We compiled an aggregated Playlist Best Films Of 2015 which you can find here. However, regular contributors were also given the chance to submit personal lists.
I’ve never understood the film critics who dislike most of what they see. Writing — and reading — a negative review can be a lot more fun than a gushing one, but if you fundamentally dislike most movies you see, you’re in the wrong career. This may be why I’m an easy grader, according to Metacritic, which makes the overachiever in me die a little. This year provided even more of a wealth of solid films than usual, turning my top 10 into a top 15 with plenty of deserving also-rans listed at the end. The additional writing is almost like extra credit work, which makes my inner honor student regain a little of her dignity.
Director Tom McCarthy’s feat here is that he doesn’t try to insert unnecessary drama into his story; there’s no race against time, yelling of “Stop the presses!” or an imagined car chase to liven up the plot. Instead, he treats the audience like adults, making an impressively well-crafted and subtle film about the investigative team at The Boston Globe’s work exposing pedophile priests in the city. By nature, research generally isn’t sexy or eye-catching for the audience, but “Spotlight” somehow makes poring over lines in priest directories feel as urgent as any action scene. McCarthy has had some ups (the sublime “The Station Agent”) and downs (“The Cobbler”) in his career as a director, but this film that he co-wrote is the best example of his talent with story, pacing, and cast. The stars — particularly Michael Keaton, Brian d’Arcy James, and Mark Ruffalo — all give masterful performances, with Ruffalo demonstrating particularly ability in never going over the top while he radiates intensity and fervor. “Spotlight” inspired a bit less passion in me than it did in many of my peers, but it still is a near-perfect film that fully deserves all the extra attention it will get come awards time.
This seventh film in the ‘Rocky‘ series could have made it only my list based solely on Michael B. Jordan’s back muscles and the one-take boxing match scene that still boggles my mind. But beyond those two wonders, “Creed” is a crowd-pleaser in the best sense. At my showing, the audience erupted into a spontaneous cheer that felt like we were watching an actual fight. We couldn’t have been more invested if we’d had money on the match-up, and that emotional connection is due to both Ryan Coogler‘s superior direction and his team of actors. Beyond the back muscles, Jordan shows impressive range both within this film and with his previous work in Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” and on TV. Though his last pairing with the director should have been his breakout into bigger things, this should cement his status in Hollywood. While Sylvester Stallone is often seen more as a punchline now than the one throwing the punches due to late-career missteps like “Grudge Match,” he gives an affecting performance here. Whether he’s performing for decades-long fans or ones just learning about Rocky Balboa’s legacy, it’s impossible not to feel for the aging boxer’s plight.
13. Clouds Of Sils Maria
The details have faded a bit from my memory since seeing it relatively recently, but Olivier Assayas’s drama is still somehow indelible. Whether it’s the standout performance from Kristen Stewart or the image of the titular clouds swirling over the mountains, “Clouds of Sils Maria” stayed with me. There’s a sense of intentional disorientation brought on by the dialogue that’s rare in cinema: you rarely know whether the conversations between aging actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and her assistant Val (Stewart) are the two running lines for a play or are genuine engagement between two people with a close relationship. It’s heady fun at times, but there’s an undercurrent of dread running throughout the film, both existential and career-related. Binoche’s Maria has agreed to star in a revival of a play that brought her to fame decades ago, but this time she takes on the older role, rather than the ingenue (played by Chloë Grace Moretz). There’s layer upon layer of commentary here, whether focusing on aging, the craft of acting, or the problems of fame for both the young and the experienced. This feels particularly pointed given Stewart’s own life during and after “Twilight,” and this is the actress’s strongest rebuttal to criticism for her performance there.
12. “Duke of Burgundy”
This film from director Peter Strickland is subversive, but not just in the way you’d imagine after seeing its gorgeous trailer that hints at the S&M-inflected relationship between two women (Chiara D’Anna and Sidse Babett Knudsen). What’s most surprising here isn’t the central couple’s kinks, which ensure that the phrase “human toilet” was uttered on screen in 2015, it’s the way that the film plays with our expectations. Butterflies — including the titular species — figure prominently throughout, and the film itself goes through multiple metamorphoses where the audience’s expectations are challenged. This is more than just the prettiest ode to ‘70s European softcore ever made; it’s a movie about relationships, what we’ll do for the person we love, and the performative aspect of romance. As much as it succeeds thematically, “The Duke of Burgundy” is all about mood and details, and it’s the only film I’ve ever seen that credits both the lingerie designer (Andrea Flesch) and the source of the perfume worn by the actresses (Je Suis Gizelle). The lingerie is particularly deserving of praise; Strickland’s film could have been over-the-top sexy, but the prominent use of stunning lingerie in favor of nudity keeps things tantalizing but still surprisingly chaste.
Like Todd Haynes’ masterpiece “Far From Heaven,” his latest exploration of vintage style and forbidden love is both a visual and emotional feast for cinephiles. Passion simmers beneath the surface, as Cate Blanchett’s Carol and Rooney Mara’s Therese fall in love in the repressive 1950s. There’s more love communicated in a single glance between the two than in most entire romance movies. Blanchett is luminous as usual, capturing Carol’s warmth as well as her raw anger toward her situation and her husband (Kyle Chandler). But it’s Mara who really surprises as the true lead here; her performance is a quieter success, as Therese allows herself to be shaped by her relationship with Carol. Spoiler alert: What sets “Carol” apart from similar films — beyond its superior crafting — is its hopeful and happy ending. Often, other historically set films about gay and lesbian love end with a resignation to loneliness at best and tragedy at worst. Here Haynes allows for the possibility of lasting happiness between his two leads, providing an wonderful alternate narrative to what we’re used to from the sub-genre.
10. The End of the Tour
As a longtime fan of “How I Met Your Mother” (who pretends the last season didn’t happen), I would not have predicted that one of its stars would’ve turned in my favorite lead male performance of 2015. Spending hundreds of half-hour episodes with Jason Segel’s character, I saw talent in both comedy and drama, but little indication of exactly how well he could inhabit the mannerisms and speech of late writer David Foster Wallace. He plays well off of Jesse Eisenberg’s journalist, David Lipsky, who interviews Wallace while he’s starting to reach heights of fame rarely touched by contemporary writers. Though there are other actors who appear on screen (Anna Chlumsky, Mamie Gummer, Joan Cusack, Ron Livingston), “The End of the Tour” is for all intents and purposes a two-hander, focusing on the push and pull of these two writers in their similarities and differences. There’s little plot here; instead the film centers on their conversations, which range from the seemingly frivolous (like a love for Alanis Morrisette) to the essential and existential pain of being human.
9. Ex Machina
Writer Alex Garland’s directorial debut feels like a beautifully shot, feature-length episode of British TV wonder “Black Mirror,” and I mean that as the highest of compliments. Bringing the concept of the Turing test to a larger awareness than ever, it raises questions of our relationship to technology and what happens when that connection (inevitably?) goes wrong. “Ex Machina” is a movie about artificial intelligence with jaw-dropping special effects to match; I still at once desperately do and don’t want to know how they managed to create the android’s body. But despite the impressive FX, assured first-time directing and stellar script from Garland, and gorgeous production design from Mark Digby, the real achievement arrives from the trio of actors at its deliciously cold, mechanical heart: Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and especially Alicia Vikander. In her character Ava’s efforts to convince Gleeson’s Caleb of her humanity, she beguiles both him and the audience, whether she is doing something as simple as unrolling stockings up her leg or discussing the nature of art. “Ex Machina” is entertaining for every one of its 108 minutes, but it goes further, expanding the viewer’s consciousness along with Ava’s own.
8. “Far From the Madding Crowd”
This adaptation had a lot to live up to, competing with both Thomas Hardy’s novel and its well-regarded 1967 predecessor starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates. Here, Carey Mulligan takes over for Christie in the role of Bathsheba, a headstrong woman who successfully runs her own farm while she attempts to decide between three suitors. Those used to historical romances where the lead female merely sits idly by, playing the piano or sketching while waiting to be married, will be pleasantly surprised by the fiercely independent Bathsheba, who laughs when offered her first proposal and seems baffled by the second. Mulligan is fantastic here, capturing both Bathsheba’s self-determination and how she is swept up far too easily by her third suitor. Michael Sheen’s performance contains multitudes as William Boldwood, a man who cannot figure out Bathsheba’s complexities, but Matthias Schoenaerts made me swoon as the shepherd whose fortunes are upended frequently throughout the film. “Far From the Madding Crowd” features impeccable pastoral cinematography from Charlotte Bruus Christensen and an excellent script from David Nicholls, marking a huge step up from his work on “One Day.” Along with 2012’s “The Hunt,” this decade has marked a major resurgence for director Thomas Vinterberg, with this drama feeling at once in-step with his style and something new entirely.
7. “It Follows”
This is the only film in years to inspire literal nightmares for me (and that includes last year’s terrifying “The Babadook”). I may have actually woken up with a scream. “It Follows” itself feels like a bit of a dream, without moorings in any specific decade or logic. Though it’s inspired by ‘80s horror films and their focus on the link between sex and death for teenagers, there is a lack of a sense of time that makes David Robert Mitchell’s stylish film simultaneously feel like an instant horror classic as well as a cult film from the past that you’re just discovering. It works on a few levels: the aforementioned commentary on sex, an exploration of Detroit and its crumbling suburbs, and a 105-minute experiment in dread. That pervasive — and lingering — feeling shouldn’t just be credited to the setting, Mitchell’s direction, and star Maika Monroe’s solid performance; the haunting electronic score from Disasterpeace plays a big part in the audience’s constant unease.
6. “Wild Tales”
Comedy rarely goes as dark in one film as it does here in the each of the six short stories that make up Damián Szifron’s anthology. The Argentine director is not messing around with this barbed satire, dealing with rage and revenge in a way that made me alternately gasp and giggle, sometimes in the same breath. This is not a film for those who like their heroes kind and their endings happy. People in Szifron’s world are delightfully nasty, and the narratives drip with as much irony as they do with blood. The slights that set each story in motion range from minor (a bad review, a passing vehicle, a towed car) to major (infidelity, ruined lives), but the reactions are never small. At times, they seem disproportional, until I remember my own sometimes overblown reaction to everyday indignities. “Wild Tales” is the rare anthology film without a weak story with its commentary on Argentina’s culture surviving both the translation and the exportation.
5. “Mad Max: Fury Road”
I saw George Miller’s master class in auteur theory twice this year: the first time in 3D on a screen that is larger than my apartment and the second time on a plane. Of course, the former was the way to see the film, with the height and width of the screen doing justice to the director’s epic, bombastic vision with the surround sound allowing me to hear every chord of the guitar flame thrower and every crash of the armored cars. But even the tiny screen on the back of the seat in front of me and my headphones were enough to communicate the world Miller created with all of its minute details and specific language, as well as Tom Hardy’s growls, Charlize Theron’s strength, and Nicholas Hoult’s wide-eyed weirdness. With ace editing from Margaret Sixel, “Mad Max: Fury Road” is an action film for movie nerds, but it’s also a movie that helps the masses see exactly what a director can bring to a film. Calling it “the best action movie of the century” or other superlatives for the genre goes far in expressing the film’s power, but it doesn’t go far enough in explaining its enormous appeal beyond that limited and limiting classification.
4. “45 Years”
Beautifully somber and sobering, Andrew Haigh’s drama feels as though it should be arriving from a much older, more experienced director, both for its mature subject matter and its assured execution. In “45 Years,” Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling play a couple who are about to celebrate the titular anniversary when the body of his first love is finally found in the Alps, decades after her death. The film explores a variety of emotions for the couple, who largely saw themselves as happy prior to the revelation, but they find themselves unsettled, particularly Rampling’s Kate. The actress has made a career of excellent performances — her role here plays as a fine companion to her grieving wife in François Ozon’s “Under the Sand” — but this marks a high point in five decades of work. In other hands (both in front of and behind the camera), “45 Years” could have been an overwrought melodrama, but it’s subtle and restrained with moments of humor and honesty. Sometimes films that affect us this much are described as “a punch to the gut,” but Haigh’s picture is a pain far slower and longer lasting.
3. “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”
Coming-of-sexual-age stories in cinema are usually reserved for boys becoming men, but when such films focus on young women, there’s often either a fuzzy haze of romance or the harsh glare of judgment on its protagonist. Marielle Heller’s 1970s-set “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is the rare film that deals frankly with its heroine’s experience of and appreciation for sex while never condemning her for her choices. At the film’s bursting heart is Minnie, played with wide eyes and a heady combination of maturity and naïveté by Bel Powley. Despite being in her early 20s and British, Powley so perfectly captures Minnie’s San Francisco adolescent artist spirit that we’re eager to doubt the actress’s own biographical details. In addition to Powley’s breakout performance, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” marks a bold entry into filmmaking for writer-director Heller. Based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s novel, the adaptation handles the book’s challenging subject matter —Minnie’s affair with much-older Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), her mother’s boyfriend — with apparent ease. Beyond the strong screenplay, the film also incorporates animation from Sara Gunnarsdóttir throughout, a nod to both Minnie’s own cartoons and the original novel’s art. In other hands, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” could feel like a standard period film about a young woman’s sexual and artistic awakening, but Heller and Powley have made this a vital experience filled with creativity and wonder.
Begging comparisons with Sofia Coppola’s debut, “The Virgin Suicides,” this is a breakthrough directorial effort from Deniz Gamze Erguven. Similar to that film, “Mustang” centers on a family of five sisters and their overprotective guardians’ efforts to sequester them from society. However, here the story isn’t told from a male outsider looking in on the girls’ lives. Instead, it’s told from their own perspective, with a voiceover coming from the youngest sister, Lale (Gunes Sensoy). Raised by their uncle and grandmother after their parents’ deaths, the girls begin the French-Turkish film, gleeful and free after school lets out. Their liberty begins to slip away as their home with its ever-growing walls is turned into a “wife factory” as their family attempts to marry them off. The film is punctuated both by moments of joy and rebellion as well as sadness and desperation, and its success is largely due to the performances of its five young leads and the genuine sisterly bond they appear to share. Throughout “Mustang,” the house grows more and more claustrophobic for the girls — and the audience — and I’ve rarely been as emotionally affected as I was here.
Brimming with charm, John Crowley’s “Brooklyn” is an earnestly sweet tale that never feels cloying or manipulative. It’s an old-school story told in an old-school way: Saoirse Ronan plays Eilis, a young Irish woman who leaves her small town for New York, where she finds a new home and a new love with an Italian man (a sigh-inducing Emory Cohen) in her new neighborhood. “Brooklyn” is simple, never deviating from its central characters or introducing obstacles into their path for obstacles’ sake. The wide range of emotions felt by Ronan’s Eilis feels earned within the film, and the actress’s blue eyes clearly communicate each of her thoughts. She has previously wowed us in films like “Hanna” and “Atonement,” but her work here feels like a new level of adult achievement. Shot by Yves Bélanger, it’s a golden look at 1950s Ireland and New York City, filled with François Séguin’s perfect production design and Odile Dicks-Mireaux’s gorgeous costumes. But the film isn’t all sweetness and light; Eilis’s early days in New York are dominated by loneliness and isolation, and the event that sends her back to Ireland sent us into tears. However, it’s impossible to leave “Brooklyn” feeling anything but joy, as well as the desire to immediately see it again.
Pixar’s “Inside Out” had me thinking about it for weeks after, and I imagine Charlie Kaufman’s “Anomalisa” will have the same effect. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was some of the most fun I’ve had at the movies in years (deja vu and all), with “The Martian” and “Magic Mike XXL” not far behind in terms of entertainment value. “Testament of Youth” is a wrenching period romance with some fine work (as always) from Alicia Vikander. Documentaries “Iris,” “Cartel Land,” “The Look of Silence,” and “Meru” provided just as much drama as their narrative brethren. “Tangerine” is funny, inspiring, and feels totally fresh, particularly in its performances from Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor. “What We Do in the Shadows” was so devoted to its own weirdness and fun that it’s impossible not to enjoy it. “Sleeping with Other People” should be the type of film that reinvigorates the genre of romantic comedy. Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” is masterfully made and perfectly shot, with a supporting performance from Mark Rylance that should be tough to beat if there’s any justice at this year’s award ceremonies. “Paddington” was such a magical delight that it should be a family film classic, and all my friends with kids should just expect their children to receive copies of it for their birthdays. “Joy” is an imperfect but inspiring drama with a flawless performance from Jennifer Lawrence.