Before I get to the main list, here are a few others I should get out of the way:
Honourable Mentions: Eden, Joy, Magic Mike XXL, Spotlight
Some notable films from 2015 I have yet to see: Approaching the Elephant, Court, Carol, Creed, Chi-raq, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, Hard to Be a God, The Hateful Eight, Heart of a Dog, Heaven Knows What, In Jackson Heights, The Intern, Iris, Jauja, Junun, The Mend, Mistress America, Results, Saint Laurent, Spy, Timbuktu, Unfriended, World of Tomorrow
What influences a year-end list? As you might note above, what a writer hasn’t seen is often just as important as what they have seen — though of course, no film critic can see everything. Critics tend to be influenced by each other, by awards-season screeners, by time — it isn’t that the best movies of the year always come out at the end of the year, but that the timed release of numerous well-made movies tends to crowd out memories of what a reviewer saw eleven months ago. In any case, in making these lists, very few critics are actually seeing the movies for a second time, evaluating them together, charting their staying power. It’s all individual tastes, timing, reputation, and what looks good together as a summation of what a year “means.” Since I’m no different, instead of giving a plot summary and a mini-review, as if I could say better now what happened in a movie compared to the moment after its credits ended, I’m returning to particular moments, of surprise, deceit, laughter, whatever it is that makes that movie still part of my memory now, something that would make me want to see it again, in the future, without any hesitation. So, in alphabetical order:
Blackhat (dir. Michael Mann) & Run All Night (dir. Jaume Collet-Serra)
Two modernist action movies, unstable, changeable, existing in what looks like an attempt to more closely depict reality (city-wide flyovers, digital video, obscured, subjective action). But is it? Sure, no. Both are, at their core, melodramatic romances about protecting love, escaping the past, and getting free (there are “foes,” but both are most endangered by government agencies). Yet their best moments seek to capture the kind of motion-image a painter might imagine — as a result, the plot suffers. These movies are hard to follow; their commitment to a consistent aesthetic and cutting pattern makes them nearly unwatchable at times (in Blackhat, an alleyway chase shakes and swings; Run All Night opens with a quick-cutting rhythm that impatiently fast-forwards through its expository dialogue). But a year later, Blackhat’s punctuating scenes still eclipse most: the red of its Indonesian theatre ritual climax, or the murky blacks of an airplane taking off, shell-shocked heroes (Tang Wei, Chris Hemsworth) inside. Similarly, Liam Neeson is now his own genre, the movie titles seemingly unimportant at this point. But Run All Night’s Christmas-set perpetual dusk, seared by traffic lights and bleary visions of faces in a crowd, is, like in Blackhat, a place where death and injury is sharply felt (no city explosions or massive bombs here). In a rare moment of clarity, Collet-Serra pulls back, showing Ed Harris stumbling into a supportive hug of mourning; the movie may, on the face of it, be the kind of stupid thing that, if released ten years ago, would’ve played on cable repeatedly, but you’d know it in a single glance.