A & E, Movie Reviews

Revisiting the best movies of 2015

Emory Cohen and Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn. Photo: © Wildgaze Films

A new year dawns, and for me that brings the requisite reflection on the events of the previous year. In the case of this column, that would mean the highs and lows in cinema during 2015. And true to my annual appraisals, I’ve compiled a list (in alphabetical order) of my favorite English-language, live-action movies released in the past 12 months. These narrative features are certainly among the best of the year, and the ones I enjoyed the most.


This violent, disturbing, and heartbreaking drama follows the perilous journey of Agu, a child soldier fighting in the civil war of an unnamed West African country as part of a unit of conscripted children. Most of the kids are orphaned by callous slaughter in their home villages, then they’re turned into weapons by the mercenaries behind that devastation. The commander of the unit is a cruel bastard played to the hilt by Idris Elba in a complex and chilling performance. Writer-director Cary Fukunaga does an impressive job in bringing this rough tale to the screen, dramatizing a real tragedy facing hordes of youngsters in war-torn Third World territories.


It’s hard to believe that Adam McKay — director of the Anchorman movies and other silly Will Ferrell comedies — is behind an endlessly fascinating look at a handful of prescient but derided brokers and speculators who predicted the housing, mortgage, and banking crisis that triggered the 2008 recession. But he’s at the helm of this crackling docucomedy that benefits from an inspired script peppered with pointed wit, and note-perfect casting and performances down to the smallest cameo. Clever, informative, exciting, and funny with standout work from Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt, it’s a total win for McKay, who also co-wrote the screenplay.


How about a charming, romantic period drama about a young Irish immigrant navigating her way through 1950s Brooklyn? Eilis (a winsome and touching Saoirse Ronan) comes to the United States to make a life for herself independent from her family back home. But even a love connection with a kind, earnest Italian-American suitor (Emory Cohen) may not be enough to break her away from her roots. Novelist-screenwriter Nick Hornby (of High Fidelity and An Education fame) wrote the delightful, emotionally resonant script based on Colm Tóibín’s book. The result is a sweet, gentle love story with fine period detail and a cast (including Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, and Julie Walters) that sells the whole thing.


One of the breakout performances of 2015 gives heart and soul to this coming-of-age story set in San Francisco in the mid-1970s and shot on location by first-time director Marielle Heller. Based on the 2002 graphic novel-memoir by Phoebe Gloeckner, it introduces Minnie — a bright, sensitive, artistic, beleaguered “ugly duckling” about to bloom — and provides a stunning showcase for Bel Powley, the young actress who plays her. Powley is British, but her American accent and attitude are spot-on, and she dominates the movie, although well supported by Kristen Wiig as Minnie’s feckless single mom, Alexander Skarsgård as the mother’s handsome, cavalier boyfriend, and Christopher Meloni as Minnie’s father. This isn’t a girl’s awakening to womanhood as viewed through a gauzy nostalgic filter, nor is it romanticized in any way. It doesn’t dance around issues of teen sexuality, nor is it exploitive. It’s just honest, sharp, moving, and totally engaging.


Director and screenwriter Alex Garland’s thrilling, thought-provoking, and ultimately scary sci-fi adventure deals with the possibility of sentience in lifelike robots. The multibillionaire founder-guru (Oscar Isaac) of a worldwide info-gathering search engine welcomes an underling (Domhnall Gleeson) to the CEO’s remote hideaway and invites the code monkey to check out the company’s new artificial intelligence program and test for the presence of self-awareness — only the A.I. comes in the form of a very realistic-looking and behaving female-identified robot (Alicia Vikander). Tense, starkly beautiful, and made all the more vivid by seamless, subtle, believable special effects, it’s the most astute movie I’ve encountered that deals with the issues and repercussions of A.I. and technology possibly outgrowing its creators.


Dark, deep, and intimate, this is a small-scale drama with big payoffs. It traces the journey of a young mother and her 5-year-old son who have been tragically closed off from the world for the child’s entire life. Ma is caring, diligent, and dedicated to her little Jack, doing whatever she can to make his life easy and secure in their tiny, claustrophobic living space. Suddenly, their circumstances change in radical fashion, and they will have to adjust. Brie Larson as the mother does phenomenal work that takes her burgeoning career to new heights, and little Jacob Tremblay who plays Jack is a wonder. Joan Allen and William H. Macy are typically reliable as Jack’s grandparents, who have been through quite a trial themselves. Adroitly directed by Lenny Abrahamson and tenderly adapted for the screen by Emma Donoghue from her novel.


Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, and Rachel McAdams star as a trio of crusading journalists at the forefront of the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the Catholic Archdiocese after a wave of child molestation allegations that may have inspired a subsequent cover-up. Filmmaker Tom Hooper has created a powerful, deeply affecting fact-based human drama with superb contributions from every cast member. The supporting actors are as good as the three leads, and that would be very, very good. Standouts include Liev Schreiber as the Globe’s new editor and Stanley Tucci as a dedicated though difficult lawyer trying to help the victims who have been marginalized or may have been bought off by the church.


  • 99 Homes
  • Carol
  • The Danish Girl
  • The End of the Tour
  • Grandma
  • Love & Mercy
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • The Martian
  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
  • The Revenant
  • Sicario
  • Steve Jobs
  • Trumbo
  • The Walk
  • Youth


  • Breathe
  • Son of Saul
  • White God


  • Inside Out


  • 3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets
  • Amy
  • Batkid Begins
  • He Named Me Malala
  • Kingdom of Shadows
  • The Salt of the Earth
  • The Wolfpack
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Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on KPFK/Pacifica Radio's David Feldman Show and Thom Hartmann Show and on Michael Snyder's Culture Blast, via, Roku, and YouTube. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster.