I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many amazing new films in a single year as I did in 2015. If I really wanted to, I could have written a top 30 movies of 2015 list, but I think twenty is daunting enough. Although writing about twenty films is quite a lot for a year end list, I couldn’t find it in me to get rid of any of the movies I mentioned. Every entry is impressive and important in its own right, and the director responsible for each feature is someone that I want to see more from in the future.
Ranking these films was difficult and kind of ridiculous, since they’re all great in their own ways. Picking one title over another was excruciatingly painful, and part of me wishes I hadn’t even bothered trying to put them in order. The ultimate definitive choices are my top three films, which I can say with total confidence were the ones that stuck with me the most, but the rest, although ranked, all mean something to me individually.
I know many of these films are from festivals, so some people haven’t gotten the chance to see them yet, but I couldn’t stand waiting a whole year to write about these wonderful movies. I’m far too excited about what I saw in 2015 to wait until the end of 2016 to gush about them, so I just included every movie I saw this year, and picked out my favorites, which were many. I don’t think I saw a single movie that I didn’t like at Fantastic Fest, and because of that, I’d like to send a personal thank you to the programmers of this spectacular festival, Fons PR, and the Drafthouse for hosting such a killer week.
Without further ado, here are my top twenty films of 2015, all of which, from beginning to end, deserve your attention.
Tense, paranoia-fueled, and superbly acted, Pod is definitely my favorite film to date from up-and-coming director Mickey Keating. Like a cross between The Evil Dead and Night of the Living Dead, Pod uses its isolation to its advantage, as brother Ed and sister Lyla slowly grow to feel more and more trapped, between the mentally unstable brother they’ve come to collect, and whatever is lurking in the basement.
Osgood Perkins, son of Psycho‘s Anthony Perkins, has crafted one extremely impressive directorial debut with February. Set at a cleared out Bramford Catholic school over winter break, this film follows two main characters, Kat and Joan, in two different timelines, as both girls find shelter from the cold in the devil’s fiery embrace. Not only does this movie use the moody atmosphere and distant, detached attitude of the girls to convey the horrors of life as a teenage girl, but it also provides a more sympathetic take on possession, setting up the devil as a much-needed friend for a lonely soul. I can’t wait to see what methodically-paced, creepy thriller Osgood brings us next.
Made with mostly the same crew as V/H/S and V/H/S/2, Southbound may be just one out of the many new films to choose from in the recent resurgence of horror anthologies, but it is easily the most impressive. Following five different tales told through one extremely cohesive storyline, this descent into a hellish abyss serves as a disturbing warning to all wrong-doers. It gives these sinners a glimpse into the hot flames that await them, not in the depths of the underworld, but in the most unexpected of places, like on the backroads of a family road trip, in the desolate location of a run-down diner, or en route to a band’s gig. Knowing you can’t outrun your fate is one of the scariest notions that the horror genre can suggest, and together, these talented filmmakers have crafted just the nightmare to keep viewers petrified of what awaits them on the path to hell.
17. It Follows
David Robert Mitchell is definitely a name we’ll be hearing more often in the future. His film It Follows received high praise from critics, and even managed to expand its theatrical run, making the difficult transition from a few independent theaters to several mainstream chain theaters across the country. This is a film that even caught the eye of non-horror movie fans, and it’s not hard to see why. Thick with dread, Mitchell uses slow and deliberate dark, spinning shots, and a heavy, pulsating score to effectively illustrate the entirety of the melancholy world he’s created. By doing this, he includes even the viewers inside of his bleak universe, reminding them of the terror that comes with teenage years, and giving them a sense of reality so strong, it feels like the evil entity has leapt out of the screen, and followed them home.
16. The Mind’s Eye
Holy shit, this movie is a lot of fun. Like a love letter to 1980s body horror and Sylvester Stallone action movies, The Mind’s Eye is arguably even better than Scanners. The reason is that Graham Skipper is an extremely gifted actor who brings his raw, amped-up energy to every scene he’s in, giving his telekinetically-charged hothead character Zack a very relatable stance. Like a male Carrie, Zack just wants to live a normal life, but the powers that be push him over the edge, and into bloody, dangerous, gleefully mad territory. The result is one kickass midnight movie that proves that Joe Begos is just getting better with every feature he makes.
15. Zinzana / Rattle the Cage
This may be Majid Al Ansar’s directorial debut, but Zinzana, a.k.a. Rattle the Cage, feels like the product of a filmmaker with a few movies under his belt already. The first genre film to ever come out of the United Arab Emirates, the pressure to make his homeland proud was a daunting task to put on Ansari’s shoulders, but he handles it with confidence and grace, delivering a claustrophobic, unique little thriller, and putting a new spin on the familiar set-up of two men entering a room, and one man leaving.
14. The Voices
This is one film that I’m shocked hasn’t popped up on more ‘top movies of 2015’ lists, and the only reason I can fathom is just that not enough people saw this glorious little gem. Starring the terrific Ryan Reynolds as Jerry, this film tackles the inner workings of a serial killer’s brain from a surprisingly sweet and sympathetic angle, making the viewer, in a way, feel just as sorry for Jerry as they do for his victims. After all, Jerry is just a regular Joe who goes to work at the plant, comes home, makes himself dinner, and talks to his bull mastiff and red tabby cat. There’s nothing wrong with that…except that Jerry hears his pets talk back, and even occasionally suggest that he should murder his coworkers. As the fourth film from Persepolis director Marjane Satrapi, this is definitely her most accomplished entry yet, and one that definitely deserves a lot more love.
13. The Boy
Innocence isn’t always a happy thing. A child pulls the wings off of a fly for fun, but also because he doesn’t understand the consequences of his actions. Taking this notion into consideration, does that mean that little Ted Henley is committing these malicious acts because he can’t comprehend that he’s hurting people, or is there something innately sinister lurking inside of him? Is he a product of nature or nurture? All of these questions are explored in this taut, disturbing little thriller about the birth of a serial killer, and the horrifying life that inevitably lies ahead for this angel-faced maniac.
12. The Gift
Robyn and Simon may think they’re about to experience the best years of their lives, as they make the big move from a cramped condo in the city to a large house in the suburbs, but there’s one thing that they didn’t count on: Gordo. Gordon is an old friend of Simon’s from high school, and Simon is anything but happy to see him again. It’s not long before Robyn sees why, as Gordo transitions from quirky, clingy friend to dangerous stalker. As he begins to invade every facet of their lives, his ever-present presence permeates and suffocates any sense of safety this couple had left, proving that you’re never too old for the past to come back and haunt you.
11. The Final Girls
This love letter to ’80s horror slashers by first time director Todd Strauss-Schulson is so full of heart, it’s hard not to be brought to tears by the time the end credits roll. Surprisingly endearing, this horror-comedy account of a young girl grieving the loss of her mother is both funny and heartwarming, as lead Max undergoes a series of strange events and winds up stuck inside the world of a motion picture, alongside her celebrity mother’s movie character, Nancy. The chemistry between stars Taissa Farmiga and Malin Akerman is so sweet, it becomes difficult not to root for all of these people to survive, despite the fact that a horror movie such as this is usually filled with disposable characters.
10. What We Do in the Shadows
The minute that I heard that Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords was making a horror comedy about vampires, I knew it was going to be a movie that I had to see. This hilarious portrayal of modern day vampires shows what it might be like to be a member of the undead in a fast-paced, technology-fueled, jaded world of 2015. Told in a mockumentary style, a camera crew follows these immortal being around as they deal with daily challenges, which range anywhere from a member of the house not pulling his weight in chores, to battling sassy werewolves, to losing a beloved human to the curse of mortality. Being a vampire can be tough, but through the aid of a new human friend, this gang discovers that the humanity they believed to be lost many moons ago is still alive and well inside of them.
9. Bone Tomahawk
It’s pretty incredible how many first time directors proved their talents with outstanding films this year, and S. Craig Zahler is definitely one of them. With a script so strong he managed to convince Kurt Russell, who hadn’t been in a western in twenty years, to hop in the saddle again, Zahler delivers a very unique tale that’s brutal, bloody, and magnificent. This film works because of its uncommon approach to westerns, conveying a story about cannibalistic cave dwelling indians who are completely merciless, but it’s also successful just because it has terrific casting choices. Kurt Russell is wonderful as the smooth talking, gun slinging, wise old man who people don’t cross unless they want a bullet, and David Arquette seems to have finally found a role that suits him perfectly, as the dopey criminal too slow to be good at being bad. Every person seems to fit in perfectly, especially Richard Jenkins, who nearly steals the show from Russell as his charming, dim-witted partner and faithful companion. The violence is shocking, the costumes are tremendous, and the practical effects are awesome and lifelike. This is a film that every cinephile, whether they’re big fans of horror or not, should definitely check out.
8. German Angst
Oh boy, did I love German Angst. Speaking truthfully, the only qualm I have with this movie is that more people didn’t see it, so I have no one to talk to about it. A horror anthology brought into existence by three brilliant German filmmakers, Jorg Buttgereit, Michal Kosakowski, and Andreas Marschall, this is the no-holds-barred, relentlessly brutal, sadistic film that I spent all of 2015 looking for. Each segment is vastly different from the last, but they are all equally striking. From a young girl declaring she’s suffered enough abuse and taking on the title of the predator, to a deaf couple experiencing the validity of the phrase “absolute power corrupts absolutely”, to a man paying for his unrealistic expectations of sex, German Angst pushes the envelope, shoves the truth down your throat, and doesn’t apologize. Coming from a highly censored region, this feature doesn’t just advance the progress of art onscreen, it also serves as a rebellious stand against those who would seek to silence these filmmakers, and basks in its depraved glory.
7. Goodnight Mommy
Two twin boys, Lukas and Elias, are initially excited when their mother first returns home after her dramatic round of plastic surgery. However, as the days wear on, and the beast inside of their mother’s skin begins to rear its ugly head, the inclination that the woman underneath the bandages is an imposter grows more and more believable. This becomes especially true when the woman claiming to be their mother moves from verbal abuse to physical abuse; an act that is so heinous that the boys’ know that this monster couldn’t possibly be the sweet and loving guardian that they once knew. In an act of self-defense, the boys’ take matters into their own hands and begin a frightening interrogation. Although it feels justified at first, as these two little kids evolve into more vengeful hosts of their hostage, the lines between right and wrong begin to blur, and the audience is left questioning whether the boys’ wild theory is actually correct, or if they’ve simply gone insane as a result of their mother’s horrible parenting skills. The ending is so shocking, it warrants a viewing all on its own, but co-directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz have developed a methodical thriller so tantalizing that it makes the deliberately slow-paced ride to the finale all the more thought-provoking. This isn’t just one of the best films of this year, it’s one of the best films of the past several years, and it will undoubtedly live on for generations to come.
6. Ex Machina
Caleb can’t believe it. Out of all of the programmers that entered the contest to work with renowned mastermind Nathan Bateman, he was the one who was chosen. Upon arriving on Nathan’s lavish home-turned-laboratory estate, Caleb grows even more excited when he learns that he’ll be helping Nathan run tests on his newest project, a beautiful A.I. named Ava. Nathan wants to see if Ava can pass for human, so he has Caleb participate in daily conversations with this extremely lifelike piece of machinery, and records his findings. At first, Caleb is thrilled with the honor bestowed upon him, but when Ava relays to Caleb that she’s actually a prisoner, constructed to be more a female companion to Nathan than an advancement of science, Caleb realizes that he must betray the man he respects the most, and help Ava escape. From Alex Garland, the man made famous for his script for 28 Days Later, comes a riveting look at the definition of humanity, and intelligently debates what the true qualifications for being a human being actually consists of. The film is gorgeous, and the special effects are awe-inspiring, but even more important is the message behind the pretty aesthetics, which tells us that having consciousness automatically entitles a being to the same basic human rights as any other person, whether the subject in question consists of a beating heart, or an electrically-charged system.
5. Crimson Peak
Here’s a film that feels like it was made just for me. Like a love letter to classic novels like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, the latest film from fan favorite Guillermo del Toro is a stunning gothic romance with ghosts tucked away in its crevices. Although del Toro himself has claimed that this is not a horror movie, I’ve included it in my list anyway, because it’s one of my favorite films of the year (and possibly ever), and because if you look back at literature over time, you’ll find that even the most prestigious novels of the nineteenth century contained strong elements of horror within their pages. As for what I love about the film, I could go on for days, but I will limit it to the breathtaking ancient house, the use of ghosts as a tool for unlocking secrets, and the delightfully romantic, albeit ill-advised romance that blossoms between world traveller Thomas Sharpe, and the assertive aspiring writer Edith Cushing. Additionally, if I had it my way, Mia Wasikowska would only act in period pieces from here on out.
4. The Invitation
They say not to bring up controversial topics at the dinner table, but it seems that poking and prodding at people’s personal lives is all Eden set out to do when she invited all of her old friends to a gathering at her home up in the Hollywood hills. Achingly uncomfortable from start to finish, Jennifer’s Body director Karyn Kusama’s latest shows just how much she’s grown as a filmmaker, by dousing every friendly moment in suspicious dread. As the night drags on, and the drinks flow heavy, the topics turn deadly serious, and the feeling of helplessness becomes more and more palpable. The weight of the world seems to cave in on these unsuspecting dinner guests, and as they struggle to rid themselves of the awkward presence that hangs in the air all around them, each of them becomes encased in the slowly tightening coil, seductively sliding up their legs, until it becomes a struggle to even breathe, let alone think straight. This is a film that should be seen in a dark room, in complete silence, at night, with all of the people that you think you trust.
If I could only use three words to describe this movie, it would be Turkish horror madness. As the first ever feature length film from Can Evrenol, Baskin is a film that acts as evidence that this filmmaker has hit the ground running. Played out like a Ruggero Deodato fever dream, the story revolves around a squad of cops who answer a call for help on the radio, only to be dragged down to Hell once they arrive on the scene. Mutilated corpses and blind and bloody feral people crowd the basement of the abandoned building, and deviant rituals are being performed in the name of a sickening higher power. What’s happening is so depraved and grotesque that it’s hard to tell if the creatures these men are seeing are even human. Seriously caught off guard, these everyday men of the law fail to concoct a plan of action in time, and are soon swept up in the debauchery; a waking nightmare their new reality. They’ll be lucky if they make it out alive, but even if they do, it’s easy to suspect that their sanity will be a part of them that gets left behind. This is one rough movie, but if you can stomach it, it’s totally worth the gut-wrenching ride.
2. The Devil’s Candy
In his long-awaited follow-up to the 2009 ruthless gem The Loved Ones, Sean Byrne explores a different side of evil, told from the perspective of struggling artist Jesse Hellman. Jesse and his family snag a sweet deal on an old house in south Texas, but the cheap price tag comes with a few strings attached. Jesse and wife Astrid learn that the previous owners died in this house, but they’re so in love with the property, they decide to overlook its issues — a decision they’ll soon regret. The Loved Ones was a sadistic little contained thriller that proved Byrne’s potential, but The Devil’s Candy is intense and unnerving on a much grander scale. Ethan Embry has never been better, as the desperate man caught between the devil’s lure, and the innate desire to protect his family. Together, Embry, Shiri Appleby and Kiara Glasco make up a family that’s impossible not to love, making the horrific harassment they experience all the more painful to watch. Taking a very innovative approach, the music acts as a character in and of itself, as each person uses metal like medicine to keep the demons plaguing them at bay. Every piece of music used has a purpose, whether it be bringing Jesse and his daughter Zooey closer together, providing inspiration for Jesse’s artwork, or quieting the voices in a serial killer’s head. The Loved Ones gave audiences a taste of Byrne’s affinity for rock music, but The Devil’s Candy puts such an emphasis on the riffs and roughness of these rad sounds that it doesn’t just portray a love for ’70s and ’80s bands, it makes this feature one of the most metal movies ever made.
1. The Witch
Playing on the horrors of the time period as much as it does the witchcraft, The Witch is terrifying on all fronts. When a family is cut out of their community and forced to live out on their own, in the wilderness by the woods, they undergo a series of strange happenings and bad luck. First, their youngest disappears without a trace, and then their crops wither and die. Each day feels more damned than the last, and when the family grows hungry and paranoid, they start to point fingers, mainly at teenage daughter Thomasin. Labeling her a witch, her superstitious loved ones chalk up all of these unfortunate events to the practice of black magics, causing a riff between their already weakened family, thus only making them more perceptible to the evils of the woods. The fact that this is Robert Eggers’ first feature length film is simply astounding. The score is so haunting, the dialogue is so authentic, and the air is so full of gut-wrenching tension that this little movie from a first time director winds up not just being the best film of 2015, but the best witch movie in several years. To say that I’m looking forward to whatever Eggers does next would be an extreme understatement.
Honorable Mentions — Many of these would have easily made this list if they were more horror-centric:
-The Hateful Eight
-Mad Max: Fury Road
-The Keeping Room