This year’s Oscars are fast approaching, which means it’ll soon be time to watch the movies you didn’t see get awarded the highest honor in Hollywood while the movies you loved get largely ignored. The new Star Wars will likely be remembered as the movie of the year, which says a lot considering how most of the box office records it broke were set by Jurassic World just a few months earlier. And shock of shocks, neither is nominated in any of the “prestige” categories.
But it’s all just as well, as no year in movies is remembered for its financial phenomena alone. Sometimes a movie’s cultural relevance can have a bigger impact. Or maybe what you most remember is that one film that opened your eyes to something new and exciting, made you feel something you hadn’t in a long time, or led you to question something you took for granted.
The movies that do more to define a given year aren’t necessarily the ones you want to revisit over and over. But that doesn’t mean they don’t leave a lasting impression. The best movies change you somehow, if only slightly. They provide a truly memorable experience, illustrate an enlightening point of view, and make you feel complex emotions. In other words, they’re the ones we find most rewarding.
With this in mind, let’s begin our countdown of what could be the defining movies of 2015 – Oscars and box office returns be damned.
15) BEASTS OF NO NATION (Netflix)
Though it wasn’t given a wide release in theaters, it has become one of Netflix’s all-time most popular original productions – and for good reason. Based on the novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala, director Cary Fukunaga faithfully adapts a harrowing and powerful story about a young boy who is forcibly recruited by a militarized rebel coalition in an unnamed African state.
We are witness to his heartbreak, as well as his profound disillusion. This is a movie that strikes at the core of you, and doesn’t apologize for it. And it shouldn’t. Somewhat reminiscent of “City of God” and “Blood Diamond,” “Beasts” shows us a world we aren’t comfortable acknowledging. But that said, once it’s over you’ll feel inclined to learn more rather than wallow in guilt over your ignorance. While brutal, this is a movie that sticks with you for the better. And of course, if you really enjoy this type of movies, be sure to check the top scary movies on netflix here.
14) CAROL (Number 9 Films/Film4 Productions)
This film has fans of director Todd Haynes celebrating his return to his roots. For although 2008’s “I’m Not There” about Bob Dylan was for the most part a critical success, the fact that it was a conceptual experiment ostracized a large chunk of even his longtime fans. “Carol,” meanwhile, is more of a callback to his brilliant “Far From Heaven,” a quasi-remake of Douglas Sirk’s “All That Heaven Allows.” “Carol” illustrates with tremendous subtlety and craft the life cycle of a taboo romance between an affluent housewife (played by Oscar-nominated Cate Blanchett in the title role) and a twenty-something girl trying to find herself (played by the also-nominated Rooney Mara).
The chemistry between the leads feels distinctively natural in both its inception and evolution, with the politics of the subject matter always at arm’s length, but never absent. For those who’d be concerned, the movie makes no effort to preach or pander (unlike the other movie with two Oscar-nominated leads, “The Danish Girl”). Instead, it relies on our emotional investment in the characters as people – not as abstract representatives of homosexuality. By the end, the significance of Carol as a romantic archetype becomes clear (no spoilers), making her recognizable to all viewers – regardless of sexual orientation – and Ms. Mara’s character uncommonly deserving of empathy. Whether or not you’re already a fan of Mr. Haynes’ work, “Carol” is a tale of romance as touching and familiar as any other, and worth the experience for the performances alone.
13) BROOKLYN (BBC Films)
Though also a romance, “Brooklyn” is decidedly devoid of controversy. Starring the Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan as a 1950’s Irish immigrant named Eilis, the film fixates on her efforts to forge her own identity while dealing with the expectations and demands of others. Often feeling torn between the home she left behind and the home she made for herself, Eilis is forced to figure out in which direction her heart is leading her.
With a phenomenally charming performance by Ms. Ronan and gorgeous cinematography that makes you want to time travel back to 1950’s New York, “Brooklyn” has a magnetism that is undeniable. And narratively speaking, it’s just as engrossing. Not in recent memory has a romance been so eloquently realized within the framework of the classic American Story, or presented the relatability of such a story to foreigners without a hint of overt commentary. And perhaps best of all, the sappiness is kept to an absolute minimum. Because Eilis’ romances feel so organic we can appreciate the gravity of her dilemma on a much more gratifying level than if she were caught in a typical “Twilight”-esque love triangle. But that being said, her story appeals to the romantic in all of us, and provides hope to those who feel their hearts being pulled in two directions. It is truly a wonderful movie.
12) THE REVENANT (Anonymous Content/New Regency Pictures)
As explained in our review of the film, “The Revenant” could very well mark a return to prominence for the American Western. For not only does it stunningly capture an untamed landscape wrought with sentiments of freedom and danger, it deftly illustrates the ideological conflict that’s persisted within the genre for decades. And as icing on the cake, the extreme authenticity of the actors’ performances – particularly Leonardo DiCaprio’s – provides a sense of thematic validity that few other Westerns can match. You surely don’t need to be a full-blown fan of Westerns to thoroughly enjoy this film, as it’s primed to grab you by the throat regardless. But if you are a fan, all the better. This is a movie you won’t ever forget.
11) DOPE (Significant Productions/I am OTHER)
On the surface, “Dope” is a typical maturation story starring a nerdy black high school boy named Malcom and his two best friends. But in using the diverse definitions of the title as a starting point, director/screenwriter Rick Famuyiwa offers a surprisingly nuanced tale about defying expectations and owning your life choices. We follow Malcom as he goes from being a promising wallflower to a drug dealer and back, all the while realizing the kinds of repercussions his choices can have. Indeed, he’s an extreme example of a larger point the film is trying to make about disadvantaged youth in general.
Even though Malcom starts off clean, smart, and aspirational, we’re shown why and how it is that the world nevertheless expects very little from him because he’s from a bad school in a poor neighborhood. And even worse, his elders and mentors actively try to temper his ambition, as if the dream of going to a good college and earning a better life were a delusion of grandeur. Malcom’s story illustrates how sometimes you’re forced to choose between bad and worse choices, but you always have a choice nonetheless. Furthermore, choosing the worse option is a slippery slope to facing even worse decisions, and so on and so forth until you become a tragedy or statistic. Famuyiwa advises kids like Malcom to use their outside perspective of the world to their advantage by recognizing how they can confront restrictive stereotypes and clichés, and from there achieve anything they want. For minority audiences in particular, “Dope” is a refreshingly cogent addition to a subgenre that’s been predominantly white, privileged, and trivial (think of any ‘90s teen movie).