The Best Films of 2015

by PopMatters Staff

30 December 2015

What is Art, at its best, but the very weapon by which we wage the necessary, perpetual war on Culture? Here, but a quiver full of the world’s arsenal of 2015 film offerings.

Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman

The master of internalised anguish and bitingly funny insecurity is back with his first animated feature, Anomalisa. Co-directed with Duke Johnson, who oversaw the wonderful stop-motion sequences in Community, and with a number of team members from the show on board, Anomalisa is a desperately sad, intricately clever journey through one middle-aged man’s mental crisis, all shot in gorgeous stop-motion. For all the comic touches and beautiful animation, it’s a desperately sad and powerfully affecting experience.—Stephen Mayne


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The Big Short

Director: Adam McKay
Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt

(Paramount Pictures)

The Big Short
Adam McKay

So who blew up the economy back in 2007? Adam McKay’s blistering, righteously funny The Big Short offers an answer. Based on Michael Lewis’ sharp chisel of a nonfiction bestseller about the guys who predicted the collapse and couldn’t believe that nobody wanted to know, it’s a story of misfit heroes, larger-than-life villains, and helpless victims. It’s the comedy that Michael Moore could have made about the financial crisis if he had a sense of humor. It’s also a tragedy about how an “atomic bomb of greed and stupidity” blew everything to hell but couldn’t stop everyone from going right back to business as usual. The film is ragged, jolting, and savagely funny guerrilla agitprop that gives after-the-fact credit to these financial Cassandras. But the film doesn’t turn their prescience into a triumph. It grants them no comfort in being right about the idiocy that ruined the lives of so many people. They would much rather have been wrong.—Chris Barsanti


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Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson

(Weinstein Company)

Todd Haynes

Todd Haynes’ Carol offers two views of the holiday season. In 1952’s New York City, we first see family gatherings, snowy sidewalks, and shopping trips. Just below that surface, two women engage in illicit romance, at every turn reminded of everything they are not allowed to have. Their world doesn’t allow for same-sex attraction, much less the idea that two women could share a life together. Everything in Haynes’ vision emphasizes how trapped the women are. They’re framed inside windows, cars, and phone booths, surrounded by rain, clouds, and drifting snow. Even their swoons are tinged with regret and worry. Yet there remains something in Blanchett’s burning intensity and chaotic urgency that refuses to accept their predetermined future as lonely outcasts. “You’ll understand this someday,” Carol tells Therese. Try as she might to play the pessimist, however, the light in Carol’s eyes says the opposite.—Chris Barsanti


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Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Wesley Snipes, Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson

(Roadside Attractions)

Spike Lee

Chi-Raq, a Spike Lee Joint of exponential dimensions, the movie draws from current headlines and hip-hop lyrics, Aristophanes’ play (411 BCE) and Lee’s own movies to forge a vibrant, propulsive saga of fury and hope. Of course, it’s not just Chicagoans or Americans who like war. The movement that’s named and initiated in this fictional Chicago extends almost instantly worldwide, via social media. The women drive the movement, by force of will and poetic, gorgeous energy. They gather and debate, they make their demands: they mean to withhold sex until their men lay down their arms. Inspired by Lysistrata, she and her many sisters embrace media and use their spectacular bodies to draw and maintain attention to the cause. As divisive as media can be—and surely the sheer noise of cable TV and social media can be daunting—their potential to transform is equally compelling and dramatic. As they see it, Lysistrata and Miss Helen can change the world.—Cynthia Fuchs


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Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Derek Jacobi

(Allison Shearmur Productions)

Kenneth Branagh

If there’s any justice, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderellawill become the definitive cinematic adaptation of the classic Grimm fairy tale. For a start, it’s the most cinematic of them all. Every technical department, from Dante Ferretti’s production design to Sandy Powell’s costume design, achieves perfection. Every frame, thanks to Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography, is gorgeous eye candy. In addition to the film’s aesthetic qualities, there are the terrific performances by the cast. Lily James of Downton Abby fame is a charming Cinderella, and her smile alone sells the movie. Cate Blanchett is in prime diva mode as the wicked Stepmother, and her cackle alone is a cinephile’s dream come true. Nothing this year was more pleasurable than the Stepmother’s not-so-subtle shade-throwing at Cinderella. Cinderella is a blast from start to finish, and one of those rare family films that actually appeals to the entire family.—Jon Lisi


Filip Bajon, Wojciech Pacyna

Damaged‘s focus is a family whose most forceful figure (Krystyna Janda’s strident matriarch) believes in insularity, proudly proclaiming that the Dulska clan has never participated in any social movements and keeps its dirty laundry (should it have any) firmly behind closed doors. The story reveals its three main characters—grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter alike—to all very much be products of their time. It’s not too surprising to discover that Panie Dulskie has some original roots in a play, Gabriela Zapolska’s 1907 classic The Morality of Mrs. Dulska (Moralność pani Dulskiej). With its vivid, juicy roles, and with the majority of the action unfolding inside the house, this is a film that’s theatrical in the very best sense. Bajon uses the interior wonderfully well: it’s a stage for a satirical comedy of manners, but one capable of a Gothic flourish or two, and that combination encapsulates the film’s tone.—Alex Ramon


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The Danish Girl

Director: Tom Hooper
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard

The Danish Girl
Tom Hooper

The Danish Girl is the laudable attempt by a big glitzy Hollywood film to take on an ignored area. It’s the story of Lili Elbe, the first person to undergo gender re-alignment surgery way back in the ‘20s. Eddie Redmayne, hot from last year’s Oscar win, burns up the screen as Einar/Lili, managing the transformation with jittery conviction. He’s matched every step by Alicia Vikander as Einar’s wife Gerda, an artist in her own right. Tom Hooper’s film, he of The King’s Speech and Les Misérables fame, brings his glossy period style to bear in a gorgeous to look at and ever so tame account of Lili’s gradual journey from the body forced on her.—Stephen Mayne

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