The Sweet 16 Best Movies of 2015

By Greg Tozian,

Chief Storyteller, Big Brand Stories

The year just passed was an excellent one for indie, foreign and documentary films, as well as some Hollywood surprises. It was also an usually good year for films that centered around powerful (if challenged) women. More than half my favorites are in that category. I hope this is a phenomenon that continues.

A too familiar trend in ‘15 was the spate of sequels, including two mega-hits. The latest Star Wars picture was, of course, a major event for millions worldwide. Nonetheless, it has no business on a “best films” list.

A best film is one likely to stand the test of time on artistic merits, and/or that offers deep insights into the human condition. Such a movie remains relevant 10, or even 50 years after its release. It’s also common for exemplary films to do something worthwhile that is new or different (in a filmic sense). So even the year’s better-than-expected Mad Max and Rocky movies, though they reached higher than expected, are still largely re-treads. Likewise, popular films, such as “The Martian” and “Black Mass” (the British gangster flick, “Legend,” was a better gangster flick), were too familiar as genre efforts to merit being called best of breed.

That said, it was a rewarding year in cinema. Here are my picks from 50+ first-run movies I saw in 2015. Choices are listed in order of preference.


  1. Mustang (France, Germany, Turkey) — Sometimes a first-time feature director, working with a small budget, can pull off a minor miracle with the right vision, script and cast. That’s what French-raised, Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven (with an assist from her screenwriting partner, Alice Winocour) accomplishes here. This simple, sometimes joyful, ultimately heartbreaking film follows five orphaned sisters living with a traditional grandmother and suspect uncle in a lush but repressive, ocean-front Turkish village. Each girl deals, individually and together, with the inequities of a harshly antiquarian, chauvinistic culture. All the young actresses are fine, but Güneş Şensoy, as the youngest, most free-spirited, Lale, is simply unforgettable.
  1. About Elly (Iran) — Alas, another male-dominant social commentary, this small masterpiece by the remarkable Iranian director, Asghar Farhadi, was made in 2009. But it only got wide (meaning boutique-film-venue) release stateside this year. Once again, the director of “A Separation” and “The Past,” delivers a film of slow-building, devastating nuance and emotion. A beautiful young, troubled school teacher becomes the enigmatic centerpiece that unravels the relationships of a close-knit group of long-time friends and their families. As usual, Farhadi and cast deliver a film that plays like life, while working the magic of great fiction.
  1. Carol (U.K., U.S.) — This is American director Todd Haynes’ third great work, after his suppressed student film about Karen Carpenter (“Superstar”) and the hermetic treasure, “Safe.” Haynes’ vision of noir-writer Patricia Highsmith’s excellent, early (and largely forgotten until now) romantic novel “The Price of Salt” is flawless. It is not meant to solely play as a quotidian “story” about a doomed affair between an unhappy housewife/mother and a fragile young single woman in the hung-up ’50s. Rather, it’s that big screen rarity these days, one meant to plumb the unconscious mind, like a troubled-but-longing dream. It’s a tone poem about the inability to connect and its handmaiden: loss. A wonderful film.
  1. Inherent Vice (U.S.) — Director Paul Thomas Anderson is an artist who either delivers a well-meaning failure or a classic. This oddity is firmly in the latter department. It revolves around the hippies and self-realization claptrap of Seventies coastal Southern California (based on Thomas Pynchon’s novel). It drifts organically from wasted bliss, to Altman-like noir, to slapstick, paranoia and psychological angst. Delightful from beginning to end. With this and “The Master,” Anderson secures his place in the Pantheon.

Movie Love and Mercy

  1. Love and Mercy (U.S.) — Bio-pics about music-legends are routinely awful. Their lame then-this-happened, rags-to-riches blather, is bathed in phony antiquated lighting and period dress, completely lacking soul. This gem about Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson breaks the mold. Director Bill Pohlad weaves a small marvel of surprising insight into the process and life-sustaining joy of creating art. Paul Dano is terrific: a nervous puppy as the young Wilson, all intense perfectionism and psychic pain. Melinda Ledbetter is memorable as Wilson’s well-deserved deliverance. The period details, and music are beautifully rendered. Must seeing and hearing.
  1. Victoria (Germany) — Every few years somebody does something cinematically that seems new. Voila: “Victoria.” While others have made films in “one take,” from Hitchcock’s “Rope,” to the failed-but-provocative “Time Code” and gorgeous “Russian Ark,” “Victoria” ups the ante. It begins dizzyingly in the wee hours in a sweaty Berlin disco, then laughs, cries and spikes the adrenaline across half the city by the wasted shock of daylight. Simply a tour de force.
  1. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Contemplating Existence (Sweden) — Director Roy Andersson has a lock on black-comic, off-center filmmaking, from his ironic, fatalistic short films and commercials, to larger works. This episodic feature, drifting with caustic humanity between time-periods and forlorn losers, is absurdly bittersweet, visually evocative. It manages to make you laugh and feel optimistic at the same time you sigh at the task of pushing your well-worn rock up the old hill of life.

Macbeth 2015 Movie Review

  1. Macbeth (U.K., French) — It’s noteworthy when anyone can bring something new to Shakespeare on screen. When the film is “Macbeth” it’s particularly unexpected. After all, Welles and Polanski already made their definitive, lasting versions of “The Scottish Play.” However, Australian director Justin Kurzel, with an outstanding cast headed by always watchable Michael Fassbender accomplishes the feat handily. This powerful adaptation holds you from the appropriately stark landscapes, to the Tarkovsky inspired cinematography and beautifully staged violence and editing, to the straight-forward, intense performances. It’s a disturbingly interior vision: a nightmare of hallucination on a primal level. This is cinema as a frightening dream. Worth multiple viewings.
  1. Tangerine (U.S.) — Much has been made of the fact that this nocturnal, roving-camera pic (“Victoria” lite) was shot with several iPhones. The production process is amazing. But what sets “Tangerine” apart is the gritty, semi-documentary feel of nocturnal, Southern California fringe culture. A fascinating reality-show cast of losers remains desperate to score something meaningful in a world of bruised hearts and broken dreams. The people, language and over-the-top emotions are addictive.
  1. Spotlight (U.S.) — It’s nice to see American films can still tackle important subjects with intelligence and sensitivity. Here, we see the Boston Globe’s investigative “Spotlight” reporting team, and their 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the sexual abuse of children by priests. No film since “All the President’s Men” has so accurately portrayed this kind of newspapering. Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams lead a first-rate cast. (Full disclosure: I was an investigative newspaper reporter in my early, post-college career.)
  1. The Big Short (U.S.) — In the same league with “Spotlight,” this unexpectedly entertaining comedy-drama takes a fast-paced peek under the abominable rock of the U.S. banking and real estate industries in the early 2000’s. Surely you remember how a bunch of greedy (well) bastards nearly sank the global economy, if you were paying any attention (or owned a home, or stock, or had a pension fund). (Would pair well in a double feature with the earlier, excellent Margin Call.) Forbes magazine didn’t think much of it. But then, they wouldn’t. Would they?


  1. Sicario (U.S.) — We’ve been subjected so many worthless action pictures surrounding U.S. black ops in the past 25 years that a knee-jerk aversion to another is inevitable. However, “Sicario” breathes new life into the genre via Emily Blunt’s outstanding work as the tough-soft center of a sad tale about Mexican drug running and calculated Yankee brute force. Here is fine, economical writing and filmmaking. Blunt beautifully suggests a moral compass, rocked between duty and disgusting reality.
  1. Ex Machina (U.S.) — Futurism is most often overblown on screen: all vomitus computer-graphic action and cookie-cutter story arcs. So, it’s nice to see yet another artificial intelligence film favor intelligence over artificiality. “Ex Machina” is only what it needs to be to do its job. A lonely techie visits twisted-genius boss in a remote lab where lives a beautiful female A.I. (Shades of “Metropolis,” stripped to the circuit boards.) The outcome, while not unpredictable, deftly unfolds and gets under the skin.
  1. The Wrecking Crew (U.S., documentary) — The same group of talented studio musicians portrayed as artistic atmosphere in “Love and Mercy” are shown here in reality. It’s well documented that much mid-20th Century pop was actually played by a group of genius, L.A. studio axmen (and token axwoman): aka “The Wrecking Crew,” not by the heart-throb celebrity bands. This is the Crew’s fascinating, feel-good story, with archival footage and some memorable interviews.

Sicario movie review best of movies of 2015

  1. The Salt of the Earth (France-Brazil, documentary) — Technically, this film on Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado was finished in 2014, but it didn’t play Portland (where I live) until ‘15. It examines Salgado’s miraculous 40 years spent photographing the travails of some of the world’s saddest victims of oppression, diaspora and ecological abuse. We also get to see what Salgado’s producer wife and he do to bring new life to the land where they began. Memorable.
  1. The Wolfpack (U.S., documentary) — Director Crystal Moselle became a fly on the wall among an odd Lower East Side family. Six boys and a sister forced into seclusion by bent parents. The homeschooled kids developed their own, whacked lifestyle in the confines of a cramped apartment. Showing indomitable spirit, the youngsters spent years creating their own costumes, props, personas and videos, emulating favorite movies (such as “Reservoir Dogs.”). Strange, but undeniably interesting.