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The best movies of 2015

2015-movies-usual-suspects
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These Unusual Suspects Provided the best cinematic wonders of the year.

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I live in Houston, where we don't get all of the award-contending films until much later. Films like Son of Saul and Anomalisa only recently opened. I count the movie calendar year as beginning and ending w/ the Oscars. The Academy gets to have their say tomorrow; here's mine. I had a blast at the movies this year, but it was a strange year. A lot of the prestige dramas didn't quite live up to their hype or pedigree. As a result, my best-of-year list is filled with more genre films than usual.

12. Carol

Just plain beautiful: gorgeous cinematography, make-up and costume design. Well-executed period-specific production design. Carter Burwell's evocative musical score rounds out a film where every frame pulses with aesthetic pleasures.

11. Brooklyn

Saorise Ronan's fantastic portrayal, fully inhabiting a timeless immigrant tale, brings a vivid sense of the alienation and inner conflict felt on both sides of the Atlantic. Brie Larson was indeed great in Room, but Ronan is my pick for the best actress Oscar (although both of them should've received additional competition from an actress who wasn't nominated but stole the show in the #1 movie of the year).

10. Love and Mercy

Paul Dano and John Cusack's dual portrayal of Brian Wilson spanning decades is one of the strongest acting achievements of the decade and it's a fuckin' felony that they were both overlooked for nominations.

9. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Easily the most surprising delight of the year. Wonderfully affecting. Laugh-out-loud funny. Skin-crawlingly cringe-inducing. Great ensemble performances. Sneaks in several emotional body-blows with the efficiency of a champion boxer - you're braced to expect them coming but they still land hard. As a feature debut for Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, this announces an exciting filmmaker to watch.

8. Creed

2015 was quite the year for 7th-installments in franchises that-are-also-kinda-reboots/remakes. Creed distills the Rocky formula back to its base elements, with remarkable success. Stunning to see that Sly Stallone can still summon up everything that was brilliant about his original portrayal of Rocky Balboa, despite all the baggage that the franchise and Stallone himself accumulated over the years.

7. Sicario

Holy mother of all fuck, those set-piece action sequences. Holy mother of all fuck, that soundtrack. Holy mother of all fuck, the moral darkness. And of course - the man, the myth, the legend: cinematographer Roger Deakins, who still to this date is owed so many Oscars I've lost count.

6. Straight Outta Compton

The most underrated film of the year. Outrageous that it did not get a best picture nomination. The Academy has a long history of drastically over-valuing films with a musical spine, so its absence is even more frustrating. Here is a film exploding with cultural relevance and contemporary resonance, it has an incredible ensemble cast, and yet it is ignored. #OscarsSoWhite indeed.

5. Ex Machina

With its confined single-location structure, this film feels like a stage play. Ex Machina captures the best of science fiction - meditating on the deeper moral consequences of possibilities suggested by current technological trends. Oscar Isaac's eccentric Stanley Kubrickian computer genius is one of the more fascinating performances to observe in recent memory. Ex Machina avoids the genre film convention of ending with a bombastic sequence, pressing the limits of special effects technology and action choreography. Instead, this film concludes with relatively quieter techniques: longer shots, lingering moments, singularity of action - and the results were chilling and transcendent.

4. The Big Short

Steve Carell's performance as Mark Baum is not only my vote for best actor of the year, I'm shortlisting it for best of the decade consideration. Carell embodied the outrage of a generation, the righteous anger that has been suppressed in the wake of the Great Recession. In the 1976 masterpiece Network, actor Peter Finch channeled madness and chaos into his portrayal of Howard Beale. Carell does something equally powerful here - instead of fully expressing that rage, instead of opening the window and shouting that he's mad as hell and can't take it anymore - Carell attempts to put a lid on it, and re-direct his fury into constructive action.

3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Kudos to Kathleen Kennedy, Lawrence Kasdan and JJ Abrams. They managed to make The Force mysterious and awe-inspiring again. They evolved a narrative for Han Solo that retained the essence of the character and broke fresh territory. They created a trio of new protagonists worthy of continuing in further adventures. Harrison Ford shocked us all by being able to turn on the switch and embody everyone's favorite space pirate as if the past thirty years hadn't happened. Adam Driver gave the Star Wars universe a much-needed bad-ass villain. The mythological structure of Star Wars and its inspiration from Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces spawned generations of imitators - but Daisy Ridley stepped into the archetype and made it her own. That goosebump-raising moment in the snow - the literal passing of the torch from the old generation to the new - was probably my favorite moment in cinema in 2015.

2. Spotlight

It's hard to praise this film because its brilliance is so evenly distributed across its humble structure. Stellar cast. Every single role played memorably. Subtle fly-on-the-wall camera work. Spotlight matches classic investigative films like All the President's Men and Zodiac for its devotion to process and detail: knocking on doors, scrolling through microfiche, consulting dusty directories stacked in basement archives. Liev Schrieber brings an understated authority. Michael Keaton and John Slattery both manage to convey a creeping sense of dread at realizing institutional failure - both from structures they trusted as well as those they personally participated in. Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo depict the shoe-leather industriousness and dedication of the unsung hero reporters who shocked the world with their revelations.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

By the time the film reaches the twenty minute mark, when Immortan Joe's vehicle army reveals itself to not only have its own rhythm section, but also its own flame-throwing heavy metal lead guitarist, I knew I had already seen the best movie of the year and it wasn't even half done. Charlize Theron out-Clint-Eastwooded Clint Eastwood. The incessant velocity of action and spectacle was thrilling to behold. Here is a film that lived by its motto: WITNESS ME.

Milton Lawson

Milton is a writer living in Houston. Comics, travelogues. Go Astros. Go Texans.

A short comic about an indie music shop written by Milton Lawson with art by Dave Chisholm

A travelogue about four friends taking their first trip to Europe. Now available on Amazon.com.