Even more than usual, 2015 proved especially hard to narrow down to 10 films. I wouldn’t call this the best film year of the decade so far. But there were so many movies that were very good, but not quite all-timers, that ranking became an exercise in futility. So feel free to re-rank numbers two through 10 in any order you actually see fit. If I could summarize my selections, they’re mostly about a single character forced to make difficult choices. That’s overly reductive, but as much as I loved all these films, I wouldn’t want to be in the place of any of these characters.
10. Brooklyn (dir. John Crowley)
In certain circles, you hear the phrase “They don’t make them like they used to.” In an era of inter-connected movie universes and an increasingly rare set of studio-funded movies aimed at intelligent adults, that’s more true than ever. But in the case of Brooklyn, they do make them like they used to. This is a lovely, sweeping romance that takes its time telling its simple but powerful story. Saoirse Ronan has already given several terrific performances in her short career, but she’s never been better than the lonely Irish immigrant who falls for a young plumber (Emory Cohen) and, increasingly, for an older neighbor (Domhnall Gleeson). The power of even having that choice makes for one of the most compelling films of the year.
9. Spotlight (dir. Tom McCarthy)
“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” With an incredible cast, Tom McCarthy crafts a portrait of dogged determination that doesn’t spare anyone. This is a procedural done the right way. There’s no sensationalism here – just a group of journalists who are good at their jobs fighting for the truth. Let’s hope we never lose that.
8. Steve Jobs (dir. Danny Boyle)
Throwing out the biopic template, Aaron Sorkin constructs three separate vignettes of the visionary tech icon at a crossroads. Michael Fassbender is magnificent as Jobs, despite looking nothing like him. He plays him as a ruthless, vindictive genius. Whether that’s accurate or not is irrelevant in this case. What matters is just how wonderful it is to watch great actors – including Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen and Jeff Daniels – speak Sorkin’s dialogue. Danny Boyle adds some nice visual touches, but this is a writer’s movie all the way.
7. The Revenant (dir. Alejandro G. Iñárritu)
If Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t win an Oscar this year, he’ll never win one. While he should be adding to his mantle at this point, this win won’t be a mea culpa. He’s earned it in every single blood-soaked, mud-caked, frozen frame. Iñárritu pares down any bigger scope for a brutal tale of revenge, with DiCaprio crossing miles of tundra, mountain, river and glacier, all shot beautifully in natural light by Emmanuel Lubezki.
6. The Martian (dir. Ridley Scott)
Look, not all blockbusters can be like my No. 5 pick. Not every director has the vision or freedom to be as bonkers (and frankly they shouldn’t all be that bonkers), so The Martian serves as a terrific aspiration for the coming onslaught of big-budget sci-fi movies coming in the next five years. Filled with great performances, a focus on the science in the fiction and a disarming amount of humor, this is as good as Hollywood movies get. As Kenneth Turan wrote in 2010, “I still believe in Hollywood movies.” If I didn’t, this would be a crushing job. They won’t all be this good, but they have something to shoot for.
5. Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller)
A wild, one-of-a-kind ride that can’t and won’t be duplicated. Not every director has the cojones that George Miller did, to film out there in the desert, with real bodies flying at real cars, soaring through real explosions. Your mileage may vary (no pun intended) on whether its deeper meaning (or whether there even is one) counts as feminism, but there’s no denying it’s the best action movie of the year.
4. Carol (dir. Todd Haynes)
As much a coming-of-age tale as it is a heart-wrenching romance, Carol is a reminder of how great and awful people can be, especially when their desires are thwarted. Captured in luscious 16mm by cinematographer Edward Lachman, this is a movie that’s all stolen glances and delicate touches. Rooney Mara gives her best performance to date as Therese, the shopgirl swept up by Carol (Cate Blanchett), the gorgeous soon-to-be-ex-wife of Harge (Kyle Chandler). Haynes has real empathy for all his characters, even when they’re being awful to each other. It’s one of the most human movies of the year.
3. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (dir. Alex Gibney)
The year’s scariest horror movie. The first hour tells the story of quasi-successful sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard’s rise to prominence, then the second hour shows how Scientology grew from a wacko new religion to a downright evil cult under the leadership of David Miscavige. The “church” commits abuse after abuse and if anyone tries to speak up, they’re disavowed and discredited. It’s a terrifying real-life horror show that’s still going on for thousands of people.
2. Phoenix (dir. Christian Petzold)
There was no more fascinating mystery than the one at the center of this German film. Nelly (Nina Hoss, in the year’s best performance by a lead actress) is a singer who has survived the Holocaust, but needs facial reconstruction. After recovery, she returns to Germany, desperate to discover if her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) betrayed her to the Nazis. When Johnny spots her in a club, he hides Nelly and coaches her to act like Nelly to help get her inheritance. This double act makes for the year’s most nail-biting movie.
1. Inside Out (dirs. Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen)
When you have as great a track record as Pixar, it’s hard to top yourself. After a less-than-heralded period of mostly very good films, Inside Out is their best film to date, and that’s saying quite a bit. Delving into the complex emotions that develop as we go through puberty, they’ve made their most universal, emotional film yet. With terrific world-building, an incredible color palette and some of their most inventive characters yet, Inside Out was my favorite film of the year from the first viewing. I didn’t cry harder than the death of that character. I didn’t laugh harder than the many replays of the TripleDent Gum jingle. In short, Inside Out was it for me.
Beasts of No Nation (dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga)
Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland)
The Hateful Eight (dir. Quentin Tarantino)
Love & Mercy (dir. Bill Polhad)
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (dir. Christopher McQuarrie)
Sicario (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
Slow West (dir. John Maclean)
Spy (dir. Paul Feig)
Trainwreck (dir. Judd Apatow)
What We Do in the Shadows (dir. Taika Waititi)
I did not catch Anomalisa at any festival, and it won’t make its way to Dallas until mid-January, but it probably would have made my list.
Didn’t See But Probably Would Have Loved:
The Big Short
The End of the Tour
The Forbidden Room
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
The Night Before
Sleeping with Other People