Here, now, are our favorite films, TV shows, and pieces of internet ephemera of the year. Thank you for your time.
Logistics aside, Emily Blunt should be in every action movie. This is not a big movie—in fact, it’s one of the most tightly wound things I’ve seen in years—but it makes up for its modest size with sheer heft. Watching Sicario is a pulverizing experience: The soundtrack rattles and thumps you along as what you thought was a Drug War action flick turns into a literal descent into hell. And Blunt guides you through the soul-warping nausea as a bystander, as a protagonist, and, ultimately, as a pawn. She’s like a superhuman stand-in for the viewer, and she walks the line between disgust and determination better than most anyone could. -Patrick Redford
I have three small children and two jobs (kind of), which means that I currently operate at Peak Life. Life will never get busier or more annoying for me than at this precise moment in time. That means I never have time to go to the movies—if I had my druthers, I go once a week or so—and so the rare time I do make it to one, I gotta make it count. Every film must be carefully vetted, with the entire world vouching for its quality.
And so we come to Mad Max: Fury Road, the movie that renders all other movies pointless and unnecessary. It’s as if George Miller took every possible thrill- and awe-inspiring image movies are capable of and put them in one tidy theatergoing experience. That’s highly convenient for old dads like me, and I am forever grateful. (Note: My parents hated it. I’m never talking about movies with them again. I have given up on them.) -Drew Magary
I loved Better Call Saul, Game of Thrones, and the final march of Parks and Recreation, among other shows I watched this year, but for pure entertainment on TV, I sincerely don’t think anything came close to the second season of True Detective. This isn’t a contrarian stance where I’m arguing that the eight-episode run was actually the best show on TV. It was, however, a spectacular car crash that kept my attention. Colin Farrell, Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams, and that one hot guy delivered the hell out of those lines, as stupid as they got. (They got so stupid.) I have no desire to rewatch it, ever. It was one of those phenomenons where you had to be there, and I’m glad I stuck it through. Maybe Nic Pizzolatto can turn all the unused highway porn into its own spinoff. -Samer Kalaf
I cry-laughed like an idiot at a great many videos and Vines and whatnot this year, from this to this to this to this to forever this. But the point here where the boomerangs and the sound FX kick in just obliterates me, every time. These poor goddamn fish. Man, I love jumping. I hope these dudes leave me alone. Their music is terrible. What the fuck is that, a boomerang? What are they gonna [POK] ow, shit. I hate this river. I am only boomerang fishing from now on. And if I throw my boomerang and miss and it doesn’t come back, I can always just pull out my phone and watch this for the 10,000th time. -Rob Harvilla
Fargo was the best show on television this year, thanks in large part to the performances put on by Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst, who play Ed and Peggy Blumquist, a milquetoast Midwestern couple that becomes the bumbling, unwitting engine pushing the show’s pulpy plot along. They also managed to become one of the best comedic duos on TV.
The laughs come not from their repeated mishaps and complete inability to grasp the full severity of the situation they are in, but in their doe-eyed resoluteness in the face of increasingly violent horrors. Ed comes home to Peggy after burying a cleaver into the head of a would-be assassin, and after patiently listening to her ramble on about selling her car, calmly tells her that he “killed another fella” and that it’s time for them to skip town. Peggy responds to a murderous Germanic mobster’s threats by sliding a knife into each side of his chest, and then feeding him beans while she sweetly carries on with small talk.
Plemons’s and Dunst’s real accomplishment, though, lies in all the things their characters manage not to be. Ed is dumb, and Peggy is mentally ill, and their marriage was never going to last, but Plemons and Dunst refuse to let their characters be one-note caricatures or unsympathetic buffoons. Their scenes together left plenty of room for the obvious subtext to be “Marriage, amirite!” or “Get a load of these idiots!” save for the fact that Ed and Peggy never turn on each other. Ed is never henpecked or fuming—he’s only ever slightly exasperated, as when he says to Peggy, “Hon, you gotta stop stabbing him”—and Peg’s never a bulldozing nag. They’re just two simple, doomed people, clearly in love and trying to survive and, for once, really understand each other. -Tom Ley
I’m not finished watching the first season of Making A Murderer, Netflix’s new true-crime series, but I can safely say it rivals Fargo and easily beats-out True Detective as far as this year’s big crime thrillers on TV are concerned. The documentary series follows the twisted trial(s) of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who was wrongfully convicted of rape and jailed for 18 years before he was proven innocent. That entire story unfolds within the first episode of the series, as it’s revealed that his false-imprisonment was likely knowingly and terrifyingly masterminded by his local police department. (Helmed, possibly, by the sheriff himself, who didn’t particularly like Avery or his “strange” family.) The following nine episodes focus on the years after his release, when Avery is charged and imprisoned once again for something that he adamantly insists that he did not do: Murder.
The brilliance behind this series, which was recorded over the span of nearly a decade, is the way the producers let evidence speak for itself. Through court documents, recorded phone-calls and video of interviews between varying lawyers, police officials, witnesses, and victims, the uncertainty of Avery’s innocence becomes increasingly undeniable. The power of local government in a small town far away from the glitzy crime-units found in major cities becomes suffocating. The systemic failures—the sheriff department’s class bias, the police’s misuse of resources, the manipulation of children with learning disabilities—that allowed Avery’s first long-term imprisonment are only fortified to encourage his second. It’s thoughtful story-telling, especially when it reveals this seedy underbelly. All while focused on the sort of self-kept, rural family that’s so usually and negatively stereotyped as creepy or odd by most mainstream television.
Behind the face plastered all over the news, we see the people who stand by Avery, and how their lives are impossibly, willingly cemented to his, even in his absence. There’s his mother, who knows nothing else if not his innocence, and spends years writing to various TV programs (20/20, Dateline, 60 Minutes) to beg them to read his files and report their obvious truths. His sister, whose son gets wrapped up in the mess himself, and is compassionate and composed in times of insanity. There are Avery’s lawyers, who call bullshit on everyone and everything, and who are basically always right in doing so. The show is truly heartbreaking, and nerve-wrecking. If you’re like me, you’ll watch it as a marathon, simply because you’ll want to find the bad guy and, in doing so, give their family some peace of mind. Whether that redemption will ever come, however, is yet to be seen. As of today, Steven Avery is still in jail. -Puja Patel
I consume almost zero visual pop culture. I say this neither ashamedly nor (this would be much worse) proudly. I just generally hate getting caught up in general internet hype, much of which feels performative, to the point where I go into movies and TV shows that have been praised to the high heavens just looking to pick it apart to prove a point to ... someone? I don’t know. It’s not a fun mindset. It ruins a lot of objectively good things for me.
That said, I gave myself fully over to The Force Awakens. I’m a fan, though not a huge one, but for whatever reason, I decided I was actually going to let myself get psyched about something for once. The very best thing I watched this year was the above teaser that came out this spring. You remember it: the first one to show action scenes and main characters, closing with the return of Han and Chewie. God, my heart swelled. I decided, maybe somewhat self-consciously, that this lead-up was more important than the movie itself. I had infinitely more fun spending months looking forward to something and sharing that with everyone else.
Star Wars is the closest thing we have to a national epic, and it was an absolute pleasure to take part in the communal rituals of theorizing, anticipating, and just generally losing our shit over the tiniest reveals. It didn’t matter—it never mattered—if the movie was good or not. (It was.) This was all about getting there together. -Barry Petchesky
The best movie I saw in 2015 was Inside Out. Spoiler: This movie wants you to know that Joy will only get you in big trouble, and that to get out of it, you’ll have to push Joy aside and let Sadness take over. I’d feel bad telling my kids such hard truths. Now I don’t have to! ’Course, the only other movie I saw all year was Creed, and it turns out both films had sorta the same message. -Dave McKenna
I don’t want to spoil the second season of this HBO show here, because that’s a shitty thing to do, and not many people have watched it. But if you haven’t watched The Leftovers, or gave up on the show after the first season, you should remedy that, perhaps even today. It’s my favorite thing on television, because it’s the realest thing on television.
The series is based on Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name, in which two-percent of the world’s population disappears one day without a trace, in an event called The Departure. No one knows why or how these people disappeared, and the first season is dedicated to mining the everyday minutiae of people trying and failing to cope with loss and survivor’s remorse: It’s violent, depressing, and one of the bleakest seasons of TV to ever air.
The second season exists in this same universe, but with the book plot already exhausted, the writers were free to ask their own questions. The season starts off in the fictional town of Jarden, TX, where there were no Departures. The sleepy town has become a world-renowned tourist attraction, as people flock to “Miracle,” as the town is known, to live within the walls of the community safe from The Departure, or at least take some of Miracle back whence they came.
So, we start with a new family, and an actual narrative arc with a conclusion. A trio of girls disappears from Miracle, seemingly into thin air. But this is Miracle, and besides, no one else in the world has disappeared, and so these girls must still be out there, somewhere. On the surface, then, the show is about the search for these girls—it’s about hope. But more accurately, the show is about religion, about belief systems people use to muster hope. The series is a weird one, always verging on sci-fi or fantasy before pulling back just to leave the characters—and the viewers—absolutely dumbfounded. It’s the unknowing that feels so familiar (at least to an agnostic like me), and the search for a trio of girls becomes a device through which families and religious factions alike can examine where they derive hope in a hopeless world.
The Departure becomes a stand-in for any disaster, then, and The Leftovers’ mysticism conveys real, everyday angst wrapped in how so many of us here, unmoored in this universe, try to justify our existence and perceive the world around us in the wake of tragedy. The second season, while not as relentlessly depressing as the first, is still very sad, unsettling, and deeply scary. It’s not the most fun show on television, but it’s the most ambitious, most complex, and ultimately the most rewarding. -Greg Howard
Jim Jarmusch’s 1991 movie Night on Earth—I only saw two or three movies released in 2015, so I’m doing one I saw for the first time this year instead—is a perfect vignette film. It moves from story to story with completely different characters, locations, and tones, and yet ties them all together with the same motif (a cab driver and his or her fare) and themes. Whether that be, bridging the often chasmic differences in culture and class between the one sitting in the front seat and the one in the back, revealing that our judgments of others based on surface characteristics are often wrong in profound ways, noticing the curious way people will reach out and share their true selves to strangers they’ll likely never see again in a way they would to no one else, and so on. Those are the things that make this a great movie.
But the scene that stuck with me the most—though “stuck with me” might be the wrong phrase, since nothing was really sticking around when it made me laugh so hard I felt like puking—was the sheer hilarity of the segment set in Rome, which featured Roberto Benigni and a priest. I don’t want to spoil it, so I’ll just say the key story the cabbie tells almost had me, like Benigni’s character, swearing off eating meat. And vegetables, for that matter. -Billy Haisley
The first season of Netflix’s Jessica Jones was up and then entirely down, a clever five-episode story arc dragged out via absurd plot contrivances for a full 13-episode season. I can’t in good conscience recommend anybody watch the whole thing, because the five initial wonderful hours aren’t worth the duty-bound, I-hate-this-but-I-have-to-finish-it eight hours that follow.
But those first five episodes, man. Before her moody, affected stoic alcoholism wears thin, Krysten Ritter is great as the sort of hard-boiled noir-ish detective you thought only men get to play, and David Tennant’s mirthful-yet-brutal archvillain Kilgrave is brilliant in the same mold as Moriarty on the BBC’s Sherlock. Those creepy twins that live upstairs are hilariously strange, everyone’s living in the most “realistic” superhero world yet, and the backstory flashbacks are intriguing. As the plot putters along from there, it rarely makes any sense, but marveling at the beginning is almost worth wincing at the ending. -Kevin Draper
Yeah, I know. A reporter picking a scene from Spotlight. I might just as well point at the grass and tell you it’s green. But my favorite thing wasn’t anything about the glories of journalism, if you can believe that.
There’s a running theme through the movie, small but there, of people telling the Boston Globe reporters, “Hey, we tried telling you about this abuse by Catholic priests before.” It’s mentioned by the leader of a victims-support group they talk to, and the attorneys they press for information. One lawyer, wondering why he should cooperate now, says he gave them a list of 20 priests who were accused of sexual abuse nearly 10 year earlier. Did the high and mighty Globe really get that list, that horrific list, and not pursue it?
Yes, they did. Or rather, they buried it. There’s a moment when Walter Robinson, played by Michael Keaton, realizes this happened—and it was his call. He was the editor of the Metro section when they made the decision to slap that story on the back pages (where few would see it) and move on, another daily edition down the drain. At this point, Robinson has spent much of the movie badgering, reporting, and preaching all the high-minded values journalists espouse about ourselves. And then he’s forced to reconcile all that with the fact that he got this tip all those years ago and blew it off. It washes over his face in silent horror. Is he a hypocrite? A bad editor? Just full of shit?
This is supposed to a space for celebrating things we love, and heartache isn’t exactly love, but they are related. You can’t ache for something you don’t care about. I utterly ache for this scene—I hate remembering about it, and I think about it every day. Because I’ve shoved stories on 7B and wondered what if. Because I’ve ignored tips, saying I’ll get to them later. Because I know that journalism, for all its grandiose trappings, is fallible. It’s human, because it’s made by humans.
Eventually, reporters will be replaced by newsbots that write perfect stories and never miss anything. I suppose the upside is there will never be another story missed or correction issued. But maybe we’ll lose something in that, too. I’m not sure what, but something. Until then, I’ll always think of that moment for Robinson. The Spotlight team wasn’t perfect, but then again, who is. -Diana Moskovitz
The best thing I saw in 2015 was this bizarre HBO comedy, a show so inexplicably strange its fortune even reversed itself—the network renewed the program for a second season before the first was over, only to decide to cancel the series once the final episode had run.
To this day, I can’t quite figure out how this show got on TV. Producers filled nearly every role with a recognizable actor—from stars Jack Black, Tim Robbins, and Aasif Mandvi to bit parts played by John Larroquette and Erick Avari. How these people all agreed to work on a half-hour HBO comedy is beyond me, especially given that it was a comedy about nuclear war. But I feel like the show managed to balance on a razor-thin line of psychedelic grotesque and clever smugness, and I’m sorry HBO pulled the plug. -Tim Burke
Out of courtesy, I’ll try to be as vague as possible here, but it’s probably not too much to say that one character—let’s say Character A—in the new Star Wars is, in-universe, a deranged Star Wars superfan. (Much of the plot actually revolves around Character A’s willingness to stop at nothing to get a rare collectible item to complete an absurdly expensive cosplay outfit.) Character A is definitely the sort of person who would, if present in our own reality, be complaining right now that another character—let’s say Character B—is just too idealized due to the biased agenda of the filmmakers. Seeing Character A take an ass-kicking from Character B, who is in fact rather idealized (in a way that works perfectly in the context of a Star Wars movie), is a real thrill both in terms of the movie’s plot and for the way it works as a mockery of the kind of aggrieved nerd to whom Hollywood has fully devoted itself to pandering, leading to an endless string of morose genre pictures about how sullen, callow young people are the true saviors of humanity no matter how misunderstood they are. I saw a lot of better movies this year, but I don’t think there was a moment in any one of them that I liked quite this much. -Tim Marchman