Top 15 Best Movies of 2015 (So Far)

Follow Brendan Hodges at

As 2015’s film fest circuit begins and powers the way to Oscar Season, I thought I’d check in with the top 15 movies of 2015 (so far): 


15.) Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon


           Disappointing doesn’t have to mean a total write-off, and Age of Ultron, for all its warts, possesses many satisfactions. It’s dark but not brooding, and Scarlet Witch’s hallucinations are an effective Lynchian device that gives this Marvel movie an edge the others lacked. Themes are explored, albeit clumsily, and making Tony Stark’s Iron Man into a Dr. Frankenstein in the creation of Ultron was an inspired move. The action is (enjoyably) manic and the plot is a ball of yarn after a cat’s gotten to it, but it’s the power of Joss Whedon that the messiness makes any sense at all. The last 45 minutes are absolute madness, the comic bookiest Avengers-universe Marvel movie yet, and embracing that side of things spells promise for the future. B


14.) Cinderella (Kenneth Branagh)


        A powerful example of the right director to the right project, Kenneth Branagh knew exactly what to do to make his Cinderella work. It’s not another example of fairy tale revisionism, like the dull Maleficent or middling fun of Snow White and the Huntsman, but a back-to-basics tale that’s biggest virtue is its simplicity and smallness. The scale isn’t hyperbolic or contrived. It the story as straightforwardly as possible—and that’s not a knock. Branagh knows when, and, crucially, when not to, inject necessary flair and wit to the proceedings.  He wisely lets his gorgeous leads carry most of the weight. Lily James and Richard Madden are perfect in their respective roles of Cinderella and Prince Charming, and the result is, well, a bit of low volume movie magic. B

13.) Furious 7 (James Wan)


         Stupid but stylish, Furious 7s emotional ending made me cry. It’s awkward to say a virtue of a film is its handling of a tragedy, but part of what made the finale’s tribute to Walker so poignant is the franchise’s longstanding theme of family bonds. Diesel’s Terrato comically says “we’re family” 50 times a movie, and the payoff is an emotional wallop that awkwardly but sincerely showed what makes the Fast and Furious movies a few steps above Transformers: characters we care about. But it’s also its self awareness, a real sense of fun, and an ability to continually pull off cartoonish set pieces that are live action Looney Tunes. In a movie culture when so many movies take themselves too seriously, Furious 7 is at once a parody of a street race-action movie while simultaneously being absolutely that and is all the better for that contradiction. B+

12.) Slow West (John Maclean)


         No film this year would make the Coen Brothers happier than Slow West, a neo-western told as if it was an old fable brought to life. Outbursts of graphic violence hit visceral high notes seconds after laugh-out-loud slapstick, and the unsettling contrast adds to the surrealism of this already strange tale. The gorgeous terrain of New Zealand makes a perfect setting for the Wild West, juxtaposing the storybook scenery with the haggard characters outfitted in tattered jackets and heavy with weary. Mountains, skies, and vast planes burst with overly saturated colors, mythologizing the land in a story that, itself, feels mythic. This revisionist western finds a young boy by the name of Jay Cavendish (a terrific Kodi Smit-McPhee) searching for his long lost love (Caren Pistorius), and teaming up with a Southern-twanged Michael Fassbender as a slick bounty hunter. It’s a small film that has no qualms about its size, confident in the story its telling and exactly how it tells it. B

11.) Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow


           Since I wrote my initial review back in June, I had a chance for a screening in IMAX 3D. The difference between a conventional theater and IMAX is of course categorically cosmetic and doesn’t change any of the flaws in the film. But in this case, size really does matter, and the bigger dinos and louder roars made you forget about the problems until at least a half an hour after the movie had ended. The last 45 minutes are thrilling, and that sustained piece of Aliens-esque silver screen bravado is a calling card for what Trevorrow can do as a filmmaker. The characters are featureless and the new themes are thin, but Jurassic World works tirelessly to give you a good time, and by God it does. A billion dollars at the box office later, it’s no wonder this is what got Trevorrow the gig for Star Wars: Episode IX. B

10.) It Follows (David Robert Mitchell)


          Quentin Tarantino, never shy about his opinions, recently caused a media uproar when he took the bat to 2015 cult favorite horror movie It Follows saying the following:  “It’s one of those movies that’s so good you get mad at it for not being great.” His leading criticism was a lack of internal consistency with what the big baddie can or cannot do, and, regrettably, I share his feelings exactly. The film’s ghoul embodies the psychological phenomenon of something being just around your shoulder, as if you’re forever being followed. The only way to save yourself? Sex. Sleeping with somebody transfers the curse of “being followed’ to somebody else, and while the film’s themes run deeper than the pitfalls of teen promiscuity, that reading is not invalid. The first half is a brilliant treatise in mastering tone and atmosphere, boasting spooky, grayed digital cinematography and a pulsing synth score that recalls the best of John Carpenter. Sadly, the bubble pops when Mitchell plays fast and loose with his own rules, and a third act that can’t match the tension or scares of the first reel. Nevertheless the best horror of the year. B

9.) What We Do in the Shadows (Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi)


           A mockumentary of the highest order, What We Do in the Shadows chronicles the bloody tale of four vampire flatmates trying to get along. As I said in my review this past March, it slowly transcends its aspirations of parody and entrances you as a sometimes moving (but always hilarious) entry into vampire movie canon. The ingenious crew behind Flight of the Concords are the central creative force here, although the more you already know about vampire mythology (and vampire pop-culture) the more you’ll laugh. After an annoyingly narcissistic character is turned into a vamp, he tries ‘cashing in’ on Twilight fandom by telling hot babes at bars that he’s a vampire like Robert Pattinson’s Edward. Paradoxically for a movie about vampires, by thrusting them into a domestic setting, the beloved bloodsuckers have rarely been so human. B+

8.) Straight Outta Compton (F. Gary Gray)


           The surprise hit of the summer, the key to unlocking the biopic of rap supergroup N.W.A. is its from-the-headlines relevancy. As a commentary on race and class, Gray and his team of screenwriters wisely realized to tell the full story of N.W.A., who became famous for their hit single Fuck Tha Police, you also need to tell the story of the institutional racism dominating their everyday lives. The police are bigoted and abusive, and the central N.W.A. team—Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre—are constant victims at the hands of that misused power. But this isn’t a heady discourse, it’s a visceral rock-and-roll music biopic a la Sid and Nancy, and it’s raw entertainment value is what has propelled it to an impressive 150,000,000 domestic. Our experience watching the film comes as close as it can to capturing what it was like to be these game-changing artists, which is an accomplishment in and of itself. B+

7.) Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)


          I saw “Clouds” last fall at the Chicago International Film Festival, and I left the theater with only one thought in mind: Kristen Stewart went toe-to-toe with Juliette Binoche and killed it. The film itself, a stumbling, self-reflexive study in the lines drawn between art and the artist, homages Lynch’s Mulholland Drive as readily as Bergman’s Persona in its haunting story of two isolated, beautiful women. Binoche plays an aging actress asked to play the role opposite of the one that made her famous, and most of the film is a candid look at the life of a famous actress. As her assistant, Stewart gives a marvelous supporting performance worthy of oscar attention, and the sure-handed direction accounts for the ethereal atmosphere and whispered tone, although how much you meaning extract from its tangents on the substance of art is up to you. B+

6.) Mission: Impossible 5 (Christopher McQuarrie)


                A sophisticated blend of the hardboiled espionage of Mission: Impossible and Brad Bird’s action packed opus Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol, MI:5 is an outstanding greatest hits album with a few new killer tracks. The greatest special effect of MI5 isn’t the death-defying plane stunt that opens the movie or even the breathtaking motorcycle highway chase that left my theater gasping, it’s Tom Cruise himself, and he owns this movie. He’s the last of the old-class movie stars, and putting himself through real hard-knuckled stunts, including holding his breath for six minutes and brushing his knee against the pavement while tilting a motorcycle going at lightspeed, owns the title. The biggest surprise wasn’t any of the film’s keen twists, it’s the unexpected star turn by the tantalizing Rebecca Ferguson as a double or possibly triple agent. One prays Ferguson returns for the next flick in the franchise. She has one of the best female roles in years. B+

5.) Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon)


           After becoming a Sundance favorite and winning both the jury prize and audience award just like last year’s blistering Whiplash, there’s been a misguided backlash on this gem. It’s a Fault of Our Stars told from the point of view of an external observer, a typical teen brooder named Greg who struggles to connect with anyone. His primary way of communication is through superficial acquaintances, that is until his mother pushes him to befriend Rachel, a lovely and idiosyncratic girl recently diagnosed with cancer. Some have accused Me and Earl as a celebration of teen narcissism, but the opposite is true. This is a story about telling stories, and how they help us understand the world as much as ourselves. It’s not quite the home-run I wish it was, but it resonates on many levels—it’s funny, it’s sad, it’s hopeful, and it’s illuminating. Now playing in select theaters. B+


4.) Inside Out (Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen)


         I’m on the hype train for Inside Out, just not in one of the first cars. Director Pete Docter recognized a major flaw with the film early on: having a main character be a single shade of a complete person, Joy, might be too abstract and aloof for audiences. His solution, mostly, was to cast the warm and hilarious Amy Poehler in the role to compensate – it worked for most, but not really for me. Still, Pixar’s return to form is a triumphant one, a high-concept romp exploding at the seams with clever gags, stunning animation, and an eclectic mix of laughs and tears. That Inside Out, a movie that (mostly) takes place inside the metaphysical mindscape of a young girl’s head, works at all is a testament to the enormous talent on all sides. The expected Pixar poignant is back too, with more than a few moments left me misty-eyed reflective of my own childhood. B+

3.) Ex Machina (Alex Garland)


           What I love about “Ex Machina” is its simplicity. We have a direct, minimalist plot, a clear visual palette, and a strict cast of four. This is a sophisticated and unusually smart take on artificial intelligence, using A.I. not only as a springboard for the classic kind of pot-induced predictions of the future and man, but also as a measured commentary on image, gender, and free will. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a skilled programmer selected by lottery to conduct a Turing Test—whether or not a machine can pass as a human being. Nathan (a bearded and predictably amazing Oscar Isaac) has created Ava (Alicia Vikander), possibly the first real A.I.  She’s sexy and striking, with a design I predict will become iconic. The best ensemble of the year uplifts “Machina” from becoming overly cerebral, and watching the leads play off each other is as riveting as their mind-expanding conversations—this is great cinema by any standard. B+

2.) The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer)


          A stunning work that shakes you for weeks, Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion piece to 2012’s The Act of Killing is a showcase for the peak of documentary craft today. The subject is the harrowing exploits around the 1965 Indonesian Genocide, but instead of merely miring in the depressive subject matter, both films have a humanist core. We’re asked to try and understand the villainous perpetrators of the genocide, many of whom are still in power and celebrated as cultural heroes—it’s as if Nazi Germany won and stayed in power, living alongside the families of Jewish victims. The Look of Silence is a series of conversations between Adi, the brother of one of the most famous victims, and the killers on various levels of political power. It’s a courageous, harrowing piece of cinema that asks you not only to question humanity as a whole but also your own. A

1.) Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)


           Churning, roaring, clashing, and exploding, Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) hit the apocalyptic landscape with the same hellmouth fury that Fury Road hit theaters with. More than a just a masterpiece, the fourth Mad Max movie is a drug. After seeing it, I immediately need another hit. After four viewings, the highs are still high and I can’t wait for the fifth. Visionary in the truest and most sincere sense of the word, Fury Road turns to sublime visual purity of silent cinema as its frame to revitalize modern action aesthetics, using the crazed cut-cut-cut editing of Battleship Potemkinas the spinning wheels and visceral physical stunts (almost always done for real) as the seething engine. A non-verbal narrative emerges through the dust and debris, a stunning story of liberation and triumph. This is the best movie of the year, the one to beat, and even if Star Wars: The Force Awakens exceeds my delusions of its anticipated grandeur, Fury Road is historic. So shiny. So chrome. A+

Follow me at: