Fuse Feature: Best and Worst Films of 2015

Our demanding critics choose the best (and worst) films of the year.

By Arts Fuse Staff

Arts Fuse film critics serve up their best-of-the-year picks in film. But, given the independence of mind of our thoughtful reviewers, don’t expect any predictable agreement on the selections. Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl is a hit for one critic and a downer for another.

Bill Marx
The Arts Fuse

A scene from "The Look of Silence," one of the best scenes of the year.

A scene from “The Look of Silence,” one of the best movies of the year.

10 Best Films of the Year (In order)

The Look of Silence
Diary of a Teenage Girl
Cartel Land
End of the Tour
Bridge of Spies
One Cut, One Life

10 Most overrated films (In order)

The Martian
The Revenant
Steve Jobs
Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl
Clouds of Sils Maria
He Named Me Malala
Coming Home

—Gerald Peary

Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.

5 Best Films of the Year

A scene from "A Most Violent Year," one of the year's best.

A scene from “A Most Violent Year,” one of the year’s best films.

A Most Violent Year
Not since Sam Peckinpah has a filmmaker created such a strong sense of impending doom. Director J.C. Chandler ramps up the intensity with each frame in this story of corruption, yet he never succumbs to cheap sensationalism. Lead actor Oscar Isaac gives a performance that a young Pacino would have been proud of.

Eisenstein in Guanajuato
Peter Greenaway has been one of the most interesting film directors for decades now. He is obsessed with the history of cinematic art, and here he expresses that passion with impressive ferocity. The film chronicles the fabled Russian director’s debauched time in Mexico, particularly his exploration of his sexuality.

Who the hell has ever heard of this film? It played for one week in Newburyport, MA, last June, and that was it for the movie’s New England release. But it contains one of Al Pacino’s most powerful performances in years as a broken-down old locksmith stuck living 30 years in the past. Holly Hunter’s character is the only person he lets in, and their time together creates a sad magic.

The Walk
Director Robert Zemeckis plays around with time and space beautifully in this film about the French tightrope walker who crossed the Twin Towers. The visuals are astonishing. But the movie offered so much more! Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt has come a long way from his time on TV’s Third Rock...

Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl
I could have put this on my list simply to tweak the nose of my fellow Arts Fuse critic Gerald Peary, who was not so enamoured with this film. But it deserves the recognition. A couple of years ago I felt The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) was the best film of the year. I place this effort in the same category. It is a deeply felt story addressed to teenagers that captures the angst of their generation.

5 Worst Films:

They were trying to make a drama and gave birth to a comedy of errors! A mess of a film, from the casting to the concept. The producers knew it, and almost didn’t release it. Too bad they changed their collective minds.

50 Shades of Grey
The book was heralded as a hot, lusty affair, but the film was cold as ice.

"The Stanford Prison Experiment" -- movies don't get much worse than this.

“The Stanford Prison Experiment”—movies don’t get much worse than this.

The Stanford Prison Experiment
Based on an experiment by Stanford Professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo in the early 1970s, the film picks up where the teacher’s cruel ‘scientific’ hoax left off—the students who were used as guinea pigs in the sadistic scenario are victimized, once again. It is hard to watch this film…made more galling by the fact that the good doctor is still profiting from his deed.

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker
This film calls itself a documentary, but it is really nothing more than a pretentious love letter from a couple of admiring goofballs who are trying to attach themselves to a popular singing star whose shining light burnt out a long time ago, In the final scene, the producer is on camera literally crying about Ms. Tucker’s untimely demise while she was only in her mid-80s. Oh, give me a break!

Winter Sleep
I disliked this overblown film so much in my review that the distributor effectively took me off the critics’ list for the rest of the Turkish Film Festival. Although it won the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes, it is a snooze fest and I pop it into my old VCR whenever I’m having trouble sleeping.

Best Foreign Film

A La Vie
The most heartfelt and touching film about bonding I have seen in a very long time. Three women approaching middle-age meet in the early 1960s and recall their time in a concentration camp during World War II.

Bulgarian Rhapsody
Another exploration of Naziism and Jewish adolescents, this movie examines how youth, innocence, and sexuality fared after the arrival of terror. Terrific performances from all.

Best Documentary

Lost in the Bewilderness
A riveting piece about a little Greek boy, stolen by his loopy mother from his loving family, who was only returned to his people once he was just entering manhood. This film, compassionately directed by the kid’s cousin, Alexandra Anthony, blends illusion with reality in profound ways.

—Paul Dervis

Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.

Ten Best Films

A scene from "Brooklyn."

A scene from “Brooklyn.”

Brooklyn – The screenplay, a sharp distillation of the book by Colm Toibin, is buoyed by excellent performances (Saoirse Ronan in particular), fine set design, and cinematography. Director John Crowley finds just the right rhythm and balance between comedy and sentiment.

Spotlight – The film is courageous and informative. Josh Singer’s screenplay shows how procedural journalism works at its best and it doesn’t hold back on the disturbing details and personal cost of Catholic Church scandals. This is both a thriller and a call to arms. The acting ensemble is first rate.

Clouds of Sils Maria – Olivier Assayas’ fine film on the complexities of performance. The story explores the fragile lines drawn between reality and private life across generations. Artistic ambiguities become even more bewildering in a time of global celebrity and ubiquitous social media. Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloe Grace Moretz are excellent.

Carol – Todd Haynes is a brilliant stylist who examines the shifting surfaces of personal identity and social performance. His film is a muted and stylish adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s book, aided by another stunning characterization by Cate Blanchett and dreamy, layered images by cinematographer Edward Lachman (who also shot Hayne’s Mildred Pierce series), and a moody score by Carter Burwell.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl – Another liberating female-centric film that takes some difficult subject matter and makes it both moving and comedic. The movie is faithful to book’s blend of graphics and prose. British actress Beth Powley’s performance as an American teenager is one of the year’s best.

Son of Saul – This difficult and exhausting film immerses the viewer in the first-person experience of a Hungarian-Jewish Sonderkommando prisoner at Auschwitz who is slowly being driven to madness. The character’s experience is a blur — many hellish images are kept hauntingly distant.

Inside Out – Insanely clever cartoon in both concept and animation. It’s also a good conversation starter for kids and adults that can be enjoyed at all levels.

Mustang – A sexy feminist tale of five Turkish sisters kept cloistered by their uncle in a remote coastal estate. The film moves briskly along, helped by smart editing, carefully rendered detailing, and excellent amateur performances, The clash of tradition with modern culture is frustrating, damaging, and inevitable. The film is both angry and hopeful.

Winter’s Sleep – Like all Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s films, it demands patience, but his masterfully chosen images and complex characterizations will reward the viewer with disquieting but keen insights into the human condition.

The Revenant – Like Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest is a tour-de-force of spectacle and endurance generated out of world convincingly conjured out of seamless special effects. DeCapprio is totally committed to his role as a wilderness survivor in a horrific battle with animals, hostile native tribes, and lots of weather. Tom Hardy is great as always as his human nemesis.

My runners-up are also worth seeing:
Theeb, About Elly, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Danish Girl, Straight Outta Compton, Youth, Room, Anomolisa, 45 Years, and The Wonders.

Five Best Documentaries
Look of Silence
Listen to Me Marlon
Best of Enemies
Where Do We Invade Next

Worst of the Year:

Ricki and the Flash – Pandering to aging rock fans requires more than bathos and overworked oldies: a vanity project gone sour. Arts Fuse review

By the Sea – Recreating high style ’60s French Cinema needs more than a big budget and movie stars staring into space for two hours. Was this a stylishly shot, self-reflexive take on celebrity marriage? Or a dreadful act of postmodern hubris? More like a multi-million dollar student film that proves, once again, that there are some things money cannot buy.

The Martian – Chock-a-block with pseudo technology; human beings didn’t make the cut. Did anyone actually listen to the dialogue? Matt Damon is a earnest as ever, but was Jeff Daniels supposed to be doing a parody of his role in TV’s The Newsroom. And what was Kristen Wiig doing here? What was the point of the Chinese sub-plot? Financing? Also,New Rule: No more lassoing in space.

— Tim Jackson

Tim Jackson is an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art in the Digital Film and Video Department. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, many recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed a trio of documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater, and Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups. His third documentary, When Things Go Wrong, is about the Boston singer/songwriter Robin Lane, with whom he has worked for 30 years. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.

Top Ten Films of 2015
(in no particular order)

A scene from "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence." Photo: Magnolia Pictures

A scene from “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.” Photo: Magnolia Pictures.

* Mad Max: Fury Road
* Carol
* Spotlight
* The Diary of a Teenage Girl
* White God
* Bridge of Spies
* What We Do in the Shadows
* Love & Mercy
* A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
* Goodnight Mommy

Honorable Mentions: The Wolfpack; Son of Saul; The Martian; Anomalisa; Mustang; 99 Homes; The Salt of the Earth; 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets; Brooklyn; Tangerine; Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon, 45 Years, Sicario, Clouds of Sils Maria, The Wonders.

Films I Have Not Seen Yet But Really Want To: The Revenant; Duke of Burgundy; The Big Short; The Assassin; ‘71; Far from the Madding Crowd; The Look of Silence; Listen to Me Marlon; Phoenix.

— Peg Aloi

Peg Aloi is a former freelance critic for The Boston Phoenix and Art New England; she also reviews films for Cinefantastique Online. Her blog The Witching Hour explores contemporary media related to paganism and the occult.


  1. Ed Murphy on December 14, 2015 at 5:42 pm

    What a shame that no women in Boston go to the movies – who knows what they might be able to add to these lists …

    • Arts Fuse Editor on December 14, 2015 at 6:27 pm

      Hi Ed:

      Don’t give up yet — I am waiting to get best and worst lists from two women critics who write for The Arts Fuse. When they send me their lists I will post …

    • Peg Aloi on December 16, 2015 at 3:36 pm

      So whattya think of my choices, Ed Murphy? 🙂

  2. tim jackson on December 17, 2015 at 1:16 pm

    Peg – your films are a great addition to the bests. Your picks have a darker edge than your male counterparts. Not that we’re all rainbows and unicorns, but Goodbye Mommy was great disturbing fun, and What We Do in the Shadows was a real surprise and should be seen to be really appreciated.

    • Peg Aloi on December 21, 2015 at 10:15 pm

      Why thank you, Tim! I love horror, and am pretty inured to cinema violence, but I found Goodnight Mommy deeply disturbing and hard to watch at times, as well as beautiful and haunting. (I was a bit too pressed for time to write annotations for my picks; next year maybe!)

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts