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The 20 Best Breakthrough Directors Of 2015

The 20 Best Breakthrough Directors Of 2015

Year-end season continues apace, and after listing 2015’s best posters and best trailers, we looked at the breakthrough performances of 2015 yesterday, featuring a promising a selection of new performers. But as ever, the talent hasn’t just been emerging in front of the camera: from the festival circuit to multiplex blockbusters, we’ve seen all kinds of directors breaking through in 2015.

Last year, we featured filmmakers like Ana Lily Amirpour, Damien Chazelle, Dan Gilroy, Jeremy Saulnier, Justin Simien and Gillian Robespierre. Who’s joined them this year? Below, you’ll find twenty filmmakers, spanning English-language and foreign movies, fiction and non-fiction, blockbuster erotica to throwback horror-westerns, music biopics to Holocaust dramas. Check out our list, and let us know in the comments who made an impression on you in 2015.

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Desiree Akhavan — “Appropriate Behavior”

Given its Brooklyn setting and frank depiction of sex, the specter of becoming “the next Lena Dunham” shadows Desiree Akhavan, the 29-year-old Iranian-American filmmaker behind “Appropriate Behavior.” Fortunately, the comparison is more than superficial, and according to most, the film only shares the strengths of Dunham’s work —sharp, acerbic humor, painful autobiographical situations and a fresh, unique voice. A New York-raised daughter of Iranian immigrants, Akhavan studied film at Tisch at New York University, and was best known before this year for web series “The Slope.” But “Appropriate Behavior,” in which she also stars as a bisexual Brooklyn girl reeling from a break-up, should at the very least be a “Tiny Furniture”-style boost, aided by a brief acting role on the fourth season of “Girls.” Akhavan upped sticks to the U.K. this year, developing a comedy about a bisexual woman for the BBC‘s Channel 4 —let’s hope we get to see it some time in 2016, because she’s one of the sharpest new comic talents we’ve seen in a long while.

Kyle Patrick Alvarez — “The Stanford Prison Experiment”
While it’s the third feature film from Alvarez, “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” a retelling of the infamous 1971 psychology experiment pioneered by Dr Philip Zimbardo, sees him take a big leap in terms of craft and directorial authority. Taking an excellent, tight script by Tim Talbott, previously best known as a “South Park ” writer, Alvarez makes effortless-looking work of a deceptively difficult scenario. Starring an exciting who’s-who of young male acting talent (Tye Sheridan, Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano, Logan Miller, Thomas Mann, Keir Gilchrist, Johnny Simmons), most of the actors, especially Angarano, Ezra Miller and Billy Crudup as Zimbardo, are given individual moments to shine (albeit darkly —this is a very rigorous, unforgiving film), but it’s never less than an ensemble. Alvarez’ ability to communicate the claustrophobia and desperation of the surroundings is equally impressive (helped along by the actual containment of the set) without making the film feel un-cinematic. Best of all is the difficult tone, that somehow seems completely under Alvarez’ control here. It’s gruelling to see these young men turn on each other in progressively more blunt and bullying ways, yet there is an underlying sense of jet-black irony that makes the film extra compelling, as the roles of prisoner and guard, bully and victim, test subject and observer, shift and reverse amorphously throughout.

Sean Baker — “Tangerine”

So Baker’s last film “Starlet” could really be seen as his first breakout, gaining widespread acclaim and making a emerging acting star in Dree Hemingway. But we can’t not mark his next big step up, as “Tangerine” seems to have rightly gained him even greater exposure, and for a different set of reasons. Unlike many directors we’ve listed previously who use the profile that an indie hit bestows to break into the bigger-budget bracket or even into Hollywood, Baker seems like a bona fide independent filmmaker, with a plucky, old-school lemons/lemonade attitude to moviemaking. So his inspiration for “Tangerine,” which follows two transgender sex workers on an odyssey through downtown LA on Christmas Eve, came from looking out his window, and when financing proved tricky, he shot it all on an iPhone 5s. The resulting movie is a riot —a funny, foul, delirious gallop through street-level LA that never feels anything less than cinematic. It’s a small film, to be sure, but considering the gulf between the resources available and the quality of the finished product, there was no bigger achievement in 2015.

Lyric R. Cabral & David Felix Sutcliffe — “(T)error”
Here’s further evidence, if you needed it, that we’re living in a golden age of documentary: “(T)error” is a gripping, sobering, ever-more-timely account of the underhanded tactics put in place by the FBI following 9/11 in its quest to nip domestic terrorism plots in the bud. But it is also an unmissable portrait of one man, FBI informant Saeed, the psychological toll the job has taken on him and the incredible story of one particular operation that ends in an (as far as we know) completely unjustified arrest and eventual incarceration. Aside from the quality of the filmmaking (Cabral is an acclaimed photojournalist), what sets this film apart is the level of access that the directors got to Saeed and to his target (who also talks frankly to them about the Kafka-esque situation he finds himself in). Of course, it didn’t come easy —the film was six years in the making, only after Saeed, who’d been friendly with Cabral for years prior, one day told her he was a living under an assumed identity as a paid FBI informant. Lesser filmmakers might have simply milked this fascinating subject for all he was worth, but Cabral and Sutcliffe never lose sight of the bigger picture, and how the actions of this one increasingly paranoid, possibly delusional man are the direct result of an inhuman and presumably illegal security policy. That profound intelligence is part of the reason the doc picked up a Sundance Grand Jury Prize, and makes us hugely anticipate whatever Cabral and Sutcliffe do next.

Joel Edgerton — “The Gift”

Actor Joel Edgerton has been turning up in ensemble movies and with little fanfare being their (sometimes sole) redeeming feature for so long now that it feels like his job description. But he’s also been building his writer’s resumé, getting a story credit for David Michod‘s “The Rover” and co-writing a few titles with his brother Nash, as well as a rewrite for upcoming Natalie Portman western “Jane Got A Gun.” He also made his directorial debut with “The Gift,” which he also wrote and in which he also co-stars, once again quietly stealing the film from putative leads Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall just by being stealthily brilliant as the creepy Gordo, who begins to terrorize newly arrived young couple Simon and Robyn. It’s a pared-back, unpretentious genre film, but one that is put together with real confidence, shot by rising star DP Eduardo Grau and perfectly paced and measured throughout. It turns out Edgerton is not just as good a director as he is an actor, but he’s good in kind of the same way: his directing style is unobtrusive, understated and remarkably mature for a neophyte. He’s clearly been paying close attention on set all these years (and perhaps learned exactly what not to do from “Exodus: Gods and Kings” —ME-OW!!!!!!).

Rick Famuyiwa — “Dope”

So yes, we’re really stretching the term “breakthrough” to its limit here, but Sundance sensation “Dope” made such a splash for director Famuyiwa, and in such an unusual way, that it feels like it belongs here. But perhaps it’s more a break-across; Famiyuma has already directed three other features, “The Wood” with Taye Diggs and Omar Epps,Brown Sugar” with Diggs, Sanaa Lathan and Mos Def, and the poorly received “Our Family Wedding” with Forest Whitaker and America Ferrara, each technically at a much higher budget and with much higher-profile names attached. But it’s the low-budget, no-star “Dope” that really seems to have resonated, with Famuyiwa abandoning the romantic comedy vibe of his previous titles and turning in an energetic, youthful genre-mash-up instead. Notably absent the kind of condescension that can occur when an experienced filmmaker takes on a high school story, here Famuyiwa doesn’t just reorient the high school film around the experience of a young black self-confessed geek, but riffs on social and class issues, and the riddles of perception versus reality during those difficult teenage years too. It’s terrific fun, but it also makes a point, while minting breakout stars of most of its young cast and reinventing Famuyiwa as an indie filmmaker to watch.

Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz — “Goodnight Mommy”

Anyone with a passing familiarity with modern Austrian cinema outside of Michael Haneke‘s work will not be surprised that arthouse horror “Goodnight Mommy” is produced by Ulrich Seidl, whose own “Paradise” trilogy, as well as 2015’s terrific, underseen semi-doc “In The Basement,” share a certain chilly formalist distance with Fiala and Franz’ movie. But this neat little horror is also its own thing: Fiala and Franz have worked together once before on documentary “Kern” and Franz has co-written those aforementioned Seidl titles and more (they are married), but “Goodnight Mommy” shows the directors both embracing genre and going further with it than you might at first believe. There’s a kind of narrative fearlessness on display here that is the film’s real secret weapon, especially for those who might guess some of the twists and revelations ahead of time, and a pleasing, clean detachment in the aesthetic even when what it’s showing is beyond unsettling. The film tells the eerie story of isolated twin brothers who begin to suspect that their mother, swathed in bandages after cosmetic surgery, is not actually their mother at all, and the taut minimal dialogue complements the elegant filmmaking and delivers an assured fiction debut. Best of all, Fiala and Franz are absolutely uncompromising in following their enigmatic story to its most ruthless and extreme conclusion; where so many horrors peter out at the ending, theirs gets nastier and nastier without ever losing a shred of that tight, strict control.

Deniz Gamze Erguven — “Mustang”

A delightful debut that’s all the more valuable for giving a voice to an underrepresented segment of the female Turkish population, Erguven’s debut directorial feature (she has a few credits as an actor and a couple of short films prior to this) is a lovely story of spirited girlhood and rebellion. It was co-written with fellow 2015 breakout Alice Winocour, whose second directorial feature, “Disorder,” starring Mathias Schoenaerts and Diane Kruger, played in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes 2014, while “Mustang” was selected for Directors Fortnight. Erguven’s film, told from the perspective of a quintet of sisters forced to live under the repressive patriarchy of an isolated rural Turkish village, is a not just a moving condemnation of the more conservative elements in Turkish society and their oppression of women, but is also surprisingly funny, even breezy at times, as much a celebration of sisterhood as it is a lament at its suppression. That these lighter textures of mischief and spiritiness can be found in a story that ultimately sees most of these young women bartered off into marriage like chattel or worse, is a testament to Erguven’s sensitivity and intelligence behind the camera, and to the uniformly winning performances she elicits from her largely non-professional cast, especially Günes Sensoy as the youngest and most irrepressible of the sisters.

Alex Garland — “Ex Machina”

As with Bill Pohlad and Joel Edgerton, Garland is another established name on the list who broke through into direction in 2015. Already a bestselling novelist and one half of a long collaborative partnership with Danny Boyle that included writing screenplays for “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine” after Boyle adapted Garland’s “The Beach” in 2000, Garland’s debut is unsurprisingly a talky, high-concept sci-fi story set in a contained environment, essentially functioning as a three-hander. But what is surprising is just how confident Garland seems, getting three great turns from his hotter-than-hot triumvirate (Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander) and displaying an eye for an eerily calm composition (also thanks to DP Rob Hardy‘s elegant, glistening photography). He also addresses what was perhaps the major critique of much of his writing to date, in which after promising set-ups, the final acts have occasionally felt anticlimactic or unconvincing: here, he preserves the story’s intimacy and tension right up to the very end, culminating in an enigmatic, surprising but very satisfying denouement. Also featuring the dance sequence of the year from Isaac (fingers crossed Poe Dameron will also boogie for our pleasure), it’s no surprise that Garland is already at work on his next directorial feature “Annihilation,” due to star Natalie Portman.

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon — “Me & Earl & The Dying Girl”

Working his way up from PA to second-unit director under such luminaries as Martin Scorsese, Nora Ephron and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon then became a protege of TV wizard Ryan Murphy, helming episodes of “Glee” and “American Horror Story,” which won him plaudits and an Emmy nod. He made a rather damply received directorial debut with meta-horror remake “The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” but followed it up immediately with this Sundancier-than-thou indie darling, based on Jesse Andrews‘ adaptation of his own novel. The film fared surprisingly poorly at the box office, and there may not be 100% accord about it within the Playlist ranks (is there ever?), but even its biggest detractors can concede that Gomez-Rejon is going to be big on the back of it. As a hugely polished, well-shot (by Chung-hoon Chung) and appealingly presented package, it’s the type of calling card that Hollywood tends to respond to, and indeed Gomez-Rejon’s name has been in starrier company of late —first attaching to (then dropping out from) Will Smith vehicle “Collateral Beauty” and also signing on for “The Current War,” a prestigey-sounding project due to star Benedict Cumberbatch and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Marielle Heller — “Diary Of A Teenage Girl”

It’s important for a filmmaker to fall in love with their material, and few could doubt that that’s what Marielle Heller did. The then-actress read Phoebe Glockner’s graphic novel “Diary Of A Teenage Girl,” adored it, and pursued the author for a year until she gave Heller the stage rights to the material, for which she wrote and performed in an acclaimed off-Broadway one-woman show. This launched a writing career for Heller, with a number of TV pilots, but she wasn’t done with ‘Diary’ character Minnie: she debuted her feature film version at Sundance this year to wild and deserved acclaim. It’s one of the most confident and finely wrought directorial debuts we’ve seen in years —it’s smart, sensitive, raw and stylish. Most importantly, it has a voice, with Heller proving better at communicating complex female characters and teen sexuality in an accessible way than anyone who’s tackled this subject in years, and being genuinely cinematic in the process. Quite rightly, it’s getting Heller a lot of attention: she was approached for “Wonder Woman” when Michelle MacLaren dropped out, and will next direct Natalie Portman in Ruth Bader Ginsberg biopic “On The Basis Of Sex.”

Melanie Laurent — “Breathe”

Some breakouts are thunderclaps, while others occur more gently. Actress-turned-helmer Laurent’s 2011 feature directorial debut, the underseen “The Adopted,” didn’t manage to even secure distribution stateside, but her 2014 sophomore title “Breathe” was selected for the International Critics Week in Cannes 2014, gained extremely positive, even rapturous notices there, and since then has rolled out gradually, getting a U.S. release this past September. At no point has it felt like a tsunami of buzz, but the film has impressed everyone who’s seen it, telling the story of an obsessive friendship turned quasi love affair between two young female friends that turns darker and more tragic as jealousy takes hold. Coming to Cannes with such a film the year after “Blue is the Warmest Color” made such an unprecedented splash with its lesbian love story was perhaps part of the reason the film was slow to be embraced, but it’s a comparison that isn’t really fair: Laurent’s film is darker and more unsettling, a tone she conveys masterfully without ever compromising the authenticity of the performances (both of which, from Josephine Japy and Lou de Laage, are superb). Seeing as Laurent is currently on screens in Angelina Jolie‘s “By The Sea” and has her next film, a documentary called “Demain,” due out in France in December, 2015 was a big year for the hugely talented Laurent.

David Robert Mitchell — “It Follows”

If you’d asked us what project David Robert Mitchell would follow up his striking coming-of-age film “The Myth Of The American Sleepover” with, we probably would have said another striking personal teen movie, or maybe some mainstream comedy that diluted his style. We wouldn’t have said ‘high concept horror that proved to be both a critical hit and a crossover box office success,’ but that’s exactly what “It Follows,” the helmer’s second feature, turned out to be. ‘Sleepover’ is a charming, finely wrought, pleasingly loose teen pic in the Linklater vein, but what’s most satisfying about “It Follows,” for all its clever hook and genuine scares, is that it feels of a piece with its predecessor, examining the awkwardness and confusion of growing up in a not-quite-’80s, not-quite-now suburban setting. That it does so with some genuinely unnerving moments and one of the most original movie monsters in years is a remarkable trick, confirming what a talent Mitchell is. There’s plenty of sequel talk, but next up is a step away from genre territory via “Ella Walks The Beach,” along with noir TV series “Mr. Postman.”

Crystal Moselle — “The Wolfpack”

It might have missed out on the Oscar shortlist this week, but few documentaries captured the public’s imagination this year like “The Wolfpack,” which means big things for its filmmaker Crystal Moselle. Coming from the commercial world, she had a chance encounter with six teenage siblings in 2010 dressed in “Reservoir Dogs” garb. She discovered that the children had been essentially raised entirely within an apartment on the Lower East Side, homeschooled by their mother and prevented from leaving by their father. Almost entirely new to the outside world but introduced to it principally by movies they know by heart, the brothers were documented by Moselle over the course of several years, and though the story promises “Room”-style bleakness, Moselle treats it with the lightest of touches. This makes the film not just a story of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity and control, but also a charming love letter to cinema, one far more moving than similarly themed Sundance rival “Me & Earl & The Dying Girl.” Moselle’s got a great eye both for a shot and for a story, and we’re excited to see what happens when she’s next behind the camera.

Reed Morano — “Meadowland”

Not content with being one of our favorite working cinematographers, Reed Morano (who shot films and TV shows including “Kill Your Darlings,” “The Skeleton Twins” and “Looking”) moved into directing this year, and more or less aced it. Premiering at Tribeca before opening this October, “Meadowland” assembled a killer cast —Olivia Wilde, Luke Wilson, Elisabeth Moss, John Leguizamo, Kevin Corrigan, Juno Temple, Kid Cudi— for the wrenching story of a married couple struggling to adjust a year after the unsolved disappearance of their child. Knowing Morano’s work, it’s no huge revelation that the film was visually striking, full of memorable images and smart, intuitive framing, but the helmer proves to be both a deft handler of sustained tone and a great director of actors: both Wilde and Wilson do work that’s among their best ever. It won the approval of Martin Scorsese, who came on to executive produce the movie (and hired her as DP to shoot much of his upcoming HBOVinyl” series), and looks to have launched the polymathic Morano to bigger things: she’ll next direct Ellen Page in military drama “Lioness.”

László Nemes — “Son Of Saul”

Cannes tends to favor established auteurs rather than newcomers in its official competition, so just making the cut made László Nemes one to watch well before his debut feature won the Grand Prix from the Coen Brothers’ jury. Born in Hungary but raised in Paris, Nemes is a second-generation filmmaker (his father András Jeles worked in theater and cinema) who worked as Béla Tarr’s assistant on the two-year production process for “The Man From London” a decade ago, before heading to NYU to study directing. His short “With A Little Patience” was selected for Venice with two more following, but it’s his feature debut, the staggering “Son Of Saul,” a verité look at a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz who discovers his son among the victims, directed with enormous visceral power and technical skill, that’s put him on the map. Capturing the horror of the camps like few filmmakers before and displaying a gift for camerawork both realistic and with a heightened terror that Inarritu and Lubezki would be jealous of, it’s sure to win him a Foreign Language Oscar nod and could lead to Best Picture and Best Director nominations as well, while he’s currently developing his second feature “Sunset,” a thriller set in Budapest in 1910.

Bill Pohlad — “Love and Mercy”

As we hope this list conveys, not all directorial “breakouts” in any given year are about first-timers making their first zero-budget, no-name-actor indie film and getting a little festival heat. Some breakout filmmakers are even the sons of self-made billionaires who have already enjoyed an successful producing career, including producing a Best Picture winner (“12 Years A Slave“). It would be easy to dismiss Pohlad as preternaturally blessed, well-connected and able to tootle around with whatever vanity project he wants. But the problem is that “Love and Mercy,” his biopic of Beach Boy Brian Wilson, is phenomenal. Eliciting career-bests from Paul Dano and Elizabeth Banks and reclaiming John Cusack from his Nic Cage-esque B-movie purgatory, the film, scripted by Oren Moverman, is a moving, compelling and hugely entertaining portrait of a troubled man at two different stages in his life. And goddamn if it’s not brilliantly directed, with a great sense of pace and drama, but also a light touch and a knack for communicating what is really invisible: the nature of musical genius. Here’s hoping Pohlad’s busy production slate doesn’t stop him getting back behind the camera again soon.

Damian Szifron — “Wild Tales”

There’s a good reason we call it “breakthrough” directors, and not “rookie” or “debut,” and that’s so we can include people like Szifron, whose entry on this list probably seems a little strange to anyone familiar with Argentinian media. As a writer and director of TV and film, Szifron has been at work in his native country since the late ’90s, and prior to last year was best known for his immensely popular and successful TV show “Los Simuladores.” However, his wickedly funny, acerbic, well-shot anthology film “Wild Tales,” made up of six unconnected segments, each playing as a sort of dark-hearted riff on the absurdities of modern life (a little like a present-day take on Roald Dahl‘s “Tales of the Unexpected“), was his biggest hit to date, becoming the highest grossing film of all time in Argentina. But it was also an unusual kind of Cannes breakout, as following its very enthusiastic reception at the 2014 festival, the film gathered gentle momentum internationally throughout the year, playing the festival circuit and sweeping the boards at Argentina’s national film awards, before being shortlisted for the foreign-language Oscar in 2015 and getting a US release in February. That international breakout status has recently seen Szifron, who has a lovely, confident touch with black humor and deadpan comedic performances, take over the director’s chair from Peter Berg on 2017’s “The Six Billion Dollar Man” with Mark Wahlberg. He’d already been tapped to write the script, but now he’ll be helming too, indicating the level of confidence TWC-Dimension has in the Argentinian director.

Sam Taylor-Johnson — “Fifty Shades of Grey”

Whatever you think of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” there can be no denying that Sam Taylor-Johnson made the film one of the highest profile trans-Atlantic breakouts of the year. Only her second feature after her little-seen but pretty decent John Lennon biopic “Nowhere Boy,” Taylor-Johnson was best known as part of the same “Young British Artists” grouping that also includes Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst. So she is hardly the natural first choice for a potential franchise-starting Hollywood “bonkbuster” and yet, especially given the horrible source material, she did a remarkably competent job. A lot is due to the clever adaptation by screenwriter Kelly Marcel, who avoided most of the excesses of the book’s terrible dialogue (“I’m fifty shades of fucked up,” notwithstanding) and a really quite good turn by Dakota Johnson, Taylor-Johnson’s film is infinitely better than E.L James novel. And in the only language that Hollywood understands, she’s now a female director whose second film, off a budget of $40m, has made well over half a billion dollars ($570m) worldwide. And now that we’re certain it won’t be the “Fifty Shades” sequel, we’re free to look forward to whatever she does next.

S. Craig Zahler — “Bone Tomahawk”

Every year, in addition to the indie darlings that end up mostly populating lists like these, a few legitimate genre titles crop up. Recently, we’ve had the likes of “The Guest,” “Cold In July,” “It Follows” “John Wick” and so on filling that gap, and in 2015 we got S. Craig Zahler’s brilliant western/horror hybrid, which is funny, gross-out revolting and surprisingly moving all at once. For western fans, Zahler’s debut film, made from his own script, provides just enough of those archetypes as a motley crew of dudes (Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins and Matthew Fox) embark on a quixotic rescue mission to a nest of sub-human cannibal “troglodytes.” But his film also gently subverts the form, as the heroes’ acts of heroism never turn out quite as they’d planned, or quite as genre convention dictates they should. Mostly, this is a showcase for a perfect cast to rise to the occasion of a crackling, witty script that manages to be dense with characterization, and yet feel as desert-dry and laconic as a cowboy’s drawl. Zahler’s been a Black Listed writer for a while now, but if there’s any justice, this crisply shot, brilliantly designed, performed and edited debut should guarantee his future in the director’s chair.

As always, there’s many directors we could have mentioned, even excluding filmmakers with festival debuts in 2016 who’s films haven’t yet been released more widely. Among those we also considered were Celine Sciamma, a familiar face on the festival circuit who had her best-received movie to date with the excellent “Girlhood,” Jon Watts, who’s going from “Cop Car” to the re-rebooted “Spider-Man,” “Mediterranea” helmer Jonas Carpignano, “71” helmer Yann Demange, Josh & Bennie Safdie of “Heaven Knows What,” “Slow West” helmer John Maclean, David and Nathan Zellner, the duo behind “Kumiko The Treasure Hunter,” and “Victoria” director Sebastian Schipper.

Also among our potentials were “The Reflektor Tapes” director and music video veteran Kahlil Joseph, Leah Meyerhoff and Shira Piven, who made “I Believe In Unicorns” and “Welcome To Me” respectively, “Paddington” helmer Paul King,The Tribe” breakout Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, Duke Johnson, who teamed with Charlie Kaufman for “Anomalisa,” Carol Morley, who did “The Falling,” Taika Waititi, who’s jumping from “What We Do In The Shadows” to “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Catch Me Daddy” director Daniel Wolfe, “Partisan” helmer Ariel Kleiman, and Pixar first-timer Peter Sohn. Anyone else we’ve forgotten? Let us know who you’re tipping in the comments.

Click here for our complete coverage of the Best of 2015

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