I don’t know exactly what it means to say, “It was a good year for movies.” Some years, it’s about knowing you’ve seen movies for the ages. There may be only a few of them, but you know they’ll stick with you forever. Other years, it’s about depth. And that’s what 2015 felt like to me: My favorite 20 films were all good enough that reshuffling the order wouldn’t change things all that much.
For 2015, I feel obliged to go all the way to 20, because stopping arbitrarily at 10, or even 15, risks omitting something I know I want to mention, especially some films that were released primarily to video-on-demand, or otherwise never made their way into local theaters. So with that, here we go.
20. Spotlight: Perhaps the odds-on favorite for Oscar’s Best Picture, Tom McCarthy’s fascinating procedural may partly turn journalists into heroes, but it’s also a reminder of how many factors can conspire to keep an important story hidden from public view.
19. Girlhood: Writer/director Céline Sciamma crafts a terrific portrait of a black French teen girl wading through the road blocks boys, friends, and society throw up against her ability to find anything that can give her a sense of power.
18. Creed: The history of the Rocky franchise may fuel a lot of what works here, including Sylvester Stallone’s wonderfully emotional performance, but Ryan Coogler also finds some fresh energy in the story of Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son.
17. It Follows: The high concept here — presenting the relentless pursuit of a murderous supernatural entity as a sexually-transmitted disease — is enough to kick-start the scares, but David Robert Mitchell adds terrific visual chops and a perfect ’80s-retro score for the year’s best thriller.
16. Son of Saul: Géza Röhrig’s fierce performance as an Auschwitz internee determined to find a way to give a young boy a ritual Jewish burial drives this drama that’s not just “another Holocaust movie,” but a tale of how focusing on one small act of humanity can somehow help an individual overcome incomprehensible horror.
15. The Shaun the Sheep Movie: Aardman Animation makes charming family entertainment seem so effortless, and the Plasticine adventures of farm animals looking for their missing owner is both hilarious and a better-choreographed example of action filmmaking than most Hollywood blockbusters.
14. The Duke of Burgundy: Once you get past Peter Strickland’s basic premise — a period piece about two women in a dominant/submissive lesbian relationship — you’ll find a pair of terrific central performances and a story about the hard work of trying to be the person your partner needs you to be.
13. Bone Tomahawk: In a year full of violent Westerns, S. Craig Zahler’s revenge yarn was the best, somehow taking elements like cannibalistic “troglodytes” and crafting a suspense tale full of great performances, phenomenal dialogue, hard-to-watch brutality, and startling moments of heartbreaking humanity.
12. Clouds of Sils Maria: The stellar performances by Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart — as a middle-aged actress and her personal assistant — provided the anchor for Olivier Assayas’ complicated examination of how hard it can be to deal with the simple passage of time.
11. Brooklyn and 10. Carol: Unexpectedly, two of the year’s best were both stories of young women trying to define themselves while working in department stores in 1952 New York. Saoirse Ronan’s lovely central performance as a fresh-off-the-boat Irish immigrant lifted Brooklyn‘s perfectly pitched narrative of love and homesickness, while Carol found Todd Haynes’ breathtaking directing powering this love story starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.
9. Jafar Panahi’s Taxi: The Iranian filmmaker — banned in his country from making movies — takes his camera undercover for a disorienting mix of documentary and fiction, creating a perfect portrait-in-miniature of a culture where it’s never clear how much “reality” you ever get to see.
8. Phoenix: Nina Hoss gave the performance of the year as a Holocaust survivor forced to pretend to be herself in a psychological thriller that featured 2015’s most devastating final scene.
7. Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter: The Zellner brothers took a story loosely based on an urban legend about a Japanese woman trying to find a snow-buried treasure in Fargo, N.D., and turned it into a wonderfully mournful meditation on loneliness and the need to be understood.
6. The Forbidden Room: Guy Maddin’s fascination with silent film and other vintage forms explodes into a wild series of nested narratives, each one more hilariously absurd than the last.
5. Inside Out: Pixar takes a high concept — personifying the emotions inside the head of an adolescent girl — and uses it to find resonant truths about the experience of growing up and making peace with what’s left behind in the process.
4. 45 Years: A long-married couple (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay) finds preparations for an engagement party shaken by information from the past in Andrew Haigh’s wrenching study of the way an entire lifetime of memories can be re-framed in an instant.
3. The Look of Silence: Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to The Act of Killing continues exploring the legacy of the Indonesian genocide, this time examining how hard it can be to find closure and grant forgiveness when those who have done you harm can’t imagine seeing what they’ve done as a crime.
2. Timbuktu: Abderrahmane Sissako’s portrait of a village overrun by a fundamentalist Muslim militia isn’t just a compelling drama, but probably the 2015 release that feels essential for every American to see in order to grasp the realities of our complex world.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road: It’s hard enough to revisit a decades-old franchise and make it seem like anything but a cash grab. George Miller took huge risks all over the place — recasting Max (Tom Hardy), focusing the story instead on a woman (the magnificently minimalist Charlize Theron) — and created something that exploded with both visual imagination and genuinely powerful emotional content.
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