For our final year-end feature, we’re providing a cumulative look at The Film Stage’s favorite films of 2015. We’ve asked our contributors to compile ten-best lists with five honorable mentions — those can all be seen on the last page — and, after tallying the votes, a top 50 has been assembled.
It should be noted that, unlike our previous year-end features, we placed no requirement on a selection being a U.S theatrical release, so you may see some repeats from last year and a few we’ll certainly be discussing more during the next year. So, without further ado, check out our most comprehensive rundown of 2015 below, our complete year-end coverage here (including where to stream many of the below picks), and return in the coming weeks as we look towards 2016. For those on Letterboxd, one can find the list here.
50. The Big Short (Adam McKay)
Co-writer / director Adam McKay made a genuine Adam McKay film with The Big Short. The director of Step Brothers isn’t exactly known for drama, but his outrageous sense of humor serves this fierce, angry, high-stakes tale of outsiders. In exploring the recent financial crisis in a way that’s entertaining, funny, and shocking to watch unfold, The Big Short is the rare example of a film built entirely on exposition that can still work. – Jack G.
49. Mississippi Grind (Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden)
Though it came and went this year without much more than a whimper, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck‘s superb gambling picture is sure to age nicely. Starring Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds as a yin-and-yang pair of drifters, Mississippi Grind plays like a masterful American film from the ’70s that got lost in the shuffle — not unlike Robert Altman’s California Split, from which this borrows mightily. You’ll be hard-pressed to find better writing or acting in another work from this year. – Dan M.
48. The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (Ben Rivers)
Here’s a film that lives up to the promise of its title. Filmed in the Moroccan desert and rendered in hand-processed, hallucinatory 16mm, Ben Rivers’ latest experimentation with docu-fiction plunges the viewer down an increasingly nightmarish rabbit hole. If you get the chance to see it projected on celluloid, don’t miss out. It’s absolutely ravishing and about as close you’ll get to tripping without psychotropic assistance. – Giovanni M.C.
47. Sunset Song (Terence Davies)
Even with a somewhat less impressionistic narrative (likely due to its canonical Scottish source material), Terence Davies‘ newest still sees through an attention to both the grandest of landscapes and minuscule of gestures — a genuine sense of the transcendental. Even combining 70mm with digital feels utterly timeless. – Ethan V.
46. Amy (Asif Kapadia)
Amy is genuinely moving because it asks what you would do if you were a loved one witnessing Amy Winehouse’s demise. It’s a question many of us would like to pose an answer to, but the reality is that you were dealing with a woman who was fully independent and had more money at her fingers than many could imagine. This enabled her and the people around her, who may or may not have wished the best for her mental and physical health. Bolstered by powerful home videos that showed her behind the scenes, the film gave an unfiltered look at the late artist and gave new appreciation to her music — especially the lyrics. Amy is a one-of-a-kind documentary that truly stands out as giving the audience a deep dive into the life of the extraordinarily talented singer-songwriter. – Bill G.
45. Ballet 422 (Jody Lee Lipes)
A lot of modern cinema, between superheroes and action stars, involves people who are preternaturally good at things without trying, and effort seems to be in short supply. It falls to documentaries, then, to really show the steps one must take in order to achieve or create something extraordinary. Ballet 422 is notable for being clear-eyed and unsentimental about the creative process while also perfectly showcasing the unerring beauty of the act. Lacking narration or talking heads, the film instead relies on the work of the creator himself, and is much richer for it. – Brian R.
44. James White (Josh Mond)
We often don’t know what we’re made of until faced with insurmountable tragedy. For five months, James White exists inside his emotional ground zero, his life turned upside-down by his father’s death and mother’s cancer recurrence. His only reprieves from the ocean drowning him are drugs and alcohol numbing the pain, and yet we’re still able to see the type of man he is underneath the external preconceptions that these temperamental binges manufacture. Josh Mond‘s debut film serves as a portrait of what so many endure as death surrounds them with little hope and less to say besides that long-absent admission of love and gratitude. Christopher Abbott embraces his dark helplessness and Cynthia Nixon radiates beauty and strength as she faces a clock counting down. It’s a story of the heart’s resilience and the scars surviving inevitably leaves behind. – Jared M.
43. Creed (Ryan Coogler)
Perhaps after one well-remembered surprise hit and five sequels of quality varying from passable to laughable disaster, no one expected much from Ryan Coogler’s new spin on the Rocky franchise. But Coogler freed himself of the burden of trying to follow its footsteps while doing exactly that. Creed is Hollywood filmmaking at its absolute zenith: a film that sets up archetypes and, without subverting them, turns them into breathing characters who don’t have character goals, but desires. Coogler sets up familiar scenarios and then gives a little bit of a twist: an unexpected camera angle emphasizes a minor point, a held beat allows us to feel the intimacy between people, and the long takes never show themselves off — only the drama on screen. Coogler obviously loves Stallone’s original, but he’s never exploitative; the iconic references become integral to its new characters, unlike in the latest installment of another awakening franchise. Readers, I’ll admit: I mocked people for discussing how much they cried during Creed before I saw it. But what I didn’t understand is how well Coogler builds our interest in the characters, so that creating an emotional response to discovering whether Michael B. Jordan’s emphatically determined newcomer can prove his worth is absolutely necessary to his work. Which is to say that Coogler does exactly what Hollywood films have been trying to do since their birth, and reminds us of their power. – Peter L.
42. The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson)
To my eyes, The Forbidden Room plays like a live-action, hard-R, unrelentingly hilarious, ceaselessly melancholy SpongeBob SquarePants episode that decided to communicate with the spirit of yesteryear’s cinema. Which, yes, is to suggest that this is a lot of movie, and it’s rather amazing how a work with as much layering of visual and textual senses (the two are always in conversation with each other) can make its exhaustion — a big part of “the point” — integral to its pleasure. And, well, if none of that clicks, you’ll still have something neat to look at for two hours. – Nick N.
41. Bone Tomahawk (S. Craig Zahler)
The western genre gained a few interesting titles this year, though none proved quite as delightfully strange as the directorial debut from S. Craig Zahler. The author and screenwriter freshened a traditional rescue narrative by adding cannibalistic troglodytes to the mix, but what could have been written off as The Searchers meets The Hills Have Eyes rose above expectations with its absurd juxtaposition of extreme barbarism and humorous repartee. The film’s appeal extends to its cast, a dream ensemble featuring Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, Patrick Wilson, and Matthew Fox as a posse with more personality and wit than a horror hybrid demands. – Amanda W.
40. Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra)
I have a weakness for heart-of-darkness films, and Embrace of the Serpent ranks amongst the best (and most gorgeous) I’ve seen. It’s also the only one I can think of that successfully adopts a native perspective in charting the white man’s journey down the river, thus offering a moving elegy to the myriad cultures that were destroyed in the process instead of just probing into humanity’s vilest instincts. – Giovanni M.C.
39. Tom at the Farm (Xavier Dolan)
Filmmaker wunderkind Xavier Dolan explores the depths of forbidden desire with his screen adaptation of a Michel Marc Bouchard play. With its fog-draped rural setting and confused, dreamlike tone, the story of a gay French-Canadian who gradually gives himself over to his dead lover’s brutish, seemingly closeted brother perfectly illustrates the psychology of abusive relationships and their symptomatic isolation. But as the chemistry between the titular Tom (Dolan) and his abuser (played by the commanding Pierre-Yves Cardinal) grows, the line between sexual attraction and violence becomes blurred, veering the film away from a victim narrative to a far more engaging erotic thriller with horror flourishes. – Amanda W.
38. Room (Lenny Abrahamson)
Free from the manipulation that a Hollywood picture might offer, Room is a masterfully crafted and wrenching portrait of Ma (Brie Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay), both giving affecting performances as a mother and son imprisoned in a small room. Carefully constructed by director Lenny Abrahamson, the room is the entire world for Ma and Jack until they are (spoilers!) liberated in a stunning escape. What follows is just as brilliant. Adapted by Emma Donohue from her novel, Room is a triumph and a tearjerker, confidently directed and masterfully acted. – John F.
37. Youth (Paolo Sorrentino)
At first glance, Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth looks like another of the Great Beauty director’s idyll frolics in the fields of Fellini, demonstrating a sharp eye for visual beauty and aesthetic control while lacking a thematic substance. Although it does tend to veer wildly from one emotion to the next, spastically leap-frogging across stray, melancholic thoughts and trotting out a parade of game actors and actresses ready to play, the great strength of Youth is that it’s seemingly introspective meditation on aging, loss, and legacy is both sincerely heartfelt and imaginatively playful. Sorrentino’s playground (a health spa in the Alps) proves to be a perfect foil for the work of Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, who each give one of the best performances of their career. Even as the film threatens to swoon and fall off the precipice of its own dreamy imaginings, it pulls back and delivers moments of grand loveliness and emotional heartbreak that draw the whole piece together. – Nathan B.
36. Mommy (Xavier Dolan)
Xavier Dolan’s Mommy is a curious picture, one arriving in the U.S. in the typically dead zone of early winter, yet no other film has stayed with me in the same way. An emotional gut punch, Mommy continually breaks all of the cinematic rules, challenging its audience with a square frame similar to that of an iPhone held vertically while shooting. Dolan employs frequent collaborator Anne Dorval as Diana, a mother who breaks her son (Antoine-Oliver Pilon) free after he’s committed in light of the passage of a fictional Canadian law. The road ahead is painful, bittersweet, and powerful as the mother dreams of a future for her son, only to have those dreams crushed. Dolan is simultaneously in and out of control of his narrative, a frantic call to action mashing up pop culture, desire, youth obnoxiousness, and mental illness. With a constantly moving camera by André Turpin, Mommy is unforgettable experience. – John F.
35. Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg)
Tom Hanks has a cold, and he needs to save America. A natural follow-up to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln in its immersion into nitpicky political discussion, Bridge of Spies also distinguishes itself with a wittier, frequently downright sarcastic screenplay (mostly courtesy, one imagines, of the Coen brothers), more agile camerawork (the ten-minute opening jaunt through Mark Rylance’s Brooklyn morning has been a justified source of attention), and a different kind of lead performance: where Lincoln was a method actor’s movie, Bridge of Spies is a movie star’s movie, with a typically relaxed, everyman-mode Hanks smiling, badgering, and coughing his way through never-ending negotiations. – Danny K.
34. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (Spike Lee)
Spike Lee’s incendiary politics and outspoken nature have led to his being unfairly pigeonholed as a race- / politics-first director, when in fact, as far back as Do the Right Thing, his mastery as a stylist has been apparent. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus should serve as a corrective. Lee’s politics are far less explicit than in his best-known work, meaning his sensual use of color, offbeat, expressionistic performances, and music command the most attention. There is plenty of subtext to mine, but even if there weren’t, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus would stand out for being among the sexiest and alluring films in some time. – Forrest C.
33. Shaun the Sheep Movie (Mark Burton and Richard Starzak)
One of the marvels of cinema is its ability to convey thoughts and ideas without words, relying instead on wholly visual and non-linguistic cues to put across its purpose. Shaun the Sheep understands this power and harnesses it to create what is one of the most entertaining and moving film experiences of the year. Packed with visual comedy while also pulling off some truly affecting emotional stakes, this film takes what other works might see as a challenging gimmick (a dialogue-free comedy about a pack of sheep) and instead uses it to create a universal tale of friendship and family. – Brian R.
32. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marie Heller)
Writer-director Marie Heller paints an accurate, honest, and vibrant portrait of her young protagonist, Minnie (Bel Powley), in The Diary of a Teenage Girl. With the use of some beautiful hand-drawn animation, an enlightening and funny narration, and Powley’s versatile performance, this is about as intimate as a subjective picture gets. We experience the world as this young girl does. What’s exciting for Minnie feels truly exciting, and the same goes for any moments of pain and confusion. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is as funny and touching as it is an unflinching directorial debut. – Jack G.
31. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo)
I was generally puzzled by the rhapsodic critical praise lavished upon virtually every one of Hong Sang-soo’s staggeringly frequent — and unabashedly homogenous — new features, but with Right Now, Wrong Then I finally “got” it. The film is a veritable masterpiece of understated filmmaking, one so deceptively simple that its depth catches you by surprise and leaves you in awe of a director capable of approaching the human condition with such empathy and sensitive insight. – Giovanni M.C.
30. 88:88 (Isiah Medina)
As the privileged bemoan the “death of cinema,” unbeknownst to them, young filmmakers seek to reinvent the medium — even with the cheapest of means. Isiah Medina‘s debut feature, while maybe a howl of anger against racism and classism, is above all a testament of his love — to his friends, family, and the possibilities that await him and his art. – Ethan V.
29. Arabian Nights (Miguel Gomes)
In lauding Miguel Gomes‘ three-part, six-and-a-half hour behemoth, it’s perhaps important to consider his background as a critic. Not just in terms of the trilogy’s cinephilic engagement with Rossellini, Alonso, Oliveira, etc.; also in its defiant nature. While it’s easy to assign the trilogy certain humanist and satirical labels from the get-go and just praise these films for following through on them, Gomes continually seeks to mutate and complicate his of age-of-austerity saga. Far from perfect, and so much more exciting for that very reason. – Ethan V.
28. Taxi (Jafar Panahi)
Paradoxically but not surprisingly, the filmmaking ban on Jafar Panahi has garnered him more attention as a director than he experienced during his first stint as a director — that is, the legal one. Nevertheless, the restriction of his art has led to superficially thematic similarities in his three films since the ban, all of which have to do with that ban itself. Still, to characterize the stark, probing This Is Not A Film alongside the urgent, depressing Closed Curtain and the lively, humorous Taxi is unfair. The legal situation of their maker aside, the films have little in common; reflexivity and transparency in production have long been mainstays of Iranian film. As such, Taxi should not be seen as a novelty or experiment. (And, unlike its predecessor, it really isn’t; it is overlooked more because of distribution models than anything else.) What we have is an illuminating meditation on cinema – what it is and can be, how it is nurtured and fostered, how it is distributed and recognized and treated, what powers and capabilities it can manifest – that uses its transparency and Panahi’s restrictions to further its case. Far from being blunt or didactic, as could so easily be the case, it continues to explore and complicate a constantly growing slate of issues. – Forrest C.
27. Saint Laurent (Bertrand Bonello)
In its synthesis structure, composition, color, music, performance, and visual motif, Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent is truly a magnificent film. So much so that there’s a point, for better or for worse, where its precise construction — this is a film that uses multiple visual signifiers (not least prominent among them the tenets of Lacanianism) to connect the life of a well-known fashion icon with the writings of Marcel Proust in a direct and, yes, entirely digestible way — makes words a bit futile. It also makes the thing sound pretty damn heavy and intimidating, so hopefully it’s safe to say that the smattering of pop songs and colorful lights and beautiful people constitutes a great amount of the afforded pleasure, and that you should take the rest as it emerges piece-by-piece. – Nick N.
26. In Jackson Heights (Frederick Wiseman)
Even by Frederick Wiseman’s wondrously high standards, In Jackson Heights is a monumental masterpiece of a documentary. This sprawling mosaic portrait of the titular Queens neighborhood works both as an immersive and enchanting celebration of the multiculturalism New York has signified for decades and an urgent, inescapable wake-up call regarding its imminent extinction. – Giovanni M.C.
25. Horse Money (Pedro Costa)
Horse Money is a different beast than Ossos, In Vanda’s Room, and Colossal Youth, the designated Fontainhas trilogy to which Horse Money provides a sort of epigraph. The film is most explicit with its interest in history, as it dramatizes the past extensively; but instead of focusing on a community, director Pedro Costa imparts allegorical and communal significance on an individual. As such, those bored by previous Costa films will find this is an entry point and a more streamlined approach. For all its hallucinatory and temporal digressions, it has a relative clarity that even allows newcomers to enter. At the same time, Costa’s thematic focus is sharper than ever, granting the story the same allegorical potency of previous films while also offering critiques of Eurozone neoliberalism through increasingly surrealist devices. – Forrest C.
24. Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson)
Charlie Kaufman, the writer behind Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, teams up with animator Duke Johnson to create a complex emotional drama starring lifelike puppets. The premise is riddled with existential dread of modern-day life, presented uniquely through Kaufman’s idiosyncratic point-of-view. For protagonist and self-help author Michael Stone (voiced soulfully by David Thewlis), everyone around him has the same voice (thanks to Tom Noonan) and nothing feels right. It isn’t until he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) that all this changes, and the fleeting romance they engage in becomes one of the most heartfelt relationships of the year. Kaufman has a way of using the neurotic tendencies of his characters as a vehicle to expose deep philosophical quandaries of the mind and soul, a bit similar to Woody Allen in his prime. Add to that the brilliant stop-motion animation, which is so realistic and spectacular that you may forget what is real. For a film starring only puppets, Anomalisa is strangely more human than most from 2015. – Raffi A.
23. Mistress America (Noah Baumbach)
A coming-of-age tale disguised as a writer’s process, Noah Baumbach’s second collaboration with Greta Gerwig places her as the faux-mentor to Lola Kirke’s NYC ingénue. Both inspired by Gerwig’s blissful energy but aware of her apparent obliviousness to reality, the young girl mines reality for fiction and never sees the fiction of reality. The film increasingly melds into a 1930s screwball comedy — complete with zinging dialogue and characters popping in and out of the frame on command — but always keeps its psychological stakes (in part thanks to the always frank eyes and dialogue delivery of its two lead performers) at its very core. Baumbach has often been known as a writer, but here he reveals his inner Truffaut, using the camera as a pen, each shot a direct articulation of its narrative of someone attempting to etch something into pen and meaning into her life. – Peter L.
22. Tangerine (Sean Baker)
Sean Baker brings downtown Los Angeles to vibrant life in this indie gem, featuring one of the year’s best performances from Mya Taylor. Set on Christmas Eve, the iPhone-shot picture follows two transgender prostitutes on a strange odyssey fueled by revenge. Relentless in its pace and manic in its comedy, Tangerine is a testament to the wealth of fresh stories still waiting to be told on a large canvas. – Dan M.
21. Jauja (Lisandro Alonso)
Lingering and evolving in my mind since first viewing it earlier this year, Jauja has solidified itself to be one of the most invigorating and confounding films of 2015. While I imagine my regard for it and understanding of it will only grow in the years to come, on a basic level, it can be portrayed as one man’s (a stoic Viggo Mortensen) remarkably photographed journey through a 19th-century Patagonia to retrieve his daughter. On another level, it can be construed as an extensive metaphor for the ripples of history, a girl’s foggy dream, a time-shifting spectacle open to endless interpretation, or perhaps all of these things. – Jordan R.
20. The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)
Not only a film about hatred, but a film that has hatred in its bones — for the ways of its ostensible heroes, for the destruction they bring, and, by extension, for the ways that both can be felt in the modern day. (The timing of this release and the writer-director’s recent protests certainly doesn’t feel coincidental when you consider the trajectory of, to name but one example, Samuel L. Jackson‘s Major Marquis Warren.) And while Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film isn’t simply a howl into the winter winds — hardly a surprise, since he’s never been interested in such single-minded gestures — it remains capable of startling whenever empathy, gentleness, and grace shine through. (How easy a constant brutalization of Jennifer Jason Leigh‘s Daisy Domergue, the sole female lead, makes easy to forget this movie’s willingness to stop and watch her catching snowflakes on her tongue during an ever-so-brief freedom.) With its ensemble cast working in morbidly funny harmony, Robert Richardson helping beautify its battered world, and Ennio Morricone serving giallo-esque musical stylings (better than hats or horses as a signal of what’s being attempted), The Hateful Eight is also a grand entertainment — in many ways the most complete cinematic package of 2015. – Nick N.
19. The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer)
Calling Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence the year’s finest documentary is not inaccurate; the film certainly deserves that crown. Yet it’s hard not to feel like such a classification does Silence a slight injustice. The film is, after all, an overwhelmingly emotional modern classic. Like Oppenheimer’s 2012 masterpiece The Act of Killing, this stunning follow-up features the actual perpetrators of the Indonesian killings of 1965–66. With shocking openness, these men discuss and even demonstrate how they killed. Killing was one of the most powerful films of the last decade, but The Look of Silence is even stronger. This time, Oppenheimer narrows his focus to one man’s tale: an unidentified (for safety reasons) Indonesian eye doctor who talks to the men responsible for the horrific death of his brother. He and the audience discover terrifying truths together. The result is extraordinarily upsetting and startlingly moving. – Christopher S.
18. Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle)
Steve Jobs was the most enjoyable, I-need-to-watch-that-again-right-now experience I had at the movies this year, and it was also the best-made. From Aaron Sorkin’s sharp, witty script — playing with truth to craft a tale of hubris, genius, and the sociopath who led a revolution that needed fifteen years for the world to catch up — to Danny Boyle‘s electric direction, which keeps a triptych of vignettes as dissimilar to each other as they are identical, it’s a feat of expert precision. And that doesn’t even mention the stellar acting: Michael Fassbender kills it as the flawed egomaniac, Kate Winslet is flawless as his conscience, and Michael Stuhlbarg steals the show with his biting and subtly hilarious retorts. Don’t ever let me hear you say computers aren’t art. – Jared M.
17. The Mend (John Magary)
First it’s an angry relationship drama; then it’s about a guy wandering the streets of New York; suddenly it veers into a one-night-party movie about two brothers; and then it turns back toward the relationship drama; then there’s a potential ménage-a-trois; and then… what? John Magary’s directorial debut The Mend pits a number of characters in a cramped Hamilton Heights apartment for a truly indefinable drama about two brothers from opposite sides of the tracks finally coming to terms with who they are. But the electrifying nature of Magary’s camera is his ability to keep this dramatic tension spooling through a number of scenarios, each one filmed with a different gravitas. It wouldn’t work if Magary wasn’t so intent on capturing the rhythms of these characters with his precise editing and camera compositions, which are primed for both comic effect but also dive deep into the emotions. The film climaxes with two characters staring right at each other before defusing the tension with an actual knife. Most directorial debuts feel like imitations of certain respected forms. The Mend is boldly original and confident in every one of its movements. – Peter L.
16. Heaven Knows What (Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie)
This is a great New York movie — the Safdies and DP Sean Price Williams use long lenses to suggest the whirlwind, assault-like turbulence of a life lived on cold Manhattan sidewalks — and a harrowing look at heroin addiction that just doesn’t let up. (The protagonist, played by the explosive Arielle Holmes, digs a razor into her wrist in close-up within the opening minutes.) But the directors, working in large part with non-actors and real-life addicts, look at this milieu with profound respect and even a kind of communal warmth. The quiet knockout of an ending hints at a type of stability that is harmful — but it’s not nothing. – Danny K.
15. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
If the meditative stylings of Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky were applied to the martial arts genre, the end result would likely resemble Hou Hsiao-hsien’s rapturous tone poem The Assassin. As much concerned with the essence of nature as it is the essence of humanity, this endlessly beautiful film is equal parts enigmatic storytelling as it is purely enthralling cinema. Though some will find the plot obtuse and hard-to-follow, the elegance in the composition of each frame, combined with subtle use of natural sound, creates an absorbing atmosphere that will transport you to 8th-century China. Featuring a subdued yet spellbinding performance from actress Shu Qi as the titular killer, The Assassin delivers a detour from traditional tropes of the wuxia genre and instead creates a breathtaking experience full of wonder and awe. – Raffi A.
14. Eden (Mia Hansen-Løve)
With the breadth of time and emotion it displays, Mia Hansen-Løve‘s Eden is a simultaneously sprawling and intimate journey of ambitions and community within the then-emerging electronica scene. In capturing both the intoxicating allure of following one’s passion and the steadily unraveling grasp on the prospects of making it a livable career, Eden is masterful in its moment-to-moment, understated depiction of the transformation. Rich with details in time, place, and character, this is far from the Daft Punk-layered, rousing spectacle of electronica stardom its marketing might suggest, and all the more better for it. – Jordan R.
13. World of Tomorrow (Don Hertzfeldt)
Most movies have time enough to explore one idea. World of Tomorrow, in one-eighth the runtime of your average film, somehow finds the space for every idea. Universal concepts regarding time, mortality, love, science, exploration, family, morality, and memory all exist in harmony with one another. The result is a dense, hilarious short that reaches staggering heights of emotional intensity while raising questions and teasing out ideas that no other film would dare glance at, let alone fully examine. Strange, beautiful, and unlike anything else in film this year, Don Hertzfeldt‘s creation stands as one of the most vital and interesting of 2015. – Brian R.
12. Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs)
Magic Mike XXL is a movie of improbably long sequences, triumphantly goofy digressions (the gas-station dance set to the Backstreet Boys), and a very special feel-good vibe that is not to be taken for granted. (Ignatiy Vishnevetsky summed up the feeling well: “Doggedly positive. Rare experience of leaving the theater feeling slightly better about the world than when I went in.”) Steven Soderbergh’s clinical cynicism is a necessary pill in a lot of contexts, but Gregory Jacobs‘ follow-up is a big-hearted breath of fresh air that still possesses the Magic Mike director’s ecstatic powers of color, pace, and composition. – Danny K.
11. Inside Out (Pete Docter)
Without a note of hyperbole, I give you the finest work by Pixar yet: Inside Out. I adore Up, too, but Pete Docter and the countless collaborators at his side over years of development and retooling have outdone themselves here. It seems too cerebral for anyone unversed in the nuances of emotional turmoil and earth-shattering life changes, but that’s just because you’ve gone through those things. However, just as it speaks to you on that level — making you laugh and cry with universal clarity — it has the kiddies, still blessed with youthful innocence, in stitches thanks to three-dimensional characters as goofy as they are poignant. There’s literally something for everyone to grab ahold of as the screen transforms into a mirror looking into your soul. It’s about growing up and exactly how fun and painful that process proves in equal, mutualistic measure. – Jared M.
10. Sicario (Denis Villeneuve)
Director Denis Villeneuve knows how to shake an audience. With Prisoners and Enemy, he couldn’t have made two more-different (but equally chilling) thrillers. With Sicario, the director once again delivers a heart-pounding experience as he explores a situation rife with conflict and murky ethics. The sparse exposition, the striking compositions, the moral ambiguity, and its three excellent performances make for an entirely unforgettable drama. – Jack G.
9. Chi-Raq (Spike Lee)
Spike Lee’s best picture in years, Chi-Raq is a timely call to action. Opening to a Chicago embroiled in controversy, Lee’s stated objective is to save lives on Chicago’s Southside, a fiery cry against gun violence and a system that protects gang members while women and children are caught in the cross fire. A modern-day adaption of Lysistrata, Chi-Raq is lively and often hilarious; it has the spunk of some of his best and most political work, such as Do the Right Thing. With a cast that includes Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, John Cusack, Jennifer Hudson, and Teyonah Parris in a break-out role as the story’s heroine, its lively performances are as transcendent as the film is ambitious. Rarely does a work achieve so much, and its stakes couldn’t be higher. – John F.
8. Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)
Full of mystery and unforgettable imagery, the wondrous Clouds of Sils Maria finds three individuals – director Olivier Assayas and stars Juliette Binoche & Kristen Stewart – at the peak of their powers. As the cocky, wise-beyond-her-years assistant to a veteran actress, Stewart is more compelling, enigmatic and utterly relatable than ever before. Meanwhile, Binoche is typically enchanting as star Maria Enders. With its attention to character development and simmering emotional complexity, Clouds of Sils Maria is Assayas’s best film to date. At the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, where Clouds made its North American debut, Assayas called the drama “a reflection on the past,” one written as an homage to Binoche. As Maria states near film’s end, “I think I’m lost in my memories.” Rarely has a film about memory and its role in the creative process seemed so breathtakingly human. And rarely has one film featured performances as strong as those of Binoche and Stewart. – Christopher S.
7. Hard to Be a God (Alexei German)
You might only follow its plot on the basis of knowing who two or three people are, and you might find some (okay, more than “some”) of its violence to be hard on the eyes — this is a work that’s violent in the truest sense of the word — so if it wears you down to the point of surrender, that’s understood. Yet there’s a morbid beauty in all the blood, shit, mucus, and mud captured through roving shots and stark black-and-white photography; if nothing else, the pictures sure do look pretty. Alexei German’s towering final feature is precisely the sort of film built to last: one that, more than now being widely available on home video, should only become more widely accessible as repeated viewings allow its narrative complexities and formal oddities — equal in distribution and each necessary to the other — to blossom. Or maybe there’s no getting over that wooden spike. – Nick N.
6. Son of Saul (László Nemes)
Emotionally devastating and profoundly moving without ever being soft or cheap, László Nemes’ Son of Saul is a tour de force that puts many Holocaust-set films to shame. In no way shying away from the horror, Nemes actually enhances the atrocities by closing in and making this the personal document of a man waging a war for his own soul amidst a living nightmare. Shot almost entirely in close-ups so tight that we appear to be constantly staring into Géza Röhrig’s weary, guilty eyes, Son shears away easy sentiment in favor of looking through the chinks of this swelling darkness to find some hidden stores of compassion and feeling. The journey is neither easy for him to endure nor easy for the casual viewer to digest, but Nemes, in his first foray behind the camera, shows us the Holocaust in a way we’ve never seen it before: almost directly through the eyes of someone who is desperate to atone for his part. For this reviewer, it’s the most emotionally affecting cinematic experience of 2015. – Nathan B.
5. Ex Machina (Alex Garland)
Alex Garland’s debut Ex Machina toys with your emotions like few films can. Because its three main characters would each like to believe they are smarter than the others, there’s a constant game of chess being played. But it isn’t until the end that you realize how high the stakes are. Every movement, upon rewatch, seems to be moving a piece closer to the end. It’s a delicate balance the film manages in giving us the riveting moments of Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) interviewing Ava (Alicia Vikander) while the quiet sequences between Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and Caleb gain more and more importance as they get past the initial ice-breaking stage. The key stroke, though, is a component that Garland has received a lot of flack for in his screenwriting career: the ending. Here, though, he nails the turn into psychological thriller that continues to leave me reeling even after half-a-dozen rewatches. – Bill G.
4. Phoenix (Christian Petzold)
There are at least three moments in the stunning, unforgettable post-World War II film Phoenix that will quite literally take your breath away. Two occur near the midpoint of director Christian Petzold’s story of a concentration camp survivor’s attempt to reconnect with the (non-Jewish) husband who believes she is dead and learn whether he betrayed her to the Nazis. Another is the film’s overwhelmingly emotional final scene. When the latter moment occurs, the greatness of Petzold’s achievement is cemented. Phoenix is one of 2015’s finest films and a gloriously complex conversation-starter. Its focus on the intersection of identity and memory brings to mind a number of very good films, from Hitchcock’s Vertigo to Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In, but this tackles the concept with its own ingenuity, emotion, and verve. For stars Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, and Nina Kunzendorf, Phoenix is a triumph. And for director and co-writer Petzold (here scripting alongside the late Harun Farocki), it is a masterpiece, one that elevates him to the upper echelon of international filmmaking. – Christopher S.
3. Spotlight (Thomas McCarthy)
One of the best movies about journalism since All the President’s Men, Thomas McCarthy’s Spotlight bears all the earmarks of an old-fashioned ensemble entertainment from another era while capturing enough wistful, crucial details to serve as a reminder and warning to the current media-saturated climate we live in. McCarthy scales back his style in a way similar to his best film, The Visitor, and Spotlight houses a similar moral outrage beneath a veneer of the day-to-day grind belonging to everyday people. What is specifically powerful about Spotlight is the way it eschews the intimate details of the Catholic Church’s individual molestation cases, instead focusing on this issue from the eyes of survivors and the community. We are not goaded into complicity with these newspaper men and women, but drawn into their fight through an experience as immersive as any this year. The cast, led by Michael Keaton, is one of the strongest 2015 had to offer, and they inhabit these people in a way that draws this struggle from the recent past in clear, immediate lines. – Nathan B.
2. Carol (Todd Haynes)
From the first note of Carter Burwell‘s magnificent score and opening shot of Edward Lachman’s ravishing cinematography — introducing a Brief Encounter-esque opening bookend — Todd Haynes transports one to an intoxicating world of first love and its requisite heartbreak. Carol excels at being many things: a romantic drama; a coming-of-age story; an exploration of family dynamics and social constructs of the time; an acting showcase the likes of which simply isn’t seen in today’s cinematic landscape — and that’s just on the first viewing. The film blossoms on further revisits as minuscule gestures and glances articulate a myriad of emotions, and as themes of male impediment and desire are subtly divulged. A harmonious, immaculate masterpiece, Carol is one of cinema’s finest love stories. – Jordan R.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
That George Miller returned to resurrect his Mad Max saga three decades after its last entry (the divisive Beyond Thunderdome) is, in itself, a certain sort of feat. That he produced an anti-patriarchal, post-apocalyptic, action-fantasy epic worthy of mainstream appeal is damn near achieving the impossible. But with the help of a stellar cast (led by Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron) and enough stunt people to fill ten movies, Miller introduced a new generation to his fully imagined world and all the carefully choreographed fight sequences and face-melting destruction that come with it. The fact that a film of such gloriously creative weirdness could become both a critical and box-office success makes me think there’s hope for us all. – Amanda W.
What are your favorite films of the year?
Honorable Mentions: Taxi, Bone Tomahawk, Queen of Earth, Heaven Knows What, The Assassin
10. Clouds of Sils Maria
9. Listen to Me Marlon
8. 45 Years
7. Mad Max: Fury Road
6. Son of Saul
Honorable Mentions: Ex Machina; Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter; Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation; Listen To Me Marlon; She’s Funny That Way
8. The Look of Silence
6. Mississippi Grind
5. Clouds of Sils Maria
1. World of Tomorrow
Honorable Mentions: Magic Mike XXL, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Bridge of Spies, Experimenter, Carol
10. La Sapienza
9. Clouds of Sils Maria
8. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
7. Horse Money
6. The Mend
5. The Forbidden Room
3. The Hateful Eight
2. Hard to Be a God
1. Saint Laurent
Honorable Mentions: Bone Tomahawk, It Follows, Slow West, Creed, Breathe
10. Mad Max: Fury Road
9. Clouds of Sils Maria
7. Ex Machina
5. Ballet 422
4. Inside Out
2. Shaun the Sheep
1. World of Tomorrow
Honorable Mentions: 45 Years, Brooklyn, The Revenant, Room, The Look of Silence
10. The Diary of a Teenage Girl
9. The Hateful Eight
8. Mad Max: Fury Road
7. Ex Machina
5. James White
2. Inside Out
1. Steve Jobs
Honorable Mentions: Ex Machina, Inside Out, Spotlight, Very Big Shot, Green Room
10. The Witch
8. Neon Bull
7. The Brand New Testament
4. Son of Saul
3. The Assassin
2. Mad Max: Fury Road
Honorable Mentions: Hungry Hearts, Buzzard, Uncle John, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Appropriate Behavior
10. Duke of Burgundy
9. White God
8. Der Samurai
7. Clouds of Sils Maria
5. Bone Tomahawk
3. Tom at the Farm
2. Ex Machina
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
Honorable Mentions: Anomalisa, Going Clear, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Brooklyn, Joy
10. Crimson Peak
7. It Follows
6. Inside Out
3. Mad Max: Fury Road
1. Ex Machina
Honorable Mentions: The Assassin, Blackhat, Breathe, Carol, The Mend
10. The Walk
9. Mad Max: Fury Road
8. Hard to Be a God
7. The Gift
5. Bridge of Spies
4. Clouds of Sils Maria
2. Heaven Knows What
1. Magic Mike XXL
Honorable Mentions: Out 1, About Elly, The Pearl Button, Field Niggas, Losing Ground
9. Stray Dog
8. Straight Outta Compton
7. Queen of Earth
6. The Look of Silence
5. The Assassin
4. Hard to Be a God
3. Horse Money
2. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus
Honorable Mentions: The Big Short, Going Clear, Killing Them Safely, Russian Woodpecker, The End of the Tour
10. Shaun the Sheep
9. What Happened, Miss Simone?
6. In Jackson Heights
5. The Hateful Eight
4. Son of Saul
Honorable Mentions: Blackhat, Results, The Walk, Unfriended, The Look of Silence
10. Amour Fou
9. Beloved Sisters
6. Welcome to New York
4. The Mend
3. Mistress America
2. Hard to Be a God
1. Magic Mike XXL
Honorable Mentions: Amour Fou, Blackhat, Bridge of Spies, The Forbidden Room, L’il Quinquin
10. Saint Laurent
9. Cemetery of Splendour
8. The Visit
7. The Mend
6. No Home Movie
5. Sunset Song
4. Arabian Nights
3. Mad Max: Fury Road
2. Heaven Knows What
Honorable Mention: Ex Machina, 45 Years, The Tribe, Straight Outta Compton, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
10. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
8. Clouds of Sils Maria
6. Son of Saul
5. Mad Max: Fury Road
4. The Look of Silence
Honorable Mentions: Mississippi Grind, Cobain: Montage of Heck, The Martian, The Gift, Magic Mike XXL
10. Tbe Mend
9. Bridge of Spies
8. Slow West
6. The Big Short
5. Mistress America
4. Steve Jobs
2. The Diary of a Teenage Girl
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
Honorable Mentions: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Anomalisa, Mustang, Bone Tomahawk, The Look Of SIlence
10. 45 Years
8. Arabian Nights
7. The Assassin
5. Ex Machina
3. Mad Max: Fury Road
2. Son of Saul
Giovanni Marchini Camia
Honorable Mentions: No Home Movie, Arabian Nights, Anomalisa, Son of Saul
10. The Treasure
8. Mountains May Depart
6. Inherent Vice
5. The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers
4. In Jackson Heights
3. Embrace of the Serpent
2. Mad Max: Fury Road
1. Right Now, Wrong Then
Follow our complete year-end coverage.