As we explained in our “Honorable Mentions” column last week, the only thing we’re capable of ranking is the amount of time we spent thinking about specific movies. So in lieu of searching for the “best” and the “most,” here are the 10 American movies from this year that we’d be most likely to show you if you happened to end up in our apartment with nothing else to do. These are the movies that we’re living with. We hope you’d like to meet them.
The set-up is straight outta Spice World: Five of the first Magic Mike’s dancers are rounded up for a cross-country road trip, with the big climax being nothing more than a performance. There’s a male stripper convention in Myrtle Beach, and clothes-shedding stops to make along the way (a drag club, a members-only establishment catering to African-American patrons, a Southern mansion lined with belles). Each of them allows for a show of its own, with the appropriate lights and moves. Maybe it’s not Spice World so much as it’s an MGM musical—as far as frivolity goes, this is top hat.
Meryl Streep’s eponymous would-be arena rocker—she covers Tom Petty for regulars at a San Fernando dive—gets called home to provide emotional support for the millennial daughter she left behind. So the script is mining laughs from the faux pas traded between 20-somethings who care about going green and a child of the ’60s who’d rather be smoking it. It’s director Jonathan Demme, so adept with building character, who makes this into more than Freaky Friday: He hangs on to each scene for moments longer than necessary, and finds explanations for even the most unreasonable plot machinations. He cares, and it plays.
An Austin gym serves as the setting for an anxiety-laden love triangle among a slob (Kevin Corrigan, as a newly wealthy divorcee), an idiot (Guy Pearce, as the gym’s puppyish owner), and an asshole (Cobie Smulders, as Pearce’s least-manageable employee). Bujalski’s camera keeps its distance from the trio, acting as needlessly guarded as they all do. As they get comfortable with each other, it gets comfortable with them. By the time it arrives at its destination, the proximity is the pathos: Results is the sole movie from 2015 that reminds us that a close-up can be like falling in love.
Ron Hall is a Vietnam veteran, a dedicated biker, and a self-described “warrior”—and if you need proof, he’s got receipts for five figures’ worth of assault charges that he can show you. That looks like a narrative setup. It’s actually just a deceptive surface. Granik’s nonfiction profile of Mr. Hall chases him down each of life’s rabbit holes, eventually branching out to profile his immigrant wife and her two sons in comparable depth. What starts as a one-man show takes on the shape of an epic novel. By the time you reach the bottom, the surface is long forgotten.
Every moment of this family-first melodrama—two newly single brothers find themselves stuck in the same beer-stained apartment—suggests the sure hand of director John Magary. It’s only more impressive, then, that this is his debut movie. He wrestles the perspective away from his over-passionate cast (no easy task) and thus forces us to process each moment as an increasingly concerned observer. He’s taken us to the zoo, and masculinity has escaped from its cage. And wherever Magary goes next, we’ll be following.
Anyone who’s seen an Air Jordan ad knows that Spike Lee wears many hats. In Chi-raq, he’s got his carnival-barker cap back on. Lee stages this modern-day adaptation of Lysistrata as a three-ring affair: song-and-dance sequences to the left (Nick Cannon stars as a quick-to-shoot rapper who leads a Chicago gang), bad-taste satire to the right (the source text considers women attempting to curb statewide violence with a sex strike), and Samuel L Jackson as a one-man Greek chorus in the center. The tone is urgent, often earnest, and always focused. And yet the stage never stops expanding.
It’s a common misconception that the films of Frederick Wiseman—who embeds himself into locations and organizations, then makes anthropologically minded nonfiction films out of the resulting footage—all share the same structure or framework. In truth, he finds a specific shape to suit each shoot. And for this document of the nation’s most diverse neighborhood, he organizes footage in a way that suggests a weekend pilgrimage: There’s day (community organizers meeting with business owners), then night (football matches to watch and clubs to dance at), then day again (kids on the playground, adults back at work). Wiseman turns a three-hour movie into three days of experience, and it leaves you with something you’ll think about for weeks, or months, or years.
Harley, a New Yorker, is an addict. The two directors Safdie observe her whole routine—reselling stolen goods, negotiating for couch space, begging for a fronted bag—and they do so from the outside looking in. Shots are composed from across the street or from outside glass windows. And the views are obscured by uncaring commuters or by ads for Dunkin’ Donuts and Duane Reed. Corporations mark the territory, the poor scurry through gathering scraps—and the working class walks by, or watches along with us, counting themselves lucky.
Max is almost mute. Car chases fill the entire running time. Backstories are illustrated using only the scars and wounds on character’s bodies. Fury Road speaks to us visually—it’d work entirely without sound. There’s only one verbal motif: “Who killed the world?” shouted by the film’s six heroines toward the patriarchal figures who scorched their planet. Scoff at the inclusion of progressive politics in a film this unashamedly violent, but everything eventually clicks together. We see a world in need of tearing down. Fury Road finds great cinematic beauty doing exactly that. This is a monsterpiece.
After a relatively quiet release in October, Bridge of Spies has hung in the background of both our multiplexes and our collective consciousness, refusing any attempts at digestion. This latest Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks collaboration—the actor plays a historical figure who brokered prisoner exchange negotiations between the US and the USSR during the depths of the Cold War—is another tale about one of our nation’s better angels. But the effect isn’t aspiration so much as interrogation. Using a narrative defined by contradictions and a palette defined by shadows, Spielberg wonders what the American character owes to both its subscribers and its enemies. Unless someone finds an answer for that anytime soon, we’ll be thinking about Bridge of Spies long past 2015.