2015 was an embarrassment of cinematic riches, no matter what Bret Easton Ellis tells you. Even the best blockbusters (“Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) were beautiful, slyly progressive and artfully made. For good or for ill, it was also a year that was mostly absent large-scale auteur projects, save for David O. Russell‘s “Joy” and Quentin Tarantino’s grisly and terrific “The Hateful Eight”. There were no new projects from the likes of David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson or Wes Anderson, though we did get two new films from Noah Baumbach — one of which made its way onto my list.
2015’s films took us back to the hushed quietude of 1950’s suburbia (“Carol”), or to a cramped haberdashery in post-Civil War Wyoming (“The Hateful Eight”), to a galaxy far, far away (there’s a little flick called “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” some of you may have heard of it) and, um, the wasteland (“Mad Max: Fury Road” anyone?) This year, the directors whose films placed on my top 10 were all somewhat surprising (J.J. Abrams, Tom McCarthy and Yorgos Lanthimos, just to name a few) and for that, I couldn’t be happier. 2015 featured top-shelf indie work standing alongside blue chip blockbusters to the point where making this list became an intense process of reduction. Who knows — by this time next year, the order of the list may have changed completely. Wouldn’t be the first time…
Click here for our complete coverage of the best of 2015.
10. “Mad Max: Fury Road”
A fire-belching monolith of image, sound and fury, the fourth film in George Miller’s hellacious apocalyptic outlaw/road-movie saga isn’t just the most genuinely artful studio blockbuster of 2015. It’s an honest-to-goodness step forward for large-scale studio tentpoles, featuring strong, memorable parts for its female cast (if anything, this is a movie that passes the Bechdel test with flying colors) and a brutish worldview that’s utterly hypnotic in its relentless, hallucinatory transgression. The movie starts on the run and never once slows down, as haunted Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy, intimidating in a mostly wordless turn) flees across the barren wasteland, chased without mercy by the godless goons of baddie Immortan Joe. After what feels like the apocalyptic audio-vehicular showdown to end them all, Max finds himself saddling up with a one-armed warrior named Imperator Furiosa (a terrific Charlize Theron) who is looking for a better life far away from the madness of the wasteland. It’s true that the movie is one long, elaborate chase, but hoo boy, what a chase it is: big rigs burst into towering mountains of flame, pasty-faced ghouls sashay in and out of the frame on freakishly long acrobatic poles that look to be on loan from a nightmarish Cirque de Soleil number… and I haven’t even mentioned the faceless, flame-throwing guitar player dude who rides a truck armed with oversized amps for the entire movie. If the recitation of these images brings out the grinning 13-year old in you, “Mad Max: Fury Road” might be the movie you’ve been dreaming of. It’s the cinematic equivalent of speed metal —as fast, nasty and furiously brilliant as it wants to be.
9. “Inside Out”
The best Pixar flicks betray their bubbly, kid-friendly exteriors by exploring substantial adult themes, of loneliness, dream-chasing, saying goodbye to one’s youth. Never has this been more true than in “Inside Out,” the best Pixar film since the original “Toy Story” and a new landmark in animated cinema (it’s certainly better than the studio’s other movie from this year, the decidedly less ambitious “The Good Dinosaur”). Amy Poehler lends her unmistakable signature pluck to the role of Joy, just one of a constellation of emotions, including Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black), each vying for control of 13-year old Riley, a sweet adolescent girl who’s currently undergoing the rocky transition from her hometown of Minnesota to an increasingly soulless, gentrified modern-day San Francisco. To describe any more of the plot would be futile, since “Inside Out” is the latest wondrous example of Roger Ebert’s famous maxim that “it’s not what [a movie] is about… it’s how it’s about it.” And “Inside Out” is about a lot —mainly, the crippling fear that comes with realizing that the dreams of your youth have a shelf life. The movie’s candy-coated, borderline-Cubist visual landscape is as daring in its conception as any other Pixar release that isn’t “Wall*E,” and a subplot involving Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong (touchingly voiced by the great character actor Richard Kind) nearly moved me to tears. Dazzling and devastating, gentle, playful and practically exploding with invention, “Inside Out” is a new gold standard in progressive animation and another winner for Pixar.
8. “Queen of Earth”
Alex Ross Perry placed pretty high on my list last year with his pitiless literary comedy “Listen Up, Philip” — wouldn’t you know it, he’s done it again with the astonishing “Queen of Earth,” a marvelously icky and bruisingly funny examination of privacy and entitlement. Working in the self-consciously arty vein of female-paranoia thrillers from the 1970’s — “Repulsion” and “The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant” being two prominent examples — “Queen of Earth” is an unusually gorgeous formal achievement that wears its hard-earned cinephilia on its sleeve while continuing to establish Perry as a sensitive and acute chronicler of well-educated people behaving wickedly. Elisabeth Moss exposes raw nerve in one of the year’s most fearless performances as Catherine, who’s just been dealt the unthinkable blow of being dumped by her callous boyfriend just days after her father passes away. Without a place to turn, she relocates to the eerily idyllic lakeside manse of her beautiful and contentious friend Ginny (Katherine Waterston), whereupon buried secrets and nasty, long-festering resentments begin to bubble to the surface. The film morphs from being another of Perry’s black-as-night psychocomedies into a jagged, surreal and haunting tapestry of time and memory. It’s also, somewhat miraculously, a gripping and perversely watchable character study that’s doggedly intent on challenging audience preconceptions and exposing its character’s raw wounds at every turn, all the way to its unforgettable sick giggle of a climax. To think that Perry has been tasked to revamp “Winnie the Pooh” based on his last two films is as exciting as it is confounding.
READ MORE: 10 Great Films To Watch If You Loved ‘Queen Of Earth’
Is Denis Villeneuve the next David Fincher? Both are meticulous, sharp-minded studio filmmakers who make troubling and brilliantly constructed thrillers that employ dazzling artistry in plumbing the depths of human depravity. So if “Prisoners” is Villeneuve’s “Se7en” — a grisly, painterly tale of murder and deviant behavior — and “Enemy” is his heady fusion of “Fight Club” and the twisty narratives of “The Game,” then perhaps his blistering cartel thriller “Sicario” is the director’s “Zodiac.” Even if Villeneuve’s furiously moral film isn’t a best-of-the-decade classic like Fincher’s magnificent procedural, it’s still a formidable piece of work: it’s muscular, flawlessly acted and imbued with a nerve-shredding, slow-simmering dread. Even for Villeneuve, “Sicario” is shockingly grim: it opens with a tomb of human corpses being fished out of the walls of a suburban home in Arizona and ends with lead heroine Kate Macer’s (Emily Blunt) excruciating surrender of her own innocence at the hands of the very institutional corruption she’s been unwillingly supporting. But as relentlessly intense as “Sicario” can be — and it is never more so than during a hair-raising standoff at the U.S./Mexico border — it is executed with a considerable degree of grace and real, bruising power, not to mention a healthy dose of psychological opacity. Acted with ferocious conviction by a game cast that includes the spectacular Blunt, a weaselier-than-usual Josh Brolin, Jon Bernthal in a harrowing one-scene cameo and a terrifying, never-better Benicio del Toro, and lensed with the elegiac grace of the old Westerns by legendary D.P. Roger Deakins, “Sicario” is a roiling, seething cinematic gut-punch.
6. “Mistress America”
The past couple of years has certainly seen a shift in the artistic temperament of New York-based filmmaker Noah Baumbach, though his well of comic insight remains uncommonly deep. “Frances Ha” was uncharacteristically frothy in the wake of languid, tormented works like “Margot at the Wedding” and “Greenberg,” though “Frances Ha” does admittedly mask its charm with instances of deep sadness. This year’s “While We’re Young” possessed the wistful veneer of a James L. Brooks dramedy, but even that movie had teeth, eventually turning into a serrated takedown of millennial entitlement. Baumbach’s latest collaboration with his girlfriend/muse Greta Gerwig is “Mistress America,” a screwball soufflé that’s similar to “While We’re Young” in that it’s about ambition and identity, but is largely more enjoyable in just about every other way. The film is a bittersweet, breathlessly confident meringue with a head full of steam, caffeine and, like its flighty heroine, countless brilliant ideas. Described by Baumbach himself as “The Great Gatsby” by way of “Something Wild,” “Mistress America” is the uncharacteristically high-velocity story of Tracy and Brooke: a lonely Barnard freshman and her charismatic, garrulous, self-regarding stepsister who sucks the younger woman into her chaotic whirligig orbit of grand schemes and stalled prophecies. A hilariously ill-advised plan to open her own restaurant sends Brooke, Tracy and a gaggle of her unamused college pals, up to the swanky Connecticut mansion of her onetime beau in what turns out to be one of the most masterfully executed and giddily sustained screwball set pieces since the glory days of Howard Hawks. With its twinkling ’80s synth-pop score and addictive air of frivolity, “Mistress America” has clearly been made to resemble the light, youth-oriented comedies Baumbach and Gerwig grew up on, but like its spiritual predecessor “Frances Ha,” this is no mere ode to nostalgia: “Mistress America” has real pain in its heart, plus warmth, surprise and a generous dose of humanity. This is Baumbach’s best film since his early days and perhaps the year’s most inspired comedy.
READ MORE: Sundance Review: Noah Baumbach’s ‘Mistress America’ Starring Lola Kirke & Greta Gerwig
5. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
It might sound like blasphemy to the die-hard fans of the original trilogy, but I’ll say it: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is the most satisfying and well-executed of all the “Star Wars” movies — even ‘The Empire Strikes Back.’ J.J. Abrams’ entry in the ongoing galactic saga established by George Lucas is a majestic, immaculate pop epic with the beating heart of a Saturday morning cartoon, one that’s also somehow graced with a newfound emotional gravity and, blessedly, a wickedly self-aware sense of humor (indeed, this is probably the only “Star Wars” movie that’s funny on purpose). From the very beginning, Abrams — a reverent and skilled student of the Spielberg/Lucas school of pop mythmaking — imbues the broad strokes of the film’s familiar good-versus-evil narrative with perceptible moral weight. It’s a masterstroke no more plainly evident than a scene in which conflicted First Order minion Finn (real name: FN-2187) shudders while wiping his friend’s blood off the edges of his storm trooper helmet. John Boyega, who plays Finn, and his co-star Daisy Ridley are both phenomenal: in spite of being pawns in a heightened fantasy universe, their reluctance towards heroism and awkward attempts at seizing the day feel undeniably honest and endearing. They feel like real people, not the grinning, whitewashed automatons who have come to populate movies of this size. Everybody’s great here: Harrison Ford is as relaxed on-screen as he’s ever been in the role that made him a star, Oscar Isaac proves to be generous with his considerable charisma as hotshot pilot Poe Dameron, Adam Driver plays villain Kylo Ren like a moody, tantrum-throwing teenager… even Chewbacca’s familiar yelps and growls emit the warm, fuzzy feeling of childhood nostalgia. From the opening crawl to its breathtaking jewel of a final shot, ‘The Force Awakens’ is everything a major studio blockbuster should be.
If one were to sift through a record of the harrowing events that inspired Lenny Abrahamson’s transcendent “Room,” one would be forgiven for expecting a dour, miserable slog through some of the most unpleasant material imaginable. And while Abrahamson’s movie certainly doesn’t shy away from humanity’s darkest corners, “Room” is miraculously anything but miserable. It is a film that teems with hope and optimism, with a promise that we can be better as a species if we strive enough. The magnificent Brie Larson, who has been putting in solid, un-showy work in a variety of films for quite some time and is justly getting her due here, knocks it out of the park as Ma, a victimized young woman living with her wide-eyed young son Jack (a revelatory Jacob Tremblay) in the outdoor gardening shed of a heavy-breathing pervert named Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). This shed, where Ma has been kept captive for much of her adult life, is the ‘room’ of the title — it is the world she shares with Jack, and to ponder what might possibly lie outside its boundaries is virtually unimaginable. Ma and Jack’s journey outside the confines of the room colors the rest of the story, but if “Room” were simply about its plot and nothing else, it wouldn’t be such magic to experience. Instead, Abrahamson’s remarkable second film is a stirring, sincere paean to hope, and to the resolve that exists in all of us, compelling us to reach higher and strive for more — even when life strikes its most devastating blows. 2015 was filled with films that were entertaining, moving and offensive, but no film has reached into the abyss of my soul and shown me a piece of my own humanity in quite the same way as “Room.”
Calmly assured and consummately well-made in just about every regard, Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” is as fine a piece of grown-up procedural entertainment since the glory days of Alan J. Pakula. To think that this is the same McCarthy who earlier this year directed the execrable would-be fairy tale “The Cobbler” — where Adam Sandler literally steps into other people’s shoes so he can steal cars and enact alarming Oedipal fantasies — is borderline unthinkable. Even McCarthy’s earlier indies — “The Visitor” and “Win Win” in particular — were sometimes marred by sloppy instances of manipulative sentimentality and an often overwhelming degree of whimsy. Not “Spotlight” — this thing is airtight, with the precision of a Swiss watch and the complex, rich well of moral ambiguity that recalls the grand, cynical ’70s character pieces that clearly acted as McCarthy’s primary influence here. Special recognition should go to the film’s peerless ensemble: Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo both perform the best work of their careers while exuding gruff, world-weary nobility and a charmingly old-fashioned sense of right and wrong in their pursuit of sexual predators in the byzantine network of the Catholic church. “Spotlight” is nothing less than crackerjack adult drama, executed to perfection and served up with a healthy and justified side of moral outrage.
“Carol” is the film that Todd Haynes has been working towards his whole career; it’s the logical culmination of his obsessions, preoccupations and fetishes as a director. But even if you’re not familiar with Haynes and his propensity for Douglas Sirk-style melodrama and period flair, “Carol” is one of the year’s brightest and most intoxicating pleasures: a deeply felt and deceptively slippery look at love harbored in the shadows of polite society in 1950s suburbia. The third in a sort of unofficial trilogy about female identity in mid-century America that also includes “Far From Heaven” and his HBO miniseries “Mildred Pierce,” “Carol” is, in superficial terms anyway, a relationship that blossoms between two women —a young photographer who works at a high end department store and the well-mannered society gal who teasingly leaves a pair of gloves out on the counter for her one day — and how that relationship transcends friendship, romance and all other forms of categorization. Blanchett revels in the agony and ecstasy of Carol’s whirlwind emotions, giving one of her most moving turns to date, and the doe-eyed Mara is every bit her equal. On the margins, Kyle Chandler is as affecting as Carol’s clueless but well-meaning husband Harge and John Magaro, of “Not Fade Away” and “The Big Short,” has a small but memorable part as a bashful acquaintance of Mara’s demure shopgirl. Delicate and ravishing in its understatement, tender and impeccably assembled on every technical front, “Carol” is cinema at its most sublime.
1. “The Lobster”
Being single can be a drag. Just ask David (Colin Farrell), the lovelorn sad sack of “The Lobster,” whose last-ditch effort to meet his soul mate involves an extended stay at The Hotel, a kind of new social laboratory where single folks are trained to couple up with a desirable mate within the span of forty-five days. What’s the punishment if they fail to meet the criteria, you ask? Why, they’ll be turned into animals and led to slaughter in a hunt that pits the terminally lonely against the monogamous masses! Sounds a bit strange, doesn’t it? The director, after all, is Yorgos Lanthimos, the twisted mind behind deadpan, tone-warping satires like “Dogtooth” and “Alps.” And while “The Lobster” is probably the nuttiest movie of 2015, it’s also exquisitely sad and truly moving: an endearingly bonkers nightmare vision of how the cult of relationships affects us all. Farrell does some of the best work of his career as David, dialing back the actorly tics that occasionally impair his more interesting work and trading it in for a low-key, lived-in look at grief and heartache. Ben Whishaw and John C. Reilly are also memorable as Dave’s new friends Limping Man and Lisping Man, and Reilly has a scene where he is punished for masturbating (a big no-no at The Hotel) by way of a toaster that is too brazenly funny to spoil here. Rachel Weisz is the damaged, lovely soul of this one-of-a-kind film, and between this and her stellar work in “Youth,” here’s hoping we see a lot more of her in the coming year. Lanthimos’ film tips its hat to the barbed surrealism of Luis Bunuel, particularly his savage masterpiece “The Exterminating Angel,” where civilized folks literally revert back to their beastly natures. But there’s no denying it: the movie is a true original, one of the most daring and fearless comic works in years. It’s not just brilliant in its ineffable strangeness: this is a film with something serious and seriously funny to say about the human condition. “The Lobster” only gets darker and more confounding as it waltzes wildly towards its haunting final shot, but make no mistake: this cracked masterwork is a dead-serious piece of art that has a great deal to say about the state of our species.
Cary Joji Fukunaga’s punishing “Beasts of No Nation” is an artfully directed and unforgettably ugly experience that has seared itself into my moviegoing memory. Ditto for Rick Alverson’s “Entertainment,” a companion piece of sorts to his caustic 2012 classic “The Comedy,” one that chronicles the spiritual disintegration of a stand-up comic drifting through the morass of a dreamy desert purgatory and does so in strokes of aberrant, hateful, sometimes brilliant Lynchian dream logic. “The Revenant” is one of the year’s most visually beautiful films, even if it too often fell back on standard revenge-movie plotting, while David O. Russell’s “Joy” got a bad rap from critics —it’s another one of the director’s bold, kooky odes to reinvention. Steven Spielberg gamely showed the young guns how it’s done —that is, with old-fashioned craftsmanship and panache— in his crackling Cold War thriller “Bridge of Spies,” while Guillermo del Toro deliriously gave into his rococo Gothic obsessions in the underrated “Crimson Peak.” “Tangerine” was a marvel of micro-economic storytelling and ground-level L.A. atmosphere, “Son of Saul” successfully redefines the language of the Holocaust drama and marked Laszlo Nemes as a director to watch, while Jacques Audiard’s shattering “Dheepan” saw the French auteur going back to his socially conscious, hard-hitting roots with considerable success.
Justin Kurzel’s “Macbeth” is a thing of grave, gory beauty, while “Ex Machina” was the sharpest and most disturbing pure sci-fi flick of the year. Which is not to take anything away from “Evolution,” which is a delightfully creepy leap into Cronenberg-ian body horror and would make a pretty neat double feature with Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin.” “Brooklyn” is a lovely, emotionally rewarding period piece that deservedly made a star out of the wonderful Saoirse Ronan. The moody, physically terrifying “It Follows” perfected what professional complainer Bret Easton Ellis refers to as the trend of “art-house horror”, while “Youth” is another haunting, left-field cinematic symphony from “The Great Beauty’s” Paolo Sorrentino. Elsewhere, James Ponsoldt’s “The End of the Tour” eclipsed expectations by positing itself as a moving and insightful dissection of literary celebrity, Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young” established the director as this generation’s Paul Mazursky and Adam McKay’s furious “The Big Short” raged mightily against the machine in a tremendously entertaining fashion.
In any other year, it’d have to go with Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man,” a putrid, contemptuous hate letter to humanity that’s so devoid of redeeming qualities that it makes “Cassandra’s Dream” look like “Crimes and Misdemeanors”. Then again, there’s always “True Story,” a lethally boring slice of true crime pulp that makes one yearn for the days when all stars Jonah Hill and James Franco wanted to do was smoke bongloads and crack dick jokes with each other. But no: the absolute worst movie of 2015 is unquestionably “Mojave,” William Monahan’s pretentious, boneheaded would-be mystery that’s about as entertaining as an early-morning route canal sans anesthesia. The ostensible story of what happens when a vacuous L.A. douchebag is hunted by a man who sounds like Foghorn Leghorn (if he had read too much Sartre) but looks suspiciously like Oscar Isaac, “Mojave” is really only enjoyable as a Tommy Wiseau-style intentional disaster in the vein of “The Room,” but even taken on those shaky terms, it falls wildly short. Here, finally, is the film for which bargain bins were invented.