This list is accurate as of post-date. So many films and not enough time to see them all—172 features seen is this year’s number—the potential for future change is inevitable, but as of today here are the best …
I have no problem saying 2015 was a great year for cinema. Putting together a Top Ten was difficult at every turn—both because each time I had to do so meant I had seen more films and as a result of my preferences constantly changing. There are more than a few from 11-20 that easily could be Top Ten candidates on a different day. Sadly for them that day isn’t today. Happily for us: the art’s level of quality was good enough to cause such problems.
Rules: eligible feature-length films must have been released in their country of origin/region during the calendar year of 2015 (with possible exception). I don’t go by US release dates because cinema is an international medium.
The first image depicting each film clicks over to my full review.
I don’t care that Ryan Coogler’s Creed is pretty much more remake than sequel—it still works. Everyone involved has revamped this world and brought it into the 21st century without missing a beat. Michael B. Jordan owns every scene with a level of resonate emotion that transcends anything Sylvester Stallone gave in the original (and he wasn’t too bad then either). And as far as the legendary Rocky is concerned: what a way to bring the character full circle. It’s like we never left Philadelphia despite believing we had as soon as Ivan Drago went down. I hope we return again very soon.
#14 Brooklyn John Crowley
After watching the trailer with no knowledge of the book Nick Hornby adapted, I wasn’t too interested in watching Brooklyn. It seemed like your run-of-the-mill period romance and I simply wasn’t in the mood. Thankfully this tale is more than appearances may predict. The romantic drama is there in full force with Saoirse Ronan’s Oscar-worthy Eilis’ love triangle spanning two men (an under-rated Emory Cohen and always-solid Domhnall Gleeson) and two countries, but it also gives a sense of home and that concept’s ever-moving fluctuations. This is life and death that inspires beyond its own era into ours. It’s a love letter to an America that opened arms as a rule, not an exception.
#13 Room Lenny Abrahamson
A lot of credit must be given to director Lenny Abrahamson because he had the very difficult job of taking a script from Emma Donoghue that for all intents and purposes supplies two separate halves. The first half is so claustrophobically tense that you’d assume the freedom the real world affords in the second would be a reprieve—and it is initially. But Act II somehow proves even more constricting. Much of Room‘s success also stems from two magnificent performances by Oscar winner Brie Larson and young Jacob Tremblay (Joan Allen isn’t too shabby herself). These two command our undivided attention throughout as we give them worry and hope—their nightmare so heinous that it may never end.
#12 45 Years Andrew Haigh
There’s no denying writer/director Andrew Haigh’s talent now that he has two depictions of complicated love under his belt earning equal acclaim. From the youthful exuberance of two men in Weekend to the aging curtain of an almost half-century marriage lifted to expose damaging secrets in 45 Years, he has a real way with authentic emotions onscreen. The latter doesn’t hurt itself by containing brilliantly nuanced turns from Tom Courtenay and Oscar nominee Charlotte Rampling (the pair won the acting prize at Berlin). So much happens in a lifetime that nothing from the past is ever completely erased. Fault lines are always hiding in love, each waiting for an opportunity to crack wide open.
#11 The Hateful Eight Quentin Tarantino
I’m still flabbergasted that Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained‘s bloated mess found success while his return to tight storytelling in The Hateful Eight didn’t. It might be the stigma of behind the scenes nonsense stemming from a leaked script and multiple public outbursts; or perhaps it was the victim of over-exposure after the semi-debacle of screening it on 70mm. Either way, I thought it was great. Self-contained and intelligent like Reservoir Dogs with Public Fiction‘s witty repartee and Kill Bill‘s gruesome violence—it’s the culmination of everything he’s ever done. Add amazing performances from Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Walton Goggins and I believe public perception will come around.
#10 The Diary of a Teenage Girl Marielle Heller
Don’t let anyone tell you that The Diary of a Teenage Girl is only for women. They’re either lying to you or themselves—or maybe both. Marielle Heller’s adaptation gets adolescence right regardless of gender and isn’t afraid to go to the extremes in order to do so whether intellectually, sexually, or otherwise. It’s also a fun period piece in aesthetic and pop culture references with a fair share of surreal animation to boot. I don’t think it got nearly enough credit during end of year awards season that it deserved and the fact Bel Powley wasn’t at least mentioned amongst the other Best Actresses is a crime.
#09 Mad Max: Fury Road George Miller
The best action movie of the century thus far? Mad Max: Fury Road is in the conversation if not tops on the list. That’s pretty cool in and of itself, but it’s astonishing when you consider it’s also the fourth film of a franchise and directed by a seventy-year old who’s been making children’s fare since the 90s. George Miller out-did himself on this sensory overload epic, proving rumored production problems don’t guarantee failure while dropping the mic on whether practical effects are dead. It was a shot of shiny, chrome adrenaline to the bloodstream with a bad-ass heroine, sympathetic sidekick, and stoic mad man at the center. Witness it!
#08 Ex Machina Alex Garland
Great science fiction isn’t easy to come by these days despite it seeming like so many examples are flooding the market. Fantasy sci-fi is one thing, but cerebral sci-fi is a whole other and Alex Garland delivers. It’s not surprising since he also wrote the spectacular Sunshine a few years back (and 28 Days Later‘s sci-fi spin on zombie horror). With Ex Machina, however, he goes above and beyond by enlisting a crack Oscar-winning special effects team to transform Alicia Vikander into an artificial intelligence robot. And as the philosophical ramifications extend much further than just she, nothing is quite as it seems in this mood piece of intense suspense.
#07 Spring Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead
Sci-fi doesn’t have to provide straight cerebral mind-benders to succeed, though. Just look at Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s spectacular sci-fi meets horror meets supernatural anthropology meets romantic drama Spring. I first saw this genius genre mash-up in 2014 at TIFF and its impact never wavered once I revisited it twice more in 2015. The reason is that Benson and Moorhead have drawn actual human beings we respect, care for, hope find a reprieve from their personal demons—the artifice and effects work augment what’s already there. You will be creeped out by the end, but you’ll also find yourself invested in the love story blossoming within. I can’t wait to see what these two cook up next.
#07 James White Josh Mond
We often don’t know what we’re made of until faced with insurmountable tragedy. James White exists inside its titular character’s emotional ground zero. His only reprieve from the ocean drowning him are drugs and alcohol, yet we still see the type of man he truly is underneath the external preconceptions such temperamental binges manufacture. Josh Mond’s debut serves as a portrait of what many endure as death surrounds them with little hope and less to say besides long-absent admissions of love. Christopher Abbott embraces his dark helplessness and Cynthia Nixon radiates beauty and strength facing a clock counting down. It’s a story of the heart’s resilience and the scars that surviving inevitably leave behind.
#05 Spotlight Tom McCarthy
After a not-as-bad-as-the-critical-sphere-hyperbolically-describes hiccup with The Cobbler, Tom McCarthy reminds us why we loved 2003’s The Station Agent so much with his ode to journalistic integrity, Spotlight. Even in that Adam Sandler vehicle he showed how good he is at directing actors and boy does this latest have the A-list cast to bring that part of his career to its apex. Between the informative, never-boring Oscar-winning script researched and written by he and Josh Singer to the powerhouse acting ensemble to the sensitive subject matter handled with honesty and courage—Spotlight is the epitome of Academy-approved masterpiece. It may not be flashy, but it is flawless.
#04 Carol Todd Haynes
One of the two biggest snubs at the Oscars this year was the fact that Todd Haynes’ impeccable directing didn’t earn him a second career nomination for Carol. I can live with the film not garnering a spot—many of my favorites don’t. But he conducts a master class of grace from gorgeous art direction and cinematography to a beautiful score by Carter Burwell to exquisite performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. It’s as much an homage to a bygone era as his Far From Heaven and it feels just as contemporary in its unfolding. Love’s complexities are on full display as gender, class, and sexuality converge to challenge anyone’s idea of moral decency. How can a love so pure ever be denied?
#03 Inside Out Pete Docter & Ronnie Del Carmen
If anyone at could attempt to out-do Up it would be that film’s director: Pete Docter. With a ton of writing room assistance, multiple rewrites, and a genesis sprung from a different, failed project, he and co-director Ronnie Del Carmen somehow found perfection. The beauty of Pixar is that they never rely solely on physical gags despite there being many to land huge laughs. They dig deeper, striking an emotional chord children don’t yet know they can access. In doing so they put the bittersweet, constructive progression of sadness permeating joy in an integral way onscreen with tear-jerking delicacy. They’ve immortalized our childhoods so universally that you believe Inside Out was made especially for you.
#02 Saul fia [Son of Saul] László Nemes
I’m still wrapping my head around Son of Saul being László Nemes’ debut feature. Its resonate look at Auschwitz is so assured that it feels like the work of a master. We’re consumed by the claustrophobic nature of its shallow depth of field and nightmarish horrors flickering in the distance out of Géza Röhrig’s titular Saul’s reach. Rather than go the Hollywood route by crafting a hero amongst devils, Nemes introduces a man on edge at the end of the line instead. So distraught and numb by the heinous acts he’s witnessed and unwittingly become complicit to, he latches onto his final vestige of humanity via religious identity. His soul’s already lost, but that of an innocent child may still be saved from Hell’s fire.
#01 Steve Jobs Danny Boyle
Steve Jobs was the most enjoyable, I-need-to-watch-that-again-right-now experience I had this year. 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 rendering a triptych of vignettes as dissimilar to each other as they’re identical, it’s a feat of expert precision. And that’s not even mentioning 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 biting and subtly hilarious retorts. Never let me hear you say computers aren’t art.