Top 10 Favorite Films of 2015

Let’s face it: end-of-year list-making is a complex task. You have to go back and think of all the stories and images that have worked their way into your mind and heart, evaluating what has lingered. Some films made a strong first impression, but waned quickly. Others were initially met with hesitation or frustration, but proved to be more powerful than I imagined due to their ability to endure in my thoughts and bring up new ideas. These top 10 favorite films are the ones that made a lasting impression, that moved or challenged me, that communicated deep or weighty ideas and offered spiritual insights. (You can read my Top 5 Documentaries and #25-21 here, and my Top #20-11 here.)

If there was a common theme threading its way through my favorite films list, it might be the presence of strong, beautiful, heroic female characters. I wonder what’s drawn me to such a motif, or if the year of 2015 has simply been a banner year for females in films. Think about both the major blockbusters and the critically-acclaimed art films: The Force Awakens, Carol, Mad Max: Fury Road, Room, Brooklyn, Inside Out, The Assassin, Sicario, Ex Machina, Joy. They all feature strong female leads giving memorable performances as fully-realized characters. Plenty of films in 2015 passed the Bechdel Test with flying colors. Two-thousand and fifteen was The Year of the Female Lead Role.

Personally, the past year has been one of the most difficult, painful, and transformative years in my entire life. It’s also been a character-developing year for my beloved wife. She has been the strong and beautiful female presence in our story, the heroine who kept me and our children afloat in a season of distress and suffering. In the past year, our third child was born with a significant heart defect, one which led to open heart surgery a few months later. The months of doctor appointments were filled with waiting and wondering. Those hours in the hospital as we handed off our boy to the doctors so they could repair holes were the most painful moments we have yet experienced as a couple. When your child’s life is in question, when their safety and well-being are out of your hands, well…it’s difficult, to say the least. Add my personal struggle with healing from burnout and depression, as well as a few identity crises moments and vocational revelations, and I’ve been a mess. But Katie, my wife–she’s the one who carried us. I think of the moment in Mad Max: Fury Road where Max is taking aim with a rifle at a distant enemy and misses. Furiosa approaches and asks for the gun, which Max reluctantly but knowingly hands over to her. She uses his shoulder as a base to steady her aim, then makes the shot he couldn’t make. That’s been my marriage this year–we’ve struggled through this as a team, but she’s been the foundation while I play the supporting role. She’s made the shots I couldn’t make on my own.

So, consider this list an ode to my wife. She’s not invested much in films, but she’s certainly invested in me, in our children, and in our life together. We have a value as a family: live a great story. It’s a value that continues to prompt us to take the more difficult, risky, exciting path in life. I can’t think of anyone else I’d want to live out this story with. My wife has been the hero of our story in 2015. If there was a real-life award for Best Female in a Lead Role, my vote goes to her.

These are the films that moved me, captivated me, terrified me, challenged me, and inspired me. These are my top 10 favorite films from 2015:

it follows

10. It Follows. Were you to describe the premise of this film aloud, it all sounds a bit silly–a phantom is passed on to your sexual partner, and it steadily follows you until you’re caught in its lethal grasp. Some of the decisions made by the teenagers to stop the pursuing phantom are equally ridiculous. Yet this film has followed me (pun intended) with a haunting persistency, a horror film filled with fascinating ideas and themes about youth culture, mortality, and the holistic nature of sexual relationships. Whatever the “it” represents here–sex, death, emotional wounds, adult abandonment, and plenty other possibilities–it’s something that stays with you. (My review)

9.  Spotlight. Sometimes films come along that feel important because of their prophetic tone and cultural illumination. Last year it was Selma; this year, it’s Spotlight in its examination of the scandal and injustice surrounding the Catholic church and sexual abuse. It’s a manila folder of a film–sparse, steady, just-the-facts, and containing some important truths. Filmmaker Tom McCarthy made one of the worst films in 2015 (The Cobbler) and one of the best in Spotlight. I predict it will win Best Picture at the Academy Awards in February. (My review)


8. Something, Anything. This feels like the film that most embodies my 2015 spiritual journey: it’s a film about a young woman going through a spiritual crisis and rediscovering herself after a tragedy. Sure, I’m not a young woman living in Tennessee. But her odyssey through personal suffering resonated with me so strongly, and the film’s embrace of contemplation, mystery, and silence proved to be curative for my own woes. It’s a gripping portrayal of loss, and the quiet grace that comes in the simplicity and silence. (My essay for Christ and Pop Culture)


7. The Assassin. Delicate, deliberate, and visually marvelous, The Assassin is a challenge to fully comprehend and a beauty to behold. Narrative details are obscured, like a veil moving with the wind through an open window, an image commonly seen throughout the film. Veils, fog, wind, trees–these all give excellent secondary performances in this meditation on a vocation of violence and its limits. A cinephile friend called this the “anti-Kill Bill,” where a beautiful assassin chooses the way of life instead of revenge. The description is apt, and the film is a wonder. (My review)

6. Phoenix. Containing the best final scene of a film this year, Phoenix is both an homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo while also being a wholly original idea. From the performances to the cinematography to the direction, everything in this film is exemplary without being overly-noticeable. The excellence simply serves to tell the film’s story, and you may not even noticed how profound this film has captivated you until you’re left speechless in your seat as the credits roll. Speak low, indeed. (My review)

INSIDE OUT - Pictured: Joy. ©2015 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

5. Inside Out. There is a moment in the memory dump where Joy is looking at the greying memories fading into dust, and she begins to weep at the loss of the past. I wept too, because I recognize this in my own children. Time passes so quickly, and memories fade into oblivion as they grow and mature. It’s a coming-of-age film, a parable about emotional health, and an example of lovely world-building and animation. This is the film which made me cry the most in 2015, and the film which reminded me that sadness is necessary, and all our emotions are good. (My essay on Inside Out)


4. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem. This film was the biggest surprise of 2015 for me, one I never saw coming. Gett features an excellent script and affecting dialogue, but its the images and eyes which captivated me. So much is communicated in a quick look or glance. I took Hebrew in seminary this past semester, and found it thrilling to understand small portions of Gett without using the subtitles. It feels like an Israeli companion to Asghar Farhadi’s films about marriage (including my #2 film of 2015). (My review)

3. World of Tomorrow. “Now is the envy of all of the dead.” Think about that statement for a moment. Think of its poetry, its depth. It sounds like something out of Shakespeare, not a 16-minute animated film featuring time-traveling stick figures. But that’s what is so beautiful and fascinating about World of Tomorrow, a sci-fi parable at once weird and wonderful. Memory, existence, technology, ethics, identity, family, love, beauty, grace–they’re all here in Don Hertzfeld’s bizarre imagined future. (My review)

2. About Elly. Farhadi’s About Elly strikes me a parable or fable about marriage, truth, and grace. It’s a punch in the gut, a devastating look at what happens when tragedy strikes and none of us are prepared. This film is the perfect companion to Farhadi’s other masterpieces about marriage, A Separation and The Past. The closest filmmaking parallel I can find is to say Farhadi is the Iranian Dardenne Brother, an extraordinary filmmaker who continually makes ethically and emotionally weighty films with simple-yet-profound stories. (My review)

1. Mad Max: Fury Road. No other film has blown me away with its ambition and exceptionality this year like George Miller’s reckless, ridiculous, frenetic thrill ride. While it could be viewed as simply an over-the-top action movie, I found its themes of redemption, hope, and feminine empowerment to be compelling and memorable. No scene has stuck in my mind this year like Furiosa’s scream in the sand dunes (seen above). It’s a film about an exodus, a spiritual journey into the wilderness only to be drawn back home. The journey into the wilderness was necessary before finding salvation. Fury Road is both mad and max. “Mad” means insane, infuriating, foolhardy, fervent. “Max” means the ultimate, the limit, the intensity, the most. The film certainly lives up to its name. (My review)

What were your favorite films of 2015? Share in the comments!

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4 Responses to Top 10 Favorite Films of 2015

  1. Evan December 30, 2015 at 5:03 pm #

    Great list, Joel! At least four of your top ten will also be in mine, although in a different order.

    • Joel Mayward December 30, 2015 at 6:23 pm #

      Looking forward to your list, Evan. And thanks for the “anti-Kill Bill” phrase–the credit should all go to you!

  2. Blair Bertrand December 31, 2015 at 4:21 am #

    I’ve realized that I don’t watch movies anymore. With Netflix offering a number of quality serials I can hook into a story with 60 minute investments. With young children and a limited time budget I settle for not going out to find full length movies. With few cinephile friends near by viewing has become a solitary activity. Your list, and cinemayward in general, remind me of what I’m missing. Thanks for writing.

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