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2015 has produced the most balanced mixture of high quality blockbusters and enraptured indie films that I can remember in recent years. In forfeiting control of some of its biggest franchises to more capable auteurs, Hollywood saw the successful resurgence of some of its most popular franchises with Creed, Jurassic World, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The smaller market also produced plenty of memorable pictures, and witnessed the transformation of one of its zeniths into a major silver screen production in Mad Max: Fury Road. In both the indie and mainstream movie-verse, filmmakers invited their leading ladies to take a more valuable share of the spotlight: Emily Blunt in Sicario, Amy Poehler in Inside Out, Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road, Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn, and Lola Kirke and Greta Gerwig in Mistress America just to name a handful. These talented women, among many others, starred in roles that needed the skill of a  women. Without their performances, the films they appeared in would have been mediocre at best. This refreshing Tinseltown trend has landed many of their films on various “Best of 2015” lists, including ours. But enough talk, without further ado, here are the top ten films of 2015:

10. CREED

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Picking up years after Rocky Balboa’s retirement, Creed features the forgotten son of Apollo Creed, Rocky villain turned friend, Adonis Johnson. Johnson, like Rocky, is a young and raw boxer trying to find his way in the ring, but unlike Rocky, Johnson’s underdog status has a bit of an asterisk by it. After spending the early years of his life in foster care, Johnson is adopted by his late father’s wife, though not his mother, who invites the boy to share her wealth and comfort. After all, it belongs as much to him as it does to her. As an adult, Johnson has a respectable job, but he secretly fights on the side until he finally decides to seek boxing sensei Rocky Balboa in Philadelphia to train to become a full-time boxer. Creed features all the necessary sentiments of the old films without ever feeling like a carbon copy of them. Ryan Coogler’s rendition of the original’s “stair climbing” scene features Johnson running through the warehouse cluttered backstreets of Philly while dirt bikes zoomed by and Meek Mill’s “Lord Knows” plays in the background. It’s as marvelous and electrifying as it’s inspiration.  In the ring, the fight scenes are filmed  fast with tight framing, causing them to look impeccably realistic. Outside of the ring the chemistry between Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone, who conjured up some Oscar buzz for his performance, is magical. At the heart of Creed, is the journey of a man seeking out his namesake with a little help from his friends, both new and old. What he must learn is that the name of his father was always his, and never dependent on his successes or failures.

9. BRIDGE OF SPIES:

Brooklyn lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) meets with his client Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet agent arrested in the U.S. in DreamWorks Pictures/Fox 2000 PIctures' dramatic thriller BRIDGE OF SPIES, directed by Steven Spielberg.

 Bridge of Spies marks the tenth collaboration for Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. The two have demonstrated that they are an impressively consistent Hollywood tandem, especially in the realm of historical memoirs, a genre that Spielberg, in the third act of his directorial career, has undoubtedly dominated. In Bridge of Spies, Hanks plays James Donovan, a conscientious lawyer who called on by the CIA to defend Rudolf Able, a Soviet spy during the Cold War, and intentionally lose. When Donovan defends the spy in the as the constitution asks him to, the American government is not sure how to respond. Donovan’s moral obligations to justly defend an enemy of the State bleeds into film’s driving conflict, the swapping of one Soviet spy for an American pilot and a detained American student. The interpersonal interactions between Donovan and Able add in sentimental nuance in areas where the film could have been rather dry. Spielberg portrays Able as a human being; a man serving his country, not so different from the captured American pilot. Able is kind, polite, and he is completely likable. For the viewer, this creates a complex of internal strife. It is not unheard of for a filmmaker to coerce sympathy for their film’s antagonist, but it is a bit rare when said protagonist is a sworn enemy of America. As the film progresses, the negotiations grow more clandestine, but, in contrast, Donovan’s commitment to justice cultivates a superlative honesty. Bridge of Spies is a compelling sermon on loving your enemy, from a director who undoubtedly loves his country, that every American could afford to listen to now.

8. MISTRESS AMERICA

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Noah Baumbach has made his living out of telling the same story, in nearly the same setting, with a lot of the same people over and over. Yet somehow, with each new release, he creates something refreshingly original and compelling. Mistress America was Baumbach’s second release of 2015, following While We’re Young. Both films feature struggling adults limping into middle-age in a skirmish to keep up their youth who meet fresh young adults displaying a false façade that says, “I’m more mature than my age.” Mistress America takes a slight edge over While We’re Young due to the ambrosial relationship between the film’s two leading ladies, mumblecore queen Greta Gerwig as the older Brooke, and rising star Lola Kirke as the youthful college freshman Tracy. When Tracy, an aspiring writer, moves to New York City for college, her low self-esteem restricts her from making friends early on until she is pressed to connect with her future, older, step sister Brooke. Brooke is fun and derogatory; she’s confident and seems to get whatever she wants when she wants it. She is all the things the Tracy wishes she could be, not to mention a priceless inspiration for Tracy’s short stories. Mistress America moves quickly with a fast paced, Wes Andersonian dialogue, not unusually for a Baumbach film. The result is a quickly developed friendship set up for conflict like a ball on a tee waiting to get smacked. The friendship between the two women produces an exhortative message to the millennial culture: growing up, being responsible, that’s difficult, but so is being young. It’s the reality check to the age-old “grass is greener” adage. The grass is possibly just as green on the other side as it is on this side. Some experience will remain comprehensive no matter what era you live in. And, perhaps the film’s boldest statement, a man is not imperative to the value of a woman’s worth.

7. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

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Mad Max is a rare example of a film that can appeal to almost anyone; a film that bridges the gap between the film purists and the action-craved, brand disciples worldwide. Best of all, it kept original Mad Max director George Miller at the helm. MMFR is visually a display of outlandish marvel; an explosive and thrilling ride that begins and ends, but never stops for a water break. The film accepted the challenge of becoming a summer blockbuster without ever losing sight of what initially made its franchise standout. MMFR does whatever it wants, when it wants, and in a strange and eccentric way, it flourishes because of it. But this should not come as surprise from the man who found success in making films about post apocalyptic worlds, as well as talking pigs and penguins. The character who the film is named after, Max (Tom Hardy), ends up being more of an aversion who lays the bedding for the film’s real stars: Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and her company of slapped around, but resolute women. Fury Road never appears as a full-blown out feminist manifesto, but it comes pretty close to it in the best way possible. How Miller managed to successfully transform a masculine brouhaha into a commentary on the undermining and uprising of women without pissing off his audience is beyond me. It’s even more magnificent that he did so within a genre dominated by men. Fury Road reaches its meritorious climax, all I could say was, “Damn!”

6. STAR WARS EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS

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NO SPOILERS CONTAINED: In his review for SWTFA at RogerEbert.com, Matt Zoller Seitz wrote, “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is the film that J.J. Abrams was put on Earth to make, as evidence by the ‘Star Wars’ echoes in his hit series Lost, and in the way he kept trying to turn Star Trek into Star Wars.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. In 2012, when Disney coerced the Star Wars franchise out of George Lucas’ grips, for a pretty penny, no one really knew what to expect. Would we get more A New Hope or more Phantom Menace? Was it worth the risk of completely decimating whatever magic still remained from the original trilogy? A year later, when Disney announced that the commander of the next Star Wars film would be J.J. Abrams, the world let out a collective sigh of relief. J.J.’s past projects found success in swirling sci-fi with impassioned, character driven stories, and that’s exactly what he did in Episode VII. J.J.’s galaxy preserves all the old charisma of Lucas’s original trilogy, while canning the gimmicks of his unfortunate prequels. The result is astonishing. Abrams commits to executing some bold moves, but they are the right ones to make. Pairing a strong script with astonishing visuals, Episod VII delivers what I would call the most exciting film of the year. His young cast featuring the rising talent of Adam Driver, Domhnhall Gleeson, John Boyega, and Daisy Ridley come together with stunning chemistry. The original trilogy centered on the unadulterated goodness of friendship, and that is precisely where Abrams returns for Episode VII. 

5. BROOKLYN

Emory Cohen as "Tony" and Saoirse Ronan as "Eilis" in BROOKLYN. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

My grandmother’s maiden name was Cutellucci. She was the first of her family born an American. Her parents had come to the States from Italy. She married the son of Polish and Irish immigrants. It is from their two drastically different families and cultures that I get my name. More than likely, your genealogy looks very similar to this. Brooklyn is a lovely visual devotion to the immigration process that made our country what it is today. Eilis, played by the adorable Saoirse Ronan, makes the daunting journey to migrate from her small town in Ireland to her new life in Brooklyn, New York. Arrangements were made for her to have a home and a job, but nothing could ease the pain of her isolation and loneliness. As her new life progresses, she is swept off her feet by Tony, played by Emory Cohen, the lovable Italian boy who crashes all the Irish parties. Just when her life finds new tracks to rest on in America, Eilis is summoned home by a family tragedy. Here the comfort and allurement of where she came from threatens to depress what she has become. The film’s process mimics what I can only imagine it must have felt like to journey far away from home into a foreign country as it seamlessly glides from being charming and funny to heartbreaking over and over again. Brooklyn challenges the comfort and allure of remaining a vagabond throughout life. It confronts fear and encourages commitment, on the contrary to an unfortunate majority of modern multimedia. It never inspires solitude, highlighting the pain that comes with it and reassuring its audience that life is better when done together. Brooklyn seals a spot in the top five, edging out the more preponderate films of 2015, because of how it is able to enthrall its audience with very little visible effort.

4. IT FOLLOWS

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Last year, The Babadook crept into our “best films of 2014” list, and proved to the world that horror has a respected place in cinema. This year It Follows lurks its way into the top five. David Robert Mitchell’s second feature film follows teens as they try to shake a menacing possession that patiently and persistently seeks to kill them after having sex, harping off the classic horror genre nuance that once a character has become impure, said character must die. The catch? The only way to be cured of the haunting MacGuffin, sleep with someone else; pass it on. The meticulous, slow-moving camera work from cinematographer Mike Gioulakis mimics the film’s invisible monster, and the perilous score from Disasterpiece create a trembling movie-going experience. The most perplexing element of It Follows is its complete bewilderment about what time period the film takes place in. When the film opens, one may think that It Follows takes place in the 80’s or even 70’s with it’s gaudy wardrobe and boxy cars. But then there are cellphones, and seashell Kindle like e-readers. The film even seems to rapidly transport through seasons. In one scene our main character Jay Height, played by Maika Monroe, is swimming and in another she wearing a winter coat. This disorientation of the viewer creates a vertigo inducing viewing experience that enhances the film’s eeriness. The easy conclusion for It Follows is that it’s a public service announcement warning the youth about unprotected, thoughtless sex, but the film goes deeper than that. Exploring the sinister depths of shame, It Follows exposes the fear that only the shamed can feel, shedding light on that empathy-less state that we all have sat in. Even after passing on of the shame, it still threatens hunt down its victims. It’s inescapable, like death, and its remedy must be something as allegorical as itself.

3. SICARIO

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Dennis Villenueve orchestrates flawless, nail-biting suspense in Sicario. That’s what he does best. In 2014, he released two thrillers with the unsettling Prisoners and the completely bizarre doppelgänger flick Enemy, but Sicario marks Villenueve’s finest work yet. Distinguished FBI agent Kate Macer, played by Emily Blunt, grows weary of the FBI’s ongoing battle against a Mexican drug cartel, she teams up with a joint task force with her sights on dethroning the cartel’s head. Once a part of the team, Kate is repeatedly stymied by her male counterparts. She is particularly curious of the swindling Alejandro, played by Benicio Del Toro, who she struggles to trust throughout the film. Sicario’s pallet augments the story’s heart rate rising tension by using light and shadows to emulate its narrative. What separates Sicario from the pack is its ability to bundle up raw emotion in an assuming emotionless field, where the line that separates justice and corruption becomes indistinguishable. This is largely due to the contrasting efforts of Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro. While the film would have been lacking without the both of them, this is 100% Emily Blunt’s show. Sicario needed Blunt’s portrayal as Kate Macer: a strong, yet real woman who rises and sinks over and over again in a world dominated by men. A woman who is equipped to fend for herself, while never being too super to detach her from her humanness . Without her genius, it’s just another political thriller to wait for on RedBox.

2. INSIDE OUT

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While struggle is probably too strong of word to describe Pixar’s latest efforts, considering that whatever their name lands on usually turns to gold, in recent years they have certainly seemed to… toil a bit. Resting largely on the renown of their past films, Pixar has appeared a bit lazy with sequels, which is why Inside Out was a much-needed original, refreshment from the animation juggernaut. It’s a simple idea, really, take five prominent emotions of humanness, Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear, give them colors and oddly shaped bodies and let them explain the tropes of life through brain of a child. Okay, maybe it’s not that simple. Inside Out follows the emotions as they navigate their host, Riley, through childhood, seeking to salvage only the happiest of core memories. Naturally this means a heavy workload for Joy, the only “happy” emotion of the five. But when Riley and her family move far away from home Joy’s memory monopoly is in danger. Inside Out’s appeal is engineered to cater to both adults and children, and not in the comedic relief way that camouflage grown-up jokes within a children’s film to make it bearable for parents. It’s important and educating. Inside Out works arduously to prove that Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear belong in life; that they are emotions worth being felt, and it’s imperative to accept them along Joy. Using nostalgia to remind adults of all the core memories that they may have canned, Inside Out helps remind us to both grieve and celebrate the emotional process of growing up. It’s an hour and thirty-five minutes of Candy Crush designed counseling that I wish I had as a child.

1. SPOTLIGHT 

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Spotlight assumes the number one spot because I believe it was the most important film released in 2015, especially for the Christian audience. Spotlight sees director Tom McCarthy (The Visitor, Win, Win) return to greatness, after a deflating collaboration with Adam Sandler in The Cobbler. It’s the story of the Pulitzer Prize winning journalists of the Boston Globe, who spend eight months investigating and then publicly divulging the methodical, furtive sexual molestation of minors hidden within the Catholic church under Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Francis Law. Unlike many of today’s faith-based films, Spotlight seeks to murder Christian pride in best way possible. Its star-studded troupe, consisting of Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffallo, Rachel McAdams, and Liev Schreiber, deliver top-notch performances that harp heavy on law and grace. It is intelligently engineered to use the Catholic church’s offenses to challenge all who view it to contemplate their own. When the film reaches its third act, its audience is so pummeled by what they have seen and heard, so broken down, in fact, to the point where they might be compelled investigate their own sins. While being a typical biographical drama, Spotlight packs in some of the more tense thrills of 2015. It’s a film that should be seen by all, but demands to be seen by Christians. A brilliant expose on the doctrine of shame and confession and a firm reminder that the good guys need just as much grace as the bad guys.

Honorable Mentions:

Bill Pohlad’s wonderful Brian Wilson bio-pic Love and Mercy. The completely absurd, but convivial Jurassic World that admits honestly, no one can ever recrate the magic of the original Jurassic Park. The Austrian horror flick  Goodnight Mommy, that conceals a twist that resembles those of the old M. Night Shyamalan. The adorable Paddington. Alex Garland’s AI mind-bender, Ex Machina. Ridley Scott doing Ridley Scott things with The Martian. And last but certainly not least, the quirky adaptation of Jesse Andrew’s Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl, which David Ehrlich wrote one of the best expository essay’s on that I have ever read.

 

And finally, there were many films that I did not get to see this year that probably could have contended for a spot in the top ten. Here are a handful of them:

Cate Blanchett’s Carol, Charlie Kaufman’s stop-motion flick Anomalisa, Alejandro Iñárrito’s Birdman follow-up The Revenant, the concentration camp dramas Son of Saul and Phoenix, the ambiguous revenge flick that finally punishes who let the dogs out, White God, the seventh century Chinese thriller The Assassin, an idiosyncratic documentary about a man who wants his severed leg back Finders Keepers. David O. Russel’s latest collaboration with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper Joy, the David Foster Wallace biopic The End of the Tour, and Quentin Tarantino’s eighth of promised ten films The Hateful Eight.

 

What do you think of our top ten films of 2015? Let us know in the comments section!