Many critics are hailing 2015 as a banner year in cinema, offering an embarrassment of riches from which to create year-end lists such as this one. And it’s true: the sheer number (and wide range) of worthy films probably outpaces the last few years. To me, 2015 boasted lots of surprisingly strong films, but perhaps very few truly great ones. Nothing, for example, would surpass my four 5-star films from last year: Boyhood, Goodbye to Language, Inherent Vice and The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Nonetheless, there are lots of terrific films to get to, and perhaps a stronger overall list than average. In particular, I think 2015 is the year Hollywood got it right. From the too-weird-to-be-mainstream Mad Max: Fury Road to the sincere and soulful Creed, multiplex fare was quite compelling. But don’t worry, true to form I also have a few foreign films and smaller releases to tout as I count down my Top 20 films of 2015.
Honorable Mentions: In Jackson Heights, The Look of Silence, What We Do in the Shadows
Regrets: Anomalisa, Son of Saul, Arabian Nights, Brooklyn, 45 Years
A list of all 2015 releases I’ve seen is available here.
20) Cobain: Montage of Heck / Brett Morgen
What is genius? How does it ignite, how is it expressed? This haunting and intimate portrait of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain doesn’t ask these questions directly, but this elusive quality of “genius” hangs over the film. Montage of Heck makes it clear that genius is a perspective, a point of view towards the world which the artist cannot repress. Cobain wasn’t a genius because he wrote “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” He was a genius because he felt the world with such incredible precision and passion, filtered it through his experiences and gave it form. (Read my full review.)
19) The Hateful Eight / Quentin Tarantino
The Hateful Eight is a masterfully executed film, full of wit and excitement and ideas, that disguises its distastefulness until it can no longer hold back and an orgy of violence and repulsive instincts erupts. In other words, a Quentin Tarantino film. While Tarantino’s cruel and wanton callowness often prevents me from truly embracing his work, there’s much to enjoy in the experience, from the loud and mysterious score by Morricone, to the luster and grandeur of the 70mm photographic image, to the relentlessly languid pace.
18) The Overnight / Patrick Brice
A tremendously funny, sprightly and openhearted sex comedy, mixing broad raunchiness with clever insights and relying on the chemistry of its first-rate cast. Adam Scott and Jason Schwartzman are particularly great, playing, ostensibly, opposite ends of a spectrum of confident masculinity. The Overnight is isn’t simply a lesson to loosen up, though, nor a takedown of the over-libidinous. Instead, it lets these extremes meet and unravel into a messy middle ground, where any character can be read as liberated or pathetic, but all feel lovingly flawed and are generously given with the chance to grow.
17) Queen of Earth / Alex Ross Perry
A genuinely fresh and bracing film, Queen of Earth further heralds the arrival of an important voice in American cinema. Alex Ross Perry’s follow-up to last year’s Listen Up Philip disguises itself as a film about depression, or perhaps a destructive friendship, but it’s much more potent as a barbed psychological examination of how people struggle to define themselves vis-a-vis each other. (Read my full review.)
16) Bridge of Spies / Steven Spielberg
Bridge of Spies is crackerjack entertainment, a witty and simmering slow-boil of a film and a reminder of the beautiful craft that makes Spielberg so special. It’s also likely his best film in a decade. Bridge of Spies moves like a Cold War thriller, but its thrills are muted and its visual DNA harkens back to an older, pre-war style of filmmaking. Audience might question the aesthetic wisdom of Spielberg’s classicism against the moral uncertainty of the Cold War, but it’s the perfect choice for this story, unfolding a wealth of exciting contradictions like a secret code printed on a tiny wrapper. (Read my full review.)
15) Creed / Ryan Coogler
What impressed me so much about Creed is that it’s a perfectly sound film, built with the same swaggering confidence in craft of its protagonist. The promising young director Ryan Coogler simply makes all the right choices. He brings a depth of feeling to Creed’s relationships with his mentor Rocky and his fully fleshed-out love interest, Bianca, that completely trumps the excellent boxing scenes. In the end, Creed is an earnest and thoughtful sports film and an indication of a really bright talent.
14) Junun / Paul Thomas Anderson
Eschewing a buttoned-up formality that would have been singularly unsuited to the project, the airy, causal Junun has a distinct spirit and verve that more than compensates for its lack of formal precision. There’s also a deceptive sophistication to the editing and construction of the piece that communicates, in its own unassuming way, the disorienting and kaleidoscopic experience of both travel and music. (Read my full review.)
13) Spotlight / Tom McCarthy
At one point in Spotlight, the team of Boston Globe reporters investigating sex abuse in the Catholic church decides to “follow the system, not the man.” With a detective’s methodology and singularity of focus, they’ll research the overarching system that allowed rampant abuse to take place rather than scrutinize the psychology of any one offender. Tom McCarthy’s absorbing journalistic procedural could be said to follow the same editorial vision. (Read my full review.)
12) Star Wars: The Force Awakens / J.J. Abrams
The most exciting new elements to the Star Wars universe are its new lead characters: Rey, Finn and Kylo Ren. As fun as it is to see the familiar faces again, the new blood in Star Wars is charismatic, promising and dramatically potent. (Read my full review.)
11) The Forbidden Room / Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson
The experimental, funny, and delightfully strange The Forbidden Room feels like an ADD acid dream, an invigorating shot in the arm. Narratively, it plays like a cinematic version of the Surrealist “exquisite corpse” game, with a strange idea or scenario obliquely leading to a separate branching narrative offshoot. Guy Maddin’s preoccupations with cinematic textures, though, make the film feel alive, like a living, breathing organism. It’s thrilling.
10) Horse Money / Pedro Costa
Pedro Costa’s haunting documentary/fiction hybrid Horse Money is full of extraordinary temporal discontinuities. Time becomes collapsed, splayed out before us in the darkened halls of an otherworldly interior space, a kind of purgatory inhabited by living ghosts, representing memory and disillusionment. Horse Money is an elliptical film, but an undeniably immediate and powerful one for all its mysteries. (Read my full review.)
9) The Duke of Burgundy / Peter Strickland
Populated exclusively by women living in an upper-crust society placed sketchily out of time, The Duke of Burgundy is ostensibly a kinky, sordid, film of a BDSM relationship. And, helmed by the director of the stylish neo-giallo Berberian Sound Studio, the film doesn’t shy away from its exploitation film influences. So imagine my surprise when The Duke of Burgundy becomes, slowly, a truly tender and even romantic film that unfolds beautiful before the unsuspecting viewer.
8) Mistress America / Noah Baumbach
Mistress America is a mature and thoughtful work from Baumbach, who is beginning to show layers of formal and thematic depth beneath his familiar indie veneer. This is surely Baumbach’s funniest and best comedy, but it’s also a touching, relevant and specific look at struggling individuality, or the unique malaise of a restless, effervescent spirit. The mercurial Brooke, played by a witty Greta Gerwig, is far from perfect, but you don’t want her to change, just develop a bit of focus and perspective.
7) Carol / Todd Haynes
Todd Haynes makes uniquely humane films, and the beautifully shot and intimately felt Carol is no exception. The period details are rapturous, but Haynes’ stylistic sensitivity to 50s filmmaking doesn’t stifle the drama or emotion of this touching story at all. An early sequence of budding romance between Carol and Therese combines all of what makes this film special: both performers are radiating chemistry and life, the music and photography is gorgeous, and the sensuous editing and superimpositions meld to create a pregnant moment of emotions—not words—exchanged.
6) The Revenant / Alejandro González Iñárritu
Despite its violence, brutality and intimate chronicling of struggling, The Revenant emerges as a film about goodness, even grace. The film sidesteps the shallow, constricting emotion of revenge as if by feel, learning to overcome its seduction as the film flows forward. Indeed, there’s an understanding (a vague one perhaps, but an understanding nonetheless) of its emptiness deep in the film’s bones. You can see it in its many skyward glances, minimizing the experiences of its characters in favor of some more cosmic drama; you can hear it in its patient, organic score, echoing the breath of life. (Read my full review.)
5) Mad Max: Fury Road / George Miller
In many ways, Mad Max: Fury Road is the film of the year. It miraculously seemed to strike at just the right moment, tailor-made for moviegoers anxious for something different, something bold, something weird. If this is what people mean when they about franchise filmmaking, I’m in. With a heavy foot on the accelerator, Fury Road shoots out of the gate, building a bracing, relentless momentum. But it’s not just the film’s kineticism that makes it such a memorable, visceral experience, but its visual sophistication. Director George Miller shows amazing facility and refreshing confidence in the raw power of images and editing, making room within action sequences for developing characters, adding color to his dystopian future and laying the groundworks for his potent story of survival and redemption.
4) It Follows /David Robert Mitchell
Thanks to overwhelmingly positive word-of-mouth from genre film festivals, It Follows was plucked from a planned VOD released and placed onto screens throughout the country. It’s a good thing too, because the film is one of the freshest, liveliest and most technically assured horror movies in years. There may not be much substantive cultural criticism to unpack in the film’s central metaphor of sex as an inexorable curse, but it makes for a singularly potent horror setup, and the film even becomes an observant portrayal of teenage malaise. This strain of suburban angst, along with the film’s remarkably assured craft, call to mind John Carpenter’s Halloween. In both masterful films, tension builds and scares are revealed slowly based on the placement (or displacement) of objects in the frame. (Read my full review.)
3) Mommy / Xavier Dolan
Another, very different, film about suburban struggles, Xavier Dolan’s remarkable drama Mommy is unflinching and bold in its vision of familial love and familial strife. Dolan paints with emotions broadly, almost haphazardly, spilling huge clashing swathes of it across his canvas. And yet, this action-painting of a melodrama works beautifully because of the earnestness and sincerity beneath Dolan’s brash, bad-boy sensibilities. This is the turbulent story of troubled and violent teen, a beleaguered mother and their down-trodden neighbor—three characters with issues, but characters who become full, flawed individuals, characters we care about and whose hard-earned happiness together feels like an act of grace.
2) Li’l Quinquin / Bruno Dumont
Never known for his deft touch with comedy, the provocative Bruno Dumont is more likely known for placing odd, idiosyncratic, non-professional performers in front of the camera and allowing their unstudied manners to populate his worlds. With the long-form, episodic Li’l Quinquin, though, Dumont’s interest in the uniqueness and strangeness of real human beings takes a turn for the comedic, even the slapstick. It’s a deadpan metaphysical farce, a bizarro True Detective by way of Harmony Korine. Inexperienced though they may be, the denizens of the sleepy French town that populate this film have remarkable onscreen presence, and inject Dumont’s sideways, outsider comedy with their own energy and life.
1) The Assassin / Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Master Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin is a rapturous experience, but its stunning visual elegance isn’t simply eye candy. Rather, it’s a perfectly calibrated aesthetic and thematic statement, reflecting the characters’ cultural and internal context. Hou’s formal choices are uniformly excellent, from the boxy aspect ratio (which carried with it an association to a bygone era of tidy formality) to the various textural details that populate the film, and they’re used to reinforce the film’s themes of isolation (often self-imposed) and tragic, self-denying duty. The narrative elision and elliptical storytelling of the film left many viewers in the dark, but I never felt emotionally unmoored from the film—far from it. The emotions are plain in the vibrant colors that fill Hou’s frames, in the sweeping movements of martial arts combatants. Beneath the visual splendor, beneath the period production design, beneath the generic affiliation with the wuxia tradition, this is a powerful film about recovering from emotional isolation, about understanding how to belong to the world again.