The 20 Best Films Of 2015

It’s a good year when winnowing a list of the best films down to 20 means making some painful cuts. The names of some of the films just bubbling under our collective list could make for a fine year at the movies: Beasts of No NationLove & Mercy, James WhiteThe Night BeforeDuke of BurgundyClouds of Sils Maria. But list-making is often about making those cuts and seeing what’s left. And what’s left confirms it was an exciting year to be going to the movies. It’s a year that brought us a new Star Wars film that lived up to the impossible expectations of its fans and a miraculous, tiny movie like Tangerine, that used humble iPhones to examine a day in the life of a pair of transgender sex workers in Hollywood. So, without further ado, let’s talk about the year’s best films.

20. The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Bel Powley plays Minnie, a 15-year-old girl living in 1970s San Francisco in Marielle Heller’s overlooked adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s autobiographical graphic novel. The story centers on Minnie’s sexual awakening and the affair she’s having with her mom’s much older boyfriend, Monroe (played by Alexander Skarsgård in a way that probably should have been creepier than it is). This is a movie that will eventually find its audience (an R-rated movie about a 15-year-girl isn’t the easiest sell in 2015), but at least we can say we knew this movie was special the year it came out. — Mike Ryan

19. Tangerine

Directed by Sean S. Baker, Tangerine is a revelation several times over. Baker shot the film on iPhones, but it’s as cinematic as any film you’ll see this year, from the memorable images to the way he uses music to build tension and momentum. It’s an example of making everything out of virtually nothing. It’s also a peek at a corner of Los Angeles most don’t know, the corners, doughnut shops, and seedy motels and that serve as home base to Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor). A pair of transgender prostitutes, their friendship receives one test after another one Christmas Eve as Sin-Dee searches for a cheating pimp/boyfriend (The Wire‘s James Ransone). The film’s by turns kinetic, melancholy, and extremely moving as it barrels from the specific circumstances of its central characters toward a universal truth about the compromises we all make in the name of love. — Keith Phipps

18. The Revenant

I already described The Revenant as “a two-hour adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s dead baby tree,” and I don’t think I can be more succinct than that. It’s more of an experience than a movie. The same way Gravity gave us a sense of the terror of space, The Revenant communicated the brutality of the frontier in the most visceral, immediate terms possible. — Vince Mancini

17. Call Me Lucky

It’s a good thing Barry Crimmins is so curmudgeonly, because it would be easy to make a syrupy hagiography about him for the things that he’s done, which are heroic even in the strictest sense of the word. It’s also a good thing Call Me Lucky is directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, one of the most brutally honest, least full-of-shit humans on Earth. If you see Spotlight, you should see Call Me Lucky too, if only to truly understand child molestation beyond an abstraction. Call Me Lucky is at once a loving profile of a unique comic voice, and a sort of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, if Mr. Smith was a vulgar (but extremely lovable) comedian/activist trying to get the world to care about an extremely serious subject. It’s essentially Mr. Crimmins Goes To Washington (To Talk About Child Rape). It’s my favorite documentary of the year, and the most emotionally draining film of any kind. — VM

16. Room

The best thing about Room isn’t that Joy (Brie Larson) and her son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), escape “room” after seven years in captivity. This happens a lot earlier in the film — directed by Lenny Abrahamson working from a script and novel by Emma Donoghue — than you’d expect and is revealed in the trailer. It’s that the film is more about the repercussions of what it’s like to return to the real world after such an ordeal. For seven years, that room was their real world. Room explores the notion that it’s not always that easy just to be rescued. — MR

15. The Look of Silence

The grimmest dystopian movies have nothing on The Act of Killing and its companion film The Look of Silence. In each, director Josh Oppenheimer dredges up the past of Indonesia, a country still led by those who performed a 1965 purge that killed millions of “communists” — essentially anyone deemed to be in the way of the regime. It’s a depiction of a place where the bad guys who committed unspeakable atrocities not only won, they went unpunished and revised history to depict themselves as righteous. Here, Oppenheimer follows an unnamed man who, under the guise of performing eye exams, interviews some of those responsible for the death of his brother. As in The Act of Killing, their remorselessness, even glee, is chilling. But, like its predecessor, the film also proves that consciences can’t be killed, just suppressed. — KP

14. Phoenix

To the list of great director/actor pairing, it’s now safe to add director Christian Petzold and actress Nina Hoss. Their latest collaboration casts Hoss as Nelly, a Holocaust survivor who returns to Berlin after receiving plastic surgery so extensive, it renders her unrecognizable to the husband who thinks her dead, and who might have had betrayed her. Like Vertigo, which it sometimes resembles in spirit, Phoenix uses the raw materials of pulp to explore the dark corners of the human heart. What follows is an intense drama set at the far reaches of love, one that culminates in a closing scene like no other. — KP

13. Inside Out

From the concept to the character design to a story that plays differently depending on the age of the viewer, Inside Out found Pixar doing everything it does well, as well as it ever has. Pete Docter’s first directorial effort for the studio since 2009’s Up works both as a clever, and science-inspired look at how the mind works, and another a beautiful depiction of what’s gained and what’s lost when we cross the threshold of childhood into a more mature understanding of how the world works. — KP

12. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Director J.J. Abrams had to thread the narrowest of needles with this seventh entry in the Star Wars saga, satisfying old fans — even those still bummed out by the prequels — while setting the table for a new generation. It’s a mission memorably accomplished by a film that makes torch-passing a theme as a new group of young heroes brushes shoulders with characters from the original trilogy while taking a stand against a new threat to galactic peace. If it errs on the side of homage, well, maybe that’s unavoidable. One viewer’s fan service is another’s “Oh wow! There’s R2-D2.” What matters most is that all the elements, old and new, serve a compelling story, one whose loose ends and unresolved mysteries make the Star Wars universe seem as full of possibility as the original films. — KP

11. It Follows

It Follows is one of my favorite types of movies, a more or less straight-up genre exercise that’s every bit as smart and profound as your most puffed-up prestige picture or arthouse meditation. It doesn’t make you jump, it just gives you a sense of creeping dread, which sticks with you for much longer. Director David Robert Mitchell doesn’t just use adolescent sex to tantalize, he actually explores what’s scary about it. (Of course, all the dopey horror fanboys thought it was boring, or not scary enough, and that’s why the world has Saw movies.) — VM

10. Creed

Who knew? Who knew a movie that is essentially Rocky VII could find so much new life, while still adhering to the tried-and-true Rocky formula? It’s a good formula! Remember when Coke changed its formula? There’s no need to change a formula just because people are used to it. Good formulas are hard to come by! Chances are, if you mess around with it too much, your new formula will be worse. The key, which director Ryan Coogler pulls off, is to find that nice sweet spot between tweaking and reinventing. And Michael B. Jordan should be getting the same (deserved) accolades that Sylvester Stallone has received so far. (And it’s impossible not to cheer when that musical cue finally kicks in.) — MR

9. Sicario

It’s rare to see a movie where the construction matters anywhere near as much as the story, but Sicario is that exception. I’m one of the few who tends to think Denis Villeneuve is bleak and serious almost to the point of parody (GRR, VENGEANCE!), but I can see why people don’t care. My God, can this guy shoot an action sequence. Sicario reminded me of Michael Mann, and I don’t mean the guy who made Blackhat. — VM

8. Carol

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are superb in this story about love during a time when the one thing both their characters wants — to be together — seems impossible. The best choice Todd Haynes makes is to downplay the verboten nature of the relationship between Carol (Blanchett) and Therese (Mara) – instead, the movie focuses on them. Kyle Chandler (who is great and has been lost a little behind the performances of Blanchett and Mara) plays Carol’s estranged husband and his confusion and pain is palpable. These, the film makes clear, are the kind of emotions that lead people to do mean things. Carol is not a movie about two women in love, it’s a movie about following one’s own heart, despite the consequences. — MR

7.  The Big Short

A movie like The Big Short needed Adam McKay. Let’s face it: The almost complete destruction of the American economy just isn’t that exciting of a story. The closest we’ve come to economic doom in our lifetime wound up being boring. Serves us right, I guess. But having a director like McKay turn the housing collapse – and all of its dry and confusing intricacies included… synthetic CDOs! – into something that is often funny, often shocking, and always infuriating is remarkable. McKay makes our demise into something that resembles a heist movie. He embraces the dry subject matter and finds humor within. This is a very meta film: It knows this is a boring subject matter. But McKay finds a meta, breaking-the-fourth-wall tactic to keep the film moving. One of the most dramatic moments of the film is a freeze frame on Steve Carell’s face as Guns N’ Roses blares. McKay pulls out every trick he has to make sure you finally understand who, exactly, screwed us all over. (And who is still screwing us all over.) — MR

6. Brooklyn

Brooklyn is another one of those films I feel like I can, and do, recommend to anyone. That said, I’ve had some trouble explaining it. Here’s a conversation I had with a guy at my jiu-jitsu gym:
“What should I see?”
Brooklyn, definitely.”
“Really? What’s it about?”
“Uh, it’s about this Irish girl, and she comes to America, and she ends up torn between two suitors.”
“…Huh. So is it, like, sexy?”
“Oh no, it’s very chaste. She wears poodle skirts and the guys wear really high-waisted trousers and mostly they just pine for each other.”

Which is to say, Brooklyn — directed by John Crowley and starring Saoirse Ronan — isn’t at all the kind of movie I would normally rush out and see, so the fact that it still hit me right in the gut is that much more impressive. The immigrant fiction genre is so often defined by sadness, and struggle, and degradation and being preyed upon by cruel vultures, that when Brooklyn gives us a smart, pleasant protagonist surrounded mostly by other pleasant, clever folks mostly doing their best, and it’s still intensely heartbreaking, it ends up getting to the root of the immigrant experience that much better. Emory Cohen managed to remind me of both my grandfathers simultaneously. I cried a lot. — VM

5. The Hateful Eight

Despite the many imitators that have shown up over the years, there’s no mistaking a Quentin Tarantino film for anyone else’s. That said, Tarantino never makes exactly the sort of film twice. Despite the much-trumpeted (and expensive) 70mm process used to shoot it, The Hateful Eight is epic in length, but not in scope. It’s essentially a drawing-room mystery in which a handful of characters try to figure out who’s up to no good before they end up at the wrong end of a gun (or knife or more surprising weapons). It’s intimate and claustrophobic like no Tarantino film since Reservoir Dogs. (Which isn’t to say it isn’t visually rich, too. There are images of the Old West in winter here to rival McCabe and Mrs. Miller.) Tarantino has also, as usual, assembled a cast that knows how to bring the characters he gives them to life so well, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role as they work through a drama set in the aftermath of the Civil War — but whose undercurrents of racism, unresolved resentment, and broken promises ripple through to the present. — KP

4. Ex Machina

There are a lot of movies about artificial intelligence, the nature of consciousness, and the singularity, and they normally have a way of spinning out of control. The brilliance of Ex Machina is that it tackles big ideas while keeping the scope of the movie really small. Its cast (mostly) consists of two guys — completely removed from the outside world (they never even say where the Oscar Isaac character’s compound is) — and an AI entity. It also gets profound and thinky without losing its sense of wicked sexiness. You can’t divorce human consciousness from sex, and moreover, why would you try? And the acting… Isaac plays a Gamergate Bill the Butcher, and Alicia Vikander still manages to steal the entire movie. How is she getting awards nominations for The Danish Girl and not this? Trust me, if you see one Alicia Vikander movie from 2015, make it Ex Machina. — VM

3. Spotlight

This is one of those movies that, the first time you see it, you just know you’ve seen something special. It’s always a weird thing to compare a new movie to an established “classic,” but the comparisons to All The President’s Men is an apt one: Spotlight just pops off the screen, which is remarkable considering how low-key and drab the whole affair really is. Which, yes, captures the life of working at a newspaper pretty accurately. In other words: No fancy tricks are needed to get the points across. There’s one scene in which Mark Ruffalo’s character raises his voice in defiance. Usually in movies like this, we will see a lot of dramatic yelling. In Spotlight, less is more. Thomas McCarthy and Josh Singer’s screenplay is great, the performances are great, McCarthy’s direction is great – all with an understated tone appropriate for a story as serious as one about the abuse of children within the Catholic Church, and the Boston Globe team that uncovered just how widespread the abuse really was. — MR

2. Anomalisa

It’s amazing the tricks your brain can play on you while watching Anomalisa. Written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Kaufman and Duke Johnson, there are times during the film when a viewer might completely forget he or she is watching an animated film – then a puppet will remove its face (or something). Which, at the same time, briefly snaps the film into a bizarre, almost psychedelic footnote while also snapping the viewer back into reality in a, “Oh, yeah, these aren’t real humans,” kind of way. Anomalisa is weird and touching and impossible to forget and includes the best cover version of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun.” After a long seven-year absence, it’s very wonderful to have a Charlie Kaufman movie back in our lives. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take this long every again. — MR

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

There are a lot of movies I love, but there aren’t that many I would recommend to just anyone. Mad Max: Fury Road is one of those movies. How could you not like this movie? In terms of “why it’s important,” or whatever legacy/pantheon view you want to take of it, I think the important thing about Fury Road is that it shows that making great action movies is mostly about world-building. I don’t know if it was the legacy of Pulp Fiction or Memento or The Dark Knight that first created the idea, but for a long time it seemed that action filmmakers were convinced that what was going to separate their movie from the pack was having a really complicated plot. When really, “there’s this guy, and he has to kill and/or save something” is all the plot any action filmmaker needs. George Miller didn’t spend any time trying to confuse us, instead he put all his effort into creating an amazing world and incredible stunts. Huffing chrome, naming tumors, praying to a car God, a flame-spewing guitar — who needs plot twists when you’ve got all that? Fury Road‘s magnificence is so self-explanatory that if you don’t understand why it’s great, I have no idea how to tell you. It just shreds. — VM