previous installment, Ghost Protocol, which contained what was arguably the most memorable action sequences in 21st century cinema.

The franchise proved to be as thrilling as ever in its fifth entry. Each set piece, whether epic (Tom Cruise hangs off an airplane in flight!) or confined (a mano-a-mano knife fight in the streets of London!), offers unique pleasures thanks to director Christopher McQuarrie. Like his predecessors, the Oscar-winning screenwriter put his own spin on Mission: Impossible, interspersing the action spectacle with nods to classics like Casablanca and The Man Who Knew Too Much; his love for film is palpable and infectious. Full of vitality, enthusiasm, and humor, Rogue Nation embodies escapism at its finest. It's the most fun I had in theaters all year. –Amy Woolsey, contributing writer

Phoenix

As Christian Petzold's film begins, Nelly (Nina Hoss) returns to Berlin with a tattoo on her arm and bandages on her face. A Jew who suffered a bullet wound during World War II, Nelly spends the first part of Phoenix convalescing from facial reconstructive surgery. When she goes to reunite with her husband and singing partner Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), she realizes he does not recognize her — and she decides not to correct his mistake.

Either out of shock or curiosity, Nelly joins Johnny in an elaborate plot designed to take control of her inheritance, leading to a complex drama that's all about the true cost of war — and how some experiences are so awful that true reconciliation might be impossible. More than any other film this year, Phoenix will haunt viewers with its final scene. I won't spoil it here, but trust me: You'll be thinking about it for days. –Alan Zilberman, contributing writer

Queen of Earth

Nothing I've seen this year has sunken into my bones quite like Alex Ross Perry's Queen of Earth — a riveting, claustrophobic psychological thriller laced with shades of Ingmar Bergman, Robert Altman, and Roman Polanski.

Queen of Earth stars Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston as a pair of longtime friends who spend a week together at a remote lake house in upstate New York. In flashbacks, we see the events of a year earlier, when Moss and her then-boyfriend were reveling in the smug satisfaction of a new romance. In the intervening time, Moss has lost her boyfriend to a breakup and her father to death — and as the days pass and the tension between the friends continues to grow, it becomes alarmingly clear that Moss is concealing just how unstable her mental state has become.

You're better off going into Queen of Earth without any more knowledge than that, but trust me: The key to the film's success is Moss' bottomless lead performance, which is raw and jagged and pitiable and occasionally very frightening. It's a stunner, even from one of the best actresses of her generation. –Scott Meslow, film critic

Sicario

Sicario isn't exactly enjoyable to watch. Much like The Wire at its darkest moments, it's intense, all-too-real viewing. But it also feels necessary. The story follows a small-time FBI agent (Emily Blunt) who gets invited to join an elite task force fighting the drug war on the U.S.-Mexico border. Instead of preaching or taking a moral stand, the film just pummels Blunt with the twisted, morally ambiguous reality of a war that can't be won. Victory isn't the goal; a tourniquet is.

When the film ended, I felt like I'd drunk a gallon of coffee. My heart pounded, and I jumped at a plastic bag blowing across the theater's empty parking lot. It was an experience the movies have mostly lost in the age of superheroes, and a good reminder that we don't need monsters to find evil. –Travis Andrews, contributing writer

Timbuktu

No film I watched this year was as full of grace and beauty as Abderrahmane Sissako's breathtaking Timbuktu, which follows a Malian cattle herder's family after Islamic jihadists move into town. However, while the jihadists are certainly the antagonists of the film, they are not the stereotypical extremists we've come to be familiar with in Hollywood. Sissako makes the startling decision to present the jihadists in a multidimensional light, showing the viewer their violent cruelty but also their humanity, their humor.

Beyond the intricate, almost Biblical plot of Timbuktu is its jaw-dropping visual beauty: Sissako's eye for light, color, and movement, and his ear for music and sound, are practically unrivaled by anyone else in the business. My favorite shot from any film this year is his harrowing panoramic long take at a lake — although if I say much more, I risk spoiling it. Do yourself a favor and watch it for yourself instead. –Jeva Lange, staff writer

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