Every year, the complaints are the same: Too many movies and not enough great ones. The big tentpoles dominate the public’s awareness and television is king. Awards season cannibalizes serious discourse and distributors struggle to make adventurous work stand out. Oh, and who needs feature-length content when you have cat videos on YouTube?
You know the drill: Brace for the end of the cinema. Same time next year?
Some or all of these variables may contain kernels of truth, but they collectively distract from more valuable conversations about so many rich cinematic experiences of recent note. As usual, anyone who thinks this was a bad year for movies simply hasn’t seen enough.
Since January 2015, I have attended close to a dozen film festivals and watched hundreds of titles (I stopped keeping count at some point over the summer). However, the following list sticks to movies that were released or will be released in some manner during the 2015 calendar year, including a few that I initially covered last year.
That doesn’t make the job any easier. While these 15 finalists showcase my absolute favorites from the past 12 months, a lot of worthy material didn’t make the cut. In another year, this list may have featured some 40-odd others, including “Clouds of Sils Maria,” “Girlhood,” “La Sapienza,” “Ned Rifle,” “Chi-Raq” and “What We Do in the Shadows.” They remain terrific achievements worthy of celebration, and it pains me to leave them off. (Faithful readers may notice that the list’s arrangement differs slightly from the one revealed on this week’s Screen Talk podcast — further evidence of the finicky tendencies behind this process.)
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These days, however, curation is key to making a point, and if you’re looking for a reason to believe in the ongoing vitality of the movies, your best bet is to start with these gems.
15. “Horse Money”
Portuguese director Pedro Costa has already exhumed the demons of wartime trauma and troubled class issues with several films, most recently with “Colossal Youth.” That 2006 feature was the third set in the squalid Lisbon neighborhood Fontainhas and focused on the plights of Cape Verdean immigrants haunted by the country’s Carnation Revolution. “Colossal Youth,” which starred real-life immigrant Ventura as he drifted around town and contemplated his troubled existence, followed “Ossos” and “Vanda’s Room” to form an unofficial trilogy of experimental narratives set in Fontainhas and exploring its troubled state. Now the trilogy has become a fascinating quartet, with “Horse Money,” another darkly poetic examination of Fontainhas’ impoverished residents through the lens of Ventura’s quiet, soul-searching wanderings.
A rich, almost impermeably strange example of Costa’s slow-burn abstract storytelling, “Horse Money” is more subdued and cryptic than its predecessors, to the point where it might be more appropriately described as a cinematic tone poem. Each new scene ventures into surprising territory, right down to a lengthy climax set in the confines of an elevator. Persistently haunting and beautiful, “Horse Money” is a brilliant conversation-starter with no easy answers, but endless interpretations.
14. “The Tribe”
There is no spoken dialogue in “The Tribe,” Ukranian director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s ambitious first feature, but it’s noisy in other ways. Exclusively set in and around a boarding school for deaf students, Slaboshpytskiy’s story never bothers with subtitles, forcing anyone unversed in the gesticulations to pay close attention to each passing gesture. That might sound like a daunting task, but Slaboshpytskiy manages to craft an engaging experience through the heated movements and whispered exchanges of his characters. As a concept, “The Tribe” has more in common with silent cinema, but its specific rhythms are unprecedented. Outside of these unique variables, however, “The Tribe” is also one of the darkest coming of age dramas ever, a harrowing tale of young gang members and desperate love affairs that defies linguistic barriers.
13. “The Duke of Burgundy”
The ultimate counter-programming to “Fifty Shades of Grey” (which it opened up against earlier this year), Peter Strickland’s vibrant drama explores a sadomasichistic romance between two women — under the guise of European sexploitation films from decades earlier — and unearths the peculiar nature of their attraction without turning it into a punchline. By the movie’s end, the kinky antics are oddly heartwarming. Strickland builds on the experimental approach he last applied in the sound-obsessed “Berberian Sound Studio” with elegant visual motifs (including a savvy reference to Stan Brakhage’s “Mothlight”) that transform the seemingly absurd premise into the makings of sexualized fairy tale.
12. “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”
First-time director Marielle Heller’s adaptation of the acclaimed graphic novel is a startlingly fresh take on teen sexuality through the perspective of a young woman’s evolving worldview. As titular diarist Minnie, in seventies-era San Francisco, Bel Powley imbues her character with equal doses of charm, naiveté and rebellious energy, as she falls in love with an older man (Alexander Skarsgard) who’s simultaneously dating Minnie’s mother (Kristen Wiig). Heller combines elaborate animated sequences with frank sex scenes and dramatic showdowns, all neatly contextualized by Minnie’s need to process every detail. Her developing individuality is infectious, and by the end, we’re right there with her.
11. “Ex Machina”
If it weren’t already taken, an alternate title for Alex Garland’s beautifully pared-down sci-fi thriller might be “Rise of the Machines.” Alex Garland’s feature-length debut combines the chilly aesthetics of Stanley Kubrick with a labyrinthine narrative almost exclusively set within the confines of a futuristic lab. As a mad science with a murky agenda involving the development of artificial intelligence, Oscar Isaac gives his most commanding performance to date, giving off both eerie and hilarious vibes. With the young researcher hired to assist him (Domhnall Gleeson) falling in love with one of the scientist’s female prototypes (Alicia Vikander), “Ex Machina” gradually transforms into a next-level survival story in which at least one survivalist’s motives exists beyond our understanding (hint: it’s not one of the human characters). It’s set in the future, but “Ex Machina” is a clear-eyed statement on our mounting relationship to technology today as well.
Though Todd Haynes’ “Carol” is a measured, faithful adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 lesbian romance “The Price of Salt,” there’s no mistaking its connection to the director’s other work. Since his early days with “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” and “Safe,” Haynes has developed sophisticated narratives out of existing cultural reference points. Starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in top form as a pair of women drawn together in spite of the intrusive men around them, “Carol” undeniably marks Haynes’ most contained work, though it also shows the influence of the director’s several period dramas preceding it — including his “Mildred Pierce” miniseries for HBO and, most significantly, his 2002 refashioning of a Douglas Sirk melodrama, “Far From Heaven.” Yet while those projects expressed a grand set of themes in broad strokes, “Carol” funnels them into a nuanced tale of mutual attraction that reflects a filmmaker and cast operating at the height of their powers, rendering complex circumstances in strikingly personal terms. It distills the essence of Haynes’ talent as a major American filmmaker, and provides a welcome reminder that he’s still at it, better than ever.
9. “Heart of a Dog”
In the pantheon of memorable dogs in recent cinema — from “The Artist” show-stealer Uggie to Jean-Luc Godard’s “Goodbye to Language” star Roxy — one can now add Lolabelle, the late piano-playing rat terrier owned by Laurie Anderson and saluted in her stirring essay film “Heart of a Dog.” Though the 68-year-old performance artist hasn’t directed a movie since her 1986 concert film “Home of the Brave,” the new work is alive with the lyrical insights of a veteran artist. Using her beloved pooch as a starting point for broader philosophical observations, Anderson delivers a unique window into her creative mind. A collage of lo-fi video images, animation and still imagery, “Heart of a Dog” is narrated by Anderson as she recounts her relationship to Lolabelle and the dog’s own burgeoning musical career. A lively diary film in the tradition of Chris Marker, the movie features beguiling musings on everything from post-9/11 anxiety to the Tibetan after life (and probably some allusions to the filmmaker’s husband, the late Lou Reed). Anderson wrote the powerful score and created the animation; this is truly a handmade work of personal cinema by an artist whose talent transcends the limitations of any given medium.
Jafar Panahi has been working under the constraints of the Iranian government for a while now, but “Taxi” is further proof that such restrictions have only motivated the filmmaker to explore more innovative approaches. While “This is Not a Film” and “Closed Curtain” found Panahi exploring narrative strategies within the confines of various homes, “Taxi” finally puts him in motion from the driver’s seat of a taxi cab. As Panahi cruises around Tehran with his young niece, his customers provide a fascinating survey of national identity, but it’s Panahi himself who ends up as the chief character of fascination. Both storyteller and subject, he constructs a beguiling docufiction around his own love-hate relationship to his surroundings. Disarmingly funny when it’s not thrilling or sad, “Taxi” is a brilliant showcase for the filmmaker — and a convincing reason why his situation needs to improve.
If the confounding twists of “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Synecdoche, New York” fused with the tone of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and collided with an episode of “Robot Chicken,” the result might resemble the peculiar animated odyssey “Anomalisa.” Co-directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, the movie boils down Kaufman’s penchant for peculiar soul-searching mind trips into their natural state: A strange audiovisual journey through a troubled mind that’s both divorced from reality and attuned to its haunting secrets. Kaufman’s first directing credit since “Synecdoche, New York” with his mysterious portrait of a traveling motivational speaker enduring Kafkaesque experiences while staying at a drab hotel.
Taking cues from Kaufman’s 2005 radio play, “Anomalisa” finds its protagonist hearing everyone speak in the same voice (Tom Noonan’s, perfectly cast), aside from a shy fan who he thinks might be the solution to all his problems (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Kaufman’s script veers from deeply weird moments to intimate exchanges, while the stop-motion approach liberates it from the constraints of reality even as the story addresses genuine concerns. Touching, sad and hilarious, it’s the filmmaker’s most sophisticated tale of romantic confusion since his screenplay for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and even more daringly told because it was made beyond the constraints of the studio system. Though his work has often been handled well by other filmmakers, it turns out that unfiltered Kaufman may be the very best kind.
6. “Mad Max: Fury Road”
Scorched red earth, leather-clad bikers, deranged metalheads and a stone-faced avenging protagonist of few words: These are the familiar hallmarks of George Miller’s relentlessly satisfying “Mad Max” universe, which remains captivating as ever in the Australian director’s long-awaited fourth entry, a kinetic tone poem in blockbuster clothing. “Mad Max” doesn’t just depict conflicts with evildoers in a tattered existence, it delivers a rare alternative to aggressively stupid action movies. At a time of great need, Max rides again.
Joel Potrykus’ nutty debut feature “Ape” followed the exploits of a deranged standup comedian struggling to make ends meet. “Buzzard” is similarly focused on a man at the bottom of the economic food chain battling to get by while stirring up trouble in every direction. It’s also a genuinely brilliant contemporary satire of workplace frustrations. Like “Office Space” on crack, the movie revolves around a wry young schemer (“Ape” star Joshua Burge) who casually steals money from the bank that employs him while wasting his days with an equally directionless pal eating chips and playing videogames in a basement lair dubbed “the party zone.” But when his scams catch up to him, the character gradually loses his mind in a series of increasingly surreal and surprising developments that involve — among many other things — a treadmill, a makeshift Freddy Krueger glove, and one very long take involving pasta. By the end, like Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours,” Potrykus’ labyrinthine farce is so compellingly weird you just have to roll with it and accept it for what it is: An astute look at what it means to attempt an escape from the system and wind up devoured by it.
4. “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence”
Roy Andersson’s concluding entry to his “trilogy about humans” followed on the heels of the similarly irreverent and surreal “Songs From the Second Floor” and “You, the Living,” so its amusingly off-beat collection of vignettes came as no surprise. But even with certain expectations in place, nobody could have predicted that “Pigeon” would be the best of the bunch — and also a masterful cinematic achievement in its own right. The Swedish director’s deadpan comedy (which won the Golden Lion in Venice shortly after screening at TIFF) follows a handful of characters, including a pair of aspiring salesmen hocking party favors, in a strange world where anything can happen. One scene set in a dreary bar magically transforms into a musical number set to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”; at another pub, 19th century soldiers invade the contemporary tableaux with results as mystifying as they are deeply hilarious.
But there’s a devious quality to Andersson’s perpetually weird narrative that reaches its apex in a haunting dream sequence depicting mass slaughter. Even when “Pigeon” goes dark, it never loses an otherworldly poignancy. Already a must-see for the sheer uniqueness of its imagery, “Pigeon” eventually reaches masterpiece territory when the visuals arrive at a place of deeper significance.
3. “Heaven Knows What”
The Safdie brothers are among the few New York-based filmmakers to capture the city’s grimy, subterranean qualities without diminishing its livelier ingredients, as their first two narrative features “Daddy Longlegs” and “The Pleasure of Being Robbed” make clear. But the masterful “Heaven Knows What” takes that potential to a new level, showcasing the pratfalls of a young heroin addict — played by newcomer Arielle Holmes and based on her actual experiences — as she contends with her destructive boyfriend (Caleb Landry Jones). Think “Kids” meets “Panic in Needle Park”: A ruthless account of addiction that’s fully believable and involving, portraying a world of characters simultaneously close to death and fighting hard to evade it. Some buyers may cringe at the prospects of distributing such a grim movie, but it’s that same edginess and intensity that makes “Heaven Knows What” such a must-see: It’s a talking point about the perils of addiction, but also a powerful thriller that transcends expectations at every turn.
Writer-director Sean Baker has explored the lives of marginalized American characters in an ever-fascinating series of unorthodox projects. These have ranged from hustling lower class immigrants in “Take Out” and “Prince of Broadway” to the travails of a meandering actress in “Starlet,” for which Baker brought the same nuanced approach to an unlikely target. His latest movie “Tangerine” feels more in tune with the two earlier features, which is a very good thing: In this ramshackle and wildly entertaining romp, as two transgender prostitutes in Los Angeles endure various dramas on Christmas Eve, Baker once again manages to match underrepresented faces in American cinema with material that lets their personalities shine. Set over the course of a single day, the vibrant movie plays out like a buddy comedy, as fellow prostitutes Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) wander around L.A. and undergo a series of misadventures. Their plight adopts an unsuspecting screwball mold — a canny trick that manages to make their tale universally relatable. This is progressive, boundary-pushing storytelling so charmingly rendered its daring qualities sneak into the picture. The final impression is that no matter their larger challenges, these spirited urban characters triumph simply by surviving another hectic day.
1. “Son of Saul”
The concept of a Holocaust drama has been rendered so trite and predictable over the years that the historical events have been reduced to formula. “Son of Saul” corrects the record. Hungarian director Lazlo Nemes’ remarkable first feature sticks close to its protagonist, an Auschwitz prisoner tasked with cleaning up after executions, as he attempts to find a rabbi to help bury his dead son. But that corpse is something of a MacGuffin in Nemes’ bracing psychological thriller, which is shot almost entirely in closeups as it follows each frantic moment in the camp. Though harrowing and ultimately dominated by bleak circumstances, “Son of Saul” pulls us into its leading man’s desperate task to explore how even in the worst situations the desire to survive provides some semblance of hope. It’s not just a new kind of Holocaust movie; “Son of Saul” exists in a class of its own as a dynamic portrait of survival against impossible odds and the inevitability of death at once.