Even with the omission of yet-to-be-released award-season films, 2015 was an easy year in which to compile a best-of list, along with a few flawed gems deserving of honorable mention.
1. “The End of the Tour” — Is Jason Segel’s David Foster Wallace the real David Foster Wallace? Probably not, no matter how great a performance Segel gives as the late writer. The film tacitly admits that compressing Wallace into a movie version, through the words of another writer (Jesse Eisenberg) who knew him for five days, is impossible. But the effort is valiant and painful, and not just about Wallace. Of equal importance is Eisenberg’s Rolling Stone reporter, whose questionable behavior is a constant reminder that we must take this version of Wallace and profile writing in general with a great big spoonful of salt. All these layers, and the nagging question over what is real and what is phony in public personas, hopefully will drive viewers to Wallace’s books to ponder for themselves the true measure of his life, and of life itself.
2. “Clouds of Sils Maria” — Next to “The End of the Tour,” this is the year’s most reflective investigation of life and celebrity at a time when it’s increasingly difficult to separate them. Especially interesting is the way the story of an aging actress (Juliette Binoche) who revisits the play that launched her career purposefully confuses dialogue from the film and the play within the film, confronting through its characters our own often confused absorption of media.
3. “Carol” — This May-December romantic drama about two women from different social backgrounds, is, unexpectedly, more a love story than an indictment of midcentury intolerance. Director Todd Haynes has matured in his exploration of 1950s social conventions, and an inspired turn by Cate Blanchett helps elevate this period drama above mere finger-wagging at outmoded prejudices. They are present, but their opposite is what the movie celebrates.
4. “Testament of Youth” — Alicia Vikander had a huge year, with “Ex Machina,” “The Danish Girl” and this adaptation of Vera Brittain’s memoirs as a young adult learning heartbreaking lessons during the Great War. Atop its many qualities, it demonstrates the courage and importance of speaking out against the majority.
- “Mistress America”
5. “Mistress America” — A small-scale but hugely successful update of the classic screwball comedy genre. Star Greta Gerwig and director Noah Baumbach have been a daunting collaborative pair, in “Frances Ha” and now this charming story about life and love in the big city that goes down like a big bottle of champagne.
6. “Straight Outta Compton” — Although a little too tidy at times, with at least one too many party scenes, this foundation saga of one of the most influential rap bands in history was a story begging to be told. “Straight Outta Compton” tells it with great humor and insight into its characters’ origins and motivations. Ice Cube and company didn’t merely yearn to escape their situation, but reclaim it and refashion it into something the public couldn’t ignore.
7. “Love & Mercy” — On the other side of the musical spectrum was an imaginatively constructed biopic about Beach Boy Brian Wilson, skipping back and forth between his 1960s heyday (Paul Dano) and his nightmare late period (John Cusack). It doesn’t completely succeed in bridging the two, but does provide a well-rounded and entertaining look at Wilson’s life and music.
8. “Amy” and “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” — OK, this is two films. But they’re like two sides to one story arc about coming up from nothing to the very top, only to crash and burn. One focuses on the rise (Cobain) and the other the fall (Winehouse), both ignoring half the story to their detriment. But both also avoid their genre’s clichés, approaching their subjects with commendable style and voice.
9. “Room” — This story recounts the escape attempt of an abducted woman who raised her son in her one-room prison. Surprisingly — and what makes the film so gut-wrenching and unique — is that their post-traumatic life on the outside gets equal if not more attention.
10. “Phoenix” — The German film about a Holocaust survivor (Nina Hoss) whose husband doesn’t recognize her is a brisk, searing tale of betrayal. It’s devastating, with an ending impossible to forget. S