It should come as no surprise to anyone that seven of the ten top grossing films of the year were sequels, and that none of them were worth discussing outside of comparisons to the other films in their respective franchises. This isn’t entirely a knock, as both Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Avengers: Age of Ultron proved to be adept, intelligent, and lively entertainments, more than worth the price of admission. And beyond all that money, franchises had a very promising year, with Mad Max: Fury Road and Creed suggesting that (gasp!) giving visionary directors like Ryan Coogler and George Miller big-budget projects and allowing them the bulk of control over their production can bring out the absolute best in the major studios. Mind you, Steven Soderbergh quit filmmaking partially because no one would turn him loose on a big-time franchise; Edgar Wright got off the Marvel tilt-a-whirl when his script didn’t fit into their narrative schema. What kind of wondrous creation might we have seen if Ava Duvernay had been allowed to genuinely shape Black Panther as her own film rather than toiling as just another cog in the machine? On the other hand, the recent news that Coogler will be helming that particular Marvel film is very promising news indeed.
Despite Miller and Coogler’s inarguable triumphs, the very best films of 2015 remained, for the most part, off the beaten path, stuck in the corners of independent production and international distribution. No, you weren’t likely to see Ben and Joshua Safdie‘s Heaven Knows What or Hou Hsiao-hsien‘s The Assassin at your most local multiplex, but VOD and streaming services have made these films increasingly easy to get ahold of amongst the torrent of mediocrities and half-successes that flooded most major movie theaters this year. In comparison to these masterworks, well-meaning movies like Spotlight and Concussion, with their tidy, agreeable, and ultimately limited perspectives, end up being barely more substantive than those directed by J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon in my opinion.
The bottom line remains largely simple: openly political, visually expressive filmmakers make for better movies. A good script, though necessary for a great film, only guarantees good theater on its own, and yet many films with solid writing – 45 Years, Spotlight, and Pawn Sacrifice, to name three – skimp on the theatrical imagery to match or, more importantly, challenge the ideas in the script. The films that stuck with me this year played fast and loose with popularized modes of storytelling, both in imagery and dialogue, and tackled touchy subject matter, from racism and fascism to economic turmoil and drug addiction, with a sobering, pensive complexity that wasn’t fearful of radical ideas intruding on narrative cohesiveness. So, without further ado, and to put an end to any and all buzz-killing, my top ten movies of 2015: