This is a long list, so let's dispense with the prologue and get right into it. The best films of 2015:
#20. The Harvest
I'm not sure why this film was given such a miniscule theatrical release before being dumped onto VOD, as it's a fine, unsettling horror flick that often feels reminiscent of classic Stephen King. Samantha Morton delivers a ferociously memorable performance as a woman with a dark secret, and Michael Shannon does atypically low-key, affecting work as her henpecked husband. The film takes a while to get cooking and has a final scene that feels strangely off, but I haven't been able to get its strongest moments out of my mind.
This was one of the year's most pleasant surprises. I fully expected an empty, unnecessary update of a middling Disney flick, but director Kenneth Branagh somehow manages to find a fascinating new take on the material. While the animated film was a story about a helpless protagonist who waits for fate to rescue her, Branagh transforms the story – fairy godmother-style – into a touching tale about the redemptive power of kindness. More importantly, the film is one of the year's most sensational visual experiences: take away the CG mice, and you have a movie that looks and feels like a classic Powell & Pressburger Technicolor melodrama.
#18 (tie). Bridge of Spies
Steven Spielberg's latest effort is another fine, absorbing historical drama from one of our most consistent filmmakers. Those who found War Horse and Lincoln a little too stately (I didn't, but the complaint is understandable) will likely be pleased to discover that Bridge of Spies is a film with considerably more snap – largely due to some zippy dialogue courtesy of Joel & Ethan Coen. The film sags a little during its early courtroom scenes, but becomes a riveting, morally urgent tale once its protagonist (a top-notch Tom Hanks) arrives in Germany. This is one of the year's most patriotic films, praising America's core ideals while firmly reminding us of what we lose when we fail to grant due process and basic human decency to our enemies.
#18 (tie). The Martian
Ridley Scott's adaptation of Andy Weir's popular novel improves considerably on the source material, retaining the book's impish humor and nerdy attention to detail while adding a much-needed layer of emotional depth. Matt Damon's performance as stranded astronaut Mark Watney is one of the actor's finest pieces of work, and it's a pleasant surprise to find Scott (whose recent work has been filled with hit-and-miss endeavors) making so many consistently smart creative choices. This is one of the year's most sincerely inspirational films, persuasively making the case that the world is capable of making all sorts of wondrous scientific advances and that all we need is sufficient motivation. Somebody send Adele to Mars!
#17. Still Life
This little-seen British drama – released in the early days of 2015 – is one of the year's sparest and most emotionally delicate films. Eddie Marsan stars as a council worker charged with tending to the remains of unclaimed individuals, and his relationships with the dead fill a void left by the lack of real relationships in his life. The film's quiet, observant rhythms slowly draw you in, but the tastefully understated atmosphere doesn't prepare you for the sudden, overwhelming emotional power of its conclusion.
Leave it to Charlie Kaufman to turn a stop-motion animated film into one of the year's most thoroughly human movies. This is a shorter, smaller-scale exploration of themes he's explored in more grand, ambitious works, but the film's focus and brevity works in its favor: it feels like a great short story. Despite some genuinely hilarious moments (many of which are provided by Tom Noonan, who voices dozens of supporting characters), Anomalisa eventually works its way to another of Kaufman's devastatingly insightful conclusions about life. This is frequently a beautiful film, but it hurts.
#15. Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation
In a year without Mad Max: Fury Road, this would have been the best action film of the year. Still, Rogue Nation stands out as a high point for the fine series it belongs to, matching and perhaps even exceeding the strengths of the immensely entertaining Ghost Protocol. This installment gives us one of the year's finest setpieces (that opera sequence, naturally), the series' richest, most complex female lead (the terrific Rebecca Ferguson), a briskly entertaining “going rogue” plot (infinitely more enjoyable than the similar tale offered by the dour Spectre) and another spectacularly committed lead performance from Tom Cruise (the guy may be crazy, but part of that craziness is his willingness to hang off the side of an airplane in order to entertain his audience). Pure popcorn pleasure.
Dennis Villenueve's morally complex, nerve-rattling thriller starts on a bleak note and grows darker as it proceeds. It fully accepts the utter futility of the America's drug war, zooming in on the horrific human consequences of a seemingly endless conflict between ruthless cartels and corrupt governments. Featuring tremendous, committed performances from its fine cast (particularly Benecio Del Toro as a mysterious figure with unknown allegiances), stunning cinematography from Roger Deakins and some of the year's most unnervingly intense sound design, Sicario shoves you right into the heart of darkness and forces to you to confront some tough questions with tougher answers.
Who knew that what the Rocky series needed to regain its mojo was a new protagonist? Ryan Coogler's thrilling boxing drama is the best film in the series since the original – maybe even better than the original (let's give it a few years and then circle back to this topic). Simultaneously offering a reworking of the Oscar-winning classic and a striking new direction for the series, the film captures all of the strengths of the Rocky movies while deftly avoiding common missteps. Michael B. Jordan delivers a committed, star-making performance in the title role, while Sylvester Stallone reaches remarkable levels of emotional depth playing the part that made him famous. The film is entirely predictable, but every now and then you get a movie that reminds you of how powerful formula can be when you actually get it right.
#12. Steve Jobs
Both director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin hit career highs with this uniquely-structured drama, which spotlights three crucial moments in the life of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. The film's portrait of Jobs as a smug misanthrope may or may not be accurate, but Michael Fassbender turns him into one of the year's most compelling characters. The film is less a biopic than a potent meditation on the relationship between fame and decency. Sorkin's dialogue is consistently thrilling (an argument scene between Fassbender and Jeff Daniels is one of the most riveting things he's written), and the film's supporting cast is strong across the board (particularly a shaggy, sympathetic Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak). The film's ending has been criticized as a soft finish to a hard-hitting movie, but look closer: borrowing techniques from Jobs himself, the movie smartly, subtly transforms into an emotionally-charged sales pitch for its deeply flawed main character.
Doubling as a detailed examination of the 2002 Catholic church sex scandal and as an examination of the world of investigative journalism, Spotlight may very well be the best newspaper movie since All the President's Men. Boasting one of the year's strongest ensemble casts, stellar no-nonsense direction from Tom McCarthy (making a huge comeback after helming the insufferable The Cobbler) and an admirable lack of sensationalism, the movie makes a strong case for why thoughtful, in-depth journalism remains absolutely essential, no matter how economically impractical it has become.
#10 (tie). The Hateful Eight
Quentin Tarantino's latest film is the director's most violent effort in more ways than one: a potent, darkly entertaining provocation that digs into the deep-rooted, unremitting hatred built into America's foundation. It's quite possibly the director's chilliest, most soulless film (this is the first time he's made a movie with no truly likable characters), but it makes the point it sets out to make with considerable power. Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Walton Goggins turn in terrific work (with this performance, Goggins joins Jackson and Christoph Waltz as one of those actors who clearly knows how to make Tarantino's dialogue sing), and QT's level of technical precision is (mostly) breathtaking. Whether you like the movie or not, it must be acknowledged that the roadshow version of The Hateful Eight offered movie buffs one of the year's most memorable big-screen experiences: between the absurdly detailed 70mm film, the sinister overture, the diabolically-placed intermission and the handsome programs that were given to audience members, watching the movie felt like a real event. It's a tribute to Tarantino's talent that the film itself wasn't overshadowed by the lavish trimmings. It's mean-spirited stuff, but the more I think about this one, the more I admire it.
#10 (tie). Bone Tomahawk
It's a crime that this grim horror/western was given such a tiny theatrical run, because its grand western landscapes and sweeping wide shots deserve to be seen on a big screen. For most of its running time, the film is a low-key, chatty road movie, as a quartet of men ride out in search of kidnapped townsfolk, but things take a hard left turn into full-blown horror territory in the third act. It's surprisingly terrific as both a western and as a horror film – we spend more time in the former genre, but the latter leaves its mark in memorably visceral fashion. The whole cast does strong work, but Richard Jenkins steals the show as the 21st century equivalent of Walter Brennan – his wistful monologue about a flea circus is just as indelible as the film's most ferocious moments of violence.
#9. Crimson Peak
People argued about whether to call Crimson Peak a horror film or a gothic romance, but surprisingly few people actually saw it. That's a shame, because it's arguably Guillermo Del Toro's finest English-language film to date; a completely intoxicating cinematic experience that draws heavily on a host of rich cultural influences. The film has a memorably bonkers plot, but the story being told is less interesting than the way it's being told. The standout of the fine ensemble is Jessica Chastain, turning spiteful glances and the sound of a spoon being scraped on a porridge bowl into the film's creepiest special effects. I can't wait to lose myself in this world all over again.
#8. 45 Years
In the days leading up to a 45th wedding anniversary, a long and happy marriage suddenly begins to fall apart. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay turn in tremendous performances as the conflicted couple, with the former doing particularly rich, heartbreaking work as a woman whose rational understanding of a situation is placed in bitter conflict with her emotions. The film's atmosphere is understated, delicate and quietly tense, but the ending will floor you.
What a sweet, lovely movie this is. This is old-fashioned filmmaking done right; a tender, empathetic tale that never slips into cheap sentimentality. Saiorse Ronan does her best work to date as a young Irish woman attempting to make a new life for herself in America, and the film's affectionate portrait of 1950s Brooklyn manages to offer a vivid sense of nostalgia without rose-colored dishonesty. Without forcing the point, the film offers a moving reminder that America is (and long has been) a land of immigrants seeking a better future – a reminder we could certainly use right now.
#6. Ex Machina
After penning two unique, compelling sci-fi movies that fell apart in the third act (28 Days Later and Sunshine, both directed by Danny Boyle), Alex Garland finally takes the reins himself and sticks the landing with this smart, thought-provoking directorial debut. Like some films that appear elsewhere on this list, Ex Machina offers a nuanced meditation on the age-old male desire to possess and subjugate women. As Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) and Nathan (a superb Oscar Isaac) debate whether the impressively-crafted artificial intelligence Ava (Alicia Vikander) experiences real emotions, they fail to ask themselves whether she's actually revealing her real feelings to them. Oops. A terrific piece of modern science fiction.
#5. Queen of Earth
Alex Ross Perry's nerve-jangling psychological drama harkens back to the era of Polanski's Repulsion and Bergman's Persona – a stark, artfully-crafted feature in which the lines between reality and paranoid delusion begin to blur. Elisabeth Moss delivers one of the year's strongest performances as a woman being consumed by the grip of depression, and Katherine Waterston does sharp, subtle work as the woman who (perhaps unintentionally) facilitates Moss' downward spiral. As with the movies it draws inspiration from, not all of Queen of Earth's mysteries are easy to solve. Even so, the implications of its closing moments are devastatingly clear.
#4. Inside Out
Pixar's output has been wildly inconsistent in recent years, but this clever, moving flick is arguably as strong as anything they've made. Like the best Pixar films, it takes a cute, novel concept (a look at the working relationship between the various emotions in a young girl's head) and uses it as a springboard for a tale filled with giddy, innovative comedy and surprisingly complex emotional depth. It's an extraordinarily elegant, accessible examination of how emotions work, and more importantly, a reminder that sadness is as valuable and necessary as joy (a refreshingly deep lesson for a children's movie – for any movie, in fact). It finds a way to clearly communicate things that can be difficult for children to express, and will likely prove a valuable conversation starter for parents and kids for many years to come. Plus: Pixar's voice casting (Lewis Black as Anger, Amy Poehler as Joy, Phyllis Smith as Sadness, Bill Hader as Fear, Mindy Kaling as Disgust and Richard Kind as a jubilant imaginary friend) is 100% on-point.
This remarkable German film attempts the challenging task of offering both an enjoyably tense Hitchcockian thriller and an investigation of Germany's cultural shame in the wake of WWII. Director Christian Petzold pulls it off rather elegantly, while Nina Hoss turns in a tremendous performance as a concentration camp survivor attempting to reconnect with her past. The film builds to the year's most astonishing closing scene, in which unspeakable truths are captured in the lyrics of an old song and the eyes of the film's characters.
#2. James White
A shotgun blast of raw, naked emotion. The title character (Christopher Abbott, delivering one of the year's best performances) is a young man in the grip of despair; forced to contend with both the recent death of his father and his mother's ongoing battle with cancer. This is one of the strongest meditations on grief I've ever seen; powerfully examining the way it can strip you of everything you need to function. As with Michael Haneke's Amour, there are moments when this observant human drama becomes as terrifying as any horror film. James can be difficult to empathize with, but that's part of the film's point: the moments when we need love the most are often the moments when we are least capable of receiving it.
#1 (tie). Carol
At a glance, Carol looks like the 2015 version of Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain: a tasteful, attractive, well-acted tale of same-sex romance presented through the tragic filter of period prejudice. Look closer, however, and you'll discover that Carol is so much more than a mere plea for audience compassion. This isn't just a film about two women (Cate Blanchett as the middle-aged Carol and Rooney Mara as the young shopgirl Therese, both delivering pitch-perfect performances) falling in love, but a film about two women falling in love in a world that treats women as secondary citizens. Look at the scene in which Carol's husband Harge (an excellent Kyle Chandler) casually mentions “so-and-so's wife,” and Carol quickly responds by offering the woman's name. That's the sort of tiny, observant detail the film offers over and over again. When Carol and Therese look at each other, they see each other in a way that none of the men in their lives have ever seen them. Even so, the film never villainizes any of its characters or regards them through a sneering, judgmental modern lens. The film's endless empathy is an essential part of what makes it so moving. Todd Haynes' deliberately old-fashioned direction is nothing short of flawless: this is one of those rare movies in which every single choice made in every single department feels precisely right (this sort of pristine, detailed filmmaking feels particularly fitting for a film set in the 1950s, an era of handsome aesthetics and repressed emotions). Eventually, the film arrives at a series of concluding scenes that subvert our expectations and cast aside decades of formula – within the last fifteen minutes or so, there were at least three scenes that brought tears to my eyes. This is Haynes' greatest film to date, and one of the finest, most affecting romantic dramas ever made.
#1 (tie). Mad Max: Fury Road
There's a great deal to admire in George Miller's original Mad Max trilogy (particularly the sensational The Road Warrior), but the 70-year-old director reached dizzying new heights with his sequel/reboot Mad Max: Fury Road. Essentially a two hour chase scene, the film sets a new standard for modern action filmmaking, delivering the purest hit of action/adventure thrills since Raiders of the Lost Ark. While a host of imitators have been stealing bits and pieces of post-apocalyptic design from the Mad Max films for years, Miller both reclaims his territory and pushes things in a wildly unique new direction. It's a film filled to the brim with astonishing imagery; a demented fever dream of blood, sand, paint and chrome. How did this even get made? Fury Road's technical merits alone would earn it a place on any “best-of” list, but the story is a potent one: a spare, focused fable that offers provocative thoughts on the world's (mis)treatment of women and the relationship between terrorism and religion. Plus, the characters are sensational: Nicolas Hoult's Nux is a soulful young psychopath, Hugh Keays-Byrne's Immortan Joe is a magnificent monster and Tom Hardy does lovely work as a man reconnecting with his own sense of decency... but it's Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa that leaves the biggest impression. An aggrieved, one-armed warrior who is simultaneously more ferocious, more human and more vulnerable than other, superficially similar “badass chick” action heroes, she's 2015's most instantly iconic figure. I can't put it any better than critic Bilge Ebiri did: Mad Max: Fury Road is, "the Sistine Chapel of action filmmaking.”
A few closing bits of business:
A. For the record, this is the first time I've allowed two films to share the #1 spot on my list. I rewatched both Fury Road and Carol shortly before finalizing this list, hoping that one would reveal itself as the clear winner. That didn't happen, though both have become richer and more satisfying with repeat viewings. These are wildly different movies – one a delicate arthouse drama, the other a thunderous blockbuster - united only by their remarkable artistry and their understanding of the way the world takes women for granted. There are a lot of different strengths that can place a film somewhere on my “best of” list, but the top slot has always been reserved for films that move me or inspire awe. Carol moved me as deeply as anything else I saw this year. Fury Road is the most awe-inspiring film I've seen this year. Both are flawless pieces of work from gifted veteran filmmakers reaching new heights, and either one would have topped my 2014 list. Perhaps this matter will be settled by the time I get around to making a “best of the decade” list at the end of 2019.
B. Honorable Mentions: 99 Homes, Beasts of No Nation, The Big Short, The Duke of Burgundy, Faults, Furious 7, The Gift, It Follows, Kingsman: The Secret Service, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Maps to the Stars, Mistress America, Results, Shaun the Sheep Movie, Slow West, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Tangerine, What We Do in the Shadows, When Marnie Was There, Z for Zachariah
C. I haven't watched enough documentaries this year to assemble a proper top ten list (because it would basically be the ten or so documentaries I've seen this year), but I'll note that the most powerful one I've seen is Alex Gibney's Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief: an invaluable, intelligent deconstruction of an organization that has ruined a lot of lives.