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The 20 best films of 2015

Illustration by Beck Kramer (beckkramer.com)
Illustration by Beck Kramer (beckkramer.com)

Every year is a good year for movies, provided you’re willing to wander a little off the beaten path. But in 2015, it was hard to go more than a few steps without hitting something major, something essential. More even than usual, the year’s best films took different shapes, sizes, and routes to eyeballs. Multiplexes were unusually rich with adventurous big-budget movies, as Hollywood handed the keys to the castle to real artists. At the same time, fine smaller films from all over the globe made their way from festivals to theaters and on to streaming platforms, where any viewer with a working web connection could get a taste of something different. What the 20 films below have in common, beyond the strong impression they made on our ballot-filing critics, is a general habit of saying something significant about the here and now, even when transporting audiences to a subatomic there; a fantastically reproduced then; and a lawless, post-apocalyptic later.

20. James White

Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon are equally riveting as a son and mother attempting to cope with both the death of their father/husband and an increasingly dire cancer prognosis in Josh Mond’s piercingly intimate indie debut. With his handheld camerawork creating persistent close-up proximity to his characters, Mond roots his film in the frightened anger of James, a young man who’d be spiraling out of control if not for his profound connection to his mom. The impending end to their co-dependent relationship heralds a terrifying future for the young man, whose inner turmoil manifests itself in a series of violent outbursts. Highlighted by a wrenching bathroom scene involving fantasies of things that will never come to pass, James White is a spellbinding saga of someone forced, through loss, to face his true self. [Nick Schager]

19. Mustang

One by one, the five sisters in Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang see the conservative guardians of their rural Turkish village try to crush their spirits, by controlling what they wear, limiting where they can go, and marrying them off as soon as possible. Yet the girls keep rebelling in whatever way they can for as long as they can—by sneaking out, defying punishments, and covering for each other. The intimacy of Mustang’s framing and the casual realism of its young actresses creates a feeling of connection that keeps the film from becoming some dour drama about patriarchal cruelty. Although the situation’s grounded in a specific setting and a handful of memorable characters, like nearly all films about confinement, it can also be read as pure metaphor: a paean to indomitable, untamable adolescence. [Noel Murray]

18. The Martian

The Martian is not a difficult film. It’s a crowd pleaser, full of popular comedic actors; upbeat disco hits; patriotic-but-not-jingoistic optimism; and peans to the popular religion of people who consider themselves too smart for religion: science. It comes by its snappy sensibilities honestly, with a script by Buffy The Vampire Slayer alum (and, therefore, witty repartee specialist) Drew Goddard and direction by Ridley Scott, who has already proven many times over that he can direct the hell out of a sci-fi adventure. Scott’s finesse with the genre is most evident in the action scenes, where humor momentarily gives way to edge-of-your-seat tension in the endless blackness of space. It’s not quite a comedy—no matter what the Golden Globes say—but it is the funniest movie about facing certain death alone on an alien planet you’ll see this year. [Katie Rife]

17. Approaching The Elephant

Every democracy has its growing pains, but wish special luck to one that puts voting rights in the hands of those barely old enough to tie their own shoes. Exhibiting an observational objectivity that might make Frederick Wiseman proud, first-time filmmaker Amanda Rose Wilder documents the first (and, as it turned out, second to last) academic year of the Teddy McArdle Free School, where classes were voluntary and the rules were decided upon by teachers and preteen pupils alike. There’s both drama and a good deal of savage comedy in the faculty’s weary attempts to stay true to their educational experiment, especially once the rowdy grade-schoolers they’ve empowered begin abusing their liberties. Beyond the car-crash fascination of it all, Approaching The Elephant has a lot to say about squaring big theories against harsh realities; plenty of ideals get tested, even if the students never do. [A.A. Dowd]

16. The Forbidden Room

A hilarious and edifying intervention against “slow cinema,” The Forbidden Room is filled to the brim with stories, which keep rudely tumbling over top of each other like monkeys in a barrel. In compiling a tribute to lost films of the silent era, Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson simultaneously satirize and sanctify their source material: Their pitch-perfect pastiches of early 20th century melodramas are exactly as ridiculous, grandiloquent, and perverse as any cinephile could hope (or dream). A gallery of louche art-house movie stars, from Geraldine Chaplin to Mathieu Amalric, helps put the whole thing over the top, where it stays, hovering, for two hours—more than enough time to get from the bowels of a stranded submarine to the peak of a sweltering volcano and all points in between. [Adam Nayman]

15. Crimson Peak

Unsuccessfully marketed as a horror movie, this lush, florid Gothic romance represents the high-water mark for director Guillermo Del Toro’s gifts as a pure stylist. A simple Bluebeard fable expressed through extravagant set and costume designs, ingenious effects, insect imagery, and boldly deployed colors, Crimson Peak lets its subtexts and metaphors grow wild, until they overwhelm the movie like creeping vine. Mia Wasikowska, whose Pre-Raphaelite features have made the go-to star for 19th century literary adaptations and Gothic pastiches, plays an American writer who marries a dissolute English aristocrat (Tom Hiddleston) who shares the decrepit family estate with his creepy sister (Jessica Chastain). While Del Toro’s tendency to place sweeping visual imagination over narrative originality may not be for everyone (our own Katie Rife wasn’t too hot on the film when she reviewed it), it’s still hard to deny that few films released this year took over the space of the screen with as much confidence as Crimson Peak. Like fine licorice, this is an exquisite experience for those who might already have a taste for it. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

14. 45 Years

Can you ever really know another person, even one you’ve shared a life with for four and a half decades? Writer-director Andrew Haigh (Weekend) turns the run-up to a wedding anniversary into an awful awakening, as one half of a seemingly content couple comes to recognize the third party—the ghost of an old romance—that’s haunted their marriage from the start. 45 Years shatters the comfy fantasy of happily growing old together, even as stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, in two of the year’s most quietly devastating performances, sketch a whole lifetime of cohabitation in their scenes together. “Drama” is the word most will use to describe this wounding work, but for a certain portion of the audience, it will provoke more dread, more horror than anything in, say, It Follows. [A.A. Dowd]

13. Hard To Be A God

One of the filthiest-looking films ever made, this staggeringly realized, nearly three-hour Russian sci-fi nightmare plunges viewers into the day-to-day life of a backwater planet stuck in the Middle Ages. Earth scientist Anton (Leonard Yarmolnik), who has lived for years among the locals as a nobleman named Don Rumata, becomes involved in a power struggle against the forces conspiring to keep the people ignorant and superstitious, but viewers would be excused for mentally checking out of the plot early on, given how it’s overwhelmed by director Aleksei German’s grotesque, deranged, Hieronymus Bosch-like vision of a world of cruelty, suffering, and shit. “This isn’t Earth,” declares a narrator at the start of the movie, but of course the point is that it is Earth, or perhaps just one particular country with a long history of purges, repressions, and political strongmen. A unique, immersive, unsettling experience, Hard To Be A God was the career-long passion project of the late German, who died when it was in the late stages of post-production. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

12. Bridge Of Spies

Can all historical procedurals be directed by Steven Spielberg? He can apply his talent any number of places, and should, but with Lincoln and now Bridge Of Spies, he’s made the transformation of potentially dust-dry grandfather-ready material into crackling, beautifully made entertainment something of a late-career hallmark. Though it’s anchored with a few instant-classic suspense sequences, much of this film about the exchange of a Soviet spy for some American soldiers, brokered by non-spy lawyer Tom Hanks, is quietly talky. It’s helped enormously in this regard by the hired hands of the Coen brothers, who lend the film’s dialogue the deadpan, sometimes accidental wit of impenetrable bureaucracy. But as with Lincoln, the director assembles each scene with such verve that the ebb and flow of negotiation becomes as compelling as the more cloak-and-dagger material. Add this to the increasingly crowded field of Spielberg’s best. [Jesse Hassenger]

11. Inside Out

Top-tier Pixar films nearly always take simple, hooky ideas in unexpected directions, but rarely has the studio pulled a bait-and-switch quite as sublime as the one in Inside Out. Thanks in large part to Amy Poehler’s ingratiating, trustworthy voice, it takes a while for audiences to catch on that her character “Joy”—the movie’s designated tour guide through one pre-teen girl’s anthropomorphic emotions—may not be as savvy as she seems about what her human host Riley actually needs. Want to know why watching Inside Out devastates so many parents? It has a lot to do with the idea that children’s “core” memories and personality traits are no more permanent than their baby teeth. Take that rather sophisticated theme, add in the magnificent candy-colored design of Riley’s headscape and some assured visual storytelling—rendering white-knuckle action sequences as melancholy poetry—and the result is another Pixar masterpiece. [Noel Murray]

10. Anomalisa

It was a depressing day for fans of warped genius when the plug got pulled on Charlie Kaufman’s proposed followup to Synecdoche, New York: a satire of internet culture called Frank Or Francis. Happily, though, that failure led to the improbable existence of Anomalisa, a stop-motion adaptation (co-directed with animator Duke Johnson) of a theater piece Kaufman had written, which was originally more or less audio-only. Reconceived for the screen, this melancholy yet often riotously funny tale of a customer-service guru (voice of David Thewlis) who travels to Cincinnati for a lecture and meets a highly unusual woman (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) is vintage Kaufman, and uses its puppets in ways that even those familiar with the source material couldn’t possibly anticipate. Anomalisa doesn’t open until the 30th, and most cities won’t get it until January, so for right now, the less said about it, the better. But its third major cast member is Tom Noonan, and discovering the nature of his role ranks among the year’s greatest pleasures. [Mike D’Angelo]

9. Brooklyn

Director John Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby bring deep emotional incisiveness to their adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s acclaimed 2009 novel, about a young Irish woman (Saoirse Ronan) who emigrates to New York City, falls in love, and then has her new circumstances upended by a tragedy. Led by Ronan’s magnetic performance, it’s a film of sharp, authentic details regarding the immigrant experience (and communities), the ups and downs of blossoming love, and the conflict between individual desire and familial expectations and obligations. Crafted so that all of its characters boast a complexity of personality and motivation, Brooklyn delivers melodrama enlivened by an understanding of the way in which circumstances, setting, and private hopes and dreams are constantly shaping, and re-shaping, one’s path through life. It’s a heartstring-tugging depiction of the push-pull between the staid comfort of the past and the thrilling unknown of the future. [Nick Schager]

8. Carol

From the moment their eyes meet across the busy department store, shopgirl Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is helplessly enthralled by Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), the elegant housewife who drifts into her life on a cloud of perfume and melancholy. The infatuation is infectious: Carol, like its namesake, is pure seduction, a midcentury love story whose every element—from its carefully arranged period detail to its gorgeously grainy 16mm cinematography to the unforgettable swell of Carter Burwell’s score—seems calibrated to allure. The first time Todd Haynes transported audiences back to the 1950s, he did so using a time machine called homage, in his expert Douglas Sirk imitation Far From Heaven. Here, the writer-director evokes a beautiful but stifling past without film-geek parentheses, letting two world-class actresses breath modern life into a Patricia Highsmith classic. It’s love at first sight, Haynes style. [A.A. Dowd]

7. The Assassin

There’s an old line from D.W. Griffith about how what movies have lost is “the wind in the trees.” Well, look no further than The Assassin, which not only offers its share of swaying foliage—8th century China being a naturalist’s paradise—but also connects philosophically to this idea of cinema as exquisite ephemera. Casting his characters in shadows and shooting through thin scrims and brocaded curtains, Hou Hsiao-Hsien keeps his mise-en-scène mysterious, in contrast to the story, which is fairy-tale simple: A beautiful royal returns to the kingdom she was sent away from as a child, equipped with a special set of skills and bent on vengeance. Sold by its North American distributors as an action epic but purely an auteur work, The Assassin offers up more memorable images than any other movie released this year. [Adam Nayman]

6. Sicario

Making an intense, nerve-wracking thriller rooted in ugly realpolitik isn’t easy. Convincing the money people that said thriller absolutely requires a female lead is even harder. What makes Sicario truly remarkable, though, is the way that it deliberately, perversely diminishes ace FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) over the course of the narrative, after she volunteers to join an inter-agency task force seeking to root out the head of a Mexican cartel. As Kate and her partner (Daniel Kaluuya) get repeatedly stonewalled by an alleged “DOD advisor” (Josh Brolin) who’s probably really C.I.A, and try to comprehend the presence of a rogue enforcer (Benicio Del Toro), it becomes increasingly clear how little chance even a scrupulously ethical and fearlessly determined individual has of challenging righteous zeal that’s curdled into institutional corruption. Taylor Sheridan’s script pulls few punches, and it’s magnificently served by director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners), who sustains a nearly unbearable level of tension for the duration. [Mike D’Angelo]

5. The Look Of Silence

Many directors make films that are moving, or thought-provoking. Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentaries are both of these things, but they’re also something far more rare: They’re actually, historically important. This year Oppenheimer followed up his Oscar-nominated documentary The Act Of Killing with The Look Of Silence, a companion piece which also explores the aftermath of the genocide of more than a million people in 1960s Indonesia, this time from the perspective of the victims. Optometrist Adi was born after the massacre that killed his older brother, but has been carrying the burden of his death his entire life. In an unprecedented act of courage, Adi agrees to confront the men who murdered his brother—all of whom still hold power in their village—in an attempt to understand what really happened. It’s powerful, unbelievable stuff, as village leaders look Adi in the eye and warn him that if he keeps asking questions, the killings may start again. (These aren’t idle threats, either; much of the film’s Indonesian crew chose to remain anonymous, for fear of reprisals.) If The Act Of Killing was a sobering reminder that history is written by the victors, The Look Of Silence is an elegy for the forgotten. [Katie Rife]

4. The Duke Of Burgundy

At first glance, Peter Strickland’s misleadingly titled romance—it’s named after a butterfly, and takes place in an alternate universe devoid of men—appears to be a riff on European softcore films from the 1970s. Gradually, however, the master/servant relationship between Cynthia (Borgens Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) takes on unexpected dimensions, as it becomes clear who’s really in charge and who’s struggling mightily to meet her lover’s needs. For all its surface-level kinkiness (including a hilarious conversation with the vendor of a custom-made “human toilet”), The Duke Of Burgundy is less concerned with sex per se than with the inherent difficulties involved in sharing your life with another person, which sometimes requires a sincere effort to share their interests even when you’re not especially interested. It’s not every film that can achieve overpowering emotional catharsis using water sports as a metaphor. [Mike D’Angelo]

3. It Follows

Nostalgia is one appeal of a retro-tinged horror film; dread is what some of the more powerful horror films produce. In his brilliant second feature, writer-director David Robert Mitchell summons both at once, conjuring a slow fade from summer (beaches, frozen yogurt) into fall (rustling leaves, back to school) removed from a specific time period—and then unleashing upon it a malevolent force that approaches slowly but will never stop, and can appear in seemingly any guise. Mitchell’s steady camerawork, beautiful ambiguities (like whose form the force is assuming and whether that form has any connection to its victims), and sense of humor make for a surprisingly rewatchable horror movie—and a relevant one, too. Because the force’s attachment spreads through sex, It Follows has been tagged as a metaphor for STDs. Those overtones are there for its young characters, but the movie goes deeper than that: It’s about fear of adulthood and, eventually, death—the malevolent force coming for all of us, no matter how slowly. [Jesse Hassenger]

2. Phoenix

A modern masterpiece of suspense capped off by one of the greatest endings in recent memory, German director Christian Petzold’s complexly shaded noir thriller takes an unbelievable pulp premise and underplays it. Disfigured in a concentration camp, Jewish nightclub singer Nelly (Nina Hoss) returns to post-war Berlin after receiving reconstructive surgery, only to have her gentile husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), fail to recognize her; taking Nelly for a stranger who bears a passing resemblance to the wife he’s long presumed dead, Johnny promises her a cut in a scheme to cash in on her own inheritance. Avoiding theatrics in favor of unspoken nuances and perfectly timed cuts, Petzold spins a web of paranoia, performance, and repressed emotion, with the figure of fellow Holocaust survivor Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) adding an even deeper layer of tragedy. Nearly perfect in its economy and driven by two superb lead performances, Phoenix manages to be both an engrossingly suspenseful genre piece and a disquieting commentary on identity and the aftermath of the Holocaust—all in just over 90 minutes. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

Have we all died and gone to Valhalla? This is a movie—a grand, impossible blockbuster—that shouldn’t even exist. George Miller, an Aussie genre veteran in his 70s, somehow shook $150 million from Hollywood’s pockets, then spent it crashing cars in the desert to realize the demolition derby of his wildest dreams, the Mad Max movie he’s been working toward since the very start. Fury Road bucks just about every trend in big-budget franchise filmmaking: It’s a self-contained joy ride through its creator’s limitless imagination, an art movie stretched across the canvas of an IMAX screen. And beneath its layers upon layers of awe-inspiring imagery—a blitzkrieg of practical effects, whipped up into a two-hour car chase—beats the heart of a surprisingly subversive entertainment, one that dares to put its mythic hero (Tom Hardy, a fine substitute for Mad Mel) into the passenger seat, while a metal-armed Charlize Theron leads the charge against misogyny incarnate. That this super-charged passion project made it to screens fully intact, like some spectacle from another universe, is cause to keep grinning, with or without a mouth sprayed in a glorious shade of chrome. [A.A. Dowd]