Like the The Best TV Shows of 2015, my list of 2015’s best movies employs a revolutionary new system called Dynamic Ranking™, in which the films I love go near the top and those I love slightly less go nearer the bottom but entries within a few places of each other may be counted at equivalent. (In other words: No question of the form "Why isn’t the movie in seventh place in fifth?" will be entertained.)
It was, all told, a pretty good year at the movies, especially for actresses. An inevitably incomplete list of the best performances of 2015 would include "45 Years’" Charlotte Rampling, "Phoenix’s" Nina Hoss, "Chi-Raq’s" Teyonah Parris, "Brooklyn’s" Saoirse Ronan, "Clouds of Sils Maria’s" Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, "Queen of Earth’s" Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston, "Carol’s" Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, and Sarah Paulson, "Mad Max: Fury Road’s" Charlize Theron, "Crimson Peak’s" Mia Wasikowska, "The Diary of a Teenage Girl’s" Bel Powley, "Sicario’s" Emily Blunt, "Spy’s" Rose Byrne, "The Danish Girl’s" Alicia Vikander, and "The Last Five Years’" Anna Kendrick — not to mention "Star Wars: The Force Awakens’" Daisy Ridley, the young woman at the head of what may soon become the most successful movie of all time. (Suck it, haters. Suck it hard.)
It’s not easy to find male performances I’m as enthusiastic about, although "The Force Awakens’" Harrison Ford, "Creed’s" Michael B. Jordan, and "The Martian’s" Matt Damon reminded us of the power of real movie-star charisma. Who else? Tom Courtenay, holding his own against Rampling in "45 Years"; Ronald Zehrfeld, as a post-Nazi Clark Gable in "Phoenix"; Jesse Eisenberg, for his uncomfortably familiar portrait of a morally flexible journalist in "The End the Tour"; Tom Hiddleston, as "Crimson Peak’s" compromised Gothic hero; Jason Statham, eviscerating action-movie macho from the inside out, in "Spy." Not a bad list, just a much shorter one.
Speaking of lists, on to the big one.
The Top 13 Movies of 2015
"The Look of Silence"
Two movies, one fiction, one non-, about genocide and the powerful impulse to forget its horror. Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary, a bookend to his equally great "The Act of Killing," fights erasure with a video camera and the bravery of one victim’s brother. Christian Petzold’s gloss on "Vertigo" ends with a mic-drop moment underlining that forgetting is as much an act of will as remembering is.
Marriage and its discontents. A long-wed couple, played by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, are haunted by the past as their anniversary approaches. Here, personal history is an unwanted guest at the party, as an apparently solid, or at least contented-enough, union is revealed to have been built on sand. Rampling’s performance is as still and deep as an underground lake; the more Courtenay putters and sputters in the face of her implacable calm, the more he is diminished.
"Clouds of Sils Maria"
Female mentorship as psychic vampirism, with Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart as a legendary actress and her assistant. Stewart ditches jittery teenage angst for nicotine-stained weariness, and it’s possible Binoche has never been better cast in anything.
Todd Haynes’ period romance is clinical almost to a fault — once a semiotics major, etc. — but its haunting final images knock down the walls and flood the screen with light and feeling. Like "Phoenix" and "45 Years," a great movie made greater by a perfect ending.
Although it’s hard to see how much clearer it could be that Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s stop-motion dystopia is entirely subject to its protagonist’s POV — watch the last shot very carefully — there’s been recent frowny-talk about how it represents Kaufman’s Jaundiced View of the World or some such. Think of it instead as a brush with sympathetic madness, a hyperbolic extension of an impulse whose roots you must be honest enough to see in yourself.
A fetishistic movie about fetishism, a B&D romance steeped in ’70s softcore. What comes on at first like a lush indulgence reveals itself as a poignant, daringly sentimental reflection on the shelf life of love.
A movie whose high points are so dazzling I invoke my right to overlook its flaws (i.e. the "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" of this list). The sheer beauty of Guillermo del Toro’s Gothic romance (to use its creator’s preferred designation) grabbed me with an almost physical force and never let go; it’s as if Terrence Malick remade "The Innocents."
The best possible version of a kind of movie I reflexively dislike: the well-appointed issue drama. Call it a TV movie if you must, but prizing the hollow flash of "The Revenant" over Tom McCarthy’s meticulous procedural marks you as a rube.
Like "Phoenix" and "The Look of Silence," a movie that’s stayed with me for over a year, its greatness confirmed one month at a time. Amanda Rose Wilder’s documentary — edited by my friend Robert Greene — has its roots in the progressive "free school" movement, but it’s most powerful as a study in the limits of liberal idealism. The idea of a run both for and by its 10-and-under students seems like a certain kind of parent’s dream come true, but when an unruly student challenges the teachers’ authority, the old hierarchies reassert themselves in a flash. From parenting to politics, its applications are endless.
"Max Max: Fury Road"
You know that movie every critic in the known universe says is great? It’s great.
Classic farce recast with transgender sex workers and staged on the mean-but-colorful streets of Los Angeles. Giddy, hilarious, heartwarming — the ideal Christmas movie for 2015.
"The Diary of a Teenage Girl"
First-time director Marielle Heller makes a striking debut with her adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic (in every sense) memoir, but it’s newcomer Bel Powley who leaves the deepest mark. Like "Approaching the Elephant," "Diary’s" portrayal of Sexual Revolution-ized ’70s San Fran finds a moral abyss yawning beneath hands-off high-mindedness: When Powley’s curious teen sleeps with her mother’s boyfriend, suddenly things are not quite so groovy.