3 Brothers' Essential Films of 2015
Every film site from the A.V. Club to Indiewire has released their best films of the year in the past few weeks. While our Top 10 lists won’t arrive until the first week of January, we thought it’d be useful to compile a list of the essential films of 2015, inspired by what Scott Tobias used to do over at the sadly-killed The Dissolve. (You can find his current iteration of this list over at Letterboxd.)Before the list starts, a few clarifiers.
We think of essential films as those movies every cinephile ought to try to see. They don’t have to be great, but they have to be good and interesting and worthy of conversation.
We’ve also divided the list up into four categories to make it easier to strategize your viewing: The Prestige Pic, The Multiplex, The Arthouse and The Hot Doc. The Prestige Pic includes cinema heavyweights, movies looking to find glory on the festival circuit and during awards season. The Multiplex includes all the mainstream movies you’d find at the local Cineplex. The Arthouse includes foreign and independent cinema, the kind of stuff mainstream theatres usually fail to screen. And, finally, The Hot Doc includes documentary cinema of all kinds.
Without further clarifiers, these are the Three Brothers’ Essential Films of 2015, sorted by category, and listed in alphabetical order.
The Prestige Pic
Beasts of No Nation
dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga
What It’s About: A young orphan (Abraham Attah) in an unnamed African nation finds his once-peaceful life changed forever when a sinister warlord (Idris Elba) forces him into his militia and turns him into a soldier.
What the Brothers Said: No review, but Aren found Netflix’s first play at feature filmmaking to be a potent look at the life of a child soldier, both beautifully shot and uncompromisingly acted.
Bridge of Spies
dir. Steven Spielberg
What It’s About: Lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is recruited by the CIA to negotiate a spy trade with the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War.
What the Brothers Said: No review posted, but the brothers praise the wonderful classical style and Tom Hanks’ great Jimmy Stewart-like performance as a true man of decency. A film like this could be the highpoint of a lesser director’s canon.
dir. John Crowley
What It’s About: A young woman (Saoirse Ronan) leaves Ireland for Brooklyn, New York in the 1950s, struggling to choose between the home she left behind and the love she finds in the New World.
What the Brothers Said: No review, but the brothers admire this nice, warming film about the difficulties of life lived. The simple storytelling is just so assured.
dir. Ryan Coogler
What It’s About: Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, moves to Philadelphia to convince Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to train him to be a great fighter like his father.
What the Brothers Said: “Few films combine the wise intimacy of Creed’s smaller scenes with the fireworks of its climaxes. This combination delivers a film that is emotionally powerful and entertaining, but also smart and sensitive.” (Aren)
dir. Ridley Scott
What It’s About: After he is thought to be killed in a dust storm on Mars, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) struggles to survive on the barren Red Planet until NASA can rescue him.
What the Brothers Said: No review posted, but the brothers found it to be an expertly-made, optimistic paean to scientific ingenuity.
dir. Lenny Abrahamson
What It’s About: A young mother (Brie Larson) struggles to raise her son (Jacob Tremblay) within the ten-by-ten foot shed that her captor has forced her to live in for the past five years.
What the Brothers Said: No review, but Aren found it to a moving film, with wonderful performances and demonstrating an insightful grasp of the intense bond between mother and child.
dir. Denis Villeneuve
What It’s About: FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is asked to volunteer for a dangerous and murky mission to strike back at the cartel. The mission is headed by Josh Brolin’s seemingly laid-back but possibly sinister Matt. And who is Benicio Del Toro’s mysterious non-American agent?
What the Brothers Said: “There’s a nightmarish quality to Sicario, which seems to offer a vision of the War on Drugs along the US-Mexico border that has filtered out all joy and hope. The pace is slow yet relentless; watching it is like the experience of a bad sleep that you can’t wake up from but that’s far from restful.” (Anton)
dir. Thomas McCarthy
What It’s About: A recounting of the Boston Globe’s 2001 investigation into the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandals and their systematic cover-ups.
What the Brothers Said: “Thomas McCarthy’s Spotlight is one of those sober-minded, midrange adult movies that critics like to pretend don’t exist anymore.” (Aren)
Straight Outta Compton
dir. F. Gary Gray
What It’s About: A biopic following the formation of the controversial and pioneering rap band N.W.A. in Compton, California in the late 1980s.
What the Brothers Said: No review, but the brothers found it to be ferocious filmmaking, portraying hip-hop melodrama as American myth-making. An exhilarating, propulsive biopic.
dir. Michael Mann
What It’s About: Jailed hacker, Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), agrees to help the Chinese and American governments hunt down a cyberterrorist who is using his old code, in an international caper. In exchange, his sentence will be commuted if he is successful.
What the Brothers Said: “Mann remains steadfastly interested in the same things he was interested in 30 years ago: stoic heroes living by a code, nighttime cityscapes, and minimalist scores. Blackhat then is treat for a certain kind of cinephile, idiosyncratically combining the visual pleasures of art house formalism with adrenaline fueled crime thrills.” (Anders)
dir. Neill Blomkamp
What It’s About: In a futuristic Johannesburg, two street punks (Yolandi Visser and Watkin Tudor Jones) raise a police robot (Sharlto Copley) gifted with sentience by a brilliant programmer (Dev Patel).
What the Brothers Said: No review, but Aren found it to be a fascinating attempt at genuine science-fiction storytelling, not entirely polished but still promising in its exploration of the mundane and thematic ramifications of its futuristic world.
dir. Kenneth Branagh
What It’s About: The classic fairy-tale, with a few enlargements but no revisions.
What the Brothers Said: “For a traditional take on a familiar tale, Disney’s new live-action Cinderella feels like a breath of fresh air. In this, our ironic postmodern age of endless remakes and reboots, revision and reinvisioning, someone telling a well-known tale faithfully, sincerely, and artfully seems like an act of unconventional daring.” (Anton)
dir. Guillermo del Toro
What It’s About: Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) falls in love with Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who spirits her away to England and his ancient home of Allerdale Hall, which holds many ghostly secrets.
What the Brothers Said: “Crimson Peak displays del Toro’s love for the films and books that inspired it. It’s a film of big stakes and big emotions in an overwhelmingly big house.” (Aren)
dir. Baltasar Kormákur
What It’s About: An adventure film following the doomed expedition up Mount Everest in 1996, which resulted in the deaths of eight climbers after a blizzard stranded them at the peak.
What the Brothers Said: No review, but Aren found it to be a beautiful procedural disaster flick, one with overwhelming emotional heft.
dir. Joel Edgerton
What It’s About: When Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move from Chicago to suburban Los Angeles in an effort to start afresh, they bump into an old acquaintance of Simon’s from high school, Gordo (Joel Edgerton), who was called “the Weirdo.” When Gordo starts dropping by the house uninvited, the couple begin to worry about his intrusive friendship. And what happened between Gordo and Simon back in school?
What the Brothers Said: Joel Edgerton, in his directorial debut, “can display a skillful control of his shots and the audience even if he tries to do too much with this psychological thriller. (Anton)
dir. Pete Docter
What It’s About: Inside the mind of 11-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), her five core emotions (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust) deal with the emotional ramifications of her family’s move to San Francisco from the Midwest.
What the Brothers Said: No review, but the brothers found it to be a moving and incisive look at a child’s emotional development and the importance of sadness.
Mad Max: Fury Road
dir. George Miller
What It’s About: In a post-apocalyptic future, Max (Tom Hardy) must decide whether to assist a group of women led by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in a daring desert escape from a vicious warlord.
What the Brothers Said: “Mad Max: Fury Road is visceral, unrelenting filmmaking, a purely cinematic experience. . . . 70 year old Australian director George Miller reminds us that cinema is primarily a visual medium and manages to convey one of the most satisfying experiences of genre narrative in ages by emphasizing the motion in ‘motion pictures.’” (Anders)
Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation
dir. Christopher McQuarrie
What It’s About: Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team are back, this time with a new addition (Rebecca Ferguson). While the Impossible Missions Force is set to be shuttered, the team races to expose and stop the mysterious Rogue Nation terrorist organization.
What the Brothers Said: For its sense of fun, for its elegant action choreography and skillful stunt work, and for its movie star performance from Tom Cruise and (hopefully) a star-making performance from Rebecca Ferguson, the brothers consider this a superior action film.
dir. Paul King
What It’s About: After his jungle home is destroyed, a young bear (Ben Whishaw) moves to England and takes up with a middle-class English family who are reluctant to adopt the furry immigrant.
What the Brothers Said: No review, but Aren found it to be a touching, dryly humorous children’s film, with plenty of verbal and visual wit.
dir. Sam Mendes
What It’s About: Daniel Craig returns as James Bond once again, facing off against a mysterious enemy from his past.
What the Brothers Said: “Spectre is a film that carries the series forward while looking to the past for inspiration. It builds on the foundation that was laid in Skyfall, as far as being a return to many of the tropes and trappings of the series at the same time that it brings the Craig films full circle, tying everything together.” (Anders)
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water
dir. Paul Tibbitt
What It’s About: Spongebob Squarepants (Tom Kenny) has to leave behind his underwater world and venture to the surface in an effort to reclaim the Krabby Patty formula and save the day.
What the Brothers Said: The film “assaults the viewer’s senses with oddball humour and colourful animation for 93 minutes. What a bizarre treat.” (Aren)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
dir. J.J. Abrams
What It’s About: A deserting stormtrooper (John Boyega) and a desert scavenger (Daisy Ridley) finds themselves thrust into the galactic battle between the sinister First Order and the virtuous Resistance when they come into possession of a map to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who is the last of the Jedi and has gone missing.
What the Brothers Said: A worthy capstone to the Original Trilogy, and an exciting sorta-reboot of the franchise. Likely the most fun you will have at the movies this year.
dir. Yann Demange
What It’s About: A young British soldier (Jack O’Connell) is stranded behind IRA lines in Belfast in 1971.
What the Brothers Said: “Yann Demange’s ’71 is a rare contemporary example of cinéma vérité action done right.” (Aren)
dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien
What It’s About: A princess-turned-assassin (Shu Qi) is sent back to her homeland to assassinate her former-lover (Chang Chen), the region’s military leader.
What the Brothers Said: “If you can get on Hou’s wavelength, The Assassin becomes something beautiful.” (Aren for Toronto Film Scene)
Clouds of Sils Maria
dir. Olivier Assayas
What It’s About: With the help of her assistant, Val (Kristen Stewart), stage and screen actress, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), prepares to take on the role of the older women in the play that made her a star years before.
What the Brothers Said: “For a film that deals with fairly substantive ideas, such as the nature of performance, and the vagaries of aging—especially the ways that age can change who we are—the film has a surprisingly light touch. The great performances and impeccable camera work makes Clouds of Sils Maria incredibly enjoyable to watch and leaves you with plenty to think about as well.” (Anders)
dir. Alex Garland
What It’s About: Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer at the world’s most popular search engine, wins an opportunity to spend a week at the remote research compound of his company’s CEO and founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), to test whether a new artificial intelligence (Alicia Vikander) is truly sentient.
What the Brothers Said: “Featuring excellent performances, an assured visual aesthetic, and grappling with meaningful questions about its subject matter, Ex Machina is one of the best science fiction films to come along in a while.” (Anders)
dir. Michael Almereyda
What It’s About: A look at the life of experimental psychologist Stanley Milgrim (Peter Sarsgaard) and his controversial series of obedience experiments he began conducting in the 1960s.
What the Brothers Said: “Experimenter ends up offering an insightful look into the work of a significant researcher, and it uses the unique abilities of cinema to explore that work and the person who conceived of it.” (Anders)
Far from the Madding Crowd
dir. Thomas Vinterberg
What It’s About: A headstrong young landowner (Carey Mulligan) finds herself torn between three very different suitors (Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, and Tom Sturridge) in late nineteenth-century England.
What the Brothers Said: “It’s boldly made, full of bright colours and bright passions, big faces and big emotions. It’s a beautiful film, revitalizing a genre that can be as boring as a rainy day without a good book to read.” (Aren)
dir. David Robert Mitchell
What It’s About: After having sex with her boyfriend, a young woman (Maika Monroe) finds herself haunted by a spectral monster that will never stop moving towards her until it kills her.
What the Brothers Said: “It Follows is the best horror film of the decade.” (Aren)
Love & Mercy
dir. Bill Pohlad
What It’s About: A biopic about Beach Boys legend Brian Wilson, focusing on two periods in his life: Paul Dano plays Wilson during the making of the landmark album Pet Sounds in the 1960s, and John Cusack is Wilson in the 1980s, when he was recovering from a series of nervous breakdowns and under the control of an abusive therapist (Paul Giamatti).
What the Brothers Said: The brothers thought it was ambitiously conceived, very well executed and performed (particularly by Dano), and also very moving. Brian Wilson’s life is fascinating and heartbreaking. The studio sessions showing Wilson creating Pet Sounds are amazing!
dir. Noah Baumbach
What It’s About: A young woman (Lola Kirke) moves to New York City and befriends her soon-to-be-step-sister (Greta Gerwig), an optimistic whirlwind of a personality, who takes her under her misguided wing.
What the Brothers Said: “Simply put, Mistress America is a blast.” (Aren)
The Riot Club
dir. Lone Scherfig
What It’s About: A dark satire depicting the debaucherous Riot Club, an exclusive dinner club for posh students at Oxford.
What the Brothers Said: “The audience’s tsk tsks during the initial scenes soon became exhalations of disapproval, which turned into stunned disbelief as the film grew darker in the final scenes.” (Anton)
dir. Eddie Cahyono
What It’s About: In a small coastal Javanese town, a woman (Sekar Sari) works as a vendor by day and hostess in a karaoke bar at night to pay off her paralyzed husband’s debts.
What the Brothers Said: “Siti is a gentle film of quiet power.” (Aren for Toronto Film Scene)
Son of Saul
dir. László Nemes
What It’s About: A sonderkommando (Géza Röhrig) working in Auschwitz, Birkenau finds the corpse of his son in the gas chamber and devotes himself to finding a rabbi in the camp so that he can perform a proper Jewish burial.
What the Brothers Said: “It’ll change you.” (Aren)
dir. Jafar Panahi
What It’s About: Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi drives a taxi around Tehran, picking up random passengers and engaging them in philosophical conversations about culture and artistic censorship.
What the Brothers Said: No review, but Aren found it to be Panahi’s best film since he was officially banned from filmmaking by the Iranian government, both thought-provoking and clever in its blending of reality and fiction.
What We Do in the Shadows
dir. Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi
What It’s About: This mockumentary follows four vampire roommates living in Wellington, New Zealand and explores the pleasures and pitfalls of being a twenty-first century vampire.
What the Brothers Said: No review, but Anders thought it was hilarious, showing a deep, affectionate knowledge of both vampire lore and its portrayal in cinema history.
When Marnie Was There
dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi
What It’s About: After a severe asthma attack, Anna (Hailee Steinfeld) heads to a small coastal town to recuperate with relatives and befriends the mysterious Marnie (Kiernan Shipka), who lives in a manor house across the water.
What the Brothers Said: “When Marnie Was There proves that even without Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Studio Ghibli is capable of great art.” (Aren)
The Hot Doc
Best of Enemies
dir. Robert Gordan & Morgan Neville
What It’s About: A look at the famous 1968 televised debates between Gore Vidal and William Buckley, Jr., which presaged the political division which has plagued American politics ever since.
What the Brothers Said: No review, but Anders found it to be a fascinating look at two figures who embodied both the virtues and vices of their particular political ideologies.
dir. Matthew Heineman
What It’s About: A juxtaposition of vigilante groups on both sides of the Mexican-American border, following an anti-cartel militia in Michocán and a border patrol group in Arizona.
What the Brothers Said: No review, but Aren found it to be an illuminating look at notions of justice and the effects of the drug war.
In Jackson Heights
dir. Frederick Wiseman
What It’s About: A portrait of Jackson Heights, Queens, the most ethnically diverse urban neighbourhood on the planet.
What the Brothers Said: “In Jackson Heights requires a lengthy investment of time and attention, but it’s also a holistic portrait of a fascinating neighbourhood.” (Aren for Toronto Film Scene)
The Look of Silence
dir. Joshua Oppenheimer
What It’s About: A companion piece to The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence follows Adi Rukun, the brother of a man killed in the 1960s anti-communist purges in Indonesia, as he confronts the individuals personally responsible for his brother’s death.
What the Brothers Said: “Has film ever been so bold a tool for truth? And so essential?” (Aren)
dir. Jennifer Peedom
What It’s About: When filming a documentary about the sherpa ethnic group, a major avalanche rocks Everest, and the crew manages to capture the aftermath and following conflict, including a sherpa guide strike.
What the Brothers Said: No review, but Anton and Aren thought it was a fair and balanced documentary that still manages to take a stance. It offers insight into an aspect of the world you might not know much about, capturing a rare experience.
Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom
dir. Evgeny Afineevsky
What It’s About: An in-the-trenches look at the Maidan Revolution that took place in Ukraine from November 2013 to spring of 2014.
What the Brothers Said: “Winter on Fire is a powerful film, but it’s essentially propaganda.” (Aren)