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Our 10 Favorite Films Of 2015: Beyond The Blockbusters

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 31, 2015 3:31PM

Promotional art for "They Look Like People" (image courtesy of Chicago International Film Festival).

All hail the new blood!

Familiarity may have dominated 2015's box office (seven of the top ten grossers were sequels), but new directors with fresh visions top my list of favorite movies of the year.

My top three picks are all first features, with two more debuts among my runners-up. Which is not to say it was a bad year for veteran filmmakers. 70-year-old George Miller is enjoying the best reviews of his career for Mad Max: Fury Road, though among the elder statesmen class my pick would be David Cronenberg for his mordant satire Maps to the Stars. And with The Harvest, Chicago's own John McNaughton showed a dozen years between feature films has not dulled his considerable skills.

As I wrote last year, I insist on calling this list what it is: a selection of favorites. With countless foreign films never distributed in the U.S., an ever-growing market of video-on-demand exclusives, and many films opening in just one or two markets, labeling any list an authoritative "best of" seems foolhardy.

I'm also happy to not join the rush to create an artificial critical consensus—longstanding nonsense driven by awards consideration and marketing hype. My schedule hasn't allowed me to catch all the late December releases (or some opening in January but screened for media in advance), so The Revenant, Anomalisa, The Hateful Eight and others remain on my "to see" checklist. They could turn up in next year's rankings, calendar cutoffs be damned.

So with those disclaimers, let the listing commence.

* Indicates a Chicago International Film Festival showing, yet to open commercially.

  1. 1. They Look Like People* — This offbeat and unexpectedly moving micro-budgeted feature defies easy categorization, blending dark, psychological horror with a freewheeling and empathetic portrait of two friends battling very different mental crises. Relegated to CIFF's After Dark sidebar, this should have been in the main competition. A remarkable debut from Perry Blackshear, who wrote, directed, shot and edited this DIY passion project. Look for a limited theatrical run and VOD release in early March.

  2. 2. The Mend — Writer-director John Magary's bracingly original first feature follows a misanthropic black sheep's rocky reunion with his brother. Magary shows a thrilling stylistic confidence and jolts the viewer from abrasive drama to almost giddy dark comedy. Josh Lucas gives a tremendous, livewire lead performance in this welcome kick in the teeth to the emotionally remote, aesthetically drab American indies recently in vogue.

  3. 3. Ex Machina — Science fiction tropes abound (a mad visionary, a human lab rat, artificial intelligence gone amok), but this is as close to a mirror of current society as sci-fi gets. Tech-addled isolation and male-defined notions of female identity and sexuality are central subjects, but Ex Machina's most unnerving suggestion is that humanity is preoccupied with creating its own replacement on the evolutionary ladder. Writer Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go) made yet another auspicious directorial debut with this smart, provocative film with the most delightfully unexpected dance scene of the year.

  4. 4. Mr. Holmes — A quiet beauty. This subtle, modest movie sneaks up on you to reveal itself as something really profound. The gimmick of an elderly Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) as a real-life figure is just the entryway to a poignant view of mortality, regret and the dual tricksters of fiction and logic.

  5. 5. Creative Control* — The marketing of "augmented reality" glasses sets up the plot of this witty, beautifully filmed black-and-white satire about how technology and advertising's promise of immediate gratification alters relationships. If Woody Allen was still in his prime, had more visual imagination and was less dismissive of modern culture, he might have made a movie like this. Writer-director-star Benjamin Dickinson's sophomore feature was picked up by Amazon Studios, so look for it sometime next year.

  6. 6. White God — Abused and neglected mixed-breed dogs rise up against their human tormenters in this riveting Hungarian thriller. A more artful spin on the disreputable "animals attack" films of the '70s, this is also a potent allegory about the marginalization of immigrant communities. I can't think of a more immediately arresting image than the shot of hundreds of dogs running as a pack through city streets—and not a single CGI pooch among them!

  7. 7. Revenge of The Mekons — The nearly 40-year, on-again/off-again history of punk and roots rock stalwarts The Mekons is distilled into a concise and truly inspiring documentary. This is a celebration of artistic integrity and camaraderie among a group of socially conscious musicians who never caught the breaks they deserved, but forged ahead anyway.

  8. 8. Maps to the Stars — Chicagoist's Rob Christopher wasn't the only critic disappointed by David Cronenberg's pitch-black Hollywood satire. While it's true it doesn't break new ground in depicting showbiz venality, the movie's acerbic humor hits hard and with precision. I'm not sure I've ever laughed with more astonishment (or guilt) than when Julianne Moore and Mia Wasikowska sing "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye" after...well, I won't give it away.

  9. 9. Brooklyn — Wholly sentimental, but never schmaltzy, John Crowley's lovely adaptation of Colm Tóibín's novel captures the conflicted emotions of its Irish immigrant protagonist (Saoirse Ronan) as vividly as its 1950s period details. Nick Hornby's screenplay has a timeless quality that the best coming-of-age films possess.

  10. 10. The Stanford Prison Experiment — A harrowing yet, at times, surprisingly humorous dramatization of a real-life psychological study that used college students in a prison simulation. The cast boasts some of today's better up-and-coming actors (including Tye Sheridan and Ezra Miller), as well as Billy Crudup, perfectly cast as the simulation's unreliable mastermind. Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez's framings tighten as the oppressive mood intensifies, while screenwriter (and former South Park scribe) Tim Talbott's odd comic touches keep the viewer off balance.


Carol — Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, I'm Not There) again shows his distinctive artistry in this elegant adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's landmark lesbian romance.

Far from the Madding Crowd — Thomas Vinterberg's screen treatment of Thomas Hardy's classic novel plays like heartfelt, character-driven drama—not a visual CliffsNotes for a high school literature class. A superbly executed romantic period piece.

The Gift — Actor Joel Edgerton's directorial debut so successfully reinvigorates the psycho stalker formula that even an overwrought climax didn't bother me. Edgerton crafts some of the best widescreen composition in a mainstream thriller since John Carpenter's heyday.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night — A lonely vampire seeks love and blood in a mythic Iranian industrial town in this striking black-and-white feature from another newcomer, Ana Lily Amirpour.

The Great Man— Sadly neglected in most critical circles, this subdued yet affecting French drama about veterans returning to civilian life portrays military-bred camaraderie and notions of manhood with a delicate emotional honesty.

The Harvest — Samantha Morton is a terrifying incarnation of motherly madness in this terrific chiller from John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer). It's a crime this was never released theatrically in the director's hometown.

The Latest Sun Is Sinking Fast — No Imax 3D presentation could be as fully immersive as Chicago artist Melika Bass' haunting, multi-screen installation at the Hyde Park Art Center. An oblique, troubling narrative takes shape as you watch each of the separate films.

The Overnight — Supreme sexual discomfort leads to big laughs in this comedy about a straight-laced couple (Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling) being slowly seduced by their swinger neighbors (including a never-better Jason Schwartzman).

Honorable mentions: American Sniper [late 2014 release], The Armor of Light, The Club*, The Big Short, Black Mass, Crimson Peak, Danny Collins, The Devil's Candy [Music Box of Horrors], The End of the Tour, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, Homesick*, Inside Out, Jurassic World, Operation Zanahoria [Chicago Latino Film Festival], Orphans of Eldorado*, A Perfect Day*, Phoenix, Remember*, Ricki and the Flash, Room, Schneider Vs. Bax*, Shaun the Sheep Movie, Sicario, Spectre, Spotlight, Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows*, That Guy Dick Miller, Tomorrowland, What We Do in the Shadows, Women He's Undressed*.

Guilty pleasures:
Big Game, Into the Grizzly Maze, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Self/less.