Under the Radar’s Top 20 Films of 2015

Jan 04, 2016
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Unorthodox movies ruled the year in 2015. Our Top Films this year include one shot entirely on iPhones and another shot entirely with puppets; one movie-length car chase and one movie-length interview; another movie set primarily in a tiny room, and one set almost entirely in a little girl’s head. The below list was calculated from personal top film ballots submitted by Under the Radar’s film staff. The titles with the most frequent—and highest-placed—appearances on those ballots were tallied and ranked as our Top Films of the year. Scroll down to see our picks and read our reasoning behind them. 

1

Dir. George Miller

Mad Max: Fury Road

Let’s all come clean: how many of us really expected Fury Road to be this good? At nearly 70 years old, George Miller returned to the high-octane world of Mad Max, thirty years removed from Beyond Thunderdome and having spent those decades mostly making children’s movies about dancing penguins and talking pigs. But, minds were blown and expectations exceeded: Fury Road is an absolutely bonkers, balls-out flick with some of the most incredible stunt work and practical effects we’ve ever seen—a non-stop car chase across a wonderfully strange, stunningly-realized post-apocalyptic landscape. Plus, the movie introduced Furiosa—perhaps the most badass action heroine we’ve seen this side of Ripley. Ride eternal, shiny and chrome! -- Austin Trunick

2

Dir. Sean Baker

Tangerine

“It’s all about our hustle.” In just about five words, the heroines of Sean Baker’s Tangerine, two trans sex workers of color (Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor) jaunting around Los Angeles on the hunt for a jerk, make their indelible mark on the film. Splashed in citrus colors and with a pace and sense of humor that roars, Tangerine reveals that while the American Dream has transformed, its core is still the same: validation. -- Kyle Turner

3

Dir. Alex Garland

Ex Machina

Proof that science fiction doesn’t have to be larger than life to be successful. Instead, it’s a philosophical meditation on the meaning of human identity. Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson spar effectively, but it’s Alicia Vikander who elevates the film as Ava. Garland’s directorial debut is gorgeous and tightly told. There’s no fat. Ex Machina manages to keep its cards close to its chest while maintaining believable reveals. It’s perfectly paced and visually impressive on a smaller scale than expected. -- Jason Wilson

4

Dir. Todd Haynes

Carol

Living within the confines of a world where their love is forbidden, the looks, glances, and touches of Todd Haynes’s Carol say everything that words can’t. Haynes becomes a master of melodrama in his own right, with swoony cinematography from Ed Lachman, and exquisite performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Carol is as much about love and desire as it is about exploration of identity. -- Kyle Turner

5

Dir. Olivier Assayas

Clouds of Sils Maria

Olivier Assayas’s intellectual foray into the world of high culture deftly combines an exploration of the creative process, scathing critique of celebrity culture, and a character-driven relationship study, wrapping it all up around a jarring and ultimately unsolved mystery. What could be, in less capable hands, pretentious and frustrating is, in this case, intimidatingly smart. Assayas is insightful and playful as always, but Clouds of Sils Maria outshines much of his recent work in its maturity, achieved through restraint. -- Sarah Winshall

6

Dirs. Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen

Inside Out

With Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen’s Inside Out, Pixar has placed yet another feather in its overstuffed cap. The adventures of adolescent Riley and the competing emotions inside her head are wonderfully inventive and incredibly moving. Entertaining and thoughtful throughout, Inside Out will delight viewers of any age. -- J.A. Kordosh

7

Dir. Tom McCarthy

Spotlight

What it lacks in flash, it more than makes up with meticulous care and attention to showing the craft of journalism. The subject matter would be done a disservice with a more overtly stylistic approach. Instead we get lingering shots on faces and hands. We get conversations. We see the ache of the past that never fully dissolved. Spotlight is always understated even in its louder moments but remains gripping through to the end. -- Jason Wilson

8

Dir. David Robert Mitchell

It Follows

A gorgeous, magnetic new scream queen for the 21st century. A haunting synth score out of a lost John Carpenter classic. A dream-like, timeless setting with no parents, no cell phones and no way out. A monster that can be played by any extra, in any frame, at any time. It can’t talk. It can’t feel. It can’t stop. But It Follows. -- Stephen Danay

9

Dirs. Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi

What We Do In The Shadows

Absurd, charmingly sweet and thoroughly blood-soaked, What We Do in the Shadows brings the goofy sensibilities of the Flight of the Concords team to the mockumentary genre. Focusing on three swinging vampires in the happening metropolis of Wellington, New Zealand, the film’s loose, improvisational style and over-the-top gore blends nicely with some surprisingly touching ruminations on living as an outcast and leaving behind the people you love. -- Stephen Danay

10

Dir. James Ponsoldt

The End of the Tour

The End of the Tour—based on a five-day interview with novelist David Foster Wallace, conducted by Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky—unrolls like a single, feature-length conversation between two engaging and highly literate individuals. The film gives Jason Segel an opportunity to stretch out into more dramatic territory, and director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) a chance to intimately frame a fleeting moment in the tragic literary icon’s life. -- Austin Trunick

11

Dir. Denis Villeneuve

Sicario

Finally, Denis Villeneuve crafted a complete movie that hangs together from start to finish. It’s scattered and messy, but in a way wholly conducive to the story. Emily Blunt’s FBI Agent Kate Macer is thrust into a job hunting down those responsible for the most gruesome crime scene she had ever witnessed. Or so she thinks. Josh Brolin’s CIA spook recruits her because she’s a woman and he underestimates her. Some may argue that she is rendered ineffectual, but that has more to do with the hopelessness of the war on drugs than anything to do with her gender. It’s shot by Roger Deakins, too, so you know it’s going to be a thing of beauty. -- Jason Wilson

12

Dir. Adam McKay

The Big Short

“This is a True Story” reads the tagline of The Big Short. In nearly every sequence in the film, from the text overlay, to the intercut footage of old photographs and videos, to the swirling camera movements allowing the actors to look into the camera, to the breaking of the fourth wall, the film dares you and says, “What, you think it isn’t?” On the one hand, a furious off the rails manifesto against the ones who catalyzed the financial collapse of 2008, but more interestingly, Adam McKay’s film operates as a meta-deconstruction of films that taunt its audience with veracity and “truth”. -- Kyle Turner

13

Dirs. Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson

Anomalisa

Stop-motion animation is notoriously painstaking: several seconds’ worth of film can take animators a week to execute, and even small actions—a character scratching his nose, for instance—may require a full day’s work. It’s a wonder, then, that a pair of the year’s best performances come courtesy of Anomalisa’s puppets—voiced by David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh—under the direction of Duke Johnson. Writer and co-director Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) adapted his play for the screen, remarkably resulting in his most grounded (and heartbreaking) film yet, puppets and all. -- Austin Trunick

14

Dir. J.J. Abrams

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

J. J. Abrams masterfully recreates the look, feel and most of the magic from the original Star Wars trilogy in the The Force Awakens. The derivative plot keeps the film from reaching greater heights but Abrams pulls off the most crucial task: creating engaging characters for the audience to follow in future installments. In the shadow of Luke, Han and Leia this is a remarkable feat. -- J.A. Kordosh

15

Dir. Gregory Jacobs

Magic Mike XXL

Following the success of 2012’s Magic Mike, Magic Mike XXL transplants all the same lovable characters into a road trip buddy film. The hunks are reunited and titillating all kinds of women across the American South. Although the dance numbers can’t quite reach the conceptual heights of the original, unburdened of plot, they are free to just be silly. A bus full of goofy and charming male strippers with nothing to do but party and provide escapist pleasure to hoards of horny women? Magic Mike XXL is the most fun film of 2015. -- Sarah Winshall

16

Dir. Lenny Abrahamson

Room

Brie Larson plays a beleaguered but resolute young mother trying desperately to shield her five-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), from a nightmarish reality—that they’ve been living as captives his whole life. The accolades that Larson is receiving for her immersive, conflicted portrayal as Joy Newsome (aka Ma) are well deserved, but Tremblay and supporting actors Joan Allen and Tom McCamus are also critical to Room’s delicate balance of tenderness and tragedy. Abrahamson and screenwriter Emma Donoghue—who adapted Room from her 2010 novel of the same name—build the tension of an escape film within a family melodrama to examine false freedom and layers of entrapment, while remarkably sustaining an innocent air of wonder about the world. -- Chris Tinkham

17

Dir. John Crowley

Brooklyn

It’s rare that a movie eschews cynicism while simultaneously avoiding becoming saccharine or sappy, but Brooklyn accomplishes it throughout. But it’s much more than that. Brooklyn is endearing and rich with a simple but compelling story about home. Saoirse Ronan is perfectly cast as an Irish immigrant with wide-eyed wonder as she arrives in New York for the first time. And while her burgeoning romance to Tony (Emory Cohen) may be front and center, but it never defines who she is. The story avoids typical prestige pitfalls and should instantly connect with anyone who’s ever had to move far away from home. -- Jason Wilson

18

Dir. Noah Baumbach

Mistress America

The moment Greta Gerwig as Brooke shows up on screen in Mistress America, the audience chases after her, as breathless as her younger soon to be stepsister Tracy (Lola Kirke). And yet, this intoxicating chase – after Brooke, after dreams, after stability – is but a clever distraction from the pain of reality, that those hopes and dreams may come crashing down at any moment. Noah Baumbach and Gerwig conceive a film that is sharp both in its wit and in its vicious, but sympathetic, look at the struggles of young people. -- Kyle Turner

As the Scorsese and DeNiro of the Girls generation, director Noah Baumbach and star Greta Gerwig had their work cut out for them with their follow-up to the 2013 classic Frances Ha. Despite being less singular and less stylized than its predecessor, Mistress America is an excellent showcase for the brand of millennial, slice-of-life, NYC dramedy that cemented its creators’ partnership. Gerwig herself remains as irrepressible and winning as ever, while Baumbach continues his examination of the ever widening gap between childhood and adult life. -- Stephen Danay

19

Dir. Ridley Scott

The Martian

The Martian is what all popcorn sci-fi should be: a story of man vs. the unknown, his triumph through science. Instead of filling the plot with frivolous melodrama or bad guys with selfish intent, every character in this film is dedicated to doing their job to the best of their ability. Despite taking what could prove to be a dry approach to the genre, director Ridley Scott keeps things interesting by filling the film with likeable, down-to-earth characters, breath-taking vistas of an imagined Mars, a lively soundtrack, and a healthy dose of embarrassing dad jokes. -- Sarah Winshall

20

Dir. Cary Joji Fukunag

Beasts of No Nation

Director Cary Joji Fukunaga reveals the true, traumatic nature of war in the powerful Beasts of No Nation. The film is beautifully shot and features a command performance by Idris Elba. The real revelations of Beasts however are the debut of young Abraham Attah as an actor and Netflix as a production company. -- J.A. Kordosh

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Michael
January 5th 2016
2:42pm

This is the second time I’ve seen XXL (the ultimate pile of cinematic garbage) on a best-of list. That’s bad enough but to have it placing higher than ROOM and BROOKLYN? Not good.

reformas alicante
August 5th 2016
4:53am

My favorite movie is number 14

icariin 60
September 29th 2017
4:26am

Loved The Martian, was a truly epic piece of cinema for myself.