As usual, I have to put out the caveat that there are a number of movies I didn't manage to see this year before putting this list together. The biggest blind spots for me at the moment are The Big Short, Chi-Raq, 45 Years, Dope and Carol. Hopefully I'll get a chance to catch up with those before too long.
That said, 2015 was a pretty incredible year for movies... maybe the best since 1999 (American Beauty, Fight Club, etc.) So incredible, in fact, that I wasn't able to boil my list down to my usual top 10.
So, without further adieu, here are my top 20 films of 2015.
20. The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)
This one probably sat higher on my list a couple weeks ago, but as is the case with most Tarantino movies it seems to have lost a little luster the more I've thought about it. Still, it's his most ferocious film in years, and the locked-room claustrophobia harkens back nicely to his best work, Reservoir Dogs.
19. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako)
This French-Mauritanian film tells the story of the fabled Malian city after it fell under occupation by a militant Islamist group in 2012. For dealing with such heavy subject matter, it's a much gentler movie than you might imagine. The Jihadists and city dwellers alike are presented as human and with heart, and the violence is kept to a minimum. This light touch only makes the ultimate tragic arc of the story all that much more disquieting.
18. The Revenant (Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu)
Leonardo DiCaprio is just okay in this film, and it doesn't have nearly as much narrative depth as a lot of critics are giving it credit for. But it's one of the most powerfully immersive experiences you're likely to have in the theater at least since Gravity, and Tom Hardy's complicated and understated performance as villain John Fitzgerald elevates the film beyond the strict survivalist/revenge movie construction the script confines it to.
17. White God (Kornél Mundruczó)
On its surface, this weird, imperfect, but stunningly ambitious Hungarian film tells the simple and heartfelt story of a young girl trying to reunite with her lost dog. But this isn't a family film; there are way too many throats being ripped out for that. Mundruczó's White God is sort of like The Incredible Journey by way of Cujo and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It's a little obvious with its message, but the twin performances by Zsófia Psotta as 13-year-old Lili and "Body" as loving companion/Ché-style revolutionary Hagen make this one of the most affecting movies of the year. If you're a dog lover like me, that simple and elegant final shot is going to hit you right in all the feels.
16. Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg)
This is your typical Cronenberg film in the sense that not a lot happens on the surface, and yet you feel a compelling need to take a shower afterwards. At once a tightly controlled character study and a vicious satire, this is right up there with Schlesinger's The Day of the Locust as one of the meanest movies about Hollywood that has ever been made. When it takes a sudden turn into the nightmarish and surreal at the end, somehow in Cronenberg's hand it all makes sense.
15. Goodnight Mommy (Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala)
Austrian director Veronica Franz is continuing to prove (along with The Babadook's Jennifer Kent and Honeymoon's Leigh Janiak) that right now it's the women who are making the scariest films. Along with co-director Severin Fiala, Franz makes Goodnight Mommy a quiet, slow-burn of a horror movie. But Franz and Severin fill it with some of the most disturbing imagery you've never wanted to see. This one will stick with you for days.
14. Room (Lenny Abrahamson)
Lenny Abrahamson's (Frank) adaptation of the amazing 2010 novel by Emma Donoghue can't quite measure up to the source material, but that's not for any lack of talent or trying. The movie tells the story of a young woman named Joy (Brie Larson) who is held hostage for years in a backyard shed by a mysterious kidnapper we know only as Old Nick. Forced to bear Nick's child, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), Joy makes the decision to tell her son that there is no world beyond the walls of "Room." This comes back to bite her when she must convince Jack to help the two them escape. The novel was told entirely from Jack's perspective, a narrative luxury that Abrahamson doesn't have at his disposal here. Yet, Abrahamson does an admirable job of hewing close to the novel, and he manages to capture its delicate balance of despair and hope. Larson and Tremblay both give show-stopping performances.
13. Straight Outta Compton (F. Gary Gray)
Gray's film can't quite transcend its essential nature as a musical biopic (how could it?), but it's still a remarkable and remarkably entertaining depiction of the rise of seminal gangsta rap group N.W.A. The film manages to be stylish and edgy without being obtrusive, but what Gray and his cast (O'Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Aldis Hodge, Neil Brown Jr., and Paul Giamatti) do best is capture the subtle nuances of the group's personal dynamic, along with their at-times fraught relationship with manager Jerry Heller (Giamatti). This movie doesn't reinvent the wheel, and it may pull its punches on a few of the uglier details (particularly in regards to the group's treatment of women), but it tells a damn good story that's as vital today as it was nearly 30 years ago.
12. The Martian (Ridley Scott)
This movie's personal to me in a way that none of the other films on this list are. For one thing, the writer/producer is Drew Goddard, a guy I went to high school with (no I'm not dropping names; we barely knew each other). For another, Drew made it clear during a Q&A that he sees this as essentially being about our home town. Adapted from Andy Weir's thoroughly entertaining novel, The Martian is an unabashed love letter to science and scientists. Rather than wallow in the bleakness of most non Star Wars/Star Trek sci-fi, it's a funny, warm, and hopeful declaration of what smart people can do when they put their heads together, even over a distance of 250 million miles.
11. Inside Out (Pete Docter)
I don't have a lot to say about this movie that hasn't already been said, other than to re-iterate that it's just one more example of Pixar's unmatched ability to craft a raucous, funny kid's movie that also manages to be a pretty sensitive and deep examination of the human condition. I don't manage to see all of Pixar's films, but for me it's their best since WALL•E.
10. Spy (Paul Feig)
The best use of Melissa McCarthy since Feig's Bridesmaids, Spy is the most laugh-out-loud big Hollywood comedy of the year (Trainwreck was good, but it was rather too impressed with itself). I never thought a movie could possibly make me a Jason Statham fan, but he turns his persona on its head and delivers one of the funniest performances I've seen in a while. McCarthy, for her part, manages to display a sense of genuine pathos I didn't know she had in her. I had no expectations for this film, so it's probably my biggest surprise of the year. It's big dumb fun but still manages to have a few smart things to say about workplace gender relations, without beating you over the head with it.
9. Sicario (Denis Villeneuve)
Montreal filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners) is one of the most exciting talents to emerge in a long time, and Sicario is probably his best film yet. A French-Canadian love child of David Fincher and David Cronenberg, Villeneuve make movies that are pretty standard on-the-surface genre exercises that nevertheless manage to get under your skin in some pretty profound ways. You might think from the trailer that Sicario is just one more drug-cartel action thriller, but that's selling Villeneuve's vision way short. This movie is quietly terrifying and psychologically scarring in ways I can't even describe. Just watch it.
8. Beasts of No Nation (Cary Fukunaga)
There has been some understandable pushback on this film, seeing as how it's a bleak African story told mostly by American and British filmmakers (see Timbuktu for the real deal). But Cary Fukunaga (True Detective, Sin Nombre) is a thoughtful and visionary auteur, and star Idris Elba is one of the best actors in the world. And that all comes before we even get to the remarkable central performance by Ghanaian actor Abraham Attah as Agu, a young African boy who watches his family get murdered before finding himself pulled into the clutches of a vicious warlord (Elba) with a deep need for child soldiers. Beasts of no Nation is both sensitive and stark, lyrical and brutal, and it unfolds almost surrealistically, like Apocalypse Now but with a more brittle edge. It's not an easy sit, but it's well worth it.
7. Tangerine (Sean Baker)
When you hear that Baker's indie film is about transgender prostitutes on the streets of LA, and that it was shot on an iPhone 5, you'd be forgiven for wanting to dismiss it as pretentious, just-out-of-film-school pablum. But you'd be wrong. For one thing, this movie is fucking funny. Baker's approach — both with the camera and with the narrative itself — leans more toward playful than really edgy, which makes the genuine moments of darkness land with that much more force. But central to the film's success are Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, as the aforementioned prostitutes Sin-Dee and Alexandria. Their performances are outlandish, nuanced, fiercely funny and full of genuine heart. This movie goes down so easy it's like a banana/blueberry smoothie, and the quiet but devastating final shot of the two of them together will make you laugh and cry at the same time. And, for what it's worth, Baker manages to make the iPhone footage look amazing.
6. What We Do in the Shadows (Taika Waititi)
This New Zealand comedy by the Flight of the Conchords guys is destined to join my own personal pantheon of most rewatchable/quotable cult comedies of all time, right up there with Shaun of the Dead, Ghostbusters and The Big Lebowski. I haven't laughed this hard in a long, long time. A mock-documentary that's sort of The Real World by way of Anne Rice (with the best joke over about a sandwich), there is not one false step in the entire film. Just when you think it can't get any funnier, it does. Seriously, you might actually rupture something. No description of this film can do it any sort of justice; you just have to see it for yourself. I promise that you'll thank me.
5. It Follows (David Robert Mitchell)
This movie is a total throwback to the 80s horror movies that I grew up with and love, but it also manages to do what it does better than most of those films. The concept and setup here is so simple it almost sounds like a joke; after having sex with her new boyfriend, a teenage girl (Maika Monroe) finds herself stalked by a malevolent being that can only be passed on to another person through coitus. But what Mitchell does with this idea is stunning. The movie taps into basic, reptile-brain fears like no movie I've seen since maybe John Carpenter's The Thing. Yeah, the logic doesn't entirely hold up... but maybe that's kind of the point.
4. Ex Machina (Alex Garland)
Only in a year this good could a movie like Alex Garland's debut feature Ex Machina come in fourth on my list. This is exactly the type of movie I want to make. The film could almost be a stage play, but the anchoring performances by Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander — as (respectively) a computer geek bought in by a probably insane dot-com mogul to perform the Turing artificial intelligence test on a beautiful robot — are almost unreal in how good they are, and the production design and cinematography keep it firmly cinematic. Helped along by Garland's (the writer behind novels like The Tesseract and movies like 28 Days Later) expertly crafted screenplay and surprisingly assured direction, the quiet pressure this film puts on its audience becomes almost unbearable before it's over. It's also perhaps the most disturbing examination of the male gaze ever put on film. The best sci-fi debut since Duncan Jones's Moon.
3. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
Based upon my love of George Miller's The Road Warrior and the expectations set by Mad Max: Fury Road's incredible trailer, I went into this film thinking there was no way it could do anything but disappoint me. Instead, it exceeded my wildest expectations. Well into his 70s, Miller managed to make one of the most thrilling action movies of all time while keeping it firmly rooted in the franchise's B-movie roots. This is the Mad Max movie we've all been wanting to see since we were kids. And, yes, it's a feminist film — gleefully and unapologetically so in a way we should not only respect but celebrate.
2. Creed (Ryan Coogler)
The 1976 film Rocky is an undisputed classic that was followed by a string of fun but ultimately inconsequential sequels. So it would make sense that Creed would be just more of the same. Instead, Sylvester Stallone made the brilliant decision to hand the reigns of the franchise over to one of the most exciting filmmakers of the moment, Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) and let him have his way with it. Coogler focuses not on Rocky but instead on Adonis Creed (a quietly affecting Michael B. Jordan), son of legendary champion Apollo Creed. The aging Rocky is relegated to the Mickey (Burgess Meredith) role here. Creed is at once completely fresh and a powerful callback to the original film, both in its narrative but also its joyous spirit. It's a perfect bookend to the franchise, and is the rare sequel that actually makes the original a better film. When you're talking about a movie like Rocky, that's really saying something.
1. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy)
I'm going to make a bold statement here: Tom McCarthy's Spotlight is every bit as good as Alan Pakula's classic All the President's Men (1976), the movie whose legacy looms largest over it. I happened to live in Boston at the tail-end of the Catholic priest sexual abuse scandal depicted in this film, so it hit home for me in a pretty real way. But beyond that tenuous personal connection, Spotlight is to print journalism what The Martian is to science: a loving reminder of how important these institutions can be. Spotlight is a classic procedural, and it depicts the grind of squeezing out a great piece of investigative journalism while never feeling like a grind itself. The film honors the importance of its subject by never moralizing or talking down to its audience. The performances — Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Leiv Schreiber, John Slattery, Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci — are uniformly masterful, but Schreiber is my favorite as caustic Boston Globe editor Marty Baron. The role could have been reduced to cliché — in fact, McCarthy deftly sets us up to expect it, only to pull the rug right out from under us. In Schreiber's hands, Baron is a quietly powerful force, the outsider needed to rip the scab off an entrenched community's festering wound. It's one of the more unheralded performances of the year, but should not be ignored.