20 Favorite Films of 2015

2015 was an extremely strong year for film, in my opinion. There was a great balance of some really great studio films and some hard-hitting indies. While I do agree that Hollywood’s reliance on sequels, tent poles, and reboots is annoying, I can’t be too annoyed because I have the choice to not see them.

Will my lack of contributing $10 hurt the studios pockets? Absolutely not, but I at least exercise my freedom to do so. I’m picky with what I decide to see in theaters and really go out of my way sometimes to track down some little known films that sound interesting- some of which appear on my list. I think for anyone who complains about the state of film and how much its lacking means that they just don’t watch enough of them – because they are certainly out there.

So maybe I’m a little late in posting this list since we are well into 2016, but who’s keeping track? I didn’t want to jump the gun and make this list without having seen everything last year – and I also didn’t want to have to update it – so I just held off until I caught up. Well, I’m caught up now, and here are my 20 favorite films of 2015 – spoiler free of course.

  1. “Bone Tomahawk”
Courtesy of Caliber Media Company
Courtesy of Caliber Media Company

As an official voting member for the Independent Spirit Awards, I am sent piles of screeners for the films nominated. I heard of this film in passing and reference on some podcasts, but I’d be lying if I said that I was interested in it. It’s a mash-up of the horror and western genres, which makes it sound interesting enough, so when this was one of the screeners I received, I popped it in – and I’m glad that I did.

It’s a slow burn of a film that is never too western or horror. I don’t want to say too much about this film and ruin it, but what I will say is that it’s definitely worth your time. It’s a REALLY slow burn though, so make sure you’re in the right state of mind.

  1. “It Follows”
Courtesy of RADIUS-TWC
Courtesy of RADIUS-TWC

I saw this film way back in February of 2015 during a special advanced screening with director David Robert Mitchell on hand for a Q&A. My then fiancé, now wife, was with me and we both had no idea what to expect and were pleasantly surprised once the end credits rolled. Mitchell crafted a genuinely spooky little film that oozes dread and breeds a “what’s going to happen next?” mindset that really threw me for a loop.

It also plays on its themes rather brilliantly, though not without its pitfalls. Overall, this is a solid addition to the resurgence of horror these past few years.

  1. “The Stanford Prison Experiment”
Courtesy of IFC Films
Courtesy of IFC Films

Based on a true story, this is a wicked little movie. Filled with some really fantastic performances from its ensemble cast, the film dives pretty deep into the human psyche and what happens when it is given the illusion of power – and the results are surprising. It really forces you to look deep into yourself and think if you would or wouldn’t react the same way that these kids did in a similar situation. And the results of that self-analysis are kind of scary.

  1. “Me and Earl and The Dying Girl”
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

This Sundance darling is a solid, well-acted, pseudo-coming-of-age drama. The three leads are incredibly charming and, most importantly, believable. A great little flick.

  1. “Man Up”
Courtesy of Saban Films
Courtesy of Saban Films

Who said the rom-com is dead? Well, whoever it was forgot to send Tess Morris (writer of Man Up) the memo because she crafted one HELL of a hilarious and, dare I say, romantic flick here. I belly laughed numerous times and smiled throughout the film’s entire running time and genuinely enjoyed every minute of it. Lake Bell and Simon Pegg are perfect.

  1. “Brooklyn”
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

I honestly didn’t think I would particularly like this film, so I’m surprised that I didn’t just like it: I loved it. It’s a wonderful, heartfelt, little film that is led by the amazing Saorise Ronan. It’s funny, it’s charming, it’s heartbreaking, it’s uplifting, and it’s just flat out great.

  1. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
Courtesy of Disney
Courtesy of Disney

Do I need to say anything here? The movie was awesome fun, and I’m not even a major Star Wars fan like some of my friends. I loved it and it was some of the most fun I had at the movies last year.

  1. “Creed”
(Warner Bros. Picture – © 2015 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.)
(Warner Bros. Picture – © 2015 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

Man, WHAT?! I would not have been the least bit interested in this film had it not been for Ryan Coogler’s involvement. I saw his first film, “Fruitvale Station,” and felt like I was punched in the gut by the film’s emotional wallop. I was blown away that this was someone’s debut feature film so I was extremely interested in his next project.

When I heard that it was this however, my excitement waned a little bit because I didn’t think there was any more story left in the Rocky saga. Boy, was I (pleasantly) proven wrong by Coogler and Co. What a film this is. From beginning to end, it injects life in a 40 year old franchise and modernizes it, all while setting up future installments.

  1. “Amy”
Courtesy of A24
Courtesy of A24

I should preface this by saying that I am a huge Amy Winehouse fan and was pretty torn up when she passed. I should also preface this by saying that I am not particularly fond of documentaries, so the fact that this film made my list should say something. I have never rushed to the theater to see a documentary – does Borat count, though? – like I did with this one and I was glad that I did.

This film is a harrowing, haunting, and beautiful portrait of a once in a generation talent and voice that was silenced too soon. Fame can indeed be a monster for some.

  1. “The Martian”
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Ridley Scott + Sci-Fi x book that I loved = SOLD! Drew Goddard wrote a masterful script with his adaptation, and Scott worked his usual directing magic to craft one of the best studio films – and films in general – of the year. Matt Damon delivered a brilliant performance in this “Cast Away” meets “Apollo 13” mash-up. “The Martian” is an epic story of survival, dedication, determination, and camaraderie that left me riveted and on the edge of my seat despite knowing the ending.

  1. “Ex Machina”
Courtesy of A24
Courtesy of A24

This film came out of nowhere to blind side me. The first of many Domnhall Gleason sightings for me, this film showcased Oscar Isaac to the masses – thankfully – and introduced the already brilliant Alex Garland as more than just a premiere Sci-Fi screenwriter. He’s a force to be reckoned with behind the camera as well. Not to mention, the hypnotizing Alicia Vikander as Ava. This film is a doozy of a Sci-Fi thriller that will throw you for a loop and then some.

  1. “Maggie”
Courtesy of Lionsgate
Courtesy of Lionsgate

I caught this film way back in May for its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival knowing nothing other than Arnold Schwarzenegger, my childhood action hero, was in a zombie-not-action film. Early reviews of the film were already saying that it was more “28 Days Later” than “The Walking Dead,” so I was even more intrigued at Arnie taking a stab at drama.

What I ended up getting was emotional roller coaster where I completely forgot I was watching Arnold Schwarzenegger – he was that good. Director Henry Hobson, whether intentional or unintentional, kept the dialogue to a minimum and allowed Arnie to use his physicality which paid off tremendously. Image seeing a broad shouldered brute like Arnold Schwarzenegger so dejected and defeated by his situation that he falls to his knees and you believe it.

That’s what’s so beautiful about this bleak, brutal, and emotional film. Arnold’s back, just not in the way you think.

  1. “Inside Out”
Courtesy of Disney-Pixar
Courtesy of Disney-Pixar

This is just Pixar firing on all cylinders, man. Not enough praise I can heap on this film other than it’s beautiful and shows how Pixar continues to up the ante for animated films and continues to make me cry in a room full of children. I see you, Pixar!

  1. “The Gift”
Courtesy of Huayi Brothers Media
Courtesy of Huayi Brothers Media

The Gift was the gift of the summer (see what I did there?). I was interested in the film because of the cast and when I saw that it was Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut. I caught a matinee of the film, not really knowing what to expect, and was completely floored by what I saw. This is a multi-layered drama about the ugly side of people and humanity that uncovers new layers upon multiple viewings.

I’ve seen this film twice already and I’ve picked up different things each time, little nuances, and I’m continually blown away. The way Edgerton handled and layered this beauty of a film is commendable for a debut. He has my attention, for sure!

My top 6 films I affectionately call “The Fearless Six,” because of how fearless and daring the filmmaking is.

Here we go:

  1. “Mad Max: Fury Road”
Courtesy of Warner. Bros.
Courtesy of Warner. Bros.

Fury Road melted my face off when I saw it in theaters. What a visceral experience this way. Jaw-dropping action, eye-popping violence, cringe inducing stunts, and bone crushing vehicular warfare aren’t even suitable enough adjectives to describe the full blown adrenaline rush this film is – neither is the hyperbole. George Miller is one of the most versatile filmmakers we’ve seen and he shows that, at age 70, he hasn’t missed a step. I can’t wait for the next one!

  1. “Wild Tales”
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

I’m a sucker for anthology films, which this one is, so, naturally, I loved this film. Bitingly funny and socially relevant, this film needs, practically begs, to be watched more than once. As a matter of fact, I watched this film again immediately after my first viewing of it – it’s that good. This film has so much to say and so many different ways of saying it, yet each story manages to be more compelling than the next.

  1. “The Revenant”
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

All this talk about Leo finally getting his Oscar is overshadowing just how brave and fearless Inarritu was behind the camera bringing this film to life. The filmmaking is breathtaking, invigorating, and sure-handed coming from one of the most daring and fearless filmmakers working today. I’ve been a huge fan of Inarritu’s work since his first feature, “Amores Perros,” and have followed him closely since.

He always takes no prisoners and never pulls punches, but “The Revenant” is a completely different animal entirely. It’s a brutal marathon – almost 3 hours long – but my God, what a beautiful film this is in scope, vision, and execution. If this film doesn’t get you on the Alejandro G. Inarritu train, I don’t know what will.

  1. “The Tribe”
Courtesy of Drafthouse Films
Courtesy of Drafthouse Films

So I heard about this film making waves after it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and was intrigued. I missed its very limited run in New York and was super bummed because I knew that it was probably my only shot at watching the film before it’s released on VOD or DVD. Luckily though, I saw that it was playing at a movie theater in Cherry Hill, NJ – nearly 2 hours away from my home.

So what do I do? I drive the nearly two hours to catch a matinee screening of the film naturally, and I don’t regret doing it. This is one of the most, if not the most, challenging cinematic experiences I’ve ever had. It’s a Ukranian film set in a school for deaf children, so the characters can only communicate with each other through sign language – meaning film is largely silent as you can imagine.

However, the sign language is not translated with subtitles so you are literally watching this film blind and trying to deduce through the visuals, actions and reactions what exactly is happening in the film – and it’s absolutely brilliant. “The Tribe” is a dark, gritty, coming-of-age story that is a mesmerizing watch. Film is a visual medium that requires showing the viewer’s what’s happening rather than telling them and director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky does an absolutely incredible job in executing this idea.

I HIGHLY recommend everyone to track this film down and watch it as soon as possible. It is like nothing you have ever seen before, I promise you. It’s released on DVD and Blue Ray March 8th. Please watch it.

My top 2 favorites of the year were the toughest to rank because I love them both and both made me feel all kinds of things after I saw them. Depending on the day, these two may flip flop, but I guess since they will now be forever immortalized at these numbers on the interwebs, consider this their final ranking.

  1. “Sicario”
Courtesy of Lionsgate
Courtesy of Lionsgate

Sicario is an absolute master class in filmmaking from Denis Villeneuve, plain and simple. From the production design and deliberate choice in color palette, to the performances both in front of and behind the camera, to the incredible sound design and score: this film grabs you by the throat and never lets go.

I very rarely react while watching a movie in general, let alone at a movie theater, but this movie had me clutching the arm rests of my chair and gasping for air. Benicio Del Toro is icy, calculating, steely and just plain terrifying as Alejandro, while Emily Blunt, contrary to belief – here’s looking at you Jose – is game as the in way over her head agent Kate Macer.

Roger Deakins continues to top himself and I don’t think he’s ever been better than he is here with the amount of visual information he captures in every frame. Johan Johansson’s score is haunting and brooding and really amps up the intensity with what is the best score of the year in my opinion. Denis Villeneuve continues to up the ante with his films and I’m almost afraid to watch his take on “Blade Runner.”

  1. “Room”
Courtesy of A24
Courtesy of A24

Alas, we have arrived at my favorite film of the year. The reason? This film is more of an experience than it is a film. I read the book once I found out it was a movie, loved it, and was even more excited to see the movie simply because of the SPOT ON casting of the incredible Brie Larson as Ma. What I got, however, was something that I wasn’t expecting: the rare case where the movie is not only better than the book, it kicks its ass and shreds it to pieces.

Again, just like “The Martian,” I knew all of the beats and where the film was going, yet I still found myself at the edge of my seat and questioning whether or not these people were ever going to be ok. I got emotional, I was uplifted, I smiled, I laughed, I cried: I ran the gamut of emotions as if it was the first time I was experiencing this story. Do you know how hard that is?

To take a story that was already told so well and just completely take it to the stratosphere? Lenny Abrahamson did an incredible job directing and Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay gave the best and second best performance – male or female – of the year in this film. I felt everything their characters were going through. I wanted them to succeed so bad. But perhaps the reason why I love this film so much? It made me forget that I was watching a movie.

As a filmmaker myself, it is incredibly difficult for me to “shut it off” and enjoy a film without picking up on things – technical or otherwise – that the filmmaker is trying to accomplish. “Room” made me forget all of that, I was completely engulfed by the story and characters. I was as emotionally invested in the story and characters as I’ve been for any other characters I’ve ever connected with. This film is a true work of art, and a masterpiece.

Some other films worth mentioning that I enjoyed this year are Straight Outta Compton, Cinderella, Southpaw, The Visit, Time Out of Mind, Tangerine, Furious 7, While We’re Young, Jurassic World, and Spotlight.

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed the list! Feel free to sound off in the comments!

This is Jovanni, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off.

FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Jovanni Ibarra
jovannixibarra@gmail.com