I start my best films of the year list the same way every year, by mentioning the movies I had no capability of seeing and therefore weren't eligible for this list. Many of the year's best and most acclaimed films often get released late in December in New York and Los Angeles only, in order to qualify for awards season. Because critics get early screenings for these films, they appear on end of the year lists, but I'm not an official critic so I don't get that luxury! It's very frustrating. So here are some movies that could have possibly made my list were it not for the fact that they're not truly out yet: Anomalisa, 45 Years, The Look of Silence, James White, The Revenant, The Assassin.
Due to having less time this year and trying to focus more on older films, I saw slightly less new movies than I did in 2014, but enough to say with confidence that 2015 was a fantastic year for film. We got great films of all shapes and sizes: blockbusters, animated films, foreign films, middle budget movies, horror, non-theatrical releases. There were some massive disappointments -- looking at you, Spectre! -- but 2015 batted a pretty high average overall. Here's to hoping 2016 is even better.
The rules: As long as a film got an official release in 2015, it was eligible for placement on this list. This is an important thing to remember, since many of the films that appear in my top 20 premiered at film festivals in 2014, but didn't get released in theaters until this year. And in the case where a film got no theatrical release, then a VOD debut in 2015 will make it eligible. Now that all of that has been cleared up, on to the actual list...
Honorable Mentions (25-21)
It gets a little too shaggy near the end, but overall The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a warm, truthful, and funny depiction of teenage sexuality. Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle bring out the best in each other for Steve Jobs, which avoids many of the common biopic pitfalls. Room is an absolutely harrowing film, made all the more so by Brie Larson's powerful performance at the center of it. A tried and true formula is what holds Creed up, but all of the specific touches at the margins are what make it special. Magic Mike XXL doesn't have as much on its mind as its predecessor did, but it offers some stunning -- and stunningly shot -- sequences.
20. Tomorrowland (Directed by Brad Bird)
Every good list has to have one Credibility Killer, a pick so disagreeable it threatens to invalidate the rest of the picks next to it. Tommorowland absolutely falls into that category, and I'm more than happy to have it here. Pre-release expectations were high for the next film from critical darling Brad Bird, causing post-release reviews to be mixed at best, but here's the thing: this is a terrific movie. Sure, the story co-written by Damon Lindelof is flawed and makes as much sense as his other film work (which is to say, not very much), but who cares when it's being guided by a hand as masterful as Bird's is? He's always seemed fascinated with the way things work, and that comes through in his action setpieces, which have a cause-and-effect feeling that's thrilling and playful at once. Tomorrowland features some of his most zippy sequences, his animated fluidity coming together like Rube Goldberg by way of Looney Tunes. And the wide-eyed schmaltz of his animated work carries over here too. Many of the film's detractors found this sensibility cloying and naive, but there's something about its specific brand of optimistic earnestness that wraps itself around you and sweeps you away. Or, it did for me at least. I don't know what everyone else's problem was.
19. Brooklyn (Directed by John Crowley)
Saoirse Ronan is one of those actors who rarely gets to display the full power of her brilliance, due to the lack of meaty roles for young women. But Brooklyn gives her a chance and she completely delivers, in what might be my favorite performance of the year. She stars as Eilis, a young woman who moves from her home in Ireland in order to find a better future in America. This film always feels like it's one wrong turn away from being the very conventional PBS film that premise makes it out to be, but Eilis is such a fiery, funny, clever, and complicated character that she seems to literally take the story into her own hands and move it in the best possible direction. Brooklyn is a lovely experience, it's just a total joy to watch. There's a very classical feel to it, especially in how it plays to your emotions in ways that you don't often see these days, without being maudlin. The world could use a simple and kind film like Brooklyn every now and then.
18. The End of the Tour (Directed by James Ponsoldt)
James Ponsoldt has always been an actor's director, wringing career-best performances out of the likes of Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Smashed and Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now. The End of the Tour, his latest film about Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky's (Jesse Eisenberg) series of interviews with legendary author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) on the last leg of his Infinite Jest book tour, is Ponsoldt's greatest actor's exercise yet. This two-hander is stuffed with warm, funny, and thought-provoking conversations between its two protagonists, and Eisenberg and Segel embody them perfectly. Tour is also an insightful look at a friendship where one person is more successful and innately talented than the other, and all of the tensions that come with it. Even if you're not familiar with Foster Wallace's work, you'll still find so much to enjoy about this wonderful little film.
17. Phoenix (Directed by Christian Petzold)
Endings are crucial to films. They can often redeem bad ones, and they're what can turn a good film into a pantheon-worthy one. One look at the premise of Phoenix and you can easily guess how it's going to conclude. When World War II ends, a Jewish woman returns to her home in Germany after time in a concentration camp left her with facial trauma that required her to have surgery to make her look not quite like herself. She hopes to reunite with her husband, only to find that he believes her to be dead and is trying to inherit her fortune. When he spots her one night, her sort-of resemblance to his "wife" makes him think she's the perfect candidate to impersonate herself. "Eventually he's going to find out that it is his wife, right?," we all ask ourselves. But despite -- or perhaps because of -- that inevitability, the ending is one of the most powerful scenes of the year. True to its title, Phoenix is a film about rebirth, and it tells the story of a nation attempting to recover from the atrocities it committed by focusing on the personal journey of one woman trying to recover from those very atrocities. Though people primarily rave about that steamroller ending, the whole film is masterful.
16. When Marnie Was There (Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi)
Hayao Miyazaki released his final film The Wind Rises and Isao Takahata bowed out with The Tale of The Princess Kaguya in pretty quick succession last year. Though there are other directors who have put out films under Studio Ghibli, it always seemed like the company existed to support its two big names, and without them it doesn't look like the studio will go on. If When Marnie Was There is indeed Ghibli's swan song, then it's a magnificent way to go out. It may not ever be listed as anyone's favorite work from the studio, but it's still great in its own right. Marnie tells the story of a young, depressed girl who goes to live with her aunt and uncle for the summer, and ends up befriending a mysterious girl who lives across the lake. It functions both as a great coming of age story and a moving ghost story. Like all Ghibli films, there's a meticulous attention to detail, and this features some of the most gorgeous animation in the studio's history. They may not go on after Miyazaki and Takahata's retirements, but When Marnie Was There proves that Studio Ghibli easily could if they wanted to.
15. Carol (Directed by Todd Haynes)
Carol, Todd Haynes' adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel The Price of Salt, is restrained but not chilly. In fact, it conceals a raging emotional fire underneath small gestures. Rarely has a movie gotten so much from furtive glances, changes in body language, and phrases that hang in the air. Credit goes to Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, who sell this tale of strangled desire with their insane chemistry. But the film's power also comes from the way Haynes shoots them, all lingering shots and swooning camerawork. Carol understands the head-spinning feeling of attraction down to the tiniest details, the ones that really count. It's the best film about shoulder touching you'll ever see.
14. Tu dors Nicole (Directed by Stephane Lefleur)
"Slight" is a word that got thrown around in many reviews of Tu dors Nicole, the French-Canadian film about a woman's aimless summer back home after graduating from college. But the film is only masquerading as slight, burying a quietly moving story under its lackadaisical spirit. Director Stephane Lefleur condenses all of the malaise endemic to post-grad life into a few listless weeks of summer, but the ennui feels all too real nonetheless. Friendships slowly evaporate, infatuations simmer and fizzle out, peers get married and pregnant. The film presents these ideas through loose comic vignettes that have the lightest hint of surreality to them, the world seeming to exist in that liminal space between consciousness and dreaming. And if Tu dors Nicole never quite pieces together perfectly by the end, it's only because the film is too buoyant and hypnotic to ever be tied down.
13. Queen of Earth (Directed by Alex Ross Perry)
How withholding can you be while still making an effective film? That's the question director Alex Ross Perry plays with for the entirety of Queen of Earth, a film that's seemingly about two best friends (Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston) drifting apart over the course of their retreat at a lake house together. That may be the logline, but Queen is far more cryptic than that. The viewer is thrown into this situation with only hints of details, dynamics, and the source of the drama. Perry strategically lines the film with bread crumbs, enlightening at the perfect moments, luring audiences further into the maw of this film. Like his previous movie Listen Up Philip, this is so full of subtext, psychological baggage, and structural trickery that you can dig and dig and never reach the bottom. This is not a horror film, but parts of it are spookier and more unsettling than anything that can be labelled as such. That's how dense and inscrutable Queen of Earth is: it feels like it can stumble into horror at any second. This one's pretty unshakable.
12. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Directed by J.J. Abrams)
All The Force Awakens needed to be was better than the prequel films and it would be considered a success. That it's better than the prequels and a good movie in its own right is just icing on the cake. And this film is very good. With the pressure of a beloved franchise on his shoulders, J.J. Abrams wastes no time setting things in motion with a first act that's so joyous and energetic. It remembers what the prequels seemed to have forgotten, which is that this is an adventure story, and The Force Awakens is filled with instantly likable characters, amusing dialogue, and excellently designed sequences. It looks like Star Wars. It sounds like Star Wars. But most importantly, it feels like Star Wars. That's not to say the movie is without flaws (Abrams' obsession with puzzles and mysteries threatens to capsize the film in the second half, and the homages to the original trilogy get a little too cute), but none of them are enough to tamp down its dazzling successes.
11. Tangerine (Directed by Sean Baker)
The first two things anybody says about Tangerine -- and the only two things I knew about the film going into it -- is that it's about two transgender prostitutes in LA and the whole thing was shot on an iPhone. What people don't tell you is how boisterous and entertaining it is. The mind immediately goes to dark places when you hear "critically acclaimed film about trans prostitutes," but Tangerine couldn't be farther from that. Instead, it's a hyperactive day-in-the-life adventure, overflowing with hilarious lines and a raw underground vigor. The film splinters into tangent after wild tangent, but then it brings them together in one of the best sequences of the year. Some of the most interesting movies allow us a peek into an unfamiliar world, and Tangerine does just that, following its characters to hole-in-the-wall motels, sun-baked corners, and dingy convenience stores. This feels like a whole new brand of cinema.
10. Clouds of Sils Maria (Directed by Olivier Assayas)
Clouds of Sils Maria is a bewitching oddball of a film. Nobody would call it exciting in a traditional sense, but it crackles and pops all the same. Sils Maria mostly consists of scenes between aging actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and her personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) in the Alps having long conversations about fame, creativity, success, and implicitly, the unyielding flow of time. The film is languid. It's a little misshapen. It's also completely dazzling. In a movie this loquacious, a high amount of responsibility rests on the actors, and Binoche reliably brings her A-game, but it's Stewart who steals the show in an astonishing performance. In fact, she's so relaxed and natural that it feels like there's no performance, a real person instead of just a character on the page. A film as chilly and wispy as this is may not be the best introduction to Assayas' work, but it's essential for anyone who remains unconvinced of Kristen Stewart's talents. [Read the original review]
9. Mistress America (Directed by Noah Baumbach)
Noah Baumbach is a dialogue master, and it's never more apparent than in Mistress America, his screwball comedy about a college freshman (Lola Kirke) who meets and quickly becomes enchanted by her soon-to-be stepsister (Greta Gerwig). There's no doubt that this is the most quotable film of the year, with a humorous line flying by every ten seconds ("Holy shit, those pregnant women are super smart"). But Baumbach is not just an empty zinger machine. His dialogue has profound, piercing observations that are just brilliantly tossed off. And he informs his characters by giving them all of these language tics and phrases that they frequently fall back on, like the way Gerwig's character always says "I was brought up that way." Mistress America is about people who are extremely self-aware and yet somehow not self-aware enough. They're always making pronouncements about themselves but not quite getting to the layer right under those pronouncements. Baumbach's been scratching that particular itch for his whole career, but rarely with this much density and pure energy.
8. Ex Machina (Directed by Alex Garland)
There are many films these days that fall under the category of "science fiction," but they are mostly action and spectacle-based. It's rare that we get purely intellectual sci-fi, and that's part of the reason why Ex Machina is so refreshing. This movie about a scientist (Oscar Isaac) enlisting a programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) to participate in Turing tests with his AI (Alicia Vikander) explores fascinating ideas about personhood and the human brain. Best of all, it does so through dense, gripping two-person dialogue scenes. Gleeson, Vikander, and Isaac all give incredible performances as the tense mind games between the three of them slowly heightens its stakes. This film was directed by Alex Garland (screenwriter of 28 Days Later and Sunshine), so of course the third act builds to chaos, but everything before it has such a chilly, eerie intensity that it feels more earned than in his previous scripts.
7. It Follows (Directed by David Robert Mitchell)
When David Robert Mitchell debuted with the uneven but admirable Myth of the American Sleepover, it was easy to see him making a great film somewhere down the line. Less predictable, however, was that he would transition to horror. It Follows checks both boxes -- it's an astounding leap forward for Mitchell and an instant addition to the horror movie canon. Mitchell wraps all the young adult anxiety of Myth in a novel premise: a murderous supernatural entity that follows its target until the curse is transmitted to somebody else via sex. Rule-obsessed viewers may be peeved by the way the film doesn't completely stick to the all of the parameters it sets up, but the fuzzy nightmare logic under which It Follows operates just adds to the pervasive dread that seeps out of every corner. Plus, it's much more interested in using the premise as a delivery system for some wonderfully staged setpieces. Mitchell invokes so much pure cinema -- including his favorite technique, the slow pan -- to convey information and ratchet up the terror in these scenes. It's such a shame that we don't get many good horror films every year, because It Follows is a perfect example of how powerful the genre can be. [Read the original review]
6. Ricki and the Flash (Directed by Jonathan Demme)
Ricki and the Flash, Jonathan Demme's new Diablo Cody-penned film about an aging rocker attempting to reconcile with the family she abandoned years ago, is 2015's greatest case against watching trailers. The ones for this movie made it seem uninteresting and conventional, the kind of film you watch on an airplane when there's nothing better on. It wasn't until I heard two of my favorite critics, Scott Tobias and Todd VanDerWerff, championing it as one of the most underrated films of the year that I decided to check it out. I'm very glad that I did, because the full story is much more soulful and honest than the sanitized trailer makes it out to be. Demme and Cody sketch out the central family in a way that lets you in on the years of failures and disappointments dividing these people, and they have enough compassion to not judge any parties. This is a beautiful story about forgiveness and the often difficult journey required to get there. I'm not sure why the overall opinion on this one is so mixed, but Ricki and the Flash totally bulldozed me.
5. Spotlight (Directed by Tom McCarthy)
Almost every filmmaker is bound to have one disaster. However, it's rare that they come out with a trainwreck and a Best Picture contender in the same year. Such is the case with the otherwise fantastic writer-director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor, Win Win), whose The Cobbler is one of the worst reviewed films of the year. But Spotlight, a riveting newspaper drama about the Boston Globe's investigative team and their efforts in 2001 to get to the bottom of the pattern of sexual molestation within the Catholic Church, more than makes up for that aberration earlier in the year. This film belongs to a rare and underrated genre: smart people doing their jobs really well. Spotlight is a top-down process film, taking no shortcuts depicting an investigation that boils down to a great deal of following leads, scribbling notes, and conducting painstaking research late into the night. McCarthy is smart enough to know that he doesn't need excessive visual flourishes to keep the viewer's attention -- the absorbing script is more than enough. Sometimes all you need is an interesting story, and Spotlight is one that's extremely well-told. [Read the original review]
4. Sicario (Directed by Denis Villeneuve)
My hands were shaking when I walked out of the theater for Sicario, Denis Villeneuve's film about an FBI agent (Emily Blunt) who joins a corrupt task force to bring down the leader of a prominent Mexican drug cartel. That's how crazy intense it was. It's not even that the film is nonstop action, there's just a suffocating sense of unease. It feels like danger is around any corner, and Villeneuve constructs these long, anguishing scenes that amp up the tension to sweaty-brow levels. Sicario has many ideas on its mind, but one of the main ones that stuck out to me was its parallels to the war on terror in the Middle East. The idea of doing anything (even if it means taking illegal measures) to get what you want, "causing chaos" to smoke out your enemies, doing bad to do good. Backed by a terrific lead performance from Emily Blunt and some eye-popping cinematography from certified genius Roger Deakins, Sicario feels like a full package film. Even if you don't smoke, you might need a cigarette after it's over.
3. The Hateful Eight (Directed by Quentin Tarantino)
Quentin Tarantino's filmography is littered with violent, bloody, and nasty films, but The Hateful Eight might be his ugliest one to date. True to its name, the film is populated with racist, sexist, and vile characters, and once they're all confined to a single location, the bile splashes everywhere. Hateful Eight uses its parlor room pressure cooker format to make use of all of Tarantino's best qualities, primarily his sharp dialogue and knack for building long, tense scenes. At over three hours, it's his longest film to date, but the deliberate pace makes the moments where sequences snap together with a verbal sparring match or flash of violence all the more satisfying. Critics are divided on what Tarantino is trying to say with this movie, but it's clear that he's aiming for something big and high. This is a story about the art of lying, and The Hateful Eight posits that the values that America holds itself to may be the biggest lie of all.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road (Directed by George Miller)
There might be more ideas in the first 30 minutes of Mad Max: Fury Road than there were in every summer blockbuster of the last five years combined. George Miller's return to the post-apocalyptic franchise is his first live-action film in almost 20 years, and it feels like he throws in everything he's been holding in during that time. It's insane that a 70 year old man made the most vibrant, vital film of the year, but that's what Fury Road is: an absolute action bonanza. In an era where setpieces are cut and chopped to the point of incomprehensibility, this film is a marvel of geography. You always know where characters are in relation to each other in the action scenes, mainly due to Miller's choice to shoot in long, wide shots. He's got a great sense of rhythm and variation too. This is a very percussive film -- it's all pretty much one long chase, but it's broken up into digestible parts with clear mini-goals: fix this, get that, and so on. All this talk of action doesn't mean that there's no plot or character work done. It's just that Miller uses setpieces as a vehicle for those elements. He trusts in his visual storytelling enough to present ideas and assume you'll know what's going on, and it works. We're not told much about these characters through dialogue, but we care about them because of the information we get via striking, meaningful images. Cherish Mad Max: Fury Road, it's not everyday that we get a film as gleeful and bugnuts as this.
1. Inside Out (Directed by Pete Docter)
I'm of the mind that Pixar's downfall is far less pronounced than people make it out to be (I'll take Monsters University and Brave over acclaimed non-Pixar films like Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph, and Big Hero 6 any day), but even I feel like this film is just what they needed. Inside Out is a near masterpiece, right up there with the studio's very best work. Telling the arc of an 11 year old girl through the personified emotions in her head is both simple and complex, and director/co-writer Pete Docter executes both sides beautifully. This film is wonderfully imaginative, genre-hopping from Hollywood satire to abstract art in order to nail down the way thoughts, dreams, and desires work. And of course, this is Pixar, so it goes without saying that Inside Out will mess with your feelings. What's impressive is that it doesn't feel manipulative. The film comes by its emotional moments honestly, through great writing that builds its internal and external characters alike. They managed to make a sophisticated film about embracing sadness and developing a comfortable relationship with change and the past that was palatable for kids, but emotionally rich enough for adults. Don't call it a comeback, just call it a Pixar film.
Well, that wraps things up for my best films of 2015 list. I love reading other lists, so feel free to share yours in the comments. Or if you have any thoughts on my list, then you can do that too. To see a complete ranked list of all the 2015 films I've seen this year, CLICK HERE.